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World Poetry Portfolio #68: Louis Armand

World Poetry Portfolio, edited by Sudeep Sen in association with ATLAS Magazine

louisarmandLouis Armand was born in Sydney in 1972; since 1994 has lived in Prague, Czech Republic, where he directs the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University. In 2013 he was a Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Monash University, in the Postcolonial Writing Centre, Melbourne. He is a writer, publisher, visual artist and former subtitles technician at Karlovy Vary Film Festival. In 2004 he founded the Prague International Poetry Festival which has continued, since 2009 as the Prague Microfestival. His books, of which there are more than thirty, include a translation of Véronique Vassiliou’s N.O.: Le Détournement; he has also translated work by Maghrebi writers Dorra Chammam, Mehdi Mahfoudh, Emmanuelle Pireyre, Leïla Sebbar, Moncef Ghachem and Raymond Farina. He has published critical writings on fellow writers Pierre Joris, Joshua Cohen, Karen Mac Cormack, Vincent Farnsworth, John Kinsella, and on the artists Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others. He is the editor of Contemporary Poetics (Northwestern UP, 2007) and in 2010 he edited The Return of Král Majales: Prague’s International Literary Renaissance, 1990-2010. In 2009 his screenplay Clair Obscur received honourable mention at the Alpe Adria Trieste International Film Festival. He is the author of five novels, including the neo-noir Breakfast at Midnight (2012), recently published in Czech translation by Argo, and Canicule (2013; both from Equus). His most recent collections of poetry are Letters from Ausland (Vagabond, 2011) and Synopticon (with John Kinsella; LPB, 2012). He is presently an editor of the international magazine VLAK: Contemporary Poetics and the Arts.

All poems published with the permission of the poet | Author photo © David Vichnar

Patrick White as a Headland

Something vast is being suggested,

shapes barely visible in the

pre-dawn – a faint line of smoke

from a chimney – or a headland

bearing down at the sea

like an ego, jutting into it,

describes the laborious theosis

of a body at the end of a

grappling hook – to bleed if necessary

to ascend – and the seasurge beating at the shore,

thick turbulent

yellow water – and the dark crab-eyes

looking into it, long after

there’s anything left to see.

 

Hugh Tolhurst, with Lines for a Poem

Scenery emerges from the picture like a train

just emerged Jolimont-way from the

tunnel system, Melbourne, 1966 – in time

for jewels and binoculars hung from the head

of a mule – all roads to Port Phillip Bay.

Young mother pegging diapers on a line –

a black crow in its pulpit yawning the day’s

sermon to conscripts ganging the platforms –

flashing backyard suburban jingoisms.

We look back through the poem and see

only the wisteria creeping under the windows,

a trellis, a flyscreen door and dead lawn

a million miles from Saigon. The train rattles on

from station to station, parsing the signals,

numbing the arses of generations to come

without ever upsetting the status quo.

Arriving one day at the end of the road

like a detail conscientiously ignored until it

punches you in the eye – imagining some

real estate genius struggling to find metaphors

that fit the marketplace: southerly prospects,

ocean views, all modcons. Grey ships ply

the dun-coloured textbook waters and turn

into History. It’s cold and you shiver a little.

Out beyond the big picture the refinery lights

are coming on – the tide heaves towards its

Bethlehem. A hundred years and nothing

remotely imaginable, thinking why here and

not some other place, far away under monsoon –

agent orange sunsets making hell a scenery.

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.

 

Domes at Houmt Souq

Because the sea, anomalous, white –

flanged walls beneath a headpiece:

a stone idol, megaphone-eared,

listening to the bewildered landscape.

 

In the square asleep under eucalypts,

a hummocked mosque, sky like phenobarbital –

dusk and voices, the wailing god on its

pediment, chatter in doorways, the risen dead.

 

From the beach, you looked out onto a war.

Lightbulbs, shoes, cigarettes, clocks…

A garbage tin in conversation with a dog.

And the minarets like a Philip Guston cartoon.

 

Morning is a sheet out on a line, the eros

between pages of a book left behind,

a cenacle of black ants enacting scenes

of departure among the flagstones.

 

Methadone Blue

Crossing the sandbar, late blue echoes of night

heron, unreal, the mangrove island, the estuary

stilled in the lull of the tide. Mooring lights

in the sky. There’s a point where the river

turns back on itself like the crook of an arm.

We stand out watching the prawn fishermen dangle

their mock moons, the black swelling vein

of water cutting us slowly off from the other side.

Then wade up onto the squat island, a shot-up

sign warns of dog traps in the undergrowth.

Locals sometimes talked of a black dog, grown

to man-size hunting bullsharks, though

never seen – only mauled shark fins washed-up

along the shore, marking its territory.

oo

After Donald Friend’s The Outrigger (1974)

Windjamming between the reefs – a boy in a canoe

you lie beside in your mind, knotted blue hair,

loincloth undone as he turns about and rides you,

white shemale posed on all-fours, a four-posted

thatch hut and postcard figures cut out to form

a watching backdrop, static as Balinese theatre.

The ribbed canoe flexes against the breakers’

coercive uniformity; a snapshot makes the outfall

aesthetic. His mother, he says, was an orphan

of Dutch colonists. Brownskinned. For another

five bucks he’ll let you suck him off afterwards.

Through a chink in the wall you see the dogs

stalking the periphery – remedial demons, rust-

pelted, scavenging for morsels of proof that things

are indeed as they seem. The ceaseless grovel

of the waves. On the wall, a gaudily illustrated map

shows the route to paradise – but who can say

if what lies there isn’t cursed? The outrigger

turning back to shore, sun low in its arc, flash

of an oar. Each stroke, down-thrust, a purification.

But to stand in the light and not in the shadow

is no guarantee against the infinite evasions of glib

post-coital sentimentality. Was anything stolen?

Can you provide a description? The outrigger,

dragged up onto the beach among crab burrowings,

seaweed, brine – all the surrounding amorous

real estate pegged with for sale signs. Or you alone

are the island on which you walk, compass-eyed,

seeing only the X that marks the lost co-ordinate.

 

Roland Robinson’s Grendel & Death in Custody

An unseen hand at work among the evidence. Grendel re-

shuffling the pages, strata, bone-shards and whatever else

remains, as indictment or disqualification. Our deletions

are accumulating, like Royal Commissions or radio talk-back.

 

Grendel and John Laws exchanging product placement

between early morning traffic reports. To start again

bending the square outline of a place in which nothing

escapes formulation, hanging cheap tinsel on everything.

 

Or a landscape with empty refrigerators, detention cells,

uselessly speaks the way of refuse or refusal.

Grendel in Redfern, breaking off TV aerials and clothesline

to make a bed. Grendel beckoning at the window,

 

all dark hints and bodily purpose. Knowing as well as you do

there’s no such thing as accidental death in custody.

00

L’arbre en fleur dans le jardin au printemps

The scene was what it was, full of sweat and frustration.

First the mountain then the river, the flaccid distance

one begins to overcome by preparing a canvas

of eventualities: the concluded journey, the spent

arousal of an object made to describe the inverted

form of itself. Ivy leaves and ferns in barbotine.

The process is a body in disarray beneath an attic window,

late afternoon, sky sectioned by vapour trails

converging but equidistant. A point the eye intercepts

and distorts: the incomplete motion of a line descending

or a figure describing, like a repeated note

in a child’s exercise book, a Spanish guitar, a sheet

of smeared newsprint. From the outset the piecemeal

is a technique committed to the evasive obvious:

the Mexican amulet, the drooping petunia in its glazed

pot, the brown thumb hooked under a celluloid strap

as prelude to blank long siestas of contentment.

But in all concluded things there’s an insolence art

can only accustom itself to, since art also is a kind of envy.

Like the mirroring pond beneath the almond tree

once the blossoms have withered and green husks

have peeled back from their shells, the parrots noisily

scattering the remains everywhere.

 

Pictor Ignotus

(for David Malouf)

 

The conception is everything – grown

from a hostile mind like a city state

in a hot wilderness. Its curve and arc.

Two men in the beginning performed

a simple act – welding two girders

together, then a third: a whole complex

of space, Uffizi-garish – little

Medicis volumising over it…

 

The procession of rooms – the glopping

monitors’ hum and buzz. Some primitive

Giotto’s Last Supper – jungle-eyed,

a caged figure mewling at its captors,

hook, tail, breast-mound and rude totemic line

(“tantôt libre, tantôt rechercher”) –

the miraculous Daughter of Fishes,

fleshlipped, nightblue, shriving the horse-mackerel.

 

“Still glides the stream and shall forever glide.”

Five thousand miles of platitude and not

one pale god to be seen. Nolan’s Burke, dead-

eyed like some homicidal idiot,

stands sentry at the tomb of the unknown

artist – bark and red ochre, yellow,

white, a pair of sticks tied with possum gut

to steer through subterranean weather.

 

Whoever said that art doesn’t conform

to fact? A polaroid nude, the eye’s un-

bridled rut blacking-out a big money

sunset, navy yards and warm chardonnay.

Or an artefact shaped from the stolen

inner lives of appearances. These things

like maps of impending extinction, that

procure such insurance against themselves.

00

Plutonium 239

(i.m. robert andrew ostle)

 

figures in the landscape appear to burn. a fringe

of cinders: yellow dust, funerary ash covering

the ground – varanasi, dasaswamedh. saddhu

in a burning ghat. And the canticle: place of

dead reckoning. signs written in concrete, a blind

one-eyed skull and the half-god half-corpse

that fits it, fucking down into the underside of a

guilty conscience, to measure degrees of con-

tamination. an underground reservoir, dug out

by the old whitebellied diviner pumping brine

from limestone sinkholes, resists the applied

method. saddhu perched on a heap of rubbish

exhaling long plumes of smoke. the camera’s

analogue eye like a mind passing and

observing – atoms, nomenclature, intellect –

how can it be removed? if the earth were as

flat as it seems, a photograph

dragging down at the edges – belongs to another

history: a mathematical error addressed in

manufactured desert-language, like a too-

rational and precise stupidity, uncorrectable

as a dog or man who refuses labour. saddhu

in a contortionist’s box: television vistas,

satellites, remote emanations telling of contracted

future memory in solitary confinement. a band

of night shows red above the judas-hole – they are

counting down, digit by available digit.

smoke settles on the eye’s inner rim; attendant

fingers brush ash from ashtrays into a plastic bag.

at the other end of the demarcation line

one more salvage operation is about to begin.

 

Something like the Weather

(to John Forbes, et al.)

 

1.

it begins and in spite of everything (sleeplessness,

fear of attack) is almost serene. Shooting speed

in a room behind the GPO, each letter

one more step in the direction of universal literacy.

Nobody needs poetry for this. Or do they?

Witness our little ceremonies, the nightwatchman’s

redemptive vision, the hairdresser’s assistant

like some hapless Venus of Urbino draped in her

sleek reclining chair. Tomorrow we may slip out

past the wire-conducting trees into the languages

of the news stands. Or sit alone, white serviette

folded into smaller and ever smaller epigrams.

You check the dials, the registers, the glass eyes.

Could anything have happened in the meantime?

 

2.

“the visible in materialisation is not the material.”

Old Quiros waiting to cross the road – then

the coffee arrives. You notice, how he stood there

deliberately, like a ruined observation post, framed

by the corner window at the station kiosk. all those

elapsed times, cut-out faces in green commuter busses.

First light. Floating through billboard retail scenes.

Quiros in his drunken boat paddling towards

Elizabeth Street. 8.00 A.M. and progressively the air

becomes rubberised and limp. Piecing together

an itinerary of what’s left to come: this hour

meant for nothing more, having struck root in us,

stroked and shaped and misintended by it.

the same repeated hour, the same deliberation.

o

3.

one of the ten plagues of Egypt made its way even

here. Slouching under the harbour on hollow legs,

to re-emerge, strangely intact, propped against

a bar in Harold Park holding forth on Michelet’s

Historical Monuments. And this, as good or bad

as any other place to live and die in. television

made the outside world invisible; poetry made it a

wreck. in each particular a ritual has been arranged –

the metrical progress of footfall up the stairs,

a closing door, a too insistent respiration. Things

there are hardly notions to impress upon. Asleep again

under the moon-broadening night, the sound of

police helicopters, the broken-bottled serenades and

street hustlers bidding dreams of wordless fornication.

o

4.

Something to be filed away on the internal memex.

Nights of bondage fed on the wholly unreal, a city

dredged-up from barbarous pre-history, crime or

wanderlust. You know the score, tapping out rhymes

on the shoulder of adversity, for the sake of a look

or as little as an admonition. The truth was never

believable, in any case. We have invented the worst

as best we can, always reflecting the contrary of intention.

underfoot the banging becomes more and more hellish

and idiotic. (Why won’t the dead finally shut up and

sleep?) The distance traveled is still not far enough.

The migraine purrs. Morning shouts in its familiar drawl.

a dry meniscus rings the eye, thickening over it, caul-

like. And how the dumb horrors laugh.

 

From the Reznikoff Variations

(for C. Bernstein)

 

It begins in the relation. Walking in the Bronx,

over the bridge, eight hours down Broadway –

the migrated tribes, tyre repairs, the elevated

line balking from wide skies – husks of a land-

scape once a low mountain now dry arroyos

north of 182nd street. Menudo and Spinoza

and Karl Marx. I want to tell you a story of

where I’m from, but it’s not here – stuck in mid-

afternoon traffic, a Puerto Rican, fingers stiff

with rings, selling insurance from the trunk

of a jacked-up Lincoln – all the second-nature

curb-talk, four o’clock, in a neighbourhood of

working men and women, where night comes

on fast, the stockings and low lights over bars,

and another on the rocks ’til it’s time again

to arise with street lights still aglow in the East

River washed out to sea, rock and pedestal –

and the rain, the silver streak of subway cars,

the straightman with hand out for change –

and Nat Finkelstein, dead too? Who else?

One more photograph and then the job’s done –

the last intersection, last fragment of a crowd,

life by facets. Perhaps we don’t know what art is

or does, but the point’s to go on as if we will.

 

Acid Comedown & John Olsen’s Five Bells

(for Cait)

 

Call it topographic, eyeball to eyeball with invisible

fidget wheels, the whole blueprint in acid-dissolve.

 

Intelligence reports arrive from remote space colonies

dot-dash-dot on tree-branch telegraph wires,

 

meteorites and pool hall metaphysics. Calculating

backspin with celluloid tape-measure, ancient shark-

 

brain x-ray machine, whistles and bells –

the whole synaptic opera drowned in ice-cream vendor

 

jingle-ology. The count’s too close to call. Crossing

the upturned bridge on grinning Luna Park

 

commuter shuttle: a cast of salaried extras –

white teeth on cobalt blue – laughter in the fallout.

 

A lost method of the infinite shell game: circles,

triangles, reels of night-constellation tickertape.

 

We wait out under the giant fig trees with tin can

and twine, relaying messages received long after

 

the transmission died. Slow-motion videos of a city

in mid-construct – Wandjina Man drunk under a wall,

 

dreaming of blond missionary ancestor spirits

turned to coruscated glass and steel. Rain spirals darkly,

 

each grey drop like a map of endless underground

parking lots, waiting for the cold to set in.

 

Out there, the harbour lies on its side like a broken

all-mod-cons kitchen sink – dawn is a revolving light

 

in a pawnshop window, a blues saxophone,

the mute reflection of a mannequin in a five dollar suit.

oo

Even the Most Concluded Journey

(for Robert Adamson)

In winter a heavy fog used to hang over the cesspools

along the abattoir road – the run-off

still warm from each mornings kill – a thick scent

filling the valley. More than observance of routine

we knew the seasonal transactions. Lent. Passover.

The mythical beast with two books… Parables

of implication or blamelessness, raised on the fat

of the land, like the dogma of a well-fed public body

and the mind in the body. Blood mingling

with an approximation of lost kinship –

all the received grace of an unsentimental

bureaucratic God, whose love is a meatworks’ gross

efficiency. A whited hulk, an idol carved by

withering force. When they shut it down we mourned.

Wind jangling the rusted hooks – gutters

run cold – the dragged chains of ghostly hatchetmen.

Our ritual comes full-circle. But even the most

concluded journey remains a fragment. Years pass,

entering by a gap in the perimeter fence

to pay obeisance, dispel childish superstition,

admonish the austere architectural vision.

An alter-piece with junk and weeds.

What could it have known that we mustn’t?

The task at hand, the irreconcilable opposites, some

vastly tendentious joke born of a moment’s irritation –

or nothing more than a desire to be elsewhere?

 

Melbourne, Night (Albert Tucker, 1974)

An almost silent car crash at the street intersection. Afternoon

rain drifts-in, westerly, and curtained apartment windows

 

between trees, telephone wires. Imagine the air full of radiostatic.

There are factors we don’t understand, voices strung across poles

 

directing the alien traffic. And is home any different from

where we are? Climbing the stairs two at a time, a note

 

on the door, the key under the mat. Open the text-mirror and

enter a room. Someone has vomited a mess of symbols on the floor.

 

Tomorrow is Friday, cleaning day. Scanning the newsreels

from outer-space. Oh, there’re things we know awake, too.

 

We won’t ever learn what they’re about. Dreaming of that first false

air conditioned spring, lying between happiness and the promised

 

sex. On the eve of our farewell, the message is all that matters –

the secret rendezvous, the undecipherable text.

 

Kneeling Figure with Canvas & Black Can (Arthur Boyd, 1973)

all games are hostile: education in perpetual evol-

utionary struggle. The artist’s territory of conscience,

 

bringing forth untenable species in the service of his

vision. To conceal, present, prevent, contain.

 

Or force a shape out of nothingness, blacking-out

the unmeaning weather: more things are invisible

 

than you know. Lodged in its own background,

the sketched scene is not the one that interests you.

 

Testing the collective mind’s power with a hunger

for whatever we’ve felt deprived of. What would it cost

 

to see clearly? Committed to ultimate things.

Or dragging at the end of a long chain, to maintain

 

an open account with history. Like a ghost that

clumsily disappears into the night, trailing its tin can.

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