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The Sense of Writing; or Martin Harrison’s Breakfast

by Brenton Lyle

No matter how contemporary or complex the questions of ecology, cognition and sense become, there remains the possibility that writing will only register them theoretically. Which is to say, whether at the level of lexis, or as a classical subject, the writing will remain thoroughly wedded to discourses which continually undermine a fresh thinking. These areas – which to begin with are only suggestive for writing – may never really be interrogated or explored by criticism for the way in which they impact, at every level, the conceptualisation of an act of writing. Here, of course, there is a long list of institutional as well as psychological issues to do with the management and dissemination of writing which have to be considered. But I am talking more specifically about how the act of writing – if it can be so bounded – becomes not just an embedded mode of representing or voicing the world, but a question each time of the whole sense of writing. That is, what traverses the act of writing, or how is a writing immanently traversed by sense; by environing, latent and deep senses which are caught up at every moment with the depth and latency at which language is spoken and inscribed – whether in the earth or on that small piece of prepared earth, the page, or, with its dubious metaphors, the web-site or web-page?

As we couldn’t help but be aware in Australia, a writing of immense sensitivity in this regard has appeared, with an equal provocation, in Martin Harrison. In fact, the scale in which his critical writing – both published and unpublished – deliberates on the written and its relation to contemporary poetic, philosophical, and critical discussions, overwhelms an attempt like this one not to over-look writing, or to reduce its embedded or metaphoric dimensions. Considering, as we are here, the relation between an essentially visual or spatial compulsion in the continued, and problematic, opposition between writing and world, it is enough to suggest that his writing was never constrained by classical models, being taken up partially in sound-studios and experimental radio. All of this work, whether critical, philosophical, or poetic, remains alert to the risk of an over-determination of writing by a solely theoretical or philosophical approach. In other words, he would place poetry and poetics at the centre of any discussion of language or the written. Equally, this would mean not reducing language to discourse or lexis, but considering it rather as inseparable from that otherwise (supposedly) mute body or mute sensing – that projected philosophical zone of non-meaning or completed meaning.

But, of course, we have heard these thoughts before. Why bring up again the Heideggerian or Derridean criticism of a philosophy of the letter or logos – of the word as the sign or substitute for an idea, or eidos? Haven’t we already understood the way in which ecologically inflected accounts of experience and writing no longer bind us to those objectifying distinctions between, just that, experience on the one side and writing on the other? Why continue to drag out these accounts when all the new thinking no longer formalises or systematises the object of experience, or where the excess or multiplicity of systems remains precisely unformulisable in terms of specifically human modes of seeing or understanding? Again the provocation from Harrison would be; do we really have a better sense of the way in which the written mark is not just an analogue for a new form of seeing, but rather a complex metaphorisation in which sense and world converge and diverge? Isn’t the way in which we come to write still determined by classical models of voice, object, and sign? Or, more strongly still, do we think the ecological no longer within a science of the is (i.e. that the world is, must be, ecological) but instead see ecology as itself a metaphor (however vital) which must be considered as only part of a larger and forever un-founded science of writing, or as Derrida says, a grammatology (Derrida 1997, 4)[1]?

The poem Breakfast provides us with the occasion to sketch out, in a provisional way, some of these questions – but “alas”, I feel that this poem leads me inevitably towards his other poems, and not just into its own questioning. Hence it seemed equally inevitable to me to choose only one, and only this one, at the exclusion of perhaps more obvious references in other poems to configurations of mark and attention. This selection is made first of all because this poem, Breakfast, concerns the ethical dimension of an attempt to look, or of the difficulty of locating a place which exists only, in some sense, as the tension of looking, or as a question of perception. But in this way, this poem also seemed inevitable because it could be far too quickly discussed in terms of an interest in phenomena, or the phenomenon. It will be necessary to state directly then that the poet is not merely engaged in an act of phenomenological description, as it is characterised as a question of method in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. The poem, as Harrison says, is a way not to “‘do’ discourse” (Harrison 2011) in this sense, nor should it be only or primarily located in relation to philosophical approaches to do with language and thing. It is not just a thought about perception, or a feel for the complex constitution of vision or the senses, that traverses Harrison’s poems. To be sure, there is a mobile heart, a sense of the unfenced moment of attention, which is in flight and not just brought to bear on a resolute object. Further, and without saying anything exceptional, we know that the object, the thing, has never been seen or experienced completely, and that this incompleteness would be the sense (neither the appearance nor the lack) of any sense whatsoever.

But to focus one-sidedly on this account is already to have forgotten how the poems are concerned equally, and in a similar way, with the act of writing, of marking or inscribing. And so we could identify the opening of the poem Breakfast too readily with an in-the-moment dramatization of “dawning” realisation; “Anyone up this early – it’s just after dawn – is going to be overwhelmed by the glimmering of things” (Harrison 2008, 148)[2]. To begin with, however, where in fact would we comfortably situate this speaking? In the voice of the writer describing a moment in-the-event? Describing it in writing? Writing what he is seeing? Or in a fictional speaking which, filmically perhaps, overlays a supposed real (reel) or silent meditation? But already this suggests that any literalisation occurs only as one dimension of the poem’s speaking. That is, we are not experiencing a straightforward mimesis (if there ever was such a thing) – there is instead a sense of the after-the-event nature of a written scripting. In this way the grammatical insertion in this opening will have to suggest, quite quickly, an impossible level of pictorial simultaneity ( … “this early – it’s just after dawn” … ) inseparable from an incompletion at the heart of writing. It will have to be registered complexly as a talking which gives only a version. Or, more strongly, it will suggest that the scripting of the poem, being just that, affects language with a permanent provisionality in which language’s enchaining in this poem is inevitably suggestive of other contexts, other speakings, other poems. Thus as he says later – “A line close to one already in another poem might be” … (151). Or, if we read the second sentence’s suggestive listing: “The grasses, the rocks, the bluff and its shelves, inland hakeas, casuarinas, some sort of mountain ash, I’m not sure which” (148).

But if there is no attention to a realism or spoken mimesis on one side, neither is there a sense in which the attention paid to writing is purely reflexive – an attempt at some banal meta-critical comment on the mediatised nature of all writing. For such an attempt would seek to introduce a naive separation between a pristine moment of perception and an inevitably parasitic technology or technique, where the written dimension could only profane a moment of clear-sighted experience. Such, as we know, and have known for a while now, is not the case. Rather, the separateness of the writing, of any writing, no longer references a vision or an event completed elsewhere – in the mind or in the world. What it brings to attention is its own inaugural gesture, which ties together, each time, the entire sense of attention, body, world. Here we could reference Jean-Luc Nancy’s work, in whose Sense of the World we can read “ […] it is as relation that sense configures itself – it configures the toward that it is (whereas signification figures itself as identity). The tradition of writing is the tradition of relation itself as it is to be opened and tied” (Nancy 1998, 118-19). But one could also trace here its action in the literary figure, or minor literary figure, of description which opens the poem. The critic Angus Fletcher has written interestingly on the way in which description, and in particular listing, traces a kind of manifold or de-structured environing of the subject (Fletcher 2004, 27). In one sense, that would help us to understand that being “overwhelmed” by “the glimmering of things” of the first phrase. But in this account we could miss the degree to which description in the poem is also a sketching of sedimentation and time-lapse. As Harrison has written:

Here in journals, diaries, scientific notebooks, travel notes and essays, the time-lapse is left explicit. Of course, the artifice of disguising artifice is not absent from works such as the English language’s arguably most famous ecological literary work, Walden, nor is it absent from immaculate modern essayistic writing like Barry Lopez’s. But these pieces of writing, like recognised classics such as White’s much earlier Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, use the act of observation over time as an implanted structural element, borrowing from less-than-literary or minor literary formats like the diary, letters or the notebook. They set up the threshold moment at the core of text, treating writing as a kind of residue left over from observation. They usually explore a variety of different, jumbled up ways in which the act of describing can be conceived, for example, note-taking, sampling, mini-narrative, extended observation, lyrical description, exchanges of letters and so on. (Harrison 2013, 7, emphasis mine) [3]

An inscription which treats writing as a residue – in other words, the “threshold moment at the core of the text” is an unstable metaphor for the act of writing, which gives sense to and configures writing. The sedimentation immanent in the mode of the diary is not just a generic attribution, but a necessary metaphor which draws together world, attention, and utterance. One could liken it to the aspectual “seeing as” which underlines a Heideggerian account of vision, in which no intuition or sight could ever be simply “pre-predicative” (Heidegger 2010, 144). But in this instance, what we are saying is that the modal aspects which underlie sensorial configuration in the Heideggerian model also operate at the centre of language. That is to say, writing literally maps[4] the distance – the ontological depth – from which, in the most common instance, Here and There emerge. And it does so just as much as in any “landed” graphic inscription – of Australian Indigenous writing for instance. One could easily read this – almost literally – in the “re-visionary” sense of distance seen across water at the beginning of the poem:

Of course, distance across water can easily

fool: those trees are fifteen kilometres away.

…Something close to that. (The sky’s getting paler and

paler.)                                                                          (148)

Here, and for the rest of the poem, the vision will not become a stable image, seen from one particular view or visual aspect. Instead, its instability is related to the ontological depth which the writing draws, and which the speaking must effectively speak across. A distance across imagined water, then, in this graphic division of speaking three-ways – here, first a description, then an inserted hesitation, and further still a parenthesis. The distance between an unstable observer and trees, Here and There, is drawn by these multiple registers which, themselves, will not adequately describe a conscious arc nor formulate a narrative under which land can take shape. The retreating distance, impossible to fully figure, is the metaphoric dimension which the writing speaks (or writes) across[5] – the world which is here unfixed in aspect or present moment. These senses of the world of the poem cannot be separated from the way in which writing metaphorically and incompletely sets up speaking, gesture, and aspect. Here, Harrison is suggestive in the way he describes a reading which could concentrate on the embedded metaphorical dimension of the work, almost in a cognitivist or Bachelardian sense:

In short, such a reading momentarily fixes on adverbial aspects of place and sight and on the modality or “manner of doing” implicit in the poem. But what is also interesting is how consistent these modal figures are in each poem, almost as if a controlling mode operates deeply in the structuring of poetic experience and distributes tonalities and rhythms of perception across the poem’s language. (Harrison, 2007, 25)

Thus, a mode of writing – the descriptive mode in this instance – will not be best understood as representative of a moment of seeing. Rather, the sense of the act of inscription draws world and sense in its groove or trough. The “artifice”, as Harrison says in the first quote above, is not only an aesthetic or narrowly rhetorical dimension of the poem, but a necessary level of metaphorisation at the heart of any act of writing. The inevitability of introducing the “time-lapse” into this description of the note or diary entry is to do with the almost infinitesimal separateness between reading and writing, a difference which makes the act of composition possible, and which delivers it over to metaphor, to “secondariness”. So it is a writing which is not configured in advance in that space opened up between thing and utterance in the representational model. That space, which is not truly a “space”, is indeed the sense of the gesture of writing itself, which is itself a style of being in the world. And this would make it inevitable that we consider the act of attention, or experience, as not an ideally separable a priori of writing. Here we could note that the habitual reference to an “unspoken” dimension of experience is again neither more nor less than a metaphorical enchaining of utterance, configuring a sense of experience by way of a negatively conceived moment of speechlessness, and thus cannot be properly or entirely conceived outside language. In this sense of configuring writing as a metaphor, writing must be understood in the way it draws attention, in all the senses of this phrase. The intensity and newness of much of Harrison’s poetry comes from this sense of the movement in which writing both draws attention while indicating a distancing or incompletion (both time-filled and empty) at the heart of inscription. As Harrison says elsewhere, “what is at stake here is not external characteristics but how there springs up an incompleteness within a deep structural drive in the project of writing” (149). This would in some sense indicate that writing is only tied and re-tied – it is never fixed, and cannot be absolutely identified with any narrowly conceived practice of inscription.

Hence, the “overwhelming” of the poem’s first line is in some sense the limiting which opens writing as much as any unfocused shimmering. And thus we don’t find here a theory of the object, which brings with it a space of silence and ideality. Instead, the supposedly spoken recount or enumeration of the “scene” will quickly run out on us:

Air’s already dry, resonant with the months of drought

we’ve been having. Overhead, two streaked vapour trails

broaden into hastily brushed scumble – gigantic scribble marks

crazily laddered across vacancy. It’s as if someone’s lent them

there, knowing they’d make an optical illusion, puzzling to

work out. They can’t be Sydney with its curfew. (“Melbourne

to Darwin, Melbourne to Singapore,” I’m thinking.) And over

here: a steep drop down to the fishing-jetty where camp-sites

are wrongly                                                          (148-49)

And it is here that the writing would drop off, mid-sentence. And a new section is introduced, which, we should note, in some sense describes the sweetness of a sound which is not heard, which is in fact forgotten. Here there is a kind of literalisation of the incompleteness of the work. At a deep level, the break in speaking, even in the literal un-voiced speaking involved in silent reading, introduces an attention to sound (and not a supposed “mute” silence) quite similar to a shift in the ear introduced by a voice cutting out on the radio, or a sudden silence in a piece of music, although the reference could be as easily traced to film. Indeed, the way in which the crimson rosellas in the next section, which are “beneath awareness”, quieten “for a moment into typical chitter-chatter” is similar to the way in which the unfinished, perhaps enjambed, earlier text could continue at another level of awareness. But none of this will be stated. Instead, a breaking-off and then this mark, starred, or rather diamonded, at the centre of the page:

it would be a mistake to make too much of this “lozenge” as I see it is called in my word processor, but it is interesting that it doesn’t occur elsewhere, as far as I can see, in the other poems of Wild Bees. So its specificity, as well as its opening, should remind us that the incompleteness at the heart of writing doesn’t reduce it to being only a colourless textuality. Indeed, the ways in which this poem can map, without determining, a whole series of references to do with contemporary digital writing, film and sound installation, is close to the way in which the poem will situate, in a moment, an act of looking, whose ethical dimension springs (to echo Harrison’s earlier comment) from an incompleteness at the core of the senses. In a similar way, the moment in the poem in which kangaroos commit a “vanishing-act” would indicate that incompletion need not refer to any dialectic of “lack” and “fullness”. The moments in the poem are at the same time neither fragments of diary, of narrative, of prose poems, nor are they lyric interludes. Their suggestiveness is in the way they arise, as Harrison says, at the moment between “assemblage” and “disassemblage” (Harrison 2010, 149). We will be able to read this quite directly in the last part of the poem. It begins by describing, once again, the overwhelming vision of “a drowned quarry, abstractly chopped from what’s left of a hillside” (150). I will quote the ending at length:

The truth is: the lake’s being human, humanly made, offers

the viewer a hugeness not that different from transcendence. It

dwarfs any thought of it. Only a dream-fragment can be kept

in mind. Floods roar down gulleys like a front of wild horses.

Natural lakes are (bad rhyme) the sky’s eyes. Was I dreaming

that? When? (A line close to one already in another poem might

be: This lakes’s wind-blackened surface now winks back. Or: It is

and always was a decision, and could be error). Yet the effect’s

deliberate, not causal or dreamlike. It’s light on water. It’s like

a balance, like an equipoise. And then, no, it’s not. A rippling

lake surface, the water can’t conceive that it’s here or that I’m

looking at it or that it has any connection with desertification,

salinity, river silts. For all that, it has to be said that reality

doesn’t arrive as a lake. It arrives as an angel knocking on the

door, pointing out how many things make up a world. Waking

up, what it pointed to was this drowned valley, the yellow-box,

the ash, the calm night-covered hill, the weight of wind and

water. The weight of design and engineering. What it lit up

was a complex moment in perception where to conceive a dam’s

bearing towards human nature requires the same skills as the

resolution of any ethically knife-edge, historically many-sided

issue. In our time, for example, some Israel, some country in

the Middle East. It’s exactly at the point when I realise how

each drop of water, hanging in these hills, is gathering to

fruition that I realise, too, how far the night’s behind me and

I’m fully awake.                                                    (151-52)

Here the text cannot quite arrive at a fixed propositional structure. The effect of the lake’s human scale is both dreamlike and not, and then, further, not not dream-like. The italics above, aslant as always, would also indicate another moment at which the sounding of the poem cannot adequately be registered, in which it is neither heard nor half-heard, as if the complex acoustic moment of imaging the lake must continually intrude – homonymically, mnemonically, rhythmically – on the poem’s propositional structure. Clearly, this effect is also to do with waking, with the half-sensed, almost forgotten dreams of last night providing another unquiet surface, another lake. But this is to say, the distance across which waking – the sense of being “fully awake” – must emerge, is entirely caught up with, or drawn by, the metaphoric dimensions of the poem’s utterance. Here, in fact, I would say that this distance is likened to the incredibly complex figure of “reality” which occurs in the unthinkable registration of the man-made lake’s impact, in ecological terms, but in terms, indeed, of the level at which places could be said to exist. What emerges is at one level an equipoise – a need to balance the act of looking on an ethical knife-edge, an edge and an ethics that emerges precisely because the vision can never be completed – “the water can’t conceive that it’s here or that I’m looking at it”. In fact, the attempt to have seen and known the thing (the lake), once and for all, is directly related to the ecological crisis which is referenced in the poem. But more than a representative “capturing” of a phenomenal instance, the reason that this level of incompletion is achieved in the poem is to do with the metaphorical distance which the writing itself describes. In the same sense as the diary entry, the distance across which a speaking or writing must travel is directly related to the way we make the mark, or place the accent or graphie. In this way, in the end, the waking is not just a figure for clear-sited revelation. Instead, in the quotidian manner of the title of the poem, where we would be forced to consider Martin Harrison’s Breakfast (in its necessary double-inflection), the poem is indeed the distance across which a complex moment of wakefulness can first be glimpsed.

It is clear that this essay can only begin to sketch out links which remain more substantially discussed in that, as I have already said, overwhelming body of critical work which Harrison has written. In one sense, this piece hopes only to contribute to a renewed interest in that material. Hopefully this will bring with it a more complex thinking of the relation between mark and attention, mark and world, as well as a poetry which is not just ecologically aware but is engaged at the level at which writing immanently maps unstable and non-theoretical (or hierarchical) senses of the world. Also, it is sad to say, that the incompleteness which is registered here in that name “Harrison”, a figure of space which marks out an uncrossable river in the last name, the last name as an institution commonplace – is also the transference of a poet, friend and mentor to an impossible distance, the same impossible distance across which his voice would now have to be heard. But nothing requires me to complete this dialogue – that is, to seal it off, or to make an absolute account of it. In the same way, neither is this account aiming to render a completed analysis of the poem. Being just a sketch, nor am I obliged to complete the


[1] C.f. also on this point, Harrison’s comments in his thesis “On Composition’ (2010, 107), in which he engages directly with Of Grammatology, and a science of writing without a unified object – neither in consciousness, in experience, nor in classical graphie. One continues to hope that this thesis will be published soon, after legal matters allow the publisher to release the book, which, to my knowledge, will appear under the same title as for the thesis given here.

[2] Hereafter quotes from the poem will be accompanied only by page number.

[3] Once again, I quote what might be considered a marginal comment from this essay, The Act of Writing and The Act of Attention – all I can do is to refer the reader there, where the themes which I take up in this piece are obviously at issue for the writer.

[4] This will become a persistent term in the writer’s own “mapping” of crossovers between cognitive science, phenomenology, and non-classical or non-Aristotelian understandings of metaphor. See, once again, “On Composition”, for instance: “This view assumes that metaphoricity reaches into and is reached by embodied senses of the world. It may be argued that the concept of metaphoricity is asked to do too much work in cognitive theory, and in particular that it is asked to do what neuroscience cannot yet fully demonstrate about the mapping of perceptual responses on to conceptual domains” (Harrison 2010, 14).

[5] C.f. Heidegger’s essay “Language” in which the speaking of the poem is imagined as a call, calling “Into the distance in which what is called remains, still absent” (Heidegger 2001, 196).


Derrida, J. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hokins Univeristy Press, 1997.

Fletcher, A. A New Theory for American Poetry; Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2004.

Harrison, M. Who Wants to Create Australia? Broadway, NSW: Halstead Press, 2007.

—. Wild Bees; New and Selected Poems. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press 2008.

—. “On Composition: Five Studies in the Philosophy of Writing”Thesis. Sydney: University of Technology Sydney, 2010.

—. “Interview with Martin Harrison”, Poetry International Rotterdam, 2011, /19744/Interview-with-Martin-Harrison/en (accessed April 30, 2015)

—. “The Act of Writing and the Act of Attention”, TEXT Special Issue 20, ed. Martin Harrison, Deborah Bird Rose, Lorraine Shannon and Kim Satchell (October 2013), Harrison.pdf (accessed April 30, 2015)

Heidegger, M. Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Perrenial, 2001.

—. Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: University of New York State Press, 2010.

Nancy, J-L. The Sense of the World, trans. Jeffrey S. Librett. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,  1998.

Published: September 2015
Brenton Lyle

is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney. His candidature was supervised by Martin Harrison, to whose work, teaching and friendship he remains very much indebted.

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