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

By | 1 May 2014

Ginsberg could get away with stark declamatory verse because America – and the world – needed to hear/heed what he had to say. The sheer nakedness of the poetry (and sometimes the poet!) was transforming and transcended much of the Beat production. Waldman’s Iovis, too, is transcendental. The danger is in ‘counter-official verse culture’, which can be stolid and indigestible. Jolas’ transition’s Proclamation is valid, because it confines itself to language, and the S.C.U.M. Manifesto was only effective against Warhol, but what do we make of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism’s ‘dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd’? This may have been the apotheosis of Ern Malley’s ‘Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun!’, itself a paraphrase from Hanns Jost – and appropriated by Hermann Goering – but in the light of current events, its literary provocativeness is lost. Too many times artists have been hijacked by politicians. Just ask Nietzsche.

I can support politics when it means coming to the defence of the environment, a lost reputation, our nascent culture after colonialism, the ancient cultures of our land. To be political, but in the end, not. To surpass politics to the truth. Poetry today, which has had its defences, no longer stands on a pedestal, no longer uses exalted language a fortiori, is no longer judged by higher standards; it has been brought down a peg or two to the demotic by poets who revolt against mere taste or aesthetics. (‘The best poetry will be rhetorical criticism’, wrote Stevens in his diary more than a century ago.) Here, the poems in all three books eloquently play with rhetoric and metaphor. ‘Marionette’ is a clever pun on the lesser-known term for a puppet on a string and Davies’ first name. The diminutive suffix, sometimes pejorative or at least condescending, as in majorette, summons up suffragettes, brave proto-feminists of the early twentieth century.

Paronomasia, humor and jokes often depend on displacement or a shift of emphasis. (Naming, as writers like Proust well knew, is also a form of emphasis.) Displacement, in Freudian terms (Verschiebung; Flieger calls it the joker’s sleight of hand), is thus a form of disguise or delay, especially of the unconscious sexual nature of something, as, say, various kinds of punishment, such as state sanctioned killing, i.e. , execution (cf., ‘a symbolic execution’ of Wilkinson [W 26; emphasis in original] with ‘‘The Killing State’/The Murdering State’ of Kinsella [K 116]); hanging (including suicide: ‘past the theatre where Petr Lebl hanged himself’ [A 62]); and lynching (the sub-poem ‘Birth of a Nation: ‘Legal Lynching’ / (Shame, shame on you Georgia)’ [K 124]). Or of shift from overburdened thing (phallus with its concomitant abstract anxiety, the disfigurement of castration or circumcision ‘When I was circumcised as a baby / I became someone else’ [K 106]) to ‘innocent’ thing (flower): ‘ ‘I cut you, cut you, all of you.’ / Mouth and stamen and rush of cold water’ (A 46). Or, as Alan Loney put it, a shift from the abstract to the concrete, which shift belongs to what I call an empty vessel. (Pound’s dictum that poetry is rather than about. Note that Wittgenstein indexed ‘about’ in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Mallarmé: Ce n’est point avec des idées que l’on fait des vers. C’est avec des mots [‘It’s not with ideas but words one makes a poem’]. James has written that artists give shape to facts. Edouard Roditi’s ‘Poem about Nothing’ reinforces this fact, but with a good dose of transatlanticism, for the ‘Antipodes’ is a ‘dream-world’ where the ‘kangaroo / Is known to none’.)

Is Wilkinson saying that Marion Davies was a puppet of the Hollywood film system? Of Hearst? Or both, pulled and manipulated this way and that, as Sartre said Baudelaire was? A sort of automaton outside of reality? Or was she saying any of this at all (‘sexual domination / the act of creation / the barbarity of modern politics’ [W 20])? She mentions Pinocchio in her Bibliography (but not Père Ubu, the Guignol, which I always associate with Baudelaire’s guignon in my mind, or Rilke), at the end of her book (W 98), and in her Notes, she says

marionette is a poetic biography of cinema actress Marion Davies, whose silencing by the early cinema screen provides a powerful metaphor for her subsequent ‘silencing’ by her lover William Randolph Hearst. The millionaire media tycoon largely controlled her career and–as much as he could–her actions in public. (W 95)

A puppet is a kind of doll, lifeless like a corpse unless manipulated or made flesh, as in the living dolls of Hollywood. (Dolls were – and still are – bought for little girls [‘young girls and boys lining up to receive dolls, chocolates, tricycles’ (W 77) – the boys will get the tricycles], and ‘doll-like’ was a descriptive for beautiful women. Doll was also a term of affection for a long while, until feminists pointed out its objectification.) And carnival people would ‘slang a dolly’ to attract an audience (‘the orchestra coughs, rattles, tunes its strings. / Something struggles into being, begins its crude puppet- / dance’ [A 26]; ‘musicians on stage / help the actors generate pathos’ [W 57]). Are carnies so different from poets?

Kinsella, meanwhile, speaks of a ‘poetics and politics of land’, meaning Australian land, for, while he spends a good deal of the year abroad, he always returns to Western Australia and seems to belong there. (There is no contradiction between describing and doing; after all, Vision is subtitled with the word activist in it. Actor as doer or player – or both.) Allied to farmers – and birds – is seed. (Writing that is seeded with semiological paradoxes.) Genetically modified seed has been corrupted by capitalism’s greed by being made deliberately barren, so that farmers must buy each successive season’s seed from a company, usually multinational, which is often the only producer of an effective insecticide for such seeds (‘GM canola / backdoor open to flourish an air-seeder boom / feeding frenzy omega-three bonanzarama’ [K 20]). Kinsella’s concern for the environment is not parochial but international, with just three examples being ‘like BP in the Gulf / of Mexico’ (K 28), ‘(remember Ok Tedi)’ (K 31) and ‘Bali Tiger, / strung up, dead weight. Extinct’ (K 114). He is concerned with ‘mischief’, which the dictionary defines as an evil, and may include corruption, titling No. 6 of the title poem in his collection so:

Tractortatus, the rumble out of cab is gruelling
             it gets into your chest your belly […]

                                      as the car broken down
is towed back up the hill, big blokes with their
tattooed biceps hanging out like wings that might
                        or might not work,
                        presuming. Presumprive.
                        What mischief is this?
                        What tales of? (K 83; emphasis in original)

Armand is the most conventional-looking though no less political: ‘there’s no such thing as accidental death in custody’ (A 13). His collection is studded with dedicatees, living and dead, and is decorated with epigraphs by Pasternak and Bauman and endorsements from Kinsella himself, Holub and others on the back cover. Wilkinson appears, before opening marionette, to be the most conventional because she is writing a biography, which appearance is bolstered by her Notes, Filmography and Bibliography, but she has devised a kind of ‘Petticoat Disjunction’ within, with her anti-linear story composed of a mix of notes, lists and typographical display, her various ink depths, her overlaps and crossings out, her use of upper- and lower-case, founts and point size, her cut-ups askew and even technopaegnia (the Apollinairean ‘WHITE ELEPHANT’ [W 89]). Needless to say, it is a work of devotion. Kinsella plays (with) the field. Traces of Barthes (it is to be noted that he never wrote on poetry), Maurice Blanchot and Allan Bloom, or their forebears Baudelaire, Kafka and Rimbaud, may be found in all three books. Kinsella himself plays on the word ‘trace’, for it conjures up his partner, Tracy Ryan, a poet who appears in this book as she does in most others of his, as well as always being his overall dedicatee. (His son, Tim [time], is there, too.) Trace also conjures up ‘tractor’, a vehicle found on all farms, which in turn summons up for Kinsella the Tractatus (K 81 and above). While I appreciate what a computer can do for poetry (I believe a lot of Wilkinson’s manipulations were too much for a computer and had to be done by hand), I do not agree with poet Kenneth Goldsmith, whom I recently discovered – I am largely indifferent to the Internet – in Rabbit and then in an essay in VLAK, who said: ‘Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned.’ Subjectivity and syntax never left. Goldsmith treats poetry, if not language, as though it were décor or a fad, but while fashions may change (they are cyclical, actually; Barthes’ ‘variants of relation’; note, too, the intimate connection between birds [plumage] and fashion), the essence of poetry stays the same.

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