FRESH Tuesday, October 10th, 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.
Continue reading →
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.
Tuesday, July 18th, 2017
Vice Versa: New and Selected Poems by Arjun von Caemmerer
Collective Effort, 2016
Tasmanian poet Arjun von Caemmerer’s Vice Versa: New and Selected Poems (Collective Effort, 2016) is a chronological selection from an oeuvre that spans publications from Two’s Kisses (1992) to Recombinants (2015). At its best, it’s idiosyncratic and intriguing, characterised by its playfulness, wit, concrete effects, typography, and variety of forms.
Vice Versa’s earliest selections are primarily concrete poems. The poem ‘i-saw’ is an early keystone (and instruction) for the puzzles and riddles that follow: it requires a deliberate reading and re-reading to deliver its simple message, ‘the more you look the more you see’:
The poem ‘Schrödinger’s Schizophrenia’ is a clever play on the physicist’s famous thought experiment, through a visual arrangement of the word ‘bifurcation’, and the isolation of its parts:
William Carlos Williams famously described poems as machines made of words, and these poems are small, finely-made devices that do a single thing well. At times, the poems resist decryption, but their clevernesses is worth the endeavour: for example, in the somewhat inscrutable poem ‘(J)ousting the Woman of Letters’, responding (as a note tells us) to the Demidenko controversy, we find the understated epigraph ‘(re Frau D.)’.
The book’s centrepiece is 2010’s Lingua Franka: A Concrete Poetry Homage to Frank Zappa, the 56 pages of which are reproduced in colour on glossy paper. The poems are inventive and various in their forms and ruses. The concrete poem ‘FZ 52’ uses the page to mirror the recurring numbers in Zappa’s birth and death dates: 21/12/1940 and 04/12/1993. Another concrete poem, ‘King Klang’ is an arrangement of the titles of songs recorded by Zappa with colour references in them (starting with ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Merely a Blues in A’), each in the relevant colour. Other poems in the sequence take the form of haikai, anagrams, mirrorings and blank pages. In other poems, the effect is typographic: ‘What Goes Around…’ yields a clockwise reading of ‘karma’ and ‘fate?’:
The Lingua Franka poems, and the book’s concrete poems, are among the most interesting and satisfying. They present von Caemmerer’s work at its most idiosyncratic. The satisfaction they offer is in the process of deciphering, as opposed to the ordinary satisfactions of lyric poetry, such as the memorable line, or apt metaphor.
Vice Versa multiplies its explorations of form. ‘a dransfield diction’, a cento comprising 24 pages of short poems, is composed from the index of first lines of Michael Dransfield’s Collected Poems, while ‘Cross-Stitch’ fuses the cento and acrostic, appropriating phrases from the index of first lines of Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems, and presenting them as acrostics dedicated to Dickinson and her parents. There are also spoonerisms, with specific concrete arrangements, a litany of medical collective nouns (‘A Drift of Sleep Physicians / A Stream of Urologists / A Clot of Vascular Surgeons’), musical clerihews, a sestina, and a parody of Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle (‘Bold girls, near spent, flushed unwhite / Split the colours of the spectrum / Rouge, rouge with the ardour of their fight.’) Notable among the other explorations of form are the 108 three-line zappai that make up ‘momentoes’ [sic], describing a morning yoga class, and the 20 lipograms of ‘Recombinants’, based on the names of arthropods (mostly insects) featured in The Green Brain, a cycle by Australian pianist and composer Michael Kieran Harvey.
The book’s least satisfying poems are the limericks from A Bunch of Fives (2009) and Geographical Tongue: Odes to Postcodes (2010). The latter is a set of over 130 limericks that take their cue from an alphabetical listing of Australian suburbs, from Abba River to Aranbanga, and a number of other locations. It’s an admirable and obsessive project, but it proves the limerick is essentially a dessert poem, that is, something sugary and intense that’s preferably served in small portions. A smaller, stricter selection would’ve shown the best of them to advantage:
A barista who came from Vittoria
In coffee found endless euphoria.
A small splash of cream
Quite muddied her dream
Leaving swirls of phantasmagoria.
Elsewhere, the limericks suffer from slightness, imprecise rhymes or aberrations in rhythm:
A manufacturer from Ansons Bay
Employed his own offspring at unfair pay.
So great their annoys
They bore no girls or boys:
His genes were thus rationed away.
Von Caemmerer’s Vice Versa is engaging and inventive, particularly the concrete poems, which show his work at its most distinctive. Despite weaknesses, the book is evidence of a sustained creative engagement with the serious possibilities of playfulness, form and constraint.
Monday, June 26th, 2017
The Garden of Earth by Homer Rieth
Black Pepper Publishing, 2016
You could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Australia’ was simply this place, rather than an imagined community. It is of course not only a phantasm or a figment that is whole, but also real and divisible. In poetics, it is not a stretch to suggest that there is a heuristic, ascendant, paradigmatic separation between those in a transnational sphere sipping turmeric lattes and those authentic patriots tilling the soil. This fault line, which is, of course, anachronistic and dialectical, exists in the selected texts and influences as well as the paratextual selling points that tell us something is ‘traditional’ or ‘experimental’, ‘Romantic or ‘modern’, ‘country’ or ‘city’; in what claim ‘this is Australian’.
Homer Rieth’s The Garden of Earth is packaged as an Australian epic, and yet, it might be better to suggest that it is a located and regional long poem that is speaking to nation and nature. This is not the same ‘Australia’ as Pi O’s beloved Fitzroy in his 24 Hours, nor is it similar to the Wheatlands of John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy. It takes as its own location the whole of the Murray-Darling, building from Rieth’s home in Minyip in the Wimmera region in regional Victoria on the East Coast, where he has lived for several years.
And yet, one cannot help but notice that The Garden of Earth, like respective works by O and Kinsella, is a poetic idea of ‘Australia’ that takes as its root and routes a direction from ‘the West’, a Greco-Romanic understanding of where epic comes from. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given all these authors have European heritage, but it is striking given the demographic realities of a decolonising Australia, which brings with it Indigenous and CALD spectres, materials and discourses. There are, of course, epic traditions in each and we do not have to rely only on Odyssey and Iliad like good colonial boys might, but could suggest the Ramayana, Martin Fierro, Omeros or any other such non-Western undertaking. What though can we learn from Rieth’s vision about the epic in the here and now? And how might this presentist perspective be projectively useful?
Rieth’s book is a big one. Coming in at 584 pages, it must approximate some 15 thousand lines – bigger than Milton’s Paradise Lost, bigger than Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa, bigger than Berndt’s Three Faces of Love. But then again, the Murray-Darling is a big river, placing fifteenth in length worldwide, between the Niger and Tocantins. Rieth’s work in the basic proportions would seem appropriate.
Although the epigraph of the work is taken from a translation of Hafiz, The Garden of Eden emerges from a transatlantic milieu. The preponderance for rhyme and the long sentence lends a Whitmanian cadence – expansive, regular, encompassing – which is buttressed by the familiar expression ‘I sing’ (on page 58 particularly). There are also references to Walt’s contemporaries Longfellow and Kendall. The work is not ‘difficult’ then in terms of message, pagination, rhythm, line-break, form or style. This project does not come after Charles Olson (Maximus poems) or Basil Bunting (Briggflatts) let alone Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Drafts) or The Grand Piano. While Ezra Pound is referenced (11) and Robert Lowell is quoted (488), it is not a stretch to say it pre-Modernist, hence the signposts of the late nineteenth century.
At the level of content The Garden of Eden is firmly focused on nature with occasional painterly references (Delacroix, Leonardo, Lorenzo Lippi) and some more popular culture (beer, cricket, footy in Canto 7; and ‘Barbeque Shapes’ (25) [one of my favourite flavours]). These references often come from a different location and generation to mine (I only know ‘California poppy’ because that is what my grandfather put in his hair) but that does not mean they are inaccessible. What does distinguish the work is that the land is often idyllic, pure, silent, often Romantically so, suggesting a lack of eco-critical co-ordinates and some sediment of the idea of terra nullius, which is confirmed by the lack of Indigenous references, the absence of living characters and the anachronistic (mis)spelling of Arrente as Arunta (56). This is a work of landscape with landscape punctuated by high culture from Europe or poetic expression that pre-dates federation on this continent. There are unnamed interlocutors, whom Rieth quotes, but not characters; and, given the evenness of tone this implies a work that is not ‘polyphonic’ (in Bahktin’s sense) or ‘dramatic’ (in Hegel’s). The world is brought into the subject, the speaking ‘I’ of a poet and then sent back out whole and resolute. This central I expresses itself in a high voice (see the use of ‘O’ to begin sentences and to pre-figure ownership for example in ‘O my Murray, /my Campapse, /my Ovens, /my Goulbourn, my Murrumbidgee’, (11); ‘O tamed continent’ (109); ‘O keep me safe’ (249)). This is a work of grand liberalism that is curious and idiosyncratic.
Rieth is a starting point as good as any, from which we can suggest that Australia is continental, that it can become a republic with several countries, countries that are demarcated by cultural and geographic realities and ideas that are nevertheless a utopian kind of treaty. The Murray-Darling is not a singular place. It is a part of a regionalism that is not simply somewhere away from the urban or buffeted by the suburban, but has as much to do with the mind in the sky as boots on the ground. Rieth begins to show us the poetic way with rhythm, scale and possibility. If The Garden of Earth is firmly located in a traditional and Romantic context, it might nevertheless show us what might yet be Australia’s poetic tomorrow if we labour to read it slant.
Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórques & Alí Calderón
Translated by Mario Licón Cabrera
Vagabond Press, 2017
This year, Vagabond Press launched its Americas Poetry Series. The first volume in the series, translated and introduced by Peter Boyle, includes an eclectic selection of poems by Argentine poet Olga Orozco and Uruguayan poets Marosa Di Giorgio and Jorge Palma (Di Giorgio’s work is particularly exquisite; Vagabond has also published her last book separately, Jasmine for Clementina Médici). This second volume in the series, Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón, focuses on contemporary Mexican poetry. It is translated by Sydney-based, Mexican-born Mario Licón Cabrera, a seasoned poet and translator. Licón Cabrera translates into both English and Spanish. He has translated important Australian poets into Spanish, such as Dorothy Porter, Peter Boyle and Michelle Cahill. Yuxtas (Back and Forth) , published in 2009, is his fourth collection of poetry, bilingual and self-translated. In 2007 he received a Developing Writers’ Grant from the Australia Council, and in 2015 he won the Trilce Award for Poetry. Licón Cabrera’s work on Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón is a delight to read.
A translation has a dual nature, as product and process, verb and noun. The process always entails a balancing act between two cultures, which to a greater or lesser degree becomes apparent in the final text. That final text, again (perhaps evoking a Borgesian garden of forking paths), is two things at once: a variation, a transmutation of a preceding work, a text analogous to the original; and a new work in its own right. Thus, the process of translation is simultaneously a creative as much as an interpretative act.
This dual nature of translation becomes more pronounced when we talk about poetry, in particular the process of poetic translation. To translate a poem is to write it anew. A word can be worth a thousand pictures. This is the essence of polysemy, inherent to language itself, and one of the pylons of poetry. This is also what makes it devilishly difficult to translate poetry. Every act of communication entails losses and sacrifices, and translation is not the exception. But in poetry, polysemy is accentuated in a way it usually isn’t in everyday language, which makes those losses and sacrifices of translation much more dire. And so, halfway through the balancing act of cultural mediation between two linguistic and cultural codes, the translator of poetry is thrown that charged ball of polysemy. And they’d better not drop it!
Poetic translation may be devilishly difficult, but not impossible. In his famous essay ‘Translation: Literature and Letters’, Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz argues that the translator’s process, when it comes to poetry, follows a very similar path to the poet’s, but in the opposite direction. According to Paz, the translator:
is not constructing an unalterable text from mobile characters; in-stead, he is dismantling the elements of the text, freeing the signs into cir-culation, then returning them to language … The second phase of the translator’s activity is parallel to the poet’s, with this essential difference: as he writes, the poet does not know where his poem will lead him; as he translates, the translator knows that his completed effort must reproduce the poem he has before him.
This is what makes translating poetry doubly difficult: the poet writes with a compass, the translator writes with a map. The poet condenses meaning into text with the overwhelming freedom of their language, without a precise route to follow in that creative process. The translator must then follow that path trodden by the poet but with new hurdles, with rivers that have changed their course, shifting forests, collapsed bridges and newly built ones. The poem must be reproduced in a different linguistic world, bound by new semantic, metric, syntactic and phonetic conventions. This is partly the reason why most translators of poetry tend to be poets themselves.
Thus, the titanic task of translating poetry, which Licón Cabrera brings about with elegance and remarkable subtlety in Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón. The majority of the anthology is dedicated to poems by Mijail Lamas. Born in Sinaloa, a neighbouring state to Licón Cabrera’s own Chihuahua, Lamas is a well-known literary critic, poet and translator (he translates from Portuguese into Spanish, most notably the works of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Portuguese poets Mário de Sá-Carneiro, José Régio, Cesário Verde, and Portugal’s greatest classical poet, Luís Vaz de Camões). The subject of his poems in this anthology focuses on an exaltation of the mundane – a pen, dust, a childhood street, the scorching, ever-present heat of his native Sinaloa, which:
ideas turn dry your gaze
wets the van’s
interior the seat’s vinyl melts
Lamas’s imagery evokes the works of Juan José Saer, one of the titans of twentieth century Argentine literature. Saer is famous for his profoundly lyrical prose, which in the most Shklovskian sense has an unusual talent for defamiliarising the ordinary. Something similar happens with Lamas’s imagery. A good example of this appears in the following lines in the sequence ‘What Used to Be a Desert’:
You drop the pen you’d grabbed to write
that which you’re not able to fix,
in silence you turn off one by one the house’s lights
yet the unrest doesn’t stop completely.
We see a similar approach in another sequence ‘The Charred Shadow’:
I ran away from the sun until I found
a place where in a bad mood and for a low price
they offered me
a table to write on, a cup of coffee and
a bubble of air conditioner.
There is a strong longing and melancholy associated with that sublime approach to the everyday, a constant rumination on the evanescence of memory. The poems in the sequence ‘Part of You Returns Without Permission’ and ‘Like Something Extinguished by Fire’, play with these ideas:
I remember my first childhood home
and the second
and the third. They all are one,
Mario Bojórquez’s work runs along very different lines. Like Lamas, Bajórquez is from Sinaloa. He has received numerous prizes and recognitions, including Mexico’s most prestigious prize for poetry, the Premio Bellas Artes de Poesía Aguascalientes. Much of the imagery in Bojórquez’s poetry comes from myth. ‘The Cyclads’, for example, references the Greek archipelago in the Aegean Sea, which includes the island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis:
We sail the waters of an uncertain twilight
the keel brakes the sharp waves
Under the ocean’s surface
some fingers sink in a different naked time.
His poetry is emotive, in a very visceral way. Such is the case with ‘Hymen’, reminiscent in its primitive allure of the opening bars to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The poem incorporates the famous exclamation of Carl Orff’s ‘Veni, veni, venias’ from Carmina Burana: ‘Hyrca, hyrce, nazazaz / trillirivos!’ ‘Sibila’ is a powerful blank verse septet that references the ancient Greek oracles, the sybils. The selection of Bojórquez’s poetry includes a collection of ‘shadows’, a sequence with strong Jungian undertones that touches on different aspects of the shadow archetype. There is also a sequence on deserts, which evokes different facets of solitude and loneliness: ‘Desert Birth’, ‘Desert Sun’, ‘Desert Room’, ‘Desert Exile’, ‘Desert Shadow’, ‘Desert World’:
The breath of dawn
ascends over the dunes
The morning light shows
the ever quiet shadow of the path
Silence grows in an endless symphony
Plants and rocks
beat a restless
Only men are amazed by their own bodies.
Interestingly, the desert sequence also includes ‘Dispatch for Czeslaw Milosz’, an homage to the Polish Nobel Laureate, poet and polymath, whose works often incorporated the desert motif.
Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
How to Proceed by Andrew Sant
Puncher & Wattmann, 2016
How to Proceed is a quandary understood simply by the implication that to proceed is a question, cognisant of the necessity of an answer but ‘more reality without one’ (‘On Consuming Durables’). Utilising a form that shakes off uniformity, categorisation and constraint, Andrew Sant’s collection of prose essays, quite the divergence from his ‘stock-in-trade’ poems, envisions ‘ever-expanding terminals to itself’ (‘On Airports’) and consistently toys with the ideological complexities ‘On Discovering How to Proceed’. Peripatetically tracing literary excursions on the fringes of the personal and, contrarily to the preceding statement, the knowledge that ‘taking flight doesn’t involve some kind of personal commitment’ (‘On Airports’, p. 30), Sant’s essays deploy and redeploy ‘miniature windows […] into other worlds’ (‘On Only Children’) and endeavours to ‘make a statement without implication – state a fact of life’ (if such a thing is possible).
The text is made up of sixteen essays, all adopting varied and general concerns, tracing a literary pilgrimage of ordinary experiences in mundane settings, from personal anecdotes of a bridge tower conductor in ‘On Employment’, to the dilemmas of commitment in ‘On Marriage’ and terminating in ‘On Curiosity’. The establishing essay, ‘On Consuming Durables’, sets the disruptive and staggered pace for the collection, the multitasking fluidity of writing moving haphazardly from a BBC report on the proposal to ‘restrict the number of charity shops in any one high street’, mediating on the author’s personal exploits as a ‘user of charity/opportunity shops’ and a rendering of his experience with a ‘famous English actress’, who he theorises has ‘dressed down [… to] gain the personal freedom that comes with anonymity’. These diverging frames of reference shift from one sequence to another in centrifugal and centripetal fashion, as Sant describes in ‘On Time’, ‘more like an ocean than a rapid. Both’. The ‘On’ beginning every new essay signals the collection’s pliability, a tapestry of polymorphic prose that is insistent on ‘entering into and being involved in a rich social situation’, such as the wider world view addressed in ‘On Only Children’:
Eventually, I would have occasion to visit for some months a country where selfish, only children, a few of them, are born to rule: China. One child. It’s a policy I’m qualified to comment upon. Think of it: millions of people, a generation, with a higher-degree than normal of self absorption, all reaching maturity and need to co-operate in society.
‘On Discovering How to Proceed’, through Charles Lamb’s Essays on Elia and Mark Twain’s writing, ‘the reader never knows which part of life and attendant thought [Sant’s] going to parachute into next. It’s disorientating and delightful’. The debt owed to these two authors in the above quote from Twain, serves to determine that to make ‘accurate progress toward our destination’, the journey is ‘clearly as important, no, more than important than the prospective arrival at a destination’. To further quote Lamb, ‘you may derive your own thoughts from others; your way of thinking, the mould in which your thoughts are cast, must be your own’.
Indeed, How to Proceed is significant for its deft exchange and transformation. In ‘On Walking’, Sant remembers that, ‘as a family, we were walkers – especially on holiday’, however, as the ‘present supplants the past’, the memories associated with these events (‘what kind of leather my father wore out or what child-size boots were compulsory for me’) would ‘never make any purposeful entry into the present again’. This jettison, ruthless fragmentation is a warning to the ‘somehow contemporaneous – ‘eternally present’ as T S Eliot said’ (‘On Time’). The revival encountered later in the narrative, ‘revisit[ed] via the poetry of William Wordsworth’ and then grafted onto the clear views at the summit of Green Gable, are prophetic of the subsequent chapter, ‘all time, past, present and future’ is ‘consistently beyond comprehension’, but it is time’s suppleness, its revived eternal state, that encourages the readers’ projection and identification (‘On Time’). Sant’s ‘On Walking’ and ‘On Time’ muse that history, subjective and objective, is susceptible to the ‘ritual of transience’ (‘On Being Transported’) and through perspective,
the mind imperceptibly retunes itself, pleasurably perceives, via the optic nerves, intentness on fellow human faces […] and, with luck, no significant hazard or challenge in sight, ideas may declare themselves, freely transformative – or else, as if locating a familiar rhythm, memories may emerge of early excursions, and of other dimly remembered experiences, long held in store, now finding their way into the open, released into the abundant yet partial light of the present’ (‘On Walking’).
In ‘On Self Knowledge’, it is curious to recognise that change can be ‘subterranean, faster flowing’ than the reader can possibly conceive. The miniature worlds collated within this collection are sentiments reconciled by those of us who pick up this text and ‘satisfy our curiosity [on How to Proceed] not by endeavouring to solve significant mysteries’ but ‘mostly by seeking experiences: eyes, nose, tongue, fingertips, greedy for immediacies (‘On Curiosity’). In charting the mundane through this hyper-charged sensitivity, Sant’s essays invite varied interpretation and, seeing as ‘there’s a lot of territory to cover’, a declination to the subjective and singular outlook (‘On Consuming Durables’). The collection is an evocative and pleasurable verbal excursion, more concerned with ‘how to proceed in a really testing circumstance’ than an indication that we are ‘making accurate progress’ (‘On Discovering How to Proceed’).
Tuesday, May 30th, 2017
The New Adventures of Nafanua, Samoan Goddess of War
by Tusiata Avia
Recent Work Press, 2016
Samoan-New Zealand poet and performer Tusiata Avia explores the intricate fate history and myth have sent her way in The New Adventures of Nafanua, Samoan Goddess of War. This slim volume is divided into two parts: the Nafanua poems, followed by lyrics gathered under the subtitle ‘How I Came into this World’.
Tusiata Avia’s imaginary is rooted in an ambivalent cultural matrix made of multilayered psychohistorical, sociocultural and mythical patterns. It is imbued with multiple connotations: it reflects New Zealand’s complex history and a woman’s passionate engagement with it; it also rejects Cartesian intellectualised thought in an effort to move into a different mode of feeling, seeing, knowing, and making. If New Zealand emerges as a magnetic locus for the imagination, the poetic topos is really a site without any actual locality; it appears at diverse geographical locations as the poet roams from one imaginative space to another. Here, the body is the point of destination and departure of quests. Here, poetry is analogous to swimming under water. It is diving, moving, taking, and giving. It is pulling toward and pulling back. It is pushing forward and pushing away. It is, briefly, coming up for air. Consider this excerpt from ‘Nafanua dreams of water’:
Under the water and it is submerge or drown.
Once or twice she cuts through the pool like a champion
there is no way of knowing what kind of performance she will give
or who is adding up the totals
the difference between the mantle of talent and the core of exhaustion.
The juxtaposition of moods in this poem suggests the destructive yet liberating force of the imagination. As elsewhere in this work, anxiety and fear often coexist with desire, suggesting the close relationship that exists between Eros and Thanatos, the intertwining of which is at the heart of experience and creativity.
The blurring of boundaries between the physical and mythical worlds is analogous to the border crossings between the conscious and unconscious forces that constitute the signifying processes in any production of meaning. The poetic voice gives articulation to this dynamic activity, where the speaking persona is constantly confronted by some unknown other. As a result, the protagonist appears to be in a constant state of becoming, indeed demands to be in a constant state of becoming. Perhaps this is because Tusiata Avia operates within the framework of a peripheral tradition. Perhaps this is because she uses an assertive stratagem in the form of a desiring body rather than a defensive one. Whatever the reason, what strikes me here is a refusal to ‘territorialise’ the body in its diverse manifestations – geopolitical, cultural, historical, colonial, amorous, and purely sexual and reproductive.
The first poem stages an encounter between Nafanua and Calamity Jane. It focuses on the painful history of their native societies and on their shared experience of exclusion, highlighting the dominant themes of the work. In particular, it dwells on the tension between exclusion and aggression while clearly advocating an ethos of compassion. It is a fragmentary text where the reader travels in all directions at once, realising that unspeakable truths lurk in the silences, the gaps between words, the blanks between stanzas. It is full of the whispers of ghosts. Yet it speaks of a refusal to succumb to repression and oppression.
As I suggest above, ‘Nafanua dreams of water’ works as an allegorical reflection on the plight of the performance poet. It breathes a corporeal contour into the craft that wavers between the materiality of the female body and the imaginary. It gestures towards the transformation resulting from a text’s being written, performed and visited upon an audience as though keeping in check jouissance.
The identification between Avia and her mythical avatar is more firmly asserted in the next three poems, ‘Nafanua talks about her friends in Philly’, ‘Nafanua talks about going to Washington DC’ and ‘Nafanua goes to Nashville’. In the latter:
Nafanua sits like the single white resident
in a tiny settlement called French Lick.
Zero point zero percent Hawa’ian and other Pacific Islanders
are stuffing the holes in their houses to the sounds of ghosts
and their quiet piroguing down the Tennessee River.
Violence lurks under the surface of these poems and occasionally tears through the page as it does here in a carnival of images and echoes.
This proto-critique of postcolonialism is brought into relief in the next poem, a villanelle titled ‘Nafanua becomes creole’, where the colonial legacy is envisioned as dismembering. Here, the dispossessed are reduced to body parts, to racist taxonomies, to degradable materials and to both degraded and degrading metaphor: Nafanua is reduced to her belly with skin ‘as dark as an octoroon’ while her lover is ‘the colour of a brown paper bag’. In the end:
Nafanua with a body soft as pig
Nafanua with a belly like a salt trout
runs in shining streaks down the open mouth
of the brackish Pontchartrain.
‘Nafanua talks about going to Washington DC’, ‘Nafanua sleeps rough in Central Park’ and ‘Nafanua speaks to her beloved in Palestine’ are acerbic pieces that resonate with prophetic intimations of impending catastrophes, as does the poignant piece from part two, titled ‘The opposite of déjà vu’, with its ‘armageddonish’ sky, ‘a stage for the second coming’.
Of the more personal poems from part two, ‘We, the afflicted’ is unforgettable. It tackles the theme of maternal ambivalence with astonishing honesty and clarity, linking pain with glee in the event of a mother’s separation from her child. In this section, poems focus on other people’s bodies, including the failing body of the author’s father, and revisit the themes explored in part one from a more subjective standpoint. Here is an alternative expression of trauma on individuals who, while not directly affected by it are, as in part one, nonetheless haunted by it. Here, memory is about resonances and unprocessed experiences stored in the psyche and deposited in layers of flesh.