review by Sarah Pearce
Dominique Hecq’s After Cage is a moving, looping meditation on the possibilities of both language and time. Inspired by her experiences of dance and composition, particularly Stockhausen’s Stimmung, language mirrors physical and musical movement in a series of repeated yet constantly varied threads and whorls. The pages are numberless, challenging our conceptions of what a book should be and encouraging more fluid forms of reading. Refrains such as the below echo throughout, constantly shifting and changing in form and presentation, translated again and again:
The spun, composed elegance of these metaphors contrasts with jarring observations of modern life: political abstractions, laptops, the Red Hot Chili Peppers stuffed into ears and frighteningly anonymous experiences of hospital procedures. Through the dance of language, Hecq constantly grapples with the essence of life, of death and illness; amidst the noise and chaos of political threat and intrusive technology, she is ‘hankering after poetry/ that has the quality of mutedness’.
In her conjoining and contrasting of different languages and parts of language, Hecq evokes Paul Celan. She sutures words to form ungraspable yet assuredly intelligible compound nouns: Spacetime and Memorysoul. ‘Breathing daybreak like poetry/summoning itself’ is an explicit nod to ‘Todesfuge’ (1948). Like Celan, Hecq occupies a liminal space, between languages and cultures; the tension between her languages dovetails with the tension between soaring, ‘riffling’ metaphor and bleak observation, possibility and limitation.
These poems meditate on the nature of time, personifying her as ‘an unsatiated mother/intent on devouring her/progeny’. This devouring mother is treated with breathless, thrumming reverence on the following page:
This personification is intensified via repetition and fragmentation; the reader is made viscerally aware of the processes of time: erosion, decay, evolution, rebirth and death.
Music and musicality permeate this collection – poems dance, visually, across the page, literally cascading and falling; repetition softens and ripples the flow of words, allowing Hecq to linger in moments of movement. Repetition also creates a surging sense of urgency; the insistent ‘lap-lapping’ of memory and smoke induces a sense of precarity – she does not permit the reader to be lulled into a false sense of security. By the final page of After Cage, the melodies begin to disintegrate – full capitalisation, block text and recognisable yet splintered refrains point to a final breaking down, or in: ‘Broken/Time Dust Us’.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s <<terrain grammar>> is a startlingly inconsistent collection – she plays with and substitutes structure, form and style in a dizzying, nauseating fashion from page to page. From a reductive, boorish alphabet of brutal humanity to the frustratingly un-aesthetic peeling back of language mechanics, grammar and translation, Joritz-Nakagawa refuses to placate or ease her reader. She does, however, offer occasional moments of softness; <<demifugue>>, though startling in its existential exploration of the relationship between words, memory and language, provides a welcome sense of spacious gentle lyricism.
Like Hecq, she presents a meditation on language – poems themselves are characters and take up residence in these poems:
Poetry is insistent, is threat and ‘tomb’ (20); it is both lifeless and searing, simulating anatomy and stimulating memory. In the absence of titles on the page, poems bleed into one another. This conscious blurring of boundaries adds to the sense of disorientation created by swiftly shifting styles and rhythms.
The reader is saturated in metaphor, assaulted by incessant combinations of images and ideas. <<methane dress>> presents a rapid, pulsing series of binary relationships; these provide a sharp contrast to the final, almost banal declaration of the following suite of poems: ‘the old complaints/are the best complaints’. These poems are often aggressive. The scattered rhythm and blunt trochaic swagger of <<gilded ether>> reminds the reader, forcibly, of Joritz-Nakagawa's mastery. This is a mastery of which she is very much aware. The closing lines of one of the <<love poems>> declare both the poet’s power and the captive nature of her audience:
<<wait to be seated>> demonstrates Joritz-Nakagawa’s absolute command of tone, rhythm and, above all, restraint. Her heart-stopping, breath-stopping use of periods forces the reader to stumble with her as she reveals
Each of these experimental, visceral works may be read as eulogy for a dying, or already dead world – indeed, for dying or already dead wor(l)ds. Each poet questions the possibility or ultimate futility of poetry in the face of such ugly self-destruction, while remaining utterly obsessed with and mired in the mud of language.
For Hecq, musing on the role of the poet in our current global landscape forms a tense mix of optimism and hubris, she flies ‘to the sun white/feathers ruffled and ruffling the sky eyes on the spark/that will redeem human folly’. For Joritz-Nakagawa, language is both inadequate and domineering; the ‘person in pain exceeds language’, yet ‘each word [is] its own planet/haunting the body’ (45).
Finally, though, poetry is posited as the only possible response to disaster, to apocalypse. Each text makes us unforgivably aware of the impotence of the author, standing on the rim of a ruined, paradoxical world. We are privy to:
The poem becomes a ‘Suturation of time’, an attempt to fix, to record, perhaps because our world is dying. The poem offers ‘vivid reconstructions of wor(l)ds’ (11); language is tied to the ephemeral scraps of landscape and experience. The poem is both wound and word – it is where these formidable poets find heartbeat and memory, amidst the disorienting pulse and pull of time. The final discovery is that the ‘words go where they want’.
Sarah Pearce is a poet, performer and academic from Adelaide, Australia. She holds a PhD in English Literature and her work appears in Aeternum, Outskirts, Meniscus, Writing from Below and TEXT. She has held residencies at Adelaide City Library and FELTspace gallery and performed at Blenheim Festival and Adelaide Fringe Festival. Her writing concerns the body, the self and points of connection.
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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford