Simon Eales Reviews A J Carruthers and Jessica L Wilkinson

By | 22 February 2015

Axis Book I: ‘Areal’
by a j carruthers
Vagabond Press, 2014

Suite for Percy Grainger
by Jessica L Wilkinson
Vagabond Press, 2014

In 2013, Jessica L. Wilkinson and A J Carruthers collaborated directly on The On-Going March Box (Stale Objects dePress), a poetic object collection consisting of words and alphabet arrangements printed on oddly shaped sight cards contained in an aged box. Startlingly bold affirmations like ‘HORNS’ or ‘SHORN’ or ‘S-HORN-S’ in black and white, and ‘TO THE FORE,’ quivering with seismic formatting, behave as unapologetic provocations to the reader. Their affect is confirmed by the project’s extension of craft beyond the word: to the physical object and to the website documenting their existence.

Such a prior collaboration is not the only reason a comparative reading of each poet’s new solo works – which were launched together – might be fruitful. Carruthers’s Axis Book I: ‘Areal’ thinks about ‘notational poetics’, constructed of cantonal axes whose directions dictate as much of the poetry’s meaning as the coordinates they ping along the way: ‘I have tried to learn as a poet how to play on several registers at once. These poems are systems,’ Carruthers writes in one of his prosaic, explicatory sections. He proposes Areal as the inaugural episode of a lifelong epic: a long, long poem. Wilkinson’s Suite for Percy Grainger) is notational in both similar and different ways. Like Carruthers, Wilkinson creates a through-line of experimentation, feeling out innovative ways to render the poetry that makes up her biography of the Melbourne-born modernist composer. Wilkinson uses axial strokes of unhinged musical notation, recollection, archival sinew, and acknowledgement of the projection involved in her role as biographer.

Both think about ‘fields’ of knowledge and the lines that cross them, feeding other fields. They create simultaneously rhythmic and arrhythmic flows glittered with scholarly allusion. Both collections exemplify a sustainable, re-readable, vibrational poetics that breaks the ‘I’ and its associated machinery. Again, there are consistencies and cross-pollination between them. As Carruthers writes in his review (published in these pages) of Wilkinson’s marionette: a biography of miss marion davies (Vagabond Press, 2012): ‘Unable to be mastered, marionette inaugurates a poetics of the Real where writing happens around a void, the void of the Subject: the split ‘I’ who does not write the poem but who is the poem.’1 He tracks Wilkinson’s unravelling of the crafted image of Davies as puppet. Hang the biography; live the Realpoetik!2 Wilkinson demonstrates here that we can reclaim history through opening spaces, punctuating plains, ill-fully translating idiom, and unloading identifying emphases.

‘Author:     The problem is perhaps not what gets put in, but how …’ (Wilkinson, Suite)

In marionette, Wilkinson forges the unique poetico-biographical approach she dazzlingly wields in Suite. Between that and this, speaking at a symposium entitled ‘The Real Through-Line’ in Melbourne 2013, Wilkinson argued that ‘in order to represent such an enigmatic figure (as Grainger) on the page a new form of expression is required – one that is faithful to his eccentric life and voice.’ She outlined Grainger’s deeply contradictory passions (a vegetarian who hated vegetables, for example), and the amorousness with which we might approach his life of shamelessly documented proclivities. A biography of Grainger has different implications to one of Davies, as Wilkinson notes in her epilogue. No paucity of subjective utterance with him, only a vast and exponentially expanding field of information and reflection through which Wilkinson has trawled: at Melbourne’s Grainger Museum and Grainger’s house in White Plains, New York. Compression, then, is a foolish pursuit – both of Percy and Suite. And so, bouts of listless self-analysis – ‘This struggle against dispersal’ – become waves of effect and rapture, as in ‘Anarchival’ (after Walter Benjamin):

You: in every entry, every figure
              lifelit in a nervous filter
Me: foot in the doorway, bruised at a falter
             signing in. Do we experience 
this world wrongly, returning

              to the same matter? 
Where are all the peaceful, silent dead?—
              scattered refuse and scrap-liberties,
broadcast beyond the cylinder—
              fuel to throw the foot sideways, quick

escape from the commandment!
              Softly, softly in the field, always moving
lightly, with an argument on air—
              I’ll see you in the faithful pitch of swift

The protraction of Suite’s beginning is an example of the absurdity Wilkinson applies to the notion of fixed chronological points in a life. Past the title pages of publishing necessity there is her dedication (‘for Bun-Bun’); a concert-programmatic table of contents; epigraphs from Emerson and Whitman (two of Grainger’s own philosophical inspirations); a ‘Gloss of Terms’; a ‘Preamble’; a ‘Forward Motion’; a ‘Prologue’; a ‘Consummat(ion)’; a ‘Wreckage of a PREFACE’ … and the poetry’s already begun. The short poem, ‘Prologue’, mentions ‘drifting frames’, ‘thwarted chronologies’, beginning being only possible at death, and the idea that I think provides an antidote to these complications of conventional biography, typeset crossways:

before the word
was roman           ce

We’re being told that beforehand – before the words were roman, as they are here – there was elemental attraction, intention, empathy, erotics. Despite it being dubious romance between Percy’s mother, Rose, and father, John – ‘Married life: Cruelty (…) Progeny: Genius!’ (maybe romance must be razed for love) – by the time Wilkinson’s thrilling single, ‘Nr. 1 Arrival Platform Humlet’, rolls in on page 32, she has established her intoxicating, book-rotating momentum:


                              one cannot stand idly
                                                    by the track
                              with a gentleman’s hat placed firm
                                                    on the head
                              while the street cries and shanties
                                                                whip up and run in a sort of gutter
                                                                            to the ear drum:—
                                                                                                    Milk! Lavender! Apple pie!
                                                                                                    (ready for the stave)

Wilkinson carries the energy of Grainger’s piece of the same title, which, as she transcribes into the poem from his program notes, is ‘the sort of thing one hums to oneself as an accompaniment to one’s tramping feet.’ Grainger writes that the piece was ‘begun in Liverpool Street and Victoria railway Stations (London) on February 2, 1908; was continued in 1908, 1910 and 1912 (England, Norway, etc.), and scored during the summer of 1916 in New York City.’3 If we amend that note to add its rescoring here, we get the vibe: Wilkinson steps into the Grainger aura, which she casts as amendable, pliable, and multileveled. For example, typographically, her poems are cut with illustration, warped staves, faint shadows, reprinted collages and transcription of Grainger’s own words. Wilkinson doesn’t objectify or – I don’t think – fetishise Grainger, nor does she put on a Grainger hat, or imitate him. Grainger radiates and Wilkinson, here, radiates in the same frequency.

The versatility and dexterity of Wilkinson’s own compositions, plus the research with which the book’s evidently dripping, make Suite both a breathtakingly pleasurable poetic experience and a serious development in Grainger scholarship. Wilkinson shows Grainger’s most significant philosophical, if not technical, innovation, ‘Free Music,’ by letting her text, her research, her curated sense of time, and her own mingling with Percy ‘roam thru tonal space’ just as Grainger imagined a painter was ‘free to draw and paint free lines, free curves, create free shapes.’4

  1. Andrew Carruthers Reviews Jessica Wilkinson’, Cordite Poetry Review, 11 January 2013
  2. Jessica L Wilkinson and Ali Alizadeh, ‘The Realpoetik Manifesto’, Cordite Poetry Review, 14 November 2012
  3. Program Notes to In a Nutshell.
  4. Grainger to Olin Downes, 10 September 1942, in Teresa Balough, ‘The Spiritualising Influence of Music: Grainger’s Philosophy of Life and Art’, The New Percy Grainger Companion, ed. Penelope Thwaites, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2010.
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