DAN DISNEY’S ‘AND THEN WHEN THE’ / KEVIN BROPHY
Mallarmé apparently said something to the effect that the purpose of all life is to find itself one day in a book. We here at Collected Works, which is the centre of the universe of books, know that to be true, but it is wise to keep this from all those out on the street who think life begins and ends out there. In the first poem in this glowing object, and then when the, Dan Disney brings the world into the classroom:
Coats wet, we come
to hear how we might come to know the world through pure reflection
rain on our foreheads, little fists from the tremendum, we wait
at the doors of an unlocked lecture hall.
Coughing has been falling from a cold man’s mouth. A huddle of minds in
the dark morning
apprehend. The trees
are wearing the shape of trees.
(‘Standing among the philosophy class’)
That tree is the troublesome tree of Eden, of Calvary, of Saussure’s notes (with his little sketch of a tree) on how language works, of Lacan’s doubts about how Saussurean language works. And it is the actual world being taken into a book.
And the tremendum is the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“fearful and fascinating mystery”) that a German theologian wrote of in a book titled, The Idea of the Holy, in the 1920s. Typically, Dan’s raindrops are tiny theologians searching for our souls.
Dan Disney is an East Gippsland boy educated at Nagle College Bairnsdale, a school that that produced two sublime poets, Dan Disney himself, and Lucy Williams. Bairnsdale itself has been home to the late Hal Porter, the contemporary haiku master Myron Lysenko and Marie Pitt, a poet from the 1940’s who coined the phrase, ‘O Bairnsdale, Bairnsdale’. Gippsland has the right weather for raising writers, poets and cows. The poets tend to leave, the cows tend to stay.
When writing of country folk (and ‘folk’ is a word Dan Disney makes his own) in her luminous novel, Silas Marner (1861), George Eliot explained that the idea of leaving the local village area was ‘a course as dark and dubious as a balloon journey’ (20). Well, Dan, along with most other Bairnsdale poets, has taken the balloon journey, not just to Melbourne and its university, but all the way to Korea via Italy. When Dan writes about the local folk: about the small towns of Gippsland, he has the authority of the exile, the kind of authority that can bring a harsh vision to its deep intimacy and love: Ensay is a town ‘clenched around its highway’ and Bairnsdale is marked by ‘the abattoir scent curling at town’s edge’, while at Benambra mute scarecrows survey ‘the wild churchyard/long empty of its song’. These towns are destitute, though no more destitute perhaps than the rest of the planet in these destitute times.
‘What are poets for in this destitute time?’ asked the German romantic poet Friedrich Holderdlin ( 1770-1834) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the middle of the twentieth century, Heidegger returned to this question, writing, ‘In the age of the world’s night, the abyss of the world must be experienced and endured. But for this it is necessary that there be those who reach into the abyss’ (90)—and Dan Disney does plenty of that. God and the gods have abandoned his universe, but not without trace, you only have to read the poem that begins with a fragment of Heidegger: ‘… never come to thoughts. They come to us’ (p. 36).
Isaac Newton (1642-1727), perhaps the most wondrous genius physics has known, thought poetry ‘a kind of ingenious nonsense’ and of course this is what Dan Disney makes of the abyss—of poetry’s encounter with all those philosophers still dog-paddling their way through metaphors because don’t philosophers become poets once they begin to take themselves seriously, just as poets quickly become boring philosophers as soon as they take themselves seriously. This exposure of fragility, this awareness of traps, is what Dan Disney is so good at. Dan Disney is the man who decided to go and live as a hermit in a shed in the forests above Omeo for three months—the man who savoured a carton of milk over several days, draining it finally right down to the dead mouse in the bottom of the carton. He has faced the abyss, or as much of it as can be found in East Gippsland, and come back with its essence in his veins.
He is one of our interesting poets, you might say, or more accurately, one of our astounding poets. This poet is a reader, and you’ll find sentences here from Jean Paul Sartre, Wallace Stevens, Anne Carson, Umberto Eco, Immanuel Kant, Mary Shelley, Horace, Primo Levi, Martin Heidegger, Hermann Hesse, Orhan Pamuk, Michel Houellebecq, Plotinus, Kurt Vonnegut, Siddhartha Gaudama the Buddha, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Sentences, phrases, fragments of thought and speech, each one with enough grit in it to keep our boots from slipping off the next greasy step we must negotiate on our way up into the place where, as Holderlin put it, we must ‘dwell’. Poetry measures its way forward in speech, and poetry measures us, and our final measurement will be the measurement of a mortal body. Dan Disney does not shy from this task of measuring, but like a comic Edgar Allen Poet (sic), he finds in it a source of energy, wit, wonder and weirdly disengaged amusement at the way language can work like a mechanism just at the moment it’s needed for the most sensitive probing of sensitive feelings: read, for instance, ‘It all began with me trying to open a small wooden box’ (p. 29).
Dan Disney’s reading of books has not left us with bookish poems, or drily language-driven poetry, but with a poetry that swirls with ideas and swirls through ideas, with a sharp, contemporary awareness of ideas as performances, nearly always paradoxically entangled with technologies:
There will be mystagogues
yes and lawn mowed on weekends ….
(from ‘Man with missing antithesis’, pp 34-5)
This poetry is bristling with detail, it flits from the vast to the mundane, from desperation to tennis, from a quasi-biblical prophetic tone, to schoolboy huzzahs, absurd wordplays impossible to paraphrase. It holds the attractions of alliteration (‘they will nuzzle at night’) and across it all a tone that’s complex enough to let us know that this poetry is both urgent and a performance that invites the reader to find their own purchase on Primo Levi’s apparent even-handedness regarding the monstrous balance of opposites humankind is. This poetry’s thinking is not thinking that explains, but thinking that responds (cf. Heidegger p. 179). When it comes to the craft of thinking, Dan Disney is more sailor than whittler.
The poetry in this book is compelling. This reader wanted to go on with this poet into the next poem and the next. Dan Disney’s ingenious nonsense does help us understand what poets are for in a destitute time.
I understand now that when that young man arrived in my office at Melbourne University more than a decade ago, with brightly painted fingernails, hair down over his shoulders, on his own dark and dubious balloon journey, announcing himself as a poet, he was the real thing, allowing me now to declare that and then when the is.
Heidegger, Martin (1971) Poetry, Language, Thought. NY: Harper & Row