Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Grace Yee and Adam Aitken

By | 18 December 2023

In Revenants, as in much of his earlier work, Adam Aitken also explores, among other concerns, themes of colonialism and of social narrowness towards ‘the wrong sort of immigrant.’ However, compared to Yee, Aitken’s poetry appears as constructed image of the sometime luminous. An ambiguous and ironic interrogation of language, as in the sometimes explicitly referenced Stevens, reveals itself as an experience taking hold in the mind and as a pact with the reader celebrating the imagination. The work is both immediate and elusive, as if tracking a floating retinal image. It is a fitting image for a meditation on the currency of the outsider, in a localised, globalised, and political sense.

Section 1 of Revenants focuses on Asia, past and present, with the aura of the colonial and its accompanying torpor, where the outsider floats through a world redolent of Conrad and Maugham. Adam Aitken has written beautifully on his father previously, most particularly in One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond Press 2016). Here he appears as an almost Maugham-like figure, a connection I much enjoyed, especially after reading House of Doors (Canongate 2023), Tan Twan Eng’s recent novel featuring Maugham as a protagonist and set in colonial Malaya. In ‘Gentleman in the Parlour (after Somerset Maugham)’ there is no simple correspondence, but an unspoken duplicated presence:

I read my father’s letter on Hong Kong.
how he loved it:

the heat, the beer in bottles, the tailoring,
the freedom.

I imagine him reading Somerset Maugham
with the temperature at 105 […]

I won’t know
what my father thought of Maugham:
The East: a malaise unredeemed by a divine nostalgia.

I know my father grew tired of tinned pears
and breakfast sausage.

My father was not English,
not Maugham.


Aitken captures Maugham’s habit of employing stock phrases: “For Masterton, Maugham’s hero, an English stream / had a smiling nonchalance” (6). And it was indeed a colonial world of cliché: “Bugles blew and we, the Europeans / crowded into the throne room” while his father “went dancing / and ordered new suits and dresses for Mum,” a figure gracing the East, not signing up for it (7; 7). Language acquisition can have a bizarre dissonance, as in ‘British Armed Forces Phrasebook, 1932’:

I was on my porch enjoying a G&T
when the lungfish made it to the mudflat.


Similarly couched in irony, language in ‘Luang Prabang,’ on this occasion French, is acquired in terms not only of accomplishment but of understanding. This transfer of language which “improved / her monsoonal latitude” occurs within that dominant somnolent image (10):

A Frenchman taught my mother to eat baguettes:
he gave her French
and she saved him her furious backchat.

He gave her a poetic:
how ‘the hour to be shot at dawn’
was as beautiful
as the sun that ‘wakes’
behind the clouds.

He taught her ways to roast pigeon

and how to know
the romance of words,
how to read Flaubert and Proust,
how to say
ténébreuse et ombre


The same language transfer emerges in this lovely image, both tender and sardonic:

There a white straw hat
that she taught her sisters to weave,
and under it that man
who forgets dismay,
sleeps again, one eye open
in the shade
of his charming decay, 
in a glorious swelter,
in the imageless afternoon.

The Frenchman who was not my father.


If the reference to Flaubert in ‘Luang Prabang’ sends us back to the nineteenth century, ‘The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro’ takes us to that century in both Java and France, and presents the ambiguous figure of Raden Saleh, a painter who became a celebrity in Paris, reversing the trend of many, recorded at that time, in flocking East. Adopting a Western style of painting, he finished his career back in Java, working for the Dutch colonial authorities as a conservator of paintings. However, as this superb ekphrastic poem and the painting it evokes exemplifies, Saleh could not be said to be a simple colonial cheerleader. Prince Diponegoro, now revered as a hero of national resistance in Indonesia, is not represented as an abject figure as he is in Dutch versions of the event:

Masterpiece to say it’s time to kill the Dutch,
tells them go home, time to split
fullblood from Mischling-Kind.

The background rich with textiles and soldiers
but the plotters catch him in the act.
You can’t say whose side the painter is on.


Historically it was a difficult time for the Dutch (as indeed it was for the Javanese), routed by Stamford Raffles and then negotiating with royal houses:

The whites fucked it, their pantaloons too tight,
their dusky ladies, distracted now,
sinking at the feet of a super Prince extraordinaire […]
As for the victims sketched at ease,
No flinch or cry. Relaxed, squatting on their own ground
in a study of prostration,

which signals protest.  


Section 2 moves across time. It starts with the poet visiting his father in a hospice in ‘Sincerity’:

He told me bad things about my writing:
my writing was inaccurate, and
he was ‘seriously worried’
about the book I intended to publish,


The section then moves on to experiences at school as the outsider. In ‘The Far East’:

I remember the school ground:
eager to kill, I punched him, but gently, diplomatically,


And, in ‘Class Portrait’:

Cross-legged, a compact darker boy
surrounded by freckled Amazons
with names like Turner, Smith and Brown.


Revenants then shifts to another outpost, Hawaii, where American culture has manufactured how some things are seen. ‘Ala Moana,’ an ironic hymn to nostalgia, has something of a White Lotus (2021) vibe:

What you see from the balconies of hotels:
an ambience you paid good money for,
a smooth transit to the beauties of tradition
where the waiter’s one rebel gesture
is a large punkish leather belt and buckle
he bought at Guess


The poem concludes with the lines “You want to shout Fuck Tourism / but that would be nostalgic” (50). After just returning from Bali, I can say never has a truer word been spoken.

‘Weather Report,’ a gorgeous riff on Stevens, features a variety of place and weather floating across consciousness and prepares the reader for the final section set in France, which continues an underlying connection to Stevens, Ashbery, and others (51). ‘Seasonal Domestic’ and ‘Sunlight on La Grande Rue’ hint at both Stevens and Cezanne (51; 66-70). ‘Illuminated,’ after Philippe Jaccottet, entwines place and image in language (60-61). It becomes almost a motif for the collection, an extended meditation on belonging and not:

Adjust spectacles.
Observe the backroom illumination
the garden’s thorny climbing rose
entwine the borders of the page,
continue through the lattice,
back to earth
down through the spine
in a blazon of embrace.  


Having been reading quite a bit of James Schuyler recently, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, ‘Monet’s Garden, Giverny’ recalls one of the effects of a poem such as Schuyler’s ‘February’; the intersecting visuals that celebrate immediate perception (71-72).

To conclude, the local villagers, the heirs of what once was Empire, also appear in this final section, and in ‘Velodrome of Spring,’ a reflection on the Second World War and the Resistance, the poet considers his outsider status:

Would I die for France like this?
I doubt I’d be invited. I’d be
another engraved name on a railway wall
where buskers sing for coins
while passengers shuffle past to catch a train.


In looking back over these two collections, what comes to mind is the concept of home. How can home be defined in terms of migratory dislocation, competing cultural attitudes, so as to find some semblance of self? Chinese Fish focuses on a specific locale, allowing differing registers of language to ricochet outwards across text. In contrast, Revenants travels across borders, pinpoints moments of recognition in liminal spaces, within the unsettled resonance of language and home.

This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.