Final Theory by Bonny Cassidy (Giramondo Press 2014) was launched by Lisa Gorton at Collected Works on 2 July 2014.
Bonny Cassidy’s Final Theory is an admirably strange collection: an epic, vast in ambition, built of fragments. In Final Theory Cassidy takes a magnifying glass and makes it work repeatedly as a telescope. Geological time, anthropogenic cataclysm, existential doubt, her own death, the end of poetry: Cassidy works all these concerns into myriad small marvels of description; or, more exactly, into the gaps and disjunctions between myriad small marvels of description. This is poetry that disrupts the picture plane: sharp, angular, disconcerting. What isn’t in it matters as much as what is. Reading Final Theory, you enter a place stripped of the sort of sentiment and rhetoric that would transform it into a landscape, a possession, a nation. Perhaps the most remarkable of this book’s gifts is the sense that it gives you of place itself.
But the structure of this collection is also remarkable. It is in four parts, alternating between two different points of view. The first and third parts track a couple driving through a post-apocalyptic scene. Part I sets the scene with characteristic suddenness: with their sun dying, humans have set a new sun in the moon’s place; the land is buckling and breaking up. The couple drive their Toyota into the mountains: a poet and photographer memorialising the end of human time. Like Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Cassidy’s couple find ‘the world was all before them’. ‘“We’ll drive ‘til this land swims, ”/ you say. “My camera might sink/ but we’ll be safe inside it:/ fat and rich and pink”.’ Among its other elements, Final Theory is a love poem, and Cassidy has achieved this, with compelling strangeness, almost without a lyric voice.
Final Theory is set in a place which has time as its vanishing point, a place which everywhere opens up into destruction. That is to say, Cassidy has invented a place equal to her style, in which each thing exists over an abyss. What is art for, she is asking; what truth does it have? At times in Final Theory this question comes to the surface: ‘Order and delay/ cannot be made from space and time; how could they?’ That question is built into her descriptions, which see things close-up and also from the future’s perspective. Cassidy wrote the first poems of Final Theory in New Zealand after researching geology and the history of Gondwana. Rocks, dried-up lakes, skeletons and ruins: the couple in Final Theory drive through geological time, places where what has happened exists not as a story but as layered remains. That geological interest shapes the style as well as the narrative of Final Theory, in which the stanzas themselves appear like rock outcrops on the page. Cassidy describes boulders as ‘the colour of old fires/ clean as knowledge’. Cassidy’s pared-back, impersonal style – her interest in pure statement – makes the stanzas rock-like: massy, reduced to essentials.
Final Theory has an epigraph from the New Zealand poet James Baxter. Cassidy’s sense of place takes something, I think, from his abrupt definitive descriptions. Take his poem ‘Cold Spring’, for instance: ‘Stone sea moves southward; the volcanic island/Scrub sides quiet, surf-eaten/ In antarctic isolation’ (Cold Spring). Cassidy’s poems in Final Theory are built out of such sudden perceptions. Here are just two examples: ‘The lake rose, floating/ on the valley/ then deepened to a stop./ Sailing peaks.’ (40); or, ‘Bucking/ under/ distant melt// talking to itself/ this chain of push’ (17). One of Cassidy’s achievements here is to work that compressed and abrupt style into an epic form, bringing in strange effects of space and time.
Cassidy is deeply interested in ways of seeing. The couple drive through rocks and desert and see things from the perspective of a poem or a camera: things caught in language, held in light. Cassidy writes, ‘The poem and the photo are desire/ collected, dispersed. As each boulder/ found its lodgement here…’ (55). This is characteristic of Cassidy’s self-awareness, her analytical eye: the poetry of their road-trip is something not of flow but of outcrop. The effect is to bring in question how stories work – how much of them is desire. The poet, among rocks and desert, dreams of water.
In the other parts of Final Theory the poems enter another way of seeing: an underworld of water. They take the perspective of a girl under the sea: speechless, amphibious. These parts of the book create an utterly different structure of imagery. For the child, things are all touch. Her language is sensuous in the mouth: hurl, trench, huff, curly, scum, fug, bergy, mush, gulch, silt; and her lines often ease into breathing patterns. What is the relationship between these parts of the book? The child is encountering a drowned world, consuming what she sees. Underwater the girl finds a skeleton at a keyboard. Pulling herself from the pool, she grabs hold of the arm:
Clutching the clutching thing, she follows
its thumb, down the double bow and hinge
…..of an arm.
from a scree of rubbish and shell.
The child flops
out of the pool, onto her front.
When squeezed, the hand’s knuckles pop
into her palm.
She worries at them with her gums,
gazing into a blank screen.
This marvellous strange passage is characteristic of Cassidy’s interest in what you might call the bare bones of things. This collection shows her more metaphysical than the metaphysical poets ever were, because less baroque.
What Cassidy brings us close to in Final Theory is a trick, a trouble and longing built into thought itself, being fixed on what is outside thought: a blank screen. This is why the girl travelling underwater has such force in this collection: clutching, following, wondering, gazing out of the strange silence of her world. The girl finds a photograph and she eats it. She discovers a Toyota sunk deep into a rift, climbs into it, climbs out of it, and comes to light. Though the connection between the poem’s surface and underwater realms remains mysterious, for me this part of the poem recalls the creation myths that Mircea Eliade and Charles Long characterise, in which some being, suspended in a primordial realm, is brought by dream, utterance, or bodily remains into existence. In this light, Cassidy’s fragmentary epic creates a myth of its own creation: ‘an inkling child of soil and grit’: something that happened once, and something that is happening now, in its future, as we read.
Above ground and underwater, in time and out of time, in theory and in dream: the parts of the poem generate each other. Here perhaps the current search for a ‘final theory’ finds its counterpart in first conceptions of how the universe began. Final Theory works into its structure T. S. Eliot’s pronouncement in ‘Burnt Norton’: Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.’ So the couple on the surface are like Adam and Eve, except at the end of history, and the poem alternates part by part between first and last cosmologies: a creation myth and a final theory.
Except that there is no final theory. As Cassidy puts it in one poem: ‘I search the rear window/ for a final perspective — // but end in only an idea, diffused/ into a ranging sheet of light.’ It is one of the ironies that Einstein died thinking of himself as a failure. The two great recent visions of reality – quantum physics and the general theory of relativity – work within their own terms and yet are incompatible. With a telescope, we can look back through light almost to the beginning of time. With a microscope, we can look down through matter to its flickerings in and out of being. Between such frames of reference, what is a poem?
In the way she structures Final Theory, Cassidy pays tribute to Jennifer Maiden’s idea that ‘poetry is disparate concepts combined in binary structures … its varied manifestations of the binary the essence of mnemonic technique’. The poet in Final Theory writes: ‘I’m switching the poem off and on; it’s not a pet, after all, but a function’. She comes across forms of binary memory: a telegraph, out of use; and midges rising like a smoke signal: ‘dot dash stop’. The whole of Final Theory has the energy of something being brought into being, beginning again and again. In such ways, the conceptual ambition of the poem is drawn down into its details, its principles of composition, even, with its short and broken ‘dot dash’ stanzas and alternating parts: memory turning on and off, detail and abyss. A fragmentary epic, a love story, creation myth of itself, this is a collection that sees itself from the perspective of deep time. Cassidys’ Final Theory is sharply analytical and also mesmerising: a lastingly interesting book, an impressive achievement. She writes: ‘All my words are gunning for extinction, all they can tell us is:/ live more’.
– Lisa Gorton
Lisa Gorton writes poetry, essays and fiction. She is the poetry editor of ABR. Her latest collection poetry Hotel Hyperion was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards and Western Australian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. Her awards include the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal, Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. Her novel The Life of Houses is forthcoming from Giramondo in 2015.
Final Theory is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/final-theory/
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