The Great Australian Dream, Delivered in the Manner of Gatsby
Always over one’s shoulder, you’ll find the trees
that forgot to breathe. Beyond that, pole stars
of the poets and a clothes line peg-legging
to an astral waltz. Between the part of the land
and the part of the fence that forms the word
shriven fantasies make real through twirling
Slight politicians or the predator foxes that skulk across
the laneway. Neighbours that forgot to watch.
The glory of going from Plan A to Plan B recklessly
rides one to houndstooth, bitten not frayed
in the precluding capitalist night. Songs that promise refuge
against nations that do not. The buttons keep falling
off your burnished, son-of-a-gun reputation.
With all the frontier mentality of a screen door,
you tore the flyleaf from Hopalong Cassidy’s book.
I reneged on our pact not to care more than the other.
Came a Topper in a grand strategy endgame,
manoeuvred to horsemate. Sarsaparilla still
perfumes the range; gummed up excursus
rots alongside Western solitude. Didn’t Bataille say
we all had to enjoy this inner experience?
Affection never did find a home where it wanted to stay.
The ideal flares up as goosebumps
on the earth’s curved hide,
les poètes maudit ghost-managing lights
for your last party speech.
What’s the Time, PM?
The ravenous lost art. These days, all her wolves
are well turned out. Mediaeval toothpicks
fraternise with Spanish ham of the fathers
and their fathers before them. Marbled discontent,
the ritual exhaustion of venial abandon.
Pre-bound to capital, devils demand consistency,
divide the fat into neat job lots.
Each sin shares a lining, what big eyes,
small picture self-congratulation. Recount your cure,
meet tales of a nanny state with the usual hunted expression.
Juvenile will swallowed by conditional mood
or the mouthfuls of time. To ride through forests
in fade-away red. To hide history in the too-hard basket,
polish the axe, and present an all too predictable ending.
To think happy thoughts and never, ever turn to look back.
Yr views of fair-sexting swift as an arrow.
How slight this is meant to be, capricious
gambol. To appear in the pink,
well-weathering and rambunctious.
Blossom and blush, to shy away in the clouds
keep time, keep up, keepsake
As arête of capture, while all the time
you encapsulate the invariable hyphen.
Sworn to true love as TM-intensive,
a tax on your good time. Tether it here.
Why make us do this turn-around,
an expedience of best practice feeling.
I am not done yet. I am not done
meeting all your targets. Loyal satire,
monarch bred. Shed all your couplets,
head off convention, the calamitous
calibrations of king and kind.
What if Persephone remained a hard woman?
An ethics of care turned towards oneself.
Love’s harvest, the halves of intimacy in these latitudes.
A climate of change revealed as cycle of constant
return, how to reconcile, farm my inadequacy
for yours or simply distract. Let’s just say
for argument’s sake, let’s just say
pugilism is always political, platforms cropping hay,
the field of absolutes you might travel to.
I distil the brackish dark, listen low over the lees,
liar strings laid flush to decider core. Store
of regrets, bare-knuckled figs, a desire to fall foul.
Your rallying jig as jubilant plucked yew.
Cross-dressing Orpheus to your Eurydice,
I discover I want as a mode. To provoke
the strike back, for you to tell me that the light
is yours, and it is I who have disengaged song,
who must feel my way through the ever-burdened earth.
To be called a muffler, bobbing compliment.
Another Chardin in Need of Cleaning
after Frank O’Hara
Forearmed is foredefeated,
a spragged illusion that had me forever
check the silver-leafed backing.
What seemed like a vermillion mirror of sea,
the work of rash gods competing over
nose-powder and light. Salient image
as tonnage of froth, the superficial pleasure
of being someone else for the day.
What wasn’t there cannot disappear,
so why regret that awkward kiss
over the smoker’s box
when you decided to sit and clean the turnips?
One employs colours in the afternoon glare
but my feelings remain diffuse
each memory from the same genre,
yet indistinguishable in the over-populated world.
Does it matter who can gauge the lapping dark?
For you were everything once
returning to dead layer, a general of still life
hanging on the end of the dauphine’s stays.
Reflection: A Melbourne Meridian
Poetry could be said to be en route between lightness and darkness, travelling along what Paul Celan terms the meridian. As Celan suggests, the poem must seek strangeness and speak on behalf of the strange. But it does so “in the light of what is still to be searched for: in a u-topian light” (1960: 51). It therefore moves towards its own impossibility, circling upon itself in order to free itself. It is both “the place where all tropes and metaphors want to be led ad absurdum” (1960: 51) and no place. For Celan, the poem is paradoxical. It is simultaneously abstract and earthly; it can be both a Fadensonne (sun-thread) and obscure. Indeed, its very obscurity may offer a “sudden opening”: “This obscurity, if it not congenital, has been bestowed on poetry by strangeness and distance (perhaps of its own making) and for the sake of an encounter” (1960: 46).
The poem enters into “conversation” (Celan, 1960: 50), aware of the immateriality of language yet tied to the physical, and attempting to cross between self and other. For Celan, poetry “holds its own ground on its own margin” (1960: 49). The margin is also where Giorgio Agamben situates the contemporary. The contemporary for Agamben is that person who knows how to see obscurity, “who is able to write by dipping his pen into the obscurity of the present” (2009: 13). He adds, “They do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity” (2009: 14). This echoes Celan:
Even in the here and now of the poem—and the poem has only this one unique, momentary present—even in this immediacy and nearness, the otherness gives voice to what is most its own: its time (1960: 50).
If the conversational drive of the poem “becomes…desperate” (Celan 1960: 50), then one strategy is to “make light of” its circumstance. The poem today does not seek illumination, understanding, or a resolution out of darkness. Instead, it makes us feel our way through the liminal, questioning our cultural associations of lightness and darkness, and “throws” us into the strange. Although Celan speaks of poetry as “topological research” (1960: 51), such an exercise is not a mapping. Poetry explores the detour, the turn, and the reversal.
Contemporary poetry travels between the political, the affective, and the aesthetic. In this contemporary era, Sianne Ngai argues that “the nature of the socio-political itself has changed in a manner that both calls forth and calls upon a new set of feelings—one less powerful than the classical political passions” (2005: 5). Much of contemporary poetry could be said to explore “affective gaps and illegibilities, dysphoric feelings, and other sites of emotional negativity” (Ngai 2005:1).
Taking its cue from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby , “The Great Australian Dream, Delivered in the Manner of Gatsby” considers the modern condition of melancholia which, according to Jonathan Flatley, “is something one does: longing for lost loves, brooding over absent objects and changed environments, reflecting on unmet desires, and lingering on [past] events” (2008: 2). For Flatley, it “is a practice that might, in fact, produce its own kind of knowledge” (2008: 2). An emblematic melancholic, Gatsby believed in “the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” (1926: 188). Just as the American Dream suggests that anyone can succeed irrespective of origin, the “Great Australian Dream” considers home ownership is available to everyone. In both Fitzgerald and this poem, one’s home constructs a sense of identity and a sign of success. The title not only points to excessiveness that marks Fitzgerald’s story, but also Australia’s shadowing of America. Gatsby seemed to exist as pure simulacra; so, too, does the ubiquitous Australian home-owner. The poem contrasts the individualism of the suburban home with its infinite reproducibility. It also contrasts the insularity of the suburban home with the insularity of Australia as nation. Both have anxieties over the alien other, whether this be expressed through governmental attitudes towards refugees (“Songs that promise refuge/against nations that do not”) or through neighbourhood watch (the communal process of shared surveillance of each other’s property). Both Australian foreign policy and the suburban home are focused on maintaining boundaries to exclude the alien other.
The poem is marked by a rhetoric of degeneration where fantasies are “shriven.” Furthermore, it is admittedly dense with oblique allusions, not entirely letting the reader into its space. In this respect, the poem performatively enacts its content: the ideal of fulfilment registers only at the level of “goosebumps” on the earth’s hide and the decadent political role of “les poètes maudit” (to quote Verlaine’s 1894 characterization of the poet living cursed outside society).
A more overt critique of current Australian politics is found in “What’s the Time, PM?” The title invokes the childhood game, “What’s the Time Mr Wolf?” in which a designated child plays a wolf who has his back turned to the other children. As the other children creep towards it in the hope of outsmarting the wolf, the wolf can decide to declare “Dinner Time!” and turn around, thus initiating the end-chase. The poem also invokes the fairy-tale of Little Red Riding Hood which also features a wolf wanting to eat her. Reversing the roles of hunter and hunted, it is the political leader who carries “the usual hunted expression” in the likelihood of being called to account. He also occupies the role of Little Red Riding Hood in hiding “history in the too-hard basket” and “never, ever turn[ing] to look back.” As with many literary revisions, this poem emphasizes a permeability of identity.
A major aspect of contemporary darkness is the sense of alienation. More specifically, Lauren Berlant argues that the “potential failure” of “modern mass-mediated sense of intimacy” “to stabilize closeness always haunts its persistent activity, making the very attachments deemed to buttress ‘a life’ seem in a state of constant if latent vulnerability” (1998: 282). Digital communication technologies, particularly the use of smart phones, have led to the proliferation of new modes of expressing desire like sexting. Just as the courtly love poem was a performance with tacit rules and roles for the poet and beloved, so, too, is sexting. In “Holding Court,” I consider the trajectory of the courtly love lyric to sexting via Mina Loy’s modernist 1917 satire, her thirty-four “Love Songs” (“Songs to Joannes”). As Loy realised, the courtly love poem often frames love as a game or sport, or, as I put it, a “capricious/gambol.” In both the courtly love poem and sexting, there is a display of desire with endless deferral of fulfilment. Unlike the love poem, sexting is about the interplay, of the need to “keep up” rather than to generate a “keepsake.” The courtly love poem is often implicit in its metaphoric expression of desire and assumes a “shy[ness]” or “blush” might beset the beloved. While also a space of fantasy, sexting is more explicit. “Holding Court” considers the poem both as a vehicle to capture and fix desire (an “arête of capture”), as well as an instrument to project desire onto a target (an “arrow”). It invokes the language of the marketplace such a “TM intensive” product and “best-practice feeling.” Although the beloved of the courtly love poem had little agency, “Holding Court” is like Loy’s “Love Songs” in assuming it for the female figure: “I am not done yet.” Then comes the declaration to “[s]hed all [the] couplets” of tradition, made manifest in the poem’s closure.
Loy also saw love as a battle and this is explored in my poem “Autumnal Hook.” Using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the poem considers the darker side of love with the desire to provoke or “fall foul.” Originally, Orpheus persuades Persephone through poetic song to retrieve his lover Eurydice from the Underworld. The poem raises the possibility of Persephone being a “hard woman” and of the two lovers staying in the Underworld. The resulting harvest is one of regrets. Energy, however, comes from the boxing interplay, with “bare-knuckled figs” and the lover’s “rallying jig” a form of “plucked yew.” Although “pluck yew” is slang for “fuck you,” yew is also mythically the tree of transformation and rebirth. The poem also considers the possibility of a female Orpheus and male Eurydice, shifting the gender roles traditionally assigned to the poet and beloved. A cross-dressing manoeuvre calls for a transformation of Eurydice from passive object to active equal. Indeed, care might be expressed in the demand for a response, even if it is in the form of a “strike back.” The poet-speaker
desires the beloved
to tell me that the light
is yours, and it is I who have disengaged song,
who must feel my way through the ever-burdened earth.
On another level, “Autumnal Hook” might be considered an eco-poetic allegory, with the “climate of change revealed as cycle of constant/return.” The speaker questions whether to “farm…inadequacy” or “simply distract” and ignore the coming failure. Perhaps as poet, all one can do is “distil the brackish dark.” The ambivalent “hook” in the poem’s title suggests a turn, but also something which captures or holds something else.
As I have suggested in “Another Chardin in Need of Cleaning,” feelings in the contemporary era may seem “diffuse” and “indistinguishable in the over-populated world.” This poem asks: “Does it matter who can gauge the lapping dark?” The poem itself is a “spragged illusion” that offers no comfort or resolution. It merely “retrace[s] its steps,” “confront[ing] us with its old and new uncanniness” (Celan 1960: 51). If poetry is “topological research,” as Celan suggests (1960: 51), then perhaps it provides a parodic topos, an entertainment topos (or sporting one), or all manner of “drifting topoi” as Pam Brown (2000) contends.
Agamben, Giorgio (2009). ‘What Is the Contemporary?’ in Nudities, tr. David Kishik & Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), pp. 10-19
Berlant, Lauren (1998). ‘Intimacy: A Special Issue,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Winter), pp. 281-288
Brown, Pam (2000). Drifting Topoi (Sydney: Vagabond Press)
Celan, Paul (1960). ‘The Meridian,’ in Collected Prose, ed. Beda Allemann & Klaus Reichert, tr. Rosmarie Waldrop (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986), pp. 37-55
Fitzgerald, F.S. (1926). The Great Gatsby (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950)
Flatley, Jonathan (2008). Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
Loy, Mina (1917). ‘Songs to Joannes,’ in The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy, ed. R.L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), pp. 53ff.; also at: https://oncomouse.github.io/loy/songs.html
Ngai, Sianne (2005). Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
Verlaine, Paul (ed.) (1894). Les Poètes maudit (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2008); recent French version also at: http://www.poetes.com/textes/ver_poemau.pdf
Ann Vickery is the author of Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2000), Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007), The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2014)—her first poetry collection—followed by her second collection Devious Intimacy (St Lucia: Hunter Publishing, 2015). She is co-editor with John Hawke of Poetry and the Trace (Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2013). She has edited a special issue, “Masque,” of Cordite Poetry Review (No. 43, September 2013) and co-edited “The Political Imagination” issue of Southerly (Vol. 73, No. 1, 2013) with Ali Alizadeh as well as the “Modernism, Intimacy, and Emotion” issue of Affirmations: of the Modern (Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 2014) with Lorraine Sim. She is a founding member of the Australian Modernist Studies Network, the 2001/2002 editor-in-chief of HOW2, and the Melbourne-based managing editor of the international, online Journal of Poetics Research. She is also the poetry editor of the Sydney publisher Puncher & Wattmann.
“Another Chardin in Need of Cleaning,” “Autumnal Hook,” and “The Great Australian Dream, Delivered in the Manner of Gatsby” were first published in Cordite Poetry Review, No. 42 (June 2013), Overland, No. 216 (Spring 2014), and Axon, Vol. 4, No. 2 (December 2014) respectively and thereafter in Devious Intimacy (St Lucia: Hunter Publishers, 2015). The others are new or substantially revised from anything published. All pieces are republished here with the permission of the author.