Song of the Ghost in the Machine by Roger Horrocks.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
The epigraphs are the first thing you notice. This is because there are 113 of them – drawn from near (Janet Frame, Allen Curnow, Kendrick Smithyman) and far (Nabokov, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Agamben) – distributed evenly before each of the book’s eleven sections. I would wager that this is some sort of record for a book of poems. It certainly must be in this country. Each of the sections deals with one aspect of interior life: “Language”, “Self”, “Death”, “Gods”, etc. The fact is, Roger Horrocks’s Song of the Ghost in the Machine is a hyper-organised book about an impossibly diffuse subject: thought and consciousness. Having the scaffolding of other writers’ insights to hang his own poetry on is not only a way of making sense of the complexities of the mind, it also mimics how culture works: insofar as we know anything, it is because we have imbibed and reacted to the knowledge of others.
And for Horrocks Song of the Ghost in the Machine is a way of marking out his place in culture, a way of sticking his hand up out of the grave for posterity to notice:
Without a recording angel
to register my lifetime of mistakes and misspeakings, this
is my avatar, a lucky find one day
for an alien archaeologist poking through our ruins. (“Language: The Daybook”)
Another variant on Eliot’s ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’, perhaps. Of course, almost all writing serves this purpose, but Horrocks is explicit about it in a way that is uncommon in our time. And what is motivating him to return to verse more than thirty years after his only previous book of poems, 1982’s The Auckland Regional Transit Poetry Line? To paraphrase an old political campaign slogan: ‘It’s the body, stupid.’
After more than twenty thousand days in this world
I’m back to basics. My body is dated equipment
and I ride it as though I’ve borrowed it
for the day, taking its senses on a test flight. (“Walking”)
Self-alienation might be slightly too strong an expression to apply to Horrocks’s awareness that his mind and body are out of sync. (Although later in the book he denies that the mind and body can be out of sync at all: ‘Now you can’t disown your flesh and protest / I’m not sick, it’s only my body! A mind / also trembles when limbs shake with fever.’ [“Body”]) Because perhaps it is not a generalised malaise that concerns him; instead one shock may be a precipitating event for his reflections:
The hospital cooks me in a scanner
then leaves me to stew in a drab waiting room,
too shook up to read. The globe of my mind
fills with snow. One test could shatter
my mood and unsettle all my future plans.
But today I’m lucky – a minor problem, which a small
operation can mend, like a new patch of roofing
which will keep out the rain for a few more years.
. . .
. . .
After the scare, my afternoon is a reprieve, a special
gift. I opt to spend it at home with a glass
of wine on the window seat and the hefty science
book I’ve delayed reading because of the time required.
. . .
. . .
But this afternoon’s amnesty allows me to indulge
in the human fantasy of the bucket list – my wish
is to live long enough to understand. (“Death”)
I’m wary of suggesting that the book has a ‘narrative’ as such, so note that other death-oriented episodes may strike other readers as more significant: a visit to a relative in a rest home; when ‘my friends go drinking to celebrate the Day of the Dead’; memories of his uncle’s and Albert Camus’s deaths; the lunchtime when he passes a ‘prophet of doom whose placard / thunders warning of a giant asteroid’.
Indeed, I could be staring at the reverse of the coin and missing the obverse. For as much as death is a focus for Horrocks, death-negating motion is, too – particularly walking. You can’t be dead while you’re walking. As Horrocks describes his work in his “Author’s Note”: ‘What it currently contains are the concerns of a particular year, many of its ideas and memories having emerged in the course of my walks during that time.’ So, like Wordsworth or Stevens (two others who notably wrote while walking), Horrocks has found movement congenial to his ‘unsettled, questioning project’. We are very much in more-questions-than-answers territory here, but he knows this and even acknowledges it when composing his own epitaph. His ambition is to be receptive, and there are few ambitions greater than that:
Happy to wait around for the next idea,
he no longer pins his hopes on prayer.
His faith is simply (simply?) to be aware. (“Gods”)
Erik Kennedy is the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse and is the treasurer of takahē. In this hemisphere he has published poems in Atlas Medical Literary Journal, Catalyst, Landfall, Snorkel, and Sport. He lives in Christchurch.
First published takahe 87