Beautifully assembled by Inken Publisch, which has produced just six titles in ten years (Greg Taylor chooses his projects with care), and resembling an oversized Australian passport, Amelia Dale’s Constitution is a carefully constructed piece of iconoclasm. The description on Inken’s website simply reads ‘Vandalism of the Constitution’, and the Constitution has indeed been vandalised – eviscerated, stripped to its bones and then stuffed with a relentless monologue masquerading as dialogue. On the ostensible copyright page, in place of the usual publication details, we find the following:
This is a Liberal National Government. So they’ve got to – so freedom is – the key point. I mean, it’s perhaps a bit simplistic but one way you could say it – you can describe it is that the, and I could make the same point about, we believe that, so – so that’s a fundamental thing. But there are some very key priorities, Leigh, right now. One of them, principally, is we have to ensure that, how do we maintain that? Well there’s a – with, you know, many more, and that’s very exciting. But we need to be, we need to above all be more innovative.
‘Innovation’ is so often an empty buzzword in politics (about twenty pages in, we are met with the comically snide remark, ‘You’ve lost interest in innovation, have you? Aunty ABC loses interest in innovation’), but ‘innovative’ is a particularly apt adjective here. Dale, co-publisher at SOd Press, is a poet at the vanguard of experimental poetics and Constitution, as with all innovative texts, challenges the definition of what poetry is and can be.
A reading of Constitution requires an appreciation of textual architecture, a poetics of structure, though not in the traditional sense. The various contents pages, for instance, don’t provide a useable directory, but are vehicles for the same droning voice that bulldozes its way through, barely troubled by the section numbers, tables, titles and part titles (which include, for instance: ‘CHAPTER VI: But that is the point’ and ‘CHAPTER VII: His problem is’) along the way.
This voice appears to address and respond to an interlocutor – for the most part ABC’s 7:30 Report anchor Leigh Sales (though others, including Sarah Ferguson and Kerry O’Brien round out the silent supporting cast) – but any sense of a conversation or progression falls flat very fast. Non-sequitur follows non-sequitur, sentences end abruptly or dovetail into other sentences with little thematic connection. There is no ‘thematic’ anywhere, at least on a diagetic level, and in the best tradition of Orwellian doublespeak, the relationship between words and meaning is rendered oblique.
Drawing on a range of poetic traditions – modernist, concrete, dada – Dale interrogates the syntactical structures of language, and political language in particular, and uses conventions of reading (guided by, for instance, typography, or the layout of legal documents) to first set up and then undermine any such conventional reading. Language, Constitution shows us with alacrity, can be used as a master tool of evasion, becoming a series of seemingly meaningful sounds that in fact signify very little:
What I have said to you is that I spoke earlier this evening. Our position is, in summary, subject to the point I made. And that’s as a result. Look, I’ve told you what our position is;
The identity of the speaker throughout is everywhere implied, but only explicitly mentioned once, though in many ways the voice stands in for an ‘every-politician’ (or an ‘every-Australian-politician’). Reading (and, for those who have seen an interview or two on 7:30 firsthand, reliving) fifty pages of said politician dodging questions and doing a superb job of saying nothing at all may not seem like fun, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of Constitution is its humour. Dale’s interventions produce such passages as this:
The chairman, the chief executive of the firm, gave a sort of pep talk and he said, you know. And I said to him, afterwards, just quietly, I said, “you know”. So the truth is, we don’t. And that’s why, if you are – if you do well, you’ve got to. That’s why I encourage people. I encourage – that’s why I encourage and practice. And in terms of understanding the situation – all of us are different, right? So the truth is nobody can. The important thing is.
Yes – the important thing is.
‘Good news about the future’, the eponymous poem from Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage tells us, ‘everyone is married to everyone.’ Schwartz has said that writing The Honeymoon Stage ‘was a Turing test-like experience’ that involved ‘invent[ing] alternate personas who lived on the internet, made friends, got into arguments’. By now the online space constitutes as real a house – albeit with its own varieties of flooring, furniture and fixtures – as any in the tangible world, and one of the central questions explored in The Honeymoon Stage, both with tongue in cheek and as a serious proposition, is what kind of living is done here – where the lighting is dim, the exits are unmarked and anyone could be both everyone and no-one at all.
Identity – its self/construction, its centre and its borders – is an ever-present theme: the book is structured around the part titles ‘us’, ‘you’ and ‘me’ and these pronouns, as well as ‘i’ (evading its usual superior position by remaining in lower case throughout), form its nuclei. Deliberate pronoun confusion is a recurring feature. See, for example, ‘what side of the bed does your clone sleep on?’, where the identities and locations of the ‘i’ and ‘you’ are rendered unclear until the abrupt entrance of the (second) ‘i’ in the second paragraph:
i had a bad dream my clone says what was it you say and roll over to my clone’s side of the bed and put your hand on its bicep my clone begins to tell you about the bad dream you half listen and put your lips to its chest are you even listening my clone says kind of you reply
at this moment i walk into the bedroom and i see you with your lips on my clones chest
In this way The Honeymoon Stage often resets the coordinates of the scene at which you (think you) are looking and the relations of the figures within. And while identities, and the relationships between them, are always reliant on acts of representation and perspective, there is the distinct sense that in this region void of bodies, ‘i’ becomes an avatar more thoroughly interchangeable with ‘you’ (or ‘her’, ‘him’, and so on).
The interchangeability of identities – the detaching of words from their denotations – is further thrown into relief in poems such as ‘language giving birth to itself in our mouths’, where the use of pseudonyms assumes farcical proportions:
your name is xyz
you have been accused of a terrible crime
you have to go into hiding and take on a pseudonym
from now on i will refer to you as sarah
sarah, you are not alone in this
because in the future most of us will be forced to
in the second future no one will know their real name
children will be born and given a pseudonym
pets will be given pseudonyms
abstract nouns will be given pseudonyms
it is possible that by the third future we will call
and we will call ‘rebecca’ ‘seaweed’
Here, names are masks successively applied over each iteration of the original, until the latter becomes a distant memory. Elsewhere, identifying markers such as proper names only raise the hollow spectres of celebrities we all ‘know’ – Michael Jordan, Ellen DeGeneres, Lance Armstrong – other masks beneath which a thing called reality may or may not lie.
The Honeymoon Stage could be read as a damning, and extremely funny, reflection on the apparent vapidity of online interactions, but Schwartz’s approach is more complex, engaging equally both critical and playful modes. The questions that arise throughout have to do not only with how we construct ourselves (who ‘we’ are), but also how it is we communicate (the true basis of a ‘we’) and form meaningful relationships, and there is, in the end, a pleasing withholding of judgment.
The book’s epigraph states: ‘The I, You and We in these pages do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless, invisible space in which we now spend much of our time’. This ‘boundless, invisible space’ has neither a good nor bad aspect, but is instead an environment in which creation itself has the capacity to be limitless. Like it or hate it, the virtual soup can be everything and everyone at once. And, also, extremely funny.
An ‘agonist’ is a term both for a chemical and muscular agent within the body, as well as for an individual engaged in a struggle or contest (see the Greek ‘agon’). One of the agonists that recurs in Shastra Deo’s debut collection, winner of the 2016 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, is the figure of the boxer, another is the soldier – both stand for places where the body comes into violent contact with the world, facing its limits. The body, in general, is almost corporeally present throughout The Agonist; being dissected, massaged, broken, repaired, cut, explored, named. ‘Agonist’ also evokes the word ‘agony’, and the body’s experience of pain – in particular the sensual aspects of this experience – occupies the foreground in many poems.
In ‘Cutman’, for instance, which alludes to a person responsible for preventing and treating injuries in a boxing match, the relationship between speaker – the second person ‘you’ – and subject – an unnamed ‘he’ – is both one of cutman/boxer (or more generally doctor/patient) and also of lovers (Deo never forces the reader into privileging one set of relations):
….He hisses on auscultation and your stethoscope
whispers against the shipwreck of his ribs. Your thumb grinds
hard against his iliac crest, and maybe you like how he arches
into the ache of it, how he shudders as he tilts his hips up so
you can smooth the tape against his transversalis…
This extract also sounds a distinctive motif that plays throughout The Agonist: here and elsewhere, medical terms – as integral to a physician’s trade as a bag of instruments – sit within the orbits of more familiar lexicons. Deo transposes such terms from the confines of a medical textbook or dictionary to the more open field of poetry, and in doing so breathes into them a more allusive kind of life. Though the reader can refer to a detailed notes section for explanations of some of the more obscure terms, it is a testament to the skill with which Deo uses these, never gratuitously, that a strong sense of meaning is conveyed even in the absence of such explanations. The words themselves, alluring in their unfamiliarity (at least to a reader without medical training), also become aesthetic objects, to be viewed and handled with pleasure.
The medical/surgical is only one facet of this wide-ranging collection: other strands include the lexical, the ritualistic, the pagan (Tarot cards, witches), and the evocation of specifically American locales (see, for example, ‘Mississippi Sound’). Even where the site is named as Australian, there is at times, at least for me, a distinctly American flavour – such as in ‘I saw the Devil in the Cane Fields’, where a Southern Gothic sensibility ghosts a Queensland landscape. The poem is one of the standouts in the collection (and there are many contenders), for its restrained and perfectly pitched rendering of disturbance, and a latent sense of violence residing within the speaker or emerging from the surrounding landscape, or both:
The devil held my hair back
as I washed my face in the kitchen sink.
The air was sticky and I could taste
ozone in the back of my throat.
The other boys
had found scorch marks
in the western fields, and my hands
still smelled of burnt sugar.
The devil and I sat at opposite ends
Of the tiny dining table and listened to the roaches
scuttle beneath the refrigerator.
Reading The Agonist is the experience of listening to such notes of unease or loss, expertly plucked from a well-tensioned wire, and with an awareness that a particular mythology, composed of several interlocking parts, and in which the medical and the magical do not oppose but bleed into each other, is being methodically, precisely and elegantly constructed.
While both hinge on the construction and play of certain personae, the stylistic differences between Bonny Cassidy’s last book, Final Theory (Giramondo, 2014), and her third full-length collection, Chatelaine, are marked. The former evinced a pared-back aesthetic and a tone at once elegiac and ominous, suited to its post-apocalyptic subject; the latter brims with a kind of demonic, incantatory energy and catapults us in some ways back into a medieval past (though we do not stay there). A great deal of this energy comes from Cassidy’s harnessing of traditional prosodic elements: alliteration and assonance, rhyme and repetition. See, for instance, the powerfully rhythmic ‘Green and gold wren’, which opens the collection and sets the atmosphere of the whole:
We take our gold leaf dose, half half—me and another wife. The phone is off its hook. Read and spell. Tie on a knife, plate, pick and spade; we flit away, low.
The blurb on the back of the book explains: ‘A chatelaine is the mistress of a castle or ancestral household’, and the mistress of this castle – ‘me and another wife’ – is multiple, an expert changeling. The poems in Chatelaine range freely across verse forms, from prose poetry to the pantoum, and the voices – at times bawdy, at others refined – metamorphose as Cassidy rotates them through an array of scenes, shifting sets and costumes at a strapping pace. This is poetry as theatre: Chatelaine abounds with a vibrant sense of play, a revelling in the fleshiness and material substance of language, so that while reading one often has the sensation of chewing. Take the following tercets from ‘Spunkie’:
your nippy snout, cracked—a little
at the door of the mire?
What was green and king.
Or these lines, from ‘Sheila’:
the milepost dressed
in a rope gown
through granite, fishes
the oil-dark boy grasping
a goldy fist.
These are words, phrases and stanzas that work the teeth and tongue, and the dense packages of syllables and consonants are often delivered in bite-sized chunks. Longer poems, such as ‘Dunes’, ‘Nether’ and ‘Mostly water’, are broken into shorter sections, so that there is a perpetual sense of ongoing creation and destruction, of worlds and substances forming only to dissolve again at a touch. What Chatelaine also worries at, with the sharpest of teeth, is the power of language to do precisely this: summon and dispel people, landscapes, stories. References to making and makers – sometimes poets, often women – are scattered throughout: in ‘Floored’, ‘Mam…never drowns but makes another cliff’; while the speaker in ‘Madam’ proclaims: ‘I spits up poems’ (and in the very next sentence: ‘help me finish the vase/then shatter it’).
The strong nexus between a creative/destructive female presence and place, in particular, is everywhere implied, and sometimes explicitly drawn in poems such as ‘Tropes’, where we are told: ‘She made this place….There’d be no place without her’. Chatelaine, then, is not only a portrait of the mistress of the castle, but also the castle itself, one that is as chameleon as its creator – its interior a series of maze-like corridors that confound any search for a straight path through. The densely populated corridors of the castle are also the thickets of language, in all its originary and untamable chaos. Warns the speaker in ‘Chatelaine’:
Beware the heath
of wilful words:
an analytic grave.
A pair of ‘pilgrims’, ‘darling lovers’, appear, but by the end of the poem, despite the advice:
…the wanter has turned their heads
with its muddy poems and they listen
they listen to the multiplying riddles.
Like them, we cannot help but ignore the warning, and instead listen to the riddles as they multiply. Chatelaine is a riddle composed of a mistress, her castle and ‘the heath of wilful words’, and when read both alone and alongside Cassidy’s previous work, shows how expert a changeling the poet herself is.