A. Buchanan-Stuart reviews Chatelaine by Bonny Cassidy.

Bonny Cassidy, Chatelaine. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN 978-1-925336-45-0

 

Anne Buchanan-Stuart

 

Now, poets

rehearse for us

]

]

(‘Blason’, 66)

Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine is visceral, layered and driven by word constructs in an innovative lexicon of erotic topoi, ready to be open to contemporary interpretative potential – previously unworked. The poet J. H. Prynne wrote, ‘[W]here the practice of poetry [is] under intense pressure of innovation and experimentation … [we] discover new reflex slants and ducts and cross-links that open inherent potentials previously unworked.’[1]

Let me begin with a few questions and a little dialogue:

—Can we understand what an innovative poem means?

—We usually want to understand, interpret, ascribe meaning to a poem and we usually want the words to tell us something, but perhaps it could be different.

—How?

—There is another way to get to the ‘it’ of the poem – through an encounter.  An encounter with the language ‘it’ self and its materiality. We can consciously put aside our search for meaning.

—But is the encounter the meaning itself?

—It is. And, is not.

—Well, what is the ‘it’? Is it the thing the poet is getting at – or something else?

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari never ask what ‘it’ means, nor look for ‘anything to understand in it … [they] ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does …’. [2]

—So, what do these poems function with and what do they connect with? Are you saying I can have an encounter with the poem, (i.e. the other ‘thing’ it does) which asks me to respond to the work and make connections through the many sensations it produces, assimilating its linguistic materiality?

—Yes, it’s like a ‘versification of experience’.[3]  Here’s Cassidy’s ‘Thick mirror’.

Bolt soft/bush glass/tear

mat/bent black/flash teat/thin mass

low/peak/ripple shot/limp cot/rubber

bulb/flipper tint/crack yam/bright

roots/short blink/back

box/sharpen streak/

silver work/digitd

rop/wrinkled sham/

mistik crap

(42)

— you can see that Cassidy’s poem has its own force and shapes its own effect on you. It functions as an experience of sense-making through an encounter with words. The words refuse to meet your expectations; you have to ask yourself what the poem generates and engage with the poem on its own terms, materially – through its textual landscape.

—Yes, I can see, hear and feel that. So, it doesn’t have to be representational – it can confound me, confound my expectation and even be outside my frame of reference! Why then has Cassidy chosen the epigraph ‘Nature is a language, can’t you read?’

—My interpretation is that Cassidy recognises we dwell in (and are of) two landscapes – language and earth-world. In this collection she makes connections between earthly nature and contemporary culture. Her work is a bodily-languaged expression where she stretches the syntax, working toward the Derridean conception that the written word and the concepts are positional, unstable and ephemeral. Cassidy also fashions a language as a phenomenology, the qualities of which we might understand in Husserl’s terms as – ‘expressive’ and ‘indicative’, where the indicative sign is in some ways a private language. In other words, an indicative sign is a sign to something, the recognised content is the ‘meaning’; whereas an expressive sign is a sign of something, of an animating intention that it is expressing [4] — the connection with the other things it does, as referred to earlier by Deleuze and Guattari. Nevertheless, Cassidy in her use of language does not ‘break the bounds of poetry altogether. [Cassidy places] … language under intense pressure [to create] new work, [and a] new hybrid of…reference and discovery’,[5] and if we approach her poetry with openness then the poem opens itself to us.  French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas thought of language not as representation but a means to proximity, as a physical contact if you like, as if language were corporeal like a face or human skin. ‘The proximity of things’, he writes, ‘is poetry’.[6] Cassidy’s proximity is the syntactical composition of a cultural landscape. I read the following lines from the title poem ‘Chatelaine’ as indicative of the oeuvre of this collection –  a language of bodily encounter. Her verse exposes a contradictory interpretative meaning, illustrating a transient language which at the same time is analogous to changeable cultural and natural landscapes and their associated poetic vocabularies. Here, for example, ‘Beware the heath’ (2) the meaning of which belongs to a community who understands the lexicon. In Stanza 5, ‘a healthy young noodle / and a happy wee goose come trolling; / monk-free at last, and mutually assured’ (2-3), and in Stanza 8, ‘gagging over my trowel – / the low ghost spoofs from me’ (3), are representative of this private language. The final stanza

Here I am and here I drink.

Sit down and taste my meat,

say what I am called.

(4)

reveals another multi-layered construct. Cassidy has linguistically sketched a picture of a ‘world’, a place overseen by the mistress of the household, the oikos, prompting an interpretation to beware the will-full words of analysis — ‘Beware the heath / of wilful words: / an analytic grave.’ (2) — toward which reductionist, hedonistic thinking about the earth-world might lead.

—Surely then, the meaning of the poems might be lost if the vernacular is not understood?

—This is a possibility. It could be akin to the accusation levelled at the Cambridge School poets (and poetry) by  poets and critics working in the mainstream where they labelled the genre as  ‘… a deliberately inaccessible mode of writing … often held to be “only about language itself” and written purely for the delectation of a smug coterie of reclusive adepts’.[7]  But view Cassidy’s collection through the lens of linguist Edward Sapir who argues that as ‘language is the medium of literature as marble or bronze or clay are the materials of the sculptor [then as] every language has its distinctive peculiarities, the innate formal limitations — and possibilities — of one literature are never quite the same as those of another’.  Sapir further comments on the different layers of language – the content and conformation.[8] If a poem is an easy experience for the reader then it is given meaning without losing too much; but if a poem makes use of the idiosyncrasies or irregularities of language then it requires a different engagement. On the whole, poetry tends toward expressiveness rather than toward clarity, always with possible simultaneous and compound meanings.  For example, ‘I am polishing my hoard, digging’ (3) could warrant a contemporary interpretation as a post all over someone’s Facebook wall, or it could mean what you make of it, whatever you see in it, experientially and or referentially.

— How then do you reconcile landscape as a recurring theme in Cassidy’s poetry?

—Look at the cover of her collection! An upended image, the inverted expectation, the provocation of what Edward Casey terms our ‘“spatial framework” whereby [we] link up most pervasively with the place-world.’[9] Cassidy is cognisant of how we go about placing our bodies in the (natural and sexual) landscape. Here, for example in the short poem ‘Shut-eye’,

In my best version she

nails a headland

between my bronzers

and I slump to the ceiling

grinning claws

going tat tacky tachy:

(32)

or in the ‘Study of a man’s right shoulder, breast and upper arm’ (60), ‘(and behold, I come quickly)’. Other examples from ‘Entrance (1988)’ (65), ‘Strains of gutworthy / crescendo onto your / chenille, …’ or in ‘Moods (wet dream)’ (68), and ‘Arete’ (71), ‘Here I am again in you’, exemplify the point Edward Casey makes where he writes ‘ … because we have both body and landscape, place and self alike [we] are enriched and sustained, [in] the place-world to which we so fatefully belong’.[10]

—Do you think her poetry is figurative, linguistically self-reflexive and experiential?

—Yes, Cassidy works on compound levels. ‘Lighten up’ de-scribes the dissolution of a village and its environment where:

Now its eyes have been fucked out, as the villagers say,

and the offshore wind pumps through them, into my hair.

Close up, the thing improves—triangulated and useful

like exhumed lumber, stirring.

 

I arrange old gum and tickets around its lips, and drink.

(41)

Here Cassidy evokes wind turbines on hilltops and submerged wood in hydro dams, being brought to the surface (‘exhumed’) and sold (‘I arrange old gum and tickets around its lips’). This poem is about change, flux and the entanglement of the human and other-than-human. It is a remonstration against environmental desecration and cultural dissolution – a recurring theme in Cassidy’s work, particularly in her sharply drawn and intellectually robust work Final Theory.[11] Her self-reflexivity occurs through a range of poetic expressions (noticeably poets and poems) meant to engage and challenge her vocation and composition.

—Where is the encounter in the poem ‘Nightwork’ (31)?

—One always has a linguistic encounter with a poem, or prose for that matter — but with poetry it works on a different level. Paul Celan describes the encounter with poetic text as a ‘mystery’ [12] but this mystery is not mysterious. As Deleuze clearly writes, it is the encounter that makes us think, it is sensed, as opposed to recognised.[13] It is a process of de-territorialising our thinking and order-words, it disrupts our habits of recognition, providing what Deleuze refers to as the ‘conditions of a true critique and a true creation’.[14]  Lines from ‘Nightwork’ where

A conveyor belt reaping into action, cries

‘rubbish rocks rubbish rocks’

(31)

de-familiarise our ordinary perception of a conveyor belt moving rocks, where the clattering sounds of the rocks on the conveyor evoke audible cries, ‘rubbish rocks rubbish rocks’.

—How do you read the epigraph ‘Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?’

—There are several possible readings, but given Cassidy’s previous work it makes me think she is writing about earthly change, the movement of the lands-scape, particularly in her allusions to the element of water which traces fluidly throughout the body of her work, as in ‘Mostly water’ (43-45) — ‘our hydrogen bonds. / I’m mostly water / as you know’ (44); ‘Nether’ (17-21) — ‘My face was tripped / with open water, buds caught in its / mouths’ (19); and ‘Floored’ (51) — ‘she never drowns but makes another cliff’ (51).

—So finally, how do you think Cassidy is developing her work?

—As I mentioned before, the Derridean idea of ephemeral and unstable language where linguistic meaning cannot be bound to time and place disarticulates for me a fully realised collection. One wonders if Cassidy’s erotic topoi will be as timeless as Judith Wright’s ‘Woman to Man’ — ‘the blaze of light along the blade’.[15]  Nevertheless, Cassidy’s credentials as an ecopoet are ever present. Her skill and conceptual insight manifest in the exemplary ‘Nether’ (17), where each line fulfils the multiple technical and imaginative criteria toward which her previously unworked language makes for important poetry. As Sapir writes, ‘When the expression is of unusual significance, we call it literature.’[16] If, as Shelley writes ‘poets, not otherwise than philosophers … are, in one sense, the creators and, in another, the creations of their age’[17], then Cassidy has succeeded in being both a contemporary creator and a creation of our age.

 


[1] J. H. Prynne, ‘Poetic Thought’, Textual Practice 24 no. 4 (2010): 598.

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 1980), 4.

[3] Gerald L. Bruns, The Material of Poetry, Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics (Athans, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 17.

[4] Todd May, Reconsidering Difference, Nancy, Derrida, Lévinas, and Deleuze (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 84-85.

[5] Prynne, ‘Poetic Thought’, 598.

[6] Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Language and Proximity’, in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), 118.

[7] Sam Ladkin and Robin Purves, ‘Introduction’, Chicago Review 53, no. 1 (2007): 8.

[8] Edward Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (New York: A Harvest Book, 1949), 222-23.

[9] Edward Casey, ‘Body Self, and Landscape’, in Paul C Adams et al., eds, Textures of Place (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 414.

[10] Casey, ‘Body Self, and Landscape’, 419.

[11] Bonny Cassidy, Final Theory (Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Publishing, 2014).

[12] Paul Celan, Collected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), 49.

[13] Gillies Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 2001), 139.

[14] Deleuze, Difference and Repetition.

[15] Judith Wright, Woman to Man (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1949), 1.

[16] Sapir, Language, 221.

[17]  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface, Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, 1820, Ebook (accessed 29 November 2017).

 

Bibliography

Bruns, Gerald L. The Material of Poetry, Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005.

Casey, Edward. ‘Body Self, and Landscape’. In Textures of Place, edited by Paul C. Adams, Steven Hoelscher and Karen E. Till, 403-25. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Cassidy, Bonny. Final Theory. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Publishing, 2014.

Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Translated by Rosemarie Waldrop. Manchester: Carcanet, 1999.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari.  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. London: Continuum, 1980.

Deleuze, Gillies. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. London: Continuum, 2001.

Ladkin, Sam, and Robin Purves. ‘Introduction’. Chicago Review 5, no. 1 (2007): 6-18.

Levinas, Emmanuel. ‘Language and Proximity’. In Collected Philosophical Papers. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

May, Todd. Reconsidering Difference, Nancy, Derrida, Lévinas, and Deleuze. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Prynne, J. H. ‘Poetic Thought’. Textual Practice 24, no. 4 (August 2010): 595–606.

Rogers, Kara. ‘Biophilia Hypothesis‘. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 01 December, 2017.

Sapir, Edward. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: A Harvest Book, 1949.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Preface, Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, 1820. Ebook. Accessed 29 November 2017.

Wright, Judith. Woman to Man. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1949.

 

Anne Buchanan-Stuart is a doctoral candidate at Queensland’s Griffith University. Her doctoral project reads philosophy and poetry together.

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