Happiness is not a metaphor. But metaphors keep the memory of happiness. They redirect us – transport us – to instances of feeling that cohere a-chronically into an extended present of joy, an ontological state that can feel curiously outside of time, or at least, dislocated from temporal coordinates. “More and more”, writes Martin Harrison in the poem “Paris” from Happiness, “music brought about the arrival of present time duhhhh / like the whole ensemble was a weather pattern more intense / than real rain hitting tin”. More intense than real rain. More and more music brought about.
In the weeks following the death of Martin Harrison, I listened over and over to his recorded voice picking its grave, intensely careful way through the superb poem “White-Tailed Deer”. More intense than real rain. I couldn’t stop listening to the poem’s ecological music. I couldn’t check the feeling that somehow, “magnified for a second or two”, I was hearing the poet’s finest rendition of a poetics that embodies a heightened awareness of sonic and auditory phenomena, and that discovers in memory the tender, filament-like traces of perceptual transformations that occur via events of sensing the world as it is. (Grief, like joy, can be temporally arresting and intermittently vain.) “I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth”, writes Harrison. The poem is full of lines that are un-improvable. Pure music, bringing about the arrival of present time, and returning us to transient yet suspended states of ontological affirmation.
When I listen now to Martin Harrison reading “White-Tailed Deer”, I hear in its edges one of his most frequent conversational refrains: in a sense. In a sense, this poem is about apprehension without pre-judgement. In a sense, this poem is about utter contingency alongside utterly inhabited materialisms. In a sense, this poem is about the imaginative capacities and limitations of a human subject when trying to think and feel in scales that are beyond-human. I have always taken “in a sense” to be a metonymic expression of deferral and qualified analogy – this, what I am saying here, is replaceable by and connected to many other possible ways of saying. This is also this and this and that. But in reading “White-Tailed Deer” I have come to understand a different meaning for the phrase, more calibrated philosophically to Harrison’s life-long inquiries into writing and thought, and to his indefatigable explorations of “the poem” as a metaphor for listening to the sense of things.
In “White-Tailed Deer”, Harrison is listening – in a sense – to the arrival of himself into ecology. The experience is “networked, transformative”, strange, intimate, about (and beyond) both metaphor and metonymy. It’s also urgently physical, impelled by desire, and unforgettably happy:
A dance becomes a fight, bodies tangled, then a dance again.
The light goes down like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil.
An aurora flares in the half-heard resonance around the thing –
the thump, the door closing, the click that passes you by –
while intangibility takes a serpent’s shape of wind-brushed molecules.
And how will it end? this half-traced ecstasy at merely being here.
The “intangibility” of distinguishing one sense from another is analogous to a kind of pleasurable, tactile confusion about the phenomenal limits of things and moving objects (including sounds and bodies) when encountered by a perceiving subject. Touch, sight and hearing comingle to generate an immersive field in which senses are, as the poem tells us, “inextricable in feeling and movement and mood”. Harrison relishes the metaphorical flare of “the aurora” as a figure for listening to the late afternoon, or rather, to its resonance; to ordinary, overlooked and habitually overheard soundscapes. The speaker’s experience “takes a serpent’s shape”, but in a gentle overturning of historical connections between “serpentine” metaphors and feminised untrustworthiness, Harrison embraces the facility of poetic metaphor to float us back towards our sensory and absolute selves, and into ontological “ecstasy at merely being here”, via narratives of quantum matter – coded in “wind-brushed molecules”.
As I am writing, a grey shrike-thrush folds its music into the filtered afternoon light outside my window. I hear the song for a while before I recognise that I am hearing it. That is, I hear the sound well before I start listening. The thrush hops into my field of vision under a viburnum that is sprung and whorled with translucent green leaves, early seasonal flags. Now I see the song, see the thrush singing. The indeterminacy of its arrival – its presence in my immediate environment – starts to morph into an abstract, temporally-bound narrative about the bird: when it visits, why it calls, whether it’s nesting, how its call differs from those of dozens of other birds that are darting and zooming through our sun-woken garden. The thrush bobbles across the ivy and back out of sight, but its call remains identified in my sense of things, an asymptote of ecological proximity, recognition and memory.
“Consider the inherent temporality of listening”, muses the New York-based composer and sound theorist Joshua Banks Mailman. He continues:
Sound is ephemeral but its memory is not. Can listening be separated from its memory? Can it be equated with it? The elements of a visual scene may, prior to interpretation, be regarded in a paratactic sense (content without regard to order); one’s memory of a visual scene need not incorporate any sequential ordering information. By contrast, that which we listen to, sound and its content, is presented sequentially; only through interpretation can they be regarded paratactically. It is ephemeral, yet its qualities linger. What we listen to can only be ontologized (recognized as quality, entity, or process) through our memory of it. Listening is in a sense inseparable from its flow.
Mailman further elucidates the “flow” of listening as “the flux of qualities emerging somehow from all events within each span of time, that is, statistically from the totality of the span’s events”..
These observations are from an essay entitled “Seven Metaphors for (Music) Listening: DRAMaTIC”, in which Mailman proposes a series of poetic figures for listening – that is, listening conceived as metaphor – in order better to conceptualise what he describes as the “abstractions” of listening. By invoking metaphor, he aims to “maximize listening’s experiential value”, partly by opening the doors between listening and multiple other sensory experiences: touch, digestion, cognitive improvisation, transport to different spaces and temporalities. At the forefront of Mailman’s analysis are complex links between sonic phenomena, memory and time. During a listening experience, argues Mailman, memory works to organise a flow of sequential sound into paratactic narratives, including stories that make sense of ontological happenings. So I am not hearing a round, repeating tumble of incremental shifts in pitch and melody. Rather, I am hearing the song of a grey shrike-thrush, returning with the spring. In remembering this song I am transported to other springs, other gardens, other “thin, gold trees” and contentedly solitary afternoons. Metaphor moves me, that is, into a range of different spatio-temporal scales and ecologies which I inhabit concurrently. Listening to the thrush is metaphorical in both poetical and etymological senses; metaphor still carries its ancient Greek sense of transference, the bearing of something into a meta-space, an order of duration and meaning beyond or transcendent to itself.
Mailman’s metaphors for listening find fascinating resonance when read alongside Martin Harrison’s poems – especially those in which a speaker is depicted crossing a series of sensory thresholds, and switching among perceptual domains in an experiential mode that might be described as polyphonic, polymorphic and even polylingual (as in the “Paris Poems” from Happiness). Here is the first, long stanza of “White-Tailed Deer”:
The small thump from nowhere, someone turning
a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise closing across the gulley,
a neighbour – what are they doing out there? – dropping a trailer or a
in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty
in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has
flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums
traced on the shed-wall —
it happens – where? –
closing in mid-air between two never identified twigs
six metres up, or caught behind a bird song (was it that?
or just some other sound) caught the thousandth time
from outside the kitchen door, magnified for a second or two
then forgotten just as many thousand times. Like the thump,
it’s forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event
not really known as an event, one which shifts
the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see,
back into shape. For a moment you understand
startled ecstasy – it’s a squawky wattlebird landing
(no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)
or it’s the elbow’s jerk with which the car boot slams,
happenings which aren’t noticed or which can’t be,
how the shopping brought home brushes the passage wall,
how events change time’s flow beneath perception.
Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on. You hardly grab a thing.
Keeping in mind Joshua Banks Mailman’s concept of the “flow” of listening as “the flux of qualities emerging somehow from all events within each span of time”, I want to argue that “White-Tailed Deer” knowingly evolves a highly localised poetic form that might be called meta-pastoral.
While “the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild” of John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” are not banished entirely from the opening paddock scene of “White-Tailed Deer”, its author is decidedly circumspect about the kinds of binary logics that underpin classically Romantic and Anglo-pastoral “ecstasy” (“Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?”). The ubiquitous nightingale is bumped aside for an unclassified “bird song” (“was it that? / or just some other sound”) that is nonetheless distinctly Australian, and whose qualities seem to include vital indeterminacy. Martin Harrison is advancing a poetic mode that is unconstrained by logics of equivalence and one-to-one correspondences which, arguably, are foundational to the metaphoric drive of literary Romanticisms. In doing so, he underscores a lack of “fit” between representative descriptive frames and Australian country. A similar theme is explored in Ancient & Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy by Stephen Muecke, who deconstructs the proprietorial politics and representative conventions embedded in colonial aesthetics of “landscape”:
Land is not landscape, but the concept of representation allows us the illusion. It does this through habits of perception and memory, as the technologies of convention work up the viewers’ feelings of, for instance, belongingness. Thus can the romanticism learnt from painterly convention subtly mediate the terms of our relationship with our actual surroundings, while other more shocking conventions can defamiliarise such a relationship.
“For a moment” in “White-Tailed Deer”, a bird-like sound is “caught” by the poem’s speaker and tagged as a wattlebird’s song. This however is no Keatsian “plaintive anthem”, and the encountered song remains in flux, “never identified” and resistant to the cognitive disciplines and human containments of representation, parataxis and memory: “it’s a squawky wattlebird landing / (no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)”. Listening and sound remain in flow, as metaphor and poem, “forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event / not really known as an event”. Extending Stephen Muecke’s analysis, we might read this estranging event horizon as an allegory for meeting “our actual surroundings” in ways that are beyond our habitual conceptual frames – a fleeting release from what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky called “the automatism of perception”, echoed above in Muecke’s “habits of perception”. What Muecke calls the “shock” accompanying such shifts is figured twice in “White-Tailed Deer” as a metaphorical “startle”. It is a pause between narrative abstractions and settled meanings, a state of connective flux and hyphen expressed through the poem’s repeated riff on the word “half”: “half-grown”, “half-merged”, “half-heard”, “half-traced”.
Why then hitch Martin Harrison’s defamiliarised scenes of ecological encounter to the clunky term meta-pastoral? Isn’t this just a pastoral mode of observing natural and non-metropolitan habitats, still mediated by frames of romanticism, albeit reworked in a specific local environment – a project notably undertaken in the foundational eco-poetics of Judith Wright? By adopting the prefix and hyphen, I want to signal both continuity and break: a political engagement with the deeper, violent terms of European aesthetic categories that arrived in Australia with colonisation, and a corollary acknowledgement of how those categories are repurposed, hybridised and even feralised in post-settlement Australian poetry. Coming to terms – with place, with poetic modes and forms, and with systematic displacement of Aboriginal culture from country – was critical to the wider project of Harrison, and is a leading conceit for his essay volume Who Wants to Create Australia:
Classifying systems, largely derived from English and American critics and historians, are applied to Australian writing, as if genetic accounts and histories of evolution similar to those of British and Australian writing can be mapped equidistantly across the structures of connection, response and contact which form the local histories of a local art. Borrowed terms like “pastoral”, “urban” and “landscape”, for instance, may work very differently or simply may not work at all when applied to Australian poetry.
Continuity (may work very differently) and break (may not work at all). These are the guiding coordinates of Harrison’s meta-pastoral. “White-Tailed Deer” begins with parataxis via a chain of conjunctions: the small thump, a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise, a neighbour, a trailer, a drum, a paddock, a final sun cube, the shed wall. These figures are both local and imported, heard and seen, phenomenal and epiphenomenal, familiar and strange (as inferred economically in the line “a neighbour – what are they doing out there?”). As Harrison indicates above, his poetic mode is about “structures of connection” (continuity) as much as primary sensory estrangement (break). It pays responsible and tender attention to events that “shift […] / the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see, / back into shape”, as though after a series of alienating breaks – including those of diverse settlement projects – some cognitive, environmental and cultural repair were needed and possible. Harrison’s project here is mindful of ancientness in the most complex and ontological sense of that word, and continuous with the irrefutably ancient human undertakings of aesthetic labour.
So what are the white-tailed deer doing out there, among the oil drums, sun cubes and parched paddocks? How do they figure in the post-colonial and poly-sensory schemes of this poem, and why does the speaker move suddenly to upstate New York to play out a final scene or two? Or to make Martin Harrison the subject of his own critical question: “Put bluntly, do the last eight lines of [“White-Tailed Deer”] have anything to do with what precedes them?” Embedded in the poem itself is another, strikingly mortal question – “how will it end?” – which Harrison answers this way:
Suddenly you realise
you’re hearing a night-time forest floor, a twig snapped –
not this last light with its thin, gold trees and ragged openness –
but a moment’s hesitation one night in a foreign country:
I was in up-state New York, there was a house in the woods,
there was indoor light of a dinner party, good people, drinks.
I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth.
Earlier I’d seen startled deer leap a stone wall tumbled into bracken.
Here is a clear signal of Harrison’s abiding interest in sonic phenomena as thresholds, bearers of migrations in scale that hum with synaesthetic possibility. White-tailed deer, of course, could transfer us to a range of different ecologies into which that species (native to both American continents) has travelled along the invasive routes of colonial settlement. But transnational symbolism is not the point. Neither entirely are the deer, or even the poem’s nominal destination in “a foreign country” – although to digress slightly, “up-state New York” evokes both Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, a formative figure in genealogies of American eco-poetics whose long lines of plain speaking and sprung polyrhythms are echoed in Martin Harrison’s poem.
The “point” in “White-Tailed Deer” – a metaphorical index rehearsed in the poem – is more akin to the gathering of trans-temporal sense particulars into a pause: suddenly you realise you’re hearing […] a moment’s hesitation. A rare silence, pure sound out of sequence, a split second before the brain decodes sonic information into paratactically sensible narratives. Despite the poem’s title, we know the deer aren’t the point, because overhearing and seeing them are explicitly not the subject of the poem’s sudden realisation. The deer are seen “earlier”, before the speaker steps “outside to get a sense of things”, as though consigned already to memory; and it’s the moment of stepping outside that we witness. “A twig snapped” on “a night-time forest floor” merges in recall with “the small thump from nowhere” that opens the poem only to be forgotten, remembered, and submerged again in a flux of becoming. And the agent or cause of that aesthetically inaugurating sound – which is simultaneously tin, door, trailer, drum, boot slam, shopping bumped against a wall, and eventually “a twig snapped”– is kept ambiguous. It is neither human nor deer, anthropogenic nor natural. It’s possibly both. Harrison’s purpose here is to chart the affective play of ecological encounters upon imaginations and sensory states. He achieves this in “White-Tailed Deer” by recording and re-performing the radical estrangements of facing a natural world that is criss-crossed with human cultural signs, some of them “broken” like the poem’s “stone wall tumbled into bracken”.
The “sense of things” gleaned in Martin Harrison’s poem is fleeting like leaping deer, metaphorical and labile as any listening experience: “Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on. You hardly grab a thing.” But within that “moment’s hesitation”, a way opens towards a deep reconstitution of the human subject as a fundamentally ecological body – both impacting upon, and deeply affected by, encounters with beyond-human entities. Sound is the metaphorical messenger for this perceptual and material reciprocity. It moves the poem beyond the domains of referential language, even if temporarily. When the speaker in “White-Tailed Deer” “steps outside to get a sense of things”, he (or she) is stepping outside the limiting frames of anthropocentricism – paradoxically, still constrained by human frames of phenomenal experience and expression (anthropomorphism), which Harrison acknowledges in the asyndeton “a dinner party, good people, drinks”. Language enables us to make imaginative sense of ecologies that are irreducible to human scales of comprehension, even as it binds our thinking to certain variables. At an earlier point in the poem, “a striated sense of inevitable time surpasses each local thought”, as though it is impossible to remain within pre-paratactical spaces of apprehension; “inevitable time” prevails, along with its laws of narrative means. “[A] great ocean” is later depicted “withdraw[ing] into perspective over my shoulder”, suggesting that human aesthetics of representation risk effecting a shrinking of scale – and potentially, a reduction of biodiversity in its broadest sense, rather than an expansion.
There is hope however in the clinamen, the swerve effected metaphorically by the deer leaping a broken wall “in a foreign country”, which is a place more than a nation. One of Martin Harrison’s best contributions as a poet was in conducting poetic language as polyphony (“A hum overtakes the orchestra”) in order to explore the cross-cultural and aesthetic responsibilities and obligations of ecological meetings. In the poem “Poplars” from Happiness, a nexus of agency between person and animal is transacted via a kind of commonality in difference, held in the line: “an extra sense of tranquil animal seeing”. The “startled / white sheep” of “Poplars” are both seeing and seen, watching and being watched. The same careful ambiguities of facing attend Harrison’s group of white-tailed deer. They are deliberately not the subject of “White-Tailed Deer” because Martin Harrison doesn’t want to objectify them, or become them, or command them to jump a certain way. He wants them – somehow intact in themselves, despite and within the provisions of acculturation and language – to point us back towards the real subject of this poem: root relationships between human imaginations, aesthetics, spatio-temporal scales and phenomenal perception.
The urgency of this philosophical scheme is apparent in Harrison’s sudden switch, in the poem’s final four lines, away from steadily applied second person (“for a moment you understand”) and into first person (“I was in up-state New York”). This occurs just as the deer hover into apprehension, and as the borders of self stabilise briefly around the consolations of memory. We are led back not to the deer, but to the pause of a single person recalling them, in a hiatus that is almost indistinguishable from clusters of like pauses in other, remembered places and times. With this device, Harrison veers into a space beyond metaphor and metonym – something like a pre-linguistic or pre-poetical space – and into the nested, ontological frames of memory within memory (I remember myself remembering) that are one of his dearest subjects. The poem becomes a metaphor for listening, just as listening and music become metaphors for the joyous estrangements of renewed, personal feeling – eudaimonia, the happiness of well-being – to which Harrison gives an inseparable ecological aspect.
In a sense that is both ancient and pressingly modern, Martin Harrison makes his poetical focus our human capacity to feel, hear, think and act ourselves into parallel spaces and temporalities, including alternative modes of ecological attention and care. Small, intangible moments of “startled ecstasy” are a telescope to something figured elsewhere in Happiness as “a huge untraceable lightness”, or more simply, “immensity”: an experience of worldly presencing on a vast, non-anthropocentric scale. Those mere seconds are embedded biologically while remaining somehow outside of teleology, “like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil”. They are best observed sidelong or via a disorienting rush akin to vertigo. They are indicators of happiness and future happenstance, felt in a pause between coherent temporal narratives and bright recollections of actuality, “the broken weave / that’s taking us through memories and future senses”. Broken and yet continuous, like a mesh between the repeating breaks of modernity and the potential mends of more ancient, ontological states. Language isn’t the primary site in which Martin Harrison locates this “taking us through” – hence his recurring desire to hesitate just beyond language, even while working inside it. In his poetics, intermingled human senses resist abstraction solely into word.
We are walking through the scrub and ironstone of Flat Top, picking a way back to the dirt road. Our son is ahead of us. Suddenly a large bird startles up from the path with a few flat wing-beats, and alights in a rangy gum just metres to our left. My brain doesn’t compute what I am seeing. A ghost bird, every colour out of place, grey head black mask black eye pale brown tail bars where I should be seeing black head no mask yellow eye white tail bars. Currawong, not currawong. A light brown mirage. Then I realise we are watching a juvenile grey currawong, more furtive and less common than its relative. In the half-second before I reach for language to contain this encounter – grey currawong – I am shocked by what is entirely unfamiliar. I feel wordless, dizzy with non-identification, suspended in the newness of not quite knowing.
I don’t think Martin Harrison was especially interested in pure reason, as though such a thing could be extracted from the world without metaphor. But I think he was deeply interested in something like pure feeling, or more acutely, thinking-as-feeling – an aesthetic and ontological state that might best be expressed as metaphor, to the extent that metaphor can transport us into the intimacies of self-constitution via phenomenal sense. It turns out his conversational asides were, in a sense, super astute. Deferral (a non-absolute) in “White-Tailed Deer” maximises feeling-possibility (an absolute affective horizon) – “affect” ahead of percept or concept, and more likely, imbricated in both. Martin Harrison seemed to understand that sensory correspondences, resonances, hesitations and blurs, rather than categorical separations, might be touchstones for a deeper acknowledgement of our human-creaturely natures – felt via extra-human encounters that “bounce” us, like all good metaphors, out into different spatio-temporal scales and back into the skins of our aesthetic and sensual selves:
wordless day bounces
down the tree’s bare limbs,
through its outspread flamboyance
toward twigs and wattle-birds
while they maraud sticky cream flowers
as if beauty could be instantly
sucked from the world.
Directly. Without irony.