Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath
Wellington: VUP (2018)
RRP: $25.00. Pb, 90pp
Reviewed by Janet Charman
On the back cover of Helen Heath’s second poetry collection ‘Are Friends Electric?’ there is a magnificent photo of the author by Victoria Birkinshaw. This portrait serves to assert Heath’s book as making, despite the unheimlich visual juxtapositions on her front cover, a safe background investment in the materiality of the human condition. The writer is seated at a kitchen table, a strong, conservatively dressed woman set comfortably in domesticity; someone unafraid to look quizzically, unflinchingly, into the camera lens. But this reassuring identity could not be further from the demented rationalizations of the personae that voice the titular, first part of Heath’s collection. Here we come across strange men who imbue their life-sized phallic sex toys with supposedly feminine attributes. In an implied equivalency, a woman is observed in fetishistic worship of the Eiffel Tower. From a cluster of poems about endangered species there emerges the airy cleverness of a documentary film crew who confer attributes of sentient animality on inanimate machines. These media professionals then lament that this “herd” (Encounter, p.31, l.19) of odd sculptural forms becomes suddenly “extinct” (p. 32, l.12) – as if these constituents had consciousness. There is a poem recording the actions of those who prey on, or (depending on your point of view) relieve the anxieties of bereaved people desperate to contact their deceased loved ones. A following piece elaborates the faux-scientific rationales given for such psychogenic interactions. The unspeakable devastation of a wasteland irradiated by nuclear fallout is rationalized by the attribution to it of the characteristics of a novelty theme park and/or virtual reality game. Plastic surgeries are considered objectively, as undertaken with the intent of producing the bodies of particular women as ideally desirable. A historical summation is offered of the ways our cherished personal identities are actually produced by random collisions of our DNA. An entrapped bird is rendered psychotic – as much by the language in which its owner addresses it as by its captivity.
An undercurrent of skepticism, even disapproval, tempers the ostensible impartiality of these carefully footnoted social stagings. But in the poem ‘Lo and behold’ (p.45) the ethical limitations of the poet’s abstemious refusal to be seen to take sides, become painfully clear. This poem registers the desperate dignity of a mother estimating the grounds for her daughter’s killing for the benefit of some gathered media. The poem then segues to the obscenely ingratiating voyeurism with which her audience receives her views. Her crowning humiliation is the ‘sheepish’ (l.13) response of her remaining daughters towards their mother’s naiveté. The narrator and reader equally implicated in this woman’s abjection-by-publicity. But what is missing here (and elsewhere in the collection) is an explicit refusal of phallocentric discourse and it’s effects and affects on the women (and men) objectified by it in patriarchy.
Throughout this work Helen Heath provides acutely ironic reconstructions of the male gaze but should she presume her readers’ complicity with it? To be sure she ironically castigates herself – and “others” – for becoming enmeshed in these pervasive cultural norms, but as an artist, could she attempt more than a replication of such patriarchal tropes? Don’t we also need to supplement such perspectives with the Matrixial resistance of self-fragilization?
A Matrixial framework makes it possible to resist the male gaze of Lo and behold and read its grief stricken mother’s offering of Danish pastries to some jackal documentary makers, as exemplifying something of more significance than Heath’s conception of this woman as trapped in bourgeois conformity with the spectacle of the ‘good hostess’. (Lo and behold, p.45, l. 8-9) For read in matrixial terms the bereaved mother is conveying to her interlocutors her commitment to compassionate hospitality towards the “unknown other” as more important than “the self” – even in extremis. A guest must be fed. The pastries represent her hold on her own humanity and no predatory act can strip her of it. Feeding the “unknown other” symbolizes the originary generativity first extended to her by her own mother. Resonances that her now murdered daughter also absorbed in late pre-birth, in turn, from her. It is this capacity for feminine generativity with which, in wit[h]ness, the reader has the possibility of borderlinking in a Matrixial approach to the poem.
According to the theories of Bracha Ettinger, a predisposition is laid down in late pre-birth, in every human subject, which endows us all (even the meanest documentary film-crew) with the potential to evade phallocentric discourse and see the “unknown other” not only as a lacking “object”, but as a “subject” also.
Ettinger indexes this ‘Matrixial’ predisposition to the traumatising and jouissant experiences we each have in besidedness with our unknown becoming m/Other, as we, her unknown becoming infans, are forming out of her entrails. For me, any consideration of AI (Artificial Intelligence) must take account of these Matrixial terms since in the absence of feminine generativity AI has no equivalence with humanness and is always-already solely a construct of phallocentric discourse.
In part one of this collection, as implied by the nouvelle cuisine “stack” of its front cover, Helen Heath presents the reader with an intriguing heap of unexpected “things” to consider in relation to AI. Horrifying situations are treated as requiring an impartially “scientific” tone of dispassionate enquiry. But in fact it is just such monstrous occasions that cry out for the compassionate hospitality found in the second section of her collection, with its poignant takes on love, mortality, grief and loss. In ‘Reprogramming the heart’, Heath relinquishes inventories of grotesque postmodernity and defaults to a redemptive Sci-Fi narrative of unrequited longing. A woman loses the love of her life but via her western economic privilege (largely unexamined) is able to cheat mortality with the interventions of in vitro fertilization and a good-fairy Malaysian hacker. The bereaved protagonist’s eventual consolation made most apparent in her evolving real time relationship with her little daughter.
This collection’s two-part structure presents the reader with an either/or narrative of cultural captivity vs. subversively obtained personal freedom. But I wonder what an astute thinker like Helen Heath might produce if she chose to evade binary phallocentric oppositions and represented some of the “other” possibilities made accessible in the Matrixial domain.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’, Genrebooks, Dunedin, (2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/