Tina Giannoukos reviews Night Train by Anthony Lynch
by Anthony Lynch
Clouds of Magellan
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). 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,
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
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.
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.
The poem concludes on a difficult note:
As Anglophile fogs unfurl
across drought-stripped paddocks,
cells of coastal cancer divide
on metal skin.
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.
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:
is fitful, shutting down
for half a year before its furious
yellow electrifies the fence.
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.
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.
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
can be a good thing:
a notepad with unbroken blue lines,
the concrete expansion of a suburb,
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.