by Catherine Vidler
Reviewed by BONNY CASSIDY
Readers of a contemporary online poetry journal like Mascara Literary Review are probably among those most comfortable with the idea that a poem can be found or generated in any manner of ways. We accept that modern poetics has become happily detached from the notion of authorial integrity. After Surrealism, Ern Malley and John Ashbery – and through their heirs, of which Australia has many including John Tranter and Michael Farrell – we continue to be delighted by automatic poetics of all kinds. This delight has only been stoked by the arrival of our creature, the WWW; which, when charged, speaks back to us in our own language.
And such delight sparkles in the first full-length collection of poems by Sydney writer and Snorkel founding editor Catherine Vidler. Furious Triangle is a dynamic combination of poems: electronically generated and found in non-literary material; imagistic lyric sequences; and concrete and typographical poems. While its selection does not always feel like the strongest possible showcase of Vidler’s skill, the book explores the compelling relationship between these modes within her work.
Its reader is immediately aware of motifs of star and numeral, which come to represent the lyric and abstract poles that guide Vidler’s writing. Numbers rule her titles, there are several poems about counting, and Vidler’s suite of source code poems is replete with numerals as typographic image and as symbol:
5: define SF_CENTER 1 # Star at center of image
define SF_MARK1 2 # Mark stars in first image
define SF_MARKALL 3 # Mark stars in all images
338: / / Consume any number of stars.
while ((c = in.read()) = = ‘*’)
At first it seems that numerals, like source codes, are an abstract language with which Vidler undermines the lyrical cliché of stars. But Vidler isn’t merely reminding us that poetic language is also a code denoting a correlative meaning; she’s also demonstrating that any code may be poetic, and does so repeatedly through electronic sources such as OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Google Poetry Robot utilised in Furious Triangle. A convention that has been most thoroughly exploited by Tranter, Vidler provides notes to the poems that not only allow but clearly invite the reader to research and “source” her poetic process.
However, in its fascination with the seeming consciousness of electronic language, Vidler’s work tells contemporary readers something else about the fallacy of authorship. It seems to suggest that intentionality isn’t a fallacy at all; or, at least, that we desperately wish for the fallacy to be disproved. Her source code poems are disturbing, because, for a fleeting moment the code appears to be alive and thinking, as though a voice was speaking out from within. It’s the combined voices of the poet and reader, of course, which drive the vehicle of language. This “triangle” is concretely illustrated in “10 two-word poems”:
The poem literally sets up: the intersection of language, which provides each original pair of words; the poet, who provides the suggestive parentheses; and the reader who enjoys the affect of the third, captured word. Each of these new or meta-words suggests between-ness, distance and ground, overlap and discovery. This poem and its counterpart, “20 one-word poems”, is a simple, quiet game one might play with a child – finding words within words. When I searched Wikipedia for “venn” I was reminded of high school “diagrams that show all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets”. Vidler searches for this vortex in the most familiar and banal language codes.
As this poem demonstrates, Vidler’s sensibility as a concrete poet is constantly at work in Furious Triangle. In the best of her poetic experiments, there’s just enough authorial suggestion to affirm a second reading, and a third, as we arrange Vidler’s lists and lines in potent ways. She’s in full flight when representing this twisting relationship through image. The book’s opener, “No stars tonight”, creates a kind of imagistic chiasmus:
No stars tonight,
The steaming river
is upside down,
a stun of star-fish
to its hidden floor.
But something more,
like an old guitar
or a boat;
supple, fantastic, afloat.
In two other wonderfully unnerving poems, “At Taronga Zoo” and “Proportions”, Vidler returns to decoding lyrical habits. In “At Taronga Zoo” she seems to be playing the strings of metaphor and metonymy simultaneously; using a subject to suggests a literal predicate, which in turn offers a metaphorical description of the subject:
11. Zebras calmly stand their ground.
12. Hunched chimps concentrate the heat.
13. Wallabies loll like an indulgent audience.
14. Harbour views unwrap their surprises.
In such poems, language is at aptly crossed purposes. Simile and metaphor are shiny surfaces that catch Vidler’s attention, and she swoops. Elsewhere in the book, this focus is evident in the echoing forms of sestina and villanelle, and concrete poems of tapering and inversion.
Like Farrell, Vidler reveals herself undertaking live tests of language in front of an audience. In the ideal poetic scenario the reader’s participation will complete the act. In too many poems in Furious Triangle, however, it’s a risky business and a weakening rather than strengthening element. In one instance, Vidler creates her own eye chart using only the letters EYE (made by a website dedicated to the task), and unfortunately this simplistic gag is not reproduced well in the book. Vidler’s source code “translation” of a digital concrete poem by the Wellington poet, Bill Manhire, looks good but seems to take her earlier experiments beyond readability. In one of her more conventionally formalist poems, “Ernie and Bert sestina”, Vidler recycles lines from the Sesame Street scripts but doesn’t convey quite enough for the found lines to mean anything. Uncannily, Ernie and Bert also make an appearance in Farrell’s poem, “Tit for tat”, in his 2011 chapbook, thempark – this is worth mentioning because, through form as much as image, Farrell’s poem transports these familiar and utterly unthreatening puppet characters to a flimsy cardboard “ipod world” of adult desires and frustrations. His poem makes compelling use of disrupted language, whereas Vidler’s feels like a minor exercise.
Despite its lesser poems, Furious Triangle can be thrilling: its better poems convince me that poetry still has something to do; revealing the secret world inside words, their unseen intentions, forgotten lineages and unexpected bonuses.
BONNY CASSIDY is a Melbourne poet and writer. She has recently completed the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship for Poetry, and her first full-length collection of poems, Certain Fathoms, is published by Puncher & Wattmann.