Destroy Kansas to Reveal Oz: from John Ashbery to Francis Webb

By | 1 December 2013

As an extension of this, Ashbery establishes a dichotomy, familiar to Modernist depictions of the time-theme, between a contemporary world of discontinuity and fragmentation, and a more vital underlying life-force. The characters Aglavaine and Sélysette have wandered into the poem from a play by Maeterlinck, and Aglavaine in particular directly questions the world to which she has been transported: ‘It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing / Stands alone. What happened to creative evolution?’ A good question, obviously, since the Bergsonian certainties that underpinned the Modernist project as a kind of nostalgia have apparently been discarded here: a similarly parodic approach can be found in Three Poems, in which Ashbery seems repeatedly to refer to the distinction between durée and habitual existence explored in Woolf’s The Waves (see, for example, ‘The System’, in Selected Poems pp.131-132) As Aglivaine complains, ‘In my day / One lay under the tough green leaves, / Pretending not to notice how they bled into / The sky’s aqua, the wafted-away no-colour of regions supposed / Not to concern us’ – and she notes how they have become ‘a disappointing sequel to ourselves’. The central subject abandoned to this temporal flux is Daffy himself, the creature addressing his creator, who commences his soliloquy in cartoon language, but is later figured overtly as Milton’s Satan questioning his God: ‘While I / Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek / Deliverance for us all’.

Yet the poem itself is open in its acknowledgement ‘that this is a fabulation’, an entertainment fabricated with the intention ‘to end up less boring than the others’. The concluding passage identifies and foregrounds slippages between signification and reference, posing the question: ‘why not / accept it as it pleases to reveal itself?’ The castles of Romance are suddenly transformed into a familiar New York cityscape through the conceit of epic simile: ‘As when / Low skyscrapers from lower-hanging clouds reveal / A turret there, an art-deco escarpment there, and last perhaps / The pattern that may carry the sense, but / Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination’. As the now unidentifiable speaker concludes: ‘No one really knows / Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts / Were vouchsafed – once – but to be ambling on’s / The tradition more than the safekeeping of it. This mulch for / Play keeps them interested and busy while the big, / Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants…’ The aesthetic experience of Ashbery’s representation of existence in time becomes a microcosm of life itself, one which is more real than our everyday, habitualised reception of the world – and it really is ‘our world’ that he has been describing after all.


It is no digression to turn at this point to another ostensibly cartographic representation, Francis Webb’s ‘Ball’s Head Again’, self-published in his 1953 volume Birthday. Webb is an exact contemporary of Ashbery, and his reception of Modernist poetics was similarly keen, especially following a trip to Canada in the 1940s – to the chagrin of his early mentors, Douglas Stewart and Norman Lindsay. Like Ashbery, Webb has often been castigated for his opacity: A.D. Hope accused him of ‘an involuntary retreat into the language of private experience’; Judith Wright suggested that he ‘seemed to trust too much to words’; Vincent Buckley described him as ‘metaphor-addicted’; Andrew Taylor complains of his ‘private rhetoric’; and even his best critics, such as H.P. Heseltine, charge him with following ‘ends almost entirely solipsistic’.1

There are also important thematic similarities: as Michael Griffith notes, Webb’s work from this period is constructed as an argument ‘for the supremacy of poetry or art over history as an instrument of truth’ (Griffith 1991: 132); Bill Ashcroft agrees that the poem ‘is a particularly significant treatment of the theme of art in the poetry … it symbolises the creative turning point which the Birthday volume appears to signify in the poetry by its richly varied explorations of the artistic process’ (Ashcroft 1996: 18-20). While Webb does not draw directly from the avant-garde sources described in the first half of this essay, the foregrounding of signification in his work provides a radical local model for the transformative imaginative task described by Williams and O’Hara.

Ball’s Head is a harbourside reserve near Webb’s childhood home in North Sydney. It is also the site of an Aboriginal rock-carving, which distinguishes the area of the headland as one of the most sacred around Sydney Harbour for the Koori tribes. In ‘Ball’s Head Again’, Webb’s personal mythology of place intersects with the mythology of an indigenous culture; the poem explores the connections between the two, offering the power of personal memory as a means of approaching the sacred sense of nature revealed through race-memory. The need for white Australians to discover a sense of place in their adopted landscape, akin to that of the Aborigines, was not a new theme for poets of this period: Webb himself appeared in one of the Jindyworobak anthologies in the early 1950s. The poem also directly confronts the political reality of the suffering of the modern Aborigine in a colonised world. Over the course of ‘Ball’s Head Again’ Webb conflates his own identity both with the landscape described (the ‘sick Head’ is also his own), and with the figure of the Aborigine in the first section (described as a patient undergoing ‘surgery’). The poem formulates itself as a companion to the rock-carving, seeking to match its ‘vision’ of a living nature, ‘an imminence, called Alive’. Whereas Slessor adopts the perspective of a removed observer, watching over the Harbour from his Darlinghurst window, Webb appears to be inside his landscape in a manner so radical that the relationship between observing subject and object is blurred. Not only is the speaker’s selfhood ‘involved’ in that which it describes – to the point where its own limits seem unclear; as in writings of Artaud the world he inhabits is presented in such active terms, via abstractions and sensory endowment, that it at times appears to gain a subjectivity of its own:

Saturday, your white-haired coincidence –
Haggard recitative out of one spidery throat,
Swooping drily always on the curt and casual air
Across a restaurant table – left me no choice;
For here
Under the mildewed canvas of the pensioner’s voice
The sick Head listed in a sleep without season,
Or half-mast climate
Muddily satellited
By the wistful anecdotal walking-stick.
Hm-m, grown a little feeble over thinking:
Morning’s whispered dinghy, noon’s rhetorical yacht
Were spent homilies mumbled by a swept ocean.
Lonely, cadging old mate,
Three-quarters drunk, souse with blackmarket hate
For our week, our month, our forgetfulness,
But talking and talking, O your surgery was the summit
Of a dying. Have the agile young sunlift faculty,
The Head, carried on the back of its enemy?
Have islands, points, and bays
Turn cold shoulders, yawning a surf-denial, to their mission –
Tides and charities of waterglow? No, I must see.

It becomes clear only gradually that the ‘you’ of this first stanza is a modern Aborigine begging for alms. In fact this is never made fully explicit: the ‘pensioner’s voice’ could easily belong to the Head itself, or even be read as an aspect of the poet’s own mind. It is a measure of the complexity of Webb’s writing that the stanza should properly be read on all three levels at once. The desiccation of the opening three lines (‘haggard’, ‘spidery throat’, ‘drily’) is as much an abstract evocation of a spiritual condition (that of the poet and the colonised Head) as a description of old age. The poetry is in fact strongest at these points of coincidence, working in the form of ambiguities and puns. The ‘mildewed canvas’ suggests both an unsatisfactory shelter (in which, it might be implied, Aborigines now live), and the sail of an invading ship after a long voyage – a meaning reinforced by the verb ‘listed’, and confirmed by ‘mast’. ‘Sleep without season’, with its implications of a denatured world, refers directly to the ‘Head’, but opens up a complex of meanings in the following line. ‘Half-mast climate’ suggests first of all mourning, connects this with the ‘masts’ of white invasion, and leads the reader onomatopoeically to a pun on ‘half-caste’.

  1. A.D. Hope, ‘Talking to God’, Poetry Australia 56, 1975, pp. 31-35; Judith Wright, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, Melbourne: Oxford University Press 1965, pp. 204-210; Buckley quoted by C. Wallace-Crabbe, Introduction to R. Delmonte, Piercing the Psyche, Venice: 1979; Andrew Taylor, Reading Australian Poetry, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press 1987, pp. 98-111; H.P. Heseltine, ‘A Rich Surplus of Consciousness’, in Heseltine (ed.), Francis Webb – Poet and Patient, University of New South Wales 1983, pp. 70-82.
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