J S Harry’s ‘tunnel vision’, Vicious Sydney and The Car Story

By | 1 March 2017

This poem, then, looks at how they excuse themselves, but not only that, looks at the web, the network of maskings, avoidances and self-deceptions that runs so deeply through the culture. Are those – these – the right words? Who knows? Part of the problem is that, when a culture wants to deceive itself so thoroughly, wants to repress something (what is it? a tenderness toward existence? a deep and compassionate altruism? – things, ironically, that at the same time it upholds as its most noble features: is there something of the logic of sacrifice here?), it denies us some of the key words to describe it: it refuses or takes away its name (‘screaming without words’).

Christ – the poem will shortly refer to him (in lower case) – supposedly embodied some of these things, but at the same time was scapegoated, took responsibility for them, so that we could avoid that, becoming thereby a sign of our culpability, our gutlessness, as much as of our salvation (is it part of the poet’s anger and frustration at this that is vented in the ‘feminised’ graffiti at the end of the poem, where the ‘saves’ from the beginning of the poem has become ‘fucks’?)

In the poem-space a notion like ‘creaminess’ doesn’t have to be resolved, but surely one of its strongest suggestions is, accordingly, the discourse itself, the way it smoothes over shock, disruption (‘the calm / voice-of-the-evening-news’), but also1 – or perhaps I should say ‘and of course’, since it is so integral to the cultural discourse – the gaze that, repressing and subjecting the feminine, at once anchors and distorts the culture. (It’s not for nothing that one of the creams in the poem is this woman’s ‘bare round creamy breasts’, the sight of which distorts the viewers’ response, confounds the pity with the urge to – fantasy of – rape. (But what is the implication here? That she – woman – must control this creaminess? the apparition / impact of her sexuality? or be controlled by it?)). Orpheus’s gaze, of course, that sends Eurydice back to the underworld. It is there – this discourse and what it silences, what it represses – in the simple way in which ‘cream’ is embedded in ‘scream’, as the poem seems to be almost begging us to notice:

Screaming without words
her bare round creamy breasts
her face is contorted in 
the scream
the traffic
streams into the city &
her bare feet & bare
breasts & scream
continue outwards

Orpheus’s gaze? Yes, most assuredly. For one of the things that is happening here – a woman running from the underworld of a tunnel into the upper light – is an inversion of the Orpheus myth – or, rather, a struggling, an oscillation, an overturning that is at the same time a confirmation and a bleak ironising, Eurydice not being led upward by Orpheus (‘god’ of poetry, and we should not forget that), but running, herself, from Hell into the upper world, only to find that the upper world, too, is Hell. The questions and possibilities the poem now poses – that the screaming woman finds shelter or that some christ-of-the-tunnel stops and gets out of his car to kiss and wash her feet – seem rhetorical, ironic. Far from tipping the balance away from the alternate scenario that the poem has already presented and which the conclusion seems so strongly to confirm – that in some manner or another she keeps on ‘running’, around the south shore of the Harbour, through Rushcutters Bay (see Bruce Beaver’s ‘Letter XII’, of which this poem cannot be unaware2), Rose Bay, to the Gap, the Place of Suicides – they seem only to cast a bleak vote in its favour. ‘Leaving the tunnel’, the poem now tells us (but do they leave, really?), ‘drivers … blink at the sunlight’. ‘Her image’ may be ‘off their eyes but’, as if to confirm that she has not and cannot leave the underworld, that they are it, ‘she is running / inside them as they enter / the city’.

Not so strange a notion, that. ‘Hell’ as Sartre writes in Huis clos, ‘is other people’, though I find it curious that, although the words ‘huis clos’ more readily translate as ‘behind closed doors’, the English title of Sartre’s play is No exit. Could Harry, perhaps, have Sartre in mind? If she does – and I spin with a very thin thread – then might we have some reason to amplify another of the veins that has run through this poem? While I’ve made a few small detours, the reading I have been outlining has had a dual focus, on the nature / restrictions of cultural discourse and on the repressed feminine. But, strongly ‘feminised’ as this poem is (but note that when Harry uses ‘feminised’ it is in inverted commas), there is, here and there in Harry’s treatment, a curious restraint, something like a pulled punch. We see it in those inverted commas. We see it also, perhaps, when the possibility of rape is first mentioned in the poem:

she is either stoned out of her mind
just raped 
so hopeless in her life

There is an ‘either’ there, but no ‘or’, a device or gambit, like his parentheses that sometimes remain unclosed, that Harry might have got from Charles Olson, a key figure in her poetics. The omission, here, signifies either the lack of true concern in the motorists (whose thoughts are unfinished …), that there is more, other, that the poem cannot know (or that it cannot say), or that, while rape (etc.) may be a logical conclusion where this woman is concerned, Harry is reluctant to leave it at that, as if that, horrid as it is, might occlude some larger brutality. Certainly the openness-perhaps-reservation here would seem to resonate with her reluctance to specify that the motorists she has in mind – those whose inner rapist the image of the screaming woman stirs – are male. Does she really mean to suggest that all motorists are male? Or is this just an oversight, a laziness? But that would be most uncharacteristic of J S Harry, who would sometimes hold up publication of a poem for days over a line-break, the length of a word-space, or the placement of a comma3. Rather assume that she wishes to address the ‘rapist’ in all of us, male and female – or that she wishes to gesture beyond rape, to processes which brutalise us all.

To the cream of discourse and the repression of the feminine, then, it appears we must add the condition/dilemma of the ‘motorist’ – and, as it happens, another backstory. We’ve already noted Harry’s predisposition to treat the myth of Orpheus palimpsestically. Were it not for her consistent concern for and grasp of the wider ontological picture, one might almost think that (a woman poet in what is still essentially a men’s club) one of the gazes she has in mind in this poem is of certain Australian male writers of her time.

  1. And tempting as it might be to invite into the poem, anachronistically, the Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ (‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’) of 1993, since (‘at the Wales’) a capitalist/consumerist thread is part of the fabric of this poem. Consider the substitution, in the ‘evening’ form of the graffiti, of CSR (Colonial Sugar Refinery Ltd) for Syd Vicious – as if CSR, too, were a murderer.
  2. ‘In Rushcutters’ park they congregated over bottles.
    Walking, we avoided them as mined ground,
    fearful of their implosions bloodying the day.
    Later I fell so far into self-sickness
    I envied them. My thoughts
    haunted their submerged wreckage like a squid.
    At their groaning subsidence I retreated
    into a pall of ink.’
  3. Personal experience.
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