The Eternal Work-in-Progress

graph_abstractby John Kinsella,

Writing Morpheus in my late teens went hand-in-hand with a fascination on my part for long, cumulative works of poetry. In Morpheus, through the character of Thomas, I was subtextually mapping possible approaches to creating the work-in-progress, with its echoes of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Also, though I despised him politically, like many of the ‘left’ I felt intrigued and compelled by Ezra Pound’s unfinishable life-work, The Cantos. I have a strong scepticism of Pound these days, but he convinced me, along with Olson’s Maximus Poems and Zukofsky’s ‘A’, that anything we write is inevitably part of what we will write in the future. The interconnectedness of literary writing became an obsession for me. (This was the case for me even with Emily Dickinson’s Poems, which in their editing, and the fights over their publication or presentation, gave the sense of a collection of smaller self-contained poems yet also of one long, growing body of work that might be read as a single poems in many parts.)

In the same way that I can revitalise a thirty-year-old novel for publication, so I can continue to build on a poem ‘sequence’ I began in the mid-nineties. Graphology is an ever-growing body of interconnected, though not necessarily sequential, poems. But it is a sequence of sorts, depending on your definition. I have defined sequences in a variety of ways to include non-linear (or partially non-linear: it is very linear at times and hopefully actually suggests different kinds of linearity), and in the spirit of this, I would term Graphology an open cumulative sequence. In my critical book, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (Manchester University Press, 2007) I offered the following ‘definitions’ of poetry sequences:

Three general sequential types: (1) narrative, where sections work like chapters in a book; (2) lyrical/cumulative, where an overall picture is built by adding parts that share linguistic qualities and may offer different angles on the same subject matter, but don’t tell a story (amplify, augment); (3) the conversational sequence, in which the disparate parts speak to each other ‘dialogically’. One might also add another possibility – (4) the sequence of fragmentation in which the parts may seem to operate totally independently from each other, and may be broken down not only on the level of the line but on the level of the word itself. Narrative and lyrical/cumulative types can comfortably fit within the lyrical-I tradition though you could have non-lyrical variations on this. Third and fourth types lend themselves very much to the non-lyrical-I approach. Fragmentary sequence undoes narrative as much as creates a sense of movement. Parts of the whole don’t necessarily add up.  (133)

In Morpheus, the character Thomas tried to create a number of sequential poems with a number of different approaches. They were relatively short, written in short, ‘impressionistic’ sections. As I was writing the novel, I was reading Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad and Albert Cooke’s translation of the Odyssey: the book is imbued with these texts, as much as with Joyce’s Ulysses. But I was also reading Pound’s Cantos, and ‘Canto 1’ echoes throughout Morpheus:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.

These words, and events of my own life, fed into the writing. Looking after Wheatlands farm for my uncle and auntie during the summer (the sheep), dealing with drug and alcohol issues, sailing on the Swan River with a friend, and relationships of the time that I can’t even quite define with over thirty years’ distancing. These experiences, and the experience of reading, were focused through my (very fictional) character, Thomas, who wanted to write a new poetry. And what Thomas began, I continued.

P1130603My first Graphology poems were published by Equipage in 1997, but their antecedents go back to my first encounters with the poetry of J. H. Prynne (to whom the 1997 chapbook was dedicated), and further back still to the pastoral and radical concerns of my character Thomas, and the multi-phased rural-urban collider that was my youth.

I have written a number of articles on the poetics and content of Graphology, and its grounding in the ‘pseudo-science’ of graphology: the reading of individuals’ characters through their handwriting. My first (submerged) forays into graphology actually predate Morpheus, where it is a shadowy presence. I read books my mother had acquired when I was about fifteen, and often mixed typewritten text with handwritten text when I wrote early poems. Handwriting had a tonality that was like a pianist’s touch on the keys. Notes are just not enough. Graphology was very much a subtext in my 1995 collection Erratum/Frame(d), and I see that as the ‘true’ beginning of the process of writing Graphology.

Sans Erratum/Frame(d), the ‘sequence’ now runs at over 800 pages. It was not composed in perfect numerical sequence. In fact, it jumps about, and there are many lacunae in the numbering, but its threads and linguistic concerns create a different kind of numerical correspondence that is spatial as well as temporal. The ‘section’ I am engaged with at the moment is ‘Graphology Heuristics’, which links the act of reading writing as well as the process of discovering for oneself. Graphology is a poetry of reading and experiencing, of witnessing and reacting: its open form allows all that interests me to gather to its magnetic centre, establishing its own co-ordinates of categorising and arranging figurative and factual ‘information’. There is, for me, something of the plotless novel in this, but one in which the fiction is conscious of the compromised position all writers are in through mediating ‘experience’ with language that seeks to frame and cross-reference that experience.

Graphology has been going for seventeen years (at least). At times I have declared it ‘ended’ (it can and could never be ‘finished’ — it is ‘open’); that I would write no more. But I always find myself coming back to its central premise and also its certainties: it is a solid body of work to add to, grow out of, experiment and take risks with. It’s not a journal, not even an artist’s workbook: it is a structured poetic work that plays with time and space as artefacts that need iconoclastic (un)treatment, but it shares qualities with diaries/journals/daybooks. At other times, it becomes so over-polished, I recognise none of the experience that went into the original draft of a piece. The work-in-progress is there to encourage, entice, mock, reject, answer back, unsettle and comfort. There are lyrics, prose poems, concrete poems, list poems, scribbles, squibs and sonnets (sometimes one and the same); there are literally drawings and long sequences (within the overall ‘endless’ sequence) and texts written in the dirt of firebreaks, shaped with sticks.

The word itself GRAPHOLOGY is an echo far from its cause, its origins, throughout the years, the many pages. My handwriting has always been difficult to read, I am told. Thomas, the protagonist of Morpheus, might have been working towards his own Graphology, but then again, he seems to have gone in a very different direction. His explorations brought different paths and different ‘ends’.

Here are two of the most recent:

Graphology Heuristics 34

Fires have been raging all over the last few days.

We see the columns of smoke at all points, as if we’re the centre,
biding our time.

Near the detention centre someone lit-up ten or eleven times.
Two years ago women with ‘bomb the boats’ t-shirts
leapt up and down, chanting, in front of t.v. cameras.
No one is suggesting a direct link, but.

On Wave Rock a BMX thrill-seeker rides the erosion
and has a whale of a time. The photos are accessed
across the planet. The shire is wary
though a businesswoman is stoked.
Soon, it will be a tidal wave
wrecking inland.

Some would mix metaphors above,
but they’re separate issues.

Bright sparks drive
firebugs and vandals
and their apologists.

And bringing this to light
makes the personal pronoun
a killjoy.

Don’t worry, it’ll all wash over.
Time covers up the dirty work,
the detonations.

Graphology Heuristics 35

Funny how a single word can trigger
a dictionary.

Others want to get in on the act.
Why not? United we fall,

divided we stand. This sequence
of words. This operational

If I say; If I say so; If I say
so myself. The lower leaves

on the tree outside the window
dying to boost the canopy.