The Stories We Don’t Tell


Let’s start at 4.13, a woman with a strong, Scandinavian face and big 60s hair stares out woodenly from a dark, grained, three by four frame. Suddenly she speaks, and her face comes alive, with charm, with engagement, with a particular kind of homely seduction.

“Me, do you want me? Oh I’m sorry.” She says with a wry and cheeky twist to her smile, the dark pits of her eyes shining, in a kind of Sally Field at the 1980 Oscars moment.

One moment of performance, an awards show, after the fact of the film, the other a screen test, before, and yet otherwise remarkably similar. In the former, a fictionalised, indeed weaponised account of a real woman who rescues her daughter from an oppressive, patriarchal, enemy, regime, given highest honour; in the latter, a nonfictionalized account of a mostly imaginary woman who is rescued by her daughter from a similar condition of ignoble erasure. In both, a woman must efface her true self, in disguise, in obfuscation, eyes only occasionally meeting ours through the veil, to reform her image, to rescue herself. Throughout Sarah Polley’s film, it is only in those liminal, pre-performative silences where something like the truth beyond our narrative constructs emerges.


At 38.30, in an email exchange narrated in the originator’s own voices, Sarah Polley arranges to meet Harry Gulkin, at a city café, in her quest to rescue the memory of her mother. “I always remember my Mom spoke of you with such affection,” she says. While a ragtime piano score recalling the light, farcical melodramas of the silent era plays, the meeting between the two is reproduced in the grainy, over-dark, over-saturated colours of Super 8 film. The drama is revelatory; there is an instant connection between the two, and one imagines gleaming twirled moustaches and the back of a hand raised to a lead-white brow in shock and feint (and I do mean feint), as, through the course of the conversation, Harry eventually reveals he is Sarah’s father.

However, it is not the drama of the scene that is important, but the means of its representation. Leah Anderst (2013), in an article that is mostly wishful thinking, describes Polley’s overall method as one of “choral autobiography” that democratises and lends “equal weight” to each voice, and this scene in particular, where the performers perform themselves, to represent – documentary style, recent events, as a “partial simulacrum”, as if such a thing could ever actually exist. I suppose the assumption is, capturing something in grainy mocked up super 8 film convinces us the way Schrodinger’s Cat does; that until we actually observe the cat, we do not know if it is dead or alive. In this case Schrodinger’s Sasquatch, perhaps, as the grainy film that we would normally find so unconvincing, is, in this case a partial simulacrum, its actual state can neither be observed, nor ignored; Sasquatch must, therefore, despite being in a quasi state, must be real. This is just an elaborate why of demonstrating that the implication of the partially simulated, is necessarily the partially real. The entire formulation, with its obvious anachronisms, (because even in 2013, when this meeting took place, it is fairly certain that both father and daughter had camera phones in their pockets capable of immeasurably superior sound and resolution) is fairly disingenuous.

Anderst (2013) says, “Although the viewer must realize that the “original” of the scene was never filmed, Polley gestures toward the style of those types of archival footage that are most often taken as evidence in documentary films.” I’m not sure exactly wha documentary films Anderst is referring to. The Zapruder film is perhaps the only Super 8 film I can think of with any evidentiary significance, and again that film obscured more than it revealed. Most home movies are depict distinctly artificial moments, so for a more accurate representation, let us cut “gestures” and splice in “dissembles”.


Thus the implication of the term, partial, is that another, unrevealed part is not simulated, but residing, with edges only slightly blurred, firmly in the bounds of the real. Let us loosen the grip on our own meaning, discarding the forensic precision of a high definition for the grained and indistinct frame of reference of cinema verité, wher “partial”, does not mean a part thereof, but rather, biased, slanted, taking the part of. When one takes a part, even when that part is truth, one puts on costume, and performs.

Gulkin and Polley sit at a table. He eats soup, she films, or parodies filming with a handheld Super 8 camera. It is a scene with a sense of ease; an intimate, familial scene. Various prostheses, of life, of film-making, are scattered in foreground and background; tripods, light stands, a vodka bottle. On the wall is what appears to be a window, sectioned and framed in small bright squares. In the periphery we see Sarah’s reflection move, and realise; this is a mirror, not a window, and therefore, in its relation to light, obtuse, not transparent. Do these many small framed views make what Anderst thinks of as a “chorale”, or rather, does truth remain small, discrete, impenetrable reflections, that return only what they already contain?

 The archive is not the history, and it is certainly not the reality, nor is it even evidence of much, beyond that an archivist chose to arrange materials and recordings in a particular order to create some sort of semblance. Anderst (2013) finds in the conflicts of such an arrangement as Polley has produced, that we have been given “access a multivalent, plural truth”, but if truth is a multivalent , plural representation – does it stop being truth?

Impossibly, Polley turns the mimed camera on us, where we are positioned, perhaps just on the cusp of the imagined proscenium. Are we, therefore, auditioned, captured, transfigured, fictionalised, reduced, bastardised, abandoned and honoured?
Or captivated in the gloss of that small piece of deluded acetate, are we now reduced to the merely observed?

Anderst, L. (December 2013) Memory’s Chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s Theory of Autobiography, Senses Of Cinema, accessed 21 May 2021

Polley, S. (director) (2012) Stories we tell [motion picture], National Film Board Of Canada, Canada.

On the charming & irreverent poetry of childhood

In Beyond The Pleasure Principle Sigmund Freud describes how he observed his young grandson playing a game in which he would throw his toys, or any little thing, away into the corner of the room or under the bed, uttering a forlorn or angry cry as he did so, which Freud took to mean “gone” or “away” (fort in the original German).

Later the toddler, Ernst was observed playing a more developed version of the game; he would repeatedly throw a wooden reel with string attached into his cot, crying his small expressions of command or consternation when the reel disappeared from sight. Then with some delight, and another rudimentary cry, (this time an approximation of Da! – meaning “There!” or “Here!”), he would reel it in again.

The game was played as a response to the absence of the child’s mother. To Freud the Fort/Da! game demonstrates how pleasure and pain are inextricably linked in the psyche, how early we learn to take such measures, to make such gestures, to gain a semblance of control, of understanding, from loss, from absence and need, of how one person or object can stand as a substitute for someone else, and indeed through symbolic gestures, how we will repeatedly recall or re-enact a painful experience by such exertion in order to engender a pleasurable one.

The French philosopher and linguist Jacques Lacan, analysing Freud’s Fort/Da! game, saw not only an entry into the symbolic, but the destruction of the real. The grief experienced by the child at the mother’s absence is denuded of its power, of its effects, by turning her into a symbol, by controlling her, by destroying her, through the interplay of presence and absence; as the object of need, she can never quite return to that pre-linguistic, pre-symbolic, ultimate real, that according to Lacan is destroyed by word and symbol.

While through this performance of an act, of a spell, rather like the primitive mimesis of sympathetic magic, though pain is temporarily allayed (or perhaps, alloyed), we can only conclude that the pleasure of the presence of the object of desire, now no longer quite as real, is also lessened. So the child cries, clutching at his mother’s skirts, even when she returns.

In this tantrum, in this petulance, we not only begin to see the necessary first becomings of the individuated self, but also the first formations of poetry. In the rhythmic cries, in the conflict of desires, in the play and transformation, in the creation and control of the symbolic, in the outpouring demand and the inpouring need, in utterances that embody the contradictions of need and want, in the way we deform the real to create objects of amusement, of rancour and delight.

Philosophy and psychoanalysis, at their best, are largely works of language and the imagination. A Fort/Da! game in search of the meaning of presence and absence, of pleasure and pain, of being and non-being, of nonsense and significance, of desire and despair, rather like the continual inquiry of the poetic.

Of course philosophers and psychologists find prodigies and marvels in what seems readily apparent to poets; that in a realm where symbols are filtered through the idiosyncrasies and significances of the self, we enter an arena of transformation and interchangeability.

In children’s poetry, whether in the fabrications of the young, the boasts and taunts of the playground, or in the strange and divinational chants that count who is out and who is in, there is a ruthless kind of measure. In the raucous expressions of amusing rhymes and nonsense, or in the raw and dreamlike anxieties of nursery rhymes and folklore, though we may think they are composed by adults, by the search for essence, the act of simplification and reverie itself, we are reaching back into the primal symbols and desires of that first savage and formative game.

A cotton reel easily becomes an absent mother, and with a string, an obedient puppet. A toy becomes the self, the self the dream. In broken boughs and broken crowns we have other primal metaphors. It is easy to forget that the playground has its own defiance, born of a primordial Darwinian politics, until we remember, perhaps, that;

Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin ran away, (Traditional; – circa 1967).

It also has ways of emphasizing that acts of defiance must have consequences;

My momma told me, If I was goodee, She would give me, A rubber dolly, But Sally told her, I kissed a soldier, And now she won’t give me, A rubber dolly, (Traditional; – circa 1930).

Childhood also has its essential tragedy;

Ladybird Ladybird fly away home, Your house is on fire, your children alone, All but one, and that’s little John, And he lies under the grindle stone, (Traditional; – circa 1770).

Between the doggerel of mockery and obedience, beyond the charming melancholy of untrammeled tragedy, we can perhaps find another way, beyond authority or moral didacticism, where tomfoolery and beauty meet, in a spell of wild divination, and see again as children;

Intery mintery cuttery corn,
Brambly briar and brambly thorn,
Wire and briar and barrel and lock,
Three fat geese in a flock,
One flew east and one few west,
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

(Traditional; – circa 1888).

Intrigued? For further reading I highly recommend; 
Cinderella Dressed In Yella; The first attempt at a definitive study of Australian children’s play rhymes. 
1969, Heinemann Educational, Melbourne.
Edited and selected by Ian Turner, June Factor and Wendy Lowenstein

Or, The Book of Bird & Bear, 2019, Maximum Felix Media, Korumburra, which features a selection of my poems inspired by the rhymes, fantasies, nonsense and folklore of childhood, available now from Amazon in the link below, and the usual other online venues.


What is a poem?

What is a poem? May as well ask, What is a bird? If your answer is, A creature that wants to fly, you are in the right place. Some consider the purpose of poetry is merely to create of mundane thoughts something poetic, a sort of polemic or didacticism or biograph dressed up in Sunday clothes. The creation of something poetic is, rather, a consequence, not a purpose. If you wish to give a sermon or a speech, do. However eloquent, this is not quite a poem.

In A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream Shakespeare has it that;

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

From the intrigues of the imaginary, the poet makes something both astonishingly new and yet profoundly familiar.

Lewis Carroll infamously asked, How is a raven like a writing desk? Later in half-hearted glibness answering his own conundrum, because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat and it is nevar put with the wrong end first. I would simply say, the fault lies in the question, and return it to its beingness as a rhetoric koan; a raven is a writing desk – ink spills from both, how then is it not?

Edgar Allan Poe will tell you, a poem is the rhythmical creation of beauty, its highest purpose to evoke a sense of beauty in the reader. A poem, as French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has said, is a contemplation, written from a reverie. A kind of semi-autonomic daydream, in which purpose, language, tradition and elaboration entwine with the subconscious impulse. This reverie has the singular purpose, in its newness, to impel a consequent reverie in the reader. Akin to a suspension of that surface of critique, and falling into an auto-hypnopoetic trance.

If childhood is indeed as a glass of dreams, a glass darkly, poetry returns us to that wide awake reverie, to that reflexivity in which the world is images and mysteries that, before experience so fiercely trammels them, merge in unsuspected and unprecedented ways, that we are driven to order and unpuzzle.

The reader’s induced reverie is of course informed by what is significant to the reader, what resonates from their own journey of unpuzzling strata. If the poet is only trying to impart experience, well. We all already know what a bird is; what we want to know, what we want to feel, is of its desire to fly, and in the immensity of that blue, for a moment, in a dream, to fly with it.

Thus; A poem is a bird that from its desire to fly, creates itself.