Melody Paloma reviews Happiness by Martin Harrison

Martin Harrison. Happiness. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2015. ISBN 9781742586861

 

Melody Paloma

 

I first came to Martin Harrison through his critical work, specifically his book of collected essays Who Wants to Create Australia? (2004). For myself and for many others, Harrison’s presence in Australian poetry criticism has offered a continuous point of return, a generous and challenging source for the poet and scholar alike. Harrison’s critical voice was immense, incarnating as radio producer / teacher / critic / academic, an immensity that has only heightened in the wake of his death, as the reach and abundance of just how much work Harrison produced has been revisited. This is so much the case that it can be argued that a “Martin Harrison-ness” has emerged in Australian poetry, recognisable as a certain branch of ecopoetics, with the problematic construct of  “Australia” as the discursive equation of that thinking.

In Who Wants To Create Australia? Harrison identifies conceptual lacunae in the way we talk about our poetic histories. He writes:

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 American 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. (2004, 78-79)

Harrison’s criticism, and the development of that criticism by his contemporaries including Stuart Cooke, Bonny Cassidy and Michael Farrell, is a step toward filling this gap in Australian poetics. But how exactly is this critical thinking embodied in Martin Harrison the poet, how has Martin Harrison developed Australian Poetry as a poet as well as a critic, how do these two modes of operation merge? What exactly is the “Martin Harrison-ness” of Martin Harrison? Harrison’s critical concerns emerge throughout his career as a poet, however in Happiness there is a new and more urgent searching mode that supersedes previous collections.

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In an ABC Poetica broadcast from 2011 containing an interview and readings with Martin Harrison, I count Harrison use the refrain “in a sense”, or some variation of it, fourteen times. Of course, I am not the first to recognise the potency that Harrison’s frequent use of the phrase carries, as one not to be overlooked as a conversational glitch.  Kate Fagan’s essay, “’In a Sense’: Sonic Phenomena, Temporal Scale and Ecological Encounter in Martin Harrison’s ‘White-Tailed Deer’” (2015), hones in on Harrison’s conversational and poetic reverberation, exploring the immersive sensory state of the poem ‘White-Tailed Deer’ (51-53), Fagan takes the refrain as referring specifically to Harrison’s interest in the experience of being within a sense. Fagan begins:

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 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. (2015, n. pag).

Undoubtedly, Fagan’s treatment of ‘White-Tailed Deer’ is acute and insightful, but I would also argue that Fagan’s initial understanding of “in a sense” as “metonymic expression of deferral … connected to many other possible ways of saying” (n. pag) is as equally significant in tracing the connection between Harrison’s critical thinking and his poetry.

An interest in multiplicity, of allowing ‘x’ to also be ‘y’, of relishing partiality and plurality, has long been central to Harrison’s interests. In an interview with Adam Aitken, Harrison states:

It seems to me that in this country you have got to have a many-levelled sense of place … You have got somehow to have this double vision of spaces and places. They do have multiple histories – they 
have Aboriginal histories, early settler histories, contemporary histories and so on. You’ve somehow got to keep these things together. (Harrison and Aitken 2014)

For Harrison, poetry is a way of keeping these things together, of allowing for multiplicity and producing a poetry of place that does not bring with it an attempt to colonise or to reduce environments to serving a poem’s speaker. The protean insights in Harrison’s work don’t hail down on a reader, perhaps because such sentiments are often undercut by a degree of uncertainty. In the elegy “Hundred’s of K’s of it” (63), Harrison uses the refrain “in the wind” to chart loss via the wind’s affect. With each line beginning with “in the wind”, Harrison manages to keep this repetition from feeling trite or tired. The poem builds in intensity and pace, producing startling lines like “in the wind which is inseparable from its own traced movement”, and later, “in warm wind utterly incapable yet bleating and blahing /– a squalling white blur –” (63).  “Hundred’s of K’s Of It” (63) opens with an ellipsis and closes unmarked by punctuation, as if lifted from the mind, from a series of unending contemplations of the wind and its many voices, which continually “returns to touch in a hundred different ways” (63).  The poem doesn’t choose a beknighted Romantic mode in which the existence of natural phenomena are dependent on their speaker, the wind has pseudo-agency and exists independently – a ‘fact’ both exhilarating and disturbing: it is “wind which, choosing distance, is away over there” (63) and  “has been here long before me” (63).

In his paper, ‘The Act of Writing and The Act of Attention” (2013), Harrison posits processes of evolution as central to a model for ecological writing, the work must, he argues, leave “open how it is a work, possibly leaving the question never resolved. The work is an evolving act of attention and attentiveness” (10).  Importantly, Harrison’s argument for openness isn’t tied exclusively to observations of environmental phenomena but relates also to his understanding of the poem as artifice.  Not only must these observations remain open, but the way in which they are approached and technically produced as poem must also remain open. More than ever, this presents itself in Happiness.

We see this specifically in experimentations with form, like “Leaving Paris” (29-33), a four part poem that was produced by following a list of instructions or poetic rules, and these were later departed from; in his ABC Poetica interview, Harrison is unable to recall what the list contained. As well as other rules, the list included writing “a very exaggerated image at a certain place in the poem, certain rhymes had to occur, certain disguised rhymes had to occur, certain syllable numbers had to be counted, certain gaps had to be put in, certain juxtapositions had to happen … ” (Poetica). The poem is perplexing and exciting, “ermmmmm oh words end like cauliflowers” (30), as well as incisive, “like the whole ensemble was a weather pattern more intense / than real rain hitting tin” (31). Importantly, this poem doesn’t feel like an experiment, as experiments sometimes do, like the way classical music sometimes just sounds like classical music. As readers, we aren’t made aware of the rules of this poem; by contrast with its restrictions the poem feels uninhibited and spontaneous. The practice by which this poem is created keeps the poem as artifice open; in restricting the poem and then moving away from those restrictions, Harrison gives it breath, allowing it to exist as a space independently from its creator.

In doing this, Harrison actively approaches the problematic nature of the term ecopoetics. In the same paper Harrison asks, “Is writing, including creative writing and its teaching, inevitably on the other side of the natural environment and ecological systems? Is writing, by definition, an action of a mindfulness and inventiveness which implicitly creates a cognitive separation between the world of the text and the world of ecological systems?” (2013, 1).  For Harrison, ecopoetics is a slippery term as it is separate from the ecology it addresses, an issue long held by many critics within the field. Kate Rigby presents this as her central problem with ecopoetics. Rigby proposes that ecopoetics, or any art form dealing with place, is “always at risk of functioning as a substitute for embodied experience of the land” (2004, 119); and that in doing so we lose a real connection to place and space, as “the work of art, always, inevitably, fails to convey the experience of which it is a trace” (2004, 119). This function is what she defines as an ecopoetics of negativity. Harrison argues that poetry of place cannot avoid its separation from the environment on which it is focused, as “all writing is after the moment, after the thought, after the fact, post hoc” (2004, 7). However, unlike Rigby, Harrison does not suggest that the text is separate from the world, rather the poem is something to experience within the world; it is not a reproduction or replacement of the natural environment, instead poems like “Leaving Paris”, exist as a space in their own right.

In the long poem “Wallabies” (7-11) Harrison uses the title to point directly at what seems to be a straight observation, that being a mob of wallabies, only to then distort it, to move at and around it from all angles, charting both ecological and psychological webs. The speaker here is pulled in by noticing “out of time movement over dead stubble” (7), which is interrogated, “what’ve they been doing?” (7), and then held and abstracted by the point between noticing, remembering and recognition, “they’ve been hiding / in the mind, in the body” (7). The poem moves between marvelling at natural phenomena, “that low brown water’s thin mirror / as if the crowd of trees signaled to it, or had been / signaling all their lives” (7), deep feeling,  “as familiar as a body curled around yours each day / Just like when evaporating inland daybreak starts you wake”, and memory, “afternoon’s white flesh is the memory of this / the thing which is hidden like a name is hidden” (8); all of these are changeable and moving. The “Wallabies”, which Harrison points to in the title, don’t actually return until the poem’s final page, “wallabies two of them and then three over there then more”, not because they aren’t important or that the poem doesn’t depend on them, but rather because all of these things are completely interdependent and moving; knowledge here is not pinned down but rather each line is understood as “having known everything as the waking dreamer / knows everything for a scattered instant instantly gone” (10).

This is a fascination that reemerges in “White-Tailed Deer”; again Harrison points at one seemingly stable observation only to distort it, and then, not exactly turn away but rather dive in and abstract the encounter, the purpose of which is, as Fagan has it, “to chart the affective play of ecological encounters upon imaginations and sensory states” (2015, n. pag). These are poems with speakers, who, if you were to ask them a question, would return with another, or instead some seemingly unrelated yet canny insight, something “inextricable in feeling and movement and mood” (51).

Harrison acknowledges “interconnectedness with natural, biological and cosmological systems” (2013, 10) as key to ecological writing. Writing, he argues, cannot deny “a sense of intervention and participation in the natural world” (2013, 10). In other words, as writers we need to constantly consider the way we are connected to our environments. In Happiness, we see this best in Harrison’s focus on macro and micro environments and fragments, often expanding and retracting between the two in a single movement. These movements often last for what feels like an entire poem; it is difficult to lift one line from a poem as they frequently feel so connected to the line prior and the line that follows, and which follows that, and which follows that. Take these lines from “White Tailed Deer” as an example,

in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty minutes

in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has

flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums

traces on the shed wall

(51)

Here, environments are constantly verbing in order to define the next environment, the damp grass dries out because of the final sun cube which sprays on the bluegums which traces the shedwall, there’s an endless sense of connection that eventually traces all the way to Upstate New York. There’s a moreishness or hunger within the poems of Happiness, an urgency in desire to keep moving from one connection to the next, line to line, poem to poem. Happiness is a collection to be experienced all at once, and then again and again. It is Martin Harrison at peak “Martin Harrison”.

 

References:

“A Ruined Building Filled With Voices: an Interview and Readings with Martin Harrison.” Poetica. ABC Radio National. 24 September 2011. Radio.

Fagan, Kate. 2015.  “’In A Sense’: Sonic Phenomena. Temporal Scale and Ecological Encounter in Martin Harrison’s ‘White-Tailed Deer’”. Plumwood Mountain. 2.2: n.pag. Web.

Harrison, Martin. 2015. “The Act of Writing and the Act of Attention.” TEXT 17.2: 1-11. Web. Accessed 13 April 2015.

Harrison, Martin and Adam Aitken. 2014. “Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison.” Cordite Poetry Review (1 November). Web. Accessed 12 March 2015.

Harrison, Martin. 2004. Who Wants to Create Australia? Sydney: Halstead Press. Print.

Rigby, Kate. 2004. Topographies of the Sacred. Virginia: University of Virginia Press. Print.

 

Melody Paloma is a poet and critic. Among other publications, her work has appeared in Cordite, Rabbit, Plumwood Mountain, un Magazine, and the 2016 Hunter Anthology of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry. Melody was the recipient of the 2014 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. Her first collection In Some Ways Dingo is forthcoming as part of the Rabbit Poets Series. Melody works for Australian Poetry in their young poet’s programs.

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