Lucy Van Reviews Merlinda Bobis

1 March 2018

Accidents of Composition by Merlinda Bobis
Spinifex Press, 2017

Marianne Moore called it ‘courageous attack’:

today, you span the far mountains
with an arm and say,
‘this I offer you —
all this blue sweat
of eucalypt.’

So begins ‘driving to katoomba’, from the first poetry collection that Merlinda Bobis published in Australia, Summer was a fast train without terminals (Spinifex, 1998). The opening is typical of Bobis’s inimitable gusto and extravagance: the lines follow the gesture of the body that reaches for a view, simultaneously craving and offering the world while delighting in the knowledge that both impulses remain unfulfilled.

Sappho wrote, ‘I love extravagance,’ and she would have loved it here – the speaker and her fellow traveller entwined in mutual acts of impossible exchange under a high noon throb: one offers the scent of the Blue Mountains; the other, her recognition of love in the fertile yet futile gesture. Trips to the Blue Mountains often appear in Australian poetry; recently, in ‘blue mountains line’, Andy Jackson wrote ‘the carriage is the colour / of tendon and bone’. I notice a similarity in each poem’s approach to this iconic Australian landscape, in the way the body’s relation to this space is framed through cinematic motion. There is a shared sense of fleeting vision, of temporary impression, of passing through rather than staying put, of un-belonging to the land. The fellow traveller offers nothing concrete to the speaker, only the ether made by leaves waving in the air.

Accidents of Composition is Bobis’s sixth book of poetry. It sits alongside an impressive and multiform body of work that includes prize-winning fiction, drama, radio production and musical performance. After reading through the collection several times, I discovered a disarming afterward:

Let the poem speak for itself. No poet must explain. Do not betray the labour. Yet I choose to reveal the accidents, the gifts behind the book.

It began on the 18 October 2014 in a tourist bus across the desert, after visiting the Grand Canyon. As we sped along, behind the glass window was a black bird close to the eerie sun, like a white hole against storm grey sky. I took a picture: an accident of composition. A poem. (‘Because: An Afterward’)

It is a privilege to witness this accomplished writer illuminate her work with such naturalness, and it is precisely in this spirit that the poetry in Accidents of Composition proceeds. Bobis concatenates sets of impressions made at high speed; hidden meanings and relations reveal themselves under the speaker’s powers of observation. As a form of representation a poem can be so like a photograph, somehow indexical, tracing felicitous transits in time through an uncanny framing of things briefly seen and gone: ‘Recall is loss / turned inside out’ (‘A Little Scene’). An assemblage of images carefully brought together, the collection often resembles montage film. Accidents of Composition is full of jump cuts across the globe and its history: Spain in the sixteenth century, China and the Philippines in the twenty-first. One particularly cinematic passage presents a striking play on poetry’s ur-metaphor – movement – in which the speaker crosses three train lines over three poems: Legazpi to Manila, Wollongong to Sydney, and a slow train from Albuquerque to a destination undisclosed. What does it mean to cross a border, and what does it mean to never arrive?

Napupungaw ako
for a train about to leave.
Napupungaw ako
for that trip from home:
Legazpi to Manila.

I hear it now
four decades or so later.
Napupungaw: untranslatable.
Intransitive verb: without an object.
Present tense: it’s ongoing

like a train of thought
that never quite arrives, because the pink
is too pink, the red
too swirly when one remembers

(‘A Little Scene’)

Unsettled modes of habitation have recently emerged in Australian literature as the substantial ethical improvement upon the putative notions of belonging shaped by earlier national writing. The problem with creative visions that claim a ‘sacred’ relation between settler-colonial culture and the land – as the critic Julie Mullaney observes in her analysis of David Malouf – is that these invoke Indigenous Australian discourses of belonging to place, often while simultaneously erasing actual Aboriginal people from that textual landscape and ignoring the historical realities of settlement. The tradition of ‘white nativism’ or ‘white indigeneity’ traverses genre and medium in Australian cultural production – film, television, poetry, popular music, literary and popular fiction, and photography. Australian modernist photography reified the notion of the white native through figures such as the bronzed surfer and the athletic life-saver and these images still dominate the global branding of Australia. Born out of a quest for national identity that began in earnest in the 1930s, white nativist ‘home-grown’ tropes appear time and again in Australian literature. And though anti-colonial and postcolonial interventions have made some headway in contesting and destabilising this tradition, writers of all colours still come up against what Mark Davis describes as the ‘white logic of nation’.

Bobis’s writing materialises in the overlapping contexts of emerging unsettlement and the de-facto tradition of writers of colour reporting from the margins. Bobis begins her 2010 essay, ‘The Asian Conspiracy: Deploying Voice/Deploying Story’, with this directive:

Imagine Australia sharing ONE tongue. I do not mean language, but literally that little pink and perpetually moist animal in the mouth.

There’s that courageous attack. How would we hold this slippery thing, use it for what we want to say, pass it to our neighbour when it is time to listen? In the essay Bobis presents an account of her nineteen-year ‘problematic journey’ towards her place in Australian literature. This story, she stresses, is only one story among the narratives of storymaking of Australian writers from varied Asian backgrounds. In a discussion on Australian literature, these personal stories behind the publishing lines are as crucial as our literature works or the theoretical discourse about us. Our creative production is more than the ‘finished texts’, products to be unpacked or projects to be problematised. It is a story-in-progress. Just as in immigration, hardly any one of us can fly over the gate, straight into citizenship.

How does one acquire ‘citizenship’ of a nation’s literature? Bobis arrived in Australia in 1991 from the Philippines. She came with ten years of university teaching experience and, already a published author, brought an aesthetic sensibility that had developed in part through formal literary training and in part through formative years of immersion in the hybrid dynamic of cultures and languages of the Philippines. Long after her arrival in Australia, Bobis continues to write in all three of her languages: the Bikol of her home in Albay (at the foot of the active volcano Mt Magayon); the Tagalog of Manila, the metropolitan centre; and English, the imperial language of the American colonisers. As Bobis wrote and researched her creative doctorate during her first years in Wollongong, she continued to chant, to sing, and to dance – code-switching between languages and methods of expression.

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