Cassandra Atherton’s prose poem ‘Anonymous’ performs the charm of the proper name as a ‘spinning ginny’, troping with a fine skepticism the signal phenomena of identity that is always ephemeral (bound upon the day), contingent upon jealousy, hormones, doubt, spleen and attraction, moving between private and public iconographies:
Names are important. Daphne Du Maurier knew that. Names are identifiers. Signifiers. Indicators. Of something more. Names say something about you before anyone has even seen you … John Proctor wouldn’t sign his name but Arthur Miller signed his on a marriage licence. Marilyn Monroe. Not her real name. First born children are supposed to like their names more than others do. I have grown into my name.
Atherton demonstrates with aplomb the name and the word as useful fetish, the sticky semiotic burrs that hold us and the world together.
The world, as we know, is a sheer fucking mystery. Language is to us perhaps the most mysterious thing of all; material and immaterial, seductive and impotent, it can create and destroy. A language inherits us and relies on us to keep it alive, so we may ask, what can it do that has not been done before? A vexed question, of course; but all over the shop the kiddies are having a go. John Forbes noted that Frank O’Hara equated the notion of ‘poetry’ with ‘the most original work possible.’ While we cannot escape the divine limitation of tropes (or can we?) the present imperative to somehow make (poiesis) as we remake is a deadly one (a matter of life and death), though we are bound to the finitude of the sign.
Geoff Page seems to think that Dada is a prankster movement that is a century old and to be kept in the prankster cupboard, like the memorabilia of punk youth next to vases commemorating the allied ‘victory’ of 1918.1 He has elided its more vicious sense of permanently wanting to upset art and the complacency of humanism, even as these things have proved culpable in the success of barbarism over civilisation in his precious twentieth century.2 There are some very good poems here, and you’ll find them by yourself, but the book seems to be an argument for a democratic readership that can be massaged by this shared sense of deep humanism and common sense, whereas I feel that poetry as a technology must also be ‘infidel’, to use Daniel Tiffany’s phrase; functioning as a threat to complacency, running fugitive undercurrents that keep tropes turning in unusual ways. Unlike Page in his introduction, I want poems that scare the horses (Wandjina).
Page kindly advises us that the poems have been ordered thematically, for narrative flow and intertextual chat. Judith Beveridge’s poem, ‘Celtic Fort’, which sorts through a general atmosphere of Irishness (despite maself I’m a sucker for it), effortlessly undoes the hygienic practice of thematic separation, addressing as it does place, the erotic, religion, death, animals, the cult of the plough, war – ‘A beloved enemy / charging over the next hill.’ Paul de Man has warned us that tropes are not fixed grids but an unruly system of signs, and I think it is the work of poetry not only to corral signs but also to promote a bolt back to the wild. Hello future. Hello furies!
I think we should collect and collate nostalgic modes of production, but they must be put next to work that is in continual jeopardy of not making meaning, of stumbling into strange territories and confounding us, for this is what motivates flux and change. Without some measure of ‘avant-garde’ action a book like this becomes useless. We need a productive antagonism between modes, between the revolutionary and the reactionary. Page’s decision here not to welcome that which he reads as obscure, difficult or unclear poetry guarantees a dead republic. As a gelding with a paddock to call his own, he seems to find unruly semiotics ‘extreme’ (as his introduction puts it) and wants to protect the rest of the herd from their possible excitations, which he can only read as irritations. Are the crickets serenading or mocking us, Geoff? ‘Australia’ should thrive on feral systems of production; not having the burdens and responsibilities of being a traditional cultural centre for the west, we are free to mutate in ways that should suit us, bother and baffle us. For ‘Australia’ itself is a confabulation, a powerful phantasy of a collective that has been invented and whose meanings are permanently up for grabs. Madness.
This book is largely an exposition of traditional crafts, with certain triumphs of image, musicality and deft display. While it may reward to linger over the urbanity of Peter Rose’s Catullus impersonation, or Anthony Lawrence’s chiseled tableau of Bacchanalia, or Tric O’Heare’s replaying of a tragic muse of summer, I cannot help but feel that this one is headed straight for the op shop.
- We are fortunate to have something of an episodic Page manifesto more or less coincident with the publication of this book, in the form of his November blog for Southerly. Of particular interest is the ‘Obscurity in Poetry – a Spectrum’ post, which satisfies for the jealous force of Logos the want of a typology of obscurities. His schema is plotted in eight degrees of virulence, from ‘Desirable and Essential’ obscurity, to the ‘Reckless’ and finally the ‘Wilful’, which stands as a kind of ‘code red’ of naughty (against humanism) behaviour. ↩
- Across Page’s oeuvre there is nostalgia for the twentieth century, with its two epic wars, as a milieu of superior feeling and consequence. This is where it all happened, leaving us with a sense that nothing now can really happen. ↩