Robert Wood reviews The Honeymoon Stage by Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz, The Honeymoon Stage. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-925336-39-9

 

Robert Wood

 

A Puppet at the Chessboard Called Real Life

 

For some time now Oscar Schwartz has been probing, playing with, exploring the boundary between the human and the non-human (often the machine, cyborg, digital). This has been in a range of formats from magazine article (The Monthly) to TedX talk to his popular site ‘bot or not’. This attention to understanding the human through its relationship to Others finds a corollary in animal studies and eco-poetics more generally, a kind of inverted flipside in media res of Schwartz’s oeuvre. In that way, digital Others often seem to allow a way into thinking through ourselves and ‘Nature’ by negation, absence, opposition. The computer is not the same as a parrot. Yet, I want to focus on the animal Others as they come through in Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage, to review who ‘we’ are by someone very much attuned to the contemporary technological apparatus. As a whole, the book discusses pop culture, relationships (particularly close familial ones, friendships and lovers), anecdote and story, philosophy, and suburban upbringings all with a backdrop of a digital age. Animals though offer an entry point in thinking through the collection as a whole.

Schwartz writes in ‘how are you?’:

how you imagined lab rats floating towards freedom on life rafts

(24)

how when you finally slept you slept like a can of tuna that was swallowed by a blue whale

(25)

how when you cried you sounded like a moth trying dutifully to be graceless and forget its vocabulary

(28)

These fragments come from a nine-page sequence where all of the units of the poem begin with ‘how’ as a rhetorical question that remains in the air, unasked. The sequence begins with the lines: ‘how you woke up and thought everyone had been replaced by automated versions of themselves’ and concludes with the lines ‘how love felt like the opposite of practice’. These bookends offer one way of reading the poem, which is as a comment on the paradoxical nature of emotion – of the fuzzy ground between reality and artifice, on whether crying can ever be dutiful, whether cans sleep, whether lab rats know freedom, whether love is practice, whether we have, always already, been automated versions of ourselves from before the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction to after it in this here time. That might be the spine of Schwartz’s practice – discovering who we really are by finding the border cases that are liminal. This concern is there too in ‘pet weasel’:

when your pet weasel died around one week ago

you threw its body into a street-side rubbish bin

and you cleaned out the cage with disinfectant

soon after a friend from school came over to watch a movie

you were sitting together in your room

“i wonder if I could fit in that cage?” the friend said

“you should try” you replied

the friend was small and flexible and managed

to squeeze in

you both laughed

you closed the latch to the cage and

you both laughed some more

a few moments went by

your friend stopped laughing

“ok you can let me out now” your friend said

(45)

The lack of a stanza break after ‘disinfectant’ forced me to re-read the first few lines, to take stock of what was happening beyond simple meaning, to see its plain speech as a kind of practiced poetic technique that occurs throughout the book as a whole. When coupled with the death of an animal, the dismissive disposal of the pet (‘threw its body’), the weaselising of the human through ‘your’ caging, the one sided laughter, the direct address, the poem creates a kind of uneasiness, which is compounded by the flatness of the affective style and spare voice. There are, of course, other emotional registers in The Honeymoon Stage and I found a counterpoint in ‘honestly how could you have known’. Though this latter poem does not settle the reader completely, its humour is wry and reassuring, ending in a kind of mock heroism and pop culture critique.

The engagement with technology is foremost in The Honeymoon Stage particularly at the level of content (‘what side of the bed does your clone sleep on?’). It is there too in a permeable atmosphere, sideways glances and interruptive gestures. What it offers though is a screenshot of where we are right now, of the peculiar material expressions of our engagement with the tools of today. It is not to say there is no difference to an automaton that was constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, but that it might no longer need a hookah in its mouth. What we need from technology, or poetry, differs for every user or reader, but in the languages that describe this terrain, Schwartz is a perceptive, charismatic and able guide who I look forward to joining once more some day in the near future.

 

Robert Wood is a poet interested in suburbia, philosophy, history, ecology and myth. His most recent book is History and the Poet: Essays on Australian Poetry (Australian Scholarly, 2017). Find out more at: www.rdwood.org

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