AXIS Book 2 Music Made Visible Where Only the Sky had Hung Before
a. j. carruthers Jessica Wilkinson Toby Fitch
(Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2019)
Launch talk at Knox St Bar, Chippendale, Sydney, 13th July 2019
These days we’re addicted to a desire for all kinds of ephemeral newness. Everything - meaning every commodified thing - has to be groundbreaking, new, new and different, even thrillingly brand new. But these three books, although each is fresh, state of the art, and totally distinctive, are traditional.
Not traditional in the Ramsay Centre notion of tradition – yearning for the great transposition of received English or so called ‘Western’ poetries into formal, high-diction, obfuscated poems of Australian national identity but they are part of a continuum of one of the twentieth century traditions that began even before Stéphane Mallarmé threw the poetry dice to perform an aleatoric or chance approach to poetry making. At the dawn of modernism, in the late nineteenth century, or the fin de siècle, the activity of avant-garde artists often resembled rival expeditions to an expanding universe beyond the milky way. The goal was to discover novel spheres of expression: unspoken word, unpainted image, unheard sound. Mallarmé's explorations of chance & discontinuity influenced poets & also composers like John Cage & Pierre Boulez. Modernism declared an end to history and Ezra Pound released the maxim ‘Make It New’. He has a lot to answer for. Recently, in ‘Writing Australian Unsettlement’ Michael Farrell brought to light experimentation in Australian writing from 1796 until 1942, via an eclectic assemblage of indigenous, early settler, both white & Chinese, ‘modes of poetic invention'. There's a parallel to the fin de siècle northern hemisphere irruption. So that’s a bit of a back story.
A couple of weeks ago Alice Notley tweeted ‘Why should poetry or anyone or anything do anything?’
Well - what can poets do on this planet that we’ve all had a hand in fucking up? What about politics and poetry with regard to the polis? What appeal or relief do these books offer?
a.j. carruthers, Andy, has challenged himself with the brave ambition of making a life-long poem called AXIS in which the poems are systems. The first book, subtitled Areal was published in 2014. Not wanting to design any futuristic progress Andy told us then that ‘the origins of this project, AXIS, are obscure’. AXIS 1 forensically dissects & reassembles multifarious facets of the letter ‘A’. Today we’re celebrating the publication of Book 2.
As for politics it’s there straightaway with the dedication - ‘for Disarmanent’.
There were many explanatory notes in AXIS 1. Now though Andy trusts his readers’/thinkers’ responses. Continuing from the ‘A’ of Book 1, Book 2 titles begin with B C D. ‘Blazar’ is the first section – what is a ‘blazar’? Here we need Andy’s quote from Thorsten Glusenkamp, a young astrophysicist working in Bavaria – ‘Blazars are active galactic nuclei with relativistic plasma jets whose symmetry axis is pointing towards Earth’ So, Yes!
AXIS 2 poems are neatly minimal scrutinies of language-excesses that enable you to shift reading paradigms without trying too hard. Despite the appearance of a controlled procedure there are ‘spasms’ in Andy’s works – sometimes in performance they are literal – in the spasm, sound collapses into noise, into a vocal tangle. Section ‘C’ is ‘Chorastics’ – chora, from Plato via Elizabeth Grosz, is ‘a space that engenders without possessing, that nurtures without requirements of its own’. It’s a liberating, yet self-conscious, (for the poet) space of multiple artistic possibilities.
Disrupting his own processes, after the letter-‘D’- poems that end with a complex machine poem called ‘Disc’, the last group diverts from the alphabetical system. It’s called ‘Music’. It’s a set of mini-compositions or line-scorings, neumes, small musical settings resembling percussion scores each with a title dedicated to influences including bp nichol, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Lax & to performative poetry friends Alison Whittaker, Melody Paloma, Hazel Smith, & so on.
Andy applies a discipline in his poetry that’s similar to the fastidiousness of a classical pianist (which he is) where a single note of music has the ability to alter the entire composition. The work he makes is procedural, Oulipoian and charged with provocation but also, sometimes disarmingly sweet – for instance, from the poem ‘Canon’ -
gunshipZone quantum choros TO HAVE KEPT GOING AND GAINED A VANTAGE POINT FROM WHICH TO VIEW DOCUMENT can condense to this - you cannot tell the ants to leave your kitchen counter alone
Andy’s gestures, reshuffling of semiotic patterns and interventions have set him up to become an original Australian poetry antagonist. And we do need so much more of that!
Similar to the obscure origins of AXIS, Jessica Wilkinson says that her poetic biographies, previously of Hollywood actor Marion Davies, and composer Percy Grainger, and now, Music Made Visible - that they arise from chance encounters. In this book’s case the iniator was a postcard of the dancer and choreographer Georgiy Balanchivadze or George Balanchine, pinned on her office wall.
This is a book of his life. He was a Russian-born Georgian who defected to Germany in the early 1920s and began working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, a trailblazing dance company that defied classicism and used innovative music and visual art as part of its aesthetic. After the Ballet Russes collapsed, Balanchine created the company Les Ballets in 1933 and migrated to the USA. He went on to form the New York City Ballet and became one of the most influential 20th century contemporary choreographers.
Jess uses various techniques to present her topic. She found a problem in tat there was an excess of material about him & his work. Balanchine had listened to Igor Stravinsky’s advice not to useverything in a work. Astutely, Jess decided to follow that as well. Music was Balanchine’s main love. Jess encompasses this by meticulously including details of the music he used at the beginning of each poem.
Balanchine made at least seventy-two ballets – though some of them were short – like ‘Allegro Brillante’– he said ‘This ballet contains everything I know about classical ballet in thirteen seconds’.
Apart from his methods of choreography, his adventures with his company & his many daring costume designers in Europe, New York, Broadway, Hollywood, Cuba, & other countries, and his wittily favourable opinion of his skill– ‘I could represent America in an artistic way better than ice boxes or electric bathtubs can’. Of course, there is gossip. these poems tell us about his many liaisons and marriages. In 1922, young Balanchine married a 15-year-old ballet student. This was the first of four separate marriages to dancers, and for each of his wives, Balanchine made a ballet. The older he became, the more consuming his love affairs with young ballerinas. You could say Balanchine was a man of his times.
Throughout these poems there are borrowings - Jess attributes her many stealings or what used to be called ‘appropriations’ to the example of George Balanchine who did it a lot.
Graphic collage, montage, visual overlay, eccentric lines that bend like dancing limbs, poetic graphs that both mirror and imagine choreographic maps and every other technique that Jess applies gives us a kind of paratext, a world outside the text in which the ‘characters’ or ‘players’ move and speak, putting them on display just like a dance performance.
This a dense, deeply researched & vivifying book. Given the exigencies of a triple book launch I have hardly scratched its surface – so, please read Music Made Visible and become absorbed in its pleasures. It’s chock full of variety and surprise.
In Toby Fitch’s Where Only the Sky had Hung Before Mallarméan chance is prominent, as is the scintillant brilliance of Guillaume Apollinaire. Toby designs an imaginative lyric – borrowing, discarding, quoting, recombining, & totally serious tongue-in-cheek assembling. He turns poetry sideways so that the lines look as if they’re falling on the page wondering ‘Therefore Wherefore Should One Use The Question Mark’. His abstracted calligrammes float on the page like stars in the night sky.
The philosophical is often set in a kind of freely-associated, malleable, worldly everyday – quote -‘Feel Like I’m Somehow Related to Everyone on the Internet’ or ‘Zeitgeist moves all the way down’ - and in the closer, intimate domain of family -Toby’s daughters and his partner. ‘Bear the Sky’ is an altered sonnet made from selected and jumbled words from his daughter Evie’s first two hundred.
In ‘Vague, or I Can’t Explain It Any Other Way’ – quote ‘The system only dreams in total dankness./ There’s an overflow of green/apricots in the back alley where I walk/ most days with my daughters to Black Star./The sun’s not a sphere it’s a tunnel./I just wanna get past all the squashed hearts,/I tell my eldest. No they’re hearts of Te Fiti, /she rebukes, asking me to carry one.’ What I loved about walking to Black Star in this touching yet sophisticated poem is that it’s not only a well known pastry shop in Newtown, it’s also the title of David Bowie’s final album – it’s a lovely ambiguity. Then, in the same poem, after ruminating on Pacific missile tests and earthquakes, Toby thinks up a solution to studying poetry in an academic context– ‘The vision on the USYD gym screens was unclear/ (and nuclear) and I’d been thinking/ I could make the basketball team to avoid my PhD’ - fortunately he’s totally diverted from this idea by a shooting pain in his left big toe - a small karmic accident on the treadmill keeps him on the treadmill, so to speak.
‘Argo Notes’ seems to me to be the core of the book. A sequence of eleven poems, graphically arranged, it’s a clever, contemplative, political, slanted confessional. It swerves around a personal analysis of gender and a reaction to the condition of pregnancy and its possible and real effects on parents’ lives in a world-at-large - quote- ‘blockbuster Oedipal bad/ met by ordinary devotion/ my anti-interpretive delinquent mood/ my dirty mirthful/ queer as pregnancy itself’.
Toby’s titles are as often as wicked & as witty as the poems . Like ‘The Left Hand of Dankness’. Frank O’Hara had ‘In Memory of my Feelings’, I had ‘In Memory of my Stealings’ & here Toby has ‘In Memory of my Furlings’ – ‘scrolling up and/ down through rippling neon hills which/ presciently come to resemble/ the furlings and unfurlings/ I continue to save and put down.’
And as I’m right over the word limit again - I want to emphasise that Where Only the Sky had Hung Before offers really deluxe mind-bending joie de vivre.
There is so much more I could talk about. So yes, these books are part of a continuum YET each poet also puts pressure on our expected or comfortable notions of modernist & post-modern poetic experimentation. These works offer an opening, an entry into the enigmatic. There is a totally considered graphic component in all three works – please buy the books to see this. It’s a positive obsessiveness that re-presents and delivers a revitalising agency to ozpo.
This threesome give huge credence to poems that challenge and are difficult and unconventional and go way beyond a square and miserly normal or super normal writing – a condition I call ‘schmormal’.
Congratulations to Andy, Jess and Toby - three brilliant anti-schmormalists!
Return to Extras or Pam Brown site