Justin Clemens Reviews Poetry and the Trace

By | 1 August 2014

You can’t question Kinsella’s commitment to poetry and place, nor his propagatory enthusiasms. But I do have questions about Kinsella’s division of the poem by numbered sections, which segment and organise an otherwise self-consciously radical text, with its typographical inversions, subscripts, enjambments, asyntacticisms, and so forth. After all, what do they mean (the numbers, that is)? Are they simply principles of reference or narrative marking or genuine ordinals? I don’t know, but I don’t know that anybody else does either, and since we’re in an environment of poetry in which everybody knows that not-knowing is pretty much better than knowing (or at least claiming that) you know, clearly nobody knows whether it’s good or not whether or not anybody knows anything or not.

It’s both a sensible and necessary move on the part of the editors to begin with poetry, and with this set of poetry, thereby establishing the proper orientation towards the articles that follow. But it’s also not a surprise, then, that the problems of locality and language, minority and murder, culture and collage, start to become dominant themes in a festival of literary pastiche. It’s with this Romantic context in mind that the real heterogeneity of the contributions to the volume start to cohere in all their polyvectorial craziness.

Kate Fagan’s remarks on ‘Sampling and Compositing in the Poetry of Peter Minter, Paul Hardacre and Kate Lilley’ draws on the appealing contemporary figure of recyclable culture, of sampling as sustainability, as a prime power of continuation. Composting, too, is certainly a mode of trace, of the rotting matter of parents being returned to ground to lose their names for the extraction of vital forces. Etymologically vital, too, the figure of compost, linked, as Fagan itemises, to compounds, collections, and computation. Yet this attention must then limit itself to being a brief indication of a technical operation (sampling), a moral inflection of this operation (compositing), and a shortlist of several compositing instances within the poems themselves (nominations). Thus a kind of double-bind of source-hunting returns, linked to the priorities of person and place: ‘Aesthetic and formal choices in the work of Minter, Hardacre and Lilley are local instances of “fronting up” to dramas of belonging that continue to unfold in Australia.’ No guarantees that nationhood won’t re-emerge from the composted remains.

Fagan’s essay is followed immediately by that of Patrick Jones, which is exemplary of a yoking of poetry to moral environmentalism, which both dissolves the first into a catalogue of arbitrary ‘free’ acts and withdraws the second into allegedly practical constraints regarding permapoesis and local self-production. In doing so, the very idea of ‘culture’ – or rather heterogeneous cultures – tends to collapse into a single utopian line, thrumming with nostalgia for pre-capitalist agriculture. It’s impossible to disagree that we are currently undergoing an anthropogenic climate catastrophe exacerbated by unconstrained global corporate extraction, but it’s also impossible to agree with some of Jones’s claims, which brim with an idealised humanism: pace Jones, humans have always been creatures of devastation and waste; giant squid and cane toads seem to be very happy with the ongoing warming; even if his proposals were true, they are unactionable. As Machiavelli comments of Savonarola, even the greatest moral authority is unsustainable without a strong military – and Jones ain’t no Savonarola. But I do like his and Jason Workman’s experiments in ‘free-dragging’ for their inventive, charming immixtures of body-text, as well as his engagingly annoying derangements of the printed line through sub- and super-scription.

For her part, Bonny Cassidy attends to topography as mnemonic and memorial in the poetry of Jennifer Rankin, and above all the ‘dear perpetual place’ (to quote W. B. Yeats) of Pine Camp, which figures in the latter’s poetry from first to last. Alongside the characteristically Romantic remarks which at once discern a ‘new poetics of place’ in Rankin’s verse – Heideggerean dwelling as nesting and burrowing, alongside the misprision of Romanticism itself as simply continuous with colonialism – Cassidy tracks the mutations in Rankin’s verse, the latter’s quest to slough off the inheritances of invasion nationalism by locating the foundation of earth in the abyss, the mud hut and humus of the poet’s humidifying corpus.

Keri Glastonbury works another ecological soil, ‘tell[ing] some stories about different generations of poets with some form of relationship to the regional New South Wales city of Wagga Wagga’, but also introduces a new note – that of ‘contemporary media networks’ – that will resound later in the volume. It is also a moment where personal memoir intersects with meta-commentary upon poets commenting on the use of place in yet other poets: ‘[Anthony] Lawrence’s poastoral lyricism eliding the kind of postcolonial and ecological “specificity” espoused by [John] Kinsella, both poetically and politically.’ But it is the figure of Derek Motion and his post-regional online poetry that gets Glastonbury into tracking the trace of the net-deterritorialised locale: E. M. Forster’s ‘Only Connect!’ become a kind of new media injunction for the regional of the earth. For obscure reasons of antinomian energetics, this does however make me want to ‘press on’ (as Oxbridge philosophers appallingly still love to phrase it) an antithetical vector of the Romantic conatus, and declare ‘Only Disconnect!’ but that’s hardly going to fall on assenting screen eyes in this day and age.

Yet the body will always come back, not always hunched over its own lap and laptop, but also moving through the world. Jill Jones returns to one of the great tropes of Romanticism – in and for which walking itself became a double art, of courting and cartographing otherwise unavailable encounters with otherness. Jones is squarely in this tradition: ‘in walking and using means of public transport, there is the possibility of meditative experience invoked by the daily journey, the opportunity for musing on impermanence while at the same time being open to moments of access.’ Jones speaks of her own compositional practices in frankly phenomenological terms, from quotidian movements up to the writing of poetry as an arrhythmic praxis of being.

That breath, breathing, the quality of air, become a feature of this phenomenology is, as they say, only natural. And it is this ecology of inhalation of the world’s exhalation that becomes the topic of one of the most rigorous and striking essays in the volume, Thomas Ford’s ‘Cloud, Aura and Poetic Breath in Modernity’. As Ford asserts:

Whatever else it may be, poetry is also an art made of air … The poem’s cadences shape material respiration, establishing a common atmosphere in which readers and auditors dwell together, if only for the duration of the poem.

Through a close rereading of two classic modernist essays by Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti, Ford examines the becoming-historical of breath-in-poetry effected by the Romantics as a form of after-breath, the shattering and partitioning of devotional place into designed micro-spaces under the sign of ethereally-directed technological violence. It is from this perspective that Ford re-examines the Wordsworth poem about ‘bloody daffodils’, as a great early witness to the world-historical transformation of the status of a loss-of-breath, of the entry of history into breath as registered by Romanticism. Pollution and air-conditioning denote the entry of military technology into the daily lives of billions: every breath is doing you damage.

‘Imagine a society in which every individual has to pay for the air they breath,’ Marcel Duchamp proposes, ‘slow asphyxiation in case of non-payment.’ I think too of the literally breath-taking scene in the film The Ister by David Barison and Daniel Ross, in which the late French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, already gasping for air, keeps failing to light his cigarette all while interrupting his own disquisition about the West’s auto-strangulation in the Nazi death camps. What Ford’s essay so decisively concretises are questions of the binding of poetry, breath, history, technology and exterminatory politics that will thereafter hover like a distressing and minatory cloud-front over the remainder of this volume.

In the wake of such a demonstration, Susan Stewart’s playful, essayistic meditation on mood in poetry is light relief. Its diverse apercus, linked by associative bursts from such authorities of verse as Etienne Gilson, Percy Shelley, Susanne Langer, Emmanuel Levinas et al. , turn around voice, and tuning, and attunement, and rhythm. It’s a lovely performance of a light Romantic mysticism of verse, in which we, historical creatures, are separated from nature, itself non-historical, but turn out to be linked by poetry to cosmic time. A suave and erudite idealisation sets the tone throughout, a signature Brahmin North American mellifluousness foreign to most of the rougher Antipodean characters collected here. I suppose I am sorry for the stereotyping on both sides of the Pacific that such a statement might presuppose, but in this case it’s a matter of evidence.

For his part, Simon West turns to contemporary issues in translation studies, providing his own attempts on one of Andrea Zanzotto’s poems as a test-case. Rather than the ‘metapoem’ as a translated poem that both wants to be a poem in its own right and is also more than a poem, as West quotes James Holmes, we could also think of metapoetry in the same way as metadata, that is, as providing everything except the content of poetry. To parody Wittgenstein: there is no such thing as metadata, as it is itself only more data; digital ontology erases the distinction between content and form in its binaries of information; under such conditions, the NSA knows more about poetry than we do, even if it doesn’t know or care it knows it. But what West does do here is show, in a careful, clear and compelling exercise of compare and contrast, the context and consequences under which translation becomes a kind of apocalypse and apotheosis for a poem. His practical exercise elaborates a sequence of impossible points of decision for translators, which in turn project different kinds of philosophies of translation, and which thus end incorporated within the results themselves.

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