Philosophy found in soundbites of a modern milieu
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.