Review: High Art & Love Poems (Broken Bird Press, 2012), by Keith Gaustad
There comes a point when the poem-maker’s attention starts to shift from a concern with language to issues of presentation – the poet herself turning from the dressing-gowned, wild-eyed practitioner with ruffled hair and sweaty armpits “hammering out a metal face” in her garret into a presentable entity she weaves her work around in order to show it to the world. It’s a metamorphosis that has different kinds of significance for different poets. Generally its purpose is to attract enlarged readership. Poetry is, like so much else, governed by forces of supply and demand – with the former outstripping the latter several times. There’s only so much attention to go round. I read recently that one poet (Seamus Heaney) is responsible for two thirds of all books sales by living poets in the UK. It’s a simultaneously ridiculous and despairing statistic. It demonstrates an interest in brand rather than language. How much should artistic activity concern itself with branding and identity? After all, most poets carve out niches from which to operate; sometimes these niches just happen to extend rather wide.
Keith Gaustad introduces himself as someone who “has never won a single poetry contest”. Though he (or his publisher) also tells us of his activities as an editor, radio producer and live poetry & music promoter, he chooses to inform us of this failure first. The implication being that, since contests tend to reward the streamlined, the accessible, the potentially-popular, such failure must render his work the opposite: rough, marginal, even dangerous. It’s an attempt towards establishing an identity through which the poetry can be read. But the ‘about the author’ bit only appears at the end of the book, so if you like to read the work in the order that the author intends it such considerations will be retrospective. From the text alone things are not so clear cut. “There is asymmetry everywhere / and that’s its beauty I’m told” Gaustad writes at the end of the first poem, which appears to be setting the tone – but this is the case only partly. Rather, it’s the second poem’s title, ‘Sound Bitten’, which introduces the collection’s technical concern with aural puns. Alliteration makes an appearance there – while further on in the book “away” turns to “a weigh”, “kitchen” is juxtaposed with “chicken”, the sense of “proof” is played with, transposed from its equivalence to ‘evidence’ to a signifier of the strength of an alcoholic drink, and “toast” is employed within a couple of lines once in its drinking context and once denoting warmth. More significantly, in the poem ‘The Death of the Author’ the word “note” switches meaning several times between its musical connotation and that of a written mark or an annotation:
They talk about his musical ear
one note away from readership;
legible notes in his breast pocket.
Everything around the note crashes
confirms the importance of the note
folded away; a rough draft.
The influence of music is pervasive. While some of these experiments in sound and meaning are woven into the text almost seamlessly, in others the operation is heavy-handed. Also, throughout the book Gaustad slips often into colloquial, informal language that seems designed to persuade us that, despite the High Art claims of the title, we are reading the words of someone from the real world, someone we can trust: “If ya think about it”, “you hafta know” and so on. And in one of his sound plays, “avant-garde” morphs into “advent wreath”. There’s ambivalence about, possibly a mistrust of, the experimental – in uncomfortable co-existence with the terms under which the work itself is composed and in which it is presented. I read this as a source of tension in the work. The dominant subject is (Christian) religion, language referring to which abounds: in addition to poems with titles such as ‘Catholic Mass Debates’ and ‘Job 24:22’, we regularly encounter words or terms like “Jesus”, “grace”, “iconography”, “sinners”, “parables”, “crusty / atheist”, “psalms”, “cross”, “poet Iscariot”, “hell”, “praying” and many many more. Also prevalent are references to alcohol and drinking – which mixed into the strong religious atmosphere provide a strangely bleak but recognisable pattern. Undercurrents of humour and The Love Poems of the title entering the composition round about the halfway point is the substance that holds it together and provides a kind of redemption.
The inherent difficulty of coming to a poetry collection with no familiarity with its author or the circumstances that brought it about can be punctured by identifying a point of entry into the work. Ultimately, though, meaning and/or pleasure are to be derived exclusively from the text and its presentation. There’s pleasure to be taken from several of these poems, particularly through individual lines or sections. And yes, unlike many contest winners, High Art & Love Poems offers complex poetry that doesn’t give up easy meaning.
Christodoulos Makris is the author of the collection Spitting Out the Mother Tongue (Wurm Press, 2011), the chapbook Round the Clock (Wurm Press, 2009) and the chapbook / artist’s book, Muses Walk (yes, but is it poetry, 2012). He lives in Dublin.