Tony Messenger reviews Constitution by Amelia Dale
by Amelia Dale
Inken Publisch, 2017
Reviewed by TONY MESSENGER
Ben Lerner in his 2016 essay “The Hatred of Poetry” reminds us of poetry’s activist, historical participation in politics; “Plato, in the most influential attack on poetry in recorded history, concluded that there was no place for poetry in the Republic because poets are rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as the truth and risk corrupting citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth.” Sydney poet, Amelia Dale, has taken Australian poetic political agitation to a new level, with her new book, Constitution.
If the etymology of ‘constitution’ is from the Latin ‘constitutio’; regulations and orders, then Amelia Dale has launched an attack on Australia’s political cornerstone; she has trashed the order, challenged the regulations, declinism is rife. As she says, “Being an ‘Australian poet’ with all that entails, it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage ‘Australia,’ the nation state. This is not to say that I have any delusions that my book will enact in real terms political change. But I turned to the Constitution because to vandalise the Constitution seems like the sensible, the only thing to do.”
Constitution is constructed to mirror the format of the Australian Constitution, with all sections, chapters and parts replicating the format of the foundational document. Consisting of 128 parts catalogued into eight chapters, and with reference to the document establishing “Australia,” it provides an activity recommended for all readers. The “Covering Clauses” in the Constitution, become “So It Is” in Dale’s table of contents or “Overwhelmingly, I Focus on the Big Issues”. In the text itself, the alignment of the political rhetoric to established clauses uses a profundity of knowledge of the defining first national document. (p xi)
Constitution is presented as official Government paper, with the royal blue and coat of arms mimicking an Australian passport, the font copying official Government documents and the paper even similar to legal tomes found in Hansard or departmental publications.
Dale takes verbatim interviews with the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on the current affairs program “The 7.30 Report”. Having edited thousands of words of transcripts she presents these back in poetic construct. The resulting book subverts the standard media text and political rhetoric;
Well everybody knows that their prosperity depends on the prosperity of their employer. And if they’re working for business, as most people are, they want to know. You see everything we’re doing is going. And I know you don’t want me to refer to the Labor party, but I do have to note that their policies will reduce investment. Well I assume that they – I assume – well leaving aside the – the bellicose metaphors…
As Dale explains “the text is edited transcriptions of interviews with Malcolm Turnbull from the 7:30 report. There are no other speakers. It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his.” This editing, bubbling a lyrical poetic interpretation of rhetorical political language to the surface, removes the essayistic element, confounding the reader as any good politician would do.
Australia’s current political debate about “recognition”, and Aboriginal Australia’s rejection of “constitutional recognition” in favour of a voice in parliament and a treaty, makes this a timely release. With only 8 of the proposed 44 amendments being historically made to the Constitution, the majority being administrative alterations such as Senate amendments, State debt and retirement of judges, the “bellicose metaphor”, notations, footnotes, and references provide no clearer picture on the original document; the poetic construction mirrors reality.
In the poet’s hands the 1967 amendment to section 51 (xxvi) from “the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”, to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws” becomes rationalised by “but most importantly by what other countries were doing.” (p 22) The superficiality of these amendments and the construction of a verbose document has been well researched and defiantly debunks “a lot of naval-gazing introspection.” (p vii)
Amelia Dale says “it’s the language of cold neoliberal power” and her masterful construction highlights the confusing, circular, meaningless political speak. Using the interviewer, Leigh Sales, as interlocutor, the condescending, demeaning speak becomes increasingly obvious as Amelia Dale, uses headlines such as, “Leigh, I think you’ll find”, “Well Leigh”, and “I’ll tell you something, Leigh”. The poet explaining “We can all speculate on his own reasons for needing the buffer, for needing an interlude. I just wanted to make the convolutions of his speech visible.”
Politically humourous, Dale’s book also uses visual and textual ploys to entice her readers. The title page lampoons publication details by changing standard text, such as copyright information, and rights reserved text to political quotes;
This is a Liberal National Government. So they’ve got to – so freedom is – the key point. I mean, it’s perhaps a bit simplistic but one way you could say it – you can describe it is that the, and I could make the same point about, we believe that, so – so that’s a fundamental thing. But there are some very key priorities, Leigh, tight now. One of them, principally, is we have to ensure that, how to we maintain that? Well there’s a – with, you know, many more, and that’s very exciting. But we need to be, be need to above all be more innovative.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull advises us, in the text, “The truth is that all of us are a bit liberal and a bit conservative in differing degrees.” Our writer disagrees: “Claims for a sensible or objective “centre,” the idea that the grown-up place to start is compromise makes me nauseous. Turnbull of course markets himself as a kind of socially “progressive” left-of-right figure. We’re supposed to be happy that he doesn’t commit Abbott-level macroaggressions and not be angry that his policies kill people.”
What is next for Amelia Dale ? “I’ve determined that all my poetry for the rest of my life will be inspired by, about and against white male politicians. I’m about to move to Shanghai, so Kevin Rudd might be an appropriate muse.”
As Amelia Dale has shown us, in the current political climate, there is room for poets, passing “off imaginative projections as the truth”, let’s hope the art can continue “corrupting citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth”.
CITATIONS AND NOTES
1. Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) p 25
2. private correspondence with the author is quoted in this review with the poet’s permission.
TONY MESSENGER is a Melbourne based blogger who focuses on translated literature and Australian poetry and poet interviews. He can be found at https://messybooker.wordpress.com/ and actively tweets using the handle @messy_tony