Mysteries of the speaking body

The Real Through Line symposium, Melbourne, April 2013

In an English translation of a French transcription of a lecture delivered in 1973, Jacques Lacan proposes his ground-changing formulation: ‘Mathematization alone reaches a real’. For Lacan, what this means is that what we thought was fantasy and what we thought was knowledge are now entwined. Reality is not what we thought it was. Or rather, it is whatever we think it is. The one thing it isn’t, however, is real. This is, in lots of different ways, very good news for a one-day symposium that proposes to bring together ‘leading scholars and practitioners interested in the poetry of the real world.’ As Lacan remarked, ‘Man believes he creates – he believes, believes, believes, he creates, creates, creates.’ The symposium, held in April 2013, was the latest in a series of scholarly collaborations from Jessica Wilkinson (RMIT) and Ali Alizadeh (Monash). The proceedings of the symposium will soon appear in Axon, an online journal published out of the University of Canberra.

The opening address, given by Louis Armand, the multi-accomplished editor of Vlak magazine and lecturer in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, is destined for a forthcoming volume called The Organ Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the avant-garde. Armand’s paper, subtitled ‘Revolutionary poetics or the poetics of revolution’, draws on the 1993 film, Gorilla Bathes at Noon, by Yugoslav director, Dusan Makavejev. The film was conceived, fittingly enough, as a ficto-documentary but, as Armand writes, was soon ‘overtaken by historical events’. The question posed by the paper is akin to that posited by Makavejev in Hole in the Soul (1994) – how can we employ the mechanisms of an ultimately fictional medium to get at the real? 

In their November 2012 “Realpoetik Manifesto” Wilkinson and Alizadeh argued that poetry has been ‘disregarded as a valid vehicle for the exploration of real world experience’. They called for ‘an end to the segregation of poetry from and by the authoritative discourse of prose’. I always thought, following Agamben, that it was poetry that energetically sought to differentiate itself from prose. One of the real strengths of the symposium, then, turned out to be the strenuous and sometimes rash-inducing disagreements it provoked. In their manifesto the convenors declared that ‘The Realpoetik celebrates the power of the poetic form to realize and enact factual content.’ To this end, they convened a number of poets who do this in intriguing and inventive ways.

Kate Middleton investigated American poet Dan Beachy-Quick’s use of literary and historical documents to show how fact and fiction work together to allow, as she writes, ‘imaginative entry into … sources and critical engagement with … source materials.’ Middleton’s forthcoming book-length poem, Ephemeral Waters, draws on citation and collage to document the course of the Colorado River ‘from headwaters to delta’. Middleton’s project addresses what must be the key irony of the symposium, namely, as Heraclitus might have had it, the role of the free-flowing imaginary in the attempted apprehension of the real. 

The regionally-based poet, Patrick Jones, takes this idea just about as far as it can go with Artist as Family. Jones lives with his wife and two sons on a quarter-acre permaculture plot in the Victorian bush. To arrive at the symposium he and his family left home five days beforehand, trekking through Jaara country in celebration of Jones’ recently completed PhD manuscript “Walking for Food: Regaining Permapoesis”. Jones’ philosophy is one of permanent making and I’ve written about it in more detail in Wandering through the Universal Archive. His presentation took the form of a letter to a fellow writer and environmentalist and asked whether writing and ecopoetics were somehow incommensurable – ‘Can writing produce intimacy and immediacy, or is it always … pushing us away from life’?

For some of the poets assembled at the symposium the real is the real of sexual difference. Poet and academic Justin Clemens ‘personally can’t think of anything less real than poetry.’ Brisbane-based poet, Felicity Plunkett provided what was for me the most physically affecting and possibly, therefore, the most instructive account of the real through line. Broadly speaking, our apprehension of reality so-called is moderated by what we are told is real, what we want to be real and what somehow we know is actually real. Much of Plunkett’s poetry tarries with the slipperiness of these divisions. One of my favourite poems from her collection Vanishing Point is “Discipline”:

Oh stupid girl! How much of this could be
misprision, missed points, mise-en-scene?
But missing, with its sighs and crumbs, drags on.

For the poet, knowing that the real is potentially a waking dream doesn’t change anything. In her paper on haunting and clairvoyance in Plath, Plunkett stages a collision between the dreaming body and the real life of the institution. As a PhD researcher visiting the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, Plunkett was unable to find some pages from one of Plath’s drafts. That night

I had a dream a black telephone was ringing on the bedside table. I answered it to hear the clear, trans-Atlantic accented voice of Plath’s last interview, telling me to look in the yellow folder. 

Plunkett’s account of what happened when she returned to the library the next day caused a collective shiver amongst the audience and sent a singular chill traveling from my scalp down to my ankles. Even if you could tell reality from fiction, would the body speak any differently?

The self-described ‘histrionic’ presentation on “Aspects of Realism and its problems” by Melbourne-based poetry legend PiO (π.O) reminded me that I too used to sit in the library in primary school and ponder the word ‘Non-fiction’. Its use seemed illogical to me and consequently made it more difficult for me to remember which side of the game it was meant to nominate. I couldn’t work out why ‘they’ would use what I thought of – albeit in my conceptually-based seven-year old terminology – as a negation to categorise books that were to do with the here and now. If anything was elsewhere, in my experience, it was fiction. I can’t say I’m currently any the wiser as to which of these terms would be more adequate as a description of lived experience. Which is no doubt part of the reason I’m sitting here now writing about a symposium devoted to the extension of the terms and their usage.