Anna Kerdijk Nicholson reviews and then when the by Dan Disney
by Dan Disney
Reviewed by Anna KERDIJK NICHOLSON
In the lead-up to the launch of his first full-length book, ‘and then when the’, Dan Disney wrote me a letter in his spidery, spontaneous hand from Korea, where he teaches. He wrote, looping words eating up the white photocopy paper, ’I have been looking forward to this book for … oh … 40 years’.
This is what I appreciate so much about poets. No matter what their achievements, the best of them remain humble, wait to be measured against the tide of words from the past and wait until what they have wrought is fine and then remain excited by publication, by reaching an audience through the page or through their voice. Such tiny fragments to shore up against our ruin, and yet poets continue, heroically, against the odds (Kindles; the murderousness of profit and loss for small presses; and that distinct sensation – in the face of MasterChef – of cultural irrelevance).
So what do we get for 40 years in the making? There are twenty poems in this collection, a mere 44 pages of poetry. So what is it about this collection which impresses as a taut and strong collection?
The tenor of the work can be found in its title. ‘And then when the’ is a prose phrase. Such a phrase is the part of language which is generally removed from poetry. Why? Because those monosyllables ‘and then when the’ are the tools of narrative. Yet this book references narrative a fortiori because it comprises so many journeys made by the persona —and by the poet — within Australia and overseas. The title, like much of the book’s content, speaks of what poetry is and what it is not.
there’s graveyard dirt on our soles, as if we live
in houses with covered mirrors, as if
each mid-morning there’s no right side to climb from our beds
so many muttering about silence,
spruiking the godhead
non-descript as our job descriptions and
making memos to the immemorial
so many thinking on time, on love and where that goes, on nothing,
some days hearts may shudder
as we stoop, moan, and blink
below an audience of stars arriving early
Much of the poems’ content (though not what I have just quoted) is celebratory of the intellectual. Here are references to Sartre, Latin riffs, artists and artworks, Wallace Stevens, philosophers, recent fiction, Plotinus, Mary Shelley, Horace and more. Cross-referencing like this allows us a hypertext into those other works. Referencing others’ work is the lifeblood of poets; nay, of artists. Quoting, re-imagining, ripping. It keeps us on our toes, pays homage, re-writes history as a living thing and incites to aspire to these reference points in our evolving culture.
However intellectual, this work is grounded in experience. Disney takes us on a Verlaine/Rimbaud roller-coaster of wildness, like a spare 21st century beat poetry, where persona/reader experience the journeys, the drugs, absinthe and a smattering of Burroughs. Like Burroughs, there is a restless intellect and a steely eye for the hilarious details of life presented as the surreal. Here we have the great melting clocks of Disney’s imagination on display.
A trapdoor has been opened in the head. Inside, historical figures are rowing, spectred
And quaffing logos at the feet of mountains. See here: among them Ern Malley’s shape,
toasting Plato and the Elysian mosquito swamps. In the next boat, glass to ear, Buddha …
(“… never come to thoughts. They come to us” [Martin Heidegger: Poetry, Language, Thought], 36)
Disney changes text. He leaves font alone but occasionally orients poems on the page so one reads the title horizontally, then to read the balance of the poem, one must rotate the book. The two poems which do this begin, respectively, ‘A trapdoor has been opened in the head’ and ‘take a gun’ and the poems start by the centre seam of the book. This is not concrete poetry, but poetry of architecture on the page and disorientation and subversion of the norms.
‘How to hunt March hare’ is a brio example of his style when he is being subversive and humorous:
Take a gun (unloaded) to the hole one moonless night. Call your closes taxidermist friends and tell them
to stay at home. Take a portable fence on which to sit …
Kick down the portable fence. Maintain focus. Take some speed. Take some mescaline. Quote Machiavelli
through a loudspeaker from the back of a military-green shrub. Shake your fists at a god and the stars …
(“How to hunt March hare”, 16)
The book, because of its size, is knowable; it can be contained within one’s attention. But it is worthy of the quote from Mallarmé: ‘all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book’ and much of it is here in this slim volume of modern Australian verse. Words work hard because the language is wrought and curated. It invites the magnifying glass.
Nonetheless it retains a casual tone because of the wittiness, the tall tales and the Australian-abroad perspective. This is a brain let loose on the world tour of the colonials of yore. From this perspective, we are provided an assessment of ourselves:
the shape of us? Always stricken, homeless amid monuments,
shambling slowly as though those who have travelled
such little distance
that everything seems ordinary.’
(“Still lifes [i.m. Gianluca Lena]”, 38)
Along the way we are shown some examples of our ‘metaphysical homesickness’ … that is, Disney tells us we have lost our understanding of our raison d’être. Whether you like the insight and conclusion or not, this is a summation of where Australians stand in the world, and what that means.
Thankfully, there are consolations. The first is humour. There is nothing which cannot, in this book, be cured by wit and laughter. It is one of the reasons it endears itself to me.
A thing eats a thing
and is eaten
by another thing.
not lasting long, is eaten
by a further thing
the further thing eaten by something again, eaten
by something else….
This thing is eaten by another thing called Craig
though perhaps never believing in the unstoppable nature of destiny
is also eaten.
(“Ecce Hombres”, 17)
It offers , nevertheless, at least one salvation. Disney quotes from Wallace Stevens’ Miscellaneous Notebooks: ‘reality is a cliché/ from which we escape by metaphor.’ Metaphor, then, has the capacity to transport us. It makes our world new again. Here is the exquisite ‘Swifts Creek’, from the strong sequence ‘Smalltown Etudes: Omeo Highway, Great Dividing Range’:
The creek bends over stone, a snake unskinning itself. Hats gather
at the servo and trucks slough past
unloading clear-fell at the mill. A bus draws in to school,
at its windows. Up the road, the cemetery
is carved with phonebook names.
(“Swifts Creek”, 11)
All, therefore, is far from lost. In fact it is richly moving, beautiful and ugly, very real, extremely surreal, and subject to the entropy which is part of our existence.
This is a sure-footed sampling of this strong new voice whose work is worthy of close attention and whose voice is engaging , engaged and filled with the power of all that it is to be a poet at this time, working out of this heritage.