Author(s): Gregory Kan
'The things that are really big and really close are too big and too close to be seen.' A colossal jungle. Two suns. The sea on fire. If the mind were a place, what might it look like? Under Glass is an ambitious new collection by one of the most exciting young poets writing today. Gregory Kan's second book is a dialogue between a series of prose poems, following a protagonist through a mysterious and threatening landscape, and a series of verse poems, driven by the speaker's compulsive hunger to make sense of things. Kan's explorations of the outer and inner landscapes frequently cross paths but leave the reader in doubt. This is a collection full of maps and trapdoors, labyrinths and fragmented traces. Under Glass opens up new ways of telling stories, while questioning the value of storytelling itself. Beautifully crystalline and emotionally powerful, this poetry collection takes readers on a journey that is frightening yet tender, imperfect but triumphant.
“It’s hard / for the world of all possible things / to choose the things that actually happen,” writes Gregory Kan in a book that poses the same generative problems to text as it does to ‘life’ (so to call it). By what methods do we combine and recombine, filter and refilter, separate and reseparate, alter and realter whatever it is in which we find ourselves when we have got sufficiently far in these processes to call this finding? To be aware and to continue to be aware is to maintain the most delicate of balances between words and the thoughts that they both describe and form, and Kan’s remarkable second book, Under Glass, is written with sufficient clarity to obscure that which it does not address, and with sufficient subtlety that the wounds it leaves are difficult to pinpoint (they are pinpoint wounds). The book is comprised of two finely written helical strands. A sequence of short prose pieces in the first person and present tense describe, with careful precision,the narrator’s progress across a landscape and then descent below a lighthouse, drawn by an elusive “second sun”, as black as it is bright, uncertain of its interiority or exteriority. The prose is personal but specific, describing precisely a ‘world’, but one inaccessible to others, a dream world, or a world that has the same relationship to this one as have the worlds of dreams. The verse sequence spliced or twisted through this narrative is often addressed to ‘you’, speaks of ‘we’, is interpersonal, emotional, dealing in nondefinitive generalisations, if such things are possible, almost completely devoid of specific evidence of a forensic or narrative (or forensonarrative or narratoforensic) sense. “Confusing myself is a way to be honest.” Sometimes there is the feeling that a shortcoming or realisation of some sort lies in the past, something that subtly destabilised the nature of a relationship, something that has introduced uncertainty into an area formerly filled with hope (hope being, after all, only an immature form of uncertainty). “I draw my ideas cruelly around me.” “Sometimes I write so that you can be punished / the way I think I deserve to be punished.” The verse pieces take place at a time when an apparent relationship has the apparent bulk of its happenings in its past (but is this not always the case?), the weight of this past pulling at and attenuating the progress into the future. How to go on? What second sun can keep us aware enough to move towards it? Intimacy is the predicament in the verse, just as aloneness is in the prose. Where the verse begins by saying, “The things that are really big and really close / are too big and too close to be seen,” the prose reaches the point in the pursuit of the second sun at which it says, “I recognise the second sun from a distance, but not up close.” The prose with its deliberate track and the verse with its hovering double-spaced lines slowing our reading almost touch, resonate, snag themselves upon each other. “The second sun reveals all and remembers nothing.” At the end of the book, the prose narrator has gone far enough, deep enough, into the interior ‘place’ to step through a crack in that second sun, and the ‘I’ of the verse has relinquished sufficient autonomy to, or acknowledged sufficient autonomy of, the ‘you’ for the wall between the internal and the external to be breached simultaneously from both directions, for the worlds to be inverted, turned inside-out about the separating skin that is the only part of ourselves that we can know to exist, the external reached through the most internal thing, that which was lost seen for the first time once it is finally released. Under Glass is a subtle and powerful book, so cleanly written that it leaves no palpable residue but rather a flavour, a quality of awareness indistinguishable from the longing to reread.
Longisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards - Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry 2020