Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rescuing the typewriter

Like the Model T Ford and the phonograph, the typewriter used to be a symbol of mass production, and of the supposed obliteration of individuality by mass production. A hundred years ago many intellectuals decried the device, seeing it as the vulgar usurper of the quill and the fountain pen. The office hall full of typists and the staccato, machine gun chatter of the typewriter became a symbol of the machine age in dystopias like Orwell's 1984. Writers with a different attitude to modernity, like the Italian Futurist Marinetti, celebrated the typewriter as the authentic literary instrument of a new era of liberation, and experimented with the typographical possibilities it opened up.

In the space of the last twenty years, though, the typewriter has been purged from offices around the world; that irritating chatter has been replaced by the soft efficient hum of computers. Today the typewriter is on its way to becoming a collectors' item, an industrial antique, as unusual and notable as a Model T on State Highway One or a phonograph in a living room.

Will-Joy Christie is a writer who is fascinated by the typewriter's transition from symbol of the machine age to quaint relic: all of her poems are typed on the sort of ageing, cantankerous machines that used to plague secretaries and newspapermen. Christie's writing is disjunctive, sometimes radically so - sentences, lines and sometimes even words are broken up and reassembled, according to a logic that is not always readily apparent. Fragments drift on the page, asking the reader to relate them. Christie uses the typewriter to augment this disjunctiveness: when she ends a sentence in mid-flow or breaks a word in half one has the impression of the machine sputtering and momentarily dying; when she deliberately mispells a word, or writes outright nonsense, it is easy to imagine the typewriter's keys jumping about bad-temperedly, refusing to obey the commands of the writer's fingers.

Christie also revels in the peculiar textural effects that the keys of a clapped-out typewriter can provide, the way that certain letters and sometimes whole words are made darker or lighter than the rest of the text, or emerge on paper slightly blurred. It is as though the machine she uses has been trying to make certain emphases, or hide certan formulations from us.

All of this is charming, but it would matter for little if Will-Joy Christie did not have something to say. For all their fragmentation and typograhical hi-jinks, her poems have a solid emotional core; even where their meaning remains somewhat obscure, they transmit a powerful emotional charge. Christie balances formal fragmentation with an obsessive imagery. She is the mother of a young child and a housewife, and almost all of her poems are filled with pictures of what was once rather patronisingly called 'domestic life'. These are poems about love, a state which, Christie shows us, is as full of work, ennui and frustration as exaltation. The radical look Christie's poems have on the page is due not to some self-conscious desire to be 'experimental', but to the need to find the right way to express what is a powerful and unusual vision.

To bring all these points into focus I want to look at 'Fai(th/al) lure', the first poem in Christie's new chapbook Re:[play]er and a piece I was delighted to be able to include in brief #33 :

[My apologies if the print of the text that follows is a little small; treat it as a test for your eyes...]



It will do no good to try to 'explicate' this poem by writing a footnote to every one of its lines, or showing how they all constitute some sort of narrative or argumentative thread culminating in some sort of resolution. What we ought to do here is try - and I'm sorry if what I'm about to say sounds impossibly gauche and New Age - to feel the poem, to receive the emotional charge it offers. We might like to bear in mind Wallace Stevens' maxim that great poetry communicates before it is understood. What does Will-Joy Christie communicate, even before we understand her?

To me, the poem is full of frustration at the speaker's inability to communicate with her partner, and anxiety about the consequences of this failure to communicate. The speaker is scared that her partner will 'reduce me to how you read me', and laments the fact that there is 'no communication, only/ritual transmission of effect' between them. When there is a genuine emotional transaction between the speaker and her partner, it seems to take place non-intellectually, as 'your tears get me wet'. Grief is expressed through sex, but its reasons remain obscure, or at least unsayable. The poem's fragmented lines and its lumbering, smudged typography powerfully reinforce the sense of an inability to communicate clearly.

The speaker's fears for her relationship are expressed beautifully in the image of a cigarette which 'begins when I lit it': like the cigarette, the lovers 'burn down towards our bad ends'. By shifting tenses in 'begins when I lit it', the speaker intensifies the sense of finitude, of inevitable doom, that the metaphor of the burning cigarette already holds. (Christie is not the first poet to use the cigarette as a metaphor for love: in one of the famously spare poems he wrote after World War Two, the Pole Zbigniew Herbert described being in love as 'like smoking one hundred cigarettes'.)

Will-Joy Christie is a poet of both ingenuity and vision. I was lucky enough to find a copy of Re:[play]er in my letterbox. I've seen copies of her other chapbook in Cherry Bomb Comics. Catch them if you can.

2 Comments:

Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Christie is a very significant and original poet/writer in NZ and her use of the typewriter is interesting - it began with writers such as Olson. There was another NZ poet who said she still wrote everything on a twpewriter and this forced her to re-write and so on (I intended to try this but laziness prevailed) I can see the idea and the value of it though - but as you say there is an emotional force behind the lines - it isn't just aleatory,
I think it was Eliot not Stevens but Stevens would have approved (?) and there is also a possible influence from the langauge based writers etc but Valeery aspired to a poetry that (to parahrase) resisted understanding almost completely - something to think about -

11:56 pm  
Anonymous will christie said...

Thank u for yr lovely review; i have never experienced reading a review of my work before and i enjoyed it. I am very glad to hear that my work has an emotional charge - how words can have effect without making conventional sense fascinates me. Also how phrases build up the ability to mean very intense yet mundane things, and what happens when these phrases crash into each other. There is no person that the poem is about; it is more about my contact with language and writing and what sounds and letters do. The poems model an emotive state in the context of frustration with and recognition of myself in cliche. Typewriting is an arbitrary tho beautiful form, one that has fluidity and limitations that suit me. And it is always turned on.

12:33 pm  

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