Friday, April 29, 2011


By Tracy

Just another reminder for those interested in literary discussions: you can visit and comment on the blog at Southerly online. I'm their current monthly guest blogger, and there are others to follow.

The most recent topic is "Creative Collaborations". Just click on the speech balloon below the post if you want to respond...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reconfiguring and Revitalising Anthropomorphics

Written by John, posted by Tracy

Returning to translating Leconte de Lisle, especially his animal poems, has reaffirmed my growing belief that the bad press given to anthropomorphism arises from a ‘modern’ tendency to separate the animal off from the human. On the positive side, this gives animals the autonomy and self-identification they deserve and any notions of liberty should encompass. Animal rights necessarily require the human to be able to allow, compensate for, and respect difference between themselves and other creatures that occupy the planet. Through this we are able to perceive that what benefits us might not benefit a different ‘species’.

However, built into this very same perception is a degree of removal from personal and collective empathy with the plight of animals that ‘excuses’ the prioritising of the human condition over that of the animal. If we are unable to identify with the ‘feelings’ and sensations, never mind the ideas, of a given animal, then we are more able not to apply the natural justice we would necessarily offer a fellow human. I increasingly believe that anthropomorphics that are motivated by a desire to empathise with the ‘state of being animal’ are largely ways of extending these rights across ‘species’.

Ironically, the attribution of human traits to animals allows for the perception of difference by creating a familiar, even a level playing field. As the very useful Burns poem goes, ‘see ourselves as others see us’, and vice versa. Allow that animals’ eyes (or senses), are relative in their perceptions to ours. Allow they feel as we feel, allow that pain is pain, and pleasure is pleasure and so on. And if one requires a mirror for this to be the case, then that’s a step in the right direction.

Or even more indirectly, if we need to see the animal as a form of ourselves ‘wearing a mask’, and no matter how distorting that mask, that behind the unusual features we might roughly equate to our own, are the same needs, desires, and range of emotions and conceptualisations, then so be it. Whatever allows the bridge to be created, the ‘other’ to be dissolved.

Of course, ‘the other’ is not necessarily an undesirable state for some. To be seen as outside, different, even ‘less than’, might be considerably better than being part of or equated with. Difference is intactness and agency. But if difference is used by those empowered to oppress and demean, it can never be ‘right’.

I have also been thinking about these issues in the context of the ‘close encounter’ I had with a short-beaked echidna on the block last week. A young echidna, probably just ‘free’ of its parental bonds, was establishing territory around the great granites in the north-west corner. I watched it (with Tracy and Tim), explore, hide, curl up in a cleft between boulders. This was around sunset and it was very active — digging over ground around and under rocks, searching for termites.

We walked back down along the track to the house, but a short while later, I went back up, out of curious compulsion. I usually just leave things be, and I did so here, but I did go and look in between the rocks. I crouched. The echidna was in a coiled and curled position, quills bristling. And then it stretched and emerged. It moved towards me, sniffed the ground around my feet with its sensitive tubular snout, examined me with its tiny eyes, circumnavigated me, then proceeded to dig at the ground for termites. I stayed as still as possible. Eventually it ambled back into its cleft, and I discreetly removed myself.

Over the years, I have written many echidna poems, often through the lens of Derridean notions of metaphor. But this was quite different. I wrote a poem. I struggled to avoid equating the echidna’s emotions and actions with mine, or any correlative to mine. And I succeeded reasonably well, though underneath the moment you map an ‘encounter’ you are imposing human understanding about the processes behind ‘engagement’.

But since writing that poem and since working on de Lisle, I’ve been thinking that maybe I should write a more directly anthropomorphic take on the interaction. That is, give the echidna human traits and feelings, the better to understand my own motivation for writing the poem, and even more so for strongly believing it, as a creature, is no different from myself in terms of the rights it should have, the respect it should have, and the empowerment it should have. I almost said ‘it deserves’, and stopped myself, but maybe that’s the point. It does ‘deserve’ and because I am clearly in the empowered position (we share space, of course, but in truth I have far more control over the dispensation of that space), maybe I need to be frank and declare this position. My conscience prevents me from doing so because I know it’s wrong.

But in the twists and ambiguities of a poem, these contradictions, this conflict between how one feels it should be and how it really is, can be articulated without one position preventing awareness of the other. The poem that uses expressions attributing human feeling and, say, features, to an animal, can also illustrate the problems behind doing this.

Anthropomorphism can become generative and liberating in the sense that one gives away one’s platform of authority by expressing the belief that equality is implicit in the relationship, but that in reality there are few grounds for it to exist. It doesn’t surprise me that many of those I’ve read and met who are so rigidly opposed to the anthropomorphic, to pathetic fallacy, are those who either have the most conflicted views over the use of animals for human benefit, or are in fact the most indifferent to the conditions of animals outside their ‘use’ to humans, either as food, medicine, clothing, or pets.

John Kinsella


Note: the photo was taken when the echidna was in the ball position. It was also taken from a distance. The echidna was not disturbed nor directly intruded upon. Its territory now covers acres across the block. Its lines of foraging take in areas around the house, especially the outcrop just above us.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Narnia from page to screen

By Tracy

Tim (now 8) and I just finished reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe together. It's a book I have some reservations about, but he's got a huge appetite for fantasy fiction just now (John's reading The Hobbit with him), and so in some ways it was inevitable.

This weekend we also watched the film version, and it was interesting to see the changes that had been made between the two formats.

Some were minor alterations to make the children seem more feisty (perhaps), such as their breaking a window with a cricket ball to send them hiding into the wardrobe (as opposed to the novel's idea, which has them merely seeking to escape visitors).

Others were minor gender-role revisions. (Tim had already observed that Susan's reluctance for adventure and pushing forward was "like Anne in the Famous Five" -- although to be fair, in both story-worlds the more nervous girl-character is offset by a braver one.)

All in all, the film would not be a disappointment for readers of the book -- though a comic scene Tim was looking forward to, in which the cowardly White Witch lifts her skirts and flees from Aslan's roar, became a mere sinking back into her chariot before him, removing the bathos I suspect Lewis was trying to associate with the ego of evildoers...

It was beautifully animated and the children were good in their roles. Tilda Swinton is a perfect White Witch and a hideous vision especially when she turns warrior-queen in the latter half of the film.

But it's always disappointing for me, the way that Lewis's story can turn what could be an image of non-violent response (Aslan's suffering at the Stone Table) into the core of a quasi-militaristic vision (self-sacrifice = the noble interpretation of war?).

Setting aside the question of whether the heavy-handed Christian allegory at times mars the story, Lewis comes across as at pains to avoid any possibility of pacifist ideals. Overtly, for the children in the story, growing up and growing better means accepting not only the need to do harm, but the "nobility" of doing so under the supposedly appropriate circumstances. (Lewis of course famously wrote a speech entitled, "Why I Am Not a Pacifist", so it's hardly surprising his fiction should be so hooked on violence.)


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

German film

By Tracy

Last night I went to one of the last films of the 10th Audi Festival of German Films in Perth. (The Festival was held in five state capitals, but Perth had the smallest selection, running from the Thursday night through to the Monday.)

The offerings were divided into three: "German Currents", "Retro 2001-2011", both of which speak for themselves, and "Radical Docs", which the programme described as "taking you into the minds of radical lifestyles across the globe, be they in art, fashion or sports".

The film I saw was in the second category, and billed as a tragicomedy, which was roughly accurate. Made in 2001, "Berlin is in Germany" follows Martin, imprisoned in the Brandenburg penitentiary before the wall came down, and released after more than a decade into reunified Germany, a Berlin whose once-familiar east has changed all its street names.

Reading the blurbs beforehand, I expected something of a Rip Van Winkle tale, and it's true that the movie makes poignantly humorous contrasts between the "outside world" that Martin came from and the one he emerges into (planes in the sky where travel was once impossible, the constant ringing of mobile phones), where those who mattered in his previous life at first hardly recognise him. Or don't know what to do with him... 

But he's by no means been asleep: Martin's experiences in prison have shaped both his understanding of the regime that put him away, and his future struggles, through the otherwise-unlikely friendships or alliances formed during his incarceration.

The film has just enough lightness of touch to steer between traumatic political fable on the one hand and sentimentality on the other. At least part of this is due to the handling of the main roles (Martin firmly understated and well controlled by Jörg Schüttauf; his estranged wife again kept low-key by Julia Jäger), and to director Hannes Stöhr's emphasis on simplicity and restriction of the field -- the film doesn't try to bite off more than it can chew).

The only pity with this Festival was that Perth got so few of the films, relatively speaking. In Sydney, understandably, it ran from the 6th to the 18th of April. Several of the drama-thriller type films I would like to have seen were not showing here.

By the same token, we were spared Goethe!, which looks like a shocker. I know it's not fair to say that when I've not seen even the trailer, but any film whose blurb says, "The spirit of Shakespeare in Love is alive and well in this impeccably performed and beautifully decorated period piece", has given me fair warning... And that's without even taking into account the still on the back of the printed programme: a male-model-looking "Goethe" of vacant expression in low-necked frilled white shirt running along a dusty village street with what looks like a manuscript or letter in his hand. Why do films about writers always look like this?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Guest blogging at Southerly

By Tracy

For anyone interested in following, from this Friday I am a guest blogger for a month at Southerly journal.

There will be subsequent monthly bloggers too -- looking forward to seeing what turns up!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What's in a name... and: The Argument, at last

By Tracy

Even though they're starting to wither, I wanted to capture these beautiful flowers that have now sprung up here a second year. They were obviously planted before my time and so were a surprise when they first bloomed.

I love bulbs and have often written poems about them, probably because of their startling aspect, as well as their recurrence, their pattern of disappearance and regeneration.

These are what people here call "Easter lilies"; also known as belladonna lilies or naked ladies. It is not the same flower (in any case there are various flowers) that people in the northern hemisphere call "Easter lilies" -- and our Easter is not in the spring...

Here is an excerpt from a five-sonnet sequence I wrote when they bloomed (much more pinkly) last year; the full sequence was published in the UK's Poetry Review. The sequence is called "Pictures, as Promised".

These are the lilies, flushed with shocking pink
people call Easter lilies here, the way
names grow from usage, cling to what we say
they are, however tenuous the link

to language elsewhere. Sprung up in the chink
between the septic tanks, resistant clay,
marking a distance and a funeral day,
so far and so final. We always think

there'll be one more occasion, one last word
to fix the thing, to capture what was meant
clearing the air -- not that we'll be cut short.

Rest of my life, the news you never heard,
and now, the images I never sent:
fading as light, the best of them uncaught.


On a much happier note, I just received the first advance copy of my new book of poems, The Argument, which will be out in July from Fremantle Press. It's always a strange moment, seeing the thing take physical form.