Andrew Carruthers reviews The Domestic Sublime by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

The Domestic Sublime

by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

River Road Press

Audio CD Nov 2009




George Orwell’s defense of broadcasted poetry in his essay “Poetry and the Microphone” (1945) was, amongst the efforts of Marinetti and Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh (founders of Zaum), one of the more impassioned cases for shifting the balance from printed to oral forms in poetry in the first half of the Twentieth Century. In this convincing essay, Orwell was not claiming that the movement from literacy to orality was a backwards movement — some kind of necessary step back into a primitive world before literacy in order to solve its problems — but simply that the advantages of broadcast at that moment were too alluring to be dismissed. For Orwell: “By being set down at a microphone, especially if this happens at all regularly, the poet is brought into a new relationship with his work, not otherwise attainable in our time and country.” Given the circumstances (particularly the trials and fortunes of his BBC program Voice) Orwell’s radical argument in favour of spoken word poetry was not to view print as doomed or inferior, nor did he want to risk again mounting the “phonotext” (to use Garrett Stewart’s terminology) on the tyrant’s pedestal (he cites Doctor Goebbels as one lasting impediment to public approval of broadcasted poetry). Rather, sounded poetry sets up a paradox concerning the listener and broadcaster: “In broadcasting your audience is conjectural, but it is an audience of ONE. Millions may be listening, but each is listening alone, or as a member of a small group, and each has (or ought to have) the feeling that you are speaking to him individually.” On the paradoxical nature of the one and the many in broadcasting Orwell could not have been more percipient: spoken-word poetry brings to the relationship between the listener and the word a certain intimacy, an intimacy perhaps unmatched by print.

The River Road Press, started up by Carol Jenkins in 2007, is responsible for a series of releases of contemporary Australian recorded poetry, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s CD of recorded works The Domestic Sublime (River Road Press, 2009) is another in the series. Wallace-Crabbe has recorded his poetry before, and collaborated with composer Damien Ricketson (A Line Has Two, 2004). In The Domestic Sublime, the cadences of his voice move with measured rhythms and a becalming timbre, revealing a new intimacy to known words. Though we are not strictly in the domain of broadcasting here, the nature of the Compact Disc format is no different to other recorded/microphonic artefacts in that the conjectural audience is an audience of both many and one, and in this sense both a “domestic” and a “sublime” audience.

The disc’s title poem “The Domestic Sublime” (a suite of five poems) is in a way a coating as much as centrepiece. Neither at the extremes of psychopathology nor critique, the form everyday objects take here seem closest to that which the last line of Philip Larkin’s poem “Home Is So Sad” exhibits with regard to the poet’s deictic placement: “The music in the piano stool. That vase.” (Collected Poems, Faber, 2003). In Larkin’s line, the object speaks for the word, or like an object, the word stays still while the poet’s eye/ear is cast from object to object: the said deixis of the that. Similarly, in the suite “The Domestic Sublime,” the sound poem “Saucer” (and you will recognise it as a generic “sound poem” once you hear it) is littered with like-objects, whose chordal arrangement of “cup”/“mug,” and “plate”/”saucer” (spliced with “slip,” “splash,” “drip,” “slop” “tip” and other deictic/domestic indices) resembles a Wittgensteinian language-game. “Sad without a cup,” as the last line sounds, leaves the word trailing behind its object, the saucer without its cup, reading-out the meaning from the language that holds and contains it, turning the word from its object. If the cup and saucer can be transposed to the binary of word and sound, what we witness here is a turning and tuning of the word and its domestic object-associations to its pure, “sublime” sound. “Who first spotted the lack,” the slip between cup and lip, a slippage of meaning (or the lack in signification itself) is the kind of first line that almost has to be heard to be understood.

What of the reading itself? To varying degrees the text remains a base for interpretation, a score to be read. A recording by a poet is still an interpretation of the text. In “Wanting to be a Sculptor”, the last line is modified (or de-gentrified) from “that would be the shot” (as it appeared in Whirling [1998]), to “that’d be the shot”, and the effect is that the shift to the colloquial recasts the lines retroactively set before it. Before, there was the call:

to invent a ceramic language
to encourage silver and brass to dance
articulating air

As a kind of material/iconic optics of desire, these lines are recast in the sense that the possibility of (mis)hearing the emphasis as “that would be the shot,” is eliminated, rendering the idiom more consciously vernacular than privately desirous of a material, ceramic language. Is such distanciation any surprise when one is being scrupulously listened to? Or is this a curiosity peculiar to subjectivity itself? Similarly, the last line of “The Bush” (originally in For Crying Out Loud [1990] “fluted with scalloping surf/and every step a joke.”) finds its variant where “joke” is replaced by “quip”, again foregrounding the vernacular, the spoken, and in particular retaining the plosive consonance of step/quip. Modifying last lines is not sacrosanct in Wallace-Crabbe’s book.    My personal favourite is Wallace-Crabbe’s reading of “An Die Musik”. The rhotic trill of “vib[r]ating” brings to the word a sonic immediacy. A sonic immediacy especially given that the word’s referential circuit onomatopoeically draws the listener into the world of the “phonotext” as if it were something not reducible to inscription (or that, if it was, the immediacy as such of the performed word outdid its predecessor in the stakes of performance). With the line “There’s always pathos to our comedy” Wallace-Crabbe voices an audible, knowing smile. It is worth reprinting the last stanza:

Listen. A texture delicate as lace
Repeats the long-gone master’s melody.
These ringing notes are all we know of grace
But repetition has its lovely place.

Tact, texture, text. Texture, here, is afflated, exhaled, delivered in refrain. An echo of death is audible too, recalling the line that read “riding the breath of death” from “The Speech of Birds” fifteen tracks earlier. Qualified earlier by the line “You can’t get back to the lawns of infancy”, repeating the wise advice of psychotheoretical systems, Wallace-Crabbe delivers tact by reassuring us in the refrain that to resist going “back to the lawns of infancy” ought not stricto sensu cancel out the place of repetition in poetry. For poetry’s relation to repetition — and in particular the psychoanalytic resonances of that relation — reflexively enter Crabbe’s poetic  thinking. Thinking in the purest sense, for in a curious reversal of ekphrastic trajectory, what “one is often tempted to say” (from “Mozart On The Road”) enters the frame of its own saying. “Travel narrows the mind, one is often tempted to say,” as the phrase goes, thinks its phraseology. Or, the problem of the self, of subjectivity — surely familiar and yet always foreign territory to Wallace-Crabbe — are here conjured up as poetic sound-bites that put thinking and saying/poeticity together, while simultaneously drawing them apart. Indeed the issue of subjectivity, as Wallace-Crabbe puts it in his book Falling into Language (1990), involves an estrangement from self, an attempt to get outside the self to look at it:

One rides within oneself. Sometimes, too, one stands outside for a while, leans aside or flies aloft, trying to get a look at that self (112).

Intimacy for Wallace-Crabbe, then, is double-sided. To be “oneself” is to look at that self from outside, from the standpoint of the other, as in a mirror, to be at once inside and outside. Meaning, rather than being something that one finds ‘within oneself’ is, in the poem “We Being Ghosts Cannot Catch Hold Of Things”, personified as a “blind god/who limps through the actual world/seeking any attachment,/looking for good company.” Meaning resembles an outsider seeking contact, contract, company. And in “Stardust”:

Meaning is only a bundle of signs
That parallel and light the real,
But would they then be in the real?


Then signs are double wise at once,
Being inside and outside what they picture

If one follows the line that the real is that which cannot be symbolized, signified, assigned meaning, then the relation between meaning and the real is one of both insolubility and dependability. Reduced to a bundle of signs, meaning is both external and internal, of the real and external to the real. Considering the audition of words, meaning is both external and internal to the sounds words make. Transliteration would be the word. Elsewhere there is the sense that landscape, what lies outside the domestic, is something of an echo of the transliteration occurring between speech-act and sign, sound and sense. Such echoes can be heard in “Grasses,” where the Whitmanian trope of leaves (or Shelleyan apropos of “Ode to the West Wind”) makes its appearance alongside the “common urban transliteration of landscape” which, read within this context of recorded voice, puts the playing of language into a broadly metonymical embodiment of landscape as the text waiting to be sounded, read out, broadcast:

Sternly avoiding the asphalt, treading on grass
I pick my pernickety way across
this common urban transliteration of landscape,
the oddly broadcast parks and median-strips,
saluting the god of grass with the rub of my feet

What Wallace-Crabbe calls the “thought-voice” in “Mozart On The Road” may be something like an “inner voice,” the voice privy to the self, but also the voice of the other, the stranger who is writing, perhaps waiting to broadcast the self. Being before a microphone, being set down, prepared, perhaps even with the lines of a text-score set out before the poet, is to speak to or towards another archive of recordings. Another archive of course in the sense that the double bind of written and spoken literature, a bind that goes way back, perhaps before the self (“Before the self fully was, there were texts” [Falling into Language]), may reveal the self’s origins in writing. As the pre-symbolic subject speaks to an imaginary audience of one, and enters the world of spoken texts via a transliteration of sorts, as the poet broadcasts the parks and median-strips of an urban sublime, the Whitmanian troping of grass touches, as it were, Wallace-Crabbe’s poetic feet.     To broadcast one’s voice out as a poet is to draw words, language, in toward a sonic immediacy, and as a consequence toward poetic intimacy. However “oddly broadcast” poetic space becomes under the jurisdiction of voice, certainly there is a case for taking up Orwell’s challenge to the poets — to open up their voices to a listening public — without inhibition. With projects like PennSound putting the sound back into poetry, the field is open for more poets to do the same. Correspondingly, the River Road Poetry Series is a copacetic venture that will give more listeners more of the voices in Australian poetry.


ANDREW CARRUTHERS is a current doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, his research area includes poetics, sound, rhetoric, and recording in American poetry from William Carlos Williams to David Antin.