Review Short: Lisa Jacobson’s The Asylum Poems and Judy Johnson’s Counsel for the Defence

By | 20 February 2017

The Asylum Poems by Lisa Jacobson
Recent Work Press / IPSI, 2016

Counsel for the Defence by Judy Johnson
Recent Work Press / IPSI, 2016

Lisa Jacobson is a Melbourne poet and social worker. In the chapbook The Asylum Poems, she attempts to empathetically inhabit the experiences of an Iraqi family fleeing persecution. Her images are often beautiful, like ‘uncle-blood falling in rays’ and ‘families scatter like music’. The prettiness of the language is a curious choice, though, given the raw horror of the subject matter. Closely observed grotesque details, like the father yelling ‘Towels! ’ as he carries his bleeding brother over the threshold of their Iraqi home, are among the sequence’s most satisfying moments.

The chapbook is bookended by a pair of poems in which Jews in historical exodus proclaim their understanding of the plight of contemporary asylum seekers. ‘To all those who seek asylum, do not think / we have forgotten you’, say the Jews in 1939 aboard a ship fleeing Germany. ‘We’, presumably, is a pronoun encompassing not only all living Jews, united by the shared burden of historical persecution, but all Jewish ancestors who suffered exile and racist inhumanity in history’s long and shameful dossier. The Asylum Poems dilate on the experience of a family who flee Iraq, brave the perilous boat journey, and arrive on Christmas Island. There are moments when the unbearable situation the family is fleeing is poignantly fictionalised. However, the book’s opening and closing poems situate these culturally particular experiences within the grandly compassionate and apparently uncomplicated total understanding of the narrator, who invokes her inheritance of the historical suffering of the Jews as evidence of shared experience: ‘We too were thin with hope’; ‘we were concave with sorrow like you’; ‘May we console you, as we were consoled, in the desert of our own exile’. I cannot quite dispel the smell of irony that hangs on these poems’ premises. No matter how the Jews of the SS St Louis and the Old Testament might sympathise with other situations of exodus, the Israeli government has little sympathy for the plight of other Middle Eastern peoples fleeing oppression, and an asylum seeker family wouldn’t think of showing up on Israel’s doorstep.

When expressions of compassion are aggrandised in this way, they become abstracted, thin, too pure. To me, they lack the textures of a genuine human-to-human exchange, where our own concerns, cultural lenses, to-do lists, and judgements are always interrupting. I think I would prefer to read poems where Lisa Jacobson the social worker sits with Ali the Iraqi asylum seeker, and to hear them talking, and to read the movements of their minds, known and imagined, and, crucially, to see some self-conscious intimation that there are pockets and crevasses of Ali’s experience that we (the ‘we’ of white, privileged, middle-class Australian poets sheltered from racism and persecution) can never understand.

The ‘Dark Convict’ poems in Judy Johnson’s Counsel for the Defence constitute another imaginative occupancy of the mind of an ‘other.’ In this case, Johnson writes the trauma of her ancestor, John Martin, who was one of eleven African American ex-slaves who were First Fleet convicts. The various hells of Newgate prison, typhus, bushfire, and the cat’o’nine tails are rendered with highly musical language, the images lush with dread and sometimes vomitously affecting. Listen to this:

            Flares galloped the trees with a million dirty hooves

gorged on the leaves   then shit black ash on my head   burped up
orange flares. (‘John Martin’s Fifty Acres’)

and this:

The flogger clears the gore with his fingertips   to make 
sure   the next lash will let those knots dig in.

and this:

                                                      We are bound
says they   for His Merciful Majesty’s African
plantations.   The blacks among us should feel   nostalgic
elation   says they.   Our long-lost dead might dig up   their
own bones   they had buried for safekeeping   til we came

home. Those withered sticks   then rise up and dance   under the
pus-clot   of all negro moons.   And yes!   Won’t we all dance
and swoon   right along   says they?

Black humour often rescues the poems from melodrama, which they risk but are never defeated by. The fucked power structures of the colonial project are also beautifully rendered in their cruel absurdity, layering the implicit compassion of the collection with textures of cynicism and exasperation. I also find that a certain self-consciousness about the process of fictionalisation fends off my discomfort around ideas of who can write the other. For example, in ‘Caught Black Handed’, the authenticity of apparently verbatim court documents is disrupted by lines like:

The clothes packed in their open-and-shut case of guilt   I
     show fast-and-loose to this court   hoping their plain-as-day
          material witness makes a fine noose.’

The poems wear their constructedness with some obviousness. These moments announce the attempt to imagine radically other experiences as just that – an attempt.

Johnson’s chapbook also includes five poems about flowers, a formal experiment of constraint (each line has nine syllables) that the occasional confusion of tones rendered less compelling for me than the ‘Dark Convict’ set. Still, the marvellous torque and thoughtfulness of Johnson’s project speaks of a mature poet at the height of her powers.

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