John Geraets, ed.: Ab.ww/Loney 17 (September 2000)
An Inside Narrative
The Languages of the Body
by Kathy Acker
- The Languages of flux. Of uncertainty in which the ‘I’ (eye) constantly changes. For the self is “an indefinite series of identities and transformations.”
- The languages of wonder, not of judgment. The eye (I) is continuously seeing new phenomena, for, like sailors, we travel through the world, through our selves, through worlds.
- Languages which contradict themselves.
- The languages of this material body: laughter, silence, screaming.
- Scatology. That laughter.
- The languages of play: poetry. Pier Paolo Pasolini decided to write in the Friulian dialect as “a mystic act of love . . . the central idea . . . was . . . (that) of the language of poetry as an absolute language.”
- Language that announces itself as insufficient.
- Above all the languages of intensity. Since the body’s, our, end isn’t transcendence but excrement, the life of the body exists as pure intensity. The sexual and emotive languages.
- The only religions are scatology and intensity.
- Language that forgets itself. For if we knew that chance governs us and this world, that would be absolute knowledge.
Then forget all of this. In the modes of silence: secrets, autism, forgettings, disavowals, even death. …
– “Critical Languages” (Bodies, 91-92).
Kathy makes two vital points in the preface to Bodies of Work (viii-ix):
- “to write down what one thinks one knows destroys possibilities for joy”
- “the mind is so powerful that what is thought comes to pass”
I can’t embody Alan’s poems by writing about them – they are, in their own right, and the only way to sidestep that would be to quote them, entire, on my allotted pages. I can make remarks about them, though, as if to a friend (an interlocutor would be someone who had already read them before the conversation began). I can describe them – for what that’s worth – and make certain speculations about them and their author. I postulate a working out of the myth of Orpheus in certain aspects of these three poems, but I won’t pretend that these are necessarily their author’s thoughts … nor especially mine. Rather, they’re a dramatic frame which allows us, as spectators, to participate in the (inevitable) psychomachia of all artists’ relation to their art.
An Inside Narrative:
Recent Works by Alan Loney
Over and over again, in our false acts of absolute judgment and criticism, we deny the realm of death. For its perverse head, Pluto, informs us that we cannot be authorities, that we will never know.
– Kathy Acker, “Critical Languages” (Bodies, 89)
The recent works are:
- Catalogue. California: Meow Press, 2000. (completed 10 Jan 98) [C: pp.1-27]
- Mondrian’s Flowers (written mostly 1996-97, revision completed 19/4/99) [MF: pp.1-25]
- Melbourne Journal (October 1998 – May 1999) [MJ: pp.1-44]
Before I talk about them, though, I need to establish some critical tools. Who am I to judge, for a start, and how do I propose to do so? (A warning from Kathy should always be taken seriously).
I begin, then, with two quotations:
Half a dozen of the hundreds of obscure poems he’d written had been published in obscure literary magazines subsidised by the arts grants, so he called himself a poet.
– Barry Crump, “Intellectual Bastard” (58)
That could be called an Outside View. Now for an Inside one:
… Sue tried to keep up her bright, nurse-like tone. ‘Another over-simplifying question, I’m afraid, Mr Potter: why do you write poetry?’
‘No, I think it really is a simple question. Or perhaps I just mean the answer I personally would give’s quite simple. I write poetry to be able to go on living at all. Well, not quite at all, but to function as a human being. ... When I was working in that timber yard, my life started being a burden to me. Not just the life in the yard, but the whole of my life. … Then, after about a month, some words came into my mind and straight away I felt a little better. I forget what they were, but they brought more words with them and they made me feel a little better still. By the time the words stopped coming I felt at peace. I wrote them down on the back of a delivery note – I do remember that – and it was only then I woke up to the fact that what I’d done was write a poem. The moment I’d finished writing the words down I started feeling bad again. Not as bad as just before the words started coming, but still bad. The next day I felt a little worse, and the day after that worse again, and so on for another three or four weeks until another lot of words started turning up. It’s been like that ever since.’
– Kingsley Amis, “Dear Illusion” (137)
The poem Catalogue is 27 pages long. Each page has 27 lines. It begins with an epigraph by A. N. Whitehead: “There are twenty seven categories of explanation.” The right-hand pages, Alan Loney tells us in his preface, have been extracted “verbatim” from An Illustrated Catalogue of Old and Rare Books (1902); the left-hand pages give an account of a bush-walk. The cover shows two branches: the bottom bare, the top – from Geofroy Tory’s Champ Fleury (1529) – leaved with the letters of the alphabet. The syntax of the last line of each page tends to match up (more or less) with the beginning of the next.
Some things are apparent here. Alan is of the opinion that the catalogue from which he has extracted half of his poem “can be read, if one wishes, as a condensed history of the intellectual and political life of the so-called civilisation of the western world” – that is, if one wishes to see that history as a tangle of discrete and unmotivated words and sentences:
into the electricity of bodies,
emblems of love, ethnick tales,
divine inspiration or diabolical possession,
a new dictionary of love
and a sure guide to hell.
In sum, “An erotic / fairy story, handled in detail / by the bearers of walking sticks / & umbrellas.” [C: 13]
The other half parallels this forest of language with that vegetable creation, the New Zealand bush – also, perversely, a world of:
they’re scattered all over the wooden seat
there: bone, east, pain, blood, panik, skin,
suck, pass, want, broken, time –
anything you need, with phone numbers [C: 8]
It’s a very formally constructed (constricted?) poem. Does this mean it’s about imposing order on disorder? It seems more the other way round – breaking down the codes of discourse which allow these books to “make sense” on their own ground in order to show their kinship with rioting, sullied, unclean nature …
Perhaps both of these are really Outside Views: Crump frankly despises the idea that a “poet” can be anyone who’s racked up the requisite number of journal publications, and the point of Amis’s story seems to be that Potter is, in fact, a fraud – not the great writer he’s touted to be. Sue, whom he asks to resolve the question, decides that his “occupational therapy” model is in fact the correct one, and that Keats, Milton and Hopkins, his alleged peers, are poets in quite a different sense:
‘… it’s all rather like that business they call occupational therapy, where people weave carpets to take their mind off themselves and their problems. The point there is that it doesn’t make any difference to anybody whether the carpets are any good or not. I’ve been wondering for over thirty years, on and off, if it’s the same with my poems.’ (Amis, 138).
Perhaps the reason Potter is no poet is because he’s prepared to be judged by Sue, to set her up as his own personal King Minos. Then again, perhaps that’s what tells us he is a poet – perpetual dissatisfaction with your own work, your own methods, your own claims to fame, might be the mark of the beast:
Once upon a time there was a writer; his name was Orpheus. He was and is the only writer in the world because every author is Orpheus. He was searching for love. (Acker, Bodies, 62)
“Do you fuck?” Potter asks Sue, shortly before the conversation quoted above. “Yes, but only my husband,” she replies, “with some approximation to the truth.” (Amis, 135).
“… it is hard to think clearly about emotional matters when the writer in one takes over at the drop of the first word” says Alan in his Melbourne Journal . Potter would certainly love to fuck Sue, but killing himself to impress her is almost as good. ‘Bad poets mind about poetry just as much as good poets. At least as much” (Amis, 160), is how she interprets this, but I fear the merit or lack of it in his work is a little beside the point at that stage.
Is Alan Loney a “good poet”? The Outside View would say so – publications, prizes, fellowships and all the usual criteria. Is he a true poet? We could turn a Crump-like eye upon him and question certain austerities, distances, reticences – is he close enough to the people? Broad enough in his appeal? Well, who the fuck knows? That’s not for me – or anyone (minus Minos) – to say.
The Inside View seems the only one left worth pursuing, then; the only alternative to simply alternating quotations with occasional bursts of close reading.
The myth of Orpheus, Kathy’s “only writer in the world”, has three essential elements:
In a futurist manifesto the proclamation of hatred of woman (the feminine) is entirely justified. It is the Woman in Man that is the direct cause of the dominance of the tragic in art.
– Mondrian, Neo-Plasticism  (Elgar, 122)
Mondrian’s flowers is in three parts. The first, “Lozenge” [MF: 1-7], is dedicated to the Christchurch poet Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945), and contains six poems lineated as prose:
- From a garden in the antipodes rearranges and interweaves phrases from Bethell’s book of that title (a key to the other poems?)
- An old song restrung keeps up the same tone of kunstprosa: “Amid the slaughter, marginalia & textual drift, he compiles what more than a dictionary of human movement”
- A few definitions: “Do I merely use the past for stuffing cushions …”
- From our correspondent introduces us again to Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), the addressee of Loney’s award-winning dear Mondrian (1976).
- The nothing poem makes something of nothing, because, after all, “nothing’s the matter.”
- Toward a true vision of reality speaks through the autobiographical eye of Mondrian.
The second section, “Flowery Trellis” [MF: 8-19], consists of eleven poems, averaging thirty lines each: “paintings of / paintings, temporizing / the template” . They are all about Mondrian, whom the poet quotes, discusses, debates with, and finally addresses directly:
Pieter How are you? Are you healthy?
Longing to hear from you. We are well.
Are you still painting? 
The third, “Blue Dahlia” [MF: 20-25] (a reference to Raymond Chandler’s 1946 film noir classic?) groups four poems of varying shapes and sizes, each with the title of a picture:
- Landscape by Moonlight [1907-8?] from Mondrian’s Naturalist phase – clipped, gnomic, end-stopped phrases: “By minute’s echo, in quarto overtures, proofed.”
- Blue Facade [ 1913-14?] from his Cubist phase. The lines are now clauses, for the most part: “Classification exudes exclusion” – a motto for the critic?
- Checkerboard with light colours  early Neo-plasticist period. A fanatically detailed 60-line description of a series of flowers and stems, lineated as prose, but page-centred.
- Checkerboard with dark colours  early Neo-plasticist period. “He cut the tree to make woodcuts glorifying the tree.”
Between 1922 and 1925 … Mondrian agreed, rather reluctantly, to paint flowers in water-colour. … Having to earn his living by doing work he disapproved of must have made him hate all the flowers in creation. (Elgar, 160)
- “Apollo presented him with a lyre [liar], and the Muses taught him its use, so that he not only enchanted wild beasts, but made the trees and rocks move from their places to follow the sound of his music.” (Graves, 1: 111)
- He descended into hell to recover his wife Eurydice, stung by a serpent while fleeing from a rapist. After charming the king of the Underworld into letting her go, he broke the conditions of her release by turning too soon to see if she was following him, and thus lost her forever.
- Finally, he was killed by Maenads, whose wild cult of Dionysus he refused to honour. They dismembered him, and his head floated, still singing, down the river Hebrus to the sea (and thence to the island of Lesbos).
Power over natural things (animate and inanimate) is a part of the myth of the poet, then: power over death (though not, alas, over love); destruction – a welcome death? – through overreaching, scorning the greater powers of the god of misrule; lying, too.
“I am / probably the creepiest thing in here / this afternoon” says Alan Loney in Catalogue  – a statement which might repay a bit of unpacking. There is (of course) the pun on “creepers”; on being a creep (“voyeur!” [MJ: 20] – “Jeepers creepers, where d’you get those peepers?”, as the old song puts it). A creep is generally a loner, too: Alan / alone; Loney / lonely:
I wonder if I enjoy being alone, and more than I have ever admitted. I have spent so much time by myself in recent years that it must have answered some kind of need, or even preference [MJ: 33]
I hesitate to describe the city of Melbourne as the Underworld, but Alan’s journey thither certainly becomes the vehicle for some powerful mythologising in his Journal:
A story, say, of one who wished to die
and to do so by flying into a distance
and actually disappearing [MJ: 26]
The poem is dedicated to “Helena,” and contains oblique hints of a love affair. “[N]othing’s familiar. What shall I say / to her” [MJ: 1] could introduce Orpheus’s descent into the dark realms of the Mother as easily as Alan’s. (In Kathy’s version of the myth, Eurydice in the Underworld, she refers to the two principals as Or and You: the masculine pursuit of contraries (either/or), the feminine of identities (I/you)?)
my senses of being poetically marginalised are deeply engrained in my social marginalisation – how I have never been able to survive in any normal fashion, or be a full member of the social body, or even belonging to a group, even if that group was the avant garde in New Zealand poetry … [MJ: 39]
Melbourne Journal has 44 pages of text. Short poems alternate with notes and longer prose comments, mainly of a critical and autobiographical nature. In that it resembles Sidetracks (1998), but with less distance maintained between the author and his text – or his audience.
is it possible, that this place, not
‘the land of my birth’
is where I might truly
come to be
‘at home’ [MJ: 20]
Not that this is Mon Coeur mis à nu [My heart stripped bare], exactly. The inverted commas above would suffice to tell us that. “[T]he woman … tells me I have no accent”:
then – unidentifiable by sound [MJ: 44]
The author, sitting in his Melbourne cafés, beaches, parks, taking notes, book in hand (“each day I come to Browns Café, at Albert Park, I look for a thin book to bring with me” [MJ: 12]) seems to court this anonymity, and at the same time resist it:
writing as a form or mode of waiting
waiting as a mode or form of writing
and this ‘free-floating anxiety’ – did it come
from the womb of a frightened mother [MJ: 5]
Because, after all, nobody is “unidentifiable by sound” – “Am I an artist, or is this a fantasy designed to cover for life-long socio-economic ineptitude?” [MJ: 44]. One is tempted to reply “both” to this rhetorical question. Both are true. They’re not mutually exclusive. There’s a lot of honesty and courage in this book, no more so than in its last words, echoing Schwarzenegger as firmly as Beckett: “I’ll be back” [MJ: 44].
What does the myth mean? Orpheus represents order. He is Mondrian: the divine sky myth of control. If we can just get the colours, lines and rectangles in the right order, then all will be well forevermore:
Here, a millimetre too little or too much, a duller red, a less intense blue; there, a side of a rectangle slightly shorter, an intersection of straight lines nearer to or farther from the edge of the canvas, and the entire work would begin to totter like badly-seated scaffolding. (Elgar, 133)
all my writing life I have regarded poetry as heightened language, in every way. I want the writing to be technically sound – no, better than that, I want it technically brilliant whatever one’s imperfections. [MJ: 2]
… Immortality, purity, perfection … But on the same page Alan admits:
I am losing weight [MJ: 2]
Disorder, pain, untidiness are the return of the repressed – the forces which tear Orpheus limb from limb: das Ewig-Weibliche [Eternal Feminine].
Email from Max Gimblett tells me I am obviously stripping to whatever is yet to become essential – just me & god is how he puts it [MJ: 40]
what will come of this pain. Maybe
one just has it, and then
one has something else. Yet
it seems I have always
had it. [MJ: 26]
I am writing a kind of swan-song [MJ: 40]
… this from the proto-poet himself (whose lyre was passed on to Sappho) –
… give me at once cold water
flowing forth from the Lake of Memory [MJ: 15]
True Boogie-Woogie I conceive as homogeneous in intention with mine in painting; destruction of melody which is the equivalent of destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means – dynamic rhythm. I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art.
– Piet Mondrian (Elgar, 138-39)
- Acker, Kathy. Bodies of Work: Essays. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
- Acker, Kathy. Eurydice in the Underworld. London: Arcadia Books, 1997.
- Amis, Kingsley. Collected Short Stories. 1980. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
- Bethell, Ursula. Collected Poems. Ed. Vincent O’Sullivan. 1985. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1997.
- Crump, Barry. Bastards I Have Met. Auckland: Beckett Publishing, 1986.
- Elgar, Frank. Mondrian. Trans. Thomas Walton. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968.
- Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 vols. 1955. Rev. ed. 1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
- Loney, Alan. Catalogue. California: Meow Press, 2000.
- Loney, Alan. dear Mondrian. Taylors Mistake: Hawk Press, 1976.
- Loney, Alan. Melbourne Journal [unpublished (1998-99)].
- Loney, Alan. Mondrian’s Flowers [unpublished (1996-97)].
- Loney, Alan. Sidetracks: Notebooks 1976-1991. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1998.
How little, finally, one makes, of everything
– Alan Loney [MJ: 11]
– Alan Loney [MJ: 11]
Because he liked garbage, he wrote poetry by picking phrases out of the cultural garbage cans – newspapers, sex mags, tv coverage, great poems, everything else – and stringing these phrasings together according to inaudible musical rhythms. … The poet didn’t notice much outside him and he didn’t have opinions.
– Kathy Acker, “Lust: A Sailor’s Slight Identity” (Eurydice, 62)
I love this description. It seems truly heroic – even better than Auden’s The poet is Mr. Everyman; he goes to work every day on the tram. “He didn’t have opinions.” How futile – how admirable – how beautiful …
I took the title for my essay from Melville – Billy Budd: An Inside Narrative. Billy (another sailor) is the dying god, the youthful scapegoat. Like Orpheus, he is sacrificed – we hope for the salvation of the people, but, in any case, as a result of challenging the gods with his beauty. Does the myth of the artist, then, come down to this desire to reconcile Eros and Thanatos / love and death; kinesis and stasis / motion and stillness; the fecund disorder of the vegetable creation with fixed forests of type (as in Catalogue)? Mondrian, the ultimate masculine artist, is anxious to fix, and thus reject, his own femininity:
It is the Woman in Man that is the direct cause of the dominance of the tragic in art. (Elgar, 122)
(His biographer explains that “By tragic he means impulse, romanticism, sentimentality, mannerism, baroque, everything, in short, that he detested.”). Hence Alan’s question in Mondrian’s flowers:
Was that all she was, a businessman’s
wife, the pair of you off
to Belgium [MF: 12]
Hence, too, his pairing of Mondrian with Ursula Bethell, the poet of gentle loves and gardens, the poet who wrote (after the death of her “close friend and companion” Effie Pollen) “Now I am a tree struck by lightning – dead. I can think things but not feel them.” (Bethell, xi & xxi).
The plainest working out of the myth is in Melbourne Journal: here everything is dualism: Masculine / feminine (“What shall I say / to her”); Artist / fantasist; Dark / light (“/ can you hear the quiet [/] / can you see the dark” [MJ: 3]); “the options – [/] win / win [/] lose / lose [/] win / lose [/] lose / win [/] no deal” [MJ: 5]
In the battle with Nature, we will always lose. The thing, as Alan reminds himself, is to do so gracefully, be content with “cold water / flowing forth from the Lake of Memory”.
A Brief Description of the Whole World 17 (2000): 70-79.
Ab.ww/Loney 17 (2000)