Jeremy George reviews Where Only the Sky had Hung Before by Toby Fitch
Where Only the Sky had Hung Before
by Toby Fitch
Reviewed by Jeremy George
For all the obvious reasons I have been reflecting lately on what Walter Benjamin’s observes in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ ; “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience… [however] his nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom are already extinct in the city”. If Benjamin draws a causal link between the destruction of experience and the genesis of modern information; the decline of “storytelling” and the rise of “news”, it is hard to imagine what his judgement would be of our relationship to the web today. The internet is, of course, a fundamentally nauseating and overwhelming ex-American military technology of mass surveillance. However, it is simultaneously (and undeniably) the nexus of new “experiences” and modes of living. The internet is an experience, indeed, strictly in Benjamin’s sense. If anything has brought the activities that are associated with boredom back to the city, it is the internet – the inventor of the “infinite scroll” sincerely regrets the consequences of his actions. So, what’s the pay-off regarding experience?
Toby Fitch’s latest collection of poems Where Only the Sky had Hung Before, hinges on this juncture. The index at the back of the collection explains that nearly all the poems are collages, inversions, supercuts, ghostings or ekphrastic renditions of pre-existing texts. Other poems and poets yes, but also, social media streams, news articles, songs, a list of a child’s first words and buzz feed threads; as Fitch says of his own work in a recent interview “my poems are often simply accretions… [I] gather the relevant textual materials together and just play, make Lego of them, see where it goes”. Fitch’s collection asks, what limits the criterion of the “post-ready made” work? What happens if poetry embraces the technological paradigm of “information” to which it has been historically opposed?
The longest sequence in the collection is a sequence titled ‘Argo Notes’; “amorphous calligrammes after Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It is not coincidental that Fitch categorises the ‘Argo Notes’ as specifically calligrammes as opposed to concrete or visual poetry. Indeed what were Guillaume Apollinaire’s original ‘Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916’ but the attempt to synthesise typography with the burgeoning technology of the cinema and the phonograph. The form of the calligramme itself bespeaks not only the historical imbrication of poetic production and technological “means of reproduction” (as Apollinaire dubbed them in a letter to André Billy), but indeed the precariousness of the poet’s own status as productive as opposed to simply mimetic, an insecurity stretching back to their banishment from Plato’s Republic. In flagrantly anchoring the majority of poems in this collection in techniques of productive plagiarism, Fitch can trade off this age-old tension with its major contemporary iteration (the internet), whilst recognising that despite the major rupture the Internet has induced for poetry, it is not exactly uncharted territory. The calligrammes are significant for a further reason too, as morphing textual forms they perform a queerness that realises the historical etymological root of “stanzas” as body. The conflation of language (which is of course, the first technology) and the sexual; the productive and re-productive culminate and confuse in the queer textual body as:
“pro-Babel & shooting white eggs
Following from this point, in ‘Poetry is 99% Water’ Fitch asks us to remember;
between 4.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago,
a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment
and we’ve been recycling poems from these fragments
of larger epics ever since – into whirlpools and tornadoes
and other spinning turbulent flows”
Fitch’s “whirlpools and tornadoes” recall the epic simile of the swarm, which first appears in Homer’s Illiad, becomes domesticated in Virgil’s Aneiad as the “hive” and reappears as the cacophony of Fallen Angels in Pandemonium, during the first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inserting a poem concerned with (albeit on a comic register) making literal the ‘life-giving’ ability of poetry into this epic lineage points out that whilst the mechanisms of literary history and influence are of course technologies of reproduction and transmission themselves, this is clearly not a death sentence. Therefore, whilst the wasteland logic of the web, as explored in ‘Feel like I’m Somehow Related to Everyone on the Internet’, gives in to the paradoxical stasis of being “relegated to everywhere” (on the internet we are famously ‘alone together’), and it becomes more difficult to discern what you are “trashing” and what you are “recycling” (possibly alluding to Fitch’s own appropriative strategies), poetry and the poet should not submit to nihilism. Indeed, the production of the collection itself, as one that is inextricable from the consequential language, modes of existing and practices that web occasions, performs this defiant gesture;
“no such thing as reproduction
Only acts of production” (28)
In one of the funniest poems in the collection ‘Life Stream’ , Fitch pleads with the reader, or with himself;
“& you can too
APPROPRIATE POETRY’S SENSE OF
WHAT IS MEANS TO BE AN EMPATH” (50)
The poem frenetically replays the condition of living not only the preceding poems of the collection – the “toenail” from ‘Vague or I Can’t Explain It Any Other Way’ makes an appearance. But also the conditions of existence the contemporary poet finds themselves in — the casualised work force of the academy, the reduction of a politics to “flicker Netflix representations”, the anxiety of knowing you’re being surveilled every moment you spend online, which now, thanks to its technological bulldozing, feels like “IRL” itself. And of course, “our notional national poet… his eyes [are] the size of/ thumbnails not poems” (50).
Fitch’s poems are contemporary in that they take as their key interlocutor the contemporary conditions of poetic production in the Internet Age. But they are not symptomatic of this age, in that they do assume de-facto status as poems purely as formally experimental texts that exist within this internet environment. A tweet today is not automatically a poem, as the corporate-poet mercenaries Fitch describes would have us believe; but they can be, maybe. This is the formal question Fitch’s collection interrogates head-on; how do we escape the infinite scroll? Or, under what conditions is the found-poem today categorically defined as the latter? Fitch’s ‘In Memory of My Furlings’ ghosts the first section of the great Frank O’Hara poem, transforming ‘Feelings’ to a noun that seemingly means both an “advanced alien race” from the Stargate universe, and a distance of 220 yards — the web has managed both figuratively and literally to alienate or distance us from our most felt human intensities. O’Hara’s final line is prescient for Fitch;
“and presently the aquiline serpent comes to resemble the medusa” (103)
But Fitch’s poem finishes on a different note;
“the furlings and unfurlings
I continue to have to save and put down” (21)
Keep hitting save is Fitch’s ethical maxim. And it seems right, Where Only the Sky Had Hung Before shows the continuing potential of poesis as a rebellious practice that can re-organise and create anew the techno waste we are enmeshed in. If there isn’t much experiential payoff in boredom being reinstated in the city, Fitch’s collection is at least one.
1. Walter, Benjamin. “The Storyteller”, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, Mariner Books, 2019, pp. 26-56.
2. Fitch, Toby. “The amorphousness of meaning-making”, Cordite Poetry Review, 1/2/2020, http://cordite.org.au/interviews/gomez-fitch/
3. Apollinaire, Guillaume, quoted in the preface by Michel Butor Calligrammes, Éditions Gallimard, preface copyright 1966), pp.
4. O’Hara, Frank. “In Memory of My Feelings”, Frank O’Hara Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford, Alfred A.Knopf Random House, 2008, pp.102-103
JEREMY GEORGE is a writer from Naarm/Melbourne