This is surely a bad idea. But Southerly recently (the most recent issue? The website is unclear on this…) featured a part of John Tranter’s Doctoral thesis. In it, Tranter critiques his own work, and so I read his critique, perhaps thinking ‘ah, I can use this…’ And I remember this opinion: I think to a certain extent self-critiquing is something every poet should do (and I mean formalising a written response to yourself, not simply thinking about a poem and editing). So you and I, we begin. The critical position Tranter takes however is not one that I am able to take. He is in a rarefied position in this regard. Tranter looks to the version of himself created by the public reception of his work, then creates a dialogue between this entity and the writing-this-thesis entity. In this way he interrogates his own views and poetry. It’s a useful thing to do and I would hazard to say it makes sense to do it. But I haven’t got much of a public self out there, one created by the critics. I haven’t published books. I suspect most of the detail out in the world regarding my work has been written by me. What to do? Keep writing the details I guess.
There is one review that mentions me. I had a couple of poems in a small zine Growling Softly that came out of America. It was reviewed by Cynthia Reeser in Prick of the Spindle, and my name was mentioned. Here: ‘Derek Motion introduces playful movement with ‘i can drive &’, a poem that addresses a lover and conveys sweet infatuation that says ‘I can be whatever you want’ without ever saying it directly…’
Then there’s also this, written by Keri Glastonbury in her judges report for the Judith Wright Prize: ‘Derek refuses to become a ‘poster-boy’ for regional poetics… …and his work is a rethinking of place and identity in an era mediated by the internet.’
So, the construct of Derek Motion in its entirety. He is a poet who creates (or can create) a sense of playful movement with his writing. But also, he says things profoundly without ever saying them directly. Furthermore, he refuses to be a regional poetics poster-boy, because he prefers to rethink the typical poster-boy way of writing ‘place’. A complex and compelling entity no? Dazzling as a beautiful rhythmic gymnast twirling the ribbon… but simultaneously, liminal?
Maybe. To interrogate this construct we must interrogate the prize winning poem. It is a course of action foregone. So how do the two objects compare?
The initial word of the poem proper ‘tall’ might be describing the titular hill (this would be an odd way to do so but not out of the question for the ‘playful’ writer) but then when we read on, coming soon to ‘now flattened grass directs me’. With the mixture of tenses in the piece (‘pondering’, ‘we’ll’, ‘everything was’, and ‘now’) it becomes clear the first word refers back to the voice, the self. The past and present comingle and we might assume that ‘tall’ refers to now. The absence therefore is the short, the younger self. This poem is inviting us into a world of memory centred on a particular geography. To have a stab at paraphrasing the poem: ‘I’m here now, larger than before. Look at what unravels in such an instance.’ What unravels indeed. The Cobain chords so pasted to a specific time period because of the figure’s demise; some sort of dark hall. Perhaps all futures are but a sub-genre of regression? Let’s explore this.
The poem tries to position you in its locale – vague as this may be – by including you as a vital part of its imagery. Place place place… it seems Dr. Glastonbury might know her stuff after all. But what sort of re-think is involved in this atypical molding of young people – The ‘teens secure / abreast stunted cherry limbs’? Everyone is secure when gathered elsewhere. It’s not just an amorphous cluster of kids from a poet’s boring past though; you become one of them in the poem’s attempt to generalise (yes yes, this is all so clichéd too. But check the layering of the unoriginal thought… That’s where it’s at.) This is a moment ‘where we all question a growing emphasis internally’, and so, we all do this right now. It is a command, perhaps one paralleling any simple command to the dog. Hey you. Reader. Embark on this peculiarly nostalgic form of questioning. Do it. I command it.
Worryingly, the commanding register then seems to become a method. The next stanza insists you shouldn’t ‘trust in lines’, which might mean the very lines you’ve just ingested, but then the poem continues on insisting, insisting that you should insist more – don’t buy this poem, insist that the poem goes this particular way, summoning forth images the poet wanted to focus on anyway. The arrogance is beguiling, but, you know, somewhat playful. We surmise at any rate that it’s not meant to treat us disdainfully. There’s an underlying worry that appears authentic. The boy we are forced to think of stands out not so much for any of the early 80s imagery (stackhats, or the abc arabesque one might assume is an obsolescence, a test-pattern), he stands out because he is ‘not yet worried’. The primal concern of this poem is a moment, the moment when innocence becomes something other. Not experience, just worry. What relevance do the chunks of other moment have in such a context? The experiential sexual clichés, the fads, even the words poken to you that you remember again and again for years, attributing some life changing import to them – these are symptoms of a change. The boy that is not yet worried is idolised by this poem.
It isn’t obvious though. So we do have to discard ‘truth’ as a tool of interrogation (we can do this though, it’s not a problem). The sections rendered in prose are only obvious in that they take on a more easily digestible syntax and logic. The contemporariness of the ‘half-formed stimulus buildings’ is really only a backdrop (a reinforcement of the now) to the narrative within, real or imagined. The boy, tall, is editing the contents of his life. The act of writing is the key. Here we see it dramatised as a tangible act, a military strike on a school’s time capsule, and we admire this analogy, its beauty and unusualness is something that might bring a Russian Formalist back to life. But we also know need to question that cleverness. What is being edited? It seems the ‘other raaf kids’ are not having any of their memories (or perhaps letters to future, older selves) adjusted. Their work is being pulped. Their past existences are destroyed in an act of authorial vanity. The only work edited is that of the sound-byte boy. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter what hopes and dreams are contained within this time-capsule, all the poem tells us is that these words are not acceptable to the tall boy of now. All is now emendation and gloss. It may well lead one to wonder – how can we then trust in any linguistic performance of any such child?
You don’t have to worry though because the ‘biggles-like’ hero (a hero only now, after he has been successfully risked prosecution by raiding a school’s grounds) has brought you along for the ride. Your shadow creates unusual shapes in such a poem, no doubt a pictorial representation of your edginess, seeing as by this point you are almost certainly an unwilling participant in the ongoing perversity. It’s not really that funny: you want out of this venture, a venture that seems not to relate to your experience at all. And therein lies the crux of a poetic experiment. What does say ‘living’? Paradoxically, perhaps the only thing that can say living, that can gesture at some kind of shared existential experience via literature, is the very stretch for connection (not death. Nothing is that paradoxical.) I want closetoyouness in whatever form it exists. If my me-ness doesn’t relate to your you-ness then tell me. Seriously tell me over and over until something sinks into both of our fucking heads.
For always now, the uncool ephemera of the past is definitely made into the ‘always’ by an act of poetic ‘now’. These accoutrements of a life a rendered permanent with repetition. Bic-pen blow-darts, Elle Macpherson and the way people dressed in any certain stretch of time (amalgamated into a close approximation) are bonded to the I and You voice as if we all were filmed in some particular type of film stock that is now no longer available, hard to replicate digitally. Stupid, I know. Embarrassing even. Let’s not even talk about touching.
All this pinpointing of ephemera does is to highlight what is an un-locatable voice. The poet writes: ‘i am awful disconnected’ and we agree, both in the sense that his voice is terrible, sentimental at best, but also large, largely disconnected from the reader and his own past. We then summon up our own disconnection involuntarily (wantonly ignorant of the principles of close-reading) and see the specious imagery (goldfield souvenirs and the like) as our own. This poem is coming from a vantage of white purity – the first person perspective is oh so valid precisely because it doesn’t remain consistent. This stance of omnipotence can offer us much. Do I want to become ‘divorced & unknown’, or do I want to search out the reasons for people living, navigating abandoned stretches of suburbia where vital landmarks no longer exist, except in some astral map (wherein you have to simply believe the levels of intrigue still inhabit, the associated mystery of who lives where, of what their phone numbers are, of what they are doing at any one point in time)?
Of course the reconciliatory ‘we’ position all of us at any sort of general workshop. It doesn’t matter. You may as well be unemployed and forced by Centrelink to attend a daylong seminar on how to write an effective resume. You may well be paying over $200 to learn about how to make a career out of poetry, or more pointedly, how to make it pay. The setting is vague enough to be recognizable: we can all sit there at this point in the poem, establish a sense of ourselves listening to prepared reports, scribbling various dates in various organisers, electronic or paper-based. That is easy. The tricky leap is whether or not we are prepared to accept a segue into a clichéd idea… Yes, here we see a collective and personal ‘us’, grown up and clam and adept at things now, but underneath… damn it if there still isn’t something magical, something we can’t quite put our fingers on… yawn.
Underneath this there is a space. There might be a reel-to-reel soundtrack; there might be a background context of personal communication initiated in an IRC chatroom context (via your once favored downloadable client). I’ve lived through some time specific moments and so have you (else you haven’t, and won’t, in which case we should talk). But perhaps more correctly this is a negative space, a virtual black hole where the smallest acts can contain a universe of import. And there’s that ‘casual netball skirt whistle’ that is casual in execution but burgeoning with worrisome possibilities. You think this.
Derek Motion has proven a slippery construct to locate! The poem is our only evidence (you should perhaps disregard all that right side column activity…) and within the work the figure of poet constantly seeks to draw you into the poem’s perspective, but also then alienate you from it without compunction. If he is a poet who creates this ‘sense of playful movement with his writing’ why is the movement so migraine inducing? More like travel sickness (I used to suffer this as a child – I know what it’s like) than the piquancy of finally feeling La Nausée (or thinking you finally have). And if he says things profoundly without ever saying them directly, doesn’t it stand to reason that what he has said would still be observable? Paraphraseable? Has this poem said anything beyond the already isolated and observed and clichés? A complex and compelling entity? No. Dazzling as a beautiful rhythmic gymnast twirling the ribbon but simultaneously liminal? Well, that’s just one example of his muddled language play. He wrote that shit remember. All in all, the poet has probably only been found to be best represented by the space of the whistle. A small notion that could contain lots of things. Like, lots of words (knowing these ‘words’ is still paramount). Words that could then – of their own volition – form an artwork wistfully nostalgic for the alienation of times past, comparing this bipolar feeling with the potent power graspable here in the contemporary now, the ‘edit’. This is the mediation of the era.
(I should note that if you are in fact an advertising mogul looking for that ideal model for an upcoming campaign – a campaign featuring a new product line along the lines of ‘regional poetics’ – please do get in contact with me. I am your poster-boy. I will use your money for ‘the good’. Some will dispute this after the fact. We will not worry.)