Against Colony Collapse Disorder; or, Settler Mess in the Cells of Contemporary Australian Poetry

1 November 2014

Colony collapse disorder describes a phenomenon whereby worker bees suddenly and inexplicably disappear from a hive. It has recently been identified as a syndrome following the rapid vanishing of Western honeybee colonies across North America and Europe. Justin Clemens also uses the term to describe an aesthetic collapse, whereby poets can only demonstrate their existence as ‘being caught dead’ given the fragile conditions of poetry and the inevitable, deadly effects of the past. He suggests that poets should be biothanatophiliacs: ‘The attempt to continue to write poetry in the consciousness of the impossibility of its continuation, to conjure new kinds of readers from the segmented and administered world of the present’ (100). This organic metaphor for the social, as well as for the aesthetic, figures the individual as having a singular function (the reader as a kind of ‘worker bee’) that is, nevertheless, integrally networked to other individuals. What I am interested in exploring in this paper is an alternative model of contemporary poetics that focuses on correspondences in otherwise unconnected ‘bees’ and the capacity for transformation in the face of a past that continues to contaminate and render the present ‘toxic.’

In Infidel Poetics, Daniel Tiffany argues that lyric obscurity could be viewed as the ground or medium of negative sociability. The shrinking domain of modern poetry readership encapsulates a model of social hermeticism more generally. The materiality of language could be said to house a verbal underworld: the ‘privacy effect’ of the poem is a structure of both lyric and social obscurity that works through generating a common knowledge dependent on expressive and reciprocal correspondences among its solipsistic readers (12). Poetry might be seen then as a way of activating ‘sleeper cells’ within the hive, underworlds of activity that may then inform what Foucault calls ‘new relational modes’ (qtd in Bersani, 102).

In Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry, Charles Altieri argues for a poetics of resistance to the administrative hive of capital:

The more we see what the task of accommodation involves, the more we shall need to challenge the contemporary imagination, by reminding it of those moments when the mind sees itself as capable of living in, and for, communities not bound to that history and the compromises it entails. We must continue to seek ideals of identity that insist on making their own forms for the noise threatening to subsume all of our fictions into the world that is all too much with us (379).

For Giorgio Agamben, the contemporary poet is, by definition, ‘irrelevant.’ Following Nietzsche, he argues that, ‘Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.’ Yet it is precisely because of this condition that a contemporary poet may be ‘more capable than others of perceiving and grasping [his or her] own time’ (11). Moreover, those who are contemporary must focus on the obscure: ‘The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present’ (13). Those who are contemporary, according to Agamben, ‘do not allow themselves be blinded by the lights of the century and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity’ (14).

The contemporary poet, then, has a particular relation to time; he or she is ‘untimely’ (10). While Clemens calls for a poetry that embraces ‘being caught dead,’ Agamben notes that contemporary poetry is a kind of resuscitating impulse. It can ‘cite’ and make relevant any moment from the past: ‘It can therefore tie together that which it has inexorably divided – recall, re-evoke, and revitalize that which it had declared dead’ (20). And as Perloff notes in Unoriginal Genius, ‘A device obsolete in one period can be restaged and reframed at a different moment and in a different context and once again made “perceptible”’ (20). This is against Fredric Jameson’s declaration of an ‘end-run’ negative dialectics wherein ‘What drives modernism to innovate is not some vision of the future or the new, but rather the deep conviction that certain forms and expressions, procedures and techniques, can no longer be used, are worn out or stigmatised by their associations with a past that has become conventionality or kitsch, and must be creatively avoided’ (5). For Perloff, literature is a dynamic system of change and each ‘current’ art practice has its own ‘particular momentum and invention’ (21).

In ‘Traditioning the Invention’, Jill Jones notes that she wants to ‘keep the possibilities of the poem in play, to find out something, to turn something around.’ The poem forms a kind of ‘experience or event rather than proposition, or mirror, or representation—though it may do all those things in partial ways’ (77). It may enact a becoming while having a grounded temporality. To cite Agamben once more: ‘[T]he origin is not only situated in a chronological past: it is contemporary with historical becoming and does not cease to operate within it’(17). In this essay, I consider the contemporaneity of three ‘generation X’ Australian poets: Samuel Wagan Watson, Michael Farrell, and Duncan Hose. All three deploy a playful linguistic embodiment of the self’s temporality, their poetics skating between gloom, wry humour, and a kind of disobedient negation as they negotiate the past’s disfiguring pall.

The very title of Brisbane-based poet Samuel Wagan Watson’s collection smoke encrypted whispers (2004) foregrounds elements of coding, veiling, and secrecy. As Tiffany notes, ‘A secret … is always engendered by an act of communication; no phenomenon characterised by secrecy, privacy or obscurity can therefore be entirely closed or inscrutable’ (5). Obscurity in Watson’s work might be viewed as performative, applying to certain constructions of identity as well as to language and grammar. In ‘labelled’, he foregrounds the process of defining and screening for Aboriginality that underpins an abusive, tragic history of social selection. By listing labels of differentiation: ‘full blood?/ half blood…/ half breed!/ half caste—’(48), Watson lays bare the cultural economy informing the concept of ‘humanity’ and the absence of universalism or essentialism. He is similarly at pains to have the punctuation differentiated with each category, demonstrating how grammar, as much as language, frames a sense of self. At the intense surveillance of his bloodlines, he ironically suggests that he ‘must be a goddamned pedigree of some sort!’ (49). Becoming horse emphasises absurdity and a parodic refusal of such discourse:

‘Let me out of here ... I’m a winner ... I have a Cup to win!’

‘Mr. Watson ... you’re not a race horse ... you’re a human being! ’ (48)

Contrasting font style heightens the difference between Watson and the doctors. Their dramatised sparring could be said to create an equivalence or argument between the two speaking positions, yet the poem is ultimately framed by Watson’s dominant voice and his querying the charge of humanity: ‘Oh yeah?’ (48). ‘Becoming animal’ enables Watson to borrow from another history that has been used to shape the national psyche, with his allusion to the ‘winner’ status of legendary racing champion, Phar Lap.

In a number of his poems, Watson uses the metaphor of the road (traditionally a trope of life’s journey in the Western tradition) as a means of thinking about the relationship of the past to the present. In ‘we’re not truckin’ around’, he plays upon the colloquial phrase for being serious: ‘we’re not fucking around.’ This stages an alternative glib attitude to the colloquialism and to the refinement suggested by the opening line, ‘upon the dining table of the Invader’ (90). The sense of propriety, along with its attendant association of property, suggested by the capitalised term ‘Invader’ sits in contrast to the lack of capitalisation in the poem’s title. In the poem, the country is served up as a consumable platter, or alternatively, as a ready canvas for lyric innovation:

there were those who thought
that they could simply mimic creation
and plough through this land
but blindfolded

– where’d ya get ya license! (90)

What is interesting here is that lyric is both settlement and ‘inventive’; that is, it is not innately conservative in impulse. Indeed, it may have deployed a kind of ‘bush mechanics’ but is unthinking in how it appropriates the readymade materials of the land. Lyric prosody as a kind of ‘bad’ driving is undercut by the sudden invective: ‘where’d ya get ya license!’ – an in-your-face interrogation of poetic license as a kind of providential right. This is aligned with colonial violence more broadly, as the white man’s road ‘ploughs’ through and thus destroys the sacred initiation sites for Aboriginal men. In so doing, the ‘bitumen vine’ (an image that paradoxically draws together the natural and the manufactured) ‘knocked our phone off the hook/ forever,’ leaving the Aboriginal community in a state of negative sociability, isolated, literally cut off from communicating across generations and clans (90). ‘[F]orced to stand out on the shoulder of the road,’ the indigenous people are left ‘feeling a kinship/ with the discarded and shredded’ – the ‘black pieces of truck tire’ (90).

At the same time, they are not ‘really lusting’ after the future that the road promises – ‘that 18-wheeler of a lifestyle/ driving into the next millennium’ – even as they will have to be ‘looking for a lift’ (90). While the colonial spirit is one of ‘lead-foots’ accelerating into the future, Watson forecasts a storm or ‘white squall’ and ‘encroaching Absalom before us all/ an electronic highway’(91). The Internet, Watson suggests, will function even more on speed and of catastrophic ploughing aside of that which is already ‘there’. Absalom himself was caught in an oak-tree while riding beneath it and this accident-waiting-to-happen is transposed to the ‘white noise’ of a merciless digital stream. A separation between the disenfranchised and those on the road is emphasised by a continuing ‘you’ and ‘we’, yet this is collapsed in the face of the next wave of invasion affecting ‘us all’ (91).

In ‘a verse for the cheated’, Watson talks of the highway having ‘greedy black claws lubricated on the nectar of broken dreams’ (27). It functions as an image of the contemporary century, a kind of ‘petulant beast’ – ‘the recalcitrant animal/ prepared to deliver us on our future paths of success/ and to pick a few off on our way’ (27–28). In ‘What is the Contemporary?’, Agamben quotes Osip Mandelstam:

My century, my beast, who will manage
to look inside your eyes
and weld together with his own blood
the vertebrae of two centuries? (12)

In Mandelstam’s poem, the poet pays for his contemporariness with his life. And the precariousness of life is also the fate of Watson’s generation. Against the backdrop of a local economy founded on tourists ‘buying postcards of pristine beaches/ that were nowhere near us’ or ‘purchasing painted coral stolen from hundreds of miles away/ and branded with the tag, MADE IN TAIWAN’ (27), they are presumed to exist in a simulacral ‘haven’. There is the ‘look’ of the ‘kids’ being ‘fortunate and cool’ (28).

The sense of the culturally marginal or expendable can also be found in ‘for the wake and skeleton dance’:

the dreamtime Dostoyevskys murmur of a recession in the spirit world
they say,
the night creatures are feeling the pinch
of growing disbelief and western rationality (50)

Dostoevsky has often been viewed as the voice of the anonymous, the underground and the exiled. He also figures the crisis of belief, both of the self and spirituality. Combining the Western realist tradition with the Aboriginal imaginary, Watson’s ‘dreamtime Dostoevsky’ is the figure of the contemporary dispossessed. The difference between the phantasmatic and the real is blurred through the abject ‘apparitions of black dingos’ whose ‘ectoplasm’ lies ‘on the sidewalk in a cocktail of vomit and swill’ (50). They are ‘night creatures’, very much in the vein of Tiffany’s underworld and its obscurity. Their transient wilderness is not embraced as a positive value even as it contrasts with the culturally contained and tamed, the ‘dwindling souls fenced in by assimilation’ (50). Watson states that ‘the white man didn’t bring all the evil/ some of it was here already,’ a potential later realised – a kind of bad faith ‘harassing the living’ (51). As in ‘we’re not truckin’ around’, colonialism is understood through Christian allegory, with its apocalyptic narrative. The ‘Covenant’ brought by the ‘tallship leviathans of two centuries ago’ is a pathology of decimation rather than promise, ‘infecting the dreamtime with the ghosts of a million lost entities’ (51). In the modern era they are ‘merely faces in the crowds at the festival of the dead’ (51). As Christopher Nealon argues, ‘late-late capitalism’ might be seen as moving ‘extensively, through globalization, and intensively, through the colonization of political hopes and affective survival’ (Matter 33). The individualism of the ‘dreamtime Dostoevsky’ has been permanently retired; what is left is the ambiguous ‘open season on chaos theory’ (51). The trope of hunting evoked by the phrase ‘open season’ recalls Watson’s earlier declaration that it is ‘payback time’ for ‘the fratricide troopers’ (50). Yet ‘chaos theory’ suggests that the narrative line of ‘blame’ is itself a line ‘drawn in the sand’ (51), that judgment itself may be problematic. Watson’s query, ‘is it all worth holding onto these memories/amidst the blood-drenched sands?’ or ‘better to forget?’ (50) remains unanswered.

Whereas Dostoevsky is conjoined with the dreamtime in Watson’s poetry as a wretched shadow, the possibility of cultural merger is viewed more positively in Michael Farrell’s ‘The Influence of Lorca in the Outback’. Farrell imagines Western poetic tradition being taken up enthusiastically as a new craze or fad among those not commonly thought of as poetry readers, particularly those living rurally. And while Watson’s poem cites the rhetorical framework of Christianity underpinning colonial destruction, Farrell notes, ‘The Outback’s/ too large a temple for a Christ’. In foregrounding a transformative wave of literacy and cosmopolitanism sweeping the countryside, Farrell looks beyond the traditional, oversimplified division between city and bush. Such a division identified urban dwellers as consumers of high culture while the rural population were deemed largely consumers of popular culture. Within such a paradigm, cultivated readers resided in the metropolis while those from the country were more likely to listen to acoustic guitar (country and western) or electric (rock). As Farrell notes, such divisions are false, ‘Even in the/ cities it’s known the Outback is no monoculture.’ He discerns that, ‘whispers have been heard of resistance, especially by men who find Lorca too feminine. It’s said that,/ here and there, the influence of Rimbaud is beginning/ to show.’ Alternatively, ‘others are living more reclusive lives in the style of Dickinson: collecting native flowers, wearing white, and making packets of poetry’ (81). Aesthetic fashion itself ignites a debate over taste. Farrell even suggests that ‘the Paris Commune is referred to as a local movement,’ as the rural working class assume power in selectively adopting and diversifying their own identity (81). As Agamben contends, fashion ‘divides time according to a ‘no more” and a ‘not yet’ (16) and holds a particular capacity for contemporaneity. Farrell notes, ‘They go looking for bones to talk to, like Lorca/ was a character in Hamlet. Of course, it could just/ be a living analogy: a clinamen in attempts at Indigenous and European reconciliation’ (81). Through the proliferation and hybridising of aesthetic expression, Farrell explores the horizon of new social relations in spaces felt rigidly territorialised and historically exhausted.

Having grown up in rural New South Wales, Farrell has spent his adult life in the city. Yet a number of his poems focus on the continuing force of childhood, as well as how colonialism still frames present-day Australian ontologies. In ‘eucalypt field’, he notes that ‘memories cant be counted on, to be contained’ (open 8). This is perhaps a nod to Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, where Wordsworth declares, ‘– But there’s a Tree/ of many, one,/ A single Field which I have looked upon,/ Both of them speak of something that is gone’ (729). Michael Clune points out that this couplet represents ‘the classical definition of poetic space’: ‘The ‘I,’ the transcendent subject, is called forth by the definite, redundant particularity of the object (one particular tree in one particular field)’ (252). Farrell suggests that spatiality in Australian poetry is necessarily informed by the history of settlement. The stories dominating cultural memory may get used to ‘keep the silence in or the developers away’ (open 8). That is, their symbolic violence can ‘still break necks’ and maintain insularity. Against this, there is a more personal, located history:

& when invaders
walk out & start shooting; its only something to tell your grandkids
if you live meet anyone or manage to hold your family together (open 8)
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