Justin Clemens Reviews Poetry and the Trace

By | 1 August 2014

From this trinity of stunning and detailed discussions of several versions of meta-poetry, the volume returns to a suite of readings of (mainly modernist) poets. Melissa Boyde reprises some peak moments from the life and times of Hope Mirrlees, including a short reading of the amazing and unjustly under-read tour-de-force that is Mirrlees’ Paris:

The Seine, old egotist, meanders imperturbably to
	wards the sea,
Ruminating on weeds and rain ...
	If through his sluggish watery sleep come dreams
		They are the blue ghosts of king-fishers.

Elizabeth Wilson reopens the dossier on ‘Ezra Pound’s Response to Marianne Moore’s “Black Earth”’, which she persuasively interprets as part of an esoteric, committed, long-term dialogue between the two great protagonists. Both Jessica Wilkinson and Kate Lilley address Susan Howe (who must surely be considered one of the de facto patron saints of contemporary poetry in English). While Wilkinson examines Howe’s The Liberties, from the perspective of its reclamation of ‘the marginalised’ and ‘oppressed’, Lilley’s essay gives brilliant, subtle attention to the valencies and ‘valancies’ of Howe’s writing, which link dynastic transmissions of all sorts of materials – not least books – to a governing metaphorical problematic of needlepoint. Lilley’s own literary-familial successions are surely woven into the texture of her study, which shows an astonishing range of learning on both Howe’s part and her own, of logic, literary and lacework. This (unmarked-as-such) sequence of readings is concluded with a piece by John Tranter on John Tranter. Horrifying as it is to read somebody discussing themselves for you, Tranter is perhaps one poet for which this procedure has more than locally narcissistic appeal: as his account spells out in illuminating technical detail, ‘The Poet Known as John Tranter’ is a confection of post-Oulipean lineage, a set of transcendental operations upon the inputs of others. Here’s a stanza from his utterly hilarious parody of Les Murray, ‘An Absolutely Extraordinary Recital’:

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersals, men look up from their sheet of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow reciting Les Murray’s poems
in Martin Plaza. They can’t stop him.

Rhyme-theft, machine-translation, homophonomania, fat-trimming, acrostics, terminals and anaglyphs abound: here, contemporary poetry has perhaps departed the littorals of bad breath, burning bodies and political terror for the ferro-magnetic exploration of contingent in-human productivity.

I read Tranter’s trans-terrestial tropings as the threshold to another set of concerns, perhaps too-gnomically summarised under Jacques Lacan’s concept of the ‘Real’. This is introduced by Josh Mei-Ling Dubrau, who picks up Lacan’s concepts to examine a kind of material ontology of poetry, in which not meaning but things become the resource for metaphorical invention. From these efforts to crack out new rhythms on strange tympani for the bears to dance, we return to another string of readings. These seem to be magnetised by the problematic of the trace as a drama of mourning and melancholia. Including essays by novelist Emily Bitto and poet Kim Cheng Boey, a highlight of this section is Melissa Hardie’s take on the ‘outsider artist’ Henry Darger and his now-notorious life’s work The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeo-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Hardie poses Darger against John Ashbery and Walter Benjamin. This work, as Hardie comments, ‘offers seriality as its most persistent motif’, a kind of defence against suffering.

From trace as ecology to trace as reclamation to trace as mechanic assemblage to trace as loss, the collection concludes with three quite different takes on the theme of trace as political witnessing. In ‘Poetry and Public Speech: Three Traces,’ David McCooey pragmatically confronts one of the great laments of poets today, that poetry ‘is routinely seen as “marginal” to public culture.’ McCooey briefly itemises the ‘bardic model’ (which looks to premodern cultures for poetic authority), the ‘journalistic model’ (which looks to early modern print cultures in which poetry and politics could legitimately be conjoined), and the current ‘marginal discourse’ (in which poetry’s alleged imminent comeback is nonetheless somehow endlessly deferred). In such conditions, ‘poetry’s role in public culture … is to exemplify marginality’. Yet the poetry of earth is never dead, so to speak, or never quite: McCooey proceeds to give three extraordinary examples of ‘ambiguous vitality’, which are Michael Leunig’s newspaper cartoon verse, Les Murray’s contribution to the (projective) preamble to the Australian constitution, and the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh’s public citation of W. E. Henley’s ‘Invictus’: ‘I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul’ (a poem also beloved, incidentally, by none other than Nelson Mandela, as well as Nick Cave). Perhaps McCooey has a point, but then again one could just as easily cite all the public uses of Hollywood films, authorised religious texts, and scientific image with as much justification: perhaps, then, these too have their poetry?

In a completely different frame, Nina Philadelphoff-Puren proposes the uses of poetry as a privileged way of publicising political oppression. Taking up the book Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, Philadelphoff-Puren summarises: ‘Sometimes written in loose pebbles on the floor of a cell, or marked in toothpaste on the edge of a styrofoam cup, the Guantanamo poems were produced under exceptional conditions of deprivation and danger.’ Philadelphoff-Puren notes how these poems, in circumventing the extraordinary legal proscriptions of voice effected by the relevant US Acts, manage to transmit extreme experience in a literary form. And yet the texts cannot straightforwardly be read: they are themselves trace documents whose decipherment or effects remain at the very limits of legibility.

Finally, Emily Finlay takes up the question of poetry’s ‘use-value’ from a theoretical perspective, that of Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. Transgression, expenditure, sovereignty, heterogeneity are among the keywords of Bataille’s philosophical project, and they are tied here by Finlay to aspects of poetry, insofar as ‘it has much to do with the possibility of heterogeneity that occurs when objects are not restricted to a hierarchy of established usefulness.’ Finlay further links such remarks to the ‘trace’ of Blanchot, a feature or non-feature of writing which kills deader than dead, which disappears itself more thoroughly than the body in the grave. She concludes:

Poetry, according to Bataille, by its abject unsatisfaction, may take us a step closer to a state in which we know how it feels to be mortal, beyond consumerism, beyond the image, no longer mortgaged to the future.’

A poetry-led recovery, then? Hardly. The radical exacerbation of Romantic motifs by Bataille can start to look somewhat otiose in a situation where the nothing of transgression becomes indiscernible from neoliberal exhortation and the hallucinogenic celebration of waste.

Despite the natural variations in quality, topic and form of address that are the inevitable hallmarks of such a collection, this volume is nonetheless given consistency by the cycle of its arithmetical Romantic rhythms. Its question: poetry? Its method: poetry & trace. Its modes of critique: analysis, moralism and urgency. Its matter: environment-history-technology-politics. Its end: poetry! Just like a 1-2-3-4-1 beat, this book at once rocks (in a mineral sense?) and irritates (in a epidemological sense?), but it’s still (apologies to Farrell) worth the rereading. What’s culture for? asks Jacques Lacan, and answers: like an infestation of lice, it can sometimes wake you up a little bit.

This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: