Lucy Van Reviews John Mateer

23 May 2014

Unbelievers collects its poems following a geospatial logic, with headings named after historically-loaded locations such as Al-Andalus and Meydan, as well as generic non-places such as ‘the mall’ and ‘the bridge’. Like many of the locations that organise Unbelievers, Monsanto represents a contact zone. The Portuguese village was recaptured from the Moors by the troops of King Afonso Henriques in the twelfth century. The ‘Monsanto’ series alludes to the symbolism of this act, focusing especially upon the ironic capriciousness of historical determinism:

The mountain as dice-thrower:
One toss: a crown of boulders.
Another: a castle

Who is there to read the dice?
Who to win or lose

The allusion works not only in relation to the broader recapturing of the Iberian Peninsula, but also as a precursor to the West’s conquering of the globe in the centuries to come. The other geographical excursions of Unbelievers similarly consider the boundary implications of conquering and defeated empires. When does a culture really end or disappear? Where do the defeated go? Perhaps the spectral presence of an obsolete ‘enemy’ remains embedded within the present. Mateer’s poetics have this ghosting occur through ritual (‘join in flinging down/ the terracotta pot of Spring flowers/ at the enemy who left centuries ago’), the psychic charge of ruins (‘Gloaming is the room’s/ natural state’), and visceral, atavistic clues (‘Between us she is Latin, a dark metaphor’).

Loose among these ghosts is an enigmatic and elusive conviviality, described in the afterword as the ‘lost ideal of cohabitation between West and East’. These historical sites of conquest and reconquest were also places of exchange and hybridity – the everyday contact of shared lives. The convivial ideal is not relegated to the past but brought into Mateer’s poetic present. Despite the recurring ‘wandering stranger’/‘unbeliever’ figure, which across both collections nods to an expectation of ‘otherness’ in scenarios when west meets east, both collections privilege situations that undo otherness through an emphasis on fleeting convivial moments. Unplanned meetings, shared meals, brief sexual encounters and so on all allude to what the sociologist Les Back, borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari, describes as intermezzo culture. Defined as much through its discontinuity as its ecstasy, the notion of an intermezzo culture gestures at the embodied magic of temporary affiliation. The social terrain of Unbelievers and Emptiness is peopled by expats and exiles that are most often defined by their roles in a transitory globalisation: translators, interpreters, reporters, photographers, scholars and writers. There are also tourists, taxi drivers, sex workers and pimps. These subjects gather in places that temporarily engender intimacy, where individuals may suspend their often historically determined antagonisms to allow an alternate conviviality to prevail.

In Emptiness, the poem ‘In the Pleasure Quarter’ draws the reader into such an intermezzo scene, before a nightclub in Shinjuku:

Being foreign is the democracy that allows the Nigerian,
in all the accoutrements of a gangsta, to address me as brother

and offer a special discount to a nice place where the girls are all foreign.
We are, perversely, brothers: of the same continent,
slave and master, ear and mouth
Our common tongue is illusory, necessary, a kind of coin
minted by being stamped on.

The scene impresses that this ‘lost ideal of cohabitation’ is perhaps destined to reappear only in snatches of discontinuous reality. Conviviality, the occasion to address another (an other) as ‘brother’, is brief and contingent instead of lasting. The irony of the conditions that govern global conviviality is not lost on the speaker – the repetition of ‘foreign’ highlights the unexpected ways distance can double back on itself, delivering momentary glimpses of a deferred intimacy. Another intimacy, an illusory and necessary common tongue, is produced as it is destroyed, ‘minted by being stamped upon’. The poetic choice – to show meaning acquired through a repeated act of insignificance (with tones of violence), an act that will eventually wreck or wear away the thing itself – is consistent with Mateer’s unifying trope of decomposition. In ‘The Vase,’ an evocation of the slave’s voice prompts an unmaking of the vase by the master. Like Unbelievers, Emptiness also emphasises the transformative point between appearance and disappearance, making and unmaking. A variation on the term ‘decompose’ appears again in ‘Lily’, which subsequently presents a euphoric claim on utterance: ‘decomposing, formless, a bad character … Her empty room is filled with Voice! ’ Faced with real or figurative extinction, Mateer shows language gaining meaning through its moment of unmeaning. Dwelling in the brevity of such unnamed moments, the speaker reveals a poetic strategy based around a suspicion of unchanging constructs.

A suspicion of conventional meaning lies at the heart of Mateer’s poetry, which manifests in an allusive, fragmentary poetics. But it would be wrong to suggest that the poems in these titles are obscure or distancing, for Mateer’s deployment of decomposition is perhaps most compelling in his use of conversation as poetic strategy:

                                                              The Poet
had found himself speaking of the possibilities 
he had lost: not knowing a Nguni tongue, being a nobody
even among the ghostly Australians.
‘Times change, hey,’ the Translator said, discoursing
then on his other lives (‘The Translator,’ Unbelievers)

Seeming reproductions of a conversation may lull the reader into a comfortable mode of narrative reception, or pleasurable eavesdropping, but Mateer’s effect goes beyond these states. Drawing focus to their temporary intimacies, their weak knowledges, their sense of language in decay – already in decay from the moment a word is spoken – Mateer’s fixing of conversations to the page asks the reader to consider the improvised nature of meaning. Are the hardened categories of ‘knowledge’ simply the net product of repeated acts of spontaneous meaning-making, the result of having the same conversation over and again? What changes are brought about by a different utterance or conversation?

It is difficult to know what to say about Orientalism here without reducing Mateer to an over-simplified category. The poems show elements of a critique of the Orientalist perspective through an ironised performance of knowledge, unearthing and unsettling the discursive means by which ‘the West’ makes ‘the East’ its other. Perhaps most significantly, Mateer’s geographical zone is temporalised, presenting an East in the flux of a changing present in stark contrast to the ‘unchanging’ stereotype that is usually affixed to ‘the Orient.’ But to say that Mateer solely critiques Orientalism perhaps ignores the scope of his fascination with the totality. The very inescapability of a stereotypical Orient – lurid, unknowable, inexplicable, sexual – continues to seduce even as its political legitimacy disappears. It is this inescapability that frames Unbelievers and Emptiness. Mateer’s recent collections thrive around this ironic position, and the poetry proceeds in nuanced and reflexive modes in response to identity, place and history. Driven by clarity of aesthetic vision and depth of philosophical inquiry, Mateer’s latest poetry self-reflexively decomposes at the site of composition, unearthing the antimonies at the heart of knowledge.

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About Lucy Van

Lucy Van writes poetry and criticism. Her collection, The Open (Cordite 2021), was longlisted for the Stella Prize, shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Award, and highly commended in the Anne Elder Award. She is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Melbourne.

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