A Poetics of a Politics

1 November 2017

At a distance, the installation is made up by a collection of what appear to be a collection of stones upon a wall placed in an apparent random order. However, upon closer inspection, we find that each stone is not a stone, but a miniature head placed against the wall. Each head is unique and has no partner. And each is subject to different levels of erosion. While we can view the work from a distance and see something resembling an archipelic dynamic, this view changes as we move around the room and draw closer to the heads themselves. The work envisions identities at play amongst one another. Imagine each head is reflective of its own archipelago, its own opacity that changes the meaning of those outside it, while the appearance of each head is changed by its relation to others and a larger composite or ‘congregation’. We simultaneously see one head, and many, an image destabilised further by the disparate shadows exuded from each head on the wall-face. Consider how a poem might achieve a similar effect; as an interface where language structures mark and shape the overall poem while retaining their opacity and therefore displaying the conditions necessary for a Poetics of Relation. This was what Glissant described as metissage, which from the French Canadian word ‘Metis’ (itself meaning ‘mixed’ in Old French) means a site of writing and surviving in the ‘interval between different cultures and languages’. Not only would a relational poem engage in a bilingual or bicultural balance, gaining an awareness of the productive similarities or dissonances between cultures, but it would contribute to a plural, global literature, and disrupt standardised, Eurocentric conceptions of language. Think of the shadows cast by the stones above and how words themselves cast shadows across languages, cultures and temporal periods, is it the case that examining two shadows together represents only a homogenous mire of different shades (more of the same), or a more productive, un-obscured reality of the original objects cast into space?

It is admittedly, a little difficult to imagine the planetary conditions of what Glissant proposes in reality, which galvanises me to move to the micro-level to examine the sorts of borders or collisions that are anticipated in Glissant’s Relation. A figure whose work upon borderlands has granted us significant advancements in the last twenty years, queer chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua provides imagination, empathy and lived-autobiographical experience at the physical and metaphysical breakage points between cultures; where borders contend with, erase and obscure identities at play. Anzaldua is celebrated in contemporary discourse for her book, Borderlands / La Frontera, a series of essays and poems that grapple with the idea of the frontier and its inflection upon herself as a writer. Having grown up on US-Mexican, Tex-Mex border, Anzaldua describes her birth upon the border as an ‘Open Wound’:

The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it haemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture. (3)

Anzaldua establishes that a border is created to designate opposites, barbaric and civilised worlds, foreign refugees and citizens, madness and sanity, all held in check by the narrow strip of a border holding these two dualities from one another. She intimates that a border does not function as a closed circuit, but a fluid, ever-bleeding scab that affects the First and Third worlds simultaneously, and is itself responsible for another culture, a border culture on the dividing lines of society. To imagine in this borderspace is to think of the singular plural structure of living and to embrace a ‘Mestizo Consciousness’:

We will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once, and at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. (78)

She understands then there are dualities and complexities on both sides of the border and that only in the interplay of both sides can we emerge with the perspective needed to progress. I argue that Anzaldua embraces a Glissantian Relation at a micro-level as a bilingual proponent of cross-cultural literary study and further, embodies the possibilities of critical discourse in Indigenous Australian literature. Anzaldua images a diverse vision of collaboration and distinction that apprehends a universal scale into a manageable scale, thrusting a reader into the immediate borders that make up their contexts. She is vastly opposed to Glissant, but asks similar questions of the opposition between the singular and the plural. Visualising the two figures together in tandem actualises a reading strategy that places a scale on Glissant’s utopian ideas, and enhances the ontological implications of both works. There is this borderspace at each of the collisions Glissant imagines. To investigate the possibilities of such theoretical scaling, we adopt the singular plural Mestizo Consciousness of what it is to be one and many amid practices of bordering or claims of cultural singularities.

Fogarty’s famous address in his poem, Tired of Writing, speaks to not only the necessity of metissage that Glissant highlights (writing from the site of the interval between languages), but also to Fogarty’s success in creating and fashioning a self-evident, thoroughly opaque bilingual poetry. His poetics are located in the space between two disparately opposed river banks, similar to Anzaldua he has self-fashioned a language that is appropriate to an interstice between the worldviews that have emerged on each side. His poetics bear the weight of two disparate visions of space and time, overwhelmed and intermingled nation-spaces, totemic geographies and transnational connections:

To write I have to use
a medium
that is not mine.
If I don’t succeed, bear with me.
I see words beyond any acceptable meaning
And this is how I express my dreaming …

(Yoogum Yoogum)

Fogarty makes the colonising English language his own by writing in what Australian poet, John Kinsella describes as a ‘hybridized poetic’, aggressively reversing the process by which the English language relates the colonised subject, and in turn, making English his own (190). Fogarty’s purpose in communicating to a people not his own would be then an example of revolutionising linguistic and symbolic discourses for his people to revisit their own claims on political and geographical space. This is common in readings of Fogarty. For example, Stuart Cooke describes Fogarty’s a-grammatical language, as ‘a rebellious, spiritual force’ (239). Fogarty himself refers to his work as akin to the heroic Aboriginal warriors of the frontier, such as Dundalee and Pemulwuy, and stated in an interview with Michael Brennan, that ‘poetry is only useful if it changes the bloody law’ (n.p.).

Fogarty’s manipulation of the English language then, has been interpreted predominantly as an act of resistance, leading to increasing characterisations of Fogarty as a ‘Guerrilla Poet’ or an ‘activist poet’. As Kinsella writes:

His is the most revolutionary of languages being used in Australian poetry. Freedom doesn’t come solely by marking territory and occupying a conceptual space, a space linguistic in nature. One must reterritorialise lost ground. (192)

This imaging of Fogarty’s poetics as ‘like a weapon’ as driven by Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson), drags us back through a muddied past where Indigeneity was discoursed in pre-ontological forms, the mystic and the political revolutionary, an historical representation that was successfully picked apart by Lynette Russel’s work, Savage Imaginings (2001). It is right I think, that Fogarty’s poetics be scrutinised beyond the status of an oppositional force as we envision how a poetics can stimulate meeting points, crossings, middle-spaces, interstices or collisions. Fogarty is an interesting cross-cultural figure in his own right, having travelled multiple times in his literary career of forty years to the United States among civil rights groups, to India, to China, to New Zealand and many other countries about the earth. I would like to pose that Fogarty’s wielding of language as an offensive tool can be equally read as a relational poetic: resisting a transparent, simplistic understanding of Aboriginal communities and individuals, therefore exemplifying Glissant’s idea of opacity, and equally understanding the reciprocal linguistic and material effects of intercultural crossings.

Fogarty’s poem, Biral Biral powerfully reflects upon the way in which Indigenous communities are sustained in the contemporary age, exploring the rupture between traditional and contemporary ‘Aboriginality’ that has been caused by an exposure to Anglo-Celtic culture. The poem seems to record the experience of a boy going through an initiation, indicated through an emphasis on ‘entering manhood’ in the first few lines. Iranian-Australian writer and scholar Ali Alizadeh has interpreted that the question asked in the poem’s beginning, ‘who is Biral’ indicates that the ‘boy is assigned the role of Ngunda, a messenger of the God Biral’, Biral being the Creator Spirit identified in Fogarty’s Kudjela and Yoogum communities of Southern Queensland (1).

Fogarty positions the reader in this narrative through the boy’s perspective coming into a ‘tunnel of music’, that is his aural awareness of his entrance into a communal gathering. During the initiation, the boy perceives the sound of the didgeridoos as, ‘trumpeted’, the voices of the community around him as ‘operaed’, which could be read as an example of Fogarty ‘breaking open the shell of the English language’, but equally can be read as a perception of traditional Aboriginal customs through white Australian eyes. This is reinforced by the boy’s perception of ritualised actions as a set of images divorced from meaning rather than a cathartic, spiritual experience, ‘race blows weird things onto faces / made u’fella look like creatures of another era’. The metaphorical abstraction of ‘race’ onto faces, perhaps symbolising the painting of faces in ceremonial customs, is juxtaposed by the clarity of verbal expression Fogarty uses here, signifying that the boy has reduced a religious experience to a set of endemic rituals. Fogarty is not only aggressively remaking English in his own fashion, but recoursing the reader through an outsider anglicised perspective that sees both perspectives simultaneously, therefore adopting a bicultural perspective of the borderlands.

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