"Constructing realities that are, like a hill or a road, already there."
Toward a Naive Reading: Collected Poems by J.H. Prynne
by Alison Croggon
Putting aside one’s consciousness of the inadequacy of words, and the idiocy of paraphrase, and
the violence of the act of reading, with this simple apology, one might begin.
An irresistible memory of looking at an ink drawing by Giacometti: a cross hatching of fine lines,
drawing the eye to a slanted foot which echoes the angle of the face – a madonna, yes, drawn
out of the history of form, informing the perception of the present, limpidly emerging from the
chaos of process –
poignantly assenting to the past, to an aesthetic predicated on harmonic ideas of beauty, a
sediment in this catalytic solution, the increasing consciousness of the dissolution of the object
in the contractions of the observer, who labours forth an object that is transformation itself. So
a mass of perception, beset with contradictions. And yet, and yet. . .
The threshold again and again:
another possibility, a possibility only, of the sacred. The economy of names, the transcendence
of language, whatever remains of experience translated into its own absence. What is translated,
humanly, out of the inhuman patterns of the world, the seasons, the days, the pulse of the heart,
the shifting of tectonic plates, the tick of a nuclear clock: not as explanation, but as a reaching for
a godliness, a desire to create soul. But a godliness conscious as its desire for itself, a desire to
humanly invest the world with a sacred meaning, to sacredly invest the world with a human mean-
ing, agonisingly conscious of the small pant of its breath evaporating on the rock.
Not nostalgia, for the moral question is not what remains? but what has always been? Not nostalgia,
but how the past livingly inhabits the present. The eruptions of history in language, syllabic memory,
each word evolved to the present where this mouth shapes it to a present necessity. The immediacy
of speech, the speaker and the spoken to, constructing realities that are, simultaneously, like a hill
or a road, already there.
The way is of course speech
and a tectonic emplacement, as gradient it
moves easily, like a void
It is now at this
time the one presence
of fact, our maze
through which we
tread the shadow
The brother, the other, the
wanderer with his
thick staff: who cares whether he’s an illiterate
scrounger – he is our only rival.
who exists in the gap, the furrows, the unsuspected grainings
turns us to the face we have
so long ignored, so fervently refused
But summoned within a language made strange by recourse to other vocabularies,
which might be supposed to be inherently inimical to such musings.
The lyric as resistance.
Asking again, the question that a poetry asks of me, how to read purely? How to sense only the
words on the page, and not the dead skins of critical expectations? How to forget? How to remem-
ber? How to bend the mind to a work of understanding that forgoes the apprehensive greed of poss-
ession? How to close the mind to all but the poem, which itself opens again on the world, but a world
that opens in the poem’s aftersilence? And what has become of the world after the poem? What has
the poem become in the world?
No simple vehicle of meaning, as no world is, but a process of consciousness: leading to more difficult
questions later on, in the search, perhaps, for more than temporary resolutions, more than temporary
clarities, and finding only the limitations of other knowledges. For poetry seeks more and less than
The poetry that prompts this questioning is a poetry which reminds me, enslaved by hesitancies, fears,
anxieties, circumscribed, darkened, crouching in the noisesome room of the self – reminds me? Of
what? Something I did not know? A recognition of strangeness? A poetry that requests that I bring
myself into the place of the poem, that in the wholeness of my presence before the poem I might,
willingly, erase myself. A poetry which merely offers its presence, demanding nothing, defending
nothing, which consequently summons out of the self a rigorous, involuntary attention: a stillness, the
ear quickening to its slight and subtle music, the stirrup and anvil of the mind vibrating at once with
familiar carnal whispers and the tight, strange skin of a strange rhythm. In other words, an abrogation
of power. And so a reading is made, a dance of subjectivities, of impermeable experiences and lives,
now permeable, now aware, through the membranes of language, of relationship; a relationship
described against the paradoxes of silence and absence, a commonality inscribed in the of time –
in geological markers, histories of objects, in personal histories, in genetic memory –
and one wonders, how is that so ? – and the poetry replies with its own doubt.
Contingency, a gentle irony, the more gentle and more poignant for how it reveals, again and again,
the reality of feeling.
And when such a consciousness examines the contradictions of consciousness, he refuses, he must
refuse, the dream: how, then, to approach the real, if not through the dream of language? which is
itself a presence that nevertheless comes, more and more, to signify the absences signaled by
abstraction, the withdrawal of substance and weight into the erotic relationships of power?
Then the possible seems
a paltry art
And being right is not so
absolute as being so
how it lies behind this language, like hope. Is justice simply a factor of the ardour with which it is
demanded? and yet, how irresistibly that call resonates –
We are bleached in sound as it burns by what
we desire; light darting
over and over, through a clear sky.
– as we respond to our chemical visions, our genetic inheritances, our social inheritances, the
synaptic explosions of memory, as we expand and contract to the stimuli of light and water, our
close relations, the great nevertheless. . .
Many examinations of this kind end in parody, a mirthless logic. But this does not admit a certain
refusal, a certain willfulness, which can travel through parody (which is, after all, only a tribute to
that satirised), encompassing it but finding there no finality, and discovering for itself a joyous cosmos.
There is a set of loops somewhere in this great & forcible flood like the aurora and in this total purge
of the horizon both ways I stop before I do.
Back again before the old insufficiencies.
And anger. As recourse, as a welling response, against the numb, the overloaded, where the ear
starves in the field, where the soul, traversed by uncountable tracks of money, power, authority,
freezes on black ice.
And now one is forced to think of certain opacities; for this is not, I must remember, a code, made
to be broken, nor an entertainment, made to be consumed and possessed, but a poetry, in which
many things are foregone. One may assay the sciences and literatures and histories, and speculate
lodes of associations and relations: but beyond this, or more strictly within this, are idiolects of exper-
ience: to admit is not to enter. The pork pies in the shop seem suddenly more full of refusals than the
gasp of language wrung into further abstraction. Puzzle this. And increasingly language insists on its
own materiality, the words presenting themselves singly on the page, the relationships of syntax less
and less certain, a row of objects placed without a shelf. Reinforced by a shaving of pronouns, pre-
positions, connective tissue of all kinds, a relentless crafting of sound and rhythm that appears more
and more merciless. No doubt a vigilance to parry such movement as this:
my empire of dismay, which from within
is the hive of too many colours.
I live there and will, and make the chain
a path into the hope-trap: the lost
scent of a just peace.
or more simply might be the dream of a sharper cold.
This world is carcinogenic: a malignant process metastasises through the whole, this much is clear,
and language itself toxic. But what might coalesce as nostalgia forwards to a harsher violence, rooting
itself irretrievably in the clean waste of the present, the almanac a pious gloss; the rest – desire,
money – a joke metal that
just out of sight
forever and ever and ever
There was never going to be any consolation here. There was never any consolation. Did you expect
it? Not if the alternative is the tedious mantra of insults and bardic butter, impotent gestures towards a
false potency. Not in this place vibrant and honeyed with the romance of money: the heroics of a rhap-
sodic boredom, the grossly sensual seductions, the obscenities of easy truth, which have vitalised all
wars: not here where the consumer cannibalises himself, unaware, at the hypermarket.
The weight of money is suffocating. The language is slick and filthy with it.
The clear reflected light that, like the moon in a neon landscape, shines like a perfect crime, and
erases concern with the processes, illusory or scientific or social or genetically predisposed, of its
apprehension. What is this pain, but a sudden vivid apprehension of imperialism sliding across the
bedsheets, recognition of an ultimate complicity? The language comes cold out of the gap between
wound and the physical registration of hurt. The words are pitiless, edged with ice, admitting sorrow
but not the balm of bitterness.
Life itself, hurt in the mouth but
exhausted with passion and joy
returns with a cold thrill like anaesthetic.
A crystal turned minutely to acute focus. And shifted again, before the eye fixes. Only the ear is
quick enough, being so close to touch.
The reluctances of reading.
One must not forget the violence of speech.
Hard precise chop against the larynx. Air gasped out.
Cruel abstract of desire.
Tracers over a darkened planet.
Shimmering with artificial heat.
Offering no redemption.
Beauty more brutal than human pain.
What by this lyric is.
Exhalations of love.
ALISON CROGGON edits the Australian journal Masthead.