Shitheads: well are we doing this?

Lucy Van’s book of poetry The Open, published by Cordite and recently long-listed for the Stella Prize, is made up of mostly prose poems. The sentences that make up Van’s prose are very fun and full of life. Merlinda Bobis in her Introduction puts it well: ‘We’ve just touched what’s here, or are about to touch it, when apprehension is quickly unsettled, halted or reconfigured.’ This is true from sentence to sentence, the way they are stacked. This is also true for the life of an individual sentence. There is always the possibility of things being reconfigured, unsettled, or pulled to a halt. The sentences are the best thing about The Open which is to say everything is the best thing.

Van has said, in the opaque way of a poet, that her book is ‘interested in ideas of openness as they relate to spaces, language, expression [as well as] enclosure, private property, privacy’. The space, the ‘here’, of The Open tends to be confusing. And there are a lot of ‘here’s in this book, which help you find your footing only to lose it. The first sentence of the first poem ‘Hotel Grand Saigon’, reads: ‘I have gone back and now I am here’. The last clause of the final poem echoes: ‘…or is it that I’m here.’ The ‘here’ is clearly instructed—the Hotel Grand Saigon, The Australian Open, a kind of Australia. And the ‘I’, we presume, possibly, is Lucy. The poet is present. Or the speaker.

Or whatever. The fun of Van’s sentences is how shifty they are. On the one hand they ‘bear witness’ to an unjust and disgusting world. On the other, their ‘here’ is the here of the poem, a thing which responds to the world by building its own space. Private or public space? The private space of a poem becomes public when it is published … Yet poems—Van’s poems at least—are so opaque that their messaging is partially privatised. I must admit I haven’t figured out this puzzle. In any case, the pleasure of a sentence is sought because it models something like a good life. The good life led by Lucy Van’s sentences hinges upon their openness (like a good door, and the poet ‘bloody love[s] a good door’), not their ability to make meaning or convey messages or even to offer critique of the unjust and disgusting world I just mentioned.

Van’s preface notes that ‘writing these poems has something to do with being in lands’ whose ‘traces of colonial settlement held dull, sour feelings’. Places that seemed displaced from themselves, where ‘maybe nothing could belong’. This sounds like most of the world and I assume Van would agree. She’s at the pool at the Hotel Grand Saigon and she’s writing this poem (is she really there? does that matter?). Studying these colonial surroundings, the speaker goes:

[S]o, this is what you guys are up to. By this I mean holding but not really reading Vietnam travel guides, dozing phone in other hand on banana lounges, or rousing and calling for towels; by you guys I mean the Europeans and the white Australians; by up to I mean when you say you’re on holiday in Vietnam.

Early on, then, The Open resists the marketable act of earnestly reporting the frisson-y experience of being Vietnamese-Australian on holiday in Vietnam, of offering some kind of cathartic reading experience that ‘deals with’ the sins of the past. Van reports her thought but really it’s a dissection of a sentence, drawing out what’s funny about the language of critique at times: ‘Oh what can I say’, she deliriously wonders, about ‘the throwback’, the ‘traces of colonial settlement’ felt while by the pool or possibly everywhere. The speaker in The Open seeks a different way of speaking about the mucky ground we find ourselves in. Later in ‘Bush Poem’ (one of the few non-prose poems): ‘I a stake in some mad fence / impound this land: no / I thought create nothing, defeat the purpose’. Van writes, it seems to me, against the impulse to ponder dutifully about the sins of the past and present—or she writes weirdly about neocolonialism, as if such dutiful pondering were somewhat complicit in the very scene of neocolonialism we find ourselves in. Later in the piece the poet offers a position, an explanation of her solution: ‘I am essentially a shithead’.

I don’t want to suggest this identification is derogatory; the poet shithead is very smart (‘I speak English really well. My English is really good’). The poet shithead prioritises the fun of being a little shit in her response to the world, acting from the sense that things aren’t as they should be without offering a new set of rules to play by, apart from ‘always be opening’. The shithead doesn’t seek power because they already hold it: ‘my favourite part of the day was deciding potatoes are not really vegetables’.

Van’s shitheaded poetic style is unique in contemporary Australian poetry, but might have some connection to the larrikin or ratbag (‘some terrible smart cunt’, ‘little working-class girl’) and to the ‘feminine form of tomfoolery’ identified by Emily Bitto in her review of Melinda Bufton’s Girlery. But though Van does once identify her way of studying the world as ‘totally female’, gender doesn’t seem especially important. Similarly, if Van’s speaker is a larrikin it is of a mild variety, ‘[sending] the housemate a spinach and ricotta roll in the mail, for no reason other than to see if the post would deliver it’. Or she is a ratbag in relation to her command of language and knowledge which she claims to be constantly mixing up, knowing that this mixing and making mistakes is the very life of language (and being a shithead). Parts of The Open are academic-sounding, interested in the play of defining terms: ‘‘Apostrophe’ in Greek is apo (off, away from) + strophe (turn).’ Definitions are sought for the sake of diversion, diversion from the Latin divertere (turn aside). Its dual significance is helpful for describing shithead poetry: always turning aside—opening all these doors—always avoiding, always starting anew. And having a bit of fun.

Another beginning. Before starting this review, I thought I had typed some notes on my first few readings of The Open. When I search ‘Lucy Van’ in my phone I find a single quote from an essay I can’t track down:

Look at my Miu Miu sandals!

I don’t know why I don’t have more of these ‘notes’, or why this is all I have. But it does kind of get to the mystery of my feelings about the work, that it is often the more banal or offhand moments that feel the most fun or that manage to surprise me the most. My favourite sentence in The Open is:

I’ve never been happier than at the tennis today, my son and I sitting quietly, posed in our idea of gentlemen, applauding rallies and whispering ‘out’ or ‘in’ when Zhang challenged.

I always remember it up to the final clause, where it slips from something epic (sons and mothers, tennis, and some mythical ‘today’) to something journalistic, locating us in a Google-able moment: ‘when Zhang challenged’. Future scholars can find the Zhang game and ponder where Lucy sat. The joy of the sentence, especially the first three clauses, is the way in which it doesn’t put on a big show, but loves to be where and what it is. You could call it an offering but I don’t even know if the poet cares as much about you as her own ability to create it, to open herself to this moment and write it down. The delight in writing is deeply felt, but somewhat indifferent to you (this is a good thing).

The Open is a book that seems interested in surface. In ‘Australian Open I’: ‘Surface is the most important thing in tennis. It determines the speed and bounce of the ball… [and] the movement of the player coming to hit it’. Is the poet shithead a little superficial? Or a very good tennis player. The Open is superficial; its surface is the material of language but also references to what we are to assume are the visible facts of a ‘real’ world the speaker inhabits. A lot of it is about watching what are the predictable things in life: ‘I watch myself not working and I watch the workers working’.

The movement of the players is quite circumscribed until this strange moment: ‘…their work is to service. To serve this cosmic tact.’ The surface of the poem is lively and strange and sort of worshipful. The surface tension is high and things are liable to snap in and out and up. When the speaker chillingly notes how the workers are ‘never seen on break’, for example, I can’t help but see them precisely on break. This is the cosmic tact of poetry considered as a tricky surface.

Merlinda Bobis writes that ‘[t]he ocean passes beneath these poems and one inevitably gets wet.’ (Which is a very Lucy Van sentence.) What I am most struck by in The Open is not the ‘ocean beneath’ the poems, but the odd cosiness of the sentences which make the poems up. Houseboats? That is, the form the text takes doesn’t for me invoke water. And this despite many references to the ocean; I am a bad reader. More than invoking a world outside the poem, The Open invites playful engagement with poetic surface, the different musics of each sentence. This is kind of an argument for reading stupidly, or with the blinkers on, because I find it brings out the richness of Van’s text better than digging and diving for her thesis about, say, colonialism in Australia and Vietnam and praising it on these grounds. As well as being an effective reading method, it is one that responds to the demands of this wily, meandering, opaque and cheeky text. It’s that these poems and their sentences are so invested in their tennis-ness. I read this way, I hope, not to elide the poems’ potential critique, but to better understand their particular ring and sting.

One more start. In an interview with Liminal Magazine, Van responds to a question about ‘decoloniality’ in her work in a way that might help understand the way her sentences operate:

I think of Hannah Arendt’s identification of the capacity to begin as the ultimate freedom. Thus, each new birth represents something ungovernable and chaotic, and therefore something hated by totalitarianism, which, as she writes, needs terror ‘lest with the birth of each new human being a new beginning arise and raise its voice in the world’.

Sentences in The Open are like these ‘new birth[s]’; what’s most important is that they have their start, they open. (Van is not coincidentally writing a book about poetry called The Beginning of the Poem). What follows these beginnings always has a touch of the ‘ungovernable and chaotic’. And a non-totalitarian way of reading these sentences, these little lives, which I know sounds a bit overwrought, would resist the temptation to mine them for resources, such as ‘her father’s migration story’.

The sentences in The Open pull you forward. They are stacked and full of turns, each new phrase a little surprise. The speaker’s voice tends to be composed, a gentle guide through odd terrain. It could be nice to sit for a moment at an especially piquant sentence. Sometimes the text invites us to stop, as with this sentence which lives at the end of a paragraph in part V of ‘Hotel Grand Saigon’: ‘All this is an antithetical act.’ Some are even more tempting (from ‘Australian Open I’):

Possession is a grammatical category. Contraction is a poetic category. Poetry is a possessive contraction.

I believe people instinctively like these moments in The Open. It is a sort of ‘wow’ or better, ‘boom’ moment that invites reflection. Or actually, more than reflection, it invites a pose like the man in David Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Lucy Van’s sentences sometimes get this big. But I am restless, I get dragged forward.

My favourite ‘boom’ moment in The Open is when the act of looking, of holding and expressing curiosity, is categorised as ‘agricultural labour’. In ‘Australian Open I’, the speaker brags, ‘I have an exemplary view. I am a cultivated observer.’ You could say the view is birdlike, surveying and dipping in and out. The birds in ‘Australian Open I’ sing. Their ‘song is the aggressive claiming of territory’. The birdlike view migrates to the TV, where the exemplary viewer sees Manus Island detainees on television, then Nadal apologising to a ball kid, ‘kiss[ing] her face’, a more intense and obviously charged juxtaposition than most of The Open. This cultivated observation, while pointed, is drawn to sweetness. How to understand this desire?

After several minutes watching the player profiles, my mother says gravely, ‘They’re both very good looking.’ We were determined to know these beings. This is a totally female principle of gratification, knowing beings. This was our daily work, this agricultural labour, curious all summer to make this surface produce this pulse.

But to say that Van’s agricultural labourer / bird ‘takes a view’ is to suggest that Van is a reporter of a real world she sees, for example, a real game of tennis or a real afternoon by the pool in colonial Saigon. I don’t like this idea of reportage as much as I like the bird for its relation to birdsong, which maybe is the root of human song, and I like that Australian songbirds eat sweet nectar and that this diet allows them to pollinate the land’s unusual geography. Their ‘agricultural labour’, sipping and moving and looking (and shitting)—seeking sweetness, birds like poets are important to this country. And Lucy Van creates irrational fruitful shitheaded song. That is ‘the work’ she does, ‘to make this surface produce this pulse’.

Pulse is a useful word for Van’s sentences, as in they have it. Pulse as in leguminous plant comes from the Latin puls (porridge of meal or pulse), and is oddly enough related to pollen. Here is a sentence whose surface produces this pulse, from the second poem ‘The Esplanade’: ‘The bedsit was the esplanade and from now on all bedsits are the esplanade’. This is an exemplary Lucy Van sentence: the declarative nonsense ‘x was y’ and the childlike, over-confident consequence ‘and from now on’. It’s a game and the words and the rhythm are tasty. It doesn’t mean much but creates its own reality, which gets at the root of what sentences are anyway, not vehicles for driving real information but something like a house. The open house of ‘The Esplanade’ (‘I mean, the space between floor and ceiling was: oh my god’) is built on the fallibility of memory, the speaker struggling to remember things exactly while relishing that inability. A Spanish man called either Emmanuel, Benvolio or Gabriel writing badly in cafés, ‘or maybe they were McDonald’s or maybe they were Hungry Jacks. It was Hay Street Mall and it was Murray Street Mall.’ The were / was is the opening. It was all of them and it was none of them. ‘It was’ the beginning of a sentence. It is writing, a song with a nice pulse, a good ride, a good door. Always going somewhere fun and yeah colonial and yeah banal— ‘a building behind a Red Rooster in Richmond’. ‘The Esplanade’ turns the melancholy passing of time into a bouncing castle of remembrance where the shitheads invent ‘a new type of breakfast toast involving cold pea and ham soup as a kind of smashed avocado replacement, he named it ‘The Decision Maker’’.

In ‘George’s Door’, the first section of ‘Australian Open II’, Van rabbits on for two paragraphs before declaring: ‘Really, I’m interested in the door.’ The really is the fun part. Another paragraph later: ‘I’m using this door for another purpose, which is to talk about desire’. At the end of ‘George’s Door’, she writes ‘My fascination with this door is irrational… Many suburban houses built in Australia have this door,’ closing the door on the poem. Really, Van is interested in the pilgrimages of an associative mind and the pleasure of creating a poetic surface from that source. Desire? Desire for poetry? ‘I love the word ‘containers’ and I love the word ‘attack’ and I love the word ‘smoko’. The Open opens up as it goes along, becoming holey. Writing is lying and The Open is full of little lies like this that come when a poet follows her desire or love for words. The fact of the lying speaker is finally admitted in ‘Leaves’, where a sentence is ridden for the feeling, before landing on a qualification that pushes us back to its beginning:

‘Recondite working-class shithead, here I go, or come: but if you think I slept my way here you don’t even know that I’m not even good in bed (this is a lie)’.

What is ‘here’ again? Oh whatever, the sentence is so funny and cool to be with, like a waterslide. Let’s call the waterslide The Recondite, the delightful ‘Recondite’ (little known; abstruse) pushing us off, through the turns of commas and colons, ors and buts. The wandering mode of The Open really blooms in ‘Leaves’ and the final section generally. The pace kicks up and the lines get more ‘shitheaded’ or politely open: indeed, ‘always be opening’.

I won’t tell you about the literary mole that interviewed me, a classically trained harpist: ‘And you just used the word trope. And what is a trope?’ I meant to say ‘pianist’ but I changed it you see. Oh I am a bitter veg a little working-class girl slipping on that crossing ferry. I must tell someone I ate a whole loaf of garlic bread for breakfast. Cameron, my Cameron, I ate a whole loaf of garlic bread for breakfast. Oh it was great.

It is fun and right to read this book for fun because it is just so thick with these moments. And maybe we should talk about ‘moments’ quickly before we are finished here, and seeing as we are at the final poem ‘Because It’s Slower It Races Away’. Shopping and stealing at Woolworths, the speaker remembers ‘Maybe twelve years ago I saw Julian Assange walk right from where I’m standing to the counter [to] buy or request to buy a SIM card for a prepaid mobile phone.’ What is Assange up to here except now that I’m thinking of the recent spread of ASSANGE OZ HERO graffiti I had been seeing around Melbourne. A lot of it in Albert Park, which I thought odd. ‘That’s Julian Assange, I thought,’ Van’s speaker thinks. But what is the moment? Is there ever just one? In the YouTube program ‘Recess Therapy’, a man called Julian interviews children. In one episode, on the topic of movies, a boy describes why Karate Kid is his favourite, confidently asserting: ‘It gives you… the moment.’ This theory of the moment is as good as any for getting what Lucy Van is up to in the final poem of The Open or at least what I have been trying to describe.

I’m here because I’ve been working my way up to this moment. Not that there’s anything wrong with me, or wrong with this Shopping Centre. There is, but that isn’t the point.

Here we are again in the dull and sour scene of the contemporary moment. And here we are in the poem. There is always some elusive ‘point’, or ‘moment’, some ‘here’ that drives the poet and her reader on. The poet doesn’t ‘understand’ or even necessarily want this moment, this ‘expensive coconut water’. The point is to go forward and begin and do it again because you can.



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Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan is a poet and co-director of Sick Leave. His chapbook ‘Dear Eileen,’ was published by Puncher and Wattman as part of the Slow Loris series.

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