Review: Michael Farrellon Marty Hiatt

‘If You Don’t Mind My Arsing’

That a thinking Australian poet thinks differently about land is my beginning critical assumption. Such a poet has thought about what land means in Australia; they know something of the history of colonisation, dispossession, and land rights (or land claims). This is not a contemporary phenomenon, either: as John Kinsella claims, ‘all colonial poetry … tends towards such complexity’. While the manifestation of such thinking in settler poetry is not quite a given, considering, for example, the problems of representation, the available approaches to poetry, the image, language use – let’s say poetics – at this point in the contemporary era. But I want to work with this assumption and see what that yields. Rather than read representations of land in terms of the politics they support or contest, what happens when we read poems of politics through the entity of the land? I am suggesting that this is (continues to be) the primary way to read Australian poetry as Australian poetry, politically. (Readings of poetry through lenses of class or other struggle are not primary in terms of their national character, only as they, too, relate to land.)

My test case is Marty Hiatt’s long poem ‘the manifold’. My point in distinguishing this work from established modes of landscape representation, is not that there are not references that allude to land, but that there is no scene-painting (or only momentarily), or explicit narrative. Hiatt’s poem begins with references to ‘feet’ in the first line and ‘burns’ in the second; ‘australian families’ are cited in the third: and, as images cumulate, a meaningful context, of voice, if not quite theme yet, begins to accrue. Line 5: ‘thursday november 14 will be, the plucking at hope, mourning last week, by the sheer weight of / his documentation.’ I have indicated an enjambment, but, given the length of some lines, including some which, due to being broken into several lines, resemble paragraphs, it is not obvious whether the lines of the poem are verse lines, or, more or less, short sections of prose. The spacing creates a rhythm in reading that is not like that of reading a prose poem, nor a short lyric, but rather, is an example of what Marjorie Perloff has termed ‘visual prosody’, and Eleanor Berry, ‘prosody of the page’. Yet whereas Perloff claims ‘that the poetic unit is no longer the metrical stanza or even the individual line but rather the printed page’, Hiatt’s poetic unit remains that of the line: but lines in space, or even time, if we think of spacing as a form of punctuation.

The line gives a flavour of voice, of concern, or perspective: it has what we might call epistemological nuance. They are generously – at least triply – spaced apart on a largeish page. There are just five lines to the first page. From the second:

from royal park I count full 25 tower cranes.

id be lost without them, contrary to assumptions, i.e. what ‘occurs when you stand back.

this tree has been illegally poisoned. this cat has been enucleated. this duck decapitated.

I am setting the reading scene here, however, rather than making claims for Hiatt’s use of form. I am, rather, concerned with language use as it relates to land: to conceptual reading, or in modeling reading.

For the most part, then, in reading this poem, I am not trying to read the poem closely, in order to contextualise what is said about land through other statements, or through a summary reading of the poem as a whole. Any close reading will only apply to those lines referring to land: a partial or prejudicial reading – land-privileging reading. I am not trying to make any land claims: that settler poetry of land is necessarily more worthy, than poetry that is more concerned with abstractions, or with human affairs – this is something to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Is a purely human poetry possible? I’m not sure. I do want to avoid implying, however, the fascist tenet of smearing those (said to be) without ties to the land (Todorov discusses this point as expressed by anti-Semitic French historians; an Eastern European Jewish perspective is addressed by Trilling).

The second page has six lines, the third and fifth of which relate explicitly to land. Line three, page two: ‘from royal park i count full 25 tower cranes’. Here we have a reference to land that is already landscaped, into a park, and yet is now under threat of further redevelopment (see also Gorton’s ‘Royal Park’.) Line five of the manifold runs: ‘this tree has been illegally poisoned. this cat has been enucleated. this duck decapitated.’ Line four I quote also, not in order to read either lines three or five, though it could, conceptually, supplement them: ‘id be lost without them, contrary to assumptions, i.e. what ‘occurs’ when you stand back.’ I don’t presume that this line has a semantic or narrative relation to either line preceding or following; but it does introduce the note of loss, which is implicit in line three, and explicit in five. Line five could, reasonably enough, be reports by the narrator from the park of line three.

The poems are enunciated in varying diction, or more precisely, a shifting pastiche of dictions, with room, I hazard, for sincerity: the question, ‘if you don’t mind my arsing’ – even if not sincere (or unrhetorical), in the reading scene of the poem, is, we might almost say, structurally forced to be sincere in the reading practice of the poem. If we do mind, then we stop. Or, the reader doesn’t mind minding, or likes to. If we don’t mind him arsing (about) then we let his arse-mind into ours. This is the danger, or triumph, of style: starting with a critical agenda, we are drawn into an aesthetic-poetic synthesis, a textual VR. Who has sovereignty of, whose property, is the reader’s mind? Yet before we get sensitive about our minds being colonised, this appears to be a thematic offered by Hiatt’s poem: that the mind speaks its colonisation, and that if it in turn colonises, then it is a savage ironisation of the colonisation process.

Here, at this thinking juncture, might be the place to consider the poem’s title, ‘the manifold’: something that is ‘manifold … having various forms, applications, component parts, etc.; performing several functions at once’; it can be adjective or noun (‘manifold’). Hiatt’s may be both?The term is found in Plato, where it refers to the ‘inferior’ part of the soul, the part that enjoys poetry (Belfiore); in Tennyson, it refers to the voice of ‘The Dying Swan’; while Harold Bloom refers to the manifold of sensation in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’.

The foregoing provides a suggestive, if highly abstract, selective sample. The soul might function, however figuratively, as a way of describing ‘the manifold’s’ content: the soul of the poet, deprecatingly referred to as the (poetry-appreciating) arse; or of the poet’s feeling of what poetry is, at least in this instance; or as a, however ironic, summary of the soul of the contemporary moment. The voice of a dying swan is an apt enough parallel, but relates more strongly to poetry in its sonic dimension. In Tennyson’s poem, the manifold ‘eddying song’ ultimately ‘floods’ the land (‘the mosses’, ‘branches’, ‘flowers’ etc.). The shepherd is saved by a full-stop, in that he is not included in the catalogue of things to be flooded. A singing voice is also manifold in Catherine Martin’s nineteenth-century poem ‘Lorelei’, a version of Heine’s poem ‘Die Lorelei’, based on a legend about a siren-like mermaid that ‘lures seamen to their death’ (Bauer). The adjectives describing the song in Heine’s original are ‘wundersame’ and ‘gewaltige’, which Ingrid Bauer translates as ‘enthralling and spellbinding’; in Martin this becomes ‘sweet and manifold’ and ‘loud and long’. In Heine (and Martin), unlike Tennyson (who Martin quite likely had read) the flooding/drowning focuses on the figure of the human boatman (corresponding to the shepherd in Tennyson), rather than that of the world, or land.

Bloom’s characterisation of the manifold, in (quasi?)allegorical mode appears to be an equivalent for ‘the poetic (as noun)’, or, as Bloom himself says ‘world’, or, as he says for Wordsworth, ‘Imagination,’ is followed by a metaphorical description of Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey,’ thus:

The manifold of sensation in Tintern Abbey initially is further isolated, and then dissolved into a fluid continuum, with the edges of things, the fixities and definites, fading out into a ‘higher’ apprehension.

This could be said to be a description of the soul – or arse – of the poem. That the ‘apprehension’ is ‘higher’ only in quotes, suggests the possibly low location of the mind, or soul, closer, in fact, to the ground: or, more radically, to the higher, the metaphorical sky-as-ground. Is Hiatt’s arse-move the ironic or desperate refusal of the arsehole move? If the modes available to the settler poet are either colonisation or abstracted denial of country, or of being located on country, where one can be figured as boots on the ground, and the other a version of European soul music, what happens to such figurations when feet and soul (or head or mind) are replaced with the end of the ‘fluid continuum,’ the democratic body part par excellence, of the arse? New thoughts, and new poems, perhaps. The arse at least is no shit denier, and, therefore, ‘if you don’t mind my arsing’ is the very model of questions about ‘the shit’. One useful definition of the manifold is that of a ‘pipe running from a carburetor to the cylinders in an internal combustion engine of an automobile’ (Online Etymological Dictionary). How can we keep our lines or pipes clean or clear of blockage?

Etymology is a wormhole. But another reference from the same site is uncannily apt. The entry regarding ‘manifold’ in its adjective form suggests that ‘manifold’ might be a ‘loan-translation’ of the Latin ‘multiplex’. While not originally related to land, but a mathematical term, according to Macmillan, ‘multiplex’ is a word that, contemporarily, means ‘a large building that contains several cinema screens’. Yet it is also the name of an Australian-based building company: and it is very likely that ‘Multiplex’ cranes would be among those seen if a speaker was to see ‘25 tower cranes’ from Royal Park.

Kantian critic Derk Pereboom refers to ‘the manifold’ thus:

Synthesis takes multiple representations – in Kant’s terminology, a ‘manifold’ – and connects them with one another to produce a single further representation with cognitive content … This process employs concepts as modes or ways of ordering representations.

If we think of each line of the manifold as being a representation, this description does in fact seem closer (if only analogically), to Hiatt’s poetics, than to Bloom’s description of Wordsworthian sensation. Again, I am not trying to find the model for, or determination of, this work, but rather suggesting that initiating interplay between poetics and philosophical concepts or arguments is apt as a reading methodology for poetry that is interested in ‘non-scene’ poetic representation, in thinking through these problems (and yet – as I am arguing – within a context that relates to land, as source and ground, for, well, everything).

Postcolonial time is that in which colonial experience appears, simultaneously, to be consigned to the past and, precisely due to the modalities with which its ‘overcoming’ comes about, to be installed at the centre of contemporary social experience – with the entire burden of domination, but also the capacity for insubordination, that distinguishes this experience. (Mezzadra and Rahola)

The ‘capacity for insubordination’ – which clarifies Hiatt’s ‘if you don’t mind my arsing’: arsing in fact becomes not a question, not merely a pun on asking, but rather an action, or process – is just what the poem the manifold possesses. Asking for things is the subservient, or Imperialised, form of questioning. Arsing about things is, rather, disrespectful, ironic and manifold.

If the poem has several functions it does not, therefore, only dominate, or colonise, or even insubordinate. It does not have infinite functions either: it has limits. We can, therefore, see it as a body. The battle that bodies have, in conflictual relationality with Empire, distracts from relationality with the earth, even in the name of the earth. Yet if a body is a synecdoche, or analogy, of earth, then the earth, too, may be thought of as a manifold. And what is evoked in this reading, in the context of the earth’s adversarial relation to Empire, is not the earth’s limits, but the earth’s manifold deployment of elemental forces against all bodies. ‘ink about it,’ as Hiatt writes.

This essay is drawn from Michael Farrell’s chapter in New Directions in Australian Poetry, edited by Dan Disney and Matthew Hall.

Works Cited

Bauer, Ingrid. ‘German Poet Heinrich Heine’s “Die Lorelei” and Translation.’ ThoughtCo., April 29, 2019.

Belfiore, Elizabeth. ‘Plato’s Greatest Accusation against Poetry. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 13: sup1.

Berry, Eleanor. ‘The Emergence of Charles Olson’s Prosody of the Page Space’. Journal of English Linguistics, Vol. 30, no. 1.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Second Edition. Oxford UP, 1997.

Gorton, Lisa. ‘Royal Park.’ Empirical. Giramondo, 2019.

Kinsella, John (with Tracy Ryan). ‘Introduction.’ The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, edited by Kinsella and Ryan. Fremantle P, 2017.

‘manifold’ Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, edited by J.B. Sykes, Seventh edn. Oxford, 1982.

‘manifold’ Online Etymology Dictionrary.

Martin, Catherine. ‘Lorelei’. Australian Poetry Library.

Mezzadra, Sandro and Federico Rahola. ‘The Postcolonial Condition: A Few Notes on the Quality of Historical Time in the Global Present.Postcolonial Text Vol. 2, no.1, 2006.

multiplex’ Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

OED. Online Etymological Dictionary.

Pereboom, Derk. ‘Kant’s Transcendental Arguments.’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2 Mar, 2018.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Cambridge UP, 1985.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. ‘The Dying Swan.’ Poems. Knopf, 2004.

Todorov, Tzvetan. On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought, Trans. Catherine Porter, Harvard UP, 1993.

Trilling, Lionel. ‘Introduction.’ Isaac Babel. The Collected Stories. Criterion, 1955.

Published November 22, 2021
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell is the author of Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945...

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