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

By | 1 November 2014

With the post-mortem pronouncement – ‘From ass to throat, Edward, yull be totemized and trophied’ (65) – Hose presents Kelly as an item reducible for collective and aesthetic consumption. Yet even as he becomes museal, ‘an encrusted form’, Kelly exhibits ‘no/ structural body plan’ (67). He functions as a mutable tribal fantasy. As Hose notes, in ‘Instruction for an Ideal Australian’, myth is a ‘constantly enlivened threshold’ (11).

While it operates as a broader cultural hold-all, Hose interrogates the degree to which the Kelly myth may inform himself: ‘I’m glad I were you I’m glad I had./ yr Single heart’ (64). An uncanny blurring occurs throughout ‘An Allegory of Edward Trouble’, as Hose blends into the Kelly story elements of his own private history, such as being Tasmanian and of Scottish descent: ‘My heart mulched and tartan like the/ Golden bogs of Tasmania’ (63). He also incorporates symbolically loaded but coded words from his first collection, Rathaus (2007) (such as ‘crow’, ‘duck’ and ‘bacon’). And lastly he weaves in his own anxiety of influence, having Edward Trouble write to Frank O’Hara’s early muse, ‘violet “bunny” lang’: ‘Bunny, don’t be difficult and don’t be dead’ (64). Sentimental yet absurd, the line foregrounds the impossibility of a dialogue with the past – a body that is separate and does not write back. Irony is generated here by the knowledge of temporal distance between not only Hose and Kelly, but Hose and O’Hara. His relationship to the past is necessarily different from O’Hara’s in the 1960s, Nealon noting that ‘late late capitalism gives texture to our everyday lives more murmuringly’ (‘Camp’ 583). The ‘totalizing political and economic system’ was never felt by the New York School and leads to a different structure of feeling (‘Camp’ 584).

Hose opens ‘An Allegory of Edward Trouble’ with a depiction of Kelly’s hometown:

Benalla was a fairly wild place
	Kids eating grubs from the barked up trees

In an unever unending parody of sunny bloody Sydney. (63)

The alliterative repetition of ‘unever unending’ enacts a relationship of similarity and difference between the two words, a hinge-like strategy that also informs ‘parody’. This is to be found in the next section, where Hose rejects the expected repetition of the proverbial ‘sunny bloody Sunday’ for ‘sunny bloody Sydney.’ In doing so, he invokes the Sydney or the bush paradigm of Australian literature. Early in the poem, the phrase ‘If blood stains the hydrangeas’ (63) is introduced, a distortion of Henry Lawson’s famous line, ‘If blood stains the wattle’ from ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’. Significantly, the line has already been lifted and used in John Forbes’ 1981 poetic take of the Kelly myth, ‘Ode: inspired by The Last Outlaw a TV mini-series brought to you by the Australian Mining Industry’. In substituting ‘hydrangeas’ for ‘wattle’, Hose repeats but deviates from Lawson and Forbes while echoing Farrell’s ‘hydrangean childhood’ from ‘sprinter’. The supersaturated phrase foregrounds the lack of frontier textual space but also that contemporary experience might best be understood less through now-kitsch native images than through domesticated and media technologies. Lawson’s cautionary message that violence will occur should Australia not become more egalitarian is brought up against not only Kelly’s violence but also the often unregistered violence of ‘Priests and workers like white ants or louse,’ who ‘Chew off bits of Australia’ (63). It is also brought alongside Forbes’ sly critique of Australians watching an Americanised adaptation underwrit by capital from one of the country’s most exploitative industries.

As cultural myth, Hose suggests that Kelly exists in the Australian psyche as an entertainment, on a similar pitch as cricket and football. In declaring, ‘The whistle hasn’t blown yet/ someone is calling you/ ‘bloomin gorgeous from the grandstand’ (67), he foregrounds both a pressing mortality (‘the whistle hasn’t blown yet’) and the immortality endowed by fandom. Hose argues, ‘Edward Trouble, son of a furrier and the greatest of gingers/ you can’t be too cute or too much like/ The Trubadurzy, sparring with the world who watch intensely’ (66). Echoing a line in Forbes’ ‘Lessons for Younger Poets’ from his chapbook Troubador (1993) and alluding to the 1960s Polish big beat band who riffed off the concept of the troubadour and who grounded their songs in Polish and Russian folklore, Hose neatly demonstrates the self-fashioning that gives myth its contemporary charge while simultaneously ironising its specular repetition. That is, he stresses how Kelly’s heart, as with the Trubadurzy, is observed through exterior details and constructed through ‘a rhetoric of reading’ (‘Instruction’ 4). In observing the Trubadurzy observing the troubadour tradition, observing Forbes observing Lawson, or even observing Forbes observing the troubadour tradition, ‘An Allegory of Edward Trouble’ could be viewed through Nealon’s framing as a ‘kind of perpetually collapsing second-order allegory that performs and figures the vicissitudes of materiality’ and its dissatisfaction or wariness of itself as material (Nealon, ‘Camp’ 594)

If the Western poetic tradition is transposed to Australia, thus existing, as Hose suggests, as the ‘outworks of a towering and corrugated Rome’ (64), then Kelly’s own writings such as the Jerilderie letter might be viewed within the troubadour tradition as a kind of razo in detailing the circumstances of its own composition. Kelly, as a predecessor for Hose, is wary of a history ‘alive with humbug’ (61) and produced a ‘roll your own’ life writing as a political corrective (64). For Hose, the contemporary poet always writes in a state of belatedness, with ‘Constables Webb and Harpur, Nichol and Farrell’ ‘coming like a sequel’ (66). For Hose himself, there is a sense of belatedness but it is in the vein of what Christopher Nealon calls a ‘slightly camp attitude’ to ‘end-times when the idea of end-times seems itself outmoded’ (Matter, 33). Thus, when given the question, ‘Is it too late to join the military?/ Is it too late to become Cherry?’ the answer is an unhesitating ‘Yes’ (65).

Alex McDermott contends that Kelly’s writing demonstrated a dynamic or radical orality, and this is found too in Hose’s ‘Allegory’ (269). McDermott notes that spoken word is often formed according to mnemonic patterns, ‘patterns which shape thought and its telling so as to keep it amenable to oral recurrences’ (266) In an oral tradition (the primary vehicle for myth and folklore), ‘thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in standard thematic settings’ (Ong, 34). As McDermott discerns, Kelly often takes these elements and puts them in non-standard settings. He also tends to use syntactic and associational logic. As with Kelly’s writing, there is an alliterative repetition and logic to Hose’s ‘Allegory,’ as words like ‘crawl’ and ‘crow’ are repeated, then echoed assonantly in words like ‘maws’(65), ‘outlawed’ (62), ‘barrow’ (64), ‘Blow’ (66), and ‘scowled’ (65). Furthermore, Hose coins imaginative sonorous phrases such as ‘A bit of mange and a bit of marl’ (68), ‘plumshit and titbit’ (64), and ‘Skull and nack-’ (64). At one stage, Hose reverts into ‘something something something about’, self-consciously emphasising poetic rhythm over meaning (67).

Hose draws parallels between the estranging but memorable sounds of his telling of the Kelly myth and the visual:

                                          the heart of it which we saw
                                                     had a strange burr
the way the sun is buerred occasionally
w/its      figety leaps of flame (66)

Natural beauty is presented as a kind of screen: ‘the most subtle sunset you will ever see/ is on again’ (62). The foregrounding of simulacral representation recalls Forbes’ ode. Indeed, Hose plays on the poem and poet as serial, ‘An Allegory’ being ‘a sixty-eight part full bladdered dreamwakes’ (65) while the poet features as ‘Lost episode of handsome begging’ (65). His use of capital letters in ‘Delicately Taking the Duck you Deserve/ from the buffet’ (63) makes the line into a kind of advertisement. The Kelly myth and Hose’s own poem are objects of consumption and equivalent to sexual consumption. Indeed, they are ‘all birds of a feather’. Yet against the refined delicacy of ‘Taking the Duck you Deserve/ from the buffet’, Hose portrays either a paucity for the social underclass or an excessiveness that results in the discomfort of the ‘full bladdered’.

‘An Allegory’ is presented as post-Romantic as ‘The suggested mountains always/ Giv[e] way to the suggestion of mountains’ (62). While the Romantics ‘built a platform right out to the point/of ecstasy’ (62), imagination is taken down a peg or two by Hose. Indeed, the Mind’s eye becomes ‘Like yr Mind, yr dungstone eyes’ (64). It engenders not a precious but an excremental poetics. Throughout the poem there is reference to the ‘grubby’ (61), ‘[d]irty thoughts’ (62), and the ‘smutty’ (64) to a material, even abject, understanding of self. That is, the self becomes porous, its boundaries unmanned and unstable, the bladder likely to burst and sex polymorphous.

Language, too, is grounded. Hose continually reinforces the technologies of self as constructed through the labour of writing, the ‘ball point of enlightened concern’ (64). If writing is labour, then Hose, like Kelly, distorts the proprieties of language and grammar. He uses neologisms that phonetically slip off the linguistic perch, like ‘yull’ (65) and ‘malbourne’ (68). He also conjoins words to emphasise their meaning: ‘makelove’ and slides between alternative forms of spelling such as ‘your’ (62), ‘yr’ (64) ,‘yre’ (62) and ‘you’wre’ (64). Random punctuation, colloquialism and slights of phrase are frequent. Indeed, Hose’s use of the proverbial makes the poem’s ending both funny and poignant: ‘the afternoon is take take take/ Better to be hung of a morning’ (68). What ‘An Allegory’ does is to duck instrumentality and to flout a kind of poetic tongue-pulling. At once calling for judgement, it associates bad taste or bad decision-making with a kind of dumbness that is heartily embraced. The poem therefore puts Kelly in the tradition of the ‘hoon’, transforming the Romantic landscape that is suggested in the name Mount Panorama into a circuit for speed and bravado performance of masculine self. ‘An Allegory’ also refers to ‘cretin’ (64), ‘idiot’ (61) and the ‘single brow’ (62) of the unevolved. It puts forward the unexpert, the ‘amateur reperetory [sic]’ (64).

Besides constant references to the stupid, Hose also refers to the creaturely in ‘Frog dairy’ (64), ‘Mackeral Saturday’ (63), and ‘Ned Strife as a young school rabbit’ (65) among others. The animal, like the stupid, is sub-human, but has a capacity to animate proper places or times (‘dairy’, ‘Saturday’ and ‘school’) and cause conceptual trouble. Yet even as one rages against or resists ideological enclosure, this is not available to all: ‘Drag-free from the scintillant hooks of the desp-/ irate requirements of Middle Age/ unless you’w re indigenous, taut or pissed/ or Edward Ceallach’ (64). ‘An Allegory of Edward Trouble’ presents, as Hose himself points out, an Australian kind of intelligence that is culturally bound, but also post-cynical, self-deprecating, and a proud wearer of its own flaws: ‘’I too was a bird lover tho’ mostly/ I shot them’ (65). By judging the self, ‘o bright cretin’, Hose foregrounds the field of judgement as cultural and the presumptions that we bring to it. But in so doing, opens up a space for questioning, or at the very least, complication.

Watson, Farrell and Hose themselves could be said to present a bleak, sometimes hilarious sequel to (what will itself become an episode of) Australian poetry, writing out of the psychical damage of colonialism and capitalism. As Christopher Nealon suggests, the poems of post-millennium writers seem to be written ‘out of some set of conditions we are still struggling to name’ (‘Camp,’ 583–84). Examples of the contemporary, they embody a lyric obscurity that delights in a combination of impotence and defiance, as well as a solipsistic inscrutability. Rather than despair over the increasing commodification of the subject, there is an embracing of becoming other. In Networked Language, Philip Mead notes that ‘poetic language is always heteronomous and impure’ (6). In being non-contiguous with but in rhetorical relation to the world, the contemporary poem might be thought of being less an example of colony collapse disorder than what Herman Melville termed a ‘hive of subtlety’ (qtd in Castiglia and Castronovo, 432). Seemingly fixed one moment, the next unsettled, it provides infidel dissidence as well as insight into the cultural forces that create, frame and sanitise subjects under the sign of nation.

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