I am honoured to be asked to launch Hyaline, Matt Hall’s fine new poetry collection, and must first congratulate not only Saskatchewan Matt for his formidable poetic talents, but also our enterprising publisher (and indeed mentor) in Black Rider Press, led so well by Jeremy Balius. It is a beautifully crafted book and the cover images derive from mid-20th century family photographs, rejected and left in an old camera for seeming blurred and out of focus. But in their ephemerality they suggest careless attitudes to environment that now haunt us.
I myself apologise at the outset that I come from another and distant country, theoretically speaking, merely because of my relative antiquity amid the exuberance of contemporary and comparatively youthful ideas of space and place in this world today.
I have theorised elsewhere (and in particular in my own PhD), that, since humans once did not have language, but did still need, as a matter of real survival, the mental potential to know their environments extremely well (and make their detailed landscape maps in the mind), so their potential to thus ‘learn’ landscapes might well have preceded our present amazing human abilities to acquire and use languages. So learning your birth landscape would be a very ancient but expected developmental task, reflected perhaps in the interest, even obsession on the part of some individuals to render landscape as visual art or poetry. Therefore I argued further in my treatise that learning second landscapes is potentially a second but still vital order of survival skills. Every birth territory has its adjoining foreign territories. And since skills can be taught or at least learned more efficiently through applying a process, it seems to follow that there would have to be additional skills related to the ones acquired in early life. These would involve adjusting the pre-existing skills for mapping and imaging an environment. Just as we experience ‘interference’ from existing languages when we acquire new ones, and have to erase (at least temporarily) the old habits and vocabularies, I believe we can (and the better artists do) adjust to new landscapes by responding in new ways to them. Thus a palimpsestic process takes place, one of partial erasures and replacements.
In the case of Matt Hall’s poems in this collection (note the working title was A Pastoral Artifice), there is a dazzling range of what I call both first and second landscape learning displayed. The laudatory comments about Hyaline of poets as illustrious as John Kinsella, Peter Larkin and Louis Armand confirm there is much more than a touch of genius in Matt’s evocation of both Canadian homeland and Australian landscapes here. As you turn the pages, the reader’s delight increases poem by poem. No doubt the influence of Matt’s own PhD preoccupations, namely Jeremy H Prynne and violence, could be discerned by many of his readers. It was Prynne himself who wrote or quoted in his fascinating recent work Kazoo Dreamboats (or On What There Is) (2011): ‘To be this with sweet song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee…’. But maybe my reading of Hyaline is taking a too personal track? Again no doubt reflecting the ghost country seven decades ago where I (like Matt) come from—as wheatbelt-born, the son of a country schoolmaster and, therefore, one of Matt’s ‘other ghosts’, perhaps.
The construction of this beautifully designed and produced artefact of a book of poetry into its sections ‘Harm’s Light’, ‘The Graceful Accident Which Cities the Field’, ‘Flight Call’, ‘Tenantry’, ‘Language and Sentiment’, ‘The Pleasures of Forecasts’ and finally, ‘Hyaline’ is key to the poet’s gift to his readers. The eight implied themes of these eight parts provide a substantial component of the extraordinary assemblage of layered responses to ‘old’ and ‘new’ places. And as one reads on, it becomes clearer that these places are not merely some samples of autobiographical mapping but in many senses a mapping for all of us of the place or places to which our environmentally troubled contemporary world has come.
Even if I had the capability, my function is not to review Hyaline, nor to deliver a learned treatise on this veritably encyclopaedic work of poetry and eco-philosophy. It is to recommend it for your enthusiastic attention and delight —as discerning readers of a poetry that is at the cutting edge of modernity, embodying the highest standards of poetic craft. However, I do claim the right to mention some of the poems that strike a special chord for me. But before I do that, I want to reference ‘Kickin’ it with Matthew Hall’, the recent so-titled internet ‘viral interview’ with Matt about the conception and substance of Hyaline. In it, Matt explains the origin of Hyaline as follows:
‘The project sprang from my reading and trying to avail myself of Australian literature during the first years of my living in Australia, so it sprung from reading Kinsella, Louis Armand, and any number of other experimental poets (such as Michael Farrell), eco-poets (Stewart Cooke) and landscape poets. It came out of contemplating and mediating a relationship with the natural and trying to find a means of expression which mattered and which challenged the hegemonic constructs of the creation of language-meaning.’
Matt defines Hyaline as generically ‘Poetry. Pastoral. Eco-poetic. Radical pastoral. But depending on your definition these might also fall under the rubric of anti-pastoral. In terms of forms, the book is a collection of serial poems, some in bound prose, and some in freeverse, some in formalised patterns.’
And that is exactly what we do find. But more, much more than that, we find each poem complete in itself. Naturally I was first drawn to the book’s ‘title section’, Hyaline, where the poem ‘Triptych: landscapes’ seems to range not so much over Matt’s birth country as our own country of Western Australia, a second profoundly influential landscape for the poet to learn to love—and love enough to care deeply about its potential destruction.
In ‘Triptych: landscapes’ he writes in Part II of,
‘the reddened landscapes;/upon a rock face, before defense or slaughter
Actions are prodigious streaks of ochre and ash/ numinous motions of a fire-lit night’.
Such images clearly evoke the rock art of the Kimberley region of WA in which Matt shares a passionate interest with J H Prynne and which he claims to be the part of our country to which he feels most drawn.
On the other hand, in the ‘Harm’s Light’ first section of the book, in the poem ‘artifice’, he writes of a ‘fertile land endangered/ by saline encroachment’ and in the aforementioned interview he recalls: the loss of connection to land which I felt strongly when relocating from Canada to the Australian outback… Therefore the poems and their language reflect destruction, reflect damage, in lexicon, in description, in the failure of a model of lyric to measure up to the world. The corporeal body as damaged poem, the damaged poetic as the earthen dream.
Yet if we go back now to the ‘Hyaline’ section we come across, in the book’s title poem, ‘Hyaline’, lines which, presumably, cannot but refer of his birth country, Saskatchewan:
‘…where once/ you passed through the haulm unaccompanied/the orchard’s sounds through a dusty kitchen/ where what was learned before we learned/ to bury this earthen dream outside, the winds, also,/ share this wealth of no necessary language’. Here the ‘haulm’ seems to refer to the stalk toppings of certain crop plants such as peas or potatoes, or what we might call stubble after a harvester has been through our wheat crops. But more importantly what we see is the cumulative process of first landscape and habitat learning. And they also underline the essential palimpsestic process by which we make, unmake and remake our landscapes in actuality. And in our poetic responses to them.
Enough of analysis! I am sure that shortly, and in response, the author is going to select to read some whole poems which we can enjoy as they were meant to be enjoyed when he composed them. They must stand alone as poems can and should.
My duty is formally to launch Hyaline in Western Australia. This then will be, quite appropriately, its first Australian launch. For the next will be in Melbourne. And in my launching tonight I recommend most heartily that you take possession of your own signed copy of Hyaline as soon as possible if you have not already done so!
Hyaline, you are launched.
– Glen Phillips, 21 March, 2013.