If you open a collection by a contemporary Australian poet, you’re likely to find poems in forms derived from various Asian literary traditions: haiku, ghazal, tanka and other verse forms that originate in the swathe of cultures from the Arabian Gulf in the West to Japan in the North and Indonesia in the South. This is not new, of course. Nineteenth-century French poets, including Baudelaire, were attracted by the pantoum (pantun), a traditional Malay verse form. John Ashbery and other Americans followed suit in the twentieth-century. Contemporary Australian poet Mike Ladd acknowledges this lineage in ‘Pantuns in the Orchard’ (Island, Spring 2011), a recent essay about his experiments with the form during a residency at Rimbun Dahan in Malaysia.
In Victorian England Edward FitzGerald’s bestselling version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859-89) nativised a Persian form in language that has become endlessly quotable in English: ‘The moving finger writes….’ Fitzgerald wrote to a friend that the ‘form’ of his ‘transmogrification’ was of particular interest: ‘I suppose very few people have ever taken such pains in translation as I have’. In another letter he calls it a ‘transfusion’, as Marina Warner tells us in Stranger Magic. Iranian-Australian author Nasrin Mahoutchi considers the result a fascinating ‘cultural hybrid’.
A gorgeous early arrival of Chinese poetry in Europe came through Gustav Mahler’s setting of German adaptations of Tang dynasty Chinese poems for his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09). Modernist poets such as Yeats, Eliot and Pound shared a Western inclination to look elsewhere for wisdom, turning newly to the literatures of Asia for allusions and stylistic borrowing. The influence of ancient Chinese poetry on the idiom of modern English poetry was pervasive, yet so unlikely on the face of it.
Empire, war and decolonisation brought Asia closer through the last century. R.H. Blyth, an English professor interned in Japan during World War Two, is credited with introducing haiku to post-war Western culture. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder took to haiku through Blyth’s Zen-inspired translation and scholarship and started writing their own. Haiku is the best-known, most widely practiced of all poetic forms today, rivalling the sonnet, itself once an exotic import into English from 13th century Sicilian Provencale. In The Making of a Sonnet, Edward Hirsch writes: ‘The sonnet is an obsessive form—compact, expansive—that travels remarkably well … it is a form with a past.’ The haiku is its match. The outside discipline of an imported form attracts poets who want to explore the resources of their own language under the pressure of conventions and constraints from another. Asian forms appeal to writer and reader alike, partly for being exotic, but equally as a means to new expression.
This history has an Australian dimension, as Noel Rowe and Vivian Smith show in their anthology Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry (2006):
The story of Australian poetry’s conversation with Asia becomes much more complex and interesting as soon as poets start to adopt and adapt Asian literary forms. Like their counterparts in Europe—Paul Claudel and Victor Segalen, and a little later, Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley—Australian writers were starting to become aware of Chinese and Japanese culture. Poets like Dorothea MacKellar, Kenneth Slessor and the now almost forgotten Robert Crawford were not slow to realise how imagism and the haiku could help them to ‘make it new’. Modern poetics values suggestion, brevity and obliqueness and these could be found in the Chinese and Japanese poems that were becoming available in English translation, especially through the work of Ezra Pound (1915) and Arthur Waley (1918). Australian cultural and intellectual experience was widening. John Shaw Neilson wrote in a letter of 17 October 1937: ‘I have a great fancy for these short things, which are like Japanese poems only about thirty or forty words.’ In Shaw Neilson, MacKellar and Lesbia Harford we have moments when ‘Asia’ is no longer ‘there’; it is here. Of course, these striking early stylistic influences are minor compared with the amount of haiku and haiku adaptations found in recent Australian poetry. They do, nevertheless, remind us that in many ways Asian influences have become invisible in Australian poetry, merging with an inclination towards visual and epistemological austerity, as well as towards understatement.
The important point is that last sentence. Australian poets found something in Asian poetry that answered their distinctive needs. In conversation Vivian Smith recalled how a wave of translations, including the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite (1964) and the Penguin Classics Li Po and Tu Fu translated by Arthur Cooper (1973), inspired Australian poets. Those translations in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the influential Penguin Modern European Poets Series which introduced Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova and Miroslav Holub (among others) to English readers. Ancient Far Eastern and Modern Eastern European contributed alike to a new, alternative idiom in poetry in Australia and elsewhere: an oddly diachronic position of resistance.
Peter Porter dedicated his haiku sequence ‘Japanese Jokes’ (1970) to his friend Anthony Thwaite. Rosemary Dobson’s moving sequence ‘The Continuance of Poetry: Twelve Poems for David Campbell’ (1981) is partly about exchange and transmission and includes a poem called ‘After receiving the Book of Poems by Li Po’. Another Penguin anthology of the 1960s, Poems of the Late T’ang translated by A.C. Graham, gave Pink Floyd lyrics for the song ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ (1968). A certain take on the East was in the air.
Australian poets could edge away from European and American dominance by incorporating Asian influences. It was part of the wider rethinking of Australia’s geography and history that Alison Broinowski explores in The Yellow Lady, an imaginative reaching for a different Australia that was newly open to Asia. Judith Wright, for example, wrote ghazals in her last book, Phantom Dwelling. The title is a quote from Basho. Language is stripped of all trace of English pastoral to voice a radical late-life relationship of self and environment in a form borrowed from Persian poetry.
The practice of engaging with Asian cultures by borrowing its forms has become more common in recent years as more Australians spend time in Asia, as more Australians acknowledge Asian ancestry and inhabit multiple Asian and Australian identities, and as more Asians are present in Australia. Cultural exchanges invite Australian writers to engage with Asia, and Australian writing that uses Asian material, including Asian forms, has often come out of writers’ residencies in Asian countries, such as those supported by Asialink over 15 years.
There is the larger context too of the racialised formation of Australian society historically, in ways that continue today. The role of Asia in Australian national construction can be as defining other, the boundary of the island-continent, and ‘Asian’ in Australia can also be a third term, of triangulation or elision, between white settlers and Indigenous owners, as contributers to Lost in Whitewash: Aboriginal-Chinese Encounters from Federation to Reconciliation (2003) argue. That history is invoked explicitly in a passage in Brian Castro’s novel The Garden Book (2006), which has at its centre a Chinese woman poet who writes Chinese poetry in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne in the period of White Australia. She becomes invisible, like her poetry, which is written on leaves. Her father describes their impossible position:
Between dog and wolf, at dusk; between fear and hope. Or should it be between hope and fear? That’s how it is for us. For years, before the turn of the century, my father, grandfather and their people went back and forth freely between Australia and China. We brought industry; trade and culture. We were gold-seekers, shopkeepers, market gardeners, furniture-makers. A large group of us living in the shadows beneath these brooding hills. Then came the restrictions. No freehold land, no bank loans, our labour boycotted. The day Australia woke to a national identity, it fell asleep on the thorn of racial prejudice. It was defined by its wound.
That history shadows contemporary engagement with Asia.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is competency in the languages of Asia, which has reportedly gone backwards in recent years. For most writers the Asian literary inspiration happens indirectly through English translation, or through non-verbal experience, whether at home or while travelling—sights and sounds, encounters, transactions, dreams, nightmares, personal relationships. In this context, poetic form can offer a template for connection. Highly evolved in its culture of origin, elements of form can be converted into another language, with suitable guidance, without requiring linguistic competency in the first. An English haiku borrows the line and syllable pattern from the Japanese haiku, but you don’t need to know Japanese to do it. There’s a recipe, and what you get is a likeness, the translation of a shape or shell, without the fullness of the original language; a sequence of steps, like a yoga pose, and better than nothing.
But can there be a substantive cross-cultural transaction? What actually is translated in the process, culturally, conceptually, or experientially? Conventional discourse has tended to critique such practice in terms of appropriation and inauthenticity. Its valorising as ‘hybrid’ or ‘fusion’ can make it seem superficial. The concept of performance is a more useful way of recognising a relationship that involves study and respect, as one practitioner performs another’s script. The form that comes from another language and culture, mediated by the work of translators and interpreters, stands for that other language and culture. To use that form is to take on something in that other culture, a sign rather than an essence. It is an act of communicating back, as well as communicating out, in which elements of the other culture (in this case the rules of poetic form) are taken across in order to enlarge understanding. It’s a kind of translation, only without the primary linguistic elements of grammar and vocabulary. The use of Asian forms in English poetry needs to be understood within the larger discourse of translation as creative process.
As translation scholars explore the relationship between translation in a literal sense and translation in a larger metaphorical sense, a perspective opens up in which selves, communities and cultures are always subject to translation in a mobile and global world and in which every act of writing is translational. This was the theme of a workshop organised by Monash University in association with the British Centre for Literary Translation in February 2011, papers from which are forthcoming in a volume called Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship. Co-editor Rita Wilson writes: ‘The act of multilingual creation reflects a desire to enter, know and become the Other, and then share two spheres of cultural and linguistic formation through the process of transculturation.’ This is a way of deepening our understanding of what happens when writers introduce cross-cultural elements into their work. The translation that has enabled the Asian literary form to be knowable in English is a ‘refraction’, to use translation scholar Valerie Henitiuk’s term, taking the reader into ‘that ellipse of communication’ between origin and destination where understanding is possible. ‘Multilingual creation’ through the writing of an Asian form in English is a further refraction, where metissage and code-mixing are a new norm. Octavio Paz calls translation ‘an art of shadows and echoes’, ‘a process of re-writing linked to a recognizable source’, according to critic Ramon Lopez Castellano. For a translated form to be used without access to the original language links the process of rewriting at the same time linked to an unrecognizable source. This produces something puzzling: like a Zen meditation.
Here discussion drifts inevitably into the deeper conceptual and philosophical currents of the other culture which the borrowing of its forms honours, imposing protocol on the cross-cultural dialogue. It is akin to the detachment of self that Buddhism demands. The form can empty the self, as words take shape. Detached from content in one way, it enables new content in another. As form is taken over, the appropriating move can be balanced, and needs to be, by a gesture of mindfulness. Form can be a means of glossing over incommensurability, or a stage on the way, or a true way, depending. ‘Mindfulness’ is itself a translated concept, from Sanskrit.
The Asian form is intended as a vehicle for entering Asian thought and feeling. It requires re-positioning and self-reflexive understanding. Possibilities of change and expansion are implied, dissolution of boundaries and the potential for new creation. The work of contemporary Australian poets who look to Asian models can be seen in this way as an experiment in responsive, responsible transculturation.
It is also a teaching moment. I take my cue here from two North American classroom experiments that have impressed me. The first is a popular undergraduate course at Harvard, taught by poet, translator and Professor of Korean Studies David McCann, called ‘Writing Asian Poetry’. The other is a program of the San Francisco Center for the Art of Translation called ‘Poetry Inside Out’, in which students in disadvantaged multi-ethnic, multi-lingual junior schools produce their own versions of classic poetry on the way to generating their own original work. Given the poverty of foreign language expertise in Australia where it is most needed, in relation to the capacity to engage meaningfully with Asia, and since it is not easy to develop fluency in an Asian language in a hurry, it may be that writing Asian poetry in English can go part of the way.
In ‘Writing Asian Poetry’ David McCann encourages students to learn about and then reproduce classical Chinese quatrains, Japanese haiku and, especially, Korean sijo (SHE-ZHO), a less familiar form that McCann hopes will catch on. The course attracts literature, East Asian Studies and creative writing students. Like haiku, sijo is a three line form, but the lines are much longer, between 14 and 16 syllables, with a pause in the middle of each line, and a further break into two syntactic components in each half-line. One sijo line can approximate two English octosyllabic lines, with a comparable informality. Sijo were traditionally sung: the breaks in the half-lines mark rhythmic beats, 3 lines of 4. Sometimes the three sijo lines are broken up and printed as six lines, but that obscures the most important thing about the sijo’s triadic structure. The second line introduces a turn and the third line concludes with a twist.
A fine example is found in McCann’s translation of a famous sijo by a Korean woman, Hwang Jin-i (1522-1565):
I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,
Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,
That I may draw out the night, should my love return.
This demonstrates with beautiful clarity the movement of the form as line two folds back on line one, while the third line wraps the first two and then takes the poem into a new, plaintive emotional register.
Here’s McCann’s contemporary English sijo, written over lunch in Charlie’s Kitchen, a local eatery, with appropriate caustic gusto:
All through lunch, from my table
I keep an eye on your disputes,
green lobsters in the bubbling
tank by the restaurant door.
Slights, fights, bites – Whatever the cause,
make peace and flee, escape with me!
Sijo advocates say it sorts out English in interesting ways. Poet Larry Gross writes:
Remember the three characteristics that make the sijo unique — its basic structure, musical/rhythmic elements, and the twist. It is shorter and more lyrical than the ghazal. It is more roomy than the haiku, and it welcomes feelings and emotions which haiku either discourage or disguise. It should please lovers of ballads, sonnets and lyrics, and the downplay of regular meter and rhyme should appeal to writers of free verse. In short, it’s a fascinating challenge. (‘Sijo Primer #1’, 2000)
In appreciating sijo’s particular inward tension and capacity to turn on itself we acknowledge a distinctive quality in Korean culture, which then becomes visible elsewhere, such as in the work of the great contemporary Korean poet Ko Un (b.1933), now nearly 80, here translated by Richard Silberg:
because you croaked
the rain clouds massed in the sky.
You sure are a mighty dude,
you little runt.
Sijo practice in English fine-tunes effects that resonate in the larger culture.
Here’s a response by one of David McCann’s students, Henry Ung, to the challenge. Born in Texas, son of Cambodian refugees of Chinese ancestry, Henry enjoyed the multiple possibilities that could be concentrated in a complex act:
‘Poetry Inside Out’ is a program of the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco that aims to build ‘problem solving, critical thinking, and literacy skills through the translation and composition of poetry’ in schools. Program director John Oliver Simon writes, ‘Poetry Inside Out students are given the tools that enable them to translate work by the world’s great poets, such as Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Li Bai, and Mahmoud Darwish…. The synergy of translation and poetry composition allows students to experience the power of language while building essential literary skills.’ This is happening in ‘classrooms where 85% of the kids get free lunch. This work is based on acceleration rather than remediation—on high-expectations for low-scoring students’
The students work in groups with teachers and professionals and produce their own translations and adaptations of poetry from Latin, Mayan, Chinese, Arabic and other languages, some of which are spoken in the classroom to a degree. A contemporary Japanese tanka by Tawara Machi, for example, is translated into English by a professional and then into Spanish, or should it be ‘Spanglish’:
of being in love
my heart impervious
to “Jingle Bells’
This, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, becomes, in the translation by 8th grader Yésica Gutiérres:
de estar enamorada
mi corazón insensible
a “jingle bells’
The examples are taken from Cyclops Wearing Flip-Flops, the Center for the Art of Translation’s 2011 handbook of student work.
Students can write their own tanka in linked verse ‘renga’ in which one person writes the first three lines and another responds in two. Then someone else responds by starting another three, and so on, in a generative string. Here’s a terrific two-author original tanka by Kathy Espinosa and Janiah Owens, from the 4th grade:
I said no
No no no no no
To my mother
But my mother says yes
Yes yes yes yes yes
And here’s a code-switching response by non-native Spanish speaker Desha Harper, from the 6th grade:
I am from south
and from north
The process requires management and mediation—glossary lists, dictionaries, the presence of partially bilingual speakers—but handled lightly, making necessity the mother of invention. The class is divided into small pods of three or four to produce a collective translation of a foreign language poem. The translations from the several pods are then collated in a workshop with the whole class to arrive at a further, collectively authored version. Rather than a literal translation, it’s a response to the source text generated by the group. Meanings are guessed, divined, gaps glossed over. It’s a more blatant version of what happens in any literary translation.
It would be worth exploring this in an Australian classroom, at any level, as part of a creative writing workshop, or a literature class, where passages of Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, or Aboriginal song poems in parallel texts, could be translated in this way to enter the space ‘where the meanings, are’.
Australian poets who work with Asian forms are doing a version of this. I want to conclude by offering a short anthology to illustrate the new aesthetic they are working with, which also signals the ethical re-orientation learned in the process. But let me start with a counterexample to show how things have changed.
Here is a haiku by Peter Porter from ‘Japanese Jokes’:
Somewhere at the heart
Of the universe sounds the
True mystic note: Me.
Porter’s take on Asia, from metropolitan London in the 1960s, is ironic. It’s a satirical piss-take, with an aesthetic of mischief. The poet enshrines egotism, the I, the self. A generation later poets will use an Asian aesthetic to discipline and efface that ‘Me’ in favour of the not-self, an ‘eye’ that is no longer separate from what it sees nor from the world in which the voice lives.
In between comes John Tranter, younger than Porter and writing from Sydney. His Asia is a site of experimental play and generative misalliance , as in his ‘Notes from the Late Tang’:
On the mountain of (heaped snow, boiled rice)
I met Tu Fu wearing a straw hat against the midday sun
distant bridge, restless parting, rain (in, on) the woods
By the end of the poem the impossible translation of Chinese characters produces: ‘pig liquid telephone handset’, which has a mixed-up, combinatory meaning all its own. Tranter is doing something of an Ern Malley here, reversing the direction of one of the Ern Malley originals, Harold Stewart, who came to live in Kyoto, Japan, where he sought to produce authentically Tang-inspired verse in a pure idiom in his last decades.
Contrast Greg McLaren, a half-century later, from ‘Buddhism Decoder’:
Five prayer wheels gathering dust
in the shop front
on Hunter Street.
Cars drive by in the late afternoon,
patterns of light on the window
leaving no trace, as if nothing was there.
Here self-surrender is ordinary, a habit of attention to the not-self in a shared world. The aesthetic is mundane, of the moment, meditational.
That disposition makes possible a loosening of the mind’s grip, as Mike Ladd discovers in his adaptation of the pantun, which, like sijo, has its own built-in insistence on a transformative shift of perspective that, with mental movement, also brings emotional release and expansion:.
Kalau ada sumur di lading,
Boleh hamba menupang mandi?
Kalau ada umur yang panjang,
Boleh kita perjumpa lagi?
If there’s a pond in the field,
May I take a bath?
If I live long enough,
Can we meet again?
That’s a traditional Malay vesion. Here’s Mike Ladd’s:
Out of the sky of luminous black
Rain falls joyfully. You and I
Who lived so long alone together
Now walk again under one umbrella.
The challenge is to find language that can carry the presence of another language within it, at least by implication. For poets who have Asian ancestry, especially if their mother’s tongue is not English, that search goes to a personal psychology that must also acknowledge the movement of escape from that prior language into the literary English mainstream, with its long, impersonal, book-borne traditions and promise of liberating opportunity. Australian poets such as Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Eileen Chong share this territory with other poets around the world. Kit Fan, for example, moved from Hong Kong to England, where he reworks the Chinese couplets of his mother’s tongue into a telling kind of English that makes the journey from child’s remembered predicament to accomplished book:
It is not only the guilty secrets
are hard to tell in the end.
From the age of six my mother
put me in the Telford Gardens
Library in Kowloon so that she
could sweat in other people’s
kitchens. That was why I owned
a library corner. Every shelf
hour held me in custody.
Page travels, lost milk teeth
…I dreamed of an orphan-
age: long corridors, dorm beds, wet
sheets, breathing up against the wall.
I made myself homeless as if she
would never come back, her hands
tinted with bleach….(from Paper Scissors Stone, 2011)
The m/other tongue moves between poet’s body and mother’s body and the body of text, doubling and shadowing the self.
In a related way the contemporary American poet Jeffrey Yang uses elements of Chinese poetic form and its modernist avatars to bridge natural and textual consciousness in his alphabetically arranged collection of poems, An Aquarium (Graywolf Press, 2008).
Ouyang Yu moved from China to Australia in 1991. In translations, particularly, he returns to traditional poetic forms as a way of reflecting on his background and ancestry. The movement between languages is a movement between selves past and present, in one home and another. The modular nature of classical Chinese couplet or quatrain heightens internal balances and contrasts. The translations appear side by side, the matching visual modules emphasising the parallax error of identity. Ouyang explains: ‘We have now entered the age of self-creating things. … What is pre-modern in Chinese poetry is exactly what is postmodern here, something written more than a thousand years ago as if it happened only yesterday.’ (Loving: the Best of Both Worlds, 2005).
‘A Casual Poem Composed After My Return to My Hometown’ is translated by Ouyang from an original by Tang poet He Zhizhang:
i left home young and come home old
my accent remains the same although my hair is grey
when kids see me they do not know who I am
and they ask with a smile: where are you from?
The measured, modular form and simple, near-monosyllabic language contain an immense translation, across time and space, in which native speech is layered over by non-native experience.
Counting lines and syllables and assembling sequences of modules reflects an awareness of measure that is made explicit in Jane Gibian’s work. One of the poet’s ‘twelve haiku’ lightly recognises this god of small things:
on the carpet
after the dinner party
two grains of rice
Another poem from Ardent (2007) goes further to physicalize the measure words that play a defining role in Chinese and related languages, ordering the world differently:
in your mouth you roll and taste
the classifier for fruit, shaping
the rounded rising syllablealso used for fruit-shaped objects:
and run your tongue
along the sharp edges
of the classifier for objects
with flat surfaces:
feel then the graceful classifier
for leaf-shaped and leaf-thin things:
it is the leaf itself
In the poem’s climax thing and idea of thing are one, as separation and doubleness dissolve.
Measure and module thus open up to the multiple and manifold, which is an awareness given expansive form in the Sanskrit-derived currents of Asian tradition that include Hinduism and Buddhism. Vishvarūpa, the title of Michelle Cahill’s collection (Five Islands Press, 2011), is Sanskrit for manifold: ‘having all forms and colours’ (88n). Cahill, born in Kenya, describes herself as a Goan-Anglo-Indian poet, although she writes in Australia. This multiple destiny is projected in her poetry, in ‘Durgā: A Self-Portrait’, for example:
What I see is myself in this world: deviant, without genealogy.
Snow monkeys shiver in the deodar pines, goats loop in a shelter.
Women abandon their duties, their grief, and Vishnu is paralysed.
Cahill ‘reads the Mahābhārata’ as a way of confronting a historical and political legacy that is also personal in its summons. Her aesthetic of the manifold, derived from Indian traditions, is a response, an ethic too, verging on the ecstatic as it responds to overwhelming multiplicity:
Once in a ruptured past before mutiny or Midnight’s Children,
partition turning brother against brother, the Imperial tea-party
over, before the Monguls crossed the Ganges-Jumna doab,
or Tamberlane abandoned his jade and ribbed cantaloupe dome,
his leafy gardens of Samarkand, to turn infidels and polytheists
into a pyramid of skulls—the Rig Veda was written as divine ink. …
Trade or climate drove them south. Conquerors styled
On Indra himself, their wars and divisions are historicity, the subject
Of a fossilised verse, which like the pottery of an ancient citadel
Breathes life into an Indian heroic age, source of a timeless myth
Whose elisions are perfect riddles, Attic shapes, truth’s arithmetic.
For this, Ganeśa broke his tusk. Without pause or doubt Vyāsa spoke
His cosmic fiction synchronising Kali’s birth with the death of a god,
Whose vishvarūpa form teases thought, slows time, all her silences.
Many other examples are possible, from many other poets: Christopher Kelen, joanne burns, Michael Brennan, James Stewart, Ali Alizadeh, Pip Smith and Elizabeth Allen, to name a few more. Together they are working towards a new century Australian aesthetic that risks chaos in the name of a new ethics that seeks to join rather than divide. A dimension of the new century aesthetic is an inclination to rewrite, one discipline of which is learned in translation, often with Asian literary features, although many contemporary Australian poets also still make their pilgrimage and petition to Old Europe. Translational practice is a situated gift exchange, an offering of honour and conciliation, yet always with a question mark over whether it will be reciprocated. It moves to overcome the exclusion that has always been Australia’s double bind, since those who exclude are themselves excluded. Mindfully writing Asian poetry in English in Australia is one pathway to change.
I taught Australian and Asia-Pacific literature at Harvard in 2009-11, and lived for that time in Cambridge, Mass. My students told me about sijo. I told them about Ko Un, Korean poet rock star and living Buddha. I heard him in Sydney and Hong Kong, where I read the English translations of his poems aloud to the PEN audience. Ko Un came to read at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., where Sylvia Plath went to school, and I drove from Cambridge to hear him again. Plath and Ko Un were born a year apart. He survived her by 50 years and read a poem about that, and his long road to Smith. I was conscious of my transpacific status in this part of the world, and when I came to write about my scattered impressions of Harvard, I found that sijo, a borrowed Asian form, was a way to do it. My poems, then, are part of my research.
Seven Cambridge sijo
Two squirrels make a sky nest in damp air and textureless light.
From a wire two birds go hunt. In the mind endless questions.
Floating in graduate life, how many chapters done now?
To Huron and Concord for the best brownies and grainiest loaves.
With walnuts and olives, pecans and cranberries, this bread’s not cheap
where writers and thinkers perched close materialize as one.
Homi the show-me hosts cabaret. Shanghai Yo-Yo plays the bill.
Humanities take centre-stage here at the intersection of the world.
May their fine faces launch a thousand shifts. Save Harvard, save the planet.
Migrant brothers lie together under one stone in reverent ground.
A sugar maple guards their plot year on year in leaf and fall.
They never imagined this end, playing all the time for youth and life.
Thyme Path. Death feeds the trees. Blood-stained five-fingered leaves drop
in the freezing pond where a turtle pokes its yellow-striped old head.
A red bird hops in the bare dogwood. The Double World. Azalea Path.
The lecture hall for Stead and White has nothing to do with Australia’s own car.
It’s a bequest, with terracotta child Mozart who fiddles a blessing
as students peer for the outback. How can a name travel so far?
It’s a long road to get here, through dirt and snow. Step off the sidewalk
into black melt and hope your boots are high enough, then change into classic
comfort to tread those sleek corridors and leave no mess, no trace at all.
NICHOLAS JOSE has written widely on Australian and Asian culture. He has published seven novels, two collections of short stories, a book of essays and two works of non-fiction. He has been a member of the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, since 2008. He was general editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009), and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-11. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.
Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale
by Chi Vu
Reviewed by HOA PHAM
The Melbourne based writer Chi Vu is known for her plays “The Story of Soil” and “A Psychic Guide to Vietnam”. The text for “A Psychic Guide” was included in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature and Vu is also featured in Joyful Strains, the recent PEN writing anthology about the refugee experience in Australia.
Vu’s novella Anguli Ma- A Gothic Tale is published by Giramondo Press in the Shorts Series. It has only received a one paragraph review in The Australian and a longer mention in an essay by Nicholas Jose for the Wheeler Centre to date. This relative lack of acknowledgement may be due to the novella form of the text, which is unfortunate because Anguli Ma succeeds on a number of levels, not least as a gothic tale and as a tale of refugees in the suburbs.
An informed reader who knows about the Anguli Ma myth would be richly rewarded reading this novel. However Vu’s craft ensures that one does not need prior knowledge of the fable for the story to have an impact. In an act of retelling and cultural translation, Vu deploys the name Anguli Ma for an unpleasant character that moves in to an Australian household with three Vietnamese refugee women. The story pivots around the transformation of Anguli Ma who encounters a monk meditating in the fields beyond the house near the Maribyrnong River, and the gradual disintegration of his landlady Dao. The horror story builds in suspense and menace to the final climax in a claustrophic suburban wasteland.
Subtitling her novella “A gothic tale” Vu alludes to the Australian gothic tradition in which the landscape of the bush is haunted and macabre (Gelder 2011). In Australia, the genocide of the Indigenous people is a repressed violence present in the land. Vu describes the landscape as having “Shabby grass” and “misshapen trees” under a cloudy boiling overcast sky (Vu 15). Later she alludes to Australian history by describing:
A land so…peaceful that the newcomers believed that it was empty space unmarked and unstoried, a barely populated land uninhabited by wandering demons and limbless men from wars that dragged on for millennia. (Vu 49).
The book is primarily set within the confines of Dao’s house using a number of narrative strands, the fable-like appearance of the monk, Dao, Bac, Sinh and Dao’s son and grand-daughter. Dao is driven to desperate acts after the hui money (Money circle) that she is in charge of is stolen and Sinh, her young tenant goes missing. The Buddhist references are extended in the book to include the other women refugees in the narrative – a comparison is made between them and hungry ghosts – the souls of the dead that need to be fed continuously to be sated.
“…Left behind ma co hon in the old world.’’ Dao stopped. Wandering, hungry ghosts. Unable to be reborn as a human or animal unable to enter heaven or hell because of their gruesome, untimely deaths. “We think we have a new beginning because we escaped the terror and come to a new land. But we haven’t left them behind, they came with us!” (Vu 54).
Hungry ghosts according to Buddhist theology, are one of six stages of humankind before the possibility of the attainment of enlightenment as a boddhistiva. They have small throats and large mouths; they are unable to receive compassion and they exist in a living hell suffering from eternal hunger. Being an animal is another of the stages wherein one is driven solely by one’s desires. Dao is described as being at the stage of an animal by Bac, the older tenant, who observes that she is driven insane by her grief. The monk also advises Anguli Ma that one can perceive that one is an animal without necessarily having to be one.
In Vu’s fable, Anguli Ma is a murderer who finds enlightenment, only to be ambushed by his landlady because of his last murder. Even his landlady and the other tenants of the house are capable of becoming hungry ghosts if the circumstances are right. The tale comes around full circle with Anguli Ma meditating in the sun like the monk in the beginning – a compelling allusion to Buddhist philosophy in which there is no end or beginning.
Vu uses effective imagery and pacing to deliver a truly gothic tale. The suburban setting is portrayed as stark and unfriendly to the Vietnamese characters. The characterisation of Anguli Ma is similarly intense, from the bloody scissors he uses for his work at the abattoir, to the running over and eating of a dog in a suburban wasteland. Such intensity imparts to the audience the desperation of the struggle that all the characters face to survive
By invoking the gothic, the novella acts as a counter-narrative to the brightness of other popular refugee narratives like Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. Vu’s characters are desperate –Dao obsesses over money, Bac works too hard and Sinh, the character with the most youth and hope is murdered. The commentary that Vu has published in an article about 1.5 generation Vietnamese diasporic writing suggests that she has succeeded in being a translator of Vietnamese concerns to the Australian audience (Vu 2011). Vu discusses how the 1.5 generation can look backwards or forwards. Nicholas Jose suggests that this portrayal of Vietnamese refugee stories provides a different view of Vietnamese refugees for the uneducated outsider. Vu succeeds in beautifully articulating a detailed study of the four main characters; she is able to go beyond cliché because of her sensitive handling of contrasting narrative traditions and her intense attention to detail.
Anguli Ma- A Gothic Tale is a highly original work drawing on Buddhist and gothic traditions; it should find a larger audience internationally, if not here.
Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Award Community Relations Prize
HOA PHAM is an award-winning novelist and short story writer.
The Seaglass Spiral
by Alan Gould
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Let me begin, atypically for an Australian reviewer, with a declaration of interest. I have been a friend and colleague of Alan Gould from well before before he published his first book, Icelandic Solitaries, in 1978. I have read all his eleven collections of poetry and his seven previous works of fiction and am confident that this new book, The Seaglass Spiral, is one of his three best works (the other two being his selected poems, The Past Completes Me, and his most recent novel, The Lakewoman).
Despite having published a substantial body of poetry and prose over more than thirty years, Gould is not as prominent in our literary culture as he deserves to be. Partly because of its unrelenting integrity and its painstaking attention to linguistic detail, his writing is considered unfashionable, even stilted, in some quarters. It’s not without significance that The Seaglass Spiral was rejected, often in glowing terms, by several major publishers before it was taken up by the small but enterprising Finlay Lloyd of Braidwood, NSW, and produced to an appropriately high standard.
In this work, as in others, Gould reveals a mind that likes to classify and then assess for quality in terms of the relevant category. In fiction and poetry alike, Gould is concerned with psychopathology and individual morale. He needs to know how a particular mind works and what the state of its self-confidence is at any particular time. He admires courage, particularly moral courage — and those who are able to maintain their spirits, even in adversity. He is not, however, without humour and has a lightness of touch, in both poetry and prose, which helps him escape the sententiousness that such a mind-set might otherwise lead to.
For all these reasons Gould’s work is not seen as “experimental” yet The Seaglass Spiral is one of the most experimental books I have read in recent years. It’s strange that an author so Linnaean should have written a book so beyond classification. Some readers will see it as a bildungsroman but it is surely unusual in this genre to start a thousand years before the protagonist’s birth. Others will see it as a roman à clef but in many ways it is not a roman at all, for all that its playful ingenuity with nomenclature might suggest it.
And it is certainly not an autobiography though it does, in fact, cover Gould’s own early life and that of his wife in considerable detail. Biographies and autobiographies tend to start with a birth date and then sketch in the parents. Gould, however, in his brush with this genre, prefers to reach back hundreds of years. The Seaglass Spiral could be considered a family history (or a history of two families) but, if it is, it is also one in which none of the characters bears his or her own name. Hardly the way for a family to immortalise itself.
Gould’s concerns in The Seaglass Spiral, however, go well beyond playing with categories. Essentially, he is concerned with the genetic transmission of physical, psychological and behavioural characteristics (even certain talents) down through families over the centuries. The Sebright and the Ravenglass lines, which eventually converge in the love affair and marriage of Ralf Sebright and Susan Ravenglass (the pseudonyms given to the author and his wife) are, in effect, traced back a thousand years or so.
Fortunately, these forebears are not treated in equal detail — though by this truncation Gould does risk frustrating readers who are just starting to be interested on one character when they are suddenly yanked on to another. It’s a bit like the risk Italo Calvino took in his novel, If On A Winter’s Night, which consists only of alternative opening chapters.
In The Seaglass Spiral Gould evades these difficulties by presenting both the Sebright and the Ravenglass ancestors at key points in their lives — before moving on rapidly to show us the subsequent children and grandchildren at pivotal moments in theirs. Sometimes, as readers, we see these continuities for ourselves. At other times they are suggested to us by a genial third person narrator. There are certainly some distinctly memorable scenes in this process, among them the arrival, as a youth, of Ralf’s grandfather, Jesse, into metropolitan London in 1879 and, later, his wife Maisie’s lively facing down of a crowd of jingoists in the same city in 1914, all the while nursing Ralf’s infant father in her arms.
A good deal more space, it must be said, is afforded the four parents of the book’s central couple — and among this quartet a fair slice of twentieth century history is experienced, including some of the savagery of World War II and the Holocaust. By page 82, however, we meet the author’s alter ego, Ralf Sebright and by page 99 we have been introduced to Ralf’s future wife, Susan Ravenglass, as a baby.
At this point The Seaglass Spiral does indeed become a variety of bildungsroman, tracing the formative experiences of both Ralf and Susan at school and university. Some of the book’s most graphic writing evokes the culture of bullying at an English boarding school. It is not hard to see where Gould derived his abiding concern with morale. Ralf’s relief on arriving at a more benign Australian version is palpable. Susan, on the other hand, has a somewhat easier time of it through a Canberra adolescence marked mainly by a “self-containment … which suited, like a shadow”.
This self-containment or detachment becomes a permanent part of Susan’s character through university and beyond. Ralf, on the other hand, despite a certain shyness, is all involvement — especially in the campaign against conscription for the Vietnam war (which Gould has also written about elsewhere). Neither Ralf nor Susan, however, is initially able to find, or even visualise, what they really want from the opposite sex. Ralf has a lively dalliance or two at university and afterwards but they prove not to be what he wants.
One of the real charms of The Seaglass Spiral is the almost Jane Austen-like delay in bringing the two central characters together and (as is not the case with Austen, of course) getting them into bed and “shacked-up”, as Susan Ravenglass puts it. This is writing of considerable candour, enabled (partly) by the clever device of alternative nomenclature. It’s as if Gould (understandably) finds it much easier to write of Ralf and Susan than of Alan and Anne and yet it’s plain he’s stayed true to the experiences involved.
The Seaglass Spiral is brought more or less up to date by the advent of the couple’s two sons, Charlie and Gregor, but it is in the adolescence and early adulthood of Ralf and Susan that the book’s main concerns are to be found. Despite a near catastrophe posed in the opening chapter and spelt out in more detail in the closing pages, the book has a happy ending which, one might say, is made all the more so by the reader’s realisation that the two main characters, both a little strange in different ways, would definitely have been a lot less happy had they not encountered a partner so well-suited. Is this something that the seaglass spiral of genetics also had in mind for them? One guesses not — but it’s a tempting thought.
GEOFF PAGE is an award-winning poet, novelist and critic. His latest collection is a verse novella, 1953 (UQP).
Our house used to be frequented by poets. They were part of the rough fabric of the Sydney arts scene in the 1970s, along with the painters, musos, actors and other assorted souls who were regular patrons of my mother’s impromptu salons. Mainly they seemed to be young(ish) men who consumed flagons of wine and, when empty, threw them at each other. Sometimes when they were pretty plastered, they’d have pissing competitions in the kitchen sink. Often their banter was punctuated by equal measures of misogyny and romance. Women, it was clear, had a thing for poets, and they knew it. They were lads – with pens.
Really the poets were lucky to make it inside our Jersey Road house. Beyond the sedate front door there was simply a hole. Unknowing visitors stepped over the threshold and straight into a muddy pit. The hole where a hearth should have been was part of one of my father’s endless renovation plans. No one was in a hurry to install floorboards. Observing the hapless literary victims of Dad’s talent for demolition was all part of my adolescent enjoyment. We were different, and the only way to survive that knowledge was to watch as the chaos and the Ben Ean moselle flowed; to smile wryly as another unwary aspirant to this heady scene fell through the ever widening gaps.
Once inside, there was plenty to keep poets occupied. For a start, there was my mother and my sister and me. And there was an ostentatious gold velvet sofa, adding a strong dose of bordello to the interior decorating scheme, along with the brocaded and tasselled lampshades. My mother would recline on this sofa and ‘tell stories’. This is actually an occupation in my family. I’m told that in some households parents go to work. But my Mum and Dad were better than that – they entertained. Often they seemed to be competing over who could be the most outrageous. Mum would start talking about her lovers, and schmoozing up to some potential candidates, tossing her head back and laughing drolly while ostentatiously smoking in a style befitting a 1940s movie queen. Dad adopted a different tactic. Like a New Guinea highlander engaged in a culinary prestation of charred pork that would outwit the most conniving masculine rival, Dad would cook. Huge slabs of meat would emerge from the kitchen – a side of corned beef, a few dozen chickens, some legs of lamb for good measure. Occasionally nice women, who appeared like unwilling extras, would incline their heads and cluck ‘You are so lucky to have a husband who cooks, Dorothy’. If Merv still felt he hadn’t adequately conveyed his message, he would stand out in the Woollahra street and crack his stockwhip, a wild smarting sound rending the suburban night sky. I recall one hapless poet attempting to imitate my father. He stumbled, inebriated, out on to Jersey Rd and heaved the whip, flaccidly, on to the bitumen. A petulant silence ensued. He never tried it again.
When the poets really got going, you were in for a good time. Leonard Cohen would be played on the turntable, and the lyrics floridly repeated, as though nothing more could ever be said, or sung. Occasionally Bob Dylan would muscle Leonard out of the way and we would all be transported, feverish, to Black Diamond Bay. When the night really got underway, we might go and listen to our local version of Dylan. Driscoll had a regular gig in a city pub. At 15 my favourite drink was cherry advocaat with a dash of lemonade. ‘Blue blue angel’ he would intone huskily into the mike, laconically strumming his guitar, a mop of curly hair lending a disreputable air. His lyrics seemed, at a minimum, exquisite.
Later we’d pile in a car, ready to party on. One night remains vivid. I was in the front seat squished on the lap of a painter, who I may have slept with once or twice. A poet was driving. He had a fast car. In case we didn’t know this, he was driving the car very fast down Sussex St. He screamed to a stop at a milk bar, demanding that they add his flask of bourbon to the milkshake. It was not like Grease. He would race through red lights, and then suddenly brake, just for the hell of it. My mother always referred to the seat I was sort of sitting in as the death seat, at least in conversation with my father. (With poets she had a more devil-may-care personality.) As the fast car screamed to a halt and then lurched forward, like a rocking horse on steroids, I began to cry. The painter told the poet to cut it out. Although the poet was clearly in the grip of mania, he still maintained a hazy awareness that the painter was at least twice his size. His driving became more benign, and in my grateful teenage mind the painter became an artist who had rescued me from the jaws of poet-inflicted death. I started to think of him as my boyfriend.
We arrived at someone’s house, possibly Driscoll’s. It was a narrow terrace furnished haphazardly with throw-outs from back alleys. Everyone was slugging down those flagons. Romances and fights began to break out. My parents were nowhere to be seen. This is really living, I thought. The poet got me up against a wall. He kept telling me that if I would just go away with him – for a weekend – he would change my life. I looked around for my saviour. But he was busy beating up his younger brother, a weedy man who had almost been a pop star in the sixties and never had another moment in the sun since. Even the poet was impressed with the Oedipal battle being enacted only a few feet away. When the painter had demolished the passé recording artist, and a little blood decorated the skirting boards, we all broke up, retiring to eat platefuls of lukewarm rice-a-riso. This was not something I ever consumed in my father’s kitchen.
My relationship with the painter never worked out. At fifteen, he was twice my age. His compellingly crazed portrait of my mother won the Archibald Prize in 1990. I can find no hint of myself in those thick trails of glossy oil playfully demarcating enormous unbound breasts and unfettered zestful imperium. My mother ended up writing a slender book of deeply romantic verse about the poet. Apparently he did change her life. Indeed, he was her chosen tragedy. Although the volume was slender, the havoc it caused in my family was immense. Driscoll eventually died, as people do, his health ruined by heroin. At 93 my father still attempts to slay women into submission through rhyming verse. ‘You are my biscuit girl’, he might address a missive to one of the women who now shower and feed him daily, hungrily hoping for some action. Usually I am the only person who reads these intended appetisers.
Poetry, I think it would be fair to say, has partly written my life. When poets want to seduce someone, they write them a poem. In the 70s, they actually used to post them. Occasionally when I am overcome with longing, I still reach for my pen or, less poetically, my keyboard. But email just doesn’t have the same cachet. Last year I recited some of my mother’s poetry at Sydney Writers Festival. She had passed away a decade earlier, and my sister, Kate, had organised a tribute. There’s a special tent you register in if you are performing. They have free beer and wine. Inside you feel a little superior to the crowds queuing along the wharf, waiting for their artful encounters. When I approached the desk and named the session I was involved in the attendant looked me up and down, taking in my pink-checked skirt suit. ‘You are a publicist’, she announced. Evidently my efforts to appear an intimate part of this febrile world had been instantly exposed as fraudulent. I remain, at best, an observer.
Looking back, it’s hard to find the right words to describe that period of time when, if you got up in the morning, and went downstairs to cobble together some breakfast, you’d stumble across a composer passed out on the velvet lounge or a guy who had recently completed his first feature film script petulantly drinking tepid coffee or an actress, still leery from the night before, draped across the chipped mahogany sideboard. Some mornings it was hard not to trip over them. I’d quickly wash my socks and undies in the outdoor laundry, putting them on still damp, and raid my mother’s bone leather handbag, which smelled of 4711 eau de cologne and sadness, so that I could buy some lunch at the school tuckshop. There was no one I knew to say goodbye to. It was so simultaneously exciting and awful.
I suspect children of the talented and famous often feel like pastel reflections of a more colourful presence. It is easy to resent the neglect that accompanied my mother’s relentless imaginary. The harder task is to make sense of it. In my 20s, a de facto relationship ended. Anthony had been my first stable relationship with a man my age; he was gentle and reliable. Restless, I pursued someone else. Despairing at my own fecklessness, I visited Mum, hoping for solace. She was lying in bed, a notebook propped on her lap, writing. This was her usual position. As I told her the story of my infidelity, she glanced up, tears of genuine compassion rimming her eyes. ‘Oh Rosie’, she exclaimed. Then she looked back at her spirax companion, her lips moving in the slight mutter that always accompanied her creations. And that was it.
I know now how hard it can be to find the right words for daughters. I know, too, that the Sydney arts scene in the 70s was a difficult place to grow up. For Dorothy, it was a dream interior where she could make her oft-repeated longing to be centre-stage come true. Her daughters were her props. When I was a teenager, she tried to incorporate me into her world. She, literally, wrote my parts. I would stand before a microphone, given a leading role in her radio play. Or I would be captured on film, playing some dishevelled girl desperately desired by others, acting out her romances.
My Aunt Dessie tells this story. When she and Mum were girls, growing up on their isolated wheat farm, they used to roam the paddocks together. Dorothy would invent long and convoluted narratives and command her little sister to write down all of her words as soon as they returned home. Forged in the midst of all that brazen self-reflection, I’m still struggling to dig myself out. My own still-life has a more muted palette. It’s a comparatively quiet place of calm and order and, in good times, constancy. But if you look carefully, there in the recesses of the deep shadows, you can just glimpse a poetic undertone of striking scarlet.
Edited by Kent MacCarter and Alison Lemer
Affirm Press, 2013
Reviewed by SOPHIA BARNES
Joyful Strains is introduced to us by Arnold Zable as a testament to the spirit of the PEN International project, bringing together a vibrant and engaging, by turns moving and hilarious, collection of stories. These are all accounts of immigration in its various shapes and forms, whether motivated by death, war, hope, ambition, desperation, love or curiosity. Migrants see their hopes realised or dashed, confront loss and new life, faith abandoned or refreshed, languages forgotten, learned and relearned, personal and cultural histories reinvigorated or challenged. Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Night of the Living Wog’ is the perfect opener to the collection, reminding us as it does, with its wry humour and sparkling imagination, the power of art to enable the articulation and thereby the comprehension of our experience. As a young Turkish boy told he is now Greek and finding himself in Australia, Kakmi discovers his very own TARDIS in the television: a small, shiny black box which contains more than its size could ever seemingly allow. The reader can’t help but reflect that what Australian television does for Kakmi is what literature does also: a slim collection of pages with its black type crawling across an off-white page contains a world of diversity, stretching from the second decade of the new millennium back into the formative years of the twentieth-century, across nations, oceans and continents.
What is the immigrant experience of Australia? A trick question, really; for there is no more an immigrant experience than there is an immigrant. The story of migration is an entirely personal as much as it is a shared one—and it is only through the personal that we can begin to understand just how ambivalent the sensation of emigration, immigration, exile or assimilation can be. In a beguiling formulation Chi Vu speaks of her birth language as a set of ‘limbs’ that remain “under my jacket, weak and pale, yet ageing with the rest of me”, as the ‘alien’ limbs of English grow “strong through daily use”. Ali Alizadeh struggles to find the words and to tame the grammar that will convey his love for a young Australian girl named Sally whose individual acceptance of him, if given, might transcend the rejection of a cruel schoolyard and its uncaring wardens. Kakmi’s televisual mentors teach him the ways of the world; like him, they are strangers in a strange land, whose bewildered discoveries mirror his own. The strongest stories in this collection are the ones that illuminate the experience of belonging (or not – and to what?) through the lens of the intimate, the particular and even the peculiar.
The distance between the old home and the new is not always, or not only, geographical. For Amy Espeseth it is a distance made deeper and more insurmountable by the barrier of lost faith. For her the past must be remade as an imaginary country, the friend of her childhood a spectre of what might have been rather than what is. This notion of the imaginary country, the land of memory and of inspiration, recurs throughout Joyful Strains, for it is in the imagination that the lands which migrants have left continue to flourish, to grow—even beyond the hazy boundaries of their own reality. The “rain-soaked earth and bruised grass”, the vibrant flame trees, the “lazy rivers and the sound of wood doves in the trees” become the memory world on which Malla Nunn will continue to draw and which she will eventually weave into her fiction.
What Joyful Strains brought home to me—if you will excuse the expression—is the sheer diversity of Australian immigrant experience. It may seem a truism but if so it is one which seems regularly to get lost in each new wave of discrimination and recrimination as partisan game-players use the easy target of desperate refugees to score empty political points. As an umpteenth-generation Australian, whose family tree (depending on who’s telling the story) yields a genuine bona fide first-fleet convict, I can claim nothing approximating an experience of exile, of racial discrimination, or of the uncanny sensation felt by Chi Vu as she catches herself thinking in her adopted language for the first time. Given the politically-charged nature of any current debate about migration, where poisonous and often outright-misleading language abounds, there tends to be little reflection on the way that each successive wave of migration has garnered a similar reaction. The prophecies of disaster have never come true, yet the language of ‘floodgates’, the image of a tide of immigrants who will drown our shores, persists. Never mind that those who warn us are themselves more often than not as much the children of Australia’s migrant history as those whose names might be slightly harder to pronounce, whose accents might be that little bit thicker. One can only hope that this important collection will do its part to remind us how tired these warnings of disaster are, and how rich and enviable is our cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity.
The breadth and variety of individual stories of the journey to Australia from any number of birthplaces, the cacophony of different languages and dialects spoken in any number of Australian schools, homes, pubs, cafes, parks and community centres, is what Joyful Strains attempts to capture—and to my mind, it succeeds.
SOPHIA BARNES is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, where her Ph.D is currently under examination. She has published academic work internationally, and has had creative writing published in WetInk Magazine. In 2013 she was shortlisted for the WetInk / CAL Short Story Prize for the second year running.
by Marion May Campbell
University of Western Australia Publishing
Reviewed by CATHERINE COLE
Campbell’s novella, konkretion, follows an elderly ex-communist, Monique Piquet, through Paris, as she meets up with a former student who has published a book about German political activists, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, who were former and founding members of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The book offers a segueing and poetic re-examination of Meinhof, who died in suspicious circumstances in prison in 1976, and her fellow conspirators.
These were heady and dangerous times, politically and artistically, and Campbell weaves the political and the artistic threads dexterously as she asserts these connections. The book is full of references to Baader and Bacon, Celan and Barthes as well as Ensslin and Meinhof, their political convictions working within and in opposition to the key philosophies of the times. What makes Campbell’s book so interesting is the way in which she leads Monique Piquet – and the reader with her – through a mix of memory and reflection, on past times, past trips, the seduction of extreme politics, especially for the young, and the older woman’s reacquaintance with that seduction.
konkretion is not an easy book – nor should it be – but its style makes for a difficult read at times. There’s no strong narrative flow to allow an easy dipping in or out, or a linear narrative offering a long and languorous read. Rather, konkretion challenges the reader to move back and forth, to pause and remember, or to look people up if necessary for an understanding of the text. Campbell doesn’t want lazy or ill-informed readers, I suspect, and to enter the novel requires a commitment to one’s own reflections and, where necessary, education.
The book’s greatest strength for this reader, at least, rests in its disquieting and challenging poetics. Take for example: ‘ In the theatre, the gloom is thick and slow as suet, glutinous on eyeballs, eyeballs out on sticks already, in fact.’ Her words challenge the reader to declaim, loudly, as the long quote below also suggests. There’s a poetics too which is graphic in its intensity: ‘a dark-haired woman, her face pillow-propped, looks straight at the viewer, while the lover’s head rises over the horizon of her shoulders.’ The voice is strong, if at times perplexing, and perhaps that’s why the book is such an interesting read. One is always challenged by Monique’s point of view and her relationship with history. Campbell poses questions about terrorism, about aging and place, answering them through an exploration of ideas and the ways in which they’ve formed and reformed in her character’s mind over the years.
They wanted to sample and spin and mix all their scripts in the disassembly of nation. They asked us to put our stethoscopes to these pleasure texts and to mark the harmonics, the syncopations, the intoxicating buzz, the polyrhythmic pulsing there. Oh and we did, we loosened up to the friction of textual bodies and pulverized subjectivities. We were rehearsing a way beyond war, beyond capital, beyond strutting sovereign subjects. Remember Babel, our opponents sneered, as if all that babble wasn’t war to start with. Well, we said yes, maybe, but only in the sense that fascistic thought wants to impose the One over the many. We pointed to our friend Luce (lips-all-over) Irigaray composing her ludic mimicry on male philosophers. (pp19-20)
There is much to discover along the way. For example, we meet the Romanian/French poet, Paul Celan, and enjoy his work briefly. Other poets add to this narrative and konkretion should be read with a mind open to meeting old favourites and new ones – to reassessing one’s youthful passions with the slower pleasures of increasing age.
That Campbell’s poetics walk hand in hand with politics provides a binary between the familiar and the new, the cruel and the creative, politics and art – and the differences and similarities between them which challenge and destabilize the reader, while kindling understanding and offering them much to think about.
It is easy for a contemporary reader to believe that terrorism began on September 11. Our news seems to encourage this view, so Campbell’s younger readers might be surprised to know just how potent – and romantic – the narrative of protest was in the 1960s and 1970s. Protest about the Vietnam war or the bourgeois establishment which spawned the Paris revolution of 1968 and the student protest movements in the USA, Europe and Australia, had a darker side in the terrorist activities of groups such as the Red Army Faction. It’s hard to imagine the sheer determination and commitment of groups such as the IRA, the Red Brigade, and the RAF who were responsible for bombings and assassinations in a range of cities. At that time visiting a shop or bar in any English or European city could be fraught with danger. Campbell takes the reader back to those anxious times by locating the reflective Piquet in a place where a great deal happened in art, politics, philosophy. But Piquet is now an older woman as she walks around Paris, but despite this her present is immediate, poetic, clever and perplexing – and the reader walks with her, dipping in and out of a troubled past.
Konkretion is a complex examination of these ideas – it’s very much of its times but also very much of now.
CATHERINE COLE is a novelist, poet and critic and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong.
by Michael Brennan
Reviewed by TAMRYN BENNETT
‘The world was already the world and we were looking for ourselves’
~ Michael Brennan
It is possible to comb Michael Brennan’s most recent collection for clues connecting it to the triptych the author alluded to in notes on Unanimous Night. Or to search the pages for traces of introspective revelations of self, other and culture suggested by the title Autoethnographic. However, it seems that in his third collection, Brennan uses the mirror as a means to observe the self-refracted in the murky Petri dish of modernity.
Regardless of the ‘selves’ we read through, Autoethnographic holds a lens to human fault lines, inviting us to view fissures and failings in fluorescent detail. Entwining peripheral narratives and a scientific precision not encountered in Brennan’s previous collections, Autoethnographic presents emptiness, longing and memory loss under a microscope. From Alibi Wednesday’s arrival to ‘The Great Forgetting’, these poems examine the difficulties of authenticity in the ‘ready-made’ age of ruin and capital.
Brennan’s opening quote, borrowed from Edward Sapir, elucidates the importance of language in shaping social interactions; ‘Human beings do not live in the objective world alone […] but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society’. Through language we are labelled, recorded, lied to, studied and lost. Simultaneously escapist and sensitive, Brennan’s language exquisitely renders the flux, cracks and decaying states of language in an inflated world of indexed happiness, HTML, and coded collapse. Re-contextualised and dismantled, the words that linger on the ‘Chinese fortune-teller’s wet lips’ in Brennan’s ‘After the circus’ are the same as those that fall like crumbs from the sweet old fool’s mouth in ‘Symbiosis’. Beneath the thin shell of social constructs, Brennan exposes the bones upon which our narratives are built. The same bones we veil with syntax and fragmentary sketches of drifters, desperados and circus tents.
Enter Autoethnograpic’s cast of transient characters: the fugitive Alibi Wednesday, Georgia on the run, ‘Noah in love’, and the hapless Jumbo hammering his way into the sky. These figures are connected by a continual search and inarticulate sense of loss. They represent the spectrum of existent possibilities, albeit a localised and somewhat suburban gamut, with each of their episodes offering a window into life after the ‘Great Forgetting’. Introduced in the poem ‘Team spirit’, the ‘Great Forgetting’ is a recurring metaphor for unfathomable acts of war, corruption and injustice that have been bled from consciousness by a kind of collective amnesia.
Before the Great Forgetting set in,
I’m sure I was happy and all of this was different,
but soon the money-lenders will be at the door
again, and we don’t even have a biscuit to bribe
their baboons. Oh Lord, Lord, I’m so afraid.’
This poem, like many within the collection is part confession, part social portrait. Comparing the scene to the ashen piles of Pompeii, it recalls a time before the propaganda confetti settled and the reality of ‘the grand scale’ turned grey. Beneath the self-reflexive front, ‘Team spirit’ exposes mass concerns of confusion. After the hope and hysteria, the past and present are hyperlinked in a continual loop of uncertainty. Again in ‘Unwilling’, the black-market aftermath of the ‘Great Forgetting’ unfolds in a subtle commentary on uncritical compliance.
After the Great Forgetting, the city fell. All the
political prisoners were released as no one knew
who they were, let alone whose. The trade in
organs and body parts abounded, not all of it
The same historical haze and deep sleep that fuels the ‘Great Forgetting’ in ‘Unwilling’ also pervades ‘Sidereal days’, ‘Wilful blindness’, ‘A philosophy of freedom’ and the title poem ‘Autoethnographic’. In each of these, and indeed throughout the collection, the sounds of sirens, static and six-car pile-ups provoke a sense of hallucinatory, lucid dreaming. It is a dream shared by Brennan’s characters as they salvage memories, speak with the dead, and piece together past lives and future selves. An unending dream or series of episodes that glimpse what’s to come and what can never be again. These observational ‘meta-sodes’ reveal that even before the Great Forgetting, the collective conscious was divided and distracted by hedonistic headlines.
To date, reviews of Autoethnographic have often focused on Brennan’s dystopian requiems and the contemporary resignation to cultural collapse (Kenneally, 2012). Yet it is precisely this climate of dysfunction that enables his crew of deviant escapists and the surreal scenes of ‘After the circus’, ‘The Milonguero’, ‘Last exit to human’ or ‘Jumbo and the happy abyss’ that are arguably the strength of this collection.
Jumbo and the happy abyss
He’s ripped-up the roof tiles and lays them
out, each one a step, a little red chipped tongue,
he tiptoes up. He’s pulling himself up by his
bootstraps. Impossible dancer. I wonder when
the council will get here and tell him to pull it down,
with their ordinance and physics and if he’ll get
finished before then, and clamber into the sky like
Jumbo’s improbable staircase is the eternal symbol of hope. As unstable as the Kenneally twins’ dreams ‘built out of horse glue, some piping and slippers’, the staircase is an escape, an attempt to defy the rules of reality and of gravity. In this way, Brennan’s poems open portals into possibility, scaffolding delusions of the grandest scale in the wake of loss. Towards the end of the collection, in ‘World already’, escape is finally realised with the line ‘an uncle ascending into cirrus’. This ontological description of dispersion hints at the essential transformation we all undertake in returning to matter.
If pressed to find fault with Autoethnographic, it is that the poignancy Brennan’s observations are, at times, undercut by predicable lineation and prosaic page composition. Still, his observations are acutely detailed, engaging and sanguine. From solar flares to snowflake details, desert expanses or the renaming of everything in ‘Countless times’, Autoethnographic showcases the voice and vision of a poet who has surely hit his stride, a poet examining existence as a means of understanding our place within it.
References: Peter Kenneally, 2012, ‘Michael Brennan: Autoethnographic’, Australian Book Review.
DR TAMRYN BENNETT is a writer and visual artist. Since 2004 she has exhibited artists books, illustrations and comics poetry in Sydney, Melbourne, Switzerland and Mexico. Her poetry, illustrations and essays have appeared in Five Bells, Nth Degree, Mascara Literary Review, THEthe Poetry, and English in Australia. She currently works as Education Manager for The Red Room Company. tamrynbennett.com
Straws, Sticks, Bricks
by Cyril Wong
Math Paper Press
Reviewed by AMOS TOH
I first discovered Cyril Wong’s poetry at the same time I was introduced to his music, during the launch of his fifth collection of poems, Like A Seed With Its Singular Purpose, in 2006. Perched on a table in the middle of a crowded bar, Wong sang ‘Practical Aim’:
“Does solitude offer strength over time, or
is denial of it the only practical aim?
After deep loss, what does the heart
learn that it has not already understood
about regret? When all light finally
forsakes a room, do we take the time
to interrogate the dark, and to what end?”
Wong’s robust countertenor typically commands attention, capable of reducing the room to a stunned silence. This time, however, his voice conveyed the tentative, questioning wonder of a poet recently set free from conventional assumptions about solitude, loss and regret. Both in song and in writing, the questions of ‘Practical Aim’ are articulated with haunting irony, daring us – himself – to embark on a journey of unflinching self-discovery.
This coupling of music and poetry continues throughout his most recent work. Oneiros, for example, is a paean to the lush sounds of nature, providing solace from the alluring static of a city crammed with messages about how we should behave and who we should become. His latest collection, Straws, Sticks, Bricks, answers the lyrical call of ‘Practical Aim’ more abstractly, taking time to “interrogate the dark” when humanity is finally stripped of its pretenses. His findings are presented as a series of prose poems arranged like piano scales, words sliding up and down the slopes of memory, lust and desire.
Wong’s poems impart the appearance of strict form, recalling the painstaking discipline of fingering. Each poem consists of a single sentence, broken up only by the brief, incomplete pause of a dash, comma or semi-colon. This semblance of structure belies the tumult of Wong’s observations and stories. Take, for example, his word portrait of a bowl of apples, which buzz with thoughts of envy, resentment and disdain:
“the apples sometimes wish they were more than themselves; they have heard of apples larger than themselves; apples deny any relationship to pears; the apples wonder if it is true, that green apples exist; the apples riot in the dark, but cannot win; still, they try …”
The unbroken phrasing conveys the cramped space the apples inhabit, as well as the fog of discontentment that descends upon the “bowl’s bright rim”. If one replaced the sullen, silent masses that file into Raffles Place (the central business district of Singapore) every morning with Wong’s apples, it would be hard to tell the difference.
More direct references to life’s dissatisfactions also thrive on this tension between form and substance. In ‘Notes From A Religious Mind’, the one-sentence structure buckles under the strain of an internal battle to reconcile righteousness with self-righteousness, eventually giving way to unbridled arrogance:
“Holier; infinitely more blessed and moral; more beautiful, by default (notice my inner glow); enlightened; modest; assured … countless followers, so many more, and with even more to come; more influential and so powerful; and more right, unsurprisingly, than you.”
Such dissonance is again evident in Wong’s treatment of pop culture, which he views as just another religion of relentless self-justification. The feel-good truisms of pop’s biggest hits become portholes into an alternate universe where life’s tragedies and imperfections are laid bare for all to see. ‘Teenage Dream’, Katy Perry’s anodyne hit single about star-crossed lovers, provides Wong an opening to explore the cracks that begin to form after the infatuation fades. All seems fine at first, but “an arm … lifted too suddenly” or “a deliberately stern word at the wrong time” hints at a relationship that has begun “pouring sideways”.
Teenage lovers yield the stage to a pair of strangers uncoiling from their lust in ‘Born This Way’. While Lady Gaga’s anthem of self-affirmation papers over the complications of gay identity, Wong’s rendition brings them to the fore in vivid, almost grotesque detail. The aftermath of a one night stand takes a weirdly compelling turn after one stranger asks the other to “take a picture of him against the pale orange glow creeping in from the living room”. The impromptu photo shoot that follows captures the desolation of both the photographer and the photographed. The photographer does not want his subject to “look mad and ugly and alone”, but the latter still comes across as a “steroid-junkie corpse-bride” anyway. The garishness of it all “almost makes me want to hug him”, but the “stink of poppers mixed with a whiff of fresh blood dancing down his legs stops me from reaching forward and making no difference in the end.” Every frame of their loveless dalliance is vaguely comedic but also heart wrenching, balanced on the knife’s edge between farce and tragedy.
Wong’s poems are steeped in despair, but they also find redemption in the most unexpected places. The last poem of the collection, ‘Zero Hour’, revels in a universe of one, where the “tremendous weight” of loneliness and time is no longer a pressing reality but a fading memory. “You”, the reader, are dropped into an empty house deep in a rainforest, in the middle of nowhere and everywhere. At first, the solitude is “unbearable”, but you slowly learn to “sit for hours on the porch”, eventually “letting words go” as “what they fai[l] to capture beg[ins], at last, to take over”. Some would call this enlightenment, but Wong resists the glib certainties of language, implying what is achieved by examining the inability to describe it.
The uncertainty of our existence is the lifeblood of Straws, Sticks, Bricks; a void Wong discovers to be “an invitation to everything, the door to unending creation.” (‘Matins’) His poems are not an indictment of our deepest fears (be it death, loneliness or fear itself), but the lengths we would go to escape them. In trying to find The Way, we have lost our way. Why not take time instead to “interrogate the dark”, for no particular purpose and with no expectation of answers? As we rediscover our sense of wonder, fear might no longer become us. Perhaps that in itself is a ‘practical aim’.
AMOS TOH is a part time New Yorker and a full time Singaporean.
Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published five collections of poetry, most recently Apocrypha (2009). He received the Queensland Premier’s Award for poetry in 2010 and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His latest collection Towns in the Great Desert is being published in 2013.
His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.
I saw her there, sitting on the narrow ledge outside the window of the upstairs bedroom, my other sister, so pale and thin, the bones almost puncturing her skin. I could tell she was getting ready to fly, that slight rocking of her body, her closed eyes feeling their way towards the air she wanted to float in like someone terrified of water reciting a mantra before slipping off the side of the pool into that blue wide expanse. My other unnamed sister, my lost double, in the thirteenth year of her death.
* * *
For many months one year we lived in the capital. I remember the sculptured layers of a park that by gradual degrees raised itself above a boulevard, stretching away from a harbourside marina. The pavements were like Paris or New York with many tall buildings from the 1920’s and 1900’s but it was as if someone had taken a huge mallet to every pavement and building and pounded cracks into them. It looked like a New York or Paris systematically dinted so everyone would know it had only ever been a replica, of no real value in itself. People dressed in warm rich clothes and paraded en famille along these shattered sidewalks, somehow not taking in that everything was dust and weeds and gaping holes. Everywhere was plastered in billboards of ski resorts, exotic waterfalls, extravagant furs and jewelry, and in the fountain at the centre of the park was a small flotilla of coffins. Around a monument were men dressed like soldiers from the revolutionary war of the 1780’s and on the hillside children attached to kites would take off into the skies. I remember there was a small hotel where we stayed one night – when I fell asleep it was on one side of the boulevard and, when I woke the next morning, it was on the other side. There was a yacht owned by the British royal family tied to a tumbledown wharf and if you walked across the gangplank you entered another country.
* * *
We were living in a place where the past was so strong the present could never really take hold. There was a bookshop that had no books, that had shelves and bookcases lined with names written on small cards indicating where books had once been. There was a museum of the famous leaders and writers and poets and artists of the country but it consisted only of plaques where their manuscripts or paintings or sculptures had once been. In the district of painted buildings there was an immense spiral staircase made of ornately carved ironwork that went down through all the layers of a building that was no longer there. On one street corner a woman who could read fortunes was collecting money so that one day she could buy a Tarot pack. All these things were true of this city, along with the absolute conviction among its inhabitants that nowhere else on earth could match its brilliance or in any way equal its accomplishments. When the last of his business ventures failed, my father hurried us back to our place in the remote provinces.
* * *
When I look into the face of the clear ones I look into the face of the sky. Tonight an indistinct lightning is there, like the barely perceptible quivering of a wounded eye. Slowly it circles the platform where I am sleeping driven out of the house by midsummer heat. This is the season of exposure and withdrawal. Simultaneously what is given is concealed. A wave breaks and travels far into the future, into eons when humans are no longer here. The ear picks up a faint crumbling at the edge of perception. You leave the balcony, turn left, up the stairs, waiting for someone to arrive, above the door an oval mirror, then at once you are a blaze of space.
* * *
Curled up on the floor a brown leaf that is really a moth – a moth returning to its state as wood that one day would return to its state as stone. Soon the table would rise off the balcony and the small room of light would be inscribed in the darkness a little way above the forest. Something had gone wrong, that was all I knew. Faces detached themselves from other faces. My fearful double chin was dripping blood: first small droplets, then a steady river flowing down to soak a tribe of ants on the floor. The twin shadows I knew by the names of guilt and regret were sitting in opposite corners of the room, their closed eyes seeing everything.
* * *
What the field before me held were various bells sounding at different pitches. They hung from the edges of leaves. A leaf would convulse then stop and somewhere some distance from the first leaf a second leaf would convulse. This happened for several minutes across the overgrown orchard with its tangled hedge. The leaves were infected by some kind of nervous tic, a spasming they could no longer control, but it was not general, not all the leaves. They preserved a randomness that made it clear they were just like us, feeling themselves to be individuals yet dominated by inexplicable compulsions.
* * *
On a day missing from the calendar there is an hour when breathing stops, when the breath is no longer needed but every person will continue across this hour, unaware of its passage. Ants, butterflies, moths and various insects observe people and tamed animals in this hour moving doggedly on with no breath inhaled. It is a moment ordained for every other life form to experience the free creativity of uninterpreted speech. Ants vibrate, worms and caterpillars intone subtle melodies, cockroaches lay bare their dark philosophy. On this day that slips away from human calendars the mosquito and the wasp frame their own elaborate histories. Later humans will breathe in again, unaware of the hiatus, will again insist on their uniqueness, their interminable chant of naming and possessing. In the corner where no light penetrates, the book of beginnings has gained another page.
* * *
One day my father and mother took us to a wedding in a distant city. For two days we traveled by train to reach there, having to change between different lines several times. The wedding took place in the main cathedral and later the reception was held in an old colonial house in a steep and jagged part of the city nestled high in the cordillera known as “the Cinnamon Zone”. The house was built round a central patio, an ornate garden with a pond and fountain. The library contained not only the works of the great poets and novelists of many languages but also a sound archive of recordings of every poet who had passed through our country and whose fame or agreed-on merit was considered worth preserving. Surreptitiously I slipped away from my family to rest inside this library. After a while a small woman emerged from under a writing table and identified herself as “the witch” – she could tell fortunes and read off the secret poems inscribed in the palm of the hands or on the surfaces of all old and time-creased objects. These powers, or “toxic gifts” as she called them, had come to her, she told me, in the months after her son had disappeared – her husband was related to a powerful crime lord and someone had stolen her son as revenge for the murder of their family. “This wedding is doomed”, she said. “She will beg the Pope to excommunicate her husband and annul the marriage but the President of the Republic is a master of black art and will blind the church to the truth.” I asked her if she knew my fate. “It is not good to know”, she replied, “it is never good to know. The time when it will be time is always not that far.”
* * *
A season that would last many years was preparing itself. There were people under the floorboards who were growing wolves’ teeth and learning to fly in the dark caverns that stretch beneath our country. Those with the precise eyesight for dividing the human body into gristle and sellable commodities. Adept connoisseurs in the pillaging of corpses. Their righteousness would take many years to reach its zenith. It was to be a time with no moon or sun when dismemberment would go on openly, boastingly, for more than a decade. Already under the floorboards they were assembling the racks.
Surely father could hear this and was taking steps. Surely mother could hear it and had alerted someone. Frozen I listened. Frozen I held it tight inside myself. It was the shadow of a smile in the rust-green pond I was walking down into. It was a distant ringing in the small curve of my belly, a miniature alarm clock I had no words for, the whispering of a nightmare even before sleep has enfolded you.
* * *
They were racing to fortify the borders though no one knew what to put in, what to leave out. Should this tree be in or out? This river, this tangled passionfruit vine? Just as unclear was where to place the barriers of time – only what belonged to last year or twenty years back or a hundred? Should parents be included or only older brothers and sisters? Outside the borders would be everything we would have to abandon and agree to call “enemy” – clipped fingernails, toys from Christmases that couldn’t be imitated any more, doubles of ourselves we had chatted to so many times in vivid, impossibly complicated, waking dreams, a friendly shoulder bouncing a ball in a park that had towered over the most difficult year of childhood, a presence that with every casual flick of the expert wrist said, “One day you can be me”. And now frantically we were hunting for cardboard boxes, balls of string, spiked wire, the hoarded stash of dumdum shells, swirling laser images of crucified men and women that could stand guard over the frontier, could set the barrier, for once and all, between what we would be from now on and what would be pushed aside into the never more to be mentioned non-land of loss.
* * *
At the conference in the provincial capital each speaker was invited to give their opinions on snow. Voices shifted in a room while enormous clusters of ice crashed against the pavement outside. The white city of smashed windows began to spill an almost invisible red thread. The daze in the eyes of a man going blind snowed over and the quiet world waited. It was for him in one breath the centre of a new unexpectedly luminous world.
White lines flicker like wasps buzzing all around the threaded knots of a grape vine. Petals of whiteness float down around him. Let him die outdoors. And another butterfly settles on his eyelids – from one ear faintly now he hears the purr and slash of an earthmover tearing up the soil, uprooting the trees that held life together. In the other ear a garden fountain goes on letting water trickle down a slope of rocks – water landing in droplets on water. The sudden brightness of snow falling inside him. Before him the wasp doing acrobatics, tumbling from leaf to leaf on the vine. Even with the explosions from the neighbouring yard, the thud of subterranean shelves collapsing, he felt the snow guiding him, the reversal of white and black bringing him to the entrance, this narrow, infinitely open present.
* * *
And Solomon in his whirlwind said
You were a flowering tree.
You were broken donkey and stricken wolf.
You were the one awaited and the one lost.
You were Adam and the one torn to shreds by beasts.
You were the brick and the entire gleaming wall rinsed in daybreak.
You were atoms of air and a dream held between bones.
You were the ship.
You were the child who says ‘the ship’.
You were the selfish one and the sustainer.
You were the page, the empty whiteness, the dizziness of swarming words.
You were the eyes of a frog repeating itself all through the long wet night.
You were the lover, the blind man and the grave where flowers will grow.
You were raven and owl, the white carcass of a mouse under the scrabble of branches.
You were the plum tree and the fly.
You were the stone in the road, the space where the breath leaves.
You were Angela and Adam and the voice in the trees where the rain falls all night.
You were giver and given, poison and gift.
You were signs in the sky of the ending and someone’s hope.
* * *
Who comes through the forest?
The bear whose eyes guide him,
who moves in the echoing dark.
The shadow that moves behind him,
the lightning flash that steals the soul.
* * *
In the season of invasions it is not only the mice and spiders and wasps settling into the hallway. Dark pain moves into the chest, the skid of twenty years regret slips in through the soles of the feet. Soldiers of unknown countries take up positions on the street corners and you can’t always be invisible. This is the cold season when mist comes in off the sea and damp creeps under your fingernails. You can see children pressing bread to their faces to stay warm. Worst of all are the anger plants sending up twisted creepers through the soil, through the foundations of houses and countless pinpoints on the body’s skin to produce that dizzy nausea of destructiveness, wild barbs flung at children and partners. Of this season they say “Everyone carries a torturer within them.”
* * *
The rain steadily went on falling into itself: gathering like the round husks of lemons and, when light settled on the tiles, so much fullness brimmed over my eyes hurt with the shimmer. Pink and red and violet flowers snarled or whimpered or dozed with brief twitches under the assault of rain. It happened in the two weeks before what should have been the pepper harvest, this season they call “death through abundance”.
* * *
The whiteness of trees just before sunset with late birds scattering in noisy batches, parrots, Indian mynahs, a raven, some magpies and, come far too early, imposingly out of place as it perches on a low branch in a neighbour’s yard, a powerful owl, the Duke of owls, holding the world in its gaze with no flicker of movement, no sound. And darkness grows around it, the bougainvillea gather a deeper red, night seems to emanate from the leaves and flowers and the black earth, keeping the stars at bay.
The Duke of owls with two misshapen eyes, a card player who owns all the decks gazing into the emptiness of chance.
* * *
All at once
I come into the wood of the tree,
under flaking bark
the white core of hardness
where everything soars into a flash of eyes
lifted up by light,
ripped to where leaves are hanging in blue greyness
and wind and sky
set everything trembling.
Beyond all terror
I am scattered among fieldmice,
exploded like dewdrops
on leaf mulch, stone and sawn-off tree stump.
And around me
the voices that half whisper,
half chant, “little sister,
daughter of the daughters of our murderers,
our million ghosts,
your million ghosts,
are all here, right here,
breath of the wind inside you.
No one altogether dies.”
* * *
In moonlight tainted by clouds something exquisite shimmers – a broken tin fence, a haze of whiteness?
Midnight on all the drowned clocks. From inside its cold halo an owl beckons: home.
by Brook Emery
John Leonard Press
Reviewed by SUSAN FEALY
Collusion by Brook Emery explores Daniel Delfoe’s question ‘is it better to be here or there?’ while imparting the experience of being consequent to living inside the question. We enter a deeply reflective, largely solitary world where uncertainty and complexity are paradoxically shaped by quiet balance, precision and dailiness.
The meditative flow of the collection is enhanced by the bold decision to present all poems as untitled, thus removing titles from prior published poems and poems which short-listed in the Blake Poetry Prize 2009 and 2010.
Regular stanza structure within poems, many long-lined poems and most poems being at least page-length further enhance its meditative, modulated quality. The first lines of the ten-line poems begin with an ellipsis, are indented towards the right margin and lines are often enjambed; all emphasise flow. Their compressed energy adds tonal range rather than rupture. The collection is book-ended with a poem of long-lined couplets followed by two short single-stanza poems creating a symmetry that accentuates this collection’s balance and precision.
Emery often combines metaphysical enquiry with images of urban coastline and its weather. The poems addressed to ‘K’ suggest a clear intent to communicate to another and this avoids the risk of solipsism. Yet, this is the poetry of thought and the sense of a solitary self prevails: the mysterious K does not speak back. He or she seems a real or imagined correspondent remote in time and space but may also represent an attempt to reach beyond the everyday self into the poetic self that gives utterance because K is described as ‘my interlocutor, my conscience, my will’.
The internal rhymes are subtle and nuance the pairing of here and there. At times we find sound play in poems such as ‘The half-awake world’ where ‘gloved sounds’ ‘tap the ear – bird-call, leaf-slide, door-creak, door-slam’, but, overall, word music is so effortlessly yoked to meaning, visual and kinaesthetic sensations imprint the mind of the reader more forcefully than the sonic. Sound, when evoked, is rarely the worded voice of another: it is that of machines, white noise, bird call or unworded human sounds.
Silence is the medium of thought so it is no surprise that silence itself is assayed:
Waking at night, silence has the colour
that is all colours, or none at all. …
nothing mattered except the need to sleep,
to inhabit silence. Now silence is an alien state
and I am on its rim, sensing rather than seeing
something for which I can’t conceive a name.
(‘Waking at night, silence has the colour’)
Sound as a strange undertow to silence is evoked in a poem about overseeing a schoolgirls’ exam in ‘Perhaps the first thing I notice’:
Something about the silence is amiss. Yes, every cough or
crack or scraping of a chair is startling, but beneath it all I
hear a low collective hum as though, unorchestrated, every
throat is growling.
Movement is a key motif: we find uncertainty and its flux, indecisiveness and its back and forward movement, expansive flow of thought, the reach of desire, movement of body, breath, water, light, transport, weather and time. A strength of the collection is the way that these elements intersect with each other to create momentary collusions which dissolve and reconfigure. This leads to inventive metaphors where natural phenomena are perceived as thought: ‘dusk as uncertain premise, premonition which cannot last/much longer’, (‘After the lassitudes of blue’).
In the surreal poem ‘You’ve been waiting for something like’, the strange paradox of the dream-world that allows travel which is everywhere and yet nowhere is evoked:
you’re stalled at the border surrendering a passport that’s
borrowed, a face which is mugging,
‘I’m not. . .’ but you are, there’s a sea in your mouth and sea
in your head, the words rushing out won’t listen to will or
and you’re nowhere specific, just pandering with monkeys
in parakeet clothes, angels in uniforms with heat on their
The beauty of the natural world colludes with the poet’s ease and the time when ‘light cuts loose the day’ to provoke the imagined unrooting of a jacaranda in the thirteen- line poem ‘In the hour or so before night’s certain fall’. Reprieve from the persecution of the spectator and rational self is found in the liminal (between here and there) and it is often when evoking the liminal that Emery’s poems are the most lyrically beautiful:
… The jacaranda
against the church’s mortared, crumbling mass,
mauve and stunning and substantial as it is –
all indirect flowering of twists and turns –
seems uncontained as though at any moment
it might escape the rooted, understandable restraints
of space and time and float away as weightless
as a dandelion on the emerging evening breeze.
Escaping the limitations of self is explored in ‘You know the way’. Body experience and the fecundity of words are accorded equal weight and measure as means of escape, and in the flow of thought, they seem implicated with each other. Whether intended or not, it seems that long-line couplets sometimes reach beyond the limits of the page and spill into tercets:
… I think of a dancer’s grace as she glides into the
air, or the diver’s equal grace gliding towards the sea: the
body in defiance of its limitations.
going through, beyond. Graceful, gracious, gracile, words that
multiply and spread like flowering vine. Grace notes of
unbelief that still restore the faith.
In ‘Gloom off to the west’, Emery’s meticulous account of the interplay of mind and body experience while cycling into an approaching storm, reaches an unusual crescendo of exhalation not unlike Plath’s ‘Ariel’ as body propulsion collides with an intense encounter with the elements and the landscape. It takes him beyond the spectating self who follows fast behind. Unlike Plath, the urgency of here is created with reference to there:
it’s possible to see rain stiffen into spears and, more fancifully,
coalesce into a solid-seeming wall.
I race towards it expecting in some unlikely way to escape the
unrelenting clutch of earth. I’m mad, you say?
How so? Light splits the clouds in silver streaks, trees leap to cheer
me on, clap their soft green hands in wild excitement,
and the future is an endlessness of blue. On the road behind me, a
ghost bike takes up the chase. It’s closing fast.
This poem is balanced by others where body experience conveys states of psychic unease such as the pain of being out of tune with oneself that is found in ‘It comes from over there’:
Speak. Get it off your chest. The three blankets too warm
throughout the night, the dry bed of your mouth when you
got up to pee. This is not what you wanted to say. What
was the something else?
A movement towards and away from intimacy seems propelled by a legacy of pain in ‘Contested ground, this strange persistent beauty’:
co-incidental thing, skin my border, coming into contact
with other skin which touches and retreats,
touches and retreats, flinches at the little slights,
the acts of spite and meanness, the ancient sin of pride,
guilt which eats way. Imagine my love,
an outbreak of silence, and how the respite of ‘now’
would be hounded by ‘once’, ‘soon’, ‘again’.
When lovers do consummate desire in the surreal, filmic poem
‘In the background there is the music’ it is stalked by the menace
of its consequences:
…We turn and run to where we’ve been
but dark-suited men step round a corner and advance towards us.
We stop again. Look for a passageway to the left, the damaged door
we can shoulder open. This time it won’t budge. This time…
Poems which celebrate the movement of mind are often the most confident, playful, the most saturated in light or colour, the most inhabited by the natural world and least likely to reach into the overly discursive. However, in typical Emery fashion these poems are not only celebration of mind; they concisely articulate the metaphysical.
For example, in ‘Dear K, it’s light that makes the river flow’, the enquiry into how we know what we know has a propulsion and ease because uncertainty and flux are embraced as process with tantalising potential. The welcome possibility that mind and that which it observes could commune with each other in pre-thought seems to kindle energy and optimism: ‘I like the / dancing light, / the scattered cloud, the river that lies potentially between its banks, / the speeding train. I reach for them. They reach for me’.
Yet, the rational mind’s subverting of potential and spontaneity is seen as a kind of curse in ‘The half-awake world in the half-light’:
A curse on dithering, weighing up and second-guessing,
ordering the accounts, the sad debilitating song, what if,
In the poem, ‘It’s when the plane takes off’, the intellectual investigation into memory, especially memory of the poet’s past inexplicable actions, seems weakened by too many discursive lines. The potential of this poem seems to lie in the power and feeling of the personal narratives. The poem carries the seed of several myths about fathers and their children. For example, as a consequence of a decision to take his young twins into the surf, a father confronts how to keep them safe when they are separate from each other and in danger. The act of holding on and letting go, is deftly reprised in the holding and letting go of breath and waves:
When my son popped up from beneath tight-fisted foam
his first words were, ‘I’m alive, I’m alive.’ His twin sister
whom I’d pushed into the face of an earlier wave before I turned
and failed to grab my son – I couldn’t hold him – was paddling now
with a group of surfers three times her size and trying not to cry.
In the moving penultimate poem, ‘…we’re not so unalike’, the possibility of exchange is reached for and envisioned as a connection across a wide distance:
We may slip, misstep, or, not as likely, soar
but let’s maintain this firm, divergent grip:
I can be the tide; you must be the moon.
In the final poem, ‘Rain as it is only brighter’, water’s flow seems more shadowed than the lighter, faster currents of the first poem. The darkness of suffering, the unknown, mortality and the multiple ways the mind can look at what it sees, offers no certainty except process itself. Most of all, rain seems a blessing in its particularity because the poet is alive in the moment to receive it. And so profound simplicity colludes with complexity in a way that is distinctively Emery.
SUSAN FEALY is a Melbourne poet whose work has appeared in Antipodes, Meanjin and Best Australian Poems 2009 and 2010.