Thursday, April 30, 2020

facts lock into the fictions we hang them by

My very slow reading of the anthology women:poetry:migration ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (2017) has brought me up against a poem I've read before, Hazel Smith's "Metaphorics", which had appeared in her 2016 collection Word Migrants. (HS: born in the UK, lives in Sydney)

Joy Wallace touches on "Metaphorics" in the course of her helpful survey (a "thematic reading") of the whole of Word Migrants :

She links "Metaphorics" with "a choice of metonym over metaphor"  in HS's own poetry and more generally in the world of experimental poetry, e.g. the Language school. (I'm not quite easy with this formulation, because there are plentiful metaphors in Word Migrants, both in "Metaphorics" and in other poems. I do sense that those metaphors often do have a vague air of being quoted, which I suppose puts a metatextual spotlight on them. But at the same time I don't feel that a metaphor ceases to operate as a metaphor when it's put in quotes. The poem shares the metaphor.)

 One of the sources in the first part of "Metaphorics" - ("I want to argue against metaphor -- against substituting one thing for another, to enrich or complicate our understanding") comes from a discussion of inclusive language, it refers to how some metaphoric language can smuggle in exclusionary ideas, for instance using "dark" to mean wicked, or using "blind" to mean ignorant.

"Metaphorics" is three poems constructed in a musical way. Here's some extracts (the end of 1, most of 2, and the beginning of 3).

Metaphorics (in three parts)

1. Metaphor (an internet cut and paste)


Use all metaphors, dead or alive, sparingly, otherwise you will make trouble for yourself. "Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside." During the treatment of violent individuals the authors noticed that physical assaults were often preceded by an onslaught of metaphors. There is no way to metaphorize the actual experience of losing any or all of your senses. The metaphors for talking about sex in the US all come from baseball, let's talk about pizza instead. Music as metaphor: a powerful tool in leadership development. It hurts the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature British beef. You are welcome to your opinion of course. But these are metaphors and in the end are likely to be misleading.

2. The Unanswered Question

answers rarely fit with their questions


her ideal script was never the one she composed

she googles her CV, it no longer fits

it was years since he had died, the crime scene was yellowing

facts lock into the fictions we hang them by

3. Windfall (a polylogue)

I don't know whether I want to shake my life into bits or grip it like a handrail. The lightest wind can cause the ball to swerve. It's a crossing of bumps and abrasions, missed stations and barred gates. Every day I slip on the dropped peelings of somebody else's intent.

The grail they desire was never conceived, nor will the quest gestate. The black box is slowly liquidating, the ocean sucks in its own depths. I watched the news and didn't absorb the details, I surf by floating on my back. They suggested I write down my objectives, as if I knew what they were. If I knew, I wouldn't need to write them down I said.

There's no such thing as a goal, just whims; heresy defines the route. I'm an experimental poet she said, hoping cartographically that might fit. The moon outsmarts every poem about it, a compass pins words west and east. He's standing behind her, mapping what she writes, while a rhythm nods its unhinged head.

In poetry metaphor is everything; she wondered if she believed what she proposed. The rain saws the hapless day in half, the bark will keep the soil moist. Is it so new to them they won't understand or have they heard it all before? No self-help book ever worked it out. Her colleagues will never tell her what they really think. And the world wears indifference as its tell-all badge.

Ants in the sink in the morning, possums pounding on the roof. Being helpless is his strategy. The personal is like a violent toothache, while an earthquake on TV sidles by. You've never experienced genocide, she said, taking an unanswerable stance. Nobody noticed I was irate. There is a part of me that expects people to read my feelings, while the other me knows they can't.


Nearly all the sentences, in all three parts, are metaphorical. A sentence like "The moon outsmarts every poem about it" even uses a metaphorical construction to express the failure of moon poems that are (presumably) metaphorical.

In a way the poem sometimes noisily and sometimes quietly portrays the questionable nature of discourse in a highly discursive society. Spoken freedom isn't freedom, which (like the moon) can't be spoken. Language is more often a claim about action than an action.  Language is in a material context. Communication ("He's standing behind her") happens through more than language; it's act, mood, atmosphere, gesture, inferences of intent. Our true objectives, like the ideal script, are never what's written down. Language is a structure of fictions (upon which we hang facts), it is only an approximate fit.

While I'm thinking all this, the wind blows through the third part of the poem. A remembered wind that is also the real wind outside. It's difficult to control what happens in a poem.

Another brief note on Hazel Smith's Word Migrants:

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