Kovan essay
Type
Essay
Category
Culture
Music

Subsistence years

The 90s

the all too public ‘lyrical age’: a decade of ironised nostalgia. (Cf. Kundera’s Life Is Elsewhere, Kerouac, Hesse. Films of G van Sant, G Armstrong, B Ellis. East of Eden, the origin myth. All ‘those indies.’ The music, the music – too profuse to list. Retro R & B on the car stereo: the late 60s, the 70s, all over again.) Life is always elsewhere, especially when it most palpably isn’t. The emergence from crepuscular puberty into the high self-romance that follows. (In 1993, I was twenty; a couple of years later I wrote a ‘lyrical novel’ of that year of my life, as if that year would be the last, or could never be bettered.) Even then the very living of it self-consciously sepia-toned. Downhome, downbeat, post-grunge fashion: brown corduroy & sideburns. Neo-Greenwich Village years could still be heroised, with Dylan & the Beats, a vestige of integrity, as if it deserved a rebooting. The thorough unformedness, masquerading as maturity or knowing. None of us had any idea, though we spoke well (as it seemed to us and our putative audience; we would never be caught using a shit-coloured word like ‘putative’). Sex, and drugs: weed, shrooms, a little more, for me. Others – all the rest. A few ODs amongst them (goddesses frozen like Medusa in the northern tropics, carpet-snakes in their hair). I mourned an intractable obsession. She was at NIDA, a Nastasya Filippovna storming onto the wrong ham funeral. Wore a blue-velvet coat in summertime. I was soon there too, writerly – a stowaway in theatrical drag, tucked into her irreal protected zone. (Pushed out only by attrition, after years of deprivation. Things, inside time, that last a lifetime.) Gaucheness, a thwarted need to belong. We chained ourselves, barefoot, to bulldozers; hadn’t heard yet of smartphones (so no selfies, no self-archives of our crimes). Spent a year sweeping schoolyards as ‘community’ repentance for my sins. Then the long solo car journeys into the western country: scrub desert, what I called ‘gas-stations’, campfires. Uluru, which I just wouldn’t climb. The distances, from whatever was to be attained. Broken down in a flyspeck town for days, reading Jack London in a pub while the engine was repaired. Everything failed, more or less, years gaining on years. (Boy gets girl; loses her and everything else.) The way a family is the universal condition for self-betrayal, even nightmare. Keeping hold of an old symbolic order that was falling away; even a transcendental freedom. Buddhism was already something, before Hollywood stamped it onto the market. (Marx was only briefly diverting, in the mid 90s, when the Communist East was newly a relic.) Asia, or Europe? Dalai Lama or Lacan? I went to India, the Himalayas and the west coast USA. Graduate impostures (I was no academic) with, by then, one of the few Beats still living. Wilfully retrograde, leaping even back over the 60s, its aesthetic revolt, a return to a real-world ‘stepping off the highway’ (Lew Welch) into the deep back country. Gary Snyder was the Zen hinge between what had become a shop-worn lyric, and the kamikaze decade to come. Did it really nearly snap my spine?

The 00s

what cracked the spine of the virgin tome just opened: 9/11. (No-one could be ironic anymore, even Foster Wallace.) I flew everywhere, around the world, nevertheless, baiting fate, a couple times within a handful of years, going into my thirties with a vengeance. Stepped in as many towns as ‘there are grains of sand in the Ganges’. Tibetan lamas; and cigarette-breath girls in Chinatowns, sleeping in our clothes at the base of Coit Tower in late winter. Crossing America, crossing Europe. Robbed, cheated, cheated blind. Every day I heard smart people say, Big money has us up the arse. Not a lyric age, a shambolic one, Mercier to my own Camier, scraped down to the last cell count. Fevers in Chennai, panics in Paris, holes in shoes, pants, coat pockets, hands, hearts, hopes, hybrids, the homunculus that threatened to be stillborn, always and again. So much life; how often a mask for so little substance. The USA dragged the innards away. Where there had been Bush, there was his idiot progeny; more were to come. Howard, Blair, blah, blear and bore, doom & dull. Every few years I wrote another novel, all still too well behaved, as if there really was something out there to salvage. Idealism dies very hard when it has so much to resist. I refused the real world, even while I drank it down like its newest convert. Age of an epic, new traditionalism, a still more inflated nostalgia for what had been. But this time all too wry. The end of a pretentious formalism. Derrida died the month before I arrived in Paris; I had twenty Euro cents. (Through three years I rarely had much more.) No-one there took sex seriously anymore. Survived, almost unwillingly. Not deconstruction, but old-style brutalism: terror attacks every few months. Wandered through NYC, Madrid, London, Mumbai, without much more than a flu & a fleabite. Circled in samsara, the same sites of dis-repair or -repute, more than once. But I was a Buddhist, that’s what Buddhists do. I’d received a poetic blessing, but in Prague, Haridwar and Hong Kong all my poems were stolen, for the hardware not the hexameters. Escaped with rat-cunning, shunned as vermin are. Climbed hessian walls in my sleep, swam through Asian flood. A yogi in his cave, I died a hundred years of solitude. Went on & off self-prescribed binges on booze, movies, women’s faces, highways, railway tracks, all the poetic porn of places (go to Danshui, Geylang, Panaji, Nanning, etc.). Knew no higher temple than a near-empty cinema in the forgotten places. Fled in & out of flophouses, red-light shanties, and a wilful denial of the modern in every remote town I could find (in Patna, Johor Bahru, Mandalay, Monterey, Bolinas, Nîmes …). A will to disappear, like Rimbaud or Welch, one who traded in guns, the other who vanished with one. But what I sought to escape was what I saw in every dirt street: the end of a possible world. Snyder had reproached me: but everything’s impermanent, don’t sentimentalise. Duh, just like Homer Simpson. The world slipped away, sentence by sentence. I could’ve started making home-made bombs, symbolic or not, now that that was the fashion: convict, or tabula rasa? Are they the same thing? Could either be even ‘chosen’, this time, as had seemed the unseen luxury of the decade before? What demanded fealty now was pure necessity. I found it in Burma, in 2010, like a summons. It was hard to look back, to the lyric age, though this was like harking back: not poetry, but hard prose, scratched on bare walls (prisons, squats, cheap hotel rooms). Who had lovers, there? Love was a pharaoh in Egypt, or a number on a toilet wall. I might have been a Buddhist, but this wasn’t the Beat version anymore. In the airless rooms of Yangon, there was a new, hard calculus to be learned: freedom must be taken by stealth. I had a spyglass in my pocket and no hopes in the hand (let alone a bird, a Bible, an abacus). People with nothing who gave their all over and over. (They didn’t take selfies, either.) I would have followed them through whatever desert, out of the metropolis of the twenty-first century. The West was dead, gone, rotted to the core. I went back to it, like a terrorist.

The 10s

too soon to call – a hunger strike, a boycott, a draw. But also too late. Adulthood comes before you’ve even had a chance to open the door. What is it other than time? Everyone seems to be losing the race, at that point, and not merely history, that great loser of its self-fought wars. What was the point––? The lyricism, the loves, the years of sepia-toned prospectives? Retrograde revisionings of something that could never quite come. And so a new, Trumpian age. The idiot son becomes an outright puppet-in-a-box: all candy-coloured & dumb, a ventriloquist’s doll. But smart as TV jingles and fast food always were: they stick in the mind, stay in the race, go the distance. The Himalayas were always there, in my time of growing, high as truth gets, but so were re-runs of Bewitched on buckets of weed. Millions of pensioners on painkillers in the suburbs, whose names I’ll never know, dying slowly to Days of Our Lives. I never did blow up at least one McDonald’s, as I’d vowed to do. It’s easy to be downbeat, again. It’s not the 90s now, but it’s a critical coming-of-age, when age means nothing more than the confidence to call it out, again (and again). Neither poetry, nor prose, but that logic that goes with the curing of sinew into the thing that forms the truth: in the mouth, in the act, in the world. Life or death stakes, if you can still call them that. It’s either a world of fiction, or of the flesh-toned virtual real, now. People only read stories to match the fantastic with the reality that is imperceptibly slipping away: a hyper-real join-the-dots. A kind of post-postmodern ‘choose your own adventure’, like drone warfare. It’s real, but it isn’t quite. Don’t vote in an election, just rig one up, like a prosthesis to a stump. Hobble around, try out a laugh or two: stand up, fall down. Everyone’s a fall guy for someone else; both might as well be you: Vladimir and Estragon. Did you find love again? Who was really looking? I took to riding ocean freighters, because on the high seas it is easy to believe the landmass is already covered. I rode buses straight through China, stumbled in dead-eyed port-towns. I slept on seashores. When I listened to shells, as I had once forgot to do, I heard the prehistoric seas of Australia echoing inside them. They might have gone by now, but when they beckoned, I heeded. Drawn by something subterranean, like the good drugs of the 90s, the books, the belief. There is no sea; there is only its echo.

 

 

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Martin Kovan is a poet, writer and research scholar in ethics at the University of Melbourne. His short fiction, prose-poetry, poetry, journalism, essays and academic nonfiction have been published widely, including in Overland, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Westerly, Mascara, Southerly, Island and Peril.

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