Chris Andrews’ latest translation, Melodrome (2018), published here in Australia as part of Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes Series, is a novella by the Argentine science fiction writer, Marcelo Cohen (1951-). The author of 14 novels, 5 story collections, many essays and countless translations, Cohen is already well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. He lived in Spain from 1975 to 1996, during the dictatorship in Argentina, and has been publishing fiction since the early 1980s.
In Melodrome, as in several other fictions written since he returned home, Cohen focuses on an alternative universe, the Panoramic Delta. An archipelago of loosely associated city states, it might be a near-future Argentina or a world remade in the country’s image by neoliberal capitalism and rising sea levels. Rather than improve living standards, technological and social change – including cyborgs, fly cars and a kind of telepathy called pan-consciousness – have universalised Argentina’s early 21st century experience of austerity economics. Cohen’s novella, published in Spanish as Balada (2011), concerns the aftermath of a turbulent affair between a psychoanalyst, Suano Botilecue, and his beautiful, temperamental patient, Lerena Dost. The two rekindle their relationship during a road trip in search of a folk singer-turned cult leader, Dona Munava. It’s an intriguing introduction to an author whose rich oeuvre is still largely unknown in the Anglosphere – but won’t be for long. I corresponded with Chris Andrews by email to learn more.
James Halford (JH): This is the first of your translations of Latin American writers to have been published in Australia. How did it come about?
Chris Andrews (CA): Marcelo Cohen participated in a symposium on literary translation organized by the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University in 2010. I had read some of his fiction and essays before that. Ivor Indyk was one of the organizers of the symposium, so he met Marcelo there. When Balada was published in 2011, Marcelo sent me a copy. I read it and really liked it; I found it haunting. Some years later, in 2016, I think, Ivor was invited to visit Argentina, and met up with Marcelo again. When he came back, he asked me if I would translate Balada for Giramondo, and I said yes. So it came about in a circuitous and rather slow way.
JH: Would it be fair to say Cohen’s work hasn’t yet been widely translated? How did you first encounter his writing and what attracted you to bringing it into English?
CA: I think it’s fair to say that, perhaps because it’s quite tricky to translate, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. I first encountered it in the book of stories La solución parcial (The Partial Solution), which is a kind of selected stories, published in Spain in 2003. Although the stories predate the construction of the Delta Panorámico, they are part of what Cohen calls a “fantastic sociology”: they’re set in a future world where social, political and technological conditions are at least initially unfamiliar to the reader. What attracted me was that within this speculative frame, Cohen was always interested in capturing and transmitting sensations, feelings and emotions.
JH: Cohen has an extensive back catalogue. Why did you choose Melodrome as an introduction to his work?
CA: Well, as I said, I really liked it, and Ivor Indyk is particularly interested in short novels and novellas (he has a series entitled Shorts). That’s an aesthetic interest, but translation is an extra cost in publishing, a cost proportional to length, since translators are paid by the word (or the thousand words), so starting with a short book is financially prudent too.
JH: Cohen often coins neologisms for everyday objects in the Panoramic Delta – cronodión for clock which you translate as chronodeon; farphonito for mobile phone, which you translate as farfonette. What was your approach to finding English equivalents?
CA: Sometimes the objects named by the neologisms are everyday objects or relatives of things that we have and use, as in the examples you cite. And those two words were relatively straightforward to translate, because English has some cognate morphemes that I could use: chrono- for crono-, and -ette for -ito. Far in farphonito is a “translation” of the Greek-derived prefix tele- (“far off”), and I toyed with translating that component into Spanish: Lejofonette. But the result seemed too cumbersome and opaque, so I stuck with far. In other cases, it was more complex, either because the referent was not as easy to place, or because the word itself was not made up of recognizable morphemes, or for both reasons. To take just one example, at one point, Lerena thinks: “She could no doubt have found an even better position in some other company, but she couldn’t see how she would ever disguise her character well enough to stop [ningún binimucho] shrivelling up with fear.” Binimuchos must be fearful, spineless people. One thought I had was that perhaps the word referred to the opposite of a marimacho (butch woman), i.e., an effeminate man. But I wasn’t really convinced by that gendering. In the end, the “equivalent” that I came up with, more or less intuitively, was nambicle, from the adjective namby-pamby plus the diminutive suffix -icle, which we find in the names of various small body parts (testicle, cuticle, clavicle). In forging these new words, I let myself be influenced by the rhythmic context of the sentence and the paragraph, because that’s what Cohen seems to have done when writing.
JH: The translated title doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. How did you arrive at the lovely and resonant: Melodrome?
CA: Credit where it’s due: that’s the invention of Nick Tapper at Giramondo. We were looking for an alternative to Ballad, and Nick came up with Melodrome. He put it out there half playfully, but I liked it straight away, because of how it sounds and because it’s so suggestive of the book’s content. You can analyse it as the combination of two Greek roots: melos, song, and dromos, course. Most appropriate for a road trip in search of a singer. And then the book is a kind of narrative palindrome, because the way there and the way back almost coincide.
JH: Cohen is a formidable and prolific literary translator in his own right, who has produced Spanish versions of writers like J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, William Burroughs and even Henry James. Did you have any contact with him while working on your English version? What was it like translating a translator?
CA: Marcelo sent me a glossary of deltingo, that is, words he has invented for the Delta Panorámico. Many of the invented words in Melodrome are not in the glossary, but it was a real help, and a fascinating document in itself. I also asked him questions when I was approaching the end, and he helped me to clear up some doubts. In one way it’s intimidating to translate such an eminent translator, but in another way it’s reassuring: I knew that he would understand the problems that I was facing.
JH: Roberto Bolaño once said that everything he had written was a love letter or a farewell letter to his own generation. That is, the generation of Latin American writers who were born in the 1950s and had the misfortune of being young during the military dictatorships of the 1970s. César Aira and Marcelo Cohen are also of that generation. What, if anything, do these very distinct writers share?
CA: Stylistically and thematically, they don’t share much at all: each is quite different from the other two. Bolaño and Cohen shared the experience of exile in Catalunya. Bolaño is the only one of the three to have thematized the dictatorships directly, but in that he is representative of his generation, while Cohen and Aira are exceptional. Your question has made me realize something, though: all three are novelists for whom poetry is important, who go to poetry as a space where literary language is reinvented. Bolaño began as a poet (and went on writing poetry up to the last months of his life). Cohen and Aira have both written wonderfully about poetry, Cohen in his book-length essay Un año sin primavera [A Year Without Spring] and Aira in his books on Alejandra Pizarnik and Edward Lear.
JH: Historically, there hasn’t been much direct literary exchange between the Anglophone and Hispanic Souths. Even for those with an interest in Latin American writing and some language competency, it isn’t always easy to keep up to date with the Spanish-language literary scene from Australia. How do you do it?
CA: The internet has made a big difference. I read reviews in a range of places. Otra parte semanal, edited by Marcelo Cohen and Graciela Speranza, is an excellent review site with new content each week: http://revistaotraparte.com/semanal/. Another good source of news, interviews, extracts etc. is the blog published by the bookshop and publishing house Eterna Cadencia: https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog.html
JH: I also like podcasts. There’s a weekly books podcast on Radio Nacional de Argentina called Resaltadores: http://www.radionacional.com.ar/category/resaltadores/, and there’s one called Recital (it’s on the iTunes store), in which a writer chooses and reads a story by another writer: very simple, but the choices are interesting, not the same old names.
And, of course, I ask friends for recommendations.
JH: Your academic work has framed contemporary Latin American fiction as a literary laboratory – a place where experimental forms are tested. What could a deeper engagement with writing from the region offer Australian writing?
CA: I think that deeper engagement with the literary culture of any part of the non-English-speaking world is bound to enrich Australian writing, but in ways that are hard to predict because they will depend on singular encounters. Fans of Alejo Carpentier or José Donoso might hope to see Australian authors enlarging their sense of the plausible, but writers will work with what works for them, and they might be inspired instead by all the patient fieldwork and sharp listening that goes into Leila Guerriero’s narrative non-fiction. There’s no point being prescriptive in this area.
JH: Thanks very much, Chris.
Marcelo Cohen (Buenos Aires, 1951) is a widely respected and highly innovative Argentinian novelist, who has invented a distinctively South American kind of speculative fiction. In an ambitious series of novels and stories he has constructed a future world, the Panoramic Delta, in which he imagines in detail a range of changes beyond those wrought directly by technology: political, cultural and emotional. One of the most agile stylists writing in Spanish today, he is also an internationally renowned translator, critic and editor. An fundamental name in Argentinian literature of the last two decades.’— Fernando Bogado, Radar‘
CHRIS ANDREWS is a leading translator of contemporary Latin American fiction, the author of two poetry collections and a literary critic. He made his name internationally as the first English translator of the Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). His translations of By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004) and Last Evenings on Earth (2006) – published in the wake of the author’s untimely death from liver failure – helped establish Bolaño as the biggest name in Latin American writing since Gabriel García Márquez. Since then, the Australian has been a translator in demand. Over the last fifteen years, he has curated an impressive reading list of Latin American fiction for English-speaking readers, much of published in the USA through New Directions. In addition to ten of Bolaño’s books, most recently the posthumous collection of short stories & ephemera, The Secret of Evil (2014), Andrews has translated nine titles by the prolific and inventive Argentine, César Aira: The Linden Tree (2018), and one by the Guatemalan surrealist, Rodrigo Rey Rosa: Severina (2014).
JAMES HALFORD is a Brisbane writer whose creative work and criticism have been widely published in Australia and abroad. He holds a literature degree and a creative doctorate from the University of Queensland, where he now teaches, and he has studied Spanish in Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. The recipient of a 2016 Copyright Agency/Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellowship, his academic research focuses on contemporary Australian and Latin American literature in transnational reading frameworks. His first book, Requiem with Yellow Butterflies, a Latin American travel memoir, will be published in early 2019 by UWAP.
In Some Ways Dingo
by Melody Paloma
Rabbit Poetry Journal
You called a taxi?
No, we called a garbage truck.
But you’ll have to do the job.
(Jim Jarmusch ‘Night on Earth’)
At the Melbourne launch of In Some Ways Dingo, fellow poet Sian Vate likened Melody Paloma’s debut collection to a road movie and on first reading I agree, a road movie where that endless horizon signifies loss or melancholy. And during the journey the poet acts as a bowerbird collecting urban myths, cult movies, and your pre-loved junk before arranging it all intricately onto the page, courting you to delve further.
As a passenger in Melody Paloma’s taxi you travel through beaches, “through traffic lights in Brunswick” in Melbourne, into cinemas and front yards, observing and collecting, the cab isn’t big enough for you to contain your experiences, a larger receptacle, a garbage truck, is required.
In the morning I make a catalogue
for the front yard of that one house on the street
that’s really fucking things up
in part it includes:
bird of paradise
I think about placing it in their letterbox
not to be facetious
but as a memorial to memorial.
(from ‘Small acts of self-preservation; After the film, 20,000 Days on Earth’)
As you are allured by the bowerbird’s intricate display and delve into the detritus, the collecting and recollection of memories you begin to see a deeper exploration and questioning of the Australian psyche. You travel through the ancient landscape of Australia, a place misshapen by colonial intervention.
I interviewed Melody Paloma about In Some Ways Dingo and her current project, a yearlong writing exercise currently titled “Some Days”. As the poet explains; “I’m definitely interested in memory and nostalgia, as both problems and solutions. I think memory works in a lot of different directions so it makes sense for it to be appearing across my work in different forms; on the one hand we have memorialsation and nostalgia as a colonial problem, the way forgetting is intrinsic to memory, then there is the way Country remembers everything, something that is impossible to erase.”
“Country” playing an important thematic role in this book:
It’s just up past the station
bottom of a cliff
ghost gum across the face, until the Finke.
Empty now/not always:
in the ‘80’s a family huddled in a cave
watched pieces of the station
lift and float away.
(from ‘Tree Index’)
It is not only “country” paying a thematic role here, we also have the native Australian dog. As Melody Paloma explains, when asked about her numerous references to the dingo; “I’m interested in the way settler Australians interpret and represent dingoes. To me, these representations seem to include a range of fixed idea of dingo which mutate according to social determinants. Though different, each are equally colonising for the ways in which they control and distract. The images Australia uses to represent itself on a national and international scale, specifically those images that relate to landscape, flora and fauna, masquerade as soft and palatable but in reality, are actually incredibly violent when we start to dissect the reasons for their construction. Australia is kind of hell-bent on appearing as cute and loveable, a desire ultimately born out of its own white anxiety. Kitsch in relation to animalism is a direct example of this, I’m thinking specifically of the proliferation of big roadside ‘things’ (e.g. the big koala) as well as representations in children’s books (e.g. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill, on which Evelyn Araluen is writing an essay I am keenly awaiting). These examples of kitsch, among others, distract from any real conversation around Australia’s ongoing genocide, simultaneously, they are reductive and attempt to override Indigenous stories of and relationships to native flora and fauna.”
Sparse and vast this collection of twenty-seven poems travels from the coastal, “AMAZING FACTS ABOUT WHALES!” reflecting on the “coast of Esperance”, to “camping in the centre”, “Wolf(e) Creek”, and taking in suburban, “climb up on the roof for a view/of the car park” in “Hyper-reactive”, a long and multi-faceted journey through the vast Australian landscape.
You jump into Melody Paloma’s hire car, slide across the bitumen “until the vibrato of a cattle grid” which shakes you into recognising the deeper ecological and colonial messages at play here. Part of the poem “Special Values and Characteristics” being taken from the “Lake Gardiner National Park Management Plan. Adelaide: Department for Environment and Heritage. 2004” where “cultural values for Aboriginal people” can sit alongside “A geological resource that may have mining potential” and “A regional tourism resource”. A site where at 11am “the guy who runs things in his jocks/winnie blue and a JB”, a “scenic, aesthetic and wilderness” is also “a venue of international-standard for high-speed motor vehicle trials”, where “Special landscape appeal” sits alongside “’how fast can you go?’/record it in miles”.
Throughout there are obvious shifts between extremes, for example the poem “We should help her” juxtaposed against a later poem “We should kill it”, as Melody Paloma explains; “I think extremities are probably important for me, part of my process involves making myself feel uncomfortable. Often poems enact or perform scenes that are problematic, specifically in regards to Australia, the colonial consciousness and whiteness. I want to interrogate how this manifests in a collective sense, historically/socially/politically/economically, but it also needs to be personal as I’m obviously not separate to these problems. I don’t exist outside of them, none of us do. I think in order to make a reader experience discomfort in a way that encourages interrogation you have to experience that first hand through the practice of writing itself, otherwise it dissolves into virtue signalling.”
It is through this interrogation of “Australianess”, by writing about collecting paraphernalia, selfies, images of iconic places, merged with a soundtrack of Kylie, Nick Cave, Taylor Swift, that Melody Paloma creates a rigorous questioning of what it means to live in this country, as she explains; “I’m also interested in the pop culture references and artefacts that we attempt to assimilate and how this affects the ways we interpret and interact with our own history (often in a way that deals in erasure rather than truth-telling). I’m thinking about this also on a technological scale, specifically in terms of the medias we use to talk about and understand place.
The ways in which settlers move through this country are too often done without care, sensitivity or willingness to interrogate. Tourism feeds off this sort of problematic image making I’ve touched on and refuses acknowledgement of any kind of ongoing genocide (to do so would be bad for the brand).”
The ninth collection to appear as part of the Rabbit Poets Series, In Some Ways Dingo opens with the poem “Hyper-reactive” the recipient of the 2014 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging poets. It is a thought-provoking collection where the “once found heinous” will “outlast memory” a reflection on what it is to be Australian.
At the time of writing, “Some Days” runs to thirty-two pages, broken into monthly instalments, containing working notes and social media references, questioning such subjects as Aboriginal deaths in custody and the Myall Creek massacre. However, it is also laced with humour, is “Dannii Minogue in Westfield, shopping for jocks” or “The best of us remain / Bored. / Heavy Bored.” When asked about the rigors involved in a yearlong writing practice, Melody Paloma explains; “My ego sometimes has to block out the idea that anyone can look at it at any point; because I have to add to it each day, there is often some really bad writing up there, and sometimes sections will exist as notes or thoughts before they ‘become poetic’, so to speak. For example, all of the section ‘August’ is at this point just notational. Obviously, I have to remind myself though that all of this is part of the point, that it’s a performance of ‘writerly-ness’ and also ‘readerly-ness’.”
Take in the journey that is In Some Ways Dingo, collect the artefacts on offer, make sure you leave something behind for the travellers that come later, and as you are contemplating your new found treasures, log on to Stale Objects Press and observe where in the nation the bowerbird is currently collecting, there are plenty of riches on offer, you may even find a second hand telescope in a Woolworths carpark. Something you can use to explore beyond your current place.
Maybe I should have likened In Some Ways Dingo to an American style road-movie, not a horizon of melancholy or loss but one where the horizon signifies hope.
Note: This review contains highlights of a more extensive interview with Melody Paloma, below is the full interview:
TM: Dingoes are not simply in the title of your book, they appear from time to time in your recent work too. What is the connection to the native dog?
MP: I’m interested in the way settler Australians interpret and represent dingoes. To me, these representations seem to include a range of fixed ideas of dingo which mutate according to social determinants. Though different, each are equally colonising for the ways in which they control and distract. The images Australia uses to represent itself on a national and international scale, specifically those images that relate to landscape, flora and fauna, masquerade as soft and palatable but in reality, are actually incredibly violent when we start to dissect the reasons for their construction. Australia is kind of hell-bent on appearing as cute and loveable, a desire ultimately born out of its own white anxiety. Kitsch in relation to animalism is a direct example of this, I’m thinking specifically of the proliferation of big roadside ‘things’ (e.g. the big koala) as well as representations in children’s books (e.g. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill, on which Evelyn Araluen is writing an essay I am keenly awaiting). These examples of kitsch, among others, distract from any real conversation around Australia’s ongoing genocide, simultaneously, they are reductive and attempt to override Indigenous stories of and relationships to native flora and fauna.
The thing about dingoes is that kitsch hasn’t really worked, there’s this real confusion for settlers about what a dingo actually is, the result of which is that we’ve had to keep recreating images of dingo that aren’t necessarily cute but still serve to control. There are three particularly ingrained representations of dingo that I’m interested in: the mythic graceful dingo (the dingo that is heard and not seen with which human encounters are brief and scarce), the dingo as murderous beast (fortified by the Lindy Chamberlain case), and the dingo as pest (enforced by the ultimate sign, The Dingo Fence). I think part of the reason why the Chamberlain case was maintained by such hype and continues to be so insidious is because it threw into question our idea of dingo, the colonial consciousness didn’t want to let go of the mythic graceful dingo that it had worked hard to establish, so the result was frenzy. However, rather than interrogate this, we created a new image – dingo as murderer, the dingo that should be eradicated. Of course, this also fits nicely with the other image of dingo as pest. None of these images of dingo actually touch on the reality of dingo. Settlers only ever access part of the thing. It’s not the actual dingo that is in some ways, but the images we use to represent it.
TM: Memory, nostalgia, appears intermittently in your work (for example, “place a tick next to those that will / outlast memory” and “This brown, deeper than soil, / not a colour we remember”), this seems counterintuitive to a yearlong poetry practice that we can “witness being written”. Does reflection play an important role in your work?
MP: I’m definitely interested in memory and nostalgia, as both problems and solutions. I think memory works in a lot of different directions so it makes sense for it to be appearing across my work in different forms; on the one hand we have memorialisation and nostalgia as a colonial problem, the way forgetting is intrinsic to memory, then there is the way Country remembers everything, something that is impossible to erase. There’s also personal memory and psychoanalytic interpretations of and interactions with the poem, specifically the way the poem has the capacity to hide or bury memories. The latter is something I am finding I’m engaging with in Some Days, rather than attempting to set it up as a work that is consciously diarising or confessing.
TM: In Some Ways Dingo shifts between extremes, for example “We should help her” juxtaposed against “We should kill it”, are there any boundaries in your poetic practice?
MP: I think extremities are probably important for me, part of my process involves making myself feel uncomfortable. Often poems enact or perform scenes that are problematic, specifically in regards to Australia, the colonial consciousness and whiteness. I want to interrogate how this manifests in a collective sense, historically/socially/politically/economically, but it also needs to be personal as I’m obviously not separate to these problems. I don’t exist outside of them, none of us do. I think in order to make a reader experience discomfort in a way that encourages interrogation you have to experience that first-hand through the practice of writing itself, otherwise it dissolves into virtue signalling.
TM: As a frequent visitor to central Australia I was personally attached to several of your poems recalling that region. I get the feeling your work looks inwards for cultural references, rather than outwards from the shore. Is that a fair assessment?
MP: That is a fair assessment, but I’m also very interested in the ways Australia enters an international conversation, specifically how it performs its Australian-ness. This relates specifically to some of what I was saying before about image production, but I’m also interested in the pop culture references and artefacts that we attempt to assimilate and how this affects the ways we interpret and interact with our own history (often in a way that deals in erasure rather than truth telling). I’m thinking about this also on a technological scale, specifically in terms of the media that we use to talk about and understand place.
The ways in which settlers move through this country are too often done without care, sensitivity or willingness to interrogate that movement. Tourism feeds off this sort of problematic image-making I’ve touched on and refuses acknowledgement of any kind of ongoing genocide (to do so would be bad for the brand).
TM: How are you finding the rigorous approach required for “Some Days”? Will you be spent once the project concludes?
MP: To be honest I am really struggling with it at the moment, not so much having to add to it every day, but that it’s public. Part of the initial point of the work was that I did want to play with this idea of endurance, and tap into some things I was thinking through about ‘work’ more broadly. I also just wanted to see if I was capable of actually doing it. But now there’s this struggle that’s going on where it’s like, having to add to the work each day in a way that feels ‘complete’ is kind of feeding ideas of capitalism and ‘progress’ that I actually wanted to subvert. Where I was generally adding at least a line each day, and breaking the work up into months, I’ve started trying to free up the work a bit, it’s become more notational and scrappier, more process like I guess. But that’s also incredibly exposing, to allow people to see your work in that state of process.
I’m trying to push against the capitalist impulse for progress, for ‘completeness’, I don’t want neoliberal ideals to infect the way I approach my own work. It’s sort of trying to use the tools of the state against them, in saying yes, I want rigour and I want work but I want it on my terms, through poetry, I want to ‘progress’, but my idea of ‘progress’ is not your idea of ‘progress.’ That’s not to say I don’t want the work to be finished and to be happy with what it is when it is ‘finished’, but it’s also my way of saying we are all always learning, always in a state of becoming, never finished.
I like the ephemerality of the work, the idea that the whole work could change (or even be entirely erased) at a moment’s notice, that someone could engage with the work halfway through and view it as ‘complete’ even if it’s in a total state of disarray, that there’s a sort of battle for agency between reader and writer, or that one reader can have an entirely different experience with the poem than another reader, these are all attempts to engage in temporality that the technological structure of a Google doc allows for in a very specific and unique way.
I’ve found it an interesting to engage with the way my own practice works. Poetry for me is really a place of working things through/out, I don’t think going into a poem with a fixed idea of what you want to say is necessarily always a good thing, sure you know that in part, in that you might have a set of ideas you want to explore, but to be able to let the poem take hold and let it go where it wants is one of the things I love about poetry. In part, it’s a bit of a homage to that. Sometimes poetry feels very visceral to me, by which I mean the poem speaks and your body just writes it and then you have to figure out what’s happened post-writing, like a way of engaging with your own subconscious. That’s a process that’s quite uncertain and unnerving at times, so to make that public, before I’ve even figured out what’s happening, is kind of fraught for me. That my relationship with the work is quite tender, and is always mutating, is quite fitting because on one level the work is also about friendship. The original idea for the work came out of wanting to respond to an artist friend, Sierra McManus, who did a drawing for me every day of 2017.
My ego sometimes has to block out the idea that anyone can look at it at any point; there is often bad writing up there, and to now have sections exist as notes or thoughts before they ‘become poetic’, so to speak, is also alarming. Obviously, I have to remind myself though that all of this is part of the point, that it’s a performance of ‘writerly-ness’ and also ‘readerly-ness.’
To make something like a Google doc feel like an intimate space is something I’m also trying to tap into, that the digital is tender and produces affect, that devices produce feeling. There are often moments where I’ll go to add to the document and there are other users logged on, which on one level feels voyeuristic and violating, and on another provides comfort, these are paradoxes we’re brushing up against all the time in digital spaces.
I’m sure I may have entirely different feelings and give a totally different explanation of the work once it’s done, which I guess is kind of exciting.
TM: I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?
MP: Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, which I’ve been really looking forward to for a long time. I just finished Hunger by Knut Hamsun, published in 1890, set in Norway about an impoverished writer who essentially goes mad with hunger. I was depressed about being broke and trying to juggle work and writing and a friend leant it to me, in retrospect maybe a cruel joke.
I’ve read some great Tony Birch essays lately about ghost towns, he’s talking about the ways in which we historicise pioneer towns, and memorialise landscape to exclude Indigenous histories, particularly in Western Victoria, one called ‘Death is Forgotten in Victory: Landscapes and Narrative Emptiness’, and another in an old issue of Meanjin called ‘Come See The Giant Koala’, both of which I loved.
Poets on my bedside table at the moment are Kate Lilley, Michael Farrell, Pam Brown and Lionel Fogarty. I’m a very unfocused reader, and writer actually, especially when it comes to poetry. I can’t really read or write one thing at a time, from start to finish. It’s too much. Poetry is too intense for that and my brain is too messy.
There’s an interview with Melinda Bufton on Poetry Says in which she talks about her poetry reading style as creating mix tapes, reading a few poetry titles at once and not reading linearly, which is something I also do and find to be quite a joyful reading practice for the strange connections you often find.
TM: Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything, outside of “Some Days”, that you can tell us about?
MP: I’m writing an essay at the moment about dingoes and more broadly image-making and kitsch in Australia, which I’ve touched on a bit in this interview. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and talking about writing since writing In Some Ways Dingo. One reason I’m looking forward to the end of Some Days is so that I can direct poetic attention elsewhere, as I’ve found it hard to write other poems at the same time. I want to write a collection about water that I have a few poems for but am very much still figuring out. I want to set part of it in a fictionalised hybrid of Old Jindabyne and Old Adaminaby, two towns that were drowned in the construction of the Snowy Hyrdo Electric Scheme. In my head right now it appears as a sort of feminist utopia (though utopia isn’t quite right) that I want to use to interrogate the mythmaking that occurs in memorialising Australian townships, as well as the way colonisation and genocide extend into futurism and utopia-building (see ‘Coded Devices’ by Maddee Clark).
“Some Days” (title subject to change) is a year length poetry performance piece hosted by SOd .and can be accessed here http://staleobjectsdepress.tumblr.com/
TONY MESSENGER is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in Overland Literary Journal, Southerly Journal and Burning House Press. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker. He is on Twitter @messy_tony.
Thuy On is a freelance arts journalist and critic, who writes for a variety of publications including The Australian, The Age, The SMH, Books and Publishing and ArtsHub. She’s also the books editor of The Big Issue.
Photograph by Leah Jing
Reams of dead trees
deadlines for other peoples’ words
sunk under the pressure
of domestic detritus
I am unread and shelved
between festive seasons
a cobwebby head needing to shake
for the new year beckons
This chance to flatten the path behind
roll it up and throw it hard
watch in awe the motes falling down
blinding the dusty ways
of living and loving
a clean lingua franca
to be seared
lessons and spite
swallowed and spat out
will not be lost
on unforgiving stone
I know I know now
what to do
as a sunflower
fed from blood in loamy soil
and minerals of salty tears
I will toss my golden halo
through showerbursts and thunder.
Renga: 100 Poems
by John Kinsella and Paul Kane
Reviewed by SIOBHAN HODGE
Renga: 100 Poems is a collection over ten years in the making. Paul Kane and John Kinsella, writing in exchange via the Japanese renga form, have compiled a long-running poetic dialogue – unlike traditional renga, each poem is individually written and a response then followed by the other poet. In his foreword, Kane states:
We each had a long history with the other’s country and we both wrote out of a sense of being firmly placed in our respective locales. Moreover, many of our interests coincided, particularly in aesthetic and environmental concerns. Why not continue an hour’s conversation over an extended period – and in verse? (iv)
Despite this light-hearted opening, consistently at the forefront of these exchanges is a deep concern for the environment, documenting anxieties and innate senses of responsibility to the world. For example, one pair features a biting criticism of mining in Pennsylvania and Western Australia:
Atop one ridge in
roll steeply, starkly away.
Coal country, that first black gold.
Miners digging graves.
Here, not meth but methane kills,
as an oil rig.
Hard country, anthracite black,
with pastel clouds, slate blue sky… (Kane, “Renga 27”)
Kinsella’s reply situates similar concerns in Western Australia:
There’s a fair chance
that one of our neighbours
is furtively mining away
the valley wall: the scraping
and hammering, back and forth
of a front-end loader. His trucks
that weigh heavy on axles,
…When the valley wall gives
way, the shockwaves will spread
for acres. We’ll all hear The Fall.
But hearing is selective still:
what we hear to the point of pain
others cancel out with paeans
of praise. Who’d refuse God
in God’s own country? (Kinsella, “Renga 28”)
For both poets, the collection is a means of consolidating frustrations regarding destruction of the natural world, but the text is not exclusively eco-critical. Rather, this is an organic discussion – political and philosophical – in a revised form of epistolary poetics. This is also a collection preoccupied (in the most playful sense of the word) with the many meanings of “home”. The poetic dialogue, labelled a contribution to the pastoral eclogue genre by Chris Wallace-Crabbe in his blurb for the book, Kane and Kinsella engage in a rhythmic dialogue that doesn’t stray far from the importance of situatedness in the natural and human-impacted world. In “Renga 3”, Kane introduces some of these ruminations:
So the poet asks
“Where do we find ourselves?” as
if seeking a place
of knowing could conjugate
“to be.” I am is future
tense when now recedes.
Yet think of the paperbarks
along the Murray
wetlands, how they need an ebb
in spring floods to grow young trees:
That’s why now is moment by
moment, and why I
find myself in your country
each year, like a second home.
By the time the collection reaches “Renga 78”, notions of home have become saturated, as shown in Kinsella’s response:
Homecoming homebound homebody homebred.
Homeland homemaker homeomorphic homeless.
Homebuilt homeowner homesteader homeostatic.
Homeschooled homework homer homeland.
Homespun homemade homebrewed homeopathic.
Whatever the case, the changing light.
Whatever the case, homewardbound.
Each poem is a means of traversing geographic and philosophical distance, but connection is also multi-faceted, growing and evolving, and linked with the speakers’ abilities to traverse these spaces. Experiences of others, including Aboriginal people, are highlighted but not co-opted. Renga is an accumulation of acknowledgements of outrages – against people and the environment – accompanied by ruminations on the personal experiences of both poets, but the focus is primarily on the voices and experiences of the poets themselves. Within these layers of observation neither thought nor experience are being colonised. This is a deeply critical collection, concerned with the impacts of pollution, environmental destruction and decay.
Why select the renga form for a collection of this nature? There is no detailed discussion of why this traditional collaborative Japanese poetic form has been selected, beyond Kane’s definition: “a single entity built by accretion, like limestone, and a virtual fossil record of the multiple procedures used to construct it” (a more comprehensive and generous assessment of the form than his earlier description of it as “the little brute”!) (vi). Renga are constructed by several poets working together. Kane adheres more firmly to the form than Kinsella, who splices in a lyrical approach. Stanzas are traditionally written by alternating poets, inspired by the one preceding, but Kane and Kinsella opt instead to present individual, entire renga. A discussion of motivations for this style of adaptation, as well as poems that reflected on the impact of the renga on their dialogue and the environments they discuss, would have been welcome, particularly in this collection’s depictions of emblems of colonialism and environmental exploitation. The decision to select a traditional Japanese poetic form is situated firmly in the opportunities offered by the form, regrettably missed is the opportunity to open discussion of the historical and cultural significances of the form itself, as well as the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this act of cross-cultural world literature, a contribution which would have well suited the thematic focus of the collection. Timothy Clark observes that:
In Japan, a renga was a collective poem written according to a great number of apparently arbitrary rules, which each participant adopted from his predecessor… Renga is not primarily a poem or a theory of poetry, neither is it quite criticism; it is a situation, an experiment with the nature of poetry and language (32).
Clark surmises that the poetic form is an incorporation of Buddhist conceptions of the dissolution of the ego, reflected in “the subversion that Renga brings to any thought of property in relation to a poet’s voice” (33). However, in Renga: 100 Poems, the author of each piece is acknowledged via initials in each piece’s title. There is no subsuming of authorial agency or identity, despite what the traditional form would typically entail.
For a collection preoccupied with communicating over distance, acknowledging room for empathy without complete mirroring of experience, the renga is an ideal means of conveyance, but the form gives room to both what can and cannot be shared. In “Renga 61-67” Kane and Kinsella highlight on-going issues of Aboriginal disenfranchisement in Australia, both poets employing a series of black-white binaries deeply critical of colonialism’s “…roll call / of slavery and land claims” (Renga 66, Kinsella). However, there are no directly Aboriginal voices in this collection; Kane and Kinsella acknowledge but cannot speak for these experiences. Rather, this is a vital discussion saved for another 2018 publication, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, a superb poetic treatise and dialogue between Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella. In Renga, Kane and Kinsella echo an earlier non-Japanese interpretation of the renga as a form that constructs layers of tension and selves, demonstrated in the 1971 collection Renga: A Chain of Poems, a multi-lingual exercise by Octazio Paz, Edoardo Sanguineti, Charles Tomlinson and Jacques Roubaud. In this renga collection, Paz, Sanguineti, Tomlinson and Rombaud presented “multiple voices, multiple selves”, embodying Paz’s notion of “the transient, unstable, relativistic self” (Starrs, 280). Despite adhering to the conventions of the collective, communal form, both texts do not render authors’ voices anonymous. Unlike the 1971 Renga however, Kane and Kinsella’s Renga moves to thematically bridge gaps, rather than emphasise them, while also strictly avoiding any appropriation of voice.
Kane and Kinsella’s poetic responses conversationally engage with the preceding piece before taking the introduced theme in a new direction. Among the shared concerns are mortality, environmental destruction, war, shifting between and intricately connecting the personal, political and philosophical. One recurring image is fire, as in Paul Kane’s “Renga 49”:
For two days we lived
in a stinging haze of smoke
as the Gippsland fires
far away burned beyond reach.
Smoke puts everyone on edge.
The plan: fight or flight? –
that atavistic question.
The Ararat fires
ended on our mountain,
the one house given to flames.
Our Warwick neighbor,
Burning off the adjacent
field one autumn, lost
control of the blaze in wind:
we were blackened fighting it.
it’s different: fire is fiercer,
and we’d likely flee.
A house I can rebuild, but
a life? I want my own death.
And yet, we’ve ceded
so much to indifferency,
our world – no, the world – ourselves,
blackening the days ahead.
Wounded in his den,
the baited badger will kill
a dog. The snarling,
the cries, are all we’ll hear when
we, in turn, are run to ground.
Kinsella’s “Renga 50” compounds anecdotes, voices and shared experiences, coupled with grim warning. For both poets, the role of preserving place is a constant and communal threat:
The restart of the fire season:
a mushroom cloud on the first
horizon – the penultimate –
an edge not far enough for
comfort. From his fire-tower
my great-grandfather scanned
the sea of trees for that wisp:
that leader, sign you can never
over-read. I went there
as a child and did the same.
I barely remember. Maybe
he was already dead. I’ve been
talking fire all day long: poets
writing it, neighbours discussing
the risks, all our preparedness.
The firebreaks are done.
Scraped and scraped again,
looking for that second layer,
that second safer layer.
It never reveals itself.
Mostly, it’s the smell: weird
Signs of noses cocked to the air,
like some unwholesome fetish.
It’s so dry that ‘dust to dust’
would seem our mantra.
But it’s not. ‘Fire to fire’,
‘fire to fire’ is all we utter
when the water-tanks are low
and flood (should we be smitten)
could only fill the valley
enough to lap at the foot
of our place.
Urgency and threat to human life, paired with suspicion of both method and motivation, permeates both works. The two poems are emblematic of the complex relationship Kane and Kinsella have adopted with the renga form; this is a collaborative poetics in politics, embracing the traditional symbolic theory of no distinct hierarchy of voice, communal assumption of responsibility by the two speakers, rather than perfect mirroring of traditional syllabic structure. But this is also a form that intrinsically excludes voices and control; the lead poet sets the tone and theme, and the later poets must follow. Absent voices – the colonised people of the countries flagged in the collection, lands, animals – are excluded from this hierarchy by nature of the form, but not with intent to oppress. However, moves are taken ensure that these experiences are not excluded, as in Kinsella’s “Renga 64”:
… Today, the sky is wheatbelt blue.
The still leafless trees shimmer a silver-green
Of what’s to come. Premonitions.
Though it’s all black and white.
I grew up with black and white television.
We don’t watch television now
Which is said to be in colour. As is Nature.
I’ve contributed to this knowledge. This rumour.
A sense of personal culpability is incorporated into this reflection of marginalised binaries, though no direct voice is given to those oppressed groups. Throughout the collection there is pressure to revise oppressive angles, recognising destruction and destructive tendencies wherever they may appear.
In “Echolocations: An Afterword”, Kinsella addresses the thematic concerns of place, mutual concern, co-writing, and the ethics of belonging. This is a collection of “commonality amidst the difference” as “Words crosstalk, lines subscript, and yet each line is ‘intact’, a moment in a place sent across a vast distance” but not without anxieties (115). Selection of the renga style for this long-running dialogue across continents brings to the forefront the importance of shared experience rather than subsumed voice, and the need to make meaningful connection.
Timothy Clark, “”Renga”: Multi-Lingual Poetry and Questions of Place”, SubStance
Vol. 21, No. 2, Issue 68 (1992), pp. 32-45.
Roy Starrs, “Renga: A European Poem and its Japanese Model”, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2017), pp. 275-304.
SIOBHAN HODGE has a Ph.D. in English literature, her thesis focused on feminist traditions in translating Sappho’s poetry. She had critical and creative works published in a range of places, including The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Westerly, Southerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, and Peril. She has won several poetry awards, including the Kalang Eco-Poetry Award in 2017, 2015 Patricia Hackett Award for poetry. Her new chapbook, Justice for Romeo, is available through Cordite Books.
Edited by Michelle Cahill & Dimitra Harvey
Launched by EMILY STEWART
How to mobilise the launch speech? An essay in the form of a thread
I have been metabolising Michelle Cahill’s work on interceptionality, a term she has been dissecting and championing over three essays with the Sydney Review of Books, the latest published this week. I am deeply interested in her rich theorisation, which is seen in practice with the activism of Mascara Literary Review, interception being a pragmatic, principled approach that can, in Michelle’s words, ‘unmask entitlement and inaugurate dialogue’ but which also, and this is really important – offer creative protection. Creative protection, because the intercepts that Michelle enacts are highly generative actions. Her activism – each tweet, email, newsletter – that calls for better representation and equitable opportunities for CALD writers opens up new sites of potential. I’ve been thinking through what the use of a launch speech might be within an interceptional framework – and indeed where it even fits within the publishing ecology, as it’s not a review, or criticism, but is significant nonetheless, creating a shape and a language for how books will be talked about by others. The launch speech is a powerful object as it oftentimes sets the tone for the critical discourse that will follow. So how to mobilise it?
Introducing deciBels 3 chapbook series, edited by Michelle Cahill and Dimitra Harvey
The format I have chosen acknowledges the extraordinary event that is the deciBels 3 chapbook series: the release of ten books all at once is a powerful statement that actively works against received publishing logics; where books are published individually and given their own run before the next appears. This collectivist, connective model has impact – it is an opportunity for CALD writers to hold more space together than they would individually. But I have also been sensitive to making sure that each book gets its due.
Furious summations: Eleanor Jackson’s A Leaving
‘The amniotic place / of rejection from which we are born’. Jackson is drawn to moral complexity found here in infidelity, at a conference, on death row. These are poems as furious summations. In ‘Remembrance Day’, she writes, ‘Don’t let me wallow in generalities’ – the imperative drives these poems. Can’t let emotion distract from incisiveness, poetry needs both. There is great range in this small book, which is deeply invested in the world – the poet listens closely and the poems enact that listening, moving between a restrained political persona and a tender, more buoyant self.
Peace inside the unresolvable: Dimitra Harvey’s A Fistful of Hail
Cross-pollinations: A line of Eleanor Jackson’s, ‘the caesura between the outage and the back-up’ precisely describes the work of Dimitra Harvey’s poems, their electric holding of space within/around/after moments of brutality – can a poem act as a coda to violence? Or is violence inherently without coda? How to find peace inside the unresolvable – see the poems ‘Father’, ‘Acrocorinth’, ‘Sport’. Contradictory as it may seem, through the sonic the poems resist the structural confines that also give the poems their admirable pressure – they resonate. From ‘Station’: ‘A woman’s laugh, the clink of glasses – the city’s noises are padded here. Then a whip of wire, a spring-loaded lash. The train pulls up, groaning in its metal’.
She is so free: Angela Serrano’s Else But a Madness Most Discreet
The libidinous haze of Angela Serrano’s sex-positive poems strikes immediately; their temperature – hot – because they fully embrace the abject. Case in point: the book’s first poem begins with its speaker taking a shit. Later in the book: ‘At first I thought the fog was from a fire’. But the reader knows by then that Serrano’s fog is a pleasure-full fugue. And something else – ‘intersections are Freudian hotspots’. The poems at the centre of the book are presented in Tagalog first, then English. The poetic persona’s largesse, appetite, ambition. Her fluidity, open pursuit of desire – she is so free.
Details of light: Anna Jacobson’s The Last Postman
Speculative, epistolary, characterful. Sensorial – keyed into atmospheres. Details of light. ‘The sun as it performs its yoga’. More volatile: ‘I was walking in the same direction as you – watched you crush a lit cigarette into your pocket’. A spectral parsing in ‘Letter 7’, the opening line ‘water damaged eyes are made whole again’. The poem makes uncanny the relation of body and material. (But then, perhaps this is always? Uncanny.) ‘Your job is to erase these paper bruises’. At first a poem about the reconstructive efforts of memory, but at a certain point it’s occulted. ‘You pick up the stylus, graft pixels to creases’.
I turned the word over and over: Ramon Loyola’s The Measure of Skin
Measure – restraint? Measure – wager? I turned the word over and over as I read these love poems. These poems about touch, and skin. Also, consistently, about the transgressive power of looking. (That overblown phrasing is mine alone. Loyola is considered – measured. This measure, its considered restraint, holds erotic charge (so there is something at stake – a wager). One of these poems is among the best sex poems I’ve ever read. Every one of these poems is a blueprint for cultivating deep courage in the pursuit of self-knowledge: ‘I’m afraid to look but I must, I must, without hesitation’.
The book with flames on its cover: Sumudu Samarawickrama’s Utter the Thing
These poems often take place at dusk, the casting of ambiguous time, where there is still – just – enough light for colour. In the poem ‘Smoothas’ this state is described as ‘lavender gloaming’, and it imbues the poems with a heightened sense of drama where all senses are labile, on alert.
Kinetics in the poem ‘power/move’, that slash is some/one and they are changing their position.
Kinetics in the poem ‘The Lug’, where a door opens and time jump cuts and words run-in-to-each-other-so ‘Ipretend’, ‘myvoice’, ‘feigningconsistency’. The speaker is not safe.
Kinetics in the poem ‘Anger Poem’: ‘I’m writing this story over this story I wrote The same story.’ The great repetitions of being in experience.
Trajectories: Jessie Tu’s You Should Have Told Me We Have Nothing Left
Intimate examinations of women’s lives and their various trajectories. How do we become who we are, or perhaps more importantly, what happens to us? The poem ‘And it is what it is’: ‘You are given fingers before a mouth’. The poem ‘The Hotel’, its speaker taking and loading, taking and loading her luggage, she is ‘always arriving’. The everyday questions that comprise life’s form: when to fight for a relationship, whether to have a kid.
But then with the poem Going there where there is no place to go, Tu dissolves the very notion of trajectory, she tips the poem on its side.
Read in the usual way, English-language lines travel forward. At this new angle they pull backwards. Our past grows with us – fact. How to keep moving?
She writes, ‘The only possible answer to this problem with no solution is to keep turning up’.
Twice-ness: Ariel Riveros’s Commoning
From the opening poem ‘Bel Canto’: ‘Your image comes up and I’m speaking to your photo as well as to you’. Riveros’s poems always speak twice, but FYI I’m using ‘twice’ as a placeholder for ‘multiply’. The twice-ness of these poems causes little rips in time, so that ‘a medieval of plastics reach the waterways’ and ‘order of truth is no flicked lumiere’. In the poem ‘Paen to a 1996 nervous breakdown’, ‘some maps are lost in themselves / and territories that we’ve not onedered but twodered and now we’ve threedered and can fourded’. Multiplicity can quickly become terrifying – it does so for me in the portentous ‘A Poet Knows When’, which opens with the lines ‘Right up against me/ before sleep/ after waking/ I carry carcass’. That carcass is multiple, carried by and speaking to the poet, but appearing in a second form as well, as ‘carcass earth’. Anything can, and has, and does and will happen – but the shadow to this, the question of accountability, is ever-present. The Melbourne poem ‘Settlement’ in particular troubles notions of political ‘progress’ (even and especially as it doubles, triples): ‘The bum is the seat of Parliament as we get to the following station’.
Notes from a homing pigeon: Misbah’s Rooftops In Karachi
Misbah’s clipped, urgent missives report on Karachi, Pakistan, the city of her birth; and on her subsequent travels there, real and imagined. In their small, tight prose forms, they can be read like notes from a homing pigeon – and indeed one such pigeon appears in the very first line of the book. Each missive or note is highly architectural in its construction; a memory palace. From the poem ‘Territory’: ‘Under my skin is a mosque buried, over its surface borders are patrolled, in the lines of my hands are partitions of space occupied by warring microbes building temples of salt’. This precision also recalls tactics of surveillance; a thorough updating of the homing pigeon metaphor – so while the poems sometimes speak to place, at other times they register site. Often, and as in the poem ‘Last Transcript from Osama’, presented here in full, there is an interleaving: ‘X marks the coordinates of clouds disconnected, the colour of bandages, the colour of sleep, uniforms, and especially ambulances and weddings, kites on wires, the soft calligraphy of fighter pilots, and rooftops that are in every way the surface of the moon’.
A loop, hoop, circle: Anupama Pilbrow’s Body Poems
Pilbrow’s interest in exchange, reciprocity, relationality is signalled in the book’s dedication before readers even get to the poems. I hope she won’t mind me sharing it: ‘To my family. I love them and they love me’. A Pilbrow poem rolls forward as a loop, hoop, circle. Almost every poem is its own category of poem (as in they are called ‘Body Poem’,’Membrane Poem’, ‘Despicable Body Poem’, ‘Trying to Remember My Birth Poem’, &c. While wellness culture promotes the present as a desired state of calm, in Pilbrow’s Poem-poems, the present is absurd, fantastic, gross. From ‘Ocean Poem’: ‘I have a bath and I shave my legs underwater so all the hair pieces are swimming in the bath water with me’. Her forensic descriptions are also-always ebullient – how? ‘Hold the bone and scrape it hard against concrete or volcanic rock to shear away soft and round bits until the bone is a weapon’. A cool new mantra.
I wish each of these brilliant writers every possible success
Congratulations to editors Michelle Cahill and Dimitra Harvey, with the support of Michael Brennan and Vagabond Press, for their fearless and clear-sighted editorial vision, for bringing ten impassioned, uncompromising and beautifully moving books into the world all at once.
EMILY STEWART is poetry editor at Giramondo Publishing and a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University where she is conducting research at the intersection of poetry and architecture. Her first collection Knocks was published by Vagabond Press in 2016 and received the Noel Rowe Prize.
From cultures of violence to ways of peace: reading the Benedictus in the context of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention
Revised version of a paper given at ‘Things That Make for Peace: Peace and Sacred Texts Conference’, hosted by School of Theology & Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation, Charles Sturt University, at United Theological College, North Parramatta, 7–9 March 2018.
The author acknowledges the traditional owners of the Parramatta area: the Burramattagal people of the Darug nation, and pays her respects to the elders past, present and emerging, recognising their continuing connection with and custodianship of this place, especially the river.
On 31 October 2017, the Regional Processing Centre housing asylum seekers in detention on Manus Island—many of whom had been confirmed as refugees—was closed. For months beforehand, the men detained, as well as refugee advocates and agencies, had warned that the Australian and Papua New Guinean Governments had not properly prepared for this closure. Around 600 men were to be moved to facilities in Lorengau, Hillside Haus and West Lorengau; supporters and human rights observers reported that these facilities were unready. Moreover, before the date for transfer, essential services of food, water, medical care, power and security were phased out and finally withdrawn. The men who had already been protesting their detention and impending forced transfer to sites they believed, with reason, to be unready and unsafe, refused to be moved. They staged a nonviolent resistance for 22 days from 31 October to 22 November 2017 when they were forcibly removed and transported to the new facilities.
Of the months leading up to the closure of the Regional Processing Centre, Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist and writer from Ilam in Iran, who had already been held on Manus Island for over four years, wrote: ‘For many months, the refugees living inside Manus prison have had to endure extraordinarily oppressive conditions orchestrated by the Australian government’ (‘Letter’). Though not the only public voice among the detainees, Boochani—especially through his articles in The Guardian and The Saturday Paper, and his daily Twitter and Facebook posts—became a key communicator of the men’s situation to Australians, calling both people and government to account for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru. The nonviolent action of the men, and the response to it by Papua New Guinea officials in collaboration with the Australian Federal Government, became a test case for the ongoing Australian policy of offshore detention. For many Australians, it is clear that offshore detention is neither sustainable nor desirable, and needs urgent change that is tragically not forthcoming. Many, however, remain indifferent.
Serially, since the time of the Howard Government’s response to the sinking of the Siev X in 2001, Australian Governments—both Coalition and Labor—have enacted policies of border protection where deterrence of people arriving by boat, using so called ‘people smugglers’, are based on cruelty to detainees, though arguably such cruelty has escalated under the current Coalition Government.
In this essay I focus on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in detention, particularly in those three weeks from 31 October 2017. The issue is not resolved, as recent reports of inadequate medical care—particularly in mental health—for detainees on Nauru and in the new facilities on Manus indicate (e.g. Davidson 2018a; Syed 2018). Since the forced transfer of the men, however, the Australian media has largely lost interest and even public Australian activism has died down, though there were rallies on Palm Sunday (25 March 2018) for refugees; on 1 March 2018 Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne launched a campaign to #changethepolicy; and between 16 and 22 July 2018 #FiveYearsTooMany rallies were held around Australia.
Writing of ‘Undocumented Immigrants, Asylum Seekers, and Human Rights’, Mark Brett (2016, 163–64) comments, ‘The raw numbers of people seeking asylum in Australia, especially when considered in relation to national wealth, barely rate a mention in international analyses, yet national elections in Australia have been known to turn on “border protection” policies. / What, then, can biblical theology and ethics hope to contribute to the debates?’ In conversation with Habermas, Brett (2016, 35) sees a role for biblical theology in public discourse not in service of a ‘unified public culture, but rather, by a thickening of dialogue between religious and non-religious traditions’, so that ‘theological ethics towards the marginalised … inform’ political praxis. In this essay, I bring into conversation Boochani’s ‘A Letter from Manus Island’ and the Benedictus, a biblical hymn, understood as songs of protest. My aim is to suggest what might be elements of a cultural shift from violence to nonviolence, and what this shift should mean in relation to public response to offshore detention of asylum seekers.
Warren Carter (2011) identifies four key and ‘interweaving dynamics’ of African American and South African performative songs of protest from the US slave, civil rights, and South African apartheid eras. They are:
‘naming contexts of oppressive suffering’
‘fostering hope for change’
‘securing communal solidarity’.
Carter applies these dynamics to an analysis of the songs of the Lukan infancy narratives (especially, The Magnificat and The Benedictus) and reads these as songs of protest in the context of oppressive Roman occupation and empire.
Briefly, Carter argues that in a theo-political frame the songs encode the perspective of the marginalised and name aspects of Roman empire as a context of oppressive suffering: in the Lukan songs the imperial social system of domination, resulting in economic oppression, operates contrary to divine purposes and results in the people’s need for divine assistance. The songs bestow dignity by construing the people and the divine as interrelated, as kin, with the divine present to the people. Carter (2011) writes:
The songs function to bestow dignity in the midst of dehumanizing oppression by naming the relationship with God, celebrating the favorable divine disposition experienced in their midst, recalling benign and faithful covenant commitments, awaiting vengeance, and echoing songs of previous interventions.
Interrelated is the way the songs offer an alternative vision of reality and so provide hope through appropriating and transforming key facets of Roman society; in the context of the Gospel of Luke, they offer a vision of release from debt and a peace different from the Pax Romana which functions as a tool of domination reinforcing the status quo. Finally, for Carter (2011), the songs suggest a communal understanding spanning past, present and future, and defining ‘community as one that benefits from’ divine intervention. Communal solidarity is secured by divine promise, and resists or unsettles the existing societal order with an alternative social vision.
Nonetheless, as Carter (2011) notes ‘the songs do not only resist, they also imitate and perpetuate the imperial structures that they oppose’. To some extent, this mimicry is inevitable, but the re-inscription of empire is a significant factor in the ways violence and nonviolence appear in the song of Zechariah (the Benedictus). Before I turn more closely to this song, I examine a description of nonviolent action in the face of violence, in Boochani’s ‘A Letter from Manus Island’.
Behrouz Boochani’s ‘A Letter from Manus Island’ and other writing
Boochani’s ‘Letter’ exhibits the four features of protest writing that Carter nominates. It begins with a description of a situation of oppressive suffering experienced by the detainees on Manus Island, naming the Regional Processing Centre and the new facilities as prison camps and the treatment of the 600 refugees who refused to move on 31 October 2017 as a regime of ‘extreme force and dictatorship’ (‘Letter’). Reports from Boochani, other detainees, visitors such as Tim Costello, Jarrod McKenna, and UN and other human rights observers during the 22 days of nonviolent protest tell of no provision of food, water or medical care, failed security, destruction of property by local officials, and piercing of makeshift water tanks, among other things.
Boochani writes of the way the men responded by claiming their dignity as human beings. This was vital to their action. He says: ‘The refugees were able to reimagine themselves in the face of the detention regime’ (‘Letter’). They resisted their characterisation as the ‘passive refugee’ that the Australian government had constructed as exploitable for their own political ends, and asserted ‘that we are human beings’ (‘Letter’). Central to this assertion was the men’s claiming of their freedom. This was not simply freedom as a future hope—that is, freedom from detention, though of course this was fundamental. They also asserted a deeper, hard-won—and in the circumstances difficult to sustain—freedom while in detention: to act as human beings with authority and choice. Boochani (2017c) describes this assertion of freedom as the key motivating factor for their action, in contrast to the practical reasons adduced by supporters—for example, the inadequacy of the new detention facilities. At one level this was a freedom that cried ‘enough is enough’, ‘we will not be moved from one prison camp to another prison camp’ (Boochani 2017c). At another level, this drawing the line was a claiming of their shared humanity.
Freedom gave hope in their shared situation. Boochani writes: ‘We learnt that humans have no sanctuary except within other human beings’ (‘Letter’). Given the intransigence of the current Australian government concerning offshore detention, evidenced in the tone of what one friend in Melbourne describes as the ‘robot letters’ from Peter Dutton MP’s office, it is hard to see how hope is possible. But both in his ‘Letter’ and elsewhere, Boochani (2017e), describers the way the land of Manus and its surrounding sea were sites of hope, as:
the violence designed in government spaces and targeted against us has driven our lives towards nature … since we hope that maybe we could make its meaning, beauty and affection part of our reality. And coming to this realisation is the most pristine, compassionate and non-violent relationship and encounter possible for the imprisoned refugees in terms of rebuilding our lives and identities. (‘Letter’)
The choice the men took, while sustained by the surrounding beauty of the natural world when there was little else to sustain them, also secured a sense of communal solidarity. Boochani’s ‘Letter’ describes this solidarity in terms of democracy, respect for the freedom of each, care for the sick, sharing of food, co-operation concerning provision of vital needs, and cross-species kindness. What his description, his protest writing, adds to Carter’s analysis of African American and South African performances of protest, moreover, is this: an articulation of a political poetics. ‘Our resistance’, Boochani writes, ‘enacted a profound poetic performance’; ‘it was an epic of love’, he says (‘Letter’). Moreover, for Boochani, this resistance is a challenge to Australians’ self-perception, a haunting which I suggest echoes the haunting of Australia’s colonial past and present in relation to Indigenous peoples: ‘[Australians] would come to realise something about how they imagined themselves to be until now. … regarding their illusions of moral superiority’ (‘Letter’). He writes, ‘Our resistance is a new manifesto for humanity and love.’
While some of the men who took part in the nonviolent resistance have begun to be resettled in the US, many remain in detention in the new facilities on Manus, and stories regularly emerge of those with illnesses, especially mental illnesses, not receiving adequate treatment. In May 2018, after an earlier version of this essay was presented in North Parramatta, another refugee detained for years died tragically on Manus Island. Boochani commented at the time about the failures to treat this man’s illness over several years (Davidson 2018b).
Boochani was born in 1983, only six years before the older of my two sons, and many of the men on Manus are young men, some of whom were teenagers when they were taken into detention. We fail to imagine our adult children in this situation; we fail to be haunted by this imagining.
Reading the Benedictus
The Benedictus is a powerful song. Reading this text in conversation with Boochani’s ‘A Letter from Manus’, however, I am tempted to feel that the biblical song will come off second best. In the light of Boochani’s piece—which does not reinscribe violence in its language as far as I can see—I want to ask about the flow of the language in the Benedictus and the kind of culture it envisages, keeping in mind the ways Boochani’s letter unsettles Australian cultural imaginaries of moral superiority.
The New Revised Standard Version English translation of the Benedictus reads:
v68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
v69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
v70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
v71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
v72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
v73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us
v74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
v75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
v76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
v77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
v78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
v79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68–79 nrsv)
The kyriarchal language (the language of lordship) of the song is unavoidable in the opening ‘Blessed be’ kurios ho theos tou (the Lord God of) Israel (v68) (Schüssler Fiorenza 1992). Immediately the performing-listening community is situated in relation to the divine as a people in relation to their lord or overlord, even master. However benignly intended, the language of empire insinuates itself into the relationship between a people and their god, who has visited (episkepsato) them enacting a redemption (which is also loosening of their bonds lutrosin, salvation soteriav, release aphesis). Visitation can refer to judgement of, as well as care for, the people, and in the wider Gospel of Luke is marked by hospitality, aphesis (release from debts and forgiveness), and compassion (Elvey 2009; Byrne 2000). In the Benedictus, too, mercy/compassion (vv72, 78) will become part of the scope of this visitation which has happened in the past and continues into the future. But the imperial imprint in the description of divine/human relation is evident in the ascription of the ancestor David as paidos (slave/servant/child, v69)—the familial androcentric kinship imagery of father-son crosses with the imagery of master-slave (as in the Magnificat where Mary refers to herself as doule, slave, v48). Salvation is imaged by a horn (keras) (v69) recalling military language for the flank or wing of an army (as well as the thrusting or defending horn of an animal; see for example Marshall 1978), though the English translation I have cited above smooths over this.
Community solidarity reaches into the past with the appeal to the word of the prophets (v70), and into the future with the promise of the prophecy of the little child (presumably John the Baptist) (v76) joined in the present prophetic word of his father Zechariah (vv68–79). These words are part of a series of gusts of prophecy: the words of Elizabeth and Mary (1:42–45; 47–55), those of Simeon (2:29–32; 34–35) and the unrecorded words of the prophet Anna (2:36). Salvation (v69) in this communal context is liberation from enemies, those who hate (vv71, 74).
Talk of enemies in verses 71 and 74 sandwiches the divine enactment of mercy toward the ancestors of the people as constituted in the memory of the covenant (v72). The seriousness of the covenant is signalled by the recollection of a divine oath (orkon) to Abraham (v73). The people are given release from fear and a capacity to worship in freedom (v75). To what extent this suggests an imperial context where worship is not experienced as free from fear is unclear, but the implication seems to be that deliverance from enemies involves a kind of religious freedom (Pickett 2011). This is the first major shift in the song. Military language and talk of enemies gives way to a different vision described by piety/holiness/wholeness and righteousness/justice, the two signalling right relation with the divine and with other humans.
A second shift follows with the turn to the newly-born child. Repeating the earlier designation of David as paidos, the child stands in for the people. Echoing Isaiah 40, the child prepares the ways (hodous) of the divine or his messiah (v76), who confers knowledge of salvation. The song no longer refers to enemies but to aphesis (release/freedom, v77). Elsewhere in Luke (esp. 4:18), aphesis signals a kind of forgiveness that is not only metaphorical release from debts and debt-slavery, but also more broadly release from oppression (Elvey 2009), potentially the kind of freedom which Boochani (2017a, c) describes: a freedom that encompasses but is more than freedom from detention, being also the possibility of freedom in detention that is actualised not in acquiescence to the oppressive regime but in nonviolent resistance to it.
In the Benedictus, there is a pronouncement of freedom. In relation to the promised freedom, the divine experiences and performs mercy—from the entrails/guts (splanchna) (the seat of emotion) (v78). The description dia splanchna eleous (the tender mercies) of the divine echoes in the three uses of the verb splanchnizomai later in Luke’s gospel to describe a kind of compassionate responsiveness to another at the point of death (7:13; 10:33; 15:20; Elvey 2013; see also Grassi 2004). Here in the Benedictus, this mercy is a visitation (past and future), singular and repeated like the dawn (v78). Without explaining how this is to occur, the song evokes a transformation, expressed in the familiar terms of a movement from darkness to light, from ‘the shadow of death’ to life (v79). Life here means to have one’s feet guided/kept straight ‘in the way of peace’ (v79).
The song ends on this word peace (eirenes) as if this is where it was heading all along, from the military language of horns, the power language of lordship, the filial/servant/slave language of paidos, the language of the oppressed facing their enemies, toward the language of mercy which will become, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, mercy both toward and from another (‘the’ other)—and peace.
‘Peace’ is tricky in that Luke will contrast the peace (‘peace upon Earth’, 2:14), that arrives in the birth of the child Jesus, with the Pax Romana; and salvation as aphesis stands alongside the emperor as saviour. This is well-travelled ground in biblical studies. What I want to consider rather is the way Luke’s peace might be understood in relation to the ‘nonviolence’ described by Boochani. One aspect of Boochani’s writing that does not immediately seem to have a resonance in Luke’s Benedictus is the appeal to the consoling impact of the natural world and cross-species kindness. While cross-species kindness is not explicit anywhere in the Benedictus, the reference to anatole (east, dawn, morning, sunrise), in a way that is difficult to translate, suggests something of the impact of the natural world. Dawn and skies insert themselves as markers of—perhaps actors in—the drama of aphesis/freedom enabled by or through divine mercies.
In Boochani’s ‘Letter’ the enabling of freedom is not attributed (at least not explicitly) to a divine actor. Rather, community solidarity and natural beauty mutually reinforce each other in sustaining (with fragility at times) the hope that underscores the assertion and performance of freedom. It is a communal solidarity that performs compassion: the men’s solidarity for each other in practical ways; compassion for their companion dogs; and also for the readership, by calling Australians forth to a kind of metanoia (a change of heart) in relation to their own self-understanding, history and contemporary political social ethics. Poignantly, Boochani relates the fragility of this solidarity, freedom and compassion—this poetic performance in the face of violence:
This persisted until the moment we were confronted with the extremity of the violence. We found that the baton-wielding police had killed one of the dogs we had adopted into our community. At that moment, we descended into sorrow and wept,
in honour of its loyalty,
its innocence. (‘Letter’)
This was not the end of the story. Boochani relates other performative poetics of the men, and says toward the end of the ‘Letter’ that the ‘prison and its violence will never accept’ the reality of the ‘profound relationships’ the men built with local people, the environment, their adopted dogs, and each other.
Where the Benedictus refers to light shining on those sitting in the shadow of death, I read Boochani ‘in every situation the imprisoned lives and spirits have to reconfigure themselves in the face of death’ (‘Letter’). He goes on, ‘they avoid projecting the malevolent dimension of their existence as the most dominant’. He concludes his letter with appeals to feelings of friendship, compassion, companionship, justice and love.
The Benedictus closes with peace, and imagery that has shifted from a language of violence and violent resistance in its opening verses. It does not fully espouse nonviolent resistance, but opens a space for imagining what a way of peace might mean under the socio-cultural space impacted and shaped by the Roman empire. Biblical readers might extend this to the contemporary socio-political space of Australian violence toward asylums seekers, Indigenous peoples, Country and Earth itself. Peace in this context is more than nonviolent resistance, though this is part of it, more than the absence of war or of non-engagement in others’ wars, though this too is part of it. Peace is a socio-cultural ethos of aphesis—freedom in the face of oppression; freedom from oppression; freedom to turn from acts of oppression; freedom to recognise and resist our own imaginings of moral superiority; freedom for right relation not only with the divine and other humans, but also (and I would say especially, even primarily) with Earth; and freedom to be sustained by all of these.
I am in two minds about my drawing on Boochani’s work in this essay. On the one hand, I want to highlight the brilliance of his contemporary analysis of nonviolent action for an audience thinking about peace and nonviolence in biblical texts. On the other, while he and other asylum seekers and refugees remain in detention, I participate in their oppression as I enjoy the privileges of Australians society, and an essay like mine does little if anything to change this situation.
The prospect of a deep freedom for Australians remains out of reach while refugees like Boochani are kept in indefinite detention when they have committed no crime. If the Benedictus is addressed to people who are suffering oppression, albeit with the oppressors listening in, then we are the oppressors overhearing this song of protest that moves from violence to peace, and we are challenged to recognise ourselves and act. The way of peace that is the ‘end’ of the Benedictus means that like campaigners in Love Makes a Way, Writing through Fences and Grandmothers against Detention of Refugee Children, for example, Australian Christians must continue to work to support asylum seekers and refugees and act to change Government and Opposition policy on treatment of asylum seekers setting out to Australia by boat. An important part of this is speaking prophetically to those Christians who support such policies, including but not only in Government, especially in marginal electorates. The poetic styles of Boochani’s ‘A Letter from Manus’ and The Benedictus challenge us to find ways of speaking that enable a change of heart. The cruel practice of offshore detention which systematically denies freedom to some in order to deter others, means that at a deep level none of us are free.
1. Thank you to The Saturday Paper for permission to refer to and quote from Behrouz Boochani, ‘A Letter from Manus Island’ (The Saturday Paper, no. 186, December 9–15, 2017, pp. 1, 4).
2. Many of the reports from Boochani’s ‘Letter’ appeared in Facebook feeds from refugee advocates, and Tim Costello spoke movingly at the Palm Sunday Rally outside the State Library of Victoria on 25 March 2018.
3. Carter (2011) has considered the way the Benedictus alongside the Magnificat demonstrates the four aspects of protest songs he has identified, so for now I will not repeat that work. At present I offer a preliminary reading of the text. In a longer article, I propose to dialogue with several tropes of Boochani’s ‘Letter’, first the question of violence and second a supposed moral superiority by the oppressors, third the claim of freedom, fourth a more than human foundation for hope, fifth a haunting of the oppressive society by the oppressed, especially by the assertion of freedom of the oppressed. In conversation with these, I will consider some key terms and concepts from the Benedictus: divine visitation; salvation, redemption and release; enemies and hatred; slave/servant/child; ancestors; covenant/divine oath; prophets; mercy; death; peace; the poetics in the play of pronouns.
References and further reading
Bae, Hyun Ju. 2016. ‘Conversing with Luke on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace in Northeast Asia’. The Ecumenical Review 68, nos 2–3 (November): 167–84.
Boochani, Behrouz. 2018a. ‘Incarceration, Autonomy and Resistance on Manus Island’. Arena Magazine. https://arena.org.au/incarceration-autonomy-and-resistance-on-manus-island-by-behrouz-boochani/ Accessed March 31, 2018.
—. 2018b. ‘Four Years after Reza Berati’s Death, We Still Have No Justice’. The Guardian (February 17): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/17/four-years-after-reza-baratis-death-we-still-have-no-justice. Accessed March 31, 2018.
—. 2018c. No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Translated by Omid Tofighan. Sydney: Picador.
—. 2017a. ‘A Letter from Manus Island’. The Saturday Paper 186 (December 9–15): 1, 4. [‘Letter’]
—. 2017b. ‘Manus police pulled my hair and beat me. “You’ve damaged our reputation,” they said’. The Guardian (November 24): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/commentisfree/2017/nov/24/manus-police-pulled-my-hair-and-beat-me-youve-damaged-our-reputation-they-said. Accessed March 2, 2018.
—. 2017c. ‘All We Want Is Freedom Not Another Prison Camp’. The Guardian (November 13): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/13/all-we-want-is-freedom-not-another-prison-camp. Accessed March 2, 2018.
—. 2017d. ‘The Refugess Are in a State of Terror on Manus’. The Guardian (October 31): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/31/the-refugees-are-in-a-state-of-terror-on-manus-behrouz-boochani. Accessed March 2, 2018.
—. 2017e. ‘Diary of Disaster: The Last Days inside Manus Island Detention Centre’. The Guardian (October 30): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/30/diary-of-disaster-the-last-days-inside-manus-island-detention-centre. Accessed March 2, 2018.
Bovon, François. 2002. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, translated by Christine M. Thomas. Hermeneia 63A; ed. Helmut Koester. Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Brett, Mark G. 2016. Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Byrne, Brendan. 2000. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls.
Carter, Warren. 2011. ‘Singing in the Reign: Performing Luke’s Songs and Negotiating the Roman Empire (Luke 1–2)’. In Luke-Acts and Empire: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Brawley, edited by David Rhoads, David Esterline, and Jae Won Lee, 23–43. Ebook. Princeton Theological Monograph Series 151. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.
—. 2006. The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon.
Davidson, Helen. 2017. ‘Manus Island: UN says new accommodation “not ready” for refugees’. The Guardian (November 1): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/01/manus-island-un-says-new-accommodation-not-ready-for-refugees. Accessed March 2, 2018.
—. 2018a. ‘“Australia’s cut to healthcare on Manus Island inexplicable”, Amnesty says’. The Guardian (May 18): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/may/18/australias-cut-to-healthcare-on-manus-island-inexplicable-amnesty-says. Accessed July 30, 2018.
—. 2018b. ‘Rohingya Refugee Held on Manus Dies in Motor Vehicle Accident’. The Guardian (May 22): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/may/22/rohingya-refugee-held-on-manus-island-dies-in-motor-vehicle-incident. Accessed July 30, 2018.
Davidson, Helen and Ben Doherty. 2017. ‘Refugee and Journalist Behrouz Boochani Released after Arrest on Manus’. The Guardian (November 23): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/23/refugee-and-journalist-behrouz-boochani-arrested-in-manus-as-squad-steps-in. Accessed March 2, 2018.
Doherty, Ben. 2017a. ‘“The situation is critical”: Cholera fears on Manus as water and medicine run out’. The Guardian (November 20): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/20/the-situation-is-critical-cholera-fears-on-manus-as-water-and-medicine-run-out. Accessed March 2, 2018.
—. 2017b. ‘Manus refugee Behrouz Boochani asks for UK visa to attend screening of his film’. The Guardian (September 5): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/sep/05/refugee-behrouz-boochani-asks-for-uk-visa-to-attend-screening-of-his-film. Accessed March 2, 2018.
Elvey, Anne. 2017. ‘Reading the Magnificat in Australia in Contexts of Conflict’. In Ecological Aspects of War: Engagements with Biblical Texts, edited by Keith Dyer and Anne Elvey, with Deborah Guess, 45–68. Bloomsbury T&T Clark.
—. 2013. ‘Rethinking Neighbour Love: A Conversation between Political Theology and Ecological Ethics’. In ‘Where the Wild Ox Roams’: Biblical Essays in Honour of Norman C. Habel, edited by Alan H. Cadwallader and Peter L. Trudinger, 58–75. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.
—. 2009. ‘Can there be a forgiveness that makes a difference ecologically?: An eco-materialist account of forgiveness as freedom (aphesis) in the Gospel of Luke’. Pacifica: Australasian Theological Studies 22, no. 2 (June): 148–70
Flanagan, Richard. 2017. ‘Australia built a hell for refugees on Manus. The shame will outlive us all’. The Guardian (November 24): https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/24/the-shame-of-the-evil-being-done-on-manus-will-outlive-us-all. Accessed March 2, 2018.
Ford, J. Massyngbaerde. 1984. My Enemy is My Guest: Jesus and Violence in Luke Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Gilbert, Gary. 2006. ‘Luke-Acts and the Negotiation of Authority and Identity in the Roman World’. In The Multivalence of Biblical Texts and Theological Meanings, edited by Christine Helmer and Charlene T. Higbe, 83–104. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Grandmothers against Detention of Refugee Children. http://gadrc.org/
Grassi, Joseph. 2004. Peace on Earth: Roots and Practices from Luke’s Gospel. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.
Guardian Staff. 2017. ‘Behrouz Boochani Wins Amnesty International Award for Writing from Manus’. The Guardian (November 2): https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/nov/02/behrouz-boochani-wins-amnesty-international-award-for-writing-from-manus. Accessed March 2, 2018.
Hamilton, Andrew. 2017. ‘With Remembrance Goes Compassion: Manus’. Eureka Street 27, no. 23 (November 25): https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=54390. Accessed March 2, 2018.
Horsley, Richard A. 1989. The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. New York: Crossroad.
Love Makes a Way. https://actionnetwork.org/groups/love-makes-a-way-australia
Marshall, I. Howard. 1978. The Gospel of Luke. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Neville, David J. 2013. A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Pickett, Raymond. 2011. ‘Luke and Empire: An Introduction’. In Luke-Acts and Empire: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Brawley, edited by David Rhoads, David Esterline, and Jae Won Lee, 1–22. Ebook. Princeton Theological Monograph Series 151. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.
Reid, Barbara E. 2007. Taking up the Cross: New Testament Interpretations through Latina and Feminist Eyes. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. 1992. But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Syed, Sarah. 2018. ‘Responsibilities of Health Professionals Regarding the Refugee Crisis’. onthewards (March 26). https://onthewards.org/responsibilities-of-health-professionals-regarding-the-refugee-crisis/. Accessed July 30, 2018.
Writing through Fences. http://writingthroughfences.org/
ANNE ELVEY is an Australian poet, researcher and editor, author of White on White (Cordite Books 2018), Kin (FIP 2014), co-author with Massimo D’Arcangelo and Helen Moore of Intatto-Intact (La Vita Felice 2017), and editor of hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani (2018). Her most recent scholarly books are The Matter of the Text: Material Engagements between Luke and the Five Senses (Sheffield Phoenix 2011), and as coeditor Ecological Aspects of War: Engagements with Biblical Texts (Bloomsbury T&T Clark 2017). She is managing editor of Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics and holds honorary appointments at Monash University and University of Divinity, Melbourne. https://anneelvey.wordpress.com/
I am Mohammad Asif Rahimi, I am 28 years old from Afghanistan. I belong to the Hazara community, the third largest ethnicity and most oppressed ethnicity in the world. I graduated from High School and studied Political Science in Kabul city. I speak four languages. Due to security concerns and persecution I had to leave Afghanistan and seek asylum in Indonesia through UNHCR. I am currently living in Balikpapan Detention Centre. I have been in detention and deprived of all my basic rights since late 2014.
Rahimi’s work is published by Writing Through Fences and is to be published in the forthcoming Overland.
Photographer: Azad, Indonesia, 2018
Life is full of adventures, either good and bad. People are inevitably faced with both. But what is important are the mechanisms of emotion felt during or after the incidents. Everyone individually chooses a route based on their assumptions and knowledge.
Typically when people are about to be hurt, they seek coverture to unleash what is annoying. Every pain/harm needs its own mechanism. A variety of pains need a variety of mechanisms so to be unleashed. People choose different routes.
Let me dedicate this to the pains of affliction and fatigue. When a man is hurt it can be too hard to unleash it at all. Arrogance stops him revealing what is inside him. But there are still ways to empty his mind. Someone may choose trusted friends and tell their feelings to them, someones else chooses their mother, some drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, someone finds a place and shouts, and someone else finds a place in which to be silent and so on… But there are some things that harm people and yet no mechanisms are available for release due to particular conditions in which they are placed.
When you can not find any of these mechanisms for release the pain turns to an immedicable pain. You find bodies around you not souls, you find walls surrounding you that get closer and closer, you find yourself amongst monsters that every moment bring more damage to you. In this circumstance you swallow all the pain to hide it lest the monsters find out and misuse it as a weakness. By doing this you just relocate the battlefield into the inside of you.
This battle is more devastating than what you were facing before. It eats you like leprosy and burns you like charcoal, your soul, conscience, goodness, good will are now all burning and you can not do anything to extinguish the fire. You are being gradually burnt.
Let me be a bit rude. Let me talk about something that many of you would consider nonsense and probably you would call the person with such feelings ‘lacking in ambitions’ or expendable. Have you ever thought about dreams, wishes and how much variance there could be. Or thought that every human being has his/her/their exclusive wishes and dreams, though surroundings make them wish differently?
When I see people from different places I figure out that most of the people from conflict zones have no dreams. They think about their basic and undeniable right: ‘living’. Their basic right which no one has the right to take it, has turned to dream. They are in the same situation with those who want to solve the mysterious galaxies. Some can catch, some fail.
Let me bring some examples to you so you see the variety of dreams in different places;
Wishes in the West: Aus, NZ, US, CA, UK…’developed’ countries: scientists, astronauts, luxuries, higher education, great economy, freedom…
Wishes in war-torn countries: food, mum, dad, siblings, school, play toys, new clothes and most importantly peace and water.
When you ask most of the people from war torn countries what his/her/their wishes are, you’ll most likely hear one basic thing: surviving his/her/their families lest they starve to death. If you ask from the children in these countries, your answer is already given if you listen.
– Asif Rahimi 2018 (Balikpapan Detention, Indonesia)
My name is Erfan, I’m 21 years of age now. I’m a Hazara refugee originally from Afghanistan. I felt threatened and obliged to flee my motherland due to ongoing war and everyday fighting in Afghanistan. I arrived in Indonesia in 2014 when I was only 18 years of age. Since then I have been incarcerated and in a state of constant uncertainty in one of Indonesia’s detention centres. After many years of imprisonment, I still don’t know how much longer my fellow inmates and I have to stay in this prison camp before our freedom comes. Writing and fighting for everyone’s freedom is my passion.
Dana’s work has been published by Charles Town Maroon International Conference Magazine, June 2018, Writing Through Fences, and in various news outlets.
Photographer: Azad, Indonesia, 2018
Unremitting, incurable pain
For some pain we can’t do anything to heal it
For some pain we can’t cry.
We can’t shout too loudly.
We can’t express our pain to anyone.
We can’t find a cure for it.
We can only feel the heaviness of it and, in silence,
break down into pieces and burn for it slowly, so slowly…
We will be free
Our stolen time and freedom will be given to us again.
Our exhausted minds and hearts will be restored.
We will start re-building our shattered lives in freedom.
We will re-start living in the heart of beautiful, calm and clean nature
without being surrounded with black, despicable high fences
and closed metallic doors and sharp-barbed wires.
My heartfelt clear message to the rest of my brothers
still detained in the corner of dark detention centres in Indonesia and across the world.
We will start flying in blue skies like free birds
We will outlive again.
(Balikpapan Detention, Indonesia)
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I did not leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison” – Nelson Mandela.
This is one of my favourite quotes. From the first time I read it I resolved to bury forever my own hatred and bitterness about the dark days I have experienced in this prison. I understood that if I didn’t reject the pull of resentment, I’d never recover from the immense psychological damage I have suffered here. I promised myself not to dwell on the ways some of the people who were entrusted with our care here mistreated us.
Those in charge were the employees of a cruel system designed to kill the human spirit and destroy hope. They humiliated us in the worst ways possible. They killed our hopes of finding a safe shelter, confining us in disgraceful conditions that lacked even basic amenities, let alone educational and recreational facilities. We felt this was done to punish us for seeking safety and peace in their land. We refugees feared for our existence.
I will need enormous strength and tolerance to forget the people who kept me captive for years when I had committed no crime, but had come here only to live in peace. It would be easy to feel resentful that the years of my youth were ruined by being held in detention against my will, my quest for freedom ignored and ridiculed, my values as a human disrespected. I know that recovery may be a slow process, but I am determined to set aside everything which could negatively impact on my future life.
Today as I walk toward the big, tall metal door which has confined my life for years, I will leave my anger, bitterness, sad memories and hatred behind. I will bury them here. I will go and start a new chapter of my life.
Let me confess one important thing. Without the love and immense support of my family members around the globe, and especially without the love and constant support of refugee advocates, I could not have survived here. You all supported me and loved me and encouraged me when I needed it. And I will love you all forever.
4 July 2018
My sixth day of freedom. It’s still hard to believe that I am here, living in an open and clean environment, breathing the sweet fresh air of freedom.
I no longer wake to the predictable, dreary misery of the detention centre where I spent years of my life. There are no intimidating high fences around me, no more massive locked doors to confine me to my room. No Immigration security guards chase me when I walk in the street, freely, like an ordinary person. It feels wonderful to be able to step outside and go for a morning beach walk. I relish my freedom to walk uninterrupted down a broad street bordered on both sides by tall, beautiful green trees.
From the first day I arrived here, I’ve been overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling of happiness. The accommodation – an apartment on the top floor of a four-storey building – is very good. I have a comfortable bed and a quiet room. I’m sure I will live here happily for the time being.
However, I’ve decided it’s important to build up excellent, positive relationships with the Indonesian people living in the area. Although I can’t work, I intend to participate in community volunteering services, like environmental clean-up. I’m looking forward to learning more about Indonesian culture. I will respect the local people and treat them with friendliness, and I am 100% sure that my brothers in this community will do the same.
We are all determined to do everything possible to show the people here what refugees are really like, to counteract the distorted stories the guards and prison camp officers told the locals about us, stories designed to present us as a threat. By our words and actions, those of us who are free now will work to establish good relationships with people here so that they will see who we really are. Then they will understand our situation, and our need to live here in safety, with dignity and value.
To my brothers in prison camps, know that I can’t be spiritually happy and free until you are all free and safe.
by John Mateer
Reviewed by BONNY CASSIDY
Speaking recently in Adelaide, the expatriate Australian theorist Sneja Gunew proposed that nations are the museums of identity. I took her to mean that, regardless of our status as foreigner/visitor or citizen/member, we tour them—we observe national identity being curated and performed. But can we resign from identifying our self through nationality; can we inhabit another kind of space that is not even partly defined by it?
In João, John Mateer insists that we – or, at least, that he – can. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Robert Wood concludes of the book: ‘This is its post-colonial hope, not that we forget empire but that we enter more fully into our own histories, experiences, and observations as a way to see where we are now.’ In the past, Mateer has been burned by cultural transgression. His response has been to go deeper into a meditation on displacement and self, to excuse his poetry from the responsibility or expectation of representing nationality.
At one point in João, the titular persona regretfully snaps at Gary Snyder for querying his nationali-ty, as if it could be a subject of interest beyond customs counters. For João, existence is a constant effort to find release from this static and collective identity. In this collection a postcolonial reading of Mateer’s poetics intersects with the Buddhist concepts with which he frames and guides the poems. In particular, these concepts refer to anattā or non-self, and rebirth. It is a fruitful, intri-cate combination that troubles the illusion of selfhood – and anything as lumpen as a nationalistic identity – through the arts of moving, seeing and expression.
Signifiers of Buddhism can be found in the architecture of the book. Its concentric, mandala-like arrangement seems to circumambulate the poems’ themes and personae. The first, long sequence of sonnets, ‘Twelve Years of Travel’ is bookended by images of mummified corpses: emblems of our corporeal emptiness. They are husks that reassure João of his travelling nature. The second, short sequence, ‘Memories of Cape Town’, opens and closes with images of ‘the Void’, or Śūnyatā. Here, Mateer provides a simile for João, who is a hollow persona; and also a larger concept to describe João’s motile way of moving through the world.
The nature of poetic voice in João is also informed by Buddhism. From the first sonnet, at a Japa-nese temple:
He closed his eyes, felt lost, slowly
recalling, within the depths of his dim, honeycomb body
and the monk,
blessing them with a long leafy branch, beckoned
him in to also pay homage to the transparent box,
the mummified saint. João heard: He could also be you…
João is narrated in the third-person and past tense. The voice is Mateer’s – or a simulacrum of authorial perspective – and it is addressed to João, Mateer’s alter-ego. This complicated handling of voice establishes the sense of an immediacy, a presence, that has passed into a cloud of resonance and metamorphosis; a ricochet between self and non-self. The persona of João is a delicious lyric tactic with plenty of critical potential. Mateer can make the character as thick or thin as he likes, and ‘explain’ nothing. This flexibility is poetry’s prerogative and it also serves Mateer’s themes. In João, the narrative construction is most agile when Mateer takes potshots at his persona’s cosmopolitanism and questions his ego: ‘Could that be the loss he needs to unremember? Who knows?’ It calcifies when he errs into the role of pervy, melancholy flaneur or clingy nostalgia: ‘João, like the watching servants, was alone, forgotten.’ Mateer’s attempts to maintain a suspended, ironic perspective on João is necessarily flawed. Some of these flaws are insightful, delivered with Mateer’s typical, self-parodying note; others, which I’ll turn to a little later, are less obviously knowing but remain consistent with the book’s theme of a constant struggle to exit self-interest.
In ‘Twelve Years of Travel’, each sonnet contributes a picaresque episode that defines place along the axis of time. João is Odysseus – or, more appropriately, Vasco de Gama – never returning home, because he recognises no such referent. Or perhaps he is Bashō, seeking home and family in always new forms and abodes. From Venice to Honolulu, Mateer defines place by inhabitation and by its having been witnessed: ‘Naples begins with two Nigerians on a train’. By the same rule, places disappear, like a page turning, when the protagonist decides to exit. In China:
Remembering the clay warriors, the horsemen and commanders, each
dedicated to the habit of war, that human selfishness,
João tells himself: ‘Become Nothingness, that golden wilderness!’
Rather than diaristic, though, the rhythm of the book is essayistic. The usual Mateer tropes are here: ghosts, doubles, shadows, angels (including Singaporean poet, Cyril Wong). While familiar, they do provide thematic motifs that remind us of Mateer’s philosophical concerns. The Shakespearean sonnet form achieves a neat topping and tailing of each episode, whilst creating a resonant echo. To his credit Mateer casually inhabits the form, frequently employing imperfect or even blank end rhymes when an image calls for release:
Deep in this tropical cinema João, somewhere,
swam with turtles and nymphs, followed endless, lava-strewn roads.
A limp conclusion, however, is sometimes the result of a forced rhyming couplet:
their feet sensing an intricate, inland maze.
Watching them on that mandala, João was silently, joyously amazed.
The romance of the sonnet, a form that always resembles a heaving and corseted bosom, is one example of the tension within João’s journeying. Mateer’s exoticisation of João’s travels is unashamed: every place is fantastic, such as the hellishly ‘baroque’ Naples and the ‘cinema’ of Hawaii’s landscapes. In this mode, Mateer is committed to reminding us that ‘poems are … only the heard, overheard’. But João’s view of the world – which is also the view held by the authorial narrator – is constantly threatening to narrow and stagnate. An appreciation of passing beauty becomes a reflection of João’s selfhood—his aesthetics, his tastes, his history. He struggles to abandon his African upbringing, the temptation to a sense of fixed belonging: ‘João left the dinner, yearning for Africa, unconfused.’ Similarly, the locus of cultural influence that has occupied Mateer’s recent books – Portugal and its empire – remains a constant touchstone throughout João.
While such texts including The Quiet Slave (2017) and Unbelievers, or the Moor (2013) achieve a sense of situated history – time on the axis of ideology, custom and language – the sonnets of João drag their anchors along. João tries to belong nowhere, owe nothing, and leave no trace of himself. While Mateer explores João’s struggle to achieve this, none of the secondary characters play an active part in the struggle, least of all João’s string of female lovers. In João, women are given a role that serves the persona’s suspension of self. The introduction of a woman leads several of the sonnets in ‘Twelve Years of Travel’, she often taking the form of a local guide or former lover. There is yearning, sentimentality, sympathy, even ‘fatherliness’ on the part of João, but the typical outcome of his meetings with women is sexual. Are they destinations of embodiment, then; reminders of mutability? The importance of sex to the book’s themes is undoubtable: it’s where João is reminded most constantly of being ‘a simple corpse, unhaunted fetish.’ But to undertake such a traditionally patriarchal deployment of female bodies and voices seems an inconsistently uncritical habit. Mateer’s representation of women has been questioned before. Paul Hetherington, reviewing Unbelievers for the Sydney Review of Books, remarked that it ‘risks being implicated in the exploitative tropes that it tries to subvert and critique.’ In João the accumulation of women’s names (which, like the locations in the book, generally appear once and then evaporate into memory) comes to resemble a diary of conquest—an irony of mode that I am unsure is deliberate. Significantly, they are rarely writers (one is a novelist, and João is mistaken for her husband) although some are permitted the role of angelic translators. Correcting him, humouring him, encouraging him, or gently ridiculing him, they may be intended as a parodic tool in João’s pathway to non-self; but, as Robert Wood has pointed out, ultimately women become yet more reflections of João.
This gendered tradition is impotent and tired, lacking reflexivity. Could Mateer have more deeply troubled the concept of stable selfhood; could he have widened the parodic gap between ego and alter-ego? Could he have brought them uncomfortably, searchingly closer? At one point João agrees that JM Coetzee is a ‘science fiction’ writer, a remark that comparatively highlights the safeness of Mateer’s collection. Perhaps Mateer’s commitment to owning João is crucial to the philosophy of discomfort behind these poems, yet it also keeps them slackly, comfortably tethered to authenticity.
This is a problem because authenticity of self is questioned by the very order of the book’s two parts. Its second sequence, the succinct ‘Memories of Cape Town’ features Mateer’s authorial voice, narrating the younger João through the perspective of the older João. The placement of the childhood memories after the long travel sequence, reminds us of ‘voidness’, that childhood is not a ‘key’ to a constant self. Rather, João’s memories (or the narrator’s memories of them) are focused on negations of fixity. In this childhood, João desired to ‘stow away’ in order to avoid becoming ‘castaway’. His model is an uncle Carlos, born in Rio and with a ‘tour guide mode, switching languages’ while driving his nephew through Cape Town: this is where young João learns to see ‘the world anew’. Here, also, is a grandmother from somewhere placeless ‘between India / and grim London’, who in João’s eyes is awesome for ‘being lost’: this is where he learns mournfully that he may not claim ‘to be African’. Here is where he learns cynicism about national futures, particularly neocolonial ones; and the ‘Queen’s English’ features more than once as a revelation ‘untrue’ identity. Finally, in these episodes from Cape Town, João learns of fate: the archetypal journey in which ‘Men roam the world to be fatherless’.
Is Mateer saying that existence is a realisation of a predictable plot? Is this his doubt? Is João’s wandering pre-determined by something other than karma? Or is there another, more consistent understanding of the idea? Its Old Testament view seems at odds with the book’s central references to non-self and voidness. As the last line of ‘Memories from Cape Town’ proffers: ‘Mother is space, and her depths you’. In light of the latter concepts, I do not read this ‘Mother’ as the feminised, Marian type, critiqued by Darren Aronofsky’s namesake film of 2017; instead, it seems appropriate to interpret ‘Mother’ as Saṃsāra—the cycle of birth and rebirth. Is Mateer, therefore, reinterpreting fatherlessness as a description of release from this cycle?
Here I want to return to Gunew’s gambit about nations. If nations are museums of identity, João is the ultimate museum-goer. Always guest and local, he tours destinations like vast, curious dioramas. He is rarely frightened of otherness, rather, he finds a source of common humanity and beauty wherever he goes. As Mateer reiterates: ‘We know João, our poet, loves museums, objects and their fame’. He loves aura in the Benjaminian sense of the word. He loves history, its cumulative layers and relational tangents. But this doesn’t mean he loves nationality, that is, collective identity based on citizenship.
Since Southern Barbarians (2011) Mateer has resolutely steered away from Australian referents and settings in his poems. I miss Australia in Mateer’s poetry; not because it somehow validates Australia’s national claim upon him, or because I want to recognise my own heritage in what I read, but because his Australian poems were fearless and grungy. In mode, they remind me of John A Scott’s contemporaneous poems, with their surreal scapes and meta-narration. In João, Mateer sets one poem in Victoria, at the Portuguese festival at Warrnambool—a celebration of pre-British identity in the Australian founding narrative, and a less familiar image of modern settlement. I enjoyed its collage of unfixed horizon points, its freedom from defining ‘multiculturalism’. Yet, in the manner of the book’s lesser style, it is a romantic sonnet to a lost love around which otherness is a pretty frame. I respect that Mateer’s voice has grown away from his earlier style, but I do wonder: what does João see when he visits Mateer’s home in Perth? Is it the globular suburbia of Corey Wakeling’s The Alarming Conservatory? Wakeling is a poet whose migrant parents inflect and also inflict his sense of Perth’s mediocrity; he also now sets himself elsewhere, looking back and forward to an Australia that is the subject of nostalgia, memory, long distance travel and calls. A comparative reading of space and place in these two recent books from Giramondo might yield interesting dialogues.
In João the stateless states of ex-patriate and Buddhist meet one another. They reveal one another. Being at home with being a constant visitor, learning how to be ‘lost’, is João’s path to enlightenment:
a passing through this world into deeper memory,
a searching for what’s beyond Elsewhere, an enquiry
into your previous lives
In this context, nationality is the most base illusion of selfhood and João’s physical travel is a portal out of the self. If he is a fantasy of fatherlessness, then João’s previous lives need not reside with the identity of his author-narrator. If he is a form or a product of meditation, João might reveal more than the current material body through which he passes. Fitfully, Mateer continues to craft proof of what does not exist.
BONNY CASSIDY is the author of three poetry collections, and lectures in Creative Writing at RMIT University, Melbourne. She is feature reviews editor of Cordite Poetry Review and co-editor of the Anthology of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter Publishers, 2016). Bonny’s essays of criticism and poetics have been published widely in Australia and internationally.