Dominique Hecq Reviews Melinda Smith and Caren Florance

By | 8 January 2018

In their foreword, Smith and Florance explain how they began rearranging the text of original signs using a cut-up method, producing texts such as Members are not about to be polished for the visitors by reconfiguring the words in ‘Strictly Members Only’ and ‘Take Care on Polished Floor’, for example. Members Only is the reader-friendly outcome of their work. It focuses on the year 1962 month by month because Menzies was in power, Whitlam Deputy Leader of the opposition, the Cold War was raging and indigenous Australians were first granted the right to vote in Federal Elections across the country. Enhanced by Florance’s expert hand, especially her typesetting and witty juxtaposition of visual signs, this book could have been called ‘The Dangerous Book for Australians.’ However, the current title says it all, and much more succinctly. It purports to re-voice the past, ‘placing it in conversation with the present.’ It does more than that. Upon re-reading, it re-voices the present. Consider this fragment from ‘Exchange messages’ where ‘Secret officials’ is offset against ‘Official secrets:’

Sift fascicle ore;
foil access. Refit.
If accosts, refile.
Score if facts lie.
Sacrifice self to
cosier facelifts.

Granted, it may be wicked on my part to take verses out of context, but before I return to chronology, here is the opening to ‘what you get when you search for silence’: ‘one of his colleagues has gone into a significant silence / to silence us, but this is having no effect // listen in silence.’ Many silences do resonate despite their ‘bearing the weight of the clock.’

The palette of poems, phrases, fragments and assemblages in Members Only bear testimony to Australian history. They question poetry’s relationship to public institutions and the language they use, and to what effect in the wider culture and society. They do anything but cancel the ‘real.’ They are unbridled fun. They also require from the reader an act of faith and an affirmation of value in the face of past erasure and current exhaustion. This sentiment is best exemplified in the ‘forepoem’ that functions as a foil to the tongue-in-cheek ‘Museum of Democracy.’ It is worth quoting it in full:


In the taken country
in the house of half only
they made me a new body of wood
melted gold on my face
set me in the thoroughfare
as a lesson, as a warning.
They made me no tongue to speak with.
Still I did my duty
by two generations:
my words flashed straight into their eyes.

Now my labour is over
I gather with my brothers and sisters.
We stand quietly, one-legged
in the room of stopped clocks
and exchange messages.

Taken sequentially, Goodbye, Cruel and Members Only could be said to refigure the conventions of elegy: opening with bewilderment, figuring a condition of self-estrangement in the subject, where the perceived absence is increasingly that of the self rather than the other, all the while gesturing towards purely symbolic homecomings ‘between the stripped standard and the world.’ Solo and through collaboration, Melinda Smith’s performative range is quite simply astounding.

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