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

1 March 2017

It might seem quite a leap from a semi-naked woman running screaming through a tunnel and what is perhaps the major philosophical dilemma of our time, but Harry is, after all, the author of Not finding Wittgenstein, and there was, at this poem’s outset, that question, who are you if you’re not? , which we might now slightly extend to who are you if you’re not who you thought you were?

We might look at that term ‘feminised’, in its inverted commas: the substitution of CSR for Syd Vicious as if both were, potentially, murderous (how could a huge sugar-refining company, that has branched out into building products, aluminium manufacture, be murderous? ah … 1), and perhaps more significantly the implicit deriding of the ‘philosophical’ question by the addition of ‘my great aunt Fanny’, as if – how long is this bow? – the ‘philosophical’ question were itself a blind, a kind of tunnel vision distracting us from the political and social urgencies of the time, and to ‘feminise’ were (amongst other things2) to reconnect us with them.

Consider the wine bar. Is Harry’s ‘creaminess’ a version of Tranter’s alcohol, each blurring the vision, preventing clear seeing? Yet even in the wine bar the women are somewhere else, out of the persona’s reach or knowing. He has come back, in his car, from the terror of a chartless openness only to find that the unknown is still before him, as if, although he presumably got out of his car after his trip, his metaphoric car is still encasing him.

Is Harry dismissing the new philosophy? Hardly – for many it must have seemed, does seem, not so much philosophy as fact, as the existence of the subconscious is fact, as evolution is fact – but she is putting it into perspective, offering a third way, shifting the question from the philosophy itself to how, in its light and despite, we might / must choose to live.

We have returned to the poem, it seems, indeed are standing at the edge of its last lines.

The woman we last saw in the tunnel has not only made it to Rose Bay but has run – has she run? Has someone give her a lift? – on, through Watsons Bay, to South Head, and fallen / leapt / been pushed from the Gap (or is it into it?): the physical place of suicides, yes, but also that (metaphoric) gap, between language and reality, between our image of ourselves and the reality of our behaviour, between theory / philosophy and the world we must negotiate – the creaminess we must vigilantly resist – daily. Her form – but is it hers? We cannot even be sure of that (she is already expanding); better to say, as the poem does, a female form –

            its flesh & rags
in fragments
            sea-sucked
purple
            is fished
out of the 
            gap-
wash by the calm
voice-of-the-evening-news
a fortnight later

‘(S)ea-sucked’: the word is carefully chosen, to rhyme with ‘fucked’ and so to remind us of the (possible/likely) rape – to summon, through the vastness of the sea, the thought that this rape / violation has been almost a condition of her being – but also (since the word is ‘sucked’, not ‘fucked’) to offer us, at the edge of the sea, a delta of meanings, on one branch of which the sucking could be sexual / erotic, emblematic of the violence that has brought her here, on another branch parasitic, on a third in some haunting manner nurturing, mother-like: we remember her breasts, their creaminess; the sea now sucking upon her (her whole body become breast, an opening reflected in the way the colour of her dress has now become the colour of her body) as if it were somehow child. But to choose now would be to reduce. One can see – it might almost be the point of the poem – that it could be all three.

A rhetorical way of ending, that must seem, and I don’t wish it to be. Ultimately, I think, Harry offers us the vision of a semi-naked woman running from what is most likely a rape as a kind of fault-line, an aporia of sorts. She complicates the rape question, will not confirm that this is what has happened, in order to expand it, amplify its metaphoricity. The screaming woman is a price and product of our disconnection. Our violence against ourselves is concentrated in her.

The dismembered Orpheus, she might invertedly recall, torn apart by the drunken followers of Dionysus, the parts of his (/ her) body floating in the wave-wash, by the Thracian shore …

  1. By the time of the poem’s composition what has come to be called the Wittenoom Controversy over the effects of the mining of blue asbestos was well under way. CSR had taken over the mine in 1943 through its subsidiary company ABA (Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd). Sugar + asbestos: we have our choice of creams.
  2. The repressed, by virtue of that repression, capable of a double vision far less likely in and far harder to attain by those who have not been repressed. For a woman in the 1980s, let’s say, the history of contemporary philosophy might the (male) history of contemporary (male) philosophy, whereas for a male it is more likely to be simply the history of contemporary philosophy.
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