from the editor's desk

A Review of Dan Disney’s ‘either, Orpheus’

Dan Disney, either, Orpheus. UWA Publishing, 2016. RRP $22.99, 90pp, ISBN 9781742588193.

Alex Griffin

Note: As either, Orpheus is entirely unpaginated, all references from the text will be referred to by the poem’s title.

The time is out of joint, and Dan Disney knows it. Throughout either, Orpheus, his second volume of poetry, he’s concerned with finding ways of articulating the chaos of the ‘anthroposcene’ we’re adrift in, worrying at the experiential margins of postmodern and postindustrial decay. Ringing with a similar kind of investigative truth to Jena Osman’s fascinating The Network, his ‘way in’ comes through deft manipulations of poetic source material, packed into ‘villaknelles’ that pinball through and pillage from everyone from the titular Kierkegaard and Rilke to internet theorist Sherry Turkle, tweezering out whatever can be found between. All told, it’s a distinct, challenging and immensely rewarding collection, underpinned by a sound and humanist theoretical core.

Structured with a prologue, epilogue and a lengthier ‘interlude’ halfway, the villaknelles between play with the canon in an unexpected way. Some arrive as meetings of two or more other writers, but most spring from stray quotes excavated from Paris Review interviews, that distinct metacanon of good taste. Everyone from Milosz, Larkin, Carson and Jorie Graham to Borges and Eliot are resurrected from their discussions, and stressed and stretched like taffy in the doing. In another’s hands this tactic might ring trite, but by using these extrapoetical utterances which have become definitive statements on behalf of poetry, Disney gestures towards the perversity of the modern idea of ‘making it new’ as the engine of our downfall. Drawing on these casual asides drawn from those conversations subvert the willfulness of the impulses behind invention, by scraping out the confident pronouncements of the old to diagnose the maladies of the present:

while mystics make busy, licking their haloes
clean of desire, old genres perform

(‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ [William Wordsworth] vs. ‘Cultural Pedigree [Pierre Bourdieu]’)

Turning to form, after Levertov, Disney holds that ‘form is never more than a revelation of content’. Despite being a ‘rustic song’ first and foremost, the villanelle has always had the air of obsession, repeating key concerns from different angles like one picking at a scab; it’s less discursive than it is self-excoriating, circling around the pith, vulture-like. Disney double-frames this concept with the sense of the ‘knell’, after the eulogistic peal of the bell.

As around a third of each villanelle exists in modified repetition, the lens turns onto how Disney opens up his borrowings, and it’s there his gifts come to light. They become parameters in which to play, and the fecundity of Disney’s ear and the spark of his imagination is such that these voices jangle together so mellifluously that he arrives at a peculiar and thrilling everynow that betray the voraciousness of his reading. In one written after Seamus Heaney’s interview, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s mauvaise foi rub up against computational jargon, where the ‘code’ of Heaney’s smoky men’s club pub that brooks no supplicants meshes into the dense ‘code’ underpinning international finance.

for the unifying moulds of the mauvaise foi frats
are bleepers in the heart of daydreaming, where
traders comb air and initiate a yessing few into their code: if no
get to your feet and try, try (keep

(‘Seamus Heaney’)

This recycling seeing-singing through the villaknelle rings as a strategy of resistance to totalising discourses – all of them. It’s hard not to look at how he capitalises in bold words like DOGMA and PURE the way Pound did USURA, and feel as if Disney is getting something up in the crosshairs. When he comes closest to the exposed bone of late capitalism, as when Thomas Piketty and Pierre Bourdieu are lassoed together, either, Orpheus jolts with that raw thrill of isolating a glimpse of the shifting true, in phrases that melt serfdom and surfeit together.

what are the limits of capital, are there any?’
ask gentlemen transporting veneers of culture in large sheets on prime movers
stockholders pointing tasers at non-yielding personae

(‘Cultural Pedigree’ [Pierre Bourdieu] vs. ‘Income and Output’ [Thomas Piketty])

Wordplay is serious stuff for Disney, reading play as collision, through the splay of marbles twanging together. His verbal playground is diffuse and diverse, full of the joys of shifting register blasé and free (“fancy old-fashioned boom boom, cloak and dagger”, “Junior execs… snort for next ideas”) amongst the sly grin of “boardrooms of our inertia”. It’s a world shaded with BMWs, ‘non-residents’, “camera’s recording love’s anatomy”, and ‘McTables’; in short, wherever there is ‘cybernetic ritual’, these poems report of, to and from. Though brimming with a darker kind of clarity, his language for our cyborg existence is Brautigan-like in its warmth and deftness, of absorbing digital and river streams as part of the same world, even if they’re not on speaking terms with one another.

When he calls on Borges, he sites a seemingly harmless phrase about authorial intent within the frame of ecological and mental collapse:

there’s little else to say
about the fragmented men there who’ll roam a maze of streets
dictating self-obliteration, a sideshow even trees have stopped watching
‘there are intentions here, in fact we determine everything’
they’ve assured one another, sombre as bookburning

(‘Jose Luis Borges’)

One, of course, never thinks of all the trees involved in the library of Babel. His intimacy with the poets he investigates is clear, as when he goes after the curmudgeonly reserve of Phillip Larkin in evoking a figure beyond intervening in their own life, let alone anything else:

The do’s and the do not’s
may not have suited all, but they suited me
so I stuck at the near-adventure indefinitely
well-preserved but kept remote

(‘Phillip Larkin’)

This knowing play extends to his managing and mangling of the form. Like Bishop’s ‘One Art’, the A/B lines of the villaknelle are free game for distortions and teasing-outs of nuance, embracing the limitless possibilities of enjambment as a form of making new meanings at the margins, with key repeating phrases shifting in subtle degrees throughout. For example, when writing after Marianne Moore, the loadbearing phrases ‘listening in dull gravity’ and ‘jerking attentively’ are suddenly and shockingly married together at a poem’s close. Disney’s visual play, influenced by John Cage’s indeterminacy also works to further the anxiety of the form; T.S Eliot is turned upside down, a poem after Nausea requires spinning the book around in a circle to follow a flowchart, A.R. Ammons is stuck in a walled-in maze.

This is not a poetry of introspection, but a calcification of current moments across spaces, read through the long jumble of voices that have taken us to this point. In an afterword which opaquely presents the theoretical exegesis behind the text, Disney pictures this affect as ‘swarm-like’, rhizomes in motion, or the melting of air reversed into a solid form. Like swarms, you see more detail the closer it approaches, and Disney chases, after Rilke, ‘What was Real in that All?’ He is no didact. A prelude which describes a sudden coming of a thrilling but unnamed phenomena and its just as sudden unnoticed passing seems innocuous to begin with, but the imagery of the poems thereafter make the connection clear; that the end of the anthroposcene is neither a bang nor a whimper, but the accumulation of a long series of unexamined events and choices.

without history’s strange instrument, our sound is loanwords
divesting ground (ruined now) of its bone language

(‘George Seferis’)

What Disney asks us to do is listen for these ‘unsilent, responsive non-noise[s]’ divulged in his image-making. Crucially, the poetic section of the text ends from a distorted reflection of that most abstruse, swarming and sprawled poet, John Berryman:

finally, (I think) swarming, we are nowhere at all
— as the words die out from black, to grey, to white.

Another touchstone used here, Forrest Gander, remarked that the poem is “a curiously renewable form of energy”, and either, Orpheus feels like a resource in the best way. Like Wordsworth, who gets a few guernseys here, Disney is a poet of purpose, who writes to be understood by his public, while aware of the novelty and difficulty of his approach. In Prologue to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote that:

“From what has been said, and from a perusal of the Poems, the Reader will be able clearly to perceive the object which I had in view: he will determine how far it has been attained; and, what is a much more important question, whether it be worth attaining: and upon the decision of these two questions will rest my claim to the approbation of the Public.”

On both those questions, Disney has discharged his responsibility. This is a true arrival of an important Australian poet with a rare, true ear for the global.


Works Cited:

Eliot, Charles (editor). The Harvard Classics: Prefaces and Prologues, Vol. 39. New York: Collier, 1909. Print.

Alex Griffin is a writer, critic and researcher from Kenwick. A past co-editor of Pelican and a WAM-nominated songwriter, his work has appeared in publications including VoiceworksOverland and The West AustralianPresently, he is studying at the University of Melbourne.

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  1. Jamie Dawe says:

    I guess I am merely a novice with regards to grammar but I am curious as to how the word ‘villaknelle’was allowed to be published in an established literary journal and moreso why it why wasn’t it picked up in the first place?
    Is this a portmanteau by any chance?

  2. Kate says:

    Hi Jamie,

    Yes, this is a deliberate portmanteau used in the collection, as the opening of the review explains. I personally read it as suggestive of the manner in which the source material is repurposed, like the repetitive knell of a bell. The phrase has been carried over into the review to respond to the use in the text.

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