free-verse bodies

I might not put up many posts this year.  Not because I’m not thinking and writing, but because I am!  I’ve enrolled in a postgraduate diploma (effectively an Honours year) in creative writing at the University of Melbourne – dipping my toes into a short thesis.  Mine is tentatively titled “Free-Verse Bodies”.  I’m exploring how bodies that are visibly different or disabled express themselves in poetry.  In my research proposal, I wrote:

The essay considers poetry to be both deeply subjective and communal; it uses voice, rhythm and silence to communicate and to carry affect. This view of poetry is then combined with the insights of disability theorists to argue that the expression of bodily difference in poetry is a potent tool for breaking down the assumed rigid boundaries separating the self from the other, while respecting the particularity of bodies.

Of course, I’m interested in your thoughts, and I might well post now and then, to let you all know how I’m going, but forgive me if I’m a little quiet…  except for the tapping of keys…

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thirsty for water

When I was young, I swam competitively, but gave it up after spinal surgery at age 12.  A long time out of the water would have meant a long time clawing my way back to form, and I really wasn’t passionate enough about it.  What I was ambivalent about, of course, was the training, not the water (or even the competition, to be honest).  The water was always a magical and transformative place, a place within this world that somehow also transcended it.  Swimming, I could leave my mundane and awkward embodiment behind, and completely enter into my body and its potential.

Last year, I went for a “Salamander” with artists and activists Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, in Berkeley California.  I wholeheartedly recommend you reading Petra’s book “The Scar of Visibility“, the book they wrote together “Cripple Poetics: A Love Story“, as well as taking what opportunity you can to see their performances and videos (maybe start here, with Neil’s brilliant “Disabled Country“).  Anyway, the Salamander.  They describe it best on the site dedicated to documenting some of the outcomes of this project.

Salamander is a community performance project. We use underwater photography, dry performance workshops, creative writing, clay work and video to go under, to find our disabled beauty emerging from the deep, the wild aesthetic of water, deforming ourselves through sleek unhinged control.
Since May 2013, disabled people and their allies from around the world have climbed into pools and oceans with us, and we float together, enjoying complicated freedom, companionship and adventure. And we give ourselves to the pressures the waters exert on us.
There is little instruction in Salamander swims: the water is the director, the choreographer, as we twist freely in gravity, trusting each other, exploring the integrity of our bodies. We also chat while we are in the water, and explore the easy flow of communication in the fluid medium of supportive water. The emphasis is on play and process.

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andy joel neil and petra

Here’s the poem I wrote soon after the swim (with a little re-writing, as I can’t help myself…!).

~

Salamander

Berkeley, California

with Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus

Squint into this, I would have

said to myself, knowing the key

ingredients and their venom.

A public swimming pool.

A camera.  This body.  I don’t need

to spell it out.  Prose says it’s all there,

always fizzing in the marrow.

The enjambment between us proves

everything blue, all water.  This

is a series of dances

we invent as we go, each

the length of a full breath.

One body passes over me, another

winds around my torso, sinuous,

amphibious, tender, muscular,

substantial.  Deep animal

play, human mind turned

against itself and for the new human,

submerged in the way we move

together fluidly, or bump

against bone with apologies and

laughter, then dive down again

into the depths where thresholds

blur and the future

opens like lungs…

Clouds move in as I climb out

and become singular again,

rubbing the towel against my body,

but leaving a few drops behind.

I know two things –

it’s too cold to stay here all day

and the world is thirsty for water.

~

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Life keeps hurtling forward.  Memories can feel distant.  But though we leave the water, we carry it always inside us.  I want to remember this.

~

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the return of the sensuous body of language

bifo berardi

Last year, the Italian activist-theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi published a book that pitted poetry against global financial capital.  Is this kind of ‘David and Goliath’ matching audacious and magnificently prophetic, or purely ridiculous, laughable?

Two writers and friends, continents apart, had separately recommended “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance” to me.  I came to it with high hopes, but cautiously.  We know too well the damage currently being done in the name of abstracted “profit”.  The instrumentalist thought behind capital (and the mechanisms that operate without human consideration or judgement) has plunged us collectively into a frightening cycle of exploitation and alienation.  And in this hyperconnected world, crisis can too easily become crises, escalating into bankruptcy, poverty, pollution, depression (in every sense).  Against that, poems?!

occupy water

Now, if you’re like me, you’ve been to more than a few poetry readings that have you agreeing with Charles Bukowski’s assessment – “poetry readings have to be some of the saddest / damned things ever”.  Especially where there is a kind of “presentation failure”, where the poet is clearly lethargically unconvinced that there is any life in the words they are speaking, or so overconfident that they read an entire manuscript of mediocre verse on the open mic, or inhabiting a false voice, borrowed from YouTube footage of slams or the static-pocked monotone of TS Eliot reading “The Wasteland”.

Apart from performance, there is the question of reaching the public.  Most books of poetry sell in the hundreds rather than the thousands (though I’d be interested in seeing some statistics on this, especially international).  And poetry’s appearance in the broader, mainstream culture is extremely rare – its appearance is either patronisingly token or uncanny, a kind of cultural undead (“you mean, people still write poems?!”).

mic & stage

This appears to be the reality.  A cacophany of consumerist coercion, against an almost-inaudible and tired whispering in the heart that reaches out towards others.  But it is not so much “the reality” as “a reality”.  Other possibilities are here.  And I suspect that it is the tiredness and quietness of where poetry comes from that is so important.

One of the most powerful aspects of “The Uprising” is Berardi’s valorisation of fatigue and limits over infinite growth, of co-operation and solidarity over appropriation and competition, and insolvency over unceasing debt.  And according to him, it is the force of poetry that re-energises and reinforces these human values, to remind us of our interconnectedness.

Not only this, but poetry’s power lies in its untranslatability, its openness to interpretation, its multiplicity.

Poetry is the language of nonexchangeability, the return of the infinite hermeneutics, and the return of the sensuous body of language.  I’m talking about poetry here as an excess of language, a hidden resource which enables us to shift from one paradigm to another.

Oddly, Berardi’s sole example is Rainer Maria Rilke, whose lyrical elegies were written around a century ago.  How does contemporary poetry counter the apparent fait accompli of the financial paradigm?  He also doesn’t explain how poetry returns “the sensuous body of language” to us.  Does he mean to imply that it is only really poetry if it has this kind of power?  Or, since there are so many different types of poetry, are there many different ways that poetry has impact?  Are there many different “sensuous bodies”?

“The Uprising” only devotes its final chapter to how poetry might counter the dominant mode.  As such, it reads like an incomplete sentence.  Which is perhaps entirely appropriate.  Other theorists may wish to fill in the conceptual gaps.  At the moment, I won’t even attempt to do so.  What’s important to me is knowing that poets will continue with their marginal art, their offerings, their words of potential.

In July, while at Naropa University, I was in a workshop with M NourbeSe Philip.  Later in the week, days after the shocking acquital of George Zimmerman for the shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, NourbeSe was scheduled to give a poetry reading.  She decided to take an approach that rejected the usual “reading”, and instead fused ritual, protest, sound poetry and remembering.  We were asked to wear white and bring candles.  She read an extract from her book “Zong”, which was the name of a slave ship from which dozens of African-American men and women were thrown overboard for insurance money.  The syllables and phonemes sounded out, fitfully and gradually.  “Wa- Waaat- Www-”.  Until the final full word was articulated – with all its connotations of life and drowning – “Water”.  And the water in our bodies trembled in recognition of others’ suffering.  There was no understanding or closure, just an open future we had to move into, knowing the past in our bodies, if only a little more.

In September, I was in Ireland, just weeks after the death of Seamus Heaney.  A commemorative reading in Clifden saw around twenty other poets and musicians read his poems, to a packed auditorium, Irish lives for whom Heaney embodied something of their collective yearning, resilience and thoughtfulness.  The atmosphere certainly had an undertone of grief for the space left behind by such an admired and accomplished voice, but it was also a time of celebration, humour and sheer human warmth.  He had written, “I rhyme / to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”  And we came together to make sure that those parts of us that Heaney had set echoing would continue to chime, to reverberate throughout a nation (and a world) struggling under financial and environmental crisis.

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I’m reminded also of “Quippings“, a regular event at Hares and Hyenas Bookshop in Fitzroy, run by a loose collective of writers and performers with various disabilities.  At times shocking, at others hilarious, then sexually explicit, then philosophically subtle and revelatory, and often deeply moving, the night fearlessly and relentlessly overturns the stereotyped figure of the pitiful or heroic “crip”, replacing these “objects” with defiant and proud “subjects”.  And as always, the audience, by co-habiting the space, is implicated.  Our world is overturned with humour, insight and warmth, and we are left less certain about disability, and more aware of humanness.

William Carlos Williams wrote “Look at / what passes for the new. / You will not find it there but in / despised poems. / It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there”.  There are seeds of transformation waiting quietly in innumerable books, journals, websites and venues.  And there are the unwritten poems, perhaps within your reach right now.

~

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reverberations and affinity

 

Sometimes an acquaintance transforms into a friend.  Time passes, random events intervene and affinities flower.  Recently, I went to a Quippings event at Hares & Hyenas bookshop in Fitzroy – one of the most mind-blowing literary/performance events you are ever likely to encounter.  The next one is on 30th November and is entitled “Piss on Pity”, if you want a hint.  And you really should go.  Even if you’re not from Melbourne.

Anyway, at the last one, I re-met Carly Findlay, prolific blogger, appearance activist, writer and all-round great woman.  We got to talking, and she asked me to write a guest spot for her blog, basically telling my story of visible difference.  It starts like this -

In the last twelve years, I’ve had the pleasure of quitting four positions – the Commonwealth public service(Child Support Agency, would you believe?), a cafe-venue-bar I co-owned called “Good Morning Captain” in Collingwood Melbourne, Medicare Australia (yes, in a call centre), and a claustrophobic admin job for a micro-managing tax lawyer. And I’ve lived in eight different houses in the last twenty-five years (though, yes, all of them in Melbourne). But there are two things that I could never leave, even if I wanted to. They define me. I’m as inseparable from them as wings from sky, pith from fruit, thought from words.

Those two things are Marfan Syndrome and poetry.

Andy Jackson (Vic) 1

The blog post is here, if you want to know how it ends, but it doesn’t end, really, does it?  Poetic language and just being in the same room together can build bridges, sure, but the gulfs between us are perpetual and always at risk of expanding.  Everything needs reinforcing, extending, exploring…

Carly herself has just written an amazing post called “On ‘normal and cures and pride”.  She writes,

I see two sides to a cure: a medical cure and an appearance cure. I don’t want either. A medical cure (or treatment, as things stand now) may hold worse side effects than Ichthyosis itself. And I think that an appearance cure is conforming to what society expects of me – the expectation that I would want to look ‘normal’ and de-identify with a condition that I’ve become accustomed to and accept. I see it as a bit vain, even.

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In the future, I plan to introduce you to other writers, thinkers and activists who I feel affinity with.  Virtual community is also real community – full of arguments, passion, embraces, patience and complexity.  ‘Normal’ is incredibly narrow.  And ‘abnormal?  It’s not singular, it’s multiple, innumerable in all its manifestations of beauty and becoming.  It’s you.

 

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am I here yet?

I think we all suspect that intercontinental flight is unnatural.  After arriving back from Ireland, I was jetlagged, both physically and existentially.  Here’s a reflection I wrote on that, as a contribution to a fantastic philosophical-poetic-embodied blog called tract-trace.

As some kind of companion to that, here’s a few photos from Ireland.  We’re incredibly grateful to Arts Victoria and to all our supporters through Pozible for helping us to get there, and to Dr Robyn Rowland AO for organising the tour and for her deep hospitality.  “Ambiguous Mirrors” was performed in Galway, Cork and Clifden to an audience that was sensitive, generous and thoughtful.  We look forward to its ongoing reincarnations.

Roadside, Connemara

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Gallarus Oratory

Galway Bay

Ambiguous Mirrors at Clifden Arts Festival

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disembodied poetics?

As many of you know, I was in the United States in July and part of August.  The main reason was to attend the (big breath…!) Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.  I first heard of the School  in the late 1990s, when I found an anthology of writing published by them, and bought the book partly out of cautious curiosity – how could poetry be “disembodied”?  And should it be?

Anyway, in the last year or so, I found myself feeling a little unsatisfied with my poetry, feeling I was beginning to repeat myself.  I wanted to give myself a jolt of poetic input, to be challenged, confused, encouraged and expanded.  So, a four-week schedule of workshops, readings, talks, panel discussions, meetings and mentoring, all held at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, with a roster of writers including Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, Anne Carson, Rae Armantrout, Jerome Rothenberg and Ron Silliman…  hmmm, let me think about that – YES.  And thanks to Copyright Agency, who gave me generous funding, I could attend and not come back entirely broke.

It is impossible to capture my time in Boulder in all its sunshine, rigour, shivers and momentum.  But I can give you some hints.

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After I moved in to my sub-let on University Hill, while I was wandering around town looking for something salad-like for lunch, I noticed a guy looking at me fairly intently, curious.  Normally, I’d feel a little suspicion or anticipatory resentment, but I’m not at home and I’m determined to be open.  “Is that scoliosis?”, he asks.  So, I say yes, tell him the brief Marfan story.  He tells me he has a slight scoliosis and a lot of pain – when he was a little kid, in the 80s, he and his brother would play at professional wrestling (WWF-style) and he was slammed down onto concrete.  We talk for a while about how invisible pain is, how everyone’s story is different.  He asks me why I’m here; I tell him about Naropa.  Turns out he grew up next door to one of the founders Chogyam Trungpa, which is another story…  But something of the outgoing, genuine, unpretentious nature of this conversation is (to me anyway) very American…

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Each of the four weeks at the Summer Writing Program, you choose a different workshop.  I was with Rikki Ducornet, Rae Armantrout, M Nourbese Philip and Anne Waldman.  We grafted our own writing onto fragments of Herodotus, extending threads into the surreal or hyperreal.  We took famous poems and (out of homage or critique or both) rewrote them into another era or voice or gender.  We recorded a collaborative performance poem in the studio.  We talked about imagination, research, appropriation, colonialism, modernism, rupture and environmental crisis, and of course a million other things.  If there was an overarching theme to the Naropa approach, I would say it’s a passion to integrate research and intuition within poetry, and to engage the writer’s own body in the writing process.

In Nourbese’s workshop, we were to tell our own story, one at a time, in a circle.  But we had a time-limit.  And when the automatic timer went off, no matter how intimate or mundane or traumatic (or mid-sentence), our story would have to stop and the next person start.  The accumulating, visceral sense of interruption accumulated, a palpable absent space, one that also was a kind of communion.  We wrote out of that space, not to fill it in, but to respect it and allow it to speak.

There were many rigorous lectures, thought-provoking panel discussions, powerful performances and readings, and in between sessions some rich conversations.  Some of us meditated in the mornings.  Some of us had tacos and beer in the evening.  There was blue summer sky, horizontal clouds, afternoon storms, and the mountains surrounding us.

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I have a whole lot of unfinished poems in my journal to revisit, a percolating idea for a long poem, and many thoughts and provocations to sort through.  And many new friends and colleagues.  We keep hiking…

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tortoise with a passport and a pen

I’m not the most prolific of poets (have a look at the dates on these blog posts if you don’t believe me).  I am the tortoise in that fable of Aesop (although I doubt I’m going to win or that it’s even a race).  For me, poetry takes time – not so much in the writing, but in the living and pondering, the overflow.

I realised a long time ago (but especially when I was co-running the infamous Collingwood cafe Good Morning Captain in the early 2000s) that full-time work takes a lot of energy out of me.  As does unemployment.  So I’ve accepted a kind of never-finally-resolvable “balance” – a mercurial mix of part-time work, facilitating creative writing classes and “open-ended poetry time”.  And that “poetry time” has come to rely (for better and worse) on grants and residencies.

In July, thanks to Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, I’m off to Boulder Colorado USA, for the Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.  Four weeks of workshops, talks, panels, readings and collaborations.  I’ve been running quite a few writing workshops recently – which I love – but it’s time now to be immersed and challenged myself.

Recently, I’ve been reading Anne Waldman’s poetry collection Manatee / Humanity (Waldman co-founded the School with Allen Ginsberg and others in 1974).  It’s a wide-ranging, intimate, philosophical and visceral odyssey into humanity’s relationship with animal otherness.  The poetry is compassionate and its experimentation comes out of the real rather than any kind of detachment.  It’s ambitious and angry and has a sense of wit.  One of the four workshops I’m taking at the Summer Writing Program will be with her, which is exciting, as are the other workshops and events.

There’s a certain anticipation which is really useful.  I’ve been so busy of late, but stimulated, so poetry feels like it’s simmering, ready to boil over.  With any luck, being transplanted into another country, and in a place that values poetry and creativity so highly, will be really fruitful.  I experienced that in Chennai India, when I was there 18 months ago.  Which takes me to this quote, which I read last night.

Poetry of the artists’ colony: poems about grass being cut a long way off, poetry of vacation rather than vocation, poems written on retreat, like poems written at court, treating the court as the world.  This is not to deplore the existence of artists’ colonies, but rather the way they exist in a society where the general maldistribution of opportunity (basic needs) extends to the opportunity (basic need) to make art.  Most of the people who end up at artists’ colonies, given this maldistribution, are relatively well-educated, have had at least the privilege of thinking that they might create art…  [Art] produced in an exceptional, rarefied situation like [this] can become rarefied, self-reflecting, complicit with the circumstances of its making, cut off from a larger, richer and more disturbing life.

Adrienne Rich, “Tourism and Promised Lands”

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Beneath this window in Chennai, I’d watch people go about their everyday lives – trading, eating, talking, waiting, laughing, begging.  From dawn to dusk and all through the night, they’d be there, the poignant and unsettling sensory overload pressing against the hotel window.  Yes, the hotel window.  In other words, I was there, but not there.

Chennai is not Boulder, of course, and a hotel is not a University summer school.  But I am taking this opportunity because I don’t want to “retreat” – I want my poetry to be stretched, expanded, deepened, all those words you scatter on grant applications but are so much more intangible and profound when you approach the empty page.  And when you approach the “full page” of the world as it is – immensely complex, beautiful, unjust, strange and familiar.  Wish me luck.

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many kinds of distance

“Distant Reading” by Peter Middleton is (so far anyway) the most brilliant, intriguing and irritating book on poetry I’ve read.  Yes, all of the above.  And it’s not even that some essays in this book are brilliant, some intriguing, some irritating.  They are almost always all three simultaneously.

While it is a collection of eight discontinuous essays, they are linked by a desire to talk about poetry beyond the “meaning inherent in the text”, which Middleton rightly questions.  He sees a poem not just as a literary product but as an historical, cultural, political artefact, circulating via various means, and being transformed by those means.  This includes the poetry reading – in an astounding essay called “A History of the Poetry Reading”, Middleton discusses how intersubjectivity is integral to poetry.

Performance is a moment when social interaction can study and celebrate itself, and the poet is given significant new materials with which to extend the signifying field of the poem…  The presentation of the poetry in a public space to an audience that is constituted by that performance for the time of the reading enables the poem to constitute a virtual public space that is, if not utopian, certainly proleptic of possible social change as part of its production of meaning. (p.103)

No, I didn’t choose the most snappy, accessible quote, did I?  Actually, Middleton does have a keen literary wit, but he’s nothing if not ambitious in his scope.  Interestingly, though, for all of his depth of analysis and his assiduous care in respecting the complexities of how poetry circulates, there is very little mention of the specific and varied embodiments of authors and readers, of what these might mean for poetry.

I’m thinking of how writers and performers like Antony Riddell, Kath Duncan, and Angie Jones claim a space on stage that is entirely their own, that unashamedly present their own embodied difference as valuable and inextricable from literary meaning.  Simply by being themselves, visible and engaging, they expose the anaesthetics of the usual “author-audience” relationship.   The easy empathy, identification or abstraction that is usually generated by poetry readings is made all the more complicated and (appropriately) fraught.  I include myself in this.  When I got up in a Brunswick pub and read for the first time, “I have a hunch / that curvature / can be aperture…”, I knew that this was my poem, not just as author, but as this body on this stage.  That sharp intake of audience breath is not just the sound of a taboo being broken, but it is the drop of a stone into a pool, the beginning of ripples outward.

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In “The New Memoryism”, Middleton analyses the role of memory in contemporary poetry.  He suggests that the recruitment of memory acts as a prop to stabilise ideas about identity.

During the past decade the rapid growth of interest in suppressed histories of oppressed, colonized, marginalized, and annihilated peoples led to a new method of cultural and literary study that could be called the New Memoryism.  Recovered histories of individual and collective self-representation make ethical and political demands that require the recognition of the different temporalities at work in recovery, atonement, trauma and forgetting…  The New Memoryism has yet to reflect on the consequences of its indebtedness. (pp138-9)

Interestingly, in this essay, Middleton doesn’t discuss poetry that arises from within any of these marginal communities.  The quote above, to me, indicates that his central thesis – that the internet and mobile technologies have fundamentally altered our way of reading and remembering – would have been even more powerful and nuanced had he examined how feminist and  “disabled” poets, for example, explore identity in an embodied but also strategic way.  Their use of irony, myth, deconstruction, confession and affect operates also upon the media of literature – whether performed live, displayed as text on a screen, as film on YouTube, or printed on a page, each version includes a destabilising reminder of embodiment and difference.  In a way, such poetry “re-embodies” a poetry that (at least in our common conception of it) has been disembodied by technologies.

I’m of course here talking about some of those moments in my reading of “Distant Reading” where I wanted to argue or interrogate.  There is much in the book that I found fascinating – including a chapter written in poetic form but right to left on the page (“The Line Break in Everyday Life”); and an essay (“Eat Write”) divided into two columns on the page, the two columns exploring food intolerance, consumption, postmodernism and capitalism in separate and contrasting modes.

At many points in an essay on J H Prynne, Middleton refers to “more sophisticated readers” or “familiar readers”.  With no “scare quotes”.  Which leads me to think he’s not being ironic.  I can’t decide if this is an accurate vision of what happens to readers (they become more “sophisticated”, less satisfied with more “straightforward” or “accessible” poems), or if this is a kind of elitism.  Middleton also says that “poems that wear their literalism on their sleeves and are bedecked with realist flair may nevertheless be much more secretive and uninterpretable than is usually allowed”.  So are all poems sophisticated?  And am I a sophisticated reader?  Should I be?  Does it matter?

I can say that I have been challenged, encouraged and confused by “Distant Reading”.  I will no doubt return to it later, read it again to see if I or the book has changed.

distant reading cover

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“Under my skin I have a different name”

The latest issue of US-based online literary journal Wordgathering includes an essay of mine about the writing of Aidan Coleman, Antony Riddell and Mal McKimmie.  Here’s how it begins, but I’d urge you to go to the source, and check out the rest of the issue…

 

If I have one preoccupation in poetry, it is the body — this thing that is continually changing in a dance of regeneration and deterioration, this object that is in fact innumerable objects as well as subject, that generates our consciousness. These bodies are often taken for granted or underplayed, but they always makes themselves known in one way or another in poetry.

I have gathered here three contemporary Australian writers who speak with unique and powerful voices reflecting on embodiment and experience (sometimes directly, other times in enigmatic or convoluted ways). This essay is not an attempt to analyse or categorise them from a theoretical, stylistic or rhetorical perspective. I’m not interested here (though believe me, I could be elsewhere) in where they fit in the world of literature or the world of disability. None of these poets self-identify as “disabled” (one, we’ll see later, has attached a more provocative label to himself). Which I personally find more interesting. The self that is evoked in these poems isn’t straightforward or labeled, but slips between definitions, and in doing so, seduces the reader into places of productive doubt about their own embodied position.

Here, I simply want to place two poems and one novella together, hold them up to my ear, and listen. Of course, how they speak to me is very much shaped by my own experience and predilections, and I am fascinated by where the mind sits in the body and how we reach out towards other bodies, other people — these “others” that are perhaps not so separable from ourselves.

 

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If anyone can find a link to more information on Antony Riddell online, I’d appreciate it…. (can’t even find an image of the “Fingerprints” cover…!).

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no-one in particular

Let me touch you with my words
For my hands lie limp as empty gloves
Let my words stroke your hair
Slide down your backand tickle your belly
Ignore my wishes and stubbornly refuse to carry out my quietest desires
Let my words enter your mind bearing torches

admit them willingly into your being
so they may caress you gently
within

This poem, “Love Poem for No-one in Particular”, was written by Mark O’Brien.  Mark was born in 1949 in the USA, and six years later contracted polio.  Through his determination, humour and honesty, he became an influential activist and a powerful writer, until his death in 1999.  He is now most known as the inspiration behind the recent film starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, “The Sessions”.

Mark O'Brien

Mark O’Brien

The film centres on Mark’s decision as a 30-something man to lose his virginity by engaging a sex surrogate and the emotions, awkwardness and intimacy that these “sessions” stir up.  It’s not without its flaws, but “The Sessions” is funny, humane and a lot more “real” than I expected – there is a matter-of-factness that allows us to see both Mark and his surrogate Cheryl as fully human.  Since I have a (perhaps unjustified) bias towards non-fiction and poetry, I wanted to find out more about Mark O’Brien, to understand how sexual desire, paralysis, faith and poetic expression all found their home in his life, and by extension ours.

Ironically, more information isn’t easy to find, swamped by this successful film.  Mark now seems defined by his sexuality, which is perhaps unfair or a distortion of his life (see this brilliant article by Wesley J Smith).  Still, I think this intense focus is understandable – sexuality returns us to our bodies, to the unsaid, to the reality of our separateness and our desire to commune.

Near the end of the film, the above poem – which is the catalyst for tension between Cheryl and her husband, but is at that point in the film kept from the audience – is finally read out in full.  Many reviews of the film mention how the audience is moved to tears.  And we were.  Of course we were.  I’d like to look at why.

The poem takes on the familiar tone and structure of a love poem – it expresses a tender and passionate yearning, a dream that desire be conjured into reality by mere wish.  As with all great love poems, it also acknowledges and holds a sense that this dream is impossible – “hands… limp as empty gloves”, the “quietest desires” that “refuse to [be carried] out”.  Yet at the same time, love is expressed and fulfilled by words – not purely within the poem itself per se, but in what the poem does, in the real relationship it refers to (and by implication the other relationships it could refer to).

This impossible/possible paradox is very strongly related to another of the poem’s strengths – it says the unsayable.  This disabled man wants to be sensually and sexually intimate with this woman.  He wants to be generous, enlightening, loving – an agency that our broader culture routinely denies to people with disabilities.

But the poem, as it should, gracefully holds back from saying everything.  It also gestures towards silence and the unsaid.  In its formal brevity and its anticipation of what may or may not happen next.  But also importantly in its title – “… for No-one in Particular”.  This is of course a kind of wry discretion on the poet’s part – not naming her out of respect.  But this title also, in its self-deprecating irony, amplifies the intensity of feeling, elegantly suggesting the depths by speaking only of the surface.

And I would argue that it could even be taken as implying that the beloved in this case is not “particular”, exceptional, disabled, “special”.

I have always loved the word “particular”.  Not only for the spikes and undulations of its sound, but for its meaning – the unique, contextual, the exact individual thing or person that transcends generalities.  The poetry that I love is a miraculous yet naturalistic bridge between the particular and the general, between the other and the self, your life and mine.  Such a poetry affirms our own experience but also allows us to recognise how broad it is, that our lives also contain resonances with other lives.

“Love Poem for No-one in Particular” has this quality.  As does “The Sessions”.  But I would even more enthusiastically recommend Mark’s essay “On seeing a sex surrogate…”  He talks about repression, shame, desire, masculinity, fear, all in an unfalteringly honest tone – he is speaking of his own life always, but the light refracted off him is somehow on us.

In re-reading what I originally wrote, and my old journal entries from the time, I’ve been struck by how optimistic I was, imagining that my experience with Cheryl had changed my life.

But my life hasn’t changed. I continue to be isolated, partly because of my polio, which forces me to spend five or six days a week in an iron lung, and partly because of my personality. I am low-key, withdrawn, and cerebral.

I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled. I blame neither Cheryl nor myself for this feeling of letdown. Our culture values youth, health, and good looks, along with instant solutions. If I had received intensive psychotherapy from the time I got polio to the present, would I have needed to see a sex surrogate? Would I have resisted accepting the cultural standards of beauty and physical perfection?

Where do I go from here? People have suggested several steps I could take. I could hire prostitutes, advertise in the personals, or sign up for a dating service. None of these appeal to me. Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants. Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.

I feel no enthusiasm for the seemingly doomed project of pursuing women. My desire to love and be loved sexually is equaled by my isolation and my fear of breaking out of it. The fear is twofold. I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and loved. For if this latter happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted.

This was Mark O’Brien’s life.  This is your life.  And mine.  And it isn’t.

~

mark & susan

PS I originally put a truncated version of the poem up.  Thanks “Mechi” for putting the full version in a Comment.  I’ve corrected it now.

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