Autumn Royal Reviews Martin Langford and Dan Disney

29 February 2016

While Langford’s collection looks inwards and investigates Australian landscapes, histories and identities, Dan Disney’s Mannequin’s Guide to Utopias, surveys liminal spaces and transnational identities. Disney’s poetry expresses perspectives most often created by opportunities of travel, but also of reading and writing, each poem drawing attention to how languages and locales interact. The title of Disney’s book conjures the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. The photograph of an underground train tunnel on the front cover extends this connection; representing the contradictory tunnels we travel down in an attempt to escape the structured and quotidian. Disney devotes the poetry in this collection to exploring real and imagined spaces, emphasising absurd and surreal happenings. As Cassandra Atherton writes in her review of Disney’s first book and then when the (2011): ‘Like [Lewis] Carroll, Disney explores language in incredibly clever word games’; and this is something he continues to do in Mannequin’s Guide to Utopias.

Disney’s book opens with a fragment from Martin Heidegger: ‘the nearness of things remains absent’, from the lecture ‘The Thing’ translated by Albert Hofstadter and published in Poetry, Language, Thought (1971). Heidegger’s ‘The Thing’ opens with a reflection of how technological advancement and globalisation has altered our temporal and spatial perspectives: ‘All distances in time and space are shrinking. Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel’. While Heidegger introduces issues of distance and ways it may be blurred due to technological advancements, his focus shifts towards concepts of nearness and probes how objects or more specifically ‘things’ influence this perspective, asking the question: ‘But what is a thing?’. While the ‘mannequin’ in Disney’s title is a ‘thing’ and a simulacrum of a human body, this concept becomes more intricate when following the Baudrillardian view that the mannequin becomes ‘hyperreal’. Disney’s poetry allows for the fascination of such ‘transitional’ relationships.

Disney’s characteristically playful language and wit enhance his innovative approach to representations of place, whether they be in Australia or South Korea (where Disney is based). In the opening poem, ‘Man with missing antithesis’, Disney introduces the reader to rhythmic language play that both exposes and mocks fixed ideas of realities:

There will be mystagogues 
yes and lawns mowed on weekends. There will be
a millionth bee … yes and a trillionth. 
	       And dust 
and quiet desperation, multiplicity (tangled)
and soon there will be birds
with small motors (but no lightning 
	       from fingertips). Verily, yes, Loris one day 
will be happy as Larry.

Here Disney’s poetry mixes the incongruity of abstract and tangible things that we encounter daily. While mystagogues don’t generally recite sacred words during the suburban ritual of manicuring lawns, the lawns are still expected to be at a socially acceptable length. If the grass is too high, you might be considered to be a ‘renter’ or else just a neglectful person, and while we heavily depend on bees to pollinate plants, there is a continuing decline in bee populations. But as Disney sardonically reminds us: ‘soon there will be birds / with small motors’. It’s extremely hard not to associate these birds with the drones that perform aerial surveillance or most disturbingly are used in acts of conflict. Disney continues his sharp contrasts by including the self-reflexive statement: ‘Verily, yes, Loris one day / will be happy as Larry’. Here it’s Disney’s use of humour in exposing ideological structures, such as gender, which remind the reader of the absurdity of such restrictive systems.

In the ironically titled poem ‘One size fits all: notes from Seoul’, Disney presents a suite of poetry with each section responding to lines from Korean poets including Choe Seung-ja and Kim So-wol. The suite also includes an encounter with a machine necessary for the duplication of materials:

(iv) Photocopier Room, Sogang University

smudged by toner dust and starting 
         daylong into the machine’s open headful of light, punched 
like a shadow in his box of luminescence, another shift
	        tick tick ticks (an examination of 
uncontested claims from the wiseness of clocks) this photocopier 
	        stone-eyed, a facsimile of origins too bright, lost

While this section of the poem begins with an illustrative title and clearly introduces the reader to the subject of the photocopy machine, as the eye moves down each line Disney begins blurring the features of the photocopier and the person operating the machine, also referred to as a ‘photocopier’. If this machine in question allows you to duplicate documents it is referred to as a ‘photocopier’ while you yourself, the operator of the machine, may also be referred to as a ‘photocopier’. What can be found in between these spaces and the way language, specifically in this case of how homonyms, alter our understanding of realities.

The poem ‘Monologue inside Brueghel’s first Tower of Babel’ positions the reader both as the viewer and within the artwork being viewed. This metapoetic technique demonstrates the possibilities of intertextuality, something that Disney is also devoted to exploring and does so in multiple layers within this poem. In the sixteenth century The Tower of Babel was the subject of three oil paintings by artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The first painting, an ivory miniature, has since been unaccounted for. By evoking this lost piece of art, Disney is able to reveal the fragmentation and dispersions of identities and histories in a transnational context: ‘we scatter into, our words / ascending across air … and once that’s out, silence // falls like love but permanent’.

Included in Mannequin’s Guide to Utopias is a continuation of new poems from what appears to be an ongoing series entitled ‘Still lifes’. In five new poems Disney instills a combination of poetic and philosophical observations along with literary references to offer a mapping of locations: Brescia, Tangiers, Hong Kong, Gafsa, and Berlin. The sequence opens with a poem written in response to Brescia, a city in northern Italy. This poem introduces a persona overhearing a woman speaking:

She’s on the phone, ‘my mother’s car just died,’ while
our train – thud – screeches between
where we left and where we’ll go (winter beach 
the place Shelley drowned 
popular with yesterworld gentleman mystics).

Once again Disney subtly aligns the human with the machine, the voice in the poem uttering a sentence that is wholly dependant on the object or ‘thing’ of the car, while the enjambment of introducing the train enacts the sudden stop experienced by the persona. The following lines included in this particular poem exemplify the liminal spaces Disney’s poetry seeks to record: ‘where we left and where we’ll go’.

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About Autumn Royal

Autumn Royal is a poet, researcher and teacher based in Narrm/Melbourne. Her current research examines elegiac expression in contemporary poetry. She is interviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review, editor of Liquid Architecture’s Disclaimer journal, and author of the poetry collection She Woke & Rose. Her second collection of poetry is forthcoming with Giramondo Publishing.

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