This year has been one of transitions, as we attempt to renegotiate carbon economies, human rights abuses, and in our literatures, an identity of social cohesion and integrity. A trickle of Indigenous writers and migrant writers are appearing in anthologies, journals, publications and awards, suggesting our awareness that the White Australia of demographic legacies no longer resembles us. And yet, in the midst of culture wars, we are witnessing a regressive and brutal impasse for asylum seekers, beleaguered by the undercurrents of media-propagated myths. The truth and corruption of words―the way in which they divide and connect us― enmeshed as they are in our lives, is a reason for literature to respond.
In July, I travelled to Indonesia and Malaysia to assemble my own impressions of this crisis, which indirectly affects every one of us, and is the cover theme for Mascara’s issue 12. Talking to refugees who have been waiting for years in limbo, I understood why the numbers of boat people continues to rise, and why so many have drowned. A decision to end their prolonged confinement becomes proactive, reflecting, as Robert Lowell writes, “man’s lovely,/ peculiar power to choose life and die—”
Ultimately, change is the essence of our lives, and Death embodies that most plainly. Death, writes Emily Dickinson, is—the Hyphen of the Sea—the passage, the bridge and the pause.
Though a theme was not flagged for this issue many of the poems and stories reflect on death, flight, immigration and asylum, suggesting that such external matters are contested inwardly, in our imaginations, (that beautiful, antediluvian space), by impulses that may range from aesthetic to deconstructive.
Paul Kane’s meditations on climate and death are intense, oblique renditions of the Japanese renga. Themes of flight are explored by Diane Fahey and Lyn Hatherley. Brett Dionysius’s “Christmas Island Rat” takes a sharp perspective on the renewal of the Pacific Solution, Christine Ratnasingham’s poems touch ever so lightly on the disturbing subject of racism. There is a subtle irony to the narration of Fikret Pajalic’s “Red Dirt” with its metaphors of animal cruelty. And Sunil Badami takes a broad view on the themes of exile and hospitality in Alien Shores. Vrasidas Karalis’ review of Southern Sun: Aegean Light is a fine overview of the linguistic and cultural aspects of Greek-Australian poetics, with their unique oral tradition and historicism. The fragmentation and ambivalence of linguistic descriptors for our societies-in-transition are beautifully assembled in David Herd’s All Just, reviewed by Ann Vickery.
A century after her birth it is an honour to celebrate the Slovenian poet/chanteuse, Mila Kačič. Translated by David Brooks and Bert Pribac, her poems are reminiscent of the Russian symbolists with their evocation and carefully constructed imagery. They express an anxious thirst to liberate the deeply personal from the conventional.
This year saw the passing away of several seminal poets: Jack Gilbert, Peter Steele and Rosemary Dobson. Geoff Page’s review of Rosemary Dobson’s Collected is a fine tribute to her poetry and her life.
But not all the contributions are in sympathy with these themes. Jal Nicholl’s review of Stephen Edgar’s fine collection, The Red Sea, takes its own ethno-poetic slant. And many other writers excel in speculative, experimental and daring pieces, (Dan Disney, Paul Giffard-Foret, Ainslee Meredith, Madeleine Slavick and Laura Woollett, to name a few.) I’ve no doubt our readers will enjoy the challenge of this diversity, which we consider to be essential.
Toby Fitch’s interview with John Tranter is a candid, witty and insightful portrait of one of our most significant poets, the development of his New York-Down Under marque of poetics, its sassy shearing away from the mainstream. It sheds light on our history of cultural cringes and an impulse to associate reflexively, ironically, et toute à la blague.
It’s timely to mention that there have been daunting editorial transitions and challenges for the journal to overcome and new directions to embrace, for which I’m very much indebted to our friends, colleagues, and grateful to the Literature Board.
I walked in the rain today on pavements strewn with bright autumn leaves and glistening seed pods until I lost the threads of my thoughts and a calmness entered my mind. I write best when I yield to that other world, leaving behind the irritations, anxieties, disappointments, errors, false starts. I forget my imperfect language, its conscious structure of arbitrary names. I start to be attuned to the music of silence, complex and polyphonic, varied, beyond meaning. “There’s nothing special about being a writer; it’s no different to any other profession,” a friend said to me recently on Skype, a remark which left me quizzical, possibly defensive.
Is there a need to justify literature? Is it not true that we become self-conscious when we try to do so. We renew elitist paradigms, conflating our intentions as writers, disguising the ways in which with complicity we oppress, or exploit Otherness. Do I write to invent myself like Foucault, or to forget like Borges? Does literature serve the Muse, the reader, history, or culture?
Literature carries all these registers at different times. I think my own writing is a journey to find a language for the unspeakable, a journey of imperfection and risks, some greater than others, and quite impossible to measure. That’s all, really. But maybe it’s enough.
Our encounters with difference have caused so much language to be erased. Of two hundred and fifty Indigenous languages that were spoken when Europeans first invaded this country, over a hundred and thirty are now critically endangered and perhaps only twenty or thirty are being spoken. Language can seduce, transcend, reconcile or violate, claiming what it desires in the name of empire, as Sujata Bhatt reminds us in “A Different History”:
has not been the oppressor’s tongue?
truly meant to murder someone?
And how does it happen
that after the torture
after the soul has been cropped
with a long scythe swooping out
of the conqueror’s face-
the unborn grandchildren
grow to love that strange language.
We are ourselves the coloniser, the foreign one. We have become ‘that strange language’ of epistemic violence. And Bhatt suggests that unless we resist or negotiate the received tongue, we transcendentalise the ground on which we stand. “The poem splits,/It has no desire to become a nation,” David Herd writes in “One by One”.
It has been my privilege as editor of this journal to observe resistance, what Wallace Stevens described as “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” For reality is the homogenising tongue, the single, archetypal narrative. We have archived so many different stories and languages that it seems to me that this journal belongs to its contributors. It pleases me immensely to have published work by new and exciting writers and researchers from here and abroad. I think of Ocean Vuong, Luke Johnson, Eileen Chong, Nabina Das, Fatima Bhutto, Tessa Lunney, Debbie Lim, Peter Dawncy, Mona Attamimi, Bella Li, Laura Woollett, Jo Langdon, Michelle Dicinoski, Desh Balasubramaniam, Jane Kim, Omar Musa, Tim Wright, Misbah Kokhar, Jessie Tu, Ansley Moon, James Stuart, Jessika Tong, Andrew Carruthers, Peycho Kanev, Brooke Linford, Angelina Mirabito, Theophilus Kwek, Sally Fitzpatrick, Aimee Norton, Stephanie Ye, Carol Chan and Ellen van Neervan-Currie, just to name a few. For some, Mascara Literary Review was their first publication.
In considering these voices I begin to question the defining canons by which culture oppresses difference and erases language. I’m persuaded that writing is both a yielding and a resistance, which in deconstructing itself, does make things happen.
In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” William Carlos Williams says that poetry has no news to deliver, nothing sensational or glamorous to advertise, “yet men die miserably everyday/ for lack/of what is found there.” Poetry doesn’t make things happen,
to use Auden’s words. It doesn’t stop wars, feed the hungry or stop the earth from being abused. Yet it is perhaps precisely of its
non-utilitarian value that we need it so much, every crust, every scrap of it. In a world where everything is measured in economic terms, poetry is essential because it resists being calibrated, reminding us that the seemingly most useless things are the most vital to our being alive.
That is what poets do each day, paying attention to what seems insignificant and worthless. Being attentive, observing Pound’s
imperative to making it new again and again, and making connections, wiring the different parts within themselves and also awakening hidden connections to the rest of the world. Images, events, thoughts are inexplicably related, brought together in a significant but not immediately comprehensible conjunction. In “Hamid Ramouz” (1818-1906) Raymond Carver experiences a moment when two disparate things meet:
This morning I began a poem on Hamid Ramouz –
soldier, scholar, desert explorer –
who died by his own hand, gunshot, at eighty-eight.
I had tried to read the dictionary entry on that curious man
to my son – we were after something on Raleigh –
but he was impatient, and rightly so.
It happened months ago, the boy is with his mother now,
but I remembered the name: Ramouz –
and a poem began to take shape.
All morning I sat at the table.
Hands moving back and forth over limitless waste,
as I tried to recall that strange life.
The poem is a wonderful example of how two individuals from different countries and cultures meet. The subject of the poem is
ostensibly Hamid Ramouz, but the deeper theme is the fact of the poet’s present condition, his loneliness. We are not told much
about the Hamid, but his career and suicide are somehow relevant to Carver’s own life. The connection deepens the tragic chord in the poem.
Poetry is about waiting, listening for these connective chords. It is about uncovering the vast networks of bloodlines linking the poet to his immediate world and the wider world out there, weaving threads between cultures and languages.
This little poetry stand aims to do just that, share a bit of what is found there, the connections we discover as we encounter the world anew each day. Mascara is interested in the way poems locate individuals, and how they connect cultures and languages. It welcomes poems from Australia, Asia and the rest of the world, poems from different ethnicities and cultures that offer new ways of seeing and being. The word “mascara” derives from mask, and it is about putting on a different mask each day, Yeatsian or not, and seeing with different eyes. It is interested in the way Australia looks out and upwards, to Asia, and way Asia and the other regions return the gaze. It hopes that the poems and essays on poetry and poetics will arrive to challenge the way we position ourselves, the news from the different quarters renewing the way we imagine ourselves and the world.
Boey Kim Cheng