TEXT review

Bully for Alpha-Beast

review by Justin Clemens


Toby Davidson
Beast Language
Five Islands, Melbourne 2012
ISBN 9780734048028
Pb 79pp AUD24.95


What a great title. Its undertones and overtones range from the shocking to the comedic: what you hold in your hands is not only written in the language of the beast about the language of the beast, it is perhaps itself the language of the beast. The syntagm might even drive you to the point where all the suppressed genitives start to chasm and chiasm until you sense the terrifying emergence of the Beast of Language Itself. If you remember the great 80s death metal group Iron Maiden, you might suddenly be possessed by screeching ghost guitars just about now and overtaken by a feeling that it’s 2 Minutes to Midnight and that you’d better be ready to Run to the Hills/Run for your Life. Six, six, six may well be The Number of the Beast, but from the evidence of this title, the Beast also speaks a cosmic tongue. The cover image for this edition — a sublime incarnadine nebula punctuated by stellar scintillations — only serves to hammer the (literally) universal point. So it’s then no surprise to find that:

Blood fades as blood hardens,
sun can set without a sun. (19)

But Beast Language is also an oxymoronic title: for a beast is, well, beastly — that is, stupid, grunting, dumb. A beast is by definition and by common acceptation incapable of the proper work of the tongue, too malformed and brutish to be properly up to the sophisticated linguistrickeries (as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s English translators sometimes like to phrase it) of language, let alone of verse. In a metaphysical announcement of incalculable import for political and linguistic history, Aristotle announces that:

why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. The mere voice, it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well (for their nature has been developed so far as to have sensations of what is painful and pleasant and to indicate those sensations to one another), but speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state. (Politics 1.1253a, Aristotle 1994)

There you have it: language/voice, reason/sub-reason or non-reason; human/beast; politics/gregariousness; good and bad/pleasure and pain; and so on. So Davidson’s book is also a poetic assault upon such philosophical pieties, resituating humanity within a vaster and stranger nature from which it has somehow deleteriously separated itself. To cite Lacan again, Davidson is engaging in a kind of mystical alphabeastisation. Hence such lyrics as:

In a dream of Melbourne
whales hung by their tails,

cried out, mouths awry
like distraught pale pelicans … (24)

We, the beast we have ourselves forgotten, only now find that that forgetting returns without restitution as lethal, syntactically deranged horror. It turns out that the alphabeasty can be a very nasty creature indeed, spurting out high-falutin’ words — even Gnostic songs of praise to its creator — as it feasts on and on. As the ‘Metropolitan Cannibal Hymn’ has it:

Master of Stomachs, our powers have greyed
absorbed for congruent, apparent eternity…

…Lord of Starlessness, lumbering slob!
Skyscraper, babel of crockery, serves you. (37)

Yet, for all this corrosive inhumanity bleaching the body from within and without, above and below, there’s perhaps also something rather polite and well-heeled about this collection. Given the recent and ongoing international furore in poetry circles over the evils of plagiarism, I suppose it’s just prudence and commonsense to provide a helpful list of ‘Notes’ at the end, as Davidson does here. This, at the very least, ensures that allusion remain allusion and not be mistaken as theft, or that lay readers who might otherwise miss an important reference be apprised of its topical significance. Yet, to get all anxiously metaphysical about it, there’s something a little too Aristotelian about such taxonomic scholarly politesse: ‘Plato’s Ideas, or Forms, are eternal truths of temporal phenomena …’; ‘References are made to late Neilson poems ...’; ‘Epigraph from St Augustine ….’ And so on. It’s not only the Notes that deliver this middling sensation, but some of the implicit in-line poetic editorialising ‘spewing forth with no programming but to feed, to devour Joe Public’ (69) — ‘Joe Public’?! Really? This doesn’t quite strike me as the right ironic note.

But Davidson’s notes can certainly be very beautiful. As Ali Alizadeh put it in his Overland review of the book, Davidson is one of the new blokes of the lyric in OzPo: strong-yet-supple; masculine-without-misogyny; scholarly-yet-sensitive, etc. Take the neo-Romantic-Western-Buddhist flavour of ‘The News’, stunning in parts—

Four ibises launch in fright
before an actual sunshower’s quarter-rainbow
and its coruscating cloud,
avoid the verdigris goalposts,
synchronise their necks, neck, none
into the sun. (63)

but lamer in others: the endings, in particular, occasionally read as quite weak conclusions to otherwise striking lines. ‘Enclosure’, which begins with the assertion ‘They have made me section manager of the intergalactic zoo’, ends with ‘We run with colours’ (70). Likewise, in ‘From Mount Zero’, the plateauing pun ‘The view is plain unsurveyable’ (74), falls somewhat flat. In such cases, the self-absenting beast manifests as a vanishing object of verse, rather than in and as the verse itself. The object thereby comes to be distanced by the lines that would convey it, placing the object against and beneath the discerning, descriptive and lyrical I of mnemonic reflection and reflectiveness. This is presumably why ‘Dialogue strays, indisposed for a punchline’ (62) and even the assumed personae sometimes tremble and subside into something that’s just another person, ruminating away on yet another plane-flight: ‘I gaze down the aisle at imperfect creations’ (44). Well, aye aye Cap’n! — Davidson thus wavers against himself as to whether he would be pious or piratical.

Other reviewers, such as Kim Cheng Boey in Cordite, have also mentioned the book’s sometimes vague, sometimes awkward character. For my part, the mild dissatisfaction I experienced with this volume was that, despite the promises, promises — man, after all, as Friedrich Nietzsche declared, being the promising animal par excellence — it was not, finally, beastly enough. Yet it is already clear that, even if presently mostly quite beautiful and often quite polite, Davidson’s poetry might be on the way to somewhere else, bearing or baring ‘the genius of an ear/splitting hairs with either mind’ (11). Under any description, then, the very opposite of stupid, grunting, dumb.


Works cited

Aristotle 1944 Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, trans H Rackham, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA / William Heinemann, London return to text



Justin Clemens’ recent books include The Mundiad (Hunter Publishers 2013) and Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy (Edinburgh UP 2013). He teaches at the University of Melbourne.


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste