The Weekend Australian - Review
No neat narratives
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Regular poetry submissions to The Weekend Australian should be emailed to email@example.com