Judy Annear, The Ls. Sydney, NSW: Judy Annear, 2019. ISBN 978 0 646 80263 3
Judy Annear is a Sydney-based writer and curator with a special interest in Australian, Japanese, European and American contemporary photography. Her first book of poetry, THE Ls, is modestly described on Annear’s website as ‘a small book of experimental texts’. The striking cover design – a series of ‘L’s nestled inside one another, growing smaller and thinner towards the right-hand corner – is prelude to a very neat and appealing suite of poems with a focus on the nature of subjectivities and language.
In the sparse syntax of these poems, Annear makes densely suggestive philosophical propositions about the relationships between things and selves. Deleuze developed the figure of the ‘fold’ to characterise this infinity of possible relationships between interiors and exteriors, the organic and the inorganic. He described the activity of that series of relationships as being like ‘an extremely sinuous fold, a zigzag, a primal tie that cannot be located’ (Deleuze 120). Annear’s figure is more pragmatic than baroque: not a fold in velvet drapery but an L bracket, a foundational structure that appears to possess distinct parts, but which nevertheless cannot be divided into them. I’m reminded less of continental philosophy or Object Oriented Ontology, though, and more of something like Buddhist philosophy with the focus on fundamental interconnection and inter-constitution. In ‘ropes’, for example, the relationship between sound and the mind is likened to a hand in a glove:
hands tight or loose
become each other
like sounds & mind
sounds goes into mind it
mind goes out to sounds
Elemental properties of life on Earth are also yoked closely to the subject’s internal experience and existential condition. In ‘no title’, the object is the sun:
the star keeps us here
we are nothing
Whereas in ‘thought to’, it is the ocean:
space and matter in
between fluid skin
in between one
restless folding into
In these poems, language is an expression of the world’s interrelatedness but it also obscures the view; it is just as necessary as it is obstructive. In the poem ‘invisible citizen’, for example, language is imagined as the erector of boundaries in the context of human racial politics:
the most insidious
is that of
Say the Word.
Annear dramatises these theoretical concerns in a cool, collected style, deconstructed but personal, nearly conversational, sometimes resorting to a kind of Zen koan grammar in the struggle to translate the unsayable, as in ‘language’:
words inside what’s
left if never hear
As though responding formally to the questions she raises about the limits of language, Annear lets matter push back against meaning by experimenting with space and distribution. She favours long thin stanzas, but also makes use of lines that descend in wide steps, or stagger in waves back and forth across the page. Poems like ‘threads’ putter the line out across the gutter of the book.
The text is laced with found photographs, reproduced in miniature and in black-and-white: a low table in an empty dimly-lit room, light falling on tatami mats; a dilapidated colonial shack sinking into forest; a pen on carpet; blossoming branches framed by sky. Some poems, such as ‘look’, suggest that Annear is drawing a gentle parallel between the ways that photography and language make meaning – their contingent relationship to time and the moment, their intersubjective context, and to the unfinished quality of their production of meaning. There are thoughtful moments of clarity here:
I see how you see
I stand behind you
and the lens
Maybe I developed a taste for Emma Lew’s writing, but I sometimes wanted more of something like a voice for this collection, more texture and colour and muscle. In the titular poem ‘The Ls’, the longer form allows Annear’s thematic concerns a chance to be more energised, to find productive and suggestive ways to develop with a more varied catalogue of imagery – this was more to my taste. On the other hand, this is Annear’s game, and I grew to appreciate the Zen-like quality of her short lines and spacious statements which so frankly speak to their companions, the shadowy photographic miniatures. In times of ecological disaster, when the world pushes back, Annear’s project of interrelatedness seems worthwhile and provocative. The provocation is in a useful direction:
all made of carbon
humans must learn to take care
robots are fragile
Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans by Tom Conley, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Annelise Roberts lives in Melbourne and is a PhD student in creative writing/literature at the Australian National University. Her PhD project explores the poetics of texts related to the British nuclear testing program in South Australia. Her poetry, short fiction and criticism can be read in places such as Rabbit Poetry, Mascara Literary Review, and SubbedIn.