review by Ann Vickery
Suite for Percy Grainger: A Biography is the second full-length book of Jessica L Wilkinson. Like her first book, marionette: a biography of miss marion davies (Vagabond Press, 2012), it undertakes the task of poetic biography. While biography has traditionally been informed by presumptions of objectivity, control, and distance, poetic biography shifts the focus to the subjective, the partial, interpretation, and imagination. And whereas biography is traditionally about containing or reducing a life to a chronological, cohesive narrative, poetic biography foregrounds the problems and gaps in narrating a life. It questions what might be valued about a life and how we might know a person. Often escaping the chronological progression of traditional biography, poetic biography is adventurous, focusing attention on trivial or marginal elements that tend not to appear into the pages of a more traditional biography. The everyday, the ordinary, and the mundane begins to engender value. Poetic biography also enables the biographer to take what might seem like detours or to circle back over parts of an individual’s life. A relatively new form, it was pioneered by poets like Susan Howe in the 1980s, who turned her attention to marginal historical figures like Jonathan Swift’s lover Hester ‘Stella’ Johnson (The Liberties, 1980) and American Minister Hope Atherton (Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, 1987). Howe’s study, My Emily Dickinson (1985), also saw a paradigmatic shift in literary criticism that focused attention on the paratexts of poetry, such as letters, diaries, or ephemeral scraps of writing. Howe remains a key influence for Wilkinson. For both, the relationship between the archives and a life is incredibly complex. In the work of Howe and Wilkinson, the role of the biographer comes more to the fore and is in a highly conscious dynamic with her subject.
In her previous book, marionette: a biography of miss marion davies, Wilkinson focused on a figure who was marginal to a famous man (Marion Davies was the lover of American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst). Less is known about Davies’ own career as an actress, which was cut short by Hearst’s controlling demands. Wilkinson’s biography explores Davies’ domestic or private selves as much as her more public face. It simultaneously stages the patriarchal diminution of Davies (this is emphasised by having the book’s title in lower case) while resurrecting her as a figure with a voice and agency. Importantly, Wilkinson explores a further manipulation of Davies, this being at the level of biographer and her subject, and how there might be versions of Davies that exceed the biographical pen.
Wilkinson also focuses on the technology of film in subject-formation and reception. As Walter Benjamin notes in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, film enables new perceptions of a subject: ‘Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye’ (Benjamin 1936: 236-7). Capturing aspects of human behaviour that other media cannot, Benjamin argued that ‘a movie can be analysed much more precisely and from more points of view than those presented on paintings or on the stage’ (235-6). Different points of view are explored materially on the page, as poems, words and letters are fragmented and come from all angles across the page. As with Howe’s work, Wilkinson’s bursts away from the constraints of poetic form, particularly that of the line. Using Davies’ acting career as a springboard, Wilkinson’s poststructural feminist approach foregrounds how the identity of a subject is constructed through performance and its reiteration. Like being a woman, the writing of a poem becomes a conceptual challenge, to be stretched and played with, while mindful of its cultural encoding and limitations.
With her second book, Jessica L. Wilkinson has changed focus in both medium and the cultural stature of her subject. Suite for Percy Grainger focuses on possibly Australia’s best-known composer and pianist. Meticulously researched over a six year period, Wilkinson traced his ‘Free Music experiment snippets (loaded onto a very old iPod) while walking to and from work, along streams, [and] through the Blue Mountains’ (129). A Felix Meyer Scholarship enabled her to visit the Grainger House in White Plains, New York (where Grainger spent the last forty years of his life). While a key challenge of a poetic biography on Marion Davies was the lack or obscuring of material, the sheer amount relating to Percy Grainger’s career and life provided a new set of challenges. During his long career, Grainger’s output ranged widely between the experimental to the popular. Deeply invested in documenting, Grainger collected British folk song via the phonograph which led to its revival in the early twentieth century. Grainger himself saw such activity as the stuff of biography. His friend and sometime travel companion, HG Wells would note: ‘You are trying to do a more difficult thing than record folk-songs; you are trying to record life’ (quoted in Freeman 2011: 418). As Graham Freeman suggests, Grainger saw the ‘song itself [as] organically connected to the life of the singer’ or, alternatively, ‘the art of the song was a metaphor for the art of the singer’s life’ (418). Besides British folk song, Grainger was interested in documenting his own life. An auto-archivist, he established the Grainger Museum in Melbourne which now houses over 100,000 artifacts. Based in Melbourne, Wilkinson was able to immerse herself in its vast sea of material.
As a suite, Wilkinson’s volume is divided into five sections. The middle section takes its cue from Jacques Derrida and is titled ‘Archive Fever’ (cf Derrida 1995). Its leading poem ‘Hoard House’ draws attention to the power of the archive in housing, organising and selecting material. As Wilkinson notes, Grainger was unusual in constructing his own archive, although she suggests that the order his archive was to instil is undone by the ‘glorious chaos in the bedroom piles [such that] you were outlived outcreated by the hidden things & hoardings of another’ (92). These are the acts of his wife, Ella, as much as the objects left behind and defined by Wilkinson as ‘scrap-liberties’ (97). Wilkinson, too, feels at times an intruder, like a squirrel that she spies on the ground. Focusing on portraiture of Grainger as states of being (81), she explores the challenges of interpretation; the role of manias, compulsions, and secrets against the desire for control and need to evidence a life. ‘On a Glacier with Mr. Grainger’ directly invokes a relationship between herself and her subject, and reads his stance in a photograph as an unwillingness to give up meaning to the camera. In ‘Letter to Myself, July 12, 2014’, Wilkinson turns the gaze back to herself and the stamina of working through both an archive and a poetry volume: ‘I am becoming tired and bored with looking / at you’ (88). Wilkinson italicises the ‘dead lines’ and the ‘distractions’ and ‘swerves’: ‘Bursts of activity followed by years / of fiddling’ (88).
The first section is about the difficulty of beginning a work and the paratextual frames through which a work is cast, including a prologue, preamble, preface, and gloss. The preface, however, is a ‘[w]reckage’ (20), overtly draft-like with its gaps and notes in brackets as additional thoughts. This gives the sense of the process behind writing biography, whereas traditional biographies present themselves as polished end-products. In this opening section, Wilkinson also muses on where and how to start a biography, whether it starts with birth or death. The difficulty of separating or compartmentalising works is also explored with ‘1961: lightly scored in three parts’ (24). This poetic sub-suite foregrounds the uncanny intersection that Wilkinson discovered between Grainger and her previous poetic subject, Marion Davies, with both dying in the same year. As the poem’s epigraph by Susan Howe remarks, ‘Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of Poetry’ (24). There is a sense of both bodies as ‘deviant score[s]’ that demand ‘more than one conductor’ and which move ‘slowly / flowingly / flowingly / flowingly / feelingly / hugely to the fore’ (28).
Wilkinson begins to explore alignments between poetic and musical composition and movement more fully in the second section of the Suite. This section focuses on the minor music that Grainger was interested in, such as British folksongs but also ‘humlet[s]’, walking tunes, gumleaf marches, train music, and occasional songs such as ‘Colonial Song’ which is ‘[c]omposed as yule-gift for mother, 1911’. Just as Grainger was interested in experimenting with form, so too is Wilkinson. ‘Lincolnshire Posy’ is an example of a concrete poem, first seeking to capture the movement of a two-step and then, in a further iteration, visually capturing a small floral bunch. ‘Folk Song Arrangements’ and ‘In Dahomey (Cakewalk Smasher)’ are examples of collage. ‘Nr 1 Arrival Platform Humlet’ captures the sound of a train approaching and the rise of excitement at the arrival of a ‘sweetheart’ (32). And ‘Marching Song of Democracy’ scripts an imagined exchange between Grainger, Walt Whitman, and Wilkinson herself as an ‘Exercise in Historical Absurdism’ (62). This reflects some of Grainger’s compositions like ‘The Warriors’, which requires three conductors. As with many of the poems, there is a focus on the embodied aspect of poetic and music composition. Just as Whitman was interested in the spirit of American working man, Grainger wants a ‘tone-art’ of the yeoman. Wilkinson, on the other hand, suggests ‘a feminine typography’ might be opened and added to their masculinist vision.
The fourth section, ‘Loves & the Lash’, focuses on Grainger’s psychosexual life, with particular attention to his sadomasochism and to his close ties with his mother. His yearning for Karen Holten (and to whip her flesh), expressed through numerous letters, is condensed into ‘Cream, Jam & Dizziness’. As Wilkinson notes:
This brings an additional layer of meaning to the musical term ‘score’, and, indeed, one of Wilkinson’s poems consists simply of lines marked across the blank page, imitating scores ‘self-beaten’ on the skin (108). In ‘The Rose-Bearer’, Wilkinson’s poem explores the letters between Grainger and his mother Rose around the period that she suicided off a New York building. The poem appears as a note that has been ripped up but then pieced together. While Wilkinson includes some of Grainger’s neologistic instructions like ‘louden lots’ (106) in section four, the final short section of the volume extends this more fully in considering his wordplay and experiments. In ‘Percy Aldridge Grainger’s Blue-Eyed Word-Book’, she catalogues them, including ‘on-draw-some ((attractive))’, ‘word-chains (sentences)’, ‘kødfolk: meat-mate’, and ‘parapara: semen’ (121).
The opening epigraph by Ralph Waldo Emerson declares: ‘Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone-quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors’ (10). Set out in wavy lines, Wilkinson enacts the ripple-effects of the past. Yet, as she notes in the detailed notes, she is interested in moving ‘beyond the biographical account which documents “something happened”, and towards an account which prompts something to happen’ (131). Suite for Percy Grainger entertains the restless energy of Grainger and of Wilkinson herself, but also asks, even demands, that the reader enter into a collaborative composition of meaning. While highly selective in its arrangement, Wilkinson offers a life of Grainger that remains open-ended and deliberately in process. As with the folk song which Grainger saw as embodying the life of a people, Suite for Percy Grainger creatively re-envisions biography into something which is both of, but beyond, the limits of the page.
Benjamin, W 1968 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, trans & ed H Arendt, Schocken Books, New York return to text
Derrida, J 1995 Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans E Prenowitz, Chicago University Press, Chicago return to text
Freeman, G 2011 ‘It Wants All the Creases Ironing Out: Percy Grainger, The Folk Song Society, and the Ideology of the Archive’, Music & Letters 92, 3: 410-36 return to text
Howe, S 1987 Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, Awede, Windsor VT return to text
Howe, S 1985 My Emily Dickinson, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley CA return to text
Howe, S 1980 The Liberties, Loon Books, Winnipeg return to text
Wilkinson, JL 2012 marionette: a biography of miss marion davies, Vagabond Press, Sydney return to text
Ann Vickery is Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She is the author of Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (2000), Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (2007), The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon (2014), and Devious Intimacy (2015). She co-authored The Intimate Archive: Journeys through Private Papers (2009) with Maryanne Dever and Sally Newman.
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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste