'Riding on a demon-possessed horse'

Four instances of contemporary Australian troubadour poetry

Kurt Vile & The Violators at The Shadow Electric, Melbourne, 4 February 2014. Image: William Hung

The Abbotsford Convent is located just above the banks of the excitable brown river that pulses alongside the Collingwood Children’s Farm, a few kilometres from the city of Melbourne. The Wurundjeri people, who lived in the area prior to white settlement, called the river Birrarung or River of Mists. Once a month, market-goers flip a two-dollar coin donation into a bucket so their children can ogle exotic fur-footed chickens, haggle with geese, pat pigs the size of bicycles and stumble into pails full of the thorniest roses this side of a country and western song. A bike path zippers the farm to the rejuvenated convent beyond and elderly women in black tops and skirts can occasionally be seen tugging at the weeds that grow along its fence, urging the scent of licorice into the river-laden air.

The Wurundjeri Tribe Land Cultural Heritage Council occupies an office in the convent alongside the artists, writers, musicians, architects, yoga instructors and practitioners of the healing arts who were drawn to the precinct following its development post-2005.* The convent grounds cover 6.8 hectares and along with studios, offices and galleries incorporate a radio station, a bakery, Japanese and vegetarian restaurants, and a café that is staffed almost entirely by independent record company owners and local musicians. It is also the home of the Shadow Electric, a kind of piazza formed by a warehouse-style bar and a number of convent buildings that shows outdoor movies in Summer and, if the weather’s right, is probably one of the best places to see a band outdoors in Melbourne. Tonight I’m seeing Kurt Vile and the Violators whose Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze has for the last three months kept me company on the drive to the convent where I’ve been sharing an office with some friends.

Strolling through the huge iron gates I spot the Tasmanian-born Melbourne-based poet, Duncan Hose. Hose is the author of the Newcastle Poetry Prize-winning “An Allegory of Edward Trouble”, one of the most somatically exciting poems ever written by an Australian, I think. I remember running into Hose at the University of Melbourne just after he’d won the prize. He printed me a copy of the poem and I took it to the library where I read it over and over waiting for the shock to subside. It never did. I remember my heart pounding at the daring, importunate glamour of its constructions:

An allegory of Edward Trouble

   & his mean Tipperary mother


                                                          If blood stains the hydrangeas &

Holden succumbs at Mount Panorama

                                                                                                             Priests and workers like white ants or louse

               Chew off bits of Australia

                                                                                         You think of Azure or that the atmosphere is

                                                                                                                          Clear, idiot,

                                                                                                                 It is alive with humbug


                                                                                    Edward Trouble w/ his tip

                                                                       Contacting all her tips and points

                                                                                             Made love to Blazing Lou

                                                         On a Mackeral Saturday morning



                                                              Delicately taking the Duck you Deserve

from the buffet

                           The brothy Sun is still young and imperfectly done

                                                                                  but what colour!

Edward Trouble in Beechworth jail

   Masturbating in his cot lying and thinking

                                                All about Lou-          one of the lesbians of the Ringarooma marshes


The poem goes on for a stunning eight pages, insistently and recklessly building a platform ‘right out to the point of ecstacy’. This is ‘Trubadurzy’, as the poem has it, at its most promiscuous. In “The Dictation of Poetry”, Agamben writes that speech is found ‘only through an appetitus, an amorous desire, such that the event of language appears as an inextricable interlacement of love, speech and knowledge’. “An Allegory of Edward Trouble” (ceallach, the original of ‘Kelly’, our Ned, means strife or trouble) takes the twelfth century troubadour’s fidelity to the impossible out for a night on the town where it falls for words and sounds and tropes, academic constructions, nature, and other poets (like Francis Webb, Charles Harpur, and Michael Farrell), always careful to remind itself, via John Forbes, that you can’t be ‘too cute’ about your chosen form. It’s already been chosen for you anyway so you might as well go for it. In other words, ‘The academic thorax of the captured wasp, / spider’s gambit,   two well armed insects make / a corking model of rancour.’

As one might expect from a poet of such risk-taking propensities, Hose is unaware that Kurt Vile is playing at the convent tonight and he wanders off to the front lawn to meet some friends for a picnic. He will later materialise at the end of the gig having watched the whole thing from an obscure vantage point behind the stage.

Down at the Shadow Electric the support band, Courtney Barnett and the Barnetts, is just finishing its soundcheck. Courtney Barnett has had recent successes in the US and the UK, which are, in part, the result of a burgeoning local fame that began with frequent radio plays of her song, Lance Jr. The band comprises Barnett on guitar, ‘Bones’ on drums and Dave on bass with intermittent supplementary guitar sounds from Dan Luscombe of The Drones. Their sound has been described as anti-folk but its way more affectionate than that. They can tune variously and sometimes simultaneously to The Velvet Underground, The Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly and any other musician of note who has written spare, lyric driven songs featuring drowsy vocals that foreground the occasional attempted getaway by the band.

Barnett’s lyrics frequently enact what I think of as brilliant interventions from multiple angles into ideas about the muse and the creator/recipient relationship in pop music, lyric poetry, etc. Basically, she sings about things that we’re not used to hearing women sing about and in this sense she is a modern-day trobairitz with a ceaseless gift for narrative invention that, like the razos and vidas of the twelfth century, blurs the causal line between lived experience and the language that is used to dictate it.

Heading back to the front gate, I pass the singer and songwriter Dan Kelly whose 2004 album Sing the Tabloid Blues at certain moments pre-empts enough echoes from Kurt Vile’s musical universe that I’ve come to think of it as a kind of ghostly companion or gateway drug to the Philadelphian’s sound. By the time I’ve said hello to Melbourne poet and translator Marty Hiatt and caught up with my date, Melinda Bufton, I’m starting to feel like I’m at a troubadour convention. I’ll later spot Fraser Gorman, a singer/songwriter on Barnett’s self-starter record label Milk, who recently performed one of his heart-cracking tunes in an Italian café at the Paris-end of Bourke Street in Melbourne for Melbourne Music Week and French videographers La Blogotheque.

The grey-headed flying fox is a migratory creature whose night time trajectories are influenced by the availability of nectar, pollen and native fruits. About a decade ago approximately 30,000 of them were successfully relocated from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the city to Yarra Bend near the convent. As the light begins to dissipate and Courtney Barnett and the Barnett’s finish their set, the bats trawl soundlessly overhead, drawn to the Moreton Bay fig trees over at Edinburgh Gardens and Royal Park. Kurt Vile and his band arrive on stage just in time to prop up what’s left of the failing light. I’m relatively new to Vile’s oeuvre and part of the novelty lies in trying to work out what it is about these songs that make them so indispensable. The shifting, desiring ways in which they move remind me that language is set on a kind of virtual stave although it’s one that has many overlapping manifestations, intersecting, ghosting, and foretelling past, present and future interlacings. Vile has spoken about the extent to which his composition has been informed by having to ‘to learn how to get into the box’ of his first instrument, the banjo, with its open tuning, ‘overtones and ethereal chords’ and I think of this as somehow accounting for my sense of the music as a kind of poetics. Lyrics like ‘living life / to the lowest power / feeling bad / in the best way’ remind me of Alain Badiou’s thoughts on power and powerlessness from the “Ethics of Mystery”:

One cannot sublate the interplay between power and powerlessness in a dialectical way. Poetic revelation is interwined in an anarchic enigma or, rather, poetic revelation is the intertwining of the enigma. This enigma traverses the poetic saying with an excessive trace and requires an ethical approach: a response to an impossible demand, or a demand for the impossible. Poetic mystery lies in the fact that there is a point at its very centre that cannot be named.

Sublation – aufebhung – is the term used to describe the motion of the Hegelian dialectic with its triadic movement of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. In Hegelian philosophy the dialectic is ‘the principle of all motion, of all life, and of all activation in the actual world’ and sublation enacts nothing less than man’s transcendence out of the natural realm into the civilized world of the properly human. Feminist theorists (not to mention Marxist materialists) understandably have problems with this construction given that, as Patricia Jagentowicz Mills has remarked, ‘modern man’s realization of himself and the dialectical structure are at modern woman’s expense.’ Luce Irigaray and Shari Neller Starrett have cited Hegel’s reading of Sophocles’ Antigone as evidence that the dialectic is regulated and governed by a move towards a self-consciousness that favours the masculine and relegates woman to a domestic cave from the confines of which she is denied access to civil life. For Irigaray, Hegel’s notorious construction of woman as ‘the eternal irony of the community’ figures her as ‘that unconscious ground that nourishes nature’ and the receptacle that must externalize her own desire in order to accommodate the ‘dead being’ that is the byproduct of the negativizing drive of the dialectic.

Bartlett and Clemens have drawn on Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject to argue that the self-proclaimed ‘antiphilosopher’, Jacques Lacan, interrupts Hegel’s ‘pretty little dream’ of Aufhebung by locating a split in his account of courtly love: ‘The implication is that what was split there, Hegel never ‘sublated’ and thus in the great Hegelian discourse of love there is an immanent excess, a point from which to interrupt the Hegelian ‘absolute’ and to begin again the analysis of the place of love.’ When Badiou writes that ‘one cannot sublate the interplay between power and powerlessness in a dialectical way’ he is talking about the importance of poetic invention, a practice that is, for Lacan, ‘the least stupid of human endeavours’.

What this means, if you want to connect the dots, is that writing poetry (or lyrics that innovate like poetry) is one good way to invent a subject that is able to untangle itself from the bind of what some think of as the universalizing propensity of the Hegelian dialectic. Me ‘n’ Me Trumpet by Clemens is a bizarre and exciting investigation into how this might work. All you have to do is ‘Adumbrate yourselves infinitely aleatory adjutants / now we are barreling to interminability having exited exodus’, bust some ‘Mentaphonic radiocules enwinkling ordographic delicacies outta insalubrious oncophores’ and ‘awake drooling at me nightmaring trumpet’s desperate blundering bursts.’

In a chapter of The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan figures the twelfth century ‘invention’ of courtly love as the moment when poetic language becomes linked to the reification of the feminine. There is, as Zizek has remarked, a sense in which the elevating principles of such a poetics were designed to raise ‘the object’ to the ‘level of the thing’. For Lacan, this takes place not through the advancement toward and seizure of the object of desire but precisely to the extent that the object is missed. For Zizek, too, ‘[C]ourtly love appears as simply the most radical strategy for elevating the value of the object by putting up conventional obstacles to its attainability.’ I’ve often wondered, and attempted to investigate myself, how the female side of this operation might play out. “SONG GOAT” and “WOLVES ARE SWARMS” by Sydney poet, Astrid Lorange – from Eating and Speaking (2011) –  are, as Joan Retallack has remarked, ‘lusty, omnivorous, humorously irreverent’ and ‘grave with longing’. Lorange’s inventive and thought-provoking strategies rhyme thyme with goats into ‘two the shapes of a poodle’ and mix

loving getting goat and battling noise
with computers a lion’s head on a goat’s
body in her head the entrails of a goat
in her head. let us cite a blood pact, of which
six get eaten, and the seventh goat takes away
all those goats

faceless depressive arborescent chosen
treated and laden with lamb, blocking the
line of flight. the publicness of a goat, namely
its face, sending on a faceless goat with wool
and hair, a guitar made from tongues, limbs from
facile tissues of the neighbourhood

Melinda Bufton’s forthcoming Girlery (Inken publisch) enacts a more traditional, though in its way similarly transgressive, strategy. Arriving in the wake of recent masterpieces such as Kate Lilley’s Ladylike and Gig Ryan’s New and Selected, the poems from Bufton’s Girlery think ‘something has to come after post-feminist’ and have titles such as “Bumper Book for Girls”, “Sessional Escort” and “Continental Hourglass”. They ‘quite like the
way you can get burlesque in the inner locations like rooftop honey’ (27) and wonder ‘What lies between now and the day I meet you’ (2). In “Love poem to a poet, written in advance” they worry about ‘the problem of unreleased material / relating to my not having fucked enough young artists’ (8). These poems are ‘pregnantly sensitive to the world’s full badness’ (6), and propose instead a world in which

the Cup of Truth is a café I go to when I have city appointments.

It is underground
and like Persephone
I descend the humanity-stained staircase
to the Degraves Street Subway

(I do it in a pencil skirt, for Bukowski)
and emerge with subterranean godly items, namely what’s in the cup

These poems are coming onto you and they’re not going to desist until they get what they want. At the same time, they’re waiting for the reader to make the first move. Power and powerlessness. We’re used to this insistence in poems by men. As a Sydney poet recently noted, Keats’ “Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain!”, as stirring as it is, can read a bit like a series of what the Urban Dictionary describes as ‘Low-grade insults meant to undermine the self-confidence of a woman so she might be more vulnerable to your advances.’ This ‘negging’, though it presents as the inverse of the elevation that is the mainstay of courtly love, shouldn’t surprise us. As Clemens points out in Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy, what Lacan takes from troubadour poetry is its emphasis on ‘staging’ the impossibility of the sexual relationship to distinguish psychoanalytic ethics from a more generalized ethics of the good. As Hallward has noted, to be ‘faithful to the peculiarity of your desire first requires “a radical repudiation of a certain ideal of the good” (Lacan, S7, 270/230), that is, the repudiation of all consensual social norms (happiness, pleasure, health, etc.) in favor of an essentially asocial, essentially traumatic exception.’ For Clemens

In its praise of the cruel Lady, troubadour poetry explicitly stages, not just the trials and tribulations of the experience of love, but the absolute impossibility of the relationship itself. In doing so, it exemplifies the very work of sublimation which it itself represents—as Lacan defines it at this point in his thought, the raising of an indifferent object to the dignity of the thing. […] In doing so, it also provides a key to the abiding Freudian puzzlement over the paradox of Vorlust: that foreplay increases tension, and thus unpleasure, in the ultimate service of pleasure itself. What resolves this puzzlement for Lacan is the analysis that the troubadours incised into their song as ‘the pleasure of experiencing unpleasure’: the key to ethics is not ‘well-being,’ as promulgated by philosophers of all stripes including your garden-variety psychologists, psychiatrists, pharmacists and pharmacologists, but ‘well-speaking’ (bien-dire).

“Shame Chamber” is missing from Kurt Vile’s set tonight at the Shadow Electric but as compensation we get a figure who must surely be Don Quixote ‘riding on a demon-possessed horse’ and the Hegelian recognition of ‘feel my pain and I’ll do yours’. The song hurts and so it should. Love, as the troubadour and the trobairitz have it, is not just about feeling good. It’s also about acknowledging pain, following through on the impossible and the troublesome, the pointless – even if it means admitting nothing less than that the other actually exists.

* The area that is now occupied by the convent was settled in 1835 by the Englishman John Batman on the strength of a controversial and historically disputed ‘treaty’ by which Batman claimed to have ‘purchased’ 600,000 acres of land from the tribe in exchange for ‘40 pairs of blankets, 42 tomahawks, 130 knives, 62 pairs scissors, 40 looking glasses, 250 handkerchiefs, 18 shirts, 4 flannel jackets, 4 suits of clothes and 150 lb. of flour.’ The British crown swiftly invalidated the treaty with the implementation of the concept of terra nullius – the disavowal of indigenous ownership and occupation of the land which was overturned in the Australian High Court’s momentous Mabo Case decision of 1992.