LINES OF DEFENCE

By June Tang

30 August, 2019

June Tang is Running Dog’s poet in residence for August and September.
Each month, a poet produces new work, which is distributed via Running Dog’s monthly newsletter—Stray. If you haven’t already, sign up to our newsletter.

 

A line needs a leader

Needs speech marks

So we know there are real voices

To ignore

Says one reader

I have always loved

That line

A seam come loose

Again at the eye

Beginning to crawl

Somehow

We have all detached

From land- lines

“FROM CORDS TO CABLES:

If once we were

Found at home

Now we have departed”

Runs the headline

Boldly

At the top

Someone announces

“We need new guidelines

For living”

One year by one ear

Down the line

It travels

Yes, we all whispered

“We need new guidelines

For killing”

Please

Redact that line

Please draw

Another

Clearer line

Please

Harmonise the line

By deploying

Major triads

To be safe

Add a bit more paint

To get the line marching

What is that

A parade or protest

My line of sight asks

Your line of sight

And is fear in the eye

Of the beholder

Or the brushstroke?

Meanwhile

“The speed of red will decide

What it is and what it won’t

Ever be”

 

 

 

June’s thoughts on LINES OF DEFENCE

Starting the Running Dog poetry micro-residency I was thinking about writing a poem where the act of writing (which is more or less disembodied) could be blurred with the act of painting (more or less physical) through an ambiguous vocabulary that could describe either/both processes.

I accumulated all these words and phrases that could belong to both, relating to lines, strokes, perspective, tone, legibility/illegibility, and so on. Eventually, somehow, I became preoccupied more specifically with lines, and began jotting down words that ended in ‘line’: underline, outline, sideline, fault-line, etc. At the time I was reading Ben Lerner’s poetry collection called No Art, and I was really impressed by all the different vocabularies (often belonging to institutions) that he would borrow and then subvert. I was stunned by the agility of his associations and juxtapositions, though moved more by the poems’ ambiguous emotional states. They seemed to express something of the ambiguity of our times, of that interpenetration of public and private, action and inaction, of hope and resignation and mistrust, etc. Ultimately they were highly intellectual poems, which reaffirmed for me that I wanted to write a poem that could be very easily read, perhaps through sublimating politics/public life into a kind of atmosphere.

I drafted something, which I then realised I hated (it had lines like shimmy beneath the line / watch your toe in the party line / be quick to the finish line) because it felt too overconfident and demanding (like institutions themselves—even if it was subverting that!), so I had to start again…

The first half of the poem came out all at once, and the form it took was actually one I’d accidentally discovered earlier in the year, when, after not writing for a while, I tried a method someone mentioned once at a reading, which was to flip through your journals (if you keep any) and just snatch from it lines here and there. That led me to a very fluid structure where the relations between phrases were quite random/abstract, but the language was surprisingly simple and unburdened (since journals, or at least mine, are inevitably tethered to the everyday). And of course, it turned the intensely personal into something quite impersonal, but not entirely, and not in a bad way. This overall process of displacing pre-existing lines also seemed to draw more attention to each fragment and to the construction of meaning itself, through resisting (or infinitely delaying) any clear interpretations or expectations.

So while I was influenced by all of that, it was only much later in the editing process that I began to realise what kind of feeling I was trying to get at. And then trying to actually understand what I’d written and why. All these disembodied voices were really exciting – they felt almost like characters. I’m hoping the poem has been able to abstract those voices so that their credibility becomes almost immediately questionable, while remaining a reminder to consider our own positions, whether of culpability or capability. And, because almost all the lines in the poem are incomplete—they could be attached to either the previous line or the subsequent line—I hope that this need to actively contextualise (to re-contextualise the de-contextualised) destabilises what appears to be ordinary or conversational, and thereby harmless.

Leading up to, and at the time of writing, the protests in Hong Kong were escalating and I think this contributed to the tension of the poem (I also reference it fleetingly), and perhaps to its growing undercurrent of violence. So far in my own life I’ve really struggled to find a strong sense of belonging in any group or community, and perhaps relatedly, I’ve been unable to locate myself among others within the politics of our time, which has become increasingly complex, confusing, and often contradictory. The poem reads as if from an onlooker at times, and it’s also a site for feelings of detachment/disillusionment that might be both personally and publicly felt. I’m still trying to understand it myself…

But how does one get from being a bystander to being (authentically) involved? How do and should we respond to these voices, to each other? Is it an image being handed to us, or the real world? How do we react to the urgency of political situations before we understand them, or as they are still unfolding? What are our responsibilities as readers or viewers, and what happens ‘meanwhile’, in the time we take to decide, or to even ask?

Hopefully this poem gives an impression of nascent action or understanding, and opens up space for some of these uncertainties that lie both behind and beyond it. If nothing else, I hope its meaning shifts with each reading, as do our relations to one another, to ourselves, and to the world…