Natalie Owen-Jones reviews Another Babylon by Vlanes
University of Queensland Press
Another Babylon is the first collection of Vlanes (or Vladislav Nekliaev); it was the recipient of the 2010 Thomas Shapcott Prize and its author has been a Brisbane-based poet since 2001. His Russian heritage and rich experience of languages remain an intriguing counterpoint to his poems: born in Astrakhan, Russia, he emigrated first to Athens and then to Australia and has an active linguistic life that encompasses not only Russian and English (and, as Jena Wodehouse says in her launch of the collection, he did not step foot in an English-speaking country before he was thirty), but Latin and ancient and modern Greek.
This counterpoint makes itself felt in the freshness, even slight ‘strangeness’ of Another Babylon’s combinations of language, rhyme and metre (I am thinking of the word in the sense of Heidegger’s Unheimlich and not as a marker of awkwardness). This is unsurprising in the case of a prolific and gifted translator and tends to give Vlanes’s poems themselves the particularly arresting air of translated poetry I have always found attractive. Ultimately this setting, whether relevant to the poems’ conception or not, leads us to the subtler complexities of a volume attuned to the treasures and losses of new homes found within the old, and the continual recreation of the ancient.
The poet’s ‘Babylon’ is a concept entirely placed, as he tells us in the closing, title, poem, within his body. Upon waking, the speaker says ‘by the breath in my lungs / I pump a cool gust over my Babylon’, and that ‘the pulsation of my awakening heart / populates my Babylon with shouting people’ (111). It is a gesture that refocuses the whole volume’s pervasive awareness of the body, and its exploration of the connections between the body, poetry and the statues, friezes and other physical remains of an ancient culture’s art and people that is one of the most fascinating strengths of this volume.
We encounter it first in ‘Mother bathing’, as the speaker looks
at the enormous plateaux of her hazel eyes
populated, like Babylon itself,
with garden-growing nations
where a nomad
need no longer thirst for home. (22)
A few poems later there is a different mother, yet she alludes to this same impulse. ‘Mother Tiamut’ is the Sumerian mother-goddess, half of whose body, after she was killed by Marduk, was used to create the earth, and the other half to create paradise and the underworld. In this, one of many portraits of artefacts in Vlanes’s book, Tiamut holds a pomegranate
while Time, her hungry cub,
bites off a piece
now of the fruit’s crimson
now of her vermilion fingers,
as the goddess smiles
to sample absence. (30)
The spare, measured grace of this short poem is indicative of Vlanes’s style, which achieves a wonderful balance between a restrained, allusive classicism and the rich, visceral imagery of the body’s life and death. The collision in this poem between rock and flesh (echoed in its combination of structured brevity and pungent language) is a signature of this volume, repeated in many different situations and coloured by different moods. In ‘Men and monsters’, the speaker is playful; he visits the temple and looks at the ‘simple columns and friezes’:
The broad-eared twin brothers,
armed with an axe and a saw,
attack a lurid serpent
stretched all the way to the temple door.
So many strikes,
but the serpent lives on
rolling his chiselled eyes
and chewing a large moon.
He comes to a statue of a young goddess and, leaving offerings at her feet, a kiss on ‘her narrow toe-ring / made of streaky lazurite’, he says, [I]
…then dash out
and climb the hissing stairs
to help the twin brothers
or perhaps the serpent. (9)
In ‘Procession’ the speaker gazes at a frieze of a funeral procession:
A dead king on a chariot,
his face like a mountain valley
beaten by storm, swathed in evening mist.
This is more than metaphorical; we learn that the king is no longer visible on the frieze, only his female slaves walking behind the chariot, where they are ‘singing in unison’ and ‘pace in pairs / with slender flasks of poison’. It is a beautifully poignant image of loss and strangely, as Vlanes goes on to suggest, freedom:
You can also see
on the other side of this mortuary
a throng of freshly woven souls
stepping out of the plaster walls:
they no longer know who is king,
who is woman, who is a horse,
but cling together
and then burst scattering
over the sun-smeared grass,
while the procession continues
and women enter
through the eager door,
and the living sing louder
for those who sing no more. (100)
This picture of the endless procession of lives traversing the boundary of life and death is one example of how this threshold is echoed throughout his book in transformations of body and stone. I feel the presence of an Orphean impulse within many of Vlanes’s poems: he taps that animating principle of poetry that wants to bring the dead to life, to recover the lost. It is, above all, a belief in the power of poetry.
In the way this belief is often manifest in inanimate figures finding life, or new life, there is a parallel movement in his work of the ephemeral finding solid form and flesh calcifying into stone. In ‘On the roof’ the speaker imagines that
The raw tablet of my body
with writing pressed through it
bakes in the sun and grows hard:
soon nothing can be added
to the syntax of my veins and wrinkles (57)
In ‘A passage from Gilgamesh’ the ‘clay tablet’ drinks in the beauty of sunset, as the light ‘fills the wayward / depressions in the clay / with triangles of trembling cerise’, and leaves Gilgamesh ‘glowing on its own / now that the sun has gone’ (3).
This reciprocity in his work, between the world and poetry, and the alive and the ancient, expands to the relationship of heaven and earth through his recurrent vertical imagery: ziggurats, walls, mountains and trees are frequently central to the poems, as are the concepts of gravity and weight of heaven. In ‘The load of heaven’ the speaker’s reveries on gods and demons and ‘planets spiralling, ever steeper, / towards the dreary disk of the Sun’, make ascension to heaven seem a waiting accident:
I realise how much weight,
how much effort
it takes heaven
to keep me down.
And when I kiss
your moth-like fluttering eyelids,
it nearly fails.
His intriguing concern of where we humans belong, spatially, in the worlds of earth, heaven and hell, joins the play of gods and demons throughout the poems to express an awareness of the diametrical forces of creation not surprising in a volume so placed in the world of Sumerian mythology. In ‘A round bowl’, the inner wall of the large bowl is decorated with Sumerian creatures: ‘a green-tongued lion’ with ‘a mane / of jumbled lapis hairs’, a ‘frisky griffin’ with ‘thin feathered paws’ and ‘catfish fin’:
The animals stand still,
frightened by the outpour
of a clanging crystal
cascade of water
with pitch black hair:
like good and evil
in a deadly knot,
rushing to create
a new world. (42)
So many poems in this collection have caught the air of myth. There is a self-contained quality, as if the poems belong in their recurrent images of bowls, asking to be returned to and gazed at again and again until what they are teaching us is learnt. Creating Another Babylon is an invocation of order, a coagulation of difference and randomness into the flesh of the written word and the body. And yet, this invocation knowingly fails, the poems realising that it is through the broken vases and statues eaten by time that life shines through. One of the most beautiful poems of the volume, so wisely chosen to be the first, places this lesson of mythology in entirely human terms:
From the unseen sea
my mother brought a crab
wrapped in a silken wave
that hugged him like home.
I remember the knocking
of his claws on the wooden floor,
his boisterous brown certainty
that the sea was behind the door.
For two days he roamed my room,
on the third he understood.
His twinkling pinheads
stared and stared at me.
I promised to carry him back,
where I did not know.
He waited, dry, in a pine box
for a year before it was lost.
The dragonfly-god took it away
and flew at once to the sea,
knelt in the lazurite sand
and wrenched off the latch.
I never knew
that it takes a death
and a broken promise
for a dream to come true. (1)