Justin Clemens Reviews Poetry and the Trace

By | 1 August 2014

Poetry and the Trace

Poetry and the Trace
John Hawke and Ann Vickery, eds
Puncher & Wattmann, 2013

Sometimes irritating, often informative, occasionally incisive and sporadically genuinely interrogatory, the thoughtfulness evinced by (many of) the writings collected in Poetry and the Trace triggers further chains of association and dissociation. This is a genuinely critical collection in various senses of that word: at once analytic, hortatory, and urgent.

First, analytic. The antique question – What is poetry? – has become both omnipresent and effaced in our contemporary universe. Omnipresent, because we now cannot a priori exclude the denomination ‘poetry’ from any use of language whatsoever; nor can anybody interested in ‘poetry’ therefore evade the possibility that even the most apparently banal expression may seethe with poetic possibilities. The exceptionally annoying phrase, ‘poetics of …’ (insert any word you like here: architecture? art? accountancy?) continues to plague arts bureaucracies, literary enterprises and academies worldwide. Yet the question has also been effaced. Posing the question too directly or aggressively would fail to understand the contemporary situation at all; approaching it in and as poetry itself can’t give any acceptable epistemological criteria.

Poetry today is enjoined to be absolutely everything or anything – just as long as it’s not stuck on a particular idea of poetry, its only real interdiction. Hence the new great industrialists of contemporary meta-poetry popping up worldwide, for whom poetry has become indistinguishable from self-marketing and corporate curating. Too, hence the other extreme, the writers for whom disappearance is poetry itself. This is because it’s not only a question of poetry’s essence that’s at stake here, but its conditions of continuing existence: what possible operations or predicates could provide an even-minimally-plausible criterion for what’s poetry and what’s not? There really aren’t any, at least, none that can ensure that its apparition is bound together with its inventiveness or novelty or import. This is precisely where the quasi-concept of ‘the trace’ becomes important. Ampersanded together with ‘poetry’, it gives the unavailing obscurity of the latter a minimal hint of flint to bang against or, to vary the metaphor, provides students of poetry with a ragged claw with which to temporarily grip the slippery prey of language.

Second, hortatory. Precisely because of the effaced omnipresence of the question, a gung-ho, didactic moralism becomes the preferred index and icon of an adherence to poetry that would otherwise dissolve into a variegated morass of language-games – into ‘the prose of the world’, as Hegel puts it. If you can’t prove poetry’s continued existence, you can certainly show that you’re exceeding your legitimate argumentative domains in studding your appreciation with long-winded didactic exhortations; in doing so, you bear witness to something whose existence is elusive, whose value is uncertain, whose continuation is questionable. Unjustifiable ethical excess becomes the privileged emblem of something that subsists without any possible signature.

Therefore, third, the urgency. Poetry, no less than politics, has its own states of emergency or exception, in which the usual laws are suspended and martial law is enforced. Continuation nestles against extinction, its hypocrite lecteur and semblable, its double and its other. Under such a banner, poetry, like so much else, has become today (to allude to the analyses of Peter Sloterdijk) terroristic: that is, a conjoined triplet of environmentalism, violence without program directed at ambient vital conditions, and product design. What does this mean in a pragmatic sense? That the apparition of poetry has become an effervescing geography of incommensurable and threatening events.

It was also only when I got the point of this critical attention that I began to discern a kind of narrative arc to the volume as a whole, which, having opened with several blithe in-determinations of the figure of the trace, moves from various contemporary projections of sustainable environmentalism back through the re-examination of Romantic and modernist forebears, their multiple, perhaps forgotten or repressed influences, before it returns to the differential problematics of technology (from letters to computerisation), and then heads for the present again – this time to conclude not with moral, aesthetic or technical examination and exhortation, but with testimonial themes of politics as mutilation, torture and disaster. Environment-history-technology-politics: this turns out to be the quadruple catch that the lobster pincer of ‘poetry & trace’ dredges up here. If this catch is sometimes brutally thematic, tendentious and moralistic, parodying its enemies in order to establish an Archimedean lever for its own objectives, it can also be brilliant and inventive. Above all, the volume is never not philological, in the fullest sense of that word, evincing throughout the loves of language – even if those loves are sometimes grubby, lascivious, or hate-lined too. In fact, the book turns out to be an exemplary work of contemporary Romantic criticism, even or especially because so many of the contributors thoughtlessly take ‘Romantic’ to be something that we ought to be against.

The volume began as a conference of the same title, at Monash University, Melbourne, in July 2008, although most of the essays and poetry seem to have been previously published elsewhere. After a synthetic introduction by co-editor Ann Vickery – it’s disappointing to see no contribution from the other editor, John Hawke – the volume proper opens with work from three quite different poets: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lionel Fogarty, and John Kinsella. (DuPlessis appears in the Contents as DuPlesis, a typo only worth mentioning given that one of her own lines reads, ‘These are the typos of excess as loss’.) Of all the contributions to this volume, DuPlessis’ ‘Draft 87: Trace Elements’ is the one that most explicitly reflects upon the trace of its own emergence and composition, including the emergence of the collection itself. Her notes proceed to explain sources from which phrases, images, and concepts of the poem were drawn: unsurprisingly, many of these are tagged with the academic common-places and common-names of our time, including Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, J.-F. Lyotard, as well as a host of their English-language commentators. As such, ‘Draft 87: Trace Elements’ is an exemplary didactic meta-poem, for sure, in which the ‘trace’ is this and that and not and maybe or perhaps or rather than and as also the contrary:

The trace is
a hold/a hole
of evanescence through which
travel small powerful things 
Or perhaps trace is readable signage? 
Or it’s perpetual unsettling in the 
peppy depths of daily
anything […]

In its self-conscious, sampled mutability and attentiveness to the context of its own commissioning, ‘Draft 87’ necessarily becomes magnetised by the thematics of research, grant applications and refereeing: ‘“Does the researcher have the knowledge and the skill to carry out the proposed research?”’, ‘“Is the problem ‘researchable,’ that is, can it be investigated through the collection and analysis of data?”’, or ‘(what were the politics of that appointment?)’. Irritating as such fragment-citations can be – not to mention the easy academese of phrases such as ‘activating multiple angles/for interpretation’ – DuPlessis’ poem is often quite beautiful, subtle, and on-topic despite its drifts.

Fogarty’s poems, by contrast, don’t follow this kind of tracing-of-trace: they interrupt it. Murri vernacular cuts into Standard Australian English, bringing out a different kind of mazy, material senselessness: ‘you back in labyrinth dreams/twist ease for erected detours.’ Rather than the meticulous documentation of the traces of its own collaging, Fogarty’s poetry puts it bluntly: ‘half naked chilling beaches/exterminated all greasy oily black/bodies’, ‘White people aren’t my metaphors/To me whites slave in a usurious/private parallel apocalypse’, or even: ‘These memoirs of formation are outraged/raided by hunting plundered episodes/not bailed to widespreaded by truth.’ The interruptions are not just declarative and discursive, but punctual and typographic. In ‘FLesh siGN FRISt’ we read:

Being first to us risks pleasure
  nature requests company by man
Those who facilitators donation by
  our nation feels .like a
Trustee .to land

In their extraordinary manifesto Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier (re.press, 2014), Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos note that the ‘occupier-being’ of white Australians is a weirder and more singular state than the familiar routines of patriotism most nations inherited from European colonialism.1. The White Imperative for Australia is to act as if the land was never owned by another, even though everyone actually knows otherwise. Indeed, the foundation of the Australian state took place under the aegis of a legal fiction whose extra-legal fictionality has (only recently) itself been accepted by the state in the form of the Wik and Mabo decisions. Moreover, in the wake of these decisions, White Occupier Being has once more arced up like a nest of enraged killer WASPS, desperate once again to obscure any trace of their own absent origins. It is surely this White Imperative that Indigenous resistance such as Fogarty’s exposes, rebukes and unfounds – the doubled or squared trace of violent effacement violently effaced. ‘And if you don’t trust the land, the land won’t trust youse,’ he declares.

A similar sentiment, if from an utterly different perspective, has been part of John Kinsella’s long-promulgated proposals for a localisation of pastoral poetry. His is not the world of Indigenous Land Rights activism, but the ‘New Arcadia’ of the Western Australian Occupier Landscape, in which we confront, as he phrases it in ‘Harsh Hakea (or Elements of the Subject’s Will)’:

Corporate administration centralises emptio,
venditio: airport bush gone banksia sentinels
felled art practice, funding dramas to appease
art-lust, the urge. Just like coring an apple.

Prudential Counsels. Council machinations. Earnings
from plans. Surveys. Reserves. Reservations.
Dasein. Elections.
Church fetes. Churches. Fate.
Site denial.
  1. Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian Philosophy of Origins, re.press, 2014
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