review by Dominique Hecq
Through some weird chance encounter, the year Charles Darwin’s famous study On the Origins of Species appeared in print – 1859 – Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Quotation and Originality’ was also penned (Emerson 1946). In it, he challenged the very notion of originality by arguing that as speakers and writers we are inescapably involved in a constant process of quotation. As Freud later demonstrated, the human psyche is a kind of quotation machine (Freud 2001 ). It is indeed the case that the use of words involves quotation and that the past, as experience and as record, inhabits, and sometimes inhibits, the present. Despite any changes we might wish to make to Emerson’s text in order to account for the technological developments that have occurred in excess of one hundred and fifty years, we have to concede that the tension and interrelatedness between quotation and originality endures. Indeed, writer and theorist Mark Amerika has given us a creative method for perfecting the art of quotation and working with found material: surf, sample, manipulate: ‘Surf the culture, sample data and then change that data to meet the specific needs of the narrative’ (Amerika 1995).
Dan Disney’s new books of poetry, either, Orpheus and Report from a Border, are about weird chance encounters and perfecting the art of quotation through contrivance. Poems in these two collections are all elaborate ‘tissue[s] of quotations’ (Barthes 1977: 146) or deconstructions of existing tissues of quotations. Nothing is ever explicit, culturally, poetically, or ethically. And yet all the previously invoked fields are explored, especially for the paradoxes they uncover. Relentlessly. For example, while hills and valleys and mountains and the lack of boundaries are key motifs in either, Orpheus, especially in part one, perhaps because life on the edge is in some ways exhilarating, Report scrutinises the borders against which the book’s protagonists and speakers abut. Both either, Orpheus and Report from a Border trigger meditations on impermanence and inhabitation and the chance encounter between these two works invites the reader to confront avatars of utopia and dystopia.
The complexity of either, Orpheus and Report from a Border is alluring. Both are syntactically and typographically inventive. The former is a ludic book engaging with other texts in self-reflexive fashion. And yet it is never narcissistic. Through utilising shifting personas and modes of poetic diction, it achieves some kind of exclusive inclusiveness which resonates with its subject matter: what it means to be human in the maze of (post)modernity. Through perfecting the art of quotation, both either, Orpheus and Report from a Border are tributes to the richness, value, inescapability of language in its spoken and written forms, books and ideas. And despite their tackling very different themes, both gesture towards what might be called an ethics of poetry.
The unifying principle at the heart of the maze is a concern with poetic forms and forms of exile. either, Orpheus tells of the burdens of history and the ruins of memory. It speaks of the erasure of consciousness, the decolonisation of affects, and it speaks of death without any touch of nostalgia for origins from a variety of viewpoints. The poems speak in and through themselves while showing the reader the many approaches that gain purchase in Disney’s poetic world. In this world, spectral characters appear, and like Jorge Luis Borges’ metaphysicians of Tlön they ‘do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for astonishment’ (Borges 1964: 34. Translation modified). And what do they find?
Report from a Border is also concerned with poetic forms and forms of exile firmly embedded in the present moment and orality, however Disney’s protagonists encounter something of ‘THE KINETICS OF PURGE’ (sic), and before that:
Here, I will pause briefly to bemoan the absence of page numbers in both books. If this was intentional (and I’ve tried to come up with some plausible reasons), it’s not making my job easy, nor yours, dear reader.
Disney’s poetic world is formal, historical, etymological, and to a lesser extent, political, biographical, and eco-critical in its postmodern sense of play, satire, and suspicion, and the concurrent romantic vision of the redemptive possibilities of art. The reader who seeks modernist seriousness in either, Orpheus will soon be frustrated with the hiccups of villanelles that morph into villaknelles where repetition and quotation are often used to great ironic effect. It is especially evident in poems such as those from ‘accelerations and inertias’ which won first place in the 2015 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize. In these poems, the connections between works, ideas, figures and patterns are amazingly intricate and illuminating, particularly upon discovering their textual sources:
On the other hand, the reader who wants only postmodern indeterminacy and scepticism inspired by the writings of John Cage and OULIPO aficionados will stumble over the recurring lines from mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the epigraphs to part one and three, and the echoes of Rilke texts throughout the collection. There is cause not for despair here, but for fascination and excitement in the possibilities of exploding the diachronic and transnational fields of poetic language.
Thus, either, Orpheus foregrounds the influences of philosophers, social theorists and other poets. Disney’s work, shows (off) how he responds and re-reads such figures as Kierkegaard and Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Ted Hughes, Charles Wright, Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery, George Seferis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Czesław Miłosz, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Gary Snyder, William Wordsworth, Pierre Bourdieu, Elizabeth Bishop, Yves Bonnefoy, Joseph Brodsky, John Cage (a favourite), Anne Carson, Robert Graves, Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, Alain Badiou and many others – named or not (I read a reference to Lacan in the swarm of bees first invoked in relation to Rilke).
Conspicuously absent are references to Australian thinkers and poets; the exception is Les Murray, in a rather ambivalent piece. Why this is the case is a good question. My guess is that Dan Disney may think of himself as a self-imposed exile. And I suspect that he is closer to Paul Muldoon, whom he quotes at some length, than any other living poet he engages with in virtual conversation, apart from Dante, another exile, whose influence is felt from the start of the prologue onwards. In fact, the word ‘exile’ recurs as a mantra in either, Orpheus, and although absent in Report from a Border, it is exile which is this work’s subject matter. In Disney’s poetic world, ‘[t]he exile … exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachments’ (Said 1996: 49). However in this world, the exile is divested from ‘nostalgic and sentimental’ attributes (49). Disney’s exilic figure could be said to be a latent exile. Aesthetically and ethically, then, Disney joins the company of Dante, Baudelaire and Muldoon.
Like these poets, Disney strives to bring forth the contradictions at the heart of his human and poetic heritage. Yet the word ‘heart’ is not frequently called upon in Disney’s poetry. Nor are overt instances of an autobiographical nature. Disney and Muldoon share an interest in writing the poetical and experiential landscapes of poetry, but Disney, like Dante, and unlike Baudelaire and Muldoon, shies away from any family history and emotional terrain that might partake of a work’s ‘hidden architecture’ to cite Valéry translated by Muldoon (Muldoon 2004: 25). Nonetheless, what they all strive to convey is that ‘very little is as it seems’ (Muldoon 25), or to put it in imagist mode, that ‘truth is a ship bound for utopia’ (Disney 2016a). Although both are reluctant to support any claims for art’s importance and near-sacred status, both affirm their faith at least in art’s power to express ideas, feelings and affects, especially despair. Muldoon does so in elegies written upon the death of family and friends; Disney does so in elegies for the unknown and often unnamed of (post)modernity. This testifies to a common understanding of aesthetic illumination as well as redemptive drive.
While either, Orpheus is universal in significance and intertextual engagement, Report from a Border, co-devised with graphic artist John Warwicker, is more local in character. It shares similar formal and thematic concerns with either, Orpheus, but its topos is not the tortuous road to modernity; rather, it is the torturous backdrop of a colonised ‘cove’ (emphasis ed. otherwise Disney 2016b: 74). Here, the typographical experiments enhance the social critique rather than the formal and philosophical possibilities of poetry. Almost every page in the book deliberately offers multiple ways of being read and therefore foregrounds multiple points of views. Here inclusive exclusiveness often excludes the reader by questioning her values, which is disconcerting at times, but no doubt intended as a provocation. Indeed, any attempt to ‘analyse’ Report from a Border through thematic dissection, is an exercise in futility; it is like attempting to grasp the intricacies of a puzzle by examining each individual piece.
In these more overtly politicised poems, Disney displays his penchant for satire of a Swiftian mode by making use of the whole gamut of possibilities typography offers, especially in conveying the violence of / and inflicted by language. Thus whereas either, Orpheus creates a fable of social and political and aesthetic experience that uncovers truths about what it means to be human, Report from a Border translates vignettes of social and political experiences that discover and uncover hidden truths about human nature. And what is hidden is often hideous. In this work, ‘we are all exiles’, as the Canadian novelist Robert Kroetsch put it wryly in a postcolonial context (Kroetsch 1977), and it is unclear whether redemption is possible, especially for Australians, who are irrevocably caught in the mesh of postcolonialism and its neo-colonial fibre.
A recurring word in both volumes is ‘thus’. Because I’ve always thought this adverb rather ponderous, I find its recurrence intriguing. And I wonder if, perhaps there is a connection to be made here with the absence of intertextual engagement with Australian poets. Neither versed in Korean or Korean poetry, though interested in Japanese verse through my reading of Lacan’s later writings, I wonder if I have missed that Disney also incorporates Asian aesthetics into his poems, especially in the either, Orpheus ones with their elliptic devices and increasing absence in structure, image, and syntax that makes me recall the Mahayana Buddhist doctrines of śūnyatā (emptiness) and tathatā (thusness). The noun ‘mind’ only appears once in either, Orpheus and Report – and in this instance, it is beyond its usual meaning, consciousness, and so may refer to ‘emptiness’ – the condition of the ‘mind’ expressed in its ‘thusness’ à la Buddhist philosophy.
If this interpretation is too far-fetched, one recalls William Blake’s incitation of ‘melting apparent surfaces away’ (Blake 1978: 88). Inert hills, mountains, and their ‘groundwork’ with human waste are all undergoing energy transformation. Equally, there is no essential ‘individual self’, but creatures ‘exiled as mystics from the glossy pictures of lakeside slums’ (88). I don’t mean to suggest that Dan Disney is either seer or prophet, but a poet spiritually and philosophically roaming across fields and pointing to the fundamental philosophy of emptiness and impermanence. In this, he is, like Gary Snyder whose work he cites, countering the sorts of ideology that expose human and non-human nature to suffering on a catastrophic scale. He does so ‘from the zone of a [Oulipian] User’s Guide’.
Dan Disney is a rare pyro-technician who dazzles with his poetic acumen and depth of reflection. He matches the complexity and uncertainty of the twenty-first century with a poetic project that is enthrallingly uncertain, yet nevertheless vibrant and generative in its wit, wisdom and ongoing effort to find meanings in the world. His poetry suggests that language is only a means of uncovering the grain of things because it uncovers the chaos of structures that actually permeate Western capitalism and its associated ideologies. It lays bare processes of perception, thinking and feeling, and yet paradoxically shows that language negates its own assertions by making unexpected connections across ‘syntaxing surfaces’.
It remains to offer Disney the following homage:
Dominique Hecq’s first publication, The Book of Elsa, a mythically inflected novel, was published in 2000. Since then she has published three collections of short fiction, five books of poetry, and one CD with libretto, Thirst, with the assistance of sound artist Catherine Clover. Two of her plays have been performed in Australia, Belgium and Germany. Her recent work increasingly pursues polygeneric concerns – see Out of Bounds and Stretchmarks of Sun (Re.press). Hush, in progress, pushes this formal concern even further.
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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste