FRESH Tuesday, December 5th, 2017
I am always struck by the immense variability of human experience; the little and big differences that amount to the conditions of our individual and collective identities. The task of poetry is to write this nebulous, subjective humanity, while also probing the inefficiencies of the language we have to create and understand something so frustratingly out of grasp.
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Thursday, November 30th, 2017
Reading for a Quiet Morning by Petra White
GloriaSMH Press, 2017
Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball
Ginninderra Press, 2017
Approaching new work from such sharp, prolific and often dazzling poets as Magdalena Ball and Petra White is arguably no job for a quiet morning. Both White’s Reading for a Quiet Morning and Ball’s Unmaking Atoms demand (and duly reward) close attention. The perusal of such multi-layered, expansive texts is more suited, perhaps, to the intensity of early evenings, the drawn-out moments of twilight. For there is strident and persistent music erupting from both of these collections; sometimes it might seem serene, but more often the tune that floods out of the text feels more like an intense, liturgical dirge.
White’s mini-epic poem, ‘How the Temple Was Built’, which comprises the first half of her collection, reveals an authoritative voice delivering what feels like a Ted Hughes-inspired sermon on a new Ezekiel myth. The lens here, however, is distinctly female, the account feminist, and the protagonist, Ezekiel, the love-tortured, wife-haunted prophet who, like the bones he sees revivified, seems eternally ‘bruised with an ache / made not by the world.’ The imagery is often stark, always sublime and sometimes completely unexpected, bombarding the reader with free-flowing, often paradoxical image associations as we explore the ‘shimmery darkness’ residing inside a far too secular God. And all the while, humanity is being examined in turn by this same God: ‘What is a human. / Absorbed in their own existence / as the bees that bristle the air.’
In this study of prophetic vision and new mythology, the process of creation is a mess:
He made, oh what order did he make it in?
Time, space, darkness, light, air, water, earth.
Kicked off by sudden expansion
of something out of nothing.
A whole second he devoted to galaxies,
gleaning himself into the rip of black holes.
Planets cascaded like ash from his sleeve.
It quickly went out of control.
Everything started creating itself.
And the creator, insecure: ‘I barely recognise / the people I made. Am I God?’
Esther, the fictitious wife of Ezekiel (not to be confused with the Esther of the Old Testament), is arguably the most fascinating character in this plethora of biblical curios. Reinvented after revealing ‘the white wings of her death’, Esther becomes an angelic or goddess-like figure. ‘Bright light … bleeds and cries into the corners of the weak woman, the love machine, / she who falters,’ as Esther is metamorphosed from mourned wife into a type of foil to God, or at least the one who ‘lingers in the dark leftovers of Paradise’, berating the questioning, self-pitying, remorseful creator: ‘You fool, the world is / sweet birdsong and gross battle.’ The tone throughout is playful yet the subject matter is anything but. And the mythology surrounding Esther is both poignant and haunting:
She shivers in her wings. She is like a human
with no human part. Human enough to feel
all the grief, the waiting. Having to be somebody
in the face of nothing.
Indeed, this entire mini-epic is haunted. Ezekiel is haunted by God, yet also by the wifely expression of Esther; God is haunted by the goddess face of Esther; and Esther is haunted by the ghost of own self – the ‘mortal immortal’.
On facing what could be yet another reimagined quasi-biblical Miltonesque epic poem, the potential reader might well balk, but any speculative reservations are soon overcome by the sheer authority and gravity of White’s voice, by the elegiac music of the driving rhythms, by the authenticity of the characterisations (and, yes, this is a poem that concerns itself strongly with characterisation) and the potency of the imagery.
Faced with the difficult task of following this leviathan, the second section of Reading for a Quiet Morning, ‘Landscapes’, and the untitled third section of the collection, feel a little less cohesive and more bowerbird-like in terms of thematic layering and context. There is, again, plenty of myth to be had here, and not a little reimagining of it. We see a pining Jocasta naming herself, ‘A thing that was happened to’; the Sphinx’ the fantastical female executioner of Anne Boleyn; and inspired versions of Rilke’s old favourites. And yet there are simple, domestic relationship concerns here and social occasions ranging from weddings to funerals. In ‘The voice of Doom’, however, the fierce and recurrent concern of this collection is unearthed: ‘Love / that is made of words, / will be made of words that can be eaten,’ and we witness the vast aching void of word-eating especially in the elegiac ‘Filial’:
I unpick the stitches
of love from my coat and try to separate it
from the facts.
She survived her life but she was wrong,
call that a fact that crawls like an ant
away from the poem.
In ‘Filial’, a staggering sense of loss is consumed by the intensity of the imagery, or is perhaps subsumed in the fierce and wretched voice of longing for else or other. Yet the quest to move past it all, and an appreciation for those that can, is even more palpable in ‘The Seeming’, one of the collection’s shortest yet strongest poems:
she travels through the day half-mad,
one foot in front of the other.
People are marvellous,
those who go about their business.
This poem concludes: ‘Something makes them surge.’ That same ‘Something’ makes this entire collection surge; these poems are lit up and muse-inspired, mini Ezekiels all in the face of baffling Gods.
Magdelena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms grapples with a similar staggering sense of personal loss, mapping out the profundity of grief-altered states of being. This collection reveals a quirky (dare it be said) science-based spirituality, and enquires into what it means to be, and to continue to simply be, in the midst of trauma. The poem, ‘Beginner’s Mind’, succinctly dissects the struggle to continue:
If I weren’t here, sitting stock still
counting intake and outtake of breath
with each bony click
that says “still alive”
but not quite living
I could be on my way somewhere
this even respiration turned ragged gasp
running, like Buddha himself
into glory, like you did
lips parted in ultimate freedom
leaving me with all this
all this breath.
The poems of Unmaking Atoms, while on the surface exploring a penchant for the endless bifurcations of astrophysics, Buddhist spirituality and contemporary psychology, more aptly grapple with what it is to be human in a world dealing with its own extinctions and loss of foreseeable futures. In this collection, grief, both horribly personal yet also global, is coupled with a sense of wonder at the endless continuation that occurs in the aftermath of devastation. Divided into seven sections, these ambitious poems tackle everything from mirror neurons to hieroglyphics, leaving space in between for meetings with both private ghosts and a haunted ecology.
There is much to love in this collection that, though lengthy, never feels overwrought. The Australian bushland settings of some poems feel familiar and almost comfortable, from forest scenes such as in ‘Mirror Neurons’, where we feel the ‘eucalyptus crunch / choir of bats, owls, wuk-wuk’, to the beloved ‘Redhead Beach’, where we can bask in well-loved landscapes:
the water hitting the shore
in patterns fully familiar
the rocky outcrops
Other poems such as ‘Absences’ take us into dreamscapes as far away as the afterlife:
I’m not really there
but your ghost bleeds
through the rooms
trailing my lacuna with milky
vapour, like ghosts do,
all ectoplasm and wind
your body given up to longing
ten thousand miles
away across time
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
Collected Poems by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Giramondo Publishing, 2016
It can be daunting to survey a poet’s life work: there is the temptation to ‘make sense’ of the work as one coherent picture – to see it steadily developing in one trajectory, or honing one aesthetic (with deviations from this measured and marked) – or else as containing discreet phases which have beginnings and ends. While this impulse can be insightful in the right instance, it can also gloss over a diversity of approaches, corralling aberrant poems into categorical coves. In reviewing the Collected Poems of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, I have let myself see patterns across time when they occur, without being constrained by expectation – although the array of aesthetics in Mehrotra’s poetry encourages the desire to look for patterns.
This collection presents a substantial body of work by one of India’s most renowned contemporary poets. It includes selections from Mehrotra’s four original poetry collections –Nine Enclosures (1976), Distance in Statute Miles (1982), Middle Earth (1984) and The Transfiguring Places (1998) – along with uncollected poems, a significant number of new ones, and Mehrotra’s translations of old and new Indian verse. The translations make up a quarter of the book, and include ancient Prakrit love poetry; the songs of the fifteenth century iconoclastic Bhakti poet, Kabir; and work by modern and contemporary Indian poets Nirala, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Pavankumar Jain, and Mangalesh Dabral. The range of the book’s content reflects Mehrotra’s compulsion to dive into anything that interests him – from surrealism and Beat poetry to mystic songs.
The book opens with an author’s note:
Just as some children when they grow up want to become snake charmers or railway engine drivers, I wanted at seventeen when I started writing to become a book. Not any book but a volume in, say, the Arden Shakespeare, or one in the uniform edition in the works of Walter Scott. The latter held particular appeal because it covered from end to end an entire shelf of my uncle’s library, the books standing to attention like a platoon of soldiers in green jackets with gold buttons.
This arresting image offers a twist on the adolescent fantasy of ‘being a writer.’ Mehrotra’s desire to be bookish (a metamorphosis that is both quotidian and fantastic) foreshadows the interactions between self and things in the poems that follow. Such respect for objects – whether book, potato, cell phone, bra, ant, wash basin, the list goes on – is evident across Mehrotra’s poetry. Surrealism is a useful context in which to read the progression of Mehrotra’s work. As he notes, ‘For me who started writing in the 1960s, the discovery of surrealism helped resolve the awful contradictions between the world I wanted to write about, the world of dentists and chemist shops, and the language, English, I wanted to write in.’ Surrealism allowed Mehrotra to accommodate his own reality – in Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh in the north of India – to English literary language, with its dominant (realist) representational uses, and its associations with British and American landscapes and subjects.
The other context useful for tracking Mehrotra’s trajectory is his keen interest in modern American poetry: ‘the American speech I now heard (in the Penguin Modern Poets 5, published in 1963) seemed closer to our everyday English in Allahabad than anything I’d read before.’ The implication is that both uses of English were fresh, and therefore suited to each other. The influence of modern American poetry is evident from the earliest work presented in the Collected Poems. ‘Ballad of the Black Feringhee’ (in ‘Uncollected Poems 1972-1974’) begins with an epigraph by the American Objectivist poet Carl Rakosi:
I would rather sing folk songs against injustice
and sound like ash cans in the early morning
or bark like a wolf
from the open doorway of a red-hot freight
than sit like Chopin on my exquisite ass.
Rakosi’s voice is direct, fierce, and anti-pretention: qualities that appealed to the young Mehrotra. In poems such as ‘On the Death of a Sunday Painter,’ Mehrotra admonishes through satire genteel artists who don’t get their hands dirty, and who remain aloof from their subjects. This is an affectation that Mehrotra is fond of, and that’s also conveyed in the striking cover image of the grey-haired poet inhaling a lit cigarette (the ash at the tip out of focus, the cigarette’s ring of fire burning towards him) while staring directly at the camera lens. The poet’s eyes are clear and hard, suggesting an appraising relationship with the world.
‘Ballad of the Black Feringhee’ is an Indian version of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’ (1956). While both poems feature a rambling narrator, Ginsberg’s poem is characterised by its political overtones and anger, in contrast to the quiet melancholy of the former. Feringee is a derogatory term for an outsider in India, particularly one with white skin. A black feringee suggests the archaic use of the term, to mean someone of Indian-Portuguese parentage. The poem is playful in the early and middle sections before melancholy creeps in. The ending combines these moods:
India your police stations are little Siberias
India when they come for me I’ll put on a clean shirt
India there’s no need to hide your large teeth
India what a big nose you have
India remember the pile of ash on Mandelstam’s left shoulder
India don’t destroy yourself in slow motion.
The introduction of fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood) into the end of this poem about India, inspired by an iconic poem about America, shows the heterogeneity of Mehrotra’s imagination. In these early poems we see the shaping of a voice through the interplay of an American idiom, surrealism, and a visual, object-oriented aesthetic, all carried by a measured yet informal diction. This poetic rucksack (travel is an ever-present theme in the Collected Poems, as I explore below) is capacious enough to hold poetic monologues (‘Songs of the Ganga’, ‘Remarks of an Early Biographer’), tender poems about family (‘Continuities’, Genealogies’, ‘Canticle for my Son’), domestic poems, poems about street life, the occasional villanelle or ballad, and lists.
In the beginning sections of the book, including uncollected work as well as Nine Enclosures and Distance in Statute Miles, startling surrealist images present themselves casually. For instance, ‘I / must … / straighten my eye with a hammer’ in ‘Between Bricks, Madness’, which sees the world of labour as strange and dreamlike:
[…] when a naked man
a flat-eyed goat on his back
dances upon the steps of sunset
Such lines evoke the great surrealist painters. In ‘Songs of the Ganga,’ the poet tells us, ‘From the leopard [I learn] / how to cover the sun / With spots’. This poem is an interesting case of surrealism working in tandem with Hindu mythology, where the river Ganga (Anglicised as Ganges) is routinely personified as a goddess. The poem begins:
I am Ganga
I am the plains
I am the foothills
I carry the wishes of my streams
To the sea
I am both man and woman
To me the poem critiques western art categories, challenging them to accommodate religious mythology. This poem is representative not only of the surrealist monologue in Mehrotra’s work, but also of the list poem, which can be explained by his way of being in the world: in the Collected we encounter the poet as botanist, taxonomer, geographer, cartographer, mythographer, naming and numbering the things in his environment. We’re shown the poet in action in this mode in ‘Classification,’ which begins with plants – ‘Are trees vertebrate? Spikenards are’ – before moving on to bones.
Thursday, November 9th, 2017
Rallying by Quinn Eades
UWA Publishing, 2017
Les Belles Lettres by Gabrielle Everall
General Chaos Publishing / Girls on Key, 2017
St Ignatius of Loyola is supposed to have said: ‘Give me a boy until the age of seven, and I will own the man’. Well, the Baptists had me for a lot longer than my first seven years, and subsequently, I have lived a most conventional life. My politics might be progressive but my instincts are terribly conservative. These two books are indispensable because, in bearing witness to the scarring caused by homophobia, inequality and unsafe socialisation, they disrupt prejudice, including my own, and celebrate plurality. Eades and Everall are not just great poets. They are buoys of hope.
In his recent launch speech for Alan Wearne’s These Things Are Real, at Melbourne’s Collected Works Bookshop, Philip Salom praised Wearne for having the courage to go out into the world, thus rejecting contemporary poetry’s obsession with the self. Now, Wearne writes unforgettable dramatic monologues, creating actors that fizz with all the messiness and glory of life, but he is not a psychologist or confessor, and one could argue that all his creations are in fact versions of himself. Ultimately, what we are all left with is our own way of being in this thorny world. This is perhaps what the Melbourne singer-songwriter and poet, Brendan Bonsack, had in mind recently when he posted on Facebook about writing the ‘I’ in poetry. In his post, Bonsack included this gem by the indomitable Ania Walwicz: ‘I want to be a camera. I want to catch my life. And keep it’. Both Quinn Eades and Gabrielle Everall accept this challenge by Walwicz, and while they have very different approaches to writing ‘the self’, their poetry shines with all the dramatic tensions and juxtapositions of Wearne.
Eades employs little of Everall’s dazzling and far-ranging techniques of imagery and historical allusion, but the way in which he centres his highly fraught and revealing recounts in such direct and plain language are remarkable. In ‘Echo’ Eades writes:
Repetition. When I take away punctuation I move to repetition.
What is missing when I write my child
hood what I leave out is
what should come what I leave
out is what should come out from
this pen this pen writes what is missing
when I write my child
hood without punctuation I resort
to repetition which is also reiteration this
happened stop repeating yourself is what
I think because what is repetition but an echo why
do you ache towards echo
There is desperation in these lines; a searching and precise awkwardness captured in those skilfully managed line divisions. The obliterated punctuation markers signal such vulnerability to the damaging and often-repeated injustices inflicted on a child unable to conform to expectations. This is poetry as a bullied kid’s angst. And while the adult ‘Quinn’ might know that it is worth hanging in there to the end, these poems often spin on the edge of self-harm and excruciating pain. Eades tells us elsewhere that in this ‘ache towards echo’ he learnt to ‘carry himself like a wound’: ‘I learnt loneliness better than I knew my own skin. I wanted to sleep, and sleep, and sleep. Everything I was, was emptiness and sleep’. Later he reads Sylvia Plath who writes: ‘the blood jet is poetry’ and knows that he must offer this correction:
blood doesn’t jet
it leaves traces
on brick, on iron, on wood
it pushes up
through the bandage weave
it holds the wound
it congeals and remembers
night alley the thunk of
the body against surfaces
that do not give
But self-harming is only part of the story. Eades adopts the name of ‘Quinn’, after giving birth to children, after the hysterectomy, ‘after she couldn’t stay at one end of the gender binary anymore’. Eades tells us:
In the beginning it feels important for all of them to call her
by her next chosen name, but she doesn’t insist. She waits. She
writes. She slides. She pauses the hunt for the next name. She takes
them all. She is
n. She takes them all and holds them inside her skin. She is all
names, for herself: she is no one named.
body under blanket
gaps in gums
the mattress is
off the floor
writing is written
baths are taken
It is this calling, this naming, that changes she to he.
Because Quinn is the name that is next, that is last.
Thursday, November 9th, 2017
Fragile World / Εύθραυστος Κόσμος by Dina Amantides
Owl Publishing, 2017
Desire by Erma Vassiliou
Owl Publishing, 2017
the pleasure of exile / η ηδονή της εξορίας by George Vassilacopoulos
Owl Publishing, 2017
thinking process by Anna Couani
Owl Publishing, 2017
Parables by Zeny Giles
Owl Publishing, 2017
Tightrope Walking / Ακροβασίες by Dimitris Troaditis
Owl Publishing, 2017
Owl Publishing is an independent press founded in June 1992 by Helen Nickas, a former lecturer in Greek Studies at La Trobe University. Owl’s overarching purpose is to publish a selection of literary works by Greek-Australians in pursuit of more diverse Australian literature, and it is run as a not-for-profit undertaking. In Nickas’s belief, Greek-Australians have a dual vision of the world, and their writing contributes something important to the Australian literary environment. Indeed, in the past quarter-century, Owl Publishing and the writers it has championed have explored many aspects of the modern Greek diaspora.
In 2014, Owl launched a series of chapbooks to showcase the diverse range of poetry being produced by both emerging and established Greek-Australian poets. The chapbook series’ editorial board consists of Peter Lyssiotis, Helen Nickas, and N N Trakakis, and each of the nine works published so far is by a different Greek-Australian poet, each at different career stages. This month I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the most recent six chapbooks in the series. Like other works published by Owl, some of the chapbooks are published in bilingual form, while others are in English only, depending on the poet’s own history and artistic choices. Below I will focus on each of the six chapbooks, but the overriding purpose of this series is important to understand, as each individual book hangs together in a kind tangled orrery of modern Greek-Australian poetry. In my view they form more than the sum of their parts as a constellation that depicts the modern Greek-Australian experience, and which also gives a view into the wider Australian experience.
Fragile World is a collection of epigrams by Dina Amantides. A distillation of her skills as a poet of minimalism, her epigrams unfold in no particular order and reel off one after another with breathless abandon. These poems tackle large concepts with as few words as possible, showcasing the unique ability of well-written poetry to communicate much with little.
Each poem was translated into English by Amantides’s husband, Kyriakos Amantides, which adds another level to reading this chapbook. Each epigram figures, then, as a letter between a married couple, rendering the act of translation even more intimate. Amantides’s epigrams are also engagements with mythology. Throughout her poems we see grand concepts personified, as the ancients did: Fury, Life, Death, Memory, Greece, the World, or God. As Amantides writes in ‘My Greece’:
I carry the whole
of Greece in my heart.
To the point I will suffocate
by her weight.
To personify Greece is not to simply identify with a physical landmass. Like many of the poets featured by Owl, Amantides’s identity and writing is rooted in Greek tradition, in ancient myths and classical dramas. Indeed, so much of Western writing is based upon techniques and structures first established by the Greek civilisation. When Amantides feels Greece’s ‘weight’, she is feeling the entirety of Greece’s culture and its tumultuous history, and even further, Greece’s immense influence in the Western world. As a Greek-Australian writer, this can be a suffocating reality, and it is one that Amantides strives well to overcome and build upon.
Erma Vassiliou has been a prolific writer in the Greek publishing world for a long time, having published much of her work under her own imprint, Aphrodite Editions. It is a pleasure to be able to read some of her best works in English for the first time in Desire. Vassiliou’s unique voice manifests in each of her poems, many of them registering a natural speaking cadence through punctuation and line breaks. Her subjects are often personal, drawing from Vassiliou’s life experiences and inner dialogues. In ‘Retro’, the reader is drawn into a delicate and personal letter to someone dearly loved:
and here you are. with your moment of grace
sitting next to me, tired and thirsty
with your suit that needs ironing
it needs handcuffs to stay,
without a movement in my presence.
The longing that Vassiliou manages to convey in only a few lines is stunning and the imagery is lasting: a ‘moment of grace’ that needs ‘handcuffs to stay / without a movement’. As Helen Nickas writes in her introduction to this chapbook, Vassiliou is a flamboyant writer. Her poems vary in topics and themes, drawing heavily on the mythical and the religious – an interesting combination of paganism and orthodoxy that is distinctly Greek.
What George Vassilacopoulos attempts in the pleasure of exile is ambitious to say the least, as is the task attempted by his assistant translators (Toula Vassilacopoulos and Peter Lyssiotis). They each collaborate and negotiate the potency of silence, the force that creates gaps but also adds weight to the words that remain in the poem. However, Vassilacopoulos’ pursuit of space, the intervals between complex and difficult concepts, comes through clearly in this collection. Both the poet and his translators are to be commended for what they have achieved. One of my favourite poems of the entire series appears in this particular chapbook, untitled as all of Vassilacopoulos’ poems are. The poem begins:
your kisses –
my caresses –
This is typical of Vassilacopoulos’s style: the gaps in the poem immediately raise questions. Does the speaker say that the kisses sacked the temples and the caresses abandoned the psalms? Or is the speaker saying that the kisses are like sacked temples, the caresses like abandoned psalms? Either interpretation completely changes the reading of the poem, and it seems likely Vassilacopoulous is activating the ambivalence of language and syntax to create a valency in the reader – is the love shared between the speaker and his lover something to be admired, or is it something that is destructive?
Anna Couani is a writer, artist, and teacher. In thinking process, the poet centres on the process of making art, producing an insider’s ekphrasis as a poet uniquely placed to write about the experience of art-making. How a work of art changes as it grows speaks not only of the artist, but also of the aleatory nature of art itself:
iris petals took on the colour
of the ivory paper
the colour of condensed milk
but demanded to be white
with bamboo pen
on khadi paper
it wasn’t meant to be a painting
Like Couani, Zeny Giles writes from experience – in this case casting the imagination to the past to focus on growing up as a first-generation Greek Australian. Giles also examines the lived experiences of her parents’ generation, the first major wave of migrants from Greece to Australia. In fact, Giles was one of the first women of Greek descent to write about the Greek-Australian migrant experience; her first novel Between Two Worlds was published in 1981. In Parables, Giles showcases her personal experiences in verse, weaving abstract ideas with threads of reality. Many of Giles’s poems focus on the tangible: yarn, clothes, sheets. The poems deftly avoid sentimentality while remaining focussed on love and its mirror, loss. Far from being religious stories, Giles’s parables involve secular objects and invoke unpretentious narrative truths:
We are left
listening to your beloved Bach
and reading over and over your story.
Tuesday, October 10th, 2017
A Transpacific Poetics
Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu, eds.
Litmus Press, 2017
Lisa Samuels’s introductory essay, ‘What Do We Mean When We Say Transpacific’, begins with a quotation from Pam Brown that is particularly well-chosen for this volume. Brown claims that the ‘authentic’ pertains to someone who isn’t manipulated or being alienated from their context. There’s a good deal in this book about alienation relating to identity and culture; many of the authors have had to fight to preserve authenticity. Samuels proceeds to discuss use of the word ‘transpacific’. She describes the way use of the name was influenced by seeing trucks in Oceania with that label, a word that denotes interactions, adding that ‘trans’ alone indicates the transitive and ‘internal difference’. She stresses that her contributors’ cultural understandings also rely on the fact that Oceania is a positive place.
Likewise, the ocean has location, but it cannot be grasped, it’s too big. Further, ‘the ocean is one example of the challenge of perceiving what exceeds single identity’ – a wonderful metaphor for the cultural diversity that this book represents. The ocean is one massive being, but rather than seeing its symbol as marginalising everything else, Samuels prefers to ponder what she calls ‘distributed centrality’. She’s a writer who likes to generate her own terminology. Invariably, her terms offer new ways of thinking.
A more familiar idea is that the ocean connects us. We are also connected by the internet, but Samuels describes the danger of likening the internet to the ocean, since the internet is English-dominated. Alternatively, she wonders what happens when the universal digitas – which she defines as ‘digital performativity with constitutive perfusing by the techne and humans involved’ – is imagined at the same time as multi-lingual, multi-local, even ‘multi-here’ variations. With this guiding thought in mind, the editors sought out writing which inhabited ‘at least two zones’ of Pacific life. Rather than being exclusionary, she wants this anthology of ‘inclusions and lacunae’ to foster other such collections.
Among other new terms, Samuels favours ‘transhuman’ over ‘post-human’, since the former seems to render the human obsolete at a lexical level, whereas ‘transhuman’ emphasises ‘the interfacing body’ and connects and ‘holds open what it means to be human’. The experiments with genre in the anthology are examples of ‘empowered re-mapping’, indicative of a cross-pollination of cultures.
Colonisation and later related manifestations brought by tourism are anterior to such desirable fusion. Extracts from Jai Arun Ravine’s ‘The Romance of Siam’ are laugh-out-loud funny, rhythmic and demotic, yet retain the undertone of concern about cultural appropriation. They employ a disingenuous technique which captures a state of mind, though it might seem at first glance to be a vernacular which is insufficiently stylised: ‘I, I have never owned the place of my, um, mother’s birth. I, I visited there once, twice and I, I want to apply for the, uh, Fulbright, too’. Later, the voice of the poem describes having pretended not to know English and suppressing everything ‘non-Thai’ just to get some sense of belonging. Ultimately, this voice feels that everything it owns is owned by a white person.
‘The Romance of the Siamese Dream’, is a short play in three acts, with overture and finale. Yul Brynner is on stage for the 4,634th performance of The King and I. But he’s dreaming. A rice cooker named Tiger appears on stage, and wants him to put his head inside. In the second act, Tiger is replaced by Anna, who is keen to teach Yul to act. She also fantasises about leaving Britain for America from the same port as the Titanic – this detail reflects a note informing the reader that the actress who played Anna falsified her past, pretending she was of English extraction. In the interest of surprise, I’ll leave the summary there, but Ravine’s work is an alarming and attractive piece of writing, which emphasises the preoccupation of the first.
By contrast, Ravine’s, ‘Under Erasure’ is a series of diary entries from Doi Saket, Bangkok and Chiang Mai during the period of a residency to make a film titled ‘TOM / TRANS / THAI’. This work seems much less engaged with its environment than one might expect, but at the same time that’s part of its point – it wants to remain detached, even if the writing runs the risk of failing to resonate. On one level, I feel that the writing needs to take courage and go deeper into its subject matter by using more detail, especially of gender-related issues – the author identifies as transgender and uses the plural personal pronoun – but part of its quite deliberate stance lies in a resistance to any expectation to foreground reflections in gender. Effectively, then, the series of diary entries embodies an important concern.
As with Ravine’s work, Don Mee Choi’s series of short prose pieces, ‘Freely Frayed’, makes its points with deft and inventive uses of language. Its first concern is the influence of American culture in Korea. ‘Hanky Yankee, are you frayed?’ it demands, and it goes on to prove itself as:
… a mimicker of mimetic words in particular. Doubled consonants or certain parts of speech that are repeated on certain occasions, which can be said to be nobody’s business, but they are since everything in English is everybody’s business. Farfar swiftswift zealzeal … In my world of nobody’s business I twirl about frantically frequently farfar to the point of failure feigning englishenglish.
The doubled words are used as a motif to open subsequent paragraphs. The author is revealed as a translator, with translation described as ‘a process of endless displacement’. Inevitably, the ‘displaced poetic identity’ of a translation in progress – of the poet Kim Hyesoon’s work – must ‘failfail’.
I confess that despite having written haiku for nearly twenty years, I am new to the form of Hay(na)ku, discussed by originator Eileen Tabios in her essay, ‘The History of Hay(na)ku’. It’s an intriguing, short form comprised of three lines of one, two and three words. Tabios claims it retains the ‘charge’ of haiku whilst including paradox evocative of Filipino culture. For me, it looks to have something in common with the cinquain as well as the haiku, with the same attendant difficulty of overcoming such arbitrary limitations. Tabios describes the origin of the name as she negotiated the reference to haiku and historical cultural implications for Filipino writers. She humbly suggests that other poets have been more successful with the form than she has herself, an idea which she accepts with the statement that any poetry ‘ultimately transcends the poet’s autobiography’.
As suggested, Samuels’s idea of ‘empowered re-mapping’ finds significant expression in many of the works. Melanie Rands fuses found text and vernacular lyric – ‘he said tell your fulla’s fulla / to talk to my fulla’ – with text and image, experimental typography, photocopied notes and drawings in a sequence which narrates passage to New Zealand on the steamer Matua (‘South of the Line [“Aloha Activities”]’). This embodied uses of page space is especially compelling:
Much more densely, Ya-Wen Ho’s text builds up markers of identity – ‘a zinester; a fosterer of cats; a lover of sunny days’ – by repeating and adding to them over five pages before the first descriptors are printed over and effectively erased (‘This List is Written by a List-maker’). Initially, the new additions continue, but then whole phrases are blocked out before a final reiteration of the whole of the text with a few omissions. The sequence conveys a reiteration of story and language and a contrasting fading away, perhaps of memory, or relevance.
Tuesday, September 26th, 2017
Brink by Jill Jones
Five Islands Press, 2017
It’s a neat twenty-five years since Jill Jones’s first book, The Mask and the Jagged Star, was published and in that time she has built for herself a reputation as a serious and ambitious poet whose work demands, and generally rewards, close reading. She is certainly not a poet of easy gestures or flashy effects.
As with Jones’s earlier collections, Brink is not a book to be turned through quickly in a coffee bar (though this may well be a good place to take it in slowly, to let yourself be absorbed in its world despite the incidental hubbub around you. It’s divided into three sections which share overlapping concerns and techniques. There’s a recurrent preoccupation with weather (indeed, climate change) and with language, its quirks and difficulties which she often, with varying success, embodies in the poems themselves.
‘The Lagoon’, the collection’s third poem, is reasonably typical of the book as a whole and has the tones of desperation and urgency that are detectable throughout. ‘The names of the gods are in the clouds,’ says the narrator, ‘and on each numberplate. / I’m counting on you wherever you may be … / Lists extend from scraps / and packages waterlogged with the moon. / The car tyre is without companions. / The lake sings a little. My consonants drown.’ Despite the negatives of the details (‘scraps’, ‘packages waterlogged’ and an abandoned ‘car tyre’) there is also a strong urge towards lyricism — literally in the case of ‘The lake sings a little’.
In a sense, ‘The Lagoon’ is also a political poem, almost an activist one, but subtle nevertheless. Its main intention is to generate a disturbing, even disorienting mood rather than to mount a case. Jones is not concerned with a line of argument from line to line but rather with the poem’s final effect.
‘Fruit’, another early poem in the book, seems at first reading an orthodox ‘nature’ poem in praise of fruit bats. As its fourteen lines of blank verse develop, however, it’s plain that the narrator doesn’t know as much as she feels she ought to about the bats and is slightly nauseated by them. Their noise is a ‘painful ache’. In the sonnet’s sestet, the implications broaden. The bats become emblematic of loss, all kinds of loss (‘ “I have to go” and people go. I have gone. / One day I shall already be gone.’) The poem ends nevertheless with a defiant optimism: ‘But the tree / still breaths, kerchak kerchak — bats / feeding their god in the guttural dark’.
At times throughout Brink, especially in poems such as ‘Speak Which’, Jones pushes her sense of what language can (and can’t) do to the limits. Syntax is contorted or suspended. Words operate as single, freestanding units. Punctuation is left to the mind of the reader. If all poetry is an attempt to ‘speak the unspeakable’ — or ‘eff’ the ineffable — Jones’s poetry in ‘Speak Which’ is an extreme example. ‘form / is tested / as leaves fall // not itself / but what it / does // shapes in / the mind breath / unsaid // don’t say / never trees move / fates // water / sings on / consonants and grain …’
The enjambment here is extreme and at times reminiscent of the more philosophical poems of William Carlos Williams. The short lines are an attempt to slow the reader down and make them think about what is not being said as well as what is. The poet could write ‘don’t say never’ and ‘trees move fates’ but it’s significant that she doesn’t. Some readers may be impatient with such niceties but they would be foolish to dismiss them as needless.
Quite a few of Jones’s poems in Brink also have a dystopian context, seemingly brought about by climate change (and related events). They can be almost scary but they are not without positivity too. A good example is ‘Our Epic Want’. Near its beginning the narrator says ‘We were somewhere in the torn fabric, parting the seams. / We’d given up on claustrophobia.’ Later ‘We found a world of foam and fug and acetylene. // The rain rattled us but it was the wrong size, too big, too grey. / There was nothing between it like love or even its simulacra.’ Despite all this, at the end of the poem the narrator and her companion are still walking: ‘We’d dreamt of last things first, getting behind ourselves, like an urge, or a fault. / But there was plenty more, and we still had the air around our skin.’ Some may find the last line ironic but I prefer to see it as optimistic (or at least courageous).
Poems like these (and there are a number of them) are certainly admonitory but they are far from the overly-insistent fulminations that disfigure much ‘environmental’ poetry essaying similar objectives.
More directly enjoyable perhaps is the small scattering of love poems recurring throughout. One of the most memorable is the collection’s antepenultimate poem, ‘More Than Molecules’. Derived from Catullus 48, ‘More Than Molecules’ is a loving and delicate balance between the physical and the metaphysical. Its middle stanza (of three) is worth reprinting in full.
Even if I counted the air
in all its nonchalant molecules
or the ways everything
grows after it dies, the grass
waving at us, if I could count
each shiver it makes
I’d still wish to touch you
ten thousand more times
kiss the time that’s left
the time that leaves the grains
as we sit down, out in the field
which is dying, the trucks
the lands, the malls, the litter
the nuclear waste, all those
molecules too, everywhere.
Tuesday, September 26th, 2017
Dead White Men by Shane Rhodes
Coach House Books, 2017
From the title of Shane Rhodes’s collection Dead White Men, we know we are in fraught if familiar territory. Those men are the subjects to be critiqued, argued with, taken down in light of today’s history. Read alongside the recent debate about Confederate statues, which includes actions such as painting Columbus’s hands red, Rhodes becomes an ally in an intersectional coalition that seeks to engage the higher faculties without neglect of the bodily drives. In that way, Dead White Men is as reasoned as it is passionate. Myths are skewered, words re-appropriated, archives punked, records reclaimed, origin stories destroyed. This is not only at the level of content, but language, form and page. In a beautifully produced volume, the text varies in font, size and scale. There are images scattered throughout, all in black and white, including some silhouettes and some photographic reprints. In that way, Australian readers will recognise similarities to Belli Li’s recent release Argosy.
Rhodes proposes that the changes from the past to today through small gestures that have structural implications. He often uses the technique of accumulation, whereby poems becomes lists and phrases repeat giving one a structural account of change over time. The pyramids of those times, and of ours, are the skulls of our own and many other species as well. This is there in ‘Imports into the Ports of London and Rochelle in 1743’, which states:
153, 830 Beaver
13,058 Otters and Woodshocks, or Fifhers
10,280 Grey Foxes and Cats
2,330 Cates, i.e. Lynx
451 Red Foxes
130 Elks, i.e. Stags
Colonial exploitation, conquest: discovery is as mercantile as it is ecological. A simple list becomes a solemn reminder of just what happened on the frontier. If we know anything then, it is that we know that colonialism is a litany of violence, blood and gore that is specific, taking in the metropolis and the frontier alike and animals along with people.
Reading about Alberto Cantino, James Cook, Jacques Carrier, Robert Boyle and others as they ‘explore’ new lands; ‘discover’ new words’, ‘seek out’ gold, one cannot help but think through the politics of repatriation, treaty, occupation, unsettlement, place, rights now. There are, of course, variations among these engagements. Linguistic engagement is not the same as resource extraction, which we see by comparing the poems ‘Linguisticers’ and ‘Gold’. The former reads:
: a boat
: go fetch
: I meane no harm
: kiss me
: my sonne
: go to him
: give it to me
: will you have this?
: a knife
: a fog
: a tongue
The threat is here, but it is contained – one must infer that the music is used, that maybe the tongue is cut out. But in ‘Gold’ we are told in the opening line, ‘For it is beaten and we are beaten for it’. And that is where language differs from action, where the engagement of the word is not quite the same as the shovel, the pickaxe, the railroad. Both, though, are critical parts of narratives of exploration, invasion, colonialism.
In other words, you must read between the lines, connecting the dots to make a structural critique. Given its stylistic variation – from erasure to aphoristic asides to lengthy narrative – Rhodes’s work is often subtle, which gives it the strength of reinforcing how insidious these historical realities were. With a similar gaze applied to our own time, one cannot help but speculate on how poets will be regarded in the future. What is the responsible path to take? How might we undo the machinations of history that are unfolding as we speak? What of the living white men who head our systems of power?
Universal suffrage, interracial marriage, independent governance means we read Rhodes’s historical work as just that – history. And yet, these legacies extend to our everyday, which is why this work resonates. From its language, to its style, to its content, to its form, to its experiments, this is work that stay with you for a long time after you have been released from their strangling grip. This is work that articulates a higher consciousness of poetry and history, interrogating who we are and why we must continue to critique where we have come from, and the spaces we continue to occupy with an enlightened dialectic that knows that it too, even in the harsh light of day, is also barbaric.
Wednesday, September 13th, 2017
I was at a tram stop recently when a woman walked past wearing a black dress. There were short white threads sewn onto the material. Each thread was stitched leaving the ends to dangle. These dangling ends reacted to her movement and the gusts of wind, forming individual character-like shapes. I found myself mesmerised, particularly because I had been asked to write this review, and was contemplating the meaning of asemic.
Asemic writing focuses on the visual aesthetics of written language without the legibility of writing per se. Though uninterpretable, according to Tim Gaze, the editor and publisher of asemic 15, asemic writing must mimic what we know to be writing to an extent, so as to differentiate itself from visual art. Some, like Todd Burst, would describe it as the textual residue of writing; others state it lies in the realm of the pre- or post-literate. For artists such as Rosaire Appel, whose work is represented in the magazine, it is more about context. Appel states in zoomoozophone review: ‘Perhaps it has less to do with the graphic itself than the space or territory it resides in.’ Many books of asemic writing have been published and a community of practitioners has formed, some of whom may well feel disenfranchised from more mainstream art / literary communities. Though nebular and possibly confusing, the term asemic is now being used more widely in criticism.
I recognise the importance of endeavours that intersect the writing / drawing divide, however, when first gathering texts relating to asemic writing, the cautionary words of Britain’s conceptual artist Victor Burgin came to mind:
Interpretation requires … tracing of alliances and elegances, dependencies and conflicts between the work in question and the context within which it is produced … In the absence of interpretation we are left with the brute obviousness of the literal content of the work and the manifest declarations of its author and their consensual echoes.
Or perhaps put more simply by TS Eliot: ‘No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone’. Interestingly, the word asemic does not exist in the Oxford Dictionary or the Macquarie, however it is defined in the 2015 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology:
n. Impaired ability to encode or comprehend signs such as gestures (1) or the spoken and written signs and symbols of human languages. Also called asemasia or asymbolia.
Michael Jacobson and Tim Gaze have written about asemic writing as a ‘wordless open semantic form of writing’:
The word asemic means having no specific semantic content. With the non-specificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning, which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret … free to arbitrary subjective interpretations … True asemic writing occurs when the creator of the asemic piece cannot read their own asemic writing … Even though it ‘is traditionally “unreadable”, it still maintains a strong attractive appeal to the reader’s eye’.
Gaze, to an extent, has controlled the discourse. Wikipedia tells us that he is both the producer and mediator of meaning and, in the process, constructs his own artistic and public identity. Disagreements about the definition however, started to appear on the site towards the end of 2016. Co-founder Jim Leftwich is quoted to have said: ‘it is not possible to create an art / literary work entirely without meaning.’ From the information made available online by Leftwich, concerns have been articulated since 1998. In 2012, ‘Olen’ writes on slowforward.me:
How is it possible for anyone already possessing a language to produce something in another ‘projected’ or ‘imagined’ sign system where the producer pretends to have no access? Isn’t asemic writing a species of fantasy?
A 2013 interview between Quimby Melton and Michael Jacobson illustrates just such a quandary:
Melton: […] Since they usually cannot be “broken” – that is, translated into objective carriers of meaning – one can interpret asemic texts as the ultimate encoders of personal insight and reflection. Everything from a little sister’s journal to the rape fantasies of a poetic psychopath could be safely housed in asemic glyphs […]
Jacobson: I have put some of my ugliest and most beautiful thoughts into my asemic texts, and that’s where I’d like these thoughts to stay.
To label a work as asemic, may infer some kind of code or post-truth vessel. Here, illegibility to the reader is seen to be the foremost intention of the work regardless of whether it is actually illegible to the writer.
For Jacobson, interpretation or critical engagement with asemic writing is unwanted. And he is not alone. Gaze, too, views ‘the usual modes of literary analysis taught at Universities… as being similar to the way animals are judged at an agricultural show.’ Similarly, The Asemic Manifesto 111 states:
Asemic workers of all countries, unite! We want to get away from the postmodern layers of meanings into the asemia of class into the international alliance of the new post-literate in the name of sensual unity and dis-alienation of souls.
For argument’s sake, if we take the work as having the conditions of asemic writing (illegibility for the writer and reader), we can see aesthetic arrangements that are an expression of influences, emotions, histories, experiences, prejudices, biases and politics, intended or not. There is no ‘void of meaning’, nor is there what Jacobson calls a ‘non-specific universe of points.’ Instead we find a conundrum: to call something writing without any semantic content is a curious premise. It relies, in the words of W J T Mitchell, on ‘relations and distinctions, that crop up in aesthetics, semiotics, accounts of perception, cognition and communication, and analyses of media.’ The context of art encompasses these relations and distinctions. Art by its very nature seeks to draw our attention to paradoxes, open ended-ness, new ways of expression, the uncomfortable, the tensions and the failures. Art asks us to think. There is a sense of infancy within the realm of asemic writing. As illustrated in the Quimby / Jacobson interview, contradictions give rise to questioning the authenticity of the work. Subjective categorisations also restrict visual and conceptual possibilities that may provoke insight in this field. (The sci-fi film Arrival 2016, comes to mind as an imaginative ‘probing’ of communicative possibilities.) Examples such as ‘attractiveness’ as a criterion for ‘successful’ asemic writing, as well as having a ‘likeness’ to known writing styles come to mind.
Rosaire Appel’s 2009 video piece Liquid Calligraphy questions the term asemic writing in relation to meaning. The video illustrates lines ebbing and flowing in a vertical motion that one may associate with sound recordings (having said that, much of the movement becomes full circular motions of lines). Though the video has been rotated on its side, there is just enough visual information given to understand that the moving image is surface reflections on water. Tonal contrast has been pushed to the extreme, allowing only black and white without any gradation of tone. Prior to this moving image, the video shows typed text stating ‘a piece of the – Hudson river tries to pass as – asemic writing’. The accompanying sound of passing cars and trains is slightly digitised. Appel seems to be playfully questioning the artist’s ability to ‘not know’ the content of their own practice, or how content becomes asemic. Surprisingly, as it is clear from her website, she relates to the term positively.
Appel has two works illustrated in separate locations in asemic 15. One is almost identical to an image from a book-in-progress series uploaded in 2010 under her asemic stories webpage. It is almost like Appel is demanding these marks be both pictorialised – where the marks are ‘enlarged’ and slightly contorted in the central section of the page (to be seen in space) – and ‘read’ – where the marks are clearly delineated into small vertical rows at the top and bottom of the page (thereby occupying time). Was the ‘writing’ originally a singular interconnected work and then vertical sections digitally erased to create rows? The lines in the central section of this page give a sense of torso-ness, a weighted centrality where lines taper in, and at either end, a sense that the lines have been cut. This is an artist whose documentation online shows that she has clearly worked in this field between writing/drawing in an extended way, and for some time.
Wednesday, September 13th, 2017
Fire Work: Last Poems by Aileen Kelly
Gloria SMH, 2016
This is the last collection by a major Australian poet, and it is a firework in the tightness and effervescence of its poems. Like Aileen Kelly’s previous book, The Passion Paintings: Poems 1983-2006, it concentrates the work of many years. Unlike that book, however, this one was assembled and edited after its author’s death in 2011: firstly by her husband, Paul Grundy, and then by Catherine Bateson and Joanne Lee Dow. At that stage, the text was finalised by Dow and editor, critic and anthologist, John Leonard, who had been Kelly’s mentor for some years and whose press had published her previous book.
Fire Work is also the title of an enigmatic three-part poem about halfway through the collection. There, the fire only appears directly in the second and third parts; the quiet, first section is concerned instead with enclosure and a sense of pressure:
There was a wall around
the vulnerable loves.
Windows, and they looked.
Doors, they went and came
and went. All correct.
The closed space quivers
shocked by the loss of sound.
The windows lapse their hold on light.
This first stanza, like many in Kelly’s poems, leaves open exactly what has happened, preferring to give an impression than to limit it by naming a cause. The poem as a whole, like many in the collection, holds silence and its rupture in tension against each other. Its second section brings words out of the silence, where ‘splinters of darkness might make a blaze upon the hill’. This fire, which becomes the one behind a grate in a fireplace, is both domestic and wild. It might be ‘Blake’s tiger’ or ‘morning day long watched for at barred windows’ or ‘the flare beyond surrendering branches / that must be next to burn’. In its final part, the poem turns to a grimmer kind of firework, in the practicality of letting an animal, even one on which one’s livelihood depends, walk in front ‘in landmine country’. The poem is a miniature of the collection as a whole: in the subtle balances which it works between contrasting elements, in the astute and unexpected selection of details, and not least in the ambiguity of the chosen elements themselves. The comforting is also potentially unstable or destructive.
These poems show an acute awareness of death and dying. Though these are, of course, staples of lyric and elegy, Kelly had an unfailing sense of how to make these old themes new. Her instinct for the concrete and specific is on show in, for instance, ‘Sunday afternoon’, on the weekly ritual of visiting a friend in a hospital (‘Save your jokes all week / for this performance’) or ‘Emeritus’. She sketches the title character of the latter in two uneven stanzas. The first catalogues the marks of surgery on his body:
The long cobbled seam of your heart scar
folds out under the twisted eye of sleep
into the brutal Y of a postmortem …
And yet in the second stanza:
still you carry your laptop
through the transit lounges of the dizzy globe
showing the way to mitigate disasters.
It is this combination of fragility with resilience, unavoidably temporary, which is perhaps most characteristic of Kelly’s collection. In ‘Contract’ the title refers to both book and mafia contract. The unnamed character has had, it seems, a stroke and is aware of her approaching death, still writing, but as if with a contract on her life. The description of her work in this stage as a return to writing on a typewriter, when ‘second thoughts were heavy effort’ is beautifully evocative and prepares the poem for its powerful final stanza:
But now again each touch
seems on the record,
flavoured Send or Print.
The trivial over coffee might become
the last thing she said.
The surge of making
heavies along her fingers.
It is the surge and the heaviness together that make these poems what they are: deliberate but never lapidary, produced by the surge and the heaviness.
Thursday, August 10th, 2017
Blindness and Rage by Brian Castro
Giramondo Publishing, 2017
Blindness and Rage is the latest addition to an oeuvre that has established Brian Castro as a prodigy of hybridity. Castro’s heritage (Portuguese, Chinese, and English) is as uniquely mixed as the generic categories of his work, such as the blend of fiction and autobiography that won him such acclaim in Shanghai Dancing (2003). Blindness and Rage, at once ‘a phantasmagoria’ and ‘a novel in thirty-four cantos’, reprises some familiar themes in Castro’s signature style: a cosmopolitanism that shuttles restlessly between Adelaide, Paris, and Chongqing; the ludic propensities of an inveterate paronomasiac who wears his learning on his sleeve; a fascination with the vocational archetypes of the writer and the architect.
Blindness and Rage tracks the fortunes of Adelaide town-planner, Lucien Gracq, who moves to Paris after being diagnosed with cancer to dedicate his remaining days (53 on the doctor’s count) to completing an epic poem, Paidia, inspired by Roger Caillois’s 1961 sociological study Man, Play, and Games. Once in Paris, Gracq makes the acquaintance of the members of Le club des fugitifs, an all-male literary coterie that devotes itself to the anonymous publication of works by the terminally-ill. Epicures of self-erasure, the Fugitives raise the Barthesian thesis about the ‘death of the author’ to the level of a civic-minded mantra:
A named author dead or alive limits with fame
the cancerous spread of signification;
dead or alive, the named are pilferers
of status, guardians of unequal truths,
wrecking the liberty of recomposition. (107)
So says Georges Crêpe, frontman of the Fugitives, who are clearly modeled on Oulipo, the group of postwar French writers and mathematicians who set out to enlarge the prospects of ‘potential literature’ by tightening its compositional constraints. The other side of this ‘liberty of recomposition’, then, is ‘a ligature strangulation of meaning’ (142) so that what the Fugitives practice is, one might say, a kind of verbal chemotherapy. A not dissimilar point is made rather sharply by Catherine Bourgeois, Gracq’s concert-pianist neighbor who has her own ambivalent relation to the group:
They all suffer from vowel cancer—
it’s a male reflex
to constrict language;
something to do with the
castration complex. (142)
‘Vowel cancer’ is an uncharitable moniker for the lipograms with which Georges Perec (perhaps the most well-known member of Oulipo) is most readily associated, though it is the letter O rather than the E programmatically omitted in Perec’s A Void (1969) that gets disowned (in theory) by one of the Fugitives as a ‘damp squib/ defusing the presence of the I’ (92). This anxiety about the O’s dissipation of the potency of the I is a graphic joke about the ‘castration complex’ in which the author’s very name is made complicit. Indeed, playing with names has become customary in Castro’s bag of tricks; not only is Crêpe an anagram of Perec (as a number of readers have pointed out), but Catherine’s initials (with ‘the slot above her letterbox/ listed “Bourgeois, C.”’) continue the pattern of mirrored identities in Street to Street (2013), where the fictional Brendan Costa haunts and is haunted by the work of the Australian poet Christopher Brennan.
For all its immersion in the heady atmosphere of what we might call (very roughly) postmodern poetics, Blindness and Rage recalls an earlier moment in twentieth-century verse experimentation: high modernism. While Kafka has exerted a consistent influence on Castro’s work, the decision to structure his novel in ‘cantos’ inevitably calls up the ghost of Ezra Pound, a fellow observer of ‘Cathay’ whose obsession with paideuma (an ethnological term denoting ‘the tangle or complex of inrooted ideas of any period’ of culture) is at the very least etymologically entwined in Gracq’s pursuit of paidia (the Greek word for unstructured or spontaneous play).
With its lyricism peppered heavily with a magisterial garrulousness, Blindness and Rage in tone and texture most closely resembles some of the more personable moments in the work of the late Poundian, Geoffrey Hill. Like Hill in The Triumph of Love (1999), Castro sometimes deploys puns that just about stave off the literalist banality of the ‘dad joke’ through the charm of the poet’s contingent relationship to his own erudition:
[I]n Australia we play possum.
Possum; because I am able
to be a surrogate for myself;
call it a mortuary aesthetic. (202)
This slapdash appropriation of Latinate prestige savours of an Antipodean egalitarianism that finds another outlet in the figure of The Dogman, a former high-rise construction worker who, after an accidental brush with an electric cable, now sells puppies and The Big Issue in an Adelaide mall. At one point he asks Gracq rather disarmingly: ‘what is this thing/ called deconstruction?’ (156)
As an embodiment of the hybridity feverishly imagined in various guises throughout the story, The Dogman is a totemic figure for the eclecticism of Castro’s enterprise in Blindness and Rage. A mixture of earthiness and ethereality, he conducts the novel’s energies away from the indulgent self-mortifications of European decadence towards an equanimity that is equal parts Eastern mysticism, Southern pragmatism, and animal indifferentism. After such exhaustive and (at times) exhausting cleverness, this equanimity is the closest that Blindness and Rage comes to a genuine touch of transcendence.
Tuesday, July 18th, 2017
Argosy by Bella Li
Vagabond Press, 2017
Bella Li’s Argosy offers readers a book of real adventure: the adventure of form, and a challenge to our sense of what shapes a narrative. This work is fundamentally hybrid: amid short texts and textual sequences that may be termed prose poems, or micro-essays, or short short fictions, Li intersperses works of collage and photography. These visual elements of the work are not supplemental or separate, but are themselves linked to its central narratives. The whole book takes its cues from the collage novels of Max Ernst; his Une semaine de bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage and The Hundred Headless Woman provide the titles for the two sequences presented in Li’s work. At the same time that she draws upon Ernst, however, Li offers significant reconfiguration of surrealistic working methods. Where Ernst accompanied his collage images with captions – producing a text that bears a relation to the contemporary graphic novel – Li offers discrete segments of pure visual narrative, followed by sections of the work in which only text appears. The full-colour reproduction of this work makes for a lush object, which reminds us how central the ability to dwell with pictorial work has been in the history of reading. The interplay between the visual and verbal work provides a dimensionality that would be difficult to achieve through text alone, allowing critique to emerge in the friction between the two. These are works that are informed by postcolonial and feminist thought: they do not provide disquisition upon these topics, but offer instead an imaginative inhabitation of these ways of seeing the world.
In the seven-part sequence, ‘Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de disparations,’ Li generates visual collages from illustrations in old atlases, themselves supplementary texts attached to journals of discovery. The Journal of François de Galaup de La Pérouse is the central text that governs this sequence, and the seabound explorations he led no doubt provide the title Argosy: an argosy is a particular type of ship, a merchant vessel originating in Ragusa or Venice. At the same time, though etymologically unrelated, the title puts the reader in mind of the Argo and its Argonauts. As such, the ancient, mythical quest of the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece is merged with the merchant state of Venice at the European hub of the Silk Road, and then to the latter stages of the age of exploration in which the South Pacific represented a last frontier for those seeking to chart the world’s landmasses.
Li composes three sequences of collage before presenting the reader with the first textual sequence. In these collages, the interplay between human and nonhuman is central. Boats are rendered strange as they carry enormous cargoes of shells: here an inverted gastropod shell stands on its tip, replacing the mast of the ship; there an oared boat is propelled forward by wind in the wing-like sails of oversized, splayed mussel shells. Hovering over one open boat is the grass-thatched roof of a Pacific island fala, while on the stern of another, gigantic flora blooms. The strange birds of strange lands are rendered stranger, as they too are made enormous when compared to the tiny bodies of the explorers and the European houses in which they normally dwell. Such play with gigantism can be seen in the way the unknown – exoticised in the huge, near-naked bodies of men bearing weapons, their heads replaced with seashells and flora, given scale by the trees and clothed men who sit at their feet – loomed large in the minds of explorers such as La Pérouse, and continues to loom large today. Think of the latest iteration of King Kong, its weirdly unlocatable South Pacific site filled with a myriad of strange gigantic creatures: Western culture has not moved beyond this form of exoticisation.
Against these images that, by their embodiment of the strange, answer back to the explorers who recorded them, Li writes two sequences of prose. These works are understated and restrained, occupying the gaze of the explorer who is concerned with cataloguing what he sees. This creation of binaries is evident in the opening text:
This day we sail, dividing the waters from the heavens. I am
my own guide, the steerage, the hull. This day by sea, by the
sea we lie. Sharp peaks divided, three by two by three. Our
man at the helm, broad-shouldered and in love, saying: This
but not this. This, but not this.
You ford the stream. You move.
The self that is its own guide, its own hull, is set against everything that is not the self in this sequence. Division is the fundamental action of the newcomer as he encounters the new: we don’t need to know what is being catalogued in the words, ‘This, but not this’. It is the world in its entirety.
The second half of the book takes the reader to a compendium of stories and images that investigate women. ‘The Hundred Headless Woman’ is reinvented many times, as Li moves through historical, literary and cinematic sources; at the same time she uses her own photography and collage to comment on contemporary visions of femininity. In ‘Eve & Co’ she presents photographs of often run-down urban environments, with the juxtaposition of (headless) illustrations drawn from sewing-packet instructions for women’s clothing. The scale and placement of these women within the city-scapes is both a contrast – their brightly coloured, immaculately illustrated stylish clothes are at odds with the unglamorous environments in which they stand – and a comment on the perceived requirements of womanhood – whether lived headlessly or not. Meanwhile, the final photographic sequence of the book, ‘La ténébreuse’ shows a long-haired woman whose hair, in each configuration, is the centrepiece of the image. Whether she has her back turned or is seen side-on in various settings, her hair replaces her face. This facelessness is a form of anonymity that speaks both to the exceptional women of the text in this sequence, and the many more women who have not risen above their historical anonymity.
Exceptional and anonymous women are brought together in the figure of the famously anonymous Elena Ferrante, subject of the short third part of this sequence. Ferrante’s voice is rendered fragmentary: ‘For instance, in Ischia,’ the poem opens. The voice is by turns in pursuit – ‘Hunting the particularity, the moment, seen so closely from afar. Down the lanes, always in the company of a shadow, a woman, a cleaver’ – and in flight, ‘My sister—a girl then—clear, cleaving to the shadows, and once. Once we ran from house to house in the dark, calling names, falling and our knees grazed.’ The brief text captures the sense of impending violence that is sustained throughout Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.