From Geoff Page, The Canberra Times, August 11 2011:
Another lively publisher of Australian poetry (and a slightly older one, having begun in 2003) is John Leonard Press in Melbourne. Its latest book also features a relatively young poet with surrealist influences but with a lower-key, more ironic tone. Dan Disney’s first full collection, And then when the, is, in many places, an attempt to merge poetry and philosophy, forms which have traditionally been thought antithetical. One remembers what Plato wanted to do with poets in the Republic.
This philosophical preoccupation emerges in an intriguing series called “Epigraph Poems”. Here Disney spins nine short poems from sentences which have already been used as epigraphs for other works. Most of them feature witty turns of thought but are marked by a certain opacity. More directly moving perhaps is Disney’s tribute to the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his poem, “Kant’s Statue, Kalingrad”. Disney shows how modernity has apparently overridden Kant’s principles — and how East Germany contrived to distort them for its own purposes. “How to be a priori / about such wilful making?” Disney asks. A few lines later he sums things up with: “Under the lunge of airliners, of smog-dirty billboards / Kant’s gaze. / What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? Five foot tall dandy / in a smock of birdshit.” Somehow Disney is able to help Kant’s eternal questions persist, despite the physical and spiritual degradation that has surrounded his statue.
In several other poems in And then when the we see a comparable European influence. In “Illogos”, for instance, Disney portrays humanity’s philosophical distress in a manner not unlike that used in Vasko Popa’s famous poem, “The Little Box”. In “Things I’ve Seen” the poet offers us a short, ironic pseudo-play reminiscent of the images seen in some of Giorgio de Chirico’s “Metaphysical” paintings.
Alternately however, Disney is also happily Australian. His “Collins Street, 5 pm”, a verbal equivalent to John Brack’s famous painting of the same name, is virtually a performance poem, bursting with good humour and smart observations — but always avoiding mere whimsy. More rural and impressionistic is Disney’s sequence, “Smalltown études”, which gives us brief and somewhat elusive sketches of six Gippsland towns. “A bus draws in to school / freckled generations / at its windows. Up the road, the cemetery / is covered with phonebook names.”
The poet Dan Disney, and his book And then when the, are not easily categorised. The poems range widely but there is an individuality and a sophistication here that suggest Disney will almost certainly make a considerable impact on Australian poetry over the next few years.
From Pauline Burton, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal , issue 16, March 2012.
The title of Dan Disney’s collection—and then when the—gives some indication of the dynamics of his verse: the musings of a mind in flight. A recurring theme of these dazzling, sometimes elliptical poems is the nature of reality, flagged up in references to an eclectic range of sources, from Wallace Stevens to the Buddha, via Umberto Eco, Wittgenstein and Hesse. The collection is bookended by two portraits (maybe) of the writer himself, as a philosophy student (“Standing among the philosophy class”) and as a poet (“Poets”).
In the opening poem, the writer positions himself with others who share the same quest—”we come/fog-breathed/to hear how we might come to know the world through pure reflection/without recourse/to experience” yet the hopelessness of this undertaking is shown by the vivid materiality of the poem, as in the detail of “fog-breathed.” These seekers after truth have come in from the rain outside, where “The trees/are wearing the shape of trees,” into a chilly lecture theatre, “A huddle of minds/in the dark morning.” There is humour here, certainly, yet sadness too: sadness (and verbal wit) which is echoed in the concluding “Poets”—”non-descript as our job descriptions and/making memos to the immemorial.”
Dan Disney takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride of keen observation, metaphysical speculation, riffs on themes and quotations from Western writers and artists and surreal juxtapositions of the past and the present, the sublime and the absurd. The book’s epigraph, Sartre’s “how strongly things exist today,” is fully realised—”you really do gotta love Reality,” Disney wryly comments. This love is apparent in his precisely worded evocations of place, as in a road trip along Australia’s Great Dividing Range: “The sky is starling-filled granite, this open country/veneered with estates sudden as dark water rising…” Human life is rooted in this landscape: “A bus draws in to school, freckled generations/at its windows. Up the road, the cemetery/is carved with phonebook names.”
Do we really gotta love Dan Disney’s re-workings of Western cultural icons? I would say “yes”: spotting the allusions and enjoying the fun he has with them is one of the book’s chief pleasures. I laughed out loud at the image of a shouting worm in the beak of an inter-textual blackbird, reversing the Wallace Stevens quotation into “metaphor/is a cliché from which we escape by reality”—the worm that turned indeed. Darker existential themes also appear: the nightmare of escaping from a wooden box, only to find oneself within another box, then another and the Darwinian struggle for survival through the whole chain of being as “A thing, eating a thing/becomes eaten by another thing.” I look forward to more from this writer and hope (“after Dan Disney”) that “the well-born” [Hong Kong/pick your own city] “heigh-ho masses, amid velvety fumes/in short black everything” will rush out and buy the book.
From Caitriona O’Reilly, Poetry Salzburg Review, Number 21, Spring 2012.
Australian poet Dan Disney’s first collection and then when the announces its philosophical preoccupations in the first of its short lyrics, ‘Standing among the philosophy class’ (p.1):
Coats wet, we come
to hear how we might come to know the world through pure reflection without recourse
Disney’s resolutely lower-case, open-form poetry examines the fleeting nature of experience and perception and the possibility – or impossibility – of knowing the world my means of a poetic voice that is by turns wry, self-deprecating, serious, and ironic. Occasionally, the small spaces of his lyrics can seem a too-delicate material on which to hang such weighty concerns; the poems are larded with corner-of-the-mouth parenthetical asides and intertextual references, as in ‘apprehension involves no problem for it may progress to infinity’ (p.22) with its Kantian spur:
the knell of dogma! The din of knowing
resounding in the fictions of our star-hung universe: rocking to-and-fro ad hominem
to the rulebooks of collective sanity?
Disney wears his influences – Immanuel Kant, Wallace Stevens, Jorie Graham, and especially Martin Heidegger – very much on his sleeve, and the constant foregrounding of his philosophical/poetic influences can occasionally threaten to capsize the poetry. However, when he embeds the poems more firmly in an unfamiliar landscape, as he does in the sequence entitled ‘Smalltownétudes’, the characteristic disorientation and ‘disequilibrium’ of his point-of-view seem entirely appropriate:
In the dimly-lit kitchens of farmer widows
of panic: the fire brigade’s
practice an occult minuet in these dry-mouthed hills
where rabbits thump the blind underground
and eels slide up pussy-willow riverbeds. (p.10)
Disney has written elsewhere that he finds Heidegger, particularly the latter’s essays collected in Poetry, Language, Thought, a particularly enabling figure, and, having considered the origins of the term ‘wonder’ with reference to Heidegger and the Greeks, speculates: ‘can there be different kinds of wonder, and is it this that marks a difference in thinking that locates philosophers and poets, who them approach and enter language so differently?’ This would seem to recall Emily Dickinson’s memorable definition of the problem: ‘Wonder – is not precisely knowing/ And not precisely knowing not/ A beautiful but bleak condition/ He has not lived who has not felt.’ In fact, Disney might do well to remember that the poets have often been ahead of the philosophers in the anatomization of the speculative drive and its relation to the creative impulse. Overall, one can’t help feeling that Disney’s poetry might benefit from a little less Heidegger and more Herbert, Dickinson, and R.S. Thomas.
The restless, questing speaker of Disney’s poetry cannot remain satisfied with a single viewpoint, however; and one of the more pleasing things about this collection is the continually shifting tone, from the mad consumerist litany of ‘Ecce hombres’ (‘A thing eats a thing/ and is eaten/ by another thing. This thing/ not lasting long, is eaten/ by a further thing p.17) to the location-snapshots of ‘Still lifes’:
A population of marble people
is milling in Westminster Abbey, gabbling the tongues of history.
Someone’s left a notes, come
LordeIesus, come qvicklye’, etched in stone
into eternity. (p.40)
and then when the is an intriguing first collection from a poet who, unconventionally and bravely, seems prepared to tackle head-on the vexed relationship between thinking philosophically and poetically.