Possession: poems about the voyage of Lt James Cook in the Endeavour 1768-1771 by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson
Five Islands Press, 2010
From at least as far back as Heraclitus, scholars have been warning us about the irresistible and irretrievable nature of history. The past provides little that is stable, other than an unwavering reminder of the constancy of change. The task of entering history, therefore, is fraught with complications. Poetry might seem to rejoice in such complications, yet if it’s going to engage with foundational narratives about nations and cultures, it can fall prey to some of the regulations of more prosaic forms. Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s Possession is an engagement with what is perhaps the foundational narrative of the Australian nation-state, the journey of James Cook to the east coast of Australia. And it is a major example of Australian poetry’s fixation with a past at once irresistible and irretrievable.
This slim volume belies the size of Kerdijk Nicholson’s task. Possession consists of less than fifty pages of poems, most of which are sonnets. The epigraph at the start of the book, from that famous letter from the Lords of the Admiralty, states that Cook is “to proceed southward in order to make discovery of the Continent … to land, take possession … with the consent of the natives”. We are already quite familiar with the conclusion to this story: we know that Cook will find “the Continent” and we (should) know the problematic circumstances surrounding the way he took possession of it. So the epigraph must be a proposal for a different kind of space, or a re-entry into those imaginative realms between the links that compose the chain of history.
Certainly, the book is no simple rendition of historical events. Composed of “Extracted notes from a lost manuscript”, as well as poems written about Cook by someone akin to a fly on the wall, and poems that reflect on Cook from places like 21st century Kangaroo Valley and Andalucía, Spain, Possession is not so much a recounting of how Cook claimed possession of Terra Australis for the British Crown as it is an effort on behalf of the poet to take hold of (or possess) Cook’s famous story for herself.
To paraphrase the title of one of the book’s most successful poems, “The world is a handkerchief” for Kerdijk Nicholson, and she wants to “spread it across [her] knees”. In doing so she is able to draw an arc across the globe, and compress multiple epochs into a thin, dense fabric. History becomes a mirror; if we look into it, we see only the future into which we are headed:
… We must either continue or go back: we go on,
we have to go on, whatever happens now we have come this far,
the distance closes behind us like a clap.
In poems like these Kerdijk Nicholson is able to bring Cook into the contemporary moment by wrapping him up in a larger matrix of cultural material. This is an excellent way of complicating Cook’s origin and of questioning the notion that his story is one about the beginning of a nation. Accordingly, what happens throughout much of Possession is a continual reinvention of Cook. He is perpetually becoming-something-else in a present that refuses to stay still.
Nevertheless, subtitled poems about the voyage of Lt James Cook in the Endeavour 1768-1771, and with a cover image depicting “[a] Maori bartering a crayfish with an English naval officer”, the book looks very much like an historical document. The cover image is a drawing attributed to Tupaia, that skilled Tahitian ombudsman who travelled with Cook for much of the latter part of his first voyage. It seeks to provide what follows with a kind of documentary authenticity, but it also frames Cook with Tupaia’s non-European gaze. As a cover image, then, it suggests to the reader that Kerdijk Nicholson’s poems might attempt to do the same thing. That is, together with the title, the cover of Possession suggests a poetry which will reinscribe indigenous peoples’ perception of, and resistance to, the way in which Cook claimed their lands for the British Crown. The first piece in the book – a lovely extrapolation of the etymology of the word ‘explore’ – would seem to confirm this notion:
… C16th: from Latin explorare from
EX- + plorare to cry aloud; possibly from the shouts of those
who are objecting to being examined or investigated…
also, probably from shouts of hunters in the course of bringing
down that sought for or sought out
Unfortunately, however, there is little sense in the rest of Possession of any resistance to Cook, or of a desire to re-imagine him. Instead, Kerdijk Nicholson is concerned with getting closer to him, carefully tracing his character back to his childhood.
The detailed chronology at the back of the book does provide a useful account of some of the skirmishes with Islander and Aboriginal peoples, but the poems themselves seem to resist the implications of such violence. As we will soon see, Kerdijk Nicholson so casually and problematically grants primary access to Cook’s thoughts and experiences that other actors in these situations can’t rupture her smooth, conventional syntax. To be able to speak and write without interruption assumes a certain peacefulness or silence in the poem-space; to strive for clarity of form and meaning assumes that such clarity can exist. However, these spaces of which the poet is writing were anything but silent and peaceful, and to understand the countless semantic fractures between the Europeans and the peoples they encountered necessitates anything but a language that adheres largely to the rules of contemporary English grammar. It is because Possession does not deal with such issues that the book raises serious questions about what should constitute contemporary Australian poetry and language.
The task for Kerdijk Nicholson is to imagine a diversity in the environment of the past, and then to propose poetically how such diversity might organise itself into the shape of a poem. At times she succeeds in doing so, and the results are excellent. Various sonnets are powerful for their vivid articulations not only of scenes, but of Cook’s sensory processes. Note the conflation of sight, smell and pastiche (in italics) in ‘Of little and mortal things’:
Today, from the Fort, a dusky shade round Venus
disturbs the long-awaited sightings: but
you write them down. Notice, as scientists do,
small things: that Marine’s boots have dimped
the sand, the oaken galling smell of ink.
At the very best of times, the poet is looking through Cook: her poems are maps of cognitive activity that seem to bleed through epochs. Evoking Cook’s dark solitude on board The Endeavour, the sonnet ‘We walk up and down in the earth, we take our flesh in our teeth’ (a line from Charles Wright’s poem ‘The Silent Generation’) is one of the book’s finest:
One of Mr Banks’s cannibal heads sits in a numinous rectangle
of light. His Journal’s open at a page: the flesh and skin
upon these heads were still soft, but they were somehow
preserved so as not to stink. You agree with Wilkinson
who said They’re green. The hair’s still on. The people
barter for chewed bones, prize marks of teeth. A voice says
Do you hear those birds? Like small, silver bells.
Another says Yes, like nightingales…
Yet for all of its potent affect, this poem can’t escape a sense of old-fashioned anthropological survey, as if it is simply retracing and re-enacting all the errors of the past. The cannibal head framed by “a numinous rectangle / of light” is a stunning image of eighteenth century conquest and colonisation, but it’s never critiqued. We look and we make a judgement – just like every other explorer ever did – then we move on.
When her imaginative powers weaken, Kerdijk Nicholson reverts to looking at Cook, as if she were, as mentioned, a fly, or floating mysteriously in the air beside Cook. Poem after poem talks to Cook, and tells him what he is feeling, or what he is about to do. “You feel …” she writes, or “you’re looking …”, “you’re not sure …”, “you take …”, “you imagine …” It’s as if the poet keeps bumping up against Cook’s exterior and, in order to compensate for the barrier, she’s not only telling the reader what Cook is thinking, but also telling Cook himself. During those precious few instances when she stops using the second person, we get lush glimpses of what the rest of the book doesn’t do. I was left to wonder what the point was of using the second person pronoun so insistently. Surely, the poems would have been more interesting without any pronouns at all, allowing Cook’s experience to merge with the poet’s, and avoiding the need for the constant subjective demarcation.
In ‘They drape you, ferryman, in the cloak of signs’, the poet changes to the first person. We see that writing this way is more challenging and revealing; it doesn’t overcode Cook with the bodiless voice that becomes irritating elsewhere. But the poet still can’t allow Cook any room to move of his own accord; he remains trapped beneath a litany of the poet’s orders: “Tupaia, I will layer upon the tapa your moments of exultation”, “I will ask to copy the patterns of your tatau”, “I will ask you to bring the cocoanut to your lips”, and “Then I will ask you to stand before me”.
This point is illustrative of the problem with Possession as a whole: most of the poems look at Cook (his character isn’t allowed to write/speak them), instead of translating the experience of being Cook into language. The poet can enter the past and talk to Cook as if he were standing in the room next to her; she seems to inhabit places without needing to understand how to speak in them first.
Take as an example a poem about Cook as a child, where the poet has remarkable familiarity with all but the most intimate details of his body and of his desires:
… you weren’t like the other lads, carving their names
in the rock …
You gazed away, pretended you were nesting birds,
but it was just to get beyond any greedy stares
and be with the wind. You were flying, a kite sucked up
by the force.
Again, there’s this problematic point of view: if the poet knows what Cook’s thinking in such clear detail, then why the false grammatical structure that proposes a barrier between them?
The problem is bigger than just a simple grammatical one, however. The second person, which seems to be something of a default position for Kerdijk Nicholson, grants the poems conclusions which aren’t generated by their own internal systems: Cook has no control over what he is going to do because the poet has predicted his movements already; he is a puppet rather than a person. The poet’s view from the present demands that each instance of Cook’s life becomes part of a generalised, future tense. Consequently, his role in various events is effectively restricted so that each event can fit into the story Kerdijk Nicholson wants to tell. So, by forcing the poem to graft onto a larger narrative framework outside of its immediate environment, the poet has composed it according to the simplified schematics of hindsight.
We can see an unsettling tension – between the location of events and what these events are supposed to mean – in the structure of many of Kerdijk Nicholson’s sonnets. Almost all of them are written according to a single movement, in which the sonnet’s arc begins with the local, but then abstracts from the local, terminating the poem in a language that could be spoken in any place (and, therefore, in no place). For example, a sonnet about The Endeavour’s arrival in Stingray Bay on April 30 begins as a rich evocation of bush smell and insects, yet makes way for an abstracted conclusion about “These huge blank territories”. In each such instance, the uncertainty, doubt and surprise of the immanent environment is hurriedly regulated by awkward gestures towards the present moment.
The result is that, while Kerdijk Nicholson raises the possibility of reimagining Cook in radical new ways (“how many theories can be / reconstituted,” she asks, “having been pounded to dust?”), she doesn’t manage to enact this possibility in her poetry. It is as if her imagination can’t grow any texture because of the restraints she places on her language. She writes that “language has no plume or scent”, which is to completely deny its emergence from bodies – organisms full of scent, and inextricable from any number of particular geographies. You can’t simply speak across the ages; language is produced, and evolves, in precise, historical locations. This is important because it relates to how the poet’s compression of histories into a thin, contemporary “handkerchief” also involves a failure to imagine the discrepancies between these histories, and the different languages common to them.
At any rate, Possession certainly provides plenty of “mental cud for any ruminant tooth,” to steal a phrase from Ezra Pound. Not only does Kerdijk Nicholson provoke some crucial formal questions, but she’s brave enough to deal at length with what is perhaps the primal Australian narrative. Possession deserves considered attention as a book central to many unresolved issues at the heart of Australian poetics: namely, the relationship between language and environment, and the primarily monolingual heritage of a poetic tradition that seeks to describe a nation which is nothing if not profoundly diverse. Books like this should be unavoidable nodes in the vast network of Australian poetry, culture and politics in the early twenty-first century.