The Second S-n
“Under glass” can mean that something has been locked/preserved/embalmed/fixed for subsequent and indefinite viewing, unchanged and unchanging. It can also mean it has been magnified beyond all previous recognition, to observe (and presumably record) the minutiae that would otherwise have been tactfully lost to the eye—all at the expense of seeing the periphery, the context.
After reading Gregory Kan’s Under Glass several times over the course of two days, I find myself going back and forth on which of these lenses focuses best, or, indeed, if the title should suggest something else entirely, perhaps lurking in the abovementioned periphery.
Under Glass is a 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 hunger to make sense of things. Gregory Kan’s 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.
From the outset, the cryptic explanation at the front of the book has me thinking in problem-solving, puzzles, codes. What links to what? What isn’t what it seems? What does it seem?
We’re thinking in twos—two voices, two suns; two verse poems between each prose poem, two stanzas in each prose poem alternate for most of the book. Is this focus or myopia? And whose? Start reading it aloud and we very quickly get biblical—two suns, two sons, but Cain and Abel or the Second Coming? Truly we are getting into the Apocrypha.
Is any of what I see actually there? Another question that I keep coming back to. This poetry is spare as an ocean or a sky. The verse is double spaced and fleeting, the prose is fenced into tiny corners of the page by encroaching margins. “The second sun reveals all and remembers nothing. It takes up more room than anything that is actually there.” There is simply so much empty space to contend with, I fill in the gaps before realising I’m doing so. Like all good poetry, the keen desire for understanding passes through the page in both directions. These are words that watch you read them.
Thrown into relief, whether by the beam of a lighthouse or the electric flood of a microscope stage, we begin to move. The way is always unclear. The journey does not become less threatening just because it has been read before. Some lines seem to suggest that the protagonist is equally lost at sea in this movement and uprooting. “I don’t want to leave the place where I live.” The words are brief and plaintive. Kan, however, spins his world only forward. We never find out what that bygone place is. We never reach (or identify) a destination.
Every day the coast looks the same, as though I haven’t moved. The lighthouse is a tiny finger thrust up against the horizon. I am running out of food and water.
The second sun is the immovable neck of the world I pass through just to pass through.
Despite this sense of bare contemplation, the collection is precise and clear in its charting of the journey through this “mysterious and threatening landscape”. The images and metaphor are simple and relatively few, which contributes to the sense of spaciousness; the structure is allowed to speak for itself. I am left with questions, and the way forward is to become comfortable with not being handed any more than I am. Perhaps in some ways Under Glass is itself the lighthouse explored in its pages. It makes a point of where to look, notes the presence of danger, and leaves me to figure out for myself what to do.
After leaving the protagonist walking on to the horizon, the book concludes with a list of other works from which Kan “sampled and adapted many small moments”. The list reads not as merely a brief fulfilling of copyright obligations, but an acknowledgement of the world that inhabits the empty space of the page, the protagonist, and the intersecting, overlapping, uncertain paths we are all walking.
Barthes wrote about “the region of hysteria where the language is both too much and too little, excessive... and impoverished.” Rather than shying from this, Kan leans into the inability of language to accurately chart these confusing areas of the human experience, choosing instead to sketch broadly, trusting the reader to follow with the details they need.
I will read this collection again many more times, and I’m fairly sure the images have even been showing up in my dreams. Gregory Kan is undoubtedly one of the best poets writing in Aotearoa today, and his second son, Under Glass, is a worthy successor to the critically acclaimed This Paper Boat.