This paper examines the enmeshing of three themes: poetry's relationship to the real, intersection with and use of other disciplines, and its rendition of embodied knowledge(s). Drawing on the making of After Cage: A Serial Composition for our Time (Hecq 2019), the paper teases out the first two themes by focusing on the textual making of the work. Spawned by a response to global politics, the poem evolved through encountering a composer, a choreographer and a company of dancers. Research into avant-garde music gave the text its edge. The paper then turns back findings upon the premises put forward at the outset of the investigation by invoking the experience of sharing knowledge with a choreographer in the dancing of the poem in rehearsal and full production. It interrogates the process of revision and transformation experienced in both performance and theorising, drawing upon psychoanalytical and phenomenological resources.
Keywords: poetry; interdisciplinary collaboration; creative activity affect; body
I want to write a poem away from death — After Cage
Poeming: the nothingthere
I used to think that the very first stage in writing a poem was the conceiving of an image: a word association, gathering of lines, crystallising of a miniature linguistic artefact — a haiku-like unfurling of words that would require syntactical and metaphorical attention. But in fact, often, an image is the conclusion of the poem; the hard work is to blaze a trail through the ink of language towards the flickering light that reveals shadows, including shades of who I am, or might become as I descend the ladder of language, propelled by rhythm, affect, intuition and emotion. I write, or rather, the poem begins to write itself, in Mallarmé’s words, ‘black on white’ (1973: 370), that is to say, darkening with the very inkwell of the unconscious, producing a light only by projecting shadows and shades of the real. The image is the point of arrival, initiating another journey through linguistic blindness towards other shadows, which, paradoxically, will inform flashes of insight or moments of clarity. This suggests that what is at stake when I write is a reversal, a shaking up of subjective knowledge (that knowledge which thinks it knows itself), a reversal and a shaking up of ‘my self’ and what it presumes to know. Each poem is a drop of ink which contains knowledge that escapes me, but through which I become ‘some other’ (insisting on some elusive singularity and alterity) who knows intuitively how to em/body en/corps and encore. In other words, I put to work what French phenomenologist Michel Henry calls the ‘psychophysical body’ (2008: 126).
The real beginnings of a poem lie in trackless territory. The conception of the image may well be the last stage of the process, before the very last drop of ink — the perception of the image. The earlier stages are almost imperceptible, because they occur prior to consciousness in language; and as I am after all looking for words, these pre-verbal, or proto-verbal events may not be noticed. In a Lacanian lexicon, they emerge from the real, unfold in the imaginary and settle in the symbolic. I first become aware of these proto-verbal stirrings through their effects on my mood and conduct, and then only gradually do I recognise the pattern that confirms their connection with the creative process. A poem begins as an inner disturbance — the loss of equilibrium that impels rhythm. In this proprioceptive moment which may be conceived as a disturbance of ‘primal unity’ (Henry 2008: 126), I become restless, unable to settle or to focus. ‘My self’ is a caged animal and it begins to pace inside its cage. The best thing would be to walk off this inner disturbance. Yet often I don’t go out at all, and this loss of equilibrium can become disturbing both for myself and others around me. If I don’t recognise it, I become fractious and reactive, like a baby at six o’clock. But if I walk, or pace, I find the rhythm — or perhaps it finds me, as happened during the composition of Thirst (2008) in response to the sound a dying cicada at the end of summer. Then a formative structuring climbs out of the inkwell of my unconscious like Kafka’s cockroach.
Initially, while moving about, I am aware of the world around me, but gradually I become absorbed in my own inward processes: thoughts, feelings, memories, anxieties, fears connect and mesh. Whatever rhythm I adopt, or whatever rhythm adopts me, the event of pausing is crucial, for it initiates the next stage. Then I will notice my mood — or rather, I will notice that I inhabit a mood. It has particular qualities, which are best characterised as tonal: there is some resonant affect or undefined feeling, as if awaking from a dream. I live intensely in this mood. And then the image comes in a flash of words. Or a clash of words. This is a thrilling moment. I settle down with any blank page or scrap of paper at hand. I write down what may become an image. I write the other words which will have accrued already as well. And then I pace, re-awakening the rhythm of the poem. As I balance equilibrium and movement the disturbance wanes and the poem grows. Then all motion is suspended, and I live wholly in an inward mood, stilled and reflective. I now have to press myself into this inwardness, into something which is really a state of ‘nothing there’. This experience of the ‘nothing there’ occurs at a distinct threshold in between two states — a combination of sensory limits, memory limits, and everyday consciousness operating within those limits. I have to work my mind past the inner resistance of two obstacles: my mind’s own subjective habits, and the ‘already known’. I have to guide my mind towards a vitalised state of consciousness where something else might be fully realised, and not just reformulated by my intellect. Time stands still. I am hypnotised. The nothingthere is therefore better written in one word, for it is a porous threshold between the real and the imaginary. I stand in that experience of uncertain shadows.
Often, I want to avoid doing this: it is demanding work; it is dream-work, except that I’m awake. At times it is frightening, and the desire to escape is strong. I finish the poem in the nothingthere, subsequently testing each word, each line, each stanza or section against the pacing and the stillness, with the mood and the absence. Sometimes I have to choose whether to admit or deny phrases or thoughts which are part of the ‘already known’. Occasionally, they remain with the body of words as a trace of my ‘psychophysical’ self or some cultural Other whose words I have incorporated — the phantom hand that pushes the poem to its resting place: the inhabited silence beyond its own limits. It is a strange place, the nothingthere. It is that place of language where writing is located for me: where I think ‘my self’ is being transformed. Embodied in some other via the Other. Moved to discard the already known despite repetitions, replications, reiterations. To write a poem in that mode is to experience a nothingthere in (s)pacetime.
The long poem After Cage (2019) was conceived in that mode — finding a rhythm, walking the words around in the nothingthere. It was effectively the result of a chance encounter prompted by anguish: when Trump became President, I thought the world had gone mad. Later that year, a copy of my will in my suitcase, I flew to New York. On a sleepless night, from my New York bunk, I applied for a one-week dance program led by choreographer Jonathan Burrows and composer Matteo Fargion. Back in Melbourne, I attended daily workshops with a bunch of dancers. Among other things, we read and discussed John Cage. We also listened and responded to Stockhausen's ideas about composition. Taken by his Stimmung, I decided to adapt it to poetry.
The poem was conceived at Dancehouse, in the company of dancers for whom movement is the grammar of the psychophysical body in constant exchange, for whom time is not only real, imaginary or symbolic, but an explosion of domestic time, the time of the spectator, performer, artform, space… the seasons, with now being a saturation of time. The moment that is happenstance. Spacetime became secondary in the process of making the poem. Gravity became primary. As a writer, though, what I sought without realising it was a suturation of time. A symbolic cut.
The workshop generated what became the ending of After Cage: a serial composition for our time. And ironically, the beginning of the danced event titled After Cage: from book to score. I reproduce here an excerpt of the original draft alongside the finished version to illustrate the pacing of process:
Spacetime Memory Is Immaterial Memory Is Soul
River Riverring Disappearing Salt Rivulets Not
One Universal Possibility Escaping Will Space
Time Resurrecting Funnels Matter So
Tangled As Being One Buried Deep In Dust Us
Spacetime Memory Is Immaterial Matter Soul
River Riverring Disappearing Salt rivulets Not One
Universal Possibility Escaping Will Spacetime
Resurrecting Funnels Matter Tangled Being Buried
Deep Deeper Still Broken Time Dust Us
In Jen Webb’s words, contrasting the two excerpts highlights ‘that physical movement … shake[s] the necessary words loose from the brain’ and from the page (Webb 2015: 172). From draft to final manuscript, I learned how proprioperception was crucial to the making and remaking of the book. Indeed, on my publisher’s advice, I dismantled the manuscript, dancing and choreographing it on the basis of the rhythm I had captured and produced during the workshop, cutting coordinations, adjectives and sometimes verbs, adding blanks. Meaning-generating blanks. ‘Proprioception can be used’, Webb adds, ‘as a metaphor for research, but in fact is, of itself, an important part of the work of knowledge building. All research work involves the body, to varying degrees (173).’ Oh, you want to ask, were you carrying on research? Well, my psychophysical body, or what I like to call my bodymind, is (metaphorically, of course) cannibalistic.
After Cage: from book to score is an experimental choreographic interpretation of the book prompted by a third chance encounter. I wanted the launch to occur at Dancehouse, where the text was originally conceived. I asked dancer and choreographer Hellen Sky whether she would dancelaunch After Cage. Sure, she said. But I want you on stage with me. I’m not a dancer, came the riposte. We’ll see, she said. Two and a half months of intensive work on text and space and time and bodies radically altered the text.
The performance of words and movement swooped in and around space and time as a physical interrogation of mortality, grief, death and rebirth in this age of uncertainty. Informed by the Icarian motif, the work took the audience on a rhythmic journey inspired by Cage’s Silence (1961) through the use of additions, subtractions and repetitions based on a 123; 21 patterning of 16 beats derived from my original composition. It became an immersive experience which began to uncover what I saw as increasingly complex connections to the symbolic fabric of our world, heightened as it was by a musical loop from Stockhausen’s Stimmung and Georgia Rann’s lighting design.
On performance day, the theatre was transformed into a pulsating nocturnal world in response to the score: a mix of individual, spontaneous movement with the formal structure of choreographed performance and speaking of text. The precast choreographic and rhythmic dance phrases meshed with improvised material prompted by figures of speech and narrative fragments. Improvisations erupted from learned steps and memorised patterns of speech and movements, but settled through body awareness and affective response in the moment. There were no borders to this performance but its own dynamics. For me, it was a jamais vécu event: time was suspended in a lived hypnotic state. Intuitively attuned to Hellen, my partner in the dance, I was oblivious to the audience. I later heard that the audience’s expectations were disrupted. With senses heightened, what you saw, heard and felt was not what you had expected, said one patron. I had goose bumps from start to finish said another. From within language, I had dismantled language. My self also becoming other as I ghosted myself into the ventriloquised white raven at the metaphorical heart of the poem. I was transfixed. Sleep-walking. It was like the time of analysis. It felt like Hellen and I were both moving on the ground and hovering above our selves. Utter transference.
In hindsight, the dancing or performing of the piece was a pivotal moment for me — writer, occasional performer with props, but no dancer. I had been terrified of this event: dancing means to put your body out there. Yet something happened in that (s)pacetime became spacetime between other, audience and me. There were so many unformulated questions. The first concerned the subject — a Lacanian term, which, you may have noticed, I have not used, preferring instead bodymind and, later, Michel Henry’s psychophysical body, in an attempt to uncover the materiality of the subject in process, or self in motion out of an intuitive need to break away from the Lacanian model.
Why was that? Poeming, choreographing and dancing are rooted in feeling and affect as we move. But feeling and affect cannot be represented or adequately put into words. Only tangible expressions of feelings can be expressed, and often awkwardly. As for affects, they are primary, or unconscious, and therefore even harder to unearth, as it were, and disentangle. Bodies incarnate invisible thoughts, feelings, memories, anxieties, fears — the stuff of the unconscious. The invisible recesses of the psychophysical body which is out there for all to see when we dance. Phenomena of unconscious activity and learned processes are activated with and for others. The personal-Icarian widens and widens, becoming a synecdoche of infinite flightpaths and parlous descents.
Theorising the bodymind inside out, or materialising the invisible and inexpressible
It will no doubt take me some time to process this experience. I lack the vocabulary to speak about it. Anchoring points. Perspective. Stethoscope! How does one explore the reality of the bodymind in all its complexity? How does one speak of this corporeal universe whose language, thoughts and affects and feelings and movements are capable of making one experience and convey alternate realities — even alterities? How does one unravel the philosophical underpinnings of the internalised and aestheticised bodymind? How does one turn language inside out? What is the pulse that flows between the bodymind of two performers who move as though hypnotised by each other? How does one speak of the poetry of two bodyminds in movement?
The answer is no doubt experiential: Hellen Sky says again and again that a book is not a score. It took me a while to grasp what she means. I had indeed to experience it. A book leaves out all these felt and sensed questions from between its pages. We can explicate, rationalise, even problematise the experiential in a book. But we cannot convey the experience of notimeuspace. Perhaps it can be fleshed out.
At first, I would have described the experience as a hallucinatory event bordering on the metaphysical. The performative moment created an exhilarating sense of emptiness and indeterminacy in the bodymind. It was as though I had become entangled in a network of connections and interventions from out there — enmeshed with the other, i.e. Hellen and the Other. In other words, I experienced the living body as a nonunity, or, to think retroactively, as an unknotting of ‘primal unity’ (Henry 2008: 126) as happens in hallucinatory states. But I was not hallucinating. I was aware of this unknotting. At one point I thought of this phenomenon in terms of an undoing of the Borromean knot  that Lacan uses to illustrate the interdependence of the three orders of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary. It was indeed as though the fibres of this unknotting knot were fastening to my skin.
From Lacanian psychoanalysis, we know that the human body is informed by foreignness and fragmentation from the outset due to the partial loss at birth of the object of desire. In other words, it is never fully (experienced as) one’s own. Lacan argues that human beings experience a fundamental corporeal gap that allows them to apprehend their bodies in the first place as other (1971–1972: 20). This imaginary failing is intimately tied in with the object of desire, which Lacan calls objet a (object a). Building on Aristophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium, Lacan refers to the experience of loss of this object at birth as the lamella: the ultra-thin, sharp surface (1973: 222) that separates us from our ‘self’ and brings about a cut that produces an erogenous zone where the substance of life has entered or left the body, producing a desire for that which has been lost.
In Lacanian terms, this loss becomes a vector that relentlessly points towards the missing object a, presaging a being without substance, which recently Jacque-Alain Miller articulates thus:
In his first teaching, Lacan attempted… to elaborate a being without substance. What do I want to make understood by this expression? I designate a being which does not postulate any existence. As it is not certain that the term of existence is any clearer than that of substance, let us specify that it is a question of a being without real, that of the subject which is inscribed only by being differentiated from it and by being posed at the level of meaning. It is at this level that Lacan’s ontology, which is a semantic ontology, holds up (Miller 2019: n.p.).
Through modifying Lacan’s register, Miller refers to a body with substance. It is this substance that I am looking for, knowing that it is elusive.
I note that in Lacanian grammar, the poem After Cage is structured in accordance with the matheme of desire: $ ◊ a. It is a quest! The manuscript itself functions as the score’s object a: it is being divested of its pages during the performance. Bit by bit, it is being returned to the Other, the realm of language, in a process of repetitions: the personal-Icarian widens and widens, becoming a synecdoche of infinite flightpaths and parlous descents whereby it is nearly gobbled up, re-ingurgitated by the m’Other. Object a is absent (Fort) then present (Da). It is hardly ever where it is expected to be, and may show up in unlikely places, for example in the grave where it embodies Das Ding. But it is also unique and priceless, ergo the fight over it. We are in uncanny territory.
(In my journal off-beat, there are clues for theorising what felt like an uncanny experience:
Body. The body, a biological object of most psychology. The parlêtre of psychoanalysis. In between, the embodied (experiencing) body of phenomenological psychology — an approach to mind-body experiences that acknowledges the social nature of embodiment, placing embodied experience centre stage, as it were.
Embodiment — the state or process of inhabiting a body. It is impossible to separate our bodies from who we are and what we do at all levels — individual, relational, cultural, political. In Lacanian grammar, I am my self in relation to the other and the Other. Further, I am not my body, but have one! Minus a lamella extracted at birth, which makes me a desiring bodymind / mindbody.
But to speak of the body conjures up the entrenched platonic dualism between mind and body. Viz Plato, Descartes >< Nietzsche, Freud, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Deleuze, etc. I am not sure the best way to unpick this conundrum is chronological and linear. Perhaps the best way to go about it is from the inside out: from the experiential to the so-called theoretical. From black and white to the more revealing colour print, perhaps.)
It is looking at this photograph again that prompted me to search for answers in Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal phenomenology, which assumes a necessary interrelatedness between body and mind, between exteriority and interiority. As Elizabeth Grosz put it:
The body and the modes of sensual perception which take place through it are not mere physical/physiological phenomena; nor are they simply psychological results of physical causes. Rather, they affirm the necessary connectedness of consciousness as it is incarnated; mind for him is always based on corporeal and sensory relations. (1994: 86; my emphasis)
For Merleau-Ponty, the body is not an object and the mind is an ‘incarnated body’ (1963: 3; my emphasis), which goes against the Lacanian thesis that the body is always first and foremost foreign. And recent papers on the body from the Lacanian field further develop this idea with respect to diverse forms of surgery, including gender reassignment and cloning.
As far apart as Merleau-Ponty and Lacan may seem conceptually, they do share the belief that the body is not subordinated to the mind. Is there a third way of thinking about this fraught question?
It may be that the question needs to be reframed in terms of what Hellen Sky calls ‘cellulardata body’ (2012: 221) and ‘creative activity affect (226). Sky writes:
I become the orchestra, a scenographic painter, a cellular-data performer, multiply attentive of my continually transformative gestures. An open system, whose states constantly change through time. That between time one or two, any sound, sight, feeling that enters consciousness during that minute sets thoughts and feelings on entirely new and unpredictable courses… seen most clearly in a creative activity affect. (ibid)
What Sky describes is an expansion of sensory perception experienced in the moment. It is an amazing experience, one of going through an event. In my case, I was aware of going through it as a shared event. I might add that I don’t think I was conscious of what was happening. I was in a state of suspension somewhere between the imaginary and the real, with the symbolic bracketed out, yet aware of the situation. As I see it in retrospect, we were perhaps incarnating the real from within the symbolic, with the imaginary already bracketed off.
I think, slowly. Re-tourner le gant… et pourquoi pas le re-ourler / turn the glove inside out… and why not hemming it again? As one does imaginary and symbolic deaths.
Symbolic death for the sake of imaginary rebirth. Or the other way around. The two are inextricably linked in performance. It is important to acknowledge the fact that what Hellen Sky calls ‘creative activity affect’ is a reaction to a primary and primordial loss — that is, a defensive elaboration and an attempt to return to that previous state albeit sublimated on the symbolic plane. This means that the attempt to return — that is, the answer to the primordial lack, the lack in the real — is produced on the level of a secondary lack, the lack in the symbolic  all subjects must assume. Hence the fact that this primary lack is recast as a phallic lack in the relation between subject and Other. During this recasting, object a becomes incarnated at the limits of the body — and, arguably, beyond these limits. This recasting of object a also implies that the lack and primary loss are introduced into the relation between child and m’Other and, from there onwards, in all relationships of a transferential kind. For Lacan, from that moment onwards, the drive is turned into partial drives, a process which entails a fusion between life and death drives, with the death drive taking on supremacy.
However, though it touches on the notion of affect, especially in his tenth seminar (2004), devoted to anxiety, Lacan’s theory of subjectivity does not take into account feeling, nor does he mention skin and flesh as signifying modalities of affect in his model of subjectivity. On the contrary, Lacan (1973) privileges sight and hearing — the scopic and vocal drives. This is not surprising as these drives pose no problem for representation, even as regards death.
I was still grappling with the question of imaginary and real incarnations as these are deployed onto a symbolic stage when I delivered this paper at the 2019 Poetry on the Move symposium, where I heard a scholar discussing related ideas, albeit in a totally different context. Here, I thought was the missing link between reflective creative practice and psychoanalysis. While I had thought that the answer to my most pressing question might arise from Merleau-Ponty’s later work, the speaker was pointing me in the direction of Michel Henry, a French philosopher I had never heard of. I set out to read his Material Phenomenology (2008).
In contrast to Lacan, Henry affirms the self’s ‘primal’ (126) materiality. For Lacan the primary body is the real body. Prior to the mirror stage, the infant experiences her body as a fragmented and frightening thing. At the mirror stage a body image takes shape. It is an imaginary construct which gives the infant a sense of false mastery. This body image will never be complete because, as we have seen above, it cannot be experienced as a whole. Nor can it be fully articulated in the symbolic. Henry speaks of the ‘primal unity’ of the body (ibid). In a Lacanian lexicon, he refers to the imaginary body. However, Henry does develop the concept of the flesh as the auto-revelation of life. The flesh is the direct expression of life with its ‘pathos-with’, or ‘desire seeking out some sort of response or nonresponse, an emotion before the reciprocity of this desire, a feeling of presence or absence’ (104). It courses through us in ‘thought’s unthought’ (ibid). In other words, the flesh partakes of both the imaginary and the real. Thus, Henry’s definition of ‘the drive’ (103) concerns not the death drive as Lacan would have it in his eleventh seminar, but the life drive. As a consequence, if I understand Henry rightly from my scant reading of his work, we are predestined to seek out the other. This is relevant to transference in the context evoked above. Henry writes:
transference is repeated and repeats itself as a force. That is why it is an obstinate action… immersed in itself, submerged by itself and unable to do anything but what it does. It is a sleepwalking and blind action, indifferent to everything around it, acting in a hypnotic state — ‘unconscious’. (129)
In light of this statement, After Cage: from book to score did not ink the unconscious as the book accomplished in its attempt to write away from death. Rather, it enacted the possibilities of the porous threshold between the imaginary and the real from within a symbolic frame through the performance of the score. While the book examined the act of creation with reference to death and destruction only to anchor itself more firmly in the symbolic, the score achieved the opposite by highlighting that which cannot be symbolised, including the notions of creative activity affect and psychophysical body. What remains to be done is a study of touch as exterior to the body and yet incarnated in the body visible and invisible in order to map out non-representational tracks that connect real, imaginary and symbolic spheres in poeming, choreographing and dancing.
1 Borromean knot: so-called because the figure is found on the coat of arms of the Borromeo family, the Borromean Knot is a group of three rings which are linked in such a way that if any one of them is cut, all three become separated. In his late seminars, i.e. from Seminar XX onwards, Lacan uses the Borromean knot as a way of illustrating the interdependence of the three orders of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary. This corresponds to a rethinking of the relationship between language and the body in the structuring of the subject.
2 Object a: Ideally, objet (petit) a, translated as ‘object a’ in English, should remain untranslated because it has the status of an algebraic sign. The symbol a denotes the object that can never be attained, being thus the cause of desire rather than that towards which desire tends.
3 Das Ding: a Freudian term that Lacan uses in the context of jouissance and anxiety. Das Ding is the object of desire par excellence, i.e. the lost (and forbidden) object of (incestuous) desire that must be continually re-found. Because this prehistoric object is forbidden, its perceived closeness causes anxiety. Fortunately, it is inaccessible.
4 For Lacan, the term ‘lack’ is always related to desire. It is a lack that enables desire to arise. It is therefore often understood as being synonymous with castration.
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