The Weekend Australian - Review

No neat nar­ra­tives

- Door 1 Jen­nifer Har­ri­son Sarah Hol­land-Batt Entertainment · Arts · Movies · Photography · Poetry · Literature · Germany · Theodor W. Adorno · Oswiecim · Primo Levi · Susan Sontag · Alabama · Braunschweig · Edgar Rice Burroughs · Syria · Botswana · Hiroshima · Gaza Strip · Gaza · Afghanistan · Adolf Hitler · Facebook · Aliens: Colonial Marines · University of Queensland · Bertolt Brecht · Funen · Paul Celan · Sigourney Weaver · Queensland University of Technology

When­ever there’s a cat­a­strophic turn in the news cy­cle, Ber­tolt Brecht’s har­row­ing, de­fi­ant poem, Motto, inevitably goes vi­ral on so­cial me­dia. Brecht wrote the poem in ex­ile from Ger­many on the Dan­ish is­land of Funen in the late 1930s. Con­tem­plat­ing the hor­rors of Nazism, he wrote: “In the dark times, / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times”. Brecht’s poem speaks of the ur­gency of wit­ness — through art and lit­er­a­ture — as both a bul­wark against for­get­ting, but also as a form of re­sis­tance.

Brecht’s im­per­a­tive to “sing” is often con­trasted with the state­ment made by Theodore Adorno af­ter World War II — that to write po­etry af­ter Auschwitz is bar­baric — fre­quently in­ter­preted to mean that art is fun­da­men­tally in­ad­e­quate to con­tend with the hor­rors of his­tory, or is even, at times, com­plicit in them.

Yet, de­spite the chal­lenges inherent in find­ing a lan­guage for the ex­trem­i­ties of hu­man de­prav­ity, an in­deli­ble and pow­er­ful po­etry of wit­ness did emerge from the Holo­caust, writ­ten by both sur­vivors and vic­tims: among them Paul Ce­lan, Mik­lós Rad­nóti, Primo Levi, Nelly Sachs and Tadeusz Borowski.

The po­etry of wit­ness was once mostly writ­ten by those who ex­pe­ri­enced events or suf­fer­ing first-hand. Yet in the 21st cen­tury, wit­ness is no longer de­lim­ited to those with first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence. The ubiq­uity of pho­to­jour­nal­ism and the rise of the in­ter­net mean we all have daily contact with hor­rors dis­tant and lo­cal. Suf­fer­ing is beamed into our homes on screens with un­par­al­leled im­me­di­acy.

It’s de­bat­able whether this con­tin­u­ous contact with suf­fer­ing fos­ters em­pa­thy or ap­a­thy in the viewer. Su­san Son­tag fa­mously ar­gued that pho­tog­ra­phy does “as much to deaden con­science as to arouse it”. Poets in our in­ter­con­nected era now face the ques­tion of what to do with their knowl­edge of global suf­fer­ing. How can po­etry grap­ple with the con­stant siege of tele­vi­sual vi­o­lence? How can poets wit­ness the un­speak­able?

This week’s poet, Jen­nifer Har­ri­son, en­gages in com­plex ways with this prob­lem of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of vi­o­lence in her sev­enth vol­ume, Any­why (Black Pep­per).

Har­ri­son is a psy­chol­o­gist as well as a poet. Her work has grav­i­tated to­wards sci­en­tific and med­i­cal sub­jects, an in­ter­est that con­tin­ues in this lat­est vol­ume, where there are po­ems about au­top­sies and anatomy, the growth cy­cles of fungi, the work­ings of DNA, which the poet de­scribes as “the fu­ture / coiled like a hair in a drawer”, and the pseu­do­science of phrenol­ogy.

At the core of Any­why is a clus­ter of po­ems con­cerned with the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of vi­o­lence in pho­tog­ra­phy, film and art, and the fraught ques­tion of how the poet can act as a wit­ness to the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers.

In the pan­toum Pho­to­graph by Walker Evans, 1937, Har­ri­son con­sid­ers Evans’s most fa­mous pho­to­graph of the Great De­pres­sion, Alabama Ten­ant Farmer Wife, in which an im­pov­er­ished share­crop­per’s wife, Al­lie Mae Bur­roughs, stares into the lens with a hard-bit­ten ex­pres­sion, “a young woman in a flo­ral dress, eyes like nailed wood”, Har­ri­son writes, who looks “as if she has i.m. Gil­lian ‘Jil’ Meagher (1982-2012)

the TV chats in a cor­ner of the room night a cer­e­mony of­fer­ing up its movie aliens through a derelict space­ship blast­ing the crea­ture to bits as she swipes her gun around the cor­ners of space and fights for the child to sur­vive

Get away from her you bitch

the night now thick as a closed fist black rub­bish streets

Brunswick al­leys where girls should walk alone if they want to yet shouldn’t walk there at all in that kind of dark daugh­ter out there out­side the space­ship

‘‘what am I sup­posed to do — stay in­doors ev­ery night?’’ she asks not blam­ing/not sure/ she will not be writ­ten out buried at home alone in safe-roomed en­tomb­ment where mur­der re­solves it­self through in­cre­men­tal clues like an episode of Wak­ing the Dead

mean­while the girls are walk­ing home have

and will in one hand

Ri­p­ley claw­ing her way that’s what you want to say to not safely as they al­ways

they weigh the feather and stone then the other and find them equally light drunk all the dust poverty dis­tils”. Har­ri­son’s poem un­der­scores how much of Bur­roughs’s life is ex­cluded from the cam­era’s gaze; the viewer can­not see “what she can­not have” nor “her pri­vate thoughts’’. “Her voice in the im­age,” Har­ri­son writes, “is shy.”

Like­wise, in the se­quence War Pho­tog­ra­phy and the Minaret of Umayyad, Har­ri­son again grap­ples with the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of con­flict in pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing and film, rang­ing from Syria to Botswana, Hiroshima, the Gaza Strip and Afghanista­n.

She be­gins with an im­age of a lion stand­ing in a grass sa­van­nah, “claws search­ing / the fields of corpses / for weapons and gold” — a symbol, per­haps, for war’s vo­ra­cious­ness — be­fore turn­ing to pho­tog­ra­pher Shomei To­matsu’s images of Hiroshima sur­vivors “avoid­ing light / as if to prac­tise be­ing seen”; the spec­tre of Hitler “on SBS” who “rises / from the fu­ture / of guilt” and Ben Quilty’s paint­ings of sol­diers on tour in Afghanista­n: “See? here we are with them,” Har­ri­son writes of Quilty’s sol­diers, “with ev­ery­thing // that is not yet / vague with dis­tance”.

This last phrase seems key: while photos, films and vis­ual art give the il­lu­sion of bring­ing the viewer into contact with suf­fer­ing, Har­ri­son im­plies that ul­ti­mately this prox­im­ity is a mi­rage; they are af­ter­im­ages, am­bigu­ous and “vague with dis­tance”.

As a whole, the War Pho­tog­ra­phy se­quence echoes crit­i­cisms made by Son­tag and oth­ers of the pho­tog­ra­phy of suf­fer­ing: that such images risk in­ur­ing the viewer to suf­fer­ing, and that they have the ca­pac­ity to mis­rep­re­sent his­tory, given that they place such an em­pha­sis on a sin­gu­lar mo­ment and per­spec­tive.

When wit­ness­ing these con­flicts, Har­ri­son sug­gests, our gaze is al­ways al­ready me­di­ated through the pho­tog­ra­pher’s lens; there can be no such thing as objective wit­ness­ing, only a piece­meal un­der­stand­ing.

In this week’s poem, Door 1, ex­cerpted from a longer se­quence called Nine Doors: A Cur­ricu­lum of Rune Work, Har­ri­son grap­ples with an­other act of vi­o­lence, one that un­folded closer to home and was seared into the public con­scious­ness: the 2012 mur­der of Gil­lian Meagher, which took place eight years ago this week.

The de­tails of Meagher’s hor­rific, sense­less mur­der played out in gra­tu­itous, sen­sa­tion­alised de­tail in the me­dia; her Facebook pro­file pic­ture and CCTV footage of her last move­ments con­tin­u­ously looped on ev­ery chan­nel, and be­came ar­che­typal, in­ex­tri­ca­ble from the way the public un­der­stood her life and her death.

Har­ri­son’s el­egy ap­proaches Meagher’s vi­o­lent mur­der at an an­gle, be­gin­ning as the poet watches the film Aliens on tele­vi­sion, as Sigour­ney Weaver’s pro­tag­o­nist, Ri­p­ley, claws “her way / through a derelict space­ship” and “fights for the child to sur­vive”.

As the poem un­folds, you’ll no­tice that Har­ri­son flick­ers be­tween the cin­e­matic and the real: the dystopian im­agery of deep space on screen merges with “the night / now thick as a closed fist” in Brunswick. As the movie con­tin­ues, the poet imag­ines di­a­logue that doesn’t seem to be­long to the film, but rather to an in­ter­nal mono­logue she is hav­ing while “home alone / in safe­r­oomed en­tomb­ment”.

There’s an im­plicit jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween the se­cu­rity and sanc­tity of the poet’s home with “that kind of dark”.

Wisely, Har­ri­son doesn’t dwell on any of the de­tails broad­cast about Meagher’s death; her an­guish mostly un­folds in the si­lences that in­ter­rupt her view­ing of the movie.

The neat res­o­lu­tions to crime on the tele­vi­sion — “where mur­der re­solves it­self through in­cre­men­tal clues” — is jux­ta­posed with the haunt­ing, re­cur­ring im­age of girls in the real world, “walk­ing home / as they al­ways have / and will”.

In this fi­nal, un­bear­able im­age, Har­ri­son imag­ines Meagher’s death as part of a con­tin­uum of vi­o­lence against women, one that can­not be re­solved into neat nar­ra­tives or to­tal­is­ing vi­sions, but which re­quires a con­tin­u­ous, wrench­ing reck­on­ing.

In all the si­lences of Har­ri­son’s poem, we find a poet who un­der­stands that the po­etry of wit­ness is some­times all the more pow­er­ful when it ac­knowl­edges what can­not be known or said.

is a poet and an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the School of Cre­ative Prac­tice at the Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy. Poet’s Voice re­ceives spon­sor­ship from The Copy­right Agency and the Ju­dith Neil­son In­sti­tute for Journalism and Ideas. She can be con­tacted at sarah.hol­land­batt@qut.edu.au. Reg­u­lar po­etry sub­mis­sions to The Week­end Aus­tralian should be emailed to po­etry@theaus­tralian.com.au

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