When certain genres and forms of books (in my case, trade fiction and non-fiction) comprise your work, it feels natural to look elsewhere for personal reading. I feel I constantly look elsewhere. I am a greedy reader: I want to know everything, but am often too impatient to really get into the bones of a subject. I cannot easily answer the question ‘What do you enjoy reading’, as my response is fluid and changes depending on when and in what context I’m asked.
I completed my MFA in poetry in September 2019, amid a chaotic year that was also filled with full-time work. I don’t use my brain well in the evenings, so I wrote most of it in the early hours of the morning, before work each day. It was a good habit, and when I finished I tried to hold onto that space I’d created—the quiet space where the world hadn’t yet reminded me of its unpleasantness. It’s easier to use your free hours productively when you don’t have many of them. So, for a few weeks after my studies were finished, I began my mornings with John Forbes’s Collected Poems. I’d spend time with one or two poems each day, and, free from any academic or other requirements, I was able to simply enjoy them, and relish in the pleasure of reading a talented and entertaining poet. I read them out loud to myself—‘Orange Sonnet’, written after Frank O’Hara (whose influence is clear throughout Forbes’s works), and one of my favourites, ‘Elegy for the Middle Classes’—until the early-morning habit eventually slipped out of my grasp. Without deadlines I am sometimes useless.
I’ve been in a limbo lately, tying off the ends of my projects in the past few weeks, getting ready to leave full-time work as an editor for a freelance lifestyle (and its promise of more reading time). I judged a poetry competition where I read many, many wonderful poetry books in a condensed timeframe. But poetry judging reading is different from poetry pleasure reading; as pleasurable as it is, it is work. Like many who read for professional reasons (usually in the arts), there are different modes and gears to constantly switch between. Reading compulsively as a child led me to a career as a book editor, but the more my intellectual labour was demanded, the less I was able to stimulate it outside of a paid work context. I was slowly conditioned to look ever elsewhere from ‘contemporary Australian literature’, which filled so much of my day, and towards different genres like poetry, or older writers, international writers, those original thinkers whose works had trickled into everyday language and politics.
In The Capitalist Unconscious Samo Tomšič traces Marx through Lacan. I have no Lacanian background, and my Marx knowledge is limited to the first two volumes of Capital and occasional sections of The Grundrisse. This once might have intimidated me, but now I’m fuelled by my limited knowledge to keep reading. The more I persevere with ‘difficult’ texts, the more rewarding it is when it clicks, or a new concept is finally illuminated, or something I’ve known instinctively is put into words that gives language to the unformed mess of feelings in my gut. I imagine I’m not alone in this feeling of being restless and unsatisfied by not knowing something. It is this desire that drives my reading but a variation of it has propelled me as a poet too.
Utopia, by one of my favourite poets, Bernadette Mayer, was first published in 1984. Yale Union re-typeset and printed a free limited edition in 2019, which I ordered, ignoring the international shipping costs and the soft copy that also was available. This is me as poet fangirl. Having spent a considerable amount of time with her work, including her long poem Midwinter Day, in the course of my research masters, I found that it is in fact impossible for me to read too much Bernadette Mayer. I may have needed a little break from the Marxist-feminist theory I had also been ensconced in for four years, but with Mayer, any time away from her work is too long. Utopia is a collection of poems and prose that examine the past and future (and the 1980s ‘present’, for example in her list poem ‘Some of this decade’s things’). Mayer’s poetry is ageless. Significantly, her poems in this collection do not separate their concept of futurity from anticapitalism. Time and capitalism are two themes that run like strong currents in Mayer’s works. It is this inseparability that also leads me occasionally away from poetry and towards certain science fiction texts.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, though published in the early 1990s, feels as urgent and thoughtful as ever in the current state of the world. Red Mars was my pacey page-turner that felt as much an escape, or leisure read, as it did an important book asking important questions. I’ve been reading Green Mars more slowly, dipping in and out, revisiting, restarting. It’s nice to read slowly sometimes. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the first in her Imperial Radch trilogy, does the kinds of things with language and gender and politics that sci-fi, in my view, is for. If this sounds vague, it’s because her use of language is best understood by reading the book oneself; any meaningful description falls short. I don’t always want to limit my experience of art to works that align perfectly with my political sensibilities, but in science fiction, as green to the genre as I am, I find comfort in the possibilities it gives us for worlds beyond capitalism.
I was recently introduced to the tapestries of antifascist Scandinavian artist Hannah Ryggen, and so of course I then impulse-bought Marit Paasche’s book Threads of Defiance. In the preface Paasche notes her own assumption that Ryggen had been an under-recognised artist from the 1930s now benefiting from a more recent revivalist project of women artists. She discovered that, though Ryggen had been highly regarded in her own time, her erasure took place over the subsequent decades—she was reduced in broader Norwegian art history into the 1980s and 90s. I’m reminded a little of Russian Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai, whose prominence in the Bolshevik Party was known in her own time, but whose legacy was erased in subsequent decades in part due to Stalin’s rise to power but also to the Cold War. Reading about Ryggen’s life and works, including her 1935 wool and linen rug Første mai-tog (May Day Parade), and her commitment to activism and communism. I’m reading about her with a deep sense of connection and yearning, though yearning is not quite right—why yearn for the period of history that saw the rise of Nazism in Europe? And yet, I suppose, I yearn for her as a comrade—as an artist who was not afraid of politics, and whose art was enriched by her politics. Or at least, I yearn for a feeling of distance from political darkness that allows us to observe its artists and thinkers with clarity; this will not be the case for those artists and writers making works in my lifetime, where we are all so deeply still in it. I yearn for a tangible expression of my affinity to encountering someone like Ryggen through Paasche’s critical lens. I yearn for more than a straightforward feminist recuperation of art: for a recuperation of radical left-wing artists and thinkers, whose works today are worth returning to so that we can build a collective left-wing movement against capitalism that draws on lessons from our history while responding to our problems of the present and future. As naïve as it sounds, I yearn for art and literature that will help us envisage and soon create a future beyond capitalism, a future of sustainability and true equality.
Elena Gomez is a poet and editor based in Melbourne. She is the author of a number of essays and chapbooks. Her first full-length poetry collection, Body of Work (Cordite Books, 2018) was Highly Commended in the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.