Benjamin Frater: 6am in the Universe: Selected Poems

Wollongong: Grand Parade Poets, 2011, 140pp.

When a new publisher begins with two books, one of which is a posthumous selected, you are inclined to think of The Winter’s Tale’s, “Thou metst with things dying, I with things newborn”. But there are no tints of the autumnal in Frater’s book, any more than there are in its companion, Pete Spence’s Perrier Fever. Frater died in 2007 in his late twenties and his book is a young man’s book dominated by manic energy and manic creativity – there is nothing “composed” or even merely “lively” about it.

I want to begin describing it by taking polite issue with the otherwise useful Afterword by Tim Cahill which itself begins by trying to place Frater in an Australian poetic tradition and deciding that this cannot be done since his “tradition was one that he himself defined as a ”˜visionary poetics’: William Blake, Antonin Artaud and Allen Ginsberg . . .” I think this puts the cart before the horse when it comes to description. What matters first is what generates the poems – correctly described here as a “visionary poetics” – what matters least is where such a generative praxis leaves a poet on the various imaginary maps of Australian poetry. It is hard to think that any poet of any worth would begin by locating his- or herself nationally though, it is true, many have, early on, wanted to change the direction of their national literature. At any rate, almost by definition, a visionary poetics is going to be trans-national, tapping in to elements that appear in all the manifestations of poetic creativity. In some cultures such a poetics will be transgressive while in others it might be quite normative.

This is all very abstract and I should begin with the poems rather than issues like this, though what follows is no more than a set of provisional and tentative responses. 6am in the Universe begins with three poems from an earlier chapbook, Bughouse Meat. The first two seem surreal explorations of experiences under psychiatric care (in “the bughouse”) in a state of internal chaos – “Magog and Gog and Moloch inside / Megiddo is the body, the body is Megiddo” – producing a poetry which “is still considered / ”˜untherapeutic’”. But these poems are of a piece with the latter, more ambitious “Ourizen” in that they share the same general, poetico-philosophical position, they include the references which regularly reappear later (the “subaqueous”, the “marineric” and the little totem of the Yak) and they have, at a deeper level, a weird interest in inversions. The pattern of “Megiddo is the body, the body is Megiddo” may be only syntactic but the second poem begins with the epigraph, “the wheel / is only the shadow / of the spider” which ties in with what seems like a typically visionary reversion of the usual order (though I can’t profess any great competence with this) so that the spirit world of the shadow has primacy over the physical world. One thinks of Plato’s “Time is the moving image of eternity” as something crudely parallel. At any rate, one of these inversions becomes a powerful generative device in the third poem, “The Argument”, whose title surely refers to the Eighteenth century use of the term as a compressed laying-out of the elements which will make up a longer work. “The Argument” begins with another epigraph built around an inversion, “the dreamer who butchered his arm to challenge his reality, / now butchers his reality to challenge his arm”. What follows is a four-page set of statements in which the repeated subject – “my forearm” – gets a free set of highly imagined predicates:

. . . . .
My forearm is a Nocturnal ballad of hieroglyphs,
              a battered-birdwing
              a supplicatory of bleeding ghosts,
              the end of a lion’s tyranny,
              an ancient Crocodile skull,
              the nightmare of and war of Spring,
              a Catholic Yak’s exorcism,
My forearm is our Golden fingerless child
              a piece of Apocalyptic debris,
My forearm has closed eyelids,
              is an Anti-american-warcraft . . .

6am in the Universe contains in a slip inside the back cover a CD with a number of readings by the author. This is one of the poems readers can see performed and it is quite a performance. It works, it seems to me, not because of its manic energy (that comes from mania and has no necessary connection with poetry) nor even from its apparently endless fertility (though that is a point where creativity and mania intersect) but rather because it has a paradoxically rational core, expressed in its epigraph. It is a manic set of images where the repetitive structure is attractive because there is a reason behind it. Its true ancestor is thus not Blake or even Ginsberg’s “Howl” but something like Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” where the celebrated celebrations of his cat Jeoffry are repetitive and manic but also logical in that they are expressions of praise for the natural world and its creator.

The major part of this book is the large section “Ourizen” whose title presumably was derived by eliding Blake’s “O Urizen”. Tim Cahill gives a useful description of the way in which Frater had planned this as part of a larger structure “Prey Hotel”. Just as “The Argument” was underpinned by a rational position, so “Ourizen” has a tight and logical structure. It begins with “The Repossession of the Sacrarium” which is about (a very loose word to use in this context!) what might be called “taking back the world” (or, for that matter, “re-establishing the divine”), asserting the infinite (and despising the measurers) and asserting the central power of creativity. This is very Blakean and overtly so since the third section invokes Blake’s Rintrah to curse all of Blake’s familiar enemies:

. . . . .

RINTRAH! who shook me from my skull, woke
me up, pulled me from the funeral of reason
and made me stare into the sunburst
light of imagination till my pupils wept tiny
         blood tears, sick with too much truth
RINTRAH! reveal your creations
         unveil your sweet tortures of Locke
as warning for any other ignorant empiricist
         who attempts to confine the dagger
of imagination with a weak and futile sheath
. . . . .
RINTRAH! for Einstein and Newton, gray
masters who named and covered themselves in
the
         tiny non-mental realities
         that are not realities at all!
. . . .

The next, large section is called “HAYZ” and is built,  interestingly, around the four letters of the title. The first part, “hermeneutic” (also available in performance on the CD) is constructed out of words sharing the same initial letter. Its concluding lines will give some idea of it:

             harlequin
of
hari-kiri-huns
      on hell-bound-hog-skin-
hoars
herded and hoarded for
          the harvest of Hendrix;
a hallucinogenic greek sun god.

                                           Ha!

The Greek sun-god is, of course, Helios and the omission of his name is a nice way of signalling a climax. But what interests me about “hermeneutic” is that it works not by obsessive repetition and variation like “The Argument” or “The Repossession of the Sacrarium” but by obsessive accretion.

The other three letter-based sections – Arculation, Yek and Zod – are altogether more complex. “Arculation” is built around an accretion of words beginning with “a” but they are thinner than in “hermeneutic” and their continual re-appearance and play gradually pushes a complex of arc/ach/ark into prominence. “Yek” is a three-part nightmare poem that seems closer to the Bughouse Meat poems with its vision of the body distorted by a psychotic episode. It is here that the recurring images of underwater and inversion come into some kind of focus as it begins with an “apocalyptic Marineric Holocaust where the earth / wonderfully stands on its own head, / – the sky become an aquatic floor”. In this physical inversion into a “marineric” universe, the poor victim finds eels inside his body:

the eels of his body bit and gnawed
at the sinew and bone, he wailed
the eels of his body swam into his skull
and nestled in the folds of his brain
he wept and cursed the soft madness.

The second section seems to observe this victim from an external perspective, “I watched him prowl from foaming EmeraldYoke” before enacting a kind of creative rebirth sponsored by the magical letters of yek:

MARCH ON! off the shore of hair
                         into the mainland of Imagination!
                         YEKian infantry on the beach
                         caressed by unordinary Lime Sunset.

The final part of this section is a repeated celebration of this YEKian transformation and war against both reason and “the tyranny of psychiatry” while “Zod” is an examination of “zero” in the sense of the nothingness of the self which has exploded into imagination. There seems a strong influence of Artaud’s “To Have Done with the Judgement of God” here. The idea that nothingness and infinity are connected as a kind of reverse of the Big Bang – though the poems never use this image – is an intriguing one and poetically valuable because at all points the elaboration of the various forms of zero can also be the realm of the imagination in which all things are possible where, as Blake says, anything possible to be believed can be the image of the truth. Thus we get such delicious moments as:

Before god there was nothing
Before god there was Zer0

and Zoro
             is Zod
and Zod is the space where Tchaikovsky and
John Wayne
waltz
where Siberian buttons burn . . .

The last fifty-odd pages of 6am in the Universe are a section called “Ourizen” confusingly so since the entire body of poems beginning with “The Repossession of the Sacrarium” is also called “Ourizen” but one can understand the problems of the editors dealing with posthumous material. At any rate this second “Ourizen” is a unity in itself, beginning with poems of distorted autobiography and finishing (where else?) in apocalypse. Perhaps the idea behind the larger “Ourizen” is that this quite coherent pattern should be introduced by poems which affirm the triumph of creativity over the forces which oppose it (reason, psychiatry) and thus prepare the way for the second “Ourizen”.

At any rate this long, final section of the book begins with autobiography as Frater produces a history of his childhood in the South West of Sydney – though it is a history with a strong surreal cast. Whereas the idea of being underwater seems to connote the psychotic experience in the earlier poems, here the obsessive image is of green (appearing also as Emerald, Uaine) presumably derived from the tendency of those Sydney suburbs to use the word “green” in their parks, pubs and motels. The second part of this introductory section (which begins at “This Eve’s bait”) introduces the double image of the minotaur and matador and sets up, as the self’s agon, necessary before the poet can emerge into achievement, the conflict between the poet/son (the matador) and the various incarnations of father (the minotaur in the labyrinth). In the middle of this is a lengthy section of comparatively straightforward autobiography where:

My wallet has become
                                        a small leather directory of
mental health
and I chant Celtic mantra
                                                  through Centrelink . . .

And the poet is rescued by a “saintly social / worker / waist deep . . . in the / shit camp / of / a belltown / Campbelltown / my hometown”. Fairly soon (though I am unable to make much sense of the battles which generate it) we enter the world of apocalypse which makes up the sequence’s climax. Though the stock of images is familiar – and it is highly visual – there is nothing cliched about it especially in passages like:

“lavayah lavayah” scream the pistons of heaven
inverted mushrooming fist of GOD stretched out
                    of the sky, brilliant
          firelight of ruin, heavenly annihilation
     (littleboy and fatman were pomegranates)
                   torch the earth! . . .

I sense, though I can neither test nor justify it, that there is something a little contrived in this so that it makes a satisfying dramatic conclusion. It is inevitable that someone as talented as Frater would search for a narrative pattern that would lead from the impasse of psychotic trauma into some kind of satisfying closure but I feel that it has a provisional, slightly imposed quality about it and may have been subject to radical alterations as the writing went on.

What, finally, is to be made of 6am in the Universe? Is it a new path that Australian poetry might have taken or is it a therapeutic rave that shouldn’t have left the psychiatrist’s file? Well certainly not the latter since there is so much poetic creativity and achievement within it, not to mention pain and joy (though they are human, not poetic, categories). It can’t, also, be categorized as Outsider Art, though, even if it could, that category is so complex and conflicted that it doesn’t really have much value. Outsider Art (the important journal RAW appears in the poems so Frater was well aware of its existence as a category) seems to be driven by manic obsession and, to my outsider’s eye at least, only resists becoming boring when the viewer senses the frightening energy behind it. Frater’s poetry is rarely boring.

Better to adopt Frater’s own perspective, I think, and speak in terms of a “visionary poetics”. The only difficulty is that those two words cover a multitude of practices and beliefs. Blake, for example, who is obviously, for Frater, a major figure (together with Artaud and Ginsberg) seems to me never to be manic. We might think of him as delusional but his life was not one which fought continually against the psychotic. On the other hand there have been many writers whose lives have been marred by psychosis (think of Lowell) who have never espoused a visionary poetics. At the same time, many of those who have fought against any kind of restriction – social or poetic – have not done so under the banner of the infinite and the “YEKian infantry” of the imagination. Visionary poetics is also a solitary path (despite the existence of mentors in the past) and, though Blake, say, had followers, he didn’t immediately alter the paths of poetry in English (much to his own frustration). He has remained a kind of resource for later poets who have wrestled with their own drive towards celebrating the infinite. So we can probably dispense with the idea that 6am in the Universe will change irrevocably and immediately the direction of Australian poetry. More likely it is a book that will continue to retain an important resonance for some poets in the future: and that is quite an achievement. There is, of course, a certain paradox in the fact that this poetry, for which one wants to use words like “surreal” and “manic”, is made valuable by its sanity and the sanity of its thinking about its own project. This to the idea that much of this thinking may well have been encouraged by the two-part structure of Creative Writing Programs whereby students are obliged to produce a critical essay relating to their own practice. I think Frater was very lucky in his choice of teachers at the University of Wollongong. It is significant that the rage against institutions that we find in this poetry never extends to his immediate mentors. I have no idea to what extent Alan Wearne, John Hawke, John Scott and others contributed towards the rational component of his poetics, but that is the part which grounds the poetry and makes it more than a mere rave or endless repetitive celebration of “the infinite”. It is poetry that is is important to preserve largely because it wrestles so convincingly with questions about what poetry essentially is.