Liquid Amber Press, 2022
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Dominique Hecq’s After Cage (2nd edition) is presented on the page as a long poem. Yet, After Cage is more than written lyric poetry: it is a multi-generic performance piece incorporating verse and dance that Hecq calls “an experiment in poiesis” in the afterword. Movement was integral to the conception, refinement, and enactment of After Cage as both a written poetic work and a dance performance in the style of a fugue. While After Cage is a hybrid work, the poem in written form offers insight and impact as a standalone piece.
The format of the published text enables readers to approach Hecq’s long poem with few preconceptions. By providing Hecq’s exegesis on the context and generative process of After Cage as an afterword, the publisher allows for readers to make their own initial socio-historical and formal connections and find meanings in the poetry without authorial guidance. It is edifying to read the long poem, then the exegesis, then return to the poetry for an enlightened and enlightening second encounter.
Hecq’s project began as a written account of a flight from Melbourne to New York City in 2017 with the working title Moods. While in New York, she successfully applied for a week-long dance workshop program to be undertaken on her return to Melbourne. Dancing her composition (sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner) inspired Hecq to rework Moods into the performance piece After Cage as “a meditation on our times.”
A serendipitous moment at one of the workshops proved catalyst to Hecq’a performative poetic experiment. When she told her dance partner that she was finding the improvisations disruptive, her partner’s reply was simple: “John Cage.” Puzzled, Hecq looked to Matteo Fargion, the composer leading the workshop with the choreographer Jonathan Burrows. Fargion suggested that Hecq read the American avant-garde composer John Cage’s writings, in particular Silence (1961).
Reading Cage’s work proved transformative. Hecq had previously understood Cage to be a pioneer of indeterminacy in composing – “aleatory music” – in which some aspects of a musical piece are left open, either to chance or to the performer’s free choice. Yet, in Silence, Cage reveals how he also relies on mathematical sequences to impose form on compositions. Hecq realised that Cage’s compositions rely on the tension between a formal, mathematical structure and “chance operations” that allow opportunities for “play”. He used this tension between form and improvisation to deconstruct the art of the fugue.
Similarly, Hecq would rework her manuscript into a taught rope of poetry by twisting together strands of formal verse with improvised poetic utterance, rendering the rope better able to conduct sound waves of meaning, so that the reader and the writer are connected both socially/circumstantially and through the phenomenon of communication. Hecq uses this process to create a fugue fitting for our (in)tense times.
Hecq re-envisioned her work-in-progress with the aid of a New York School composer, but After Cage is also indebted to a New York School poet: John Ashbery. In the afterword, Hecq cites the title poem of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the collection that launched Ashbery from relative obscurity into laurel-wreathed infamy in 1975. Although After Cage is structured partly through word association in Ashbery’s trademark manner, it differs in tone from the frustrated, fractious poetic persona of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The witty, playful, and conversational voice Hecq adopts is more akin to another New York School poet: Frank O’Hara. Beguilingly chatty while serving up the occasional acerbic assertion, Hecq’s erudite speaker is endearingly familiar, as if the reader had bumped into an old friend on a flight from Melbourne to New York.
Viewed straight on, After Cage is a stream-of-consciousness, associative monologue with a refrain that varies each time it is repeated, like a persistent notion that nags at the mind. It uncannily evokes the process of intense rumination; when a mind obsessively revisits an idea but changes the phrasing each time in an effort to ameliorate the attached emotions. Obsessive repetitive analysis of ideas is a trait common to anxious minds in the western world.
Hecq poses key questions in her convex mirror of a poem. Now we can see where we are in time and space, how do we move forward in both dimensions? Is there even hope for progress?
After Cage proffers a solution of sorts both in its content and form and in the method of its transformative composition. Vital to Hecq’s creative process, physical movement in the form of redirection responding to the troubles and traumas of our contemporary world. Dancing the text of her work-in-progress thus enabled Hecq to re-interpret the jottings from her flight to New York to refine the transcript Moods into the finished piece After Cage. She describes the editing process as “an event of the body.”
Cage’s ideas as presented (and represented) in Silence convinced Hecq to dismantle her manuscript into individual pages, removing punctuation and margin. Through dancing her words, she saw ways to reconfigure the poetry into a pattern of improvisation and refrain. With a new vision of what she wished to achieve, Hecq then reinserted some punctuation and restored the margins of the text. Hecq believes that this practice of “dancing the words” helps her to create “a kind of associative rhythm that mimicked the forward movement of speech – repetitions and interruptions. A disrupted flux.” Nevertheless, the poem reads less like speech – verbalised communication – than the internal monologue of a mind half-maddened by the contradictions of our contrarian contemporary societies. The verse is fraught, taught, tense. In this way, Hecq returns the off-kilter collective gaze as a means of subversion. She maintains that “the experience of dancing, especially when interacting with others, was destabilising the formal patterns penned on the page.” Destabilising poetic form is a metaphorical act of undermining received thought, challenging the status quo, and questioning the utility of unquestioning conformity.
Yes, Hecq’s danced poetry destabilises the formal patterns of verse. Lines of black dots and black dashes arranged in a seemingly random order that appear not to be a pattern are an analogy for a poem like After Cage that features both formal and improvised elements. In such a poem, there must always be something that separates each mark from the one that follows: something that distinguishes the (formal) dots from the (improvised) dashes: white space. But what is white space? Absence of sound? Absence of black? Absence of symbol? White space is each of these things. But white space also signifies something in and of itself. White space is necessary to the random sequence of black dots and dashes: without it, the viewer cannot distinguish dot from dash. Therefore, no matter how much the improvised dash may give the semblance of being random or chaotic, it is inevitably bounded.
After Cage is, therefore, a pattern created by unpicking an existing pattern and merging it with moments of improvisation. Its simplicity is its strength.
Hecq challenges the inherited modern western tendency towards overthinking. Words, archetypes, and idioms are questioned through subversion. Hecq interrogates the concepts of the author, the authorial, and the authorised in the lines:
Language swallows time
Time swallows us
like an unsatiated mother intent
on devouring her progeny
quarens quem devoret
These lines engage with the western canon of art and literature through both maxim-like statements and the Latin phrase that translates to “looking for someone to devour.”
In her poem, Hecq challenges the misogynistic, paranoic theories of Freud and Lacan surrounding the infant stage of development. She raises the notion that while we may use language to “swallow” or pass the time, it is in fact Time that will ultimately swallow us. In Hecq’s ironically skewed worldview, the archetype of wise old Father Time bearing his scythe becomes a malevolent Mother Time. The sinister result of our cynical, time-poor, resource-wasting western monoculture is Mother Time. Women have supposedly been liberated from oppression, but they have become complicit in their own captivity. Women end up performing paid work outside the home in addition to unpaid housework and parenting. Meanwhile, social media bombards women with filtered, cropped, and photoshopped images of celebrity and influencers: yummy mummies bouncing back with flat bellies and wrinkle-free skin days after giving birth.
Social pressure tells women they must be thin, attractive, young, cool, relevant, moral, nurturing, intelligent and well-off. Women have been redefined. A woman must remain maidenly beautiful even as a mother or a crone. A woman must convince others that she is not foolish at all life stages. A woman must fend off clichés and accusations at every age: “silly girl,” “baby brain,” “crazy cat lady,” “Karen,” “embittered old hag.”
In 2017, when Hecq wrote After Cage, representations of the Superwoman figure – mother, maiden, and crone in one – were ubiquitous across mainstream and social media. A few years later, with the Covid 19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed, modern western society has become yet more pathologically obsessed with mortality and time-poverty. In 2022, when the second edition of After Cage was published, AI enjoyed a moment of notoriety, replacing the omega plague as the horror trope du jour. Fears are being voiced across the English-speaking world wide web that AI will run rampant and destroy the very fabric of reality with Deep Fakes. The machines will take over, according to the alarmists, but who will lead the rise of the machines?
AI provides an answer. The Superwoman figure is so omnipresent in our cultural artefacts that her sinister doppelganger is now surfacing in AI. Her name is LOAB. She was discovered in April 2022 by a Swedish artist, Steph Swanson, working under the moniker Supercomposite. LOAB is a figure reproduced by AI art generators that have been given negative prompts. LOAB always manifests as a woman with a sad expression, wet cheeks as if she has been crying, and a mouth half open as if she were screaming or sobbing. She invariably appears in a domestic situation – a house with drab khaki walls filled with cardboard boxes, junk, and stuffed toys. Sometimes her tears are made of blood. The name “LOAB” comes from the four letters that were inexplicably included in one of the AI-generated pictures of the terrifying figure. LOAB is the hoarder, the battered wife, the madwoman in the attic, the victim of botched plastic surgery, and the monstrous Lacanian mother devouring her own children.
LOAB emerges when we ask AI what it fears: what we fear. LOAB is also the annoyingly chatty stranger – female, of course – who sits in the plane seat next to the speaker of After Cage:
My companion distracts me She chitters and giggles
oblivious to other passengers
godlike I could hush her in a poem
Words used to silence. Words used as weapons. But the speaker also longs “To write this poem away from death” and observes that “All / writing is birthed by death.” All utterance in the western world is an attempt to escape our inevitable demise – to live forever through our poetic productions, as voiced by the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. As Hecq observes, we cannot cheat death with words, or by any other means. We only end up serving the great Antimother, as writing “Tends towards death / Tends the death / with curlicues…”
After Cage means “in the manner of John Cage.” However, the title also evokes the notion of escape: life after the cage. The twentieth-century U.S. poet Maya Angelou wrote of antithesis: the free bird’s dull, insipid songs contrasted with the caged bird’s inspired, soaring paean to the freedom it has never known. Binary oppositions serve as contradictions to challenge injustice. This is Hecq’s approach in After Cage. She incorporates movement and improvisation into a static artform usually bound by formal rules. Each dance step is a metaphoric step towards dismantling the dichotomies that oppress and bind us. Hecq considers another bird in addition to Angelou’s two birds, one that has only known freedom and one that has only known bars. She contemplates the caged bird freed.
In this way, the words After Cage take on another meaning, one that is perhaps aleatory. Icarus fell. Nevertheless, he flew. Icarus flew for a glorious – if brief – time. The white ruffled feathers that recur in Hecq’s long poem might be the wings of a bird released from a cage as it dips its wings to enjoy a freedom that has long been longed-for.
Hecq also addresses these binaries in her account of the plane flight: “We are airborne / In reality we are not born of air at all — just carried through it // In flight // Suspended between // Life and death.” Life may be conceived of as all-consuming, but it is a liminal state between birth and death. Contrary to received western wisdom, life and death are not binary oppositions. Instead, the true binary opposition is birth and dying. Life is the threshold space; the liminal time. Birth and death form brackets for life. According to the speaker of After Cage, we, the living, are “Like so many numbers bracketed off by the laws of algebra.” And who is it who gives birth? Woman. And she does so alone.