A Vicious Example ⁽¹⁾ and The night's live changes ⁽²⁾
“Stuck on Repeat”
There is a joke that goes something like the following: the other day I was out birdwatching and saw a Falcon in a tree. Needless to say it was a surprising to see a Ford up that high. It was stuck but not in traffic. We could debate its merits as a joke, especially without the visual form, but from it we see a view of nature as impure, as implicated with the detritus of humanity, as toxic in other words. We could also ask what is the context – is it the car that enters the natural world or is it the natural world that enters the car? To draw such a distinction between nature and its not, would be artificial even if useful. Perhaps we could instead think of their relationship as “dialogic” if we wanted employ a term from Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin.
In introducing this joke I want to set up a way of understanding the poetries of Tim Wright and Michael Aiken. In their two most recent works The night’s live changes (Wright) and A Vicious Example (Aiken) we see, respectively, the poet enter into nature (subjective) and nature enter into the life of the poet (objective). But it is not Nature in either, rather the world of our times. If in The night’s live changes we read of a poet channelling experience in such a way that is evocative, of focusing on the world through a diaristic “I”, A Vicious Example shows us images of a post-Edenic landscape, plastic gems carved from the urban soil of everyday Sydney without an “I” entering into it to such a degree. These heuristics may only be imperatives and organising principles for these two poets, but arguably they can be extrapolated, if not to the (misguided) Nietzchean Apollonian / Dionysian degree, then at least as an understanding of the wider field of eco-poetics where we can think of subjectivity and objectivity on a spectrum.
We see a more subjective approach in Wright’s poetry when compared to Aiken. This is the world as the poet views it. The touchstones are trains, cars, grass and drinking, all related in a way that foregrounds the “I”. At various points Gaza and planes are assimilated to the reverie of the poet so Wright’s work is not without reference to the world around him, including the political. These political references though are not necessarily disruptive. They are held together by an “I” that if not Whitmanian in strength (because of a lack of formal repetition) has perspicacity and judgement. It is a “voice” that sings not so much of itself as a whole continent, as a largesse metaphysical and absorptive, projective and declamatory, as one that is eminently relatable and manageable. It is the diary of a life that is familiar if not entirely comforting.
Take for instance the use of “Nauru” and “Omid Sorousheh / on hunger strike” in the poem “November” where the defamiliarising potency is taken into a more cohesive whole. The labour of the negative that this reference could perform is integrated almost seamlessly into the suburban vision as we are told explicitly: “His name I can’t help hearing as ‘omit’” (27). The reader is not expected to make this aural connection for themself and we are returned to the subject directly, the speaking I, which if not a subject of feeling is one of thinking. We are watching Wright, or his alter ego “the poet”, listen to the hunger striker rather than watching the hunger striker themself.
We should not though think of this excerpt metonymically – it does not stand in for the whole of The night’s live changes. There is after all, the airiness of “sky currently gold’; the compression of “Music Poem”; the visual space of the two page “6UVSFM”; and the meanderingly propulsive 536 line “November” from where the excerpt came. We are brought into the life of the poet not so much by him telling us what he is feeling, but through a showing of things around him, things of everyday life that are seen by his eyes as we read his “I”.
By comparison A Vicious Example, which focuses on Sydney, seeks to leave the world as it is. Even as it protests it does not relocate the poet as central, does not reclaim the I as the way to change the world. The “I” occurs less frequently, save for the very short third and fourth sections. Whereas Wright’s voice is stripped back, if not quite bare, Aiken luxuriates, sometimes, in rich description, which if not lyrical is detailed and felt (see “Beach, with children”, “Sea hare” and “Domestic bucolic” for three examples). Compared to the plainness of Wright, Aiken’s word play is noticeable. This is demonstrated in “The Macarthur line”, particularly the second stanza that reads, in part, “thrust from marsh mud and simmering drums / rusting against cars crushed amongst zelemite / bedrooms, resting beneath tons of ochre”. One immediately notes: the alliteration; the internal rhyme; the heavy, recurring “u” sound; the $64 word (zelemite: a fuse board containing asbestos); and the use of “ochre”, which recalls the Uluru directed epigraph of the whole book (“Theft by discovery (Uluru)”).
Overall the city in A Vicious Example is not the antithesis of the country, but works together with it to create a vision of the contemporary world. This contemporary world is one that is decidedly unromantic, which is not to say modernist or anti-romantic. There are roots to be found not only in experience, but also in other poets from my “reading list” including William Carlos Williams as well as Kenneth Slessor. Sydney as it comes to us though is a place where nature interacts not as a pure, unmediated thing, but as part and parcel of a post-human experience. This is seen perhaps most explicitly in “The Canal” – it is a place of “soiled water”, “styrofoam cups”, “oil slicks”, “sewage spills” that “fills”, “refills” and “unfills” as “street sweepers” and “cuckoos” go about their daily business. Or “Augury” where
ribs and skin
squalls out lead
as pliers are applied
to the hook. (72)
There are however visions of the natural world that seem uninterrupted by human hands such as “Always start with water”, which states:
living blue crayfish
and drifting clods of fur. (73)
“Nature” clings to us then despite what we are throwing at it be that acid and oil, phosphates and heavy metals.
We live in a time where foraging has become increasingly popular in the city, not only in locavore food movements at bourgeois bohemian restaurants but here too in poetic work. It is not found material necessarily, though there is that in Aiken’s “Sydney: 1934 1392k1 – 1811 168k2’. In other words there is not a strict application of uncreative writing tenets, but it is finding material and rendering it into a creative piece. Aiken reminded me of Melbourne restaurant Attica’s potatoes, whereby the potato is cooked in soil found close to the restaurant, literally dug from plots that dot the city, and flavoured afterward with garlic and native herbs. It is literally baked into the soil of the city with reference to its Indigenous taste. There is something very local about the vision but also transcendent, worldly and appropriate for our time.
There are though commonalities between The night’s live changes and A Vicious Example. Both have skipping CDs (21 in Aiken, 27 in wright) which could serve as a metaphor - we are stuck at some point then, in the narrative, in the flow, but this is not about denial, of climate change or otherwise. Uncritical and un-self-aware modernism, pastoralism, nature poetry is what is being jammed in its easy teleological drive by these two works (see for instance the wry riff on Slessor and Patrick White in Wright’s “if you’ve read this far”). There is also a long poem in each work – “November” in Wright and “Sydney: 1934 1392k1 – 1811 168k2” in Aiken – that is in both cases central to the poetic project. Aiken also has a 209 line “Sixty Nine Poems”, mainly being micro portraits, or narratives or both, of: cat, fox, moon, lantana, fish, shed, bird, art, street, rats, moon, trees, bird, rain, frogs, roots, garden, ant, car, jellyfish, ibis, footpath, storm, rain, fish, fox, weather, trees, woodchips, sun, puddle, orchard, birds, ibis, tree, trucks, leaf litter, mice, summer, frog, breeze, lilies, frog, earwig, log, ibis, iron birds, rain, sun, cuckoo, birds, art, nature, sparrows, bird, ibis, palm fronds, frog, rat, ibis, sunlight, crab, myself, my slippers.
Taken together Wright’s and Aiken’s work could be said to represent distinct though overlapping and dialogic parts of the ecopoetic register as a whole. With Wright we engage with Western Australia and Melbourne and with Aiken we see Sydney as it currently stands. Both these poets are poets of place, but they offer us distinctive voices, approaches, influences and provide different reading experiences that will challenge and enable us as poets and critics.
Michael Aiken, A Vicious Example: Sydney 1934 1392k1 – 1811 1682k2 and other poems. Wollongong, New South Wales: Grand Parade Poets, 2014. ISBN 9780987129185
Tim Wright, The night’s live changes. Rabbit Poet Series, no. 2. Melbourne: Rabbit Poetry Journal, 2014. ISBN 9780987448392