Dan Disney, The Velocity of Night Falling
Hit & Miss Publications, 2003
It's reasonable to suggest that we live in somewhat Tragicomic times. A well-known satirist (whose name I forget) recently complained of being completely unable to mock the American government, since those running the country were already effectively satirising themselves by saying and doing things more absurd and laughable than anything he could come up with.
One quite useful artistic response to such a situation would still seem to be to use techniques of Surrealism or Dada, and in her recent shortish review of this book at The Program Lisa Greenaway refers to Dan Disney as one of “'the New Melbourne Surrealists' – with appropriately-positioned tongue-in-cheek”.
Certainly, this work can be placed alongside other recent Surrealist or Dada activity, which seems to have had a public resurgence in the last few months. There's been the publication by Collective Effort Press of Jas H. Duke's Poems of Life and Death (simultaneous with a recent screening of Surrealist-influenced films directed by Jeff Keen), as well as the “Fractured Ampersand Ridiculous” Exhibition at Eckersley's Gallery: a grand project, both in artistic ambition and sheer size, involving writer/artists Edward Burger, Cerise Howard, Xtian, and Lady Hannah Cadaver. February 2004 also saw the opening of a new Surrealist exhibition at the Heide Gallery in Melbourne.
While Disney himself may perhaps reject such labelling, his work here does unquestionably possess both the concerns and techniques of standard Surrealist practice: the interaction and synthesis of 'dream and 'reality'; an emphasis on the power and value of the irrational; the wish to revolutionise consciousness through the acknowledgement and exploration of desire…You can see it in lines that seem to be perfect embodiments of Surrealist imagery: “but / somewhere / a horse made of bullion has begun to sink to the bottom / of a soundless sea / and is declared a permanent mystery / (not to mention inedible).”
Another fine example: “The play escapes down an expressway with a pair of fake brown pants and matching brows disguised as an undercover banana swallowed by a passing vulture driving a removalist's van.”
You can also see it in the titles of the poems alone: “The Unbizarro Times of Everything Nice”; “Illogos”; “Days Like These I'm Almost Certain the World Is No Illusion”; “Noir in the Broken Cracks Factory”. What's most important, though, is that what he adds to these classically disorientating images is a contemporary awareness of the subtlety and primacy of what these days often gets called 'power relations'. He understands history with the broadness of the schooled critic, but captures something of its essence with the vividness and concision of the poet: “An obedient man / is put into an invisible cage and told to stay there.”
It's this depth of concern with current social issues that supplies the book with its main themes; an urgency runs through all the writing, as if every evening nightfall returns a little earlier, and the work done in the light must be informed by a greater sensitivity to its own implications. Disney is very much aware of the ways in which machines have made us more mechanical ourselves, and in the ironically titled “Elevation”, he outlines a vision of undoubtedly decent, hardworking white-collar workers stuck in the office lift. The poem begins “Gradually, things began to take a turn for the interesting / and if we can make this quite clear, at first unpleasant. / The lift had stopped lifting us”, and ends with this: “As yet we are still not sure / if we recall where our lift was headed, though are certain / it's almost guaranteed to arrive there when we do.”
The Velocity of Night Falling, as the title suggests, also has a little of the philosopher or the scientist about it, and is certainly fascinated – maybe obsessed – with the nature of time itself. To read this work is to enter a world in which the notions of everything, nothing, and endlessness are constantly being questioned, but where the seriousness of such a pursuit is also mocked, as perhaps in the quote from Hegel's Science of Logic as the epigraph to a profoundly simplistic (and quite funny) poem about human evolution: “Becoming is the vanishing of being in nothing and of nothing in being, and the vanishing of being and nothing.”
Characteristically – as in the title of the book's final poem, “As if Carved of the Same Moment Facing Different Directions” – he also has a way of making mere duration simultaneously both amusing and menacing: “Thereafter the silence was kind of brass-coloured / which tarnished after the first few moments passed a second time.” Repeatedly, as the poet himself notes elsewhere, one isn't “so sure / whether to laugh / or not.”
At the same time, this particular Realm of the Tragicomic (perhaps inevitably) owes something to the influence of the 'Existentialist' Triumvirate of Beckett, Camus, and Sartre. In a “Play” of fourteen ('bracketed') lines entitled “Endlessness” (and which the presumably ennui-infested “audience” may leave “when appropriate”), Disney has a nameless Anyman walking perpetually down a long dark corridor, the sound of his footsteps as haunting and meaningful/less as those in the Irishman's “Footfalls”, but here with the additional implication that mere persistence in continuing constitutes a fundamental aspect of integrity.
This sense of a possible transcendence of moral nihilism can also be seen in the (anti)heroic figure of Sisyphus in Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, who carries on walking and working in spite of – or because of – the futility of his actions. The epigraph to Disney's' piece is also from Camus: “Don't wait for the Final Judgement. It takes place every day.” One of the great pleasures of the book is the unashamed use of epigraphs, and the two others in the book not already quoted come from Sartre's What Is Literature? and Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought, which I'm impelled to state here is unquestionably the most beguiling and ravishingly enigmatic piece of Poetry Criticism I've yet come across.
The significance of this work (issued in a series with three other Melbourne poets: Emilie Zoey Baker, Angela Costi, and Sean Whelan) also comes from the overwhelming impression that despite the Surrealist links, Disney is actually following his own singular path, and not writing from a clique or concerning himself with the literary fashions of the season, while at the same time creating from a knowledge of the past.
His poetry repeatedly contains the most striking of images, very much embodying the principle that lies at the centre of the Surrealist / Imagist / Humourist enterprise, and beautifully expressed by the French poet Pierre Reverdy in 1918: “The image…cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two or more less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is both distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.”
Disney is an inheritor of this understanding, but adds to it with his own particular dark irony and (post)post-modern social awareness in this all-too-brief, playful, righteous, amusing, rich chapbook.