Revisiting Dobrez on Dransfield: Adam Aitken on Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez

This is a revised version of an article first published in Australia Humanities Review in 2000. Note. The references to the Robert Adamson review of Michael Dransfield’s Lives refer to the original review published in ABR in 2000. The version appearing in Rochford Street Review has been completely rewritten.

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Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez (Melbourne University Press, 1999).

A peer and close friend of Michael Dransfield, Robert Adamson, writes in “A Prodigy Life”, an earlier review of this book:

A prodigy whose life was cut short – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, fame, transgression, a great talent for both brilliant poetry and self promotion, set in the 60s. Dransfield has been all things to all people who read poetry. This six hundred page book will stir it up again. Who is Michael Dransfield? How does his poetry stand up after almost half a century?

I think it is not Dobrez’s ambition to answer the first question with any finality and quite clearly she hasn’t set out to be an authority on the question of Dransfield’s poetic abilities. The intended audience for this book seeks readers interested in an interesting life. This is not the kind of biography which defends the poetry in any formal terms, but the poetry is used to illustrate the life as a many mansioned room of intertextuality. The danger Adamson sees is that Dobrez puts too much store on the poetry as an illumination of the life. He writes: Dransfield didn’t write confessional poetry and it is misleading to look too closely into the poetry for clues that might reveal something about his life. He thought Lowell’s work in that mode was prehistoric. On the other hand, Dobrez claims among Dransfield’s great influences Sylvia Plath and the critic A. Alvarez, a strong proponent of confessional poetry. Either way, Dransfield wrote much poetry that does illustrate his life, though good poetry it may not always be. Dobrez finds that Dransfield pirated his own diaries for poems, and there is ample reference to real people and events.

Adamson reads Dransfield again and finds that his memories of the poet are not real: ‘The poet I knew in the late 60s and early 70s doesn’t seem as real.’ Felicity Holland’s review focuses on the biography as a detective thriller with no final revelation (HEAT 14, March 2000). She adds that ‘[p]lural biography is a rarity – biographies which ease contradictions and create an illusion of subjectivity are not.’ Similarly, Adamson re-inscribes Dransfield as a plural subject and an unreal memory – Dransfield was all things to people who read poetry, and his poetic practice was inseparable from his life:

Dransfield loved pretence and used it in his life and work. He was a true symbolist – he invented a life for himself along with his wonderful poetry. This imagined life (Dobrez calls it ‘imagineering’) was woven through his existence. He embroidered everything, including his correspondence and his conversation and relationships, with his imagination. His existence itself wove in and out of reality and other people who weren’t poets found it difficult to tell what was really happening in his life. (Adamson)


I would add Dobrez’s detailed and wide-ranging biography shows that Dransfield is and was all things to people who don’t read his poetry. The real value of this biography is in the way conservative Australian attitudes and standards of the late ‘sixties are revealed as one cause of Dransfield’s self-destruction; and the point is Dransfield didn’t commit suicide or intend to die from overdose. There’s no proof he wanted to commit suicide and in fact he died from septicemia contracted from a dirty needle he was using to inject morphine, which he was taking to alleviate severe pain caused by an accident. In short, to many he was a drug addict, a draft dodger, a university dropout and a hippy. No doubt, in Australia during the Moratorium years, to be any or all of these identities was an invitation to abuse and rejection, as in a sense they still are today. As a reaction and in a gesture of solidarity with the Left, Dransfield used poetry as a lyrical protest medium and he often wrote to protest. For support he therefore gravitated towards the Generation of ’68 community of small press publishers and writers.

But we must be wary of turning Dransfield into a poster boy of the Left, as he clearly sought approval from conservative poets like A.D Hope. Dobrez’s detailed research suggests that Dransfield was nourished by the loose and internally riven poetry scene despite its lack of funds for producing books for mass circulation – indeed a defining parameter was a cynicism about tying poetry to any form of capitalist profit-making or ‘professionalism’. But Dobrez shows that Dransfield was not a slave to counter-culture (which he mimicked when it suited); he wanted very much to be feted by the ‘establishment’ of the time, and if not adored by it, at least tolerated. Dransfield was delighted that one of his poems found its way into a school text. The slightly older generation born in the ‘thirties and earlier, whose leading lights were Tom Shapcott, Rodney Hall, R.F. Brissenden, Geoffrey Dutton and others, is crucial in generating the reputation that Dransfield needed to carry on being a professional poet.

Dobrez develops an Oedipal approach to explain Dransfield’s breakdown and lack of confidence in the face of older authority figures. Dransfield was too freaked out to launch his book at the Adelaide Festival, fearing that A.D. Hope would urbanely tear him to shreds in public. Dransfield was constantly unsure of how his Father and Grandfather – a Gallipoli veteran – would receive Drug Poems, and his craving for their acceptance may have added to the strain brought on by contradictory loyalties and generational differences. In fact Dransfield registered for the draft, though seemed to have only a vague idea why he did so. Dobrez ties in the psychology of such gestures with Dransfield’s fascination with his own family’s medieval roots, symbolised by a gruesome signet ring he wore consisting of a Turk’s head impaled on a sword.

Dransfield was acutely aware of what is called in ‘nineties parlance ‘marketing’. He had a strong sense of what was glamorous and saleable in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Through a description of parallel artistic activity in the music and visual arts scene, Dobrez shows that Dransfield wanted desperately to become the first Australian poet to become a pop idol. Perhaps his most destructive delusion was that he could control the mirror games of the market at that time. In order to sell his book Drug Poems at a time when all books had to be checked by the censorship board, he could project the image of the drug poet to a public he thought wanted to read about drugs and drug taking. The problem was that in 1972 his book didn’t sell, and in the end it was the Commonwealth Literature Fund that baled him out with a Young Writers grant. Then, as now, poetry by young Australian poets didn’t sell.

Dobrez brings in Fredric Jameson and Jacques Lacan’s ideas of the Gaze to reinforce her notion of Dransfield as a mass of contradictions: he was at various times and all at once the Imagineer, the purple Prince, the Troubadour, the Unrequited lover, the Edwardian squire, and the Keats of Hippiedom. All of these are well-known masculine roles in which the poet/Magus is in control of the Gaze and its object. But one of Dobrez’s most interesting chapters reveals Dransfield as a sympathiser in the house of a Female semiotic as practised by his lover Hilary Burns, a painter who specialised in childhood visions and the power of the Gaze. The period of life in a Paddington Loft and on various rural properties constitutes for Dransfield a growing female aestheticism, which was solipsistic and illusionistic but also a happy and creative period, during which Dransfield wrote his most enduring poems. Dransfield was also extremely close and relaxed with his mother and sister, in whose house he fell into a coma under mysterious circumstances.

In the end he became at least one of his projections: the Posthumous Poet. For me Dobrez’s text conjure the ultimate question: not how did he die, but what would he be doing now, if he had lived? Far from the notion of the drugged out hippie, Dobrez’s narrative shows Dransfield was developing life-preserving skills in a time of late-capitalism, and became adept at property speculation at a time suburban baby-boomers were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ‘normal’ lifestyle choices of baby-boomerism. Dransfield’s rural experiment was a precursor of the ABC comedy series Sea-Change, Dransfield consumed ’60s culture better than anyone, and, according to Dobrez, this consumption included the re-appropriation of a ’50s dream of home. Dransfield’s well-known ‘Courland-Penders’ poems are a fabrication of an ancestral home haunted by ghosts and nostalgia for an aristocratic ideal. According to a friend, Richard Hopkinson, Dransfield ‘had visions of magical properties just waiting to be bought for negligible sums! He wrote to every country council in NSW inquiring about their next auctions’ (D, 436). In Dransfield’s postmodern scale of values, there was little difference between the visionary pleasures of drugs and the pleasures of living in a restored colonial mansion in Cobargo. In fact, they went together. However, despite one successful sale, the reality of real estate brought Dransfield down: a) the properties suffered problems with sewerage, wiring etc.; and b) Dransfield could hardly afford the mortgage. As Adamson asserts, the 60s is a decade no different to any other era ‘when poverty hovers above the rented Loft.’

Was Dransfield an operator? According to Dobrez, ‘he was ready to write advertising copy if the occasion called for it, as he was to write poems; he might have fitted very easily into an emerging commercial culture in which value is determined by image’ (441).

The main strain I have with this biography is that a life could be so contradictory and provisional, yet Dobrez’s discussion of postmodern theory never quite gets off the ground. This is a biography that constantly reflects on itself and invokes theory as a defence against those who expect biography to be recuperative/and or morally certain. I’m not sure if there’s too much theory, or too little. On the question of life’s provisionality I feel disquiet. Dransfield’s lives were labyrinthine and for Dobrez they are a proto-postmodern phenomenon. Why then has lifestyle/marketing theory become so functionalist? One expects a lifestyle to be consistent, otherwise its unmarketable as a ‘lifestyle’ in the first place. Whether or not one can or cannot close the narrative, I get the impression that there are mutually exclusive Dransfields vying for control of the biography, but the theory is too certain of itself, as if Dobrez was trying to fulfill the academic need to push a persuasive argument, like a PhD thesis that needs a closed conclusion. For Dransfield: case dismissed.

Much of Dransfield’s life can never be proved either way. Was Dransfield beholden to drug dealers in Crown Street? Was he stabbed in Kings Cross? Did a policeman really try to run him down on a country road? There was the talented and charming man Adamson remembers, never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he had been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete. This suggests a man who knew himself and what he wanted (i.e. the operator).

The other strain is the symptom of the unflinching way Dobrez details the ugly mind/body of Dransfield, the rejected man and lover, the velvet urinal, the pin-prick, the victim of multiple accidents with cars and motorbikes, who buys drugs to relieve pain. Adamson criticises the book for giving the impression that Dransfield was addicted to heroin. But Dobrez never definitively commits herself to this conclusion. This is theoretically consistent, for there is no final authority to say whether Dransfield was an addict. Still, it is annoying that this is repeatedly suggested. Perhaps the gap between the reality and the text should remain mysterious and unresolved, but as Adamson reveals, readers will continue to make judgements, whether moral or amoral, no matter how theoretically committed and fastidiously detached the biographer.

Here, biography of a celebrity risks becoming voyeuristic, as if the biographer and her readers were attempting to penetrate an exotic body. As readers we inhabit a morgue of illusion, rumour and lies. As a post-baby-boomer reading this, I also confront my own resentments and fraught relationship with my antecedents. I’m not sure I would have liked Dransfield the operator. There is Dransfield the prima-donna who reacts to an adverse review by threatening the reviewer with ‘a lead pipe / across your throat.’

I agree with Holland’s judgement of Michael Dransfield’s Lives as a work that takes no singular moral vantage point. It is not biography of recuperation, nor is it hagiography. It is however clinical when it needs to be, for example, the description of Dransfield’s manner of dying. It is as fair as it could be to Dransfield’s peers, relatives and friends. As Adamson testifies, it is a biography that is ‘successful in that, as one reads it, you are compelled by its narrative to reread the poetry.’ One hopes that readers will go on to do just that.

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Adam Aitken latest collection of poetry is the chapbook Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press). He has just returned from three seasons in France and now lives in Sydney.

Adam Aitken on The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference was held at Deakin University (Deakin Prime in Melbourne) on 12th and 13th of April 2012. Adam Aitken, who presented on “(un)becoming hybridity in my poetry”, looks back on the highlights of the conference. This account was first published on Adam’s blog http://adamaitken.blogspot.com.au/

Adam Atiken. Photo by Adrian Wiggins (www.pureandapplies.net/adrian)

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference was one of the best conferences I’ve been to. The conversations were lively, and there was a refreshing openness and willingness to understand the institutional limits of our thinking. The postmodern did its dance with the postcolonial in a good atmosphere that seemed free of the defensiveness and self-censoring that often occurs at such conferences.

One of the major debates has been the reasons for the demise of postcolonial study of poetry throughout the world, and the subsequent shrinkage of voices from the margins. But no-one came out and ‘blamed’ the postmodernists, no one blamed “po-co” theory for being out-of-date, but good critiques were mounted on the limits of these paradigms, and poetry as poesis or “making” (dare I say in Shelleyan terms the “Spirit” of Poetry) seemed to survive the machine that theorises it. (Or at least I didn’t feel overwhelmed by theory, but affirmed by the workability of bringing together of theory and poetry performance. It certainly allowed me a freedom to speak in ways I have been craving for years.)

To kick things off Peter Minter reprised his critique of the recent Gray/Lehmann battleship anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788. Minter argues that the project comes across as a “neo-colonial vanity project” that fails to achieve its claimed objective representation of Indigenous, ethnic and postmodern Australian poets; its fails to disclose its subjectivity, a point made already by David McCoohey in an early review of the book. Minter called the framing of the collection (by its introduction and its faux-Aboriginal emu-design cover pages) an example of nationalistic kitsch. One view is that whatever the quality of the selection, the canonising function of the national anthology represents a kind of management document for the archiving of a certain ideal Imaginary, one whose border are already belated and possibly out of date, an argument both Bridie McCarthy (“Border Protection: Neo-Colonialism and the Canon”) and Lucy Van (“‘Why Waste Lines on Achille?’: Tracing the Critical Discourse on Postcolonial Poetry”) touched on in their respective papers.

Minter’s figure of the archipelagic map of Australia swims for me, so rather than one island made of “empty space”, we are a constellation of geo-psychic centres scattered between the equator and semi-arctic latitudes. The desire is to connect these centres in a diplomatic way, through a poetics of relation and movement. Minter’s eco-poetic is complex and continually re-imagined and changing, and so far no national cultural “programme” or manifesto is offered to replace current Federal-State structures for the arts. In a sense, Minter’s Glissantian vision is antithetic to centralist bureaucratisation, is self-engendering and anarchic. (Should the participants in the debate over the direction of the ‘peak-body’ Australian Poetry take note here?)

The Eurocentrism of the academies was hardly apparent here (though the venue itself was pure High Modernist Corporate and rather neutral in terms of cultural markers of identity, but everything worked; and some of the conference food was “Asian”), and rather than merely accept any kind of approach as the “right one” for all of us, there was a thoughtful suspension (or muting perhaps) of the manifesto-impulse. That said, a certain participant confided in me that she thought John Hawke’s launch of VLAK, a journal produced by a coalition of Australian internationalists and expatriate Louis Armand, had a whiff of “cultural cringe”. Looking through the volume afterwards, I was impressed by how many Australian-based poets had a presence here, and rather than read this as “Australians going Euro-avant-garde”, I read a concomitant vector in which Australian marginalism and our own awkward multiculturalism and location hybridises the master signifier of “Europe” itself. VLAK is European, but the term already masks its own contradictions and the seeds of its own deconstruction and impossibility. VLAK comes out of Prague, not Paris or London or Berlin, and arguably it speaks of some kind of Eastern European marginality vis-à-vis the West, a marginality that invites collaboration with our own.

For everyone the challenge was to talk about Australian poetry as something that is still growing and negotiating its own relations to it own marginality, and to speak with/back to the grand body of European postmodern theory, to postcolonial traditions (the subaltern studies group, Latin American traditions, hybridity theorists and others), and to Asian-American literary studies, a kind of big sibling of a nascent Asian-Australian formation represented here by Tim Yu a leading theorist and Asian-American poet in his own right. As Michael Farrell’s quip about “marsupial consciousness” suggests, the organism is still semi-foetal and in need of many mothers’ protection, and it would be premature to champion any kind of eco-poetics or hybrid consciousness as the future terrain of our reading.

Ali Alizadeh offered a post-Marxist critique of how we over-determine identity in migrant and indigenous poetries, and, in a controversial reading of an Ali Cobby Eckermann poem, suggested that identity is virtual and operates as a kind of fantasy that obscures the material and eco-political conditions that oppressed subjects deal with. Arguing against that I suggested a way of reading identity in Butlerian terms, which sees identity as performative and constituted in the interpellative moment. We become who we are – gendered and raced – through self-identity, but also because we respond to the labels others put upon us, and the effects of language and of naming are material; identity is symbolic as language itself is a system of symbols with communicative and ideological effects; identity is not merely symbolic or virtual or to be relegated under macro-economic superstructures and ideologies, and there is a complex pre-ideological moment before identity is affixed, through language, on the body. But I argue that in the face of essentialistic racism we can hybridise those labels deliberately and disobediently through speech acts.

Maintaining a hold on Australian studies, the enthusiastic, warm, and venerable Lyn McCredden gave a brilliantly strong reading of the tropic traces of “Australian nation” (its status as a centring Imaginary) in poems by John Forbes and Ken Bolton. Opening up her own position to debate, she invited different readings. I suggested that she extend the study of nation in Forbes and Bolton to include their poems about other nations, European ones at that. McCredden’s main point is that however we try to break away from controlling discourses of nation in the popular imaginary (e.g. ANZAC, the Beach, Tom Roberts painting of shearers etc.) Nation and Nationalism Aussie style won’t go away and should not be ignored. Indeed poets need to address such a demotic in order to remain relevant as critics of the current neo-colonial regress in popular Australian culture.

Other notable papers included Michael Farrell’s reading of on the Neo-baroque in Michael Dransfield. Michelle Cahill gave a brilliant paper on the subaltern and the necessity, perhaps, to step outside the institutions that continually silence the subaltern. There was a good discussion of what the margin-centre looks like now in the Australian poetry scene, and how an Asian-Australian literary formation might address margin-centre formations. It was my own sense that good will exists towards the project of opening up the space with an Asian-Australian anthology, and many are looking forward to have more discussion of form and language in AA poetries.Tim Yu’s paper re-enforced a perception that AA poetry was invisible, and that in his own research he had begun to see that there was no easy parity between the two versions of AA – Asian-Australian was NOT an obvious kindred model of Asian-American literature.

Other great papers and performances included Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers, “A migrant poet and the fine art of escapism”and Ania Walwicz reading “‘cut-tongue’-fragmentation, collage and defence”. Danijela’s story of how she overcame her own silence, and learned to speak of post-war trauma, was extremely moving and instructive. Her own sense of her own migrancy in Australia reminded everyone that being a migrant poet is subject to all sorts of limitations and expectations and impositions from the audience. Her own work, however, is both resistant and critical of what “migrant poet” means in the first place, and her life and work which is often surreal, playful, confounding, often transcends the limits of the framework imposed by managed multiculturalism.

A fitting closure was Ann Vickery’s wonderful paper on Juliana Spahr’s book Fuck You Aloha I Love You, a book very much about how a white woman negotiates cultural chauvinism in Hawai’i, and how the white female critic can respond to anti-white racism. In the face of hateful vilification, what responses are open to scholars to keep the debates and conversations open? How do empowered white scholars deconstruct their own cosmopolitan readings of the non-white, the non-cosmopolitan and the colonised on the margins? The ideas were familiar, but what moved everyone was Ann’s reading of Spahr’s poem and Ann’s “confession” that she felt guilty that she had neglected race in much of her scholarship. Awful silences occur in classrooms when race-talk becomes a divisive machine, a taboo subject, so if the military atmosphere is to be decommissioned, poetry like Spahr’s should be heard and conferences like this one need to continue.

Finally it was a great loss not to have heard Sam Wagan Watson, who was ill. I wanted very much to discuss how he saw hybridity theory and its limits, the subject of my paper. In defiance of much hybridity-theory’s need to “smash essentialisms” I am sure he would have given an impassioned description and defence of the essential at the heart of his identity and how his poetry configures nation, land, imagination, desire, and identity. A conversation for another time.

Adam Aitken

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Adam Aitken latest collection of poetry is the chapbook Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press). He has just returned from three seasons in France and now lives in Sydney.