Towards an Ethics of Poetry: Dominique Hecq launches ‘either, Orpheus’ and ‘Report from a border’ by Dan Disney

Dominique Hecq launched Dan Disney’s either, Orpheus (UWAP) and Report from a border (light-trap press) at COLLECTED WORKS, Melbourne on February 11, 2016

Weaving her way

the woods the city the maze
of slums on the outskirts
where the abject poor seethe
like a rising storm
& nodding to herself the exiled reviewer stumbles
……………………………………………….like a poet testing
the cadences & shifting lines
towards a light less
………………is a ship bound for utopia
……………………….(Baudelaire vs Disney)

………………………………villanelles rev-
O! luce ion eyes
…………the form
…………in parodic conversation
…………with the philosophers & the poets

…………………………..bound for utopia

…………Immanuel Can’t & Charles Seem Hic

…………but [yes] mostly Kierkegaard & Rilke

…………………………………………(Hecq vs Lacan)

Orpheus_coverBoth either, Orpheus and Report from a Border are complex books. Both are syntactically and typographically inventive. Through perfecting the art of quotation, both are tributes to the richness, value, inescapability of language in its spoken and written forms, books and ideas. And despite their tackling very different themes, both gesture towards what might be called an ethics of poetry.

As the homage that opens this review suggests either, Orpheus is a ludic book that engages with other texts in self-reflexive fashion. And yet it is never narcissistic. Through utilising shifting personas and modes of poetic diction, it achieves some kind of exclusive inclusiveness which resonates with its subject matter: what it means to be human in the maze of (post)modernity.

The unifying principle at the heart of the maze is a concern with poetic forms and forms of exile. either, Orpheus tells of the burdens of history and the ruins of memory. It speaks of the erasure of consciousness, the decolonisation of affects, and it speaks of death without any touch of nostalgia for origins from a variety of viewpoints. The poems speak in and through themselves while showing the reader the many approaches that gain purchase in Disney’s poetic world.

In brief, this world is formal, historical, etymological, and to a lesser extent, political, biographical, and eco-critical in its postmodern sense of play, satire, and suspicion, and the concurrent romantic vision of the redemptive possibilities of art. The reader who seeks modernist seriousness in either, Orpheus will soon be frustrated with the hiccups of villanelles that morph into villaknelles where repetition and quotation are often used to great ironic effect. It is especially evident in poems such as those from ‘accelerations and inertias’ which won first place in the 2015 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize. In these poems, the connections between works, ideas, figures and patters are amazingly intricate and illuminating, particularly upon discovering their textual sources:

These texts engage with a range of textual sources: (i) originates after reading the interview with Charles Wright in The Paris Review (No. 113, Winter 1989); (ii) originates after reading ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ‘ by Walter Benjamin against the grain of ‘Always On’ by Sherry Turkle; (iii) originates after reading ‘Cultural Pedigree’ by Pierre Bourdieu alongside ‘Income and Output’ by Thomas Piketty; (iv) originates after reading the interview with A.R. Ammons in The Paris Review (No. 139, Summer 1986); (v) originates after reading the interview with Jorge Luis Borges in The Paris Review (No 40, Winter-Spring 1967). Disney 2015: 108)

On the other hand, the reader who wants only postmodern indeterminacy and scepticism will stumble over recurring lines from the mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the epigraphs to part one and three and in echoes of Rilke texts throughout the collection. There is cause not for despair here, but for fascination and excitement in the possibilities of interplay.

Thus, either, Orpheus foregrounds the influences of philosophers, social theorists and other poets. Disney’s work, shows (off) how he responds and re-reads such figures as Kierkegaard and Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Ted Hughes, Charles Wright, Paul Muldoon, John Ashberry, George Seferis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Gary Snyder, William Wordsworth, Pierre Bourdieu, Elizabeth Bishop, Yves Bonnefoy, Joseph Brodsky, John Cage (a favourite), Anne Carson, Robert Graves, Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, Alain Badiou and many others—named or not (I read a reference to Lacan in the swarm of bees first invoked in relation to Rilke). Rather conspicuously absent are references to Australian thinkers and poets; the exception is Les Murray, in a rather ambivalent piece. I wonder why.

My guess is that Dan Disney may think of himself as self-imposed exile. And I suspect that he is closer to Paul Muldoon than any other living poet he engages with in virtual conversation, apart from Dante, another exile, whose influence is felt from the start of the prologue onwards. In fact, the word ‘exile’ recurs as a mantra in either, Orpheus, and although absent in Report from a Border, it is exile which is this work’s subject matter. In Disney’s poetic world. ‘The exile…exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachmnebnts’ (Said 1996: 49). However in this world, the exile is divested from ‘nostalgic and sentimental’ attributes (49). Disney’s exilic figure could be said to be a latent exile. Aethetically and ethically, then Disney joins the company of Dante, Baudelaire and Muldoon

border_coverLike these poets, Disney strives to bring forth the contradictions at the heart of his human and poetic heritage. The only thing is that the word ‘soul’ is not frequently called upon in Disney’s poetry. Nor are overt instances of an autobiographical nature. Disney and Muldoon share an interest in writing the poetical and experiential landscapes of poetry, but Disney, like Dante, and unlike Baudelaire and Muldoon, shies away from any family history and emotional terrain that might partake of a work’s ‘hidden architecture’ to cite Valéry translated by Muldoon (2004: 25). Nonetheless, what they all strive to convey is that ‘very little is as it seems’ (Muldoon 2004: 25), or put it in imagist mode, that ‘truth is a ship bound for utopia’ (Disney 2015a). Although both are reluctant to support any claims for art’s importance and near sacred status, both affirm their faith at least in art’s power to express ideas, feelings and affects, especially despair. Muldoon does so in elegies written upon the death of family and friends; Disney does so in elegies for the unknown and often unnamed of (post)modernity. This testifies to a common understanding of aesthetic illumination as well as redemptive drive. On hearing myself say the last sentence, though, I’m not sure this is the right way to put it.

While either, Orpheus is universal in significance and intertextual engagement, Report from a border, co-devised with graphic artist John Warwicker, is more local in character. It shares similar formal and thematic concerns with either, Orpheus, but its topos is not the tortuous road to modernity; rather, it is the torturous backdrop of a colonised ‘cove’ (Disney 2015b: 74). Here, the typographical experiments enhance the social critique rather than the formal and philosophical possibilities of poetry. Almost every page in the book is deliberately offering multiple ways of being read and therefore foregrounds multiple points of views. Here inclusive exclusiveness often excludes the reader by questioning her values, which is disconcerting at times, but no doubt intended.

In these more overtly politicised poems, Disney displays his penchant for satire of a Swiftian mode by making use of the whole gamut of possibilities typography offers, especially in conveying the violence of/and inflicted by language. Thus whereas either, Orpheus creates a fable of social and political and aesthetic experience that uncovers truths about what it means to be human, Report from a border translates vignettes of social and political experiences that discover and uncover hidden truths about human nature. And what is hidden is often hideous. In this work, we are all exiles, and it is unclear whether redemption is possible, especially for Australians, who are irrevocably caught in the mesh of postcolonialism (read neo-colonialism).

Dan Disney is a rare pyro-technician who dazzles with his poetic acumen and depth of reflection. He matches the complexity and uncertainty of the 21st century with a poetic project that is enthrallingly uncertain, yet nevertheless vibrant and generative in its wit, wisdom and ongoing effort to find meanings in the world.

 – Dominique Hecq, February 2016.

Works cited

Disney, D 2015a either, Orpheus Crawley: University of Western Australia Press

Disney, D 2015b Report from a border Maleny: light-trap press

Disney, D 2015c ‘from accelerations & inertias’, Island, 143, 104-108

Muldoon, P 2004 Moy Sand and Gravel New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

Said, E 1996 Representations of the Intellectual New York: Vintage


Dominique Hecq is a Belgian born poet, fiction writer, and translator who, many years ago, came to Australia to write a PhD on exile in Australian literature. She has become a character in her own fictions of exile and teaches writing at Swinburne University of Technology. Out of Bounds and Stretchmarks of Sun are her most recent poetry collections.

Report from a border is available from

either, Orpheus is available from

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