Although I’ve read and collected quite a lot of New Zealand poetry, the only work by Alan Brunton I’d read are the few poems included in various anthologies. So I came to his final work, Fq, knowing little more about him than that he had been one of the founding figures of Freed, and then involved in other rather experimental groups, especially the theatre troop, Red Mole, which brought various productions to New Zealand, the USA, and other countries. Given the commentary, small as it was, I came to this large work, willing to believe the adverts from the press:
Life, Love, the Universe — and Christchurch. Alan Brunton was born in the Garden City and wrote this astonishing sequence of 144 poems while he was Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury in 1998. Bumper Books is proud to present Fq, in which the poet has a go at everything and nobody is spared. All the big questions are asked and all possible answers interrogated.
It’s a strange gallimaufry of a book, the ‘144 poems’ all over the place formally, ranging from ordinary prose, through dialogues and found material to various kinds of free verse. A wide variety of characters play their way through its pages, or so it seems, but most of them turn out to be a figure of the poet, and of his ‘unattainable beloved.’ Fq can be read, then, as Brunton’s attempt at a linguistic maze, a possible story that’s also a dream, a poetic twist on the thriller, with the poet carrying out his op by writing all these figures into an implied narrative. It comes across as some kind of modernist Joycean construct, only in a generally postmodernist, vernacular idiom. At its best, Fq achieves a heady mix of high and pop culture.
On that level, it’s an entertaining read, as readers try to parse Shoe, aka Roadman, X-Man, Rooster, Roadster, Road Knight, and Mr Ess, and ‘his’ encounters with the elusive Nadia, BIJOU, Polly Pop, and Lola International™. The psychedelic (or should we call them cartoon-like?) shifts and changes make for a jittery read, and the little poetic prefaces to each of the twelve sections only manage to confuse things even further.
The book is full of false leads, sneaky byways and asides, as well as a series of sly allusions to various aspects of popular culture. Thus ‘Triolet: Nights of Power’ begins in a kinds of SF vision, then slides through a goofily comic aside about someone who ‘stretched out for the water / at Sylvia Flats. Daddy, why do you eat flies.’ The second section describes a strange time in ‘Quartzopolis,’ more dystopian perhaps, while part three moves into a crazy vision where ‘helicopters buzz us on the wall of ice, / this is where the next world is made’. All three sections held together by the titles: ‘(i) all you wanna do’, ‘(ii) is ride around sally’, and ‘(iii) so ride sally ride’. I enjoy this kind of thing, and I certainly enjoyed this kind of thing wherever it occurred in Fq.
Brunton seems to be trying to do everything in this one book. From prose through haiku-like passages, prime lyric moments, epic adventures and noir scenes, to what seem to be autobiographical insights, the volume accretes a sense of absurd fullness of vision. But a reader may begin to wonder how to bring all its many, often delightful, sections into any full focus. Just following the ‘bijou’ figure through her many changes and escapades (and ignoring all the other figures of ‘the woman’) takes a reader through a complicated range of textual protocols. From ‘Campus in March’ –
Who is bijou?
O-Educated, young, smart & full of boodle, expert in labial movement, no opinion about the centrifugal ebb of the ‘arts’ into corporate ownership. (25)
— through ‘56,’ with its riff on the thriller mode –
bijou puts hr key in the door
of her house
a hand closes on her face like a concept,
exhales junk onto her hair, sliding
a prosthetic glove between her legs,
‘Do what you’re told.’
She’s thrown on her bed, wrists gaffer-taped,
her robe tied around her head,
‘You won’t forget this date,’
Terror whispers. (69)
(this continues for another 2 pages) –‘81,’ where ‘bijou is a system’ (104), ‘90 Duplicate,’ where bijou has a little adventure in her car, ‘102 Natural Heat,’ where ‘He thinks of bijou’s surface, how it fits her, initiator of the gate of the sublime’ (128), to ‘110 Bliss Jumping in Tigertown,’ where ‘(escape depends / on you (bijou) / hey (bijou) you minx),’ the bijou figure traverses a wide geography of tropes and genres. And she’s only one of many such figures of the poet and the other surfacing in Fq.
But is it quite the ‘masterpiece of the exilic mode’ the publishers want us to believe? Does it ‘confirm his reputation as the most innovative, abundant and far-reaching poet of his time’? Could any volume by any contemporary poet truly do this? Brunton was clearly an important figure, especially among the fellow writers and performers with whom he did most of his life’s work. Searching the web, one can find a deeply moving memoir by his colleague over the years, Murray Edmond (in Jacket 18: http://jacketmagazine.com/18/edmond-brunt.html), as well as other obituaries full of praise for the man, the poet, the Red Mole playwright, for example on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre. There are other earlier pieces by and about Alan Brunton in the New Zealand Feature in Jacket 16. But even within New Zealand, I am sure any number of people might put other names, even from Brunton’s generation or later, forward: say Bill Manhire, or Michele Leggott, for just a couple of examples. It’s an impossible call.
I enjoyed Fq, reading through its oddly twisted narrative with bemused pleasure. I can imagine other readers who would find it more profound than I do, as well as those who might dismiss it out of hand as just more self-indulgent blarney. Although I agree with neither response, I have to confess that there are many other books I would re-read before I came back to this one. I hope to read some of Brunton’s other, earlier work someday, to see where this extended sequence came from. I believe he had a real impact on those who worked with him and saw him perform. As I did neither, I can only offer my honest response to Fq. An interesting, sometimes delightful, often entertaining, occasionally provocative work, which also has many lacklustre moments, awkward, prosaic lines, confusing twists and turns.
For readers who already know Alan Brunton’s work and admire it, Fq will be a necessary addition to their library. For others, it should be an interesting, even challenging work. It’s certainly worth checking out, but let’s leave the question of its place as a masterpiece, or the great work of the most innovative poet of his time, aside for the time being.