by Bonny Cassidy
Published October 2017
Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine is a gift to a reviewer that doesn’t want to paraphrase poems, for a reader that doesn’t need such summarising. Rather, its line-up of loosely framed lyrics offers opportunities for thinking and (re)reading. Cassidy’s figure of the chatelaine, or key-keeper, lives, or moves, somewhere in between the reader and the poet. There are keys being kept but they are not in a predetermined place, nor, I suspect, are there any predetermined keyholes either. Whether or not this seems like hedge-betting will reflect your idea of what literature is for, or what it does.
A selection of readings, which are at times close, but not so close, I hope, that they press the poems’ lives out of them, follows.
‘Green and gold wren’
Synecdoche works in mysterious ways. Poetry, in its indexing of the world, on the way to making world(s), can fool like a small bird. Is a word always a bird? Are we (i.e. readers) projecting the lyrical when we read, or being given a lyrical essence of bird’s blood and nest juice?
We don’t read poetry for information. The first word of this poem is ‘We’. That’s where the ambiguity starts – unless we are brave enough to try to undo the title without the content. Let’s say a title is an indication rather than a label. This poem will relate to ‘Green and gold wren’ – singular or plural. Singular and plural are also indicative rather than categorical: singularly specific, or singularly representative. ‘Ask’, as Morrissey says, speaking for The Smiths, in the book’s second epigraph (‘Nature is a language, can’t you read?’): an oracle ‘won’t say no, why should I[t]’? Does the phrase ‘green and gold wren’ signify a couple of distinctly coloured wrens, or does the ‘We’ signify two of a species of ‘green and gold wren’? There is, it appears, no such species. Use Google and the stretched concept of postcolonial diasporic English falls apart. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, and others, a wren is a very small brown bird. A (fairy) wren is blue. I learn, however, that a blue wren is not a true wren. A true wren is brown. A green and gold wren is then perhaps human (or a plant?). ‘Green and gold wren’ is one of the groups of Irish people that celebrate ‘Wran’s day’, or Lá an Dreoilín, in Dingle, Kerry, (scene of an Elizabethan massacre) – ‘Green’ referring to Green Street, apparently (other celebrating Wrens use different colours to dress up and parade in). ‘Wran’s Day’ coincides with St Stephen’s Day. It consists of a parade and a song, and is produced through both pagan/nationalist and Christian stories; and while it involves a symbolic wren hunt – as a wren is said to have betrayed St Stephen the first Christian martyr (died Jerusalem 34 AD) – its enactment appears to be ambiguous, in that the wren is celebrated.
This is a lot of speculative backstory for a two-and-a-half line poem, which may, in any case, be borrowing the phrase opportunistically, without concern for the event at all. But its mini Thelma and Louise-ish scenario could be a future parade, where green and gold wrens ‘Tie on a knife, plate, pick and spade’.
A chatelaine is a castle-holder or key-keeper. As a key represents, grammatically, the structure it provides access to, a chatelaine might be thought of as controller of synecdoche. A castle is a perfectly ambiguous figure for an Australian text: for Australians castles can only be metaphorical, or imaginary, or memories of travel elsewhere, or toys. They are period or children’s TV: tending to kitsch or whimsy. The Fall of England. Who has the key to that? Or more importantly, to the beer fridge? (Why is it locked?) Here I refer to the book’s cover, which shows not a key in a person’s hand, but an open beer bottle.
Montesquieu, writing in the early eighteenth century, claims that imperialists destroy themselves with their conquering (he is thinking of Spain and Portugal). A key is no guarantee of course. In poetics terms it might just as well mean the key to a riddle. The answer is the castle, the castle of meaning, perhaps an unconceived realm of epistemology (Australia, if we evoke early colonial literature?) ‘Chatelaine’ is the title poem, and therefore promises to itself be (a) key. Coming early on, it could be the engine of Chatelaine. But who is the chatelaine of ‘Chatelaine’, and therefore of Chatelaine (the book)? A voice, a reified typewriter-key metallic voice. Riddles are typically minimal, elliptic. ‘Chatelaine’ doesn’t give itself away, yet its repetition of lines appears to counter minimalism (and yet repetition also allows for a fewer number of distinct lines).
Minimal voice is formulated, in Wesling and Slawek’s Literary Voice, thus:
Minimal voice in our first sense (as noise) is exclamation, birdsong, babble, phatic utterance, phonic material that seems on the way to being articulate speech. Minimal voice in our second sense (as nonsense) … is the deliberate minimal of the avant-garde where language is used to mime breakdown of language, so to force the reader to look at each word, syllable, stanza, sentence, paragraph, or other structural or semantic feature as itself in all its strangeness and materiality.
They distinguish ‘minimal voice’ from ‘maximal voice’, which, they say ‘has highly overdetermined meanings – meaning grafted onto meaning – and is thus literary voice as such’. ‘Chatelaine’ is closer to Wesling and Slawek’s latter definition of the ‘minimal of the avant-garde’ (think William Carlos Williams’s short line, for example), but the poem veers also to ‘exclamation’, and if not quite nonsense, close to nursery diction, with ‘a happy wee goose come trolling’. We seem to be placed in a ‘garden plot’, but a heath, and a bog, are referred to, so we might well be figuratively in castle-ridden Britain, Anglophone source of the riddle genre. The poem doesn’t quite babble but evokes silliness, nonsense, semantic breakdown through the use of consonance:
I get that inner wiggle
gagging over my trowel
the low ghost spoofs from me
‘Giggle’ is almost present in this narration, which proceeds to exclamation (another of Wesling and Slawek’s minimalist terms):
towards the darling lovers –
I sing it back “Miss Prishen!”
I get that inner wiggling.
I sing it back “Miss Prishen!”
Some ironies are going on here. The exclamation appears like a private joke that the speaker can’t resist repeating. While I’m reminded of Miss Prism (the governess in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest), what is leaned towards, in terms of pun, is the term ‘misprision’, meaning to conceal knowledge of treason or felony. Yet this is what Miss Prism does, relatively speaking, when she conceals her knowledge of a child going missing; she at least conceals her own behaviour. Wilde, then, was punning on a legal term: the usage of which, according to Google, had already peaked in the early nineteenth century. It has been notably revived as a figure in literary studies by Harold Bloom, in books such as The Anxiety of Influence (which explicitly acknowledges the influence of Wilde on Bloom’s ideas), and A Map of Misreading. The pertinent quote made by Bloom, from Wilde (from his short story, ‘The Story of Mr W.H.’), is interesting in its enactment of transference of agency from ‘master’ to ‘disciple’ in its movement to the second sentence from the first:
Influence is simply transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality of loss. Every disciple takes away something from his master.
For Bloom, misprision, which he defines as ‘strong misreading’, is a deliberate, creative, act. It is, arguably, a practice which enables poets to continue a historical tradition, rather than deny or reject it. To what extent contemporary Australian poets are strong misreaders of earlier Australian poetry of, say, the nineteenth century, is an investigation outside this one. But to take the term more literally, in its legal sense, is to ask, to what extent, or in what ways, does misprision operate in Australian literature?
Specifically, what is the speaker of ‘Chatelaine’ concealing? To begin with, they are, in a joke sense, concealing the notion of misprision through punning. Another approach to thinking about misprision is in relation to troping.
Troping is how lyric poems work. By seducing the reader with retreatment. By correcting / misreading every lyric poem before it. Take your fucking seductive mode, this poem seems to say. A ‘She’ is a park-making, lazy-making, children-making, fat, and filthy trope. A parade of it. So much fun. Not much to say, we can say it in ten lines. Just make sure the reader gets the point. Not a celebration, nothing that’s supreme (except maybe pizza?)
What does ‘Dunes’ desire, and/or lyricise? Which god is it for? (I’m using god as a tentative term initially, which may form or evaporate.) The poem features an ‘I’ and a ‘you’ (and a ‘we’) and a world. How pastoral is it? (There is again a ‘she’, who may be separate from the two, or possibly the speaker’s mother.) The world is represented in terms of scale and mass, rather than the exclusive straining of the lyric nook. The poem appears to combine images of an empty world (the new, or invented, the colonised, the post-apocalyptic) which then erases, or declines to admit, the conditions of the world’s existence beyond the most pertinent. It’s a kind of divine minimalism: except that would be to conflate the writer with the speaker – and besides the figure of the speaker’s mother appears in the final image to deflate any such idea: ‘my mother demonstrating/ meals of beach and air, pouring, pouring.’
To read the world of ‘Dunes’ as arid would be too facile I think. Aridity is deliberately overdetermined, in any case (see also ‘Spermicidal’), by the image of a sand-filled condom, which splits open, ‘in the tide’ watched by the voyeur-positioned ‘we’. ‘Dunes’ can I think be read in terms of a coupling; its defining lyric moment being: ‘your voice asking me to move south’, but if so it is not the rhetoric of desire or love that is represented. This element is scaled back in order to describe the greater forces at work. A dune is the perfect metaphor for a passive structure that accumulates over time. The poem, in a sense, relies on its fragments to come together
Whether the voice’s request is gratified is not clear. The poem’s speaker hears the ‘you’ on voicemail, so it is already the past: there is no lyric moment between the I and the you, and we don’t know how the ‘I’ speaker responds. The poem’s narrative, its fragmented form, and its varying tenses, all create distances: temporal, technological, affective, psychological, geographic, topographic. Perhaps at the point of the voicemail the ‘we’ relation is already over. If the (presumably) human figures are, in a sense, dunes, then how close or active can they be? Is the condom their child after all? The poem challenges the possibilities of pastoral (or cosmopolitan, for that matter) space. Is this a world? It seems the ‘you’ is already outside it, and yet, like the mother with her Plathian meals of beach and air, is retained in the memory world. Yet if memories are anything like clouds, they can eat each other.
Sylvia Plath died in February 1963; Dr Who first screened in November 1963. Its scheduled premiere was delayed eighty seconds by news of John F Kennedy’s assassination. In ‘Ex-territorial’, Cassidy goes to extremes that the extremist Plath couldn’t. Both terms, ex-territorial (or extra-territorial) and extreme, point to the outside, of being beyond jurisdiction.
No longer a woman, I am at last, dalek.
It is not just timing that allows Cassidy her liberties. The poem’s speaker begins by comparing themselves to a ‘stag brought down by two large greyhounds’ in the first stanza, and then, in the second, refers to an ‘unwearying hollowness’. These are, in a sense, bad images, which only a bad reader could take seriously. They tend towards being ironic jokes. The stanza goes on to suggest that ‘the whole thing ends in a pile – / the dance pings through my thigh’. Here irony is not the double semantic of the univocal, but rather the ironic collaging of voice itself. Once we know there is a work by French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye (1795-1875) titled ‘Stag Brought Down by Two Greyhounds’ the ironies multiply.
Unlike the vernacular life of ‘pile’ and ‘pings’, the diction of ‘unwearying hollowness’ sounds wearied and hollow: clichéd; and of a bad, beginning, or Poe-like kind. Langorous kitsch. The potent thing about negation words like unlucky or discontent is that they contain their positives: they provide a rich, even hopeful, balance. ‘Unwearying’ is a kind of double negative and sounds it. Combined with ‘hollowness’, we have a negative assemblage that could be chanted by, as well as embodied by, a dalek. I’m not sure how literal or metaphorical to call this: how full or lacking is a weaponised machine-monster? It may lack heart – soul even – but these are metaphorical presences.
Far from being a cliché, Cassidy owns this phrase, hers – according to Google – being the only substantive use. Use of the more mortal ‘wearying hollowness’ is only slightly less rare. If we simplify the syntax for ‘weary hollowness’, we start getting results, like a description of a man who needs psychedelic mushrooms to ease the discomfort of non-cancerous tumours, for example; of a rock vocal in an album review; as well as examples in fantasy fiction, like The Unicorn Creed, where Sir Cyril Perchingbird hears what he takes to be an apparition walking around: ‘Footsteps … clanking with a weary hollowness’. I had to separate the affective terms of ‘weary’ and ‘hollow’ to find their more prolific, poetic, existences. While ‘weariness’ has historical poetic antecedents (in Eva Gore-Booth and Longfellow, for example, who both title poems after this feeling), both had many thousands of results on online sites devoted to contemporary poetry, where ‘hollowness’ is a categorised theme, and where you can be pointed to the ‘best hollowness poems’. It would take a game publisher to distinguish between the examples I read – of what I would call voiceless poems – and the kitsch bestselling poetry on bookshop shelves.
This is a voice:
All my rivulets of pomp n petal
are simply grated-on. Arch droid. Mantis.
Watch this, now, I’m really going somewhere.
Not because of the first two lines of Cassidy’s distinct, quasi-ludicrous, speculative imagism, or the final vernacular vagueness: voice is constituted through the move from one to the other, the sense of repertoire, and agency; its balancing act.
The Concise Oxford deems the word ‘nether’ as ‘arch. or joc.’, and there are a few words which fit that description in Chatelaine. We could translate ‘nether’ as ‘Down Under’ – expression and no.1 pop hit – and perhaps the poem is trying to be an anti-anthem as much as an anti-pastoral, or conceptual, riddle. Cassidy has spoken of her interest in the riddle, and one advantage of the genre is that it allows for narrating a nonhuman, non-expressive identity. It can flicker without being alive: like a candle in the wind; and it can die from a small amount of Coke: like a computer. Given the mobility of poetry, and a century plus of collage and other quotation modes, there is no need, either, for the speaker to be consistently one thing, or truthful. It can go in and out of being human, or appear to. It could be about the difficulty of saying anything about the located voice in a colony. The world is not merely about human transaction after all, or even discrete bodies, necessarily. What, for instance, are minerals, cells, chemicals doing? (‘I rust//boiling/mineral blue’)? How does this ‘down here’ look from up there? Cassidy is interested in higher views, and lower ones:
Into the apartments of sand
I entered flat under the door.
All foods derived from English (and beyond) are occupiers. But grammar can reverse this: if you need a pan to make a pancake, a food that is flat as a pancake sidles up to being one. But what about love, is it part, or not part of the equation?
Who cares where love comes from?
asks a kid running past the end
of this letter and into your same.
Kids, we might perhaps infer, just want to get some. Can love colonise? Can we prove what love is? Or that what we think of love is universally accepted as such? Epistolary reference and Pop style collage: the kid as Bart Simpson, Ginger Meggs, or, say, the many popular spy girls that YA features. Except a spy would never say they didn’t care where something came from, would they? If something is without an apparent origin it therefore appears suspicious. Author of the influential, pre-YA era, Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh, claimed ‘all kids are spies’ (Howell). A spy is a vocation – unlike a detective, they need not wait for a crime to be committed – but rather, immerse themselves in the criminal ambience of their world. Perhaps the kid spy might be said to be looking for the good, the anti-criminal, the exemplar (of love), while the detective absolves everyone, except the criminal, in a given milieu. Much of Chatelaine concerns itself with secrets, with camouflage, with chameleon-personae. While any lump (a ‘windowsill’, a ‘squint’, a ‘bit of Zola’) may hide itself in pancake batter, it will be found out when the batter’s flat in the pan.
A poem framed around the activity of wood-chopping invites a comparison with Les Murray’s ‘Noonday Axeman’. Murray’s narrator, an axeman persona, identifies the tree with stillness: ‘I am chopping into the stillness’. For him, the ‘twentieth century’ is elsewhere. There is an ambiguity here, poised between the land clearing of the nineteenth century and Australia as the ‘timeless land’. The poem lyricises the action of chopping down the tree, and could be said to identify poetry itself with (colonial) violence. Bordering the action is silence and stillness: the action provides prosody. Nevertheless, there is a paradoxical, conceptual, prosody operating in the poem, in its movement between these two concepts. Murray’s reference to ‘unpeopled places’ evokes both terra nullius and dispossession of Indigenous sovereigns, yet also contrasts the ‘quiet’ heroic Australian (man) against the urban masses.
Cassidy’s poem conflates wood, fire, and time. The planks the woodcutters balance on are ‘smoke’. As the poem closes, ‘minutes,’ rather than woodchips, ‘fly’. Cassidy peoples her poem; it does not present an isolated classical incident, but that social activity, the race. In addition, other lives move (fly) between the derbyists: a ‘blonde’, a ‘brunette’, and cigarette butt-scavenging kids.
A title can be a poem in itself, and this is one. Panic is a great-sounding word opposed to its denotation of horrible experience. Here, its two short vowels are opposed to the soothing long double ‘ee’, of green. Speculatively, green indexes to the concept of ecopoetics, or more broadly, ecological awareness. Panic can be read here as being qualified by green (anxiety about ecological disaster), or perhaps even, sardonically, as buying up the green market of ecologically signalling products – or it can index to ‘Panic’, the Smiths song. Poems are produced by, as well as produce, culture. When I read the word ‘gimping’ in the fourth line ‘gimping juicy heads aloft’, I not only think of Pulp Fiction, but think it inevitable to do so. As an instance of method, it indicates Cassidy’s powerful ability to abstract (abduct?) terms for her own purposes.
The poem starts with ‘hungry grass’, and concludes with a ‘scorched hearth’. An off-rhyme (castors/gorgeous), to suggest an out of kilter reading experience:
The suburb approaches on castors; they’ve called a
scorched hearth gorgeous.
The extra x’s in this poem’s title suggest a demonstration of the word cathexis, the repetition creating a momentary stuckness: as well as alluding to the messaging habit of x’s and o’s; a kissing cathexis. But ‘x’ does not signify kissing only. It could be a marking of territory, a repeated insistence of ‘x’ marking the spot. The poem evokes the philosophical (existential) possibilities of the non-Indigenous inhabitant of Australia:
She hardly thinks about her parents:
the present is her country while it lasts.
The following line, ‘Ochre doesn’t think of brick,’ seems to mobilise two metonymies of red earth: the latter mediated, processed – yet not – necessarily – industrial. Whose discourse is this, and who is it for?
‘Cathexxxis’ displays some of the most wonderful imagery in Chatelaine: ‘coasting/ through her oblongs and nobody’s business’; ‘Signifiers turn to pulp outside the window’; ‘the ants are resting on her sighs’. While I don’t assume the poem’s apparently continuous ‘She’ persona is the cathectic obsessor of the title (it could also be the narrator, or the writer), the poem’s last line, ‘where she put down her knife’, gives the poem a possibly melodramatic inflection; she could be a hunter, or she could write ‘x’s with a knife rather than a keyboard. It corresponds, for me, with the image of the knife which begins Martin Harrison’s poem, ‘Night (1974)’: ‘You’ve just gone back across the park./ I’m feeling sorry about the knife’. And then just after I’ve written this, I play Low’s song ‘Sunflower’ from Things We Lost in the Fire, which begins, ‘When they found your body, giant X’s on your eyes’.
Cassidy is adept in using a range of Australian English as practised during the last three centuries – a practice that includes a lot of borrowing. ‘Acquittal’ features a ‘Squire’ for example. This is partly, presumably, the poet having fun with diction. Common curse words (‘fucked’, ‘crap’) turn up in refreshed contexts. Such words are typically associated with the body in some way. As is ‘idears’:
She fingered idears like loaded bricks or single strokes of grass filtring through the floodplains.
An idear, according to Urban Dictionary, is a pubic wig. Its (literary) Australian usage is familiar from Henry Lawson’s ‘Middleton’s Rouseabout’ where it is the final word, and used to rhyme with ‘overseers’ (and ‘shears’ earlier in the poem):
Now on his own dominions
Works with his overseers;
Hasn’t any opinions,
Hasn’t any ‘idears’.
In isolation, ‘Works with his overseers’ might seem like obedience, but the narrative of the poem tells how the Rouseabout buys the station he works on, after it fails in the hands of Middleton. The extent that Lawson’s poem reads as wry, dry, sour, or bitter, will depend on the reader; what Lawson emphasises is the stupidity of progress, that those who get on, typically referred to as smart, are the healthy louts that don’t question anything, that profess nothing as pretentious as an ‘idear’. Which type of idear Cassidy’s character ‘fingered’ is not made explicit, but she does mean to get on it seems, whatever the terms of her success are:
Coolabahs floundered in the blanky blank as she barged to His deserted headquarters.
It would be tough to read this poem as dealing with sessional academic work. But with that in mind, its first lines read as nicely disrespectful:
This seems a nice hollow, but too many places have been ruined by pissing in or on.
‘Sessional’ is one of a number of prose poems in Chatelaine, but its form, with its short paragraphs and spacing, it is not like the blocks we’re familiar with from a century or so ago (Baudelaire/Stein). Not that such fragmentation isn’t also a century old (Eliot/ Niedecker/ Williams). ‘Sessional’’s form resembles none of these in particular, however; it participates, rather, in a contemporary light formalism; and in its mocking, provocative, bluntness, and its reliance on nouns (typical of Chatelaine, and not just the prose poems), is an heir to Rimbaud, or, locally, Gig Ryan: a convenient fuser of modernist poetry. Lines like –
Your darlin phase begins (honk) with changing colouration: large slim brick, to incinerette. Like a keg of ale, it’s a common wolf-trap used by a lesser kind of woman.
– seem to owe both its abstraction and its daring irony to John Ashbery, and in its preoccupation with the word as such, something to Language poetry (Hejinian, Andrews, Coolidge). Cassidy is not vulgar in the way Ashbery can be, but rather uses a (paradoxically) decorously savage tone to be as shocking as Rimbaud:
Be more strict with your pussy; reserve for three or four, you, and only for frigging.
I wonder if we might even begin to think of a prosody of shock: one that plays the different keys of language use. But as ‘Sessional’ concludes: ‘Question nearly everything, read it again.’ The ‘nearly’ is important. Although it might sound more radical without it (and more cliché), it might result in a cathectic stuckness. Don’t take on the unmanageable or you won’t get anywhere / ‘Be more strict with your pussy’.
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford University Press: 1997.
—, A Map of Misreading. Oxford University Press: 1980.
Reilly Caps, ‘This man, full of tumors, grows psychedelic mushrooms for his pain’. The Rooster: 11 December, 2018.
Eva Gore-Booth, ‘Weariness (1929).’ Poetry Foundation.
Martin Harrison, ‘Night (1974)’ in Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, eds., Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets. Puncher and Wattmann: 2009.
Simmone Howell, ‘Move fast, love yourself.’ ‘Spectrum’, The Age: 17 April, 2021.
Henry Lawson, ‘Middleton’s Rouseabout’ in Poems. HarperCollins: 2000.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. ‘Weariness.’ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: A Maine Historical Society Website.
Low. ‘Sunflower’, Things We Lost in the Fire. Kranky: 2001.
Montesquieu, Persian Letters. Trans. Margaret Mauldon. Oxford University Press: 2008.
Les Murray, ‘Noonday axeman’ in Collected Poems. Black Inc.: 2006.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Unicorn Creed, Gypsy Shadow, 2010.
The Smiths, ‘Ask’. Rough Trade: 1986.
—, ‘Panic.’ Rough Trade: 1986.
Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction. Miramax: 1994.
Donald Wesling and Tadeusz Slawek, Literary Voice: The Calling of Jonah. SUNY: 1995.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest. Dover Thrift: 1990.