Thursday, April 29, 2004

Last exit

So, Hubert Selby Jnr, one of the great writers of 20C America, has shuffled off his mortal coil. As I said on Poetryetc today, "It wasn't his writing that was obscene, it was the realities his writing revealed: and he was conscious of the difference. I don't think anyone has written the link between homophobia and misogyny more clearly than in the central story about the union official (Strike) in Last Exit to Brooklyn." Which prompted from Kenneth Wolman the response: "nobody before you has opened up the Harry Black sequence quite like this". I find that statement impossible to believe, since it seems such an obvious reading, but perhaps the aura of shock the book generated has obscured some of its extraordinary humanity. What does Harry Black loathe and fear and desire so much, as the repressed softness in himself? The vulnerable child, the "feminine" he can't admit, which disgusts him in his wife, and arouses him in men? The lack of self awareness caused by his self-hatred is itself a crucifixion...But thinking about Strike, the first thing that popped into my head was Death in Venice. Which may seem wholly incongruous: but I guess both these works show men internally divided from a fiercely repressed self, which exteriorises itself in accepted representations of masculinity (the Great Writer, the union leader); and when the repression no longer works, their desires kill them.

As I was sitting on the train this afternoon, on my way to parent/teacher interviews with my daughter, I thought a bit more about this. I first read Last Exit to Brooklyn when I was about 20, and its impact on me was profound. I thought it the most violent and least prurient book I had hitherto read. I also thought that what it was depicting about human beings was true, although I couldn't have said why: it's not as if I had the life experience to fully understand what he was talking about. But I thought it was true in the same way I thought Kafka's Metamorphosis was true. And maybe for the same reasons. Selby himself, in an interview, said of Last Exit to Brooklyn: "I mean, the first time somebody asked me to describe Last Exit , I heard myself say: 'The horrors of a loveless world'. And I think that’s true, the more I ... And that’s many moons ago that I was asked that question. I hadn’t thought about it ahead of time, but that’s what came out of my mouth, and I can’t find any reason to change my mind about that statement."

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Sterne thought

I'm quite certain that if Laurence Sterne lived now, he would be a blogger.

Monday, April 26, 2004

American dreaming

Since reading with any concentration is beyond me at the moment, last night I sat up until 2am watching Volker Schlondorff's classic film of Death of a Salesman. Actually, feeling idle, I put on the documentary that comes with the dvd, Private Conversations, which is an illustration of everything that's irritating about Dustin Hoffman (is there a more mannered or self-conscious actor? you wish he'd just do it, like the transcendent young Malkovich); and, well, there's plenty of Arthur Miller being a Great Playwright as well, and you wonder why he's there every day on the set, for a play that at that time was already about three decades old. Mainly I ended up admiring Schlondorff's patience. But then, well, I just had to watch the movie. As a lesson in how to film a play, it's exemplary: Schlondorff's decision to film on a consciously non-naturalistic set makes it possible to set up the strange, word-driven realities that you can manage on a stage, while also permitting the intimacy of film, and the artifice sharply focuses the play's searing emotional realities.

Salesman is a creaky old play which, like Arthur Miller himself, shows its age and its time: a certain wordiness, an old-fashioned theatricality, a shadowy didacticism which the play fortunately (unlike a great deal of Miller's later work) transcends. But it's still one of my favourites, the moment when tragedy enters the province of the middle class. "A small man can suffer as much as a great man," as Linda says of Willy Loman. I found myself admiring the fine balances of its moral mechanisms, the way responsibilities are shafted home mercilessly while blame is withheld: "Nobody dast blame this man," as Charlie says at the end. Though Willy's only defence is in fact the totality of his inner collapse: the fact that he is a human being, to whom "attention must be paid".

Salesman is the classic portrayal of the psychosis of the American Dream, itself now with the received wisdom of a cliche. But in these passionate performances you see the muscle of the play itself, and it struck me this time with a new contemporary force. The American Dream - the dream of glory, of being a "winner", of the innate justice of the claims of individuality over all other moral claims, even the claims of truth - is as deluded, as powerful, as destructive as it ever was. Miller intended the Loman family as a microcosm of the North American ideology, its desperate sales talk, its shabbiness, its sadness. (OK, this is not an anti-American diatribe: there's the worldly, unillusioned compassion of Charlie and Linda there too...) "In this house," says Biff, "we never said the truth for ten minutes". It's a dream, as Miller argues, which destroys the possibility of honest self-assessment. America does not know itself, will not know itself, and as long as it remains seduced by the dream of itself, cannot know. And in not knowing itself, it cannot know others. Sometimes, to outsiders, this level of self-blindness can be utterly baffling.

And here in this house, just north of Antarctica in a town chosen famously for a film about the end of the world, I'm one of the baffled. American individuality, as exteriorised into a new form of Manifest Destiny, is impacting here: at the Victoria Market last week I saw notices on the walls calling for action against the Free Trade Agreement Australia has signed with the US, warning of how our quarantine laws will be compromised, threatening our extremely enviable food culture by undercutting our producers, introducing diseases which we have managed to avoid, bypassing our environmental laws. It's hard not to feel the Dream breathing down our necks. But most disturbing is, of course, the new US imperialism, its radical dream of reshaping the world. It's a dream as self-destructive, as shabby, as sad as Willy Loman's. And that's just for America - it's much worse for anyone on the wrong end of it. But I think that what frightens me more than the lies is that the President appears to believe them.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

To Put To Shame My Limping Prose

"There are so many things to say. If there was no identity no one could be governed, but everybody is governed by everybody and that is why they make no master-pieces, and also why governing has nothing to do with master-pieces. And that is why governing is occupying but not interesting, governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly what they are not."

From What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few Of Them, Gertrude Stein

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Love et cetera

I'm not alone in the writing of love poems as a visceral response to a violent world. Stephen Vincent writes me: Yes, I think big life (love) urges are impulsively taking over my work in the face of all this terrible reaper business. "Collective punishment" - we are getting it in spades from these power mad terror folks and I know I am reacting on some kind of primal level." So, in between his Walking Theories, he's been getting into Sappho on his blog, making some interestingly contrapuntal versions of Ann Carson's translations.

It is hard to deny that to assert love in the face of war or the massive forces of global capital is in one sense an exercise in utter futility. And this declaration may be no more what it is often accused of being: a sentimental evasion. At its worst, the declaration of love may be a microcosm of what it supposedly stands against in the wider world: the expression of Love has, uncomfortably, often been the adumbration of the male gaze, that which seeks to colonise and possess the desired Other, and which claims its right to know and describe that Other in terms which the Other may not dispute. Crudely, you can see similar mechanisms operating in the official US propaganda on Iraq: in the censorship of publications, well pre-dating the controversial closure of Sadr's small paper, in the recent demand that Al-Jazeera be removed from Falluja, or more widely in the entire system of representation Edward Said named "Orientalism". The power to describe and to know is reserved for those who desire to possess: description is an imperial right. By reserving the right to gaze and describe, the Lover asserts a masterly singularity, and ultimately obliterates the Other in the significance of Love's (and the Lover's) own being.

A recent discussion on Poetryetc reminded me of an essay by Sophie Levy I published last year in issue 5 of Masthead. So I went and re-read it. It's a discussion of innovative lyric poetry by women, with glances back over the history of love poetry. She notes the connection between description and power: war, she says, like the possessive male gaze, is a "betrayal of multiplicity into a single possible definition of markers of territory". But she suggests another possibility for poetry and for love: the possibility of a love which disperses the singular self, rather than being its affirmation, a poetry which is "intimate with error" and which has "the quality of an interruption", a gaze in which the Beloved might be nourished rather than possessed, and which may permit the Other to recover a self, rather than be pillaged of it. Sophie locates this at the core of a political possibility which has the power to alter reality.

This is not only a linguistic game, but a preoccupation with the way language plays itself out in the real as a set of hierarchies and prohibitions that "everywhere prevent freedom of speech, / of movement, of thought, of style". The lyric is being redefined as the arena of the personal politic, with a new insistence on saying 'I' and meaning many things, as a radical act. "When I say I won't" I change the meaning of 'I' within the space of a word, asserting my right to speak and not to speak, differentiating between the I that speaks and the I that is spoken about. Language originates in the 'I', and these poets are wryly rewording Pound's dictum by i-novating. They argue that to speak outside the natural language of men involves speaking in error, and that error is the root of what is lyrical about lyric, "another reason" that stops us in our tracks and makes us consider the multivalency of every word we read.

Well, much more to say, but my life is again taking on the quality of an interruption...

Friday, April 23, 2004


It's been raining for hours, a gentle rain, no wind, and the air still warm. I woke up and the rain was steady on the roof, and it is just easing off, now only the leaves outside my window flicking up from single drops. I had almost forgotten what the rain was like, it seems like a long time.

Still absolutely blank. The rain is very restful on the blankness. The ground is breathing out.

It reminds me that it will be winter soon, and everything will be green again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Another poem

No more than a day’s trivia, a phone
silent, a grey sky, a distant
sough of wind, and further still
the sounds of mourning, every leaf
attentive and calm, the diffuse light
mocking your restlessness:
you may sit there now, biting down
the answerless questions, but you know
that is merely evasion, and your flesh
a sourceless echo, comfortless
against the stellar cold.

Your words are not naked after all,
they clothe themselves in dazzle,
they see not straight but into
the flawed crystal, they elide
textures you could only imagine
in the bitter clarities of your dreams:
and as for you, you are left clutching
these remnants, rattling husks
of speech, loss, loss, and this quiet room
holds its breath as the windows darken,
waiting the knock of a stranger.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

A poem

tomorrow the birds with yellow tongues
will fly in stony ground
tomorrow the gestures of children
will write themselves across different airs
the play will begin again with strange limbs
the clouds will distribute new myths
to every class of creature

fossils with fangs and claws are hiding
in the mineral depths of every eye -
will they glance through the purities?
will they lie down together at last
purring in a green garden?
or will the doctors in their white coats
put them out of their pain?

you look for a naked voice and find
knives and chemical smoke and words
buried like corpses in a ruined garden
and yet the heart is fed
on the lazy perfume of a smile
which vanishes as you turn to embrace
this momentary sky, these vapours

Monday, April 19, 2004

Divine discontent

Having just outed myself as a Modernist Romantic...

A friend tells me that he believes there is nothing more important to do right now than to write love poems, but he finds instead he is writing poems which are social and cultural critiques. As for me, I have this constant desire to write something terribly incisive and critical about the contemporary moment, and all I end up writing are love poems. I guess both of us end up equally dissatisfied.

(I admit freely the possibility that this paradox, despite its irresistibility, is perhaps a little disingenuous.)

Sunday, April 18, 2004


I was having a very blank day yesterday, so I decided to watch Tarkovsky's film Stalker. I think the last time I saw it was around five or six years ago, when I made Emma Lew watch it with me. I think Emma was bored beyond description. However, I find myself totally compelled by this film; I guess one aspect is its extraordinary visual beauty. The opening scenes, in black of white, of the camera tracking through the doors to a room in which the Stalker and his wife and child lie sleeping have something of the baroque poverty of Bill Henson's photography, all its splendour lent by the light itself, which both reveals and hides. And the sheer theatricality of many of the sets...the abiding element of water, always dripping or raining or splashing, that amazing scene where it begins to rain inside the room and the light glitters on the water, a rich gold, while the three men sit exhausted, waiting passively for this strange plenitude to pass... or that bizarre room full of tiny sand dunes, where birds sweep through and vanish into thin air. Maybe I just like it because it's full of poetry. And I suppose also it's the compulsion of this simple parable: the one who seeks, the "Holy Fool", who guides the artist and the scientist to the place where they may realise their secret desires. The Room is where people go "when there is no hope left". And what happens? The writer is so full of self-disgust that he dares not discover his most secret desire, and the scientist wishes to blow it up: so neither enter the Room, and its secret remains secret.

And the Stalker, who is forbidden to enter, returns to his wife and strange child full of despair: because even though these two intellectuals are devoid of hope, which is a necessary precursor to coming to the Room, they have destroyed any possibility of belief within themselves. Though whether it is belief in God is a moot point. The Room itself is totally ambiguous, just as desire is ambiguous; it might be a symbol of death, and is certainly deadly. There is much Christian iconography: the Stalker quotes the Bible, including the Book of Revelations, and also the part of the Gospels in which two are walking and there is a third with them, who is Christ returned from the dead, and we are clearly supposed to see the Stalker as a Christ figure who returns from the dead, who takes suffering upon himself in order to liberate others from despair. Perhaps it is simply my predeliction; but I do not draw a Christian moral from this film, and it doesn't seem to me that the faith which the Stalker speaks of is faith in a Christian God. The film seems to be speaking of something much more immanent: maybe the part which most moves me is the monologue by the Stalker's wife at the end, where she fiercely claims her unhappiness, because without sorrow there would be neither joy nor meaning in her life.

The reason why I wanted to watch Stalker again was that I looked at a site about a motorbike trip by a girl called Elena through Chernobyl. As in the film, Chernobyl is a Zone cordoned off by the military, forbidden to the public because it is dangerous: there are haunting pictures of abandoned cars and firetrucks and helicopter and army trucks, much like the overgrown tanks and cars in the film, or empty buildings full of the rotting detritus of human existence, and many photographs of a lush natural world made strange, obeying laws outside those which we understand. There is, Elena says, a forest that glows at night, and wild wolves and boars and horses have bred and multiplied; but nobody knows what effects the radiation has had on them. She writes, on entering the Dead Zone: "As I pass through the check point, I feel that I have entered an unreal world. In the dead zone, the silence of the villages, roads, and woods seem to tell something at me....something that I strain to hear....something that attracts and repels me both at the same time. It is divinely eerie - like stepping into that Salvador Dali painting with the dripping clocks."

This is not a bad description of the kinds of effects Tarkovsky creates with time and silence, and the image in Stalker of a deadly Arcadia, a post-human world. Of course, drawing a further parallel, Cherobyl might represent the desire hidden in our civilisation, its impulse towards apocalypse (Elena also quotes Revelations). The film predates Chernobyl by about ten years. Well, it's not that art is prophetic, so much as it often sees the present clearly. Chernobyl was present long before it happened.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Growing up

The zeitgeist has got a little darker in the past month. Times like these I read as much as I can about current affairs, but find myself becoming more and more mute. So many words spilt in so much argument, and still power talks loudest of all. So, I read, and ponder the eternal nature of human stupidity, and how far we've come since Montaigne observed that "Man is certainly stark mad..." Though perhaps the presiding genius of our time is really Goya.

In my darker moments I look at my teenage children - Josh, who has grown into such a beautiful young man, writing passionate and sensitive stories about love, and Zoe with all her tetchy idealism (tetchy because she can't quite cope with the passions which engender it) - and I wonder what will become of them. (I hope they don't read this blog, because they will be angry with me for talking about them behind their backs...) I wanted them to be people with empathy, to be thoughtful, feeling and loving; and they are beginning to be adults with all those qualities. And it makes me fear for them: they would be safer and less troubled in this world if they were, rather, insensible, with their material self-interest firmly in front of them as a great good.

Zoe has spent the past two days standing in shopping centres with her friend Emily, persuading people to sign a petition against the increase of defence spending in the Federal Budget ("Books, not Bombs"). All very worthy, and naturally something I would agree with... They came home asking, "Who is Donald Rumsfeld?" I told these two lovely girls that if they wanted to be activists they had to know what they were talking about, and furnished them with some useful urls (newspapers and alternative news sources, etc) and advised them to read them every day until they knew who Donald Rumsfeld was.

It's easy to mock such idealism, the naive perception of injustice which desires simply to right the wrong: but there is a clarity in it which rebukes mockery. The loss of this clarity is nevertheless what marks maturity; we must put away childish things, and see through a glass darkly. This is no more than to say, that the world is more complex than the egocentricity of childhood allows (unless, of course, one is George W. Bush). But to grow into the shadows and to still maintain that clarity, unclouded by self-interest: now, that seems to me something to aim for. Otherwise, I'll stick with the Ramones: "I don't want to grow up".

Damn, seems I can only talk in generalities. I meant to write about other things, but my fingers misled me...

Friday, April 16, 2004

Delinquent blogging

Back again...after how long? It's been a time of shadows and confusions, and I've been thinking nothing very clearly. (This seems to suggest that there are times without shadows and confusions, when I think very clearly indeed - which on reflection strikes me as manifestly inaccurate - I guess it's all relative -) Well, that is how it goes sometimes. In terms of activity, I am on the closing stages of editing The Riddle. Once I have cleared my mind of this, I can start writing The Crow; and once I finish that, I can take some time off fantasising, and let Book IV evolve in whatever dark recesses of the brain concern themselves with this stuff, and get on with some poems.

Though I find writing prose is strangely clarifying about writing poetry. Or at least, it throws into relief that writing poems (some poems) is for me a different process than writing prose (some prose). Suddenly I am clogged by so many qualifiers that I realise that I am not going to make any sense at all. (See above note about thinking clearly). However, when I sent off Draft 2 of The Riddle, I wrote a short lyric poem; and I can say it was an enormous pleasure to work on something shorter than 150,000 words. So here it is, with the lineation not quite as delicate as I would like, as I can't work out how to indent in this program:

Whatever drags downward, the heart hampers:
hands softer than dough
may leaven massy weights, o delicate
knucklings of love,

those confusing perfumes, wafers taken
out of the flesh-hot ovens
to be laid on muteness, on whatever starves
in crowds of noise

or between walls neither silent nor friendly
where restless shadows
take refuge from themselves, wherever
no rains fall,

there may the tongue flood and flower:
harsh the stone that cracks
the seed, harsh the fire, harsher still the heart’s
voiceless need.

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