by Lisa Gorton
by Lisa Gorton
Published July, 2019
Is colonialism a failed project? This is not a simple question. While contemporary oppositional discourse – any thinking that supports moves towards post- and decoloniality – rejects the colonial project, an assessment of its failure might mean that its aims weren’t realised, or that it has come to the end of its life, like a light bulb or bank, or prime ministership, or site that can no longer be accessed, or document that won’t load. I’m writing this unable to check my email on my computer, unsure if this is a browser failure, but knowing it’s my own failure, in not keeping up to date, not so much with the colonial (although the colonial, like all extant concepts, is now inseparable from the digital), but with Empire more broadly speaking.
I don’t believe in artistic failure, except in the above latter sense, of something that stops. A film that never makes the screen, or a script that is never filmed, might be said to be failures in the intent sense, but the event of their making could also be said to have been a ‘minor gesture’ (Manning). The notion or possibility of failure is a Romantic one, that gestures beyond Classical form to ‘exactly’ what we ‘had in mind’ (which is how Hegel characterises Dante and Shakespeare); the Classical is defined as that which has succeeded, and is complete, and therefore relates to order, and to Empire. Yet perhaps what Jennifer Maiden calls the ‘freedom of failure’ is a privilege. Isaac Babel speaks of the ‘right to write badly’. Sappho didn’t write her poems to survive in the form they have: but as events, they arrive, as finished as a Venus statue is considered finished, and despite their Antique origin, are not only read romantically, but as both Romantic (Most) and Victorian (Prins). A poem is what it is, or rather what we have.
In her essential Affirmation of Poetry, French critic Judith Balso asserts the significance of reading poetry as thought. ‘It is not’, writes Balso, ‘a question of thinking about poems but with poems’. In her argument, she places twentieth-century Chinese poetry alongside the work of Paul Celan and William Carlos Williams, and defines lyricism as ‘not a question of pouring one’s heart out, but thinking’.
Balso’s argument dissolves the distinction between imagination and reality, and, by implication, its more mundane version of fiction and non-fiction:
… the poem does not merely remain on the side of imagination, with reality facing it. The poem is the site of interdependence between imagination and reality. More specifically: it is the singular site where they effectuate each other. If the poem was on one side, it would swing over to the side of reality and not that of imagination. Because [quoting Wallace Stevens] “poetry and reality are one and the same thing, or should be …” .
Lisa Gorton’s new collection Empirical translates the notion of charismatic megafauna, which may be seen alongside more lyrical creatures at the Melbourne Zoo in Royal Park (the Park gives the book the title of one of its poems), into that of charismatic megapoems. The history of writing long poems in particular can be seen as the problem of writing beyond an initial impulse, image, idea or sound. One method of doing so, one that relates to collage, is that of substantive quoting – beyond making a point or an allusion – but as a way of making the work. Whereas in Aristotle, poetics is the problem of extending the poem, for contemporary poets it can also be about creating a poem through ‘extend[ing] the document’ (Williams). This version can be just as pointed, if not more so. Yet while Gorton has certain points to make, the poems are also offered, I think, as models of 3D thought. Poems that are about reading, living, and thinking, and the history of doing so.
More extensive poems follow, but Gorton’s opening title sequence of poems, numbered Romanly, I-VII, is perhaps more like a group of separate animals (ibis?), than a large animal. I read them not as fragments, and not as unfinished, either, but as being produced in relation between the finished and the unfinished. They are structured through the book’s characteristic use of Emily Dickinson’s signature punctuation, the dash. The dash assists in making dynamic poems apparently composed in the judicious archivist mode of Marianne Moore. Like a line, or tradition, of Australian poets before her, Gorton avoids the monumental, while skirting around the debris that is the sloughing off of the local colonial project. By which I don’t mean evading or denying the debris: merely avoiding being crushed by it.
There is a subtle protest – or warning – in the title of Empirical. While the word relates to observation and experiment, with its root in experience, it is also, in this case, a pun on Empire. Though Empire has a different root in the imperial, Gorton can be seen to be tracing effects of the experience of Empire, and instituting her own poetic one: David McCooey, in his review of Empirical in Australian Book Review, refers to Gorton’s ‘empire of things’.
Empire is itself a thing: and a thing to think about. In ‘Royal Park’, a twelve-page catalogue poem that follows the title sequence, images pile up in a vast archival complex. The poem, which commences with description, is largely composed of quoted commentary – fragments of history – relating to the area. In Balso’s terms, we can think of these images rather as ‘figures of thought’. Following Balso, we can say that Gorton thinks with these materials in writing the poem.
Rereading and rewriting, through quotation, avails us of the opportunity of new thinking. We might tilt the angle of ‘thinking with poems’ in the direction of theorist Erin Manning. In the preface to A Minor Gesture, Manning describes a scenario of thinking as an ‘encounter’ ‘at the limit[s]’:
The best kind of encounter with thinking’s outside is the kind that deeply listens to what writing is trying to do, almost beyond what the author is capable of thinking, then returning that thinking, almost beyond what the reader can think, to the author. In this gesture of encounter, no one is trying to convince anyone: thought is thinking collectively at its limit.
If we are interested in thought in this country, if we think of ourselves as being interested in Australian literature, then we find this limit again and again in Australian poetry. Manning goes on to develop an argument regarding ‘artfulness’:
Artfulness is an immanent directionality, felt when a work runs itself, or when a process activates its most sensitive fold, where it is still rife with intuition. This modality is beyond the human … The force of art as way is precisely that it is more-than-human … Artfulness is not something to be beheld.
Here, Manning wrests thought from author, or artist (‘Artfulness does not belong to the artist, nor to art as a discipline’) towards force, energy, intuition: the intuition that runs Gorton’s research. Employing a mode which has become familiar in contemporary poetics, the ‘document’ or ‘archive’ poem, of which both the poetry of Ern Malley and Laurie Duggan’s The Ash Range can be seen as local precedents, Gorton reanimates – and translates – historical textual materials into contemporary poetry:
… The River Red Gum died that was their monument,
replaced with a cairn of mortared scoria in the shape of a chimney
fenced with iron – Esau Khan came back from Swan Hill on a wagon
to care for the camels left behind here which calmly graze
among the llamas, alpacas, cashmere goats and deer in Edgar Ray’s
etching, ‘Acclimatisation Society: Animals in Royal Park’ –
The Society’s motto: ‘If it lives, we want it’ –
The layering of perception and reality that we see in the above description of the animals in the etching is an advantage of this multivocal mode.
In an apt metaphor for the writing of poetry informed by history, Balso writes that:
The poem must make itself into a ‘poem-plow’: it must know how to turn the rich soil of time, to rip away from it the words and names that the illusion of the continuity of historical time places behind us, and which, on the contrary we can fully bring back among us, recovering the rising force that is attached to them.
Balso derives the figure from Osip Mandelstam: ‘Poetry is the plough that turns up time in such a ways that the abyssal strata of time, its black earth, appear on the surface’. Mandelstam scholar Elena Glazov-Corrigan paraphrases and translates his profession that:
material reality … is no longer equated with permanence; it is rather a symbol of the ravages of time. Thus, grass breaks stones, hungry time destroys the state or is destroyed by it, but poetry, either as inscription or as plough, is called to save material objects, all of which carry within them the seeds of self-annihilation and mutual destruction. Inscriptions in stone protect the chaotic materiality of civilizations. Poetry/the plough saves time/soil from the eventual annihilation of the fertile memory hidden in the soil’s otherwise inaccessible layers.
Yet for Mandelstam, as for Balso, the plough is a figure of civilisation, of pastoral elegy and transformation (Schur), whereas in Australia – and other lands colonised by Europe – it is a figure of colonisation. Gorton’s materials are of course, colonial materials, as is her subject. The point is what can the archive be made to yield, aesthetically? This is how Manning defines – mobilises – ‘Artfulness: the momentary capture of an aesthetic yield in an evolving ecology’. In relation to Balso and Mandelstam, Manning seems almost whimsical in her figuring and combining of the agricultural and ecological. For Manning, following Alfred North Whitehead, stillness is an abstraction. The archive and its meanings are not static – the moment of Gorton’s artfulness has a particular meaning relating to the contemporary moment. Manning writes: ‘Artfulness: the way the art of time makes itself felt, how it lands, and how it always exceeds its landing’. While it appears that, for Manning, this is a valorising figure for art-making, it too reads as a figure for colonisation, and ‘how it’ – thinking literally of land – ‘always exceeds its landing’.
A paradox of the archival mode of poetry is that dated usage, (such as referring to kids as ‘street arabs’), and sentiments (such as the wickedness of throwing money away), are revivified. This is one of the effects of what Leonard Diepeveen has termed the ‘quoting poem’, observing that: ‘All quoting exploits an alien texture’. Escaping from, and multiplying, the inevitable temporal and cultural positions of the poet’s voice is an advantage of the archive, yet if, as Gorton’s poem (like those of others before her, e.g. Brennan, Fullerton, Malley, Duggan) is constituted through quoting, there is no ‘alien texture’ and voice is shown to be what it always is, an archive of the poet’s reading. ‘Royal Park’ is produced through the meshing of historical voices, those voices themselves often piling up objects: listing grasses, fish, or birds, for example, or rifle-range equipment; referring to histories of murder, and disease; incidents related to the zoo; or the boys of the Industrial School. Gorton animates history, invests the Park with it, or, rather, discloses it to us. When voice as a citation of history becomes image, becomes the emphasis of reading the poem, imagery as visual concept recedes.
Ultimately, the poem itself becomes an image: image of a language and a literature; image of a place also, but in addition to the immediate place, the greater city; image of history; image of colonisation. Further, I would argue, in the poem’s lack of conclusion or resolution, it is an image of thought, an image of implication. Its use of narrating presence is minimal, deemphasised. As history it does what history always does, rehabilitates the present. Gorton counterbalances her modern epic form with local voices. Contra Diepeveen, rather than the poem quoting in order to ‘exploit the alien,’ it could be said to be enriched with domestic texture. It performs as an antidote to nationalist ideology, lacking, as it does, the dialectic of congratulation.
This poetics of translating images from the archive, from history, is in contrast to the memory poem, (Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’, for example), that draws on a poet’s – or, on a fictional narrator’s – experience. Yet both poems can be described as containers of history, which makes them equivalents. In the conceit of ‘Royal Park’, the narrating voice can appear to recall a potentially infinite wealth of anecdote and voice between observations: a structure comparable to that of ‘Five Bells’, where life happens between tolls of a bell. Slessor also uses anachronistic quotation to ‘exploit an alien texture’.
The title Empirical gestures to the Imperial. As Imperial critique, the book is largely concerned with England, even in the Rimbaud poems (subtitled ‘Imperial Panoramas’), yet in terms of its poetics relies on those of the current influential Empire, that of the U.S. I have already suggested that Gorton meshes Dickinson and Moore; ‘Royal Park’ is not just a relatively long, but a relatively large poem – its lines fill the page – stuffed with incident and object, and mimes the long American modernist poem: as an empire of voices, as much as of things.
Is ‘Royal Park’ Gorton’s ‘Five Bells’? James Antinou’s Fairfax newspaper review mentions the importance of light as an image in the book. The image of light can be a facile one, especially when it relies on ambiguity: is material or spiritual light meant? When aligned with the good it is, as Martin Duwell noted recently, a cliché. Gorton’s uses of light generally point to questions of epistemology – and the empirical: what can be seen and known in this circumstance of this light? Light, too, can refer to circumstance; we might say: in the light of Empire.
Gorton ends the one-sentence poem ‘Empirical I’ with the word light, yet doesn’t punctuate this last word with a full stop but with a dash. Either the poem continues elsewhere, on other conceptual pages, or in the speaker’s mind; or the poem is broken off, and the light shines on nothing: or perhaps the light is broken off, too. Slessor uses light three times in ‘Five Bells’ – four if we include ‘lightning’. Even aside from lightning, his use of light as an image is startlingly active. In the first: ‘Deep and dissolving verticals of light / Ferry the falls of moonshine down.’ The line is all dreamy and passive until we read the hard verb after light: hard because of the surprising enjambment and the use of ‘ferry’ as a verb, but it uses the word’s sound to pose as a soft image. Given that the poem is about the Manly ferry as a ship of death, it is a powerful feint. There is no other use of the word ‘ferry’ in the poem, so as the bearer of elegiac meaning (i.e. the drowning death of Slessor’s friend, Joe Lynch) it carries a heavy weight.
Gorton’s mode is not of this kind, but there are other correspondences with ‘Five Bells’ beside the theme of time, which any archival text starts ticking. I hear a similarity between the way the voice moves, from the paraphrase of description to direct quotation, and from place to place, and time to time. Sound is infectious however, and reading between the texts undermines my conviction as Slessor’s voice gets in my head while I read Gorton. Perhaps there is something we could refer to as ‘archival tone’. I also hear it in The Ash Range.
Settler poets (and their critics) feel the pressure, or desire, to negotiate the large influence (or burden) of Anglophone poetry (including Anglophone translation) from the northern hemisphere, yet there are often local comparisons to be made if we think in terms of poetics, rather than being concerned with appealing to Anglo-, or Euro-American critical paradigms. In Gorton’s wrestle with sentences in this poem – it is not as simple as saying she uses dashes instead of full stops, although capital letters announce the beginning of each new statement – we can see a resemblance to earlier colonial Australian writers, who, while having less apparent control of their form, repeatedly start again rather than come to a conclusion. Their times and specific places were different, but we can think of their unhopeful situations as being similar to Gorton’s (i.e. ours). There is no conclusion to what can be said of Royal Park, the place. There are statements – found statements – to be made, in order to mount a position, but not a firm one: a desire, rather, that Royal Park not be destroyed, but knowing that it, like every other monument of settlement, is a displacement of Indigenous place, and therefore knowing self-righteousness is not apt. Hence, inevitably, an unsettled poetic form.
While this is not the way settlers thought about ground in the nineteenth century, there has perhaps never been a settled attitude towards Australian land. As Sarah Davenport, in her diary of itinerancy, from the 1840s, writes, ‘we was coming to beeter our selves’. The grammar gives it away: ‘we was coming to beeter our selves’, but that’s not what happened, or: now we’re doing something else. Dogged rather than aspirational, and with an unfortunate pun on ‘beat’. Davenport’s text is unpunctuated, relying on a caesura between sentences, and paragraphing, to manage it formally. The style is one of addition, in piecemeal fashion, the use of ‘but’, in the following, acting anaphorically:
the first house we had we could count the [stars as] we lay in bed and when it rained we could keep nothing dry but the weather was very warm but it was very uncomfortable we was poor beg i could not but the second house was weather proofe but it was a long way for my husband to go to work but he did keep in work long, I think about 4 months out of 11 as we onley stopt in sydney 11 months work got scarcer and wages lower sydney at the time was badly regulated i believe most of the Police men was what they caled “old hands” they did not like the emigrants
Davenport’s text is not without incident, but is unlike Ned Kelly’s later Jerilderie Letter (1879), which builds to a rhetorical pitch. Yet despite the difference in voice and plot, there are similarities. Kelly – and perhaps, in his case, there is something of a dance with his scribe, Joe Byrne – also produces his text through not settling for sentences; although Kelly (or Byrne) do use full stops, the stops are at variance with their use of capital letters.
While ‘Five Bells’, despite being an elegy, marvels at time, ‘Royal Park’ is more neutral in its presentation of time, and how it rubbishes. The elegiac speaker is not the ‘revivified’ ‘survivor’ of masculine elegy (Lilley); rather, the speaker becomes ungrounded: ‘A factory, the train line curving off to cross the motorway/ between them this falling away of ground’. The reader does, too, if they recall that these lines repeat the opening lines of the book’s first poem, ‘Empirical I’.
There is an Australian history of the rubbishing of humanity from convict transportation on. Gorton cites a 1953 article from the Argus: ‘Camp Pell is, in plain language, nothing but a dump for human beings’. The same article is highly sarcastic towards the camp’s description as a ‘housing settlement’. The poem goes on to quote a statement that: ‘Camp Pell must be cleared at once and handed over before the start of the Olympic Games, Mr Bolte Premier said.’ A reminder of Australia as a class-inflected displacement and homelessness machine. As Jennifer Rutherford writes, contesting Gaston Bachelard:
…in the Australian context, space and its poetics cannot assume the innocence with which Bachelard imbues the house. From the first moment of cultural contact, Australian settler spatial poetics rides on a complex raft of intersubjective and intercultural dialogue and conflict. The house never simply contains, nor is it simply present in the world of things. Its materiality is brought into question and its existence hinges on both exile and displacement. The production of space for white settler culture occurs always in a space of pre-existing spatial memory, imagination and invention, in which every act of housing is coterminously an act of unhousing. Since its first theoretical articulations, the poetics of Australian space has emerged as a response to this specific politics of place.
‘Royal Park’ may be read as an analogy of how the earth, or of how humans encourage the earth, towards entropy – or in other words, literally troping all its elements, or images, towards degrading combination, rubbish tip style. Hers is, then, a different vision of the image to that of, say Robert Gray’s painterly-ironic, or to Emma Lew’s telepathic-melodramatic. Different, too, to Gig Ryan’s, where images are bit-parts in an ironised tragedy. Gorton’s position, as protesting against settlement’s destruction of its own heritage, is also an ironic one, which ends with a dash – to France.
Light is once again an active force in the following poem, ‘Aphrodite of Melos’ (aka Venus de Milo), about the broken statue: ‘Light sinks an inch deep into Parian marble –’ ambiguously questioning what enlightenment is, when it follows, as it does, the half-rhyming fruit of knowledge, of the line above (‘in her left hand she held an apple –’). It is also ambiguously forceful: is Gorton (Romantically) favouring the perceptual over the epistemological? I’m not sure; the emphasis on the statue’s gender and body suggests identification by the speaker with the statue, as if perhaps the statue feels the light enter her marble body. Voice, image, speaker, object are meshing. We have travelled some distance from the medieval notion of light, as characterised by Johan Huizinga, in a critique of Denis the Carthusian:
For an explanation of spiritual beauty, Denis traces all these terms back to the notion of light: reason is a light; wisdom, science, and skill are nothing but light-rays that illuminate the mind with their clarity.
That was my initial thought; and yet in Gorton’s reliance on light as a figure, perhaps there is a sympathetic relation with Denis. The immediately following line, however, forsakes light: ‘The sculptor of marble is/ a sculptor of shadows –’. This image somewhat ambiguously counters Hegel’s comment that in ‘sculpture, the spatial solidity of the forms is already there on its own account, so that the play of light upon them merely makes visible their actuality of lengths, widths, and breadths’. As an object, or person, Gorton’s Aphrodite is not solid, and the ‘play of light’ and shadow is not to be generalised about in terms of sculpture, but in the specific terms of this statue and her history.
The poem is about looking as much as anything else: another glance at the rubbishing of time, at how the golden or divine gets broken up for the rag’n’bone people (‘Her arms lie in a heap/of broken marble in a warehouse’). The line ‘her blank eyes/invent distances’ evokes for me D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Kangaroo’, a living Aphrodite of sorts:
Her full antipodal eyes, so dark,
So big and quiet and remote, having watched so many
empty dawns in silent Australia
Whether consciously alluding to terra nullius, or not, this extract condemns Lawrence for his European arrogance, but the poem as a whole is not easily reduced: there is sympathy, as well as imperialism, operating in his portrait of an imprisoned animal.
The fate of the Aphrodite statue is an effect of European power (though as Grecian booty it, too, alludes to British Empire poetics). Ownership of the Aphrodite is a current dispute between Greece, who want to reclaim the statue, and France’s Louvre Museum:
Gerasimos Damoulakis, mayor of the island of Milos, in the Aegean Sea, where the marble masterpiece was discovered in 1820, is campaigning to collect one million signatures for a petition in advance of the 200th anniversary of the statue’s discovery.
It is one of a number of ongoing claims in the reversal of European fortunes:
“Artifacts, just like people, animals or plants, have souls and historical memories,” said Turkey’s Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay, who is part of an aggressive Turkish campaign to reclaim its antiquities from some of the world’s largest museums including the Met, the Louvre, and the Pergamon. “When they are repatriated to their countries, the balance of nature will be restored.”
Despite the article’s claim, Minister Gunay does not speak aggressively, although it does seem that for him the ecology of things has already displaced any broader ecology. How we represent art, and how art represents nations and their cultural capital, can be questions for poetry, but poetry is not just a mirror, nor a light shone on Empire and its history (for example). Poetry – poetic thinking – will never be finished, or stopped. Yet in the fullness of Gorton’s forms, the fragmentary is resisted, denying the vague but common notion that there is an emptiness that the off-white page can represent.
James Antinou. ‘The Place of Poetry and the Poetry of Place.’ Sydney Morning Herald. 2 August, 2019.
Aristotle. Poetics, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Isaac Babel. Collected Stories. Trans. Walter Morison, ed. Introduction by Lionel Trilling. Criterion, 1955.
Judith Balso. Affirmation of Poetry. Trans. Drew S. Burk, Univocal, 2014.
Christopher Brennan. Musicopoematographoscope & Pocket Musicopoematographoscope. Ed. Axel Clark. Hale & Ironmonger, 1981. See my discussion in Ch. 6 of Farrell. Writing Australian Unsettlement.
Sarah Davenport. ‘We Was Coming to Better Our Selves.’ In Lucy Frost, ed., No Place for a Nervous Lady: Voices from the Australian Bush, McPhee
Gribble/Penguin, 1985. See my discussion in Ch. 8 of Farrell. Writing Australian Unsettlement.
Laurie Duggan. The Ash Range, Picador, 1987.
Martin Duwell. Review of Peter Boyle: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, Australian Poetry Review, 1 December 2019.
Michael Farrell. Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Mary Fullerton. See my discussion of Fullerton’s quoting game in Ch. 5 of Farrell. Writing Australian Unsettlement.
GCT Team. ‘Greece launches bid to win back the Venus de Milo from Louvre’. Greek City Times. 1 December 2016.
Elena Glazov-Corrigan. Mandel’shtam’s Poetics: A Challenge to Post-Modernism. University of Toronto Press, 2000.
G.W.F. Hegel. On the Arts: Selections from G.W.F.Hegel’s Aesthetics or the Philosophy of Fine Art. Abr/Trans. with an Introduction by Henry Paolucci. Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1979.
John Hetherington. ‘Camp Pell.’ The Argus. 24 April 1953.
Johan Huizinga. The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch. University of California Press, 1996.
Ned Kelly. The Jerilderie Letter. Ed. Alex McDermott. Text, 2001. See my discussion in Chs. 1 and 2 of Farrell. Writing Australian Unsettlement.
D.H. Lawrence. The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. New York: Viking, 1971.
Kate Lilley. ‘“Living Backward”: Slessor and Masculine Elegy’. In Philip Mead, ed. Kenneth Slessor: Critical Readings. University of Queensland Press, 1987.Jennifer Maiden. ‘Wisconsin,’ Pirate Rain. Giramondo, 2010.
Erin Manning. A Minor Gesture: Thought in the Act. Duke University Press, 2016.
Hyacinth Mascarenhas. ‘9 Priceless Artifacts Should Return to their Home Countries.’ Mic. 11 December 2013.
Ern Malley. In Michael Heyward. The Ern Malley Affair, University of Queensland Press, 1993.
David McCooey. Review of ‘Empirical by Lisa Gorton’. Australian Book Review. October 2019, no. 415.
Glenn W Most. ‘Reflecting Sappho.’ In Ellen Greene, ed. Re-Reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission. University of California Press, 1996.
Yopie Prins. Victorian Sappho. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Jennifer Rutherford. ‘Undwelling; or Reading Bachelard in Australia.’ In Rutherford and Barbara Holloway, eds. Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Spaces. Crawley: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2010
Owen Schur. Victorian Pastoral: Tennyson, Hardy, and the Subversion of Forms. Ohio State University Press, 1989
Kenneth Slessor. “Five Bells.” Poems. Angus and Robertson, 1972.
Nerys Williams. Contemporary Poetry. Edinburgh University Press, 2011.