Teasing Threads – on Perth poetry: Jan Napier’s ‘Thylacine’

Chris Palazzolo looks at Thylacine, poems by Jan Napier, Regime Books 2015

32046238The construction boom in West Australia’s mining industry a few years ago resulted in a lot of new money sloshing around Perth, the much commented upon demographic of CUBs (Cashed Up Bogans) and their vulgar conspicuous consumption rashing the landscape. Less commented upon but just as important was a flourishing cottage industry of small poetry presses which cropped up like a carpet of wildflowers on a neglected reserve. For an all too brief couple of years, West Australia’s quiet toiling poets found themselves spoilt for choice for publication. Mulla Mulla Press, Sunline Press, Regime Books, along with a number of in-house anthologies of very mixed quality from the handful of writing centres around Perth (Katharine Susannah Pritchard, OOTA, Peter Cowan), as well as the mainstays of Westerly, UWA and Fremantle Press, meant a bit of schmoozing, a bit of hustling was all it took for many of us to get a book or two published in that time. Now that the roaring days are over and austerity is biting hard, many of those lovely wildflowers have died off (though Mulla Mulla, under the proprietorship of Kalgoorlie literary doyenne Coral Carter still continues). It’s interesting to reflect that most of the activity was poetry. There was a bit of prose, but almost no criticism. There is something naked and unprotected about poetry in its wild state, so it was inevitable the phenomenon would pass quickly. It remains for historians (all poets are historians) to examine some of the flowers that were pressed.

My not at all random choice is Regime Books’ last publication, Thylacine, a collection by one of our city’s quietest and hardest working poets, Jan Napier. The last is the loveliest. Readers will note that Regime Books was my press, the one I worked for and which published my two books, so I speak as an insider, not indifferently. I think this book is the most perfect of Regime’s list. It’s also the one I had no input in; it is exclusively the work of Jan Napier, Nathan Hondros and Lynne Tinley, who’s painting, Mother Thylacine, adorns the cover.

Small poetry books are called volumes in order to convey the sense of a vessel whose contents (poems) are in a three dimensional relationship. In this volume groups of poems are arranged thematically into chapters which are actually chambers (or ventricles, given that one of these chapters is called Heart). The first poem is always the most important. It doesn’t have to be the best, just key to the relationships, so the echo of its reading vibrates through the subsequent poems. ‘The Chant of Almonds’ is a lovely confection that leaves a sweet taste in all the poems that follow, even the most bitter ones.

Day’s overture, a nougat of clouds
oozes the way you spoon the stirry whirl

of cream and caramel.

Napier’s verse is delicate and intellectually sinewy. Every so often it’s knotted by a syntax knuckled like rhizomatic branches. It writhes as its read. As it moves it makes hoots and yells, the clashing and chafing of a strange vocabulary. The setting of many of the poems is kitchen sink – domestic fetishes, magazine pinings, the smells of mopped floors and stuffy bedrooms and seaweed on afternoon breezes – though there are poems of travel, nature and art. In all of them a spiky, hyperactive subjectivity leaps at the images as if to snare them in crystalline metaphors. The influence of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is strong. The title poem, ‘Thylacine,’ from the chapter-ventricle Vanishing, is an excellent example of a hughesian ‘animist’ poem.

Secret heart hopes for, longs for, yearns for

Spoor: indistinct prints,

Anonymous.

While ‘Cusp,’ with its image of domestic happiness interrupted by an ominous synchronicity echoes Plath’s surrealistic fatalism.

                            We chink glasses          toast la dolce vita
Clock hands stick on the half hour.

                            His mobile buzzes.

But there are many voices in this collection, mothers, children, ex-husbands, and three beautiful portraits of Frida Kahlo, Sydney Nolan and Alan Marshall. These are the hoots and yells that bustle from the thickets of syntax and echo through its volume. Napier owns them all; she’s been writing and honing her craft in her modest suburban way long enough to have braided them into her voice. And the sweet things are the lollies and cakes she rewards herself for her labours. The long secretive industry of poetry can make you feel like a thylacine – a mythical animal so furtive it may or may not have escaped its extinction.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles,is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – on Perth poetry

Chris Palazzolo challenges WA poets to deal fairly with their city.

Image result for washing lines imagesDuring a brush with fame a couple of years ago when my first book was published, I was asked in an interview whether poetry is possible in Perth. I thought this was an interesting question, especially – given that my book was a small volume of verse – as it contained the not so subtle dismissive, ‘how can you call your poetry real poetry if it’s written and published in a place where the question, is poetry possible here, can seriously be asked of a poet?’ Would such a question be asked of a Sydney poet for instance, or a Melbourne poet? I can’t deny that it infuriated me. I was even more infuriated by my glib reply – poetry is possible wherever people live and love, work and die. I came up with that lame answer because I couldn’t think of an answer, and in a panic seemed to confirm a dreadful truth implicit in the question. That no, Perth is such a soul-suckingly barren place, the lives lived here so inauthentic and rootless, that all the poetry written here never was, and could never have been, real poetry.

West Australian poets only have themselves to blame if their city has been typecast this way.  As a strolling editor of no fixed abode I’ve read a lot of West Australian poetry and it seems almost a reflex for our poets to describe Perth as a citadel of false idols in comparison with the sacred innocence of the country (the Great Southern, Goldfields, Wheatbelt, Kimberley etc) or their own private epiphanies of childhood or garden. A lot of excellent verse has been penned in support of this myth. Probably the most audacious is John Kinsella who in his Wheatbelt cycle The Divine Comedy compared the descent of the Great Eastern Highway from the Darling Ranges into Perth with the descent of the Fifth Circle of Dante’s Inferno. I’ve driven down this road many times, and I can’t say I’ve ever been overwhelmed by the stench of shit and rot that Dante’s pilgrim smelt from the gates of Dis. I would describe the smell as a melange of sweet eucalyptus, diesel and petrol exhaust. DH Lawrence observed Perth from the same vantage point a century earlier in the first pages of Kangaroo. He smelt the eucalyptus too. Most WA poets rarely get as intense as Kinsella. But then in a way that’s part of the problem. The prevailing impression I come away with is that Perth is nice at best, bland at worst, a place of easy consumption ruled by the developer’s dollar. At least Dis is a poetic image!

All poetic cultures have an origin myth. My friend of many years Chris Dickinson once gave me a lovely neat origin myth for Perth. If, as Geoffrey Blainey argues, the Australian national character emerged out of a consciousness of its distance from Europe, then Perth is the quintessential Australian city because it is distant from the rest of Australia – it is distant from distance. There’s a whole new angle on Australian history in this logic. While most of the other Australian capitals grew proximate to each other in the eastern half of the continent, trading, exchanging, learning from and defining themselves against each other, Perth, through much of its colonial, and a considerable chunk of its state history, toiled alone. This is how the city-of-no-qualities arose from the myth; too long solitude; other cities too far away to reflect itself off, a lonesome ego, smoothly unreflexive, sublimely unrecognised. WA poets consign Perth to the terrible fate of its colonial bondage, invisibility, so often, it’s almost like a neurotic impulse.

In the meantime people live and love, work and die here. They party, they have kids, they hang washing on washing lines (in-joke). And many of them write poetry, some of it (paradoxically because of this anxiety of unreflexiveness – Perth’s ‘mirror-stage’) the best in the country, and among the best in the world. I would like to invite WA poets to stop excoriating Perth with ‘faint praise’ and start thinking about their city as a res publica. Examine its civic rhythms and the aesthetics of its built landscape with an unprejudiced (or unideological) eye. Awake from private consolations and look out onto its footpaths and streets, how they change in seasons, how people use them. Cease the nihilistic dismissal of its commerce and politics. Take note of its well-oiled electoral democracy which turned the political map of the metropolitan area from blue to red at the last state election. Celebrate its progressive victories over the century (women’s suffrage, reproduction rights, Native Title). I guess what I’m calling for is our poets to show some civic pride. When WA poets verse admiringly of Melbourne, its muscular urbanity, they fail to see that Melbourne poets (and painters, musicians, filmmakers, etc) have taught us to look at Melbourne that way. They are proud of their city, and over the last century the commercial and political spheres of that city have responded to produce the urbane beauty we admire today. It’s time for WA poets to do the same for Perth.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Readers interested in exploring some contemporary WA poetry can start by checking out the latest issue of Creatrix. https://wapoets.wordpress.com/creatrix-2/issue-37-poetry/

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

 

Teasing Threads – The Pleasure of Forgotten Movies: Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’

Chris Palazzolo seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of the criminally scorned Alexander, directed by Oliver Stone, 2005

Image result for alexander movie imagesThis isn’t really a forgotten movie. It gets a regular airing on Australian free-to-air tv, can be streamed on Netflix and has a special Director’s Cut version on dvd. I just feel the need, 12 years after its shabby reception by reviewers to call for some kind of critical rehabilitation of it. Shabby is an understatement. At its release in 2005, most reviewers dropped their daks around their ankles so fast they were tripping over themselves in their haste to drop a turd on it. I saw it twice in one week just to be certain I was watching the same movie, and each time the ancient Greek army descended from the Himalayas into the jungles of the Ganges plain, drunk on wine because they couldn’t drink the water, and throwing spears at attacking monkeys who they believed were native warriors, I thought, not since Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, have such blood and guts images of world transforming incongruity been committed to the screen.

The story is this. In the 4th Century BCE, Alexander, heir to the Macedonian throne, currently ascendant among the Greek states, is educated in Aristotle’s Lyceum, where his precocious mind is filled with the most rarefied currents of Hellenistic thought – universal reason, and the ennobling of his sexuality (thus making the already perilous question of succession just that more impossible). On becoming king, he flees his scheming mother (who intends for him to consolidate Macedonian power in Greece) and embarks on a series of crazy military campaigns, conquering Persia, marching into Babylon, and then, in order to seed Greek civilisation in Asia, dragging his armies across the Himalayas into India where they eventually founder in constant fighting, mutiny, and sexual intrigue in the courts of wily Asian despots. After his death, and with no heir to hold it together, the Alexandrian empire quickly falls apart and is swept away.

Of course there are problems with this movie. These mainly stem from the narrative’s structure of staggered flashbacks which are executed so clumsily it’s like a truck double-clutching up a steep hill; it’s not until two thirds in that the movie really starts to build momentum.  On the other hand the overwrought dramatics seem to me to be perfectly justified. The subject is a man who conquered most of the known world, and a considerable chunk of the unknown world, before his death at age 33. An awful lot was packed into such a short life, much of it would’ve been overwrought. And the Scots and Irish accents for the Macedonians and English accents for the Greeks also makes sense. The movie is explicit in its analogy with western imperial adventures in the Middle East and Asia. The Macedonians were, to the older Greek states of antiquity, like the Scots and the Irish to the English of the Common Era; frontier states, tribal and restless. As the argy bargy of conquest, resistance and eventual accommodation (with the Scots at least) on the British Isles laid the foundations for Britain’s expansion into a global empire, so Macedonian ambition combined with Greek resources (economic and intellectual) made possible Alexander’s empire building.

While I agree with Oliver Stone when he said that homophobia was the reason critics were so down on his movie, I think its intellectual ambitions offended them more. As if the subject matter isn’t grandiose enough, the clear parallels it draws with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 pushes its connotations to the absurd (Colin Farrell’s Alexander, with his tight blonde curls and small triangular nose, even looks like a camp George Bush). I think this is Stone’s point – the invasion of Iraq, the incoherence of the US government’s motives for invasion (was it eliminating WMDs, or avenging 911, or bringing democracy to the Middle East?) – was completely absurd. But then Stone’s own motives seem to be incoherent too. Is he comparing George Bush favourably or unfavourably with Alexander? I think it’s the latter, given that Alexander is portrayed as being open to influences from Asia, seeking to marry West and East and create hybrid civilisations, whereas George Bush, a famous Know Nothing, exhibited no curiosity whatsoever about the country he invaded. Still, it’s difficult to be sure. I think it’s important to note that the legend of Alexander the Great, the exemplar of imposing civilisation through military conquest, is an entirely European conceit. Indian historians barely rate him a mention, and Iraqi historians regard him as just another foreign tyrant.

– Chris Palazzolo

Teasing Threads – Ostia Antica by Peter Jeffery

Chris Palazzolo reads Ostia Antica, a cycle of poems by Peter Jeffery AOM

In this cycle of poems by the great West Australian poet Peter Jeffery there are two Ostias; one, Ostia Antica, a small Italian town near an ancient ruin 60kms west of Rome and a handful of kms inland from the river Tiber; the other, Ostia Lido, the port town of Imperial Rome located at the mouth of the Tiber. The geographical discrepancy between these two Ostias is the result of 2000 years of silting so that the Tiber now cuts an entirely different course to the sea. The focal point of this cycle is the distant flint of the river glimpsed between the grasses growing through the ruins, while spectres of the ancient entrepot parade through a gulf of remote memory.

Spectres are phenomena that confuse the distinction between inside and outside. Is a spectre something that is in the world, or is it some projection of the mind. The poems play with this confusion, drawing a parallel between the experience of the Australian poet wandering the ruins near Ostia Antica, circa 1970, and the Romans on their pleasure trips to the beaches and brothels of Ostia Lido. The spectres emerge from the crumbling simulacra among the ruins and crowd around the poet who, in his own metaphysical journey, has arrived at rootlessness and pleasure seeking. Through his own disenchantment the poet sees in this spectral Ostia the ancient world’s disenchanted termination.

An old cock with a lolling head,
I am too crushed on my foul perch
To clarion down dawn for Ostia
Morning city of Rome.

This is the Rome Tacitus wrote about; a great nation corrupted by a succession of weak, criminal and insane Caesars. And it is also the Rome of the Satyricon; its streetlife and pleasure spots. The poet projects his own sense of ruin into a sequence of decadent panoramas. He observes the proliferation of gods as prosperity and despotism pile complexity and inertia onto Roman life. He sees spectacles of enormous daily consumption in which the sea itself is drawn into nets to feed the expanding metropolis. He participates in the grotesque feasts of middle class holidaymakers, their desperate remedies for fading youth and vigour. He imagines himself stumbling through the rubbish discarded on the beaches. Everywhere he sees excess, overripeness, the falling point where energy and lust come apart.

All this reveals
That civilisation’s death
In this museum,
A most tasteful arena
for our taffeta minds
As tasteful as that day
When, above courtiers in wanton play
Nero unleashed tons of flowers
Drowning their screams in bowers
Of fragrant over-scented death.

But the poet’s restless senses will not accept such a death. There is a broiling rage in the long rolling lines of his verse. He fights against this dying Rome in the same way Laocoon fought against serpents entwining him, pushing and thrashing against it. This is the energy of the verse; this fighting, even as he feels himself succumbing to it. Sometimes it rises to megalomania, a fascistic glorification of virility, at other times an erotic fever dream of physical and emotional abandon.

No wonder they were brothers to the sea,
and saw the huge marriage feast of Neptune,
where nymphs and horses and gods trailed tails,
sexual, rhythmic and pulsing through water.
Their proudest stance
was prone or diving down
into the raptures of the deep,
where in bronzed love, these water gods
laughed ripples of minnows from their mouths.

These panoramas make a spectacular garment of literary and historical tropes which reveals the being towards death of the poet. Having reasoned god out of the world, the poet conceives of his existence as nothing more than a terminus of decaying mortality. He seeks meaning in travel, but finds the echo of his disenchantment in Ostia. But still, inspired by a brooch he sees in the museum, he’s consoled by the beauty and permanence of its setting, and clasps the garment together in a perfect phrase.

Till set down
In a book –
Rigid casting of print –
The jewel cannot shift,
In its brooch,
For yet, a thousand years!

Readers interested in obtaining a copy of this fascinating cycle can contact the author by email. peter.jeffery@iinet.com.au

– Chris Palazzolo

 

 

Teasing Threads – on housework music

Chris Palazzolo offers some thoughts on remunerated housework.

TImage result for dancing housewives imageshe Family Tax Benefit is an example of how neo-liberal theory which underpins the fiscal and monetary policy settings of the Australian government has reconciled itself with socialist feminist theory which was the first economic theory to recognise the home as a vital unit in a modern capitalist economy and how the labour transacted therein should be remunerated. Whether the home worksite should be subject to the same OHS regulations and insurance as other Australian workplaces is a political question, especially when one considers that many workplaces are now under electronic surveillance; economic justice, which includes protection of the body, the ‘instrument’ of performing labour and making a living (the government’s domestic violence campaign as a kind of labour rights question) can find itself opposed to privacy.

As a househusband in a single income household I can, for the sake of this argument, define myself as an employee of my wife who pays me a wage to perform the duties of housekeeping, that is to say to create conditions favourable to the regeneration of her energies so that she can reproduce her daily labours in her place of employment; and an employee of the Australian taxpayer, because I receive FTB as a supplementary payment for the raising of three future workers and taxpayers.

One of the nicest conditions of my employment is that I can play any music I want to as I perform my duties. This is important because having laboured in a workplace where a loop-tape played Whitney Huston’s ‘I will always love you’ on average six times a day, I’ve long felt that the music workers are forced to work to should be covered by OHS. Furthermore, if the home is no longer a completely private space, then the aesthetic and performative aspects of housework are now of public interest. Here are a couple of my favourite housework accompaniments.

Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra. I have this piece on record and I’ve played it so much over the last four years it’s a wonder the grooves haven’t worn off. It’s the perfect accompaniment for my morning chores; making beds, stacking breakfast dishes, doing the washing. The depersonalised whine and the squelching electronic ostinato of moogs and mellotrons alternating with the skipping ostinato pluck of a bass guitar puts me into a machinelike trance. I’m a 1966 model human, and that’s why the technology of this piece harmonises so perfectly with my body-mind; it’s like two machines of the same generation communicating. The dirge at the end of side one, threaded with a kind of gamelan type chime punctuating each phrase in a halting rhythm and torn by mid-volume electronic shrieks, like the cries of terror of all the innocents abused in the long wind-tunnel of history, fills my bright morning house with reflective melancholy.

Concertino for piano and orchestra by Arthur Honegger. This piece I normally play during the last phase of my evening labours, namely sweeping up, wiping surfaces and stacking and washing dishes after dinner, while my wife bathes the kids. The exposition and first subject is a tick tock clockwork interplay between piano and orchestra. It echoes the division of labour in the house, making the whole process like a mechanised diorama in which the automata perform their programmed tasks to achieve a single objective (kids in bed). The childlike mood of the first subject takes on a tone of menace in the second subject in order to remind us that this process is not just playful, it is also serious; if kids act up they need to be coerced; kids running amok and a messy house is the first step to squalor, ants and DCP. The final subject, a stern vigilant theme played by two saxophones, embroidered by a staccato argument between the piano and a muted trumpet, rhythmically underpinned by plodding arpeggios on the basses, is the gendarmes sending the scrapping shouting monsters to bed.

‘Open Sesame’ by Kool and the Gang. Three minute pop songs are usually too short for weekly housework (I can’t get any momentum because I have to continually change the selection), but suit better the process of housework on Saturday mornings. We expect the kids to make their beds and tidy their rooms on Saturdays which is an extra division of labour making the process more segmented and episodic. ‘Open Sesame’ is a disco number from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack featuring Kool as the genie of sound telling everybody to dance. It opens with a big gong, Kool’s reverberating baritone cries ‘Open Sesame!’ and we’re transported to ancient Persia. Magic spells are woven by the wavelike arpeggios of choir and trumpet over disco drums and bass. My favourite bit of instrumentation is the funky wobble board to get the nightclubs of Babylon moving. My wishes for three tidy bedrooms are rarely granted though.

– Chris Palazzolo

Teasing Threads – On reading as public service.

Chris Palazzolo wonders how we can read when there’s no time or space to read.

Image result for trecento imagesTo be a reader in 21st century Australia is to be like the public agent in William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine – standing on a street, receiving messages and instructions from random fleeting scraps of signs like a page of a newspaper blowing past or a song on a passing car radio. The bewildering, oceanic quantities of signs our culture industries pump out makes reading necessarily a fragmentary, grasping and furtive activity. Our culture’s overvaluation of a certain definition of ‘production’ – that is of a perpetual one way, from inside to outside pushing out (what Burroughs himself called ‘sending’) and which covers a range of phenomena from KPIs in business and publishing quotas in academia to the emoting on social media and tv talent shows like The Voice –  makes reading something vaguely suspect, interior and receptive, a passive ‘absorbing’ that seems suspiciously layabout.

But we are all readers, all of the time. Even when we believe our minds are switched off to any external signs while we’re dutifully producing, we’re still snatching them from here and there, like Burroughs’ agent, feeling our way, with our semiotic sensors, through the maelstrom of the 21st century socius. We certainly wouldn’t last very long here if we weren’t constantly reading. Even the most trivial of signs – Fitzy and Simey on FM radio banging on about Kendall Jenner, or the covers of Woman’s Weekly and Marie Claire sitting in waiting rooms, or on loungeroom coffee tables – provide a perpetual source of low level semiotic illumination that keeps the daily socius ‘legible’. ‘Serious’ reading, whether of the monastic exegetical type or the 19th century Matthew Arnold type, or the ‘close readings’ of the New Critics, or the deconstructionists of the late 20th century, is still the exclusive provenance of the universities. But even there there is less and less space, as the borglike ‘resistance is futile’ logic of consumer capitalism (modes of productiveness and efficiency) opens those spaces out onto the socius where Burroughs’ schizoid agent seems to be the only hope for any kind of critical reading.

But what is the purpose of critical reading? Is it to reveal truth and beauty or the mechanics of ideology? I don’t see why it can’t be both. It should really depend on the mood of the ‘agent’ who’s taking the trouble to read critically. If most citizens have neither the time nor the energy to think about the interplay of melodic motifs and lyrics in the song that’s playing on their radio as they sit in peak hour traffic, then the critical reader is there to speak to that half-minded and low priority, and yet nonetheless thoroughly contemporary and shared experience of hearing that song and perhaps, momentarily, being ‘taken with’ it, before the lights turn green. That’s what critical reading addresses; the ‘taken-withness’ of something. I’ve been taken with that song with the line ‘My heart is a ghost town,’ which I heard on my car radio, but didn’t catch who sung it cos my kids were mucking around in the back seat at the time (the song is by Adam Lambert). Is this experience important? No. What’s important is delivering myself and my kids, safely, at a destined parking spot to do shopping, pay bill, see doctor, etc. But, momentarily, amid the regulated catastrophe of internal combustion machines, I’m taken with a metaphor of desertification. I’m struck by this, not because the line is particularly original, but because of the way it’s sung; it’s shouted out, over a skipping electronic beat, with a reverberation to give the words added sharpness. It is both a cry of distress and of exultation, like a state of being achieved – no people, no movement, absolute stillness. In the cabin of my car, I’m enthralled by its desolation, just for a moment. I recall another song, about desolation in traffic; U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’. The lyrics of this song actually are about sitting in traffic, with apocalyptic visions of the everyday, and they also have the word Heart in its opening line. The Heart in both these songs signifies the same kind of centredness as the monad signified in Leibniz – the centre, the subject, the thinking-feeling I. By using Heart to signify the seat of subjectivity, these song lyrics reveal their descent from the lyrics of the Troubadours and the poets of the Trecento – dove sol con Amor seggio/ quasi visibilmente il cor traluce.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’

Chris Palazzolo looks at a quintessential piece of Americana

Image result for lady gaga telephoneBarack Obama has a lot to answer for. The image of disciplined professionalism his administration projected to the world, its cautious multilateralism in foreign affairs and its progressive domestic policies, disarmed Australians to the US culture that fills our media, as if ‘Obamaism’ was somehow a permanent thing. We can thank the election of Donald Trump for reminding us that America is not benign and its cultural products which we consume are not made in our interests, but in America’s interests. I’m not for one minute arguing that we should embargo American cultural production. We should all admire the beauty, energy and humour of American movies, music and literature. I’m just arguing for the need to sharpen our critical faculties in order to put a bit of distance between us and these products. In other words, stop consuming them as if they’re as natural as air and water.

Lady Gaga’s Telephone (both song and video) is a ballet allegorising the phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” from the Preamble of the US Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary document which means that at the time of its publication its principles were unrealised; only in revolution would they be realised, and revolution, which entails the radical alteration of an existing condition, is unknowable. Lady Gaga is in prison. She is without liberty. Furthermore her air of unflappable coolness indicates that being without liberty is her normal condition. The chains that drape her shoulders and bind her arms look like accoutrements to her costume of stiletto heels, fishnets, black lingerie, and chrome studded wristbands and choker; a fashion-plate harlot of the ancien regime. She is led along the prison gantry by two screws dressed in lesbian-fascist bondage gear; the state is just a big control fetish that derives its pleasure by seizing her body without her consent (an insert shot shows her naked body covered with yellow crime-scene tape). All of the other inmates, in the cells and in the yard are black and Hispanic. Gaga’s whiteness makes her stand out but she quickly proves she’s just like them by her willingness to put out. Everyone is the same. They are young and warrior-strong. No one is sick or depressed. The weak have perished, only the strong and pissed off survive.

Gaga gets a call. This is the song, a gentle anxious rill on a harp which turns into a stomping warlike anthem, in which she tells a clingy lover to stop calling because she’s busy working for a living. The chains of the personal are linked to the sexual-political. She’s not telling her lover the whole truth. She lies about what she’s doing and where she is. The punching moves in her dance leave us in no doubt that she will tell the lover all if they call again.

Gaga is on remand. She leaves the prison dressed like a courtesan in a fashionable arrondissement of Second Empire Paris. She meets Beyoncé and they drive off together in the Kill Bill Pussywagon. (I’m fast forwarding a bit now). She and Beyoncé poison Beyoncé’s boyfriend and all of his buddies (and his dog) in a diner in an allusion to the diner scene in Natural Born Killers, and then dance over the dead bodies. Gaga dances in an American flag bikini. In the final scene, as Gaga and Beyoncé drive off to a Thelma and Louise type Valhalla, Gaga is dressed in leopard skin outfit, big hat, and shawl tied under her chin; a kind of jungle-pilgrim ensemble. The unthinkable in fashion signifies the unknowable of revolution.

Marx said that revolutions tend to clothe themselves in the rhetoric and costume of past Great Events – simulacra to assuage the terror of the absolutely new. Gaga’s American revolution (she’s found her liberty and is now pursuing happiness) is dressed in the rhetoric of prison-break and road movie pastiche and the costume of her private couture. Hers would be a very expensive revolution to be part of.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – ’22 Years to Life’ by Mohammed Massoud Morsi

Chris Palazzolo reads 22 Years to Life, by Mohammed Massoud Morsi, 2015

33842117Like most Australians my daily routines are spent sweetly oblivious of the hell many of the world’s peoples endure. I step out my front door and I don’t wonder whether a sniper’s bullet is going to take me out; I send my kids to school and I don’t worry that I might be pulling their bodies out of its rubble later in the day. Reading Mohammed Massoud Morsi’s novella, 22 Years to Life, is like an irruption of this daily hell into my ambivalent Australian paradise. In the peaceful early scenes of the novella, Fathi and Farida, a young Gazan couple, travel to Canada for fertility treatment. The glimpses of my kind of life (in Canadian form) – the quiet, well-ordered streets, the safe houses, the civil and legal safeguards of private life – are Morsi’s narrative doorway for me. They are the conduit into a world where houses and walls are no protection to the human animal and where any kind of intimate life is routinely annihilated.

The narrative actually turns on two forms of intimacy. The first form, the one that’s to be annihilated, is the one we in the West take for granted is available to us whether we choose it or not – the intimacy of love, companionship and family. The second form is the annihilating form. It follows in the tradition of stories from the Iliad to The Naked and the Dead – the intimacy of war. In the early scenes of the novella we see the first form grow. The opening scene is the moment Fathi (the narrator) sees Farida for the first time. We follow their courtship and marriage, their attempts to have a child, their struggles with fertility and finally their success when a son is born and they set up home in Al-Mawasi on the coast. Around them, during this time of peace, we see the beginnings of a civil society, crabbed and secretive under relentless Israeli sanctions, curfews and no-go zones, but tentatively building homes, markets and schools.

War is coming. Embedded in this provisional society is Hamas, and its network of tunnels, arms smuggling, and recruitment cells. Its activities provoke the Israel-Gaza Conflict of 2014. War asserts its rights over all tenderness and love. First, it destroys all privacy by blowing everything inside out; it blows out cars and houses and bedrooms. And then it kills the exposed people by the hundreds. It blows them inside out too, limbs and guts and brains all over the street. The first intimacy is eviscerated. All that’s left is the second intimacy – the intimacy of hatred and revenge. The book ends with a kind of micro-perception of the same intimacy that it opened with, though not of love, but of hatred. A new recruit to Hamas sees the fear and youthfulness of the Israeli soldiers he attacks in a suicidal frenzy, and whispers metaphysical comfort to them as they die. Palestinian. Israeli. Their bodies rot as one.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – The Pleasure of Forgotten Movies: Richard Loncraine’s ‘The Haunting of Julia’

Chris Palazzolo wonders why The Haunting of Julia, directed by Richard Loncraine, 1978, is a forgotten movie.

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I’m a lazy consumer of popular culture. It’s rare that I’ll read introductions to books or watch the special features of dvds. I like to take things straight off the shelves with the (probably self-serving) argument that if a book or a movie doesn’t contain everything it needs to be understood, but requires secondary sources to fill in gaps, then that’s a weakness in it. I am however ready to make inquiries into mysteriously neglected movies. I can’t think of anything more unloved than Richard Loncraine’s gothic masterpiece The Haunting of Julia (aka, Full Circle). By ‘inquiries’ what I mean is a cursory thumb flick through compilations of old reviews, or an idle google, and what I’ve found is that there’s very little written about this movie apart from a handful of dismissive reviews at the time of its release in 1978. I saw it originally on late night tv, under the title Full Circle, back in the 1980s. It’s only available on tv formatted vhs, and now an even more deteriorated looking upload on Youtube. It’s never been released on dvd so I’ve never seen this movie in its proper aspect ratio. I still associate it with enigmatic shots where sometimes only an actor’s hand can be seen while their disembodied voice comes from off-screen. The little I’ve gleaned from my ‘inquiries’ is that Loncraine became dangerously ill while making it (anorexia nervosa), and Mia Farrow, its star, hated working on it so much she completely disowned it. This film hasn’t just been forgotten, it’s been renounced.

For reasons that are partly superstitious I wouldn’t want to see this film in its ‘proper’ restored state. In fact I wonder if there ever was such a state. I think the vhs copy (the Youtube upload is just the vhs version, and it’s pretty dire) is its proper state. If the television formatting lopped off parts of shots then that was meant to happen. Its hideous beauty is in the butchery on its hide; as the evil in its imagery visits butchery upon a number of human hides, its own tormented condition is its punishment. I need to be careful when I think about this movie. My mind runs into its big molecular close-ups like water runs into blotting paper; the faces of Farrow, and Tom Conti and Kier Dullea; the ‘englishness’ of the faces of the supporting cast (repertory faces of middle class British television) loom in shots of gaseous volume. All of the spaces the human figures move through – rooms and stairways, streets and parks – are full of this gassy ambience. This makes the human figures, and their faces and their minds look like molecularising shadows, permanently on the point of dissolution; it spiritualises them. This sense is heightened by a soundtrack where almost all the incidental sounds are muted to the point of silence. The score is a sickly obsessive music-box theme which overlays everything with an air of unspeakable sorrow. All of these elements serve to electrify its horror set-pieces with supernatural malice.

The spirit world represented here is of the British spiritualist type. Like its dimensional sibling, British naturalism, it conceives of the spirit world as subject to ‘rational’ laws (which have nothing to do with Christian eschatology); laws of supernatural selection. The properly British posture towards these laws is contemplation and humble inquiry, but otherwise laissez-faire. The evil that resides in the house at the centre of the story serves the same function in the supernatural world as a funnel web serves in the natural – to snare prey. The old spiritualist warns Farrow to leave the house. But she doesn’t. There’s nothing more to be done for the poor girl; she’s too weakened by grief at the death of her daughter and the evil seeps into the open wound of her mourning like poison. The narrative’s sickly obsession on this poisoning however is Gothic, and the Gothic is Christian – a medieval Christianity of eternal damnation, of the sorrow of eternal damnation; a sorrow so abject it becomes Horror. But the Gothic (as a literary and artistic conceit) is also post-Christian. Its imagery of sickness, madness and death is of the aftermath of Christian belief. Eternal damnation still causes terror, but belief in the God that rationalises such punishment is no longer possible. It’s the supernatural world that dispenses punishments on the mortal, but in a morally arbitrary (natural selective) kind of way. These punishments are evil because they have no other purpose than the extermination of life. Evil is pure appetite and the meek is its no longer blessed prey.

 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Three Classical Westerns: 3. John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

The third and final of Chris Palazzolo’s little series Three Classical Westerns is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford, 1962

Image result for the man who shot liberty valance imagesJohn Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gets a regular outing on Gem, which is interesting in itself because I’m old enough to remember when Australia only had three tv channels, 2, 7 and 9, and while Westerns were often played as weekend matinees, I don’t ever recall this one getting a run. Someone programming for Gem must really like this movie because it seems to get played every six months or so.

The two things I noticed about this movie when I first saw it (only a couple of years ago) were the date of its release, 1962, and its stagey and unrealistic look. 1962 was a time when revisionist westerns began to appear. Movies such as Ford’s The Searchers (1959) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) made verisimilitude to the gritty realities of 19th century American frontier life, and the expressionistic portrayal of a western ‘psychology’ (racism and misogyny) the benchmarks of value for the genre. The studio bound sets and flat lighting of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gives it the look of a throwback to an earlier stage of the genre; a time when studios would release a western a week. John Ford’s own career begun in that era, so he knew how to knock ‘em up and churn ‘em out. But this is a late John Ford, so the style is not accidental. Neither the authentic recreation of life conditions of the old west, nor the inner lives of its characters is the purpose of this movie. This is because it is a parable of the beginnings of American democracy in which each of the characters signifies a principle of that democracy.

The obtuse style of the movie is like the smooth opaque surface of a nut. A nut is a protected seed. That seed is the pre-democratic society of a small Texan town which is both tyrannised and protected by the gun; the gun of the bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and the gun of the farmer Tom Donavan (John Wayne). These two gunslingers are the shiny hard shell of the nut – shiny, because everyone can see where the power lies – hard, because there’s no arguing with it; might is right and that’s that. The demos of the town is in proto form, all crammed together unable to move and flourish. There’s a town Marshall, but he’s a coward who won’t dare take on Valance; there’s a drunken newspaper man who doesn’t dare write articles about Valance, and then there’s the townspeople whose only protection from Valance is Donavan. But Donavan will only take on Valance if his own interests are affected. If, as a farmer, his interests usually align with those of the town then that’s lucky for the town, otherwise he won’t stick his neck out for nobody. In other words the protection Donavan offers is as arbitrary as the beatings Valance dishes out. If the whole thing is closed into a nut of lethal might an external force with the hardness of a hammer is needed to split it open and allow the seed of American democracy to germinate.

This hammer, paradoxically, is the newly arrived pacifist lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who refuses to be cowed by Valance’s gun or respect Donavan’s gun. Stoddard’s naked willpower is the hammer. His crazy brave principles which includes refusing to defend himself means certain death until Donavan takes a step outside of his self-interest, kills Valance and spirals off into ruinous obscurity. Once the shell is broken all the elements of the demos – the law, the press, the legislature (Stoddard becomes a senator for Texas) – separate and grow. They start to constellate and flower, stabilising in that dynamic relativity we now know as representative democracy. Some of the loveliest scenes in the movie are the town hall rallies as newly emboldened citizens deliver their rambling pitch for the vote amid raucous bunting and vaudeville. The violence that marked the origin of this democracy becomes legend, separated from fact (everyone believes Stoddard shot Valance), while the question as to why Donavan stuck his neck out on that occasion remains the deepest private mystery for Stoddard. Whatever Donavan’s motive was (and to me it is obvious: Stoddard was the bravest man he ever met, he couldn’t bear to see him shot down in cold blood) his action marked the original separation of powers – an armed yeoman ceding to the democrat his place in the sun in order to serve as executioner from the shadows.

    – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419