Friday, June 10, 2016

Michael McAloran’s ‘In Absentia’

Michael McAloran’s In Absentia is a short chapbook (25 pages or so) from Black Editions Press.  There is little preparation given to the reader for what is a dense but exhilarating work.  The press’s website describes the book as “An experimental prose poetry chapbook which deals with the body vocal, the none & the dissipated voice”; no more is in fact needed, as McAloran’s textured writing, on surface “nonlinear” and “avant-garde,” builds up layers of feeling and meaning in the experience of reading it (and, no doubt, writing it).

There is much sound- and word-play, even goopy texture of language, in the manner of Harryette Mullen.  A more obvious forerunner to McAloran, though, is certainly Samuel Beckett.  I’m thinking in particular of Rockaby or Not I, each play (or monologue) with its disembodied voice and similar disjointedness of words.

McAloran’s In Absentia too is about similar questions — the possibility of speech or utterance in a destroyed world, by a destroyed self (thus the title).  For example, a line in section iii. reads, “vocal adrift unvocal clarify till dredge what matter done/ collapse. . .” while in section iv. we have, “vocal crossed up in silence speech devoured by silence ever was. . .”  In contemporary Irish poetry, this is a rare stance; there is little to none of the common tropes, such as the landscape (except an exaggerated sort of devastated, post-apocalyptic one), little of overt politics (except the personal, rendered obliquely), little of an identifiable Irish history.

While the deliberate erasure of the oft-constructed poetic self (e.g. there is no author bio or photo, nor “I”-based speaker) could perhaps be suggestive of some sort of trauma (“recoil in absence unto self-mutilation within to parry in-isolate in-reek in turn. . .”) that itself ties into a wider history, it is not specified here.  Rather, McAloran puts forward an utter rejection of society, almost a kind of nihilism.

Yet even the rhetorical strategy of subverting the self is in a way an assertion of it, and for all the anxiety about whether speech is even possible, the poet has produced a quite sustained and compelling text, “ex-nihilo.”  Though the author may feel himself “in absentia,” through the writing comes a kind of presence.  There is even in part vii. a gesture toward an audience: “scarred unto point bled out vacuous murmurs beneath breath absent audience. . .”  Though characteristically rendered via the negative approach (the audience is supposedly “absent”), by naming it (i.e. giving it its word) the idea of audience too becomes present.

Ultimately, like Beckett, McAloran here seeks some way forward out of nihilism, or at least a coexistence with(in) it.  As the collection builds toward its close, he gives the line, “seeks sustenance in absence not a blinded by dark long shadow blight expel. . .”  The “blight” perhaps can never fully be expelled, but in this powerful poetry are, to use one of McAloran’s favourite words, “echoes,” echoes of something, a kind of sustenance, however fleeting?

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