The Poetry of Michael Harlow
Originally published in Landfall 157 (March 1986): 31-44
To review a book of Michael Harlow’s is to place myself in a rather antagonistic lineage. His poetry has been subjected to the same treatment Mrs Frisbee receives from her doctor in James Thurber’s cartoon: ‘You’re not my patient, Mrs Frisbee, you’re my meat.’ Leigh Davis, writing in the Listener (July 6 th, 1985), about the volume presently under review, Vlaminck’s Tie, comments, ‘nor can the poet [Harlow] decide, in his depth psychology world, whether he is the patient or the doctor’. By now Michael Harlow must be in some doubt and pretty tired of his sessions under the psychic scalpels of a curious range of literary critics. I feel it is worth detailing the diagnoses of this unlikely bunch of bedfellows before I slip in beside.
Frank McKay, also in the Listener (Oct. 10 th, 1981), reviewing Harlow’s book of prose poems, Nothing but Switzerland and Lemonade, finds Harlow rather dated: ‘The prose poem has been around a long time, and this volume brings nothing new to it.’ He is echoed by Leigh Davis four years later: ‘The problem with Vlaminck’s Tie is that in it Michael Harlow is marketing the wireless.’ The problem for Winston Rhodes (review of Today is the Piano’s Birthday in New Zealand Monthly Review, Sept. 1982), is the opposite: ‘the constructs, together with the Notes and the esoteric blurb demonstrate that the cosmopolitan author [Harlow] is thoroughly “with it”, the “it” in this instance being the poetics of the modernists.’ J. Needham, in Landfall (Sept. 1982), also writing about Today is the Piano’s Birthday, brings the moral weight of Leavis’s term ‘a technique for sincerity’ to bear on Harlow’s experimental excursions: ‘apologists for “experimental technique” . . . tend to imply that such techniques guarantee exploration and that without them exploration cannot take place.’ Harlow has also been accused of being ‘pretentious’ (McKay), ‘highfalutin’ (Rhodes), and ‘out to impress his readers’ (Fleur Adcock, the Listener, April 3 rd, 1982). Adcock goes on to say that ‘learned notes at the end of the book seem designed to dazzle us rather than to elucidate the texts.’
Certainly a high moral tone of censure has ‘dazzled’ this odd collection of critical intelligences. Perhaps the best thing done on Harlow so far is Warwick Slinn’s review of Nothing but Switzerland and Lemonade in Landfall 140. But Slinn, too, is uneasy with Harlow’s writing, identifying a disjuncture between his overt experimentation and his tendency to impose meaning, to exhibit a ‘tyranny of authorial presence’. This is the same sort of discomfort Leigh Davis feels as he notes how Harlow ‘loudly presents his own Freudian slips.’
All the reviewers drive towards saying that Harlow is not what he seems to be, or isn’t what he claims to be, or doesn’t know that he is what he is. I too feel there is a problem here, but how far the censorious tone is an appropriate response . . . the good doctors may not agree how the patient is best served. The analyst’s strategy with the analysand must be that the more that’s revealed, the more’s concealed. In the making of a poem, as in the making of an ego, there is a process of repression. And this process is always ‘in process’, and so is endless, renewed at each new reading. Like the ego, the poem is made through a process of identification and loss. But there is nothing final or ‘complete’ about this ‘reading.’ The history of the subject is present at any moment in all its depths, all phases, stages, divisions. ‘We are huge and contain multitudes’, Juliet Mitchell has written in Psychoanalysis and Feminism (p. 72). Harlow seems to have an inkling of this in titling one of the poems in Vlaminck’s Tie (a poem I will come back to later in this review) – ‘The war of course is elsewhere.’
I must confess myself to having an uncanny relationship of ‘absence’ to Harlow’s work. I wrote, on commission, a longish article centred on Today is the Piano’s Birthday, for Alan Loney, which he generously agreed to print for Parallax 4, but Parallax folded and the rather ancient artefact resurfaced in the files of the And/Splash nexus and has now been returned to me. In that article I concentrated on Harlow as a conscious product of modernism (and discussed his position in relation to ideas of post-modernism) and it is a theme I intend to work up again. But, for this review, it will be sufficiently useful to note the sources of Harlow’s modernism, his roots in the Zurich of Tzara, Jung and Joyce, what Christopher Middleton identifies as ‘the early modernist period in Europe (1905-14)’ (Bolshevism in Art, Manchester, 1978, p. 9). Noting that this was a time when ‘the notion of radical change in social and cultural patterns’ preoccupied many artists, Middleton goes on to say that such change brought about ‘The subsidence of the participatory universe . . . destroyed the old spiritual foundation of symbolic thinking and imagining’ (p. 16). Enter Tzara, Jung, and Joyce. No doubt there is a kind of metaphysical relationship between Jung and Dada; they deep down share an idea of vitalism. But their aesthetic relationship is surely tenuous. We know Jung’s views on art were distinctly conservative. (Dada’s children are always jung until they alter.) But the coincidence of time and place are enough to provide Harlow with his locus of origin, his primal act, his link between aesthetic and psychological poles of the élan vital. But I suggest tentatively here the link is through that third party, Joyce, is a writerly plot, and can be summed up in the graffiti (one of Harlow’s modes, see his book, Take a Risk Trust Your Language Make a Poem, of which more later) – DADA IS EVERYWHERE – and the reply -- SO IS MAMA. Through language Harlow gets psychological mum married to aesthete dad and begins to beget.
Looking for mum and dad occupies a large thematic chunk of Vlaminck’s Tie, as it must for the analyst in training or the analysand on the couch; in fact, despite Leigh Davis’s admonitions, by the rules of the game, in psychoanalysis the twin roles of doctor and patient must be experienced, and for Jung himself this was a feat he contrived simultaneously. In the idea of ‘looking for mum and dad’ lurks the idea of a golden age; for Freud this time got shorter and shorter as he pushed back the advent of infant sexuality and repression to a younger and younger age. For Jung, golden ageism took on grandiose proportions in the idea of the collective unconscious and contributed to an aura of naïve racism which surrounds his treatment of non-western myth. And any radical change can carry with it an implication of a golden age. This is something Christopher Middleton is aware of and raises when he writes about the loss of ‘the participatory universe’ (p. 17):
Charles Olson went back to Maya and to Sumer to justify his poetic and epistemological revisions. Modern Jungian feminists also reach back to Sumer:
What is lost is identified as having been lost at the historic moment of the intrusion of writing into human society. The Sumerians give us our earliest recording of the poetic and we can hear Inanna lamenting her exile:
It is not difficult to hear in this writing the voice of the anima or perhaps Magna Mater. Vlaminck’s Tie contains passages of written-down dreams from Harlow’s own Jungian analysis, I believe, in Zurich. Again, the goddess appears as a figure of origin:
One of the contributions of psychoanalysis has been to give knowledge, discourse, the sense of its own loss. But Harlow cannot shake off his desire to find a unity of knowledge (a knowledge of unity, a knowledge of knowledge) and Vlaminck’s Tie ends with the mathematical affirmation of oneness – ‘earth = air = fire = water’. Just as behind this vision lies the removal of difference, so on the last page of the book Harlow moves away from words, those markers of difference, back to using pictograms, pre-cuneiforms wrested from Kit Powell’s music score, ‘Texts for Composition’ (Landfall 150). Harlow’s writing has located itself at the point of several disjunctures – how do you write without words? how do you play both doctor and patient? After the analysis is done, is there a lingering trace (marks on the mystic pad) of longing for the couch which the analyst has abandoned forever? Is this like the writer who, by choosing to write, has chosen to participate in the control and division language exercises over desire? Does Harlow feel he has tricked himself? Is the reversion to other languages (mathematics, pictograms) at the end of the book, a sign for what is left out?
There is a strong implication through Harlow’s Jungian ideas that something hidden behind the persona and the shadow needs to be revealed. But it seems to me a misdirection to read Harlow as a poet of the psychological landscape in the way that Emily Dickinson is or Sylvia Plath (who twisted the old analyst/patriarchs balls till they screamed in falsetto). Harlow’s mild, almost jocular relationship with the patriarchs (‘over to where Papa Freud and the good Doktor Jung hang out’ p. 37, VT) in his several letters in this book addressed to E. (E.S., Elizabeth Smither, Smother, mother, Smith-er, maker etc.) reveals the magician at work at carefully ‘misdirecting’ the audience. It is true that Harlow’s use of parapraxis is posed, even his ‘chimney sweeping’ (the record of his analysis in Zurich) has to be regarded as a performance. In fact there is more Dada in Harlow’s psychoanalysis (than Mama) than cultural or personal evaluation. As if to emphasise the ‘performance’ aspect of the revelation of what is hidden, Harlow, in Vlaminck’s Tie, uses the image of undressing:
Such an extraordinary amount of disrobing can be matched by the amount of dressing up that goes on in the book:
But there is certainly more in these images of hiding and revelation of the magician, the performer, than the analyst. The magician can do almost anything in front of the audience and get away with not being noticed provided a sufficiently strong focus of attention is on display to turn the mind and eye elsewhere – misdirection. All the references to the psychoanalytic world in the book mount a flashy display (with fairly dated Jungian technology) suggesting we should be watching out for that point where the Imaginary enters the Symbolic, for behind that, under the garments of the unconscious forest, lies the truth of the trick. But the magic (the war) is elsewhere.
Or – to slip out of the theatrical and into the psychic metaphor – the ‘ego’ of the book, the subject of a mind passing through its revelations of love and analysis, is a screen for the book’s unconscious. The ‘secret’ subject of Vlaminck’s Tie is writing itself. And Harlow succeeds in hiding his narcissistic subject – writing is the subject that is hidden by being in full view.
The uncanny and rather theatrical aspect of this is that the unconscious of Vlaminck’s Tie does actually exist ‘elsewhere’ in a physical form – Harlow has written a book which he has published almost simultaneously with Vlaminck’s Tie. This is Take a Risk Trust Your Language Make a Poem, which I mentioned earlier, a book about writing and how to make poems, designed for use in schools. In this book Harlow lays stress on using the unconscious to help you write; randomness, chance and coincidence are viewed favourably in composition – ‘Work quickly at first; trust what turns up’ (Take a Risk p. 18), ‘trusting the language we possess, so that one word may discover another. [italics his] A way of ‘conjuring’ with language and its associational fluency.’ (p. 31) Which brings the unconscious and performance neatly together. Page 31 even has a photograph of the poet in compositional performance … or as Harlow says on the back cover of Vlaminck’s Tie, ‘what likes to occur with what, [italics again his] and just now:’.
There is a circularity in all this too, because I think Harlow’s faith in the unconscious is particularly Jungian and Jung veered from Freud in seeing the unconscious as part of a wholeness waiting to be discovered (individuation), rather than the result of a primal dislocation. From a Freudian point of view, to trust your language is a hopeless act because the unconscious will, through language, reveal the primary division. With Lacan, who sees the unconscious born in the acquisition of language, the instruction to trust your language is even more difficult to entertain. You might almost say that to have language is to distrust.
But I am talking about the sources of Harlow’s ideas and he is in the business of giving advice to writers. Harlow suggests a writer should ‘trust the unconscious’. It will reveal. In Take a Risk he stocks his potential students with empty structures, tunnels, labyrinths, shapes, texts to cut up, templates to apply, gears to enable free association; he reveals a world bursting with language to be released into waiting moulds. His subject is the packaging and mailing of the text (‘Dear E., Enclosures … do remember to “clear the letter-box”, eh?’ VT p. 20) and he is aware of some of the complexities involved in this. It is on page 20 of Vlaminck’s Tie that Harlow makes much, in a letter to E., of a rather heavy-handed pun masquerading as parapraxis on ‘printed matter / printed mutter’. Perhaps the heavy-handedness disguises another pun – on ‘matter’ – that what is PRINTED is what MATTERS. ‘Printed Matter’ becomes the label for the package that is Vlaminck’s Tie.
These two simultaneous publications of Harlow’s envelop each other. One of Harlow’s moulds is the acrostic; I submit my own:
In Take a Risk Harlow quotes Wallace Stevens, ‘poetry is the subject of the poem’, and it seems to me to be the way to read Vlaminck’s Tie as well. The two books ‘perform’ for each other the function that the other lacks, like sexual partners. The desire of the writer to write is related to sexual desire and writing is a classic case of delayed satisfaction. In delayed satisfaction arises the sense of loss alluded to earlier. Harlow’s work, aware of its modernist heritage and manner, aware of its own makings, is pervaded by a sense of loss. He is a writer’s writer driven to write by the subject he produces. He constantly entangles desire and loss – loss of freedom, loss of lover, loss of analyst, loss of words – and for these, read desire – desire for freedom, desire for lover, desire for analyst, desire for words. What animates his work is loss and what he desires in words is his anima.
So now the first six poems in Vlaminck’s Tie, ‘Poem Then, For Love’, (VT pp. 9-16) do not have to be read as the record of a love affair nor as the exploration of the anima. The old-world wooing of the sequence becomes a bizarre, theatrical mimesis of the writer’s work. Now many lines can be read differently: ‘there is the/ distinct possibility of romance’ and ‘as if to meet you/ in the middle of a story that’s/ half gone, oh we are happy, love/ to make use of words’ and ‘Your letters arrive/ almost daily’ and ‘there is a sentence/ chasing time; there is a story/ we may need to sleep on’ and ‘I begin to suspect/ you are leaving the story’ and ‘the right touch to write in/ the ending’ and ‘It is a comfort to know this speech/ You make on leaving is also/ About love’ and ‘On the way out/ you may be looking for words’.
The subject is ‘romance’, but romance is also a literary form, and if we are going to accept one Verschreiber then why not another? In the ‘Poem Then, For Love’ sequence Harlow conjures all the stagey aspects of romance – moon, flowers, hair, music, balcony, spring, letters, mirror, the room, the ‘regard’, that special look, parting, stars – as contrast to another space where ‘the world’ (imago mundi) is subject to no such stasis, where all is subject to constant, infinitesimal change – ‘every thing that is/ in the world changes/ what is real.’ The romance of the romance is delineated from the romance of the improvisational as far as I can read it. And, also as far as I can read, this seems in contradiction with Jungian universals, the search for the alchemical equivalence of earth, air, fire and water.
Again I am driven back to noting a point of dislocation, as though some vital part has slipped down the back of the sofa. What is lost?
In the poem, ‘The war of course is elsewhere’ (VT p. 42) the veiled pun is on the word ‘lost’ – the war is lost, we have been defeated; and the war is lost, it cannot be found. The war is a real (‘humming on the street’), mythical (‘waiting for tumbrels/ down the road’) clash of armies and also the war in the family, the struggle to get through the oedipal gates (‘tearing light from the/ throats of doors’). The war is with father and of course after the war is lost it is also lost – it is elsewhere – since the son adopts the image of the father.
Father has made an appearance in the poem on the preceding page, ‘Operation Identification’ (‘there is something/ he would like to show me’) but he is unrecognisable. Harlow offers ten pages showing the compositional growth of this poem in the ‘other’ book, Take a Risk, and identifies the figure of the suave, seductive, menacing stranger as Jung’s ‘shadow-figure’, part of the self. But he is also the patriarchal father with the seeds of war in his pocket (‘he has a plan for the century;/ he understands the subtleties of surrender’). At moments like this Harlow twists his Jungian terminology out of its mystical circularities and heads into political territory – where he makes an interesting claim to link up the personal and the political:
‘The war of course is elsewhere’ opens with Freud’s da and fort game – ‘the complete/ game of disappearance/ and return’ – or it may be the seasonal cycle of the Jungian goddess – but aside from these references, the line also has strong political overtones with its stark opening – ‘In a year of terrors’ – for Harlow has some personal experience of the Greece of the Colonels and the bones in the mass graves in Buenos Aires or in the even bigger graves of Kampuchea have played out a chilling game of ‘disappearance and return’. Even locally the spies of France’s DGSE have been playing their own little game of disappearance and return. Harlow manages to link this modern horror story from the personal level through to the political. He goes on to evoke Jung’s own strategies during his breakdown, when he was playing both patient and doctor – ‘with blocks we raise towers/ for invisible cities, and/ watch them fall.’ But the political level is still there, just as the personal still inhabits the opening line – ‘a year of terrors’ – for patriarch Freud, the child’s first year. There is something fishy even about ‘the innocence of children’, that psychoanalytic golden age, which is here seen to be powerful enough to ‘still the heart’. Father, in this poem away at the war, has lost substance, has become fantasy, the fears themselves, the menacing fantasy of his return – ‘We imagine we are Athenian/ wives; we lie rigid in the/ dark, waiting for tumbrels…’ There follows a line – ‘We are in/ urgent need of information’ – which is logical enough in the world of political and psychic terror the poem brings to life, but it is also a fascinating footnoted insertion by the writer of the writer’s role in a world where disappearance and reappearance in a metamorphosised state is a real threat to both mental and physical survival.
In ‘For words are person’, (VT, p. 43) the poem following ‘The war of course is elsewhere’, father makes a much more explicit appearance:
Here father avenges his own lack of child in himself and, at the same time, expresses his own desire to be beaten. But the title of the poem – ‘For words are persons’ – seems to offer father some excuse. He is trapped by his own title; he is the victim of language, of the ability to name himself. And all-out psychic confrontation with father such as is fought on a grand scale in the work of, say, Kafka or Plath or Dostoyevsky, is sidestepped here and an accommodation reached, as it has been with ‘Doctors Freud and Jung’. It is as though the superego suddenly takes control and steps in and stops what could turn … dangerous. And though father’s head falls of at the end, it is largely a verbal death. The war is lost. He has his father and he eats him.
For all the smokescreens about mother / mitter, this is more a book about ‘father’, as the title of the title poem suggests – ‘Vlaminck’s Tie’:
Father introduces son to primordial, giant phallus, which is also the artist’s sword, the pen (penis), at a stroke mightier than the sword, and so the themes of psychoanalysis, aesthetics and politics swim together round this curious wooden tie. Whether even the Jungian feminists would come along for this ride, I remain unsure. Vlaminck (Zurich, dada, the artist) is the father, patriarch, hidden behind the obvious bearded gentlemen, Jung and Freud.
Elizabeth Wright, discussing Lacan’s seminar on Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The Purloined Letter’, makes the following comment:
I was struck by the way the signifier begins to disappear at the end of the poem, ‘Vlaminck’s Tie’:
Harlow encourages us to believe that something is always about to ‘pop out’ as we read – he shares his trust for his own unconscious processes as he writes. Despite his Jungian metaphysic that the elusive real nature of the self (or poem) is hidden beneath the surface of the Symbolic, his practice may be closer to the Lacanian model of the unconscious being born in and borne along in language itself. His practice may be closer to the word-processor than the wireless – though both devices tend to erase all process as they go, whereas Harlow likes to present process as a performance – ‘what likes to occur/ with what, and just now.’
Despite my intention to slip in beside Harlow’s other critics I feel he has been subjected to enough generalised, dismissive and summary criticism to make it worthwhile avoiding any such conclusion to this review of Vlaminck’s Tie. As a North American New Zealand poet with distinctly European ancestors (partly through his Greek background) Harlow occupies a unique position in New Zealand writing. As an editor (Frontiers and Landfall) he has made another sort of contribution. The writing in Vlaminck’s Tie can be shown to raise problems about itself which it doesn’t solve, but at the same time it is necessary to admit that in Harlow we have a very active writing intelligence, which is working at the problems of writing itself. Such an intelligence cannot be easily dismissed or ignored. From his first book, Edges (1974), through the prose poems of Nothing but Switzerland and Lemonade, and on into the slim lyrics of Today is the Piano’s Birthday, a reader can trace an absorbing development. Vlaminck’s Tie fails to bring this development to any decisive conclusion. Of all Harlow’s books this latest may be the one whose mind is least made up. While I hesitate to make a virtue of restlessness for its own sake, I do feel able to recommend Vlaminck’s Tie as an active reading experience from an inventive performer.