Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Truest Faces of the Military

Written by John, posted by Tracy

In the same way that the use of nuclear power can only ever lead to destruction and pollution of the very people it purports to help, so with the military in all its guises. If for a moment one is ever deluded into thinking a genuine humanitarian motivation underpins a military vision, think again. Unless soldiers have been drafted against their will, or maybe even drawn into the military out of poverty, only to find themselves enslaved to something every bit as destructive as starvation, inevitably the ‘thrill’ of violence underpins the decision to ‘join up’. Adventure at the expense of someone, somewhere. Or maybe something far more malign than that.

In my teenage years, I was highly ‘militarised’, and had every intention of going to Duntroon and becoming an officer. I was obsessed with strategy and tactics, starting with Alexander the Great, the Peloponnesian War, Hannibal, and Caesar’s writings, and worked my way through to the finer details of armaments of the Second World War, their manufacture, deployment, usage, and the general thinking behind total war. I was a strategy game aficionado. As with a chess game, I saw it as intellectual pursuit.

Wilfred Owen’s poetry made me rethink things. I connected the dots between ‘intellectual’ interest, and the physicality of playing wars in the backyard (and elsewhere), and issues of repressed aggression (often engendered by humiliation and inadequacy in the face of being bullied). As my political and social awareness increased, I found it a struggle to resist this urge.

When I look back I am aware that this struggle came out of a paradox: a belief in the morality of ‘protecting’ in the face of a desire for control, excitement and power (however limited). This desire for power arose from being bullied at school, and compensating for an offended masculinity. I knew many people who went into the military, or had been in the military in some capacity. I don’t now. Not a few of those who went on to become soldiers were bullies, were very often racist and misogynist. Military women I only knew through others.

Now, to be fair, this was not carte blanche. I did meet those whose moral convictions were melded with defensive nationalism, who believed they were doing good (though all claim to be doing good!). But still, scratch away and an excitement over military ordnance, and an almost prurient interest in the casualties of war, drove motivation.

It astonishes me that anyone should be surprised that Australian (or any) soldiers in Afghanistan should post racist brutalities on their facebook pages. Just be surprised that it got through the military filter system. The military is that, but knows it must hide it to survive. The military exists because people believe it is necessary. The very same soldiers that committed these offences against human dignity at the very least, and maybe much worse, will be tomorrow’s heroes if they are killed on the battlefield. Their individuality will be consumed by the nationalist cause, while portraits of their goodness will be painted. Ironically, the military (and the country) will treat who they really are with as much disdain as they are treating the Afghan people.

When I was a youth I worked on the wheatbins for a couple of seasons. Soldiering and racism went hand-in-hand for some of my colleagues. They know what crimes they committed against others. It was just an extension of the military dialogue into civilian space. From a war/military-obsessed childhood and teenage years, to total pacifism: it seems an obvious journey to me.

I live in a place where violence is worshipped. Guns are never far away and they go with an anti-ecological stance and general social conservatism. The army recruits from such demographics. They brush the soldiers up so as not to show it in public (though they do, anyway), but they rely on racists, bigots and ultra-conservatives to feed their recruitment drives. Those very attitudes are what allow them to kill an enemy. An enemy they wholeheartedly believe in, that they’ve been encouraged to believe in as they’ve grown up, watched television, played violent games, and towards which they’ve been socially directed as an outlet, rather than venting on their own streets (which is obviously also disturbing).

A couple of years ago I met a cop who despised guns. Despised violence. He didn’t believe in meeting violence with violence. He gave me hope. The military isn’t designed to operate that way on any level. It is the home of propaganda because it is founded on violence and not an aversion to violence. The military needs all the propaganda tools it (and the government) possesses to sell itself to those who aren’t violent by inclination.

All sewn up? No. I won’t forget the boys cat-shooting and fox-shooting and roo-shooting, hyped up and talking about joining the army. And I won’t forget their elders saying ‘it will do them good and harness their aggression — give them control and make use of it’. No, it just puts the aggression in a holding pattern until it’s let loose to serve the military overlord-vampires and their human helpers who can walk in the daylight.

Our small son has had to endure threats of shooting, knifing and witnessing a parrot corpse frenziedly beaten with sticks. Many of the perpetrators idolise the military and say ‘war is good, we need it’. I don’t doubt that more than a few will sign up when they’re old enough, encouraged by their parents, their peers and the state.

See this article. Actually, evidence of an endemic problem is implicit in the article’s title — the headline is as much part of the problem as the soldiers themselves. We all provide the environment in which these things are fostered and projected. These soldiers just do the dirty work. Watch who comes out to defend these actions. It won’t be surprising. Think about it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Angela Carter's poems

By Tracy

The Observer this week announced that Radio 4 in the UK would be broadcasting some unpublished poetry by the late Angela Carter. Their article gives a short extract from one of the poems at the end. It's hard to tell from this extract what the poems might really be like, though it seems there are not many of them ("more than a dozen", the article tells us). Apparently Carter had serious thoughts of being a poet in the 1960s, before her first novel was published. She was a strikingly powerful writer of fiction -- it would be interesting to see the rest of the poems.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Performative Activist Poem?

Written by John, posted by Tracy

I see the term ‘activist poem’ is spreading, or spontaneously appearing. No doubt it has many individual usages or histories I am unaware of. However, I want to differentiate because it bothers me that it might be used generically to indicate a poem noting a problem that requires addressing or even rectifying, that it serves the purpose only of creating debate and awareness.

For me, the activist poem is a ‘performative activist poem’: one in which action is an implicit part of the writing, delivery, and hopefully the reception of the piece. I am extrapolating from ‘performative verb’ whereby the act is performed by writing itself (or speech). The poem becomes a literal act with cause and effect. Its action cannot be denied because it is an implicit part of its creation (and delivery).

It is not about delivering a window into ‘history’ (I think ‘history’ has failed as an activist prompt) or an overview of a situation that merely provides knowledge or alternative ways of viewing the situation. Rather, it is an intrinsic part (a contrary part) of the situation it critiques. Born of the place it seeks to protect and preserve. A part of the moment, of the whole.

I am not using the expression in the sense of ‘performative writing’ (though an activist poem might deploy aspects of this), nor of Austin’s ‘performative utterance’, though ‘utterance’ is certainly part of what I personally do. Maybe it’s best to quote that ultimate system of systems, the OED (that through adding new words and ‘pop’ expressions creates the illusion it’s growing and flexible when in fact it’s reinforcing the terms of its own creation and duration) regarding ‘performative’:

‘designating or pertaining to an utterance that effects an action by being spoken or by means of which the speaker performs a particular act.’

It’s the ‘effects an action’ that is key (or pertinent) here: the poem needs to come out of the situation and work to resolve the problem. I don’t mean merely an act of nominal intervention or disruption, or an ‘artistic moment’ that enters discourse and brings change according to a socially self-supporting (cadre) system, but a poem that puts itself out there to suffer the same alienation and potential damage suffered by the subject (the ‘wronged party’) it is trying to protect.

From an ecological pacifist perspective, this would be the poem in front of the hunter’s guns, or the poem coming out of the bush that’s being bulldozed, spoken in front of the bulldozers. I am being quite literal. The activist poem requires its moment of activism, rather than being written in a protected space and hoping people will ‘hear’ (they won’t). A few academic or poet-mates might hear and back slap a bit, but nothing will change. Okay, collect these moments post-event, but accept they then become something else. They are no longer the performative activist poem, but rather the subjunctive activist poem.

If you’re vaguely interested in where I’ve discussed the writing of activist poems, you could see my book Activist Poetics or go to the article (one of a series I did for Poetry Review): Kinsella, J.V. 2007, ‘Lyric and Razo: Activism and the Poet’, Poetry Review, 97, 1, pp. 66-79.

A few notes from recent conversations might further illustrate my point. One of my very sharp correspondents rightly differentiated what I am saying from ‘situationist’ moments (which he said were a ‘good model’ but weren’t about poetry per se), which pleased me. These are some of my words from that correspondence:

I just don’t see history as being as useful... in terms of an activist text — I want to enact resistance immediately — (rhetorical) lyric as gesture and literal action-intervention.

...’history’ is there, but in the moment of intervention it becomes either overshadowed or deleted. Violence if you’re on the receiving end annuls most things. Seems a privilege of writing locale to me that I find deeply bothering. If you write the war zone, then confront it and try to stop it (in a pacifist way) immediately. Too much conjecture, too much wandering in text. Text should be there, here, now!


That’s what I am on about re making the poem a live part of protest and resistance rather than a record or even a prompt to discussion (they’d like to think action, but it’s only coterie action when and if so).

So, poetry is part of it, not just a tool for analysing the wrongs (and at best promoting discussion among like minds). I suppose in the end this might seem like hair-splitting; surely any poem that claims to be activist and that is working to rectify inequalities, bigotry, exploitation, and damage is a good thing. But there is a difference in modes of approach, and ‘activist poem’, as a term, is always going to wear too many faces to retain emphasis.

John Kinsella

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


By Tracy

So I was working at home today in a quiet house, alone -- as I thought -- when I heard a squeaking-barking sound from the window near me. It was almost birdlike, but not from any bird I knew. I crept to the window and there, climbing up the outside of the flywire, was a sleek, dark monitor lizard with an incredibly long tail. It just stayed there, clinging on and looking at me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rilke's Stunden-Buch again

By Tracy

Here is another quick and rough attempt: this is the first poem from Rilke's Book of Hours. I have been doing them in no particular order and they may well undergo more changes.

So the hour is closing and striking me
in its clear and metallic way:
my senses are trembling. I feel: I can,
I take hold of the pliable day.

Nothing was finished until seen by me
every becoming had stopped.
My glances are ripe, and whatever they want
comes to them like a bride.

Nothing's too small to me -- I love it still
and paint it on gold ground, and great
and hold it up high without knowing whose
soul it might liberate.