Peter D. Mathews: From Poet to Novelist: The Orphic Journey of John A. Scott

Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria, 2022, 242pp.

One of the defining motifs of John A. Scott’s poetry and prose is the recurrent notion of an underground lying beneath the surfaces we are accustomed to treading on. It is the source of his interest in the myth of Orpheus – who ventures into one version of that underground in search of Eurydice – and the complex notions of creativity and death which, following Rilke and the late nineteenth century French poets, he teases out and deploys. There are many other undergrounds from the sewers of Paris in Before I Wake to the network of tunnels which underlie the reality of the events of N and connect distant times and places as well as distant and dissonant voices. The imperative for poor Telford in N is expressed by the sinister Esther Cole when she tells him that, if he is to uncover how her husband died, he will have to “dig deeper . . . not just for my sake but for yours”. Digging deeper is also the imperative that lies behind good criticism, differentiating it from material that considers that its task is, Petronius-like, to separate “good” from “bad”, and from material that thinks that its main function is to bolt a specific, contemporary interest onto a defenceless text and see how it matches up. Peter D. Mathews’ book, From Poet to Novelist, is an example of good criticism in that it sees its function to be to tease out what the underlying generative structures in Scott’s work are. It’s not an easy task since Scott’s books are, for all their superficial attractivenesses, immensely complex in construction.

Although structured as a chronological survey of Scott’s books, From Poet to Novelist: The Orphic Journey of John A. Scott, has, as its full title suggests, an interest in framing how that chronology can be approached. In fact the book as a whole is sensitive to the balance between the extraordinary thematic and methodological unity underlying Scott’s work and the diachronic perspectives that are sensitive to developments and changes. As such it embodies a tension underlying much good criticism: on the one hand there is the desire to trace developments and changes and on the other, the desire to find underlying, everpresent generative obsessions. The major change that the book concerns itself with is Scott’s “abandonment” of poetry for fiction. The “death of the poet” is something the book is especially attracted to and its overriding Orphic notion of death, dismemberment and rebirth nicely deals with the fact that Scott’s most recent book, Shorter Lives, is, generically, a poetry book, despite its prose poems and prose sections.

A number of things are clear from Mathew’s investigations of these seven books of poetry and six novels. The first is that the literary cast of their author’s mind owes most to the literature of nineteenth century France not only in the frequent references to the poetry and prose of that period but in its themes: the nature of desire and its complex forms inside human lives, the nature of art and the principles on which it operates and by which works “of art” are generated, and so on. Secondly, there is a remarkable unity in Scott’s work, despite the radical differences in tone: the term “livre compose” is used and in Scott’s case it is accurate. Remarkably different as the books are – compare the high campus comedy of Blair, for example, with the fraught intensity of The Architect – they share underlying themes and generative procedures: their unity is well beyond the obvious one of having been written by the same person. Thirdly, there are three crucial texts for making sense of what Scott’s “project” (to employ an overused term) is: “A Stitching of Water: Notes Towards a Poetic” of 1993, “Towards a Scriptural Realism” of 1996, and Scott’s doctoral thesis of 1997, “Approaching Coherence: Reflections on a Writing Practice”. As Mathews says:

The eventual development of the notion of “scriptural realism” derives from two key objectives. First, Scott reveals that “for the majority of my writing life I have sought to produce texts with an ethical trajectory, whilst still declaring the methods and processes of their construction”. This imperative partly explains why Scott has little interest in replicating the experimental approach of Robbe-Grillet. “My books seek no claim on this ‘authentic real,’” writes Scott, “yet their enquiry into human behaviour places them at odds with texts of zero readability. . . . . . Scott’s vision of “scriptural realism” thus eschews the false opposition between experimental and realist writing, innovatively deploying characteristics of both approaches . . .

This seems to go to the heart of the poetic and novelistic issues that Scott is dealing with. There is a perceived opposition between, on the one hand, the realist novel with its ability to look intensively at human behaviour, especially the ethics of human behaviour, while, at the same time, deploying plot devices that ensure that we keep turning the pages and, on the other, those experimental methods – the nouveau roman and the productions of the Oulipo, for example – which are capable of pulling the veil aside from the illusion of reality that realistic fiction deploys in the interests of a more honest vision of what a text is and what the author’s role as generator of that text is. Scott’s “scriptural realism” is really an intelligent compromise which – and this is where the genius lies – gets the best of both worlds. Scott’s fictions are built out of complex narrative devices – including unacknowledged quotation, superimposition of texts and their significances, phonetic translation, distortions of existing texts, to name only a few – which are not entirely hidden and can be found by readers prepared to dig beneath the surface of the text: Mathews makes much, in his analysis of Before I Wake, of the way in which a hyper-realistic portrayal of Parisian streets and restaurants is deliberately undermined by a single temporal impossibility. But Scott’s work is also immensely pleasurable at the superficial level.

A good example of both the underlying methodology and Mathew’s careful exposure of it might be found in the chapter devoted to Warra Warra. This novel has always seemed something of an outlier in Scott’s work in that its surface seems to mimic the genre of the popular ghost story. I think admirers of Scott’s poems and novels have always felt a little uncomfortable with it. Blair, another novel mimicking a popular genre, has enough brilliant prose at its surface to be attractive on that level and “Preface”, the finest of Scott’s pre-novel, long poems balances features of the “uncanny” genre of fiction with a surprising and unexpected amount of humour, especially in the letters in which Carl ventures into the London popular music scene.

A superficial reading of Warra Warra might see it as little more than an expansion of a clever idea. A commercial aeroplane explodes over a rural town in New South Wales but the spirits of the dead passengers begin to appear to haunt the inhabitants. Thus it plays on the notion that Australia’s inhabitants saw the newly arrived English colonisers as ghosts of their own departed. The ghosts become increasingly dangerous and, after wreaking violent havoc on the townspeople, eventually set up their own community, replicating the cosy English houses and gardens they have left behind and thus beginning to take over the land and impose their own culture. If Warra Warra were no more than this it might also be no more than its unfavourable initial reviews saw it as: a popularly written book in a popular genre with a clever idea as its starting point but with the fundamental problem (noted in a review by Ken Gelder) that the inhabitants of the town visited by the ghosts are not indigenous Australians but white Australians, only a few generations earlier than the ghosts who descend on them, despite the fact that the town itself and its major protagonist, Bill Pemmell, have names that relate to indigenous resistance. Beginning with two more sophisticated responses by David Mesher and Suzie Cardwell, Mathew’s chapter takes us into these issues in a subtler way, one more worthy of the book’s author. Mesher makes a connection with Laurie Duggan’s book on the visual culture of Australia, Ghost Nation, and its idea of “ghost” as not being “a shadow of something which is dead, but in a visual sense of images which ghost each other”. Scott, in “Approaching Coherence”, describes his method of “stitching” together existing texts as “not a characteristically postmodern adaptation of collage (Schwitters) or photomontage (Heartfield) but rather a form of combination printing (Henry Peach Robinson). As Mathews comments:

Warra Warra, then, is not only a ghost story, as its subtitle announces, but a “ghosted” story, a narrative that is created by the repeated layering of ideas and references that appear to operate on a single, interrelated textual plane.

Warra Warra declares itself to be more than a good idea expanded into a pastiche of a genre of popular fiction in many ways. One is in the context of Scott’s work, where it is part of a development whereby internal workings of desire, abuse and guilt are slowly moved to a national level, something made increasingly possible by moving from the fragmented forms of the poems to the longer, discursive possibilities of the novel. There is a lot about the Algerian dead in Paris in Before I Wake, and The Architect (whose core text is the The Book of Job) is, at least in part, about postwar Germany and its relationship with its Nazi past (as well as being, according to Mathews about “the dangerous susceptibility of the Australian mindset to the seductions of authoritarianism”). Warra Warra concerns itself with Australia’s colonial heritage not as something from the past but as something layered, photographically, onto the present. Warra Warra has echoes of the books that precede and follow it, radically different though they are. The Architect is about a devastating betrayal that the elderly German architect commits on his innocent Australian admirer: like The Book of Job, of which it is a kind of avatar, the betrayal is a horror that comes “out of the blue”. Warra Warra begins (after some throat-clearing scenes which establish the community of the town) with a brilliant narration of the remains of an exploded passenger plane crashing down out of the sky on the township. The Architect has, near the end, an apocalyptic scene in which Von Ruhland re-enacts God’s address to Job from the whirlwind: Warra Warra begins with an equally apocalyptic one. And N, the next novel, it should be remembered, contains, early on, the bombing of Darwin, again, fire from the sky. The Book of Job is also recalled in Warra Warra when the priest, O’Phelan, finds his bible opened at the page in which Eliphaz describes a vision arriving “at the hour when dreams master the mind and slumber lies heavy on man . . .” O’Phelan’s desperate attempt to cobble together an exorcism from random texts that he barely understands as well as popular texts like the novel, The Exorcist, which became a popular film, is, by the way, a semi-comic version of Scott’s own method of stitching texts together and a reminder that there are faux-poets in many of Scott’s works, especially Blair.

Mathews devotes some space in his chapter on Warra Warra to dealing with the book’s problematic conclusion in which the ghosts decide to leave aboard a paper ark and descend into one of Scott’s flooded cities. It’s a puzzling conclusion, slightly reminiscent of the final, “Exodus” section of Rodney Hall’s Just Relations, which might act as a reference text for the book although its hyperbolic, “magical realist”, style is a long way from the cooler, realistic prose of Warra Warra. As Mathew’s points out, we can hardly expect a triumphant conclusion to a vast problem such as Australia’s colonial heritage anymore than we could expect The Architect to solve Germany’s postwar problem with its Nazi past. It is an issue which has puzzled me since I first read the book and I’m impressed by Mathew’s approach which is to take the reader back to the individual issues of desire and guilt. In summary, he convincingly sees the book’s conclusion as being about fulfilled desire and the restlessness this produces:

The ghosts are caught in a pernicious cycle of nostalgia for their English homeland that brings them no actual satisfaction. The paradise they have created is entirely superficial, an external performance that becomes more empty with each reenactment. . . . Repetition thus functions as a form of emotional entropy that turns paradise into its opposite . . . . .This crucial theme of repetition, of returning to the past, drives the downward journey of the ghosts to the flooded city of Cudgegong . . . a descent into a watery underworld that releases them from a “power which for so long had held them in this state of neither life nor death relinquishing its grip”.

It’s a convincing solution and derives from extended engagement with the text, something not available to most time-pressed reviewers of novels. It certainly makes sense even if it makes our initial readings of the book embarrassingly superficial. The idea of “ghosting” as simultaneously a textual and anthropological practice is valuable though Warra Warra is not a one-dimensional parable/allegory about Australia’s dispossession of, and cruelty towards, its indigenous inhabitants. Rather it is a book (surreal ending and all) in which various allegorical possibilities lie over the top of the narrative. One of these, by far the most important, is the record of Pemulwuy’s war of resistance, but there are others. The novel begins with fire from the heavens and ends with a flood of sorts (at least a protracted spell of rain), a character called “Noah” Thompson is building the ark which eventually is mocked up into a version of the aeroplane that the ghosts “arrived” in so that biblical apocalypticism also overlies the narrative. And perhaps Mathews is right in seeing how important the theme of satisfied desire is in the experience of the ghosts, raising once again the theme of the inauthenticity of white Australian culture which was a major issue as early as the 1930s.

Thus Warra Warra, unsurprisingly, turns out to be an infinitely more complex text than early reviewers picked up. My widow’s mite in its interpretation involves the luring of the ghosts into the ark. It can only be done by recreating their original boarding of the aircraft with the ghostly flight attendant calling out instructions. This reminds me of Bunuel’s film, The Exterminating Angel (whose title alone resonates with almost all of Scott’s work). In the film a group of middle class citizens are trapped inside a house by a mysterious force. They eventually realise that the only method of escaping is to recreate the exact situation before the entrapment began. And it works.

My only lasting reservation about Warra Warra comes from its realist, popular fiction, mode. Usually Scott’s texts are coruscating and brilliant on the surface but Warra Warra’s surface prose is that fairly dreary narrative style that Australian novelists seem to fall into when they set their plot in a rural community. One of the passages that Mathews quotes, part of the character-establishing scenes of the novel’s opening, will show what I mean:

Jack Elliott and Ron Aitken sat opposite each other at a free-standing table within easy reach of the bar. It was the same table they had occupied from the days when they’d returned, each on his separate journey, one from the cement works, the other from the abattoir, up to thirty years before. The table notched along two sides with burns from Ron Aitken’s forgotten cigarettes. . . 

Scott is a brilliant stylist and this can only be a parody of the flat prose of Australian rural narrative, down to the carefully chosen neutral names for the two men. But it forms the bulk of what readers experience when approaching the novel and is one instance where I have always felt that the “benign realist” surface is unattractive and too dun-coloured.

To leave Warra Warra as a critical test-case and return to Mathew’s excellent book, it’s extraordinary how much lies below the surface in Scott’s works. There are references, teased out here, which I have never seen: the origin of the repeated theme of letters that one character passes on to another to read in order to determine whether they would have been “bearable” has a passage of Derrida as its source (or perhaps merely as a text that chimes with it). David Brooks reflects what will be a common experience for admirers of Scott’s work when he says on the book’s cover, “There are a great many ideas and details, which had not occurred to me or that I had not yet discovered . . .” So many, in fact, that one feels, after reading Mathew’s book, that it really might be no more than a primer, encouraging readers to dig deeper and more carefully, rather than being exhaustive. In fact, in Scott’s case, criticism might play an unusual role. Different writers hope for, and get, different things from criticism (ie another’s careful and sympathetic reading of their work) and in Scott’s case, I’ve often wondered what criticism can give him. There will be little that readers like Mathews or Brooks or myself can tell him that is new and we are, in a way, doomed to labour in territory that he knows intimately: we are unlikely to be able to offer any intriguing new perspectives to this particular author. To use one of his references in N, we will wander in amazement through the complex structures of his work knowing that we can only follow in his footsteps; like Professor Lidenbrock in Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth who, exciting adventures and discoveries notwithstanding, is always only ever following in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm.

John A. Scott: Shorter Lives

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2020, 136pp.

John A. Scott’s spectacular Shorter Lives is made up of a series of poetic biographies of crucial figures in the development of what is usually called Modernism but which, as the distance from it lengthens, looks less like a movement and more like a rejection of the nineteenth century and everything it stood for. Developments in art, literature and music, often violently ideologically opposed to each other, were gathered together by this common drive to a rejection of the past on the basis of the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And the rejection of the European nineteenth century is something that continues to this day, one hundred and twenty years after the formal end of that century, especially in the grotesque parodies of nineteenth century culture – as embodiments of all the issues contemporary Western life disapproves of – that appear in popular culture. This seems unprecedented: it’s normal to kick your parents as you struggle to make an individual life, but not normal to keep on kicking the crumbling skeletons of your great-great-grandparents.

Scott’s book includes biographies of Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf in her childhood incarnation as Adeline Virginia Stephen (this biography ends in 1904 at the time of the breakdown which followed her father’s death), Andre Breton, Mina Loy and Picasso, with brief suites devoted to Charles Cros (an erstwhile friend of Rimbaud) and Ambrose Vollard, the great art dealer of modern painting and commissioner of Picasso’s famous series. A note at the end of Shorter Lives tells us that this volume is the first of a projected trilogy and so the cast of characters will treble. But even then, these lives can only be a sampling of the tumultuous events of early modernism. One’s sense of the project is that the sheer size of the material of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century means that no biographical overview is possible, and no single character can bear the burden of representing the movement(s). This makes it possible to approach the entire issue poetically, looking, as I will try to show, for patterns, threads, connections, repeated images and so on – the kind of thing that a major poet would do almost instinctively.

And so the first thing I would want to stress about this book is that these are poetic biographies and the word “poetic”, as usual, is open to a slew of interpretations. The crudest, perhaps, involves the notion of obsessive interest. Scott has been concerned with the literary and visual arts of this period, especially in France (which usually claims the privilege of inaugurating the modernist movement) from the beginning of his career. In an interview recorded in the early eighties he spoke of the impulses behind his earliest poetry:

In fact a lot of my early poems and many in The Barbarous Sideshow were part of a vast master scheme which I never completed and which was going to be a sort of contemporary, twentieth-century mythology. It had two major fictional characters named Rudolph and Miranda whose lives were intertwined with those of a lot of people in the first twenty years of the century – the Dadaists, for example . . .

Forty-odd years is a long time to harbour a project and Shorter Lives is obviously a long way from the projected work of the seventies but the impulses are clearly the same. Of course it could be argued that there is nothing unique to poetry in obsessions – sober historians have their lifelong projects as well, no less renowned than those of poets – but obsession is only a preliminary poetic feature here.

A second involves the issue of imaginative freedom. Not everything in these biographies is “true” or “real” according to the principles of historical honesty. Scott doesn’t only allow himself the freedom of imaginative reconstruction or speculation as a conventional biographer might, he allows himself a full imaginative engagement, changing the reality where he wants. One way of describing and comparing the portraits of Shorter Lives is to look at the degree of imaginative freedom that each contains and to speculate as to the reasons for it.

The first life is, fittingly, that of Rimbaud. Whereas most cultural historians are prepared to credit Baudelaire as being the first “modern”, he always seems to me to be an artist going about his work without an unusually intense animus directed towards the artistic culture he inherited: he was a devotee of Wagner, for example, perhaps the quintessential locus of late nineteenth century art. It is Rimbaud who throws the first sizeable grenade. One of those geniuses who, very quickly and very early on, run through all the possibilities of past and contemporary art, Rimbaud was just as profound an enemy of the early precursors of modernism – the kinds of multiple movements of the fin de siecle – as he was of the past. Scott’s life goes from his arrival in Paris to his death in 1891. It contains a section in which Rimbaud returns to London and lives in a basement flat flooded by water which rises and falls according to the tides. The material comes from Rimbaud’s own Illuminations – as it does in the next section which imagines Rimbaud in Aden – but it is also a theme in Scott’s work. His second book is called From the Flooded City and it may be worth pointing out that one of the most powerful of his earlier poems, “Elegy”, is built around Rimbaud’s death. Dismemberment (Rimbaud’s leg was amputated) is another recurring theme. At the conclusion of “Rimbaud”, there is a section which imagines a later life for a Rimbaud not struck down by syphilis. Here, readers not entirely au fait with the lives of French poets in the late nineteenth century will be relieved to know that the imaginative status of this section is clearly signalled:

Arthur Rimbaud misses seeing the Twentieth Century by nine years and three weeks. How different if he had chosen to resist the desire to lie with one of the beautiful Adari women . . .

In this section there is both imaginative expansion of the “what if” variety – Rimbaud serves as a war correspondent for Le Monde during the First World War – but also expansions whereby the line between the real and the imagined become blurred. One of the rare later pictures of Rimbaud is a photograph of him as a trader in Harar wearing a fez. Now, in this imagined later life, his head has adopted the shape of the fez so that he needs only to colour it to attain “a permanent headpiece”. He also travels to Venice and unwittingly introduces the plague which will kill not only Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach (from Death in Venice) but also Visconti’s Aschenbach – a very different character but from a film “adaptation” of the novella. There is a sense here of one of the dominant modes of the entire book: what is present within the poetry (or art) enters into the world of “reality”.

Rimbaud is also imagined to have been a pioneer of the process of cutting up texts and making new texts from them – a process that has survived into modern poetry where other textual practices of the time, automatic writing, for example, have not. The first section of this “Life” shows him borrowing a journal which has poems of Baudelaire but whose pages he must not cut. Hence he makes his own poems out of the half-lines that he can make out by prizing apart the joined pages. At the very beginning of Shorter Lives we meet the significant phrase, “misreading where necessary”. Something similar happens in the brief suite of poems “by” Charles Cros which follows the Rimbaud life and in which the poems, a note says, “were assembled from mistranslations of the French originals”. Again it’s a recurring theme/method in Scott’s work: there are “versions” of Propertius in the earlier “Preface” (which, with “Elegy” shows Scott at the grand guignol boundaries of his art).

The Rimbaud portrait, which is at heart derived from a careful study of everything that is known about him, allows itself, in other words, a good deal of imaginative license, often deriving expansions from the works. If one approaches the book from this point of view, it can be seen that the Picasso portrait, a set of twenty-four prose poems, allows itself (I think) only a couple of such expansions. In the fourth poem, Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, produces the kind of demon-child that “Elegy” concerned itself with:

. . . . . 
For several months the creature remains hairless; what will be horns are barely knuckle-like lumps. The genitals, an inheritance from Picasso, are fully-formed and would be of prodigious size even for an adult. From the first, Marie-Therese deems it satanic. She quickly learns how it shies away from candle-light, rears, swivelling aside with astonishing dexterity. Mercifully, the horned boy dies, par hazard, glimpsing its own grotesqueness in a glass – death by self-sight – a condition previously noted in creatures half-bull, half-human . . .

The studio used by Picasso in the rue des Grands-Augustins is where Balzac wrote his famous story “The Unknown Masterpiece” in which three painters – including an as yet unfamous Poussin – discuss a work by Porbus. At the end of Scott’s life of Picasso, Porbus and Poussin reappear to look at one of his paintings, converting Picasso into the third of the painters, the fictional Frenhofer.

The central “life” – that of Andre Breton – is entirely fictional (and very funny). Breton is imagined as arriving in Melbourne during the Second World War and, while in a hotel, having Trotsky dictate a manifesto about art and revolution to him in a dream. Breton writes the words on his bed sheets and then later finds that all the hotel’s bed-linen is dealt with by Chang’s Chinese laundry which, he discovers, has affiliates throughout the world, all of which contain libraries of sheet writing including one in Djibouti which contains the bulk of Rimbaud’s work imagined to have been produced in Africa. The Breton “Life” is almost entirely in prose that doesn’t aspire to be read as prose-poems. It is in fact a part of Scott’s novel, N, which was deleted from the final version. It fits in very beautifully here as a centrepiece which looks at Australia in Surrealist terms – Breton is fascinated by the rebel and proto-surrealist, Ned Kelly, and by Nolan’s photographs of Kelly’s armour which recall the African masks which became influential in the twenties. It may not be intended but there may also be some sort of judgement passed here on Breton, a walking mixture of gullibility, excitableness and quarrelsomeness whose history remains locked in narrative prose, rather than poetry. Again, significantly, the work alters reality, especially early on in Breton’s voyage to Australia:

. . . . . It was at this time Breton came upon the idea of charting the course on his copy of the Surrealist Map of the World. As, perhaps, a direct consequence of this (for what other explanation could there possibly be?) islands mysteriously began to amass and to disappear to the astonishment and consternation of the crew who, for example, would be confronted by shorelines hundreds of miles in excess of the islands they had visited many times before. The Bismarck Archipelago, for instance, was now a group of major islands easily exceeding the size of India. Breton’s map and glass were confiscated and the remainder of the journey via the British-French Condominium and New Caledonia passed without incident. . . 

Either side of the Breton portrait are lives of Virginia Woolf and Mina Loy. Both stick close to the facts and have comparatively few imaginative expansions. Those that are there, as in the case of the Picasso life, stress the demonic. Woolf’s madnesses will, presumably, occupy a later section of her biography, but there is a lot of concentration in this section on the sad life of Woolf’s half-sister, Laura, the daughter of her father, Leslie Stephen, and his first wife, Thackeray’s daughter, Minnie. A damaged child, she is portrayed here as a creature of demonic violence. One of the Stephen/Duckworth children’s hobbies at their holiday home of Talland (in St Ives, Cornwall), was smearing treacle in tree branches and then catching the moths that were drawn to it. The section, “Mothing”, describes this and continues:

. . . . . 
                   The following morning,
Laura is out to lick the branches. Her large
          head bent forward, face

          wallowing in the
treacle and moth-dust. Her eyes raise at their
first approach: “br-br-br -“ she essays, but can
get no further down the narrow passage
of its letters. “Branches,” Ginny offers back.
“Sweet, hard branches like Brighton Rock.” She and
Nessa, scheme – imaginatively girl-to-
girl – upon their stuttering (honey-tongued)
half-sister fixed upon the bark. Breathlessly,
they catch her tongue within the jar, and take it
(‘br-br-br’ it thrums) inside the house to pin.
Meanwhile, back in Laura’s slowly working
mouth, the treacle seeps into the cavities;
and sets within the gums.

The introduction of a demonic element into this well-known familial environment might explain why a section is devoted to James Stephen – “Jem, A Brief Digression” – a completely mad relative and suitor of Stella Duckworth, rather than Stella’s later husband, the reliable and profoundly sane Jack Hills.

In the life of Mina Loy there is a brief passage in which her husband, Arthur Cravan, draws a pen quill from her back and gets ink by soaking her hair. This has a very “Preface”-like quality. And later, in another Scott-like moment, Loy actually enters a painting: Richard Oelze’s famous Die Erwartung. As I have said, the Virginia Woolf life takes us only as far as 1904 by which time she is still Virginia Stephen, not yet Virginia Woolf. The Mina Loy life begins at almost exactly that point, leaving out the first part of her life – her marriages to Stephen Haweis and Arthur Cravan. Loy is not as significant a creative figure as the subjects of the other lives but she does have connections to a wide range of important people including Marinetti, Duchamp, Picabia, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. She is also intriguing because her various attempts to write down her own life focus on the figure of Arthur Cravan, her second husband and nephew of Oscar Wilde. He only appears in this life as a figure of the past being brought into words. He is, in fact, what he was in life: a disappearance, an absence – in this he resonates weirdly with Rimbaud. Most likely he chose his name (one of many – his baptismal name was Fabien Lloyd) so that his Christian name recalled Rimbaud’s. His baptismal surname Lloyd also, as the poem points out, contains in itself Mina Loy’s surname (itself a conscious blurring of the original “Lowy” which her mother thought to be too Jewish – the patterns and repetitions in these lives can begin to get vertiginously complex). His disappearance – taking a repaired sailing boat for a test run in the Gulf of Tehuantepac – is one of those which spawned, Rimbaud-like, its own set of myths: later sightings, found remains and so on. Scott, focussing on Loy’s later life, has a lot to say about her relationship with Joseph Cornell, the reclusive fellow-maker of box art. There is also a brilliant set of poems about her life after the war in the Bowery slums of New York where people sleeping on the streets simply die of cold: a kind of prefiguring of the current pandemic.

Why there is this comparative restraint on imaginative expansion in the lives of Woolf and Loy is a difficult question. It isn’t a case of available detail since, although the biographical facts about Loy are fairly sparse, Woolf must be the most over-exposed individual in twentieth century art with her extensive letters and diaries completely available. Perhaps it is because neither Loy nor Woolf move so fully in the world of the demonic as Rimbaud and Picasso do. Breton, on the other hand, simply inhabits the land of the irrational whose principle is: Whatever can be imagined can be real.

This quick look at the degrees of poetic/imaginative expansion in these lives also points up another element that one would want to call “poetic” though, again, writers in other genres might object. And that is the high degree of formal organisation of the entire book. It is structured in seven parts which are organised symmetrically. At the centre is Breton’s visit to Australia. Outside of it are the lives of Woolf and Loy, each fragmentary but structured so that the latter takes off where the former concluded. Either side of these are the two suites – the sonnets of Charles Cros and “The Vollard Suite” in both of which a good deal of imaginative expansion takes place (Vollard finds among his paintings works by “someone Pollock, someone Warhol, someone Bacon”). And then at the beginning and end are the lives of Rimbaud and Picasso.

This patterning is reflected in the styles of the sections. While Breton’s life is, as I have said, told in Scott’s elegant narrative prose, the opening and closing lives are really prose poems. In fact there is a good reason to feel that the method of the twenty-four images we get of Picasso is designed to make us recall Rimbaud’s Illuminations. In contrast, the lives of Loy and Woolf, though they contain prose sections, are predominantly done as sonnets, poems which have a distinctive visual shape (rather than a simple line count) in that both the first and last lines are indented. It’s a poem shape that dates back to Scott’s earliest work in The Barbarous Sideshow but here its complexity is multiplied by a set of conventions which are, so to speak, bolted on to the text. There are passages set in Courier font to indicate quotation from the author, there are marginal glosses and also footnotes. Virginia’s half-sister, Laura, has her effacement (she was eventually “institutionalised”) represented by having appearances of her name screened. James Stephen has his speech done in an old-style wedding-invitation font. The visual effect is spectacular and the poetic effect is intriguing because it is yet another attempt – more successful than the usual double columns etc – to move poetry away from linearity into multi-level meanings and perspectives. Of course, the downside is that it’s a nightmare to quote and I expect that in this book’s many reviews there will be few actual quotations from the lives of Virginia and Mina – the textual challenges would make it too difficult.

Finally, on this issue of what the word, “poetic” in the phrase, “poetic biographies” might entail, there is the question of the sensitivity to patterns and repetitions. I’ll take one example only from the dozens one might list. Mina Loy’s life includes detail about her son-in-law, Julien Levy. He was the son of a wealthy American real estate dealer who, though to some extent besotted with Mina (“inappropriate” sexual bonds are also a feature of Woolf’s life) married her daughter, Joella. He set up a very important art gallery in New York and introduced many of the artists of the modernist period to America with Loy acting as his Paris agent. One of these was Arshile Gorky. In mid-1948 Levy was driving in rain with Gorky as passenger. The car overturned, Gorky was left paralysed and unable to paint and shortly thereafter suicided, having “gone through the empty house, seeking out his favourite spots and preparing an individually-made noose for each of them”. The third of the three poems of “The Vollard Suite” – the next section of the book – describes Vollard’s death in 1939. While he is returning to his house, his chauffeur-driven car loses control on the wet road, somersaults, and Vollard is killed when material from the back of the car flies forward and breaks his neck. A note tells us that one of Vollard’s clients, Maillol, also died (in 1944) when the car in which he was a passenger skidded and rolled during a thunderstorm.

This is a fairly obvious example of the sort of chimings that attract a poet’s attention though they might be blurred within a straightforward, individual-based biography where they can only be interesting contingencies that would be relegated to a footnote (assuming they survived an editor’s pen). Another example might be the complex issue of movement, especially between countries. But there are other patterns within individual lives which are picked out in the poems. Rimbaud’s constant “drive to the east”, his continuous efforts to get away from Roche, his home, to the warm lands of Africa, are frustrated continually and, when eventually they are successful, turn out to be no more than a preparation for his final return home to die. Mina Loy’s constant movement seems a symbol of the idea of transforming the self and, possibly, making a “modernist” self. We see her passing through doors and a quote from the New York paper, Evening Sun, speaks of her as “already half-way through the door into / Tomorrow.”

Continuous rereading prompts all sorts of other examples and perhaps the most convincing connotation of the word “poetic” is that the method encourages (perhaps demands) an imaginative expansion on the part of the reader. I find myself beginning to plot my own course through this landscape, wondering, for example, what Woolf and Loy, as little girls, were doing on the day Rimbaud died. There are the birthdates also. Virginia Woolf was born on the 25th January, 1881 and Mina Loy on the 27th December of the same year. There are suggestive but entirely fortuitous harmonisings here: one opening the natal year, the other arriving at its close. And then there is Picasso, born on the same day as Woolf but three months earlier. Nothing in Shorter Lives explicitly connects this pair but one could meditate at length about one being a mirror image of the other: one whose madness expresses itself in creativity and a violent assertion of sexuality, the other in some way internalising the madness into psychotic, self-destructive spells. One working through a succession of partners, the other clinging to one, etc etc. And then there is the fact that Picasso is born exactly ten days after P.G. Wodehouse a figure who, in a way, represents exactly the opposite of modernism (though he lived in France for a time and migrated to America, like Mina Loy, and wrote for American musicals which might be seen as part of the reaction against nineteenth century, Germanic musicals). He also, unlike Loy and Picasso, had a direct experience of the demonic, not so much in being imprisoned by the Germans but in being tormented by English newspapers as a Nazi-sympathiser, a victim of the demonic powers of the popular press. I’ll stop here. Once one includes someone like Wodehouse in the landscape, the possibilities become vertiginous and that way madness lies!

The fundamental issue that its nature as a succession of “poetic biographies” raises is whether Shorter Lives is a contribution to the historical reconstruction of modernism (done by looking at the sorts of things conventional biography omits) or whether it is another, parallel universe to the actual historical period, one in which a poet can allow himself imaginative entries and expansions and one in which the creative powers of the individual artists are allowed to create a reality. I’m not entirely sure – an embarrassing admission for a reviewer. As evidence that it is the former is the fact that there are no wholesale changes to known history: Virginia Woolf doesn’t conduct an adolescent relationship with her half-brother (and first publisher) Gerald Duckworth, and Mina Loy doesn’t shoot Cravan in the wrist. The imaginative scenes are grafts rather than “alternate universe” changes to the historical timeline. I would like to sit on the fence and say that it partakes of both with perhaps a slight leaning toward the latter. Presumably the later instalments will help to clarify this problem. But, despite ones uncertainties about exactly what kind of book one is reading, it’s impossible to overstress just how extraordinarily fertile and imaginatively dense Shorter Lives is: there is more complexity and achieved ambition in half a dozen of its pages than in most books of contemporary Australian poetry.