An Open Letter to Corinne Cantrill, in the aftermath of her 80th Birthday Celebration, at La Mama Theatre, Carlton, November 9th, 2008
We came to praise you --and do. The strains of the traditional "Happy Birthday" & "For she's a jolly good fellow" and the cheers raised in your honour as you hovered over the cake, still ring in our ears... I anticipated bumping into so many people associated with you (--and in this instance, 'you' includes Arthur &, of course, Ivor, as well as your magazine, Cantrill's Filmnotes, & your events & programmes principally at La Mama & your former home in Brunswick Road) --and I did meet a few of these erstwhile supporters, like Michael Lee, John Flaus, Jude Telford (who was also representing the late Bernie O'Regan), and didnt I hear Solrun Hoaas's name spoken as we took our seats?
You said that one of the reasons for closing your magazine, apart from loss of AFC funding, was the burden of recording the seemingly endless succession of deaths of friends & colleagues. Yet, I must say, given relatively long & stable life, doesnt one become a memorialist, a custodian of at least the memories of our friends' works & lives? But the magazine wasnt, to my mind, burdened by that aspect. It brimmed with filmmakers' contributions & critical commentary; it brought all the news a little mag, profuse with colour & b & w reproductions, could hold. Of course, the deaths of friends is always sad, but death itself is the tragic penumbra of all human life & endeavour and the definitive element of the wonderful cycle we express & project ourselves within... So when you then disparaged your work as a filmmaker because, you said, of its inconsequentiality in this doomed world --the end of life as we know it, global warning, climate change, environmental destruction, et al --I have to disagree.
You wouldnt have seen me shaking my head in the audience but hear me now. Calamity is what it is but surely cant be a conceptual surprise; it's the proverbial wake-up call and only ever unseats illusion. One year, five, ten? --you predicted the time-frame for this end of the world. Who knows? Whoever did? People drop off the perch anytime, anywhen --and the perch itself drops off some time (the natural process or a cataclysm). Not knowing when was always the situation. That's what highlights the beauty of our art & craft, since nothing produced lasts forever. Whatever the degree of human responsibility for climate change (--and lately I've been rereading Welsh poet & environmentalist, John Barnie, on this theme, in his book No Hiding Place : Essays on the new nature and poetry (University of Wales Press, 1996), which confirms me in a kind of cheerful fatalism, encouraging my amused wonderment at the miraculous place of human life within the deepest workings of geological time), I'd have to ask you Corinne, when was your film work ever political in that literal sense? How & when did you conceive of your extensive colour-separation experiments, for example, or your major landscape works ("film-form/land-form" as you called them), as politically effective statements? Or, to put it another way, what was your political conception of these consummately visual experiences, perceptional analyses if you like, often meditative in the way they induced a state of mind akin to wide-awake dreaming? How could your films have been 'all for nothing' when the something your statement supposes has more to do with social-political documentary than anything seen in your work?
Perhaps you were teasing us into consideration of the art & politics question (which never goes away & perhaps shouldnt for the clarification that attending to it always brings)? I've been there myself recently, responding to comments by John Berger, extracted from his essay, The Hour of Poetry, by Robyn Rowland for the on-line magazine, Zest, she edits for the Australian Poetry Centre. Hard to decipher exactly what Berger was calling for in his 1982 piece : an art of witness & testimony yet somehow not guaranteed by individuality, which is how I understood his valorisation of 'totality' and relegation of the 'sentimental' in his quip, "sentimentality always pleads for an exemption, for something which is divisible". For Berger it seems it isnt the individual & the complex of eccentricity realized as such but "poetry that makes language care because it renders everything intimate." It's as though poetry, per se, is intimate (and other forms not?), when the fact surely is that the art is made intimate by the poet's particularity & insistence on peculiarity (that is, detail & angle) whereby poem, in this case, rises to the ineffable, if that be the statement of the whole (--i cant bear to use the term 'totality' after Berger's political tar-&-feathering!), but only & always through the only-ness of an individual accent, and not the general. We're talking about that partiality which is voice and has to be to break through what every poet under the sun hears as hubub ( Berger's undifferentiated 'language') before experiencing the poem's rising up into song, as though the striving voice in each poem recognizes the chorus to which it belongs! The personal is always the pitch of it, never the general!
I remember the late John Anderson, to whom I introduced you Corinne as I did your work to him, confessing his confusion as to whether he could achieve more as an environmental activist than a poet. His poetry, he implied, was written to raise awareness of the sacred beauty & ecological importance of, say, the eucalypts; but, he anguished, could his time & energy be better spent physically preventing their destruction? I didnt understand the mutual exclusivity within his question. What prevents the poet from also being an activist? But neither did I accept the implication that art, whatever its literal subject, was subordinate to political action.
In 1979-80, I broadcast a series of Melbourne letters for ABC radio's Books & Writing programme. On one of these I announced "the end of the world, the new world" (which sounds a bit Orson Welles-ish now)... I remember being misunderstood, as though I were nihilistically clamouring for the end or giving up the good fight. Tom Shapcott & I think Dorothy Green, wrote to encourage me away from what they assumed was my defeatism & depression in the face of that time's political crisis. I probably contributed to the misconception because my sense then of the condition of the poet, let alone of the world, was undeveloped --like many of my friends & colleagues, I spoke out of the tension between the aesthetics garnered by an avant-gardist & the politics my left-wingism proposed; though acquainted with it, I hadnt yet recovered the religious or philosophical perspective I enjoy now. At that time --and it's thirty years ago already!-- I felt that because of the threat of nuclear war (recall Carl Sagan & the acceptance by both the American & Soviet sides of his 'nuclear winter' thesis?), the condition of the world we lived & made art in had changed : the ability to think the unthinkable, that is the end of the world, had created a new condition. Whatever happened, we now lived in a new world. I have come to think, though, that this was always so : crisis is the fact of it, masked for many years sometimes, and then painfully revealed again for what it is. For the apocalypse was always adjacent. No life without a death might be the moral to assuage personal grief but speaks also for the vast non-human time described by geologists of this earth & astronomers & physicists of the universe. It's all there, isnt it, in the ancient Chinese, from Arthur Waley's translation : "Yung-men said to Meng Ch'ang-chun (d 279 BC), 'Does it not grieve you to think that a hundred years hence this terrace will be cast down?' Ch'ang-chun wept."
Though I doubt your maths, Corinne, regarding the time-line of the beginning of the end (one year, five, ten, before we suffocate on the stench of the dead krill, rising from the dead oceans to the centre of the Australian desert), how is this supposed to invalidate art & artist? The noble krill notwithstanding, when wasnt the apocalypse upon us? Poet, novelist, artist, filmmaker as historian, witness, chronicler, singer of what-is, protester of what shouldnt-be : such roles are well known. But let's not neglect or disqualify the art of the art, of the poem, of the film. Dont sacrifice it to the anxiety to which activism responds. Dont lose heart! Believe with Wallace Stevens in "the heavens full of colours and the constellations of sound", whatever the semantic content! Believe in your life, believe in your life's work. Believe like your teacher, Harry Hooton, in this great adventure of life!
Happy birthday, and may there be many more!
All best wishes, Kris Hemensley
Mark Zenner passed away today after illness. A great reader of literature (poetry & prose), and a keen eye on contemporary cinema. He made short films and was a contributor to Senses of Cinema. We mourn him.
R.I.P. 3rd September, '08
[According to Bill Mousoulis, Mark Zenner had serious health problems in recent years. He was hospitalized in February, '08, recovered, then returned to hospital in August. He was being looked after by Sam Pupillo assisted by Daron Davies. As Bill says, "He was quite a character, fierce & unique."
At Collected Works Bookshop, I thought of him as the Russian-American, because of his accent and his literary taste. He valued Nabokov as much as Robert Lowell. He was erudite, opinionated & passionate. He coughed, smoked, spat contempt, chuckled with deep literary pleasure. He loved the art of cinema and hated the industry. His voluminous essay on Bresson is published on-line in Senses of Cinema; footage from unfinished films of his own (including a moth being eaten by ants) have been incorporated in films of Bill Mousoulis. We hope for a fuller biography of this enigmatic man in due course.]
We mourn Don Grant, a friend of this bookshop, a Scot & great enthusiast for Scottish poetry,Gaelic music & poetry, who was an artist & printmaker, a friend of artists & lover of the arts, passed away October 21st,'08 in Tatura, Victoria.
[from an e-mail to Clinton Cook, October 23rd, '08 : "As I'd already shared with Julia [Harman] a couple of weeks or so ago, my anxiety for him whenever he climbed the creaking metal ladder to reach the highest shelf of the Scottish section of the bookshop. Happily never an accident. [In her email of 30th September, Julia wrote, "I can imagine Don searching in the heights for hidden treasures! I vaguely remember him climbing the ladder to the top of his own bookshelves when he knew there was something which would be of particular interest to me!"] He'd be looking for Iain Crichton Smith or Sorley Maclean, one or other of the Gaelic poets, of whom we spoke, especially after I'd begun revisiting Britain, late '80s, through the '90s. He presented me once with tapes, he'd made from his own collection of records, of such Scottish poets as Hugh McDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Norman McCaig, & Irish poets Austin Clarke, Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney, & also the wonderful pipes of Seumus MacNeill & John MacFadyen. He may have first met Retta & I at Collected Works Bookshop via Julia, though intrepid bookman that he was, may also have simply discovered us on his city rounds. We were always aware of Julia's regard for him &, of course, of his championing of her as artist, printmaker let alone friend. John Ryrie was another mutual acquaintance for whom Don had great regard. After our boy Tim had visited Berlin, in the mid '90s, once with the Powder Monkeys, once solo, Don gave us a map-book of Berlin to pass on for what he assumed would be Tim's further visits. Retta & I remember him as a softly spoken gentleman, a lover of poetry, music, art, who brought his own stillness into the increasingly busy & noisy city world. Retta & I hope you can give him a great send off. Best wishes, condolences, Kris."]
Jacob Rosenberg has died. His funeral today, 31st October,'08, at Springvale. Poet, story-teller, memoirist; accomplished in Yiddish & English.
"Arm in arm we walk, but we walk apart
Will the horizon ever let us be?
Can we expel the ruins of our heart?"
(from My Father's Silence)
[The article on Jacob Rosenberg by Jason Steiger and the obituary by Jacob's editor & dear friend, Alex Skovron, both published in recent weeks in The Age newspaper, comprehensively describe his life & work. Having only recently viewed him on television appearing in a documentary about the international project to translate a particular Holocaust survivor's chronicle, written in Yiddish, of which he was one of the willing translators, it was a surprise then to hear of his death. I only have a few personal memories... The new & self-publishing author trying to flog us his wares back in the late 80s, early 90s, when the Shop was on the first floor of Flinders Way Arcade. He was persistent in the initial placement and the follow-up! Late 90s I remember discussing with him a new & younger poet's contention that poetry didnt or didnt have to mean anything (Wallace Stevens would have concurred), but what got up his nose was her example of Paul Celan. No meaning in Celan? Jacob was horrified. There are a thousand articles on Celan's Death Fugue alone! he said, shaking his head in exasperation. I reviewed his collection, Behind the Moon (Five Islands Press), in ABR, #237 (Dec.01/Jan.02), and quote here the opening & concluding lines. "Seamless with his two previous collections, Behind the Moon is Jacob Rosenberg's potted autobiography of a survivor of Lodz and Auschwitz, delivered from the hell, of which he writes with the kindness of an angel, into the heaven that Melbourne must then logically be. To be the poet of reality and not self-delusion is his commission. The trouble he contends with is that his present is posthumous, for the contemporary world could never be charged with such reality. Heaven doesn't exist. (....) Simplicity, concision, so as not to offend the subject with anything remotely resembling ornament : Rosenberg's poetry of the place and the condition 'where language died for very fear of words'."
R. I. P.]
4th December, 2008