Friday, April 24, 2009

More on a Poetics of Gradients

by John

I find this blog space useful (at the moment) for ‘thinking aloud’. I have been filling my journal — my hand-written journal! — with notes about writing poetry and living on a steep hillside block. The physical effort to move around the block is rewarding but exacting, even if one is reasonably fit and healthy. The string of poems arising out of this experience, this interaction (how could there not be poems? — angles are what we deal with every day...) is becoming central to the manuscript I am working on. Not all would enjoy walking ‘our’ place — some would come and look and leave before they had to negotiate the steepness, even with the many trees and rocks to assist in their movements. The landscape I am writing is in counterpoint to the landscape of Thoreau’s Walden.

So, I have already written and published a number of poems about this, but I have also been keeping an ear and eye open for poems about climbing hills. For hill, valley, and high places, early (in particular) R. S. Thomas is superb. I am deeply attracted to his negative affirmations, his ‘grim’ negotiations with loss, and his beyond-irony observations of the imposition and liberations of patterning, mapping, demarcations (of nation, myth, labour, failures of belief and refusals to conform to imposed ‘belief’):

There’s a man still farming at Ty’n-y-Fawnog,
Contributing grimly to the accepted pattern.
The embryo music dead in his throat.

(R. S. Thomas, ‘The Welsh Hill Country’)

The Reverend Thomas’s centralising of the human within ‘creation’ is always displaced (certainly in the earlier verse) by a discomfort with the relationship between human, nature, and creator, and often a questioning of what divisions exist between these. The hills themselves are an interesting case in point, almost existing outside the triangle, operating at a tangent (and gradients) to the will of things.

This morning I came across another poem that seemed apt in many ways. It’s from a book I just received for review from the Sydney Morning HeraldThe Other Way Out: New Poems by Bronwyn Lea (Giramondo, 2008). The poem entitled ‘Red Hill’ combines a clarity of affirmation offset by a haunting sense of threat that comes no matter the familiarity of climbing the same hill over a long period of time. It’s a poem that has the language of gradient (though it doesn’t specifically use that more mathematical descriptor/definition), poised to a point of absolute concision:

— the acute
angle of the world
to my cheek
rising as if to slap or kiss me
even to lie
down I am near
vertical & filled with steep
inclination —

(Bronwyn Lea)

The physicality of both body and spirit and the intellectual processing of the co-ordinates are deftly handled.

The hill we live on would not ‘slap or kiss me’ — it is too stony and too ‘defiant’ to register me/us in that way. Strangely, I know no matter how long I walk its slopes, it will resist me, but do so with indifference.

Gradient poems will always deploy words like ‘steep’, ‘incline’, and terms related to angles (‘acute’, ‘obtuse’, ‘right’...), but the point is how these terms relate to the emotional, social, political, and ethical space of the poem. The specificity matters and brings different impressions. An acute angle makes for a very different tension to an obtuse angle: not only in the different description of place, but also, obviously, in the effect the angle has on how the reader ‘feels’ the description. You can climb a steep angle but you have to scale a right angle, so to speak. I am interested in the inside of an angle as much as in the outside. The radian of an angle is part of the world I am examining: part of the sphere, part of the 360 degrees of a conceptual (and a literal) ‘planet’ I am trying to create around the specific place, around Jam Tree Gully, around this de-mapped ‘Walden’ (or not Walden).

What I am getting at, under the weirdness and irrelevancies, is that when we paint poetic portraits of place, we in fact create a very real mathematics of that space. In so many fantasy novels, writers include maps — and indeed it was the maps that originally attracted me so strongly to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was at high school (I went on to read the book twenty-six times and to write my final Year Eleven school paper in literature for my teacher Bill Green about it) — as a validation of the ‘fantasy’ (and/or speculative fiction) writer’s imagined world, of its ‘real spatiality’, as if the map makes concrete the projected imagined.

But I want to do the opposite — in my maths I want to de-map, to undo the recording of topographical features and the routes between them by allowing those features and routes to appear as they ‘naturally’ do on any given occasion: to alter and morph with erosion, changing movements of animals, new growth and death of old trees, and so on.

I have mentioned my problem with people disturbing the bush by using GPSs to go off-track, to make new routes between points. I am not advocating the arbitrary making of paths through spaces, but rather the following of paths as they grow and change. A lot of what I walk along are kangaroo paths. No map can be ‘real’ outside the moment of its making. It needs constant adjustment. Google Earth is an imperialism of mapping, not a liberation from its strictures, in the same way as GPS denies what’s there to follow points given without subjectivity via a satellite. How the satellite looks is relevant: whether it’s speaking electronically to a GPS or we’re examining pictures taken. The use of angles, the use of circles, the use of poems written out of the line (out of Eudumus), out of rays, is an alternative to merely creating a ‘map’. It is active and changing. Adjustments can be made.

Maybe pertinently, a couple of days ago we took young Tim to the Maritime Museum at Fremantle. Actually, we took him to see the Bon Scott statue, but after that had some spare time so thought we’d take him to see the harbour. One of the exhibitions was based on French exploration of Australia, and the display of early maps was fascinating. Curatorial paraphernalia confirming the drives of ‘exploration’ rang loud, and the stuffed animals spoke their own refutations, but the early maps of the southern land with their mix of hypothesis, guesswork, and solid charting, affirmed for me that the Idea (Platonic Forms, in some ways) of place is more accurate than the material. The maps, the more confirmed they are, become imitations of the land itself, and through imitation become separated from cause and effect. In other words, the map, though made through the senses, actually desensitises response to place.

Over the last week the locality around Jam Tree Gully has been assaulted by scramble and quad bikes hacking up the reserve firebreaks and along the boundaries of where we live. In swathes of ecological destructiveness, these violent pleasurists (along with the shooters around the place), use intimidation and aggression to impose their sense of control and mapping on animals, plants and humans of the place. I am told that many of them are city blokes come up during holidays to stay with other motorbike enthusiasts, getting overexcited at the ‘space’ and consequently ‘cutting sick’. I understand their compulsions, and would be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge that as a kid around the farm I did similarly, but by the time I was in my mid teens I’d come to the conclusion that the destruction and violence of the activity cancelled the thrill and the pleasure.

Okay, that’s my learning curve and why should it be anyone else’s? Because there’s a growing awareness that such destructions have consequences far outside their locality and that it affects the riders as much as anything and anyone else...?

Is there an activist position to be had here? What do I do? Confronting them and declaring the wrongs of it likely means being targeted — I am told this has been happening lately. You’re selected (I use the word specifically) for special treatment. Okay, so I will try and dialogue with them. Will the riders listen? Who knows. But that’s the first activist step: dialogue.

Second and concurrent step: I will write poems, and maybe even read one to them. Seriously... sometimes it works. Poetry can really matter. Many bike riders of whatever modus operandi are operating as ‘outsiders’. I’ve known a few patch-wearing bikies in my time with whom I’ve had some excellent conversations about music and lyrics. In a territorial organisation, aesthetics and decodings are vital. I will certainly read poems to others around the place who are concerned about this damage (soil diseases/pathogens are also easily and readily spread via motorbike wheels). The terror and trauma being inflicted on the kangaroos and birds in the reserve, along with every other living thing, must be extreme, and needs to be countered. From the ‘official’ point of view, the riding of two-strokes through long grass is a fire risk, and this is another concern to all who live there.

But I mention this for another reason. One of the things that attracts riders to this place is the topography: the firebreaks cut through rocky ground, through treed slopes that become incredibly steep in places. It’s a rough and no doubt exhilarating ride. The riders charge down one valley wall and loop up another. The roar of their bikes shatters the valley air with a ringing that is beyond any ‘for whom the bell tolls’. The riders communicate with revs from one point to another. Triangles bend in 3D space. The rush down to the base of the valley (which is not broad) and the massive impetus downwards, then pulling up and slowing before impelling the machines with more revs to charge up the other side, is like a random and cut-loose amusement park ride. The down-up-down thrill. The bike does the work, but the rider’s excitement and consequent bodily activity work in parallel, or in unison.

In the act of thrill, the riders’ is a poetics of gradients as well. Not about conservation (as I hope mine is), but about concentration, focus, and separation from real-time, from the apparent limitations of ordinary movement (without the aid of a motorbike or other machinery). A kind of simulacrum of natural movement (the riding of a motorbike more in contact with the elements than the driving of a car) that multiples the adrenaline outcomes with less of the physical exhaustion.

The experience is repeated over and over until it sends those experiencing its side-effects around the twist (sorry, but it does). A machine poetics of gradients. If a bike travels up a hill at x speed and the hill has a gradient of...? It’s their outlaw poetry, but what I want to tell them is that it’s actually conservative and predictable: the outlaw act is, rather, to try to protect the ecology and to resist the urge of adrenaline, endorphins, and ‘pleasurism’ and ‘leisurism’, no matter how dark its origins, no matter how angry its rationalisations, or, conversely, how much ‘fun’ it might be.

1 comment:

Dr Michelle Frantom (aka Dr Mad Fish of Mad Fish Designs) said...

Maybe not quite the same 'poetics of gradient' but something similar I battle with is the harsh screech of jet-skis out on the water. We can be sitting out there waiting for a wave and sometimes they come tearing past destroying the peace. Leaving pollution aside, I guess the good thing about the ocean is that you can't physically damage the 'water' like you can the bush.
What does one do? Good question. I find these things really disturbing. Perhaps words will do it, maybe too gradually.
One comforting thought I hold onto in the face of the predicted economic downturn is that without excessive amounts of disposable income, these activities will be seriously curtailed. I think there is an indirect relationship between nature and economies that limits humanity's destructive behaviour. I hope so anyway.