Bonny Cassidy: Final Theory

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2014, 81pp.

It’s tempting to connect Bonny Cassidy’s work with that of other poets trying to approach landscape, humans, and the interactions between the two in a generally post-poundian poetics. It’s a revisiting of an issue that, more than half a century ago, in another hemisphere, produced the poetics of the Black Mountain school. Two recent anthologies, one English, one Australian, are good showcases for such poets: Harriet Tarlo’s The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry and Black Rider’s Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land. Both, in their titles, use the word “radical”, an adjective that might better be applied to the differences between the work of the poets included. But it’s part of the interest of this approach that, although there are major theoretical figures – John Kinsella comes to mind – there are no overarching aesthetic positions, and no individual with Charles Olson’s influence: just some assumptions and a spectrum of possibilities. Cassidy, too, though she makes a lot of connections with other contemporary poets in her work, seems very much her own poet with her own voice and her own avenues of approach to some of the vital issues. Final Theory is her second book. The first was Certain Fathoms which was preceded by a chapbook, Said to Be Standing.

One of the impulses behind the poetic context I’ve sketched in is the fear of an unproblematic, experiencing self at the heart of lyric poems leading, at its worst to a sort of bland “Georgianism”. Getting the conventional lyric self out of the poetry becomes an imperative, buttressed by later notions of the self as, psychologically, an illusion even, in a kind of no-holds-barred leftism, a “bourgeois fantasy”. It isn’t an issue I want to pursue beyond making the point that both sides of this divide rely strongly on fairly grotesque demonisations of the other. Fine poetry comes from all parts of the spectrum of post-poundian beliefs and, at the same time, a “conventional”, humanist lyricism works well especially when the self behind the poems is recognised as something complex and problematic. Bonny Cassidy’s first book, and the preceding chapbook, are, by her own admission (according to the accompanying publicity material for Final Theory), “exercises in removing the subjective lyric voice”. Final Theory seems to be an attempt to get the self back into the poetry by using different tactics.

Using the word “exercises” of the poems of Certain Fathoms may suggest something rather programmatic but there is a lot in that book to admire. Often the emphasis is visual and related to the graphic arts and it’s no accident that the book begins with a poem about botanical drawings. Sometimes poems later in the book have that frozen-in-time visual quality that recalls the Imagists – the first of Pound’s many attacks on the humanist lyric of his day. “Confidence”, for example:

A stalk of light arrives
to grasp the roof’s peak -

not a sigh from beneath, where a crowd
crosses the pale forum, snibbing purses.

The light folds itself up, a last ripple clears.

As often in the case of such poems, the situation is only sketched in and the result can be either that readers have the sensation of “take it or leave it” or the entire thing is too delphic to unravel. A set of fine imagist pieces about New Zealand significantly called “Autoptics” (which means simultaneously “seen by myself” and “seen from a car”) contains one, “Titirangi”, whose opening line presents quite a challenge:

Break, glass, daughter.
                                Kauri don’t shade.

The roundabout chosen by a finger slanting from the sky -
visitors go into the light

streets bend tighter and tighter -
lining up wheels with poles.

It’s a reminder that the book’s title can be read as a hermeneutic comment as well – the fathoming of poems can be as big an issue for readers as the fathoming of reality is for a poet. And then there is the self: the first poem, “Figure”, exploring the act of making botanical drawings, is very much about the complicated way such “scientific” drawings, mere “figures” in a text are personal: “First a thickness then / a happy signature. // I thought to go without”.

But deep down, in all her work, you feel that Cassidy is more obsessed with process than visual images frozen in time and their issues of interpretability and the implied self. The five-part “Range” seems something of a statement-poem. It contains a bird, its location in space and its location in time. Its method relates to the act of drawing (“Always begin with a bird, like ruling a line / that stretches into angles”) but through a series of puns the idea of a duck, a continuous ducking line, takes us into the range which is the bird’s environment and the subject of the poem and which is dealt with as though the task were to outline banks, slips, trees and sandstone without having a pencil leave the paper. The process here occurs in the natural world (“Night’s shadow settles in the carpet of the range”) but also in the creative world of the line.

One of the poems of Certain Fathoms, “En Abyme (Northland)”, is a stepping stone to the poems of Final Theory. It is set in the north of New Zealand and is dedicated to Tim, the partner and photographer of the poems of the first and third section of Final Theory. It’s about the self seen in terms of a relationship (in the major sections of the book the self is always twinned with another and rarely alone) and the way in which in such a situation talk is the essential interaction. Also a couple have a different perspective on their history to that of a solitary individual and this is how the poem begins: “Talk is breaking, breaking. In these minutes you / and I seem to be history without lineage”. By the end of the poem there is a move (I think) to geological time which (I think) is induced by the shift in perspective:

Before you leave again I hear you say, just once,
perhaps the vulture eats itself
and your words in delay finally settle into me, then you -
years away and oceans parting.

Of course, to be honest, this might be no more than a reference to being separated by the width of a sea. “En Abyme (Northland)” looks back to the poems of Certain Fathoms by its reference to the processes of visual arts (“There is no line to draw from there to here”) and by, as its title suggests, having three little imagist pieces embedded in the texture of the poem. The first of these is rather good, “We cross the flats that sign the Narrows. // A thumbnail church is lodged / under the cloud-marsh. As we hover past, / kauri bellow in the harbour” but I still think that the poem is a farewell to such methods.

In Final Theory the tactic is to plunge the poet and partner into a kind of tour of sites of change in New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica – the remnants of Gondwana. This is done in the two major sections of the book (the odd-numbered ones) and these sections are interspersed with a science-fiction-like tale of a girl born in the ocean. There is a touch of sci-fi in the “tour of the sites” section as well, adding a hint of genre narrative that prevents these poems being merely a po-faced expression of experiences at geologically and ecologically significant sites. At every point the tight personal perspective and the massively broader geological one are sandwiched together. A poem beginning with mining exploration which penetrates “layers staked on time’s dart like a Valentine” finishes “Above it all: / me in your apartment, shimmying / rocksteady.” That is: moving but trustably firm. Waking in a hotel (I think in New Zealand) to the sound of cars moves immediately to a description of the “acid sea” ballooning up. Thinking about life before they met moves immediately to an image of proto-life as “rafts of seed . . . flecks of pace” in “that other age of loneliness”. At all points the scale of human time is contrasted with the vast span of earth’s history, always a disorienting experience. It is also worth remembering that this is, in its own way, a love poem, but one in which the personal is not so much political as geological.

And the personal is not only singular but part of a relationship. Cassidy’s partner, a photographer, figures largely in these poems and one’s mind begins to circulate around the significance of the conjunction of a photographer and a poet especially a poet who seems to want to move away from frozen-in-time imagist pieces to some kind of mode able to deal with process. What is a photograph, a visually underdeveloped reader like myself is likely to ask, but a frozen moment? Perhaps it catches process but it hardly embodies it. Perhaps the poems of Final Theory deal with this but if they do it is at a level where it isn’t immediately apparent although one poem does describe a comical double-exposure:

Your finger squinting the aperture
and the flint of your lens raised

have imposed a double: lichen and hub cap
printed across one another

like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the

Not only is the self part of a relationship it is also doubled itself. At one point Cassidy looks into the rear view mirror of the car, searching “for a final perspective” but finds instead her own image, “my heartless twin; useless thing / pulsing behind the paper in my hands”. And in the next poem everything is doubled in a mirror behind the pair drinking in a motel: at this point a lot of complicated things happen visually. I’ve worked on the assumption that the twinning is the conventional one of artist and person, each watching the other slightly suspiciously. More may have been intended but if that’s the case I’ve missed the clues.

The even sections of Final Theory tell the story of a girl conceived in water and existing in water surrounded by a raft of plastic rubbish. It’s an elliptical, and hence cryptic, narrative. The girl – as far as I can tell – comes ashore, climbs a cliff, descends into a sinkhole, finds an entrance into the ocean, descends onto the abyssal plain where she sits in a wrecked Toyota that has finished up there, ascends to find herself in Antarctica on an iceberg, and is finally thrown ashore in a busy port. If this outline makes the entire narrative seem slightly silly, recalling Tolstoy’s summaries of Shakespeare and Wagner in What is Art, my excuse is that it takes quite a bit of work to get to. It’s a sequence that clearly wants to locate the current human world of mining, trade, manufacture, decay and waste within the wider perspective of geological processes which, in some ways, mimic them. Structurally its function in the book, highlighted by the way in which it is broken up into two parts and placed alongside the other narrative of a couple visiting various geologically and humanly active sites (also divided into two), seems to be to add a colouring of non-realism to the other narrative. It might also suggest that there are different kinds of narrative available to someone wanting to avoid any sort of conventional lyric poetry.

Whereas I warm to Cassidy’s project, I don’t think there can be much doubt that the sections devoted to the narrative of the ocean-girl are not as successful as those in which a poet and a photographer explore the geologically unstable world and its history. But this book is an attempt to do very difficult, admirable things. If there is a problem with Final Theory it is that it is probably an unrepeatable experiment and though it shows one way of solving a lot of the interesting issues that Cassidy’s work is engaged with, it doesn’t really shine a torch on an poetic road ahead. Will she attempt another, large-scale unified composition or revert to individual pieces? Somehow I think that the latter is more likely but we will have to wait for her next book to see.