X Marks the Parataxis: Louis Armand, John Kinsella and Jessica L Wilkinson

By | 1 May 2014


Displacement is apparent both geographically and textually in Letters from Ausland by Louis Armand, The Vision of Error by John Kinsella (subtitled, ‘A Sextet of Activist Poems’) and marionette by jessica l. wilkinson (written here all in lower-case and subtitled, ‘a biography of miss marion davies’). All three poets are or have been editors of literary magazines: Armand edits VLAK, out of Prague; Kinsella, SALT; and Wilkinson, Rabbit (why does this name always remind me of Wittgenstein’s drawing of a rabbit that can also be perceived as a duck?) Armand and Kinsella have also collaborated on a number of books.

I see displacement, forgetting Wittgenstein – and Freud – for a moment, in terms of shifting populations (‘as the town’s demographics shift’ [K 104]), exile and the moving image. The importance of film to the twentieth century cannot be underestimated. (Baudrillard calls political economics a ‘montage’.) It is perhaps the continuation of Surrealism – or at least Surrealism’s work of finding reality beyond reality, and therefore, truth – with a good dose of ‘French theory’ (K 69), Postmodernism (‘the postmodern mirror’ [W 35]) and feminism (otherwise called heroism in Ausland and Vision), and lends itself easily to the twentieth century’s techniques of collage, montage, assemblage, bricolage (the literary ‘mot du jour’), fragmentation, defamiliarisation, hypertextuality, tmesis and the readymade. Kinsella’s ‘[d]onner / la mort’ is echoic of Éluard in Donner à voir (‘Giving Sight’); Armand’s section titled ‘Forgetting Verlaine’ (Verlaine – like Ashbery, Olson and Spicer – is the littérateur’sécrivain du jour’.) reminds me of Baudrillard’s Oublier Foucault (‘Forgetting Foucault’). Kinsella disavows Surrealism in the everyday he witnesses (it is not Buñuelian; he likes to see nature through the artefices of prosody: ‘here, ants walking over the page are not surrealist / here, a deadly spider predating words is not surrealist / here, locusts swarming like diacriticals are not surrealist / here, snakes distracting and causing a line break are not surrealist’ [K 40]); while Wilkinson explores the often surreal history of (American) film-making though her subject, dealing ‘biographically’, postmodernistically and feministically with an actress of the Hollywood system.

Wilkinson’s (non-metrical) foot went on to foreign soil specifically to gather information, with documents often turning to dust – American soil that generated the most vital poetry in the English language in the twentieth century, with Auden, Pound and Eliot being transatlantic aberrations and Bishop, South-American.(Transatlanticism, my term, is responsible for Bishop’s relative obscurity in Europe, let alone for any Australian who for whatever reason never made the pilgrimage to England, but it does not explain Marion Davies’ fall into collective forgetfulness.) Davies is given extensive treatment in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which came out in the 1970s, for her beauty, lavishness and association with William Randolph Hearst. (Not to mention Thomas Ince’s death). Anger was an avant-garde film-maker, most notable for Lucifer Rising, with Bobby Beausoleil, one of the Manson murderers, writing the sound-track, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, starring Anaïs Nin, who should have been a poet, wearing a bird-cage. If Plath can write a pot-boiler, why not Anger? Clive James – author of Cultural Amnesia! and one of Australia’s most notable émigrés – maintains that Marion Davies is only remembered as Hearst’s mistress, reduced to a clitoris or vagina as a ‘rose-bud’ in Citizen Kane [Cain; ‘and Marion dressed as Anne / Boleyn (before the final cut)’ (W 82)], even though she was a talented actress and deserving of fame in her own right.)

But it is Kinsella and Armand, as expatriates, who are often looking at and judging, if not making judgements of, their native land from afar. (Expatriation as a kind of displacement.) Ausland is German for foreign country (Kinsella’s ‘Dialektik’), but I see ‘Ozland’ in the word, i.e., Australia, and pronounce it that way to myself. Its adjectival form is ausländisch, cognate with English ‘outlandish’, which originally meant not native and has come to mean bizarre (itself a Basque word meaning beard, which I would not have thought was a foreign feature; ‘Etymology / of bigotry’ [K 23] ‘manifest[s] every other outré’ [K 65]). Nor do Armand and Kinsella share the xenophobe’s distrust and dislike of foreign languages, sprinkling their poems and titles of poems with French, German, Latin and even Russian, adding depth, coloratura and panache to their work. Armand’s German – the poem on page 68 is titled in German: ‘Böhmen liegt am Meer’ – appears fluent, as opposed to a kind of German everyone knows, as in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (K 74) or ‘wunderbar!’ (K 77).

Wilkinson’s parroty paralanguage (‘Shoot all the birds / The ducks the geese and the parakeets’ [W 52]), in her book divided into nine parts (she mimicked the number of reels in a film in which Marion Davies starred), with each page – apart from the playlet in the middle – able to stand on its own like a frame, is irruptive and disruptive for the most part, from the ‘spirit of calamity [and] mischief’ (W 91) to an irresolution (‘too many anxieties for me / to continue, writing / in this seed bed of irony’ [W 91]) and a weak ornithological pun (‘no egrets’ [W 91]). Bird imagery abounds in most poets’ work, as does the sea. Here, though, flags are for swimming between (‘pointing towards a palisade and white flags’ [A 24]), not symbols of nationalism (‘The Birth of a Nation / recruitment film’ [K 125]). Nationalism is reduced to flesh on an Australian beach (‘arses, buttocks, cocks, breasts, pricks, cunts’ [A 24]), but beaches may be foreign, too (‘Santa Monica Beach.[…] cirrhosis by the sea!’ [W 88; square brackets added]). The final word in marionette is FOOT in upper-case (footlights?) below a faint, broken line that appears like a hospital monitor’s flat line. But for me, this interrupted line is the silence of the silent movies to which Marion Davies largely belonged. And Wilkinson’s subject was all but married to one of the most powerful men in America, ergo, the world, in a business whose business it is to control the media, control what we think. (An Australian right-wing politician was thinking of Hearst recently when he urged us, in an almost left-wing manner if not mantra, to maintain vigilance against media control, upsetting his colleagues who thought he was talking about Rupert Murdoch, whose papers helped deliver them government last year.) Marionette has nothing Australian about it but is as universal as the movies; she uses every trick in the internationalists’ postmodern book, is deeply influenced by Howe (Farrell’s ‘Howeflies’ on the back cover; would only an Australian understand this pun?) and, like the other two poets in question, has devoured French theory.

Displacement as a filmic shadow, a film noir, disjunctive, a shift of attention, a shift in focus, direction or perception. Frame by frame (fame/framed). What is ridiculous in reality is taken at face value in dreams: ‘We are more curious about the meaning of dreams than about things we see when awake’ (Diogenes; ‘I dreamt last night that I knew what it felt like to be in your shoes, but they were too small and dainty for me and the feeling was distorted’ [W 11]; ‘Its ghost hustles at the door. Behind it / Diogenes Laertus [sic] squats on the fire escape / cursing the heat. Such things exist only if we read them’ [A 85]). Marion Davies was a glamorous and beautiful movie star exposed to the bright lights and projected onto a ghostly screen: all the staff and stuff of Hollywood, land of melodrama. Marionette, as Hollywood biography, has murder, intrigue, infidelity, gossip. Wilkinson even inserted herself as the prosecutor into her fiction of the courtroom drama of Ince’s murder trial, ‘world-famous producer and ‘maker of stars’ [W 61]. But there was no trial. Ince apparently suffered fatal indigestion on Hearst’s yacht. (Anger even asked if Hearst got away with murder.) Louella Parsons is the court clerk and Marion Davies herself is one of the jurors in Wilkinson’s fantasy: ‘Humanity finds the myth of / personal freedom intolerable, unlike a work of fiction’ (A 50); ‘Note: the most despised are lifted / to the pantheon Real-life Crime Dramas’ (K 121). And remember, shoot is a filmic term as well as what you do with a gun. ‘Judge: Taking lives…you shoot birds do you not?’ (W 58; ellipses in original). As Hearst asks, ‘What’s a little bird, anyway?’ (W 59). Play – metaphor – is a form of displacement that some birds can be observed to mimic (‘a flock of parrots swimming / in bluegrey dust. Metaphor is what beginning and / ending is’ [A 18], or ‘Morning birds on telephone wires talking’ [A 61]):

We remain, as Zukofsky says, the toy of paradox –
always la malade imaginaire boiling up from big sleep.
One last undecided metaphor, watching the street
below a fire escape. A pigeon with a
club foot, turns circles on the greyblack concrete. (A 75)

But Hollywood and politics are as intertwined as a cobra and an attacking mongoose. From an interview, published by Otoliths five or six years ago:

Normally, I turn away from ‘message’ poetry, bald manifestos, propaganda politics. Perhaps it’s because protest poetry does not have the kind of history in Australia as it does in other parts of the world. Certainly in many non-English-speaking cultures, art is elevated to such an influential level in society that artists have helped to change society (and even become presidents; think of Vaclav Havel’s ‘velvet revolution’ in Czechoslovakia). The rights movement in the US, with troopers killing students on campuses, Martin Luther King, the Black Panther movement, Stonewall, etc., simply has no equivalent in Australia. (To give a current example, while George W. Bush is taking more and more flak over America’s invasion of Iraq, Australia’s prime minister [John Howard], recently given a reception in Washington fit for royalty, has emerged completely unscathed from any criticism, much less condemnation, from his Australian constituents for his wholehearted commitment to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. Even Tony Blair is envious.) It would take a lot more than poetry to wake most Australians up. Voices that do speak up are quickly marginalised by the Murdoch press empire here, that controls most of the country’s media. (Remember, Rupert Murdoch was an Australian before changing his nationality for tax purposes.) So we don’t have a tradition of Ginsbergs or Reeds or Joplins – or even Dickinsons or Whitmans – here.

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