Tamryn Bennett Reviews Paul Carter

By | 9 February 2015

Again in the long poem ‘A Lecture in Warsaw’ the simultaneity of space, time and civility are layered. According to Carter, the poem grew out of an invitation to give a talk about public space in the former studio of the ‘displaced writer’ referred to as ‘Mariusz’ in the poem’s dedication. His earlier observations of a birdcage in the studio conjure the mocking parrot of Elias Canetti’s play Hochzeit. Taking his trowel to the scene Carter begins:

“Scratching the surface” is my theme – and I, 
for one, need others to help me: Emmanuel
Levinas must hold an honourable place.
Clear a shelf for Ingeborg Bachmann’s bust,
she who in life’s mid flight could say, “I am
in the midst of it all: What do you expect?”
Master of the meeting place, Giacometti,
he supplies his own plinth. He is welcome.

The shoulders of the Austrian, French and Bulgarian poets, authors and philosophers that Carter stands upon are many, though it’s Canetti and his study of crowd behaviour that holds a sacred place for pioneering the impact of human behaviour in public spaces:

But chief of those whose support is needed
to step out from the kerb of experience
into the murderous traffic of history
is the sole author of Crowds and Power. (‘A Lecture in Warsaw’)

Of all the evocations within Carter’s elegies, this lecture is his most direct bridging of poetics and critical investigation. Pulling at old threads, Carter tears a portal into the uncharted, into forgotten and fragmented stories. He digs at details until his nails are rimmed with dirt. In this way, scratching at the sediment of cities, he exposes ‘history’s cage’ and the curious fossils our foundations are made of. The lecture meticulously details everything from human hair to shrines, earwax, sunflowers, clocks, strangers, ghosts and shadows. Digging beneath the surface of the street not only uncovers the bones of public spaces but sparks questions of the infinite human traces overlooked by conventional cartography, the ‘gaps’ of heartache and fire, victory and invention. These are the gaps Carter wants to colour in. Bottle tops, fingernails, language, first impressions – Carter calls for an interrogation of particulars, for ‘friction’ rather than collective amnesia.

Through this compulsively detailed imagery, our attention turns from the dying space of radio static, to skyline scaffolding and, finally, to the minute maps of human hands. Peeling back pages once glued together Carter discovers the city beneath the city and the people that shape it:

People group like molecules, 
or spread like dust in their ordinary motions. 
A between space is where it happens, a place
of surfaces, where tracks in flight come upon
one another, and pause, about to speak. 
To depict it demands a measure of nearness,
where nothing is drawn unless drawn to another.

Having uncovered such gaps we might hope that the poem will scatter across the page like the fragments it’s made from. Instead there is an almost metronomic meter to the stanzas as they attempt to order the chaos of existence. The poem continues to pile and assemble broken pieces until the blur of it seems to plug the gaps. Talking parrots are plucked from the past and positioned alongside the ghosts of Canetti and Kafka. In summoning and colouring the invisible, the lecture draws out memories from the depths of a collective unconscious:

The script of the street provides its own surface, 
like the dancer inseparable from the pose.
Recollecting the motion of the hand that draws it,
in the gap between conception and gesture, 
it materialises the matter that it is not.
Drawing a line inside the line that forgot, 
it remembers the traces the drawing has buried
in order to create a world without gaps. (‘A Lecture in Warsaw’)

Yet in remembering and retracing these lines, the hand seems doomed to deliver more of the muddied history Carter rails against. These are spaces and histories that must remain open to allow art and imagination to weave them together. By imagining ‘the matter that it is not’, the poem orbits ever closer to the infinity of unknowns. No matter how many pieces and riddles the poem recollects, these are only partial. Ultimately, Carter concedes there is no certain destination, no neat narrative ending or ‘world without gaps’. The poem, like place itself, reveals ‘recollection as invention’, though Carter’s compulsive detailing continues the work of netting histories that have fallen through the cracks of the cosmos. Doubtless there are black holes still to be explored.

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