Nutters without Fetters
A6 32pp ISBN: 978-0-9580367-0-2
(cover illustration by Ken Bolton)
$9.90 including postage
John Jenkins and Ken Bolton are both mad. Even so they have managed to publish a lot of books. And all of these have been terrific. Which goes to prove that, whatever they say against him, in this respect Freud was right - Art and Madness, they’re connected.
Their previous works together are a book of poems, Airborne Dogs, (Brunswick Hills Press, 1988), the verse novel The Ferrara Poems (EAF, 1989) - the basis for the movie of the same name - and their study of Lacan, the aphoristic and meditative the Gutman Variations (Little Esther, 1993).
A second novel, in prose, Bye Bye Blackbird awaits publication, as does another verse novel, Gwendolyn Windswept (serialised in Otis Rush). Both are suitable for film, and the authors are incredibly photogenic, full of soulful, moody presence. Imagine Byron in the movie of Childe Harold - it could happen now, Bolton & Jenkins in Gwendolyn Windswept coming to a theatre near you!
Meanwhile... read the poems.
The God of Trieste, Arezzo, Adelaide, Pisa, Leipzig
and Other Smaller Cities Looks Down
Sometimes I look out on all the hopeless crud
that's going down in this town
and watch the small figures walk below,
about their business
- which is only penny ante
according to some god-like position, which,
admittedly, is literally mine.
But it's best to get some perspective on this -
it's only a little town, Trieste (so are
Arezzo and Adelaide, and Leipzig - the towns
I look after). A figure
wanders by the river, head in the clouds
daydreaming and I feel 'fond', maybe, but not
and I do not watch its progress. But the figure,
her shoulders forward, walking too quickly,
and absorbedly, by that same river -
the Arno if it is Pisa, the Torrens if Adelaide
then I care. Her trouble seems so great,
unknown to me, and the setting
too ridiculous, too kooky
as backdrop - for any human drama.
But they can't see this.
I, of course, can't see it from their perspective!
Down amongst it, surrounded
by it, the river seems real enough; tears
blurring the ridiculous architecture. It's
this mystery I cannot know:
her so evident suffering, his agony of indecision,
sense of worthlessness, the child's despair
and resignation, and its miniature quality,
that blinds the tiny figure
to the bland but amusing beauties of the city.
I do not understand how they feel -
What troubles them?
The serene, the
happy, the delirious figure
sees things as I do: small, the city about them
provides security, is niche, is bower, is a pedestal perhaps,
I see them the same way.
Of course I cannot see myself.
I am aware of myself - true - but not so that I gain
or attain, if even only briefly, higher ground:
I am up here looking down. I know
that I am happy and involved in the lives below,
my city, when the traffic flows and the day goes on
and small figures here and there are preoccupied
in their Lilliputian
but dear way. Their emotions colour the city.
The distressed rider - curious statue
outside their parliament - seems tragic,
emblem of the heightened state they feel, and its inadequacy
gives a kind of pathos: the buses
with their red noses on 'Red Nose Day' for instance -
bathetic. And I care more than I can say
and can do nothing. It is my all day study
and my midnight dream, to see that same figure emerge
and to follow it the next day, sadly weaving through
carrying, trailing its troubles. Are they the same?
Worse, or different? What will make them 'go away'?
Or I am bored - I am not needed here,
no one is troubled, things run smoothly. The town
is only a town, people have their place in it.
What am I doing up here in these spires, the traffic going by
soundlessly almost? I am bored.
But take that man opening up that bar-and-pizzeria -
I have seen him before. He is troubled. What
ails him? See how he pauses with the key?
And then he opens it! Finally. And at
the same bar - which looks pleasant enough
(he is switching on the neon sign now - see, it
flickers a little faultily most nights, for the first few hours,
a beautiful green and red and blue and white that I think
was once yellow but has faded) -- the young woman,
here she comes now, she always comes at just this time,
is strangely troubled too. She has been for days. I cannot
get over it.
Oh, these dreadful pigeons!
Where is the life for me, that I can worry about?
Why don't the mountains beckon, the distant hills,
they should, but they never do.
Nutters Without Fetters showcases, in a deftly edited and highly condensed form, many of the strands and tendencies of their collaborative work. The book begins with a longer poem, 'The God of Trieste...', which is surprisingly serious and wistful, providing the reader, literally, with a god's-eye-view - a sort of elevated, panoramic overview of all the characters inhabiting the landscape of the book. This solidly classical framing device is used here to innovative effect.
Poems such as 'Sandwich Hand', 'An Albanian Problem', 'Phew!' and others are told using a distinctive narrative voice. They are narrated by some very comic, edgy, idiotic and eccentric people. These characters are marginalised, alienated or downright nutty! Each has a chip on his or her shoulder, is trying to resolve some problem, and sees things in a strange light. Or is it strange? Perhaps the assumption of normalcy, that all people are the same, is stranger. The 'I' (the narrative identity) of these poems and the 'you' (the person he or she is addressing) is often ambiguous, as if the poets were slyly playing with the reader's and his or her assumptions.
'Nutter Thing' is an outstanding comic/ironic example of this. It is a parody of 'the dramatic monologue form', narrated by a hillbilly called Nan. In the piece, Nan explains to Pappy how she became brain-damaged in an accident; how this led to her mock-profound discovery of the subjective nature of space and time; and to her own self discovery as an artist.
Because these poems are co-written, sometimes in a freely 'off-the-wall' sort of way, the narrative is continuously being disrupted and then retrieved, first pushed into interesting directions and territory, and then somehow brought back on track. This allows a great deal of free-jazz-style invention and lots of unexpected twists and turns.
The centrepiece of Nutters Without Fetters is the series, '5 Paintings and a Sculpture'. It is subtitled 'The Expatriate Poems, notes from a Grand Tour that you didn't have'. Again, the 'you' in this sub-title, is ambiguous. That the reader didn't have? That the character narrating the poems merely imagined (perhaps after looking at some art books)? Or that one or other of the poets, or both of them, didn't have? More subtly, a grand tour one of the poets thought he had had, but mainly reconstructed later?
Anyway, the series takes us to some great European museums and works of art - commenting, in turn, on famous paintings by de Chirico, Hals, Ernst, Beckmann and Bocklin, and on a piece of sculpture by Bernini.
This series refuses to reveal any final position vis a vis 'great art', except through a series of sometimes reasonably astute, well-informed and penetrating (and sometimes quite slippery and tangential) comments, couched in a tone which might be described as amused pungency. Perhaps it is a tone that might really belong to an Australian on tour: a bit flippant, a bit Philistine. This tourist is not easy to impress or to intimidate, yet is much better informed than you might have imagined, and he or she is still able to enjoy art, though without reverence, and still be moved, though without making a big deal out of it.
Finally, this book makes an unashamed appeal to nutters everywhere. Read on, and enjoy!
Ken Bolton and John Jenkins are both widely published poets in their own right. John was born in Melbourne, where he still lives, and Ken first lived in Sydney, and now lives in Adelaide.
Ken Bolton is a very active publisher and critic of poetry, as well as an occasional art critic and teacher. For many years he has managed one of the most interesting bookshops in Adelaide, Dark Horsey - part of Adelaide's Experimental Art Foundation, specialising in the discussion and theory of new art.
John Jenkins has similarly wide interests. He has worked in small-press and mass market publishing, and with various magazines and journals. He was a journalist for many years, working in print media and to a lesser extent in radio, in Australia and overseas. He is still an occasional book editor, reviewer and feature writer. Recently, he has devoted much more of his time to his own writing - particularly to poetry - and to teaching.
As a poet Ken Bolton has proved to be, in the words of David Malouf, 'consistently alert and inventive'. His first book appeared in 1977; and, more than a dozen books later, he continues to surprise us and catch us off guard. Bolton's work is marked by the sort of wit that Aristotle attributed to the liveliest of minds, when he said 'wit is cultured insolence'.
Bolton's Selected Poems (1975-1990) published by Penguin, and his Untimely Meditations, published by Wakefield Press in 1997, are good places for new readers of his work to start.
John Forbes wrote: 'None of [Bolton's] poems escapes his preoccupation with the impossibility of practically every verbal gesture or rhetorical strategy that the idea of Poetry (big p) implies.'
Reading Bolton's lyrical formalist, seriously comic, and genuinely poetic anti-poetry, it very soon becomes clear that he has untied the knots and escaped the conveyor belt to dullness. Having gone his own way, he presents a playful, semi-serious challenge to poets and readers alike: to think clearly about what they are saying, about what they reading, and just how this odd world of writing and reading came to be.
Bolton enjoys and celebrates life as it is actually lived, with all its oddball chance-iness and lack of 'closure'. He talks a lot, too, about his friends and what happens from day to day. And, out of all this - and with a great deal of charm and ease - he makes it new, showing us how poetry can be resuscitated and made to breathe again.
John Jenkins began as an 'experimentalist' in poetry, when his first book, Zone of the White Wolf, appeared in 1974. Strongly influenced by various strands of European avant-guardism, this book contained poems mixed with prose, concrete poems, work with a decidedly philosophical edge, and experiments in what, these days, would be called radical language poetry.
His second book, Blindspot, in 1977 showed the influence of the New York poets and some of their Australian counterparts, and was much more relaxed, playful and humorous in tone, though still with a strong commitment to poetic and formal innovation.
In his third book, The Inland Sea, Jenkins looked to an Australian ethos, our pursuit of leisure and the good life, and the real and imaginary landscapes of both Australian cities and the continental inland. He became interested in writing poems about rapid social and political change, and the shared and imaginative places and spaces in Australian life that had become mutated and fractured by change.
Then followed a long hiatus in poetry, in which time John wrote mainly non-fiction books, including an important study of Australian new music. There were, however, a few booklets of poetry, before he returned to the art with a semi-fanciful comic verse novel, The High Tides, published in 1990. This showed a new interest in re-inventing some traditional forms, as part of a post-modern project that might allow new possibilities for poetry.
He had become disenchanted with the collapse of extreme irony as a part of a bleak and terminal tail-end modernism, which had increasingly become defensive of its ground, wary of affect, and impoverished and desiccated in style.
He took a completely new path, marked by his verse novel, A Break in the Weather, published by Modern Writing Press in 2003. This book was short-listed for the FAW Christina Stead Award for Fiction in that year. Also in 2003, Five Islands Press published his Dark River - a collection of new poems. This book saw Jenkins exploring new areas of subject matter, while remaining an innovator, and consolidating lyrical, experimental and narrative impulses. In 2004, he won the James Joyce Foundation Suspended Sentence Award, travelling to Ireland, Paris and Beijing as part of his prize. He feels he is now writing at the top of his form.
John Jenkins and Ken Bolton first met in Sydney in the late 1970s, and they quickly became friends. Their long collaboration writing poetry began in 1985, when Ken was living in Adelaide and John arrived on his doorstep for a short visit. They wrote together for enjoyment, and to revive their friendship. They found they were able to produce a lot of work surprisingly quickly, and the result was quite unlike their solo work. They tried many co-writing methods: usually, with no strict system, usually just by taking turns at will, when it seemed like a good place to do so, but sometimes sending pieces through the post with lines left out for the other to fill in. Some poems were done 'in halves': half by one poet, half by the other. To make it impossible to decide whose line or phase belonged to whom, one poet would sometimes deliberately imitate the other's style. They also edited quite a deal, but agreed always to 'bin' any poem they didn't unanimously like or want to see published. Their first co-written work, Airborne Dogs, appeared in 1988. Then followed their verse novel, The Ferrara Poems, in 1989 (which was also turned in to a film), The Gutman Variations, 1993 (a sort of comic attempt at film theory), Gwendolyn Windswept (another verse novel, serialised in magazine form), The Wallah Group, in 2000 and then Nutters Without Fetters.
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in the first instance
15 August 2014