Gareth Sion Jenkins, Recipes for the Disaster. Parkville, VIC: Five Islands Press, 2019. ISBN 978 0 7340 5519 4
Gareth Sion Jenkins is a multi-form poet who has been collaborating on poetry-films and making and exhibiting text-based art for a number of years. One of these poem-films Us Right Now, shortlisted for the fourth Ó Bhéal Poetry-Film competition in Ireland in 2016, is introduced by its director Jason Lam as ‘a work of intimate moments, building rhythms, and architectural physicality which turn the viewer into voyeur’. The description could also apply to Jenkins’s collection Recipes for the Disaster, Whitmanesque in its force, physiology and multi-dimensional inclusivity; cinematic in its visceral and dramatic imagery and tone.
In Recipes for the Disaster Jenkins presents the self as a fusion of interconnected, cosmically ancient systems within systems beyond categorisation or quantifiable measure. This is exemplified in Jenkins’s ekphrasis of his self-made textile artwork photographed on the book’s cover, where he describes geometrical weavings of thread:
The sewing affixes all materials and activates muscle memory from the
past lives expressing themselves in my geometric DNA.
Here scientific language which can be read literally and at the level of metaphoric analogy complicates the self as a liminal space where past selves and the pre-human assert agency. The many sexual encounters in the book echo this primordial plurality and radical untenability of bounded self:
I awake with images in my fingers:
your bent shadowface within my prints.
Owen lives inside me radiating / keynote geometry.
Owen’s heptagonal voice spreads cavities in my mind flesh holes in
my sky ridge.
you radiate light
fluid symmetry orchestrates our fragile reunion
on Kilimanjaro’s glacial rim.
The evocation of a physiological geometry and physics places the self in a sub-level world in which ego is selfless and touch is a subatomic syntax. At this extreme angle the human can even be seen to refract the stratification and frenetic of the geological:
blonde-brown of sandstone sediment.
The sounds of mountain waking in this human silence
free-fall of small stones
Words gather, familiar stones piling in pockets.
The overriding presentation of self in the book is that of the emotional self, chemical and cerebral, spinning in either a fractured balance or in disorder, an entangled confluence of civilised order and wild chaos symbiotic with nature:
Liva slips into visions of schizophrenia—
a knot of giant frogs thunder the pontoons.
By this time your voice radiates menacing intensity.
Disaster you tell me.
If ever there was a time
when a little external structure was required.
In Recipes for the Disaster Gareth Jenkins not only presents the pre-human in the human but also complicates the concept of the post-human. The post-human often signifies an apocalyptic landscape of abandoned buildings or a post-singularity world devoid of humans where machines triumph as gods. Jenkins shows us such worlds existing in the present, as expanses littered with human refuse and presided over by the organic machines with which we share a deep ancestry and which utilise the same forces and structures as our creations which we often perceive, through our human egocentrism, as purely artificial:
In that expanse of jigsawed mud
a palm-sized anchor
clutch of small pharmaceutical bottles
edges worn white smooth
pincer hinges still working.
Through Jenkins’s poetic human constructions can also feel as alien and autonomous as the myriads of creatures and formations with which we share our world:
Over the clumped terrace houses
a pyramid flashes four times in the sky.
Semi-circle of trees of grass field
lilac shipping container rivered with rust
blue arm angling from boxed-in white cabin
so orange inside
sun climbing the screen
The later of these stanzas also brings to mind the cellular level of biology, in animations of which gaudy coloured micro-machines can be seen busily transporting bizarre spiked parcels and the like on insectoid, even puppet-like limbs. This effect is achieved by the bustling compactness of the stanza which describes a busy industrial scene with reference to action and even appendages but starkly devoid of human agency and presence. In the robust relational fragmentation employed here size and proportion become variables, the huge and the tiny are equated in their symmetrical, desperate manoeuvres of existence.
Testament to the representational depth of Jenkins’s craft we can move from a primordial and post-human perspective to one in which even the devastating and radiant sublime of natural landscape are eclipsed by the cyclonic power of emotional encounter, in this case one that captures our mammalian ties to our closest animal relatives, a mother gorilla and her child:
But I can’t look away as the baby touches my fingers
with her own, soft like a human child’s
and her mother charges
me into the undergrowth.
Even the peak of Kilimanjaro at sunrise
after all night walking the black frozen volcanic ash cone
through mist so high it’s cloud
won’t compare to this
For Jenkins both disruption and disorder are inherent to mind and world. One influence on this might be his close study and appreciation of Australian outsider artist and writer Anthony Mannix who espouses that his own project ‘has been to document the landscape of psychosis and the unconscious’ and that in his self-learned trade ‘patterns, designs and artefacts I have observed in all worlds go on to form a network of technique’ (qtd. in Skinner 4). Another influence might be Jenkins’s masters in psychology which he ‘spent measuring the brain’s frontal positive slow wave’. (Jenkins ‘Biographical Note’). Both the surreal, erotic anthropology of Mannix and the intricate, technical insight of Neuropsychology are dynamic presences in Jenkins’s own ‘network of technique’:
He places the bird’s right eye over my right iris. The world’s metallic
frame deviates, photons morph symmetric patterns fluctuate in a
magnetosensitive reorientation—a radical-pair reunion. Resonant
sonic boom vibrates my keynote into waves of ultraviolet light: 370
to 565 nanometers in length. The world gets bright green, then the
shade of nicotine on his fingers clicking in my face.
Recipes for the Disaster also presents a dynamic use of overall narrative form. The book is divided into three sections: ‘Blood’, ‘Time’ and ‘Dream’. Each of these overarching themes serve to focus in on different aspects of a physiological biological perspective. In ‘Blood’, repetition and fragmentation is used to evoke a sense of coagulation. In ‘Time’, we are made aware that our perceptions of time can only be bodily. Certain events earlier foreshadowed in the book are extended and presented as living memories as much a part of the self as organs:
A tongue turns in my mouth, speaks me like the voice of the dead
soldiers he pulled from the river.
I asked him what he was doing and he said he was
dragging dead soldiers out of the river. He was sweating and kind
of staggering under their weight. There was no body but him down
Memory is also revealed as a branch of fictional narrative:
I visit her in Aarhus, she’s staying in Ward Z
surrounded by empty aviaries.
And those aviaries are actually in Adelaide
at the abandoned Glenside Lunatic Asylum
In ‘Dream’, the relativity of the physical world to the mind is taken further as the poems delve deeper into the unconscious and into the visceral effects of qualia. In the title poem ‘Recipes for the Disaster’, scientific terms from an early twentieth-century pharmaceutical formulary become analogous to chemical feelings of unqualifiable gradient and texture in a supercharged atmosphere of intense passion and disorder:
You wield such implements with a causal
violence, a depressed head. Oxygen and artificial respiration are
required as I wake into the Cardiac dawn and breathe with
the aid of respiratory stimulants—intravenous coramine or
A Sodium Sulphite dusk spreads Oil of Geranium light through your hair.
This section of the book also includes the poem ‘Ferocious | Honey!’ which appropriates some lines and phrases from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s oeuvre and which also espouses Hopkins’s spiritual-literary philosophy of ‘inscape’, radical in Victorian times. I will take a little time to unpackage Hopkins’s ideas because I believe it can illuminate the technique of Jenkins’s own poetic.
In Hopkins’s philosophy inscape is connected to the concept of ‘instress’. Inscape is ‘the unique quality or essential “whatness” of a thing’, while instress is ‘the divine energy that both supports the inscape of all things and brings it alive to the senses of the observer’ (“inscape and instress”). Hopkins formulated his philosophy in the context of a Victorian era in which the accelerating advents of science were destablilising on a societal level – for example a wave of fear was ‘induced by the formulation of the second law of thermodynamics, which suggested the tendency of all systems to become increasingly disorganized as they approach a state of “entropic death”’ (Goss 83). For Hopkins this was no cause for alarm. His interconnected concepts of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ are built upon the idea that the world is inherently unstable because the ‘divine charge’ that permeates the world, ‘instress’, comes from a higher world of radical purity, the very apprehension of which, unfiltered, could lead to the immolation of the physical self (qtd. in Goss 86). To Hopkins ‘the threat of dissolution, disruption, and disorganization is requisite to subjectivity’ (Goss 84). Literary scholar Erin M. Goss argues that Hopkins goes as far as to seek an ‘apocalyptic transmission’ to apprehend the instress present in inscape through his experiential poetry (86).
For Jenkins the self also exists in a state fraught with dissolution. It is not a divine charge which offers an apocalyptic transcendence but intense, sublime and radical human connection. In colliding with the other the self is offered both radiant escape and a self-destroying new order of being:
A crack opens in the membrane anticipation drains my cortex of
blood—sends my skull buzzing. A cold edge, the sign reunited with
flesh—pain kisses me swiftly. The plastic sheet of the gurney.
Owen is the voice inside a dark iris lips kiss my right
eye from inside.
In ‘Ferocious | Honey!’ both language and touch become divine (uncapitalised) forces of instress:
Syntax shaping our brain, patterning our inscape then
his words on her breath, soft tongue
there is a god in that poetry of the womb
For Jenkins, human emotion exists in conflicted fusion with the human cerebral. They present an awesome strength and power that, supervening upon a flawed evolutionary biology, are capable of reshaping the world for the better or worse. The main experiment of the human organism may be whether we can reign in the very forces from which we have arisen and with which we have assembled our current, awesome warming, nuclear and AI expanding condition. Such awareness is essential.
Baldick, Chris. ‘inscape and instress.’ The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (4 ed.), 2015. Oxford University Press.
Goss, Erin. M. ‘“Almost unmade”: Hopkins and the Body Apocalyptic.’ Victorian Poetry, vol. 49, no. 1, 2011, pp. 83-103.
Jenkins, Gareth and Lam, Jason. Us Right Now. Vimeo, 30 June 2016, https://vimeo.com/172863985. Accessed 11 July 2020.
Skinner, Carolynne. ‘ANTHONY MANNIX & The Australian Collection of Outsider Art.‘ OZ Arts, Spring, 2014.
Joel Ephraims is a NSW South-coast poet who is currently working on his first full-length poetry collection. His poems have appeared in Overland, Cordite, Otoliths, The Weekend Australian’s Review and other places. He recently guest-edited issue six of The Marrickville Pause.