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Kobus Moolman Reviews Burnt Offering by Joan Metelerkamp

Burnt OfferingSpecial to BOOK SA, this review from Kobus Moolman of Joan Metelerkamp’s collection of poems, Burnt Offering, published by Modjaji Books. Moolman writes in response to a stick dished out to Meterlkamp a few months ago by Karina Magdalena Szczurek.

I wish to respond to Karina Szczurek’s review of the four recent poetry titles by Modjaji Books, published in the Sunday Independent (March 27). In particular, I would like to offer an alternative approach to Szczurek’s reading of Joan Metelerkamp’s latest collection, Burnt Offering.

While acknowledging that Metelerkamp is ‘the most experienced of these four poets (this is her seventh book of poems’, Szczurek dismisses Burnt Offering as lacking polish and reading ‘like a first draft’. She recognises Metelerkamp’s frequent use of repetition, but finds this to be ‘ineffective, with little obvious coherence, her lines ramble like a bad exercise in stream of consciousness’.

My response here is not an attempt to speak in defense of Metelerkamp’s poetic talent or to criticize Szczurek’s analysis. Rather, it is to offer a particular lens through which we might be able to better comprehend and appreciate what I understand Metelerkamp to be doing, not just in Burnt Offering, but certainly since Requiem (2003) and Carrying the Fire (2005).

Recently, on an extended sabbatical in Canada, at the universities of Calgary and Alberta, I became aware of the scale, extent and depth of the Canadian contribution to the tradition of the long poem. The long poem is widely acknowledged by writers and scholars as a vital and powerful form in post-modern Canadian writing. So much so in fact that several publishing houses in Canada – Coach House Press, University of Alberta Press and NeWest Press – specialize in this form.

In his introduction to The Long Poem Anthology (Coach House Press, Toronto, 1979) Michael Ondaatje claims that ‘the most interesting writing being done by poets today can be found within the structure of the long poem’. In this tradition the long poem is strictly speaking not an extension of the lyrical voice over ten or twenty pages. Rather, most contemporary narrative, documentary or ‘persona’ long poems in Canada are in fact book length, and thus are not so much collections, in the strict sense of the word, but rather cycles, sequences and serials.

This tradition is certainly not alien to English literature: witness Dryden, Pope, Milton, Wordsworth, Eliot and William Carlos Williams (in Paterson). And in South Africa too we have Mazisi Kunene’s Shaka, Van Wyk Louw’s Raka, Serote’s No Baby Must Weep, and more recently Press’s Echo Location and Maclennan’s Notes from a Rhenish Mission (to name but a few).

Canadian Sahron Thesen argues in The New Long Poem Anthology (1991) that long poems ‘belong by practice and definition to what Ezra Pound called the “prose tradition” in poetry; that is, their tendency to a narrative sense of the passage of time drives them into history beyond the capacities and preoccupations of the lyric’. The latter statement is important. It is not that the long poem is necessarily anti-lyrical, but that its concerns cannot be satisfied by the single self-contained short poem. Crucially, therefore, we cannot bring our expectations and preconceptions of the lyric poem and the lyric voice and transfer these onto the long poem – of which, it is by now clear, I am arguing that Metelerkamp’s Burnt Offering is a powerful example.

In structure, content and style, the long poem is meditational and processive; it moves forward by moving in circles, or by moving backward even. It eschews a linear sense of narrative and time in favour of an irregular and repetitive accumulation of effects. Thus in “Prologue” Metelerkamp writes of: ‘breaking open narrative / like a symbol, the host, take, break, like the day’; and in “Poets on Poems” she explicitly states: ‘it has nothing to do with linear narrative / even though it’s made of lines / and although it is really a story’.

The Canadian Poet Fred Wah explains the forces that keep his own poems going in his essay “Making Strange”, describing ‘the looping ways in which they pause in order to continue’. Such a ‘looping’ pattern is evident throughout Burnt Offering, and while it may be unsettling to some readers, is by no means an indicator of weakness in the structure or of a lack of poetic control, but instead it is part of a broader technical and epistemological concern of the poet herself.

This is more clearly understood when we examine a key influence upon the contemporary Canadian long poem tradition, which is the Japanese Utaniki or poetic diary. (Writers like bp Nichol, Robert Kroetsch, Phyllis Webb, Erin Mouré and Fred Wah are noticeably influenced by this ancient Eastern poetic tradition.) The Utaniki tracks an element or section of a writer’s life as a discontinuous yet continuing story of consciousness. Crucially it avoids the pitfalls of autobiographical confession and veracity by a process of estrangement. In Burnt Offering, Metelerkamp uses contradiction and paradox to hold at a distance the reader’s obsession with wanting to know or to work out biographical truth: ‘. . . nothing to do with what those who know better call / “your personal life” ‘ (“Poets on Poems”).

Metelerkamp also plays with pronouns (I, you, she, he) to refer in a fluid and interchangeable manner to herself, her husband, a fictive lover, friends, her mother, the poem itself: ‘what it is in a poem if not conversations with another part of yourself . . . me and you and all the anonymous yous’ (“Incarnate”) and ‘Poem, if I could find you, make you’ (“Came Back Wanting”).

This deliberate foregrounding of the poet herself in her own writing, and of the writing process too, even the very poem we are reading (reading it as if it were unfolding in that moment, being written right now in front of our very eyes) is an essential element of a form described by Fred Wah in his book Diamond Grill as a ‘biotext’; a form that picks up from the Utaniki and makes it applicable to a post-modern frame of reference.

Once Metelerkamp’s book is viewed through the lens of the long poem, and of the long poem’s preoccupation with the cyclical and conversational rhythms of discursive practice (described by Metelerkamp in “Poets on Poems” as ‘you, me, myself – a poet is always talking to herself – even more than to the dead. Answering back.’), then we begin to understand her writing as part of what Athol Fugard has termed an ongoing ‘searchingness’ or what Romaine Rollande sums up as: ‘To strive, to seek, not to find, and not to yield’.

Metelerkamp’s previous poetry titles, then, rather than being seen as separate and independent volumes are in fact continuous; part of one writerly whole. Of course, from this perspective we can argue that all poets are composing the long poems of their writing lives; or in another sense that the true long poem would go on forever – or at least for the duration of the poet’s life. Examples of such practices are again found in contemporary Canadian literature: Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest, or bp Nichol’s The Martyrology, which, by the time of his death had six extended and updated editions.

Ondaatje explains this pattern as follows: ‘Not to search for the perfect poem, but to let your way of writing of the moment go along it own paths, explore and retreat, but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. There is really no single poem.’ And in the title poem of her book, Metelerkamp offers us her own interpretation: ‘that story I was beginning, writing / opening with the poet untying / the knot, letting the line loose / for the little boat to cross’ (“Burnt Offering”).

Burnt Offering thus is not the first draft of a more complete, coherent and polished work. It is precisely what it is meant to be.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    June 17th, 2010 @15:55 #

    This was a pleasure to read. Thanks for posting, Ben.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 17th, 2010 @22:38 #

    Thanks to Kobus, not BOOK SA! :)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    June 18th, 2010 @10:17 #

    Love this review, and Kobus's intro "My response here is not an attempt to speak in defense of Metelerkamp’s poetic talent or to criticize Szczurek’s analysis. Rather, it is to offer a particular lens through which we might be able to better comprehend and appreciate what I understand Metelerkamp to be doing, not just in Burnt Offering, but certainly since Requiem (2003) and Carrying the Fire (2005)."

    So glad to see this review published. And in the week that Metelerkamp features on the Poetry International website.

  • Maire
    June 18th, 2010 @12:22 #

    Will this review be published elsewhere? It would be great to see it travel further afield. It's hugely enlightening.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    June 18th, 2010 @13:29 #

    great review - I was unable to read/write about 'Burnt Offering' without constant reference to 'carrying the fire' - that's how closely connected the two works are... imo. Interesting too, (because Japanese lit is my passion) to see Metelerkamp's work linked to the uta nikki which stretches right back to the Tosa Nikki, brushed in 900-something.

    I think the point Kobus's piece makes best, is that Joan's work is understood better in the context of contemporary literature as a whole, than as part of South African lit because, to quote myself:

    "Its music reiterates the non-narrative transformation of words into experience – not the realist, confessional ‘experience into words’ that so many readers today seem to expect of poetry and poets."

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 18th, 2010 @19:44 #

    Aha. I found this incredibly helpful, because (um, true confession) I struggled with Burnt Offering. I've always admired Joan's work, and have very happy memories of teaching some of her shorter works, but I felt as if I was roaming around the boundary fence of Burnt Offering, unable to find an entrance. I now realise I wasn't familiar enough with either her ouvre or the genre in which she works. I experienced a similar sense of being baffled when reading the magisterial Samoan writer, Albert Wendt's, The Adventures of Vela -- a book-length epic poem.

    This is a tradition I ought to feel more at home with, given that I spent a large chunk of my life teaching Chaucer's epic works, also Piers Plowman, Beowulf et al. Perhaps I was blinkered because my own work falls splat into the realist, confessional 'experience into words' tradition outlined by Moi above. Many thanks, Kobus!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Karina</a>
    July 11th, 2010 @16:43 #

    Sorry for the late comment, but I have been away when this was published. I am glad that somebody took the time to write such a lengthy response, because debate is essential to a healthy literary culture.

    I have a feeling that the author of this review might be making the assumption that I am unfamiliar with the tradition he writes about. I do acknowledge that English departments do not always produce the best of graduates, but I guarantee you that it would have been impossible not to study the long poem – at length! – during the twelve years I spent at different departments of English and American Studies.

    I deeply admire some practitioners of this beautiful and fascinating form.

    The fact that somebody is attempting to write in a particular literary tradition does not automatically mean that the attempt is a success.

    Metelerkamp ain’t no Milton, I’m afraid.

    I can only advise readers to have a look for themselves.
    But before you do, please bear in mind: ‘I don’t get it, therefore it must be good’ – is not a good way to approach literature.
    (The last remark is not directed at Kobus Moolman! And I am not being cynical. I am truly grateful for this review, even if I do not agree with Moolman’s assessment of this particular collection.)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 12th, 2010 @18:39 #

    I know nothing about the content of Karina's response here, but I admire the style.


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