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Brian Kim Stefans

A Quick Graph: On Martin Johnston
Paragraphs from an Unwritten Letter to John Tranter

This piece is 6,000 words or about fifteen pages long.


It's difficult for me to write about Martin Johnston's work with any sort of confidence as it's clear, on reading the Martin Johnston - Selected Poems & Prose and his only novel, Cicada Gambit, in conjunction with The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry* and some encounters with random poets (John Kinsella, Les Murray), that Australian literature operates on some different vectors than what one is accustomed to in the US. Maybe it's not "clear" so much as something I am conscious of, or choose to be conscious of; it's more of a thin strand of a difference, but which, when examined, could unfold into an entire "antipodean" opposing vector. My sense is that most readers will decide not to acknowledge this point, but I am not in any position, presently, to argue it.

* [The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, 1991, edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead, published in the UK and the US as The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry.]


Perhaps this sense of difference is due to my own narrow understanding of the impact of modernism in Australia, the idea being, basically, that anything mildly suggesting the most extreme strands of modernism - whether it be Eliot or Pound's fragmentary imagist poetics, William's counter intuitive line, Surrealism, Dadaism, Constructivism, post-structural Marxism or any sort of utopian/aesthetic confluence, etc. - was stopped in its tracks by the Ern Malley incident, and that Australian poetry has never fully recovered.

[You can read some poems by the hoax poet Ern Malley in Jacket 17, and an informative and thorough analysis of the Ern Malley affair by poet and critic David Lehman also in Jacket 17. ]
Again, it's not what I choose to believe, since I don't think any country's literature need be judged according to its response to modernism, or its development placed over the chronology of aesthetic "progress" as visible in European and American terms. Korea, to take an example close to me, couldn't have had much of a response to modernism since they were an annexed Japanese property at the time, and in the fifties was being reduced to ashes. It almost goes without saying that non-Christian countries have followed their own course, whatever that may be, and with a look at Johnston, we are reminded that Greece had a peculiar relationship to the mainland (the orphic Angelos Sikelianos, for instance, was not waxing nostalgic for a foreign religion).

Modernism is usually understood as a universal event, but it might be better understood as a local, Western one, at least in the early decades of the last century; as a result, most of the ways we talk about culture today are based on certain key events which had no resonance elsewhere in the world, though we choose to use this language for all occasions. The present discourse on globalization appears, then, to be more general and useful across national boundaries than that of modernism in the arts, which relies on chronologies (so, for instance, if Duchamp's urinal appeared in Japan in 1965 we would say it's derivative, but if Japan invented a new way to sell the same old stocks, and to subvert communities and manhandle small enterprise, they are full-fledged, innovative participants).

Anyway, the Malley poems and Angry Penguins' editor Max Harris's embarrassment and prosecution upon publishing them probably has many other strands that can be explored outside of its relationship to modernism, such as the reactionary response to overt, unclouded or even adolescent sexuality in poetry. That is, Harris's arrest for publishing the poems was not because they were avant-garde but because they were deemed pornographic, and therefore unassimilable into cultural discourse.

Perhaps, had modernism been fashionable in the general cultural vision of the populace, "Ern Malley" may have been at least some sort of cultural hero in the minds of the aesthetic elite, the Apollinaires, the Cocteaus, or the Steins (all of whom wrote some sort of sexually descriptive literature) at the time; the scandal would have produced meaning, or a counter-event to the norm, rather than embarrassment. Indeed, this never happened, but "he" was exposed as a hoax before such a thing could occur, this exposure producing, perhaps, just a touch of boredom as well. I wonder if poems like "Boult to Marina" and the other, more subtle poems with their landscapes littered with unwittingly Freudian imagery (minor versions of O'Hara's "Easter," in some ways) had been of the more overt or "graphic" sexual poems published in Australia, and if Harris's humiliation - as opposed to the heroism of Joyce, Miller, Genet and Ginsberg upon beating their censorship raps - has dissuaded poets from ever being so frank, suggestive, or humorous about the matter since.

It seems that, by closing off this channel of expression, when iconic symbolic imagery becomes reduced to the purportedly mundane realm of human sexuality, one also closes off a channel to the more radical strands of the avant-garde, at least if one considers Sontag's reading of de Sade as accessing the religious visionary's need for excess and otherworldliness. It's why Puritanism and the avant-garde are such a troubled combination.

So Malley was in bad taste. In thinking about Johnston and his contemporaries in Modern Australian Poetry, I am most struck by the apparent valorization of "good taste" and refined style in the poems, especially those I enjoy. That is, though these poets, according the (your) introduction, were understood as the contrary to the mainstream in the sixties, perhaps even a disruptive force - they were the bohemian "underground," the equivalent to the New American poets - one notices a highly-developed sense of decorum and style, and even formality, in their writing. Whereas Ginsberg, Baraka, Corso, Olson, etc. - in the tradition of the Surrealists, Celine, Genet and countless other hellraisers - never seemed to be much concerned with "taste" and indeed rebelled against social acceptance of their poetics (and in some instances, their lives), poets such as yourself, John Forbes, Johnston to a degree, John A. Scott (thought I don't know where he is considered to stand in the scheme of things - bohemian or mainstream?), seem, while engaging in formally explorative poetics, to aspire to a refined sensibility, something above and beyond the "uncooked" that is often considered the most salient quality of American poetry since Whitman.


(I'll leave Michael Dransfield out of this for the moment, as he seems to be a peculiar case, one of the "uncooked" poets, perhaps in the manner of Berrigan's Dada hippie humor, yet, at the same time, not entirely successful; he is like your Bob Kaufman.)

Creeley, O'Hara, Ashbery, Guest and, to a lesser degree, Duncan and Schuyler complicate this schema here, as there were limits to their counter-culturalism, how "outside" they were willing to be. Creeley, for instance, takes Herrick as one of his early poetic models, and indeed rarely exceeds the bounds of taste that Herrick recognizes, doing this, perhaps, both to reign in and liberate the erotic tendencies in his poetry. O'Hara and Ashbery had strong senses of taste and yet, it seemed, rebelled against it subtly, upping the ante by including surrealist, sometimes juvenile or campy imagery in their poetry, along with odd meters, broken syntax, etc., though on occasion you have to hunt for it for these breaks with decorum (they conceal meanings quite well). This subtle practice created what we now know as the "New York School" flavor, the equivalent (in my weird, historical imagination) of court poetry for New York's art and cultural world. In this way, it's not surprising to me to find that O'Hara and Ashbery have been so influential among a certain circle of poets in Australia, as they are the late modernists who most effectively combined the discoveries of modernism with an ability to address, rather than disturb or subvert, a vital, interested milieu, or perhaps even to create one.

(What is interesting is how a poet not often spoken of in "avant-garde" circles these days, W. H. Auden, seems to be equally important, at least to Johnston, especially in his ability to address a larger cultural audience with a social contract which he complicates but never betrays, but while aware of the various strands of modernism that he either assimilates or rejects. Auden, like Pound, seems to have two distinct legacies, one among what we consider now the "mainstream" of its time - Jarrell, Lowell, Berryman - which is very apparent, and one more clouded, with the "underground" - The New York School poets, specifically, who were able to read the subtle, subversive quality of his work best).

Martin Johnston's poems that appear in the Penguin anthology, like "The Sea Cucumber" and "In Memoriam", which I assume to be among his most popular, are also, it appears, among his least difficult, and seem to honor most this contract with the reader. They each have coherent themes, and start with the grand tone preparing the reader for deep, well-earned meanings, which openings to poems that are self-consciously trivial, ridiculous or banal don't promise. Johnston, like Ashbery, seems to have found a way to create poems that are both meditative yet opaque, daringly experimental yet approachable, though most readers don't consider Ashbery very experimental at all. The experiment, though, is there in that the window of Ashbery's poems leads to considerations - death, eroticism, the anti-social (reading Bataille these days), the transcendent, political "opposition" even (with his attention to marginal, unreedemable poets like John Clare, or the absence of heterosexual rites such as marriage in his work), etc. - which no poet as visible as Ashbery today offers. Johnston - who says in an interview that someone should always provide the "opposition", even if not a partisan one - does many of these things also, but in a different cultural context.

Johnston's sonnet, "Gorey at the Biennalle," seems to me one of the better poems in this "courtly" but counter-cultural vein. My tendency, however, is to prefer his more difficult poems among the early writing, such as "Microclimatology," over poems like "The Sea Cucumber" (and not just because of their respective titles). By the time Johnston composes the sonnet square, "In Transit"*, he is pretty much within both worlds - that of dense linguistic play and that addressing a sort of "public" which he knows but doesn't really know - perhaps because the sequence itself describes, in a formally exquisite, idiosyncratic style, his adventures as a nomad in Australia and Greece, thus putting himself somewhere within the area of one of the most interesting moments in modernism, when formal restraint was just breaking under the burden of a new content in the 19th century.

* [You can read the poem sequence Microclimatology in this issue of Jacket, and the sonnet sequence "In Transit" in Jacket # 1.]
Rimbaud's sonnets and poems in alexandrines typify this for me; they were the writings of a young poet in the outskirts addressed to Paris, the center, much like Johnston could be said to address the rest of the world from Sydney (or Sydney from Greece). That Johnston found his own moment in time, his private singularity or sense of himself as unassimilable detail, is what makes him distinctive among Australian poets, regardless of how this moment is set off against the more celebrated events and myths of modernism. Consequently, it's this anxious, self-conscious marriage to modernism that produced his break with the main narrative, a narrative under which, according to the Malley legacy, Australia is said to suffer.


Anyway, so this is supposed to be about Johnston himself, and maybe me (which is why it was to be a letter). Briefly, as I told you before, I found a selected poems of Johnston (which, alas, you also edited) in the Strand bookstore several years ago, and basically looked at the pictures and read a few lines before deciding not to buy it. But I had a sense that he was probably someone I should know, not only because of how unusual he looked in the pictures - tall, lanky, large glasses, with incredibly long hair for the eighties, one of which depicted him, with a wicked grin on his face and his back arcing into an upside-down U, playing a gravestone carved in the shape of a grand piano - but because he seemed a bit unacceptable to society, a bit of a vagabond.


Martin Johnston, Highgate Cemetery, London

Martin Johnston, Highgate Cemetery, London


It reminded me of when I first saw those little busts of Emile Nelligan, "Canada's Rimbaud," in a Quebec bookstore and realized that this guy was probably one of the key figures, the key perversions, in a literature I (and most people) didn't know, and hence that his work could provide some answers. I may have returned to the Strand to find the Johnston book again; someone had bought it so I missed my chance, meaning there are now two readers of Johnston in New York City. The Strand incident, of course, was several years before Jacket hit the stands. I did, consequently, find a copy of the Selected Poems in the NYU library, but because I am an honest bloke I returned it on time. But I remembered, from that quick read, that Johnston had written a long poem, "The Blood Aquarium," in a dense, somewhat surreal but very "earthy" style, and then rejected the style altogether to write his more conventional, though often dense, sonnets and other long poems.

So I wondered if Johnston, like Ashbery with The Tennis Court Oath, was a poet who made a deep investigation into an extreme mode that was, or could have been, generative of other "radical" or extreme (specifically non-referential, or antisocial) poetics, though he gave it up for something more approachable. I'm fascinated by poets who explore styles only to give them up, despite the fact that the exploration itself was unique in literature and the writer probably knew it. These are often the moments when one finds detail to be superior to the general, though the turn, eventually, often falls back to the general. It seems that some writers aspire to fruitful breaks with the contract, and can find solace in having reached it (or a pained solace, as in the case of Williams), whereas others only see these achievements, even if beautifully executed, as exercises in deviance. So I wondered if Johnston had some answers in that poem, which he never disowned the way Ashbery appears to have The Tennis Court Oath.

But more importantly, I wonder if the break itself had any philosophical or metaphysical content, or if it possessed a special tension through this idea that the non-referential, or the opaque, is also the practice of deviance, which is a sort of energy that is often lacking in some of our later postmodern practices (it's why the "community" is a mixed blessing in America). It appears that Ashbery used the non-referential to access content that he has since abandoned; he never explores "evil" quite the same way he did in that book, for example, though of course he wrote it in France where this sort of discourse is a cottage industry. In any case, I relate this story because this is how an important, complex poet makes it to the United States, in the form of a faint posthumous signal, even when they write in English, and even when the interest in poetry is at a peak (the interest, it appears, has mostly been in American poetry, the emphasis being "American"). There are several hundred books that Johnston's Selected Poems could replace over here, though perhaps it is a boon to me that I first witnessed him as a "detail" and not part of the ubiquitous canon (aboveground and under).


Reading the Selected Poems closer, it doesn't appear that he gave up any style entirely, or didn't carry many elements from his earlier styles to his later work. After "Shadowmass," which I only know by four somewhat spare, even undeveloped poems (one of them, "Spinoza," very Eliotic, not entirely unlike James McAuley's quatrain poems), Johnston discovers what could alternately be called a "dirty" and "baroque" style of writing, which can be called simply "dirty baroque" - a sort of abundance without the class stigma. That is, his poems become dense, like the jewels that des Esseintes has installed on the back of a turtle in A Rebours, but his jewels are not luminous and decadent (the signs of a fading aristocracy), but are rather often dark, mundane, tinged with the colloquial, and are touched with a metaphysical content, or symbolic value, that is never entirely clear. Huysmans would not permit so much imagery from "nature" to enter the sensibility of his heroes, which thrived on total artifice. Johnston, however, uses his landscapes well, perhaps with a touch of Australia's "natural surrealism" that is often attributed to John Kinsella's work, though never with that poet's heavy leaning toward the (Frostian) anectodotal.

All of this is held together by a cadence that has a nearly "epic" quality; his more successful longer poems seem to roll on like an early section of The Cantos, never falling into the standard mid-twentieth century "free verse" style. Being no scholar of metrics, I won't attempt to elaborate, but reading the longer poems I hear Pound more than anyone else. The following, opening stanza from "Blood Aquarium," which seems to introduce some sort of Nietszchean hero-figure - one that is reduced, quite simply, to an eye later on, as he doesn't quite appear and yet the poem seems to reside somewhere in this peculiar consciousness (Stevens' "The Comedian as the Letter C" is a another poem like this) - suggests some of this metrical quality ("mist banners over churned soil"), though it is best seen in his later poems, and when quoted in full:

Pan Apolek's scarf whirls the horizon inward,
he brittle and void inside its tightning belt.
The wet sky's writing flings scurf among the branches,
mist banners over churned soil.
The blind man's fingers
caress an accordion like a skull.
Palette and paint flow into the mountain,
the mountain flows through the painter.
Toppling from high cliffs, he falls
into himself, and is eaten:
a starting point.
"Blood Aquarium" dips into and out of obscurity, like an underwater camera making deep, sudden dives into subterranean grottoes; some sections are impenetrable, but startlingly mundane imagery breaks through the highbrow, uncomfortable aesthetics to render both worlds more resplendent. The sort of catharsis offered by the final line of this excerpt - the groundedness of a "starting point" - is not a regular feature of this poem; in fact, it's general subject might be considered the lack of a "ground" to a metaphysics that Johnston aspires to, and it is honest enough never to note this fact. So the reader is not granted even modest access to the underlying narrative of the piece, though it is probably there, as some sort of stability against the "chaos" (this faintly antique binary of chaos and stability is clearly drawn in some of Johnston's writing).

Another poem from this volume, the sonnet "The Scattering Layer," develops his imagist style more elegantly, perhaps with the help of that other great 20th century sonneteer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and not cursory glance at Pound's second Canto, the one describing the metamorphosis of a team of panthers and other fun stuff out of thin air ("Rib stuck fast in the ways, / grape-cluster over pin-rack, / void air taking pelt"):

Rain walks all night across the greenhouse roof
on awkward spike-footed stalks, and in the yard, where weeds
and furtive clothespegs interweave, it smears
bluegreen on appleblue leafmould frottage, snaps open
galls where grubs gleam and wrinkle, silverfoil
uncurling waterfalls among the twigs, and cats stare up at the stickman.
The stock-car races slide across the compass,
lurch with a crunch and glass breaking up against the end of the street,
burglars are picked out in light on the doorsteps, even primroses
glow, and the wingcases of dazed beetles. There are chalk diagrams but what goes on
up beyond the Van Allen belt, the scattering layer,
we're not sure: pick up the glittering striations, unreadable patterns of dots
in the strepident blueblack undersea rivers, krill or seedspill
raining on us, down here where we swirl in our own light.
I am not sure that this poem means much more than what the language performs, which is to say that one is conscious of a variety of choices in terms of effects, and how these choices are linked to the necessities of the meter. Up until the fourth line, the poet seems in control of everything, but some sort of necessity calls forth a string of compound adjectives (which speeds up the rhythm); by the sixth line, the meter forces the sentence to extend itself beyond its normal bounds, so the dependent clause becomes, wildly and beautifully, extended to a sentence in its own right. It's this play of choice against necessity - again, this duel sounds almost ancient, not very postmodern - that is what Johnston does well here (and which Hopkins, with a different set of reference points, did well in his sonnets), even if the closing of this poem has a certain resolution that is a bit comfortable, or at least not as interesting as this linguistic and epistemological drama. As he notes in his introduction to Ithaka [his translations of some modern Greek poems], "The Greek language lends itself very easily to flamboyance and the large gesture," and he has found himself, while translating, having to "tighten up" and "tone them down accordingly" to make bring them in accordance with "Anglo-Saxon sensibilities." (I wonder what, deep down, he really thought of O' Hara!) This poem seems to be concerned, structurally (and by extension content-wise), with this need to both constrict and expand, or with describing this inner motion accurately.

So one could speculate that, whereas Pound used Greek poetry and metrics to escape both Whitmanic rhetoric overload by reigning in his style, and the "tightness" of his translations of Provençal and his imitations Yeats's lyric style, Johnston used the Greek to get past his Eliotic/ New Critical preoccupations with form, but also to get beyond the looseness of New American poetry which, he wryly notes in an interview, he's "supposed to have read a lot of." This is only speculative, of course; I don't particularly care of these formulations, but they are good as head games. Johnston, like Pound, had knowledge of many literatures, had strong attachments to both novelists and poets (Pound to James, for example; Johnston to Borges) and could have taken anything from anywhere, even the newspaper. Unlike Pound, of course, Johnston was raised in Greece, read mostly modern Greek poetry, and was passionate about many contemporary political issues in that country; any sort of radical politics he had, from what I can tell, seemed related to Greece, and not to Australia.

One poem that also strikes me as Poundian, though in the mode of his London epigrams such as "Meditatio," "Tame Cat," and "In A Station of the Metro," is the long linked sequence "Microclimatology," which I don't think would have been successful had he simply sacrificed metrical refinement to the need to tell a joke - surreal or satirical or bawdy - with a colloquial ease. It's where Dransfield, to bring him back in, fails for me, but also where the New York style, several generations down the road, gets tedious. The following is the opening section of "Mircroclimatology", titled "The Unreality of Roosters"; it has a sort "earthy" quality that Johnson, bookish as he was, accessed easily:
I have come reluctantly to the conclusion
that sexual dimorphism is, in chickens, a fake.
Actually, by turns fluffy scrawny and stout,
they contrive continually - in posse
or in fact -
until, the menopause supervening
and all their creative powers quite dried up,
kindly Nature allows them
(by way of pension)
to look finally like Governors-General.
[You can read the poem sequence Microclimatology in this issue of Jacket.]
He takes the long way to tell a joke here, merging humorous irreverence with an occasionally forbidding lexical eloquence and syntactic complexity, finding formal "looseness" and yet measured cadence in one fell swoop, while consequently digging at some weird subject matter. It's the sort of thing Ern Malley did particularly well, as he merged found sentences from manuals on trench-digging with Shakespearean meters and diction, his narcissistic belief that his life had greater significance to the universe - for which expression he was helplessly purple and mellifluent - with these sudden bathetic let-downs at the greater truth inherent in the mundane traffic of the world and his inability to reach it, hence his use of more prosaic meters and jarringly unfitting language. This doesn't make Johnston the inheritor of the Malley "tradition," and yet one wonders if Johnston's standing between so many things - between Greece and Australia, between European modernism and the somewhat undeveloped (or antipodean) literature of his country, between his parents (both of whom were famous, but self-destructive, writers) and himself. In a sense, he doesn't seem to have "found himself," which is a good thing, which is why, like Nerval, he seems to have been on his feet all the time. He was more like a surrealist exploring the deep, hidden passages of the world (like Aragon's peasant) than the global citizen in the manner of Coleridge, though he was, it appears, a bit of that, too. And in a sense, he was between the traffic of living and of the dead (or the discontinuous and continuous, in Bataille's language from Erotism), which sounds like poetic nonsense but makes sense when you consider that most of his close relatives -- both parents, sister, half-sister - died during his lifetime, either through overuse of drugs or alcohol, or, in the case of his mother, through suicide.


Johnston's only novel, Cicada Gambit, seems to me mostly successful, but also overshadowed by several American and European authors. For instance, if one were to compare it to the paranoic, Rabelaisian comedies of Thomas Pynchon, such as Gravity's Rainbow, one would find it somewhat wanting as it never reaches the peaks of anxiety, strange humor and encyclopedic abundance that characterizes that work, nor is it very interesting as a satire (though I could be missing this element, not knowing the object). If one compared it to Nabokov's writing - the use of chess as the overarching metaphor warrants it - one doesn't see the icy ironies, the completely confident tone, or the dives into considerations of good and evil, exhibited by Nabokov in his strange need to redeem (or stranger, not to redeem) his undeniably salty characters. Lolita is a great novel for saying things that are not in the language, or for having objects appear in the novel through several layers of warped perceptions; most of what happens in the novel happens behind the language, and its second half, the part where it is a "love" story, occurs when the beloved is entirely absent, though she feels more fully present there.

Johnston's stories aren't as tight, philosophically resonant, interwoven and fabulous as, say, those of Borges, a writer whom he admired greatly, and his frank confession, at certain points in Gambit, that he is trying to write an "antipodean Ulysses" raises the issue of whether Johnston's Sydney ever comes as alive as Joyce's Dublin, or whether the voices are buried too deep in the language to ever expose itself to readers outside of Australia who may never go there. He doesn't appear to have loved his "people" as much as Joyce did his, which makes sense given his upbringing in England and Greece. There are echoes of other "great works" in the novel; for instance, I am reminded of Rameau's Nephew and Diderot's creation of a new modern type, the flaneur deadbeat on the outer cusp of bourgeois morality (consequently, first discovered playing chess in a park); given that Rameau's nephew was a relation to a great public figure, the composer Rameau, it's not surprising to see hints of this in Johnston's novel, being a pressured, disaffected offspring of two literary celebrities himself.

Beckett's minimal novels, with their questions of agency and existence, come to mind in the first chapter of Gambit, though once the chess metaphor comes in full play one is slightly disappointed, as it's not weird enough; Djuna Barnes' overwrought, satiric style in Nightwood, or even Wyndham Lewis's empty, paranoic, faux-Dantescan landscapes in the first section of The Childermass (which I also hear in the first section of "Blood Aquarium") also come through.

Nonetheless, Cicada Gambit's not a "derivative" work; the problem is probably that Johnston only ever finished one novel, was not sure who would ever want to read such a strange thing, was attempting to siphon in an incredible knowledge European culture into one book (a culture which he appears to have taken very "literally," as opposed to "paranoically"), and probably didn't have too many native models on which to build. Like his poetry, his writing can acquire a dense textuality, and one wonders whether it was Johnston's "metaphysics" - his ideas on fate, the interconnectivity of things, versus the chaos that is perceived as the "modern world," which were somewhat anachronistic that kept him at a very cool distance from what "postmodernism" often concerned itself with. He doesn't seem to engage in questions of the simulacra which everyone from Burroughs to Pynchon take as a given category of some nature, perhaps because his politics were more stridently romantic than disaffected and aloof. Which is to say, perhaps his idiom and framework in the novel never became truly liberated and unique because he couldn't assimilate into the main currents of late-modernism; ironically, it is this failure to assimilate that makes his novel, in turn, unique, singular, as it is somewhat not of its time, was unexpected, but was written anyway.

The chapter titled "The Tournament Hall" is a tour de force stylistically - one thinks of Pisarro's anarchic impressionist cityscapes painted from rooftops, Hugo's chapter-long descriptions of Paris quarters, and Goethe's "Walpurgis Nacht" section of Faust (Gambit being, itself, a Mephistophelean mediation on knowledge, it seems), yet it's interesting that the chapter is included as a "short story" by a journalist, not able to fit into the flux of life that, one supposes, is what the novel is best suited to explore. (Maybe he was taking issue with the use of Bergsonian theories in describing or writing fiction at the time; perhaps there was a devious trend in Australia I don't know about.) If there is a quality of 18th-century prose stylistics in the following, a description of a carnival in Sydney, perhaps it has to do with what might be called (or what I will call, provisionally) a recreation of the introduction of orientalism into a once circumscribed Western culture, as if he were in the midst of an opium dream espying the Malay in his window, and attempting to recreate with arabesques of grammar and vocabulary the feel of eastern ornament.

In any case, what is interesting is how he chooses to name each of the vectors approaching his sight rather than to recreate the feel, impressionistically, of a carnival with other sorts of detail, for it is in this very naming of different systems of meaning - novels, historical figures, fairytales, the myth surrounding a writer like Walpole, etc. - that expresses the chaos underlying what is, throughout the novel, the overdetermining hand of fate (which could be called "Joyce") that leads his characters on:


Elsewhere too there were imaginative revellers. As evening fell and the uniform grey-streaked pale orange of the afternoon sunlight darkened to sepia and purple and black-green, to be superseded in turn by the broad yellow slashes of the streetlamps and the red-white-and-blue fandango of the advertising neons and the faded silver of the moon, figures moved in and out of the growing new sharper shadows and took upon themselves the lineaments of all manner of myths and stories and improbabilities: Don Quixote accompanied not by fat Sancho but by lowering Grendel, marrowbones crunching in the creature's jaws, the worm Ouroboros rolling down George Street with Snow White, Gilles de Rais, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Venus de Milo with shining aluminium prosthetic arms and black dinner gloves lovingly embraced in the surging curd-and-whey of its coils, Kaa and Bagheera stalking shadows on the lookout terrace of Australia Square, Faust swirling his cape, doffing his feathered cap and bowing in courteous greeting of Dr Faustus in his old stained scholar's gown, the double shadow behind their shadows whispering quietly back and forth across the walls, where Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay moped and muttered, unaware of the sweeping darkness, Rasputin shouting a tot of rum apiece for Long John Silver and Captain Hook in the Ship Inn while Dr Watson anxiously cranked up the brass-inlayed telephone he'd extracted from the pocket of his plus-fours, in a corner of the bar where Nell Gwynne and Phryne giggled and clapped their hands in glee at seeing their very first manticore, which was sitting on and around a bar stool happily destroying a myrmicoleon by neatly and scholastically proving to it that it was manifestly impossible. The Dormouse, from the recesses of a pale blue Sung teapot, was desperately trying to convince the Farmer's Wife, who wielded a bloodstained iron cleaver, that it was only one mouse, that it could see perfectly well, thank you, and that dormice were different anyway, as witness their fondness for teapots, conundrums and sleep, as opposed to clocks; there was, however, no sign of either the March Hare or the Mad Hatter (nor, indeed, of Alice); the Hare, in fact, was singing bawdy ballads down on the waterfront while the Hatter was haggling with Horace Walpole over the price and measurements for a giant helmet. Sawney Bean and his countless progeny had taken over a chain hamburger place and were vociferously complaining to Sweeney Todd the demon barber about both quality and quantity, supporting their arguments with press clippings featuring tasting panels from the Sunday papers, while a pterodactyl with a twenty-foot wingspread, shimmering with viridian St Elmo's fire, was dive-bombing the sparse trees in Wynyard Park as the Japanese tourists looked out in polite puzzlement from the windows of the Menzies Hotel, unaware of Caliban and St George and the Dragon creeping up behind them with delicate cups of weak green tea. (77-79)


Reference is certainly working here at a high speed, but not in the "cult of speed" manner of a Futurist (or, say, Bruce Andrews), but remaining well within the system of the contract mentioned earlier, in which the reader is guaranteed some sort of resolution to questions of reference eventually. A good encyclopedia could answer most of these questions. The style is closest, to me, to that of Thomas Carlyle, the difference being that Carlyle often had a singular, moralistic point behind his whirlwind of examples, whereas Johnston's attempt here is to create an aesthetic effect, though the effect is one of "chaos" and hence exists, one feels, in a moral realm. I think this prose is not so interesting as his poetry, however, as the element of choice and denial - the various breaks in the stream of language that force the poet to use different adjectives, different strategies and techniques - is less apparent, and hence the sense of singularity, of detail, is not to be reached until one has finished the novel, taken it in as one final structure. So what we are left with, for the moment, is a very impressive display of language and knowledge, a juxtaposition against the stylistically very different first part of the book. But I don't know the novel well enough to make such a bold statements about how good it is, however; as with Finnegans Wake (a novel Johnston actively dismissed), there could be various connections beneath the surface which are beyond me. This chapter could, also, be an extended satire on the style of journalists, or a particular journalist he didn't like, but it seems heavy, and too impressive, for that.

There are moments when Johnston, in Gambit, does become aware of his audience, and becomes tentative about what he is allowed to do. After discoursing on Piranesi, for instance (he is very good at including mini-essays on interesting cultural phenomenon), he writes: "No Minotaurs after all, not yet. Is, though, 'agenbite of ynwit' a permissable literary reference here? Probably not..." While it's unclear whether he is asking whether the reference is accurate - I couldn't say, my knowledge of Old English or whatever it is rusty - or whether he is threatening to alienate the reader by dropping this phrase - Pound, of course, wouldn't mind - is unclear. But for the most part he is happy to write "above" his reader, and to entertain them with this display; he is never condescending, but is rather stuck with his incredible interests in, and memory of, many things. No easy last words can be said about this novel, which I'd like to read again, though it didn't engage me in the manner of other difficult modernist works, perhaps because Johnston kept himself, it appears, very much outside of it, so that confessional aspect that makes works like those of Genet, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, even Stein to a degree, and others so imperative is not present. I'd be interested to know if it ended up spawning imitators, or spurred on any equally ambitious projects in Australia, since it does strike me as a major novel having touched down, like a spaceship (Johnston had an affection for science fiction), into Australian letters, bringing with it the whole flux and pageantry of the modernist project, though a bit "late." But better late than never, better an intricate, cumulative, consuming failure than an unqualified success. And if, indeed, Cicada Gambit is an "antipodean Ulysses," that should be very interesting to us and is worth knowing about, "ecliptic" mirrors being more interesting than the accurate ones.


Brian Kim Stefans lives in New York. His latest book, Angry Penguins, is just out from Harry Tankoos Books, and can be ordered through Small Press Distribution. His poems in the persona of Roger Pellett can be read in Jacket # 4, his graphical work can be viewd at, and his literary magazine (will soon be available at)


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