Collected Works Bookstore, Wednesday 6 May, 2015
I will begin with a bit of spontaneous resentful metaphysics. I am sorry to do so, for a number of reasons, but there we are. If it can be justified at all, it will be by what it enables me to say about these books. But it is occasioned by a certain terrorising dehiscence in public representations of the stakes of poetry, a phenomenon that has been annoying me more and more over the past few years. The dehiscence is this: on the one side, the lickspittles of silicon; on the other, the lickspittles of identity. The first, encouraged by corporate interests, seem to think that the deployment of silicon automata to generate word-salad is enough to constitute poetry. A computer can do it. The second, enthusiasts of social biology, think that it’s a matter of evaluating the words according to the classifications of the bodies that emit them. Both sides are inimical to poetry. They wish to neutralise the acts of words as such. They serve the expropriators of language.
The abyss between the sides is only apparent. They are rather in a creepy compact with one another. Why? Because they refuse something that has always been essential to poetry: that poetry is an impotent and impoverished apparition that enhances the relations between language and life. To be engaged in poetry — whatever that is, however it is expressed — is to try to do and become a new thing in and by saying a new thing, something neither simply in the words nor in the body, that alters and affects both. A computer cannot think its own coding, at least not yet. A body doesn’t guarantee or determine any kind of utterance.
This isn’t to say new kinds of poetry cannot be written with the assistance of silicon automata. They can and are. And you try writing anything without your body: identity is crucial to poetry. But poetry tampers with both. As Jacques Lacan said: a certificate tells me I was born; I repudiate this certificate. And this is what I wish to affirm about these four very different books by four very different persons, whose ideas about and practices of poetry are otherwise mutually irreconcilable. All are essaying to repudiate the certificate in recreating themselves through their words. If I were to use the language of German idealism, I would say that much of the best of ConOzPo is currently exploring the paradoxical zone between spontaneity and receptivity.
These are books which you hold and read, as opposed to being scanned by your electronic device as you blink at the flickering screen. Books are little portable public places, unlike mobile phones, which are privatised, privatising forces. The editor Kent MacCarter, indomitable and indefatigable — words I always associate with the Gauls in Asterix Books — has, in addition to consolidating and extending the great online poetry rag that is Cordite Poetry Review, now turned his attention to the production of codices. The design by Zoe Sadokierski, which is not without its humour — is that a hawk on John Hawke’s cover? — is internet-fresh as you like, without giving way on the specificities of fine book design. This series, moreover, has not only been given this striking signature design, but a fine structure as well: of preface (by the poet)/introduction (by a luminary)/poetry. Hence Michael Farrell introduces Alan Loney, Pam Brown Ross Gibson, Gig Ryan John Hawke, and Peter Minter Natalie Harkin.
Alan Loney’s book, the hilariously-titled Crankhandle, subtitled Notebooks November 2010 – June 2012 (note to the end of that financial year!) is oriented by a kind of attention to nature writing machines. The epigraph, by Rochelle Altman, concerns the ancients’ attention to every aspect of their notation systems. I’m not so sure about the accuracy of this claim — I remember seeing a great Scandinavian skit which featured two monks, one asking the other how to work a codex when he had only previously used scrolls — but I take the inspiration for it as irreducible. For Loney, language seems to be a nature that sporadically takes notes on itself, not simply of little events, but of its own self-notations, of the ways in which a part of nature can reflect upon and inscribe its own place in nature, which, being thus caught between being-of and being-about, incite the equivocations of a middling poetry. ‘Middling’ is here not an evaluation of quality, but a counter-evaluation (or, as Loney said to me: a non-negotiable middle. Absolutely). Such middling denominates the poetry’s being part of a situation in continuous variation, without beginning or end, without arché or principle — a book of presencing or at least of a strange anti-product that you get when cranking that handle! The strange sensitivity, the hard gentleness of this book also reminded me that the post-WWII generation of Australian and New Zealand poets, at least those who turned away from English and European models to the US, also thereby necessarily added an interest in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, even if sometimes the influence only came through the American words. Yet Loney writes as if in touch with an entire global history of poetry celebrating natural ephemera, in the middle of the milieu.
Ross Gibson’s Stone Grown Cold — these three hard monosyllables simultaneously flirting with cliché, agrammaticality, and the Southern Gothic — extends his well-known work into the field of poetry. Gibson is a topological thinker of the cinematic noir creepiness of human situations, often attending to the disaster of the proximity of abandoned or ruined sites, which cannot be absolved because their cause has vanished and any subsequent intervention therefore only assaults the epiphenomenon. But he also attends to the disaster of human organisation that brings together the diverse in the service of murder and mutilation. The noir imagination always celebrates compromised places and characters, and here the badlands of NSW are also the badlands of Gibson’s poems. Some of these poems are absolutely extraordinary in the way in which poetry confronts cinema on the terrain of epiphanic evil …
With Aurelia, John Hawke is a late symbolist troubadour, playing between the sadness and the anger of poetic melancholy, the withdrawing opacity of words that unveil themselves and vanish in breaking their promises of recuperation, but deliver in this very breach the lingering ambiguous effects of a primal Sehnsucht. One might note in passing the struggle in all four of these books between poetry and one or another rival media system. This struggle is not always as clear as in Gibson’s poems in which noir cinema becomes a polarising influence; in Loney’s case, it’s perhaps the poetic jotting contra the TV; in Harkin’s, as we’ll see, it’s the structure of alphabetisation itself. In Hawke’s, well, there’s an extraordinary amount of equipment — photographs, a lot of photographs, paintings, radio, and so on — but it seems to me that it is that symbolist media system par excellence, the telegraph, which covertly (it doesn’t appear here directly) becomes a paradigmatic foil for the verse. The rise and fall of the telegraph — that great invention of 19th century imperial media systems — is basically coterminous with the longue durée of French Symbolism, from Nerval to Mallarmé. Moreover, the telegraph was a kind of anticipation of our contemporary digital technologies, being at once electrified and binary, requiring specialist operators at the terminals to transmit and decode its messages. Symbolism at once repudiates and radicalises this suppressed paradigm, and Hawke is here no exception — the poet is the privileged operator of the great forest of natural and artificial symbols, which he or she decodes … and ultimately decodes as death. Richard Holmes says of Nerval that ‘Often, on his wanderings through Paris, he would leave messages for his friends in the form of animals’; I would like to say of Hawke that here the animal and human heads of his very beautiful verses are message-effigies dragged from the mutilated woods of yore.
Natalie Harkin’s Dirty Words is explicitly structured by the alphabet, a kind of abecedarian archive, cross-referenced like an encyclopaedia or a bureaucratic dossier, or just an index to a book to which it is a concluding guiding supplement. Note that the alphabet was precisely one of the supposed goods that European colonisers imposed — because it is just better to be ‘literate,’ right, because education ‘sets you free,’ right? I thought here of the indigenous Queensland painter Gordon Bennett, who died last year, and in whose paintings the letters ABC frequently appear, invariably in the context of colonising violence. Lacan used to speak of ‘alphabetisation,’ with the pun on the French word bête, the animal or beast, but also the beta, the silly, the stupid. For Lacan, Europeans were alphabeasts, in the sense that their obsession with a set of phonically-derived letters made them genuinely stupid and violent. Many politicians are surely well-represented by this neologism: hollow, shell-like creatures powered by the farts of foreign media rentiers, farts which spurt constantly from their mouths, and which one smells as well as hears or sees. It is this infectious, foul miasmal mist that Harkin writes to and against, trying to breathe out and expel this loathsome gas, to literally clear the air so that real exchange might become possible. The great political thinker Hannah Arendt once expressly defined collective responsibility as a state in which one has not committed any crime — but in which you and others are nonetheless continuing to enjoy the fruits of the crime. It is to collective responsibility that Harkin calls us back, in these hard and strong poems.