Kobus Moolman - 2011-10-25 Untitled Document
Title: The Tempest Prognosticator
Author: Isobel Dixon
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Isobel Dixon is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Weather Eye (Carapace, 2001) and A Fold in the Map (Jacana, 2007). She won the Sanlam Prize and the Olive Schreiner Prize for her debut collection. Although she grew up in the Karoo, she currently works in London as a literary agent.
I must confess at the outset that I am a huge fan of Isobel Dixon’s work. (I don’t know how else to express it.) Weather Eye is for me a finely crafted evocation of place and intimacy; while A Fold in the Map is a poignant and delicately controlled tribute to memory and to family. Both collections moved and challenged and excited me with their honesty and courage. So I leapt at the opportunity to read and review The Tempest Prognosticator, her latest collection.
Regrettably, I had a very mixed reaction to this collection, and must admit to being even rather disappointed (despite the effusive reviews on the book – JM Coetzee calling it a “virtuoso collection” and David Morley describing it as “poetry of exquisite vigour”). I would like to examine this response of mine in the course of this review.
Was it undelivered expectation that produced this response?
Did I want something from this book that Dixon never intended? If so, what was it that I was seeking? Something I had found in her previous two books, but was unable to locate in this one? What did I expect – not just from her, but from all poetry – that she was unable to deliver?
And, more to the point, what actually was she doing here – what was her intention – that ran counter to my expectations? And how was she doing it?
Perhaps it is best to begin with the title, which is also the title of the last poem in the volume. According to the notes at the end of the book a tempest prognosticator is a 19th-century device, invented by Dr George Merryweather, that uses leeches in order to predict approaching storms. The reference is important. Clearly, Dixon, who appears intrigued by the effects or the symbolism of weather (note the title of her first eponymous book, and that this poem is repeated in her second collection) is reminding us of one of her enduring ideas: what in the poem “The Tempest Prognosticator” she has called “seeking surer shelter” – the search for the safety of a space, a homeland, a territory that provides both safety and sureness. The poem “Fruit of the Land”, from her first collection (a poem clearly significant enough also to be repeated in A Fold in the Map), concludes with a different take on Dixon’s theme, and one which points up its complexity:
But worth it even if the price were sphere for sphere,
each small explosion in the mouth
the precious milk and honey of nostalgia.
The phrase “the precious milk and honey of nostalgia” is telling. The Biblical reference to the land of Canaan promised to Moses (the land of milk and honey) is intriguing, because that land is a promise. It lies in front, not behind, as the gesture of nostalgia would indicate. So for Dixon the space of sanctuary, of plenitude and peace, lies behind her, in her past. Not, I would argue, that it is past, as in over and done, irrevocable. But that in memory she is able to find that which the present cannot deliver.
So back to the poem “The Tempest Prognosticator” and the idea of “seeking surer shelter”, what in the poem “Housewifery” (itself also drawn from her first book, and therefore a further indication of the centrality of the concern) Dixon has termed “a secret house” in which she is “a slow, warm creature”. The device now for discerning “the surer shelter” is an “ingenious carousel”, a “gilt cord, wire and whalebone” contraption from the time of the Industrial Revolution in England (1850 to be specific), rather than “the wealth of grapes hung heavy ripe and sweet” from her childhood yard, as in her poem “Fruit of the Land” from Weather Eye. Something has shifted for the author. There is a change. Not in her fundamental concern, her searching. But in the methods by which she still searches, and in the means by which this search is expressed.
I will elaborate.
Dixon’s collection The Tempest Prognosticator is largely a kind of modern bestiary, full of curious creatures (leeches, toktokkies, ostriches and an orangutan), weird organisms and outlandish vegetables, as well as abstruse references and bizarre personages. From Robinson Crusoe to the film Psycho, from Pink Floyd to Fred Astaire, Eugène Marais to Nonqawuse, Dixon draws upon a rich array of fictional and historical references.
But to what purpose?
Well, on one level, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his preface to The Book of Imaginary Beings, “There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” But Dixon is interested in far more than “useless … erudition”. She does something with this “erudition” that is both unique and pertinent to her writing and her writing concerns, but also very much within a specific tradition – an English literary tradition at that.
The entire collection is what I would term a “menagerie of wit”. The menagerie part is quite clear from above. But let us look more closely at the idea of wit – both wit in the way that Dixon uses it, and wit in the way that it has been utilised within the English literary (specifically the Augustan) tradition. And examining at the same time the kinds of cross-overs and practices of imitation (literary cross-referencing) that Dixon plays with.
Dixon’s display of verbal wit is evident throughout the poems. Her previous collections are characterised by this finely crafted attention to language and form. But in The Tempest Prognosticator this fascination with and facility for language is pushed further, toward some kind of display, a dexterity that all too often is simply that. Thus in “Astronomy Sonnetry”:
Rickenbacker, Farfisa, Fender –
planetary incantation, sinister
slide guitar. Zippo your mirrored Esquire’s
strings till they singe the air. Variable stars,
you’re burning up the UFO; the Roundhouse roars
in borrowed dream-time.
Apart from the verbal display, this poem has little to offer a reader, who has to rely on the notes at the end of the book to pick up on the references to Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd and The Wind in the Willows. And even with all this information I am still left asking, so what?
But Dixon’s fascination with wit also demonstrates her interest in literary form and her knowledge of the literary tradition. Her use of wit clearly derives from the 18th-century usage, as in Alexander Pope’s famous definition:
True wit is Nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
Thus Dixon’s poem “Struzzi” offers us a refreshing, even humorous, view of the ostrich:
all gone at the knees,
they sashay through
the green lucerne –
a verdant stage –
their dusty tutus
of those glory days.
Dixon also offers us intriguing interpretations of traditional, specifically English Augustan, verse forms. It is unclear why this era should hold such fascination for her, but it might well be because of her own interest in language and wit and in the intellectual display of ideas, something that fascinated the 17th-century poets such as Fielding, Swift and Pope. Poems like “So Many Henries”, “The Whiteness of the Whale”, “Robinson in Space” and “Vase”, among others, imitate the tone, syntax and verse structures of Dryden and Johnson, down to the detailed referencing and the capitalised nouns.
But why should so many of the poems in this collection assume a voice and style so markedly different from those in Dixon’s previous collections?
Of course, there is no reason why a particular poet’s style should remain the same. Why poets should not wish to experiment and try on the shapes and sounds of other eras. But the question remains with me, perhaps because so many of these poems sounded artificial and contrived – not in the negative sense, but specifically in the sense of being devised in a manner that foregrounds inventiveness and craft.
Intriguingly, the answer might be found in the notes, and specifically the acknowledgements, to the collection. There are, in fact, 11 poems in the collection that were written specifically for public occasions as commissions or as poetic contributions to larger cultural projects. Add to this the nine or ten other poems that are written in direct response to historical and artistic (literary, film or visual) subject matter, and out of a collection of 47 poems we are suddenly faced with a split between a public, slightly larger and louder than normal tone, and Dixon’s intimate, more reflective voice, so familiar from her previous books.
Now it is perhaps not satisfactory to talk in such general terms of the public and the private. This does produce a rather skewed, slightly stereotyped idea of the poet, and of the lyric voice as the domain of the personal and the intimate only. So perhaps it might be more fruitful to look for other terms that might help us understand the tensions between the voices in Dixon’s collection.
Certainly, in The Tempest Prognosticator Dixon downplays her previous concerns with memory, in favour of history. Still the past. But now it is more clearly the past as it has been interpreted and expressed by history: by recorded events and personages, rather than the “slow, warm creature in a secret house”.
And from another angle.
Dixon has shifted from “the silence/ at the margins of my daytime life” (“Nightwards” from Weather Eye); shifted from the sense of something unknown, mysterious, even unsettling, towards too much surety, too much poise and display. Of course, this is all matters of degree. A poem like “Into the Wild” (after the book and film of the same name, about Christopher McCandless) acknowledges the “things we’ve known/ and sometimes rightly named”. Implying that there are also other things we have known and not named rightly, and even not known and not rightly named. But it is perhaps in a poem like “Usury” that Dixon shows that she is aware of theses polarities in her work and, even, prepared to send them (and herself) up:
So caveat emptor, this baby don’t come cheap –
is not content with surfaces, the gilt, the gloss,
but wants the dark and dirty, meaningful and deep,
and has a yen for more than just a pound
of flesh and blood.
And it is this sense of humour, sarcastic and sharp in this poem, straightforwardly funny in “Paradox”, that ultimately enlivens these poems and makes Dixon a poet worth reading, even when she confounds our expectations.