Review: “The dust moats float.”—Luke Beesley’s Aqua Spinach17 September 2018
Luke Beesley’s latest poetry collection, which the blurb tells me “rounds out a trilogy,” was launched at Thornbury Picture House, a small cinema. Beesley read with the lights dimmed and a screenshot of the Thai art-film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives projected across his face. As he read, the speakers played a field recording of what sounded like friends walking through a swamp. Between poems, Luke spoke deadpan comedic monologues and sang songs. All these choices reflect the poems in Aqua Spinach: intertextual, intermedial, and very strange.
As the poems reference and manipulate other mediums, different modes of representation get jumbled together. A line in Aqua Spinach might describe a technique in film, like “The camera panned up away from our conversation.” A character’s actions might “swing it out in a form, punctuation.” What’s more, that punctuation might have a colour, “watermelon pink,” though it remains black on the page. Then, the next line might transpose watermelons from the figurative into the literal. A poem might be in the key of B-minor, or have a crunchy texture. The poem might make a reference to musicians, directors, artists, or other poets, and then this figure might walk by and introduce themselves. A line might be a reference, a confession, and an ontological question all at once. In drawing connections between different ways of seeing, the poems are synesthetic, but this synesthesia is more than a formal experimentalism: it is a real and relatable state of mind, to me anyway. What Beesley calls “the swirling fonts of emotion.”
But what are the poems actually about? Phenomenology, mostly. The poems are obsessed with the act of perceiving, rather than what is perceived. This puts Luke Beesley in the tradition of John Ashbery, and Australians influenced by him like John Forbes and Michael Farrell. This is not to say that the poetry doesn’t have human concerns, just that accessing those concerns is a problem and a question. The only thing in-focus is the fog: the thick fog between the real, the perceived, and the written. In this way, the poems often become about the act of reading, which is after all the only perception that really exists while you read poems. Because the poems are often about reading, they sometimes lead into descriptions of themselves: “Floating dust brings to mind a tendency or the difficulty in describing affectation, the trail of thought in the mind of the writing writer.”
In all this obfuscation and self-reflexivity, lines might shine through with inexplicable brilliance, but often they float by like water-borne particles. Once I resigned myself to not understanding most of what was going on, the reading experience became surprisingly quick. Lines seemed content to be unknown, and so the poems started drifting past, blending into each other. The book is divided into three sections: film, paint, and ink. Presumably, these sections denote the sensory framework which guides the poems, but although poems make appropriate references based on their classification, they also make other intermedial references, and I could perceive no progression or significant change based on the sections. I finished Aqua Spinach satisfied with my reading, but I also felt an absence, like a date gone smoothly without chemistry.
Maybe it’s me, not him. Maybe I didn’t give these poems the attention they deserved. Certainly, there were enough great moments to know that Beesley is a skillful and original writer, one who I’ll be returning to. Maybe a closer, more perceptive reader would find more in these poems, and the strange corners which Beesley contorts himself into are impressive in-themselves. If you want to feel like you’re driving through heavy fog and a coral reef at the same time, then I recommend Aqua Spinach wholeheartedly. I’m excited for whatever Beesley makes next, whether poetry, fiction, film, or song.