Auguration

I woke this morning from a dream in which the future
had been laid out before me like mathematics. All the assertions
of economists and other soothsayers about the sickening movements
of markets could be denied; and everything will be denied
everything—except that two plus two equals four.

The animal used in this auguration was the self-acting mule, a machine
that has arms and pincers, and can be made to perform
routine tasks tirelessly, without complaint except that it might
give a kick now and then. This animal, this algorithm without feeling
has been shitting in our society for years—and now we have found a use for it.

The dream did not turn out at all how I expected it to turn out.
That is how you know dreams have turned into nightmares.
We are all going to find ourselves crouching in a dark space
not together—that is, not acting in unison, as a group—but separately
and individually responsible in the fight that is coming.

The rulers, however—the presidents, governors and the rest—
who have always united for the purpose of our repression and
do not like to share any ground with other people
will be onboard their yachts and planes at the crucial moment
when promises are made and broken in the same breath, and things fall apart.

It is just then that the failure of truth will be its own punishment
and facts will stand out in stark relief, like someone screaming
on a cold night. It will be fight or die. A survivor will be left standing
covered in blood and it will not seem proper to talk about right or wrong
because some questions have always been answered this way.

 

Note: This poem represents ideas in ‘Chapter Two: The Metaphysics of Political Economy, Part 5’ of Karl Marx’s «The Poverty of Philosophy».
Published in Otoliths, 1 February 2017.
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), American Flag, 1977. Gelatin silver print, 19 3/4 × 15 15/16 in. (50.2 × 40.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), American Flag, 1977. Gelatin silver print, 19 3/4 × 15 15/16 in. (50.2 × 40.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

[Years ago, when I was reading]

Years ago, when I was reading the philosophical works of Schopenhauer
I heard a sudden eruption of laughter on the street.
I looked up to see what the cause of this laughter was.
Across the road, an old man
extraordinarily obese, was heaving his immense body
along the footpath. He used a cane to help balance himself as he walked
and to relieve the strain on his back
caused by the great bag of fat hanging from his stomach.
It required considerable effort for him to walk only a short distance.
I felt revulsion at the sight of this man.
There were feelings of pity, too.
I knew immediately
there are no counter-motives to humiliation.
We live by climbing over each other
struggle to keep our heads
above despair
and try not to think of harm that’s done.
I lowered the book and listened to the sounds of birds
a howling dog, a small child in the street
asking something of her parents —
every voice repeating the inner nature of the world
and I knew what trouble and pain was
still to come.

Published in Pink Cover Zine, No. 3, November 2018.

Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

I edited and published Joyce Lee’s collected poems, It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, in 2003. While the book is no longer in print, I am pleased that the files of the book are still available and I am able to publish them here. Also reproduced, below, is the book’s foreword by Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Ms Lee died in February 2007 [PDF ⤴︎ obituary].


Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.
Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.

Foreword

by CHRIS WALLACE-CRABBE, to Joyce Lee’s collected poems (2003)

              Hear me, lesser seasons.
It may be autumn, may be winter
but I’ll be living summer.

What can poetry do for us these days? It’s not in the business of swaying the masses; indeed, as Peter Porter has ever so gracefully put it, “Poetry is one of the few arts which is not menaced by not having an audience.” Yet it somehow retains an almost popular role in bearing witness to human decency. Yes, poetry produces some of the durable vessels which are brimming with hope.

Such concepts as humanity and humanism have been cast aside in recent times like tattered banners, outmoded ensigns. Given that climate, it is a joy to encounter some book that is everywhere imbued with a humane spirit, a book that combines alert intelligence with decency and warmth. As the writer in question, the Melbourne poet Joyce Lee says about her artistic heritage, “Old now, I treasure what was given to me, perhaps in riddles”. But as we read them we find that her poems always strive to make such riddles come clear. In this she may be seen as a traditionalist, which is no bad thing.

Cover of Joyce Lee's It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean
Cover of Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

Lee’s new, retrospective volume of poetry, gorgeously entitled It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, pays tribute to human community and continuity. It gathers her clean, vividly substantial poems from as far back as their appearance in Sisters Poets 1, edited by Rosemary Dobson and published in 1979; from there it comes down to the present day, most of the earlier poems having been rewritten to some extent. The result, I am convinced, is a wonderfully coherent collection.

Long a professional pharmacist, Lee came to poetry in her middle years. The voice was there, and the lyrics it articulated could range from the familiar ground of ‘Wimmera child’s first waterfall’ or ‘Double wedding’, back through history and dream to the Biblical Hagar, and to Gerda, the Celtic witch whose potions prefigure those of a modern chemist’s shop.

Indeed, as her book shows, the poems torn out of history add something exotic and also bracing to Lee’s Wimmera-formed imagination. They leave dark shadows in the corners of her picturing. They remind us that even this brave new world of wheat and sheep and sprawling spaces comes out of history. What is more, not even the recovered landscape of country trains, scorching wind and cars that break down inconveniently quite fills her imagination: no, it is not all steeped in Wimmera naturalism. Lee’s dreams “encompass every shade of blue”; her yearnings reach for the sky. As she writes about the truths she learned tacitly, visually from her influential painter uncle (personally influential, that is),

The dark side is part of the whole, a secret under-knowledge, a
strengthener to get you through when your light is in some distant
sky or disappears. The process is mysterious, its gifts measureless.

Yet this is the poet who says to herself, in another voice, “What you know is yours.” She is not at all naïve about solids.

In her compelling verse, the recurring strain of mystery does not entail vagueness or verbal chicanery, but has its roots in accurate knowledge. This is the basis of Joyce Lee’s persuasiveness, of her poetic strength, despite her deeply modern acknowledgement that “All I believe in is change.” Metaphysical questing rides on the shoulders of verismo.

On the evidence of what we read here, she is subject to metaphysical yearning, not least in the presence of music, which Les Murray has more skeptically dubbed, “The greatest form of nonsense verse.” Responding to that transcendent composer Messaien, she hazards that “The note pins silence/ never to resound”, while in another poem she laments that “you are left with longing/ for the voice beyond the note.”

Yet as I have suggested, her dominant imagery is rooted in the flat, pastoral Wimmera, with its bluish edge of Grampians. These poems return again and again to rock, dryness, dust, vistas of plains: to what she calls in the title of one, ‘Plain dreaming.’ Far overseas, in a prospect of Dubrovnik, she can write, “In the late afternoon, stones/ glisten like sheep on bare hills.” Also to country sounds, among them the mopoke, a horse stamping in its stable, express trains passing in the night.

The poetic vocabulary of this poetry is rich, using the whole palette, as she would be glad to say. Yet the language is not arcane, nowhere near as baroque as Peter Steele, or Anthony Hecht, or Marianne Moore. It is plumfull of colors, hard nouns and proper names: not the “long lists of proper names” which the formalist Auden thought a poet should enjoy, along with riddles and complicated stanzas. Lee is above all a realist in the homestead of poetry. Most of her capitalized names are lodged in families, active in social milieux.

These poems come over to us in clear stanzas of modestly free verse, in linguistic orchestration by way of such tasty words as triangle, peephole, hem, gimme, scrubbiness, lobster, blisters, quinine, snow gum and, in triumphant upper case, MADAGASCAR. Hers is an active world crammed with things, hues and actions—even the memories are rock-solid. They contain such vivid place/events as The casino

end of Point Lonsdale pier.
Interval at a film hot air balloon, swimming
with sharks at the aquarium,
riding a bejeweled elephant.

These strengths are manifest in such poems as ‘The past walks noiselessly’ and ‘Travelling backwards’, or in such precisely physical lines as these:

Unloaded in scorching wind
I’d watched him jack the car, carefully mend the puncture,
no cursing in church clothes. Minna
didn’t mention how she’d sweated in the kitchen.

Evenings round the stove, Gus and Ernest
red-faced in shiny second best, talking
thread darning and embroidery needles. I learn
to stitch neat edges, work to a pattern.
We share mystery and far places.
I go to bed held safely in a large world.

Surely that is what Lee’s poems themselves do: go to the black and white bed of print “held safely in a large world.” It is also a realm that has space for humour: one need only think of such poems as ‘Car week’ and ‘Untidy legs.’ Who else could possibly have used “untidy” like that?

Once upon a day I lamented that most books, at least in Australia, were written by people who didn’t know anything about work. It is a pleasure here to see how persuasively the poet evokes teacher or preacher, drover or country housewife, even the persuasive committee man, having a damn good sense of what they actually do. As she says of such awareness, “Peasant born, I inherited/ hard work from a grandfather/ migrating with his tribe/ for betterment.”

Mostly, however, she writes in the present tense, employing that present-emphatic that plays so large a part in modern Australian poetry. Within this climate of syntax, the past recurs over and over again, shaping events and people, giving meaning to the great Where We Are Now. Lee is a poet of generations, it might be said, recalling in this the David Campbell of Deaths and Pretty Cousins: and Campbell was, of course, another poet who knew what work could be. His high Monaro has a great deal in common with her Wimmera.

Reading Lee, I am sometimes taken back to those once-influential studies by Erik Erikson on childhood, society and the life-history. She feels and records how human strength flows down like honey from generation to generation. Not only can she travel backwards in time, along the psychological railway, all the way to Murtoa station; she records her profession ironically with the reflection that “My workingplace is filled with prescription ghosts” and she recreates ‘My father’s country’, a grandmother’s kitchen or the grandfather leading a bride on each arm into the local church. Each of these chronotropes is far too strongly rendered to smack of sentimental nostalgia. As Octavio Paz once observed, “Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice.”

The newest writing in It is nearly dark makes radiantly clear that, as much as being an art of mimesis or of tribute, poetry can be an art of yearning. These late lyrics are full of ontological hunger. They yearn for truths which are too large to be named, or fully understood. Again and again the trope is light, flame, perhaps candlelight. “I must pursue an unknown brighter light,” she writes, reaching out for something beyond the Johannine logos, seeking to touch the ineffable. Of such poems it would be impertinent to say more.

In the large picture this book is like a tessellated novel, the pieces reshuffled but the characters intact—on the other hand, it seems possible that if the poems were set down in exactly the right order we would have Joyce Lee’s autobiography. Viewed, more sensibly after all, as a book of poetry, this is writing in which accuracy of perception is harmoniously balanced with generosity of spirit.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Melbourne, July 2002

Originally published by Artist’s Proof (Stephen J. Williams) in 2003.


1 MB PDF file, opening in a new browser tab:

It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean: collected poems 1965-2003 by Joyce Lee

‘Martial art, sans art’

I am taking tae kwon do lessons. There is only one other person in the class, a woman. The instructor is a little old Korean or Chinese lady. We are in an L-shaped room. When the lesson starts the woman and the little old lady appear to be slapping each other around and practising their ‘kicks’. The woman has not had a lesson before, just like me. When she goes to kick the instructor the little old lady says, “No—not like that. We don’t kick like that here—you must kick to the side and outside the legs.” The woman and I think this is ridiculous. If we wanted to protect ourselves we’d kick the person who was attacking us in the balls. “No, no—you must do it like this. It’s safer.” The instructor gives us thin blue sticks about six feet long with which to practice hitting her, and each other. The sticks are very flexible, as though made of plastic, and hollow, and no one could hurt a fly with them. We whip the old lady with these flexible, blue sticks—and she whips us. It’s ridiculous. Someone has just made up the rules of this stupid system and there is no art or reality to it at all. The little old lady brings in another instructor—a big, old lady that looks as though she’s been in charge of the tuck shop for thirty years, and keeping the ‘tuck’ for herself. Her dirty, worn dress has little printed flowers on it. When she approaches me I give her a push and she falls back onto some sofas that line the walls of the L-shaped room. The other student and I whip the tuck-shop lady with our flexible blue sticks. The tuck shop lady is laughing, but pretends to be outraged by our impudence. Both the instructors have had enough of us—their new students—and they decide to call in the ‘big guns’ to bring us into line. The third instructor, a tall and thickset old man in a tired-looking, light brown suit, has masses of wavy, yellowing, ash-blonde hair, and cigarette-stained hands with fingers thick as English sausages. He enters the room with a third and new student trailing behind him. This old man looks like one of the actors in an early episode of ‘Homicide’—an ageing cop who is supposed to be crusty and benign. But he has forgotten the benign bit… He holds out his hands in front of him like pincers—thumbs hovering over finger tips—and walks towards me menacingly. It is hard not to laugh. When his pincers catch me, though, it is no laughing matter: they cause a sharp pain. I return the compliment, but I don’t believe my fingers are strong enough to produce the required effect. The first lesson is over, in any case, and when we return for the second, the venue has changed. It is now a much larger room with floors that appear to be spring-loaded. We spend a lot of time jumping on the spot, higher and higher, until we can touch the ceilings. This doesn’t seem to be a preparation for anything, and I’m not sure we are really supposed to be doing it, but it’s fun and we don’t stop. There are now dozens of students, and the hall in which we have gathered is quite large and seems to have been outfitted professionally. The bouncing students are going up and down in neat rows. The ‘Homicide’ guy has turned up again, and while sitting on a low chair at the front of the room, he looks up at me and says, “I’m gonna strip you and make you wear this sock.” Yeah, sure, I think. The guy’s crazy. “No, you’re not.” He gets up and starts coming at me with those pincers, and pushing me around. When I put out my hand to push him away I notice he is wearing a nipple-ring underneath his shirt! I grab it… and pull it off, and the whole, old nipple with it. The attack on me is over when the white shirt begins to fill with blood, a dark red stain growing quickly underneath the ‘Homicide’ guy’s jacket.

 

Published as ‘Four events while sleeping’, incorporating ‘Poetry is a small house’, ‘Religion is the art of belief’, ‘Martial art, sans art’ and ‘The program’, FIVE:2:ONE print edition, August 2017.

‘The program’

I get into the wrong elevator. The buttons are placed, inconveniently, on a panel about seven feet above the floor. It is one of those elevators with an entrance/exit on two, facing sides. I get off when it is called to a floor I would not usually visit. I expected the general layout of the floor to be the same as the floor on which I work, however, it is completely different and very disorienting. There’s nothing to do but try get out of the building altogether, which I manage to do, through the basement. I drive out. This is quite a surprise because I don’t have a car or a license to drive. Worse, though, I don’t recall any of the streets outside. They are all unfamiliar to me. Indeed, I begin to think I may even be in a city I do not know. That would be terrible. How could I have arrived here in the first place? It may be even more serious than that … Who am I? Apparently I am someone who, today, can drive a car … who has a car to drive. I must get myself to a hospital, I think, so I get out of the car and start looking for a place to present myself that looks safe. However, there are no signs to be seen anywhere. This city, wherever it is, looks like an advanced communist state: modern, but entirely without advertising. I head into a building that I think may be a hospital and take a seat next to the receptionist. I begin to explain my situation to her. “I’m sorry to interrupt you. Please don’t be alarmed. I need your help. I appear to have forgotten who I am and where I am. I appear to have forgotten everything. Almost everything. I can still drive, which is something I didn’t know I could do, but everything else is gone. I’m very concerned I might be ill.” The receptionist looks at me very calmly for a while without saying anything. I ask her again if she can help me. She thinks carefully. “Listen to me,” she says, in a low voice, almost whispering, though there is no one around us to hear. “You have a choice. You can either wait here for another minute and I will get the paperwork done for you. You will be asked to sign a consent form, and that is the last thing you will ever know about your participation in the program. Or, if you wish, you can walk back along the corridor behind us, turn left, and you will see a glass door leading to the street outside. If you leave, I cannot help you, but you will be free.” She looks into my eyes and can see that I am thinking about her words in my mind. The choice seems stark. Ignorance, or something worse than ignorance, or freedom, but only freedom. What does she mean by “the program”? I stand up and, without thanking her, follow her instructions to find the exit to the street.

 

Published as ‘Four events while sleeping’, incorporating ‘Poetry is a small house’, ‘Religion is the art of belief’, ‘Martial art, sans art’ and ‘The program’, FIVE:2:ONE print edition, August 2017.

‘Religion is the art of belief’

In the future the Archibald Prize has become such a big thing that it needs a special building to house all the paintings to be displayed. And the paintings themselves are very strange. I walk around the huge gallery thinking how horrible all the paintings are. One of them has huge sacks of paint hanging off it, a skin forming over the still liquid oil paint underneath. It has not had time to dry before the exhibit. The globs of paint are so large that viewers are encouraged to press the sacks of paint hanging off the painting with their hands, which I do, and it feels a little like sagging flesh. This would be fine if the painting were even a little bit realistic, but it’s not—in fact it’s a mess of abstraction, not really a portrait at all. And I also notice that the paintings are all huge. Doesn’t anyone make small paintings any more? I talk to someone at the exhibition who asks me if I’ve seen the good ones yet, and he points to some inner rooms where all the good paintings are on exhibit. When I go into the rooms all the paintings are still depressing, and even bigger than the ones in the surrounding part of the exhibition. I move quickly through all the rooms, just to be sure there isn’t anything good, and finally come to the biggest room of all—it’s the size of an aircraft hangar! There is only one ‘painting’ in it, a large triptych that occupies every inch of a gigantic wall. As I enter—through the wall on which it is hanging—I am dwarfed by it, and as I look up I see that there are threads or ropes hanging off it, as though it has been stitched together and somehow tied to the wall. This gigantic room isn’t empty. There are enormous ottomans, which seem to be at least thirty feet square and made of red leather, placed around the room so that whole families can jump on them, lie back and look at the big painting. I lie down on one of the ottomans, alone. Everyone one else is just wandering about the exhibition, confused, staring up at the big painting. This is really horrible. I have to get out of here. I leave through a corridor that leads me into a place that feels like a great stone bunker, but I recognise it instantly as the Vatican. I look through a door into a red room that has a small chapel set up in the corner opposite the door I have stuck my head through. A priest is performing mass and some little altar boys are singing their hearts out. I can’t see where the music is coming from but it’s very good. I notice that there aren’t many people in the red room, just a half a dozen or so, dotted here and there, and the mass appears to be for the benefit of the one person who is kneeling, with his back to me, as I enter and take a seat. He is getting up, and as he stands I notice that he is wearing a white cassock, and when he straightens up I see he has a white mitre on his head. Oh, it’s the pope—Benedict!—but he’s already looking very old. It is really the singing that is most beautiful and, as it stops, I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and strangeness of it. My head in my hands, I think about how awful modern art is, what a useless lot of rubbish. A piece of paper scrunched up and left lying on a windowsill. A pattern of bricks. Lead pipes trying to be portrait of someone. The pope is walking by and making his way to a nearby elevator, until he sees that I’m upset and comes over to me. He puts his hand under my chin. I am expected to say something, to explain. “I didn’t understand,” I say. “Religion is the art of belief.” He goes off and, with nothing left for me to do here, I have to go, too. It is easy to get out. In fact, I’m surprised that the exit leads directly outdoors, and that there’s a wire fence, with razor wire on top, very near by. Pasolini would be impressed… There must be poor suburbs just on the other side. I know exactly where I am, and can even picture in my mind where this strange, quick exit from the Vatican was located: St Peter’s hung like a horseshoe on the wall, its arms hanging downwards, the exit I emerged from was just on the right shoulder. It’s so desolate out here. Maybe I should just duck back in?

 

Published as ‘Four events while sleeping’, incorporating ‘Poetry is a small house’, ‘Religion is the art of belief’, ‘Martial art, sans art’ and ‘The program’, FIVE:2:ONE print edition, August 2017.

[cathedrals in their middle age]

cathedrals in their middle age
          sourly contemplate

the platitudes of worship
          (what longing made

the history of their long struggle
          and what prayers like smoke

stain the minds and hands
          of old men

): their structure is a torsion—
          pleasure and silence

twisted
          at invisible altitudes—

below, the dark
          icon of betrayal

above, a whispered light
          revealing nothing.

without ceremony
          no voice to read

a lesson
          or to preach

and no believers (especially
          if there are no believers)

at the end of worship
          silence is their business.

if I was such a man
          —my eyes removed

for safe-keeping
          through the wars

my memory buried
          in a field—

how could I then say
          what my body meant to say?
Originally published in Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets, edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009