Je ne vois pas un de mes petits livres qui ne soit sorti d’une inquiétude de langage.
— Jean Paulhan
The first thing to note is that the body of a typical Mark Young poem often bears no relationship to the title. Do not be alarmed: this is a postmodernist conceit, and Young is thoroughly postmodernist, although he would eschew such a label. One of Young’s brilliant running titles is ‘A line from …’ (he refers to this himself in his paper ‘Stochastic Acts: the search string as poetry’).1 In Hotus Potus, for example, we have ‘a line from’ every president of the United States of America, from the first, George Washington, to the latest, at the time of his book coming out in 2015, Barack Obama.2 Perhaps there is an actual line from the president in question embedded in the text; but for the most part, the poem seems quite unrelated, or is obliquely related (cf., for instance, ‘a line from Richard M. Nixon’, which deals with power (consumer needs) and corruption (political), and ends on ‘faux ice cream / up one’s asshole, & the / occasional long walk / in the winter woods’ (p. 43). I suppose the beginning of the final stanza is a reflection of Nixon’s profanity, and a long walk often comes after intensive reading.)
As for the books under discussion, the eclectic world (hereafter referred to as EW) has fifteen such poems, including the first poem, ‘A line from Kim Kardashian’; Bandicoot habitat (hereafter referred to as BH), two; and lithic typology (hereafter referred to as LT), none, which means Young has exhausted his stock (I doubt it), has grown weary of such stock titles or is writing more to come (more likely the case).3
Typically, there is nothing biographical in ‘A line from Kim Kardashian’ (EW, 5), beginning, ‘Matter changes its state / when energy is supplied to / it. Solids become liquids, & / liquids become those classic // black dance shoes’. Perhaps ‘dance shoes’ is an oblique reference to the person famous for being famous. In this poem, Young, as he does in most poems, channel-surfs to bring us disparate images, from science programs to exercise régimes and health tips, from advertorials to mass production. We live in an age where icons of the counterculture are used to consumerist ends, such as the playing of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ as Muzak in supermarkets (although Bowie’s ‘Fashion’ has long been used in an ironic, quasi-ironic or even unironic sense in consumer affairs’ programs profiling the fashion industry in some way), or Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ as the soundtrack to an advertisement selling cars. I suppose you could always buy a ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ tee-shirt, from the late 1970s anyway, but nowadays there is ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ insurance, the bastion of the corporate world. Young ends his poem ‘on’ Kim Kardashian with ‘references to plasma television’.
The short poem ‘candy & nuts’ (LT, 60) demonstrates perfectly how Young mixes everything up. In this mixture, we have medicine, construction, animal welfare, law and industry:
Bulk dried fruit bins filled with all kinds of organs & tissue may only be redeemed for high pressure welders after you are approved as an industrial chemical donor & registered in accordance with the Domestic Animals Act of 1994.
Sometimes, titles reference other works (cf., Duncan Hose’s ‘cocky’s joy’ on p. 57 with Michael Farrell’s book of that title; ‘joy’ being a synonym of ‘gay’ – joy FM, a gay radio station in Melbourne, etc.).4 Or titles may disguise such references or disguise their meaning in some way. (For me, for example, Duchamp’s Tu m’ is nothing more than ‘tomb’ disguised.)
Paul Valéry said that a work of art is never finished; it is abandoned.5 (Gertrude Stein famously quoted Alfred Maurer as saying that he knew a work of art was finished when the artist put a frame around it.6) This exaggeration is a modernist conceit, although there is a kernel of truth to it (‘metaphysical conceits’ (LT, 61)). One only has to look at schizophrenic art to see that such artists have often gone too far, that they should have put the brush or pen down beforehand. Having said that, Young endeavors to put reality back into irreality in these three books (‘This is a piece of reality so dense that it goes beyond art’ (EW, 36)). Haruki Murakami, in his book on the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground railway system in 1995, says that ‘(t)he sad fact is that language and logic cut off from reality have a far greater power than the language and logic of reality.’7 He goes on to say that ‘(r)eality is created out of confusion and contradiction’, which is Young’s modus operandi – and anyone who watches television or surfs the Internet, or who reads indiscriminately. Young says in the opening of ‘Stochastic Acts’ that ‘(r)reality, my reality, is a set of alternate realities. As are your realities.’ We can see this kind of paratactic reality, what Young calls ‘varietal or news-channel parataxis’, in other contemporary poets’ work, such as John Kinsella’s latest poetry collection, Graphology Poems.8
Those looking for realism will be disappointed, though. Anaïs Nin succinctly differentiated between realism and reality as a ‘process of interpretation of the symbolic meaning of people’s acts, not a mere reporting of them.’9 As she said elsewhere, ‘(r)ealism focuses on the observation of physical details, but mostly of the ugly detail.’10 Realism eschews the unconscious and symbolic; the realist concentrates on the outer world’s ugliness all around us (realpolitik), as if morals or ethics do not exist, even if their beauty should only exist inside of us. Nin said that portraying beauty or ugliness was simply a matter of choice for artists (she chose the former), though any artist caught up in a particular movement usually adheres through peer pressure to that movement’s bias. I see no discrimination in Young – he finds beauty in the ugliness of everyday living in our society obsessed with devices and the Internet. (If you don’t know the answer, just Google it, which I refuse to do here.)
However, choice is a form of tyranny or, at least, is largely a myth, especially when it moves away from the simple act of picking one thing over another. When choice is applied to the big questions, then it gets muddled (‘it’s / difficult to choose the / pivot point from which / the day’s trendline will / emerge’ (BH, 7)). In this past century, humankind increasingly chose the machine to do the work of humans, and this trend is continuing apace. That said, I am partial to the notion of fate, if not destiny. I speak of a ‘directed fate’: you are on a path, but it is up to you which way you go. Destiny, on the other hand, is rather like a railway line: the path is fixed and the only way you can get off it is derailment (death). On the other hand, I can’t accept Louise Hay–like sentiments that we ‘choose’ to get AIDS or cancer because of unresolved guilt, and as an illustration to others how precious life is, and that we can choose to be cured (‘puts a human face; on AIDS. // (We wouldn’t want it to get / disproportionate, of course, / but we do need to measure /the outcomes that matter)’ (EW, 13; emphasis in original)). Solecisms and judgementalism creep into the question of choice, such as the choice quote from an ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ long ago, where an audience member, addressing Tom Cruise after a screening of Interview with the Vampire, said (I’m paraphrasing from memory): ‘It’s your choice to choose your rôles.’
Although Young is often inspired by television or especially the Internet, he does not use buzzwords, which abound in the media. In literature, such words as ‘spectacle’, ‘erasure’, ‘deconstruction’, ‘rupture’, ‘signifier’, ‘rhizome’, ‘recursion’, ‘haecceity’, ‘tectonic’, ‘epistemological’, ‘heuristic’, ‘limitrophe’, ‘ekphrastic’, ‘reify’, etc., are all buzzwords – you can usually tell from the word used whom writers have been reading (Derrida, Barthes, Deleuze, Lacan).11 He does use ‘trope’ twice in LT (‘Completing the sequence’ and ‘beard owner, dog lover’) and ‘caesura’ once in BH (‘Utamaro in the Everglades’), but these are technical terms Young has used ironically (as he does ‘metaphor’ in ‘Meanwhile, here is the news from white-wing Amerika’ (LT, 33) and ‘leitmotif’ in ‘Meanwhile, in the souq’ (BH, 14)). Also, a trope is etymologically related to the tropics (Tristes Tropiques), which are physically near if not metaphorically near to his heart. Literature, because it is made up of words, which almost everyone uses, is likened by many to photography, where almost everyone is a photographer. For that reason, many artists like Young think of literature or photography as a language that has to be mastered and then played with.
Deconstruction, like existentialism before it, is easily misinterpreted because of the aura of mystery (idolatry) or magic (Baal) that so often surrounds it. Detractors of deconstruction fear that literature is devalued through its operation of deducing (deconstructing) any text, literary or not. Therefore, theoretically, The Vivisector by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, is on an equal footing with an episode of ‘Seinfeld’. To conservatives, such a thought is an abomination and an attack on literature. But this is nothing more than a distortion. Deconstruction, in my book, is one form of analysis or anatomy. It is another method in humanity’s quest to make our world comprehensible. No one would suggest, for instance, that the entomologist dissecting a cockroach is conducting an inferior analysis in relation to the ethnographer who analyses humans. Yet this is what conservatives are effectively saying about the spectrum of analysis in literature. (Conservatives fear that the cockroach is going to inherit the earth.)
3: Objets trouvés
The last poem in EW, ‘Sorry’ (p. 52), is an objet trouvé with an ending changed to reflect Young’s penchant for linking items that bear no relation to each other:
nothing matched your search terms. Please try again with a different fish
Fish – phish (‘ghoti’)?
Why are we bothered to listen to music or read a book or look at a painting? For some, it is to see where the artist is going. For others, it is an escape. For others still, it is feeling what it is like to be transformed.
Music was Claude Lévi-Strauss’ favorite metaphor. A trope is a kind of metaphor (Tristes Tropiques again!), as Young points out:
even though it is only used iron- ically to invoke the trope, upward facing dog, when cast as a noun, is much more vague than the British stiff upper lip. (LT, 56)
David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is alluded to in the title ‘I wish I could swim like dolphins’ (EW, 51), if not the poem itself. The poem is like a diary entry, at first exorcising an Ohrwurm, where a lyric, or partial lyric, turns round and round in his head, then he explains that he is ‘in a cycle of mental paralysis’, where e-mails go unanswered and matters are left unattended, and that he no longer knows who he is or if he is merely an automaton. Music, this ‘ear-worm’, becomes a form of torture for Young, who wants ‘to break free’ (the Queen refrain that keeps going round in his head). In Queen’s first hit, with its potpourri of cultural references, from Islamic to Buddhist, Young discovers that ‘nothing really matters’ in this demented, defective world.12
Music or Poetry:
It has become a kind of breather between the high-tech wonders of the first act & the final 1-litre plastic bottle containing an unknown uplift of the oath-taking, flag-injustice substance. Have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the body armor that police said he wore during the techno music blasting a ballistic helmet & one & obtain measure while they waited for bomb-sniffing humanity that stays unchanging within the Games’ changing contexts – with spectacle (EW, 19)
Generally, although Young likes to point out humanity’s foibles (‘bomb-sniffing’ (EW, 19)), his poetry does not directly address the question of war. (The British, for example, may never have committed atrocities such as those committed by the Japanese in the Second World War, but they have deceived their own people about radiation leaks from nuclear facilities, they rampaged through India, they waged a colonial war in Ireland for centuries, and in their fervour for colonialism, committed many a massacre, in India, Australia, etc. The Americans may think of themselves as righteous, but they gave immunity to Japanese and German scientists who gained secret knowledge by performing barbaric experiments on humans, to advance their own programmes, such as the Apollo space one, and they are the only nation to obliterate two foreign cities with atom bombs. But no nationality is safe from blame.)
Specifically, the Cold War is mentioned in ‘troubadour docent’ (BH, 48) and ‘soldefagent’ (LT, 30), and Young does address wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central America, the Balkans, Mosul and the Persian Gulf. The Berlin Wall is a chilling artefact of the Cold War, and the massacres in Rwanda (mentioned in ‘schemata’ – ‘No names to give. / No sense. No order’ (BH, 11)) are the result of civil war. (Part of the problem is language: we use ‘massacre’ to describe mass random violence by an individual citizen or a group of them, as well as sanctioned or unsanctioned mass random violence by soldiers licensed to kill; the Dili Massacre in East Timor, the Myall Creek murders, Sandy Hook) Biological weapons are archly mentioned in LT (‘toxic waste that can / improve the military’s / ability to detect bio- / logical agents’, p. 63 – our military, presumably, with ‘logical’ embedded – a military term – in an enjambment as a word on its own), where Young’s cynicism and sardonicity come across as damning (‘asthma due to inhaled chemical fumes’, ‘We’re looking at what kind of undemocratic chemicals and compounds go into its supply chains’ and ‘The U.S. Air Force / have bombed it several / times’ (LT, 30, 60 & 67)).
Fellow poet Barry Hill wrote Peacemongers in 2014, part biography (the Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore), part diary, part memoir (his father, who was stationed in Japan as part of the Occupying Force after the Second World War) and part travelogue (India and Japan).13 It is also a damning indictment of war and should be read by everyone interested in peace. It fills in the interstices of Young’s poetry, who nevertheless shares Hill’s antiwar sentiments, but always archly (‘How / balanced is your / Solar Plexus chakra?’ (BH, 10); ‘I didn’t care if / some guy found nirvana’ (EW, 24)), and avoiding New Age kitsch and cliché (as does Hill).
Religion is never very far away from war. Buddha makes a brief appearance in Japanese garb in ‘beard owner, dog lover’ (LT, 74) and ‘Live like you want to live, Baby.’ (BH, 13). One would think Buddhists were peaceful people, and by and large they are, but not so the Buddhists of Burma toward the Rohingya minority in that country. Yet in ‘Chopped Cobb Salad’, Young says that ‘Nothing is safe from the / reach of the Creationists’ (BH, 24).
Materialism is not far away, either:
The Japanese do not believe that shopping cures all. That’s why the gods have given us mystics, Sufis, & Zen masters (BH, 13)
Young’s search for a new reality, in our era of mass media, where facts and history can be twisted to suit, where we now apparently live in a ‘post-truth’ world, although revisionism has been around for centuries, is depressing to anti-consumerists and anti-materialists, counter–Neo-Cons, historians, environmentalists, pluralists and anti-capitalists, unless Young’s cynicism is enough to make you smile. In the end, ‘nothing really matters’ …
From a letter to my brother:
Humans, for all our ingenuity, are still a primitive species everywhere. When threatened, we look for the bogey-man. We stigmatise the perpetrator in order to make sense of the senseless. We stigmatise. (The ultimate stigmatisation for Christians is Jesus’ wounds, called stigmata, which have appeared on saints’ bodies – the marks of infamy transmuted as insignia of honor.) We can’t see that we, simply because we are human, are all capable of mindless, senseless, horrific and cruel acts. I maintain that while we have progressed technologically (it just means we’re good with our hands), we have not progressed one iota ethically from time immemorial. Intellectually, we’re expanding all the time (it’s our brains, after all, which drive our hands), but ethically, we’re hamstrung.
Enlightenment, the seeking of the light (which stigmatises the dark as the opposite of enlightenment and the corollary of evil, and leaves us with words like ‘denigrate’, from the same source as the word ‘Negro’ and concepts such as a ‘blackened’ reputation, etc.), is, I suspect, an illusion, a Möbius strip or an Escher puzzle. When you think you’ve arrived, you find you’re back where you started from. (I prefer the Sanskrit word for enlightenment, buddhi. Buddha, the awakened, the enlightened, is actually the epithet of Sakyamuni Gautama, just as Christ, the anointed, is Jesus’ epithet. Buddhi contains the elements of intelligence, expansion, perception, discernment, conviction, thought, feeling, meditation, wisdom. These elements comprise enlightenment. There is no need for the metaphor of light against dark that one finds in ‘enlightenment’ (i.e., the going into light). Also, the fig-tree under which Gautama attained buddhi and thus became the Buddha is known as the Bo-tree – the ‘bo’ of this word is merely a corruption of buddhi.)
Stigmatisation has been an effective tool of oppressors through the centuries. Our language is full of stigmatising words. Take the term ‘effeminate’ – it means like a woman, womanish; homophobia is inextricably linked with misogyny. The language of stigmatisation is surprisingly similar – just substitute whatever group you want to blacken and you’ll get the same reaction and support from the masses. Jews, blacks and gays, to name three target groups, have all been tarred with the same brush.
This was meant to be a good-news letter, but sitting down to write to you has given me the opportunity to let my mind wander on what preoccupies me.
- ‘Stochastic Acts: the search string as poetry’ was a paper presented at the ‘Poetry & the Contemporary Conference’, Deakin University, Melbourne, in 2011, & later collected in The Codicils (Otoliths, 2013; pp 553–560). ↩
- Young, Mark, Hotus Potus (Meritage Press, 2015). ↩
- During the writing of this essay, Young published Ley Lines (gradient books, (Helsinki), Finland, 2015), a book of poems beginning with ‘A line from’. ↩
- Farrell, Michael, Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo Publishing Company, 2015). ↩
- Valéry, Paul, quoted in Ned Rorem’s Paris and New York Diaries (North Point Press, 1983; p. 306). ↩
- Stein, Gertrude, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Vintage Books, 1990; p. 34). ↩
- 7 Murakami, Haruki, Underground (Vintage Books, 2001, translated by Alfred Birmbaum & Philip Gabriel; p. 363). ↩
- Kinsella, John, Graphology Poems 1995–2015 (3 Vols, Five Islands Press, 2016). ↩
- Nin, Anaïs, ‘Realism and Reality’, in The Mystic of Sex (Capra Press, 1995; p. 28). ↩
- Nin, Anaïs, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976 (Vol. 6, p. 12). ↩
- I have a theory, which is not backed up by any evidence, that ‘erasure’ was nothing more than an elaborate pun for Derrida, based on littérature: his favorite lexicographer was Émile Littré and rature is French for erasure; Littré-rature. ↩
- ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, written by Freddie Mercury, appeared in Queen’s record album A Night at the Opera (1975). The refrain ‘Bismillah’ (‘In the name of God’) would have delighted many a Muslim living in the West in the mid-1970s, for Islam was hardly represented at all in popular culture at that time. It is the first word of the opening sura or exordium of the Qur’an, titled Fatihah, which, if recited in full, automatically confers the Islamic faith upon you. I imagine Islamic fundamentalists of today would take a very dim view of Mercury and Queen, if not believe that Mercury and his band members have committed blasphemy. ↩
- Hill, Barry, Peacemongers (University of Queensland Press, 2014). ↩