MASQUE Editorial

By | 1 September 2013

The theme of this issue was suggested by the Poets and Critics seminar (run by Vincent Broqua and Olivier Brossard) on the work of British poet Redell Olsen last year. Olsen’s book Punk Faun: A Bar Rock Pastel (subpress, 2012) revels in masques and anti-masques, in variants and endlessly shifting suggestiveness that has influences back to the sixteenth century but also resonates with Frank O’Hara’s ‘In Memory of My Feelings’:

to be born and live as variously as possible. The conception
of a masque barely suggests the sordid identifications. 
I am a Hittite in love with a horse. I don’t know what blood’s
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
                                                                                    (Collected Poems 256)

Punk Faun plays with the conceit of a request by Isabella d’Este (a cultural leader of the Italian Renaissance) for a masque ‘of grotesque pastoral and mythic proportions’ for her studiolo after viewing a screening of Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle at The Roxy in Brixton, London, and a few weeks later stumbling on an artist’s talk by Raphael on Ed Ruscha’s painting ‘THEY CALLED HER STYRENE.’ In mixing temporalities, Olsen raises questions around the changed structures of support and consumption of poetry. She also foregrounds ‘ordinary citizens’ as players and presents everyday experience as simultaneous entertainment ‘and meditative consolation.’ The resulting volume foregrounds its curtains and ceilings, as well as the containers of identity and language, and embraces a devious playfulness:

     rejoin their own speech herd		     riffs struggle
up day-glo	snares in human form
     alarmed at			neat fringe of hiding

     as do-it-yourself tough	          just a persona found
protruding from a vulva-shaped crack in a tree
     birthed this familiar yawn   velveteen girls

    pale			        what no single word covers
swept  away tame marked by stones reindeer carved
     beyond map space		          slits   historical (104)

As I suggested in the call-out for this issue, I was interested not only in the performance of personas but also the materiality of their staging. I was also keen to see whether the idea of masque was culturally translatable to or had currency within an Australian, or even a Pacific rim, context. To what extent could the masque be used to play around with and possibly critique conventions and attitudes ceaselessly replicating power dynamics of gender, race, or class? As with pastoral, the masque might be viewed as a problematic inheritance or transposition.

There was a bumper number of submissions for the issue and many fine poems that are not represented here. I selected on the basis of how the poems addressed the theme, looking for lateral and adventurous approaches. Sometimes there were several poems that took similar approaches to particular aspects of the masque (such as the idea of masking or masquerading selves), where I may have selected one or two, even as there were others that were also moving and provocative.

I was particularly interested in those poems that used the theme as a basis for political critique. In the vein of Lesbia Harford’s writing from the early twentieth century, Lizz Murphy’s ‘Through a Child’s Eyes’ refers to the imagination of child workers ‘whose factory eyes/ settle on a shatter of sequins.’ Melinda Smith’s ‘Gora’ is a powerful example of taking up the theme to critique de-racialisation treatments:

Aishwarya your green eyes, your coconut flesh
Michael Jackson your vitiligo

The daughters of India are itching
Because brillo pads are not designed for use on the forearms of children

The luminous faces of Brahmins bloom only in the shade
‘I dream about how to become white, how to look white and beautiful’

The daughters of India are developing cancers of the skin
Because $1.75 buys a tube of Kojic acid, hydroquinone, mercury

The rites of mortification shall deliver you to paradise
You must be this pale to ride

Adam Aitken’s ‘The Sheriff Buys Hawai‘i’ considers the experience of being positioned alternatively as ‘Alien Resident’ or passing for ‘Local’ ‘after a few days in the sun.’ The speaker questions the use of pidgin to further delineate between categories of poetic identity: ‘Why am I not in luv wid dem?’ Rob McLennan’s ‘green: belt: space’ meditates on an ecopoetics that might connect land and word: ‘Park, a landed wild. Acreage. Meaning of, protected fields. I would like to write you, in. Enacted.’ Carol Jenkins’ poem enacts the cultural disappearance and changing landscape of Karelia:

The village shop stocks
[insert blank space here]

and vodka, and soon these bottles
disappear into empty stomachs
and moves on. Two bull-dozers appear.

[Insert blank space
here and here
and here]

Barrie Walsh’s ‘calandiary miscasts Christopher Sidney’s timer’ critique the logic of empiricism as well as the media framing of Australia’s engagement with war, ‘the abstract masque ‘Lest we Forget,’ adding ‘NZ has 11-scenes Australia doesn’t, & seconds of footage not in Argentine.

Louis Armand and John Kinsella’s collaborative serial poem, fittingly titled ‘Monument,’ foregrounds shifts in world power (‘We speak of Europe as an Asian peninsula’) and the emblazoned workings of the oil dollar and global capitalism. The poem also refers to irreparable damage, ‘on-going health complications,’ ‘Chemical analysis revealing new toxicities; Transpires to white’ and the commercialisation of revolution, ‘Sex Pistols free with every Jubilee handbag’. It ironises the ‘drift towards inertia’:

Pantheon is French for dream-on baby. Go fly that that kite
or swing that pendulum. Pamper your neck with a new rope.
Relapse is a tasty morsel of Barbie flotsam, backdated. Eat my
majority. Do you have what it takes? Grab the opportunity

For Armand and Kinsella, the masque is part of ‘museumed bric-a-brac,’ the aesthetic alternatively banked or emptied of value. Likewise, ST McCarthy notes how the rhetoric of scientific rationalism and progress undergirds a sense of false comfort in contemporary culture:

science goes on labelling
and x has a fixed value (ha!)
and apparently our stocks in understanding
and life expectancy are on the rise

and similarly points to a growing inertia with ‘too many believ[ing] in the mask of next time’.

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