Of fear in abstraction
A review of Fiona Hile's 'Novelties'
“Mondrian Green” is the final poem in Fiona Hile’s Novelties, and one of the most significant in this significant book. It refers to the famous absence of green in the Dutch abstract painter’s mature compositions. Mondrian is said to have hated the color, perhaps as a result of having compromised himself for years while young and struggling, painting floral still-lifes for bread and butter. Mondrian, who would apparently sit with his back to windows in order to avoid gazing out at any greenery, said during a 1915 walk in the moonlight that “all in all, nature is a damned wretched affair. I can hardly stand it.” This was part of the justification for his commitment to abstraction: “Non-figurative art,” he wrote, “shows that art is not the expression of the appearance of reality such as we see it, nor of the life which we live, but … the expression of true reality and true life … indefinable, but realizable.” This is typical of Mondrian, the spiritualist and theosophist (and of other pioneers of abstract art — especially Malevich): the retreat from the figurative is grounded in terms of a rejection of the merely physical; abstraction becomes the royal road to ultimate reality, which cannot be depicted or defined.
Of course, there are other ways of understanding Mondrian’s hatred of nature and commitment to abstraction, and psychoanalysts have made very much of the repression of sex they have found at the heart of his project. James Hamilton, for instance, reads Mondrian’s avoidance of diagonals, rejection of secondary and tertiary colours, and refusal of motion in his work as part of a psychic defense against his early exposure to the primal scene (in terms of which he also explains the painter’s ambivalence toward dancing, changing signatures, and obsessive fears of electrical storms, spiders, and eye injury). While Hamilton’s work displays the kind of reductionism that is only too easy to mock (‘primal scene’ turns up nearly sixty times in the book), there must be a grain of truth in it. Part of what I find compelling in Hile’s poems is how they have helped me find this grain: for them, abstraction is always bound up with what it disavows; the mathematical never completely transcends our desire (we might even say it excites it). At the same time, however, abstraction is certainly not denounced here. “Mondrian!” she writes, “There isn’t a poet alive who would disagree/ with your conception of nature.” The word “alive” seems crucial: these poems are alive to themselves, taken up and struck by their own creatureliness. Horror at nature is not just a form of disavowal: in modernity, it may also be one of the few authentic ways in which we can form some kind of relation with the fact of our being alive. The point is not that abstraction must be rejected or unmasked because of how it denies the material; rather, it is that abstraction permits no real escape from anything. If it is a retreat, in other words, it is always a failed retreat, an attempt at getting away that inevitably leads us back again. I think of Freud wandering through “the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town”:
I found myself in a district about whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Only heavily made-up women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However after wandering about for some time without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad to find my way back to the piazza I had recently left and refrain from any further voyages of discovery.
For I submit — and I believe the poems will support me in this — that abstraction is more than a bald refusal of what may be unbearable in the life and desires of the human animal. At the same time, however, it is also less than a means of accessing some Platonic world of forms or spiritual or mathematical truths. Hile’s interest in the mathematics of the infinite is clear enough: the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who inherits a Platonist/Cartesian form of rationalism and subscribes to the idea that mathematics give us the only language in which pure being can be expressed, looms quite large in the book. Yet the poems are not really Platonic, nor entirely rationalist. For them, abstraction is above all a social condition, part of what happens to life, labour, and indeed the physical world itself under the capitalist mode of production. Think of what becomes of things once we start to produce, buy, and sell them on a mass scale as commodities: it becomes possible to say “one coat =twenty yards of linen.”  This is a kind of levelling out. When things become measureable in terms of their exchange value, they lose their particularities. A particular coat is no longer irreducibly particular: once it goes on the market, the coat is abstracted; it is not just a coat, but also potentially a certain quantity of linen, or gold, or (literally) whatever. It is this historical sense of abstraction that I believe informs Hile’s book, which is part of why it can get on board with Mondrian while simultaneously teasing him, part of why nature keeps returning even though the poems know — and on one occasion explicitly state — that it does not exist. Take the scribbly gum from “Stripes”:
That scribbly gum is acting
out again, throwing its
fruit, forcing itself to
appear; the vertical fins
outside the library window
won’t stop striping the scene
with dorsal light, shades
of all types filtering the
loss of that blossom
you twirled between your
finger and thumb; collage and
cut-ups can only mean one
thing: what we’re half-seeing
through this collagen
opening is not what we’d
hoped: just another Eucalyptus
Hamestoma, calibrating the
thrill of the cut and paste
The leaves won’t stop striping the scene even though the blossom has been lost: the gum is not not there, but it isn’t fully there either; it does not present as the irreducible and particular natural object we’d hoped for, but merely as a token of its type — yet it still makes a claim on us. It is half seen. This is the liminal space in which this poet places us as readers: we cannot fully repudiate or transcend the material world, yet we are unable to simply remain embedded in it, caught between the corporeal and the mathematical, the concrete and the abstract, nature and its liquidation. The poems do not let us off the hook.
Or take “Entrances North.” This short, rather sardonic poem sets a bourgeois conversation about real estate against a seascape that is progressively emptied of content: we get an image of the void of outer space; we get “Pale ontologies”; we get “The surf club car park” which is “littered with empty”; we get “indifferent” surf; and I’m not sure, but perhaps in the “reverse fossilized sprays of / ancestral Fred Williams” we also get Quentin Meillasoux, Badiou’s philosophical protégé. The talk that ensues is typical of this particular brand of Australian whimsy: “‘Why don’t the four of us buy that unit over- / looking the ocean?’”; “Isn’t / there just a tiny bit of gravity in outer space?” someone asks as the surf “gambles on the negative / gearing of light over sound.” This confluence of ontological musing with talk about property investment — the combination of real estate speculation and speculative realist metaphysics — is already pure Hile, but then we get the land as a G-string, and finish with a weird pun masquerading as a Freudian mondegreen: “Love is assault, you think / he said, or maybe — love is a sought.” As the abstraction of ontology and mathematics give way to the financial abstraction of the property market, we move via abstract painting and the question of what it is to view a landscape to sex and, finally, love. This is the crazy confluence of registers these poems get the reader working with. As usual, however, it is more than just postmodernist collage. Hile does not simply mine discourses for linguistic gems, though of course that is part of her procedure. It seems to me that the poem really means it: it really wants to think what abstraction might entail, and how it might be connected to the social and economic totality in which we find ourselves. And of course, it wants to know where desire fits in — or rather, it wants to know the precise way in which desire doesn’t fit in at all. This is to say that Hile’s work carries out genuine poetic thinking, and it does it with grace, humour, and relentlessness.
As these poems show, poetic thinking has to be more than a simple dressing up of cognitive, theoretical, or philosophical content. It is not about taking abstract ideas and putting them into the form of verse, and it is not simply about referring to the work of philosophers and thinkers; rather, poetic form just is part of how poetry thinks. And if form is essential to poetic thinking, it will mean that, unlike perhaps in philosophy, the same thought cannot be expressed in two different ways: rather, the thought and its expression are inextricable; there is no separating what one says fromhow one says it. Or put more strongly: what one says just is how one says it; the what and the how are the same. This is why a thinking poem demonstrates something that traditional philosophy can’t fully countenance: there is a thinking that happens not in but as language, a thinking that always takes place in a particular context of reading and/or performance. Poetic thinking, when it happens, happens as an event: in particular places, with and on particular bodies and minds. When it happens, it is a material encounter: an encounter with the unique cognitive capacities evoked by a writing that resists the philosophical ideal of transparency, and the distinctions between mind and matter, consciousness and embodiment, with which philosophy has defined itself. So another way of formulating this is: poetic thinking is a type of embodied cognition. There is a line from Peter Minter’s poem “Garden Estates” that sticks with me: “the head is awake in the heart.” This is a perfect motto of poetic thought, and I have found this awakening again and again in Hile’s poems. Here are the opening stanzas from “The Owl of Lascaux”:
I imagine you chopping the head off eel
catfish blossoming from the underside of fir
trees tangling with the pneumatic branches of the law
wasted pornographic observations instilled as the capital of excess
profanation. The political task of your right to capitalism
remains slipping through the shadow
of, the potential for the transformation of a polity
huddled like a worthless slave in the bed of speech.
Destitute poppies, my spoken limbs are available
for prophylactic conveyance. These poor hands,
they quiver thus: trouble my protrusions and turn
my paint to flesh. In lieu of actual declension
The cyclical head wants lopping, the imagination bears
the loss with patience, declares all allegiance to a merciless
conclusion sweeter than the listing of the earth’s difference
from itself. I gave you a book and you wrote in the back of the book:
Infiltrated by the idea of prose, barking like an owl …
It’s quite an astonishing poem. And there are a few things to be said about its references. Lascaux, obviously, names the French cave complex famous for its Upper Paleolithic art. There is an owl depicted in the caves, but I also wonder if Hile’s title may refer to the “Owl of Minerva” which — because it only spreads its wings at night — provided Hegel with a metaphor for how philosophy always misses its moment. The profanation of the first stanza is a nod to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who describes it as “the political task of the coming generation,” a phrase Hile cheekily changes into “The political task of your right to capitalism.” The “idea of prose” mentioned in the fourth stanza is another borrowing from Agamben. Later in the poem we get a series of references to Daniel Paul Schreber, the German judge whose memoirs of psychosis were hugely important for Freud. “The cyclical head” sounds like an allusion to John Forbes.
But I take all that to have explained little: it may (or may not) be interesting background information; it may tell you why certain phrases from Hile’s poem have caught my ear or eye (or hers in the first place); it may explain some of the terms at work in it; it might help you like the poem (as if you needed any help!). What it doesn’t do is tell you anything binding or definitive about the meaning or significance of the work. References do not explicate in this way; it’s not as though finding and listing them explains — if anything, references just call out for further explanation. Even though the poem refers to philosophy, then, I don’t take this to be where it does its most philosophically interesting thinking. There is something, for instance, in the enjambment of the first couplet that is resistant to prose paraphrase. Perhaps most obviously, it repeats in a strikingly physical way the very act described in the lines themselves. But that’s not all. I’ll admit I was not even aware of the existence of eel catfishes before reading this poem. Wikipedia assures me they are real, but the enjambment does too: it underscores beautifully my sense of shock at the possibility of such a weird creature — a shock that, I think, might tell us more about the poem than any of its references. Embodiment is crucial here, along once again with the category of nature. If this poem is ‘about’ anything, I would say that it’s about creatureliness, about what it’s like to be (and to be confronted by) a creature, to be a member of an animal species for whom animality provokes anxiety. And of course, to be shocked at the mere fact of one’s aliveness is to experience an abstract sort of shock. It is a shock at something that has been emptied of all content, a shock at something that makes no particular claim on us at all, even though it certainly makes a claim. There is something in this thinking that just isn’t quite captured in the philosophical texts that Hile is referencing, even as it speaks to the ideas in them. This is what poetic thought does: it calls out for philosophical reflection even as it adamantly resists it.
There is an orthodoxy in contemporary poetics which says that abstraction in poetry is something to be avoided: it is awkward and pretentious; it is unmusical, relying as it often does on clunky Latinate terms; above all it fails to do what poetry should — render immediate human experience with the greatest possible degree of intensity. “Go in fear of abstractions” may be the most quoted bit of Pound. And no doubt it is good advice (if there is anything that Hile’s poems show, it is that abstraction is shot through with fear). But it has been interpreted in unforgivably anti-intellectual, provincial terms. Part of the achievement of these poems is to show that abstraction in poetry is in no way opposed to beauty and pleasure, nor just occasionally necessary, but absolutely crucial if one wants to muster anything resembling an authentic response to contemporary life. In any case, what could be more abstract than the demand that we avoid the abstract, the demand that we ‘be concrete’? As these poems show, abstraction is just basic to what it is to be a member now of that deranged species we humans call the human.