Wakefield Press 320pp 29.95AU Published September, 2013 ISBN 9781743052365
In June 2011, I was given a single poem by Christopher Barnett, printed by artist Marian Crawford, one of the sequence now published as when they came / for you elegies / of resistance. I remembered Barnett from the writing and avant-garde theatre scene in Melbourne in the 1980s. We had met in passing, but were not Facebook friends, so I had missed the series of elegiac poems Barnett had posted online since the killing of Furkan Doğan on 31 May 2010. I was aware only of Crawford’s long term project to set Barnett’s poetry by hand.
we will be
so many streams
& we shall
go to edge
especially to edge
to take us
when we sail
in these seas
cb julliet 10
The poem does not exactly hover on the cream-white page, but is partially embedded, the paper embossed with type which is not evenly printed: ‘spelling’ holds less ink than the bold black ‘out’ which follows. At the time, ‘furkan’ meant nothing to me. It was merely a sonorous word inserted between ‘rags’ and ‘streams’ and ‘other names’. I was caught by Barnett’s ‘edge’, his ‘grasping grids’ and the poignancy of ‘old roads’ leading to another road, leading eventually to the sea, ‘when we sail’. I perceived such bittersweet regret in Barnett’s verses that I imagined his destination to be Avalon, the elysian isle of Celtic legend, where heroes might eventually find peace.
Marian Crawford is co-ordinator of the Printmaking & Artist Book Studio at Monash University. With Barnett’s permission, long before the Wakefield Press publication was mooted, Crawford began setting each poem in Gill Sans 10pt type, which she printed in a single column on 120gsm Velata Avoria paper measuring 23cm x 21cm, on a small hand operated letterpress. There were then some two hundred and fifty poems – there are now over two thousand. This will be the labour of a lifetime. For Crawford, an essential part of her process is the ‘critical transformation, from a quickly forgotten moment in the blur of historical conflicts and live news feeds to an object that demands slowness in both production and reading’. Her slow process results in an intimate knowledge of the text – letter by letter, so to speak. In this loving commemoration of the poem and the poet, the book of the text becomes a work of art.
I am privileged to have read my first poem from when they came / for you elegies / of resistance in Crawford’s elegant setting. Though I commend Wakefield Press for taking on a far from standard publication, there is no doubt that the aesthetics of the page – the feel of the paper, the faint indentations caused by hard type, and the almost palpable smell of ink – influenced my reading of the poem. Crawford’s page, curved like a wave, is as wide and open as Barnett’s recurring motif of the sea. The poem is imbued with a gravitas and jagged beauty with which the cramped double columns of the paperback cannot compare.
Barnett’s customary style in his earlier published works, collected in LAST DAYS OF TH WORLD. And other texts for theatre (1984), and in the ‘(interlude)’ and ‘(interlude within interlude)’ of when they came / for you elegies / of resistance is a telegraphic, non-grammatical prose, without capitalisation and generally punctuated by slashes or ellipses. The slashes in particular create a sense of momentum, a forward rush. Soon after Doğan’s death, Barnett’s outpourings of grief, empathy and rage began to appear on his Facebook page in staccato phrases or single words typed one under the other, with only line breaks, spaces and a rare comma as punctuation. The form lends itself to the downward scrolling of computers and smaller devices. Having looked back at Barnett’s Facebook archive, I see that on some days he posted several poems, on other days none. Contemplation and suspense were imposed by the time lag between posts, and by the comments, images and other postings interspersed between the poems. The online reading is fragmentary by nature.
Collating Barnett’s poem-posts must have been a formidable task. Assembling them into a three hundred and twenty page book set with two columns per page imposes the idea of a continuous narrative that requires cover-to-cover reading. The twin columns, though expedient, compress a text which thrives on spaciousness of both time and page. Were this review not imminent, I would have preferred to read the text like a book of hours, a poem a day over several years, each day a meditation on the fate of Doğan, of dissidents, activists, and the artist-poet’s place in this imperfect world. My speedier reading served to highlight repetitions – a legitimate poetic device especially suited to Barnett’s performative work. But at a certain point I was fatigued by the poet’s interminable exhortations and seemingly endless litany of atrocities. Only later did I realise that I had taken on the poet’s fatigue. I was weighed down by his disillusionment, regret and occasional hopelessness; I was drowning in his refusal to forget.
Israel Defence Forces shot and killed Furkan Doğan when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, which was part of an international flotilla of ships attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. He was only eighteen years old. Barnett’s response – the poems written between June 2010 and May 2012 – becomes something more than a compassionate lament for the loss of a single life. Doğan’s death is the catalyst for remembering other injustices, the dates and sites of other massacres, the names of victims, the names of the guilty, and for the ailing poet’s circuitous reminiscences of a creative life dedicated to political activism. Doğan, the young man, becomes the symbol for everyman, for each oppressed individual or group, and, in Barnett’s personal lexicon, representative of the places he has abandoned and the loves he has lost.
i cry & cry
i don’t want
men are monsters
but they are
but they are
The boy died at sea; the poet’s lament joins in the swell of waves, the rolling of the sea. The sea is a palimpsest upon which the misery of the world is written. Memories come in waves; the missing are remembered in the sea, the stars and the night. The boy is flesh; blood is his heritage. Death stalks the world; the skies fall and the waves weep. The poet whispers the names of martyrs going back ages, and fears for those in the future.
Barnett offers many versions of himself:
thing to behold
banner & fist
broken & battered
in & out
in & out
The beautiful youth, the ageing poet: ‘i became / canvas stretched / to limit’; ‘i am both / poisonous / & perfect’; ‘i am not / a good person’; ‘i am infidel / solemn as silence’.
Perhaps he fears that his protests have been for nothing, or that there is dignity in silence when language has been co-opted by the powerful to excuse continued carnage. ‘bloody bloody words’ are bloody with inadequacy and with the literal blood of innocents. But we, ‘us’, the masses, are also made of words. Barnett says, in a line worthy of Jorge Luis Borges, ‘people are libraries’. History is hollow but breath reinvigorates the library: ‘we are / words welded / together’ and ‘when waves weep / words watch.’
Barnett’s language works in a kind of shorthand: the reader is left to fill in the blanks, provide conjunctions, make connections. Sense is not a product of grammatical syntax but of progressions and repetitions. Names, place names and languages other than English – there are lengthy quotations in French from sources as diverse as Derrida, Mao Tse Tung, Wittgenstein and the Bible – are given equal weight and poetic rephrasing, or as Barnett would have it ‘lyricism / is found / in struggle / … / our music / possible / only in battle’.
In his struggle to wrest meaning from the banal, the poet’s mood shifts from qualified optimism to profound melancholy:
somewhere in dark
times in this
continent i have
chosen to surrender
The sea weeps and wipes out; the sea invites surrender to eternal peace. But spoken aloud ‘sea’ sounds like ‘see’: the sea as consciousness, like the sentient ocean of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), the magma from which memories emerge. The poet is conscious of the hardships ahead, but repeatedly chooses to ‘set sail / into the tempests’. References to wrecks and drowning abound: the poet sits before ‘la radeau / de meduse [sic]’ – The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault’s dramatic painting of the starving survivors of a shipwreck – and pictures himself / us washed away, washed off the raft, defeated. The refrain ‘full fathom five’ refers to a watery grave thirty feet deep – a metaphor for our end, or Doğan’s, and for the distances between human beings – and is taken from William Shakespeare’s Tempest, Act One, Scene Two, in which Ariel addresses Ferdinand, whose father is believed drowned:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Ariel’s song makes death an unanticipated thing of beauty. Barnett conflates Doğan’s death with memories of his life in Sydney in the 1980s and, like Ariel, attributes the power of transmutation to the sea, in this instance the harbour – ‘centuries of caresses / transform tumult / into tenderness’ – so that Doğan survives by being transformed into thought and text, where ‘nothing of him … doth fade’.
The only respite from Barnett’s contemplation of pain, illness, destruction and death is ‘alison from adelaide’, his equivalent to Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice. She is ‘beautiful as bell’, weaving through memories that turn increasingly inward.
Barnett recalls the fervour and arrogance of youth: ‘i wanted / to take / tyrants / down / by any means / necessary malcom sd / & i believed him / his hate / purer than love’. He finds a fundamental righteousness, and a justification for taking up arms, in the words of Malcolm X:
We declare our right on this earth … to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.
The literature of revolution is Barnett’s life raft.
you are swept
afraid to alter
song of songs
it is close
falling into water
full fathom five
from that garden
Tempest, tides, time, folding and unfolding. Somehow, I hear bells. Elsewhere there have been bells – la belle ‘alison’ – and the chiming of reiteration. But here, coming to this end far from the garden (of Eden?), Barnett’s ‘song of songs’ reminds me of Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’, and adds Slessor’s questing voice to Barnett’s lament:
Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water’s over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
In his 1959 treatise The Necessity of Art (and by extension, the necessity of poetry and literature), Marxist philosopher Ernst Fisher wrote that art ‘is the indispensable means for [the] merging of the individual with the whole. It reflects his infinite capacity for association, for sharing experiences and ideas.’ He also proposed that the art of a decaying society should not only reflect that decay, but also ‘show the world as changeable. And help to change it.’
Barnett has come to the same conclusion from his early immersion in Marxist and Maoist philosophy, and from personal experience. In basket weaving for amateurs (1981), a dialogue between Margaret Preston and characters including Thea Proctor, Max Harris, Lionel Lindsay, a nameless art critic, and others, Barnett has the young Preston speak in tandem with her older self:
modern art to survive
must be made necessary
to modern society at first
step is to find subjects
that can symbolise what
is to use th meaning of our
world affectively as th
religious pictures once did for th other
times th crux of th matter is self
unless we can get to that point
of seeing that selves are not
we but only us that we defend
th art at th expense of th
of creative effort & so we defend
th cultured x
art to fulfill
requires to be
& not by th few
There is a rhythmic interplay between their twinned voices; a back and forth between the idealism of youth and experience of age. This section ends with both voices invoking a paradoxically secular god, whose spirituality has less to do with organised religion than with ‘th people’. Barnett writes from the premise that society needs the artist; the challenge is to make art meaningful to more than an elite few. Neither basket weaving for amateurs nor when they came / for you elegies / of resistance could be considered works with mass appeal, but they do attest to the continuity of Barnett’s polemics and poetics. He perseveres in grappling with social injustice in a complex and emotionally charged art form which, in Fisher’s words, ‘enables man to comprehend reality, and not only helps him to bear it but increases his determination to make it more human and more worthy of mankind.’
In an interview with Ruth Skilbeck, Barnett spoke of his impoverished childhood in Adelaide, his early membership of the Communist Party and his commitment to social change. Of his collaborative projects at Le Dernier Spectateur, the theatre and creative workshop space he founded in Nantes, France, he said:
LDS was about the transformative nature of creation, about the richness of interiority that only the poor possess, it was about polyphonies and multitudes, it was not accidentally a search for excellence in the very people dominant culture ignored.
The heroic, mystical aura with which Barnett endows ‘the poor’ might seem paternalistic were his identification with the casualties of tyranny not so palpable. Barnett is also au fait with the literary canons of more than one culture, and not averse to deploying biblical, literary, philosophical and historical references. This lends authority to his intensely passionate polemics, and goes some way toward explaining why he should feel more comfortable in a European milieu with a strong socialist tradition in the creative arts.
Skilbeck asks whether alcohol or drug addiction contributed to Barnett’s decision to finally leave Australia in 1990. He denies any addiction:
I drank and took drugs because I could not bear the Australian reality, it was a barbarism coated in culture. It was and remains a culture that is complicit in the crimes of its political classes. I was born in a very dark place, I have worked within a very dark place, I have searched within such darkness I thought there would never be light – so intoxication had as much to do with the pain of that. Or the boredom of living in a dying culture.
In Scene One of basket weaving for amateurs, Barnett declares ironically that ‘australia is a great place to think’ because all the galleries, theatres, cinemas, libraries and universities ‘are so well fenced in’. Despite the flourishing of avant-garde theatre companies, such as the Australian Nouveau Theatre in Melbourne, and small presses, such as Rigmarole Books, who published Barnett, mainstream Australian culture in the 1980s was circumscribed and conservative. Barnett tells Skilbeck that he fled because there was nothing he recognised (or related to) here. Australian culture did not embrace the risk inherent in his work, the risk-taking a more diverse European culture welcomed
when they came / for you elegies / of resistance shares aspects with the confessional form – not of fashionable and self-indulgent memoirs, but in the vein of Augustine’s Confessions. Barnett’s quasi-religious conversion to communism means that there are superficial, though compelling, parallels to be drawn between the poet and the saint. The poet looks back upon his life. He contemplates the ills of the world, and his political and philosophical education. He concludes that thinking of others before himself is fundamental. He struggles to overcome the follies of youth. He is disenchanted with conventional pieties and with toeing party lines. And, most importantly, he understands that there is more truth in words simply spoken than in elegant obfuscations.
Confession, elegy, lament or threnody. None of these simple epithets convey the weight of Barnett’s grief for his ‘brother’ Furkan Doğan. Neither Kaddish, prayer nor chant fully evoke Barnett’s hymn to his fallen comrades. I prefer ‘raga’, a term borrowed from traditional Hindu music, which comes closer to indicating a way of reading or intoning when they came / for you elegies / of resistance than prosaic literary terms. Figuratively speaking, raga connotes an expression of profound emotion; musically, it consists of a melodic theme around which variations are improvised. Mourning is Barnett’s central melodic theme, and his repeated phrases – ‘song of songs’, ‘full fathom five’, ‘tremble as i tremble’, ‘wave after wave’, amongst others – are the notes, or tones, around which variations in rhythmic pattern are built.
In an early poem, dated juin 10, Barnett exhorts us to become Fukan Doğan in order to compensate for the life he lost. Barnett remembers and writes to this end – ‘my art is / remembering / relentlessly remembering’ – but memory is an unreliable faculty and no one is a particularly reliable narrator of his or her own life. We are ‘torn between truth / & a way / of telling tale’ and I suspect few of our stories would stand up under close scrutiny. We slip between certainty and doubt, between the way we would prefer to have been and the way we are. The later poems in when they came / for you elegies / of resistance are steeped in melancholy, desire, dread and regret, winter and ice, waiting for death. And yet …
And yet there is a flicker of hope, with ‘each poet / an army’ adding to the groundswell of protest. Breath is life, and every life another voice ‘building breath / brick by brick / chant by chant.’ Though ‘l’ombre / est tombé’ (the shadow / has fallen), there remains the promise of a return to the light. Barnett is a true believer in literature’s power to motivate, initiate and effect change. Contemporary parallels will not be lost on Australian readers. In the end, words are Barnett’s and perhaps our salvation.
Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine (Baker Publishing, 2008).
Christopher Barnett, LAST DAYS OF TH WORLD. And other texts for theatre (including ulrike meinhof sings and basket weaving for amateurs) (Rigmarole Books, 1984).
Marian Crawford, When they came for you, conference paper presented at Impact 8 International Printmaking Conference, Dundee, Scotland (August 2013) and the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, Monash University (December 2013).
Ernst Fisher, The Necessity of Art (Verso, 2010).
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Penguin, 1999).
Ruth Skilbeck, Ruth Skilbeck in Conversation with Christopher Barnett, Arts Features International (1 February 2013).
Kenneth Slessor, Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson, 1993).