Thursday, May 29, 2008

THE MERRI CREEK : POEMS & PIECES, #2, May/June, 2008



Everything is ominous.


Another ordered loneliness.


The future is fatal.


Even the open field, a labyrinth.


The afternoon idly flicks through the pages of itself.


A list of names : good news, or bad?


The long silence of rooms.


History with its morphine headache.


The anonymous rain falling on motels.


The atrocities played under flickering streetlights.


The cars parked under melodramatic weather.


Finally, every future is fatal.




Was reading Robert Adamson's autobiog. A friend of mine, Johnny Goodall, is on the back cover, wearing a black cowboy hat. He bought a silver dobro, a National, off an old lady in an old folks home, and he really got into that sort of music. Had a sort of country music band in Sydney. Lovely gentle guy, but when he got drinking... I met Mr Adamson once, when Johnny moved back to Balmain, we were all tripping, and Bob said I was the devil, that sort of poetic bullshit fancy stuff. Nigel Roberts, whom I met again at Raff's, a year ago, said Johnny was now re-parked on the North Island, Nzed, drinking the homebrew. He was very influential on me, tho it took me generational change to get around to it.

Too weak and confused and stupid. But I loved that guy. Staying up all night and going round to the early opener, on one of the side streets of the spine of Balmain, alkies hopping up and down, and the wharfies coming in, and by eight o'clock in the morning, smoke in the bar, hey, it's a party! Meeting Vicki Viidikas and Michael Wilding. Ridiculous really. But that can be Sydney for you, going down a lane, a sandstone fence, a jacaranda tree, and over the fence, an ocean-liner sailing stately, blue water. Like sinking your teeth into a mango, soft and pulpy, and warm, and a stone you can't swallow.

But Mr Adamson. A mythologiser perhaps, like Shelton Lea. But what a story. The more I read it, the more I thought it could make a good movie. The dyslexic guy who's into fishing, cars, and getting into trouble. The trip north with his under-age girlfriend, stealing petrol, starving, trying to catch fish, kill a sheep. Back in gaol, raped, turning into a girl for a while, finding Rimbaud. The guy's a pastry cook, winning a prize at the Sydney Show, for his decorated cake, tiny threads of blue against the white. Writing his stuff out over and over. The bravery, the obsession, trying out drugs almost against the grain, like taking a boat out to get fish to sell, and almost drowning. Stabbing against the dark, not like the stylistic youth bo ho, de rigueur, industries sprung up to support it, we get these days.

And then the sidling, wheedling, into the polite, nice poetry twiddley-dee, and taking it over. Palace revolutions. Photos with Brett Whitely. Bad boys made good. What the fuck are you on mate? Prove it. Beautiful women. There's a movie to be made, busting out of this story.

Of course he's mythologising, but still and all, a fantastic fucking story. We don't get enough stories about the Blueys and Joe-Blows remaking themselves. Now we're ordinary intermediate international. Media fills up our mouths before we learn to breathe. We're self-conscious as fuck. Are our poetry heroes capable of kicking a footy, able to make a quid? Can they rebuild an engine, buy a block of land, plant something that grows? I can't, so maybe I'm wailing in a desert of attenuation. But the populace is out there, waiting. There's a movie in there, somewhere.

What sort of person makes a poetry hero?





Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves are more wonderful than any words about them.
(Mary Oliver)

This statement by Mary Oliver might sound like an admission of defeat, emphasising the limits of what poetry can ever hope to say and do. Mary Oliver is not about to lay down her pen, though, and I am not suggesting that you should either! In my reading, what she does here is actually to provide in a nutshell a theory of ecopoetry. I stress that this is A theory : over the past ten years or so, various theories of ecopoetics have been hotly debated among the growing band of ecocritics (ecologically oriented literary critics) around the world, and I can't possibly cover the whole discussion here. What i should like to do, though, is to share with you my own understanding of ecopoetry as exemplified in the work of some of my favourite writers. In the case of Oliver, I think that much of her poetry does in fact say in a whole host of different ways precisely what she says here it can't say : that is to say, her poetry invites the reader, again and again, to come with her "into the field of sunflowers" (or into the woods, or down to the lake, or just along the road under the open sky...). Oliver knows that we can't take up that invitation literally : writing is "not vibrant life" and the very fact that we are reading it implies that she's not with us in person to take us for a stroll. But neither is it a "docile artifact". For better or for worse, writing has force, inflecting our perceptions and deflecting our attention away from some things and towards others. To the extent that it does not hold us spellbound by its own verbal constructions, luring us into the belief that "vibrant life" really does lurk right there in the text, poetic language has the capacity to turn our gaze to the world beyond the page : and if the world to which it urges us to attend is a more-than-human one of Earth and Sky, then this, I believe, is what qualifies it as properly "ecopoetic".

Having spent several years hunkered down with the Romantics (ok, just their writing), I find Oliver's mini-theory of ecopoetry strongly reminiscent of that articulated by Wordsworth in "The Tables Turned", in which the poet exhorts his bookish friend to "come forth into the light of things". This is an extraordinary line, because you're led to expect the cliched "light of day", but instead Wordsworth (characteristically) trips you up with this utterly unconventional and really quite mysterious image : the light of things. What on earth can this mean? In what sense do things have their own light, as distinct from being illuminated from the outside? I think that the poet gives us a clue later on when he asserts that :

Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous form of things :-
We murder to dissect.

Approaching things as objects of scientific enquiry, with a view to finding out merely how they function (and thereby also how they might be altered and utilized) prevents us from entering into the "light of things", namely by allowing them to disclose themselves to us in a situation of open-minded and non-utilitarian embodied encounter :

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves :
Come forth and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Note the irony here, though : it is precisely by means of such "barren leaves" that Wordsworth issues his invitation to us! Wordsworth knows that in modernizing societies such as his own, it would be necessary to use writing, ironically, for the express purpose of urging readers to lift their eyes from the page.

Poets in many times and places have celebrated their more-than-human earthly environs as a locus of meaning and value. In Western literature, for example, this, in part, is what the pastoral tradition that reaches right back to Ancient Greece has been about. As Raymond Williams argued in The Country and the City, Romantic writers like Wordsworth link up with this tradition, but take it in a new direction : Romantic neo- or counter-pastoral has an oppositional edge to it, in that it is self-consciously pitched against the increasing objectification, instrumentalisation and commodification of the Earth. Sometimes this manifests as outright protest poetry , as in the case of John Clare's "Lamentations of Round Oak Waters". This begins in the mode of a conventional pastoral elegy with the poet bewailing his personal woes by Round Oak Waters. But his lament is interrupted by the "genius of the brook", who turns his attention to the way in which this place, formerly common land, has been denuded of vegetation following its enclosure as private land destined to produce cash crops : this, then, truly is the lament of Round Oak waters. The poet is also reminded that in his recently deceased friend the brook too had lost a champion, so it is now up to him to take up her cause : not against the "sweating slaves" who did the physical damage, but against the wealthy land-owners and parliamentarians who commanded it. Environmental destruction, Clare reminds us here, is nearly always co-ordinate with social injustice. Not only is human labour regularly exploited in the process : it is generally the poor who first suffer the consequences, without enjoying benefits to the same degree, if at all. In "The Mores", moreover, he suggests that the reduction of the earth to mere private property amounts to the profanation of creation :

Fence now meets fence in little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please [...]
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine.

The voice of ecopolitical protest remains an important one in contemporary ecopoetry. As Jonathan Bate observes in The Song of the Earth with regard to Gary Snyder's "Mother Earth: Her Whales", though, the overt didacticism of some protest poetry risks preaching to the converted. By contrast, Bate points to Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" as exemplifying an ecopoetics that shows why we might want to defend the existence of wild animals rather than simply telling us that we ought to do so. Bate theorises this through Martin Heidegger's late philosophy of dwelling, in which the poetic word is conceived as giving voice to the self-disclosure of things in a non-objectifying way. The problem here, in my view, is that if human language is assumed to be a wholly adequate means of responding to the call of Being, as Heidegger puts it, the poet becomes a kind of ventriloquist. Rather than speaking for the Earth, the ecopoet might instead be seen as singing along with it, as Robert Gray suggests at the end of his lyric retracing of a meditative walk along a forestry trail, in which the poet discovers that "all of us are a choir" ("On a Forestry Trail"). For Canadian poet, Tim Lilburn, too, ecopoetry encompasses the acknowledgment that words are only one way of speaking, and that "everything exceeds its name". Lilburn calls for a form of poetic attention that seeks not to appropriate the world, but to stand alongside it, knowing that you are never going to see all that is there or say all that you can see. It is because both our perceptions and our representations fall short of ever perfectly corresponding with reality that, as he puts it in the title of his recent collection, "desire never ends". Ecopoetry can only be effective in putting us back in touch with the more-than-human, glowing, singing --and increasingly imperiled --Earth, if it alerts us to its own inadequacy in mediating "vibrant life" even while seeking out words to speak of it : writing, as Lilburn puts it, is like carrying water in a sieve.

Lilburn's ecopoetics is often rapturous, unsentimentally evincing a sense of ecstatic delight in earthly existence.In the current moment of unprecedented (because humanly engendered) global environmental peril, though, I believe that songs of praise need to be complemented by words of warning. In Australian poetry, some of the most powerful were spoken by Judith Wright in her apocalyptic poem, "Dust". Written in the war-torn, drought-ridden summer of 1943, this is early Wright in full-blown prophetic mode. The idiom might be outdated, but her exhortation remains cogent:

O sighing at the blistered door, darkening the evening star,
the dust accuses. Our dream was the wrong dream,
our strength was the wrong strength.
Weary as we are, we must make a new choice,
a choice more difficult than resignation,
more urgent than our desire of rest at the end of the day.

Today, globally, it is wild weather that accuses, and nevermore so than when the storms cooked up by we who feed on fossil fuels are visited on the poor of other climes. If ecopoetry can awaken us from that old dream in which the other-than-human world figured solely as a means of wealth-creation, if it can inspire us to make a tough "new choice", then it might yet help to keep open the possibility of a just and sustainable future. As the witness of Wright also reminds us, though, realizing that possibility will require the backing of an effective global ecopolitics : words might open a world, as Heidegger puts it, but it will take more than words to save Earth's vibrant life.

[A talk delivered to the Melbourne Poets' Union, April 24th, 2008.]




Peter Downton, who is one of a limited circle of my friends who makes things and thinks about these same things, reported on a conversation he had had with another colleague, Andrea Mina. Andrea wondered out loud whether using two hands, as you do when making something, whether two hands in consort create a different kind of thinking to the kind that is produced while you are using one hand when writing.

I mentioned this to Alan recently, and he told me that he once asked Oliver Sachs whether typing with two hands would ultimately produce something different to the single-handed pen. Sachs thought no -- the brain's language centres are the same no matter how many hands you use. I take this to mean that Sachs thinks of language as a function of brain activity (and that he doesn't use his hands to make things) because the issue is not just a question of the brain, or even language.

One of the best books -- in my opinion, of course, which is the opinion of some-one who makes things so that he can think about them -- one of the best books about this has been Socrates' Ancestor, by Indra Kagis McEwen. This book elaborates a pre-Socratic position in Greek culture: if you make any kind of object, you make a model, which is then a cosmos. You can hear a faint reverberation of this when you speak of making a composition, or claim to have organised something. So some-one who makes a boat makes a cosmos. The same applies for a house, for a garment, for a vase, for a saddle, for a city. And the same applies for a book.

Making a book is not like writing one. It involves both hands, both handsand head, and both hands and head, and heart. In The Printing of a Masterpiece -- and what a modest title that is -- Alan just tells it like it is. Or rather like it was. First he did this, then he did that, then it was time to fix this and so on. From a stack of paper, a tray of type and a tin of ink to a compact, tactile wad of data, to something that speaks to the hands and feels marvellous to the mind.

But, of course, writing a book is also what Alan has done. And it is the contemplation of the technical context, the design and decision-making procedures that, almost by a sleight of hand, turn what could be just a report into the unfolding of a cosmos. Because any book is a complex object, and making it even more so, it is an organization in the sense of an organism with integrated sub-systems. It easily becomes a model, where the decisions and values embodied in its form and materials exhibit relationships than can be applied elsewhere. For instance, Alan writes about "going in from the outside", that is, making decisions based on a teleological vision and contrasts it with his own procedure which is "goes out from the inside", where you proceed with action before all conditions are planned, in faith, and knowing that while creative problems may be ahead, there may be better outcomes later than anything that can be predicted now. This is an old dispute in architecture, pitting the Italians against the English. You might recognize it in politics as the argument between ends and means.

Further, the book Alan has written is about making a book, which could be seen as a microcosmic bit of behaviour. Does the book which is the main character of this narrative actually exist? If it does,I will be disappointed to hear of it; I prefer to think of it as an imaginary object into which all of Alan's printing experience has gone. It's an imaginary book, but not the ethereal "book" of the French School, of Jabes, Blanchot and Derrida, people who separate themselves from matter; people who think with only one hand. This imaginary black book of Alan's is a curious thing when you think about it. Problematic gold ink on black paper, a too-short text about the philosophical issue of "nothing" by Leonardo da Vinci. It's a conglomerate of problems and perhaps deliberately so. What could be more boring than a report on things that have been effortless and smooth? I'm reminded of Maurice Ravel's idea for a book on orchestration, which he was going to fill with examples of faulty orchestration : all the better to learn from than perfections. This is not exactly what Alan has done, but his self-imposed difficulties allow him to branch out from the technical diary, to history, and to the problems of creativity, and art and craft.

The English crafter David Pye, wrote a wonderful book called The Nature of Design. One of its chapters dealt with the uselessness of workmanship. Pye later extended this idea into two other books, but the essence of his argument is that workmanship is unnecessary work for function to be fulfilled, but nevertheless we treasure it. Uselessness, in fact, is a value that allows some overlap between art and craft. Generally, these disciplines are separated by us. The difference between art and craft is that the former gets matter to ask questions by rendering everything semantic, while the latter takes matter and gets it to behave, to keep quiet. In art, function is taken away by mislabelling, alteration, interference -- in my case, for example, by cutting away parts of a book -- but in craft, workmanship removes all traces of faulty human endeavour, and matter becomes eloquent and assertive, outside convention.

Karl Krauss once wrote that no matter how hard you look at language, it always stares back. It's that moment when the book asserts itself as an independent object, which Alan describes in the last chapter of this book under the title of The nonchalance of the master craftsman. In this case, the black book is dazzling to its maker. As a flicker, you can see Adam attracting God's attention. If you make things, you know the feeling : you stand there and wonder whether this object in front of you came through your hands, from you imagination, or were you just the medium IT used so that it could come into existence. At such moments, we are flummoxed and charmed, and often want to do the whole thing over again; this effect is the source of Marcel Duchamp's famous quip that art is a habit-forming drug.

Well, here I am adding to the nothing that Leonardo observed, and I should stop so that something can happen. This something is to announce that The Printing of a Masterpiece has moved from Alan Loney's private imagination to our social imaginary world. I always like to find a material analogue of the imaginary, but I don't believe the windows open in this room and somehow throwing a copy out into the outside space would just mean throwing it onto the footpath -- SO, imagine me throwing a copy into your imagination. I'm sure that the publisher would like you to convert that imaginary event into a material one by buying the book and reading it. I think you should.

[launch speech delivered at the Leigh Scott Room, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne,
13th May,'08]




I'd always thought that a noise in the ear
would manifest itself as constant ringing

but the noise my mother hears,
she says, is more like an orchestra

or even a string quartet, I ask her if she recognises
the melody but she says, no it's too faint, too far

in the background, like an ocean liner on the horizon
or the ship that brought them here, an ocean liner

with a dining room and a band playing music
at night, my mother, not yet my mother,

twenty-six, and not in the dining room
but below the deck, an uncomprehending

refugee, with my father whose heart beats
like clockwork which is not yet unwound,

(that is five years hence)
refugees with all that word

connotes and there on board
the future looks hopeful

like a distant light across the ocean
there's even a band playing.




David McCooey is the author of Blister Pack (Salt), which won the 2006 Mary Gilmore Award and was shortlisted for 4 other major awards. He lives in Geelong, where he works at Deakin University.
Maurice McNamara lives in Melbourne. Performer & organiser at many live poetry occasions including Melbourne Poets Union, the Celtic Club, the Overload Poetry Festival. Recently published in Swings & Roundabouts : Poems on Parenthood (ed E. Neale, Godwit/Random House, New Zealand, '08).
Kate Rigby works at Monash University in German Studies, Comparative Literature & Critical Theory. Co-edits PAN (Philosophy Activism Nature) magazine. Most recent book is Topographies of the Sacred : The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (University of Virginia Press, '04). Contact is,
Alex Selenitsch is a Melbourne-based poet and architect, and a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Melbourne. Contact is,
Ann Shenfield lives in Melbourne and apart from her life in animation-film is a poet who has won the Rosemary Dobson Poetry Prize in 2007, also that year receiving commendation in the Alec Bolton Manuscript Prize and 2nd prize in the John Shaw Nielson Award. Her children's book, Scribble Sunset, was published by Lothian ('08).

1 comment:

mountain-ash said...

I loved the line 'even the open field, a labyrinth' by David - it's such a powerful description of uncertainty, and I thought 'the anonymous rain falling on motels' was great too


Ann's poem I think, has a strong narrative, a real feel of sinking (of hopes and literally) as each stanza seemed to drag my eyes down to the next, very musical in its rhythm yet I imagined the action taking place in a mute world

enjoyed these both