• Ali Alizadeh’s October 18 Melbourne launch speech for Jessica L. Wilkinson’s marionette: a biography of miss marion davies

    Jessica Wilkinson’s marionette: a biography of miss marion davies is a major new work, and I’m delighted to have been asked to launch it. I’m thankful to its author for also providing me with the topic for a literary article and also a chapter of an academic monograph that I’m currently working on. My monograph will be about the radical works of contemporary Australian poetry that break with the existing modes of aesthetics, which I see, after the philosopher Alain Badiou, as regimes of didacticism (or realism), romanticism (or postmodernism) and classicism (or lyricism). I believe Dr. Wilkinson’s book is one of the few works of contemporary poetry produced in this country that departs from these modalities and by so doing may be described as affirmationist art. I would describe this wonderful book’s poetics as a work of radical inaesthetic feminist life-writing.

                According to marionette, the story of the late silent cinema/early talkies Hollywood actress Marion Davies’ life can only be spoken about in poetry.  Such a view of poetry as the sole medium for truth is, however, a properly romantic notion, and not a radical inaesthetic one. What makes this book ground-breaking is that at the same time that it embodies the fable of Davies’ biography, it argues for this story to be the instigator for a singularly new truth and a new kind of poetic truth. The wild textual experimentations of marionette – marking this book as something very much close to the last word in topographical and syntactic experiment in contemporary poetry – in conjunction with their inclusion of the facts of their subject’s life result in an Idea (or truth) which is both immanent to the work – inherent in the materiality and specificity of its poetic language – and singular: it is an Idea produced solely and uniquely in/ by the literary milieu, capable of transforming the conditions and configurations of this scene.

                Wilkinson makes her virtuosic reconciliation of these paradoxical attributes clear by replicating and simultaneously rejecting the official, non-poetic version of Davies’ life. The book starts with a two-page biography literally, materially distorted and made illegible. Therefore the author’s version of the actress’s story comes at the expense of the prosaic facts. But Wilkinson’s poetics is not one of a routine, fashionably postmodern rejection of history; it is instead a provocative break with the genre of historiography with the aim of reactivating and bringing to life history’s secrets, enigmas, voids and truths. The individual poems of this book are terrific marriages of the singular and the immanent: here we have history, reality and content, but these are disrupted and recreated by the passions of the poetic form.

                Marionette is also a radically new intervention in the genres of life-writing and women’s writing. Far from merely representing the tale of the actress’s life, the narrative itself has become a marionette in Wilkinson’s hands. She has retold the story by turning facts into motifs, and doing with motifs what needs to be done to revise this biography in a startlingly original, impossibly imaginative way. This is creative non-fiction at its most exhilarating and ambitious.

                As a cutting edge feminist poem, marionette evokes, in Julia Kristeva’s terms, the transformative entrance of the poetic into the field of the paternal/symbolic biographic. Wilkinson’s work may also be seen as a demonstration of Judith Butler’s theory of the performative as explored via the staging of both the subject’s gender, gendered objectifications and her resistance to these reifications, as well as the text’s generic performance as a long poem conversant with the traditions of the modern feminist long poem, from H.D. to Lyn Hejinian, Alice Notely and beyond. Finally, this superb book also speaks to Nina Power’s perspective on the one-dimensionality of female positions under the rubrics of capitalist exploitation and consumption: this Marion Davies is a terrifically subversive, multi-dimensional literary creation.

                Jessica Wilkinson’s marionette: a biography of miss marion davies is, in short, a brilliant, pioneering work. It surpasses the conventions of both life-writing and formulaic experimentalism, and it revives the embattled genre of the long poem. It is, in my view, one of the most important literary creations of contemporary Australian writing.


    Ali Alizadeh (Monash University) 18/10/12

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