Adam Aitken Reviews John Mateer

12 July 2012

We are constantly negotiating the ironic moment in which we are confronted by those who have every reason to hate us, and who reject our humanistic gestures towards comradeship. Mateer describes the Mozambiquan he meets in a bar who berates the poet with the words ‘you fuckers kept invading my country’, the soldier who learned a foreign language by fighting the enemy, the ambiguous lover (perhaps a sex-worker) who knows she is a small cog in the economic machine, whom her client ‘Mateer’ declares is a projection or ‘THE ALLEGORY OF THE COLONIAL DREAM’ (‘Allegory’). In other poems, women are addressed via more old fashioned Romanticised forms, for example, the translator who isn’t quite the ‘angel of timelessness’ that Mateer is looking for. Mateer’s romance with the female figure (the dream-economy’s Other, the abject and the fetish, as messenger/muse) risks sentimentality or self-indulgence, but Mateer is makes sure to salt these gestures with acute irony.

Of course, the code (the allegory or the metaphor that gives meaning to form) exceeds words and symbols; the poet (like the code-breaker or the symbolist poet) needs to maintain intuition, openness and philosophical sensitivity; Mateer’s poetry examines the connection between consciousness and the object perceived/conceived. Openness allows the poetic moment to emerge in the real encounter on the street, and to persist in memory and imagination. Like all of Mateer’s poetry, this collection maintains this intensity of gaze and purpose, and here there is a pleasing prominence of intimacy over self-regard.

Mateer’s book recuperates what Chris Danta has called, in his review of one of Mateer’s previous collections, ‘inarticulate vicinity’. It testifies to the mute Right Mind of a Zen meditation. Mateer’s poetry depends for its articulation on the possibility of the ‘sub-vocal song’: a form of address that constitutes its subject in an exchange ‘more intimate than prayer, closer than flesh.’

But how does that add up to a worldly understanding of cultural difference? If Mateer works as cultural translator, he also critiques the limits of this project. Our attempts to co-habit in the language of the other, or to borrow their means of expression, will lead to ‘failed translations’ or what Danta sees as a ‘desultory form of universality … The presence of the loanword is also a sign of the recalcitrance of discourse as it is forced to emigrate’. Southern Barbarians is rich in loanwords: Portuguese and Japanese, and a whole section is dedicated to translation of selected cantos of Os Lusíadas. Mateer is aware that the material of poetry is borrowed and ancestral, and in that way the contemporary poet achieves a reverse haunting of the ancestor.

Ali Alizadeh rightly identifies Mateer’s earlier collection The West as a book of ‘unanswerable questions, enigmatic references to absent beings, allusions to unknowable facts … literal and figurative remains and echoes of the past’. This refusal to take up a commodified identity, language, or voice that simplistically represents nation (or its multicultural sub-divisions), is perhaps why Mateer’s work is somewhat neglected in Australia, and deserves more discussion. But more than that, it is an issue of reception and how the poetry can be read as a part of the Australian context. But Mateer is keen to float above the bog of unresolved postcolonial history. By looking into material history he gleans a certain spiritual understanding of how our barbaric destinies have made us. Existence is experienced at the level of the body, language, and memory, and a successful poem transacts these levels at a heightened level of comprehension.

If not spiritual, Mateer’s approaches his material in an holistic spirit which is psychological, linguistic, and philosophical. Southern Barbarians continually addresses the question of ‘the tongue’ in its multiple meanings of language, speech, taste, and sexuality. The word itself emerges after the agon of human (and sometimes unhuman) encounter. What then is the ethics of encounter with the other (including the non-human), and is the poem of greatness belated? If poetry is conquest of language, and via language a disciplining of culture, isn’t the epic of the traveller-poet Camões a colonial vanity project? Mateer borrows Camões’ words here: ‘They were already sailing when I uttered my warning, / my words flitting away like gulls over dull water’ (‘The Old Man’). But this collection also includes refreshing celebration of human folly, which is also its hybrid creativity – the colony that keeps the best of its inheritance, the transvestite’s expert performance, the linguist’s genius, President Gusmão sitting in a cold Melbourne winter struggling to translate ‘sadness’, a child playing shadow soccer, or the acoustics of a girl’s laughter.

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About Adam Aitken

Adam Aitken was born in London and spent his early childhood in Thailand and Malaysia. He has been a recipient of the Australia Council Paris Studio Residency, and was Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Hawai’i Manoa. He co-edited the Contemporary Asian Australian Poets anthology (Puncher & Wattmann). His memoir One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond Press) was published in 2016 and was listed for the ASAL gold medal. Archipelago, his latest collection of poetry, was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2018.

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