‘Constraint is costly. What cannot make it in?’ (Carruthers, Areal)
When trying to write about Areal, I feel as a conductor would feel approaching a new score. There are many things I would want to do with it in performance. There could be a delightful, devotional rendering of carruthers’ aubade, ‘Abut’ in Axis 15: ‘That is enough. Now we have to start’(!). Or I might make a switch of scene in undertaking Axis 22, ‘Annals’: to New York, late ’70s, late-Miles Davis, jazz poets squirming in their seats, unable to ride a walking bass line. Or, I’d fly-in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E crew to take care of the long and gorgeous ‘Androgyne’:
Only just text And content / Within mus | di | an | ag | wal | on | ab | al | whl | ly | we in
just. Para paragraph change passing ic tic trn sic bti are speaking a mod vernacular
We’d tear out the pages and read all at once, with each overseas player beginning at a different point. Barrett Watten would be required to read backwards. Areal, which means ‘a field,’ sets a field without setting a sanctioned behaviour. But it still behaves while we read, and we can chart our reactions to that behaviour.
Whatever intensity or discomfort Carruthers’s citational style might provoke is attributable to either our old habits of reading (i.e. for significance and a linear, melodic through-line) or wariness that some dominative aspiration might lurk behind the academic nous. But, as in ‘Arras,’ there’s no revelation and no one spying. Areal’s a spur to wider reading and generous in its introductions. The extended dialogue, ‘TRANSCRIPT OF A CONCEPTUAL DISCUSSION AFTER A PERFORMANCE OF “AURICULAR”, for example, is commensurate with Carruthers’s establishment of a theoretical structure for his life/long poem and explains the depth to which his role as chorister and master corral-er extends. An excerpt reads:
[…] I feel myself indebted to the rhapsodos, the performer of the epic. That somebody is not me. And never will be. As a writer I feel, truly I … I really mean this, as if … it’s as if I already contained a chorus, and that some part of me cannot help but intone all these voices waiting to be spoken within me.
Carruthers’s doubtful stammer in this utterance indicates his ill-fit as rhapsodic hero. Let’s, rather, commune with his collations. Carruthers works what Marjorie Perloff, in her study of poetry, ‘by other means’, calls citational poetics. This is where others’ work is borrowed, stolen, ruined, jammed together, and connected; where established systems of meaning are brought to pieces and reassembled partially or in another way (Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project being the seminal example).1 When the citational includes research, allusion, and place-holding, Carruthers’s idea of a notational poetics carves out new potential fields for these cited signs to commode. Experimental music has a long history of such notational games, from the fourteenth century Codex Chantilly to the almost unplayable scores of Brian Ferneyhough.2 Carruthers joins this tradition, playing alchemically with note and letter, citation and score.
It’s a strange sense of community that arises from the failed efforts at conventional comprehension that these experiments provoke; our comical attempts to establish a reliable and direct feeding tube from the poet’s brain to ours. Despite Carruthers’s vast array of signs – many of which are complexly combined or densely aggregated, as in Axis 24, ‘Aerial’ – and despite the difficulty of their columnar, Euclidean-yet-‘hemispherical’ arrangement on the page, we are lovingly embraced by them. My own experience of the text was toned by an oscillation between a mechanical project of reading and delayed influxes of understanding. Carruthers induces this trip, moving from turbid concentrations like ‘Aerial’, straight into flowing and playful ‘Dancewriting’ (‘Aperture’) and unnumbered axes, constructed like minimal Susan Howe meditations. There’s joy in this back-burning if we relinquish our desire for mastery over the archive. Let it flow. You can revisit.
Carruthers affirms this movement towards community with, for example, his dedication of axes to critic-poet peers like Sam Moginie (Axis 23, ‘Æra’), Kate Middleton (Axis 22, ‘Annals’), or the entire volume to Michael Farrell and Astrid Lorange (the latter of whom praises Carruthers’s ‘promiscuous and keenly focussed’ scholarship and ‘boundless generosity’ on the book’s back cover). If we can put aside the fear of going in this direction – where we don’t connect so much with individualism and judgement, but with those other autonomous beings in our poetic presence – Areal is a perfect system. It consists of notations for a choralyric (that is, ‘Lyric buttressed by the social’) extravaganza, or, at least, ‘a potential workshop in musico-poetics’, perhaps established on ideas in the work of Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao or Sharon Cameron’s understanding of Emily Dickinson, both cited by Carruthers. We are involved, and create together.
When representing an artist’s life, or beginning a long poem, what better mode than the creation of another loaded object which holds the same level of ambiguity and inexplicability as the object it’s deemed to represent, or begin. Such an impenetrable creation lets us register the effects of our connection – with the poet, the poem, and the points brought to life by both. Both collections have me thinking about the status of affect in, and the affect of, contemporary Australian poetry: the necessity of self-determined reading processes; infinitely revisit-able texts; and environmentally sympathetic marks on the landscape – both in that they suggest the recyclability of their own semiotics and the possibility of any mark’s erasure. Too much utility? Precisely. And more: process-driven poetics by the opposite of demonic machines – love guilders producing shimmering asanas of dedication.