Daria Florea reviews Ana Blandiana’s poetry

Ana Blandiana was born Otilia-Valeria Coman on 25th March 1942 in Timiºoara, Romania and adopted her pen name at seventeen with the publication of her first poem. After marrying editor Romulus Rusan in 1960 she attended the faculty of philology in Cluj-Napoca.

                                                                                                      Ana Blandiana
I first heard of the poet Ana Blandiana as a child in Romania when the popular starlet Margareta Pâslaru sang her famous poem Lasã-mi toamnã frunze verzi, (Leave me green leaves Autumn.) Later, in the 1980s, when I was dissatisfied with life in my country of birth, Blandiana appeared again in my consciousness with poems that young people could relate to. However, I did not realise the full extent of her involvement in arts, and especially politics, until two decades later. By then I had fled communist Romania, made a new life in Australia and begun my research into Eastern European poets.  
Translation is generally considered detrimental to the original work because of the loss of the original rhyme, rhythm and expression. However, I would argue that Ana Blandiana’s poetry is translated into English to advantage. Romanian is a romantic language and the word choice, its inflection, sound and particular connotation can outstrip the content in importance. Ana Blandiana’s original poems have an enthralling rhyme and rhythm. The translations allow the reader to focus on what the author is saying rather than the way in which they say it. When reading Blandiana’s poetry, understanding content is crucial in order to appreciate the poem’s beauty and profundity.
The political context in Romania at the time had a significant influence on Ana Blandiana’s work. Her poetry expressed the concerns of an oppressed nation that would otherwise face severe repercussions. She is best known for her use of the extended metaphor with which she masked her criticism. “Hibernare” (Hibernation) comments on the nation’s ignorance and unwillingness to act by depicting them at the border of sleep: “Don’t listen to my brothers, they sleep. / Not understanding their own shouted words, / While they scream like some approving wild beasts.”
In 1985 she became known, nationally and internationally, for her most controversial anti-communist poetry. At the insistence of the student editors of the Bucharest magazine Amfiteatru, Blandiana submitted a group of four anti-communist poems. One of them was Eu Cred (I Believe), in which she reinvents her nature theme:
            I believe that we are a botanic nation
            Otherwise, where do we get this calmness
            In which we await the shedding of our leaves?
She was sufficiently popular to demand the world’s attention in case of political persecution since, in the words of Romanian editor Musat, “Popular poets had a special status; an aura [of] which they took advantage” (Musat). Blandiana was banned from publishing nationally after Ceauºescu became aware of the poems’ seditious content. In 1985 she sent Totul (All,) a reflection on everyday Romanian life, abroad to be published in samizdat, in different western newspapers and later broadcasted on Radio Free Europe. The Independent in Britain devoted their first page to a translation of the poem and provided an interpretation of its surrealist prose. As a result, the communist authorities placed a ban on books containing her name and poetry, which lasted from 1985 to 1988.
In an interview with Naomi Frandzen, Blandiana reveals that, like many public personalities at the time, she was tempted to flee Romania (Frandzen) but her poem “Cetina” (The Fir Tree) discloses her fear that, once departed, she could not return:
            They cannot leave, not even as ghosts.
            Around them water and sky migrate
            The wind asks constantly: “Don’t you go?”
            The fir tree sobs: “I’m home.”
The political context created a personal dilemma as she strove to balance her poetic integrity with political demands. Among the many early poems that showcased her romantic style she wrote “Torquato Tasso,” as a result of her study of the Italian poet and in response to her early experience with the censorship which was run by Directia Presei (The Press Department). In an interview published by the National Journal Online in 2005 she revealed that “[with censure] we had to always negotiate, to renounce. About my first book I cannot even say with all my heart that it is mine, that much the censor intervened” (Viata Mea E Un Roman: Amintirile Anei Blandiana.) In “Torquato Tasso” she reflects on the absence of truth in poetry and society and her role as a poet to uphold it:
            Through the night he came towards me, he,
            The poet failed by fear.
            He was very handsome.
            You could see the poetry in his body, like an x-ray film.
            Poetry unwritten out of fear.
Even without political implications her poetry was contentious, delving in philosophy, religion and morality. Although she tried to incorporate the truth as she saw it, her willingness to succeed in a literary career and her new status as a poet did not allow for complete freedom of expression. “Each Move” reveals her dilemma:
            Each of my moves
            Is seen
            Simultaneously in many mirrors,
            Each look I take 
            Meets with itself
            Several times,
            I forget which is
            The true one,
            And who
            Mocks me.
In a society where communal harmony was claimed to be upheld, she questions the role of poetry, revealing its controversial and untameable nature, which lends it a sense of notoriety:
            I hear how someone steps behind me in eternity   
            And plants words in the wake of my soles,
            A wise step – quotation marks,
            A wrong step – poetry.
After the December uprising in 1989 and the execution of Ceauºescu, Blandiana’s ban was officially lifted and she continued publishing. She also reopened the Romanian branch of the worldwide association of writers, PEN, in 1990, and over the years founded numerous projects and organisations aimed at preserving freedom of speech and opposing the persecution of writers.
Her early work and the poetry written after the 1989 revolution are characterised by nature and emotion as pure expressions of life. It resembles the youthful preoccupation with love, self discovery and romanticism in cultural desert produced by oppression and lack of freedom of speech. “Rain Chant” celebrates youth as it compares sexuality with nature: “
            I am the most beautiful woman because it’s raining
            And I look good with rain’s locks in my hair.
            I am the most beautiful woman because it’s windy,
            And the dress desperately struggles to cover my knees
As well as displaying an intense awareness of life, her poetry has several dominant thematic elements including morality, religion and spirituality. The dominant religion in Romania is Romanian Orthodox Christianity; “Pieta,” published in 1969, reflects on faith through the confusion of Jesus Christ’s mother at his death:
            Clear pain, death returned me,
            To your breast subdued, almost a child.
            You do not know if you should thank
            Or cry
            For this happiness,
Her latest volume, Refluxul sensurilor (The Senses’ Reflux) was published in 2004 and marks four decades of literary work. The poetry brings her work full circle as it deals with themes from her early poetry. Birth-death, beginning-end and youth-old age persist underneath mundane life and under the tone of calm elegy. Having retired from political life, she embodies personal moralities in images of night, sea and church bells, symbols that recur throughout her poetry. “Thistles and Gods” reflects upon time and mortality:
            All time is only a day…
            There is no past, no future,
            An eternal today, stunning,
            With the sun above unmoving
            To measure
            Immortality’s failure.
During her career Ana Blandiana won a number of literary awards, including the Poetry Award from the Romanian Writers Union (1969), the Writers Union Award for Children’s Literature (1980), the Gottfried Von Herder Award (1982) and the Mihai Eminescu National Award for Poetry (1997) (e.Informativ.ro). These awards, together with a significant body of inspirational work, assure her an honoured place in world literature.


Alianþa Civicã Romana. General Information. c2006. Civic Alliance. Available: 
http://ww e.Informativ.ro, Sursa ta de Informare.
Cultura Romaniei, Ana BlandianaBiografie.n.d.e.informativ.ro.
Available: http://www.einformativ.ro/c-25-142– 86.html.15thDec.2007.aliantacivica.ro/. 17 Jan. 2008.
Blandiana, Ana. Viata Mea E Un Roman: Amintirile Anei Blandiana. 2005. Jurnalul National Online. Available: http://www.jurnalul.ro/articole/46964/amintirile-anei-blandiana. 22 Jan. 2008.
Frandzen, Naomi. "Interview with Ana Blandiana." Lingua Romana: a Journal of French, Italian and Romanian Culture. 1.1 (2003): 1-10.  
Musat, Carmen. Few Words about Contemporary Romanian Literature. Monday,11 Jun. 2007. Available: http://romanianbodies.blogspot.com/2007/06/few-words-about-contemporaryromanian.html. n/a n/a. 22 Jan 2008.


Adam Aitken interviews Alvin Pang and John Kinsella

Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia

Edited by John Kinsella and Alvin Pang,

Ethos Books (2008) / 324 pages / SGD 35.00










Readers looking for cross-literary collaboration between Singapore and Australia will find Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, a valuable addition to their poetry library. How do we name and represent the other? What does it mean to poeticise other cultures whose territories are not necessarily close enough for us to identify with?  Or is it perfectly  satisfying to find a common humanity that crosses national boundaries?  Over There provides answers to all these questions and more. With a growing sense of the need to understand our Asian neighbours in a deep way that goes beyond touristic stereotypes, I was pleased to discover that there existed a collection that brought together the poetries of Singapore and Australia. I was hoping to find that cultural differences between Australia and Singapore produce a synergy between two poetries, and for me, this collection stimulates thinking about how national literary canons construct and defend certain perceptions of nationhood and racial/ethnic identity in an era of globalisation and cross-border desemination. If the local is global and vice versa, how does the poetry in this volume transcend the particular provincialisms of our respective literary worlds? What does it mean in to be an “Australian” or a “Singaporean” poet? What does it mean to be nomadic in the era of globalised cultural exchange?


I was moved to engage with this anthology (and to defend its existence) after reading a rather critical review of the collection in a recent issue of Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore (QLRS). Reviewer Gwee Li Sui was hoping that the collaboration between editors Kinsella and Pang could “succeed on at least a level of an envisioned dialogue between spaces which, as both admit, need to communicate more deeply. Its nation-building value is also flaunted through the editorial reminder in the introduction that such work will become key documents as "political desire in both Australia and Singapore to constitute nation as ‘history’ increases" ("Beyond Colloquial Prowess," QLRS, Vol. 7, No. 8 2008).


Gwee was disappointed with the anthology for a number of reasons, though not because of the quality of the poets and poems, but in the main by the collection’s perceived lack of coherence:


Stripped of an overt chronology, we meet an intriguingly dominant sameness… the Singaporeans almost all write striking grammatical poetry that does not inhere essences and is linguistically more conservative than its counterpart. The two competent halves are bridged by not one, as the contents page wants to suggest, but two Australians raised in Singapore: Miriam Wei Wei Lo and the supple Boey Kim Cheng.


His main complaint was the anthology’s  

lack of ground for actual comparison, considering that similarities are what the editors manifestly claim. I’m not advocating that multiculturalism be its subject matter, but one is precisely left guessing whether it is meant to be. The Australian section certainly lets culture actively modify the rhythm, sensibilities, and use of English in a way that then leaves the Singaporean section, in the manner it is edited, look vastly monocultural. (personal correspondence,1 September 2008)


Gwee’s review concludes that there really needs to be two volumes of verse as there is no unifying factor to bring them together: “[h]ere exists no unifying subject except the selections’ mere framing beside each other, what now seems to be all the title means.” In other words, according to Gwee, the volume does not really give the reader any idea how the two territories intersect, or how the gap between two separate nationalisms is bridged:


Multiculturalism may have been a feature through which the two could provoke ideas about how far their national identities actually intersected, but this was left unevenly pursued…. So the two editors keep to their own aesthetic beliefs, administer their own domains, and leave unshaken the internal relationship of their own national poetry.


Alvin Pang and John Kinsella have clarified some of the issues aired in the QLRS review. Their key aim was to deterritorialise their respective literary spaces. Deterritorialisation – or what Kinsella calls the “un-nationing” function of poetry – is surely crucial. By conjoining two national selections into one the editors hoped to a) break down the protectionism in the English language, even amongst the English-speaking nations; b) create more interaction between two countries with strong bonds, interactions, shared history – but spaces need to communicate more deeply; and c) show that the poets of both territories have something to say about each other.


But rather than deconstruct the boundary, does the method of merely juxtaposing two selections confirm national differences? Kinsella explains his project is a kind of literary activism:


I am anti-nation but pro-communities… poetry is a community of sorts – or crossings of communities. There’s a language that evolves that crosses all languages. That interests me. Presenting such a ‘cross-section’ of Australian poetry, from all over the landmass, from different cultural spaces, and juxtaposing it against the work of another ‘nation’ immediately alters the perception of ‘Australianity’ in itself. Australia is no greater place than Singapore because of its size and eco power, any more than the US  is greater than Australia etc. My intentions behind the anthology were to alter the co-ordinates of investigation and context re: these factors.  (personal correspondence, 15 August 2008)


Certainly, cross-literary exchange between the countries has been sparse in recent times. It is disappointing to realise that with the exception of major Singaporean poets like Edwin Thumboo and Cyril Wong most rarely appear in Australian journals, while none of Kinsella’s selection made first appearance in a Singaporean journal. If both Singapore and Australia are both marginal to centres of world influence – if both are islands speaking from margin to centre – a greater collaboration will help poets gain a cross border readership. This result would, in the end, pay far more dividends than the outmoded framework of national literatures.


One would expect that while Australia and Singapore share a colonial legacy, our respective poetries would speak more often to each other. But both editors share a common resistance to the blanket term postcolonial, and their collection shows that no existing terminology quite sums up the similarities and differences in the two post-British colonies. Both were after all very different kinds of colonies, with the dominant population in Singapore being Straits Chinese, while that of Australian was for almost a century Anglo-Celtic, and then Anglo-European following post-war migration.


The editors stress important commonalities, for example the ‘commingling of ancient and immigrant cultures’. Kinsella has selected Australian poets for whom indigeneity connects modernity with the ancient, and for Pang’s Singaporeans express a sense of “ancient times”, a historical foundation for the intersection of Malay, Indian, and Chinese histories. While it is clear that both Singapore and Australian are immigrant cultures, it is interesting to compare disparate narratives of the ancient through the collection. I found that whereas the idea of an ancient pre-colonial culture and influence is part of the literary territory of Australia’s Indigenous poets like Lionel Fogarty and Charmaine Papertalk Green (and also for the indigeno/ethnopoetics of Peter Minter) for Singaporean poets, ancestral links in southern mainland China figure prominently. There were 12 mentions of grandparents and 30 or so mentions of China and Chinese in the poems. Malay or Malaysia was mentioned 18 times.


Of particular relevance to shared heritage was the Australian poetry of John Mateer who provides a textual  and affective bridge to Singapore, where the visiting poet feels a sense of filiality and nomadic connection or brotherhood with one of the city-state’s ethnic Malay residents. Singaporean/Australian Miriam Lo is another sensitive conduit, a poet who was born in Singapore and who has made Western Australia her permanent home. Another is Boey Kim Cheng, editor of this journal, who now lives and works at the University of Newscastle.


So does this anthology succeed in creating a resistance to a poetics of “mono-history”, where myths of nationhood dominate freer, or perhaps more hybridised imaginaries? Are poets from both sides constrained by borders, and write as outsiders looking in, or is there a greater mixing going on? What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with John Kinsella and Alvin Pang.




I have a question that focuses on the differences between your editorial policies and John Kinsella’s. QLRS reviewer Gwee Li Sui wrote that John deliberately omitted the “visitor genre" while you were happy to include poems about travel. Gwee wrote:


The two editors have not communicated well, and it shows: although John Mateer’s poems are generously all about the island-state, Kinsella declares that his own general principle is to exclude writings belonging to what he calls the "visit" genre. Yet, Pang blissfully includes such pieces, as his entries for Kirpal Singh, Colin Tan, and Yong Shu Hoong show, and even extends the space to Singaporean adventures in all parts of the globe.Do I understand this correctly? Which Australian poets wrote about Singapore or Malaysia in a way that wasn’t touristic?



Well John and I selected our own territories completely independently, actually.  So we had different priorities. Nevertheless, the Australian section selected by John had John Mateer and Ouyang Yu writing about Singapore based on their travels here recently.  And Miriam Wei Wei Lo (improbable odds: we went to school together in Singapore and were active together in the Creative Writing Club!) writes about one of her visits as well.


I’d say Miriam’s deconstructs very nicely the notion of "visiting" since Singapore is both her home and not; she gets mistaken for a tourist etc etc.  Ouyang takes a potshot at cultural representation and mistranslation, and Mateer riffs off on his own in a piece that almost has little to do with physical Singapore itself!



But why did the reviewer say John had rejected the "visitor genre"? It sounds like the visitor genre is well represented.



I think the reviewer missed the point actually.  As JK himself argues, this ISN’T a book of "Singaporean poets about Australia; Aussie poets about Singapore". There just happen to be some poems that cross over, as almost inevitably there would be.


And indeed, where it has occurred, the poets/poems are (rightly) interrogating larger issues of identity, power, and cultural negotiation that go way beyond the territories that happen to be represented. That such frisson has occurred in poetry between Singapore and Australia is to me nothing to be apologetic about — simply means there are things we can reveal to each other, about ourselves.



How does the anthology interrogate issues of identity, power and cultural negotiation?



The short answer from me (JK would have his own view) would be thus:


Few or no cross-territorial anthologies of this kind agree, which has always puzzled me. There are unspoken boundaries (including the book trade cartel and other economic and political barriers) that fence literary communities.  This book is an attempt to bridge those glaring gaps, between two relatively neighbouring communities that (1) both use English as a functioning as well as literary language, for what that is worth; (2) have various sorts of ties and a more or less equal level of affluence — that means that we stand in a certain economic relation to each other as peers and partners, in trade, education, emigration etc.; (3) we are also starting to have an influence on each other as bodies of writing — perhaps one direction more than the other — but to a degree that bears further conversation.


Both territories are grappling with identity and cultural issues, albeit different ones, with different agendas and starting points and outcomes. I was thinking that as we look at ourselves, through poetry, that we might have things to say of relevance to our counterparts. But really it is allowing the works to stand and spark rather than directing the fireworks. That in itself I think stands in defiance of a certain type of more didactic, directive publication.


There is a "nationalising" imperative going on in both territories that I think bear resistance.  Singaporean writers are almost obsessed with it to the point of refusing to contribute to the national discourse head-on. To my mind, our writing at least in my generation has taken on the "small is large" paradigm – reclaiming the personal (sex, language, religion etc) that has been colonised politically. This is expressed in so many different ways throughout the book.


The other point I’d like to make is that for a group of Singapore poets (or poets from/in Singapore) to even make a claim to stand and hold their own in an anthology of this nature is itself a deeply audacious assertion. It challenges preconceived notions about literature and publishing in English, and about what sorts/sources of writing are supposed to go together, for example.


We’ve also spoken before about the absurd lack of literary traffic across the Pacific and how it has to do with the way the book trade is organised. Well, this is the sort of writing that these insidious fences have been keeping apart.


I wonder, John, if Gwee, as a sympathetic and informed scholar, might have missed the whole point of the audacity of putting these two bodies of work together in one book 🙂



As an anarchist (vegan pacifist) I, of course, perceive what has been done as an un-nationing, an unbuilding of nation. The process of decontextualising out of Australian mythologies of canon and self-perception (on a nation-making level – esp re govt versions of, and lit official versions of…), of juxtaposition, change the reading habit and consequently undoes things, at least in part. Presenting such a ‘cross-section’ of Australian poetry, from all over the landmass, from different cultural spaces, and juxtaposing it against the work of another ‘nation’ immediately alters the perception of ‘Australianity’ in itself. Australia is no greater place than Singapore because of its size and eco power, any more than the US greater than Australia etc. my intentions behind the anthology were to alter the co-ordinates of investigation and context re these factors. Yes, it does leave the book open to criticism re what you say, but dialogues have to begin somewhere. Just placing the work side-by-side, and having it read in that context, alters the statute of limitations that sadly guides the reading of ‘national poetries’. Still, there is much further to go…



Clearly, John’s own poem in this anthology breaks down canons by directly addressing Singapore’s controversial approach to crime and punishment. It’s anyone right to question injustice, whether that’s happening in your own country or not.



Yes, John’s sequence is nominally “about” the death penalty and its application to the Vietnamese drug trafficker in Singapore but really goes beyond the specific case that sparked it off.



And how are Singaporean poets taking on Australia?



Yong Shu Hoong’s “Adelaide” isn’t really about Adelaide at all but addresses (among other things) the Chinese cultural diaspora and its impact on the evolution of language; dialect and the way it (echo) locates itself and its users; family and an almost genetic (or mimetic?) sense of self that goes beyond political or even linguistic borders.


Chinese-Australian Ouyang Yu’s two “Kingsbury Tales” are nominally set in Singapore but really, deconstruct English/language and its contemporary twists, the value-systems of diaspora etc.


And Miriam Lo of course. I should add the story of how her mother made her promise never to read the poems included in Singapore (for fear of arrest!)



I like that: a poem about Adelaide that’s not really about Adelaide! Only a non-Adelaidean could do that ;=). It’s interesting that Miriam’s mother read her poems as subversive. I had not read them as subversive at all, but now that I know this, I can read them that way.



Actually we’ve moved on… they’d no doubt be taken as subversive not all that long ago just on twitch reflex coz of mention of politicians’ names…  these days this sort of thing is nothing special…which is another kind of interrogation I suppose.



In what ways are the poets gathered in your anthology resisting the old nationalisms that have come to define notions of "Singaporean literature, and "Australian Literature"?



For some Singapore writers such as Edwin Thumboo, their selections in the book represent significant (and welcome) departures from the canon of work which has defined them in the past, and it’s just begging for a re-examination of their entire oeuvre and contribution.  Not to mention that the poems themselves deconstruct the poets’ own earlier positions.


Singapore writing as it is known outside Singapore has been really narrowly defined for the past few decades.  As with all my anthologies, I’ve attempted to broaden the sense of play and expand the known palette of what’s available in contemporary poetry.


Also, with so many expatriate/trans-territorial writers, what does it even mean to be a Singaporean poet? Plenty of interesting exceptions and questions arise. The poets included in the anthology include some teaching/working/living abroad (not just in Australia), for instance. 


The concerns that Singapore poets take on have also changed – I’d argue that we are writing a self-consciously un-nationalistic writing in reaction to previous imperatives at the same time that many writers are re-claiming spaces that have hitherto been annexed, really, by political discourse. They/we are writing "between the country / that will not remember our love / and the sea", to quote Cyril Wong.



In relation to questions of form, use of language, style and register, are their synergies between the two literatures? What are the crossovers? I am thinking of issues to do with the vernacular, the demotic, and the ceremonial/vatic registers of language.



I think there is a fair variety represented, including some use of the vernacular.  I don’t think the two literatures converge in any narrow or easy way, however, and I’m not sure that is a bad thing.



Today I heard Lee Kwan Yew say on Bloomberg or BBC World: "Singapore is cool". In the context of recent upsurges in nationalism over the Olympic torch relay, LKY was comparing Singapore’s advantage as a country that had learned to play the Westerner’s game, while the PRC had not learned to play the game, and therefore lacked a sense of how to deal with "the West". 


The question is: is Singapore poetry "cool" in the sense LKY expresses: because it takes on the West with all the latest intelligence, organisation, and technology?



Actually that is precisely the sort of appropriation that I think our best writing resists.  And it shows just how insidious the whole enterprise is — how creativity has become cultural manufacture; the arts have been appropriated as industrial design, authenticity and identity yoked in service of tourism.


It’s also a bit of a trap statement/question to address, because it is not as if one should completely write off "the West with all the latest technology" in poetry.  That’s not the point at all.  I think the real question is, who decides what is "cool" and why is it important to be "cool" in a particular way?   And when our poetry does something, is it doing so in service of the "cool" or to other agendas that have not been acknowledged or given their own separate or even opposing validities?


It’s so funny, though, to hear LKY adopting the idiom of the "cool" just to help sell us.  He, of all people!   Then again, he’s also speaking as the former leader of a tiny nation-state which (a) always had artificial and somewhat arbitrary borders (b) always had to adopt a certain position of subservience, to "play another’s game" just to get by. China doesn’t really have to in the long term.


If your point then is whether Singapore poetry can break free of the geopolitical constraints of Singapore the country/territory?  I’d argue it is one of the few things that can, should, has, will and no apologies about it. Not even about breaking free, but alternative definition. About re-imagining. About acknowledging a different sense of "country" and "land" and "people" and "history" that has nothing to do with 1965 and the flag.


Caveat re: what I said: of course, varying degrees of success or intent are at play. Mileage may vary, agendas differ.



Alvin, returning to Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s work and the question of national allegiances/resistances, I feel that she sums up the conditionality of being both Australian and Singaporean. It seems that yes, inserting the word "national" in front of  "poet" does not interperpolate the migrant’s identity any more. She writes


caught between sinking and swimming,

as I am caught now. As if rhetoric mattered.

As if this place gives me a name for myself.


Which leads me to ask: this feeling she expresses of being "caught between’, neither here nor there; or perhaps caught in language and the rhetoric of identity. Do you identify this a perpetual theme in contemporary Singapore poetry or have the locals really found their home though an identification with a singular, or essentialised identity?



I’d say absolutely NOT "an identification with a singular, or essentialised identity", inasmuch as such a construction is identified with the rhetoric of the political establishment. Quite fiercely an anti-identification actually, a "this is not who I am" rather than a firm "this is me" one way or another.


Some writers no doubt experience that as a kind of imbalance and ambivalence.  Others may well assert an alternative identity (one rooted in individual and family experience rather than in public or political expression of particular espoused traits).  But it is certainly not singular or essentialised.


And in fact, this is why I respect Gwee’s review, because he too is trying to resist the normalisation of Singaporean literature, although I don’t think that is what Over There (Singapore) is trying to do at all.


I’d argue that this anxiety of identity is a trait of a certain generation of writers (Lee Tzu Pheng’s "my country and my people" being perhaps the more well known and early example of this), and that more recent works have simply taken it as a given and moved on.


I was once at a festival in Darwin where one of the writers (Jan Cornall, I think) argued that we are all "mongrel" beings. And I remember saying, on the contrary, that the term was somewhat meaningless to me because it implies a certain essentialist purity exists to which mongrel would be a useful relative term.  I don’t feel mongrel at all, and it is an (offensive) assertion of power to say "look, you guys are basically a mix of X + Y", as if X + Y were the only possible terms, or were not in themselves a function of a diverse and complicated history.



I was at that conference too. I remember you face when you heard that comment! (We both had terrible hangovers!) I asked about Miriam because it seems to be a very strong feeling – this caught in-between thing – for her. But an interesting contrast is Mateer’s interpolation of himself as a metaphorical brother to a Malay in Singapore and the Real. Mateer was born in South Africa and has an Afrikaans background, but Mateer as the poetic persona is a nomadic visitor or outsider with a particular insight into the places he goes to. Mateer can interperpolate himself into the position of the insider, or at least speaks of finding the exiles like himself. Mateer becomes textually Malay. I quote:


As if he wasn’t waiting for me he was, on Armenian Street

in the kopitiam, rising from a circle of familiars,

gliding towards me like the Orang Laut

for whom he once waited on a beach in Riau year-long

until that one dawn. Extending his hand, we greet like Malays everywhere;

he a nomad, I an exile, both of us friends in a poem by Rumi.

And we speak of histories before the city-state,


(‘Singapore and the Real’)


I am struck how Mateer sees the Malay as a fellow nomad because it could be a bit of stretch to describe Malay citizens of Singapore as nomads. Or is this the predicament of the Malay in Singapore? They ARE seen as outsiders on account of race?



There is definitely that sort of action going on… Alfian Saat (who isn’t in the book unfortunately) makes references to the Prince of Palembang and all that, invoking the spirits of “histories before the city-state”. But actually other Malay writers can be quite a bit more subtle.


Also, I suspect they would take issue with being too closely interpolated with Arabic culture (Rumi, Nomad) – Southeast Asian Islam and culture as practiced by the indigenous Malay community is quite different from that of the Middle East and it can sometimes be quite a touchy issue because of the undue influence of Wahabist/Arabic Islam on indigenised Southeast Asian Islam (equivalent of how the charismatic churches from the US are taking over Anglican congregations in the UK). Malay is NOT = Muslim or to be more specific, Muslims everywhere are NOT alike. BUT perhaps what Mateer writes is correct for the specific individual he met and is writing about.



Yes, I too would be disturbed if readers misread Mateer’s subtle naming strategies here. It would be wrong to assume Malay (specifically the cultures of a very much grounded grouping of Southeast Asian/Polynesian peoples) is identical to that of the Arabic Middle East, simply because they happen to share a religion. If Malays were nomads, the whole indigenous politics of “bumi putra” (sons of the earth) that is so fraught in Malaysia would not make sense at all!!!



Your question got me pondering further about the nature of the commonality Mateer is claiming (and this is without judging its validity but more about trying to understand what he is getting at). Is he suggesting that nomads are like exiles (even though they are different forms of roaming, clearly)?  Or rather, what is the nature of their similarity – is it the common courtesy, mutual hospitality and suspension of judgment that travelers extend to each other? Is he invoking nostalgia?  And to what purpose?
Or perhaps he is suggesting that they roam in a particular orbit, they are both people who frequently disappear and therefore bear no permanent attachment to particular coordinates. I find that idea quite evocative –it implies a certain non-committal nonchalance, a sort of gypsy rakishness and opportunism (piracy?) that isn’t necessarily uncomfortable or out of place. 
Is this a subtle way of characterising the Malay situation in Singapore?   Perhaps.  But it could also be a way of speaking of the Singaporean condition in general.  I took this race-neutral reading as a possibility because there really isn’t anything definitive in the text to suggest that the friend he meets is in fact Malay.  It is all implied only; race/culture is rendered in simile: “like Malays” / “like the Orang Laut”.  Facsimiles and approximations, but not necessarily the thing itself.  A certain tentativeness, a shying away from rootedness in meaning, intent, purpose or destination. “Departing”, but not arriving or moving towards. Nomadic even in the language.
In that sense, Mateer’s poem is a clarification of Miriam’s uncertainty and unwillingness to be named-to-place… and I might add, a certain nomadic imagination would not be a bad way to characterise more recent poetry (in English) from Singapore in general, especially as the public rhetoric that Miriam talks about stiffens and dominates discourse about identity. A side comment is of course that Australia is one of the places to which restless Singaporeans wander… but I don’t really want to load Mateer’s poem with that.
Mateer has quite brilliantly undercut narrow ideas of national identity based on race, and Malays are a perfect metaphor for the kind of people spread across four or five different countries. It’s like a pan-African vision but the Africans are now Malays! It is fascinating how Mateer (I mean the persona in the poem) compares himself to the exile who meets a nomad, and that seems a very un-Singaporean celebration, as it seems to me that most of the poets you have chosen don’t feel exiled at all. It seems there is a definite career path for the Singaporean Anglophone writer, I mean the one who goes to Britain, Australia, or the States for education, then comes home, or doesn’t. But nomadic? Yes, in the sense that Singaporeans feel comfortable with the modern cosmopolitan city whether it is New York, London, Sydney, or Perth. They move freely and easily between these places.
You’re right: I’d venture to argue that the non-English writing community is even less nomadic – it is the use of the international (and ethnically neutral in Singapore) language of English that allows for economic (and by some extension literary) nomadism to occur. One criticism that might be leveled at, say, Malay and Tamil (and pre-contemporary Chinese writing) is that it’s really rather parochial (!)
I wonder if Mateer is romanticising the Malay mystique. Then again, this refusal to be pinned down may be a relatively modern affluent Singaporean phenomenon. But as you astutely pointed out, even the restless have a relatively clear path – either/or. I’m not sure nomadic cultures don’t roam a set orbit however.
All this bears thinking about.  My question would be: where does Mateer locate himself in this spectrum? Also, does he find an equivalent nomadic instinct in Australia? Is there something Malay about it too? Would Australian writers concur?
Depends what we define as nomadic. How many Malays really travel within the region of Indonesia and Malaysia? To answer that we would have to look at Malay-language (Bahasa Malayu) poetry which is beyond the brief of this anthology. I have noted however that a lot of Malay language poets have travelled to the Middle East. I think a similar imagination concerns the Iraqi-Australian poet Ali Alizadeh (represented in this anthology) who writes of the cultural exportation of Michael Jackson to Iran – the ubiquity and intrusion of Middle-Eastern tastes, "gaudy popular culture". He writes with a sense of irony of Iranian anti-colonial rhetoric which aligns globalised pop culture with "Great Satan’s Culture".
In contrast, ideology is absent in the poems of Peter Minter and Kate Fagan. ther work suggests a "natural" world seen through the senses of a free-wheeling spirit. Fagan’s interests are biological and poetic. Nomadic means different things and clearly the modern Australian Indigenous person can travel from place to place, visiting friends and relatives, and so can anyone. But on the whole poets stick to places they know well.
Fagan writes ‘I witness your bird-becoming’, ‘our seagull voices’, a geometry borrowed from trees; a poetic about human/nature nexus that is stylistically a thousand miles from the English Romantic poets in prosodic terms, but very much similar in its reverence for the natural world (I think the poems, esp. ‘Stem’, successfully close gaps between human and natural, language/sense/world. A new materialist logos, rather than one where God exists.
In his introduction John Kinsella describes this selection as an example of international regionalism, Australia as country of travellers, who look outside in order to define the space of where we they are from. This stance seemingly co-exists with a sense of the “internationalist” looking out. Take David McCoohey’s "travel poem" about Orchard Road Singapore":
Out of a bangra nightclub and its Bollywood writhing
– the Tamil drummer of mind, turbaned, arm raised still
in the zenith of a throb – you emerge
into an impossibly deserted Orchard
where the taxis are freeze-framed
and the road is slick and black
and steaming like new, hardening lava
and everyone is blurred by alcohol,
sweating with all the effort of world-creation,
and the only – if that may be named – ‘action’
are those transsexual’s eyes enervating every YOU.
(“One Night”)
This is energising, though it uses the distancing 2nd person in a way that a lot of modernist Australian poets do, and this places critical distance between the writer and the scene. I wondered if this self-conscious and self-critical technique existed in the Singapore oeuvre? Also, to return to the stance of indeterminate identity, do Singaporean poets share Miriam Lo’s refusal to be pinned down by a regional identity, as she sums up the conditionality of being both Australian and Singaporean:
caught between sinking and swimming,
as I am caught now. As if rhetoric mattered.
As if this place gives me a name for myself.
This leads to another question about who the implied addressees are in a poetry of regional internationalism. Pam Brown’s parodic hymn, ‘to a city’
To a city where I’ll remember nothing
But a clump of yachts
appeals to her familiar literary community, is addressed to her Sydney ‘"crew", but it also addresses her US readership. Sydney, like Singapore, is now so "international" that a stubbornly provincial poetry might seem anachronistic (but I am not sure it is), and it is amusing to read Pam looking over her shoulder at her compatriots whom she never addresses directly. Her critical distance allowes her to attack political complacency in her home town with a stylish insouciance:
Except for the Greens
I’m weary of your politics too.
The immigrants
Are fed up with your cockroaches
And scurrying rats.
McCoohey’s reader might be anyone, Mateer’s is the ideal nomad/exile, Kinsella’s Nguyen poem is aimed squarely at the Singaporean authorities who executed Nguyen. Consider the more personal voice of say Boey Kim Cheng or the intimate mode of address in Heng Siok Tian’s poems, which deconstruct familiar icons of traditional Chinese culture – chopsticks and painting. Her method is to put herself into the subject directly, without the distancing tone that McCoohey favours. ‘I’ve got Mail’ is an interesting version of the epistolary letter, written from Brooklyn to – I assume – an unnamed Singaporean reader? It is interesting that the assumed readers in many of these poems are not "international", westerners, but fellow Singaporeans who might share the poet’s sense of displacement, as in this poem:
How do I sail from here,
when the outside drowns me,
wandering lonely, light as ash?
Clearly, this is energising, though it uses the distancing 2nd person in a way that a lot of modernist Australian poets do, to place some critical distance between the writer and the scene. I wondered if this self-conscious and self-critical technique is dominant in the Singapore oeuvre?
Yes, it is. It’s a fairly common technique, that ranges from a kind of “multi-masking” technique (Felix Cheong’s “Instructions from a Serial Killer” but also his entire collection Broken by the Rain; Ng Yi-Sheng uses similar I believe), to  the relatively more simplistic reflective 2nd person of Colin Tan.  I’d argue I use it in “When the Barbarians arrive” and in some other pieces not in the collection.  There’s quite a lot similar to what McCoohey does, in the work of Toh Hsien Min and Yong Shu Hoong.  And of course, Edwin Thumboo (“Ulysses by the Merlion” being so clichéd I refused to include it). But it shows up in Paul Tan and Eddie Tay as well, I’d argue. And certainly in a subtle way in Daren Shiau’s “A Lion, in Five Parts” (note: 9 August is Singapore’s National Day, marking our independence). Also Madeleine Lee’s “three cubes on ice: Singapore ice” does it in a somewhat wry fashion.
I suppose you could point to a trend and say it’s particularly prevalent among a generation of younger, cosmopolitan writers who tend to be pursuing careers with a distinctively international component. That said, Singapore being what it is in terms of size, looking out to look in is almost a running joke and just about all our “travel poems” work that way.
I like Hsien Min’s idea in “Aubergines” that “we lease our spirits from our languages”, implying that we have multiple leases and a complex, perhaps hybrid (but I hate that word because it implies that there is such a thing as purity) spirit. I wonder though if that is what you mean, and if I have answered your question. 
I am very interested in how poets create a readership and the idea of poetry as public address and whether newer poets care much for that.,I mean when a reader is constructed by the poem through rhetoric as in the phrase "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!" The poet creates an implied interlocutor, or quite simply addresses that reader as "you".  Or are poets happy to be “writing for ourselves”? Is there a sense of a public reading us? Who are the implied addressees in Singaporean poetry, especially if we define Singapore as a place of strong regional internationalism?
I’d actually argue that despite the apparent object being addressed in the poem(s), the actual addressee in terms of the thrust and intent of the poem is frequently the subject himself/herself rather than another (outside) Singaporean reader. This “writing to yourself” even when writing to another person is common – it is meditative in some writers (Angeline Yap, Yong Shu Hoong) and can be insistent, even testimonial in intent (Cyril Wong).
I’d argue that apart from writers such as Alfian Saat (whose polemic is infamous) and Edwin Thumboo – writers in other words who are extremely self conscious of their assumed reception, audience, and stance – most Singaporean poets tend towards the quiet observation, the lyrical muttering under the breath.   Who is Eddie Tay addressing but the mirror, in “On the Treadmill”?
Angeline Yap’s “September (2. For you)” is interesting in this regard; the creation of a reader may well be the most unacknowledged yet key project of contemporary Singaporean poetry – particularly since the readership of poetry can NOT be assumed to exist in a pragmatic city where the study of literature has been steadily renounced as difficult and frivolous. 
Cyril famously declared that only poets read poets anyway, so he might as well write for them.
I think many Singaporean writers are engaged – not quite in revisionist historicizing, but – in creating alternative forms of memory that resist the bland surfaces offered up by tourist images, propaganda and advertising – in which we are of course awash.   Aaron Lee’s “Alternative History of Singapura” is the opposite of exoticising.    I think the “displacement” you point to is not that of being adrift culturally, but of media and cultural whitewash – what Alfian once called having “lost my country to images”. 
The sensitive Singaporean’s response to the superficiality of identity rhetoric is to go for depth, not withdrawal. This is not to say “I don’t quite feel Singapore or Australian or Chinese” but to say, “Being Singaporean Chinese means so much more than what it appears”. I personally believe this is why Singaporean poetry moved decisively away from the early declamatory rhetoric of Thumboo’s “Ulysses” phase, much to his initial chagrin (he has since come around to the other position of valuing the intimate rather than public voice again). I like Yong Shu Hoong’s idea of being “amphibious”, the young Yi-Sheng and Teng Qianxi’s shapeshifting demigods borrowed from mythology. Does that make sense?
Yes, and I am interested in how Australian poets are doing similar things with our historical memories – I am thinking of Jennifer Harrison especially, who writes of "country" and its human figures in ways that builds on our "settler" traditions, in an innovative way. If I can make a generalization about John’s selection, it is that the idea of the touristic Australia of shrimps on barbies doesn’t appear (thank God!), except as the target of satire and linguistic deconstruction in say Pam Brown’s or Michael Farrell’s poems. As result, the implied readers are varied. There is a sense of poets writing for readers who are like themselves, but not readily identifiable as figures of nation, and so the idea of a "public stance" for the Australian poet is as remote as it is for Edwin Thumboo now, who, when he was writing in the service of post-colonial Singaporean nationalism, was utterly relevant to his time. The exception to this post-Romantic lyrical stance is, I feel, present in the indigenous poetry of Fogarty and others. Here there is clearly an audience defined in terms of the Settler/Indigenous binary, though that’s breaking down, as it should, considering how diverse Australia is these days.
Ouyang Yu, also, might be read as someone who writes for readers with a vested interest in cultural/linguistic translation, and writing about this issue in a wry, ironic, but passionate way. At the risk of sounding controversial, I would say that Singaporean writers take multi-lingualism for granted, while accepting English as language of a national poetics, and this is the backwash of the hierarchies set up by the colonial era. Similarly, in Australia, it’s still a struggle to include bilingual consciousness within the orbit of Australian poetry
Alvin, as a way of coming to some sort of ending for this interview, how do you see experimentation operating in Singapore?
I’d say contemporary English poetry in Singapore is relatively conservative in terms of linguistic and formalist experimentation; the last great innovator was really the late Arthur Yap, and he was coming from a modernist (and I suspect structuralist) re-take on Singaporean linguistics. I find contemporary verse in the Chinese language capable of much more experimentation, but this is also only true of the younger (40 and under) generation of poets who have grown up on a diet of international writing.
There are exceptions, however, to the dominant lyric / scannable free verse mode.   Kai Chai is one of them, as is evident from OVER THERE, and younger poets like Yi-Sheng roam a much broader range than the rest. Kai Chai, as a music and pop journalist, no doubt draws from those fields (the Beats and more) as much as from the literary canon, and it shows. I guess he’s about the closest we have to a Michael Farrell in style.
Toh Hsien Min is the founding editor of QLRS, and also its poetry editor; although himself (usually) a formalist in style (he’s written a whole book of strictly metric/rhyming crypto-sonnet sequences!), he is open to a broad spectrum of tastes and styles in the poems he lets into the journal. July 2008 was the very first time that someone else picked the poems – Kai Chai usually does the fiction.  Given Kai Chai’s writing style is so markedly different, there was casual and friendly conversation whether this would influence the sort of poems that showed up, but like HM said, the selection has turned out to be very much business as usual, and KC has not brought in (or has not received) all that many more boldy experimental works than usual.   So HM is commenting, as Editor and the usual Poetry Editor, on KC as a guest editor of poetry. Not being unfriendly btw. 
That your [meaning Australian poetry’s, AA] work would be considered relatively more experimental in nature just tells you how relatively conservative our verse is. It’s something that has been remarked on for OVER THERE: Singapore section also… by none other than Hsien Min himself!
We’ve had our own discussion on why this is so… especially given that most of us writing today are not in fact common products of the same NUS English program… we hail from all sorts of professions and varsities and reading diets.   One possible answer is that certain sorts of verse get published at the expense of others.   The other take is simply that the sort of books that become available to the diet through bookstores and reading lists everywhere is remarkably narrow in scope, and there isn’t really a strong tradition of formal innovation to draw on in resistance to that.  So we write like how we read.   A corollary to that is that Singapore poetry is actually quite sensitive  (too responsive?) to readership, and there is this covert or overt desire to connect and communicate with the small and undernourished literary audience we have here, so nothing too off-putting or difficult.   But that is perhaps an unkind way of putting it.


Cyril Wong reviews Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who’s Morphing

by Tom Cho

ISBN 978 192088 2549


181 pages


reviewed by CYRIL WONG

Reading all of Tom Cho’s stories in a single sitting proved to be an exhilarating experience that left me reconsidering past and broken familial relationships, the politics of identity-formations, as well as the insecurities and uncontrollable desires that rule both heterosexual and homosexual bodies alike.
Kafka crept into my mind the moment I entered the first story, “Dirty Dancing,” about a man who becomes a third-person observer that watches and comments as his old self engages in sex with another man; this observer-self is later coddled like a baby in the arms of his parents, but he swiftly manages to convince them of his adulthood by performing a “big raunchy dance number” at Melbourne airport, joined in by everyone around him.I am always surprised that not more writers execute surrealist fiction like this, with its Kafka-esque mis-directions and its exploration of the uncertainties of human communication. The authorial sense of freedom is mind-blowing. The form allows that wall between the structured mind and the broiling subconscious to go up in flames as one crazy plot twist leads to another. Theodor W. Adorno wrote that every sentence in Kafka’s writings seems to cry out, “Interpret me.” Unlike Kafka’s stories, however, which can be read allegorically or as absurdist fables (such as the famous one about a man who wakes up as a cockroach-like creature), Tom Cho hides little of himself behind his dazzlingly warped narrative threads, which includes how he once turned into a protocol droid which attacked the United Nations Headquarters, or how he was forced to become a Muppet on Jim Henson’s show.

The most psychologically revealing is the final story, “Cock Rock.” In this terrifically self-indulgent close to the book, the narrator turns into a giant rock musician who ends up being cock-worshipped by Lilliputian, Japanese fan-girls; at the heart of the story is an individual, existential complex about the writer’s unique attraction to both the world of fantasy and of the literal: “Am I drawn to the world of the literal because of its apparent certainties…Am I drawn to the world of fantasy for the very opposite reason…What would an experience that perfectly combines fantasy and the literal look like?”
There are those who will tell you that Kafka himself hid little about his own daddy issues in his work, but Cho’s fantastical forays into the Twilight Zone of the diasporic-Chinese-queer-male mind tell us readers straightaway that his bizarre tales are, without a doubt, autobiographical, even confessional. Cho is clearly fearless and has nothing to hide. As you enter one crazy piece of short fiction after another, you will come to recognise the writer’s deepest fears and desires. But if you are not interested in ever meeting someone like Tom Cho in your real life, you could be quite put off by what you will read about him in these pages. (In the author’s defence, I would be quick to argue that any aversion you might have in reading his book would necessarily make you a poorer soul; you must have been reading it through a homophobic, self-censoring lens or something.)
The particular insecurities of belonging to an immigrant culture in Australia and having to fit in come to the foreground particularly in such stories as “Suitmation” and “Look Who’s Morphing.” In the former, the narrator’s mother buys a “suit” that makes her look like Olivia-Newton John, while in the latter, title-tale, the Kafka-esque transformation gets weirder or nightmarishly contemporary: “I began to morph into a kind of infomercial cyborg – half-human, half-home-fitness-system.” It is all in the name of gaining re-imagined entry into hegemonic, cultural discourses of the western world. This also explains the recourse to popular films like The Exorcist and The Bodyguard, movies whose scenes the author steals and refashions in his own calmly psychotic style, inserting himself frequently as a significant character.
In “The Sound of Music,” the narrator, as the new Maria, develops a sexual, but also profoundly complicated, relationship with Captain von Trapp, in which he slowly becomes an isomorphic version of the latter. With Mother Superior’s blessing, Maria is encouraged to go to Switzerland to try living as someone more like the haughty Captain and he soon realises that “while our fantasies allow us the pleasure of imagining who we might be, can’t they also make us painfully conscious of who we currently are?” All this while Mother Superior is singing “Climb Every Mountain” in the background, of course. But the collection is grounded in the need to reconcile with loved ones and to celebrate the vulnerability of relationships, as when the narrator’s family all morph into The Cosby Show at one point, just so that they can get along.
We are never made to forget that not only are these stories about the author’s life, but that these stories also function as a means of catharsis, or a means of coming to terms with difficult truths about the delusions of the self, with internalised frustrations of being sexually deviant and diasporic. The imaginative ride for both author and reader is long, hard and nasty, but ultimately mutually beneficially. All of us learn that nothing should be taken seriously. And that being too concerned with our cultural identities can drive us mad. And a dark and cynical laughter, mingled with a little empathy, remains the only cure.



Cyril Wong reviews The Kingsbury Tales by Ouyang Yu

The Kingsbury Tales

By Ouyang Yu
Brandl and Schlesinger
ISBN 978-1-876040-82-6
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG


In The Kingsbury Tales, Ouyang Yu has decided that he has written a novel, instead of just a collection of poems. Although there is no overarching, dramatic narrative beyond the physical and emotional transitions the poet makes between Australia, China, and even Singapore, Yu’s latest verse volume is arguably a novel in the Bakhtinian sense. Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin has made a general point about poems for when they are potentially novelised: “They become…dialogised, permeated with laughter, irony, humour, elements of self-parody and finally…the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality.” Bakhtin has emphasised that a novel is dialogical by being constituted by various autonomous discourses in respect to which the author takes the position of an interlocutor.


This is certainly the case here, in which Yu’s book consists of an imagined, or remembered, smorgasbord of characters held together by the poet’s critical and poetic imagination. If one is searching for narratives in these poems, they can be found in the established, historical ones that intersect across the poet’s diasporic position as a Chinese writer living in Australia (Kingsbury, Victoria, to be exact.) The Kingsbury Tales has irony and humour, but they are subsumed under the long shadow of melancholy (life, Yu writes in the book’s closing poem, is, for an old man, “not worth living / Better never born”.) This melancholy permeates the poems as they struggle to expose the often discomfiting “openendedness” of historical discourses and contemporary multiculturalism (an openendedness that also exists in the definition of genres like the novel form, which Yu unabashedly exploits for his purposes here). Divided into general sections such as Historical Tales, Women’s Tales, Migrants’ Tales, Singapore Tales etc., the poems within them care less about offering an aesthetic thrill than about conveying a sense of jarring displacement or tragedy that stems from the poet or his characters being unable to make sense of the world.


From a poem like “An Aboriginal Tale,” in which the poet parallels the same racism faced by both an Aboriginal person and a Chinese woman, to a poem like “Shanghai Women” about how a Shanghainese woman, who is “living a not very interesting Australian life,” longs to return to China with the ashes of her dead husband, Yu starkly brings to our attention the real life stories and microscopic incidents that go wrongfully unnoticed by larger narratives about society. The poet’s own life is put under scrutiny too. In “The Palm Reader’s Tale,” the palm reader takes the poet’s hand and reads him as a man “not content with doing one thing only” and notes that whatever he does, “there is always something there that tries to frustrate it or him.” Restlessness and frustration are the fuel that drives these poems to form a picture of what John Kinsella has described, in his preface, as “a paranoid zone wrestling with its own exclusion and belonging.” What is excluded are the oppressive ideologues according to which our lives are forcibly aligned, while what belongs in the picture, or Yu’s poetic zone, is the indeterminacy and fragmented nature of dissonant, cultural units that the poet, and other diasporic figures like the poet, are forced to hold together within the conflicted spaces of their own self-identification.


If language is the entryway into a different culture, then it is also how we most evidently manifest our inability to ever assimilate ourselves. In “New Accents,” the character, “C from Canton,” mispronounces the word “English” as “Anguish,” indicating the pain that comes from being thrown into a culture that one often remains paradoxically excluded from. It is a paradox that a poet like Yu is struggling to resolve, and also—hence offering another paradox—not resolve, at the same time. On one hand, the poet aims to re-imagine a new linguistic space for cultural disparities, yet it is a space of more conflict than harmony, more chaos and shit than the shaking of hands. After the poem, “Holding Up The Candle,” where the poet recounts a story in which an officer accidentally writes ju zhou (raise the candle) in a letter to a friend, turning this innocuous phrase into a sentimental call for courage to illuminate dark times, comes the incongruous poem, “Bowel Movements, A Tale.” The opening of bowels is a recurring image throughout the book. In the latter poem, the poet contemplates on how even falling snow is like shit issuing from the sky’s anus.


This is a poetry that is deliberately full of it. The poet makes a convincing case: history is full of stifling delusions of grandeur and hypocrisy—full of shit, and so is culture. It is this shit that we have to deal with whenever we find ourselves in the position of being rudely and unsympathetically marginalised within the context of a new place and language. The idea that the world would be a much better and harmonious place if different races would simply sleep with each other, is a point that Yu humorously, and not un-seriously, makes in the poem “The Mix,” where he writes, “This racial mix, which, in typical Ouyang speak, is the great Fuck.” From shit to plain fucking, the poet ends the book with a section of No Tales (obscenity shifts to a critical discussion of nothingness), in which Yu writes, in “This No Thing, A No Tale,” “This no thing, the notion of a no / In the heart of us…Years in denial, self denial, soul denial…Constituting the smallest part of this nation this notion / The biggest part of this no thing”. The “no” becomes not just the “no” of denial, a repressive denial of the inconsistencies of cultural identities, but also the “no” that signals, within the poems, the emptiness of such discourses that we have to simultaneously accept and deny in order to play our roles in the socio-cultural game of history, as well as stay sane, keeping our heads and souls above the excrement of it all.



Kristin Hannaford reviews A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar by Kerry Leves

A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar

By Kerry Leves

Puncher & Wattmann
ISBN 0-9752405-4-4

Glebe, 2008
Order Copies from http://www.puncherandwattmann.com



Sometimes you have a book that travels with you.  A collection of poems which has secreted itself into a handbag or suitcase, a book you grab and keep chancing upon like a forgotten bus ticket floating at the bottom of a purse or wallet.  Kerry Leves’s A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar has been my bus ticket for the past eight months. It has travelled to Sydney with me, to Brisbane; it has ferried back and forth to work and made appearances at lunch hours patiently offering up delicious snippets of India.

Carrying the book in the backseat of a Brisbane taxi I ask my Indian taxi driver if he is familiar with Lata Mangeshkar; he seamlessly negotiates city streets while enthusing over her beautiful voice.  Lata Mangeshkar is also known as the Nightingale of India.  Her pre-recorded voice can be heard in thousands of Indian films as female actors dance and sing through their lip-synced Bollywood musical extravaganzas. The taxi driver and I discuss his home town of Mumbai and the hugely successful Bollywood film industry. He states very seriously about his intentions on returning home to India, ‘God wants me to be a Taxi Driver for a while and then I will be an actor!’

So it seems that as I dip in and out of this collection, despite the fact that I have never been to India, that the connections between my world here in Australia and those of India are many.  A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar takes place, for this reader, in that wider ‘mythic’ India; the rich tapestry of Hindu gods and temples imbued with colour, energy and noise of people and the streets. The collection opens with ‘Mumbai’, a beautiful poem simply focussing on the sights and sounds of the ‘pearl-dust’ dawn in the city which carries the title line,

            There ought to be a shrine


            to Lata Mangeshkar,

            her honeysuckle tones,


& all the faces

            she has ever sung.

            (12) “Mumbai”


‘Mumbai’ delivers an Indian street symphony. The couplets in the poem serve to slow down the reader, we survey the city, listen to the rising cacophony of street sounds, which quieten to silent prayers ‘& the god in a knee-high roadside shrine/ is only colour loud; is quiet’ . In the final couplets the Mumbai crescendo peaks with the arrival of the day,


            Breakfast puris tan

            in oil that seethes;


            blue flames hiss, a kettle blackens –

            welcome! Welcome to Mumbai!

            (12) “Mumbai”


It’s hard to imagine living in a city as large as Mumbai, with close to nineteen million people, its competing for the spot of the world’s most populous city. Leves’s sensory exploration of the city is delightful and his attention to imagery works well throughout the book, lines such as ‘The sun/churns the river.’(Himachal morning) and


late 20th century fireflies


                        & spin the darkness

like a raksha’s eyes


Rough sprits guard this valley

                        where town lights

networked close along the river

                        form a yoni –



                        map a Goddess part

on Shiva’s inky carbon –

(15) “Night piece, Himachal’


suggest a sensitivity and awareness of the intimate connections between people, environment and spirituality in India as the poet observes the landscape at the foothills of the Himalayas.


The collection is prefaced with a quote from Indian Poet Keki N. Daruwalla, ‘In an alien land, language itself turns brown and half-caste’, which I believe gestures towards the difficulty of processing and translating experiences of ‘elsewhere’ into language, into poems. The writing inherently becomes happily muddied, infused with words, experiences and traces of the ‘alien land’, both shaken up by the experience and transformed. In an effort to guide those readers who are less au fait with Indian phrases and concepts, like myself, Leves has included a meaty glossary at the back of the book.

It appears Leves first began this collection in the 1980s (or at least this is where some of the poems were conceived) when he travelled in India with well-known Australian poet Vicki Viidikas. Viidikas is included in the oft-quoted ‘Generation of ‘68’ which includes poets such as Robert Adamson, John Forbes, Ken Bolton and John Tranter; poets active and engaged in the inner city Sydney poetry scene in the late 60s and 70s. Many accounts exist detailing the poetry and personalities of this time; Ken Bolton’s recollections of this time in Sydney are particularly interesting. Viidikas died in 1998 and Leves dedicates this collection to her.  Viidikas’ presence in these poems is large; in many ways she appears in these poems as Leves’ muse, visions of her appear as moments of enlightenment or struggle, in Kali:

            a golden doll a crazy-clock but animated using

            all her wicked tickling wit to tick him off

            stick-limbed a cloud of incense

            sandalwood the scent                        she is

translucent like and autumn leaf

(37) “Kali”


This poem explore the concepts of the Hindu Goddess Kali as seductive and beguiling, a woman capable of change and cruelty, the reader gets a sense of Viidikas’ ‘slavic cheekbones vast dark eyes/ with sly dimensions swim for his subconscious striking out’ and her charged and unsettled emotional life. The narrator is her ‘Magister Ludi’ (Leves’s witty reference to the Hermann Hesse novel of the same name) and the reader begins to glimpse here the complexity of the relationship – is the poet suggesting he is, like Joseph Knecht in Hesse’s novel,  a servant  or slave? Or is she/he a willing ‘intellectual’ participant playing a complex game of thoughts?  I’m happy to be left in the dark here, because this is one of those times when complex layers of meaning joyfully saturate and obscure the ordinary. As Kali draws to a close the narrator knows he is ‘second’ in this relationship, second in love, second to her demands and ideals:

            he sometimes fights their way onto trains and buses

            can discuss the gods & God

till the candle’s low

till the flame’s engulfed

& through all this

she clarifies

                        that it’s not enough

no never enough (for her)


for him it’s close to perfect

(40) “Kali”


Viidikas also wrote a collection of poems from her time in India called ’India Ink.’ I’m sure it would make interesting reading alongside Leves’s work; a kind of dialogue of poems and experiences of India.


Some of the poems in this collection predictably fall into the postcard poem basket, providing glimpses and observations rather than sustained insight, but I believe this is part of the appeal of a collection of travel poems – sometimes the view from the street or out the window is enough.  There are, however, many interesting sequences of poems. I particularly enjoyed ‘Monkey Balconies’ (pp.60-67) which explores the journey to Shimla, the old summer capital of the British Raj when India was under English rule. Images define the mismatch of ‘English swings, fields, stiles’ and the ‘paan stained bathroom’.  The narrator experiences his ultimate severance from the landscape, traces his place in this strange misted vision of England and India:


So this is seeing the world

            without Hindustani: a tartan shawl

            bundles my bones together.

            Into & out of the mist, I’m a walking

            shadow of history. Must be the altitude –

            not even drugs can earth me.


The sequence ends with ‘Celestials’, the poet negotiating Jakko Hill, the shrine of Hanuman the monkey God.  Here the monkeys rule. Aggressive and ‘ungodly animals’, any reader familiar with experiences of monkeys and temples (or for that matter any place where the native animals have been encouraged to seize food) will get a smile out of Leves’s clever depiction of a tug of war between the narrator and a monkey over that aforementioned ‘tartan shawl’. Comic images ‘descending into Monkey Hell’ and of a tireless priest ‘flailing a knotted club/ in some karmic fandango’ are memorable and witty.


A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar is Kerry Leves’s long awaited fourth collection of poems, following Green (SeaCruise, 1978); Territorial (AnT Studios, 1997) and the chapbook Water roars, illusions burn (Vagabond, 2002).  For the armchair traveller or India enthusiast,  A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar is certainly well worth a read. The collection reflects Leves’s longevity as one of Sydney’s most interesting poets.


Jaydeep Sarangi reviews Touch by Meena Kandasamy


By Meena Kandasamy
Peacock Books Mumbai
ISBN: 81-88811-87-4


Dalit literatures in India are subversive, or structurally alternative to the models prescribed by traditional Hindu aesthetics precisely because they are literatures of sociological oppression and economical exploitation. Dalit literatures are essentially a shock to tradition and sense. They are an assault to the anthropomorphic practice of castism in Indian social convention. A sound piece of Dalit literature is militant in texture and aggressively blunt in meaning. It challenges codified language (because it has so far been used and manipulated only by the dominant, discriminating powers); it challenges assumptions; it challenges age-old, world-views. Its temporal and political designation does not give justice to the artist whose intentions may subsequently be ignored . It is an aesthetics of pain, and a prolonged longing; a powerful aesthetics of resistance. The poems in Touch  by Meena Kandasamy amplifies, illustrates, and carries on this struggle for power and autonomy by women poets. Apart from her expert use of language, she has a sincerity of feeling and an honesty of experience rarely encountered. For Meena Kandasamy, the young Tamil poetess, poetry is about empirical truth and experience and she writes and reflects from where she is:
We: their daughters,
We: the daughters of their soil.
We, mostly, write.”     (‘Their Daughters’)
Her poetry is at best of private sensibility. Her consciousness is firmly yoked to the world around her, a world characterised by ecstasy and pain, love and despair. Touch contains a  ‘Foreword’ by Kamala Das where the renowned poetess writes, ‘Older by nearly half a century, I acknowledge the superiority of her poetic vision’. Meena follows the psychological tradition of Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes, a ‘fabric rare and strange’. Womens’ fixed role as caregivers was ideologically determined by their biological capacity to bear children and that was through a fixed set of codes represented by ‘categorizers’ as Kamala Das has expressed in her own poem, ‘An Introduction’. Meena Kandasamy regards her poetic corpus as a process of coming to terms with her identity and consciousness : her “womanness, Tamilness and low/ outcasteness”, labels that she wears with pride. Meena has honed her sociological awareness of what it means to be a woman in the caste-ridden, social groupism of Tamil Nadu (a Southern state in India).
Her poetic self gasps in darkness to search for her emotional root proclaiming it as her heritage. This becomes a source of vitality for the poet’s journey. Her confessional mode is not as radical as we find in Mamang Dai, Archana Sahani and Kamala Das. She explores a wide range of subjective possibilities and relates them to her own identity and sociological formulation. Her poetry arises not out of reading and knowledge, but out of active engagement. Touch is rich with varied dexterity that explore the states of mind and genuine feminine sentiments.
          Writing becomes a means of creating a place in the world; the use of the personal voice and self-revelation are means of self-assertion. Meena’s self-expressive poems permit forbidden or ignored emotions to be expressed in ways which reflect the true voice of feeling; she shows how an Indian woman poet can create a space for herself in the public world. Across time and space, the woman writer, especially the woman poet, is engaged in an on going dialectic with the dominant cultural hegemonies to negotiate a space for the creative woman, where authentic female experiences can be articulated freely. Meena’s poems record the age-old class hierarchy in Indian society. Her poem, ‘Becoming a Brahmin’ records the sad plight of the so-called lower class people of Indian society:
Step 1: Take a beautiful Sudra girl
Step 2: Make her marry a Brahmin
Step 3: Let her give birth to his female child
Step 4: Let this child marry a Brahmin
Step 5: Repeat steps 3-4 six times
Step 6: Display the end product. It is a Brahmin.
Here words are like quicksilver carrying with them the sparkle of sense. In the sheer magic of rhythm, music and in the beauty of coalescing visual and auditory sensations, these lines are rarely surpassed in modern Indian poetry in English.
Flaming green of a morning that awaits rain
And my lover speaks of rape through silences,
Swallowed words and the shadowed tones
Of voice. Quivering, I fill in his blanks.
Green turns to unsightly teal of hospital beds
And he is softer than feathers, but I fly away
To shield myself from the retch of the burns
Ward, the shrill sounds of dying declarations,
The floral pink-white sad skins of dowry deaths.
                        ( “My Lover Speaks of Rape”)
             Meena’s poetic mode ranges from the meditative to sensuous where the metaphysical subtlety of arrivals and departures are ambivalent. A feature that impresses and ultimately convinces the readers is the poet’s readiness to allow conflicting voices to be heard from all contending perspectives. Her poems pose a tension that reaches out to the reader, arousing in one a sense of need that will not be satisfied:
“What will you say of your feeling
Living with a sister who terrorizes
Even manic depressions out of your mind?
 (‘Sage in the Cubicle’)
There is always a haunting note of despondency marked in Meena’s poetic lines. We may refer to her poem, ‘Immanuel’:
Now, if there be any mourning
Let it be for our heroes
Yet to die, fighting…
Meena’s poetic lines seem to echo from life itself, from the pauses of loss and vacuity in her sociological repression in a class-stratified Tamil society. Meena deeply penetrates the inner pores of the feminine psyche and brings out the strength and power of life. Sanjukta Dasguta, a Bengali poetess, writes
I am sangam and shakti
Power of fire, water, air and earth(.)
 (‘Identity’, Sanjukta Dasgupta)
Like all confessional poets, Meena gives literary form a new sense of personality, attaching value to the image of man. She raises her confessional traits to the level of a specific universal appeal. Her quest for identity is not the spiritual Odyssey; it is a human journey, a sociological journey that dignifies the reader:
Caste, yet again authored a tragedy
He, disease wrecked , downtrodden.
( ‘Prayers’)
In the poem ‘Take This for an Answering’ Meena records her voice of protest ;
You press me into answering
When and why and where and how
I could start to dislike you.
             Debates over Dalit studies in India have intensified studies of anti-colonial resistance in general which have been augmented and contested by a broad range of studies. Through Meena’s conscious poetic lines Dalits are hitting back in coloniser’s tongue. The poems in Touch represent the indigenous lifestyle. They resist colonial acts of authority and oppression through their textual transmission.



Michelle Cahill reviews Language For a New Century

Language For A New Century
Edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, Ravi Shankar
ISBN 978-0-393-33238-4
2008 WW Norton
Language For a New Century, published last year by Norton, is a collection of poetry from Asia, and the Middle East. The book is a poetic odyssey, an answer to the nationalistic rhetoric that followed the destabilising events of 9/11. Compiling 400 poems by an equal number of poets writing in 40 languages, this book marks a six year collaboration between three American poets: Tina Chang, Ravi Shankar and Nathalie Handal. All three poets have experienced some form of exile, or crisis, in their attempt to interpolate an Eastern and Western identity. Their definition of the East is broad and inclusive enough to include the ruptures of diasporas, as well as other gaps such as the often-neglected poetry of Central Asia. Their categories are fluid and unstable, crossing the boundaries of religion and state, thereby encompassing countries like Sudan or Tunisia, which are classified as both Asian and African. Undeniably, the process of selection has been mired by challenges and problematic constructs, such as the balance of representation or indeed the notion of identity, which becomes framed in a particular way. The decision to publish a single poem by each of the poets is well intentioned and egalitarian. While this broadens the scope of the collection, to some extent it limits the depth to which a reader may engage with an individual poet’s work.
Nonetheless this is a bold and visionary anthology with an inspired title. The collection is an excellent resource and a generous contribution to contemporary transnationalist literature. Well-indexed and annotated, arranged thematically, rather than geographically, each section of the book is introduced by a personal response from one of the three editors, taking the form of a ficto-critical essay. I found these essays compensated for the anthology’s scope and density, which at times feels encyclopaedic. I enjoyed the extended metaphors and the commentaries provided. “Parsed into Colours” describes Handal’s first collisions with racism. She recalls an incident during a childhood spent in the Caribbean, when she was asked by a Caucasian neighbour why she was playing with three Haitian girls. Ravi Shankar’s essay “This House, My Bones” brings into lucid focus the cultural hyphenation experienced by the poet on returning to suburban America after a year spent in Madras, where he was taken to be blessed by a Hindu priest and have his head shaved and covered in sandalwood paste.
I returned nearly bald, to Virginia in the middle of the school year. I had been a rare specimen in India, marvelled at for being American, and coming back I thought some modicum of magic would remain with me..…Those were unsettled times because I was both literally and metaphorically between homes. (381)
           Carolyn Forché, in her foreword, describes how the arrangement of the poems follows “nine realms of human experience”. There are obvious thematic classifications such as childhood, home, identity, exile and war. But the anthology includes poems which are equally inspired by, or evoke an understanding of mystery, spirituality, sexuality and love. One is struck, as ever, by poems about childhood, replete with vital perceptions and vivid images suggestive of those early encounters with language and otherness. Joseph O. Legaspi’s “Ode to My Mother’s Hair” is a lyric disclosure in which the mother’s hair is metonymic of protection, nourishment, absorbing the domestic scents of “milkfish, garlic, goat;”. The hair becomes an embodiment of nature. Fragile memories and emotions are evoked, balanced by a lyrical composure, suggesting the poet’s trust.
            And in this river
            my mother’s wet, swirling hair
            reminds me
            of monsoon seasons
            when our house,
            besieged by wind and water
            teetered and threatened to split open,
            exposing the diorama
            of our barely protected lives (11)
Here, as in many of the poems in this collection, the traumas of poverty, difference and migration cross a threshold into a space transformed.
          Pak Chaesam’s haunting poem “The Road Back”, renders the mother as a central, if tireless figure, returning home to her sleeping children, after working all day. Within the domestic context, she is identified with nature’s elemental beauty.
            Noone to see, no one
            to comprehend when she unties
            the starlight she carries back on her forehead,
            and shakes loose the moonlight
            that clings to her sleeves. (20)
           If the mother is a grounding figure in exile’s economically harsh terrain, she is also depicted as being anti-patriarchal, sometimes subversive. Childhood marks out a space of nostalgia, of heightened pleasure or play, a space of inspiration and dreams. It’s a space soon to be challenged by the different forms of political or sexual oppression which many of these poets confront. This is a book of silenced, unspeakable and unattended narratives.
          I was disturbed by the brutality of R. Cheran’s “I Could Forget All This” (204), translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom. It depicts convincingly detailed  images of atrocities committed  in the genocide war against Tamils: “a fragment of a sari/that escaped burning”, “a thigh-bone protruding/from an upturned, burnt-out car.” Within the same section, “Earth of Drowned Gods”, I was struck by the starkness of the poem “White Lie” written by the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun and translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah.
            The truth is also blood.
            And it might be a piece of tongue
            or something severed from us.
            We might find it in semen
            or in dust if these two things
            are not simply appearances     (215)
           The poem challenges the notion of narrations, nations and language, relying on symbolism to convey states of oppression. The role of translation is a crucial to a trans-cultural anthology, since it constitutes an inter-cultural dialogue. Through the filter of a translator, the poems take on a similar but not exactly identical shape, metonymic of difference and hybridity. There is an element of trust one places in the translator’s understanding of the text and the context in which the poem is written. A reader enters into this process, at the finishing stages as a receptor of cultural dialogue. Translations enable the reader to more fully appreciate the complexity of identity, place and culture. Far from being passive, the reader breathes life into the diverse range of these texts. Reading becomes an act of intimacy – we follow the poet’s voice as it travels across languages, cultures, landscapes and memories. One of the impressive collaborations of this anthology is the generous inclusion and careful selection of translations.
          While there are poems aplenty by established or illustrious poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Nissim Ezekiel or Vénus Khoury-Ghata, it becomes a political implement that we discover many astonishing voices scarcely known in the West, as well as those censored within their own country. Nadia Anjuman, a young Afghani poet, was killed by her husband, at the age of twenty-five, for writing against the oppression of Afghani women. Her poignant poem, “The Silenced” (230) reverberates with intensity.
            I have no desire for talking, my tongue is tied up.
            Now that I am abhorred by my time, do I sing or not?
Inwardly disposed, many of these writers find moments of liberation from the suffering in exile or alienation. The section titled, “Bowl of Air and Shivers”, attests to this spiritual and philosophical vision. The Tibetan poet Woeser, whose poem is translated from Tibetan by d dalton, juxtaposes the political and the divine, as a way of recording resistance.
     But here, in the Tibet that is daily ascending
                daylight nurtured by the gods’ ether
                the devils’ fumes also arrive   (494)
          True to the range of styles and forms found in this anthology, there are more ironic engagements with the divine. Vishwanatha Satyanarayana’s “Song of Krishna” personifies the god as a spoiled lover, undisciplined, announcing himself inconveniently to the speaker, while she is bathing: Debjani Chatterjee’s whimsical poem “Swanning In” depicts the Hindu goddess of the arts, Saraswati as a gracious if “unexpected guest”. “Even in Fortress Britain,” the poet recognises a pervading presence in absence, an aporia, reminiscent of home, of Heaven, or “a neighbourhood in India.” In “Cycle” the Nepalese poet, Bimal Nibha, compares a humble and ordinary object with the self. The lost bicycle with all its imperfections becomes the vehicle of the poet’s body: his “weight”, his “measure” and “breath”. These poems illustrate how restraint, humour, or the supple use of metaphor can construct specificity and culturally-encoded meanings.
          The achievement of Language For A New Century is literary, ethical and political. The collection provides moments of cultural dialogue: selection, commentary and memoir. It invites us to enter the margins of literature where oblivion and oppression are being resisted. As a reference book, it embraces diversity. It responds to humanity as a sweeping caravan of sentient beings who share their journey through tribulations, luminosity, irony and joy. Sometimes this syncretism fails to clarify subtle differences for the reader. The essays, at times, embody an excess of rhetoric, but overall, this is a significant and compelling anthology, which offers new and vital perspectives. Language For a New Century addresses the inherent imbalance in a canon that has, for too long, privileged the West.

Margaret Bradstock reviews A Cool And Shaded Heart

A Cool and Shaded Heart

Noel Rowe

(Vagabond Press, ISBN 97805511307, $25)                                 

Just under a year since Noel Rowe’s untimely death, Vagabond Press have graced us with a volume of his collected poems, selected by editor Michael Brennan. The collection does not include Rowe’s first book, Wings and Fire, which he had consciously moved away from, but Section I comprises early poems published in university and literary journals, and selections from his second work, Perhaps After All (1999). This section is especially significant in offering:
          examples of many of the key themes Rowe pursued throughout his
          writing, such as the work of mourning, the significance of family
          origins, relations and childhood, the evolution of spirituality and the
          questioning of received faith, communion with others through friendship
          and loss, and the day-to-day politics of simply being in the world at the
          end of the twentieth century.        (Preface, p.11)
The opening poem, written for the poet’s mother, exemplifies a number of these themes as well as Rowe’s versatility with traditional rhyme and rhythm patterns:
You lift your cup in the weak light, the bare
morning, and steam is touching you.
You eat toast, cut and buttered thin,
while the house settles breathing about you.
You and the furniture take the signs in
of children and time. Photographs hold
but do not give. The jacaranda has made mauve
again, the frangipani white with bruise of gold.
                                                    (from “You Lift Your Cup,” p.15)
Material things become sacred in the context of emotional connection. Likewise, in the rest of this section, insights and images surprise with their sensitive grasp of the moment, as poems celebrate the existence of friends and observed strangers.
Section II comprises the early, unedited manuscript of the collection Next to Nothing (2004), with the poems in their original order. Particularly moving are poems on the death of Rowe’s father, the emotion spare, again presented indirectly through everyday images:
running his finger like the wind along the fence
to feel its worried grain
noticing beneath the strong and almost everlasting fig tree
the cows sitting black shoulders forward like nuns at prayer
                                                                (from “Perhaps after all he hasn’t gone,” p.31)
                                                                Habits shaped                                                                                                  
for thirty-six years of marriage hang about the house
and wonder what to do.
                                                   (from “Pentecost,” p.32)
This section also includes conversations overheard on buses, dramatic monologues, and, in “War Coverage” (p.48), an exposé of the political-speak which masks our perception of the realities of war, so that:
                              It’s only later that the images we see
of Baghdad’s skin being stripped and sent away weeping,
of blood lost and stumbling through the camera’s eye,
of children’s limbs abruptly stopped and going nowhere,
really do disturb:
The beautifully understated sequence “Magnificat,” in the voice of the Virgin Mary, underscores the humanity of Christ and queries the inevitability of his resolve. Cadences stretch across lines, the enjambment carrying the forward impulse of the poems:
Last night, when the bread went
from my hand to his, it was bruised,
and still he carried the scent
of the broken jar, the sinner’s nard.
When, to take his wine, he bent
his shoulders forward, I was afraid
to ask, did he wish, now, I had refused?       (p.60)
               Having seen so many reversals,
I should have known he would test his muscles
on the stone, and walk away from the dazed
grave, leaving its mouth open and amazed.    (p.61)
Other poems are variously written for friends and mentors (“Watermelon, the only word I have”; “For Kevin Lee, Professor of Classics”), experiment with form and style (“On This Winter Morning”; “Backyard Blues”), or make connections between Buddhist thought and traditional Western theology.
The fourth section of the book, the complete text of Touching the Hem, written during Rowe’s initial period of cancer treatment, is indisputably his finest work. In her review of the 2006 volume, Judith Beveridge reminds us that
          Rowe’s greatest gift in these poems is to see beyond personal distress
          and discomfort and to connect with what one could argue is poetry’s
          most significant benefit: community.
                                                                           (Southerly, vol. 67, no.3, 2007, p.223)
Again the wry, spare imagery does duty for statements of suffering and loss, as in poem 13:
Today I’m allowed home,
taken, after one month away,
by the occupational therapist. She wants
to see how much the house needs to be
modified. The bed, the leather lounge,
the kitchen table, the madonnas, buddhas and paintings all
indicate this is the place where I used to live
but now they appear in a different light,
one that is faded, less substantial. I’d like                                                                   
to make it to the garden but can only stand                                                                
at the back door (the therapist says another step
is needed) wondering if the lilies from
my mother’s garden are still alive. By now
it’s raining, trees are rubbing themselves up against
the cleaned air, and a bird is darting past
the frangipani tree without a sound.               (p.151)
Moments of heightened lyricism contrast with the seemingly matter-of-fact, a microcosm of acknowledged temporality. The phrase “the place where I used to live” suggests that the poet has already moved on.
In his reactions to both living and dying, Rowe does indeed “touch the hem,” and a reading of the poems in A Cool and Shaded Heart allows us particular insight into that state of grace.         



Angela Meyer reviews Fragile Context by Kristin Hannaford

Fragile Context
By Kristin Hannaford
Post Pressed
ISBN 9781921214189.
324/50 Macquarie St,
Teneriffe, Qld, 4005
order from postpressed@gmail.com
Reviewed by ANGELA MEYER
Poetry can exist between boundaries of communication. It can have an awareness of itself in the uniqueness of its form, unlike a blanket of prose which acts to unfold a narrative. Kristin Hannaford’s poems also thematically blur or dissolve lines, those related ones that exist between culture and nature. She invokes the binary to acknowledge one’s reliance on the other, to promote the reader’s recognition of one because of the other, and just subtly, the danger of one overwhelming the other. In such a way, the form of the poem and its awareness of itself creates a beautiful irony, that the poem is a product of culture, of humankind, but would not exist without nature’s influence. In a way then, much of the poems in ‘Fragile Context’ border on romanticism, although with the modern interruption of ‘progress’ and moments of post-modern inevitability or acceptance.
The poem ‘Mountain’ is a dedication to the poet’s father: a joyful poem of slowly reduced stanzas. There is an empathetic association with the father’s experience, taking a long trip to work and back each day. The narrator imagines him on the train with a utopian home-vision, a life-affirming comfort that awaits him. ‘The distance between the lookout and the car is short./Your chest is tight with breathlessness//and this view.’ The last part of this stanza is both italicised and indented to the end of the passage. It enables the reader to hold their breath on the mountain, which is metonymic for the spirituous joy in nature’s whole, as are the eucalypt leaves he inhales. Overall, the poem explores a quiet acceptance of the balance of work and home life, a gratefulness for the coexistence of environments.
The poet’s children and lover are an extension of the self, nature’s existence in bodily form. ‘Birthday’ presents a contemplation of aging, uncomfortably related to rough wood and the smoothing over of oil, coating as opposed to fixing. But the poet’s child’s smile brings her back to the concentration of a moment and negative reflection is transformed into ‘possibilities’. In ‘Losing the Boy’ the child is breaking his link with the mother and becoming one with new formations. Hannaford innovatively describes a skate-park and its occupants. Appropriate terminology is made poetic as the reader sees, hears and senses the environment, anxious with her to find her son. He is crossing between her and this new culture ‘Almost unrecognizable,/ my son, the man -/ if it weren’t for the blue laughter of his eyes.’ Here, the poet reclaims the son, as forever inseparable from his biology, as nature’s persistence, even when the body is immersed in cultural activity. The lover is invoked in ‘Dismembered (two voices)’. A degree of mystery is maintained in the intimacy of the poem. It literally dismembers its actors, body parts explained, explored and satisfied, or are they? The line ‘this is enough’ brings comfort. The lover also exists in ‘The Night Storms’, a poem about consistency. Where change is inevitable, a memory can reinvigorate what has gone. Around these human endings and reimaginings, nature pervades. The majestic is tied by Hannaford to the everyday – ‘Lightning appears at first as a distant flicker -/ the way a television screen lights up a hallway.’
The poetic observer also experiences moments alone. ‘In the Spirit of Impermanence’ is a manic poem, a rebellion. It is an ode to joyful poetry refusing to be constricted by fashions or movements. It seems inspired by frustration and a ‘throwing off’ of burdensome expectation. She encourages one to ‘abandon pronouns & spirited rehearsals’. In ‘She Leaves From an Australian Forest’ there is a less celebratory aloneness. There is a sense of loss pervading the sparse syntax. One of the few poems with no punctuation or capitals, it flows from one end to the other, space and words interpolated as the woman is with the forest she is departing from. It connotes the coexistence of woman with nature. She recalls someone who is addressed, thinking of returning to them after day-to-day frustrations, contemplating amongst ‘leaves which refuse to homogenise’. Her mood is far-reaching, it is not just the ‘you’ addressed in such statements as ‘stands of trees humanise our frailty’ but a collective. The natural elements and formations remind her of bodily features, again making human and nature synonymous. The last line is potent as we imagine her leaving this memory, this spirit to join the sun ‘ascending’, spirituality and transience are invoked, and the last line resonates with its evocative ‘sounds of sclerophyll breaking’.
Body/nature/art are combined again in ‘Graphica Botanica’, and in ‘Music for Insects’ with focus on the eye and vision. The poet in this one is segregated by a window, but the eye explores nature with a disembodied power. Humans are as fragile as birds in ‘Whistling’ and ‘Displacement’.
Narrative transition is implemented in ‘Pumpkin Island Notes’, a series of four poems. They act as a snapshot of a holiday – known and unknown, nature intertwined with history and characters melded to place – ‘a memory of place, sharp as first incision’. It is extraordinarily vivid, and thickly encapsulating. There are pieces metonymic and metaphoric – coral, bones, for an ocean, a human, a whole. They are then fleshed out with mini-narratives of characters in place – past and present. Another destination is traversed in ‘Tracing Air – South Island’. It begins almost with the rhythm of a nursery rhyme. There is a passionate embrace of nature, a moment in time. It is a poem to smile at. The voice is overwhelmed at the beginning, all is ‘too magnificent’, but then the woman and land become one, she recognises herself in it – ‘a green wild dress// riding thighs and abdomens’. The play of lines with steps and pauses, the assonance and slight-rhymes create an anticipatory envelopment. The development of tone by the end is celebratory and of a woman recognised.
The poet’s delight at language, the discovery of words, their usage, their bodily motion (the tongue deciphering them) is evident in much of the work. In ‘Fishing (a meditation)’ the poet applies words for the value of their sound. Scientific names ‘Saccostrea glomerata’, textural like the fingers on the fishing line. Words italicised for consideration, tied in with sensory recollection, conscious associations – ‘Estuary, the word coats tongue/ and memory, sediment. Silt/ mixtures of detritus and the fecund.’ The construction of the fisherman is not as important as the quiet, the beauty of solitude and the engagement in an enjoyed activity, much the same as reading a poem.
In all, there is much to discover within the pages of ‘Fragile Context’. The curiosity of language carries on to a creative curiosity of narrative. The final poem ‘Jesus in the Swimming Pool’ playfully questions a character’s existence. It is a philosophical finish to the chapbook, inviting the reader to question the environment around them, and further, themselves within the environment. In essence, it is their ‘context’ that is brought forward. Are we to float also? What does this Jesus-figure see that the other swimmers with their heads down do not? Outside the pool are the forests and mountains and many-layered humanities where each reader carves a tract. The poetic voice is not only an observer of these trajectories, but a questioner of the divisions that exist between them. Hannaford traverses nature and culture and ultimately displays awareness, preciousness, and most certainly the encouragement of joy in such fragility.  


Oscillations: A Brush Without Words and Words Without Images, by Dilip Chitre

Dilip Chitre is and Indian poet, artist and filmaker. He has published thirty books, five of which have been translated into German. He has won several prizes and awards.






           I have been drawing, sketching, and painting since my early childhood when I also started playing with words. My father collected books of all sorts and he being a printer and publisher by profession, some of the books he collected were examples of excellence in book production— illustrated books, art books, atlases, almanacs, catalogues, photographic books—and so on. They fascinated and intrigued me. I spent hours browsing through them. They were the beginning of my visual education as well as my verbal education.

            I used to spend a lot of time in my father’s printing press and his master printer, Baldev Bhoi would give me tins of printer’s ink with their little left-over contents. I would also get left over cut pieces of various sizes and kinds of paper. These were the first art material I used. From Baldev I learnt how to mix inks to produce secondary colours and shades from red, blue, yellow, white, and black. Making different kind of greens by blending blue, yellow, red, and black was my favourite learning exercise. We had lots of trees and plants in our surroundings and the varieties of green I saw there made me want to reproduce many of them.

            My father purchased an 8 mm movie camera and a projector, as well as a box camera, and being the eldest of siblings I got a chance to make five-minute silent movies and to make black and white portraits and landscapes, action snapshots and images of monuments. I used a baby pram to take tracking shots and pans and zooms that were not possible to shoot with the fixed focus lens of the camera. I was already innovating techniques to overcome the limitations of the basic equipment in my hands.

            In the 1950s, after my family moved from the idyllic princely state capital Baroda to the congested big city then called Bombay, our financial circumstances changed for the worse. I could no longer afford to use water colours or fine quality pastels or crayons or pencils. I started writing poetry which costs much less to practise than the visual arts. However, I continued to work out charcoal drawings, pencil sketches, and pastel compositions often scouring the city at night in search of subjects: Irani restaurants, suburban railway platforms, beaches, and even cemeteries and crematoria.

            During my late teens, I made friends with like-minded poets who were also visual artists. All of them were much older than me—-in their twenties or early thirties. Arun Kolatkar was one of them. Through Arun I met Bandu Waze, Ambadas, Ramesh Samartha, and Baburao Sadwelkar. I started visiting the Artists’ Aid Centre at Rampart Row, the Jehangir Art Gallery, and the campus of the Sir J.J. School of Arts. I met very senior academic artists such as Shankar Palsikar who liked my work despite my not being a trained artist, as well as the then upcoming professional artists such as Mohan Samant and Vasudev Gaitonde.

           A little later, I met Bal Chabda and started observing artists at work in his Gallery ‘49 on Bhulabhai Desai Road. My friend Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, now a senior art critic, introduced me to Ebrahim Alkazi and his theatre group. I made friends with Nooruddin or ‘Nicky’ Padamsee and his younger brother Akbar Padamsee, the painter.

            Bombay of the 1950s whetted my appetite not only to see art but also to practice it myself. I worked on paltry salaries as a tutor in two colleges and as a sub-editor in a daily newspaper. Acceptable quality art material still remained beyond my means. It was only when I went to Ethiopia in 1960 as a high school teacher of English in secondary schools that I got a chance to handle oil colours. In one of my homes there, I painted a mural on the wall of the living room, much in the spirit of prehistoric cave artists.

            Back in Bombay in 1963, I returned to the cramped space of the big city once again. Wanting to live independently of my joint family, I lived with my wife and my small son in leased rooms in different parts of the city, eleven months being the standard period of lease. Living space competed and collided with working space, but now I had corporate jobs that I was forced to take up to pay exorbitant rents and support my small family with a growing son.

            Undaunted, in 1969 I purchased twelve large canvases—-the largest was 180cmx180cm—-oil colours, linseed oil, turpentine, and a set of brushes to start painting the way I had always wanted to. My first one-man show was held in the now defunct Gallery Rampart on Rampart Row. I shared the gallery space with Bhai Patki, who was my colleague in an advertising agency where he was Art Director and I was Chief Copywriter. This show opened on September 17, 1969—-my thirty-first birthday.

            Two of my twelve canvases were purchased by Air India International on the first day of the show: Green Divided by Itself and Erotic Textures. Some of my titles irritated The Times of India art critic, Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni enough for him to comment on the title A Painting for God’s Bedroom as frivolous, though The Sapphire Symphony the diagonally placed 180cmx180cm work dominated by subtle cubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean blue with a large, off-centre, vermilion dot was generously called by him a masterpiece. I still recall Akbar Padamsee telling me that the dot, instead of being vermilion, should have been cadmium orange to make the painting perfect. The greatest compliment I got, however, was from Professor Shankar Palsikar—-revered as a Guru by his art students. He came with his students, saw the entire exhibition, and said to me half-addressing everybody within earshot, “ I wanted my students to see how a genuine artist dares!”

            I was vastly encouraged by the overwhelming response to my first public show, but I did not dare to take the plunge into the uncertain life of a full-time painter yet. My job in advertising gave me a chance to script, edit, and direct ad films just then; and I needed practice in that medium before I could realize my dream of making independent documentary and feature films on themes of my choice.

            Later, I switched from advertising to the position of Creative Executive in the Art Department of the Indian Express Group of Newspapers. I contributed articles and edits to the paper, too (e.g. Editor S. Mulgaonkar asked me to write an obituary tribute to Pablo Picasso that appeared as the second edit on the editorial page on the day following the news of Picasso’s demise).

           In September 1975, I joined the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa along with about twenty writers from as many countries. When I went into the artist’s materials shop in downtown Iowa City, I was surprised to find two of my poet colleagues—-Peter Clarke from Cape Town, South Africa and Ahmed Muhammad Imamovic from Bosnia-Herzegovina buying paints and canvases. It struck me that the three of us could hold a show of our paintings in Iowa City and in a flash I thought we should create a new interactive art form in the spirit of jazz-—the quintessential American genre of music. Peter and Ahmed agreed enthusiastically.

            I coined the term Triple Triptych for the new form of painting. Each one of us was to do one initial painting and the other two were to improvise on the same theme in their own style. The size of the three paintings was to be uniform. As the space allotted to us by the University of Iowa’s museum of modern art was limited, we could only exhibit three triple triptychs ( nine paintings in all) plus some of our individual works.

            The show was successful beyond our expectations. The President of John Deere Incorporation, a giant multinational company that manufactures tractors and other farming equipment, purchased a triptych entitled Non-migratory Birds for the company’s headquarters at Moline, Illinois that has a formidable collection of paintings and sculptures. Each of us sold some works. The Des Moines Register Weekly carried a cover story on the new art form—Triple Triptych that was credited to us.

            I returned to India at the beginning of 1978 but resigned from The Indian Express, where I had a lien on my job during the Emergency, to work independently as a writer, artist, and filmmaker. I was consultant to a small advertising agency owned by a friend and wrote scripts for short films for another.  

            In 1980, I travelled with two other writers—-the late Nirmal Verma and U.R.Ananthamurthy—-to the then Soviet Union, Hungary, West Germany, and France to explore possibilities of reciprocal literary exchange through translation. The visit gave me a chance to visit legendary art museums such as the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Berlin museum, the Alte and the Neue Pinakothek as well as the Lembachhaus in Munich, the Impressionist museum in Paris— and so on.

            Seeing art on such a scale actually disoriented me in the end. When I tried to fall asleep, I saw such an involuntary cascading slide show of random images of paintings that I was unable to stop. My brain was fatigued by the art I saw. I was like a starving man from a famine-stricken land invited to a gourmet feast that turned him into a glutton who ended up with indigestion. From then on, I learnt to savour art by avoiding to see too much of it in a short time, something that I had already been doing with literature and cinema.

            In the 1980s I decided to focus my energies on making a full length feature film to realize a crying creative need. I knew by then that cinema was the most expensive medium of self-expression and that even to make a small budget feature film, I would need to raise a few lakh of rupees. I decided to take my chance by entering a screenplay in the annual scriptwriting competition of the National Film Development Corporation. I paid five thousand rupees to my friend, Bhau Padhye and purchased the first option on adapting his short story Godam before I set out to work on the screenplay.

            I spent a whole year working on my script and in the process spent all my meagre savings. In 1982, my script won the NFDC’s national scriptwriting award which carried a cash prize of Rs 10,000 and, more importantly, a guarantee of 100% finance if I wanted to make the film myself.

            Friends such as Satyadev Dubey and Govind Nihalani agreed to work without fees and I found an exceptional Art Director in Uday Joshi, a practising architect. My son Ashay was an apprentice cinematographer learning under Nihalani and my wife Viju looked after costumes and properties. My daughter-in-law Rohini worked as my script and continuity assistant. Several young and eager people wanted to assist me as apprentices and, always a teacher, I took as many of them on board as I could.

           NFDC bureaucrats were reluctant to let me make the film and created a lot of hurdles. I had planned to shoot the film in early 1983 before the summer began because the location I had chosen was intolerably hot and dry from mid-April to June. I borrowed Rs 100,000 at an exorbitant rate of interest from the market and started the film. I presented a fait accompli to NFDC and eventually they released part of the budget and continued to release funds till the film was completed.

            I finished shooting Godam in two schedules amounting to a total of thirty-four days and finished dubbing and post-production in ten days. It took us a month to edit the film. Alain Jalladeux of Les Festival des Trois Continents chose Godam as the official Indian entry in the Nantes Festival—as it is known. However, the NFDC bungled again by not sending the film to France in time for the festival and it was shown the next year, 1984, when it won the Prix Special du Jury for Direction. I was 46 when this happened.

            My award for Godam was announced by the festival jury on December 4, 1984 and on that very day the media started bringing in initial reports of the horrible industrial disaster in Bhopal, where I lived with my family then. My son Ashay lived with us in my bungalow opposite Bharat Bhavan and his wife Rohini was six months pregnant. The two—or rather three—of them were in the city where thousands were believed to be dead, or maimed and crippled for life. Bhopal was cut off from the world. There was no way I could communicate with Ashay who was not only my only son but also my Chief Assistant on the Godam project. Viju, my wife, was as helpless as me. She was waiting in Mumbai for me to return from France.

            Our small family world was shattered. Eventually, Ashay and Rohini flew to Mumbai and were immediately examined by several medical experts. As for treatment, none of them had a clue. A homeopath who had clinics in both Mumbai and Pune and had long queues of patients at either place, gave Ashay an out of turn priority in his Pune clinic. That is how we moved to Pune.

            My tenure at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal as Director of its poetry centre was brief but extremely stimulating. In that multi-arts complex—the brain child of Ashok Vajpeyi, the Secretary of the Bharat Bhavan trust—-I had for colleagues the painter and thinker J. Swaminathan and the theatre director and producer B. V. Karanth. Bharat Bhavan became the hub of creative activity in the fine arts. The cream of Indian musicians, dancers, singers, actors, painters, potters, sculptors, ceramicists, and poets visited and presented their work at Bharat Bhavan. If the terrible Bhopal disaster had not affected, uprooted, and traumatized my own family, I would have continued longer there.

            However, my son’s lung capacity was reduced overnight to a mere 40% due to exposure to the lethal gas— methyl isocyanate. No physicians knew how to handle the effects of MIC or reverse them. We moved to Pune where a homeopathic physician offered us the only hope of treatment for Ashay, Rohini, and their unborn child. In 1985, I resigned from Bharat Bhavan and decided to settle in Pune. Already suffering from chronic hypertension and unstable angina, I had to undergo an emergency angioplasty in 1989. That was the next turning point in my creative career.

            The only way I bounce back in adverse times and difficult circumstances is by painting or writing in reaffirmation of my faith in life and its indomitable creativity. Crises spur me on, sooner or later. I write poetry and create art mostly in self-defence or in search of self-realization. The whole outside world impinges on my creative conscience with its political conflicts and cultural stagnation. I seek my way out by going into myself and re-emerging with what seems to me a way of saying I am. 

            From 1985 till this day, I found in Pune a whole range of visual images that came out on paper, wood, and canvas. I am a senior member of Friends of Visual Arts in Pune, an informal group of artists working in different media, in different styles, and using different techniques. We hold group shows in Pune and over the years we have established our presence. On my sixtieth birthday in 1998, Friends of Visual Arts held a special exhibition in my honour. Two years later, Bhaskar Hande curated my one-man show at the Solo Art Gallery at Churchgate in Mumbai. It was called Paintings of Bhakti. 

            My present show is the first presentation of my work by a reputed professional gallery. On view here are my works of the last twenty-three years. Friends who wish to remain backstage are behind this exhibition of works selected out of over a thousand drawings, sketches, and paintings that use a variety of media and surfaces: oil and/acrylic on canvas, canvas board, and paper; watercolour on paper; crayons and pastels on paper; marble dust, crushed stone, and epoxy resin on canvas; oil on wood; mixed media on canvas and paper; charcoal, pen, and pencil on paper—-and so on.

              I am self-taught, self-driven, and seek self-realization through art.  

              However, I am not a self-proclaimed artist.