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Future tense: speculation and magic in recent Australian poetry

Bonny Cassidy 12 January 2014

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Last year, around the release of Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion, it occurred to me that a speculative tradition had quietly become established within recent Australian poetry.

In the last few years, poets including Gorton (specifically in the titular sequence of Hotel Hyperion), A Frances Johnson (The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street), Lisa Jacobson (The Sunlit Zone) and Michael Brennan (Autoethnographic) have constructed lyric scenarios based on speculations about technological, industrial and biological progress.

We could expand this list. It’s possible to read Jill Jones’ new The Beautiful Anxiety, for instance, as a long meditation on climate change and habitat destruction. In “Whale Songs” she speculates:

at the end of ages, as the whales approach,
now on foot and inconsolable, unable
to digest the folderol of the high seas.

The ice slides into disrepair and the acid city
finally measures the alarm.

It’s important to note that while these works might be conceptually comparable, they are of course tonally, thematically and traditionally quite separate from one another, e.g. Gorton’s cinematically cool vision of tragedy takes a remarkably different view than Brennan’s surreal satire. Nevertheless, these poets have collectively created a response to the myth of future.

In the current issue of Artlink radical anthropologist Michael Taussig discusses the possibility of apotropaic magic within contemporary art.  This is magic “used to defend oneself against magic”: a warding-off or turning-back of a curse or spell.

Using artist Simryn Gill’s photographs of open-cut mines as a case study, Taussig makes a rather thrilling proposal that these images “dismantle bit by bit the mythic technology of the mining companies that has mesmerised the postmodern world”. In their qualities of aerial detachment and stark exposure, Gill’s images remove any trace of human being from the mined landscape and reduce the “mythic technology” of mining to miniscule proportions; thereby creating a new representation of mining to rival the hypnotic magic of the industry’s media.

Science fiction has long been a form of apotropaic magic in literature and film, where its dystopic scenarios debunk mesmerising mythologies of weaponry, interventionist policy or anthropocentrism. Is it possible that speculative poetics is also a kind of apotropaic magic? That is, by making poetic images and expressions of the future, are we countering some kind of magic that is practised in constructions of future?

If we consider the way that pervasive myths about an Australian future are made, for example, we see that they are formed from rhetoric about the past and present. Daily, we encounter the future projection of what Matthew Hall, in his poem “clearing”, calls “pioneering machinations”. These include notions of assimilation, booming resources, uninterrupted wilderness and unchanged climate. Drawn from a colonial past and post-colonial present, they underpin an “Australian dream” of the future—perhaps this is what Jones’ poem “The Futures” identifies as “the white plenty”.

At some level we all take part in the production and reproduction of this dream. It’s most obviously produced through state-defined and corporate channels like advertising, election campaigning and broadcasting. Yet universities, artists and the left wing are not exempt from this collective mesmerising. The magic of its mythology lies in its production of comfort. The rhetoric of pioneering progress disappears current and projected realities such as species decline and habitat destruction, food security and population size, climate change and resources extinction. Individually, we mesmerise ourselves by making choices and decisions based on the status quo of the “lucky country”—health and security, bounty and peace. The current privilege of middle class, white collar and urban Australians is to make what we need appear—more printing paper, vehicles for safe and private transportation, potable water from a tap—its source invisible. It seems that the future will continue to magically be there for us just as it is now.

Yet, the works of Jacobson and Brennan offer quite different scenarios and imagery of Australian futures. Both locate their books in near-future Australia—the cities and surrounds of Melbourne and Sydney respectively. In contrast to myths of a comfortable future, Jacobson and Brennan envision dystopic possibilities, which conjure up alternative realities. Jacobson describes rising sea levels in Port Phillip, carbon usage limitation in suburban homes, and extinct species replaced by clones. Brennan’s Sydney, where an ape quite comfortably dresses in Zegna and the commodification of bodies is normalised, is post-human and frantically overdriven by a free market economy. These poets offer new myths about an Australian future, ones which jam or ward off notions of benevolent progress.

Panning out from the local scenario, we might think about what Gorton and Johnson do with the broader issue of humanism, specifically the mythic technology of space-exploration and surveillance. Adding to the list, I have recently finished a new book of poetry, to be released in July, which searches the Antipodean past and present as an archaeology of the future.

Like photography, poetry has long been associated with magic. In a blurb on Hall’s 2013 collection, Hyaline, John Kinsella remarks on how it “offers poetry as a possible healing”. This idea of poetry as a salve appears frequently in ecopoetic discourse. It invites us to believe that poetry doesn’t just make us feel a certain way privately in mind or body, but that its effects/affects might actually ripple into the social fabric. In this sense, speculative poetry may be quietly dismantling the vision of a progressive future. An apotropaic poetics would dismantle other kinds of hypnosis, too—think of the way that Lionel Fogarty, Michael Farrell or John Mateer use poetry to attack or undo the magical rhetoric of postcolonial settlement. Rather than healing balm, however, it is closer to prophecy: enchanting us with our own, captured image.

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