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Discomfort Enacted In Writing: Word Migrants by Hazel Smith

Word Migrants Hazel Smith Cover
Word Migrants
by Hazel Smith
Giramondo
120pp
$24.00 AU
Published March, 2016
ISBN 9781925336030

Word Migrants is the fourth volume of poetry by distinguished poet, artist and academic, Hazel Smith.  The volume has benefited from sensitive editorial work by Ivor Indyk and is arranged in thematic sections. The sections have proved thought-provoking for this reader, as careful attention to them reveals an even stronger thematic interpretation than could be made from Smith’s earlier volumes. Word Migrants collects a substantial number of Smith’s print texts written since the publication, in 2008, of The Erotics of Geography. The title and dedications capture some constant preoccupations of Smith’s artistic career to date: language, music, ethics and human connections. The very first poems in the collection take us into another recurring theme of Hazel’s work: Jewish history, and the Jewishness of music and family. Word Migrants has historical as well as current interest and a fascinating relationship to earlier volumes, both retrospective and developmental.

In this essay, I offer a thematic reading of Word Migrants, contextualised within Hazel Smith’s larger body of print work. I argue that the dialogic play of poetic voices Smith creates is central to the urgency and memorability – what we might call, after Jonathan Culler, the ‘event quality’ – of the poems. The dialogism also helps explain the various ways in which the poet sustains real world reference and emotional depth while avoiding the use of the autobiographical genre or confessional mode. Urgent feelings about historical events and trends are elucidated through an exploration of language, both literary and everyday. This layering of linguistic and socio-political scrutiny is brilliantly captured in the title of the volume: Word Migrants. An extra charge of energy is added by the way in which the poet scrutinises, not only abstract issues of writing and ethics, but also the conditions under which writing can occur at all – not so much the material conditions as the emotional.

The poems in the volume offer insight into the need for the ethical poet to balance the pressure to register the forces of history whilst maintaining the equilibrium needed to pursue a life of writing. Central to this balance is the way the poet explores themes of human commonality and connectedness, in both personal and social settings. In turn, this prompts her to probe more deeply into the creation of ethical art, a project that sees her in broad agreement with conclusions reached by the Frankfurt School philosopher and critic, Theodor Adorno. Both Adorno and Smith suggest that for art to be ethical, it must remain immanent; the artist should not try to avoid implication in material life through the transcendence of rationality. At the heart of Smith’s project is a scrutiny of traditional poetic, that is figurative, language. Technical and ethical issues blend together in the last section of the volume, as the poetic voices eschew metaphor in the service of creating the materiality of loss and grief.

Conversing with a stranger

The use of poetic voice is central to the cohesiveness and conviction of the themes in Word Migrants. The most arresting hook for the reader – whether we are familiar with Smith’s poetry, or meeting it for the first time – is the mode of address. Smith described this mode to me as akin to that produced by an encounter with a stranger, perhaps someone sitting next to one on a long plane journey, and she characterised it as ‘an intense conversation with someone you’ll perhaps never meet again’. This captures something essential about the poetry of Word Migrants. The idea of a poem as a conversation with a stranger gets to the heart of the fine balance, evident throughout the collection, between the personal and the formal, and helps us understand the kinds of voices we are hearing. The poet speaks conversationally, informally and directly, but says things with an intense purpose and heightened tone that perhaps none of us would allow ourselves if we were talking to someone with whom we have an ongoing relationship, and with whom we share the need to curb intense emotion in the interests of managing mundane life. This notion of a necessary working balance, between personal and formal, between emotional and practical, in the professional life of a writer is thematised in Word Migrants. We are thus given insight into the psychological conditions of writing that must augment the material conditions of the ‘one thousand pounds a year and a room of one’s own with a lock on the door’ that Virginia Woolf once specified.

Through the implied context of conversing with a stranger, Smith gives a fresh and contemporary edge to what Culler has called the ‘triangulated address’ that he argues is characteristic of lyric poetry. In discussing early Greek and Latin examples of lyric, Culler suggests that such a form of address has the poet ‘speaking to listeners through an apostrophic address to an absent power’: for example, the goddess Aphrodite in Sappho’s only surviving complete poem. The secret of the illusion is, as Culler would have it, that the listener feels caught up in the event quality of the address. What is being talked about is personally urgent to the speaker but of more than personal significance. The notion of the poem as a conversation with a stranger also helps us understand the way the poetic voices Smith creates involve us in her address to the stranger she has just met but who has already vanished, while the poet herself avoids any truck with the confessional mode or autobiographical genre. The implied stranger then functions as Culler’s ‘absent power’, the site for the poet’s appeals. The poems attain the event quality that Culler describes: they are full of the sense of real life and real talk, often about poetry itself, even when they seem to be mainly having fun with words.

Many of the poems in the volume use the first person, or the second person that is really ‘oneself’, the outside perspective on the self.  The function of the second person is clearly to thematise the ‘I’ of the poems, but even when the first person is used, it is not in the service of autobiography or confession.  The poet is concerned with broader and deeper themes than the vicissitudes of the emotional self.  As the voice of ‘Student-Teacher Relations’ wryly remarks, ‘you can’t distil the poet from the poem, any more than you can understand what death is by scrutinising a corpse’.  Yet, we should not fall into the opposite trap of quarrying the poems for a set of fictive personae, as though the poems were dramatic monologues.  Again, Culler’s comments on the lyric clarify. He cites the concept of epideictic discourse to distinguish the lyric poem from both personal confession and the utterance of a fictional character. He suggests that epideictic discourse is about meaning and value in a real, not a fictional world.  In using it, a poet can speak in a way that is both immediate and generalisable. The discourse is value-laden and, implicitly or explicitly, has the capacity either to commend or blame. It is this kind of discourse we find in Word Migrants.

For there are real life events and real life forces at work throughout these poems.  Shadowing the volume is a Kafkaesque backdrop of disappearances and displacements, enclosed by the first and last sections, with their various accounts of loss. The three central sections certainly permit other overt concerns to jostle for airspace, but the mindful reader always sees the backdrop in distant focus. In any case, the foreground voices rehearse bits of monologue and dialogue that tantalise us with their air of relevance to a background full of disquieting historical referents.

What’s in a Word?
In the first section, The Forgiveness Website, which picks up the connection with Jewishness found in Smith’s second volume, Keys Round Her Tongue, the historical frame and set of referents are clearly drawn from the Holocaust.  ‘Experimentalism’ is based on the story of the Nazi doctor, Mengele, and the twins he experimented on.  ‘The Disappeared’, ‘Soundtracks’ and ‘Train Talk’ all contain what could be Holocaust referents, such as the train, the sinister sound of boots, or the disappearances of people in the night.

Yet, the theme of this section is not the Holocaust itself, but something more abstract. What this theme might be is signalled by the way the poems together promise a dispassionate anatomy of ‘forgiveness’, appearing to radiate out from the ‘forgiveness website’, which the poet uses as a found object: an occasion for exploring the notion of forgiveness. In ‘Experimentalism’, the poetic voice notes that the instructions for downloading the forgiveness website don’t work, then wonders wryly what one would do with a forgiveness website, even if it could be downloaded, and finally decides that forgiveness is an empty word, really only a pragmatic means of making life easier for oneself.

There is a reason for the question mark over the word ‘forgiveness’.  This section is only about forgiveness in that forgiveness is a word, a loaded word that is bandied around, too freely we suspect the poet thinks. What we are meant to think about are words, about the capacity of language to do other than what it seems to be doing.  As someone with a professional interest herself in what tricks language can get up to (‘the sonic out-wraps the saying, the canon is in it for kicks’, the voice of ‘Subvoices’ tells us), Smith has much to say. She lets us off lightly of course, as we are disarmed by her sharp wit, but however playful the poetic surface is, the worries about language are real and are communicated.  The volume’s title, Word Migrants, connotes many different meanings, but one of the most powerful is the affective movement of words inside the poet.  We will come back to this.

Within this section, ‘The Great Egret’ exemplifies the way in which the theme of the nature or ontology of forgiveness is underpinned by the theme of vigilance about language and what it can do. While it does not refer to the Holocaust, the poem still seems to be infused with the ‘things to forgive’ – most particularly racism – that the Holocaust poems canvass. Indeed, at first reading, the poem could be thought to be a miniature version of what Alexis Wright does with the Waterbird story in her 1998 novel, Plains of Promise.  Both stories use the bird in relation to things to forgive.  In Plains of Promise, those things are the brutal outcomes of colonisation for Indigenous Australians.  In ‘The Great Egret’, the theme is also racial tension.  Yet, there is an important difference between the approaches of the two writers. The poet avoids the metaphoric treatment Wright gives to her Waterbird.  Wright makes out of the story a consolatory fable of supernatural care that exists alongside the stories of the fallout of colonialism on Indigenous lives and culture.  Smith’s characteristic use of metonymy stops her Egret story well short of consolation. The egret is the offspring of a miscegenetic union where the form of the bird, with its neck that ‘poses questions’, is the part that stands for the whole of mixed race unions. Rather than being a metaphor of supernatural care like Wright’s Waterbird, Smith’s Egret is instead part of the story, merely a witness, stubbornly resisting anthromorphisation.  The last image of it flying ‘off into the blue / across rivers, across deserts, across grassland’ is ambiguous; it could suggest freedom, or merely indifference – or just birdiness, for which we don’t have a human referent.

The choice of metonym over metaphor is characteristic of Smith’s work and, in this poem, signals a definite turn the volume is to take. The question mark over language in general, that the anatomy of the word ‘forgiveness’ implies, appears also over the particular case of figurative or metaphoric language and implicates the work of poets, traditional users of such devices.  For the moment, though, and to bring this section to a close, this turn is arrested, as the ambit of concern drops suddenly into the contemporary and mundane. The poem that ends this section, ‘Slowly Time is Moving Fences’, scrutinises the condition of writing which, like forgiveness, is perhaps nothing grand, but merely something which must fit into everyday life. This poem completes the anatomy of forgiveness found in the section by leaving us no option but to conclude that, like writing, it is naturally self-centred. And both perhaps have rituals and monuments that are only vaguely analogous to the actual processes involved.

‘Harassments of the Past’
This section begins the movement in the book whereby any overt examination of forgiveness recedes.  Forgiveness, as a concept, appears to have served its turn, having propelled the poet into what she more urgently wants to explore: the nature and conditions of writing.  The Poetics of Discomfort immediately makes clear that this exploration will be neither confessional nor sentimental but rather metatextual, that is, writing that is also about writing.  The poems in the section might be said to show that writing, for the ethical poet, is a pitting of the forces of what are called, in ‘Verdict’, the ‘harassments of the past’ against the impulse of ‘pragmatic smothering’.  Having concluded the previous section seemingly content that writing fits into ordinary life, The Poetics of Discomfort begins starkly with  ‘Verdict’, allowing the past and its discomforts back in.

In the eponymous ‘The Poetics of Discomfort’, the poet raises discomfiting considerations of ethics and aesthetics as she explores a situation from the past of a classroom teacher.  The dilemma centres on the difficulty of maintaining aesthetic poise when relating personally or professionally to someone who has a disability.  The aesthetic frame is created in the first lines of the poem:

the microfictions of your life
are walking awkwardly

The complex ethical question asks how we should handle the matter of a student’s disability in a classroom.  Should a teacher make allowances, and, as in one of the poet’s examples, not ask a student with cerebral palsy to read her poem aloud to the class, or risk insult and hurt by such different or compensatory treatment?  The poet explores a series of these ‘microfictions’ and captures the wincing memories of awkwardness to show how wrong-footed the teacher has felt in each scenario, as she keeps making errors of judgment that upset and unsettle her.  The poem ends with the ethical question unanswered and the argument that is implied places the poem in the realm of ethical art as Adorno would have it.  The Adornoian argument about poetics in the poem is that discomfort must be enacted in writing. The awkwardness, anger and pain described in ‘The Poetics of Discomfort’ are suggested to be necessary; the poet should try to live with artistic disability if the human cost to a person with a disability is to be captured.  The disabling discomfort the poet feels intimates the ‘shudder’ Adorno locates at the heart of ethical art, as we shall see when we examine a later section of Word Migrants, The Shivers from Analogy*.

This metatextual exploration of the business of writing about uncomfortable topics threads through much of the section, but is collapsed in the last two poems into an enactment of the theme.  In ‘Feisty and Childless’ and ‘The Bleeding Obvious’, the poet’s long-standing interest in the technique of collage sees her apply it to two uncomfortable, even taboo subjects: the voluntarily childless woman, and menstruation (2016, pp. 33-34; pp. 35-37).  Cutting and pasting the words of others from the Internet is one way of managing the poetics of discomfort, but the poet is not going to leave the matter there.  In the next section of the volume, she turns the spotlight on another of her techniques, and takes us deeper into the ‘word migrants’ that give the book its title.

The Stranger Within
The powerful third section of the book, Mismatch, sees the poet looking over her own shoulder as she writes, and contemplating the affective power of language on herself as poet.  Word migrants, words migrating in and out of the poet, mean that there is always the possibility of words becoming the stranger within, in an ethical relation of violent confrontation.  One of the poems in Smith’s first volume, Abstractly Represented, saw the speaker describing her poems waking her in the night.  A poem in Word Migrants develops this notion of the bodily force of words in a kind of archaeology of an earlier work by Smith, with Roger Dean, Nuraghic Echoes.  This mesmerising piece, which was recorded on CD, has the speaker declaiming a language invented by the poet, which is grammatically and semantically incomprehensible, but is shot through with urgent emotion that communicates itself viscerally to the listener.  In Word Migrants, a poem entitled ‘Underbelly’ describes the disturbing effect the performance of Nuraghic Echoes had on the poet herself.

I remember clearly my own feeling of discomfort when I first heard this work, of being overtaken by the anxiety and distress emanating from the speaker in a language no one can understand.  Other listeners commented to Smith that the poem evoked similar feelings for them. Now, for the first time, and years after the composition and recording of Nuraghic Echoes, the poet shares with us her own feelings of being possessed by the language and accent she has created.  There is much written about empathy at the moment, but few texts could rehearse the corporeal cost of empathy as powerfully as ‘Underbelly’.  And in it we find a central idea of Word Migrants:

The first time she performed it, she was overtaken by what she had raised up, the accent she had adopted.  Her eyes started to dilate, the distance between the sounds and her collapsed.

The moment had found a migrant inside her and was pushing it out.  And a stranger outside was coming to meet her:

Finnish, Lithuanian, Welsh
but also the cut and pasting of passports.

She performed the language often, she inhabited it as home
but it never had the same effect on her again

The notion that words are migrants, both moving into their users and forcing their way out again, is a powerful element in the exploration of the twinned impulses of distance and connectedness that shapes the volume as a whole.  The various speakers of the poems are open about the challenge of writing, which is not all that far from the challenge of living itself.  We saw that the second section of the book, The Poetics of Discomfort, foregrounds the balancing act the writer must perform between the ‘harassments of the past’ and the management of mundane life.  The ethical poet must feel the needling of such harassments but at the same time the business of continuing to live ordinary life necessitates a ‘pragmatic smothering’ of the importunate past.  Various elements of the poet’s craft come to the rescue in maintaining equilibrium: in ‘Tennis Court Ode’, for example, the art of imagining a Zeitgeist formed by an ‘asthmatic culture’ sees ‘writing become like death row with stochastic bursts of remission’.

But the playful comfort is fugitive.  In ‘Asylum’, the speaker worries about the complicity of language in the mouths of unscrupulous users.  In contemplating the plight of asylum seekers, before even we get to the deceptiveness of abstractions like the ‘freedom’ promised to the desperate, we encounter the untrustworthy and unseaworthy nature of material objects given the name of ‘boat’ (2016, p. 32).  The next stage of the thinking about this complicity of language in unethical behaviour takes the speakers closer to the situation of the poet.

Adorno, art and the shudder

The situation of the poet is explored in a sustained fashion in the section, The Shivers from Analogy, particularly in the three poems that make up ‘Metaphorics’.  Threading through the poems is Smith’s recurrent concern with writing poetry and human connectedness.  Here, the concern is probed through ruminating on metaphor.  The various speakers wonder whether metaphor is merely misleading, from an ontological perspective, or whether it is actually an accomplice to unethical behaviour.  One of the speakers in ‘Metaphorics’ is troubled by the observed tendency of prisoners to lapse into metaphor when planning a violent act, and by the capacity for distancing from the reality of an act that the use of metaphor can give.   This vein of thought takes the matter of ethical use of language deeper than is often done, where discussion tends to focus on the effect of language on the addressee, and the way that, put simply, words have the power to hurt.  The exploration in ‘Metaphorics’ instead takes the reader into the ethical effect of language use on the user, and on the way unethical use, such as exploiting the power of metaphor to distance the violent implications of a planned action on another, fails to recognise the other as part of oneself.

The placing of the three poems that make up ‘Metaphorics’ in this section, which contains poems that give insight into historical aspects of Smith’s poetry, including some of the poets she has worked with, bring the examination of the ethical problems of language squarely into the zone of the technical.  We are given a fascinating glimpse into how ethical and technical aspects play off against each other in Smith’s work.  The choice of metonym over metaphor that we saw in ‘The Great Egret’ is finally revealed in its historical aspect, as generated from the very beginning of Smith’s encounter with the work of the American Language Poets, and the ethical charge of their project.

The Poetics of Discomfort has developed the observation made long ago, in Abstractly Represented, that poems can wake the poet in the night into an exploration of the bodily force of writing.  The Shivers from Analogy takes this idea deeper, by setting it in a context that we can elucidate with the aid of discussions of art and ethics by Adorno.  The matter is the somatic affect of making art, and the relation between this affect and the ethical capacity of art.  The context in Adorno is his discussion of how art is to preserve its function of social and political critique.  To remain critique, art needs to call up the somatic experience of the shudder, not try to bypass it. In other words, and drawing on the excellent account of this and other aspects of Adorno’s work by J. M. Bernstein, art must be self-reflective and must implicate itself in historical forces, not attempt to transcend them through rationality.

In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno considers whether artworks are ‘after images of prehistorical shudders in an age of reification, bringing back the terror of the primal world against a backdrop of reified objects’.  Bernstein suggests that this notion of shudder is linked to Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s earlier account of repression under industrial capitalism.  As such, Bernstein interprets Adorno’s notion of the shudder as ‘a kind of anticipation of subjectivity, a sense of being touched by the other’.  In this, we might say, lies its ethical capacity: Bernstein, glossing Adorno, suggests that ‘Shudder is the address of the other’.  Bernstein’s qualification is important:

Even if we feel uneasy about Adorno’s speculative anthropology, it nonetheless points to something that does seems constitutive of our experience of art, namely, how art provides a reminder of what is repressed in the advancement of reason and technology.

The shudder provoked by the artwork affects both artist and audience, and Smith canvasses implications of this from different perspectives.  In a lighter-hearted vein, she projects the issue of relationship between poet and audience onto the scenario of choosing poems for a public reading in ‘Choice’.  The difficulty of choosing between the poems the poet thinks best wake up and discomfit an audience, and the ‘readerly’ texts (in Barthes’ sense) that are amusing and easily consumed, captures the ethical issue that Adorno raises.  More sombrely, in the three poems that make up ‘Metaphorics’, the poet confronts the capacity of poetic, figurative language to avoid implication in the violence of acts.  The deepest ethical meaning of the ‘shivers’ that proceed from analogy – from figurative language – is that they are pleasurable and self-satisfying sensations, stopping far short of the ‘shudder’ Adorno requires of ethical art.

The retreat of figures

In the last section of the book, Erasures, the issue of the ethics of art folds back quietly into the theme of human frailty and mortality, which, indeed, lies beneath the concern with the ethics of language in the volume as a whole.  For, while we saw that the third section of the book, Mismatch, continued the theme of speech and language, it also introduced a theme to be explored fully in the last section.  In the poems of Mismatch, the ideas of frailty and mortality are brought closer from the large historical scale of The Forgiveness Website and become also personal and familial. The broader focus is sustained, though now the movement is from personal to human vulnerability on a large scale.   In ‘Mix-ups’, for example, themes of commonality and connectedness are explored.  The speaker is powerfully affected by the sense of connectedness, which becomes ‘implication’, in Adorno’s sense, of the artist in events he or she witnesses.  She actually feels herself to be a murderer.  Yet, to go on writing, she must loosen the sense of implication.  Such is the complexity and difficulty of creating ethical art that the immediacy and the distancing appear to work simultaneously:  ‘Sharp and vague, this sense of loss, this sense of connection’.

When we reach the final section of the book, Erasures, we find that it relinquishes any overt attention to poetics in the interests of enacting what Smith earlier described, in The Shivers from Analogy, as the ‘violent toothache’ of the personal.  The poems sustain a focus on dying, and on death, and the speakers are, at most, once removed from death by a filial relation.  The broader themes of the rest of the volume recede, finally, before the need to take language at its face value, and use it to delineate grief, mourning, and intimations of the speaker’s own mortality.  Tellingly, these poems have least recourse to figurative language of all those in earlier sections of the volume.  Smith’s gift for conveying emotion through metonymic manoeuvres is well displayed, for example, in ‘Aftermaths’:

The night before the sister didn’t turn up, so you made a makeshift bed beside her.

In a drawer you found them golden and unfaded:
the plaits she scissored off you,
rescued from the floor

In these lines, the part stands for and calls up the whole of the events of death and loss.  The movement of the poems grouped in this section, is to confront death ever more closely, as the speakers of the last two poems variously imagine themselves already dead, or making decisions that lead to death.

There is a sense, in this last group of poems, that these word migrants that have journeyed far and wide from home throughout the earlier sections, being crowded, exiled, displaced, repatriated, do find themselves, by the end of Erasures, in a home, or at least a temporary shelter, of sorts.  The shelter might be described as one where memory is managed.  Memory is saved from expending energy in individualistic grief and working itself into the frenzy of figures that would send the speaker further and further from the material truth of the experience of loss, which, perhaps, is always violent.  We are minded, finally, to contemplate the image that graces the cover of Word Migrants: the beautiful sculpture by Smith’s friend and professional collaborator, Sieglinde Karl-Spence, ‘The Veil of Mourning’.  It is a fitting image for a book that works to bring the reader up against the inescapable materiality of loss.

* Note: I am grateful to Katherine Barnsley for the inspired editorial suggestions that improved my reading of this poem.

Works Cited

T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, tr. C. Lenhart (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984).
J. M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (Polity Press, 1992).
Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Harvard UP, 2015).
Hazel Smith, Abstractly Represented: Poems and Performance Texts, 1982-90 (Butterfly Books, 1991).
Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Nuraghic Echoes (Rufus Records, 1996).
Hazel Smith, Keys Round Her Tongue: Short Prose, Poetry and Performance Texts (Soma Publications, 2000).
Hazel Smith, The Erotics of Geography (Tinfish Press, 2008).
Hazel Smith, Word Migrants (Giramondo Publishing Company, 2016).
Joy Wallace, ‘In the Game I Make of Sense: the Poetry of Hazel Smith’, Southerly 55, 4, Summer 1995-96, 136-46 (published together with new poems by Hazel Smith).
Joy Wallace, ‘Sleevenotes’ to Nuraghic Echoes by Hazel Smith and Roger Dean (Rufus Records, 1996).
Joy Wallace, ‘An Ethics of Words and Music in the Poetry of Hazel Smith’, in John Hawke and Ann Vickery, eds., Poetry and the Trace (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 370-79).
Joy Wallace, ‘Flagging Down the Flâneuse in Hazel Smith’s Poems of the City’, in Christopher Conti and James Gourley, eds., Literature as Translation/Translation as Literature (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 67-80.
Alexis Wright, Plains of Promise (UQP, 1997).