Book Review: Under Glass, by Gregory Kan

Reviewed for Booksellers NZ, first published on 26 March 2019

It helps to approach Gregory Kan’s new work Under Glass expecting a creative encounter rather than a series of poems which will tell you something. If you anticipate rightly you’ll have a great experience, because poetry will not always offer what you’d expect.  I don’t think Kan is using language to create meaning or to communicate; instead as Malcolm Budd says, ‘it is the imaginative experience you undergo in reading the poem’ which is on offer.  That’s a way of saying that Kan’s poetry is art and (like many other art forms) the experience of it is paramount.

Under Glass is a dialogue between interlacing prose and verse poems. The prose poems focus on a strange physical landscape which is void of others. These poems are active – the speaker is moving through and within a science-fiction like environment which may seem strangely familiar – because it is. Kan singles out the influence and sampling of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation novel which shares some similar scenery with the prose poems in Under Glass – a lighthouse, the finding of an old photograph, a huge pile of written text. In many ways the speaker is trying to discover the nature of ‘the second sun’ (Kan singles out The Crystal Text by Clark Coolidge as inspiration for the figure of the second sun).

This referencing and borrowing is part of how Kan writes. ‘For me, creative labour is essentially driven by organisation and reorganisation, combination and recombination.’ Kan told Carolyn DeCarlo in an interview for http://cordite.org.au. ‘It is not about creationex nihilo, creating something from nothing. This is not a coherent concept to me. Everything new in the universe is assembled from something or some things that preceded it. Sampling in music is now something that is widely accepted, and I’d like to see the same happen in writing.’

In contrast to the prose, the verse poems focus on an internal landscape where the speaker talks regularly to the “you”, the “we”, the “they”. The verse poems are more observant, the speaker seems unwillingly stuck – ‘Here is the place where they will keep me’ he recites on page 35. There are intersections between the two landscapes, but where? That is the place for the reader to discover.

Kan is a master of creating atmosphere on the page, and it’s this atmosphere that provides an engaging  experience through its 65 pages. But if you want to stay you could stay a long time – Kan acknowledges a sampling for 22 other texts, can you find them? What is it like to read the sequences separately – all prose then all verse? How is the experience changed if you take a deep breath at each double spaced line, or if you say the lines out loud? You won’t find a firm narrative line in Under Glass, or even poems which resolve; but Kan offers you so much else.