Phi­los­o­phy found in sound­bites of a mod­ern mi­lieu

Justin Cle­mens

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

EVENT and We Will Dis­ap­pear are, re­spec­tively, the first full- length col­lec­tions from young Aus­tralian po­ets Ju­dith Bishop and David Prater. Bishop, who has a back­ground in lin­guis­tics, is the more de­lib­er­ately eru­dite of the two. Her al­lu­sions span the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy from Plato through Hegel to Roland Barthes, the art of Giotto, Bellini and Rem­brandt, and po­ets as di­verse as John Donne, W. B. Yeats and Paul Ce­lan.

Event at­tends to events of all kinds, from the most in­ti­mate and per­sonal ( love and sex) to seis­mic his­tor­i­cal rup­tures ( the Span­ish con­quest of Mex­ico). An event is an enig­matic oc­cur­rence that trans­forms a sit­u­a­tion, and th­ese po­ems at­tempt to cap­ture enigma and nov­elty by med­i­tat­ing on the al­most- im­per­cep­ti­ble changes at work in the world of ap­pear­ances. Such a task calls for acute sen­si­tiv­ity: . . . and the high, ef­fi­cient winds didn’t lift a dried leaf or brush a spar­row’s wing, but caused a white dress and pine ta­ble ( white pine, the ta­ble dressed) to shine much more acutely, just as if

If Bishop favours the high aes­thetic road, Prater — ed­i­tor of the on­line jour­nal Cordite Po­etry Re­view — prefers the mass- me­dia su­per­high­way. We Will Dis­ap­pear pops and buzzes with ref­er­ences to drugs ( Dexedrine, grass and cig­a­rettes), mil­i­tary hard­ware ( atom bombs, Sem­tex, F- 15s and Min­ute­men) and vir­u­lent dis­eases ( SARS), not to men­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies, both cur­rent and de­funct ( satel­lites, ra­dio, da­guerreo­types and com­puter cod­ing). Re­lent­lessly racy, Prater hits hard and fast in his at­tempts to keep up with the wrench­ing jug­ger­naut of our times:

But Prater knows po­etry has lost from the start, and it is on such a loss that many of his po­ems turn. Who, for in­stance, is the ‘‘ we’’ of his ti­tle? The royal we? The ( anti) com­mu­nity of po­ets? Hu­man­ity in its en­tirety? Is the ti­tle a prophecy or a re­port, a wish or a lament? Jagged an­tic­i­pa­tions of melan­choly tear through Prater’s verse, as if he were try­ing to soften the blow be­fore it strikes: ‘‘ Once we are liv­ing we are no longer / Dead.’’

Both po­ets write short lyrics with a hard edge. Na­ture’s still hang­ing around with all its familiar avatars — earth, sky, wind, stars, sun, moon, plants, birds, an­i­mals — but ev­ery­where trem­bles on the verge of ex­tinc­tion. So Prater imag­ines ‘‘ she who kills po­lar bear van­ishes / dive bombs ice floes straf­ing runs’’; the less fran­tic Bishop dreams of old- school colo­nial slaughters and death to the swamp blues & pix­ies

wear g- strings & start scream­ing dixie pump bi- carb & snort all the trixie

get blood­ied & start feel­ing frisky

Ital­ian se­rial killers. Both ob­sess over lim­its and their dis­so­lu­tion, the so- called clash of civil­i­sa­tions, cli­mate change, too- loud hi- fis and molec­u­lar un­cou­plings.

Bishop and Prater de­ploy the en­tire range of mod­ern po­etic de­vices. So paren­the­ses that don’t close, colons that lead nowhere, miss­ing full stops, de­cap­i­talised proper names, ob­scen­i­ties, ne­ol­o­gisms and mys­te­ri­ous acronyms pro­lif­er­ate, ‘‘ hell- bent as Charon’s souls’’, as Bishop says.

Bishop is less in­sis­tent on man­i­fest dis­rup­tions than is Prater, but she’s per­fectly au fait with the pos­si­bil­i­ties. She con­cludes one poem, for ex­am­ple, with a sub­tle para­dox of self- ref­er­ence: what wake rolls through our dou­bled mute­ness when we speak:

What mat­ters is not ex­per­i­ment for ex­per­i­ment’s sake — Bishop and Prater are ca­pa­ble of mo­bil­is­ing tra­di­tional as­pects of po­etry, in­clud­ing stan­zaic pat­tern­ings and rhyme — but the de­sire not to leave any tech­nique un­turned in the quest for in­ten­sity. As Bishop warns, ‘‘ Tread care­fully. / Con­sider what’s left out.’’

Yet the in­ten­si­ties can­not be sus­tained for very long, given what US critic Harold Bloom calls our ‘‘ dam­aged at­ten­tion spans’’ th­ese days. Even the longer po­ems in th­ese col­lec­tions aren’t ex­actly pro­tracted af­fairs. ‘‘ Don’t bore!’’ is clearly a pri­mary in­junc­tion for both our po­ets. They don’t — surely a good thing — but it’s sig­nif­i­cant that nei­ther seems pre­pared to take that risk. The en­forced ac­cel­er­a­tion of mod­ern life seems to be com­press­ing po­etic am­bi­tion into sound­bites.

If th­ese publi­ca­tions di­verge, it’s not in their po­etic power but in the ob­ject qual­i­ties of the prod­ucts. Salt should be praised for its longterm com­mit­ment to pub­lish­ing a range of in­ter­est­ing po­ets, but the qual­ity of its books isn’t so hot. The new soi 3 se­ries, how­ever, is self- con­sciously top notch: beau­ti­fully de­signed, with high- qual­ity pa­per and print.

In­ven­tive, at­ten­tive, up to date, Bishop and Prater do what po­ets should, pro­duc­ing what W. H. Au­den de­fined as ‘‘ mem­o­rable speech’’. To this ex­tent they are also, in their own ways, em­i­nently con­ser­va­tive, devo­tees of the an­cient po­etic topoi of love and death, the vi­cis­si­tudes of nat­u­ral ( and un­nat­u­ral) life.

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