Robert Wood: Cento: Towards Homonymic Consciousness

  Robert Wood

  Towards Homonymic Consciousness

  JPR 07
This text contains endnotes. Endnote links: If you click on the number in the list of endnotes that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

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An Aborigine is ‘by day a replica of a white Australian, slightly, sometimes heavily sun-tanned, who is taught to respect and accept the same Anglo-Saxon heroes as his or her peers; at night, a ‘real’ person with their own cultural identity. I have named this double existence ‘the super hero syndrome’.’

 — Oodgeroo Noonuccal [See EndNote 1]


The above passage is striking not only for the embodied, epidermal associations of Indigeneity (‘sun-tanned’), but also for the concordance of Noonuccal’s ‘double existence’ with transnational discourses of Blackness that come before and after her. One reads in this passage a similarity to both W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘double consciousness’ and a popular contemporary iteration expressed in the phrase ‘walking in two worlds’. [ See EndNote 2]


There is, of course, a chronology in Noonuccal’s passage (‘day’ followed by ‘night’), which resonates with dialectics — thesis followed by antithesis. What though is the ‘synthesis’? This might be to ask what happens with the rise of each day or night? What happens in twilight? The synthesis might be some sort of ‘hybrid’, a dawn or dusk that sees the person halfway between performing their identity and being authentically human, being ‘real’. [See EndNote 3]


The awareness of this ‘double existence’ returns us to Du Bois who stated:


One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self–conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. [Note 4]


The man with double consciousness is already a ‘Negro’ and an American, and will always be a ‘Negro’ and an American. But to be a ‘Negro’ is in some sense bound up with America and to be American is bound up with the ‘Negro’. In Du Bois’ characterization, it is also not about creating a hybrid, but about retaining cultural traditions to the benefit of society. The more important point is about context — about how one is treated as these two selves given that one need be strong to withstand the world’s opposition.


This resonates too with contemporary scholars of whiteness who highlight whiteness’ invisibility as a raced category, its unseen privilege. [Note 5] To demonstrate this one need only highlight the prevalence of the raced prefix (Asian-, Indian-, African-American). Quite simply though, and in concordance with Noonuccal, the Black subject sees differently and doubly.


Noonuccal’s passage could also be read as a comment on context. In the cold, white light of day, Anglo-Saxon heroes dominate the environment. This contrasts with the black night where Indigenous people can revel in their ‘own cultural identity’. [Note 6] From Noonuccal though, we might begin to map out a theoretical position that critiques the autonomy-heteronomy binary of political theory, which undergirds this, and realise that subjects are always in context and that context is always in subjectivity. This might be less about ‘hybridity’ then about an enabling ‘dialogism’ that re-cognises homonymity. [Note 7]


In linguistics, a homonym is one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings, usually as a result of the two words having different origins. The state of being a homonym is called homonymy. The word ‘homonym’ comes from the conjunction of the Greek prefix ‘homo’, meaning ‘same’, and suffix ‘-onymos’ meaning ‘name’. Thus, it refers to two or more distinct concepts sharing the ‘same name’ or signifier.


A homonym is potentially ambiguous because there are a number of ways that two meanings can share the ‘same name’; thus it may be used in different ways by different speakers. In particular, some sources only require that homonyms share the same spelling or the same pronunciation (in addition to having different meanings), though these are the definitions that many give for homographs and homophones respectively.


Examples of homonyms are ‘stalk’ (which as a noun can mean part of a plant, and, as a verb, to follow/harass a person), ‘bear’ (animal or to carry), ‘left’ (opposite of right and past tense of leave). Homonymy can lead to communicative conflicts and thus trigger lexical change.


Homonyms occur in poetry more frequently than they do in everyday speech. They are used to heighten ambiguity even as a more definitive meaning may be evident from a language game the word is deployed in. There is though a way to read or listen so that criticism may find a difference among different readers, hence a conflict between interpretations. [Note 8] The presence of homonyms though does not necessarily mean the poem is thinking homonymically.


Indeed, the question is not so much what are homonyms, but what is it to think homonymically where there is a productive ambiguity that plays on the possibility of confusion. What, in other words, does homonymic consciousness look like?


In Roman Jakobson’s schema homonyms are part of the poetic function of language, even as they may be conative (hi/high). As we can speak of comic consciousness, we can also speak of homonymic consciousness as if it were a suburb of poetic consciousness. We might begin to think through certain techniques of linguistics and poetics rather than simply of their presence in the poem


Homonymic consciousness is a necessary starting point for thinking through and against binarism. In the most immediate sense it breaks down autonomy and heteronomy; but homonymity could destabilise sound from meaning as well. It is the ability to think itself as without a synthesis that precludes the past.


At the structural level of a poem, homonyms resonate with centos. Although there are examples from Homer and Virgil, centos have a consistent recent thread insofar as they sample and remix like Pound, post-modernism (Olson) and conceptualism (Place). The resonance though between homonym and centos is with line rather than word unit. On centos we might say of the line:


 — they share the same spelling or the same pronunciation;
 — they have different meanings, usually as a result of the two lines having different origins;
 — thus it may be used in different ways by different speakers.


A cento appears then to be a structural application of a homonym. The line is the same but it has different meaning because of the context, which is due in part to how it is situated by a different author (the ‘origin’). Thus, different poets use the line in different ways. The line is the same as the other line, but the sense is different precisely because of the context.


This is akin to saying the word is the same but the game determines its meaning while also allowing for ambiguity. That it resembles another poem as if in a family is another way to frame poetry as a species, which is to say that through method of construction and poetic function we might categorise anew. [Note 9]


There are distinctions to be made between centos though. There are those that reference the world, meaning here the not-poetry archive and ‘reality’, (Diane Arterian’s Death Centos which is composed of people’s last words) and there are those that reference poetry (Kate Fagan’s First Light, John Ashbery’s ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’ and Peter Gizzi’s ‘Ode: Salute to the New York School’). Fagan’s works are not centos in a strict sense of the form — they do not take lines wholesale, but also adapt and change the line breaks and insert some words and formatting. [Note 10] They are however examples of homonymity at the structural level of the poem.


To take Fagan’s ‘Cinematico’ as an example. Dedicated to Astrid Lorange, it is composed of lines from Gertrude Stein and UNKLE, and reads:


Cento for Astrid Lorange

This makes no difference.
A sentence
the sentence
makes no difference between.
Array her in cloth of gold,
She does not remember any orange.
No difference between
I’m over
I’m over
I’m over
I’m broken
Assemble moss rocks
china lilies plants articles
and and and and moving
completely in every direction.
Dancing. Numb hands
climb into a coat,
figure wanders on alone.
The scene opens with a storm,
rain but no hail. There is history
moonlight in the valley
sideways to love.


‘Cinematico’ then is about interpretation as homage and dedication. It says as much about Fagan as it does about Stein and Lorange who has written an academic account of Stein titled How Reading is Written. [Note 11] The source for each line of Fagan’s poem is traceable, and has a different ‘origin’, thought of here as the social relations that cohere in the figure of the attributed ‘poet’ who, in the case of Stein and Fagan, may share gender but come from different generations and have different nationalities and biographical histories.


The meaning too of each line cannot be read in isolation from the rest of the poem. For example, the opening line — ‘This makes no difference’ — comes from Stein’s poem ‘Patriarchal Poetry’ collected in How to Write. In the source text this phrase is a piece of meta-commentary. There is an ironic sense of whether ‘this’, meaning poetry, meaning abstraction, makes a difference against a misogynistic aesthetic. [Note 12] It is a landscape in which a feminist poetics must respond not only with ideological intervention but also with a change in the level of form and style — a Steinian intervention could not be otherwise.


This landscape, being Modernism in the 1930s, comes after the women’s suffrage movement and well before second wave feminism. This differs markedly from Fagan’s mid 2000s Australia, where postmodernism and eco-poetics matter as much as the splintering of the feminist movements in the West in a post-identity moment. For Fagan, coming after Derrida’s ‘differance’ and Stein’s well-known life in Paris, we could ask whether this poem makes a ‘difference’ in the French sense of meaning ‘to differ’ as well as ‘to defer’.


We are paying deference to Stein with this poem even as Fagan differs from her in origin and project. Whereas Stein makes a virtue of repetition in her career, most famously with the oft quoted ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’, in Fagan’s cento, repetition is countered both by distinct objects (in the first instance ‘cloth of gold’ and in the second ‘moss, roses/china lilies plants articles’) and by a comment upon them. The three lines ‘I’m over’ ends up in ‘I’m broken’ — a broken record, a broken language connoting Stein’s breaking of realism (‘Picasso-esque’ or even ‘Bride Stripped Bare-ean’) as much as the breaking of Stein herself by the generation of poets who come after (Fagan and Lorange among them).


The Steinian style of the middle section of the poem gives way to a more typically Fagan rendering then even as we know it is still a Stein poem, albeit re-mixed. Stein here is not being repeated, but inflected, ‘sideways’, ‘sampled as compost’ for a new project that is attuned to the material world (the body and weather particularly (‘numb hands’, ‘storm/rain but no hail’) and to emotion (‘love’) as it refers ‘beyond language’. [Note 13]


In the second-last sentence of the poem, we read ‘The scene opens with a storm’. This is as much a comment on weather outside as it is about the play that is a poem before us. The next line — ‘rain but no hail. There is history’ — is vital. There is the presence of a homonym here. Hail means:


1. barrage, volley, burst
2. sleet, frozen rain, hailstones
3. greet, welcome, address
4. acclaim, acknowledge, salute
5. summon, call, wave


To not hail, could mean any number of these things. In the storm, which reminds one of Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ as it goes through a ‘storm called progress’, we might refuse to fire, we might have no sleet, we might refuse to say welcome, we might not acknowledge, we might not wave. In these iterations, the poet might be saying no to Stein, might be suggesting that there is a post-Steinian language; that history is indeed separate and together, paradoxically rendered Other and Self by this very act of writing a cento. The words have been reclaimed from Stein as much as presented as a shrine. It is homonymic at the structural level.


After all, with nature — ‘moonlight in the valley’ — we move ‘sideways to love’. A straight historical account cannot be a homage, cannot be love; what looms then is poetry, in its metaphoric consideration, its very own language game, is the way in which we show respect and the contents of our heart. Through a homonymic consideration of language and the material of poetic history we move towards an idea of how to be in the world.


Homonyms such as this enter into the political philosophic discourse of autonomy and heteronomy too. To highlight a concrete example, how might we consider the Northern Territory Intervention and the National Apology to the Stolen Generations without recourse to isolating them or viewing them as party political?


Indeed, one need only highlight Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s continued support of Operation Outreach, the intervention’s main logistical operation conducted by an occupying force of 600 soldiers, for a full seven months after he said sorry in parliament. As the meme circulating on social media suggested ‘saying sorry means you don’t do it again’. Similarly, many Liberal Members of Parliament during and after John Howard’s steadfast refusal to engage with Indigenous people on their terms, supported apologising. These are not simply partisan positions. One could argue that there have long been competing impulses in non-Indigenous and Indigenous relations in Australia — assimilation / self-determination being simply one — or in theoretical poetic frames — Apollonian / Dionysian, Athenian / Boethian, Kinsella’s experimental / mainstream.


These binaries are heuristic categories, ‘ideal types’ in Max Weber’s phrase. [Note 14] They rely on straw men held together by elaborate citation rituals to exist, the maintenance or destruction of which depends on one’s aesthetic and political project. Homonymity acknowledges this — for it is an immanent form of self-critique. For every binarism, for every negation, established consciously and unconsciously, homonymity as a reading practice, as a consciousness situates the Other as a part of the Self as it may be framed discursively.


As Peter Uwe Hohendahl writes, in reference to Adorno, ‘the negation remains linked to and engaged with what it negates.’ [Note 15]


John Tranter suggests as much when he writes of Les Murray, he is ‘as obscure as Rimbaud, as much of his poetry is, though many would call him a plain speaker.’ [Note 16] It is not about artificially separating Rimbaud from plainness, or about two autonomous subjects realising their consciousness through a relationship, but the acknowledgement that these two subjects are always already connected through a vulgar materialist context and cannot be separated afterwards even if we do so genealogically and analytically. Origins, and originals, have origins still. We use the word ‘pain’, we breathe the same air, we eat the same bread.


Dialectics assumes a processional quality. There is a chronology, if not a telos, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. But we could contribute a critique of cultural and philosophic understanding of autonomy to buttress post-colonialism more generally. This might be able through the apprehension of a single moment that sees paradox as central, and in that paradox recognises ambiguity and exchange, recognises the homonymic potential of political action. In its baser, more political moments, freedom seems to be about asserting one’s autonomy.


It is not that we can only be free when you are in prison, or that to recognise my freedom you must be in prison; it is that part of me is imprisoned when you are in prison, part of me is free when you are free. That is homonymity. The subaltern is always already speaking, albeit not in its own tongue, albeit not in my own ear. [Note 17] It is already speaking if we know how to listen to it. Our doubleness then need not simply be integrated but used as a ‘reverse squeeze’ by which we can lead people to acknowledge that every 24 hours is a form of twilight.

This text contains endnotes. Endnote links: If you click on the number below that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[Endnote 1] Noonuccal, Oodgeroo, ‘Towards a Global Village in the Southern Hemisphere’ Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University, 1989, p. 6.

[Endnote 2] Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, p. 2; See Adam Goodes in television documentary ‘So Who Do You Think You Are?’ SBS, 2014.

[Endnote 3] Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 9.

[4] Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, p. 2.

[5] Hill, Mike. ‘Introduction: vipers in Shangri La: whiteness, writing and other ordinary terrors’ in Mike Hill (ed) Whiteness: a critical reader, New York: NYU Press, 1997, p. 8.

[6] John Howard ‘relaxed and comfortable’ on Four Corners, 19/2/1996; Barbeque area references the 1986 satirical film ‘BabaKiueria’.

[7] Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. 1994. London: Routledge; Bhaktin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: four Essays. Trans by Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson. Dallas: University of Texas Press, 1982.

[8] Dishon, Judith. ‘Collections of Homonym Poems in Medieval Hebrew Literature’ in Studies in Medieval Jewish Poetry: A Messanger Upon the Garden, edited by Alessandro Guetta, Masha Itzhaki; New York: Brill, 2008. p. 41-54.

[9] Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: poetry by other means in the new century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, p. 9. See also

[10] See for example ‘Chrome Arrow’. The first two lines read: ‘If I could take a flight from zero/to infinity, get lost nearby/’ . This is made up of line seven of Pam Brown’s ‘Laminex Radio’ (‘If I could take’) and line one of stanza two of Brown’s ‘Darkenings’, which reads (‘a flight from zero to infinity’). This seems consistent with other poems presented as ‘centos’, even as this is not strictly a correct formation.

[11] Lorange, Astrid. How Reading is Written: A Brief Index to Gertrude Stein. New York: Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

[12] Google Books , Harriet Scott. The Public is Invited to Dance:

[13] Fagan, K. (2009), ‘‘Originals of Revisable Originals’: Sampling and Composting in the Poetry of Peter Minter, Paul Hardacre and Kate Lilley‘, Angelaki, 9.

[14] Shils, Edward A. and Finch, Henry A. (trans. and ed.), LinkThe methodology of the social sciences (1903–17), New York: Free Press, 1997, p. 90.

[15] Hohendahl, Peter Uwe ‘Theory of the Novel and Concept of the Novel in Adorno and Lukacs’ in Georg Lukács Reconsidered : Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics ed.: Thompson, Michael, p. 76. See also Orwell: ‘by fighting against the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois’ at; See also TS Eliot when he wrote in a letter: ‘the people in Cambridge whom one fights against and who absorb one all the same’

[16] Tranter, John. ‘A warrior poet still living at Anzac Cove’, Weekend Australian, Saturday 29 January 1977,

[17] Spivak, Gayatri. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the interpretation of Culture, London: Macmillan, 1988, p. 28.

Australian writer Robert Wood.

Robert Wood holds degrees from UWA, ANU and Penn. He has delivered lectures at Berkeley, Peking and Mumbai Universities respectively. Wood will be an Endeavour Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in 2017. Find out more on:


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