Bonny Cassidy, Final Theory. Artarmon, New South Wales: Giramondo, 2014. ISBN 978-1-922146-61-8
Theories have been around for centuries. It was first thought that the world was flat, until Galileo proved the Copernican theory that the earth did actually revolve around the sun. Recently I purchased nail polish called Color Theory, and per se, was offered Bonny Cassidy’s latest collection titled Final Theory. In this work of free verse two main stories are evoked, but more importantly the poetry centres on the theory of “finalities”. Theory. There are several meanings to the word: abstract reasoning, speculation, an assumption based on limited information, a belief or principle that guides action or assists comprehension or judgement, even the branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements, accepted principles, and methods of analysis, as opposed to practice. Head spinning!
Well, this is how I felt after reading Final Theory.
The collection is divided into four parts and appears as four distinct narratives, each separate page without a title. Before outlining the content of this poetry, it is important to understand that the disastrous worlds that Cassidy captures in these episodes are written from an interrogative stance. It is certainly not lyric poetry, but more post-avant. As Adam Fieled (2006) writes “post-avant poetry is distinguished from other forms of ‘po-mo’ by its deliberate shying away from the directly ‘personal’, as well as its engagement with ‘morally motivated abstraction’”.
Did I write abstraction? Yes. Most of this collection is fairly abstract. However, it is for a reason. The post-avant poet’s main aim is to avoid the lyric “I” and as Fieled (2006) writes, “the poet employs ‘Negative Capability’ to express contradictions and oppositions, harmonies and discords, without affixing his or her identity to any fixed locale”. We do know however, after several readings of each section, that Cassidy’s finalities (harmonies and discords) exist somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, in New Zealand, Tasmania, Antarctica, and possibly the ancient Gondwana. (This information is gleaned from Cassidy receiving a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship and her trips to these areas).
It is tempting to delve deeper into this collection in order to understand the literal level of the poetry. However, in the light of the above that we are dealing with post-avant poetry, this is not possible. Instead, I am tackling this review by looking at each of the four sections in terms of binaries.
They are: birth / death – aesthetic / catastrophic – factual / mythical, with varying rhizomes.
In the foreword, these images set the tone for what is to come:
A camera tracks the ocean floor
(eating images, not colliding). And rests. …
A child plunges headlong into that valley
The camera is her dream tunnel. …
On the previous page, there is a quote from Lionel Fogarty’s “Scenic Wonders – We Nulla Fellas”: “Ranges and countless channels uninhabited’ /… ‘cones / knives, volcanoes borning a surface external / wave, rock over arid plains are not far from our base.” From Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen’s, How The Universe Will End, this quote appears: “Nothing happens, and it keeps not happening forever… on the long road from order to disorder.” Now we have some inkling of where this is going!
In Section 1, expect to be transported to the aftermath of New Zealand’s earthquake in the south island, possibly Christchurch and its surrounds.
an envelope of land
is opened and warm-skinned
cold-blooded ocean welling.
What is at stake here is the morality / immorality binary of this catastrophe. The land has been corrupted, as Cassidy writes, “see the little bastard coming to the fray. / An inkling child of oil and grit” (14). Yet, the “day glows” and on Steven’s Island the scene is inviolate:
… wren, piopio, huia, saddleback, kokako,
short-tailed bat, long-tailed bat –
who opened a gap and thudded through, back-first.
The place became
a host of wings, a fall of parrots. …
Section II diverts from the disaster caused by nature and the ultimate survival of the natural world. In some way we are carried forward (or is it back to Gondwana?) to where in “some future ocean our beloved proteins will / roll, perhaps finding one another, linked / by a theoretical wave” (18). At a guess, the binary in this section is either “obliteration / creation”, “or birth / death.” A child is involved and the poetry is mythical, strange, she comes:
face to face with a rubber alligator
then wheels, seeing
the alligator dissolve as she grows:
The setting of the ocean with its water flowers and flushing weed is metaphorical. Cassidy appears to re-create the child’s life as a life saved and lived in water. It’s a slow letting go, but death is lengthened, perhaps not realised, until:
… they’ve clustered on a corpse she snatches
at the crowd, fills her mouth, cancelling their fuss
with her fried tongue.
But in the landscape of her head
one lives on …
Section III introduces another landscape that hints of isolation but, more to the point, of being slightly inhabited / uninhabitable: “try to make its faces out: they’re deserted” (39).
Swerving from the valley’s head
pipes cascade silently
to a compound buried in slick white rock.
The two people in the narrative, rather than being “in the detritus of the old harbours” (6), are on “high ground” staring across a valley and in “one of the cars some kids / amped their dying stereo / so it shone across the valley” (39–40).
A biplane lifted from its beach and wiped up light.
The lake rose, floating
on the valley
then deepened to a stop.
In Section IV, we return to the child / girl, although the “she” point-of-view of water-baby or survivor is unclear. However, certain aspects of the binary of factual / mythical are evident in this final poetry. The setting of caves, the ocean, the rift of ice, and “on the surface: canisters, their reels of punctured weed” (67), “the plastics she has loved” (66), appear as evidence to the aftermath of a previous disaster or catastrophe. The “she” person in the poetry also has an affinity with and appears to be floating in this fallible landscape.
Rummaging the hadal scum
she rips white clams from their roots
and sifts with toothless gums.
We could hardly believe that this character / child or super woman would be human, surviving hours below the sea, being flung high to a cliff face, and then have her “bellows grind through avenues of the last ice” (70). One supposes she is likened to a mythical character, similar to the Greek sea-goddess Thetis who had the power to change her shape at will.
Nose to sloppy ice
she gnaws –
a line draws itself
across her head
and silently folds
the thin zones inch
Apart from the obscure nature of this radical poetry, it must be mentioned that the work has a foray of excellent poetic techniques: strong rhythm, imbibed tone, powerful imagery, a picturesque view of the natural world, a motif of photography (as real / made-up images) and unforgettable phrases such as: “to understand why the ocean ends / here. Drinking from the teeth / of the cliff” (25) and “down the rift / (past a rusted box, its long eye gazing into sludge)” (67). Final Theory might not be for all, especially lovers of lyric poetry, but for those who like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, post-modernist, experimental or post-avant poetry, it’s a challenging read.
Fieled, A (2006) “Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Abstract Morality in Post-Avant Poetry”. Cordite Poetry Review (30 June). http://cordite.org.au/features/adam-fieled-rachel-blau-duplessis-and-abstract-morality-in-post-avant-poetry/
Helen Hagemann is a Perth poet. She has two collections of poetry, Evangelyne & other poems (APC, 2009) and of Arc & Shadow (Sunline Press, 2013). Currently, Helen is working on a children’s collection titled Miniscule.