John Forbes’s ‘Miraculous Fluidity’

By | 11 April 2016

A nationally conscious and indeed self-conscious poet, nation for Forbes appears always to be some kind of theatre of the self where self is repeated. It is Forbes’s dogged insistence upon destabilising the comfort of the memorial (I mean this in every way, from the Anzac, to remembering where you were last night) that signals a dramatic rethinking of the role of the comic subject within a national frame. Consider how Forbes self-writes, or auto-portraits. ‘The History of Nostalgia’, a poem published in Southerly in 1991, shows the framework for erecting an auto-portrait, the frame often a kind of inheritance, which in this case is the poet’s parents, who embody the speaker’s ‘thought’ and ‘eager gestures’:

The wish being father to the thought and mother
to your eager gestures–or at least the ones
a dulled sensibility remembers belong to–you
stare off into the distance as hard as you can
[. . .]
[. . .]                    –you’re here, that’s all,
another miserable subject, composed of a few jokes
& catchphrases worn smooth with repetition
but at the same time almost statuesque, like a bust
of yourself in marble or bronze & mounted on
that plinth you used to lounge against, back
when you were still smoking Marlboros & worried
you’d come to resemble your father, not yourself.
(Forbes 2010: 160)

The plaintive conclusion suggests that the speaker should have been afraid of resembling himself, and that this contemporary feeling contrasts with a self-producing tendency of the son to self-fashion – the wish – by virtue of rejecting a fatherly resemblance. But the poem already admitted that these oppositions – indeed, predictable mechanisms of parental inheritance found at the heart of a supposed poetic vitality – are what has produced the recognisable thoughts and gestures of the speaker. In short, this auto-portrait, flagged as a history of nostalgia, toying with near tautology, fashions the undeniable parallels of cultural memory with subjective, familial memory, and the role that the autonomy of gestures has in constructing a sphere of self-consciousness.

Ken Bolton also associated self-portraits with John Forbes, or John Forbes with Philip Guston, or John Forbes with himself as Philip Guston painting himself disfigurally, in poem ‘Coffee and John Forbes poem’ (Forbes 2006: 78). This poem is one among many of Bolton’s which admire not only Forbes’s poetry but the poetry’s refashioning of the conditions of self-observation and auto-portraiture themselves. This poem is preceded by a photocopy of Guston’s ‘Smoking, 1’, a self-portrait as an eyeball:

Funny, the Guston selfportrait
I always associated with myself
I associate with you — ‘he
became his admirers’
not much of a fate
for you in my case.

Bolton’s mechanism of the mode of self-memorialisation is Forbes himself, rather than gestures inherited from Mum and Dad as in Forbes’s ‘The History of Nostalgia’, but deployed in a synthesis with a Boltonian trope, that of the exhibition. The spirit of self-portraiture that Bolton apparently gains or at least takes to heart as a Forbesian mode is explicated by Deleuze’s conclusion regarding representation as subject to the synthesis of time, following on from the view that some kind of intensity from the past inscribes itself into the present. Namely, Deleuze claims that ‘the former present [the past] cannot be represented in the present one without the present one itself being represented in that representation. It is of the essence of representation not only to represent something but to represent its own representativity’ (Deleuze 2009: 102). In Forbesian terms, we cannot remember our past selves without situating them in a theatre of self in the present, which is itself a sensibility dovetailed with the props, phantoms, daemons, alter-egos, characters, and comedies that populate it.

So we associate quite naturally our ways of remembering the past with the means of remembering that have influenced us and made us what we are self-consciously. The quality of self-consciousness is, moreover, the ethical question at the heart of cultural critique and sense of liability for inheritance. Forbes’s ‘miserable subject, composed of a few jokes / & catchphrases worn smooth with repetition / but at the same time almost statuesque, like a bust / of yourself in marble or bronze & mounted on / that plinth you used to lounge against’ is the inheritance of selfhood’s gestures – ‘jokes’ and ‘catchphrases’ – which are notably ‘worn smooth with repetition’, otherwise known as time, inevitably recalled as still-life, in this case statuary, which the past self in tune with the present self who recalls lounges miserably, a mirror image of the miserable but funny mode of auto-portraiture taking place as a poem. A theatre of vignettes to compare with Bolton’s Guston exhibition, this particular interaction staged by Bolton reminds us of the profundity and comic ground of imitation: the Forbesian mode of auto-portraiture shows the misery of self-inheritance at the heart of the subject’s self-consciousness to be a foundational environment of the subject and the ways we remember. Being the mechanism of self-recognition, no less miserable, the ‘jokes / & catchphrases’, in their permanent imitability only ‘worn smooth with repetition’ are the subject, in time. Forbes appears to tell us that the bronze statue of ourselves is more us than us precisely because it is the mechanism of the memory of us.

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