Writing Threat and Trauma: Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice and Crisis

By | 15 September 2022

Fitch’s poem draws attention to the acceleration of mediatised trauma and emergency and the temporal operations in trauma and in poetic witnessing. As a less immediate response to events as the other poems I consider, it shows that the temporality of this poetics and its publishing is not just about speed. Rather, the poem expresses the range of temporal complexity traditionally associated with trauma and the variable temporal calculi for writing and reading it: shock, but also the latency and deferral so commonly linked to traumatic experience and commemoration. But it does so in a way that shows how one climate crisis now bleeds into another, highlighting the way that time ‘comes undone’ when we experience trauma, which necessarily involves a ‘collapse of all those psychological principles of organization that we rely on in order to structure experience’ (O’Brien 209). The poem memorialises moments of extremity that draw attention to crises that have become routine; it marks hauntological operations, in Derridean terms (1994), which, as I have previously noted, questions ‘the notion of a static “present”’ (Atkinson 86), to do with existential, imperialist, and climate change-induced calamities.

Time and language ‘give birth to each other’ (O’Brien 209), which results in the capacity for literature to voice and bridge the ‘social and temporal breach’ (Simko 54) of collective trauma. The poem foregrounds the way time distortion, viewed as a hallmark of trauma, warps subjective experience and it speaks to the culminative effect of now frequent climate-extreme events. Thus, Fitch’s poem stands as a cultural trauma memorialisation of time undone by climate trauma as an ongoing state of affairs and the hauntological topography of history rather than a testimony to a specific traumatic event. It is an artefact that memorialises losses borne and to come, but that also gestures towards ‘recognition claims, imagining (or reimagining) the nation’ (73) and beyond.

Most significantly, Fitch’s poem subtly yet unmistakably evokes a connection between colonialism and the settler-colonial nation state and the climate emergency bearing down on the city. The mash-up between the spectres of colonial trauma and climate trauma (and the way the former generates the latter) is prefaced by a poignant opening line that asks the question of our age in a way only a poet could pose it:

Can you convince the wind to change

By contrast, Mark Mordue’s poem, ‘Small Change’, was published on January 10, 2020, the point at which the fires were at their most ferocious. Nigel Krauth’s poem, ‘We suck each other in,’ appeared in The in/completeness of human experience, a TEXT Journal special issue published in April 2020 following a flash call for papers, around the time Australia and much of the world first reckoned head-on with COVID-19 and a ‘new normal’ of uncertainty, social distancing, and lockdowns. Both texts were written and published in the face of unfolding catastrophe – Mordue’s focus is the Black Summer fires; Krauth’s is the pandemic. Online publications published both poems in the present of communal distress, and both poems reveal a populace in the grips of a public health emergency and convey the frightful nowness of threat and trauma, though the Mordue poem takes a witnessing-at-distance guise. There are, however, notable differences. First, an excerpt from the Mordue poem:

On a New Year’s Day

with good men
and their sons
dead in the flames
and burning wind
and bloody sun
and ember storms.
After the city
throws a party.
When our leaders
choke on marketing
When what we need
is truth in action,
truth in words.
When our hearts
are full of ash.
When the brave
are bested
in a black afternoon
in a wish for rain
in a government act
that amounts to
to small change.

I have reservations about this poem on several fronts. It is as if Mordue is writing from the 1950s in a staunchly patriarchal and humanist tradition in which only human life matters (notable given it was estimated that close to three billion animals were killed or displaced during the 2019-2020 Australian fires) and with no recognition of the women on the front lines. Nevertheless, it does testify to the traumatic threat of climate change, to its public health impact, and to the absence of political will, employing several effective strategies.

The column formation evokes a sense of narrowness, reflective perhaps of both the lack of vision of government and how that lack of vision is wringing the country dry. Anaphora, a technique in which successive lines begin with the same words, is operative in the repetition of ‘and’ and later ‘in,’ evoking the overwhelming nature of traumatic experience. The alliteration in ‘When what we need’ conjures a chant of collectivity with the sound of that recurring ‘w.’

This entry was posted in ESSAYS, SCHOLARLY and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.