The Fall by Jordie Albiston
White Crane Press, 2003
Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and nothing is less capable of reaching them than is criticism.
—RM Rilke, quoted in Antigone Kefala, ‘Journal III’, Heat 15, p 227
So, to avoid criticism, I offer a dialogic interplay between my own response to the work and those voices that have also spoken to me in thinking about the work. Parts of The Fall have resonated so strongly within me that I have found it futile to attempt anything like a standard critique.
Given the small amount of time available between the book’s release and the deadline for this piece, there are still some poems I find impossible to respond remotely in an objective fashion. Two in particular [‘How I Spent Night in Twenty Lines or Less # 2’ and ‘Twelve (Transverse) Octaves, F#’] are difficult for me to inhabit for very long. Which is, of course, a great compliment.
He who seeks a path toward himself is dreaming of a condition in which he will be able to endure himself. For this reason, no search for the self can be a purely theoretical one… Theorising of any type grinds to a halt when it reaches the level of radical questions of this kind, and either leads to an art of living [Lebenskunst] or remains what it was—a symptom of a wounded life… Only that which feels pain begins to search—filled with the longing for a better self, which would be the true one because it has ceased suffering on its own account [an sich]. Thus, only those who want to escape from themselves find themselves.
—Sloterdijk, Peter, Thinker On Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism (trans. Jamie Owen Daniel), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p 33
I first saw Jordie Albiston read her writing about five years ago in a small caf?” attached to Eltham Library. Before her performance, a photocopy of a black and white photograph was handed out to each member of the audience. This image, which I believe had won Time Magazine’s Photo of the Year sometime in the early ‘50s, showed the body of a young woman lying peacefully in death atop the crumpled roof of a car. Clearly, and without need for analysis, one could see that the photo had captured a miraculous yet slightly sordid moment: that brief, quiet time after a suicide when the world has not yet attended to it with its usual mixture of shock and bureaucracy. Here was an extraordinary, gloriously ambiguous photographic image, rich with poetic possibilities, and which this poet then interpreted in her reading, giving a haunted and haunting life to the imagined woman and her fall. This piece has now become the sublime title poem that opens Albiston’s new book of poetry.
It is perhaps only in the moment of catastrophe that poetry, as pure resistance, might exist…
The primary meaning of catastrophe is overturning, or sudden turn. A moment, that is, of transformation.
—Alison Croggon, ‘A Modern Tragedy; or The Death of Irony.’ Meanjin 2, 2001, p 54
The photograph of the dead woman was taken in New York, and she had jumped from a tower whose name is dedicated to ‘the Empire’—these things should mean little. But this particular suicide—like so many before and after her—has fallen because of a loss of innocence; her particular imperfection is that she wishes forgiveness for herself and others (and perhaps from others), but she is unwilling to forgive herself. For this poet, too, there is only occasionally a little salvation for those with doomed notions of floating through life or the air. It is perhaps the curse of the knowledge of ‘sin’ that is the voice primarily dividing her from her freedom and driving her toward her death.
The perfection of suicide is in equivocation.
Anonymous voice, Situationist film
In The Fall, even plunging to one’s death is preferable to stasis, to being stuck or ‘locked’ on an idea, where words cannot flow, and where to write is only to repeat, and to speak is to shriek. Thus, the plain paradox that, when one falls to death, the deepest insight and greatest chance at poetic speech is bestowed, since one is actually flying deeper into life.
People are afraid of their souls.
—Vincent Buckley, ‘Digging In’
The term ‘fall’ is also contained in the Latin fallere (to deceive, disappoint). This suggests not only the attempted deception of a trusting higher authority, but also that those who have fallen have not been true to their own higher self, the point at which they perhaps began to fall. Thus, the greater the height, the greater the courage required to see the truth of one’s fall, and the greater the tragedy if one sees this truth. One can only sense redemption in accepting the fall as a chosen—but hopeless—flight.
Non-Being and Being, emerging from a single ground, are differentiated only by their names. This single ground is called Darkness. —To darken this darkness, that is the gate of all wonder.
—Tao Te Ching
The sensibility within this book is bewitchingly contradictory, something that is evident in the use of two different epigraphs at the beginning of successive poems: ‘A soul hung up, as ‘twere, in chains / Of nerves and arteries and veins…’ (Andrew Marvell), followed by ‘What, oh what would have to happen to me / so that I may feel it?’ (R.M. Rilke).
It may or may not be true that the road of excess leads to the palace of success. For this poet (who offers the confession that she goes ‘too far / Or not far enough’), such is the power of her manic/mantric energy that she admits, almost wordlessly, to no longer yearning for peace, and thus arrives at some humble sort of wisdom or acceptance. In the poetic realm, which can easily become both excessive and impoverished, she puts the matter quite simply:
happier now (having downsized my soul)
in the knowledge I was born inconsolable.
[‘Twelve (Transverse) Octaves, D#’]
Staring, at midnight, at the pillow that is black
In the catastrophic room…beyond despair,
Like an intenser instinct.
(Wallace Stevens, ‘The Men That Are Falling’)
The poet praises night by remaining awake. Sometimes this praise takes the form of writing—often painfully—of that wakefulness. Night brings counsel, and to wait—whether at rest or restlessly—is enough; to write is more than enough.
To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not—this is the beginning of writing.
—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (trans. Richard Howard). London: Penguin, 1990, p 100
The most incisive simplicity is apparent when the love of life is lost to the love of words, and then written truly in words. In the poem, the poet may practice ‘dancing in chains’ (as the ancient Chinese once called poetry), but in life (or marriage, or conversation, or empathy), to constantly be aware of one’s own mind-forged manacles is to strive towards the purity that love offers—but not actually to love. To love only words is to love a mirror, and one of the few things a mirror cannot return is love. The poet must then attempt to balance the love of their art with the love of the other’s heart, and to love with both the head and the heart. This is one of the most poetic struggles of the many struggles inscribed within the lines of the love poems in this book.
‘Fin de siecle,’ murmured Lord Henry
‘Fin du globe,’ answered his hostess.
‘ I wish it were fin du globe,’ said Dorian with a sigh. ‘Life is a great disappointment.’
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Penguin, 1985, p 214
The trouble with the end of the world is that it never seems to come. What remains, though, at the end of the world contained in The Fall is the shared (and whispered) pledge not to forget. What is not to be forgotten is—necessarily—a mystery, as we ourselves are mysteries. In this book of poetry with its rhythms of ancient incantations and its truths of the knowing soul, Jordie Albiston shows us both the pain of forgetting the mystery, and the dark art of bringing the pain to light.
It is morning. It is night. The book is open. The text is difficult, the text is momentarily opaque. My mind is wandering. My mind is struggling to grasp the always elusive… the always hinting…What do you call it?
It, it, I keep calling it. An infinity of it without a single antecedent—like a hum in my ear. Just then, about to give up I find the following on a page of Heidegger:
No thinker has ever entered into another thinker’s solitude. Yet it is only from its solitude that all thinking, in a hidden mode, speaks to the thinking that comes after or that went before.
And it all comes together: poetry, philosophy, history. I see—in the sense of being able to picture and feel the human weight of another’s solitude. So many of them. Seated with a book. Day breaking. Thought becoming image. Image becoming thought.
—Charles Simic, ‘Reading Philosophy At Night’. In Antaeus: Literature as Pleasure, Daniel Halpern (ed.). London: Collins Harvill, 1990, p 141-2