ON THE WRITING OF LOUIS ARMAND, by JANE LEWTY (author of Bravura Cool). Republished from Thresholds, ed. David Vichnar (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Untitled (Head),’ 1983.
Reading across Louis Armand’s poetry is to hover over a landscape that shows “the cartography of remote sensing.” Dense with syntactic possibility, the poems nevertheless resist the abstractions that often accompany idea-generated work. Armand’s is a distinct, complex and magnificent poetics that elaborates upon the recent surge towards the lyrical-experimental, insofar that his early collections draw upon non-representational techniques: alinearity, rupture, erasure and so forth. These poems deploy a destabilized speaker/figure that renders a psychic life in abstract forms; later poems display an “outering” mode of lyricism that dramatizes an interaction with the immediate universe – whether that be a New York diner or a whole continent. This essay will refer to Land Partition (2001), Malice in Underland (2003), Picture Primitive (2006), the book-length prose-poem Menudo (2006), and Armand’s most recent collection, Letters from Ausland (2011), in order to underscore certain themes in what can only be called a topography of many dimensions. And paradoxes. Arrested in nightmare, the voice of Menudo is nevertheless alert and fully in control of its Beckettian stream-of-consciousness. In Malice in Underland, the poems gesture towards the contours of individual subjectivity, but are wrenched away to form a composite portrait of a falling world. The notion of an “alienated seeing” (PP 269) is perpetuated – the “remote and fugitive” (LP 22) poet’s eye detailing death, life-in-death, the corruption of bodies and matter, the existentialist reaction to human advancement, juxtaposition of event, visual space and audiospace, and – as will be shown in the final discussion of Letters from Ausland – the revelations of history.
Read as isolated pieces, the poems have a unique authority. The volumes are separate selves, with their own carefully cultivated philosophies. However, it is possible to track certain emphases and patterns, all of which help to shape the wider intellectual network of Armand’s poetry. It must be emphasized that the present enquiry only provides a sample of the investigation that his work demands.
Technology: “_____& what it means to be terminal”
In the multiform dreamscape of Armand’s compositions, there are many screened encounters: blind alleyways, a “blanked-out silhouette from which no more / information is coming” (“Blue Square,” MA 53), “a petrified idea waiting at the end of sleep” (M 96), “anomalous forms / encamped at the edge of visibility” (“Anamorphosis,” LP 82). Many poems inhabit a space where technological tropes are needed to enhance the central idea – topically, tonally, metaphorically. A poem will often replicate the uncertainties of communication devices, the chasm between transmitter and receiver that paradoxically opens up whenever a technology is considered. Certain stanzas have a sensorimotor quality; the passage through a seemingly benign landscape is blocked by sound or the perception of sound and its contortions:
winds nw to ne course n 20° e
ltd in south 54° 57’ longd in greenwh. Reckg. 24°6’
the calculus of depth sounding recedes
matra-like into far recesses – each time a different
voice a different register unnerving even as it
And later, a side-note in the text: “^how many alter- / native rending renderings? [?]^” can exist in this “UNDER?GROUND OF SECRET PLAYBACK looped-in / circle of inanition: Greenwich meridian…” (PP 280-2). Here, “end” becomes a thing torn, delivered, restored, echoed, but plainly ceaseless. Playback is often horror. Reproduction can occur via a machine or as interiorized repetition: “when language loses / speed then it lags as the nights lag…” (“Split Screen with Static,” MU 24). In “A Cartography of Remote Sensing,” the voice is inhuman, like a set of antennae providing the imbrication of terrain and imagined journeying: “travelling / inland though the night, the issue involves more than traffic” (MU 31). A world where the “elemental particles / sibylline grammars / of the unspeakably mundane” (PP 365)is galvanized by way of the first step: “to set down, order, clarify. a tremor / felt only upon the inner ear” (“Quatro Centi,” MU 33) or “…electric switches radiating / from a single point like / a filial on a skyscraper… / the compendium that constitutes its centre [an ever- / inward movement watched over again on/rewind]” (PP 621-5). The poem titled “Xeno I-IX” depicts work by the artist Anne Truitt. Gradually, a “cosmic network of feint and counterfeint” is constructed though “noise, soundtrack” which makes itself felt in the painting (MU 52.) It can be observed that both Malice in Underland and Picture Primitive sustain this audio-visual motif. Ideas of playback, feedback, backtrack, acoustic striation, illocution, and aural alterities are investigated. Sound is both referential and explicit. Throughout Malice in Underland, the technologies of sound become topic and metaphor; they have their histories (“patty hearst on the / other side of the surveillance machine” (“Screen Test Portrait Nude,” MU 40) and their failures. Eerily, the “radio voices” under the pillowslip, the “twittering machine that broke,” the hum and whine of fuse boxes without voices, the “dud signal pattern, trans- / mitted along nerve strings” and even a slip of the tongue that “others/cannot tell whether or not to take it seriously.” The “tv amerikana resembling garbled transmissions” in “La Trompettiste” becomes “radio dogs / strange algorithims of / transmission of res- / piration… cathode tv screens flickering in / liquid unison” (“The Last Thursday of Zdeněk A,” MU 84). Not to mention the answering machine “that never ceases to malfunction: what is / it here for?” (“Positions in the Life World,” MU 15) There is often an inherent “suspicion of returns” whereby the process of tapelooping and throwback is described as a “sucker punch,” something that can annihilate. The ritual of hearing runs through the text of Picture Primitive, imprecise, misheard and threatening:
…visual “acoustics” modulating / from radio waves signal code – to entertain
the enigma of public life (decrying libido in the
voice of the interrogated blonde) lips shaping the
playback mechanism as dataveillance…
Safe, solid attributes of variables – data – is a “monstrous reiteration of cries” or “exegete codewording of an insomniac/presence” wanting to have its life told with fidelity, despite the
relating these “incidents” / fractions of some
unformulatable quadratic equation – the tongue –
stiffened algebra given in place of us (de vulgaris
eloquentia)meaning flesh and blood that is life
To “lose the self” is like a “telegraphic line cut out / from countless intervals/the morse’s unrelenting/hammer killing time…” (PP 577-80) Being scrutinized by nameless invisible authorities, by listeners, by one’s own “voices under the skin” turns the self into a half-person poised in a liminal space – a “lost permanence” (PP 896) – a ghost among footnotes, endnotes, voice units: “minimal details from which all else unfolds: the/body hollowed out like a spent shell & stuffed in a/box – where at the flick of a switch it learns again / the old game of dissemblance” (PP 377-80). In Armand’s poems, the constituents of the body appear in technology and vice versa – a crossover where surreality is blended with the very real notion that scientific devices are merely prostheses. Namely, a megaphone-like mouth, or the illusion of one’s “motor function irreduced to dialectico-histrionics” (PP 813). In Malice in Underland, flesh merges into a “seabed oscilloscope” uncomprehending of darkened shore figures whose “mute diatribe [..] is equally insensible to the meanings / we accord it” (“Soundings, La Parouse,” MU 75).
As the hallucinatory ordeal of Menudo begins, a Cronenbergian scene is enacted:
[a] prostrated body reanimates, gestures rewind, a faint white line descending the screen, bisects the image. He raises upright. Grimace. Laugh. Rictus. The lips tensing up exposing the teeth. A detonation in which the body is shot like a shell. Ejaculating itself. A mouth pressed up against the screen with spittle trailing from the corners.
At the close of Picture Primitive the allegorical “spirit surrogate [bursts] its vacuum tube” with flesh hanging from its ruinous mouth. The dry cataracts of thunder and silence-that-sounds is figured as a universal loss of connection; “migratory neurons” (PP 1241) disperse and microphones move into the space like “jaded phaloi” breathing headlines over “damascened skins” (PP 1324-9). The unquantifiable sky is etched with the phrase: “TO PRODUCE A SINGLE NOTE AT DIFFERING FREQUENCIES” in response to the suggestion that “an utterance may be repeated any number of times/or not at all” (PP 1320-1).
Much of the vivid quality of Armand’s work arises from the vivid portrayal of a “compendium landscape” (“Regularly, As the Seasons Advanced,” LP 46) where “strange machines gather / on the periphery… wind machines… fire machines,” the radio, the television, all types of “assemblage whose elements are co- / alesced through disposability, synthetic / & modulised as natural extension of / the aberrant idea” (“Morphological Forecast,” LP 43). In Land Partition, these uncanny devices, part of mans’ “dark psychology” often stand sentinel over land-masses, “sub- / cutaneous geometries” and the inclining turbulence of weather. Termed as alien, libidinal, “proto-readymade,” this multiform entity disrupts the ebb and flow of the natural world, creating a pre-dawn where “a consciousness arches its claw” (“Entrance to the Sea Port of Desire,” LP 90).
It is the labyrinth of urban life that best accommodates the machinic body with its decay and regeneration. Armand excels at portraying the majesty and squalor of our modern existence: “the greyblue bitumen of silver city hwy 79 / threading time zones crosshatched in / dusk-rendered enormity of reptile country” (PP 131-3); the “jump-cutting from interchange / ‘horn sound and bellow’ to nightroads… apparitions of distance / vertical & pin-point luminous as conducting rods” (PP 625-9) amongst a “seraglio of gasoline vapours melting/over shiftless dunes” (PP 1375-6). It is the recognizable details that linger in the reading of these poems – a dingy laundromat, crumbling stucco. Interior disquiet (the “baroque paraphernalia of / refurbished urinals” (“Valse,” MU 61), a “dim room lozenged” (“Serena,” MU 70) or the “centre of a grey membrane” filled with beige linen and unbreathable air) hides beneath a brutal exterior world: “euclid avenue. an all-night diner. a railroad / flat vibrating with silent motion” (“Split Screen with Static,” MU 23), shopping centres, subway stations, “the closed- / circuit… cameras bent upon simu-/lating us out of existence” (“Quatro Centi,” MU 33). The final lines of “Mimo Provoz” tell of a conflagration that spreads along the margins of winter: “…a building on the opposite / side of the street is on fire. afterwards we watched/the dark passage of the dumb-waiter with growing alarm” (MU 49). The apocalypse – and its many derivations – is continually present. A pervasive disquiet stalks many of Armand’s poems. For example, in the unsettling “Euclid,” extinguished life-forms “[are] disposed in tiers like cans of soup / lunchmeat… walls appear to grow larger as they recede” (MU 39). In “Après le déluge” a skewed America wakes from or into a vile dreamscape, where “the black flag hangs from the national / theatre, now is the wake, eyes / which barely open, caked with grey / mud.” An unidentifiable, soulless “we” traverses a waste land where the “river has wound back the old / clock / like a watermill…elephant corpses…broken samovars bathtubs coal sacks” float in the “long sliver of bile” that emits from the library as books meld into the effluvia (“Après le deluge,” MU 81). Walls are “riddled with holes / where everyone can see / the cretinous brides in their blonde wigs & / artificial teeth, singing lullabies / to shut up the dead” (“Cranach: A Horoscope,” MA 66). The end of humanity also features in Land Partition, often stated as a portend, and even a self-engendered possibility:
/in the middle of
(nowhere) – totem figures, ossature
half-buried in the scorched earth, a mute
prostration (?) & the self
anathemetised, like something pestilent on the fringe
of inoculated memory.
[“Land Partition: 8 Sections,” LP 29]
The true heart of darkness can be found in Menudo, a soliloquy / monologue erupting from the psyche of a delirious being, “an almost familiar figure, barely cohering & already coming apart” who nevertheless possesses the all-seeing eye, as in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie. The territory is barbarous and sadistic, yet beautiful – a hallucinated Mexico that Armand portrays with an incomparable eloquence: a “danse macabre of mundane, trivial items, while elsewhere, under the ground their doubles are stirring.” And the dead, “how do they know they are not dreaming us? not reenacting us in the afterlife of dead gestures, dead words?… this is where your thinking has led to… someone else has been here before you. washing the blood from the hands, arms, neck, face” (M 3). Detailing a descent into madness and fugue, unfamiliar terrain, ritual and torture, Menudo sets out to refute the idea of its own searching, “of trying to recover. of following all the routes back. as though such a thing were possible.” Instead, “it will have always come back of its own accord despite the detail of enumeration.” What is presented to us is only a thing “in place” of the real event: “a captive piece of inertia. to stand in place of you… haunted by figures who are ever-patiently converging. menacing. pursuing through night-mares” (M 6-7). And if what lies ahead is a “a silence to be filled. a space to be invested with meaning” then what of this insistent horror “plucking the liver nightly from our sides”? (M 14). Whose dream are we in with its interminable analyses? “…a methodology of chance operations. to arrive at the fortuitous encounter with something ‘like’ the truth?” A place where “one kills oneself the way one dreams,” where one is “outside the situation of your body. & that is what it is. & that is what it is forever” (M 10-2).
The speaker disposes of personal affects, wristwatch, notebook, and begins the quest, leaving no trace aside from a letter: “dear x, on the one hand i have a great desire, beside the scientific investigation of hallucinogenic substances, to research their use during ceremonial rituals” (M 67-8). The narration frequently shifts from first to third person; here “everything points to aversion. some underlying principle of the body inveigled in language” (M 29). It is indeed the body – its permutations, corruptions and perversions – that enforces the narrative. Effigies:
a black christ. A white blood-spattered christ. a brown christ with a crown of hypodermic needles…cataleptic forms of smooth, hairless bodies, sexless. Tied & spread-eagled like mayan sacrifices. transpierced. eyelids sewn back & leering out of sleeplessness. Sutured mouths. Ears. Webbed fingers. grotesque mannequins animated on the ends of intestinal strings.
The sky immolates itself like “an ember pressed up against the iris. The half of a face that immerses itself in fire… a string of blood & sinew trailing from a grill.” An altar is made of pelvic bones, the “purple and black and blue flesh” offered as sacrifice. In this domain, “what else can be done with death than to simulate it?” A naval is sliced, a body is “flayed, beheaded… fed to the lizards and dogs” (M 80-2). More viscerally experienced is the body in tortured confinement; the unnamed narrator veers between the “self seized as an object by others and the self abandoned as a blind, searching subjectivity” (M 99). The vision disperses to wander endless kafkaesque corridors, “cubicle-like rooms… oozing with heat… musty confessionals… sour mouths. anuses. putrid cocks… black curtains parting on the entanglement of imaginary limbs. their sulphurous, necrophile reek (M 103).
Related images occur in single poems – “fingernailed walls where in mute succession un- / named internees have scratched out their / living” (PP 185-7); visions where quartzite is likened to “exposed spinal columns” (PP 121), shrunken heads are tied by string, emaciated figured expose their “scabbed / necks, penetrated hip-bones” (“The Funeral Oration,” MU 61) a mouth is “pulled sideways / full of pictorial blood (life’s unsweetened / pleasures)” (“R.S.V.P.,” MU 54), and a “raw head & bloody bones [are] dragged up like / fouled root from earth nothing could grow in” (“Sanctus,” MU 64).
Armand is the master of unease, creating pictorial arrangements one would rather not consider – as exemplified in “Bucolic” where the set-scene is “clotted felt / of a carcass gnawed by foxes” – the dawning of a day “cut out with shears from the same / tooth-cloth; a maculated rag to / stuff a godless hole – blood sequins / threaded on a dressmaker’s needle adorn / the dry caretoid artery (“Bucolic,” MU 69). In Picture Primitive, the “carnivorous spirit” of the subconscious “dwells in each gesture of appeasement like / crude stitching in flesh barely covering muscle & / organ. bones open for marrow. charred / viscera in which prolific & devoured intermingle” (PP 80-4). The speaker of Menudo, finds himself “lying on his side. staring at the floor covered with dust & human hair. a plastic bag. old needles like maguey spines bloodied with his leper’s blood. the scabs of his bubas. a pyramid of excreta. base matter” (M 93). The speaker’s revelation is one he knows already:
i see the prosthetic body moving off ahead of me. a doppelgänger pursuing an independent purpose. i realize i am paralysed & expect at any moment to discover myself in the act of committing something hideous.
That hideousness is a “secret dictation” filling a blank space that could be filled again and again, in greater detail, more horror. It is a mind that can create the “sullen dissolution of entire continents” (M 96), qualify itself out of existence, relate the process of its workings in absentia:
…i know that this is an illusion. what has happened has happened. there is nothing to be done. you try to keep moving. keeping to the periphery… & the further you go, the closer you seem to the point from which you started out.
Verbiage of this World which “comes to an end.”
Ideas of perambulation and dark geographies are continually replayed in Armand’s poetry. Land Partition (2001) is in itself divided into pieces “against a field sinister,” that is serial, able to be mapped, charted, scored out, endlessly repeated yet truncated. Its very methodology may be a process that “opens a trace without initiating anything…fragments detached from the curse of an exposition idiom” (“Two Studies for terra incognita,” LP 68), which is sometimes given a name – ”the mystery of telegraphic wires / (lesions that seem to imply the existence of a vein)” (“Untitled Serial Landscape,” LP 67) or maybe a “distillation of lightshift / wreckage….co-(l)apsing inwards the “white line of a cormorant / marking an incursion against the black sweep of an estuary” (“Two Studies,” LP 69). In using compound words, elisions, erasures, mere scratches, cumulative, graphemic and synaethesic motifs, Land Partition shows the infinitesimal (that which is “encamped at the end of visibility”) and at the same time sweeps over vast aquatic reaches, miles of country and “barely tonal regions” (“From the Life of Invertibrates,” LP 50). By charting the vast region of thought separating the micro-and macrostructure of systems, Land Partition endeavors to understand the composition of each as “formula / given over to the spaciousness of the other” on a Newtonian scale: matter as limit but also “gripped by a more inner/nature” (“Weather Patterns,” LP 49). In a compelling mode of expression – which prefigures the more lyrical nature of Armand’s later work – the collection seeks a discourse to render infinity that nevertheless requires tokens to mark its path – ”redoubled clouds & rain / falling… a piece of corrugated iron, uprooted” (“Untitled (Landscape with Emblems),” LP 88-9) told by an ever-present watcher / listener, reminiscent of Mr Tod in A Handful of Dust or the supine figure of Finnegans Wake. The last voice of Land Partition is “reduced to a nervous system, a carcass / brought in by the neck / ‘left / for crows to pick at’” (LP 88). Intentionally or not, we are reading into a waste land which corresponds to data energies: “slow codifiers of ruins” (“Notes on Incarceration: Geography,” LP 16). Or an –
…endless series of ana-
grams: I=corrosive sublimate – chimerical?
transmutation of base elements, seme of crude
ore dark floe from the unconscious belies geo-
strata not yet raised to perception
[“Erosion Mimics a Frame,” LP 70]
that nevertheless has familiar undertones; a place “where the map indicates water… has been dry / since before living memory” (“Land Partition: 8 Sections,” LP 23). Here is a “sense” of water “as though there were always a third person / to see for us unanswerable questions” (“Parallax,” LP 23). In Menudo, this absence, this misprision, is given the form of “a spectre that / collects and distributes the roles. the facts. the outcomes.” Amid the “bright amber light of electrical storms / flashing across the mountains [and] god raving in the wilderness” the speaker says-
this ritual was also using me, a lone figure among many others… & despite so many seeming calculations, nothing completes itself at the end, everything will be waiting. but the disclosure of this world, of this being, remains a dead letter.
But, as Armand points out elsewhere with wry humour, what cannot be said is in “the glancing sideways from the page / to the depthless outer margin you’ll never succeed / in crossing-out” (“Observation for the End of August,” MU 41).
Armand has a gift for ending poems as individual entities. Each sub-section of Picture Primitive concludes with authority, whereas Malice in Underland presents a series of (topical) dead-ends expressed in lines of great beauty and simplicity. In particular, “Coucou Dubuffet” where a series of signs cannot be puzzled out, the final gesture being – “hurry up / nobody wants to solve you anymore” (MU 17). The concluding lines of “Lettre de Cachet” are where “the story took place. when? / then I found / it, it was swallowed up” (MU 35). It becomes frighteningly possible that the world and its hard facts, its demography, geography, happenings, headlines, all “read like an archaeological report – telling of the x you’ll never locate” (“Moving Averages,” MU 67). But, in truth, circularity and re-enactment override any final sense of closure. Every couplet – shaped with mastery of craft and tone – only serves to help the reader reach a semblance of finality. The feeling of “where and why” is irrelevant given that “it’s only a matter of time before it’s out of / range the gauge faltering” (PP 220-1). The question: is life too merely a form of repetition? echoes in Armand’s deliberate detours, in machines, ghosts, crypts, the accidental crowd, the fabric of things. Not to mention near-conclusions; the idea that any hour is “meant for nothing more, having struck root in us, stroked and shaped and misintended by it. The same repeated hour, the same deliberation” (“Something like the Weather,” LA 9).
Letters From Ausland
But the poem is only a way to dream without
having to suffer – and it dreams us too,
on the other side where time is forever
advancing like a threat. Night stabs a thorn
into the mind’s eye – we end where we began,
riding the line until the words stop. The
silent machines take us back out of the picture.
A train’s windows flash past like cinema:
Something groans. Something else gets born.
Above, the conclusion to “Hugh Tolhurst, with Lines from a Poem,” a fitting example from Armand’s most recent collection, which both engages with the socio-political sphere and retains the experimental strategies of his earlier work. Divided into five sections, the dense prose-like pieces of Letters from Ausland convey a seamless line of thought, told by a grounded voice, one which is profoundly self-reflexive and elegant:
The mind, the physical body, free to commit error, argue,
go astray. Standing outside to see what’s inside:
The mind goes out through the eyes to wander among objects.
[“The Start of the Bad Season,” LA 26]
Here is a book very much within, or of, its own time; many poems are focused on a single dedicatee as homage, subject, or enquiry. Poetry itself, “a world of circumstances joined to the universe by a tattered thread” (“Letters from Ausland,” LA 54), is perhaps an ironically endured state – ”A thing or a mind entering into the commonplace on / equal terms. You try to imagine the world as a / dog imagines it but cannot…” The question is how to create and re-create in its prosaic mystery, poetry “like a scarred lunch counter, timeless / under cracked eggs and broken eggshells. And still/ the difficulty of getting any simple idea or fact/ into terms simple enough for transmission” (“Sometimes, Apart in Sleep, by Chance,” LA 78). Poetry is the “minimal driftage of an ear’s / desolate murmuring, of rain stirring ashes into tarmac” (“Correspondences,” LA 89). As shown in Letters from Ausland, the sensual shiftings of the body – its memories, chance occurrences, visual impress – blend into an evocation of what it feels like to quantify life as an “anti-self who merely traverses and rates” (“Une femme à Claudel,” LA 40). Or rather one tries to – in a medium that rises to that task but sometimes falls short. Akin to the futility of blowing into a trumpet the wrong way it will be shown that all writing is correspondence, sent across every conceivable borderline with no hope of consensus idem. Every line is said to refuse closure. The low hum of a radio is as “inexplicable” as God or a cell dividing. Newspapers wetly flap against a wall. Again:
…Time to light
just one more cigarette before the signal pattern
re-conquers the outposts and settlements
or some other point we’re constantly
referring back to but which remains blank.
[“La guerre est finie,” LA 29]
The speaker of “Circus Days” who has painted a “life’s work index of first lines” makes an inventory of things backwards – would it be a good idea? The air is clotted and “[w]rit large” with signals, shards of history that happened among strange people but “the danger’s in conclusions” (LA 50-2). In “Forgetting Verlaine” – an admirable tribute to Donald Theall – the notion of erasing is exemplified as “awaiting the arrival at that senescent / plateau where everything peaceful has a troubled past” (LA 39). In a sense, this idea and its inversion is a prominent motif of Letters from Ausland.
The fourth section, “Kino Pravda,” weaves history and event through art, politics, and case studies. “Boy with the Red Piano” announces itself – and what is to follow – in powerful truncated lines: “Morning birds on telephone wires talking in secret / brain language. Another 4th of May. Grew old and then. / Last night, listening at words for intimation of” (LA 61). What reads as a repeated intake of breath surely contains the unsaid, the unneeded. Small distances and far reaches are depicted like “streetlights, turned inwards, as if to see into the true state of things” (“Leden,” LA 62). A cityscape swarms with life, holds the memory of death: “the theatre where Petr Lebl hanged himself,” ghostly voices / vices in the greybrown river, behind weirs, “dilute” mirrors, failing walls; a shifting city “hobbled in its pressure suit of thresholds / within thresholds” (“On the Theory of Homocentric Spheres,” LA 70). The optical elision of the word “Plague” in “Botanical Typewriters” serves a myriad of images and interpretations:
As Jan Hus never said: To know (is) to eat. Plague column, hunger wall, golem city – the picture falls into place and we’re not in it – took unawares, or the city, you see it and it disappears – it sits there biding yr time for you.
There are many still lives in still things – a folded letter, fruit in the dimming afternoon sun, a teacup, a pear tree, all shadowed by “some plan of action, long ago determined” hidden in “[p]arking lot vistas, seas of midnight enamel” all of which – foresuffering all – is the seer, all-positioned in the midst of tension – ” a man-statue on a rock out-waiting it,” his static eyes, “pressed to winter rain’s pale resuming weather” (“Böhmen liegt am Meer,” LA 68).
Arrested, “[s]omewhere love is a silent, evasive poetry that we still dream about, but cannot write,” and Prague is a many-faceted place, “timed-out of a scorched end-century – mouth to darker mouth, speaking of life or afterlife” (“Kino Pravda,” LA 63). It is noteworthy that the last poem in the sequence centers on Robert Desnos, who often privileged the nonverbal liminal space / scape over coherence – a space where memory repeats, patrols itself:
I have dreamed of you so much, have walked so much, talked so much, slept so
with your phantom, that perhaps the only thing left for me is to become a phantom
Armand’s treatment of Prague in some way follows this pattern – one speaker somnabulistically navigates “a magic code landscape” (“V Elipse Spí Lev,” LA 64) while the ekphrastic “On Henrik Galeen’s Student of Prague” considers that “behind everything a simple yet remote promise hangs” (LA 67).
If Prague is the present “otherstate,” then Australia is the place from where all is spoken: the outback, outcountry, a netherland, an underland. Its first syllable: “Aus” may be read as a pun – the translation into “from” in German – “from Ausland” implying “from the Fromland.” Its definitions and implications are many. Agent or instrument, cause or reason, removal, separation, starting point, something distinct from others. The poem “Biodegradable” announces that “[a]rriving elsewhere, there are questions of locality” (LA 28). That locus of control is both specific and multiform, as if the voice lends to itself the invisibility of the one addressed. It sends itself from a place of arrival, and therefore gives itself up in the act of sending. These poems are, of course, letters. Many have dedicatees, but do not explicitly speak to the individual. Armand’s writing enacts Derrida’s singular premise, and its units, insofar that if a locus exists then there must be a signal outwards. Then, there is the temporality of a past and an evasive future, already and not yet or not quite, with as Armand writes, its “culverts and detours and motivations.” After all, “[e]verything that goes without saying / has been passed over in silence. It’s just another situation of the mind” (“La guerre est finie,” LA 29). One mindset is the Australian outback with its scrubby rural regions, waterholes, the back-of-beyond-land, sweeping expanse, arid air, tolerant and desert species of plant, timeless rhythm and breathing, slow, ancient. “Burial Pits (Maralinga)” echoes Menudo in its stark menace: “Shed skin hung up on door frames.” A metaphorical dog, a “ridiculous / post-historic beast in the desert” drags a chain made of rusty cans with “red dust/bleeding out of it” (LA 23). In “Bad Moon Rising, Northeast from Port-of-Bourke,” the landscape “is neither a labyrinth nor a mask; it’s only an image” reported and “factor[ed]” in by a speaker with a “cramped jawbone endlessly ruminating proofs.” The vista includes a flock of parrots, “barbiturate roadhouses, truckstops, the crossborder / nightrun from Mildura to Lightning Ridge.” Ghosts of an era / moment fade out “in moonrise / over the silent diggings’ ruined opalescence,” and, at the very last, we recall that the first sentence describes a “backtracking” towards a conclusion (LA 18). Conceivably, the magnificent “Drinking at the Vandenberg” moves in an epic and easeful way back to “pre-everything days when / knowledge was safely out of range.” Armand’s gift for the vibrant pictorial is once again on display, with the sarsparilla-colored houses and “timber huts, dirt-floored / burlap-sack windows, cabbage tree roofs” rising up in a landscape. Elegiac and poignant, the poem is a candid portrait of Australia in its macroscopic sense, but rendered in penetrating detail – albeit (it is confessed) in “[a] succession of inertias, entropy.” The memory of a dead television, “[s]triking / rail workers, dockers, BLF. Cold Chisel, Bathurst riots”; the singing of “God Save the Queen under hot foreign skies”; how “Depression-era gabardine” is etched against shadows “in bamboo thickets […] ironbark / sleepers piled up beside the entrance to the wrecker’s yard.” And how, from the vantage point of middle-age (the ineluctable future) and a world-span away, the “distance” is “never so far” as one imagined it “should’ve been” – there and now (LA 19). Echoes of Picture Primitive are in evidence, wherein the “mason-&-dixon line appear[s] inverted on the other side as optical / time-lag or after-effect – to rectify a ‘wrong way of / seeing’” (PP 1270-3).
The poems referenced in this essay are just a sampling of Armand’s formidable work, unrivalled in the sense that few contemporary poets dare to experiment with a different rubric from one collection to the next. At the same time, the dark wit of Armand’s poetic voice is consistent and recognizable: that of an exception academic mind formulating and reformulating a multivalent dialectic. On one level, politics, history, poetry as an act of witness. How, in the earlier collections of irreducible anxiety, re-enactment and nightmare, the self-as-observer hovers over a world of super-information, one that showcases its own destruction. How, in Letters from Ausland, that same sphere of market-driven forces is seen to affirm poetry’s ability to capture “pieces of time and circumstances” in the ear’s “minimal driftage.” The final piece, “Correspondences” talks of growing up into a “non-story”; asks, “How long can each of us outlive John Keats?” when we are “all perhaps the adopted point-of-view/of somebody” in a world of “unstable intelligence that cannot decide / what to do with us,” a planet which may well be “furniture beneath a sky painted with / static and feedback” (LA 88-91). Armand’s poems force us into the void, flinching. We are “hooked into the ear of things” – into his lines and their extra-sensory power. Moving from linguistic experiment to the lyrical quotidian, his work re-scripts the ordinary and the strange, finding overwhelming questions in both.
* Text references to Armand’s poetry and prose collections throughout this essay will be: Land Partition (Melbourne: Textbase, 2001): LP; Malice in Underland (Melbourne: Textbase 2003): MU; Menudo (New York: Antigen 2003): M; Picture Primitive (New York: Antigen 2006): PP (this collection denotes line numbers rather than poem titles); and Letters from Ausland (Sydney: Vagabond 2011): LA.