FRESH Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
At the launch of Carrying the World, Maxine Beneba Clarke shared the mic with spoken word performers who were part of her decade long journey in poetry. The poignancy of Clarke’s gesture demonstrates how embedded she is in a literary community that erases the distinction between ‘high art’ (page) poetry and the spoken word.
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Monday, February 20th, 2017
either, Orpheus by Dan Disney
UWA Publishing, 2016
Is the contemporary world really as confused and as doomed as it seems? In his latest book of poetry, either, Orpheus, Dan Disney tends towards the affirmative with his ‘elegiac anthroposcenes’ – assaulting scenes of twenty-first century demise – but he does not attempt to grapple with the problem alone. Instead he enlists the help of a stunning amount of other writers and thinkers.
Kierkegaard and Rilke are the two major influences in this work, though they are far from the only ones. In every poem Disney pits different writers and their thoughts against each other; this creates a kind of poetic conversation, reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s early work in which he argues against himself using different pseudonyms. Sometimes an entire poem of Disney’s is dedicated to one poet, and other times a single poem is set up as a debate between various writers (interesting is Disney’s use of ‘vs.’ as opposed to ‘&’). What is the reason for all this, though?
Disney is intent on finding what he calls a ‘humanising mode’ of poetry that allows us to ‘peer across openings between appearances’ and, like Rilke, mobilise current global anxieties which other forms of writing can tend to shackle or conceal. And it seems that poetry is the only way to do this properly, as it appears to be the only way Disney can form his so-called ‘sound shapes’ that assemble everything from Marxian theories, Cultural Studies commentaries, and the self-proclamations of numerous creative producers of text and art into something that seems total and all-encompassing. By gathering the thoughts and ideas of so many writers, and synthesising these different viewpoints in such an explosive way, Disney erases the boundaries of time and space, as well as the pretense that any of us write or read or think in a vacuum. Disney knows whose ideas he is gathering as his ‘language-pollen’, and he is not trying to hide what he is attempting to do with this work: that is, something different from Kierkegaard’s either/or (a regretful atheist’s desire to divide himself into his ethical and aesthetic parts in an effort to find God) and Sonnets to Orpheus (poems bridging a silence that gives us glimpse into an empty, but responsive, unknown); instead Disney gives us his self-proclaimed ‘godless both/and’. This is the way through for Disney.
The theme of modernity and, more specifically, the constant nature of the modern world is apparent in these poems, largely due to how deliberately Disney grounds his poems in contemporary surrounds and situations. From the very first page we readers are plunged into the mysterious ether that is our century: post-industrial, post-modern, post-fact, post-meaning:
In a grey city filled with office buildings that scraped the underfloor of the clouds, in a grey city of factories run by well-greased machines that never slept in too late (and after all, who could sleep with the to-and-fro, all the shuffling hours of the day), in that city of shuddering systems at work, no-one noticed it at first
It seems to me that Disney sees modernity as a force, in and of itself. Technology and late-stage capitalism seep through the edges of this book; this is the Anthropocene circling around the self-destruct button. Disney seems to be attempting to coalesce the voices of many into a single theory, a single way through the labyrinth that looms all around us as a collective humanity.
Disney focuses on the individual becoming in tune with the universal, in a Kierkegaardian way, but it is never quite spelled out for us as simply as that. Disney isn’t asking to play preacher, if anything he’s simply a master craftsman, handing us a mirror which only reflects our own reactions back to us. Or maybe a better analogy would be that Disney has created a machine of sorts in this book, a kind of computer. The reader approaches either, Orpheus with their conceptions of the world and their unspoken anxieties regarding the present and future, and then these data points are thrown about and combined and examined until, at the end, the reader is left feeling tested and hopefully sharpened by the range of voices present in the pages. Maybe Disney has succeeded at creating a version of what Levertov calls the ‘meta-machine’, using an ‘extra-linguistic silence’ and the repetition of the ‘villanelle’ style to allow us to internalise the external while simultaneously bringing the internal to light.
A villanelle is a kind of fixed verse form, popular for pastoral poems during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The villanelle’s most defining feature – and the one that Disney uses the most in his modernised version of the form – is repetition. His poems obsess over certain lines and ideas. For example, the first three stanzas of a poem dedicated to Ted Hughes:
I spent the first years of my life in a valley
sitting in woods muttering the occult business of little folktales;
madness sometimes works
amid the machines kept running elegiacally by large sets of hands
sweeping populations of crow from each momentary wholeness
I spent the first years of my life in a valley.
enchanted by the noise of complex human emotion: it was
big trouble in tweed jackets, the very wide landscapes of modern man
and this is why madness sometimes works
This form lends itself well to a work of this magnitude and type. Traditional, and yet made modern due to the content of the poems themselves and by Disney’s different ways of inverting the villanelle into something more like concrete poetry, the sense of encapsulating and ‘bringing together’ of history and several viewpoints at once could perhaps only be properly communicated through such a form. Without looping and re-interpreting of the same idea, and without the necessary spaces between lines that the villanelle enforces, Disney’s poems may not have been so good as they are.
In the book’s epilogue Disney calls his poems ‘sound-swarms’, which is a good way to describe how it feels to read this book. It can be assaulting, and the spaces between the sounds and rhythms with which he fills the pages are noticeable. The spaces between the swarms are important to understand and contemplate, like in this poem that plays Alain Badiou against Samuel Beckett:
or does truth exist as a charm (L. carmen: song), epic
amid overgrown nakedness, geraniums, countless procedural fingerings
we know not where to begin, nor how
to announce disappointment in the rhetorical equipment of the gods,
a church of hats lurching through muddy breeze
where truth exists as a charm (L. carmen: song), and rats
gallop unsurveyed by mystics, alienating
in near-beastless gardens, opening ground in the name of tragedy/completion
we know not where to begin, nor when
to take the pulse of that society of old friends
in a matrix of poses declaring taste, flash of themselves in front of closed
truth exists as a charm (L. carmen: song), an incarnation
Monday, February 20th, 2017
The Asylum Poems by Lisa Jacobson
Recent Work Press / IPSI, 2016
Counsel for the Defence by Judy Johnson
Recent Work Press / IPSI, 2016
Lisa Jacobson is a Melbourne poet and social worker. In the chapbook The Asylum Poems, she attempts to empathetically inhabit the experiences of an Iraqi family fleeing persecution. Her images are often beautiful, like ‘uncle-blood falling in rays’ and ‘families scatter like music’. The prettiness of the language is a curious choice, though, given the raw horror of the subject matter. Closely observed grotesque details, like the father yelling ‘Towels! ’ as he carries his bleeding brother over the threshold of their Iraqi home, are among the sequence’s most satisfying moments.
The chapbook is bookended by a pair of poems in which Jews in historical exodus proclaim their understanding of the plight of contemporary asylum seekers. ‘To all those who seek asylum, do not think / we have forgotten you’, say the Jews in 1939 aboard a ship fleeing Germany. ‘We’, presumably, is a pronoun encompassing not only all living Jews, united by the shared burden of historical persecution, but all Jewish ancestors who suffered exile and racist inhumanity in history’s long and shameful dossier. The Asylum Poems dilate on the experience of a family who flee Iraq, brave the perilous boat journey, and arrive on Christmas Island. There are moments when the unbearable situation the family is fleeing is poignantly fictionalised. However, the book’s opening and closing poems situate these culturally particular experiences within the grandly compassionate and apparently uncomplicated total understanding of the narrator, who invokes her inheritance of the historical suffering of the Jews as evidence of shared experience: ‘We too were thin with hope’; ‘we were concave with sorrow like you’; ‘May we console you, as we were consoled, in the desert of our own exile’. I cannot quite dispel the smell of irony that hangs on these poems’ premises. No matter how the Jews of the SS St Louis and the Old Testament might sympathise with other situations of exodus, the Israeli government has little sympathy for the plight of other Middle Eastern peoples fleeing oppression, and an asylum seeker family wouldn’t think of showing up on Israel’s doorstep.
When expressions of compassion are aggrandised in this way, they become abstracted, thin, too pure. To me, they lack the textures of a genuine human-to-human exchange, where our own concerns, cultural lenses, to-do lists, and judgements are always interrupting. I think I would prefer to read poems where Lisa Jacobson the social worker sits with Ali the Iraqi asylum seeker, and to hear them talking, and to read the movements of their minds, known and imagined, and, crucially, to see some self-conscious intimation that there are pockets and crevasses of Ali’s experience that we (the ‘we’ of white, privileged, middle-class Australian poets sheltered from racism and persecution) can never understand.
The ‘Dark Convict’ poems in Judy Johnson’s Counsel for the Defence constitute another imaginative occupancy of the mind of an ‘other.’ In this case, Johnson writes the trauma of her ancestor, John Martin, who was one of eleven African American ex-slaves who were First Fleet convicts. The various hells of Newgate prison, typhus, bushfire, and the cat’o’nine tails are rendered with highly musical language, the images lush with dread and sometimes vomitously affecting. Listen to this:
Flares galloped the trees with a million dirty hooves
gorged on the leaves then shit black ash on my head burped up
orange flares. (‘John Martin’s Fifty Acres’)
The flogger clears the gore with his fingertips to make
sure the next lash will let those knots dig in.
We are bound
says they for His Merciful Majesty’s African
plantations. The blacks among us should feel nostalgic
elation says they. Our long-lost dead might dig up their
own bones they had buried for safekeeping til we came
home. Those withered sticks then rise up and dance under the
pus-clot of all negro moons. And yes! Won’t we all dance
and swoon right along says they?
Black humour often rescues the poems from melodrama, which they risk but are never defeated by. The fucked power structures of the colonial project are also beautifully rendered in their cruel absurdity, layering the implicit compassion of the collection with textures of cynicism and exasperation. I also find that a certain self-consciousness about the process of fictionalisation fends off my discomfort around ideas of who can write the other. For example, in ‘Caught Black Handed’, the authenticity of apparently verbatim court documents is disrupted by lines like:
The clothes packed in their open-and-shut case of guilt I
show fast-and-loose to this court hoping their plain-as-day
material witness makes a fine noose.’
The poems wear their constructedness with some obviousness. These moments announce the attempt to imagine radically other experiences as just that – an attempt.
Johnson’s chapbook also includes five poems about flowers, a formal experiment of constraint (each line has nine syllables) that the occasional confusion of tones rendered less compelling for me than the ‘Dark Convict’ set. Still, the marvellous torque and thoughtfulness of Johnson’s project speaks of a mature poet at the height of her powers.
Tuesday, February 14th, 2017
Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry
Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson, eds.
Hunter Publishers, 2016
Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetrypresents a compelling cross-section of feminist voices, experiences and engagements in Australia, picking up from where Kate Jenning’s 1975 feminist anthology Mother, I’m Rooted: An Anthology of Australian Women Poets left off. Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson have collated new voices and criticisms, rich in their variety, yet presenting a thematically harmonious, unified front.
There is much of value in collections like these. Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry sets up a layered answer to the question, ‘What is feminist poetry?’ There is no demand for urgent action, but rather a subtle, cresting sense of activism. Family, death, art, cyborgs and ancient history are all raised for comment, with a recurring central focus on the importance of individual voices.
The collection draws from the works of women (and a few men as well) located all over Australia, feeding into a central idea paraphrased from Rachel Blau DuPlessis by Ann Vickery: ‘a constellation of strategies’ rather than one homogenised approach towards feminist voices among hegemonic identities. There is a reassuring note of solidarity throughout the collection, but a simultaneous celebration of diversity in style, tone, theme and foci. This collection shares voices in collaborations, dedications, and solo strikes; there is no ‘one feminist voice’, but Cassidy and Wilkinson in the introduction recognise a shared sense of responsibility in the present. Diverse subject matter and direct styles abound.
In generating the collection, Cassidy and Wilkinson stipulated that none of the poems contained within could be previously published; motivated by a goal that ‘we would come face to face with “processes of consciousness and of writing” that reflect how people are using the page in Australia’ (Jennings, ‘Introduction’). These are on-going works, reacting to twenty-first century needs. In this sense, despite the editors’ professed desire not to document an écriture féminine, this is a necessary consequence of completing such a work (‘Walking through glass’, xiv-xv). There are risks of essentialism when compiling a collection like this. Hélène Cixous’ model of écriture féminine has attracted criticism for being excessively utopian and ahistorical. Pam Morris identifies some of these major criticisms, particularly concerns of biologism or essentialism in Cixous’ demand that a woman ‘write herself’ through returning to the libidinal drives of the body. This need for spontaneity can be seen as affirmation of stereotypically ‘feminine’ emotionalism and irrationality.
However, Cassidy and Wilkinson have offered much to counter this restrictive interpretation: there is no strict uniformity of style, tone or agenda; female and male voices are commingled; and the ‘selves’ within these poems are often layered presences, rather than immediately personal or self-referential. The voices within the collection are varied, alternately outpouring and remote, demanding and forgiving, but always resolute, and frequently with a note of rebuke. Poems are written by individuals, in collaboration, and in dedication. There is no one ‘feminist voice’ within the collection.
The structural and thematic implications of excessive quotation in Gabrielle Higgins’s ‘She will be praised’ dominate the poem. ‘Judith’, a Hebrew name which translates to ‘she will be praised’, completely frames the poem, broken into fragmentary quotations by three other poets: Judith Rodriguez, Judith Wright and Judith Beveridge. Higgins’s style borders on referential iconography, weighed against the irony of the final lines ‘(to the) subtlest form trying / each thought like a key’. In order to be recognised, subtlety is not necessarily going to get results. It is vital to breathe life into names. The speaker of ‘Visions’ by Ali Jane Smith, also early in the collection, shares a similar anxiety, as she is ignored by a procession of male icons – David Attenborough, Tony Robinson, Monty Don, Brian Cox – only to be finally addressed:
On an almost empty bus, the one
I’ve been waiting for, Professor Mary Beard.
Waist-length grey hair, long legs
the voice of a practical neighbour.
On her blog she has written ‘one should only
very tentatively pontificate
about places one visits, but doesn’t really understand.’
How to arrive at understanding?
First press the buzzer and alight.
Mary asks ‘What happened to that pencil?’
Smith’s speaker struggles to balance meaning-making while contending with a barrage of domestic chores and images, never quite reached by the suggestions of the male figures. Professor Beard’s representation pushes agency back into the speaker’s hands via directives and questions, but the work is still hers alone.
Traditionally ‘organic’ visions of femininity are teased in Meredi Ortega’s ‘Cyborg me’:
first thing I’d hack would be my womb
hack it right out like the tin woodman with his enchanted axe
put a music box in there, have it play Greensleeves.
Irreverent yet flippantly scathing, Ortega playfully undoes the pinions of biological characterisation:
my forehead’s going to be an LED scrolling message
sometimes it will say FUCK OFF, unprovoked
other times it will say USE YOUR INITIATIVE.
Ortega’s spilling over of agency outside of traditional body confines runs up against the agony of bodily ownership, soaked in imagery of abuse and wearing thin against external intrusions in ‘Unbecoming’ by Jo Langdon. All throughout the collection, Cassidy and Wilkinson have presented a range of ‘bodies’ to voice their grievances, circulating the recurring need for stronger feelings of autonomy, freedom, and safety. Elif Sezen’s ‘Immunosuppression’ embraces medical terminology to address this lingering gap between on-going national and international issues of lack of agency:
… I smile.
‘Your healthy self must visit all wounded parts
and dark places of your past’
‘send her to all places: embrace those selves’
The long-awaited secret is reflected
through the soul’s prism
the illusory corpses
of those women
There is no end.
This idea that ‘there is no end’ is a recurring undercurrent to the collection. These are not ‘all’ Australian feminist voices, nor are these all of the possible angles in need of critique. Cassidy and Wilkinson succeed in taking a living tissue sample, but no one poet is offering answers to all of the concerns within.
Monday, February 13th, 2017
Knocks by Emily Stewart
Vagabond Press, 2016
In her 2004 essay ‘Avant-Garde Community and the Individual Talent’, Marjorie Perloff highlights the disjunction between notions of the avant-garde and its reality, specifically the problematic association of the avant-gardist as having to belong to a particular band or movement. Perloff writes:
The dialectic between individual artist and avant-garde groups is seminal to twentieth-century art-making. But not every “movement” is an avant-garde and not every avant-garde poet or artist is associated with a movement.
Emily Stewart’s Knocks operates somewhere in between these two ideas. Certainly, Stewart is part of a new wave of avant-garde poetry in Australia, and collaborative prowess is surely at the collection’s centre; but it is difficult to attach Stewart to just one particular community. Knocks pays homage to a variety of twentieth century movements: there are traces of the Oulipo, The New York School, and a certain wave of Australian poets of the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s that includes Pam Brown, Gig Ryan, Ken Bolton and John Forbes. However, to place Stewart as generationally aligned with just one would be a stretch, as the poems in Knocks are too various and unruly for that. But if there is one alliance that crystallises in Knocks, it is an alliance with women.
Amelia Dale writes, ‘to read Stewart is to be in the company of women’. Like Dale, Pam Brown’s launch speech cited the influence on Stewart of Arielle Greenberg’s gurlesque – a mode that celebrates, in Greenberg’s words, ‘visceral experiences of gender; these poems are non-linear but highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful’. More locally, Knocks might be read as elaborating on Melinda Bufton’s performance of the gurlesque in her debut collection Girlery (2014). In a review for Cordite Poetry Review, Emily Bitto reads the collection’s title, Girlery, as a verb, ‘something close to a feminine form of tomfoolery. One imagines a stern injunction to “cease this girlery at once!”’ Girlery then, might be considered as a feminine report of ratbaggery, a gurlish nerve that is traceable throughout Knocks.
By way of example, ‘Mobile Service’ encourages us, with obvious hints of irony and moxie, to ‘dust down a book of microwave recipes and Instagram it, with / kisses’. Elsewhere, ‘MIAuk – Baddygirl 2 MIA PARTYSQUAD BEYONCE FLAWLESS REMIX’ indulges fanfare for the gurlish heroine, the Queen B of pop. The poem presents as selected YouTube comments taken from an MIA remix of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless.’ Stewart’s poem is a tongue-in-cheek remix of the digital commentary by one female pop star on another female pop star’s anthem for female sexuality and pride. For those who don’t know (but honestly, how could you not?), ‘Flawless’ moves around the refrain:
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
Say I, look so good tonight
To add another layer to this lineage, the original ’Flawless’ contains a sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ So by this stage that’s remix x remix x remix x remix or, remix to the power of four (cheeky, to say the least). This is not to say that Stewart’s remix is a dilution, rather, in embracing this consistent deferral it has the opposite effect: the poem’s cognisance saves it from the risk of appearing too popish; Stewart’s art of remixing is both sharp and cutting. Moves like this one might be seen as an extension of Jacques Derrida – an ode to ‘différance’. The intertextual references in Knocks embrace the various trajectories of meaning; to be involved in the communicative matrix and to destabilise meaning is a thrill for Stewart, a thrill that is transferred to her reader, too.
One might also note this drive in the collection’s second section, consisting of some of the work’s most intriguing poems. It is composed of six erasures constructed from the writing of Lydia Davis, Virginia Woolf, Helen Garner, Dianne Ackerman, Susan Sontag and Clarice Lispector. Most obviously, these erasures continue the book’s dedication, its homage to and collaboration with female poets, not only because of the source material’s authors, but also taking into consideration the history of Erasure as a form rooted in feminism. Travis Macdonald argues that our earliest encounter with erasure comes from Sappho’s fragments, ‘authored by the elements themselves … via the remnants of weathered stone carvings and papyrus scrolls; artifacts dutifully discovered, reassembled and retranslated by the scholars of every successive generation’. Like Sappho’s fragments, Knocks is direct and erotic, an agent for female desire. ‘Animal hands’ declares, ‘All I want is your mouth on my neck’, and later in ‘Baby’, ‘If what you’re imagining is sex, place me / in the whip hot tundra where we can fuck / and burn for it’.
Monday, February 13th, 2017
Kyoto Sakura Tanka by Andrew Lansdown
Rhiza Press, 2016
Through a series of visual and textual explorations, Andrew Lansdown’s Kyoto Sakura Tanka creates a striking depiction of the bicameral, separating his collection into kami no ku (the poet sees) and ashimo no ku (the poet wonders). The fundamental basis of Lansdown’s series is rooted in the Japanese tanka, or traditional waka: a five-line piece of poetry divided into mortas, or syllable counts, of 5/7/5/7/7. Yet, in this series, Lansdown once again takes up the themes of nature, transience and master Bashō’s doctrine of fueki ryūkō – ‘permanence and change’ – only to position himself against his chosen poetic tradition.
Lansdown’s self-assigned task in this collection is twofold: he is disruptive to form and yet desires to remain meaningful. Notwithstanding bold innovation, Lansdown’s tanka captures the precision of haiku in its brevity while simultaneously preoccupied with fresh visions of the Imagist tradition as a means of cognitive exploration. Each poem takes the reader on a poetic detour of Kyoto, which furnishes new significance for this microcosm of Japanese culture and tradition. Of course, small details and Lansdown’s exquisite precision of language are not definitive, yet they are specific enough to keep abreast of fueki ryūkō as a necessary innovation to the waning presence of the tanka in contemporary poetics.
Take for instance, Lansdown’s ‘Volcanoes’:
There are volcanoes
among the mighty bamboos,
with water in their craters
where once other bamboos stood.
This perception of the ‘bamboos’ awakens us to a dual significance in what remains once the bamboo undergoes metamorphosis. In the heavily codified realm of traditional Japanese poetry, waka’s select poetic words allude to a multitude of connotations and prescribed associations. Within ‘Volcanoes’, ‘bamboos’ embody the perpetual vitality of nature itself or are presented as ‘extinct volcanoes’; nothing more than an awareness of the impermanence and delicate im / perfection of things, characterised in the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. This idea is also demonstrated in Lansdown’s ‘Off-Pivot’:
an off-pivoted bamboo tube
lifting with the load of water,
falling with the load of itself.
The ‘shishi-odoshi’ is an imperfect metaphor for the realisation that things are lost to us even as they are found, characterising the traditional subject of seasonal change and awakening thoughts of the transience in and of nature. This motion of ‘lifting’ and ‘falling’ is similarly presented as involutional, the motion from past to present, present to past, which thus allows the past of the classical tanka form and Lansdown’s contemporary poetry to embrace and inform each other in the dynamic immediacy of present vision. This is literally and figuratively realised in the accompanying photography. In this way, Lansdown’s poems offer an aesthetic ideal that uses the uncompromising touch of mortality in ‘Volcanoes’ to focus the mind; and, in ‘Off-Pivot’, to provoke a sharp, intuitive discovery in order to get the essence of life and fueki ryūkō, infused with tradition and abruptly disturbed by ‘the haunting hollow bamboo sounds punctuating the temple garden’ (‘Shish-odoshi Hauntings’).
Of the haiku, Lansdown adopts hyperbole and repetition as a kind of foil to the elegant poeticism of the tanka, and a contrast to the worldly realism of ‘vulgar’ rhetoric, only to then re-poeticise them. Set within the language of common speech and his perceptions, Lansdown utilises the poetic diction incorporated in the haiku to entice the reader to review the everyday life of contemporary Japan through aestheticized eyes, thereby authorising new subject matter as worthy of the grand tanka tradition:
Sakura, Susan …
as with the cherry petals,
so also her cheeks –
a pink flush in the whiteness
and my regard as witness.
The consonance of ‘cherry’, ‘cheeks’, ‘whiteness’ and ‘witness’ is used here to emphasise the ephemeral beauty caught fleeting in the sakura blossom and Lansdown’s wife, Susan, to whom the text is dedicated. Normally, of course, this sort of cloying reiteration would be very obvious. It stands out here, however, as an evident anomaly within the minimal scope of 31 syllables, where its imagist inclination depends on verbal economy, the reverential ‘pink flush in the whiteness’ resonating with ‘regard as witness’. Lansdown employs the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word, but hypostasises love and consciousness as qualities of nature itself. Through the alliteration of ‘Sakura, Susan’ he reveals that both figures are invested in an immense environment, not distinct from it, but, as determined in the adjoining poem, in a mutual, inexplicable process of eternal blending and appreciation of natural beauty:
She’s beyond white
in purity, so she’s quite
beyond seeing –
the Kyoto bride trailing
confetti through the cherries.
The result is a vision of human presence framed against an interfusional setting, that is, nature is not presented as an otherness distinct from Susan, but as a shifting perceptual field that is so ‘beyond white in purity’, that it is ‘quite beyond seeing’. This quiet process, whereby humankind and nature appear perfectly continuous and productive of each other, displaces consciousness into all things – human and inhuman – in such a way that cognitive and emotional qualities ordinarily belonging to the human are seen to anticipate an amorphous and embracive environmental unity of seeing and feeling. In unifying nature and the human, the marriage Lansdown celebrates is rooted in the Japanese concept of ‘furyu’, which literally means ‘in the way of the wind and stream’; Sakura and Susan presented as within a liminal zone, which the reader, as ‘Witness’, must occupy to realise Lansdown’s vision of the ‘Bride’.
Monday, February 6th, 2017
Watson Era by Nick Whittock
Crater Press, 2016
Whatever happened to the Goddam enlightenment? I understand that this grandiose Western intrigue has moved dialectically through succeeding twilights if not dark ages, and the twentieth century was a sort of apocalyptic culmination or quickening of this protracted ‘event’ with the splitting of the atom, the holocaust and turning the idea of the world into a globalised tele-visual circus of war and business. Maybe we should ditch the old plot of light overcoming dark and go for the Baphomet’s ultimate configurative solution: solve et coagula, come together and go apart.
This is the antagonistic motor of dialectics, the revolutionary (mobile, revolving) intercourse of opposite forces in whose confrontation comes the productive power of the cosmos (thanks, Heraclitus). One living practice of ritual confrontation is cricket, which, like whaling for Herman Melville, functions as Nick Whittock’s system of constitutional metaphorics, the eternal return of contest for the delectation of the gods, and I think the Baphomet an apt figure for the kinds of pagan minstrelsy encountered in Whittock’s new book Watson Era, concentrating conflictual forces in the figure of one charismatic beast.
Like a lot of Whittock’s work, this book is an effort toward the re-enchantment of the world, which does not pretend to universalise its terms but rather acts as a charge for us to do the same. We are presented with the complex symbolic atmosphere of the author’s current obsessions whose structural topoi belong to the spacing of the public but whose relational significance is intensely private. Happily, here, what might seem to be a series of niche obsessions becomes a fierce utopian project of modifying or troping bits of Australia (‘gecko of glory’) to set them in permanent revolution. As an act of constitutionalising the world in a Shelleyean sense, this is not just cheeky but positively anarchistic. I cannot recollect all the proper names gathered here, but I sense that the effort represents an affirmation of human being in all its festive confetti terror – a staging of the life and death drives, of continual coming into being and disappearances, Vulcanic integrations and fiery disintegrations.
The work proceeds as a series of ritual innings of varying durations, long players and singles in vinylspeak. Much of this ritual action is structured through the intense grid of the cricket scorecard, dramatising the play of the finite as the infinite, the contingent as the necessary. What is made to come together and go apart in this game of signs is just about everything. Whittock’s scorecard method populates the columns of batter, bowler, how out, runs taken, balls faced, maidens, with unexpected values, or proper nouns, or anything at all, and affords the contemplation of catastrophic conjunctions like this:
In all the intricate machinations of Marxist theory, and the way these rhetorical formulae have played out historically in millions of human lives, what is the terrestrial relation of the name, the figure, the phantasm, the radically materialist philosophy of Marx to the seacrab? It is unthinkable, but it compels us to think to the limit. It is also, from the purview of the gods, very funny. Whittock demonstrates with aplomb what poets and I suppose sorcerers have known: comedy can be a weapon (scourge) and a great alleviation (salve) in the recreations of knowledge and the postulation of rejuvenated social systems. This book in particular goes to prove what I had always hoped and expected might be the case: the revolution has to be fun to keep it on a superhuman scale.
Watson Era mixes brilliantly micro and macro structuration, the occasional and the epic (the occasional as the epic), presenting the scale of being from ‘lorikeets’ to ‘gut florikeets.’ ‘James Faulkner’s Fiery Disintegration Machine’ occurs as a series of song cycles that gather their energy centripetally and well as centrifugally, which is to say that they are equally bent on a radical dispersal as well as a radical coming-together of code and combustions of meaning. Among the structural analogues I can think of are the helixical strains of difference and repetition in the oral poetics of Paddy Roe via Stephen Muecke in Gularabulu and in Stuart Cooke’s (polyphonic polymorphic) translations of George Dyungayan’s West Kimberley song cycle Bulu Line. Whittock similarly busts up the colonial aggregation of data by drifting across the regular fencing of the cricket score card. Being mostly hand drawn, these are fairly wonky to begin with (as paddock fencing seems to love to melt over time), but as the poem progresses these aggregate cells are made to swarm and explode all over (and off) the page, with the effect being one of watching a partly controlled particle collision machine.
One aspect of the poem, as I read it, is to capture the moment of being ‘buzzed’ or strafed by a Red-tailed black cockatoo:
black cocka turned tall backs a too-let quiver flame on
like fierce turned upon us back atoo-let fire burn
bright trembling w. un down
quenchable w. un it
desire at great beam of
milky way be for
ever tongue shiftin
This occurs in the context of everything- anthills, gums, boulders, mulgabrush- ‘turning its back on us,’ everything ‘moving’ and ‘shifting.’ This is the bush without its Romantic hero, visually happening at the speed of lexical flicks. The parabola of the event casually hands us infinity, the moment of swooping cockies is exploded to the sublime smudge of ‘milky way be forever.’ This is the star system of cockatoo as celebrity and the milky way as dense ancestral cluster; these things always made of each other, an assurance that is both exhilarating and terrifying, confirmed by the promise to continue making mythos at the end: ‘tongue shiftin.’ I had a ‘bingo’ moment reading and re-reading this poem akin to the heavy electrical experience of seeing Cy Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni for the first time.
Saturday, January 21st, 2017
the consequences of my body by Maged Zaher
Nighboat Books, 2016
This is love poetry for the Tao Lin generation. The consequences of my body offers a discourse on desire as it is mediated by the electronic interfaces that obviate the need for ‘skin to skin contact’ even as they turn out to exacerbate it: email, Skype, Facebook, Netflix (and chill). Part of this has to do with Maged Zaher’s unique trajectory as an engineer turned poet who still maintains a ‘day job [as] a software guy – a field in software called enterprise architecture … it is about overarching systems design’. Zaher is based in Seattle, which with its ‘poets, engineers, investment bankers, and – of course – musicians’ provokes some larger thoughts about networks and ‘the oppressive morality of productivity we live under’. Consequences is the work of a savvy poet in one of America’s savviest cities and one is made to feel it in the academic accent of such theoretical interludes as well as in the contrived flatness of Zaher’s low-strung diction: ‘I will / Also hide hope in an okay refrigerator’; ‘Thank you also for the few moments of hope / And for sleep after okay orgasms’. In such verses, ‘okay’ is pitched rather precisely at the point where whimsical satisfaction becomes difficult to discern from jaundice. Such ambiguity offers a clue to the kind of character we are dealing with in the poem: a digital dandy.
If Seattle provides consequences with one set of co-ordinates for its exploration of being ‘connected’ as a politico-sexual analogy, Cairo supplies another. The effects of the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 (stoked by social media), the revolutionary conflagration of the Arab Spring and the ensuing Winter are registered keenly:
I didn’t risk my life in the Egyptian revolution – yet somehow my worst moment of personal defeat culminated upon seeing Cairo itself defeated – Cairo – a city that I never truly lived in – I just walked its downtown streets an infinite amount of times and these same downtown store lights were/are to fuel my poetry journey until now …
It is an odd moment of candour that makes more sense in the context of Zaher’s work as a translator of Egyptian poets who were directly involved in the protests. Despite Zaher’s attempt to forestall the unearned pathos of mere fellow-travelling, the poignancy of political defeat lingers and infuses those moments that are located in a pallid elsewhere with an unexpected fragility:
This is not about seduction
It is about hanging out tonight
While surrounded by capitalism
And we call it love
This continuous threat of collapse
The lover’s carpe diem has been transposed to the key of post-revolutionary disappointment. What might otherwise be a canny euphemism –‘hanging out’ – comes off as the delicate result of managed self-expectations, a twilight eroticism that has learnt from experience not to hope for too much.
The shuttling between Seattle and Cairo allows Zaher to trace out a hybrid poetic genealogy for himself. The fifth section of consequences contains a three-page manifesto, ‘Aesthetics: A Personal Statement – Rated R’, in which Zaher claims a joint affinity with the ‘Udhri’ Arabic love poets and North American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, his own work situating itself on the ‘middle ground between the lyrical and the experimental’. Zaher seems to owe just as much to the slacker hedonism of the New York School which finds its way, rather appealingly, into the translations of classical Arabic love poetry strewn throughout this section. Take these lines from Abu Nuwas:
I circle around your house every day
As if, for your house, circumambulation was created
The idiom of infatuation has been updated and, in the manner of contemporary pop lyric (think Lorde), invokes a love that in its sheer gratuitousness becomes absorbed into a larger ritual of holding unrelieved boredom at bay. But in one of Zaher’s riskier gambits, this flavour of hedonism is mixed rather surprisingly with the love-as-martyrdom trope to produce something out of Harmony Korine:
We have enough to order soda and lunch
And walk parallel to some river
The easygoing passengers reek of privilege
You take over the hostages I will pretend I am peaceful
These are felicitous moments in a volume that is likely to amuse some and exasperate many through its skittish theatrics. Effortlessly hip, consequences blurs the line between bathos and pathos, the mundane and the sublime, the real and the virtual in legitimising love’s place alongside language and politics as one of life’s nobler distractions.
Saturday, January 21st, 2017
False Nostalgia by Aden Rolfe
Aden Rolfe’s False Nostalgia presents a collection of memories and corresponding vagaries of forgetting, which stimulate and unsettle in unpredictable and oblique turns of thought and phrase. His work includes philosophical, lyrical and confessional voices, the overall discourse serving to recreate and recover highly original self-objects in time and space.
The collection starts with a meditation on learning: who we are and how we become that way. This process often involves unidentified particles of memory and implies a previous existence that one is not fully aware of, and may be compelled to invent. Rolfe identifies this as Plato’s concept of anamnesis, leading to the paradoxes inherent in statements like: ‘You negotiate your position in relation to an event, particularly an emotionally resonant one through memory’. This process applies not only in a temporal sense but, as Rolfe eloquently demonstrates, to perception and recollection of place.
An initial premise is that although we may be defined by things we remember, and that: ‘When our memories change / so do our stories’, an addendum warns: ‘just / because it’s meaningful / doesn’t mean it happened’. Therefore, we read to remember and write to forget, create twists and tropes through loss and uncertainty, to clarify or distort who we were, are, or have been. Given the physical and psychological changes during one’s lifetime/s, it is worth a considering the poems included on the effects of disorders such as a stroke, and that anamnesis can also refer to a patient’s medical history.
For instance, in ‘We watched the Waves’, Rolfe hints that to be sure of holding onto a memory in the future, we sometimes watch the present more intensely than is natural: ‘we try to watch the waves so that later we can say / we watched the waves’. The poem derives from a line by Robert Hass, so we also have to wonder which of the two poets actually experienced that time, and whether Rolfe’s poem exists to dispel a false memory or to create a necessary sense of anamnesis. Marcel Proust also comes into the conversation, creating memory through deliberate, sensory linking between childhood and adult senses. By contrast with his predecessor’s environment, Rolfe finds:
the best moments occur in these
coastlines and beaches
clearings and trails
These are interpenetrable places, and imply settings where we can see ourselves in a picture, even if that picture is no longer present and we are no longer there.
Later, on the threshold, we count three things:
and a prolonged hesitation between
sound and sense.
There would also appear to be the vertigo induced by uncertain paths, the faraway sources wished for by Arthur Rimbaud, with only the end of the world ahead, or an undefined space in the interim, where footsteps are erased in dust or washed out by waves.
Rolfe explains nostalgia was originally diagnosed as a longing for one’s native land, prevalent among homesick mercenaries, who would ‘have the tendency to lose touch with the present, to confuse it with the past, to conflate real and imaginary events’. Since then, it has developed from a mental ‘affliction’ to ‘a poetic trope’. There is a form of nostalgia, however, that functions as healing: wilfully evoking past experience, not only pleasurable but grimy and uncomfortable, which through a certain way of remembering confers a hint of bitter-sweetness and which: ‘doesn’t fit the common definition of nostalgia but it’s not strictly false, either’.
Rolfe uses intertextuality in skilful and unexpected ways: juxtaposing classical and contemporary sources, expertly interwoven (and unobtrusively, although meticulously referenced). One draws on the short story ‘Funes the Memorious’, by Jorge Luis Borges, who refers to ‘this sacred verb’ (to remember), whose protagonist suffers a kind of amnesia in reverse after an accident, rendering all his memories intolerably vivid and omnipresent. Physically paralyzed, Funes is sentenced to remember all the particles of his life, and dies after a few years of this condition, from ‘congestion of the lungs,’ the message being that to retain all we have experienced is fatal: there is no way it can get out, there is too much to express. Rolfe references Funes in relation to the advantages of forgetfulness, which can function as: ‘A way to stop a surge of detail from bursting / the banks’.
A switch to prose gives an intensely personal précis and astute assessment of Michael Haneke’s film, Caché, a work without apparent resolution, and notable for its unnerving and drawn-out scenes of edginess and absence, punctuated by a startling episode of violence resulting from a botched adoption, and indirectly related to colonial abuses. Rolfe muses that these aftershocks from recent history are ‘not about nostalgia [but] about guilt and responsibility and collective memory’, leaving their residue in domestic disquiet. Maybe the least stability of all is in that uncertain place called home, with its potential to provide both transcendence and terror at its limen with the (‘hidden’) outside world. Anamnesis is felt here in yet another context: the realisation that history is often violent and chaotic and that like personal recollection, collective memory does not conform to the continuities and contingencies that would otherwise make it comprehensible.
If memory is an art and so too, forgetting (which as ‘Ars oblīvium’, ‘doesn’t feel / like anything / remember.’) then what are the functions of analepsis, recollection and recognition? Will we really know the inexplicable ‘it’ when we see it? ‘Projecting forward, we can only wait to see our hearts breaking, be recast, lose sight of what matters. There were no simpler times, it turns out, no house by the beach’. Memory is a trickster, fixes events in place, and then moves them around when we least expect. Attempts to recover past time are misinterpretations of nostalgia. The collages memory presents, and which Rolfe expertly and compassionately composes, are the truer versions, rearrangements of the self in the cracks and edges of the mosaic that comprises shared space.
Monday, January 16th, 2017
The Reddest Herring by Francisco Guevara
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2015
At the time of his death, Francisco Guevara – ‘Kokoy’ to everyone who knew him – was becoming a unique, unwavering presence in contemporary Filipino poetry. An unlikely graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (reports suggest that he was repeatedly stymied by the rituals of the workshop lyric), in 2010 he returned home to the Philippines to take up a position at De La Salle, one of the country’s most prestigious universities. In late November of 2014, at just 31 years of age, he was killed in a road accident while skateboarding; The Reddest Herring had been completed shortly before. ‘Kokoy was a breathtaking, singular poetic prodigy,’ wrote US writer Thor Nystrom, ‘and I weep for the work the world has had stolen from it.’
A photograph is discernible beneath the bright red cover of The Reddest Herring. While it might bear little obvious resemblance to the poems within, or to the poet himself, this photo is actually an important sign of some of Guevara’s deepest preoccupations. Taken at the end of the nineteenth century by an anonymous photographer, Filipino casualties on the first day of Philippine-American War is an image of a nation that has just rid itself of one colonial power, only to see it soon replaced by another. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were killed by US forces during the conflict; a new, American empire had flexed its muscles and was squashing the vestiges of an older, Spanish one. But as much as the Philippine-American War could be the inauguration of a century of Filipino resistance to American (and Japanese) imperialism, it is also an event which cauterised the close association of a struggling Asian nation with the rapid ascension of the United States. 120 years later, so deep is US influence in Filipino culture, education and politics that it makes little sense to posit an ideal, or unsullied, alternative. Thus, 500 years after the first wave of Western colonisation, the Philippines is a geo-political anomaly: an archipelago on the edge of the world’s largest land mass, it is a predominantly Catholic nation on the other side of the world from the Pope; an Asian haven for basketball, buffalo wings and Budweiser.
But it would be a serious error to assign the Philippines a wholly metonymic relationship to the USA, or even to Catholicism; beneath and amongst the tides of invasion, Filipino realities have proliferated into extraordinary complexity. In ways that are hard to fully appreciate without having met the man, Guevara embodied and embraced some of these national contradictions. [Y]ou would be quoting Nietzsche,’ writes Nystrom, addressing Guevara:
and then you would explain the cultural relevance of the W[orld] E[ndurance] C[hampionship], and then you would break down the circumstances in which it was intelligent to use the Cover-2 to defend [NFL player] Ben Roethlisberger, and then you would tell me that the Spanish colonized Cebu in the 1500s, and America got to your country 300 years later, and then you would quote a line of Dickinson, and then you would explain the single-barrel whiskeys I ought to be looking into, and then you would make a joke about [singer] Mark McGrath’s iconography, and then you would question the validity of M[ajor] L[eague] B[aseball]’s soft salary cap using a Schopenhauerism.
These cultural fractures and mis-alignments are central to the productive forces of Guevara’s poetics, too: there is no stable register, no uncomplicated sense of ‘voice’, no rarefied field for poetry, even; the pursuit of an idea needn’t sacrifice attention to others:
I had in my remains and therefore left beyond
each page how tired I was of the lightness
in having already left: I laughed at it and with it
as all around it I became those beginnings
I beat myself into, so again I was out of a time
one was read by and priced my beating:
And again I was peopled with the city I called
to confess for the loss of being here, and so
I swore to step off a roof I had made out of
hiding from a home I could never return.
The question of Language in the Philippines is an almost impossibly complex one. Over 180 languages are spoken, and more than five million people each speak Tagalog, Cebuano, English, Hiligaynon and Ilokano. No one language can account for anything like a National Language (only 25% of the country’s population are native speakers of Tagalog, the most widely-spoken). These aren’t hermetic systems, either: English words abound in Tagalog, for instance, which is also peppered with Spanish. Even more interestingly, the Chavacano languages are creoles based on Mexican Spanish and Portuguese; in some, while much is common with Andalusian Spanish, many words are also borrowed from Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec Empire. American and Spanish Empires, local dialects and official languages; Filipino languages represent neo-baroque fluxes of imposition and inversion. This is not just an issue to do with etymologies, either, but also with the ways that words sound and are spoken: Filipino English, for example, is a distinctive mixture of American pronunciation and accents derived from native languages, and in conversation is hardly ever spoken in isolation but rather is threaded continuously with phrases from these languages. That is, English for a poet like Guevara is always trembling on the verge of something else. Such a writer, fluent in both English and Tagalog, but also familiar with Spanish, Cebuano and Hiligaynon, never writes steadfastly ‘in’ one language or the other, but rather might write ‘on’ them: keenly aware of the branches from one language to the other, he skirts their forms, assembling productive patterns.
When Guevara wrote in these pages in 2012, ‘I am interested in the way etymology creates the circumstances of its word’s failure, and yet it makes language impartable,’ he was referring to both the inextricable relationship of contemporaneity to histories of conquest and diffusion, and to the way that such diffusions constitute an ongoing sense of unsettlement and uncertainty. ‘I am interested in thinking through revolution,’ he continues, ‘in order to think about the productive (read: ethical) implications of participating in the newness of rupture with the truss of tradition while operating in the present progressive.’ This present progressive, Kokoy probably wouldn’t want me to argue, could constitute the basis of Filipino poetics. More to the point, though, is that his language, layered with the accents of another, and which might at any moment tilt into it, is entirely immanent to the evocation of uncertainty that we find in his work. That photograph of the US-Filipino war is a dormant presence in the book, but so too is the much older legacy of Judeo-Christian mythology; as American English is unravelled by a multi-lingual Asian poet, then, so too is a Judeo-Christian story of origins. Consequently, in The Reddest Herring Adam and Eve are refigured as Adam and Alice:
where Alice was who Adam never knew
he always was in the sense of a question
thus asked for without knowing tomorrow
had already arrived in pieces of each
and every one of Alice’s passing away
with every kiss Adam devoured her name
(‘In the garden’s garden’)
Monday, January 16th, 2017
The Two Romanticisms, and Other Essays: Mystery and Interpretation in Romantic Literature
by William Christie
Sydney University Press, 2016
Romantic poems are elusive creatures. Exhibit A is William Blake’s ‘The Blossom’ (1789), in which a mysterious voice asks a pretty robin, a blossom, and the reader, to ‘seek your cradle narrow’. Perhaps by the necessity of the uncanny danger of meaning, readings of Romantic poetry have always been accompanied by disputes about Romanticism as a movement. These conflicts seem to encompass an entire political shift in an age of revolutions.
In The Two Romanticisms, and Other Essays, Professor William Christie weighs in on this burden of mystery in Romantic poetry with some hope of avoiding ‘discipline games’. As head of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University (ANU), Christie is a respected teacher and scholar, and would appear well-placed to provide some measure of an answer for students and readers of Romanticism.
The Two Romanticisms focuses on ‘major lyrics’. There are a number of chapters that dip into Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Shelley’s ‘Julian and Maddalo’ or Byron’s Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The epilogue to the book offers a conceptual history of the idea of the imagination as a way to orient readers to the period of Romanticism.
One of the most compelling interpretations in the book is a chapter that dwells on Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Christie analyses a point at which the poem moves from what seems a simple pastiche of old ballads to something other, uncanny. A Pelican dangles from the mariner’s neck in a frozen, ghostly landscape: ‘We are in another world, the capital “r” Romantic has supervened upon the small “r” romantic, as infection supervenes upon a wound’.
This image of infection, wound and disease is itself a pastiche of much old literary criticism (Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, for example). We’re then reminded that Christie is offering us at least two cradles for Romanticism to play in, Romanticism with a capital ‘R’ – the symbolic movement that infects a reader with some greater wound beyond the pastiche – and a romanticism with a small ‘r’, a stormy collection of wild themes that can be rocked and broken.
That this argument about Romanticism is driven primarily by the major lyrics is telling. Even for a book aimed at the high-school curriculum, it is somewhat disappointing to find a focus on ‘major’ lyrics to the exclusion of the ‘minor’ ones; two romanticisms if there ever were two. After decades of critical work looking beyond the contours of masculine Romanticism, it is troubling to find still such a neglect of minor poets and writers who represented major socio-political trends in English Romanticism.
An entire historicist horizon of interpretation goes missing: the entry of dissenters, Catholics, Jews, radicals, women, working class and racially other into the Anglican establishment, or the brute fact of greater numbers than ever before reading and writing poetry and novels. And now, as Christie’s Two Romanticisms introduces prose novels such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there’s still a sense that avoiding ‘discipline games’ means obscuring so much: as if we are left with a mystery of literature that is a narrow cradle for a mode of Romantic criticism.
The result is a readable set of essays, but also an overall obscurity that leads Christie to return to some well-hashed critical fields. By the time the reader arrives at the epilogue, the definitional challenge that is the central matter of the book is lost, and not in an entirely productive way. The useful chronology of the Romantic Period appearing at the start of the book begins with the birth of William Blake (1757) and ends with the death of William Wordsworth (1850), the seer of imagination. Within this space, there are some characteristic political milestones for English Romanticism – a small taste of the vastness of Romanticism. But Romanticism is still thrown up as a disorientating movement that always seems to impress on us the need for some kind of ‘set of coordinates’ – which is how Christie puts it in his reading of Coleridge’s poetry.
The Two Romanticisms remains elusive in its definition of Romanticism, hardly electric or startling, but well worth reading for an overview of the challenges of interpreting the Romantic movement. There is a certain disquiet apparent in The Two Romanticisms, a hesitancy on the limits of meaning: the book plunges toward polarised sites of definition at times; at other times, it vaguely skirts critical fields. The space devoted to discussing the poems or novels in detail seems to be ever narrowing as the book skips from essay to essay; The Two Romanticisms as an exposition of a literary movement appears constrained. Romanticism nonetheless remains one of the most popular movements of literature, and continues to throw readers from narrow cradles to worlds of mystery and meaning.
Thursday, January 5th, 2017
Awake at the Wheel by Berndt Sellheim
Vagabond Press, 2016
In Awake at the Wheel, Berndt Sellheim’s debut collection of poems, Australia is imagined in gothic terms, from the eerie and persistent presence of the ‘bushland’s dark parchment’ to the bones and ghosts which haunt an endless landscape. An homage to country, there is little innocence embedded in these poems of insides and outsides, which speak not only to a transforming sense of self but also to an environment that ceaselessly, and often uneasily, shifts. It is a thematic captured most vividly in the attention to diurnal rhythms – the ‘dying light’, the ‘wash and ebb’ of the sea – which evolve poignantly in relation to the cycles of life and death. In Sellheim’s work, such categories are rarely exclusive, but invested in notions of everyday metamorphosis, such as in ‘The Divine Art of Compost’, in which a ‘lush thermal sweat’ creates a ‘sumptuous / chemistry / of season and decay’. These transformations are ‘all organic matter’, yet there is nonetheless an abiding disquiet, as noted in the suggestion that while there are ‘bodies which build and inhabit’, there are also ‘bodies which lie beneath’, a reminder of how the Australian gothic is interchangeable with the post-colonial.
Such a focus ensures that Sellheim’s poems resist romanticism, and while there are instances of the cliché, especially in the evocation of a Kerouac-inspired ‘road less travelled’, the landscapes (re-)imagined in Awake at the Wheel are problematic, difficult, and often uncomfortable. The beauty of the Australian bush, with its ‘green depths’ which ‘hazewhite past / the eucalypts’, and ‘jacaranda blossoms, like slow, violet hailstones’, is complicated by a history of violence and exploitation, and an insistence on the past as necessary to troubling patriotic visions of nationhood and, indeed, pastoral rapture. Sellheim’s acknowledgement of colonial destruction is nuanced and assured, particularly in those poems focussed on rural Australia, which cannot escape the spectres of past crimes. In ‘Wollombi’, for example: ‘Imagine, Uncle / th black silent feet / passing afore / th whiteblaze wind’.
The politics of Sellheim’s poetry, however, is most striking in its focus on consumerism, and the leaching of the natural world to feed the ever-increasing demand for material goods. Whilst sharp, Sellheim’s poems are more often melancholy than scathing, the collection a despair at the creation of an ‘abject earth’, an overwhelming feeling of depletion and exhaustion. Regional towns are ‘ute-filled borderlands’ while ‘brilliant / machines scrub desert skin’, ransacking for export commodities. The result is a horror-show, an image of monstrosity in which each attempt for more creates only less, until both the land and the individuals who work it are ‘emptied, utterly fucked out by it all’. In ‘Backfill’, Sellheim’s characteristic use of rupture and erasure figures such anxiety in desperate terms:
Great mouth we dug
th never-never great
mount in dug t dust
having gnawed the tin
from earth n bones u
mountains int ust aving
ug the art o bauxite in
dug ater from t sun
Environmental fatigue is connected with the dissolution of human life and energy, from the ‘half-forgotten pubs’ overtaken by ‘Big Mac primary coloured / burbs o middle / Australia’, to the rig workers ‘eyebent n crystal meth’. Sellheim is often sardonic in these descriptions – ‘don’t worry […] the drive-through / does bitchin trade’ – keenly aware of the degradation caused by monolithic mining corporations. In an eponymous sequence of poems, for instance, the air is ‘a permanent dusk /o swarming particles /on th scale o Exodus / where all fall short / o the glory o / Rinehart’.
Importantly, in exploring ideas about the loss that comes from over-consumption, Sellheim’s poems are stylistically experimental, increasingly fragmented, and ruptured – verb endings are dropped, letters are missed, and phrases are left incomplete. There is an uncanny use of vernacular that is both familiar and fractured, such as ‘red sky at morn, / she don’t bode well’, and ‘thin edge / o country hedge’. As a result of such techniques, there is a curious tension between what is recognisable – meanings found through obvious guesswork – and a more troubling sense that something remains missing. These gaps are arguably an acknowledgement of the limits of representation, but also a resistance to totality. Poems which begin relatively formally begin to unravel ‘till there’s no place left’ – a suggestion of Sellheim’s preoccupation with the cyclical, but also, perhaps, a refusal to promise completion or even coherence. Indeed, in Awake at the Wheel transformation and loss are perpetually linked, like bodies which ‘bloat and thin and eat themselves / even as we watch’, an abject mimicry of the butterfly, ‘itself a model of rebirth’.