Angela Costi reviews Poetry Without Borders

20 April 2009

Poetry Without Borders edited by Michelle Cahill
Picaro Press, 2008

There is a deep sigh of relief when we come across Poetry Without Borders, an anthology willing to cross unknown terrain to bring us the voices of poets rarely heard. Whether it's due to language, cultural, economic or psychological factors, those poets who have migrated or are considered to be 'new arrivals' are hardly published. Though quite a few of these poets are established and held in high esteem in their countries of origin, they are considered to be voices of the periphery in Australia or, at best, 'emerging' voices.

Poetry Without Borders was sparked into existence as a result of a successful Sydney-based poetry reading at Customs House, Circular Quay; and the energy and excitement of hearing those diverse voices in the one space seems to have filtered onto the page. It is refreshing to read poets that are willing to interrogate – as distinct from honouring and celebrating – that part of them that is not native to Australia. The nostalgic, romantic and lamentable tendency of migrant poetry is overridden by deeper thought of the psychoanalytical, philosophical and revelatory kind. This may be a testimony to the editing and selection process of Michelle Cahill, who in her probing editorial asks the deeper questions:

What do I tell my daughter when she asks about her identity, being the progeny of a Goan-Anglo-Indian mother and an Australian Anglo-Celtic father? For me the question holds more weight than the response.

And throughout the collection such questions continue. Here are poets who do not proffer poetry from a pedestal, rather they are unafraid to say, 'I don't know'. They take us on their explorative journey, their search to understand what may be the incomprehensible, the unknowable or the despairingly difficult.

The questions of a five year old take central position in Boey Kim Cheng's 'Stamp Collecting':

Is Australia our home?
What is this country? Why doesn't it exist
anymore? Why is the Queen's face
on the stamps of so many nations?

In this poem, the stamp album becomes the child's inheritance, and just like the world we have inherited and will bequeath, there are: 'The missing ranks lost,/like many other things,/in transit, between houses, countries/and lives.' In Catherine Doherty's 'Old English: sorrow-poem; lament' the poet asks:

When a language dies
who speaks the obsequies?
What tongue intones its virtues
chants its song, its smoke-wreathed history,
tells the years of its power?

The poem may seem focused on the loss of a particular language, yet its questions are universally enduring. In migrating we lose many things, but possibly the most sorrowful loss is that of language. We become citizens or members of another nation, which involves that earnest endeavour to learn the new language. Doherty takes us through the process of burning the past's language, mourning that language and fossicking among the ashes to find some continuum:

Fragments left from the burning
fossilize
bone-litter of a language,
oddities in other tongues.

The title of Ouyang Yu's poem asks an angry, outraged and justifiable question: 'What Can Poetry Do About This?' The poem then describes, in the lean words of reportage, an unforgettable and unforgivable crime. The content of many of the poems in this collection are not only fearless in their approach to sensitive subject matter, they also echo this courage with their form. Tatjana Lukic's 'checkmate' runs across the entire width of the page as if in flight of war and those ancestral wounds that refuse to heal:

-when I cross harshly my words with a /blunt point pen, one by one, cut their heads with a sharp /knife, swirl deep cuts through the heart of the paper, hot /and cruel as all my ancestors, raging through the nonsense sketched last night-

The poem finishes with asking an easy question and yet with an urgency and panic that suggest a violent conflict rather than a game of chess: 'what is the word, the bloody word for /the thing in your hand?'

Jamal Ali Al Hallaq's 'Ageing' (translated by Mohsen Beni Saeed), on the other hand, is centred on the page as well as being centred in the way it provides profound wisdom about time, place and migration – all three being a process of the body and mind:

I have no intention to drown
But it is the music
And me
And a set table
I should re-read
The eulogy of things
Migration is the ageing of place
And I am a place as well

Poetry Without Borders also includes some striking poetry that deals with the precarious terrain between 'the Australians' (the Aborigines) and 'the Whitefellas' (the settlers, convicts or migrants). In 'Seeds' by Jan Dean, the poet addresses an ancestor of 'convict stock' with the exquisite detail of the everyday unfurling into a question, which then precipitates internal and external inquisition and carefully planted evidence. It is a poem of courage and redemption, asking questions of both history and one's continuing contribution to the past:

Finding your grave could I suddenly be
overwhelmed by your spirit, given answers?
One thing I do know, we are yours
branching endlessly. English cold
and murkiness, now sheer memory.

The final poem in the collection is aptly titled 'The Last Poem' by Yahia Al Samawy, and it sings like an eternal and everlasting psalm. It paves a fearless path of intoning the desire of a poet who has witnessed and undergone the excesses of a brutal regime and a brutal war in Iraq:

For twenty years I searched in my home for my homeland
Oh, if only I could gather the fragments of my corpse
My frequent moves between internment camps
And underground chambers of torture
Scattered my memory throughout Iraq
For twenty years lovers in my homeland exchanged their
                                                                             letters in their dreams
And met each other only in funeral processions.

Although Poetry Without Borders is by no means the first multicultural or intercultural collection in Australia, it captures that strength of hybrid perspectives like some of its predecessors such as Migrant 7 and Australian Multicultural Book Review. Like those publications, it has the energy to become a literary pivot on discussion, discourse and debate about Australia's contribution to the migrant and refugee experience.

Angela Costi's Honey and Salt was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Poetry Prize 2008.

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