The Edge of Questions and Dilemmas: Shane McCauley Launches ‘Argot’ by Christopher Konrad

Argot by Christopher Konrad, Pomonal Publishing 2016, was launched by Shane McCauley at the Orient Hotel Fremantle on 11 May 2017

It was a great pleasure and honour to be invited to launch Christopher Konrad’s new book of poetry, Argot. Argot is the third major publication by Chris in the past five years, since his Sunline collection I Read My Ancestors (published in Sandfire, 2012, with collections by Flora Smith and Rose van Son) and Letters to Mark (published by Regime in 2014). This latter was the creative component of his PhD from Edith Cowan university, an uncategorisable and fascinating amalgam of poetry, philosophy, theology and fiction. He has also published in many journals and received awards such as the prestigious Tom Collins Poetry Prize. In short, he has been creatively energetic across several genres, and is certainly one of the most intellectually engaging and exciting writers currently at work in Australia.

The word argot refers to what might broadly be called secret languages, languages brought into being by particular groups, in order that the broader and possibly more law-abiding world might not understand them. Barry J. Blake, in his book, Secret Language, defines it thus: it is

non-standard vocabulary used by a group bound by common interest, isolation, or their opposition to authority. . . It is traditionally associated with those who live outside the law: burglars, cardsharps, confidence tricksters, highwaymen, racketeers and the like.

Before anyone surreptitiously calls the police, however, Blake goes on to suggest that argot is used by many other groups of people in the broader community, such as entertainers, circus folk and travelling salespeople. The world of the Internet has led to an proliferation of new symbols, which are, after all, what all languages consist of. And, of course, argot is used by poets, whether criminal ones like Francois Villon or legally beyond reproach ones such as Christopher Konrad.

Many people may no longer read modern poetry simply because it is perceived as being almost in another language, one that requires unlocking mysteries and playing games with words, or that is in fact in such an argot that it effectively excludes the reader. There may be some truth in this, such as when we compare an accessible 19th century poem with, say, a slab of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, written in up to 20 languages, including Mandarin and Provencal. Jerome Rothenberg, a poet and cultural innovator deeply respected by both Chris and myself, offers a counter to this in his fifth great Poems for the Millennium anthology. He says that if poetry in our time “has come to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the outsider art par excellence (then) the poet under those conditions resembles not only shamans, but traditional clowns as well, whose sacred and disruptive art, like that of our secular avant-gardists, would call the culture’s deepest truisms into question.”

Fortunately, while packed with layers of meaning, sonorous wordplay, cultural allusions and moving imagery, Chris’ Argot is very much accessible. To be sure, as will be noted, there is much use of paradox, the endings of poems frequently presenting alternative and sometimes opposite possibilities. Chris draws upon a huge range of multicultural references, reflecting his close and sharp awareness of such recent and monstrous catastrophes as the Second World War and the arrogance of racism, his enquiries into the nature of the self (he is an admirer or Pessoa and his extraordinary heteronyms) and what it means to be human, a fascination with the early origins of Christiantiy, the impact of central European thinkers and writers such as Kafka and Karl Kraus, the moral conundrums of Artificial Intelligence. And much more. In short, the voices and worlds of Chris’ poetry will vastly reward those who cross the frontiers of his work.

So what will readers find as they meet the secret language of this book? Well, Chris offers a clue in his title poem: ‘Train your eyes on words’, and goes on to suggest that meanings can be fluid, they change depending on context. The book’s opening poem introduces the underlying theme of time, and of course its relativity, too: “Even if the time is wrong, the clock never is”, he concludes. There are poems about things, objects, reminiscent of Rilke’s fascination with what was distilled therein. Tentative conclusions can be drawn, as in the opening of ‘Carnalions by the Mirror’:

Two stalks, six crumpled
red flowers: unopened buds
reflect in the mirror and a
handful of cards – birth and
love. Is my cup too full/now?

States of mind are powerfully evoked, as in ‘Liminal’ with its powerful beach symbolism. Chris’ poetry, like that of Paul Celan, takes us to the edge of questions and dilemmas, or we might find ourselves between contrary viewpoints or perhaps at those places at the end of things, where language struggles no hard to reach let alone encompass.

There is also much delight in the ordinariness of things and a natural awe and joy in the face of beautiful landscapes and places. Such destinations abound in ‘East Gippsland and other Enoch Anecdotes’:

Somewhere along the road, just past Traralgon, rising, rolling hills,
Mice volleys; heavy as iron and built like that too.

There is an affinity with little creatures, as in ‘Little Bird’, where he asks

Is your day any different to mine – do you dare too?

There is compressed history, as in “Currawong”, the “pied Antipodean”. In fact, many of the poems are saturated in history and Aboriginal pre-history. There is wondering about the secret languages of stones, the moon, the sea- There are poems that reflect on love and family.

I referred to paradoxes earlier, and here are a few taken from the beautiful closures of some of these poems:

the malice of envy and unrelenting desire. And still I will not thereof
………………………………………. ………………………………………………– ‘Blackbird’

babbling children manifest the dance of tomorrow”
………………………………………. ………………………………………………– ‘The Importance of Being’

It’s all the same to the sea/ go don’t go live die/ all the same
………………………………………. ………………………………………………– ‘The Sea’

and one with some grim humour,

playing Chopin on cold dark nights
as we spill over the edge like entering Valhalla with Thelma
and Louise.
………………………………………. ……………………………………Valhalla with Thelma and Louise

I first met Chris in the dim mists of the end of last century when he came to my creative writing classes at Midland TAFE, and since then a warm friendship has developed. It has been moving and uplifting to see him devote himself to the difficult art and craft of poetry  so steadfastly, while bringing up a family and working hard in socially vital and rewarding occupations. I have admired and been nourished by his continual spirit of enquiry and creative energy. That I am not alone in this is demonstrated by his having found such discerning publishers as Roland Leach at Sunline, Nathan Hondros at Regime, and more recently Jane Nicholls at Pomonal Publishing. And he has many friends here in WA, some of whom are here this evening.

I should like to close by reading one of my favourite poems in Argot, ‘Tram’:

In the dark of it. Ringing bell and pneumatic wheeze of door.
The chill-blast through the opening and stark, inverted
winter nest-trees. The rime of it. Snow at Macedon. Peopled
by jackets anoraks scuff-boots and dragon-breath. Umbrella,
red-face, unkempt and shuffle. The whisk-pace and blush.
Rain like tracer bullets on the glass and over the west a
yawping maw wind-ice, hail and ominous. Tram bell rings,
like a call to prayer: stamping feet, heads bowed shake off
the sky-gods. People on. People off.

I am delighted to announce that Christopher Konrad’s Argot is now launched. Thank you.

– Shane McCauley


Shane McCauley has had eight collections of poetry published, most recently The Drunken Elk (Sunline Press 2010) and Trickster (Walleah Press, 2015), as well as over a thousand poems in national and overseas journals. He was awarded the Max Harris Poetry Prize in 2008.

Argot is available from or directly from the author