Reviews / June 2013 (Issue 21)

Playing it Pedestrian: James Norcliffe's Shadow Play

by Feroz Rather


James Norcliffe, Shadow Play, Proverse Hong Kong, 2012. 90 pgs. (with CD)

In his 1953 essay "On the Question of Technology," the German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote: "Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it." Like the Romantics, Heidegger, as Michael Watts notes, "never liked modern cosmopolitan life with its consumerism, shallow values and disregard for nature." Heidegger felt that modern technology would eradicate all other ways of thinking except the one marked with an obsession for production and profit, a calculating mercenary behaviour or what he designated as the "technological mode of Being."

Friedrich Holderlin's famous hymn written around the turn of the eighteenth century, "The Rhine," portrays the historical river of the title, as a blissful fountain of life:

So happily born as the Rhine

From such propitious heights

And from so holy a womb

Responding to this poem, Heidegger calls the hydroelectric project built on the river monstrous and argues that the technological mode of Being corrupts us; the poetic habitation through which the natural phenomenon are revealed to humans as objects of respect and wonder are reduced to resources ripe for exploitation by the tourist industry.

In James Norcliffe's new collection of poems, Shadow Play, a similar theme of how the advent of modern technology has altered the landscape of human emotions finds a variation in the second poem "ATM." The poem does not seem to be aware of the above debate; there are no apparent or subtextual traces of any anxiety of influence. (I am conscious of using Harold Bloom's term with whom I generally disagree for making imaginative literature look like a realm existing beyond history; I prefer Edward Said's analysis that adheres to a secular vision of both literature and history and is consequently more relevant to the politics of analysing poetry.) The point on which, however, I concede with both Bloom and Said is that the best way to gauge the imaginative quality and formal grandeur of a new book or work of art is by pitting it against the classics. But here I am not going to pit "ATM" against "The Rhine": indeed, an incongruity of humongous—historical, thematic, formal—dimensions would result. The German's moorings are metaphysical, the mappings of the origin of the creation, Christian, deeply rhythmic and mystical.

"ATM" is a shoddy structure in its own right, and a rather feeble exploration into an individual's subjectivity grappling to find fulfilment in a society driven by machines and gadgets rather than the actions of men and women cocooned in the bubbles of their own solipsism. The poem begins as follows:

so lonely he pushed

his card into the ATM

not for the cash but

for the conversation

As the poem unfolds, the movement within is by no measure laudable; the tone is far from being exalted; the diction is largely literal. The voice shifts from a stance of an individual's quest for self-realisation seeking a community of fellow humans to a longing of an autonomous death in loneliness:

so reasonable he

hoped to die in the

cemetery to save

the hearse the bother

The poem then ends on this note:

and yes he whispered yes

wrapping his arms around

the soft yellow light glowing

behind the plastic cowling

The last stanza is suddenly affirmative and conveys an impression of the narrator's unexpected recovery. An apparent oddity, these lines might lend to the interpretations of self-consolation.

Perhaps, it was here that Norcliffe had a great opportunity to phenomenologically appropriate the theme of the narrator's existential void by transforming the hope for contact with fellow humans as the fellow humans themselves. In a world—the post-industrial Western world, to be precise like Heidegger—oppressed with the new and ubiquitous dictator, Technology, the wrapping of arms by the narrator around the soft yellow light doesn't signal the enlightenment of inner hollowness and gloom; the consolation, consequently, as symbolic and self-preserving it may appear, is as false as it is extraneous and flimsy.

Norcliffe is at his best in the poems "when the heart attack came" and "the man who burnt his hat" in which we see brief glimpses of his imaginative gush or formal inventiveness:

as if the floor were water

where he tentatively

practised his breaststroke

to save himself from sinking ("when the heart attack came")


he saw tendrils curling from ashes

fronds lime-green and gentle as a caress ("the man who burnt his hat")

But unfortunately that is not the case in most other instances. Consider the opening stanza of "the frog in the orchid":

the frog in the orchid hangs his lip

the frog in the lip of the orchid

leans like a kid from the passenger

window of a Mitsubshi Mirage

What is the poem achieving here via the structural inversion that the first line finds in the second line? Or what beauty is being unleashed through the lip of a frog? Like the following lines from "Errol Flynn at Battery Point," "House" and "Orthography" respectively, the above stanza is nothing but—how should I call it—an instance of egregious disingenuity?

how the waters licked

and lapped at the shore

with great slurping kisses ("Errol Flynn Battery Point")


framed, frozen in a distant

light, strange faces smile at us

with the familiarity of family

with the confidence and knowledge

we cannot hope to share ("House")


the door is called adore

and I do not know

whether this is more

description or injunction ("Orthography")

In Shadow Play, Norcliffe frequently indulges in callow word play. The result is a book full of sedentary poems; worn down, they are with the drab, unmusical weight of their own words. If they manage to walk, it is only with flat feet, on a ground of clichéd banality. Their eyes rarely look upward into the burnished skies of imagination. Their wings and claws—if at all they have wings and claws—are embryonic, chopped, one-dimensional, unable to bruise the mind or delight the heart.

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