redactor by Eddie Paterson, Whitmore Press 2017, was launched by Amy Brown at the Bella Union Bar, Trades Hall, Melbourne on 1 February.
‘This is the book for you’ is the title of a satirical, distilled review, which begins ‘joan collins is an extraordinary orchid of evil & beauty’; it also happens to be true of redactor – whatever “true” means these days. This is the book for you, because of its acute timeliness. With wit and sagacity, Eddie Paterson’s latest collection of poems seems to herald and ward against several recent dystopian events. I’ll start with the most obvious: as I type, the U.S. president’s last tweet was:
Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN – public is smart!
We are living in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. “Post truth”, the Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2016, is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Donald Trump has demonstrated how objective facts, when swayed by subjective beliefs, are uselessly fickle. Perhaps the only thing that Eddie Paterson has in common with Trump is that he has demonstrated this hegemony of subjectivity over the objective fact too, albeit benevolently. The first section of redactor, titled ‘Aversion’, is a dossier of manipulated of information. ‘Bureau of Statistics’, a droll portrait of this nation via figures, begins:
31 australians have died
since 1996 watering
their christmas tree while
the fairy lights were plugged in
19 australians have died
in the last 3 years by eating
christmas decorations they believed were
chocolate hospitals reported 4 broken
arms last year after cracker pulling incidents
All text – the legend of the map at a zoo, census data, personal email excerpts – is the redactable material from which versions of the truth are made. Eddie’s redaction, in the sense of editing and arranging, draws attention to the myriad “truths” any written communication yields and encourages readers to avert, or turn away, from the well-trodden path of interpretation, to read from an unexpected angle.
Any retelling of an experience is necessarily subjective. The experiences recorded in the first section of redactor are surreal due to the precision of the description. Flying into Melbourne, Eddie sees:
move through the clouds,
huge grey airships
curl amongst skyscrapers & through suburbs
& it’s a minute or two
before i realise i’m looking at the harbour
& not the sky & fog is eating the world.
At the supermarket, a screaming kid latches on to Eddie:
he pulls himself
up my arm
& screams in my face.
the mother unhinges her child
from my arm. i go on looking for the Special K.
on my trolley
spins round & round.
Librarian types are referred to as ‘the dewy ones’, legs as ‘loaves of bread’ and an airport as ‘a lung with particles moving through it’. The crisp exactness of these metaphors is a relief next to the stale communiqués found on bulletin boards and government websites. Still, Eddie’s satirical redaction of these depressing texts renders them fresh. For example-
this is the boy
this is a picture of the boy
do not feed the boy
unchecked snacks or sandwiches
do not give the boy
liquids, inc. water, cordial, milk,
without express permission.
please monitor the boy &
notify if situation does not improve.
if there is an escalation,
perform the procedure.
if you are unfamiliar with the procedure
do not ask the boy
he will be prone
After hearing Eddie read this poem early last year, my partner now refers to our son almost exclusively as “the boy”.
For anyone embroiled in the Centrelink “debt recovery” debacle, Eddie’s treatment of Kafkaesque bureaucratic missives will offer some consolation. And, for anyone who is or has been a postgrad arts student or sessional academic, much of redactor will ring true – in some cases it may ring so piercingly true that you suspect you are reading phrases plucked from your own emails; you may wonder whether the redacted name under the tiny black rectangle is yours.
Writing from within such a niche métier risks riddling a book with exclusive in-jokes. Feeling excluded is in this case part of the point, I think. One poem refers directly to the Brechtian theatre term, ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, which is the distancing or alienating of the audience from the experience of the characters in a performance. In-jokes act as a form of encryption, which the reader is invited to try and crack. There is a deliberate positioning of the reader as eavesdropper and voyeur, particularly in the second section of the book, ‘Call and Response’. Here, the reader is privy to redacted gossip, discussions about films, books and reality TV. Indeed, this section of redactor could be classed as “reality poetry”, except its scripting and editing is much subtler than in your average episode of Beauty and the Geek. There is a cryptic motif of mint slice biscuits – why? Well might the person or computer scanning these emails wonder. German psychologist Michal Kosinski, whose research inadvertently enabled the inauguration of Trump, created a psychometric application capable of identifying a person’s characteristics in meticulous detail based upon their Facebook “likes”. With 300 likes, Kosinski boasted that his model could predict a person’s answers to a questionnaire better than their lover could; Trump’s campaign used this technology to search for and manipulate undecided voters.
So, a pattern of mint slice mentions could be a poetic motif, or a piece of ‘big data’ ripe for psychometric analysis. Another dystopian event this collection seemed to predict was the Turnbull Government’s data retention scheme. Originally designed to combat terrorism, there is now the suggestion that the data collected could be subpoenaed for use in civil cases. What is private, what is sensitive, what is classified? What aspects of ourselves should we be endeavouring to protect or hide? In his prolific, ‘Barbara Cartland Love Poem’, Eddie provides what I read as an answer to these questions:
& as for my brain – contains far too many basketball statistics
from the 80s, references to hbo serials & guilt/doubt which
hangs off me like an overstuffed quicksilver you are welcome to
the stupid thing. i am unkind. for it also contains the memory of
you lying next to kafka in a park on an unexpectedly beautiful
afternoon. that bit i’ll keep, you can have the rest
This image that must be kept is repeated on the last page of the collection, in ‘Love Poem’:
leave me with the park with the sun & that afternoon when
unexpectedly you moved away from kafka & toward me.
Perhaps it is sentimental of me, but I find these final lines optimistic, suggesting that even in this Kafkaesque world, moments of beauty, intimacy and privacy will not be completely oppressed.
So, for anyone feeling despondent about global politics, or battling with Centrelink, or whose New Year’s resolution was to quit Facebook, or whose guilty pleasures include reality television and mint slice biscuits: this is the book for you. Buy it, seek solace in it, and keep it nearby – you are going to need it.
– Amy Brown
Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet, novelist and teacher who now lives in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in creative writing on contemporary epic poetry. Her latest book, The Odour of Sanctity, was published by Victoria University Press.
redactor is available from https://whitmorepress.com/2017/02/28/redactor-available-online/