Bad Naturalisations

By | 1 December 2022

This essay makes a kind of critical wager: that remaining in a state of ‘negative capability’ regarding real-world referentiality may reinvigorate our awareness of poems as chameleonic linguistic artefacts. It is a wager upon which Veronia Forrest-Thomson staked her critical project. I settled on the three poems above, because they seemed best suited to both illustrating and amplifying a theory of reading poetry that, while initially depriving the reader of so much, ultimately rewards them by ‘reinitiating them into the rites of mediation’ (that is, Artifice). They also happen to be poems I very much admire. Rajan’s ‘Untitled Wild Geese Game’ showed the power of generic convention to absorb and synthesise disparate allusions and registers of cultural experience. Despite the thematic reticence and self-enclosure of a poem like Dulawan’s ‘FAQ’, the circuit of communication (or I-you relation) remains a potent poetic device. In Eric Jiang’s ‘Diasporic content’, paralinguistic conventions are marshalled in order to both highlight and critique its formal organisation. Had I but world enough and time, I would also have liked to examine, among others, the Mayakovskian brio of Janet Jiahui Wu’s mode of address in ‘Ciao, Bella!’, the hortatory rhetoric in Wen-Juenn Lee’s ‘let it be known’, the polyglot musicality of Lou Garcia-Dolnik’s ‘susmariosep! ’, and the typographic mediations in works by Christy Tan, Ren Jiang, and Joanne Zou. But, alas.

The encounter between Forrest-Thomson’s theory of poetic Artifice and these three poems has been a meeting, one might say, of mutual recalcitrances: the recalcitrance of a theory demanding that one read poetry not in the way we might read anything else; the recalcitrance of poems which give us less than we might have hoped for in terms of concrete biographical or historical texture (that is, more fulsomely delineated ‘diasporic content’). To some, this meeting will no doubt have been a dour affair, one in which the critic’s job is to slap the reader’s hand each time they try to reach into the cookie-jar marked ‘meaning’ (‘BAD! BAD NATURALISATION!’) But in a literary culture that continues to be dominated by the higher and lesser arts of self-disclosure (especially for those earmarked as ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’), these poems’ willingness to indulge in Artifice, even to the point of self-occlusion, can only be salutary. In such a context, where minoritarian writers are beset on one side by blind praise and on the other by opportunistic cavilling, this may be their only recourse if they are to secure for themselves the critical care and attention they deserve.

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