“Staring at the Other” and “Unsettled Inhabitations”

I’m almost a Doctor. Of Philosophy, of course. Specifically, since doctorates are always severely specific, a doctor of poetry and bodily otherness. In the process of getting there, I’ve had two essays published.

The first was “Unsettled Inhabitations: Bodily Difference in Poetry”. This is a chapter in “Inhabitation: Creative Writing with Critical Theory”, edited by Dominique Hecq and Julian Novitz. My chapter was first delivered as a paper at the 20th annual conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs in 2015, and it scrutinises major modern and contemporary essays on poetry by poets – T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Charles Olson and Adrienne Rich – and finds that the body is often ignored or downplayed, yet always affirms itself through difference. I then propose a kind of “Disability Poetics”, adapted from writing by Tobin Siebers and by Mitchell & Snyder, and do a close (bodily) reading of a few of my own poems from “Music our bodies can’t hold”.

inhabitation cover

Second, the Canadian academic journal Critical Disability Discourses has published “Staring at the Other: Seeing Defects in Recent Australian Poems”. This is an expanded version of the third chapter of my PhD exegesis, “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”. The essay looks at poems by Cate Kennedy, Hazel Smith, Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, and Peter Boyle, all of which focus on encounters with disabled or physically-other people. I take an approach inspired by Emmanuel Levinas to suggest that the Other, to varying degrees in each poem, stares back.

What will happen to the other chapters of my PhD, and the poetry manuscript that was also part of the thesis, I’m not yet sure. Hopefully publication in some form, at some time. But right now is a time for recovery, recuperation, letting time do its work.

Each Map of Scars

each-map-of-scarsA few years ago, I collaborated with Rachael Wenona Guy on a puppetry-poetry performance called “Ambiguous Mirrors”, which explored genetics, family resemblances and secrets, and loss. This new show – featuring also Leonie Van Eyk and Rose Turtle Ertler – includes “Ambiguous Mirrors”, plus two more, “Secessionist” and “Unfinished”. It explores bodily difference from the inside, and from your perspective, through stop-motion animation, puppetry, film, photography, live performance and sound.

And the premiere is at the Castlemaine State Festival on March 18 and 19 (2017)!

Speaking personally, it’s been exhilarating to see my poems amplified and concentrated in such a visceral way by these talented collaborators. So I’d love to see you there. Tickets (of course) are selling fast. If you you want to enquire about the possibility of booking the show for a festival or event, just let me know.

A preview of the show is here at Vimeo.

A matter of surprise

“For myself I am neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’, nor ‘a civil servant’. It is often a matter of surprise that the invalid or cripple can put up with himself. The reason is that such people are not for themselves deformed or at death’s door. Until the final coma, the dying man is inhabited by a consciousness, he is all that he sees, and enjoys this much of an outlet. Consciousness can never objectify itself into invalid-consciousness or cripple-consciousness, and even if the old man complains of his age or the cripple of his deformity, they can do so only by comparing themselves with others, or seeing themselves through the eyes of others…”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology of Perception”


Around two weeks ago, two things happened that I didn’t expect.  I went to the funeral of a dear friend.  Norman was a phenomenally curious and wise man, and while I was trying to pull myself together to write a eulogy, I was reminded of his blogs.  One of them, “A body’s in trouble: some resources on the lived body in philosophy and the arts”, was in a way a parallel to the journey I’m on with this blog, though it’s much more a reference point, containing some key resources and insightful juxtapositions.  This is where I found the astounding Merleau-Ponty quote above.

Is it a surprise that I can put up with myself?  Do I have a hunchbacked-consciousness?  Do I know myself only through the (imagined) eyes of others?

maurice merleau-ponty smoking

I know almost nothing of the life and physicality of Merleau-Ponty.  Here he is smoking.  The phrasing of the quote is intriguingly ambiguous.  He says he is neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’.  That these words are held in quote marks seems to me to potentially imply that he is these things, yet is not defined by them.  Consciousness is consciousness, shaped not by itself, but by its position in the world, in relationship.

At the funeral, I had the sense that my friend was not in the coffin, or in heaven, or anywhere else but in the bodies of his family and friends.  It was as if, without the central consciousness, his core of being, all that was left was the reflections, resonances, seeds, which we held in us.

The day after, I was offered admission to a PhD program, with scholarship – my proposal was titled “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”.  I’m planning to write a thesis and a series of poems which will “attempt to outline the mechanisms through which poetry can generate a productive, bodily encounter with the Other”, drawing on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas and Tobin Siebers, and the work of a few of my favourite poets.  I suspect that poetry is uniquely placed to incorporate (pun intended) the consciousness that arises from unusual bodies.  We’ll see.

I’ll be writing in the context of a community of friends, poets and thinkers that have come before me, and are around me now.  Perhaps they are my others and I am theirs.  Which makes this richly complex and unpredictable.  So, I don’t know what will come out of this, though I’m certainly looking forward to the privilege.  Here’s where you’ll find sporadic updates and minor insights…