Martin Langford, ‘The Human Project’ in Australian Book Review

Andrew Sant – No holiday from urgency: The Human Project: New and Selected Poems

Andrew Sant reviews Martin Langford’s The Human Project in Australian Book Review Jan 2010

If despair and desolation can be said to have had a high point in poetry in English during the modern era, it is in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, particularly ‘The Hollow Men’. While reading Martin Langford’s remarkable The Human Project: New & Selected Poems, I was reminded of other poets whose reputations depend upon the discomforting poems they have written. The until recently neglected American poet Weldon Kees, who may or may not have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955, wrote about the underside of the American dream, its sterility, in a tone of unwavering bitterness, but his noirish imagination and technical brilliance make the poems compelling. Something similar could be said of the English poet Peter Reading, whose expression of undiminished anger is a result of his disgust with humanity; and its condition terminal, though his pervasive self-righteousness can be wearing.

As the title of Langford’s collection suggests, he is interested in the big picture. One way or another, all poetry is about the human condition, but Langford approaches the matter in the broadest possible sense, ranging across the atrocities of war, social injustice and environmental degradation. His poems are mostly short, even terse, usually unembellished by figurative language and written in free verse.

‘There are aspects of his work that allow the reader to see the poet as a fiâneur of the kind that appears in the poem ‘Manly Mall’, a Baudelairean figure who walks the city to experience it. However, one of the striking features of the poems, many set in and around Sydney, is how infrequently Langford writes in the first person. Whether the subject is an Aboriginal petrol sniffer, a distressed inmate in a men’s home, a burial or a seedy caravan park, there is generally a detached lack of involvement, though this doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of sympathy. In ‘Thinning the Poem’, Langford lists a number of things ‘you’ should leave out of a poem, including the self, the sensual, quests for the common life, song and dance. Clearly, Langford sees no reason to make any concession to wit or playfulness.

His first volume, Fault/Lines, a joint publication, appeared in 1991. There are also selections in the New & Selected from four other collections that followed in fairly quick succession.The new poems, from which the volume takes its title, comprise almost half the book. A Selected Poems provides the reader with an opportunity to assess how a poet has developed his technique and outlook. In Langford’s case, it is clear that he set out in the manner in which he intended to continue until, interestingly, the final section of the book, ‘A Suite for Embroideries’.

The opening poem, ‘The Shadow of the Ape’ is as uncompromising as those that follow and begins: ‘It is the shadow of the ape / gives us / the thousand unbearable tunes.’ Man’s inhumanity to man is everywhere evident in this collection, Swiftian disgust never far away, predation common. A later poem suggests that it is ‘Time we outwitted / behaviour / this sad, primate life’. Two poems, ‘Touch’ and ‘The Garden’, the latter especially eerie, depict a revulsion at the idea of touch. One of them asks, ‘Why do we do it so badly?’ A memorable and central poem, written for the World Population Conference in 1995, is ‘Go Forth and Multiply’, which is scathing in its attack on overpopulation and the degradation of the planet: ‘And the Lord said, “Go forth and multiply” — / so that children of the poor / can continue to scrape / through cardboard and pond scum and stink / of the world’s greatest tips; / multiply, like a virus, / like a slow deliquescence of green —.‘ Another arresting poem is ‘The Silence of Frogs’, about the extinction of these creatures around Sydney, ‘each distinct silence the shade of an absence’.

What makes this poem particularly affecting is that, in this collection, consolation is mainly found in the natural world: birds, the ocean, clouds; or in the lives of monks, ‘free of the blood’s hopeless compulsions’. Women as individuals don’t feature greatly. One almost light-hearted poem, ‘Feral’, which no right-thinking school teacher is going to recommend to his class, is sympathetic towards children who bunk off from school to enjoy the freedom of rivers.

The poems restlessly eyeball their targets. As one might expect, a word that recurs is ‘justice’, longed for, seen as a fiction in one poem, and in another, which hopes ‘Nor may we forget / that the world in which justice is possible — / kindness permitted — is flown across the pits of the dead’. Langford’s project is serious, even missionary, and there are no holidays from the urgencies expressed.

It is only at the conclusion of the book, in the elegy ‘A Suite for Embroideries’, that Langford declares himself and movingly relaxes in a collection almost entirely free of the self-revelation that, with many poets, is nearly all that’s on offer. Even the biographical note provides nothing but a publication history. Do these new poems suggest a development, a shifting of perspective? If so, it will take courage of a different kind to pursue it than that which has served Langford to date.

Andrew Sant’s most recent poetry collections are Speed & Other Liberties (2008) and Fuel (2009).

This review is not available from the original publication source – The Australian Book Review.

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