TEXT review

Expert detection

review by Ben Kunkler


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:Anhaga.jpg
Liam Guilar
vanZeno Publishing, Berlin CT 2015
ISBN 9780983142614
Pb 140pp AUD25.00


In recent years, reviewers have noted the resurgence of narrative in Australian poetry. This trend continues in Liam Guilar’s Anhaga – though Guilar’s use (and playful misuse) of genre fiction is perhaps idiosyncratic. Guilar is as comfortable with crime fiction or vampire fantasy, as with vernacular, folk song, epic or poetic lyric. The result, however, is self-consciously clever. In the poem ‘In the Park’, for example, the well-used tropes of hard boiled detective narratives are parodied with comic rhyme ‘I’m in the park, back in the fog / in my Bogart homburg’ (22). In part two of the same poem, both the excesses of vampire literature and the sensationalist press are comically turned to hyperbole calmly viewed from the poet-speaker’s point of view:

Putting down the paper he begins:
Maniac at Large, Jack the Ripper Strikes in Local Park.
At the second death forensics find no footprints
leading to or from exsanguinated corpse.
Is There a Vampire In Our City? (23)

The use of boldface and italics – elsewhere capitalisation and boldface – BLOODLESS BODY FOUND IN PARK! (6) is indicative of the multi-vocal quality of the poems and Guilar’s preference for intertextuality. The experimentation, the foregrounding of style, and the self-consciously allusive surface, makes Anhaga modernistic. (The collection begins with a long epigram from The Wanderer, the Old English poem, which frames the wandering of the protagonist – ‘Anhaga’ means ‘Wanderer’ in Anglo Saxon).Indeed, the (male) modernists are everywhere in Anhaga, even oppressively so. Pre-publication praise collected in the book’s jacket labels Anhaga Joycean, and this is not completely empty flattery, though other modernists – Eliot, Pound and Bunting – are pervasive.

The Joycean flexibility in style and genre extends to narrative perspective. The narrative point of view shifts from a lyric poet-speaker ‘I’; to the monologue of the compellingly Satanic ‘Mr. Normal’ (‘Mrs. Normal’ has an excellent monologue too); to the ill-fated and victimised Laura; to the ekphrasis of cinema in the poem ‘Freeze Frame #69’, which seems to contain the lines the best sum up Anhaga’s poetics: ‘The film is paused, no expert could detect / from this one frame, the story’s genre’ (50). ‘Detect’ is the mot juste; it’s the reader’s keyword for Anhaga. The narrative is an old-fashioned whodunit. But the narration-in-verse is fragmented (to the point of obliquity). And since the poet speaker might be mad, unable to distinguish his violent sexual fantasies from the sensationalised crime in the press, we cannot be sure who has done the deed. This is thematised in a poem set ‘At the GPs’ – ‘There’s a killer on the loose. How do I know / That you’re not him?’ (11) – and clarified in ‘Male Shrink’ when the poet-speaker, down-and-out, depressed, and incredulous, is relating his violent sexual fantasies to a hapless psychologist.

Look, I say, I think I’m going mad. And
sleeping isn’t going to help. That’s why
I came here; my doctor said you were the one…
He looks offended. How rude, to point out
that the car he’s flogging only has three wheels.
I speak my nightmare, put it on the polished
and it feels like shitting in the middle of the church
or masturbating on the altar rail. He nods, looks
at his watch. This fantasy of yours, astral projection
just a biochemical distortion in the brain

you weren’t in Toy Town at the time. Think
gentle thoughts next time you get the urge
masturbate. Or find a brothel or a willing partner (42-3, first ellipsis in original).

It is this theme, this rhythm, that defines Anhaga once you strip away all the sampling and selection (and the modernist poetics). The wandering exile that frames the collection figures the wandering of a lonely, sexless (and useless) masculinity. This is explicit in ‘Sexual Textual Fantasy’. The poet-speaker is tutor and translator. A female student visits his bedsit, and finds the epigraphic text amid translation drafts:

She points toward the pages scattered on my desk;
‘Is that what you’re translating?’
‘No, that’s Old English, it’s The Wanderer.’

That same smiling patience. As she bends forward
notice the line beneath the blouse stretched tight,
across the smooth plane of her back. Imagine.

‘It’s about a solitary man, bereft of home and kin
forced to wander the ways of exile
hoping to find someone who’ll take him in.’

‘God, you read such cheerful things.
But haven’t these been done before?’

Whatever landfall marks this journey’s end
won’t be the homecoming I was hoping for. (46-7)

At times, the theme of male sexual frustration is difficult to stomach in Anhaga: it tends to clichés (both literary and emotional), and leering, even at times misogynistic, descriptions of women.

If ‘detect’ defines the collection, so too does ‘expert’. The modernist aesthetics of allusion makes Anhaga an ‘expert detection’. In fact, if the collection as a whole evokes the spirit of any particular modernist, it is not Joyce, Eliot, or Bunting. Rather, Pound’s spectre looms. Anhaga’s maximalism, its posture of bibliophilic collection, its rigorous unoriginality, even the tone of misanthropic bluster, recall the later, crankier Cantos. (Even a sense of fatigue with tradition, inescapable and oppressively ruinous, make the genre of modernist ‘epic’ prevail over the pastiches of crime, horror etc.).

But Pound considered his epic Cantos ‘botched’. And an air of failure and the fatigue of ambition hang as much over Anhaga’s poet-speaker ‘I’ as it does over the poetry itself. Even the propulsion of the whodunit slackens. Too many narrative forks in the road stall forward movement. In this manner, Anhaga’s epigram from Bunting’s Briggflats seems rather apt, like a self-effacing warning: ‘Follow the clue patiently and you will understand nothing’ (1). This botching is summed up in the final poem, ‘Oft Him Anhaga Are Gibebeth’, which finally delivers on the loose translation of The Wanderer that the collection’s title (and long epigram) promises, but which is sullied by awkward allusions to The Waste Land’s own allusions.

There are no living trees here on this dirty, pebbled shore,
where the wind pushes the cold
across a world gone grey to its horizons.
Musing on our journey’s wreck
and the Prince her brother’s death
I shivered at the water’s edge (135).

‘Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal’, Eliot famously said. The effect above is not erudite theft, but mash-up, mimicry. (Elsewhere, Prufrock is similarly mimed.) Perhaps Guilar could have heeded Pound’s sound advice to Eliot, on his pastiche of Pope, in one of his famously bossy edits of The Wasteland:

Pope has done this so well, you cannot do it better … you cannot parody Pope unless you can write better verse than Pope – and you can’t (Pound qtd in McIntire 2015: 125).


Works cited

McIntire G 2015 The Cambridge Companion to the Waste Land, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge return to text



Ben Kunkler is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. He was the winner of the 2016 Affirm Press Prize.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste