Australian Dream by Mohsen Soltany Zand
(CD) Stickylabel, 2005
There is a spectre haunting Australian poetry – it is the spectre of spoken word. The explosion of spoken word publications (mostly in the form of CDs) and live events (such as poetry soirees, 'slams' and 'open microphones') across Australia's poetry scene over the past decade or so may in due course determine the future of Australian poetry.
Thanks to spoken word (and also committed small presses and the internet) there may now be a future for Australian poetry beyond the blow dealt during the 90's by major publishers' collective decision to stop publishing poetry. Australian Dream, a double CD featuring the poetry of newcomer Mohsen Soltany Zand spoken and sung by the likes of Bryan Brown, Thomas Keneally, Claudia Karvan and a host of other famous Australians, may one day be seen as a landmark of this relatively new, and seemingly promising, medium/genre of contemporary poetry.
Soltany Zand is a newcomer both as an Australian poet and as an Australian. His work – featured in journals such as Southerly and in the 2004 Sydney Writers' Festival – remains little known outside the circles of human rights activists and refugee advocates. An Iranian-born man who spent nearly four years as a 'queue-jumper' in Port Hedland and Villawood detention centers, Soltany Zand, now a permanent Australian resident, has already had one CD (simply titled Mohsen) produced by Queensland's Stickylabel. On the basis of the strength of the poetry performed on his new double CD, not to mention the fame and celebrity status of some of the performers, it is likely that Australian Dream (and an accompanying TV documentary that, as I understand it, is being produced by SBS) will provide both the poet and the spoken word medium with a healthy dose of public attention.
As might be expected, a number of the poems on the double CD recount the author's experience of mandatory imprisonment in Australia. The poem 'NBP 122', for example, is named after Soltany Zand's number in detention, and narrates an incident during which the poet was brutalised by the detention camp's ACM (Australasian Correctional Management) security guards:
It was ACM
Securers of Hell
I am full of pain
Thrown from my bed
I can see nothing
My breath can't help me
A wall of riot shields
Power is in the baton
Flying through the sky
On the CD this poem is voiced by Australia's foremost Shakespearean actor John Bell, and also features a quasi-techno backing soundtrack that strikes this reviewer as a mixture of 80's Sci-Fi movie music (from, say, Dune or Blade Runner) and contemporary electronic sounds (e.g. Trance). This track makes, at any rate, for effective and appropriately unsettling listening; and the corporeality of the poem's grammar and lexicon – short and abrupt clauses; words and phrases that directly signify physical harm and/or physically harmful situations, etc – are persuasive in compelling the reader/listener to believe in, and get affected by, their apparent authenticity.
Such a realistic treatment of other seemingly real situations is present in a number of other poems recorded on Australian Dream. The most striking and imaginative example of this approach is perhaps the haunting 'SIEV-X' that, as the title suggests, depicts the sinking of the now famous refugee boat and 353 of its Middle Eastern passengers during their voyage from Indonesia to Australia's hostile shores.
This track begins with an ethereal chanting of the last verse of 'Waltzing Matilda' by Kirsten Whalley. Her voice is gradually drowned out by an aquatic soundscape of watery noises and the whisper of the Persian word for god – khoda – as the mournful notes of the traditional Indo-Persian dulcimer santoor bleat in the background. On top of this subtle yet potent palimpsest of noise former diplomat Tony Kevin and Greens senator Kerry Nettle speak Soltany Zand's poem, beginning with:
Their names sink down in the nation's history.
SIEV X. The strange name of a shameful story.
353 children and adults gently sought out our compassion,
We could hear them from behind the fences
While we saw their souls float away.
They are asleep. Peaceful. Forever.
Although spoken by two 'real' Australians, the poem is written 'from behind the fences', that is, in the voice of a detained asylum seeker, and the 'we' of the poem is not the community of concerned Australians (such as Kevin and Nettle) but the makeshift society of imprisoned 'illegal immigrants' reacting to the news of the maritime disaster.
This kind of juxtaposition – indeed contradiction – works best when it challenges and annuls the very premises of identity, as typified by the speakers' language and accent, in favour of a humanist (as opposed to a merely humane) voice. In other words, it is refreshingly challenging to hear 'fair dinkum Aussie' voices – particularly Bryan Brown's familiar drawl – performing the clearly 'non-Australian' themes and perspectives of Soltany Zand's poems.
On the other hand, however, something of the poet's voice does seem to get lost, or at least distorted, in this translation. For example, the track featuring Brown's performance – 'Sunset', the album's opener – strikes this reviewer as quasi-New Age and 'relaxation music'. I am not at all suggesting that all the tracks on this album 'must' convey an edgy, activist ethos; but am still not impressed by the contrived spiritualist and environmentalist overtones of this track. This track is perhaps, more than anything else, overproduced: the lines spoken by the actor are simultaneously sung by another male voice intertwined with, again, pseudo-80's Sci-Fi electronic music as well as yelps of saxophone.
My criticism, then, does not regard so much the conversion of Soltany Zand's poetry from Persian to English, or the fact that only very few of the poems are performed by the poet himself; but that the musical interpretations of the poetry, although at times very effective (as in 'SIEV-X' and the superbly gothic and chilling 'Coffin'), at times also border on dubious New Ageism, gaudy electronica and unnecessary overproduction.
I am not, however, a musicologist; and will instead comment on something that I know something about. Soltany Zand's poetry, as translated for the purposes of this CD by the author himself with the assistance of one of the album's producers, Annette Hughes, is nothing if not effective. That is, his intention seems to be, first and foremost, to have an effect on his reader.
A conservative reader might find his work sensationalist and, in the light of his perceived identity as an 'illegal' from a 'terrorist' 'axis of evil' nation, even confronting and unpleasant. The following lines from 'Only Hope After God', for example, would no doubt irritate supporters of Ruddock/Howard/Beazley refugee policies; and may also offend the proponents of apolitical and aesthetically driven formalism in Anglo-Australian poetry:
We are innocents who have kissed
the noose of Australian Democracy.
We were the fan to the political fire,
who now find ourselves in the flames.
We who believed in the dream of freedom,
are stuck fast in a quagmire of prejudice.
A humanist reader, on the other hand, is likely to be moved by the pathos and sincerity of Soltany Zand's poems. There is, as mentioned before, something palpably 'authentic' about the consternations and sufferings depicted in these poems, many of which could be seen as oppositions to the demonised image of the 'Muslim' and the 'queue-jumper', a recurring motif in so much of Western media.
Soltany Zand's words humanise and provide a voice for not only their author but also possibly for all of the noncombatants of Middle Eastern/Muslim nations and backgrounds caught in the crossfire of the War on Terror, Jihads, Pacific Solution and other 'Clash of Civilisations' catastrophes. Consider, for example, the following lines from Soltany Zand's 'Realpolitik':
I see a donkey that is singing for democracy
I see a hyena that is waiting for the “war on terrorism”
I see a shark that is helping to rescue boat people
I see a prisoner mouse making a party for a cat
I see a fox teaching freedom to the hen and rooster
I see an executioner putting the mask of religion on his face
I see a locust sowing a green field for humanity
Not a conservative and only partly a humanist, I am most impressed by the poet's ability to articulate and, by doing so, confront the paradoxes, hypocrisies and deviousness of conventional Western views of contemporary Middle East.
In the abovementioned lines, for example, the image of a donkey singing for democracy is a potently satirical representation of neo-conservative attempts at reshaping the Middle East in the image of USA. The donkey, while signifying 'heroic' intransigence and hardiness in conventional American semiotics (e.g. as the mascot of the US Democratic Party), is a symbol of utter stupidity, and a common insult, in Persian. The poem's other animal motifs each enhance this initial depiction of neo-con idiocy to comprise the scavenging desires of the warmongers (the hyena); the predatory sadism of neo-imperialists (the shark and the cat); the adroit cunningness of the anti-terror warriors (the fox); and a direct and non-parabolic representation of the brutality of the terrorists hiding behind an Islamic mask of sacredness and religiosity.
This is powerful writing. Soltany Zand's use of animal symbols and nature tropes is skillful if also opinionated and tendentious. But what is wrong with poets expressing a point of view and aiming to spread a message? Will the Australian poetry establishment, or whatever remains of it, turn up its nose at this 'ungrateful immigrant' writer's unabashed rejection of 'art for art's sake' and other discourses of conservative apologia? Could he be criticised for not indulging in sufficient 'word play' and not paying enough attention to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E? Will he be accused of writing 'prose that only looks like poetry'?
Perhaps. But what is undeniable is that this double CD is the highest-profile and possibly most innovative and daring spoken word poetry this reviewer has yet heard. Not only for its topicality and its willingness to challenge and confront mainstream political perceptions, but also for the sheer exuberance and playfulness of the production and the potency of Mohsen Soltany Zand's poetry, Australian Dream deserves to become a classic of contemporary Australian poetry.