A. J. Carruthers Axis Book 1: Areal (Vagabond Press, 2014)
by Calum Gardner
A. J. Carruthers’ Axis promises to be a long poem, perhaps a very long poem. This “projected life-long” work belongs to the tradition of the “life-poem” which has emerged in late twentieth-century American (and, with Carruthers, Australian) avant-garde writing. Perhaps its most accomplished practitioner is the American poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis, whose five-volume poem Drafts, which ended with ‘Draft 114’ in 2014, in many ways defined the genre. Charles Olson’s Maximus and Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the most obvious precedents in American literary modernism, are both archaic not only in their subject matter but in their attitude. Wrestling as they do with the writer’s responsibility to continue a tradition and be its next instantiation, they are poetic monuments attesting to great histories. DuPlessis, over more than two decades, took it upon herself to produce a living edifice which is constantly re-writing, re-drafting itself, and that dynamism is possibly her strongest mark on Carruthers in this first volume.
Book 1: Areal opens with a quotation from Carla Harryman’s 2008 sequence of prose poems Adorno’s Noise: “History meets incident along vertical axis.” This quotation comes from her poem ‘Dream’, which describes both emotional and abstract dream-visions, and concludes: “I believe these sophisticated abstractions are signs related to structures I ought to be attentive to when writing or facing personal disappointment.” This establishes the role of the ‘axis’ (or axes) that Carruthers seeks to map, a kind of geometry of feelings and ideas. Throughout the book, lines, columns, and grids provide the one-dimensional grounds that force concepts to come together. Most of the poems follow an ‘axial’ layout (the other principal meaning of the title), two long thin columns in parallel. In Axis 3, ‘Axiom’, the two columns see “Nature” and “Capital,” later “Speaker” and “Spoken,” placed in dialogue, and yet we see how one relates to the other: the end lines “ethical / aristocrats’ partner ‘in E flat / major,” with the letter ‘e’ from ethical matching the musical key, and “major” reflecting “aristocrat” in, by contrast, a conceptual resemblance. We are made to imagine a line drawn between two points, even if we are not aware of the significance of the connection, and therefore the reader’s urge to make connections begins to emerge from the crowd of commonalities between things the parallel columns put next to each other. This commonality is the point of departure for Axis.
However, not all of the poems follow this particular axial structure, and indeed, each of the poems of Axis makes use of space in a different way. Axis 25, ‘Aperture’, curls across the pages, its words interspersed with pieces of dance notation. Axes are also rotated around, and here the path of the text on the page could be the wobbling of a planet or the orange-peel slices of a map of the globe. Rather than a dependence on literary forms like the sonnet or even the stanza, ‘axial’ poetry adopts a formalism of space. Even between the poems written in two columns, there is variation in how they use space; some are twinned, like Axis 20, ‘About’, while others feature so many gaps that we read parts of them almost in a zig-zag, like Axis 29, ‘Account’.
‘Account’, the introductory note explains, argues for Theodor Adorno’s theory of musical notation being applied to poetics. Olson, in his famous essay ‘Projective Verse’, compared the poet’s use of the page to the musical score, and Carruthers certainly invites this comparison as well. This reviewer is not at home with music, and I often find comparisons to poetry irksome. What do either classical or folk music have to do with the modern traditions of experimental writing that I find the most valuable? They are usually so far away from song forms that the usual trite comparison seems meaningless. But in Axis, what is borrowed from music is its formalism, by which I mean both its attention to form and its understandability through forms: chords, octaves, repeated phrases – symphony, the great coming-together of sounds. In Axis, it is a coming-together of words, their ideas, and their forms on the page.
As such, many of the poems have a deliberately jarring or eye-catching look, for instance Axis 24, ‘Aerial’. Printed in white text on black, this poem is divided into seven individually-titled prose paragraphs, something between mini-narrative and mini-manifestos of the theory of Axis. It also puns on the title of the book as a whole, ‘Areal’, and draws our attention to it, as it is visible (and in a sense readable) even when the book is closed. It talks about lines as “staves,” like those in Roland Barthes’ S/Z; in that text, the final nail in the coffin of structuralism as poststructuralism was being born, Honoré de Balzac’s short story Sarrasine is deconstructed to within in inch of its existence. As Barthes sets the theoretical stage of this exhaustive commentary, he describes the “classic” literary text as a “full score,” with the various elements of the text – meanings of words, cultural allusions, symbols, actions of the characters – are like different instruments, so that each part has a structure that makes sense, but they only become the full poetic performance when considered together.
Reference to Barthes is only one of Carruthers’ rich network of allusions beyond poetry; it is not even the limit of his reference to the fertile ground of French theory, whose love of, and exasperations with, rococo cultural apparatuses Carruthers clearly shares. Gerard Genette’s 1987 book Paratexts gives a catalogue of all of those things which exist around the sides of a text: colophons, blurbs, tables of contents, footnotes, marginalia, and so on. (Indeed, what you are reading now is a paratext, because one of Genette’s chapters is about reviews.) Areal is a book alive to the possibilities of its paratexts. Genette’s original French title for his book, Seuils (‘thresholds’) appears on the first page of Axis 1, ‘Axiality’:
to have written : the fold
to have write : stars
to have writ : veils
sailing by in time
The left-hand column sees “to have written” devolve, in a manner that seems to echo the conjugation of a verb, into “to have writ,” the “have” changing from auxiliary to primary verb and “writ,” a noun, emerging out of a verb. Each stage in this transformation is commented upon in the line facing it. “the fold” refers to one of DuPlessis’ key concepts in Drafts, whereby each poem is turned back to comment upon earlier parts of the series. Drafts is self-paratextual, the “fold” moving the margin or threshold of the text. Carruthers comments in a transcribed interview that follows Axis 17, ‘Auricular’ in the book: “we read paratext everywhere anyway. Read the terms and conditions!” This latter comment can be taken to mean both that that questioner should have “read” or understood the grounds on which such a project is undertaken, and that “terms and conditions” are an example of a surrounding text, a paratext. “to have writ” is paired with “veils” because writing, at some point, goes from being a process of writing to the noun “writing,” a series of surfaces, boundaries – veils – and then these veils can become sails. Through examining the resemblances of words, which as we know are arbitrary and therefore matters of chance, patterns emerge. There is nothing intentional about the relationship between “sails” and “Seuils,” but Carruthers’ poem shows it to us like the results of a divination, its significance derived from our experience of it.
This is often the hardest idea in experimental art for the sceptic to swallow: that the reader can be left responsible for so much of the ‘work’ of making sense of it. But with the really enjoyable and worthwhile texts, it is not work at all, but play. Before the gramophone, people would buy sheet music and play it on their instruments at home; the first time they heard it might be coming from their own piano or fiddle. Reading across the columns of Axis is like reading a music of concepts, carefully composed, but brought together by one’s own process of thinking.
Sad to say, Australia’s experimental poets are neglected in Britain. This is not for lack of trying on their part – the regular appearance of the online Cordite Review, for instance, brings a consistently high calibre of work to our door. I can only urge those interested in the future of truly innovative poetry to look to Australia for new takes on the traditions, and, as innovative poetry has always offered, on the idea of tradition itself.
Axis Book 1: Areal is the beginning of a vast experiment. For a new poet to outline such a vast swathe of intellectual territory for the future is ambitious, but the texts it models itself on, like Drafts, are some of the most ambitious recent projects and poetry and also the most worthwhile. Axis 27, ‘Adapt’ centres around a majuscule letter C plotted on a grid, its slightly stylised shape forming most of a circle. In the first drawing of the figure, there are lots of circles of different sizes, overlapping, each tracing parts of the elegantly formed letter: the outer curve, inner curve, its serif, and so on. We are told that the letter is “always incomplete, harbouring a gap.” The second time the figure appears, the letter is filled in, is now black, and some of the lines of the grid have been replaced with crosses in the white space the “C” encloses. The language of an exhibition catalogue describes the image, and the poem ends, “now, show / your restive book.” As this incipit to Axis shows, poetry must always be restive, never settling on its grounds but moving along a proliferation of axes.