Surface to Air by Jaya Savige
University of Queensland Press, 2011
In an essay for The Australian titled ‘Poetry Lives, OK?’ Jaya Savige examines the ongoing debate about the state of contemporary Australian poetry. Essentially, he argues that this debate is not so much “current” as “perpetual.” Each new generation of literary talent faces a backlash from those who would conserve the old order. As Savige notes, this process defines literary production and indeed all cultural production. He cites the example of Geoffrey Chaucer who, in 1372, as the English diplomat to the area now known as Italy, discovered the vernacular poetry of the Sicilian school and decided that English, too, would make an excellent medium for poetry. Rejecting French and Latin was a bold move, but it paid off for Chaucer: his work is still on the curricula of universities the world over.
Savige concludes from this tale that those who conserve past practices point to tradition, but tradition itself has to start somewhere. Yet his argument is paradoxical. While in one sense he maintains that there is nothing new under the sun – there will always be innovation and innovation is always confrontational to the reactionary element of society as evidenced by Chaucer, Dante, and the Ern Malley affair – he also claims that there is something unprecedented about today’s society. That is, the modern world is “posthuman.”
The above discussion conveniently forms a backdrop for an analysis of Savige’s second collection of poetry Surface to Air. Is it innovative? Does it address the posthuman?
There are a few trappings of the digital age to be found in the poems: a beach is described as an “Igneous inbox, starred / with messages of zircon” in ‘Sand Island’; in ‘Summer Fig’, the title tree is said to be “downloading / gigs of shade onto the fresh cut grass;” a woman sits up late “screenblind” – a “Pale wireless mermaid” who is told that it is “time / to close down windows. / Come, let’s zip the file / and sync it to the cloud” in ‘Disconnect.’ Yet such imagery alone does no more than hint at the posthuman. Strangely, what provides more of a sense of the posthuman is the presence of the sun in the poetry.
Sunlight pervades these poems and mostly it is sharp light described with equally sharp metaphors: “How she loved the sun, loved being / rinsed by the cymbal crash of hydrogen” (in ‘Skin Repair’); “thumb / of sun in a tumbler” (‘Breathing Room’); “Sundials shark through / cool zaffre, finning / toward dawn” (‘5:07 a.m.’); “What thief then, darkness, that rubs its way across the sky, / filing off day’s serial light?” (‘Serial Light’); “breathing crumbs / of sun” (‘La Quercia del Tasso’); “Sunlight smirks through the curtain / when the nurse shakes my wrist, / saying It’s time” (‘The Pain Switch’); “day’s bright splinter almost extracted” (‘Duende’); and so on.
Once an element of man-tamed nature and part of the comprehensible cosmos as it orbited the earth in its dependable twenty-four hour fashion, the modern sun is orbited by us and it has become powerful, familiar, alien, and other – and a threat. Without the sun, there can be no photosynthesis and no sublime natural landscapes for the Romantically-inclined poet to describe; yet the sun now poses a threat to our lives and livelihood with the hole in the ozone layer and the advent of man-induced global warming. This understanding of the sun as a danger/nurture paradox is captured in the opening lines from Savige’s ‘Public Execution’:
On this concrete daylight nicks its blade. Careless and bright as a child the unselfconscious sky goes on gleaming.
But it can be said that it all comes down to the human, in the end: the human propensity to burn fossil fuels, argue whether climate change is a hoax, sunbathe, slap on sunscreen, write poetry about the sun, etc. Each poem in this collection affirms the human as its true subject: in ‘Public Execution’, the lines which follow the first three return to the realm of subjective pronouns – I, you, and them. The beloved is the object – “Your absence is palpable” – the public is the public – “People can sense what I lack” – and the poet himself is the tragic hero: “I catch fire in the sun.”
Even though (or perhaps because) it is alien and nonhuman, Savige’s sun is personified, as can be seen in ‘The Minutes’. This is a self-reflexive poem about poetry and commerce. It suggests that, no matter how much we tell ourselves that the world of commerce and capitalism and enterprise is inhuman and dehumanising, the fact is that humans invented it in the first place. Thus the image of the sun as a fat boss of a listed company is ludicrous and bathetic as well as menacing:
The sun, CEO Of Sky Inc. cruises the block in its gold Maserati. Later it will return to fire dawn.
Imagining the sun as metaphor for the posthuman is Savige’s triumph. There is innovation here in the starkly stunning imagery that counteracts the often lulling effect of the long enjambed sentences characteristic of most of the poems in this collection. Like Australian poetry in general, Savige deserves a wider audience.
Returning to Savige’s article ‘Poetry Lives, OK?’ after reading Surface to Air, the reader may be tempted to ponder the significance of the following words: “But poetry is of course the product of its specific cultural moment, however much some would like it to reflect the cultures of yesteryear. Only those poems that are truly of their time have any hope of lasting beyond it.”
This poet’s work is certainly of its (posthuman?) time. Whether it has any hope of lasting beyond its time is up to the few rather than the many, of course. His is not elitist poetry, but the fact that the majority of Australians tend to view as elitist all poetry except that of the mass-manufactured greeting card makes this reader wonder if Savige’s gentle “hope” will be fulfilled at any time. Nowadays websites publishing poetry are not so much “a dime a dozen” as completely free of charge for millions. Will vital poetry as opposed to vanity poetry ever experience resurgence in popularity? Savige’s work is vital in that it demands the close attention of its readers. If in this posthuman world any superhuman entity is listening to the hum of humanity, it is Savige’s blazing sun. May it be a benevolent deity.
Alison Clifton is a PhD student in the area of contemporary British poetry at the University of Queensland.