Nikola Madzirov was born in 1973 in Strumica, Macedonia in a family of Balkan Wars refugees. His first collection of poetry, »Zaklučeni vo gradot« (tr: Locked in the City), won the »Studentski zbor« prize for best début. In the same year he published his second book, »Nekade nikade« (tr: Somewhere Nowhere), also a poetry collection, which won the Aco-Karamanov prize. The anthology »Vo gradot, nekade« (tr: In the City, Somewhere) followed in 2004, and in 2007 he published his last poetry collection to date, »Premesten kamen« (tr: Relocated Stone), for which he was awarded the prestigious Miladinov-Brothers Prize and the Hubert-Burda Prize for Literature.
Madzirov was poetry editor of the Macedonian e-magazine »Blesok« and is the Macedonian co-ordinator of the international network Lyrikline. He lives in Macedonia and works as a poet, essayist and literary translator.
The Shadow of the World Passes Over My Heart
(translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid)
I haven’t the courage of a relocated stone.
You’ll find me stretched on a damp bench
beyond all army camps and arenas.
I’m empty as a plastic bag
filled with air.
With hands parted and fingers joined
I indicate a roof.
My absence is a consequence
of all recounted histories and deliberate longings.
I have a heart pierced by a rib.
Fragments of glass float through my blood
and clouds hidden behind white cells.
The ring on my hand has no shadow of its own
and is reminiscent of the sun. I haven’t the courage
of a relocated star.
Before We Were Born
(translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid)
The streets were asphalted
before we were born and all
the constellations were already formed.
The leaves were rotting
on the edge of the pavement,
the silver was tarnishing
on the workers’ skin,
someone’s bones were growing through
the length of the sleep.
Europe was uniting
before we were born and
a woman’s hair was spreading
calmly over the surface
of the sea.
(translated by Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed)
I separated myself from each truth about the beginnings
of rivers, trees, and cities.
I have a name that will be a street of goodbyes
and a heart that appears on X-ray films.
I separated myself even from you, mother of all skies
and carefree houses.
Now my blood is a refugee that belongs
to several souls and open wounds.
My god lives in the phosphorous of a match,
in the ashes holding the shape of the firewood.
I don’t need a map of the world when I fall asleep.
Now the shadow of a stalk of wheat covers my hope,
and my word is as valuable
as an old family watch that doesn’t keep time.
I separated from myself, to arrive at your skin
smelling of honey and wind, at your name
signifying restlessness that calms me down,
opening the doors to the cities in which I sleep,
but don’t live.
I separated myself from the air, the water, the fire.
The earth I was made from
is built into my home.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS
Peggy Reid, M.A. (Cantab), Doctor honoris causa, Skopje, M.B.E., born Bath, U.K., 1939, taught English at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje, Macedonia, for twenty years between 1969 and 2006. Translator/co-translator from Macedonian of novels, poetry, plays and works of nonfiction. Lives in Edinburgh, U.K.
Graham W. Reid, M.A., M.B.E. born Edinburgh, 1938. Read English at Trinity College, Cambridge. Taught English for twenty-five years at Ss. Cyril & Methodius University, Skopje, Macedonia. Widely translated both poetry and prose from Macedonian into English. M.A. thesis at Bradford University on Reflections of Rural-Urban Migration in Contemporary Macedonian Poetry. Currently lives in Edinburgh, U.K.
Magdalena Horvat (born 1978, Skopje, Macedonia) is the author of two poetry collections: This is it, your (2006) and Bluish and other poems (2010). Among the books she has translated into Macedonian are Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Fiona Sampson’s The Distance Between Us. She currently lives in Athens, Georgia.
Adam Reed (born 1978, Athens, Georgia) has co-translated/edited several poetry collections, anthologies and works of nonfiction from Macedonian into English. He taught English, Writing and History courses at University American College Skopje, Macedonia, for several years. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia.
Silencing Voice, Voicing Silence: A Review of Fish-Hair Woman
In her previous novel The Solemn Lantern Maker, Merlinda Bobis had developed what the literary critic Susan Sontag once called as an “aesthetic of silence”. Bobis’ sparse, economical style so unlike the usual lyricism of her prose reflected her central character’s very own muteness (aptly named Noland), as well as the difficulty of expressing what can hardly be represented in words, but perhaps only felt catachrestically. Noland’s grim story of child prostitution and abject poverty in the Philippines imposes silence because, and as Sontag argued, ‘ “silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence.’ What happens out there in the so-called “Third World” thus looms large over our consciousness, disturbingly close from home – and in this silence, we as readers cannot but feel complicit:
There is no room for another time. The hut is too small even for the present. Life must be squeezed to pocket size, breath must be kept spare, so there’s enough left for the next day, so the walls hold up. Be frugal where life is fragile.
What Sontag viewed as a form of ‘impoverished art, purged by silence’ also constituted an attempt by the author of The Solemn Lantern Maker to paradoxically draw attention to the particular timbre of her literary voice, an act of resistance in the face of censure and overdetermined readings of her work. This gesture was similar, albeit in another context, to Arte Povera’s minimalism in the late 60s as a means of thwarting philistine approaches to use-value and the seamless transparency of meaning in art. In her essay, ‘‘Voice-Niche-Brand: Marketing Asian-Australianness’, Bobis quotes Frederic Jameson on the work of Ernest Hemingway to remind that “ethnic” writers, beyond their nationality or gender, are first and foremost artists in their own right.
It is a mistake to think that [his books] deal essentially with such things as courage, love, and death; in reality, their deepest subject is simply the writing of a certain type of sentence, the practice of a determinate style.
While this is not a review of The Solemn Lantern Maker, this novel and the aesthetic of silence impregnating it informs in turn the story behind Bobis’ first (and until now) unpublished novel Fish-Hair Woman (2011). If her previous novel represented an outcry of a mute sort, and had to be first published in the United States after facing initial rejection in Australia, Fish-Hair Woman stands as revenge against fate and what Bobis defined elsewhere in a recent essay as the “gatekeepers” of the Australian publishing industry. In effect, it took more than seventeen years for the novel to be published, interspersed by multiple rejections, editing, and ‘silence.’
As it happens, the novel’s chief “vice” is that it is set in a militarised village in the Philippines during the Filipino government’s crackdown on communist insurgency from the late 70s onwards, and that, therefore, Australia and the “Australian story” appear marginalised. Bobis prefers to deal instead with subaltern voices and to ‘privilege the underclass – peasants, labourers, and the like – as agents of historical change’ in what represents a decolonising gesture akin to the work of Filipino scholars known as Pantayong Pananaw (‘for-us-from-us’ perspective).
The culture industry and its tendency towards compartmentalisation does not wish a diasporic author like Bobis to “dabble” with style; neither is it inclined to giving full reign to the diasporic voice unless it is domesticated, made heimlich. The dominant paradigm for the Asian Australian author has so far been the “migrant story”, a movement from A (Asia) to B (Australia), and sometimes back to A so as to remind the reader that the “Asian story” is Australian enough but not quite. In so doing, the Australian “gate” is safeguarded while “enriched” at the same time. However, Fish-Hair Woman, like Simone Lazaroo’s Sustenance (2010) a year before, reverses this movement in a “conspiratorial” attempt (Bobis’ own term) to regionalize Australian identities and open the floodgates by immersing white Australian characters in foreign, menacing Asian settings instead.
In so doing, the garde-fou (French for parapet, literally “madness keeper”) is let loose, perhaps irreversibly, as an effect of globalising trends and the fact that (Asian) Australian authors are now transnational in what may be deemed a post-diasporic world. In this new paradigm, the hyphen in Asian-Australia is not a straightforward road from A to B that can be easily co-opted into the migrant narrative, but a conflictive zone of incommensurability and “abject” resistance writing back to the gatekeepers of the industry.
Behind the Philippine Commercial and Industrial Bank, among the garbage bags, a vagrant is abusing the security guard. […] He’d been scavenging, throwing out ‘unusable’ garbage onto the street before the guard found him. […] Suddenly, the vagrant jumps up, gripping Luke’s arm and shouting, ‘Mr Amerkano, Mr Amerkano, my bank, my bank!’ He’s pointing to the garbage, demanding affirmation. (119)
As Bobis reflects in her essay: ‘Should one exit from the diasporic narrative to break this bind? Why not shift the gate?’ This is what Bobis does in Fish-Hair Woman, and by shifting the gate she also shifts perspectives. The novel starts off in the century-old tradition of an ‘Australian thriller about a past crisis in some Asian country [with] the questing Australian male (usually) who was tempted and challenged, and muddled through mayhem.’ Centered on the mysterious disappearance of Australian writer Tony McIntyre in the Philippines and his son Luke who sets out to find him, and with all the ingredients of the oriental thriller in place – including a revolution, a corrupt leader, and a love affair with one of the “natives” – Fish-Hair Woman however quickly departs from what the Australian literary critic Alison Broinowski once described as ‘the fictional Asia we used to know and love (or not know and fear).’
It is in that sense that this novel can be deemed “avant-gardiste”, that is, at once one “story ahead” and standing before, rather than inside or outside, the gate.
Luke freezes, unable to look away from the man’s demented eyes, the whites turned blue by the light. Stella shouts at the vagrant to back off, he does, and she grabs Luke and they both run to the Australia Centre. Behind them the altercation continues: ‘My bank, my bank!’
She leans against the silver column, both hands catching her brow. ‘I’m sorry…I’m sorry for my country.’
She’s apologising to me? But Luke misses the tone of despair in which he does not even figure. (119-120) (italics mine)
Merlinda Bobis has often described herself as a “border lover” with a deeply humanist and planetary vision. Her work travels wide and far, relentlessly straddling various art forms, genres, languages and cultures, inscribing difference and alterity in place of reified categorisations and the strangleholds of identity-thinking as few writers have been able to. For Bobis, literature starts with the body, ‘a technique which is not just of the word, but of the body.’ Through the bodily metaphor of hair-growing, weaving and unknotting, remembering and forgetting, the reader is caught into the rhizomic nets of “text-ility” in this magico-realist tale of a woman with twelve metre-long hair who fishes out the dead river bodies of a torn cultural fabric, the product of a ‘senseless war’ (9).
My memories weave in and out of death and love. […] I wept over the enemy as my hair grew, its red and black strands shooting from all ventricles up to the scalp, to declare that the heartspace is not just the size of a fist, because each encounter threads a million others. The capillaries of love and war flow into each other, into a handspan of hair. (142)
While we are told that there is no hero in this story, with ‘too many stories weaving into each other, only to unweave themselves at each telling,’ (259) there are also too many vividly painted characters in this family saga à la Garcia Marquez to give them full justice here. The novel spans across three decades and continents, from the Marcos regime’s “Total War” against the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the Communist Party, through to the February 1986 People Power Revolution and onto the year 1997, as Luke flies to the Philippines from Sydney on a cryptic note sent his father after thirteen years of silence that the latter is dying. There he meets instead with Dr. Alvarado, just returned from years of political exile in Hawaii and who claims to have known his father very well.
These are stories that demand to be told – and heard – stories all too familiar for anyone who is aware that ‘beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror’ (6); stories of farmers’ expropriation, being pushed off their land and turned into landless wage labourers by power-greedy mestizo elites like Dr. Alvarado, alias Governor Estradero and his private army, the Anghel de la Guardia; stories of rape, torture and murder by the State with the complicit backing of the West, including Australia; stories of first-world do-gooders and eco-tourists who ‘look for villages still at one with nature, unadulterated by progress [but] who might just run into problems if the farmer in the village suddenly demands. ‘But I want your BMW too, and your toilets that flush and all your wonderful amenities. Is this possible?’ (121). For those who refuse to hear and see, Bobis will ‘weave an alternative tale about us nice folks brewing this exotic spot with coffee cups on our heads and dancing up a fiesta. A postcard shot if you wish…so you can quell your shudder with a longing sigh for this village in the East.’ (57)
Finally, there is the author’s own meta-story, Bobis’ awareness that she, too, is partly complicit in that ‘your [her] author is only interested in saving a white man [Luke’s father]’ (227). Professor Inez Carillo’s husband was murdered while investigating on the deaths of the villagers of Iraya, north of the island of Luzon, where Bobis was born. As she further explains to the Australian diplomat Matt Baker: ‘the worst are our own expatriate writers, those migratory birds. First they abandon us to fly to greener pastures, then return as vultures to feed on our despair. Then they take off again. Take, then take off.’ (226)
In this complicity, we as readers, along with Bobis’s fish-hair woman, cannot but feel silent – an oxymoronic act of penitence for an author and a book with so fulsome and generous a voice that it leaves one emptied out at the reading end.
But can words ever rewrite a landscape? Can the berries suddenly uncrimson with talk? Can bullets be swallowed back by the gun? Can hearts unbreak, because for a moment its ventricles are confused at the sight of a refurbished coffee grove, besieged by peace and domesticity?
I can dive a hundred times into the river, fish out this or that beloved and tenderly wrap a body with my hair, then croon to it in futile language such as this, but when I lay the dead at the feet of kin and lovers, their grief will just shame my attempt to save it from dumbness. Listen to the mute eloquence that trails all losses, the undeclaimed umbrage at having been had by life. This is a silence no one can ever write and least of rewrite. (58)
 Sontag, Susan. ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’. Styles of Radical Will, Penguin Classics, 2009, p. 11.
 Bobis, Merlinda. The Solemn Lanter Maker, Pier 9, 2008, p. 24.
David Herd is a poet, critic and teacher. His forthcoming collections of poetry include All Just (Carcanet, 2012) and Outwith (Bookthug, 2012). He is the author of two critical works, John Ashbery and American Poetry and Enthusiast! Essays on Modern American Literature, and his essays and reviews have been widely published in journals, magazines and newspapers. Recent writings on poetry and politics have appeared in PN Review, Parallax and Almost Island. He is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent, where he directs the Centre for Modern Poetry.
3 poems becoming elegy
This back pocket’s for keepsake,
An invitation to an exhibition,
Items to remember and maybe one day use.
All structures pass,
The clear cut of an October morning carries a heavy moon.
Which we’ll see again
Notwithstanding all the indicators.
It is ultimately elegy underwrites the poem.
Assemblies of people.
The poem choosing bashfully
And as the dream of every cell
is to become two cells,
so what the poem hankers after
is another poem,
splitting itself off,
feeding on the residue,
among structures untouched
where the elegy lies
where the poem handles circumstance
caught among the fibres of the old guy’s clothes,
he wore great hats,
the thought is difficult,
cell by cell,
Lately it has become apparent
that the nation is deserving elegy.
There are practices among us
we are tending to forget.
For which the elegy works because the poem is here among
modeling its behaviour on things which pass.
The poem has its lists.
The disorientation of the citizen
detained without charge.
Understanding where he is.
When the plums were first ready
before the first one fell
when the roses were not yet planted
and the ground was dry,
before the eucalyptus was cut down
bent double beside the gate
before the sea surged
before the value in the market dropped,
as the mallow came through
not for the first time
beside the road helped
by a brief warming,
as copies proliferated
as the clematis bloomed
as people arrived
to complete a hazardous crossing,
as the errors accumulated
before the apples ripened,
before the news broke, before the panic
before the denial stopped,
in dense populations
among prosperous economies
when the plums were first ready
but before the first one fell
before the goldfinches had gone,
before the nets were dry
before the crisis was with us
before a big old moon
as you walked from the table
to the kitchen door
we were glad that night
to have you among us.
Along the broken road
nearby the disparate houses
where summers, coming into purple
the mallow blooms,
complex tools and fishing nets,
stop and exchange;
beneath wires where
‘Adoration of the Child and the Young St. John’,
nearby the outbuildings,
slipped open early,
‘based on conflict’,
as morning comes;
where seagulls stand allover into language,
where mallows bloom purple along the broken road,
you stood one time
to arrive at terms.
Ecology (out set)
What stands discrete
scattered against the outbuildings
mallow goldfinch complex terms
and you, stood there
not knowing if you’re coming or going
One by one
The poem splits,
It has no desire to become a nation,
It traffics in meanings, roots among stones,
The things they have with them,
Along the broken road.
Immigrant through the streets
It craves sources of stability,
Processes it might settle its elegy among;
To begin again,
It seeks the moon broken across the estuary,
One by one.
MTC Cronin has written numerous collections of poetry (including several co-written with fellow-Australian poet, Peter Boyle) and a number of volumes of avant-garde cross-genre micro-essays. She currently lives, with her partner and three young daughters, on an organic farm (specializing in fresh Spanish produce) in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Australia.
The Sky According to Laws
after Nikola Madzirov
The sky according to laws passed for the protection
of those who are murdered, says nothing.
In this silence the sky invites the stones
to unpile themselves and the birds
to swallow their songs.
The sky doesn’t watch and the sky never listens.
There is no news.
That the world is bigger than the earth is not news.
That the little stream could cause a king
to create an army is not news.
That lovers at dawn are monkeys and frogs
at dusk, is not news.
The sky has no sense of them and is their entreaty.
The sky according to laws in force to discipline
the carefree, unhomes anything with a soul.
Born in Adelaide, Christopher Pollnitz lectured for over thirty years at the University of Newcastle. He remains a conjoint lecturer of that University and over many years has spent many months in Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham. He has written articles on the Australian verse novel and a range of Australian poets, including Judith Wright, Peter Porter, Les Murray, Alan Wearne and John Scott. In the 1980s Paul Kavanagh and he ran the Mattara Poetry Prize, since re-established as the Newcastle Poetry Prize, and edited the annual anthologies. Picaro Press has brought out a Wagtail pamphlet of his own poems, Little Eagle (2010). He is the editor of D. H. Lawrence’s Poems for Cambridge University Press’s critical edition of Lawrence’s Works. The first two volumes of the Poems, including all the verse Lawrence collected or planned to publish, will appear later in 2012. Examining the original manuscripts of Lawrence’s verse has involved considerable travel in the USA, including a visit to the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, which (as reported in the “Idylls”) holds just one Lawrence manuscript poem. Only in recent years has he ventured outside the libraries and private collections of North America to see and reflect on some other aspects of the continent.
from American Idylls
i. Mt Vernon
She-eagle, bald eagle, swooping up from the river
with a beakful of Potomac shad for the nestlings
—yes, let us lengthen the metre to national epic—
she settles on that Virginia pine bough, settles
the young in a stick halo down to their dinner
above the jetty where, one week of the eighteenth-
century year, Washington sent out his servants
(i.e. his slaves) to catch herring and shad for the winter.
She is the Potomac’s one true farmer.
Mt Vernon is a doll’s house on an Enlightened
gentleman’s toy farm, a former general
but bewigged and toothless now, not exactly a raptor.
In the reconstructed slab walls of the pioneer cabin
down the herb-and-market garden, they have a wise woman
who spins a deft spindle and stories for the tourists—
the best on Johanna, the estate’s washerwoman
who laundered every week every smock of homespun
and ruffled shirt, and every spring the curling
heavy fleeces. Imagine her cracked and soda-hardened
hands pressing deep into the lanolin water,
spongy, emollient. That the oil never showed in
estate accounts shows Johanna had a sideline.
Down from the family vault with its marble eagle
spread stately across the whitened sarcophagus
is a knoll where they might have been, the unmarked grave-sites
of the unnamed families of slaves (i.e. the workers).
Did Georgie-Porgie speak with Johanna?—Martha
had to ask permission before entering the study
of the Republic’s father, never biological
yet something, something maculate, was transmitted.
ii. New Jersey
We are in the country of the yellow school bus
rushing through it on the morning express to Newark
and on into New York, while the clapboard houses
turn their backs away from us and turn their porches
towards the trim white churches with those little
steeples like sharpened pencils. The young father
across the aisle sitting sideways barely seems to notice
his daughter for the crossword or Sudoku
balanced on one of his knees, but when his daughter
rests her tight-curled head on the other,
he gently strokes it—not idly, with assurance.
Having listened to much talk that is more rhythm
or dance of self-assertion, self-obeisance,
I like him for his silence, this young father,
his working pencil, and absent hand still stroking.
Now that he’s not required for cotton-picking,
and buses and brief spires seem to have lost their
centring function, Amtrak passing by them,
perhaps his hands have power to drive the dibble
into this lakeland, estuarine country
setting the sharp American grain anew.
iii. The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum
Starting from Brooklyn, where New York’s most suicidal
cyclists come home from days that haven’t killed them
we take the inevitable subway to Manhattan,
across the river the sun coming down on Liberty
visible a few seconds above the roofs of factories
in working Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful idea,
Liberty, from a distance. Before the dereliction
of factories springs up to fill the vista
there is Ellis Island that once filled the factories
with workers (i.e. slaves). Our tour-guide on the Island
history teacher Marcus Smith, had saved to send his
grandfather Schmidt on a visit back to Austria: What I should go back to that shithole for? he queried.
But shitholes are the closeups of our memory.
Connoisseur-collector-eccentric Pierpont Morgan
is wearing his fez tonight in the Library
and adjusting his hooded lamp above Melancholy,
his refinement tracing every curve of the burin
in a luxury of sorrow. On the plains somewhere out in Iowa
under the rail a coolie’s set cross-wise a sleeper
and taking the sledge has driven a spike home, half-cognisant
it is himself he is crucifying. Meanwhile Morgan
has laid the Dürer aside and turned his attention
to the thimble of an Assyrian seal—two monsters
in their internecine embrace constructing a pattern.
Does he reflect what empires need in the building?
Does he think of the coolie? No, his focus
is elsewhere as he repositions the lampshade.
In the Museum the summer exhibition
on Romantic Gardens includes everything Morgan collected,
from engravings of Antoinette’s dairy fantasy
to Pope’s Twickenham and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”:
let everyone into the Garden, you inherit Bedlam.—
As you leave, out of certain gratings in the pavement
comes a rumble and whisper as of Morlocks feeding.
Marcus Smith, I need your help and my experience
having once worked an hour in that Library (closed this summer)
and trained a Morgan light on my chosen manuscript:
let me know the conditions of my scholarship and labour.
iv. Ground Zero
From the wide-screen windows of the World Finance Center
squashed into two dimensions like a Jackson Pollock,
diagonals of yellow cranes order what the mind’s eye
conjures as no more than a writhe of metals. You don’t get it, do you? you point out. And truly
I fathom nothing of this notch in the scrapers’ skyline
about the morning or the weeks that followed.
Having seen a good Hamlet at the Folger
we know the Tudors’ stereoscopic vision
of the fall of greatness, still feel the medieval
Schadenfreude; but listening at another window
to a New Jersey fireman who came in after
work on 9/11 to join the rescue
(or mortuary) operation reconfigures
the Day as the tragic heroism of the Many.
Talking to a tour who’ve gathered round him,
mid-statistic in what doubles as self-therapy,
the veteran breaks off, struggling to re-enter
the horror he knew. The volunteers were his heroes;
it was their work dead and living firemen were doing.
Descending we find the Memorial Museum
adds the dimension of grief: we are chosen
(is it my face—all struggle, no comprehension?)
to be led by an ex-fireman and fireman’s father
past ceiling-high blow-ups of a Bosch Thebaïd
to a collage of little snaps from family albums
where he points out his smiling son and grandkids.
He was lucky; his son was among the found bodies.
Irresistible the catharsis that wells up out of
sources this deep, but something in me now refuses
to get it. Have the deeds that call up pity
and terror themselves been tangled in atrocity
poisoning the well-springs of our deepest feelings?
Or no—is it not that the katabatic pulsations
which wrecked the Towers are still radiating
out and out, both disuniting peoples
and shaking foundations of many a place of worship
till the Jefferson Memorial itself trembles?
v. The Whitman Way
We’d been told to see the Korean War Memorial
and having seen will truly never forget it:
in this capital of the war against terrorism
patrols a platoon that wears every face of terror,
half of the boys scared shitless, half to numbness.
But really I prefer the Lincoln mausoleum:
we pace about him in an amphitheatre
and here he smiles like a benign grandfather,
then another step and you see the glint of vision
in the stern eye required for nation-building.
Who knows what must be given and what taken
wears the stern mask of the whole tragic drama;
he knows what he has to do and he is a-doing,
he knows what must be done and the boys are dying.
We have walked The Whitman Way too, up on F Street.
It passes by the National Portrait Gallery,
the Patent Office once, where Whitman worked and
spent evenings visiting hospital camps for the wounded
that grew in the autumn rain on Washington’s fringes
though I wonder where. He was a good visitor, Whitman,
wrote letters for the boys, sat with them while they were dying
and poured out gallons of sympathy in “Drum-Taps.”
Surgeons would hone a scalpel on their boot-soles
to speed an amputation, and the nation’s poet
dared mention the smell of wet gangrene under canvas
(‘With soothing hand I pacify the wounded’)
but didn’t go on, lest it read like criticism;
for the surgeons did what they must and they were a-carving
and Whitman, he was a seer yet unforeseeing.
We have even trudged up through the democratic
ranks of the dead at Arlington Cemetery
past the bold surnames of forgotten generals
and the smaller stones of ORs named and mourned for.
At the Kennedies’ shrine near the summit the eternal
almost invisible flame you know is there burning
flickers up to blueness, and a black helicopter
beats up from the Pentagon like a heart fibrillating.
The times are the times and the presidents are a-changing
but they know what they have to do and they are a-doing,
they know what must be done and the boys are dying.
vi. Takoma, DC
Sunday morning, the Farmers’ Market busy,
young families adrift in the Main Street sunshine;
the Baptists with somewhere to go to, the Adventists
emphatically not going there, and the remainder
like me, not going anywhere, just being.
Except for Sharyn, that is, who’s opened this morning,
my daughter’s made my appointment, we’ve made friends talking
as she cuts my hair, about daughters who look after us,
how mine is a Thursday’s child, hers a travel agent
but the one time Sharyn has flown, on a tour to Las Vegas
her daughter asked, Why’re you going all that way for? No, she’s no traveller, enjoys a long week at the salon
doesn’t mind trimming beards, and still sees her first client.
Waiting in the sun for my daughter to collect me
I spot a poster from the Spring Poetry Festival,
Atwood’s “Habitation.” A passerby stops to read it,
asks her husband’s opinion and interprets his silence, I didn’t think much of it either. The morning’s sour note;
neither’s emerged from the Ice Age or the forest.
Here comes a hand-holding father whose daughter totters
under the Emperor of Icecream she’s clutching
in the other hand: Eat it quick, if you want to have it.
But he kneels, re-sculpts it for her and restores it.
I’m on her side; I want the morning’s sweetness
to go on and on. And here comes my daughter
bearing bags with the week’s provisions. We share them
and there’s one left to do some farewell shopping.
She chooses walking-shoes for her move to Texas,
I a T-shirt with a print of D.C.’s counties
—top of them all this leafy, sunny suburb.
I want Takoma on the map of my hereafters.
New and Selected texts are increasingly popular with well-established poets and are, in fact, a good way for readers to gain an insight into their manifestos and technical development. This is particularly so in the case of Gig Ryan, who, as a poet, is judiciously enigmatic and always one step ahead of her readership. In this collection, Ryan has put together her choice of landmark poems from her previous five books and added a section of new poems written since then.
In her first collection, The Division of Anger (1980), appear most of the hallmarks of Ryan’s technique and avant-garde approach to her subject matter − the metaphysical similes, the fractured syntax (resisting any kind of predictability) and the almost complete absence of lyricism. Clichés and worn-out tropes are mockingly undercut. Nowhere is this more evident than in the iconic “If I Had A Gun,” which concludes the selection from this book.
Ryan’s similes in her early poems rely on shock value and violence, sometimes unerring in their aptness (“His sincerity clacking like chainmail”; “His eyes/ romantic as aluminium strewn against a sea-wall”), sometimes bizarre (“the water lies down like a saint”; “worries like a tablet”), but never willing to be ignored. At times this full-on technique may irritate, threaten to overwhelm the reader with its close-packed mixed similes, but bombardment may well be the intention, or at least the outcome, as in the poem “Getting It”:
He kisses, his pale guilt blowing
like a flower. You’re luxurious, unsure.
Your eyes opening like telescopes
on a clean brain.
You’re so silly in the kitchen, like a new appliance.
More complex, and equally effective, are similes that merge into metaphor (“I will go down into the black water/ and peel its wetness back into the shore/ where it will shiver like a dress”). In later collections, Ryan uses similes more sparingly, often developing them into extended metaphors that control the poem as a whole.
The Division of Anger and the next two collections, Manners of an Astronaut (1984) and The Last Interior (1986), share a subject matter of inner-city politics, of sex, drugs and jazz, and an ‘angry’ take on conformity, further disrupting the comfort-zone of the reader. Dramatic monologues intensify the ironic stance of the poet/persona. In “The Buddha Speaks,” a serious message underlies the flippant exterior:
I have eliminated the possibility of pain.
The slopes are crawling with pain.
Any movement, after all, is futile,
so I have cut down on aid generally
and talked myself out of violent feelings
In “Half Hill / Half…”, one of the best poems in this section (Manners of an Astronaut):
The bars of the street go to the new next place
where your yearly emotion won’t come
and don’t hail me like letters. You don’t need to.
I mean, you’ve lined the walls and sucked drugs.
The world holds you in place like hairspray.
I walk home stoned, eating my favourite apple,
hearing birds fall out of trees,
super-conscious of walking.
How can you explain boredom in 10 minutes?
The short selection from The Last Interior features a number of dramatic monologues utilising phatic ‘nothings’, clichés and conventional rhetoric, sometimes curtailed to emphasise the predictability of colloquial conversation. Likewise, the endings of poems are incomplete, not needing completion (“I mean, that’s not correct etiquette is it. If I/ could just find out the correct behaviour, the pattern,/ and learn it and learn it”; “My religion’s too strong inme, though he turned at the end,/ a gesture. He was that sort, you know,/ £5, you got roses./ the handsomest man I ever”).
Excavation (1990) shows a more measured and integral use of simile, a widening of perspective and a political component. Examples in this New andSelected text include “On first looking into Fairfax’s Herald” and “1965.” In the whimsical “Six Goodbyes”:
Surf music seeps from the separated father’s flat
A madman in the lane shouts nothing
The walls shudder with the traffic
The Government doesn’t know you from a bar
I plug my ears with wax to hear the sirens
Every second weekend his kids invent a yard
between stumps of furniture, a tin shed and a gate
The fridge is tanked with frost
In poems like “Napoleon,” “Penelope” and “Achilleus,” historical and legendary figures begin to make their appearance, albeit in modern guise, exploding the conventions/pretensions of love and its conformities. In later collections, there’s a shift in the functioning of such figures. “Electra to Clytemnestra” and “Ismene to Antigone” (from Heroic Money), while relying on a similar approach, together provide a balanced argument on the subject. The new poems “Ismene” and “Antigone,” the imagistic references increasingly double-edged (“your wine-dark car turning in the drive”), contrast attitudes of the two sisters to the ‘truths’ embedded in their mythologies.
The collection Pure and Applied, which won the 1999 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry, is strongly represented here, believed to be Ryan’s best book to date. Again we come to grips with dramatic monologues, ironised by representational handling of the subjects’ own rhythms of speech and confessional stance. In “London Saver,” for example:
probably Istanbul or Spain the guys’re divine
There used to be an eleven but they’ve all pitched off
into Outer Mongolia or something She throws the fags
It was lashing everywhere when I clicked the tickets
deciding on a country
And in “Eating Vietnamese,” “This restaurant’s divine They’re refugees/ Asians are beautiful don’t you think, quite hairless/ She wore apricot chiffon There were kids everywhere/ So demanding” (p.106). “Interest Rates” is even more savage in its revelation of personae through self-delusion and banal diatribe:
‘I used to be like you, full of icy self-regard
but life monotonously catches up and culls you
and all the others’ Things begin to glow
like your own house, car, and love’s equivalent
You get sick of being alone and raddled, and he’s a real pet
…isn’t he? So I buckled under, got a richly job
and I’m, you know, fulfilled. Before that it was just a covey of unrealistic aims
Everybody told me.
He dusted me off
who had once been lost
Now it’s solid, tangible
The baby’s like cement to me
Otherwise the million things I wanted every cider brick
I’d be just drifting or immersed’
By contrast, “Two Leaders” returns to the authorial voice, exposing these easily-recognised political figures with considerable contempt. The pièce de résistance, however, is the title poem “Pure and Applied,” denouncing the news media in different styles and voices.
Heroic Money, shortlisted for the 2002 NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry, seems stylistically a bridging text between what has gone before and what is to come. Poems evince the characters of the ancient Athenian world but also continue to take in contemporary cultural constructs. “Eurydice’s Suburb” (pre-empting, perhaps, Adamson’s lambent “Eurydice in Sydney,” though located differently) is an assured portrait:
The wings of home enfold you and lock
under the city’s poisoned coronet or halo
You gaze at the supermarket’s petrified food
and respond like a zombie to the past’s ghosts
and semblance of meaning
“Profile” gives us an exposé of the poetry world in dramatic monologue form, some of the details of which may suggest an aspect of self-mockery or, at least, a well-trodden path :
‘I started out with a frayed and urgent lyric
I suppose it was a comparative poverty
then learning appealed to me, though the past scared
then the Orpheus poems
a sort of self-commentary
You’ll see in my second book how I’ve
tackled national themes
When we come to the new poems, there’s considerable continuity, both of theme and style. Some of the poems appear to move in the direction of new lyricism (“The Last Spring”, “Ismene”, “Antigone”), until the reader is confronted with the way they function to explode stereotypes, “illustrating a cliché.” There is more inter-textual wordplay (from poets, proverbs, legends, nursery rhymes), and many opportune similes and metaphors. With surreal and unsettling imagery, the poem “Iphigenia” both evokes and dismisses a nostalgic preoccupation with the past. It is worth quoting in full:
Ships slinged in low elastic waters knock
who chug you to the altar
where old blood crumbles.
Orange fire tassels air.
You look out from the coast
back when twisting horses rise…
and clay figurines scout on your shelves
or back, lost geraniums shimmered August
and then expunge, then ‘fluey tenants later, then tied between two screens
your binary presence more real than soft dawn
when ritual tatters
and reversible names converse over the galloping maps.
Her teary pillar shrives a velour sea.
Your hair tacked with daphne and myrtle. Birds creak, a charmer −
nett bridegroom, mock stag −
to keeling ships, to dimple wind
coins close your eyes
At the end of the collection, there is a brief page of notes, referencing a handful of allusions. At the risk of advocating the scenario of the poem “Profile” (“Later I was avant-garde/ You can read the accompanying text’s/ explication of process”), I feel that a few more references might help the reader. Not too many, because in the end Ryan’s impact relies more on an apprehension of superb poetry than on textual exegesis.
MARGARET BRADSTOCK has five published collections of poetry, including The Pomelo Tree (awarded the Wesley Michel Wright Prize), Coast (2005) and How Like the Past (2009). Her sixth collection, Barnacle Rock, is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann in 2013. Margaret recently edited Antipodes, the first anthology of Aboriginal and white poetic responses to “settlement” (Phoenix, 2011).
A salient quality of the Ern Malley hoax is its incommensurability. There is something about it that, no matter how hard we try, how far we go, where we look, will never be properly explicated, never entirely understood. This quality is shared by the poems but this isn’t unusual with good poetry; whereas those works the circumstances of whose composition remain enigmatic are rather fewer: Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is the most famous example. It is the mysterium surrounding the writing of the Ern Malley poems, as much as the poems themselves, that has kept people coming back to them; and now we have, in David Brooks’ wonderful The Sons of Clovis, a sustained attempt at an inquiry into that particular circumstance.
Brooks says at the outset—and who could deny it?—that we would be foolish to take at their word admitted hoaxers when they describe the way they made their hoax poems. If they invented a poet and his poems, might they not also have invented the circumstances in which (they say) the said poems were composed? Of course they might. They probably did. Not that Brooks attempts to deny the Saturday afternoon in the Victoria Barracks alibi; he is after something larger and far more interesting: a genealogy for the poems themselves, their DNA perhaps: where, as poems, do they come from, what is their provenance, what their affinities and their contraries?
His suggestion, maugre the received version—the poems represent a kind of DIY antipodean surrealism mixed in with a bit of impromptu automatic writing indulged in by a couple of bored soldier-poets on a lark—is that their roots lie principally in the writing of the French Symbolistes; and that the means of their transmission can be traced, via Australian poet Christopher Brennan, into the early work of the hoaxers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. As the sub-title indicates (‘Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry’), Brooks feels he has discovered, in the French hoax poet Floupette, an actual precursor for Ernest Lalor Malley. Not the sole precursor—one of the most entertaining things about this very entertaining book is its discussion of other literary hoaxes, including an illuminating account of the Demidenko Affair—but certainly the main one.
It seems on the face of it an audacious speculation, difficult to sustain, let alone prove; but this is where the secret history becomes so fascinating. Christopher Brennan, it turns out, corresponded with Stéphane Mallarmé in the late nineteenth century. He owned a copy of Les Déliquescences by Adoré Floupette (Paris, 1885), perhaps acquired during his European travels in the 1890s and certainly the only one in Australia at that time; astonishingly, the original of two versions of the painting by Evariste-Vital Luminais that gives its title to the first poem in Floupette’s collection—Les énervés de Jumièges—is in the Art Gallery of NSW and has been since it was purchased on behalf of the gallery, for an unknown sum, by an unknown person, in Paris in 1886. This is the same work that, under its alternate title, Brooks uses for his book.
James McAuley, in the immediate pre-war years, wrote his MA thesis on the Symbolistes. At around the same time Harold Stewart was spending time in the State Library of NSW copying out, by hand, poems by Mallarmé and other French poets, which he then translated and published in student magazines. Whether either had in fact read Floupette, or even knew of his existence, is more difficult to establish but Brooks does show that McAuley, at least, could have done so: Brennan’s library, containing Les Déliquescences, was available to him.
The point of these connections is that they allow the speculation that, in creating Ern Malley, the hoaxers were, in part, indulging in a Yeatsian argument with their own younger poetic selves. This is a central point in Brooks’ thesis, one he develops in detail, and credibly, over the course of the book; and it gives a possible answer to the question as to why the Malley poems continue to emit such a strong emotional charge: they are not simply a hoax, they are not just parody. They stem directly from the chaos of two versions of the poetic unconscious where psycho-sexual battles are fought and lost or won.
As Brooks follows this line—with many twists and turns and a number of digressions, all of which are enlightening—a curious thing happens: one of the hoaxers, Harold Stewart, more or less disappears into the shadow cast by the other, James McAuley. It does seem likely that McAuley was the senior partner; it’s certainly the case that he is much better known in Australia than Stewart, who spent the second part of his life in Japan and whose later work is obscure and in some cases still unpublished. But you can’t help thinking also that McAuley, the tortured Anglo-Catholic alcoholic, the literary cold warrior, the politician of poetics, is more susceptible of analysis than the semi-retired, comprehensively veiled, homosexual Buddhist living anonymously in Kyoto.
McAuley, you come to feel as you read through The Sons of Clovis, is the sole clerk of [his, that is Malley’s] metamorphosis; while Stewart is not just hidden but, in Brooks’ own words, hiding something, perhaps even from himself. I put this forward, not as a criticism of the book so much as an index of how the Ern Malley imbroglio continues to elude explication, even in the consciousness of as sophisticated and erudite a commentator as Brooks. As I read on, and there was less and less about him, I found myself thinking more and more of Harold Stewart: as if he were yin to McCauley’s yang; the secret heart of the poems perhaps; the key to their darkness, their obsessive invocation of absence and loss.
Brooks is a superb close reader of texts and much of the interest of the book lies in his ability to get inside the words of poets—Malley is by no means the only one he eviscerates—and also in the way he casts his net wide enough to include in the discussion figures as disparate as Frank O’Hara on Manus Island and Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon; but there isn’t any mention of an intriguing adjunct to the Malley poems: the eleven, perhaps twelve (one seems to have been lost) Ern Malley collages put together by Harold Stewart some time after the poems were written. Perhaps they are too faux-surrealist to be of real interest, though I still like the iteration of wraithy, disembodied hands therein. They suggest the twinning of McAuley and Stewart: some kind of intrinsic relationship which meant that each supplied the other’s lack. And that together they made a third.
And twinning is the point: the sons of Clovis, two mutilated young men wounded and set adrift by their own mother on the waters of the Seine, recur as avatars through Brooks’ book; which, inter alia, is preternaturally alive to correspondences of many kinds. His language crackles off the page with a type of manic intensity that recalls the ticks of a Touretter. There are asides upon asides, parentheticals within parentheticals, footnotes on footnotes: indeed, early on he distinguishes, typographically, between crucial and non-crucial footnotes in an attempt to compel the reader’s attention towards the former.
He also suggests at several points that readers might wish to skip a chapter or two and obligingly informs you where you should go to pick up the main line of the narrative. These provocations, which I ignored (I read everything, including the non-crucial footnotes), are in a confidential tone of voice which, as it were, ushers you through a hall of mirrors pointing out reflections within reflections within reflections; and remarking on those junctures where the maze discloses a recursive, indeed infinite, regression.
Some of these lead to alternate (or parallel) traditions, including one in which Ern Malley influences Frank O’Hara and John Ashbury who then, in appropriately clandestine fashion, transmit the influence back, via Donald Allen’s epochal anthology, to Australian poets of the Generation of ’68: a kind of future in the past that is both credible and a revelation of the occult and serendipitous manner in which literary influence, skipping time, from self to fractured self, does in fact work.
I don’t think I’ve enjoyed an excursion into Malley land as much as this; it deserves to stand next to Michael Heyward’s very different (and at one stage apparently definitive) The Ern Malley Affair (1993); and some other examples of a small but compelling genre: works like Nick Groom’s The Forger’s Shadow (2002) which take as their subject the always fertile field of literary forgery, frauds and hoaxes; and show us how closely skeined together, indeed Janus-faced, are the twinned acts of faking and making.
By invitation this paper was presented at The Political Imagination, a Conference on Poetry held by in April 2012 at Monash and Deakin University co-ordinated by Dr Ali Alizadeh, Dr Ann Vickery and Professor Lyn McCredden. I wanted it to be considered for a journal of literary scholarship and so, after some consideration, I submitted it to an on-line refereed journal. Notwithstanding my independently-situated research the essay was returned to me within four days without readers’ reports and with the following comment:
Thank you for your submission to —-. After an initial read, the editors feel that —- isn’t the best match for your submission. Although very interesting and well-written, the piece would be better suited to a cultural studies or postcolonial theory journal. We do hope that you pursue publication with a different journal, one that could offer a better fit for your article. Thank you very much for your interest in contributing to —- .
This may be fortuitous as Mascara has, I suspect, a wider national readership than the journal in question. I don’t think the concerns this essay raises should be quarantined.
The Poetics of Subalternity
This essay attempts to assemble a radical critique of contemporary Australian literature, which in its orientation and its networks of power and interest inaugurates itself as a subject in the guise of nationalism while ignoring the divisions of cultural capital and labour. This is an exclusive and essentially White paradigm that articulates difference in Euro-Imperialist terms, elaborating discourses of difference, counter-narratives, multiculturalism, postcolonialism and non-determination while concealing its agency, its neo-colonisation and domination of Otherness. And by “Other” I am referring generally to those marginalised and disempowered by the narratives of Australian literature, history, law, political economy and adopted ideology (of the West, that is) and I am speaking as an Asian Australian writer unfortunately privy to the gatekeepers of Australian literary culture. I’ll have to ask you to indulge me in that my essay is an intentionally polemic commentary, embedded in a space I enter as a writer of colour, hybridity and Asian background rather than as Anglo-academic or cultural theorist. And I make this entreaty because in advancing my argument I am aware of causing dichotomies to arise within the trace of this text.
So how does the term “subalternity” come into all of this? I would like to argue that Spivakian subalternity emphasises the notions of economic disenfranchisement and how representation of such groups by the empowered intellectual West is co-opted into a cultural domination. I argue that this parallels our Australian postcolonial context with respect to how disenfranchised groups are being represented.
For instance Australian literary and specifically poetic representations of Asia are most frequently configured from European philosophical perspectives on ethnography, desire, grammatology, materiality etc. They may appropriate or fetishize Asian culture or themes as objects of knowledge. Some poetic representations are touristic or voyeuristic. Invariably they fail to articulate the complex sense of inheritance and belonging embodied in Asian-Australian identity. More broadly speaking, there is a lacuna in the representation of the Asian Australian presence in our literature across all genres. Relatively few numbers of Asian-Australians are being supported for cultural residencies through Asialink or indeed being nominated for awards or being reviewed in mainstream publications and journals. They are not able to hold the same expectations as their Anglo-Australian colleagues. Does this make them subaltern? No, that is not my point. Many of these imbalances reflect institutional legacies but they also constitute a covert discourse which privileges, in economic and cultural terms, coteries of race and class. Ouyang Yu’s essays on multiculturalism “Absence Asia: What’s Wrong With Australia?” first brought my attention to these alarming discrepancies. Yu’s oeuvre has since been absorbed into the postmodern mainstream, abetted by lines of patriarchal mobility and access denied to those marginalised.
So why have I chosen this seemingly obscure term? I turn to Spivak for three reasons. Firstly because she inspires me as a poet of philosophy and multi-lingual translator of Derrida, whose work in relativising the transcendental I deeply admire for its ethical applications and anti-logocentrism. Secondly because she is an engaged feminist who has critiqued the global alliance politics among women of dominant social and cultural groups, and thirdly because she is a diasporic South Asian; if not a Goan, she is a Bengali, so to reference her work opens up for me a transnational and interdisciplinary dialogue with which I can connect. Spivak provides us with a brilliant methodology, a set of analytic tools, to work towards the establishment of agency and the lines of mobility and to situate the body as the site of metonymy and resistance.
If we are to describe a poetics of subalternity we need to consider the various resonances of the term “subaltern”. The term was used by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as a synonym for subordination of the rural based southern Italian peasantry in his memoir Prison Notebooks, however translators point out that during Gramsci’s fascist incarceration, the term ‘subaltern’ was a code word for the Marxist term proletariat, and also that at times Gramsci uses the term to mean ‘instrumental’. If so this complicates the Marxist notion of the proletariat being revolutionary in character as a result of their economic conditions but it does invite an appreciation of the common nature of the subaltern, their intrinsic weaknesses and strengths. For the Subaltern Studies Collective, the term was used to describe a class or group of contingent militant activism which was heterogeneous and discontinuously organised compared to the more national agitation during anti-Partition and Independence resistance, yet who were unable to represent themselves in the elite historiography. Subaltern Studies historians point out that such a history is grounded in British colonial ideology. These historians, people like Guha and Chakrabarty, attempted to recuperate the consciousness and intent of the subaltern in a positivist way, and moreover they reframed the social and political changes, to quote Spivak:
“ in relation to histories of domination and exploitation rather than within the great modes-of-production narrative”
So while their postcolonial framework provides an interpretation that exceeds the Marxist modes of progression from feudalism to capitalism, Spivak critiques their discourse which she sees as “insidiously objectifying” the subaltern, thus positioning her inquiry in “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
But Spivak’s main concern is with the occlusions in political thinking by the Western male intellectual as proxy for the disempowered. Contentiously she critiques Deleuze and Foucault of being blind to the international division of labour. She critiques them for conflating the desire of the oppressed with the interests of the radical Western intellectual, thereby essentialising the concepts of power and desire to construct an undivided political subject “the oppressed who can know and speak for themselves.” She deconstructs representation, emphasising its double meaning, political representation being interdependent of aesthetic representation and she argues that it is from beyond both of these spaces that oppressed subjects speak, act and know for themselves. Now clearly a concept such as this has resonance with an Asian Australian poetics, which is a marginalised poetics. Apart from tokenism, what kind of endorsements or validity do these groups receive in terms of their political representation vis-a-vis other cultural subjects or agents? Aesthetic representation is related but not the same as its political counterpart. What are the obstructions and limitations being imposed upon us, and by who? Why are there only certain kinds of narratives being articulated and whose narratives are they? Who are the arbiters determining our cultural paradigms? How come our representing academics and creative writers remain so quarantined? Let’s stop to consider how many marginalised writers simply leave this country or become economically and physically exhausted, if not overwhelmed by insanity at the kind of indifference that their work receives. I’d like to suggest that this constitutes a form of epistemic violence, a set of pathologies imposed by neo-colonialism which critics like Fanon alludes to in his postcolonial classic, Wretched of the Earth.
If you require further evidence consider how our aesthetic representation has been repressed and Orientalised; examples of this include the Windchimes anthology, which contains many more Anglo-Australian poets writing about Asia than Asian poets, an imbalance that Kim Cheng Boey et al. are hoping to address in a forthcoming Puncher and Wattmann Anthology. It is in this respect that Spivak asserts that subalternity is a position without identity, without access to lines of social or cultural mobility. This is not to say that the subaltern cannot speak. The essential argument of Spivak is that when the gendered subaltern performs an act of resistance without the infrastructure that would make us recognise resistance, her act goes unnoticed, it is not registered as a sovereign speech act. Or in other words, it is not that she cannot act or speak, it is that there is nobody listening. Subalternity provides us with a powerful metaphor then. It enables us to more fully acknowledge that it is the sovereign speech act, the endorsement, the registration of identity within speech that ultimately confers agency or subjectship.
What does this mean for us? The implications are that to simply ventriloquise the Other as a gesture of empathy or refined embarrassment is to conceal one’s own conspiracy with the kinds of linear, institutionalised narratives that exclude the Other. What needs to happen is the infrastructure to enable subject formation of those marginalised and disenfranchised. It’s intriguing that Spivak advocates a redistribution of cultural capital through rehabilitated education. She emphasises the importance of imaginative constructs which enable us learn from the subaltern, to become sensitive to the fact the reason is not our sole European master, that there is no singularity of reason but rather many kinds of reason and that we can foster this kind of suppleness in our minds. But this suppleness would require both a resistance and a negotiation. Because to be tolerant without resistance is ultimately to transcendentalise the belief or territory on which we stand, but this desire can be halted or transgressed if we follow the traces of other texts and if we keep in mind the traces of suffering, trauma and epistemic violence. It’s in this respect that subalternity aligns itself with deconstructionism.
Spivak adopts a revisionist critique and reconstruction of Marxism thinking in order to make it relevant to the postcolonial world. But this is complicated by the situation where colonisation is no longer being driven by nationalism but by transnational economic interests in globalisation. The relationship between colonist and colonised is no longer simply the relationship between Empire and metropolis, though we also need to consider the relationship between emerging nationalism and globalisation through foreign policy. Literary critics like Jahan Ramazani proposes that it is from a transnational or cross-cultural framework of analysis that we need to consider the ruptures of decolonisation, migration, diaspora. In his book A Transnational Poetics he argues boldly for a reconceptualization of 21st century poetics straddling various geographic, historic and cultural divides, a circuitry between global North and South, East and West. While he acknowledges the homogenising model of globalisation, his aesthetic analysis eruditely maps the confluences that exceed national paradigms. But there is a difference between the concept of transnationalism and the category of ‘A Transnationlist Poetics’ which Ramazani undertakes with what becomes an essentialising discourse from which the subaltern is discussed but conspicuously absent.
Ramazani’s analysis is inclusive of postcolonial criticism, and beautifully traces the Trans-atlantic modernist tradition and is particularly strong in its exegesis of certain elements: decolonisation, mourning, modernist bricolage. Arguably the book describes but does not sufficiently differentiate its own categories of “postcolonial”, “translocal”, “diaspora” “migration” While it celebrates an energetic circuitry, “the rich self-divisions and split-affiliations, the imaginative exuberance” (162) of cross-cultural forms, its focus is to universalise the poetry of transition, decentering and renaming, and it fails to adequately describe those excluded or marginalised by its own paradigms. While referencing various appropriate historical and political events it is underpinned by a political tolerance and by a capitalist interest in the expansion of its own burgeoning field of literary criticism. If postcoloniality is the condition of a comprador groups of Western-trained intelligentsia mediating between the third world and the West through cultural capital as Appiah claims (132) then a transnationalist poetics may well constitute a similar group mediating through global networks for their own benefit in a post-political mis-en-scene. It may be a group who consider themselves politically, geographically, culturally and linguistically radical, while not necessarily being anti-capitalist or committed to developing a more democratic cultural sphere.
Can we even consider Australian poetics to be transnational? I think journals like Cordite with their Australia-Korea feature in particular, and journals like Mascara are leaning strongly in this direction. Meanjin has published many Asian writers and Australian Poetry Journal has made a promising start. Southerly, under the editorship of David Brooks and Kate Lilley has run recent issues on Transnational Mobilities, India, China, Indigenous Literature showcasing a diversity of counter-nationalist narratives emerging in this country. I feel that Overland’s focus is more local though the journal undoubtedly publishes some migrant and Indigenous writers. The experimentalism is risk-taking but is it too narrowly pitched? What about journals like Australian Book Review, Kill Your Darlings, Westerly, Island, Wet Ink, Griffith Review? Let’s consider the publishers. Thankfully some, like Vagabond, 5IP, UQP and Giramondo have supported collections by a sprinkling of migrant poets. But overall, the trend has and continues to be towards the European migrant over the coloured or Asian Australian reflecting the entrenched cultural legacies of the racist White Australian Immigration policy, which took 25 years to legally dismantle. Some scholars, like postcolonial feminist, Mridula Nath Chakraborty from UWS have gone so far as to ask the rhetorical question, “Which Asian are we talking about?”
But even if there are forays into the Asian encounter, how deeply does Australian poetics engage with this Otherness? My research has been external to a pedagogical space, though dallying with it in a sense. I have studied philosophy, theory and creative writing at a graduate level but my deepest influences have been drawn from my independent study of Hinduism and Buddhism. They are comparative spiritual practices in which the notions of time, self, birth, decay, dream, wakefulness and reality differ markedly from Western configurations, where logic, rationality and language take primacy. In this respect the craft of many Asian writers may be evaluated in negative terms such that sensuality or perceptual expression is described as ‘exotic’, ‘ephemeral’, ‘transcendental’ or even ‘anthropomorphic.’ This kind of Orientalist, colonial view of Asia by Australia infuses many of our literary encounters to varying extents. Both Said and Spivak have argued that writing as a cultured and gendered space is colonised by language and its philosophical assumptions, preserving the West as its subject and method. As Said reminds us, in 1914, 85% of the earth’s surface was under European control. Said applauds writing as a decolonising practice. In Culture and Imperialism Said describes the ideological resistance which extends and legitimises a fundamentally political and legal process:
“Culture played a very important indeed indispensable role” (221) in validating and justifying Empire, securing it, as well as in eroding and undermining it. Unlike some Third World theorists, like Chinwezu, who propose a poetics that is purged of foreign contamination in the guise of European models, diction, imagery and tones, for Said cross-cultural affiliations and hybridity are crucial to the poetry of decolonisation.
We are familiar with strategies of hybridity which can be performative and subversive of speech acts, materially and symbolically, but I’d like to reference métissage as an interstitial space, an interlacing between cultures and languages, between genres, texts, identities, praxis. If subalternity as a concept can metonymise the Subject of its own text, so métissage can be a metaphor for the creative strategy of fluidity, of braiding. Métissage is performative, inquiring, discursive, ambivalent, narrational often autobiographical, situated, ethical and embodied. I think of the bricolage of Adam Aitken, or Sudesh Mishra; the cross-cultural narratives of Miriam-Wei Wei Lo; the post-confessional hermeneutics of Dipti Saravannmuttu, the transliterations and abstractions in my own collection, Vishvarūpa. These poetic encounters with Asia are extremely varied but what they share in their personal journeys of identity and agency is to speak for themselves, to find a language for this contingent identity. This latent transformation, this recasting of history and power is a form of political representation exceeding aesthetics, to return to Spivak’s analysis. As a decolonising performance, it diverges, and should be differentiated, from counterpart poetic encounters into Asia (such as those of Kerry Leves, Margaret Bradstock, Judith Beveridge, Vicki Viidikas, Caroline Caddy, Kit Kelen, Chris Mooney-Singh). But such creative efforts to locate resistance beyond the constructs of Orientalism would need to be understood in a framework that exists outside of Australian nationalism. By geographical and historical determinants many Asian-Australian poets are writing from diasporic contexts.
So how does this situate poets of the Asian diaspora within Australian postcolonialism? Spivak attributes diasporic qualities to subalternity when she defines it as a differential space, a polytropos, wandering, fluent in its forms. Polytropos was Homer’s epithet for Odysseus. This word in its Greek origins describes the turns and twists of fortune as well as the strategic resourcefulness, the many minds of Odysseus. The word also breaks down into trope, in one sense meaning ‘figures of speech’.
Perhaps transnationalism like subalternity is more useful to us as a concept, rather than as a category. Concepts, like signs, may be structured and decentered in relation to one another. Not only does categorical analysis of literature risk becoming hierarchical, it is envitably aligned to publicity and marketing which oversimplifies its differences. In the case of a moniker like ‘Asian-Australian’, Simone Lazaroo (among others) has written about the complexities and limitations of the category, in terms of sterotypes, labels, oversimplified analysis which sometimes leads to inappropriately filtered reviewing. So how secure are designations like Asian-Australian and what is their purpose? Strategic essentialism can be a useful way for minority groups to utilise their common ground to achieve political goals. Spivak has largely retracted her use of the term, but she distinguishes it as a strategy from a theory. As a strategy which is not didactic or explanatory, it may help to provide a more situated account of agency for disempowered groups. If I was to describe myself, I would refer to my ethnicity as Goan-Anglo-Australian rather than as Asian-Australian. The former designates the singularity of my identity whereas the latter is a way of tracing aspects of my writing that connect in ways which record meaningful alliances with other writers. Both are decolonising strategies. Both operate to resist the assumptions implied by the cultural homogenisation of colonialism, as well as the discourses of social institutions which act as interlocutors to construct my gendered subjectivity.
In Australia our experience remains grounded in nationalisms and neo-colonialism. Our critics tip toe around the sensitive and dangerously porous term ‘transnational’ with oblique descriptions like “multicultural”, “cosmopolitan” or even “non-Anglophone.” This betrays anxiety about the future and uncertainty. But does it not also weaken the political representation of the groups to whom it refers? Is it not a less specific kind of essentialism? Timothy Yu in his essay on Transnationalism and Diaspora in American Literature refines the nuances of Ramazani’s discussion by raising the very real threat that Transnationalism poses for Asian-American studies, and by referencing the blurring of concepts like ethnicity and diaspora. Diaspora, Yu argues is becoming a preferred paradigm for theorists describing the work of Chinese, Black and Asian poets, connecting them with communities and cultures that cross national boundaries not solely as exiles of colonial expansion but by global dispersal. A diasporic account reappraises the Harlem Renaissance, shifting it from an African-American counter-poetics resisting an elite Eurocentric modernism, towards a more transnational axis in which blackness is being framed across a range of national identities. Yu suggests that the transpacific diaspora with its historical and cultural flows to/from America provides another node of exchange by which American national frameworks may be reimagined. He outlines some of the limitations for these poets and describes a poetics in which subjectivity is continuously renewed by movement, impermanence, fluidity, while at the same time registering national boundaries.
But whether we are talking about the cosmopolitan expatriate or what Yu describes as the “transnational circulation of migrants, capitals, texts” (636) we are not talking about the subaltern, we are talking about the dominance of globalisation and its compounding interests, its theorising intellectuals. Spivak is one of the few intellectuals seriously engaged in the economic and material issues that are external to discourse, language and identity, between the globalised north and south: namely armaments, commodities, drugs, exploitation, debt, migrant labour.
So to summarise, subalternity is perhaps most useful to Asian Australian poetics as an abstraction, a way of metonymysing, a way of imagining what kind of infrastructure needs to be built to establish agency of the disenfranchised. An abstraction can build a discourse not for any moral superiority, but simply and practically to fill the fault lines in our fractured spaces of theoretical crisis. If we return to Gramsci’s use of the subaltern, it is with some probability a code word for instrumentality as well as for subordination. What subalternity offers as a concept is a form of activist thinking that challenges us to rethink our poetics more radically, whether that be via the nexus of parochialisms, nationalisms, or transnationalisms. We can use its analogy to dissect the differences between material and creative capital, political and aesthetic representation. It drives us as a global community of writers and intellectuals to expunge the conflations, by which with complicity, we oppress and exploit Otherness, to deconstruct capitalism’s ethics-shaped hole. Because ultimately, speech is about recognition, and subalternity is about the division of labour and which side of that divide you happen to stand.
Fanon, F. Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith,. New York: International.
Lazaroo, Simone. “Not Just Another Migrant Story” Australian Humanities Review,45, 2008http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-2008/lazaroo.html Ramazani, Jahan. A Transnationlist Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Noel Rowe, Vivian Smith Ed Windchimes. Pandanus, 2006.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993, 221.
Spivak, “Can The Subaltern Speak” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 271-313. Yu, Ouyang, “Absence Asia: What’s Wrong With Australia?” from Bias: offensively Chinese/Australian Melbourne: Otherland, 2008.
Yu, Timothy. “Transnationalism and Diaspora in American Poetry”in Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry New York: OUP, 2012: 624-637.
~ ~ ~
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry and fiction. She was short listed in the ACT Premier’s Literary Award for her first collection The Accidental Cage and in the Alec Bolton Prize for Vishvarūpa. Her work is anthologised in Alien Shores, Escape, 30 Australian Poets, Ed. Felicity Plunkett (UQP) and The Yellow Nib Anthology of Modern English Poetry by Indians Ed. Sudeep Sen and Ciaran Carson (Belfast, QUP). She is one of the Red Room Company’s Disappearing Poets.
Jena Woodhouse is a poet and fiction writer. Her most recent book was a novel, Farming Ghosts (2009), and her forthcoming publication is a short story collection, Dreams of Flight (2012), both published by Ginninderra. In 2011 she was a Hawthornden Fellow, and also the winner of the Society of Women Writers NSW National Open Poetry Award. In 2010 her story, ‘Praise Be’, was winner for the Pacific region in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition.
The Agency of Water
Stalking the Light
Her eyes open like clockwork. Five a.m. She swings her legs over the side of the bed, eyeing the uncurtained window. The water is already visible, reflecting the light from the sky.
Groping her way into tracksuit and joggers, she snatches up her camera and heads for the door, opening it quietly so as not to wake the children. Alert and expectant, her dog moves his rear from side to side in lieu of a phantom tail, but she never takes him on these morning forays. He would distract and slow her down.
She rushes past the houses between her own and the open stretch of river bank as if in hot pursuit of something, as in fact she is. If she misses the special effects of early-morning light on the river, her day will lack a meaningful beginning, and she will have to wait until tomorrow for another opportunity. By sunrise it’s already too late.
Hugging the river path like a stalker, she pauses at strategic points where there are spaces between the eucalypts on the bank or windows in the dense mangrove foliage below it, to focus her camera on the light refracted through clouds onto the water’s surface then back again like a mirror through vapour, as if she could capture the radiance inside the small box housing the lens. Her gaze searches the clouds and the water, tracking gaps and interstices, registering changes. These days she is always on the lookout for chinks and apertures, avenues for imagination to pursue, escape routes.
One year ago… No, it is to forget about one year ago that she is here, now, in the impressions of the moment, with the solitary canoeist whose craft draws a long chevron on the rose-tinted surface of the water below; with the cohort of ibis silhouetted against the forget-me-not blue unveiled by dispersing clouds above; with the kingfishers and herons and magpies who frequent the early-morning river bank: here, now, in the strengthening light.
An hour later, the show is over. The sun has risen, soft shadows have fled like a flock of rose and grey galahs, and she has returned to her rented house, to the rented kitchen, to hear her own voice grating on silence: ‘Hey, you lot! Get up! You’ll be late for school.’ Just as it had one year ago, two. Before she fled a hostile husband, security (or at least its semblance), and many other things she has since learned to live without.
Now she feels rich when she manages to catch the first light and carry home fleeting images of clouds, wings, waterbirds watching the sun inundate the river with its running fire; rays glancing off spider webs; tiny glazed beads, seed on grass heads; weeds unfurling delicate flowers only she seems to notice; the minute detail of dead and living trees: boundless gifts revealed to her by first, fresh, pristine light.
In the house she has leased near the river her photographs occupy every wall: nuanced images captured on film in her dawn sorties. Her former house, hemmed in by leafy suburban avenues, was equally crowded with reproductions of French Impressionist paintings. Living there, she’d had no inkling of what the future held, no awareness of the river meandering only a short walk away. Nor did she rise so early.
Now, with the sinuous ribbon of water gliding past the bottom of her garden, mornings are the magic in her day. Other people who exercise along this reach never carry cameras, never seem to pause, to stand and gaze more intently. It seems to be her private discovery.
Twenty years ago she was… No, don’t go there.
Get up at five a.m. without an alarm – her body knows, and responds along with the plants and all living creatures to the shift in energies triggered by the transition from darkness to light, from nycthemeral rhythms to circadian ones.
Another morning, another revelation. The same river, but always different. And oh look! Hot-air balloons, rising like a vision from another world, somewhere beyond the mysterious mangroves fringing the opposite bank — ascending effortlessly, soundlessly, not brightly coloured, but in muted shades of grey. And below them, her fellow traveller of the morning, the lone canoe and its occupant. Feverishly she records them before they move out of frame — the balloons, the river, the canoeist, the light’s mounting intensity. It is the most satisfying concatenation of images in a year of mornings.
She has a strange, disquieting premonition that even these pleasures might be taken from her soon. Without knowing that the next day her son will drop and break her camera. Without knowing that her capricious landlord is about to play one of his habitual power games and not renew her lease.
Meanwhile, here, now, the morning infuses her with its subtle wonder, so that as she turns homeward, she feels as if the renewed energy inside her is turning into light, as energy does when a new star forms. She feels as if she is floating above the treetops, powered invisibly yet palpably by helium, which is also converting into inner light; looking down on the river as it wells with gold; looking east to the lava flow on the horizon; looking up at the innocent blue vault of the expanding sky, before glancing briefly, just once, back at herself in her former life, which appears so small, so diminished by distance, that it is barely discernible.
I was running late for the concert, driving recklessly through early spring rain then running helter-skelter from Hope Streetto the concert hall just as the doors were closing. I’d been looking forward to this performance of the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 1, ‘A Sea Symphony’. Thankfully I already had my ticket, purchased a week before. A disapproving, ageing usherette admitted me. Grudgingly. I wondered why the young man I had to pass to reach my seat did not retract his feet for me to pass, until the young woman beside him murmured: ‘Mind the dog.’
A blackLabradorlay at the feet of another young man in the seat next to mine. Both youths were elegantly attired in well-cut clothes – Italian tailoring which perfectly complemented their classical features and dark good looks. Involuntarily I was reminded of sculpture – the beautiful ephebe beloved ofGreeceandRome. Between the two youths sat two girls of similar age. The one who had warned me about the dog appeared to have no visual impairment. The other was so finely boned, so fair, so delicate that it seemed possible she would wither under strong light. She, too, was dressed in an elegantly tailored jacket and trousers, with a fine gold chain on the wrist clasped by the young man sitting nearest to me. She was wearing thick-lensed, tinted glasses.
Throughout the Schumann concerto on the first part of the programme, I found my mental attention divided between the musicians and the young concert-goers in the adjacent seats, listening intently with a composure and unselfconscious vulnerability that differentiated them from other members of the audience, experiencing the music from a place apart from any which I could either imagine or enter.
During the intermission, the usherette distributed left-over programmes to those in the front rows. She handed a small booklet with news of forthcoming events to the girl wearing tinted lenses, who turned it this way and that in her hands, registering it as an object without attempting to read it. The young man next to her commented on the odour of wet dog. I asked the dog’s name. ‘Cara’, he said. ‘That means ‘black’ in Turkish,’ I said, proffering one of those random items of information one garners in the course of one’s travels.
He leaned towards the other young man and relayed this information. They both seemed amused and said, almost in the same breath: ‘It suits her. She’s a black dog.’ Then the one sitting next to me added: ‘But in Italian, her name means ‘dear’.’ I asked his permission to pat Cara. ‘It’s okay, she’s off duty now,’ he said.
Cara responded affectionately to my touch, but I was wishing that all the people from the opposite end of the row would not insist on exiting from our end and returning past us, stepping over Cara, who looked slightly uneasy but sat quietly. I was already feeling protective towards her and her charges, the young man next to me holding the dog’s harness and his ethereal-looking companion, who inclined their torsos close to each other, cocooned in the same aura.
I thought of sculpture in the rain, marble streaked with centuries of spring showers, human forms of great beauty and purity, eloquent in their sightlessness, sequestered in some forgotten Mediterranean courtyard wreathed in wind-tossed jasmine. In that rain-rinsed garden one could perhaps catch a glimpse of the Bird of Innocence – a shy, legendary creature in flight from the shop-soiled world, whose song was only for the pellucid of spirit.
The second half of the programme commenced: ‘A Sea Symphony’. The chorale delivered Whitman’s lyrics. All around us surged the tide, augmented by the gale and tempest unleashed by the orchestra. Grandeur and majesty. Intonations of an age that still believed in certainties. Beneath the surface textures of sound, the voices and frequencies and energies of symphony. Stealing a glance at the faces of the young couple nearest me, he dark-haired, dark-eyed, aristocratic, Italianate; she so delicately fair, I saw they were enraptured, transported into a dimension evoked by the music. There were no visual cues to distract them as they listened with rapt concentration. Probably they were quite unaware of how they appeared to someone like me, to whom their world seemed perfect and complete.
At the end of the concert, with tempestuous waves of sound and emotion subsiding within the auditorium, the lights came on, Cara’s keeper snapped the hand-grip onto her harness, and she rose eagerly and began to strain towards the exit, wagging her tail in anticipation. ‘Let’s go!’ her body language said. ‘Let’s go home!’
Arm in arm, the lily-pale girl and her slender, dark-haired companion exited with Cara and their two friends. They were a family, a closed circle. I stayed in my place and watched them go, feeling bereft, lonely, wishing they might sense me there, wanting to farewell them as one does close friends, wanting to see them again. A voice in me was whispering ‘Take me with you, into that other world where you are going…’
What is it that sighted people miss, I have been wondering ever since. Certainly some qualities of sound, but how much more? If the power to restore their sight were granted, Cara’s family would see a different world from the one in which they have lived. And they would no doubt wonder at the kinds of blindness that sometimes afflict the sighted as well.
Why is Matilda, a girl not grown into her bones, never home for dinner these days? Flora can’t swallow her daughter’s story about a school project, but how else is she to account for Matilda’s absence? And since when did girls still in primary school come home from working on a project with paint on their lips and eyelids? How did Matilda come by such things? Flora knows that if she were to ask, she’d be served up a big fat lie. Matilda is concealing something from her mother. Flora is hiding something from herself.
Down at the docks, the flash of hair-ornaments and cut-glass earrings flag the spot where Matilda and her new friends wait near the shipping containers. Nervous giggles and muffled exchanges suddenly cease as a lighter approaches. A mooring rope lassos a bollard. Matilda’s companions push her forward. ‘Get in!’ the boatman tells her tersely.
They head out across the murky water to where the freighters are moored: unseaworthy hulks that nonetheless ply between east Asia and this Pacific archipelago, taking on timber, ore and tuna. The incidental catch of smaller fish, prized by the locals, can be had only in exchange for a ‘dolphin’, a pubescent girl. No dolphin, no fish: simple as that. The police turn a blind eye, claiming it would be impossible to catch the offenders in the act, as they would notice the launch approaching.
Tonight, Matilda is to be the dolphin. Her friends have groomed her for the event, told her what to expect. ‘They give you fizzy drink, you feel good. After, you wake up, go home. Boatman gives you pocket-money, nice clothes, earrings.’
Matilda can sense the air of importance this secret thing has conferred on her friends, but she feels only spasms of foreboding in her belly as the lighter approaches the ship’s black bulk. Above, men’s voices are speaking a language she can’t understand. ‘I want to go home!’ a small, childish voice blurts out. Was it her own?
The boatman ignores her, then jerks his head towards a rope ladder dangling within reach. ‘Go!’ he says. Matilda is trembling so violently that she doesn’t think she’ll be able to grasp the rope with her hands, or steady her knees. ‘I want to go home,’ wails a voice in her head, but this time she doesn’t say it aloud.
It is after midnight when the lighter returns to port. A small, dishevelled figure is huddled aft, surrounded by baskets of fish, their eyes gaping starwards. Nauseous, Matilda retches over the side as they approach the mooring. Where are her friends now? The boatman bundles her roughly ashore. ‘Go home,’ he mutters, half to himself, thrusting a few coins into her hand. Her skirt feels sticky. She touches it with the fingers of her other hand, then holds them up to the dingy light. Blood.
A woman steps from the shadows, but Matilda is too dazed to notice. Her knees buckle. She wants to lie down. Weep. Sleep.
‘Matilda!’ says a peremptory voice. An arm slips under her shoulders, across her back, supporting her. She leans against the cotton print smock that smells of laundry soap and they set off, slowly, heavily, for home.
Her mother gives her a little shake, rough but not threatening. ‘Wake up!’ she says. ‘Wake up, child, before it’s too late!’
There is no response from Matilda.
‘Is this how you want to live?’ Flora demands.
In the indigo dusk, Flora senses an almost imperceptible movement at her breast as her daughter weakly shakes her head.
Death by Water
There is a dream I have which comes in many forms. Its common element is water, not in the guise of lifegiver but as marauding force, a tide that rises swiftly and inexorably, engulfing human artefacts and structures. I live in a city built along a water artery whose river sometimes floods, although floodwaters have never threatened me. However, the dream may be a subliminal effect of the river’s presence: its magnetic currents coursing past my house and travelling unimpeded through my sleep, relaying messages.
The morning after experiencing another version of this dream, I learn that a boy from the international college where I teach has drowned. He was thrown into the river late the previous evening, during a thunderstorm, by several classmates. All the boys are from Asian countries. They have been playing this dangerous game night after night for several weeks. None of them are confident swimmers, but this boy could not swim at all. The culprits, his former classmates, insist that he was laughing when they threw him in; that when he failed to surface, they dived in to search for him, but the current snatched him out of their hands. Police divers are searching for him. What is the psychological truth beneath the surface of these events?
In the afternoon of the following day the drowned boy is found near the ferry pontoon. His shoelace was caught on a submerged shopping trolley, so there had been no hope of his floating free in time to save himself. His classmates will eventually stand trial for manslaughter. His parents will be childless from now on.
That night it rains again, and at the deserted, brightly illumined college a couple of figures shelter, silhouetted at the top of the steps in the lights from the foyer, waiting for the rain to ease before making their way home.
As I drive through the gentle, persistent rain I think of strangers all over the city, separated from one another by crystal chains of water droplets, and of the drowned boy, lying now in shrouds of dry, cold darkness, as his parents fly above the clouds from another land to reclaim their son.
I think of the people in high white hospital beds, lying in brightly-lit wards, lonely for their homes and their families, wistfully waiting for health to return, aware or unaware of the rain that brings some closer and separates others.
I think of the time I was thrown into a deep waterhole by classmates who derided my ineptitude at all games requiring physical prowess. I remember how they rolled on the bank, laughing uproariously as I surfaced gasping and choking, and sank, several times. (Did the drowned boy’s friends laugh when he panicked?) To that experience I owe my terror of water when out of my depth. Although I can swim, panic rises in me as soon as my feet can no longer touch bottom. The thought of the drowned boy’s ordeal fills me with personal, palpable horror.
I also remember Synge’s play, Riders to the Sea, the drowned Aran fishermen who seemed to live under the curse of some cruel pelagic law of sacrifice: the almost ritualistic nature of their deaths, and the lives of their mothers, sisters, children and wives stretched on the tenterhooks of perpetual mourning.
And as it rains from sombre skies for a third night, it is as if some metaphysical klepsydra of sorrow is being replenished, as part of a cycle of catharsis only dimly sensed, when we brush up against it in the darkness from time to time.
Another Babylon is the first collection of Vlanes (or Vladislav Nekliaev); it was the recipient of the 2010 Thomas Shapcott Prize and its author has been a Brisbane-based poet since 2001. His Russian heritage and rich experience of languages remain an intriguing counterpoint to his poems: born in Astrakhan, Russia, he emigrated first to Athens and then to Australia and has an active linguistic life that encompasses not only Russian and English (and, as Jena Wodehouse says in her launch of the collection, he did not step foot in an English-speaking country before he was thirty), but Latin and ancient and modern Greek.
This counterpoint makes itself felt in the freshness, even slight ‘strangeness’ of Another Babylon’s combinations of language, rhyme and metre (I am thinking of the word in the sense of Heidegger’s Unheimlich and not as a marker of awkwardness). This is unsurprising in the case of a prolific and gifted translator and tends to give Vlanes’s poems themselves the particularly arresting air of translated poetry I have always found attractive. Ultimately this setting, whether relevant to the poems’ conception or not, leads us to the subtler complexities of a volume attuned to the treasures and losses of new homes found within the old, and the continual recreation of the ancient.
The poet’s ‘Babylon’ is a concept entirely placed, as he tells us in the closing, title, poem, within his body. Upon waking, the speaker says ‘by the breath in my lungs / I pump a cool gust over my Babylon’, and that ‘the pulsation of my awakening heart / populates my Babylon with shouting people’ (111). It is a gesture that refocuses the whole volume’s pervasive awareness of the body, and its exploration of the connections between the body, poetry and the statues, friezes and other physical remains of an ancient culture’s art and people that is one of the most fascinating strengths of this volume.
We encounter it first in ‘Mother bathing’, as the speaker looks
at the enormous plateaux of her hazel eyes
populated, like Babylon itself,
with garden-growing nations
where a nomad
need no longer thirst for home. (22)
A few poems later there is a different mother, yet she alludes to this same impulse. ‘Mother Tiamut’ is the Sumerian mother-goddess, half of whose body, after she was killed by Marduk, was used to create the earth, and the other half to create paradise and the underworld. In this, one of many portraits of artefacts in Vlanes’s book, Tiamut holds a pomegranate
while Time, her hungry cub,
bites off a piece
now of the fruit’s crimson
now of her vermilion fingers,
as the goddess smiles
to sample absence. (30)
The spare, measured grace of this short poem is indicative of Vlanes’s style, which achieves a wonderful balance between a restrained, allusive classicism and the rich, visceral imagery of the body’s life and death. The collision in this poem between rock and flesh (echoed in its combination of structured brevity and pungent language) is a signature of this volume, repeated in many different situations and coloured by different moods. In ‘Men and monsters’, the speaker is playful; he visits the temple and looks at the ‘simple columns and friezes’:
The broad-eared twin brothers,
armed with an axe and a saw,
attack a lurid serpent
stretched all the way to the temple door.
So many strikes,
but the serpent lives on
rolling his chiselled eyes
and chewing a large moon.
He comes to a statue of a young goddess and, leaving offerings at her feet, a kiss on ‘her narrow toe-ring / made of streaky lazurite’, he says, [I]
…then dash out
and climb the hissing stairs
to help the twin brothers
or perhaps the serpent. (9)
In ‘Procession’ the speaker gazes at a frieze of a funeral procession:
A dead king on a chariot,
his face like a mountain valley
beaten by storm, swathed in evening mist.
This is more than metaphorical; we learn that the king is no longer visible on the frieze, only his female slaves walking behind the chariot, where they are ‘singing in unison’ and ‘pace in pairs / with slender flasks of poison’. It is a beautifully poignant image of loss and strangely, as Vlanes goes on to suggest, freedom:
You can also see
on the other side of this mortuary
a throng of freshly woven souls
stepping out of the plaster walls:
they no longer know who is king,
who is woman, who is a horse,
but cling together
and then burst scattering
over the sun-smeared grass,
while the procession continues
and women enter
through the eager door,
and the living sing louder
for those who sing no more. (100)
This picture of the endless procession of lives traversing the boundary of life and death is one example of how this threshold is echoed throughout his book in transformations of body and stone. I feel the presence of an Orphean impulse within many of Vlanes’s poems: he taps that animating principle of poetry that wants to bring the dead to life, to recover the lost. It is, above all, a belief in the power of poetry.
In the way this belief is often manifest in inanimate figures finding life, or new life, there is a parallel movement in his work of the ephemeral finding solid form and flesh calcifying into stone. In ‘On the roof’ the speaker imagines that
The raw tablet of my body
with writing pressed through it
bakes in the sun and grows hard:
soon nothing can be added
to the syntax of my veins and wrinkles (57)
In ‘A passage from Gilgamesh’ the ‘clay tablet’ drinks in the beauty of sunset, as the light ‘fills the wayward / depressions in the clay / with triangles of trembling cerise’, and leaves Gilgamesh ‘glowing on its own / now that the sun has gone’ (3).
This reciprocity in his work, between the world and poetry, and the alive and the ancient, expands to the relationship of heaven and earth through his recurrent vertical imagery: ziggurats, walls, mountains and trees are frequently central to the poems, as are the concepts of gravity and weight of heaven. In ‘The load of heaven’ the speaker’s reveries on gods and demons and ‘planets spiralling, ever steeper, / towards the dreary disk of the Sun’, make ascension to heaven seem a waiting accident:
I realise how much weight,
how much effort
it takes heaven
to keep me down.
And when I kiss
your moth-like fluttering eyelids,
it nearly fails.
His intriguing concern of where we humans belong, spatially, in the worlds of earth, heaven and hell, joins the play of gods and demons throughout the poems to express an awareness of the diametrical forces of creation not surprising in a volume so placed in the world of Sumerian mythology. In ‘A round bowl’, the inner wall of the large bowl is decorated with Sumerian creatures: ‘a green-tongued lion’ with ‘a mane / of jumbled lapis hairs’, a ‘frisky griffin’ with ‘thin feathered paws’ and ‘catfish fin’:
The animals stand still,
frightened by the outpour
of a clanging crystal
cascade of water
with pitch black hair:
like good and evil
in a deadly knot,
rushing to create
a new world. (42)
So many poems in this collection have caught the air of myth. There is a self-contained quality, as if the poems belong in their recurrent images of bowls, asking to be returned to and gazed at again and again until what they are teaching us is learnt. Creating Another Babylon is an invocation of order, a coagulation of difference and randomness into the flesh of the written word and the body. And yet, this invocation knowingly fails, the poems realising that it is through the broken vases and statues eaten by time that life shines through. One of the most beautiful poems of the volume, so wisely chosen to be the first, places this lesson of mythology in entirely human terms:
From the unseen sea
my mother brought a crab
wrapped in a silken wave
that hugged him like home.
I remember the knocking
of his claws on the wooden floor,
his boisterous brown certainty
that the sea was behind the door.
For two days he roamed my room,
on the third he understood.
His twinkling pinheads
stared and stared at me.
I promised to carry him back,
where I did not know.
He waited, dry, in a pine box
for a year before it was lost.
The dragonfly-god took it away
and flew at once to the sea,
knelt in the lazurite sand
and wrenched off the latch.
I never knew
that it takes a death
and a broken promise
for a dream to come true. (1)