Five Bells

Five Bells

A simple post of appreciation.

What endures? What survives the oven flames?

What is left behind after death, and has no use but a sign that one was living and now is dead?

What survives our desperate last plunge into the cold blue sink?

Five bells.

Kenneth Slessor’s Five bells, brilliantly performed with sonic art on a now retired ABC Radio National poetry show.

To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success…

Only for those five bells

Error is in control

Error is in control

The mind errs. My mind errs.

The mind slips from its own grasp.

The mind believes the clouds that surround it are summoned by its will.

The mind, my errant mind, your proud mind, the mind we share in confusion lives by one illusion.

The mind calls this illusion, control.

Knowledge does not dispel this illusion.

Even though it claims to.

There is no enlightenment from this illusion.

Except in madness.

Kindness too, the humble gift of the unhinged, dissolves the clouds.

Then, in the time left to us, we see the madness of the day.

Its beauty. Its fear.

In that final abandon, we forgive control.

We stoop.

We live in a freedom we can never control.

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

After a morning during which I searched my ravaged memory for the concealed door to my troubles, I opened an old box which contained five old, forgotten notebooks of mine. Their black covers and red spines revealed nothing to me of when I last used them to gather observations, thoughts, fragments of lines, like a dark sponge wiping up the mess of my mental life.

I opened the first notebook of the pile, and flicked through the pages. Quickly I dated it to the months or years around 1999.  There I have noted the words spoken by Steve Bracks on election night in 1999, when he defeated the apparently invincible, more despised, but more enduring figure of Jeff Kennett. Bracks: “a victory for decency, honour, compassion.” Beside it, I have scrawled thoughts that record my state of mind – “the joy of seeing a tyrant brought to his knees. The reminder that government is not execution. A child’s eyes pleading for mercy in the midst of horror. A reminder that there can be a reward for waiting and persistence. The heroism of enduring.”

They are not surprising thoughts, except I am struck today with the sense then that the dramas of even minor provincial politics still held for me this fascination to find ordinary virtues – “the heroism of enduring” – in my struggles as a lowly under-castellan.

But these residues of reactions to old news are not the most surprising finding in this notebook. There in the early pages I have written:

Francis Ponge wrote this (or something like this) “an artist has one duty to set up a workshop and to bring in the world for repair as he finds it in pieces.” So the experience, day to day, is transcribed and out of intuition, some poetry found.

Ponge was one of the many French writers who I came to know through my strange search for an artistic identity through the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. I was in my 20s and at university, and my first sally into the world of adult identity had failed dismally, when I had sought election as a student politician and failed. I never really belonged to that world in any case, and my true affiliation was with the worlds of dream, madness, transgression and outlandish thought. It was this world that welcomed me as an outcast from reason, familial life and all practical careers, which I believed myself then to be.

Through them, and the ultimately futile attempt to think like them and not like myself, I discovered Ponge, and Leiris, Blanchot, Bataille, Rene Char, Beckett in a new way, Artaud, and the truly enigmatic Raymond Roussel. I tried but could not really understand the philosophy, but I completely absorbed the idea of consecrating my life through an unique and idiosyncratic practice of writing. Just now I picked up Leiris’ Manhood from my shelf, with its frightening, disturbing image of a naked Judith holding a knife and the severed head of Holofernes,


and read from the prologue these words, which spoke to me then and still do today:

My chief activity is literature, a term greatly disparaged today. I do not hesitate to use it, however, for it is a question of fact: one is a literary man as one is a botanist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist, a doctor. There is no point inventing other terms, other excuses to justify one’s predilection for writing: anyone who likes to think with a pen in his hand is a writer. The few books I have published have won me no fame. I do not complain of this, any more than I brag of it, for I feel the same distaste for the “popular author’ genre as for that of the “neglected poet.” (Michel Leiris, Manhood, p 4)

Unlike Leiris or Bataille, to whom Leiris dedicated his self-inquiry, or Bataille’s friend Blanchot, I never gathered on my shelves the works of Francis Ponge. Where I learnt of the quotation that the artist brings into his workshop items of the world to repair one at a time, I do not know, and a cursory google search cannot conceal the sloppiness of my literary scholarship in that notebook, penned at a time of desperation, when I did not know how to continue being what I was, a literary man, and still succeed in the world.

All I remember of reading Ponge is struggling to find my way through Derrida’s essay Signponge – and wondering what it was that provoked such an extraordinary text. I think now, as I read more of Ponge’s attention to the thing itself, simple things, ordinary things, reimagined with puns, dad jokes, word play, that it was simplicity itself that so infuriated Derrida, and made him turn the pun of Ponge’s name into an attack on any aspiration to find meaning in things themselves, outside the endless commentary of differance.

At the same time I would deliberately set aside the too difficult question announced by this word; it escapes any frontal approach, and the thing [Ponge’s name, the thing that is not a thing, and yet is declared in Derrida’s sentence] that I am going to talk about obliges me to reconsider mimesis through and through, as an open-ended question, but also as a miniscule vanishing point at the already sunlit abyssal depths of the mimosa. (Derrida, Signponge, (1976, trans 1984) p. 4

The aggressive brio of the scholar. Shots fired a the podium. Words as weapons.

Derrida’s words no longer fascinate me. But through Ponge I discover things that can renew poetry. I read also that Ponge became a recluse in his later life. In this fate he shared with Blanchot, I see my own. The writer who is a recluse looks like Narcissus into the pool and hopes to see his psyche’s echo.

It reminds me of the poem I published in ars poetica IV in May 1997, a couple of years before I penned my thoughts in this notebook, at a time when I hoped to escape the dreariness of a life in servitude as a lowly under-castellan to a minor provincial government, an escape which I have never been able to effect.


Dream Life


In that small moment dream takes

to fly from memory and become

the nagging image of forgetfulness

the muted clank of psyche’s hold

I can turn too well in bed

and learn the pains of comfort.


Whenever these rivers of the night

Dry hard into red scorched beds

Depression takes over my daily self

Like the avenging angel of time.

Scouring winds rub out the image

Leaving behind the carcase of summer.


Suppose thought gave way to dream.

Bridges would collapse. Our simple talk

Would become a spree of metaphor

Not even poets could afford.

Self would reign over all meaning

And again the tower would fall.


But why do these solitary creations

reveal their meaning first to others

as if the dreaming tongue betrayed

its beloved solipsism? Eyes wrapped

in fabrics of truth and lies,

the dream asks its interlocutor: who?


A tree springs from my stomach.

Nebuchadnezzar’s madness overcomes time and reason

to plant itself in my soil

to come alive again as if

all history is compressed by night

into an image none can forget.


This drowning boat, this fish river,

this medusa returning as a bowl

of squirming snakes which I eat:

these dreams lie like abandoned gifts

but still share their secret being

with listeners to my night’s echo


Jeff Rich (1997)

boyd nebuchadnezzar

(Image: Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of a Tree)

The first line of Derrida’s Psyche: Inventions of the other: “What else am I going to be able to invent?”


You can twist at the foot of the stems
The elastic of your heart
It is not like chenille
That you will know the flowers
When more than one sign
Your Rush to Happiness

He shuddered and jumped
Joined the butterflies …

Francis Ponge

Sebald’s sentences

Sebald’s sentences

I have spent the afternoon, as if in retreat from a world that does not welcome me, lying in bed and reading, much as I did as a teenage boy when I fled a family that tormented me into the world that I conjured from the novels of Trollope, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, a world which came to wrap my senses in muslin cloth and made me into a walking apparition of a no longer living sensibility; and the book that I have read, itself composed in a modern ghostly form of nineteenth century style, is Austerlitz by the great German emigrant writer, Winfried G. “Max” Sebald.

Sebald enjoys a renown that comes in part from the unclassifiable genre of writing that he practised; he combined personal memoir, fiction, travelogue and history into a cabinet of human curiosities, lined with a dark soft cloth of sadness: yet underneath all the strangeness of his forms, there is an ornate, stately, otherworldly beauty of his sentences.

The story is told of some writer who once was asked by a budding practitioner of the art what might sustain them on a journey to fame. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replied. So, to dwell on Sebald’s sentences seems the best way to honour his memory, and to hope to emulate his art, which found a way to speak of human destruction outside the boundaries of our own time and through a style schooled in the writing of German naturalist description of the nineteenth century.

Throughout Austerlitz, there fall these delicate strings, which also provide some kind of clue to the seemingly undirected perambulations of his melancholy mind. So from early in Austerlitz, Sebald writes, as if inscribing the fractal pattern of his intention deeply in the enigmatic curls and twists of his maze,:

From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” (Sebald, Austerlitz p 14)

There is too this graceful concatenation of, on the one hand, the precisely descriptive details of the outer world, of memories, of photographs, of the minor details of fortifications, and the forgotten stories of ambition behind the construction of the Central Railway Station of Antwerp, and, on the other hand, an ethereal uncertainty about our minds’ ability to grasp the experiences that beset them and to stop the torrent of emotions with which we perceive the world. Sebald’s enigmatic prose is born from this coupling of a strangely meticulous prose with the constant evocation that much of our lives are spent in mirages of our own conception.  The very first sentence of Austerlitz contains this quality of a dream, dreamt through the miscegenation of a gentlemanly scholarship with the perplexity of a mind that knows its own madness.

“In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study, partly for other reasons that were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks” (Sebald, Austerlitz, p 1) my emphasis

The phrase that I have underlined (“partly for other reasons…) disrupts the reasoned preoccupations of the apparent narrative, and opens the reader to the disordered world of Sebald’s deeper meditations, which come to him with many qualifications, always with a question of whether he has been deceived. Many states of mind “seem” to be in this prose. They visit the narrator uninvited, unexplained, and lead from the seemingly solid into the always uncertain mists of our own minds.

This theme is conveyed in a passage in which Sebald finds in the image of a captive raccoon in the Nocturama of Antwerp, an image of the longing we have, those of us who sit and polish our words like the raccoon, to reach beyond the darkness that we see all around us.

“The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had striking large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking. (Austerlitz pp 2-3)

Strange salt

Strange salt

All I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve  caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.”

Robert Lowell

I have been reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell. Setting the River on Fire: a study of genius, mania and character. It is a lusciously detailed and clinically informed study of Lowell bipolar disorder, its treatments and the endurance of his writing through the many crises his madness bestowed on him.

In the late 60s Lowell began to take lithium for his illness. Lithium, this strange and ancient salt, would change Lowell’s experience of illness and mania. For the next 15 years the frequent, yearly or more, attacks of mania would subside. These attacks had harrowed Lowell’s soul and left him with a constant fear of the recurrence of mania. Jamison insightfully compares the trauma of mania or other psychotic episodes to the trauma of war. After lithium Lowell could live through a late peace.

There is a debate about the quality of Lowell’s poetry in these years of less strife and torment. Jamison takes the view the lithium gave Lowell more years to write without the ravages of madness. Jamison can speak with authority. She has known those manias and the falls, and has written a wonderful account of her own descent as a psychiatrist into her personal bipolar hell. I share her view, knowing in my own life how a little pill can school an errant mind.

Surely poetry, literature, art do not demand the sacrifice of the poet, writer, artist, prophet to the destructive gods of madness. Surely we can shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature. Surely we can make this small offering of a little salt or a pill to appease the gods of destruction.

Thoughts on the Unnameable

Thoughts on the Unnameable

It was some time in my early 20s that I listened, with fitful attention on a Sunday afternoon, to a literary arts documentary maybe about Joyce, maybe about Dublin, but certainly with a fragment, read by a fine British actor, of Samuel Beckett’s prose works. Keep going, going on – I remember in a lilting slow Irish voice that seemed to linger on all the irony of each and every word – call that going, call that on.


It has stayed with me all of these years, as a watchword of a kind of ironic literary mindfulness. But the work from which it was detached thirty or more years ago, back when you could still occasionally watch quality literary arts documentaries on television, has long eluded me. Until this morning, with the ubiquitous solutions of google – that anti-mystery machine – I established that these phrases came from the opening sentence of The Unnameable, which has long sat on my shelves unread, forgotten, an isolated fictional narrator lost to time and culture.


“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I , say I. Unbelieving. Questions.hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on. Call that going, call that on.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable



As I read on this morning, I wondered why this great drama of the compulsion to speak, or worstward ho, to write, had not captured my attention before. In all the fragments, in all the destitution of these times, still there is this compulsion to speak, to write, to leave the words we share in our breath, and cast them to the winds that will destroy us. Is this not the same dilemma I have wrestled with. Nothing to say except the weak and fading Malones of my imagination – skeletons only, caricatures, ghosts in some uncontrolled machine – still I must say something.


“At the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.”

Beckett, The Unnameable


It is surely a cruel joke that Beckett, that stylist of epic failure, that artist of impoverishment, Kafka’s hunger artist put on stage in fizzles and events of no, should have become the source of motivational images on the internet. His Fail better lines, on this page inscribed on an ascending stair, have even found their way into speeches by sportsmen, spurring on their Olympic striving.


And who can dispute the value of that? If I can drift my life towards the spirit I heard that long forgotten Sunday afternoon, in the steady renaming of each of our failures as going and as on, why cannot others take his words and accent better, not fail. We writers after all do not control our words, don not control how we are forgotten and ignored.


Failure and futility have their sorrows, but also their comforts. They are after all the great defiance of the rulers of the world, all those who believe in systems, in logical prose, in the rationality of our errant minds.


The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system.

Beckett, The Unnameable

On reading ambitions

On reading ambitions

It should be known that the above-mentioned hidalgo, during the periods when he was idle – which was most of the year – devoted himself to reading romances of chivalry with such eagerness and pleasure that he almost completely neglected the hunt, and even the administration of his estate. His curiosity and folly got to such an extreme that he sold many acres of farmland to buy romances of chivalry to read, and he took home every one of them he could find” Miguel de Cervantes, The ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605) [translated by Tom Lathrop, 2014], p 19

Today I strolled through the city during my lunchtime break, and wandered down to the best bookshop in the CBD, or central activity district as it has been recently renamed, with a determined plan to return with one great unread or much loved but recently neglected by myself, classic work of literature.

I did first browse through books of current affairs, since I felt I should familiarise myself at least with the terms and titles of current debate in my lowly role as an under-castellan of a minor and sleepy provincial government in the Southern Pacific. From those racks I collected a recent essay proposing Australia quarrel a little more with our great ally and imperial friend, the United States of America. Surely the only sensible course, at least in a world made less secure by the day by the chest-beating of the US national intelligence community and its grand old men and women.

Then I turned to deeper interests in the long rack holding classics, plays and poetry. I paused a while over the Saga of Volsung and the Elder Edda, and passed over reams of Austen and Dickens and the comfortable favourites. Then I thumbed through a new edition of Yeats’ selected poems. From there I read his “Why should not old men be mad.”

WHY should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems

No single story of an unbroken happy mind indeed. It was perhaps the affirmation to know what old books tell, and the noble madness of the aged truth, monuments of unageing intellect, that led me like a bloodhound on the scent of its hare to that grandest of tales of old men and the folly of their books.

So I walked home with a 2014 translation of Cervantes, Don Quixote, or to give the full name from the early frontispiece, reproduced if in translation in this edition by Alma Classics, The ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Cervantes’ great comedy is one of those books that you can believe that you know but have not read, and especially so for someone like me, who is inclined to tilt at false dragons, clothed as windmills, and more inclined to know people in books than in real life. Yet I have not read Don Quixote.

But now I will, or at least give myself a plan to read its nearly 700 pages, full of comedy, classical and early modern literary references that I will rely on notes to understand, and a human understanding from a writer whose story I have begun to be intrigued by. It is on a first pass a much funnier book than many that I have ploughed determinedly on with. Proust. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, although I must say I did skim over the long essay on his pet theories of history near the end. On the other hand, there are many long books that have defeated my overly ambitious plans to ingest whatever wisdom and creative spark they still hold: a six volume history of private life, that stands embarrassed on my selves, the Bible, Musil’s Man without Qualities, and of course, Don Quixote

It makes me wonder about ambitions in reading. Today’s literature is so vast. It is an ocean beyond ambition’s compass. There is too much to read, even when you do not explore the shores expanded exponentially with all the internet samizdats to which I contribute and celebrate. Is there a time when the sheer enormity of all the written words will lead me to give up on trying to understand the classics, the great challenging works, the necessary elements of a humanist education, and just skim social media feeds for my remaining years of silence?

Then again ambitions in reading surely serve some good ends. They set a course across that vast uncrossable ocean that is the literature of everything that could be read, and allow this poor reader to tack close to at least some known shores. If I say I will read Cervantes and fail, then at least I would have tried, and, even if taken in fragments, the attempt makes me stronger. What I fail to read, still makes me stronger?

So I will go to bed tonight with my heavy old Spanish master, held in my weak old wrist, and thank ambition for letting me know, if only for moments, the imagination of the dead. In our madness is our truest dignity?

Image Source: via Wikimedia Commons, Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar (circa 1583 – 1641) – Portrait of Cervantes, assumed. 3. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 119216