la, la, la by Tatjana Lukic
Five Islands Press, 2009
With the success of novels and short story collections such as The Slap and The Boat, it seems multicultural writing is enjoying something of a revival in Australia. Yet poetry written by non-Anglo-Celtic Australians does not usually garner much recognition. It is the prose narratives of dislocation and cultural transition, and not poetry dealing with these themes, which are de rigueur. In a perfect world, the first and sadly last English collection by the late Croatian-Australian poet Tatjana Lukic would be attracting a great deal of attention due to the poignancy and wisdom of her poems, regardless of the book's structural flaws.
Lukic migrated to Australia in 1992 as a war refugee after having published four collections of poetry in the former Yugoslavia and emerging as an important ethnic Serbian poet. After a ten year hiatus from writing, she resumed writing poetry, this time in English, and la, la, la brings together poems written up until 2008, the year she died of cancer. This biographical sketch perhaps alludes to what I find to be the source of both the strengths and shortcomings of this collection. Lukic's work reflects an insightful and generous poetics, shaped by a wealth of knowledge and experience, yet her book suffers from a lack of cohesion and purpose, perhaps due to the inclusion of a wide range of poems written over a long period of time.
Although at 78 pages la, la, la is not a large collection, it covers much ground. As the titles of the book's three sections – ‘there', ‘here' and ‘everywhere' – suggest, the volume collects poems dealing with the events and memories of Lukic's troubled native land, the scenes and characters of her adopted city of Canberra and, finally, poems that speak to universal human concerns. Such a panoptic arrangement strikes me as too broad, and runs the risk of distracting the reader from enjoying the poet's ability to elucidate the complexities of human subjectivity in her best individual pieces.
The poem ‘1959' from the book's first section, for example, narrates the poet's biography tersely by extending the motifs associated with her childhood in a communist country – e.g., Fidel Castro's claim that ‘our revolution is not red but olive green' and, later, the blight of Soviet totalitarianism as ‘the red dust swept off the olive green / from havana's streets' – into an image of her own future in Australia:
the winds were playing over the seas
with a bunch of new flags of all colours
above freed lands
at the back of his new weatherboard cottage,
down under, in yarralumla, where the world will end,
a young settler, an Italian builder, was planting an olive tree
This seamless conflation of the autobiographical with the historical and the political is evident in the majority of the poems in the book's first and most successful section. In the startling opener ‘nothing else', using a juxtaposition of positive and negative replies to questions regarding her experiences of the Croatian war of independence, Lukic constructs a deeply personal and unsettling account of the historic conflict. In ‘morning coffee' she meditates on the depth of intimacy shared by an old couple by narrating an episode during which their city becomes the scene of a battle between the Serb and Croat fighters:
… why should we leave, our home is here, and
this is not our war, he repeated quietly, she nodded and opened
a coffee jar, where should we go, anyway, she didn't say it, he
lit a cigarette for her, and one for himself, and then
a man stormed in,
a pointed machine gun crashed through the door
When placed alongside powerful, engrossing poems such as these, the book's second section appears whimsical and saccharine. Lukic's gratitude for the peace and stability afforded to her by Australia is understandable and most likely very sincere, but her expressions tend to become conventional, at times burdened by an excess of Australian slang and idioms. In ‘up', the refrain ‘you'll be right' – culminating in the obligatory ‘she'll be right' in the poem's last line – seems more comical and slapstick than an ironic commentary on Australians' nonchalance. Similarly in ‘bruce's afternoon', the speaker's discourse gets tangled between the apparent intention to satirise a stereotypical Australian male and the desire to amuse the reader by replicating clichés and Australian expressions.
Thankfully, in the book's final section, Lukic's formal experiments compensate for what strikes me as a disproportionate emphasis on her affection for everyday Australian English. The prose poems dedicated to fellow poets joanne burns, Sasa Radojcic, Laurie Duggan and MTC Cronin are much less self-conscious and a great deal more creative, perhaps because the occasion to communicate with other poets has freed Lukic from the presumed obligation to address Australian society as a whole. This opportunity has allowed Lukic to write poems that make obscure and intriguing references to other poems, such as the outstanding sequence ‘asking for clemency'.
Written after the celebrated Serbian poet Desanka Maksimović, ‘asking for clemency' makes superb use of the rhetorical device of addressing an absent reader – oddly, and interestingly, the 14th century Serbian ruler Tsar Dušan, a reference to whose legal code provides the poem with its epigraph – by repeating and rephrasing the refrain ‘i am asking you for clemency dear tsar' in the suite's four sections. The people for whom she's asking clemency are contemporary Australians who have fallen on hard times and deserve the reader's attention and compassion. These include anxious mothers awaiting the ruling at a children's court, and a divorcee who:
… is not from the old stories, dear tsar
he did change the nappies, he did care,
ran from one job to another and back home
a good bloke, he did the lawn, repaired kids' bikes,
attended school interviews and Saturday games
help him to stop thinking about his wife's
craving for freedom, searching for her real self,
and what else did she say? wanting her own space,
something like that
What makes this sequence moving and persuasive is not only Lukic's generosity of spirit and her ability to articulate this munificence with lucidity and precision, but also her flair for merging her knowledge of Serbian history and cultural heritage with observations of daily life in Australia. The poem makes use of standard phrases and clichés (‘a good bloke, he did the lawn', his ex-wife was ‘searching for her real self,' and so on) and its contemporaneous deployment of references to the medieval tsar – concluding in the poem's last part in which the reader is asked to forgive the Serbian ruler for his lack of compassion towards the Gnostic Bogomilist heretics – provide the occasion for seeking redemption for those whose religious intolerance and sectarian hatred plunged Lukic's native country into Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II:
i ask for clemency dear tsar
for those who follow your code
and punish believers in mary
a fallen angel
born of a goose
for those who asked my friend
to kiss the cross and sign
she was not what she was
before they helped her to run across the river
and leave a burning town
With poems like this, I can confidently say that Australian poetry has greatly benefited from Tatjana Lukic leaving her own burning town and seeking refuge in Australia. Although la, la, la suffers from an unevenness and inconsistency resulting from the inclusion of a number of poems that are not in the same stylistic and conceptual field as the book's best pieces, the book succeeds in demonstrating and celebrating the work of this very talented and soulful multicultural Australian poet. She will be greatly missed.