John Forbes’s ‘Miraculous Fluidity’

By | 11 April 2016

Now, let us look at one notable foray of Forbes’s oeuvre into cultural memory: ‘Anzac Day’. Before I do, it is worth mentioning the poems I could have considered. ‘Antipodean Heads’ is a work of such uncustomary resignation that in losing Forbes’s comic touch seems less intelligent than ‘Blonde & Aussie’, a very cryptic turning away from the titular cliché and potentially a very political poem; Forbes’s most memorable ‘joke’ about Australia and its government is what is quoted as an epigraph to Gig Ryan’s Pure and Applied (1998) – poem ‘The Joyful Mysteries’ – but the four rhyming but asymmetrically metred lines it initiates is more post-mortem imaginary than recollection:

Is prevention better than cure? Is Canberra?
Who escapes the allure of tiny, nasty fights?
‘I’ll pin his jaw back’, stake out the blue as
Yet uncluttered air & put my name in light.

Of course, finally, there is ‘On the Beach: A Bicentennial Poem’, a work of cultural deconstruction ironically commissioned by the assumed beneficiary of cultural capital to come from Forbes’s poem, the Australian Bicentennial Authority (see Ryan 2010: 12). This poem is more eligible than any other for this approach, but deserving of its own article.

‘Anzac Day’, of all poems to consider, trades the most in mechanical cultural signs. Firstly, the national typologies are unquestionable appropriations from specifically international wartime ideology, Scots have ‘their music’, the Irish ‘look like a saint on a holy card’, Germans ‘worshipped the State & Death’ (201). The cultural flatness of the work asks not for a literacy in transnational signs of cultural encounter and exchange, but literacy in historical signs of times in which national subjects were reducible to uniforms and the cultural attitudes they were seen to contain. This is military cultural history. Step one of exposing a mechanism for comic ends: to then stage the appearance of the Australian ‘unamused, unimpressed / they went over the top like men clocking on // in this first full-scale industrial war’ (201), Forbes has lined in couplets the almost uniform entrance of each major national subject involved in World War I, from an Australian vantage point. Here the comic becomes visible: rather than contrasting the humanised Australian subject posed in difference to these other national types, the Australian is the most mechanical as industrial agents, the Anzac characterised by the suggested obverses of negative traits – ‘unamused, unimpressed’. Tantalising us towards sentimentality, the speaker reflects on whether this character type is admirable, given the extravagance of the others, likening Anzac Day to an ‘8 Hour Day picnic’, only to pull the rug out from under our feet with one of his best jokes: ‘if we still had works, or unions, that is’ (202). The joke operates on the profound cultural contradiction of a prevailing cultural monomyth’s endurance as a type whose politics have been evacuated from contemporary Australian life. The correlations between hard work and labour rights, mateship and unions, wartime industry and manufacturing: all bankrupt by the 1990s.

Following Alenka Zupančič’s schema of the comic, if the mechanical is exposed to be within, more so than encrusted on, the vital, how is this functioning along such terms of ‘miraculous fluidity’? The radical rethinking of the cultural sphere by the comic plays out, as I mentioned before, in the discovery of a mechanism of repetition, which either employs the abstract mechanical to discover something material and vital in secret, or conversely, what should be unpredictable living within the terms of contingent life is discovered to be entirely predictable. Without speaking specifically of the comic, the commonly iterated approach to understanding this dynamic is to read in a work the conflation of high with low, high values with vulgar materialities, say, or what Anderson remarks of Forbes as ‘marr[ying] the Vulgar and the Elevated … constantly making the ordinary extraordinary’ (Anderson 2010: 20). But I am specifically interested in the correlation of subject and nation here, the way the comic betrays a certain scale of relation and discovers instead a fluidity across incommensurate terms. Here, it is in the way that the poem’s volta, really, the final two lines, turn back on this otherwise apparently obvious rumination on Australia’s white cultural monomyth, arguably deployed as even more tendentiously untouchable than the settler as a character of cultural ownership. In short, Forbes plays out the bankruptcy of the universality of this figure through a comic over-identification with the character type as a tragic subject of the ‘first full-scale industrial war’. The figure’s failure to be a modern tragic figure is the comic scene, and Forbes spells out the terms upon which its mechanicity would be recoverable as vital: ‘if we still had works, or unions, that is’.

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