The two perspectives we wish to address are:
1) Words as a life-giving or life-taking tool: arguably the most powerful weapon we possess, language, is a reflection of our own attitude to ourselves and the rest of the world. Writing in/for the public domain, its potential impact on the readership and the ethical implications thereof compel us to constantly examine our views and language choices.
2) Writing as a moral outlet: does writing induce or supplant action in ‘real’ life?
Given the pressing ecological crisis, threatening the survival and wellbeing of humans and the rest of the natural world, the increasing evidence of human-nonhuman animal cognitive and affective comparability, and the recurrent dismissal of both in literature, we ask potential contributors to ponder points such as the following:
- ‘naturalism’ and the revolt of nature
- Writing and climate change
- Writing and the ethics of sentience
- Writing from the other: taking the nonhuman animal’s perspective
- Writing and cognitive dissonance/doubling
- Beauty and the beast – writing and the ethics of language choice
Please bear in mind that Southerly is primarily a journal of Australian literature and new Australian writing. Essays and articles primarily of a non-literary nature will not be considered.
For this issue we have a particular interest in stories and poetry concerning nonhuman animals and our relations to/with them.
Submissions of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction (essays) are welcome. Southerly will consider submissions of up to 5,000 words. The optimum length for essay submissions is 4,000 words. Further submission guidelines can be found here. Please consult these guidelines before contributing.
Submissions are due on September 15th, 2013.
At the age of fifty, I am rereading books I first read when I was in my mid-to-late teens. These are the books I was reading when I wrote my novel Morpheus which, after thirty years and various acts of reconstruction to cover the lacunae of lost chunks of manuscript, is about to be published.
Reading was the most essential referent in the creation of this 400-page ‘text’, and, in going through copy-edits and then proofs, I thought it would be a self-enlightening process to revisit the works that ‘informed’ my late-teenage writing process. Of course, there were many books, and I certainly don’t have time to revisit them all, but a handful of salient works have been with me over recent weeks.
First, I went back to Beckett and Joyce, but they’ve never been far away anyway. Then I went to Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Strangely, and quite tangentially, I’ve also gone to Anthony Burgess’s ‘sweeping’ and ‘parodic’ novel (problematical in so many ways) of the twentieth century, Earthly Powers.
Earthly Powers has particularly surprised me with both its desire to mock-shock (there’s a coinage!) and the deep conservatism that lurks at its essence. I am fascinated by ‘lurking’ in texts, and this book lurks in ways it doesn’t seem to know it’s lurking, while making much mileage out of a lurking in the ‘seamy side’. Which ‘side’ is Burgess on?… Are we supposed to ask this? Well, it’s not hard to work out (then as a eighteen-year-old and now as a fifty-year-old!). Though his protagonist in this fictional memoir is homosexual, and the bigotries of the literary and religious world are tracked through him, one can’t help but feel the protagonist-narrator is made use of for a lurking moral superiority (actually, it’s homophobic and racist) — I get the same feeling from Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which I also read in my late teens.
Reading books thirty years later is likely to bring a change in attitude. But surely the same philosophy and process should apply to reading one’s own writings thirty years later? Surely this is the point where better judgement should come into play and the work be left to its time, as manuscript? Well, I’ve never thought that way. When I read Morpheus, I feel as if I am reading a past self, someone vaguely connected with myself, but connected nonetheless. I am the sum of my past, but I am also separate. I can read the work as by someone else, almost, but here I have been reconstructing lost bits from memory.
I did these reconstructions between 2007 and 2010, at the behest of the original publisher and editor who retrieved the manuscripts from the National Library in Canberra. In the process, the self of that era meets a self with much wider life experience and reading experience, fixing the missing bits to the best of a memory growing ever more distant. Does this make it a newer, fresher work (for me)? Whatever the case, I find the work interesting enough to want others to read it. That’s the bottom line. And its intertexts and homages to Joyce and Beckett, the influence of Flann O’Brien, have an urgency and enthusiasm that a later, jaded self would never tackle. Not that it isn’t a ‘jaded’ novel… it is, but really (also) an unrestrained hallucinatory explosion of words and experience. The smallest experience becomes a growth of words, and recalling that it was a time when I was just coming into contact with the nouveau roman, I see how a dust mote can grow and become a subject in itself.
I have long been interested in the interstices between short fiction and poetry, where they do and don’t touch, and have never been one for genre barriers. Morpheus was my declaration of this, seventeen years before I wrote the novel Genre, or numerous essays on the hierarchies and negatives of genre (border) control. It’s a 100,000-word ars poetica, where plot is secondary (though it does exist), and the main character, Thomas, is struggling to write a new kind of poetry (without really declaring it as such). He hangs around with a bunch of friends (Old Henry, Therese – his ‘sort-of’ girlfriend, his grandma, Mr and Mrs Hubbel – middle-class debauchees – a unicorn, a chimney sweep, and the odd lascivious mentoring male)… At the bottom of all his interactions is a desire to make literature. To read and write. As I’ve said, this is a novel of reading, a novel in which a late teenager is attempting to digest experience through the lens of reading.
I’ve always felt text is political, and at the bottom of this novel dwell Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Marx. But there’s also John Locke and others who (we might say) come from the other side of the political fence. And there are conversations in ways of seeing that I would never envisage now. I find this liberating in so many ways.
As part of my rereading ‘adventure’, I have also engaged with political texts I have spent decades using but not reread from cover to cover since I was in my teens. Das Kapital would be the ur-example. I read it (yes, the first volume and Engels’s edited second and third volumes) when I was fifteen. I have sampled, used, written essays and quoted from chunks for thirty-five years, but not reread from beginning to end (and of the latter two volumes, I bear in mind how many manuscripts Engels had to work with!). I have just started reading it again. Every word will be part of what I write in the future, as it was part of writing Morpheus, no matter how tangential.
As an anarchist (vegan pacifist), I often profoundly disagree with Marx (and Hegel), but there’s so much to admire (I feel the same way when I read Freud – I bought the complete new Penguin translation a few years ago and read my way through, and no matter how ridiculous I felt they got at times, I always admired the writing as writing – and that matters too).
What am I tackling next? Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, Irving’s The World According to Garp, and Dostoevsky (though I have reread all works many times over the years). Morpheus was not made out of literary classics, but all kinds of readings (as was my Genre later: from Descartes to porn magazines in European-language captions). All kinds of reading, good or bad, high or low, or whatever categories one might wish to impose (I don’t) constitute the dramatic curve of novel-length fiction to me. I am not interested in (much) plot – but am interested in crisis points, epiphanies, and prompts toward change, as a character (or characters or just a weird abstracted narratorial voice) confronts ‘ideas’ and issues in the world around him/her. Reading does this: a diegesis of textuality is desirable and frightening; it’s a smokescreen and an addiction. Once again, good or bad, it’s the writing and reading of texts as indissoluble parts of each other (we write to writing), that fascinate me.
Thank you, Peter Minter, for your wonderful posts last month. This month, our blogger is John Kinsella. His bio is below:
John Kinsella’s many volumes of poetry include Armour (Picador, 2011), Jam Tree Gully (WW Norton, 2012) and The Jaguar’s Dream (Alma/Herla, 2012). His recent book of stories is In the Shade of the Shady Tree (Ohio University Press, 2012). His novel Morpheus will be published in a couple of months by BlazeVox. He is a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. He is poetry editor for Island magazine.
4. Leave-taking, Sydney 1987
The garden blooms no more, my egotist.
Day’s butterflies have fled to other flowers,
And now the only visitors will be
The butterflies of night.
Apollinaire “Flower Picking” (205)
… it is impossible to return to the subjectivity of the experience because it is no longer possible to access the geography in which the language event occurred …
If forgetting is some kind of beautiful annihilation, how is that together with frailty and contingency and indeterminacy it is also so creatively vital? Alongside various others, this question or something like it is at the heart of how I wake each day into poetry and then make my way through it. Not really a morning person. I typically emerge from dream with a cup of tea while I collect myself, and then soon after a coffee too. How to begin, the first flakes of sunlight shimmering through leaf shadow on the wall? Today I lay with Felix on the rug before dawn and made hand shadows on the ceiling with my phone flash-light. Our mesmerised attentions in the final hour of night. Day’s butterflies threshing at the windows.
I left Tokyo’s vast icy grey metropolis in January 1987. A close friend and I got amorously drunk on the flight back to Kingsford Smith and my parents then drove me home to a bright blue-sky Quorrobolong and a beef-steak BBQ. On my return I realised I could no longer speak English. At least not in the way I remembered. I found that English speaking tired the muscles in my jaw and tongue and I constantly felt that I was mispronouncing English words while composing in advance Japanese sentences in my head. It was slightly maddening for a couple of weeks. I fell to sleep each night relieved to be parlaying dreamscapes in Japanese, free of turgid English.
Of course most of that has now been forgotten. I still sometimes dream in Japanese, quite naturally and fluently, however I lost momentum with the language about half-way through my second year of university. By then I frequently only dreamed during the day, having hit the night-club party scene. The disappearance of selfhood was almost complete. I became someone else betwixt occasional lectures, most nights out and long stints going feral in either the bush or hanging out with friends at Sydney College of the Arts. Without access to the terroir of the former poetic consciousness, I could no longer find an aperture or depth of field for its subjectivity.
When I returned home, I returned to my own language as if it was entirely foreign. I was no longer a native speaker. But it was only then that I was ready to begin composing the poems that would become my first publications, and the nucleus of my first book. I had to take leave of all that I had been, clear in the knowledge that only in forgetting would I be granted access to a new poetic language.
And so the dual work of memory and the imagination had properly begun.
Sometimes folding, slipping clothes into a travel bag
is all there really is to say.
After calling, whispering
Through rooms and corridors, past the unread books
And sleeping clocks, your breath I find asleep
In corners, out of view.
You sit by fragrant windows, staring
Past the trembling night. Wait until the birds arrive.
Then the moon will cover hills and our inadequate memory
with sheets of white.
Apollinaire, Guillaume, and Roger Shattuck. Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire. A New Directions Paperbook. New York: New Directions Pub., 1971. Print.
3. Cranes, Hiroshima 1986
When the rice farmer
trances over the fields his paper
room is waiting.
Even the blades of grass
beside the road are the colour
of polishing oil.
Autumn is the perfect
season for walking home.
Overhead, during the day,
did you see the cranes
swirling in the fickle wind,
spiraling round in leaves,
in clouds that left no shadows ?
“I keep the deities to one side
of this life you lead me into.
They smile like
framed portraits of people
in old clothes.”
Madeleines for the survivors. Holographs of the forgotten. Genealogies of invisibility.
I lived my teenage years in fear of nuclear annihilation.
The fear was very real, acquired by a curious young mind that had just begun to meet the world at the same time that the adults had perfected the means to violently eliminate our species. I remember from at least the early 1980s, just as I was beginning to take notice of the media and political and cultural life, the spectre of nuclear warfare between NATO and the Warsaw Pact seemed to cast a terrifying shadow across every moment and place and event. The fear could be felt every night in the evening news and in tele-movies such as The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). It could be felt in books such as Raymond Briggs genre-defining graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982), and even on Countdown on Sunday evening in music videos like Neneh’s hit “99 Luftballons” (WWIII caused by the accidental release of red party balloons) and “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The fear was shared by everybody. From the late-1970s the Soviets and NATO had installed hundreds of medium and short-range nuclear weapons throughout most of eastern and western Europe, enough to extinguish human civilisation many times over. Even so, from late 1983, when I was in year ten at high school, Reagan and Thatcher challenged the Soviets to an intensification of the arms-race by installing new Cruise and Pershing II missiles in the UK, Germany and Italy. On the television I saw hundreds of thousands or people march through the cities of western Europe, people afraid to know that they and their families were now dwelling in a target zone or were otherwise surrounded by a pall of ground zeros that at any time could erase absolutely everything. I joined the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984, ready to take-on the human war-machine to the tune of “Power and the Passion” by “The Oils”. I had the NDP mail me VHS copies of the censored but Academy Award winning Dr Helen Caldicott lecture If You Love This Planet (1982) and put on instructional lunchtime screenings at my small country school. I hosted an anti-nuclear radio show on the University of Newcastle’s 2NUR-FM (intro Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”; outro Judy Small’s “Walls and Windows”), probably around the time of the 1984 Palm Sunday anti-nuclear peace march. By the mid-1980s the Palm Sunday rallies in Australia were attracting hundreds of thousands inspired by the world-wide anti-nuclear marches and protests like the Greenham Common Woman’s Peace Camp. Amidst all this, just as the Cold War seemed at the brink of diabolical consummation (which it was, only in an unexpectedly well-ordered fashion) I found myself in Hiroshima.
Everyone should take the journey to Hiroshima. Ground zero of ground-zeros. For me, it began early one frosty April morning in a chauffeured Toyota Cressida. April is the cruelest month. My host family were taking me on a spring holiday. I remember looking out from the back-seat of the car at the last remnants of snow clinging to a pair of puce granite planters standing either side of the stairs leading up to the house. I was holding in my hands an exemplar of exquisite planning, a minute-by-minute run-down of every event for the next five days. We humans have developed incredibly sophisticated technologies for the preservation and transmission of knowledge, but in my personal experience my host family’s A4 fold-out holiday itinerary takes the cake for unequivocal precision. So, at what-ever o’clock it was, let’s say 6:30 a.m., we set off for the station. We were joining the high-speed Nozomi line, meaning “hope” or “wish”. I was beside myself knowing that at last I was about to experience the thrill of the Shinkansen—to fly on an elevated track at approximately 300 kilometres per hour down the spine of the archipelago, drinking tea and listening to New Order on my recently acquired Sony CD Walkman. The cutting edge. To my host father’s imperceptible satisfaction the extraordinary bulbous sleek machine slid along the platform sharply on time and almost silently stopped. We got on, and then promptly got off on pure speed. We zoomed past apartments and suburbs, then vegetable farms and rice paddies and small forests, were thumped from green fields into tunnels and shot out into eruptions of steel and glass and industry. Japan flashed before my eyes.
The free-floating terminal velocity of the Shinkansen journey is profoundly unlike the concentrated static density of being in Hiroshima. I remember arriving at a grey concrete station that looked just like all the previous stations, although I don’t recall getting off the train. I remember walking out across a flat concrete square toward yet another black Toyota Cressida. I then experienced the unexpected emergence of a very visceral architectural anxiety. As we walked toward the car it slowly dawned on me that every building around the flat square looked almost the same. Hiroshima was a city of homogenous brutalist concrete and brick structures spread between interlinked parks and highways and apartments and stores. Of course. Nothing was more than 40 years old.
The feeling of sudden alienation at the station was somewhat intensified for having arrived directly from Kyoto. I’d just spent a few days walking amidst the most extraordinarily ancient, precious and beautiful temples and gardens, like the fifteen hundred year old Yasaka Pagoda, the treasures of Eikan-do, or Saihoji. I appropriately left Kyoto in a pall of melancholy, knowing that the next stop was Hiroshima. Kyoto, jewel in the Japanese crown, had been at the top of the atom bomb targeting committee’s list of targets throughout the spring of 1945. Instead of being annihilated, however, it was given a last minute reprieve by USA Secretary of War Henry Lewis Stimson, who had honeymooned there and fallen in love with it. And so Kyoto was dropped from the list and Hiroshima slipped to the top.
In her poem “On the 32nd Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, Denise Levertov writes of
“… the shadow,
the human shadowgraph sinking itself
indelibly on stone at Hiroshima
as a man, woman or child was consumed
in unearthly fire—
Three decades now we have lived
with its fingers outstretched in horror clinging
to our future, our children’s future,
into history or the void.
The shadow’s voice
cries out to us to cry out.” (123)
I remember the human shadowgraph. Someone sitting on the steps of the Sumitomo Bank, at 8:15am probably waiting for the bank to open. The body momentarily stopped the four thousand degree flash as it was vaporised, its silhouette burnt behind it in the stone. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum I also remember seeing the famous battered watch, hands frozen at the time the bomb struck. And I recall, I think, a display with large clumps of melted rock and concrete and tile and steel fused with human bones and glass.
This was almost too much. I had to go and sit in the car for a while on my own, a little shattered. I realised, in the most involuntary and corporeal way, that humanity had created the means to make of ourselves a new fossil-rich geological strata. Rather than taking hundreds of millions of years of grinding time, however, the Atomic seam would be made by thousands of burning sunbursts melting our bodies, cities, technologies and cultures into a dead conglomerate miasma. This would be a forgetting so absolute that only lumpy, lossy, opaque material traces could possibly remain, meaningless to an indifferent cosmos. Even those traces would one day be atomised, our human civilisation reduced to a period of shadows in epochal strata.
It took me a long while to come to terms with what I’d seen and felt at Hiroshima. It wasn’t until a year or two later that I was able to finish the poem Cranes, which I’d started drafting but couldn’t quite come to grips with while still sifting and reaching through my memories of the experience at the museum. Was it really thigh and cranial bones melded with roof tiles? How could I have been standing there at ground zero, pretty much, occupying a space right where the blast once was? How is it possible to speak anything about this, in either language?
The breakthrough came when, as a university student back home in Sydney, I first saw the classic, perhaps defining post-war film Hiroshima mon amour (1959), directed by Alain Resnais with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. The first few minutes of the film survey, as if from the lead female character’s memory, the moments before and then during the destruction and suffering of the blast. I recall a moment of uncanny understanding while watching the film, perhaps as the sugar in the choc-top started to kick-in, that my experience in Hiroshima was not just a significant event in my personal life, but was also deeply existential and historical at a common human level. How could I not see it? The melted polis has been utterly erased of the material conditions for remembering, like a suicide. In the film, we soon find out that the memories narrated by the female lead may not in fact be hers. The male lead constantly disputes her “false narrative.” Did she really see what she reports? In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze writes about the film and its two discordant characters:
each has his or her own memory which is foreign to the other. There is no longer anything at all in common. It is like two incommensurable regions of past … (‘I’ve seen everything, everything. . . You’ve seen nothing in Hiroshima, nothing …’) … Is this not a way for each of them to forget his or her own memory, and make a memory for two, as if memory was now becoming world, detaching itself from their persons? (117-118)
Memory was now becoming a world attached to the forgetting. I began to think of Hiroshima as an articulable erasure, a place that had become a kind of four-way hinge between subjective and intersubjective modes of absolute memory and absolute effacement. An irrevocable sadness. A place of infinite forgetting.
When the rice farmer trances over the fields his paper room is waiting. Perhaps he is going to the bank. His shadow is bound in a double-helix of memory and forgetting, the essence of life but fragile as hell. The reverberations from the Hiroshima detonation were so deep they echo into the present through a museum of terrifying objects that deface subjectivity. The poem is a mode of sublimation, as it is impossible to return to the subjectivity of the experience because it is no longer possible to access the geography in which the language event occurred. The past is truly another country. It has been obliterated. In the holographs of the forgotten, the erasure of memory is equivalent to the erasure of being itself.
Overhead, during the day, did you see the cranes swirling in the fickle wind, spiraling round in leaves, in clouds that left no shadows? They smile like framed portraits of people in old clothes.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2, the Time-Image. London: Athlone, 1989. Print.
Levertov, Denise. Poems 1972-1982. New Directions Paperbook. New York: New Directions Pub., 2001. Print.
2. Hiroshige’s Journey, Yokohama 1986
Yamashita Park, Yokohama, Winter 1986.
an old man
who walked past here
cloaked against the blue sky and wind
now seems a mile away
the white birds
there are so many
white birds beside the sea.
Why is it that so much of our thinking and writing about poetry is monopolised by a rhetorics of dramatic visibility, clarity and focus? The vivid image, the intense phrase, the memorable line, lucid brilliance and the glow of authenticity are primary objectives in many a poetry workshop and poetry “how too.” But what if a person is stuck to the earth each day by a dense and opaque blur in the heart? What then about a poetry of contingency and doubt, forgetting and forgetfulness? What about vagueness, amnesia and ambiguity? Imagine a poetics of the lossy and indeterminate, inexactness and frailty. A beautiful poetics of the invisible.
On 16 December 1986 I sat on a bench by the water at Yamashita Park, Yokohama, a pleasant harbour-side ribbon of lawns and gardens and trees beside the still and heavily polluted Yokohama Bay. I have no idea of the occasion, although presumably it was just an ordinary outing with family or friends to pass the time in the open air and sun and light. I recall a brisk winter breeze flicking up from the water, a long row of white-iron benches facing off a white-pipe balustrade that marked the edge of the city at the shoreline. The park is very flat, marked out regularly in oblong lawns and straight bitumen paths, edges beguilingly rounded. Park as jejune green hinge articulating the horizontal grey expanse of the port on one side and the vertical walls of moderately tall buildings on the other. People strolled in straight lines, many alone or in small huddled groups, their aerated children squealing and skittling along the path in the wind. A bright cold breezy day not unlike that preserved forever on Google Maps.
Writing on Arthur Rimbaud’s “fleeing into the desert”, Maurice Blanchot (1982) suggests that while Rimbaud escaped from “the responsibilities of the poetic decision” by taking refuge in the world, “bit by bit his days, devoted henceforth to the aridity of gold, make a shelter for him of protective forgetfulness.” (53) Blanchot may be remembering Emile Cioran (1934) in the Heights of Despair, for whom “forgetfulness is the only salvation.” (50) However while Cioran is desperate “to forget the world”, Rimbaud exiles himself to a triumphantly forgotten worldliness, his poetry a vanquished memorial. At Yamashita Park I remember feeling again a similarly peculiar sensation of suspended, forgotten worldliness. The feeling is of being absolutely located in a place, but being-so amidst a pervading aura of timelessness that oblates the fine aperture of being situated and turns it outward into a dull wide compressed opacity. One is simultaneously situated and alienated.
I sat on one of the identical benches, squinting through the brumal light and cold breeze watching the passers-by and looking out at the industrial horizon across the water. Despite the water’s unctuous lifelessness, dumpy seabirds squawked overhead, well-fed on the waste of human affluence. At some point I must have been provoked into the mood for composition. I remember beginning to observe an old man walking toward me from a distance. I could see that he was elderly, short and stooped, dressed in a dark insulated traditional farmer’s jacket over track-pants, socks and slippers. I remember beginning to imagine that he was Hiroshige (1797-1858), the profound ukijo-e (woodblock) artist of “the floating world.” Earlier in the year I’d seen Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō at a heritage guesthouse somewhere deep in a mountainous forest. The prints were displayed in an extraordinary wooden room that now floats in my memory as a golden world free from all external connections. We ate a traditional lunch seated around a sunken floor kotatsu, and stood looking at the cooking pit where an old woman dressed in replica peasant clothes stoked the fire and tended to the pots. We made our way around the large open gallery, contemplating Hiroshige’s series from start to finish, from the modern imperial capital Edo (Tokyo) to the ancient imperial capital Kyoto. We left in a black Toyota Cressida.
Hiroshige’s third station, Kanagawa, is a harbour-side precinct that neighbours Yamashita Park. He must have travelled close by here on the Tōkaidō, the East Sea Road of the 53 Stations. Indeed, as I looked at the old man walking toward me I imaginatively realised that it had to be Hiroshige himself shuffling toward me as he looked out at the boats in the harbour, hands clasped behind his back as he weighed up the scene in his mind. He had come to life. I discretely observed him as he approached and passed by. But beyond a blurred morphological gestalt I don’t remember anything more than this indeterminate figure, the dark brown fabric, the texture of advanced age. Perhaps he noticed nothing about me as well. We approximated one another for a moment and then just as quickly fell away into an irrevocable distance, clouds glowing with departure. The white birds are a sign of our frail impercipience, the singularity of the moment suddenly sublimated in an infinite semiosis of gulls. Somewhere in the distance a flock of woodblock prints circle in the sunlight.
I recently discovered the work of Australian painter Joanna Logue, whose paintings (check out her exhibitions at King Street Gallery in Sydney) give pictorial meaning to a poetics of the ambiguous and indistinct. Logue is a good reminder that characteristics of perception and ideation can at times be observed in an active compositional indeterminacy and illegibility. At the beginning of his second essay of On The Genealogy of Morality (2007) Friedrich Nietzsche declares that forgetfulness is a positive creative activity: “forgetfulnesss not just a vis inertiae … but is rather an active ability … positive in the strongest sense of the word”. (35) There is room for an aesthetics of the beautiful that admits noise, distortion, intensification and relaxation, and embraces the fecundity of forgetfulness and the forgotten. Take any of the images of Logue’s paintings found on the King Street Gallery site, such as “Road to Brewongie” (2010) or any of the phenomenal “window” series, and discover a sensibility in which “blur” does not result in the suppression or loss of information, but rather provokes the elegant genesis of information in the texturing of a painting’s materiality and the evocation of a profound simultaneity in the variousness of its affects and perspectives. The indeterminate is not that which is irretrievable, but at its etymological root that which is not limited. I think I like it here.
“Hiroshige’s Journey” is the very last poem I hand-wrote in my 1986 Japan journal. I have often thought about the event, tried to remember more. Over the years my mental images have become increasingly ambiguous, but in ways that are deceptively interesting and productive. For instance, sometimes I see the old man approaching from my right as if I am seated and looking out at the harbour. Other times he is approaching from my left as if I am facing the park and the buildings. I have settled on the first account, as it just feels right and like the poem seems transparently to involve the bright sky and harbour rather than bits of greenery. There’s not much else. I can see the small chain and looped pole garden fences, and bright white convenience stores like “Happy Lawson” now on the park’s northern entrance. The general vibe is of deep ennui and an afternoon wanting to lapse insipidly.
And then, just as Nietzsche predicted, from the great abyss emerges the sparkle of creativity. I begin to imagine that actually the old man who walked by me was not Hiroshige at all. It was actually me, an elderly version of myself somehow transported back in time in an effort to observe in that moment what I was like as a youngster. Back in 1986, when I hoped he hadn’t noticed me at all, he’d instead held me in an intimate and compassionate study. All the while the poem has been hovering between us like a hologram of two times, where I am now and where I was back then. I’m not sure whether it takes me back into the past or forward into the future. I sometimes wonder how it would be, to find myself delivered back through time into the event of the poem, to see myself. So I just read it again.
The old man who walked past here cloaked against the blue sky and wind has always been there beyond me, in the poem, and in everything it doesn’t say.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Print.
Cioran, E. M. On the Heights of Despair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans. Diethe, Carol. Ed. Ansell-Pearson, Keith. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.
1. Gimen no soko no byōki no kao, Yokohama 1986
Gimen no soko no byōki no kao: Sick Face of the Earth
Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886-1942)
In the earth I see my face,
a lonely sick person’s face.
From the ground’s darkness
grow my eyes like stems of grass,
like a fieldmouse from its house of confusion
into a field of trembling hair,
from the sick and lonely ground
of the winter solstice
where the roots of the thin new bamboo spread
this pathetic blunder I see today
and am forced even more
to see my mistake;
the darkness in the earth,
the lonely face, in the earth.
(trans. Peter Minter)
In 1986, fresh from my Higher School Certificate, I left Australia for the first time to live in Yokohama, Japan. I had no Japanese and had barely thought of Japan before being selected to go there as an exchange student. It was early in the new year, if my memory serves me well, perhaps only a day or two after receiving my HSC results in the post. I departed on a bright hot summer day, was driven by my parents all the way from Quorrobolong to Sydney, and the next day found myself in a vast icy grey metropolis that thrummed electric under a pall of dirty snow.
A trio of impeccably polite, dark-suited men met me at Narita. It was explained to me that despite great efforts the arrangements for my first host family were not quite complete, so they were taking me to stay at a hotel. Nice. I was driven to the Yokohama Sheraton, shown to an upper storey suite and asked to wait. “Here’s my card. We’ll see you again in a few days,” said the man with English, who I would later learn was a head teacher at my host school. “Just put everything on the room account.”
Suddenly at a great distance from my family and all that I knew, one of my first significant encounters with adulthood was an unforgettable experience of the perfect suspension of the real. I was eighteen and a half years old and free as a bird in a foreign city, left like a mote in a large glass bubble that looked out over the city and beyond toward Kawasaki and Tokyo. I knew nothing. I watched TV and ordered room service on my bottomless tab. I stood against the window-wall and looked hundreds of metres down to the square, thousands trudging backwards and forwards making little black lines in the whiteness. Or the blizzards blasting ice horizontally into the glass just before my face, my breath condensed on the inside in a small but fearless symmetry. The crepuscular night lights. I slept and woke at odd hours, sometimes to bright blue cloudless mornings or to moments of gold sunset reflected in the walls of neighbouring buildings. The phone rang a couple of times, the English teacher checking in. Yes I’m fine. The view is great. The food is great. See you soon. Sayonara.
But most of the experience I have forgotten. I remember walking around the underground arcades, but not leaving or returning to my room. I remember lying on my bed watching TV, but none of my meals or, say, the appearance of the bathroom. Were there tea and coffee making facilities? But forgetting is really not such a bad thing. As Walter Benjamin declared in a 1940 letter to Theodor Adorno (“Dear Teddie”), “[t]here can be no doubt that the concept of forgetting … is of great significance. I will bear in mind the possibility of a differentiation between epic and reflexive forgetting … it is unnecessary to question the concept of mémoire involuntaire in order to grant forgetting its due.” Of course Benjamin is speaking about Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrance, and goes on to remind us that we can only remember that which we have involuntarily forgotten: “[t]he childish experience of how a madeleine tasted that one day involuntarily popped into Proust’s mind was, in fact, unconscious. It was not the first bite into his first madeleine, (Tasting is a conscious act.) Tasting, however, probably becomes unconscious to the extent that the taste became more familiar. The grown-up’s ‘tasting again’ is then naturally conscious.”
By the time I left Japan in January 1987 I had become “naturally conscious” in the Japanese language. You might say I’d forgotten English. I transacted most of my daily life in Japanese, and at night I dreamt in it as well. I’d lived with four wonderful families and had attended the senior year of what I later understood to be a prestigious boys school, Asano Gakuen. Here I was taken under the wing of the humanities staff, a group of slightly dishevelled, chain smoking men who let me hang-out in their office rather than attend classes. We drank tea and talked about anything and everything, and in our spirited conversations about life and culture and history and literature I really began to learn and understand Japanese. I took their classes in calligraphy, music, ikebana and art. And it was in that office, three storeys up looking north over a rather desolate playing field, that I began to translate Japanese poetry.
It was the English teacher’s brainwave, the one who’d met me at the airport and taken me to the hotel, a very soft and smart gentleman whose name I have completely forgotten. He and I talked a lot about English literature, particularly poetry. He was a Tennyson devotee, and in the last year of high school I had just discovered post-war American poetry. I’d brought with me to Japan a copy of Gary Snyder’s Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and the Penguin Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. It was he who encouraged me to translate modern Japanese poetry, chiefly as a way for me to learn the very difficult written language but also perhaps as a method to more completely know the Japanese soul. I remember him one day handing me an old leather-bound copy of Hagiwara Sakutarō’s Tsuki ni Hoeru (“Howling at the Moon”). He told me about an author who had died too young, but how his “free verse” style and realist vernacular had caused a sensation when his book was published in 1917. I flicked through and chose a poem, “Gimen no soko no byōki no kao” (Sick Face of the Earth), and presumably over the subsequent days or weeks got to know to the greatest possible depth every character in every line. That’s my translation above.
The poem conveys an intense existential crisis. The title could also mean “Sick Face Nearby in the Earth” but perhaps I felt drawn to the idea of the earth itself being sick (was I writing just after Chernobyl, when even in Japan fresh vegetables and milk had disappeared from the stores? I have no idea.) Its central images have echoed through my own work ever since, from “Tour Guide Remembering Her Father” in Rhythm in a Dorsal Fin (1996):
… and you think you know what he was thinking
on the burning edge of summer as he waved
his arms and laughed, like his favourite
line in Hagiwara, where the roots
of new bamboo spread and spread.
As your eyes grow like stems of grass
the ground changes its perspective,
butterflies ascend in breathless clouds.
to the poem “Serine” in blue grass (2006):
It’s then your face
close by in the ground
remembers how you have lived.
However the most uncanny thing about the translation is that I don’t remember doing it. I have a notebook with a titlepage drawing of a figure shielding itself from the moon, a photocopy of the original kanji and kana with my pencilled phonetic iteration, and an ink version that is presumably the end result. Everything in between has been forgotten. When I rediscovered this notebook while moving house a few years ago, at first I felt a “pathetic blunder” in the radical paucity of context. There were no notes, no traces of the life and ideas that had gone on around the translation at the time, just a few dim shadows caught slightly between three small pages. The life itself had all but been forgotten. But over time that pathetic blunder also fell away. As I got to know the poem again, it grew to become a crystalline paragon of an entire year of my life. The periods of solitariness. The moments of startling apprehension and recognition. The intensification of my own sense of poetic language. A growing appreciation of how Japanese philosophy and aesthetics expressed a deeply organic nature-culture ontology. The lonely face in the earth is both human and base nature. The art of the perfect suspension. I realised too that in forgetting the emergence of the poem I was also unexpectedly producing the conditions for its remembrance. Sometimes you have to let something sleep for a long time for it to make sense.
Using an earthy lexicon that is remarkably similar to Hagiwara’s, Proust goes organic in describing a set of relations between good sleep and the existential, the forgotten, and the recovered:
Good nights … turn so effectively the soil and break through the surface stone of our body that we discover there, where our muscles dive down and throw out their twisted roots and breathe the air of the new life, the garden in which as a child we used to play. There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. What once covered the earth is no longer upon it but beneath: a mere excursion does not suffice for a visit to the dead city, excavation is necessary also. But we shall see how certain impressions, fugitive and fortuitous, carry us back even more effectively into the past, with a more delicate precision, with a flight more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal than these organic dislocations.
Against the sheer existential horror of all we forget, each poem in a life becomes a fugitive, delicately precise machine for remembering an event and its organic dislocations. A poem is like an ark for a moment or series of moments, a small vessel amidst a sea of epic or reflexive forgetfulness that we glide off headlong toward our friends and readers or indeed future selves. Perhaps that is what our species has been doing for thousands of years, making poems to send information forward and outward so others can see and remember. Madeleines for the survivors. Holographs of the forgotten. Genealogies of invisibility.
In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart writes that “[a]t the heart of the capacity art has for the transformation and mediation of time is the dual work of memory and imagination.” In this series of posts for Southerly, which I call To The Invisible, I’ll take a closer look at a group of poems I wrote in my youth and try to remember what it was I was rabbiting on about back then. Is there anything there I can remember? What flashes and traces of memory suddenly appear when I spend some time with poems written over a quarter of a century ago? What information do they wish to convey? What are they trying to tell me?
 Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)., p. 629. Marcel Proust and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Remembrance of Things Past (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2006).↩
 Peter Minter, Rhythm in a Dorsal Fin, New Poets 3. (Wollongong, N.S.W.: Five Islands Press Associates, 1995)., pp. 8-9.↩
 Peter Minter, blue grass (Cambridge, Eng.: Salt Publishing, 2006)., p. 104.↩
 Proust and Scott-Moncrieff, Remembrance of Things Past., p. 929.↩
 Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2002).p, 205.↩
Benjamin, Walter, Gershom Scholem, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.
Minter, Peter. blue grass. Cambridge, Eng.: Salt Publishing, 2006. Print.
—. Rhythm in a Dorsal Fin. New Poets 3. Wollongong, N.S.W.: Five Islands Press Associates, 1995. Print.
Proust, Marcel, and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. Remembrance of Things Past. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2006. Print.
Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.