Tina Giannoukos reviews Night Train by Anthony Lynch

Night Train

by Anthony Lynch

Clouds of Magellan

ISBN: 9780980712087

Reviewed by TINA GIANNOUKOS

 

Despite their dis­parate appear­ance in jour­nals over sev­eral years, and anthol­o­gised in Best Aus­tralian Poems, the poems in Night Train give the impres­sion of a well-conceived, pre-determined col­lec­tion. Night Train is not a capri­cious col­lec­tion of dis­sim­i­lar poems sutured together to suit the ele­gant neces­si­ties of book pub­li­ca­tion. The poems fall effort­lessly into their par­tic­u­lar arrange­ment. In their tonal and the­matic cor­re­spon­dence, they make Night Train seem like one long com­po­si­tional moment. A mix­ture of forms sounds the collection’s styl­is­tic range, from a well-executed pan­toum to well-crafted, free-verse poems. The lan­guage crosses the bound­aries of the reflec­tive and the lyri­cal with­out strain­ing meaning.

The col­lec­tion is in three parts: “Topog­ra­phy”, “Inte­ri­ors”, and “Split­ting space”. Each part fea­tures a sequence: “Intro­duced” in the first part, “Five Easy Pieces” in the sec­ond and “Elegy” in the third. The sequences con­tribute to Night Train’s struc­tural unity. In par­tic­u­lar, two of the sequences, “Intro­duced” and “Elegy”, echo the haunted in Night Train. Each sec­tion throws a dif­fer­ent spot­light on the shift­ing ter­rain of Night Train: “Topog­ra­phy” fig­ures the larger land­scape; “Inte­ri­ors” places the inner space of per­cep­tion under pres­sure; and “Split­ting Space” invokes the liminal.

The collection’s title, Night Train, is intrigu­ing. It has sev­eral pop­u­lar cul­ture ref­er­ences. At its sim­plest, the title refers to a train that runs at night. The cover depicts what appears to be a train rush­ing towards us at night, blind­ing us with it lights. Read off its own epony­mous poem, “Night train”, a poem about a train jour­ney, the col­lec­tion begins to resem­ble a hyp­notic train jour­ney through the shift­ing ter­rain of these poems. In his essay, “Rail­way Nav­i­ga­tion and Incar­cer­a­tion”, French the­o­rist Michel de Certeau writes that motion­less inside the mov­ing train we see motion­less things slide past (111). Trapped inside the mov­ing train, we dream (111).[1] The speaker in Night Train feels as if is immo­bile on a mov­ing train watch­ing immo­bile things rush past. These are intensely obser­vant poems. The poems become the speaker’s imag­in­ings inside the mov­ing train. The trav­el­ling train is a speeded-up metaphor for the speaker’s kinetic con­scious­ness. The entire col­lec­tion begins to resem­ble a dream. In the epony­mous “Night Train”:

The car­riage sashays and groans,
free­way lights arc
and you pass the outer rings of sub­ur­ban Sat­urn,
the depop­u­lated moons of sta­tions. (12)

This spec­u­la­tion turns omi­nous when:

Enter­ing Gee­long, as if you’ve clicked
Start slideshow, you see chain stores,
shop­ping plazas, empty car yards.
The hos­pi­tal you were born in.
The school where you were clapped
and bug­gered, the church
where you begged for­give­ness.
Your whole life. (12)

The “Topog­ra­phy” sec­tion con­tains four­teen poems. The open­ing poem, ‘Rain, back road’, sets the tonal mood of the sec­tion and the col­lec­tion itself. It is med­i­ta­tive, sure and sur­pris­ing. The final line “To drown well is art” (3) can be taken as emblem­atic of the collection’s lyri­cal reach. This sec­tion expresses an ambi­gu­ity in the hori­zon of Night Train. The speaker is con­scious of the com­plex­i­ties of Euro­pean pres­ence to remain merely cel­e­bra­tory of the land­scape. The speaker knows that the ter­rain of Night Train is not inno­cent. It is too sat­u­rated in the impli­ca­tions of Euro­pean pres­ence, like the sheep he finds “strewn /along the gully, / gut­ted mat­tress of a for­mer self” (4), to yield to mere sur­face appre­ci­a­tion of its nat­ural and not-so nat­ural beauty.

Night Train is not a polem­i­cal col­lec­tion. The speaker does not pros­e­ly­tise, pre­fer­ring to let the image do the work of fig­ur­ing the alien. The sequence “Intro­duced” in the first sec­tion artic­u­lates this enigma of the alien in Night Train: the dead rats that ‘No mat­ter how deep, / in the night / some­thing dug them up’; the canola that is ‘There, sud­denly perfect,/ as if sprayed from a can’; the foxes that are more often seen ‘flung / on the shoul­der / of a newly widened road, / acces­soris­ing / progress’ (6-9).

The poem con­sists of seven sec­tions, each bear­ing the title of one intro­duced species. In its trou­bling inten­si­ties, “Intro­duced” artic­u­lates the wry apo­ria of belong­ing and non-belonging. It also res­onates with ques­tions of vio­lence and non-violence. In apolo­gia, the speaker says in rela­tion to the non-native bees that “We had heard of gen­tle smok­ings, / like those of a peace pipe” (9), but in place of the gen­tle, there is the vio­lence of ‘a cube of pyrethrum, / cans of home brand spray’ (9). Yet the poem also asserts the beauty of the alien, ren­der­ing the poem com­plex in its fig­u­ra­tion of the strange. As the speaker observes:

Later we swept bod­ies,
removed the strange cumu­lus
of hive. It was like some­thing
from a sci-fi. White, alien,
beau­ti­ful.
(9)

In this sec­tion, Lynch also artic­u­lates the impasse of a Euro­pean sen­si­bil­ity in a non-European land­scape. In “Queenscliff-Sorrento ferry”, the speaker boards the ferry from Queen­scliff with its ‘con­fi­dences’ and sails:

toward Sor­rento, invi­o­lable
in its all-weather white­ness,
its occi­den­tal logic and unim­peach­able veneer
(21)

The trope of the antipodes takes a wry tone in “Con­ti­nen­tal” when the poet’s com­pan­ion turns a map upside down (13). In his ren­der­ing of his companion’s words in “Back Beach, Point Lons­dale”, the speaker recalls the intru­sion of the alien into the landscape:

It could be the eigh­teenth cen­tury
you say, except for those cranes
almost canons pis­tolling to port.
(19)

In its under­tone of men­ace, the image of the Jaguar XJ mov­ing, like a marauder, through the land­scape in the poem, “Jaguar XJ 4.2, 1979”, is unset­tling. In its fig­u­ra­tion of the alien in the land­scape, the poem also becomes an artic­u­la­tion of Euro­pean nostalgia:

Yet it has a mem­ory of north­ern forests,
yearn­ing to search out old shires.
You can imag­ine a fond­ness
for Keats, Ted Hughes,
scar­let run­ners and poached arti­chokes.
(14)

The poem con­cludes on a dif­fi­cult note:

As Anglophile fogs unfurl
across drought-stripped pad­docks,
cells of coastal can­cer divide
on metal skin.
(15)

The sec­ond sec­tion enti­tled “Inte­ri­ors” places the inner land­scape of obser­va­tion under pres­sure. In the poem, “Son­net”, the speaker observes that “Where the road with­ered / Lay a Switzer­land of the heart” (32). This sen­si­bil­ity repeats in “Small things that lie ahead” when the speaker prof­fers that “The sun pol­ishes hard sur­faces, /every shadow is solid and still” (38). The rep­e­ti­tion in par­tic­u­lar of the line “We col­lect mail, and the years pass” (35) in the pan­toum “Blood plums” rein­forces the collection’s exis­ten­tial dimension.

The poem “Noise”, in the sec­ond sec­tion, can stand as a state­ment on Lynch’s tonal and chro­matic apo­r­ias, his quiet­ness and loud­ness, and his imag­is­tic leaps:

Noise is flu­o­res­cent yel­low, elec­tric orange
and alarm bell red. It is licorice all­sorts.
It is the green line on a car­diac mon­i­tor.
Then there is white noise. Like white light
when all the colours become one.
Noise like that is quiet. The colour
of bleach, the colour of death, the colour
of 20,000 tones strip­ping away.
Quiet can be black too. The colour
of absolute silence. The dial tone
before the Big Bang. 

My wardrobe will now con­sist of black and white.
Like an old-time nun or priest
I’ll pass my days in silent prayer
embry­oed in rhythms of monot­one chant.
Some­times I want my words ironed flat,
the sound­waves in space a wave­less sea.
I want the uni­verse to smell of starch again.
(29-30) 

In par­tic­u­lar, what emerges in the above line is an almost synaes­thetic con­scious­ness. The image becomes acoustic and vice versa. This cou­pling of image and sound occurs through­out the col­lec­tion. In the first sec­tion, in the poem, “Topog­ra­phy”, we hear as much as see the yel­low vibrancy of the canola:

The canola
is fit­ful, shut­ting down
for half a year before its furi­ous
yel­low elec­tri­fies the fence.
(4) 

Through­out Lynch eschews the clever end­ing, or twist, for a more muta­ble poet­ics. At their end, many of the poems can be redrawn. Lynch is play­fully aware of this when he sug­gests in the last line of “Blast” in the third sec­tion that ‘Now, here is my open­ing’ (50). This lack of clo­sure con­tributes to the para­dox­i­cal move­ment and still­ness of Night Train. The last line in “Blast” is also a reflec­tion of Lynch’s wit. The speaker in Night Train resem­bles fre­quently a man with a mir­ror whose breath that fogs up the mir­ror also ani­mates the world that stares back at him. In the still­ness of the speaker’s mir­ror, all is para­dox­i­cal move­ment. Lynch’s wit con­tributes to this play. In “Plunge”, again in the third sec­tion, the speaker says:

An expen­sive trick with mir­rors
or they are right
who say glass is liq­uid.
Per­haps the under­world is cool and turquoise
maybe the sky upside down
where we start fly­ing.
(62) 

Lynch him­self iro­nises this muta­bil­ity in his poems: their move­ment and still­ness. In “Plot”, in the sec­ond sec­tion, the speaker says:

There is move­ment and there is still­ness.
It’s almost a reck­on­ing of love
but I just can’t count the ways.
(34)

In a counter-movement, Lynch undoes fre­quently the lyri­cal through his nota­tion of real­ity. In “Sub­se­quently”, also in the sec­ond sec­tion, the speaker remarks:

Some­times I tell myself
unoc­cu­pied space
can be a good thing:
a notepad with unbro­ken blue lines,
the con­crete expan­sion of a sub­urb,
a win­dow.
(39)

 

Lynch also plays with a restrained lyri­cism, as in “Saline solu­tion”, in the first sec­tion, in which the speaker observes:

Salt and water become the ocean.
It’s an alchemy like want and con­sent
yet still we can’t dis­cern
the qual­ity of blue
or the rip in the heart.
(17)

In poems like “The big wave”, in the third sec­tion, the ana­lyt­i­cal and the lyri­cal are in dialogue:

See their eyes fol­low­ing, almost swoop­ing (if we take some licence),
recog­ni­tion tak­ing wing.
He feels sea­weed des­per­ate at his ankle.

Note the sea at this penul­ti­mate moment is speech­less,
its one thought roam­ing between thigh and neck.
(61)

The third part of Night Train becomes a haunt­ing med­i­ta­tion on tran­sience. The poems shift in loca­tion from the rural land­scape of much of the “Topog­ra­phy” sec­tion or the inner space of per­cep­tion in “Inte­ri­ors” to the cor­po­real real­ity of mor­tal­ity. The hearse mov­ing through the street in “Yel­low brick road” artic­u­lates the tran­sient. This sec­tion echoes the haunted land­scape of the first sec­tion and the meta­phys­i­cal land­scape of the sec­ond. It allows for that exis­ten­tial edge that gives Night Train its inten­sity. The poem, “Yel­low brick road”, high­lights the exis­ten­tial chal­lenge of Night Train:

So slowly she now trav­els Ormond Road
with head­lights on at noon.
Con­fused per­haps by the jour­ney
or the des­ti­na­tion.
(58)

Bring­ing together Lynch’s poems dis­sem­i­nated through var­i­ous jour­nals over sev­eral years, Night Train takes us on a mul­ti­far­i­ous jour­ney through the shift­ing ter­rain of its poems. The poems never drop into still­ness but remain ani­mated. They artic­u­late a con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence of the outer and inner land­scape in a lan­guage that is media­tive as it is attentive.



[1] Michel de Certeau. “Rail­way Nav­i­ga­tion and Incar­cer­a­tion”. The Prac­tice of Every­day Life. Berke­ley: Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1984. 111-114.

 

TINA GIANNOUKOS is a poet, fic­tion writer and reviewer. Her first col­lec­tion is In a Big­ger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthol­o­gised in South­ern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Aus­tralians (Arca­dia, 2011). Her most recent pub­li­ca­tion is the son­net sequence in Border-Crossings: Nar­ra­tive and Demar­ca­tion in Post­colo­nial Lit­er­a­tures and Media (Win­ter, 2012). She com­pleted a PhD in Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne. She has been a recip­i­ent of a Varuna Writ­ers Fel­low­ship. She has read her poetry in Greece and China.