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Launch: Zenobia Frosts' After the Demolition

Brisbane, 12th Sept 2019 (Cordite)

- with readings by Chloë Callistemon, Bec Jessen, Shastra Deo and music by Timothy Tate

Grief When is a psychic stain remover the best when someone dies in-house?   I use vinegar to make a room gleam like light off the back of a horse.   Stone stays stone and dirt stays dirt, but homes are packed with change: a hairbrush now a snarl of cell and habit.   Who loved or died in Schrodinger’s bed? Are the casement windows closed or not? What hairs have made museums of the carpet, and for how long will I discover them? Turn the mattress, and try bleach. Zenobia’s book is already an act of rebellion. Her collection of poetry arrives, as it says on the label, after the demolition. Which implies that at a point on the plane of destruction, perhaps in defiance or resistance, creation has flourished. Today we are launching this well-crafted construction into the world, where it will stand strong in the neighbourhood of not only Cordite’s third series of books but in the contemporary poetry community. Indulge me as I run with this architectural bent. There are many elements of After the Demolition that are ripe to discuss via modern theories of interior and exterior spaces; from the collection and consumption of furnishings, to economically and culturally charged spaces, to ideas about thresholds, which are neither inside nor outside. We can also consider technology, phenomenology and the implications of the closet space as we move through the rooms and houses of this book. Much of my thinking has been sparked by Alexa Griffith Winton’s essay Inhabited Space: Critical Theories and the Domestic Interior. For example, in the tradition of eighteenth-century French culture, where inventories of nonaristocratic households were studied, Zenobia provides us with accounts of domestic objects: towers of pizza boxes, mismatched dishes, a corpse of a sofa, dead bats drying on the line like lingerie, a twisted pink doona in the shape of a human body. The reader must see these objects anew, to imagine the journeys that led them to their resting places. This book consists of four sections (or houses). We arrive at the first with a threshold poem called before/now. We know that ‘somewhere these hands must start or end’; that we are no longer outside but approaching the private realm. Freud talks of thresholds as a boundary between mental impulses and consciousness. Walter Benjamin looks worriedly from the threshold at each ringing of the doorbell. Either way, we are here now and soon there are ‘glass blue bottle bricks flinging light on the deck’. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard knows that the house ‘constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability’ and it is no accident that Zenobia seems more interested in collecting images of sites once stability has failed. To quote Mulder from The X-Files’ episode Irresistible: Some people collect salt and pepper shakers. The fetishist collects dead things. Hair, fingernails... no one quite knows why. Though I've never quite understood salt and pepper shakers myself. As Keri Glastonbury mentions in her astute introduction for the book, there’s a distinct antipodean neo-Gothic approach and witchy tone to this writing; repeat appearances from symbolic imagery like water, blood and glass. The darkness does not romanticise a squalid or seedy life, but LIFE LIFE, which we know has a darkness all its own, even if it is how Fiona Wright — in the book’s epigraph — relates to houses by learning ‘to walk bruiseless to the bathroom in the dark’. I am drawn to the notion of glass. By the early twentieth century, glass was increasingly used in architecture. It implied a social transparency, exposing private lives to anyone who looked in. It is difficult not to think of reality television, that promises entry into private spaces. But, as Jean Baudrillard says, while glass ‘facilitates faster communication’ its invisible materiality ‘prevents it from becoming a real opening’. Or, according to another Frost, ‘good fences make good neighbours’. Zenobia plays with erotic translucency throughout the book. She renovates a renovation show, injects a cooking show with the surrealism of Gertrude Stein and turns The Bachelorette into a meta-date. Popular culture beams from the television and prisms into and from her own life. Surely, if the term is not already opted, this writing is dealing in REALITY POETRY. These poems act as blueprints ‘of when this address breathed’; semi-erotic walkthroughs with furry possums begging to be touched; a house that is ‘a child’s drawing’ of a house. And whether they are set in Brisbane or abroad, at sunset or on census night, the spaces are charged. It is hard to ignore the inaccessible rental market, the impact of Airbnb’s on communities, the rise and rise of technology, the hyperbolic gendering in reality TV, and ‘the palm print on my face’ of male violence. In the 50’s, the bachelor pad arose from a need to cater for ‘the exaggeratedly heterosexual identity of the postwar Playboy bachelor’. George Wagner’s essay Lair of the Bachelor asks ‘[i]f the home is the space of the woman, and if space is either masculine or feminine, what constitutes male space, and what role do women, or homosexuals, play in it?’. It reminds me of Carolee Schneemann’s Parts of a Body House, which is a performance tour through rooms such as the Lung, Kidney and Liver Rooms and the Heart and Cunt Chambers, and defies stereotypes of women in the house as desexualized domestic servants. I feel like Zenobia’s work transgresses gender stereotypes in similar ways. This book explores and celebrates ‘closets’ or identities, where it is perfectly acceptable to own multiple closets containing — and this is Bachelard again — ‘one set of costumes for each persona’. This collection reminds us that a demolition doesn’t always come fast and loud. A demolition can creep up on us, slowly and quietly and we don’t see our own unpacking. Phenomena transforms, from couches being classed as safe spaces, to moth women, to a German sailor meeting Mulder and Scully. If you believe a space can be haunted, I have done a little digging. Many may know that this venue used to be the Tibetan Kitchen. I remember coming here; they made a mean Mt Everest soup. It was possibly around the same time I saw Zenobia do her first poetry reading at Speedpoets down in the Alibi Room. Still further back, I discovered that this was the home address of a Mr Luigi Roccella when he was naturalised in 1948. Remember, ‘homes are packed with change’. As I wrote this speech, the property next door to me — previously the Jane Arnold Hostel, which provided accommodation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — embarked upon its first days of demolition to make way for a shiny new apartment building called Anthology. Our world is constantly being demolished – from the deeply personal, to the incessant babble of social media, to the devastating violence against bodies and the environment, to cruel leaders authorising and perpetuating aggression. What we can take from this book is that through revisioning our surrounds and our relationships — to things, screens and people — it is possible to rebuild, start over, to re-find ourselves. When Baudrillard wrote of the collector — whether of salt shakers, fingernails or relationships — he said that ‘what you really collect is always yourself’. In this manner, Zenobia has (in her own words) touched her finger to the spot that marks here and polished herself into the map. Now let’s break out the good tea towels and please join me in the launching Zenobia Frost’s After the Demolition. BIO: Pascalle Burton is an experimental poet with an interest in conceptual art and cultural theory. Her book, About the Author is Dead, is available from Cordite. Between primary school and finishing highschool, Pascalle moved 17 times and has advanced skills in relocating and rebuilding.

Sani with mother and baby

Years later, looking at that photo, I’m reminded of the two powerful lessons I learned from my time in Nepal. I was there when Sani’s baby was born, but her community and the comfort of ancient customs were the real birth attendants. The birthing rites that struck me then as intrusive and overbearing gave Sani a sense of safety, of being in the expert care of women she trusted. Eventually I came to realize that for some problems my skills could help, but other times the Nepali traditions and systems for coping were as satisfactory as anything I had to offer.

The second was a harder lesson. Over many months of immersion in village life, I never found a comfortable solution for my feelings about the caste system. A troubling question plagued me then, and follows me today when I pass a homeless woman on a Seattle street, or read of police shooting an unarmed black man. How do I reconcile the searing injustices I see around me with my feeling of joy at living in this amazing world? How do any of us live with those contradictions?

Mary Anne Mercer writes from her home in Seattle overlooking the Salish Sea. She has published on a wide range of topics related to social justice, global health, and globalization, as well as academic topics. She spent over 35 years working as university faculty, focusing on strategies to improve the health and survival of pregnant women and their children in resource-poor areas of the world.  She is writing a memoir of her experiences as a nurse trekking for a year with a health team in rural Nepal.

Her web site is Mary Anne Mercer