Jal Nicholl lives in Melbourne, where he is a secondary school English and philosophy teacher. His poetry has previously been published in Retort Magazine, Stylus Poetry Journal, Diagram, Famous Reporter, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Shampoo Poetry.
Subtract the tangible,
these pebbles smoothed unseen
by god, by water,
wear away the stone
of prison opened to the public,
and of private home.
split the frozen tun:
release the grapes inside,
the chisel is your tongue.
The messenger appears, his face
a bright mask over sleeping darkness,
but hazy, seeming an actor in
the kind of dream you have when you know
you’re dreaming. He reassures her,
in his old-fashioned gold-trimmed livery,
his sanguine complexion, the cool blue
light he casts around him, speaking
tunefully; he has come to tell her
that, suddenly (although it’s hardly news
in heaven) she’s at the centre of
the whole plan of creation. Congratulations!
You have been selected . . . he begins,
ceremoniously reading from the letter
whose seal he’s broken; but at some point
as the speech continues he stops reading,
adopts a more intimate tone, as he folds
and pockets what you’d assume
was meant to be delivered, and concludes:
So don’t you dare tell anyone–
of course they’d never believe you–
but if you do and it gets back to me,
I’ll come back and there’ll really be news. She thinks,
Were I to ask the name of his boss–
let alone for some I.D., who knows
what might happen? Perhaps she screams
beneath the whoosh of dazzling wings and arms
that clasp her as he whispers like
a gale in her ear, the name of the disease
he’s giving her.
He’s gone, the light gone
From her blinded eyes–but the street
outside the window he came in is squealing;
revived, she can no more cry than sleep–
it’s the supernatural child who cries, already,
to force her to eat, though she’s not hungry;
and soon she’ll have to talk to it, soothe
it with a song, devise a story
to satisfy the world, and keep it straight.
Father in Heaven
A lookout over wetlands, like
a cattle chute against a closed gate
in an empty paddock–
See how the heron drops a moment from
his equilibrium, how ducks
dive astutely and with open eyes.
Feel the advance of shadows that will
flood the roads tonight like sand
a tussock facing the sea. Thus
speaks the one whose likeness
you are, pointing to fields impenetrable
to a bored child’s imaginary
hide-and-seek. But you’re well
above the horizon here, as never before
those views you used to try to paint,
though you had to lie down in sand
or grass to frame, for example,
a closed street in the pose of a nape and shoulders
turning to follow a face–
their own. This one who made you
ejected you from shelter, or you left
after a certain age, because
that too was nature. The same now turns
his weekend face on you, having found the place
agrees with him as much as he
with it. Ceci n’est pas un oiseau,
you say; but see how the bird goes its way
conducted by his definite finger,
sped by the name this gesture bestows
as the sun strikes its wing like a window, and
past this horizon, unthinking,
as if it really were.
Debbie Lim was born in Sydney where she works as a medical writer. Her poetry has been published in Blue Dog, Quadrant and Poetry Without Borders. She is winner of the 2008 Inverawe Nature Poetry Prize. She was a guest poet at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.
How To Grow Feet of Golden Lotus
A mother cannot love her daughter and
her daughter’s feet at the same time
– Old Chinese saying
Begin with a girl of five:
her arches will be firm
but she will not yet know real pain.
Soak feet in warm water and herbs.
Massage. This will be their last
pleasure, though recalled
Curl four toes
under the sole like a row
of sparrows sheltering under a ledge.
Bind with a long strip of cotton
or silk – whichever you can afford.
But leave the big toe free:
this will be her keel,
as on the reigns of a disobedient horse.
Time will break them.
Strive to make toe kiss heel.
Every second day
turn your ears to stone.
Unwrap the bandage and ignore
her crying as you rebind them,
each time tighter. Remind yourself,
as your own mother did,
that there is no such thing
as a truly liberated foot.
Beware three terrible blooms:
ulcer, gangrene and necrosis.
They are insidious as a woman’s curse.
A toenail can take root in the sole
and left unwatched, the cleft
between ball and heel
nurses all kinds of enemies.
Two years will train them
into pale lotus bulbs
of the most sensual beauty:
iron, silver or gold*
When she is older
the mere sight of them
peeping from beneath a gown
will arouse in men
the most powerful kind of desire:
lust combined with pity.
She will walk
the walk of a beautiful woman.
The smell she might live with
for the rest of her life.
But she will learn the art of beautiful
concealment: washed stockings,
draped hems and hours
of the most delicate embroidery.
A woman with lotus feet
steps through mirrored days
of privilege. She sits
under willow trees, works
tiny worlds with her thread.
A woman with golden lotus feet
will always be waited on.
There are just two things
she must never forget:
Always wash the feet in private.
Always wear slippers in bed.
* The binding process lasted for approximately 2 years. The lotus or bound foot was classified as gold, silver or iron according to its final size. A golden lotus referred to a foot no more than 7.5 cm long and was considered ideal. A silver lotus measured up to 10 cm, and an iron lotus was anything larger.
The worms are shrunk in their tunnels
hiding apologies. The cicadas
are banging out a death trill.
While I sit with this ache in my jaw,
my souvenired pain in a bottle.
Up in the gutters, nests are falling
apart into shitty straw and the lawn
is a sea of green tips ripe
for amputation. I am sick of waiting
with this mouthful of gauze.
From inside, I watch you mow:
dragging your diesel heart
in crooked rows. You see only
the metre in front of you, trail
a blunted yellow wake. That vein
working in your left ankle
will be the death of you.
Summer sours everything too quickly,
especially washed skin. My mother sits
in the air-conditioned lounge
obliterating herself with symphonies.
Her mouth has turned into a violin
string, she can stay still for hours
on the verge of breaking.
The sun is an old medal
swung through days like this:
cicadas, heat, deafening afternoons.
This dull socket will keep me
awake tonight. If not,
I’ll pray for dreams of snow.
Girl at 6.20am
An ordinary street, suburban
in flat daylight.
But imagine 6.20 am
when the sky
is pale and slowly leavening
there is something secret happening:
cars parked silently
in driveways and dulled with frost,
and how the cold builds
a second skin
around bushes and letter boxes
so there appears to be
two of everything: one visible,
the other crouched inside, sleeping.
I could reach out
and touch a gatepost, turn
and walk up somebody’s driveway
if I wanted to.
Halfway down the road
there is a tree
I think is cherry blossom.
It leans over the path,
ignores the fence
of the garden it grows in.
Soon it will be loaded with white petals,
cause a sidewalk snowfall
into a brown skiddy mess.
But just now, as I’m approaching,
its branches are clean
and so dark they could be
stapled to the sky.
On The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy
MICHELLE CAHILL in conversation with PETER BOYLE
MC: What were the inspirations for your work The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy ?
PB: Many and varied. It is a long work – about 400 pages with a wide variety of material. I began it in 2004. Museum of Space had been published, I’d just returned from the International Poetry Week in Caracas and, though I had written several new poems, I really wanted a larger project. A young Venezuelan poet at the Festival, Edmundo Bracho, had read a few very inventive humorous prose poems from a sequence called “Noir”, imagined conversations written in a formal archaic Spanish purporting to be scripts for various famous 1930’s Hollywood films. I’m not a film buff but I do know something about the Greek and Latin classics and I thought it could be fun to try such inventions – poems and prose fragments written under the names of various real and imaginary ancient writers. The project rapidly took on a life of its own and picked up on a lot of other interests – my fascination with languages, philosophic ideas about time and circularity, history, political events and indirect ways of writing about such things. There was also the example of Edmond Jabès’ The Book of Questions, a masterpiece that deliberately blurs the divides between novel, lyric poetry, philosophical essay and traditions of Rabbinical commentary. Large sections of that book are attributed to imaginary rabbis. Likewise Henri Michaux’ prose poems of journeys to imaginary lands have long been favourite reading of mine. But alongside that desire to experiment and make something new for myself, there was a strong sense that I wanted to speak in my own indirect ways against the background of the world that Bush and Howard had made, the apocalyptic world of globalised capitalism.
MC: Is The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy what you would describe as an epic, and what drew you towards this classic form?
PB: It has some elements of epic but I wouldn’t describe it with that word. There isn’t a single sustained narrative line running through it. It is deliberately fragmented. I think of the great epics – Homer, Virgil, Dante – as being more authoritative but I’m interested in leaving plenty of holes for the reader to go in different directions.
There is, though, some sense of epic about it. People, places, debates, various authors like the poets Omeros Eliseo and Erycthemios, the philosopher Leonidas, the exile and writer of miniatures Irene Philologos, the traveller and essayist Lucius of Ocampo, appear across the work. The struggles between Eusebius and other realms like Ebtesum and Kitezh, the lessons of Phokaia, the sense of it being a vast travel book also thread the whole together. My model is probably more a kind of the Histories of Herodotus with vast holes left in it than the Odyssey or the Aeneid.
What I particularly enjoy about such a large form is that various types of writing, styles, concerns can bounce off each other, reflect or subvert each other and so build a very many-sided whole bigger than just the sum of its parts. Also, in the tradition of Ern Malley, it has a single ficticious author, the late classicist William O’Shaunessy, and includes an appendix of his other writings – poems, short stories, biography. So it also belongs in the tradition of heteronyms going back to Fernando Pessoa. I enjoy the creative sense of becoming someone different, writing in quite different ways, for example, when I’m the Byzantine poet in exile Irene Philologos compared to when I’m the slightly Cuban Omeros Eliseo or the rather Wittgensteinian Leonidas.
MC: Did your writing of the poems require specific research into ancient history, philosophy, or languages?
PB: Mostly not, but I did refresh my memory of a few of Plato’s Dialogues, reread much of Thucydides, read a few histories of the late Roman Empire and discovered Valerius Maximus’ book, and read quite a few philosophers and books on the ancient world. I had studied Latin and Greek at High School and still know a certain amount of that. I was able to write the epigrams to the book in Greek and Latin but did check them with dictionaries.
MC: Many of the poems seem like dreams or the fragments of dream. Were any of the pieces inspired by dreams, and if so, how did you record them?
PB: I don’t think any of these poems come specifically from dreams but I have long written down at least some dreams in my notebooks. A few of the poems come from vivid daydreams or half dreaming thought experiments. Book III, for example, was written while staying with my ex-wife’s family in the Philippines – parts of it sketched out after mid-afternoon naps. Its concerns reflect tropical landscapes, water, poverty and what all those things might do to people. The concerns are quite real but they are given an oneiric bent. Personally I enjoy the freedom that gives to the writing, a way into talking about big things without preaching.
MC: The substance and the discipline of writing prose poems differs to that of free verse. Do you have a preference for writing poetry in either form?
PB: To me they are different types of poetry that work in different ways and make different demands on the poet. I enjoy writing in both styles. There are, in fact, a lot of free verse lyric poems in The Apocrypha. The selection Michael Brennan made for International Poetry probably favours the prose poems and prose writings over the more familiar free verse forms – perhaps because the main narratives and main issues are more obviously there in the prose poems. The lyric poems tend to be more personal.
MC: It seems to be a series of poems about books, about reading and writing, or philology and the imagination’s relationship with books. Why is this fascination so compelling and how might a reader read this book?
PB: Of course, each little section is ascribed to some author or other and often comes from a book. So you have the excerpts from The Green Book of Ebtesum, the uncut Etruscan edition of Herodotus, Omeros Eliseo’s book Nineteen Poems of Life and an Ode to calm temporarily confused ghosts etc. And the Apocrypha themselves are organised into seven books, each made up of roughly thirty numbered sections or fragments. So there is, deliberately, a sense of entering into a labyrinth. But, if the poem – for The Apocrypha as a whole to me forms a poem – looks inward towards the fascination and delight of reading, it also looks outward at our own world. There is a strong satiric element to the book – the kingdom of Eusebius with its principle of maximising inequality, its desire to own everything including the right to use the present tense, for example, or the Dawn ritual of purification for descendants of those who participate in slaughter. Echoes of Howard and Bush and their policies can be found across the work. Likewise, for example, there are echoes of September 11, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, Monsanto and its bio-piracy, and of Australia’s own legacy of violence and indifference. I don’t see The Apocrypha as a bookworm’s book about other books but as an indirect, but perfectly forceful way of speaking about how things are.
Philology and imaginary languages are something that fascinates me. Imagining radically different languages is largely about imagining different ways in which we might be, imagining alternate futures for ourselves, for humanity perhaps. It is part of the thought-experiment aspect of poetry that attracts me strongly. In creating something large you need light and dark, the joyful as well as the appalling. So Kitezh, the city whose buildings are made of water, surrounded by a river that reverses the direction of its flow by night, appearing and disappearing at whatever might be the centre of the world, stands opposite the ultra-capitalist dream of Eusebius. Mostly the imagined languages, like those of Phokaia, explore the creation of an artistic, emotion-based, relationship-centred world, compared to a world dominated by commodities and pragmatic purposes.
Because the book is so long it sets up certain challenges to the poetry reader, or probably any reader. It’s too long to read from cover to cover in one sitting, as I often do with poetry books. It has some degree of sequence and structure so flipping to poems at random might not be ideal either. Personally I think you could open it at random and read a section or two here or there. It might be good to read it Book by Book, as each Book is constructed as a unit, or you could read a couple of Books, break, then read a couple more. You might want to intersperse the reading of Apocrypha with a few of O’Shaunessy’s own stories or poems. You could hopscotch through the book in several ways. Or you could read it in, say, three sittings from cover to cover.
Ultimately, though, it will be for the reader to decide how they will read it and what they will take from it. I imagine some readers will respond more to its playful side, others to its intellectual paradoxes, others again to its social/political dimension.
MC: Is there a sequential or chronological narrative in poems from The Apocrypha Of William O’Shaunessy?
PB: Not in any strict way, but certain large themes – Eusebius versus Ebtesum, the Kingdoms of pre-Roman Africa, what is language, the life of Irene Philologos, for example, do get gradually revealed as you read on over the seven books.
The organisation of each book is more a balance between a main focus or location and the need to ensure variety – both in content and in style – between free verse lyric poems and prose poems and longer prose excerpts, for example. So Book III focuses on water, Book IV on the island of Phokaia, Book VI is more focussed on poets, especially Irene and Philemon of Mauretania, Book VII is more centred on philosophers, but each book has a range of other things.
MC: In some ways, as Michael Brennan suggests, the Apocrypha could be seen as “a homage to Borges.” In your view, to what extent is the work influenced by, inter-textual with, or paying tribute to the labyrinths, mirrors and philosophical idealism of his writing. I’m thinking here of stories like “The Library of Babel”, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”?
PB: I honestly don’t think of it as a homage to Borges. The influences are far more diverse than that – Michaux, Jabès, Bonnefoy, Char, Jonathan Swift, Joyce, as well as Cortazar, Manuel Puig, poets like Pessoa and Ern Malley are all there in the background as well. On the other hand, I do love Borges’ work and have been reading it for over thirty years so I’d have no great objection to someone seeing it as in part a homage to Borges. After all, O’Shaunessy’s poem “Reading Borges late at night and imagining Buenos Aires” is how I chose to end the book.
MC: The work seems to play with several paradoxes: it is protean, yet it seems to subvert the possibilities of the future as much as historical truth. It invents alternate languages and alternate grammars, yet it speaks of the beauty that lies beyond speech. What is the function of paradox, and to what extent is the poetic voice, in this collection, a visionary one?
PB: I think everyone loves paradoxes, or at least relates to them. They capture so much of our experience of life. Our concepts of both time and language abound in paradoxes. Paradoxes, where they are fresh and telling, address us like poems, push us into seeing things differently, at least for a few moments give us the gift of being in a different world. Many people talk of poetry in terms of metaphor but perhaps the paradox is an equally important aspect of poetry.
I’m not sure of the phrase “a visionary voice”. It recalls Blake and Allen Ginsberg, both of whose work I deeply admire, but the phrase conjures up the danger of being a pretentious know-all, someone who claims to have a unique pipeline to Truth. Ultimately whether one’s work is visionary or not is for other people to decide. I would see the poetic voice in The Apocrypha as involving (depending on the section concerned) largely playful but also serious thought-experiments and a passionate engagement with life. Whether the whole achieved is a visionary voice is something I’d prefer to leave to others’ judgement.
MC: You describe it as a mixture of fiction and prose and fictive translations from imaginary texts. Do you see this work as a development in some way from your experience of translating French and Spanish poetry?
PB: In places yes. I had been trying to do my own translations of Cuban poet Eliseo Diego and the Spanish poet Antonio Machado but had to give up, feeling I couldn’t capture the essence of what I felt in the Spanish in the English. Some of Omeros Eliseo’s poems are my own attempts to write a little like what they might have written had they written in English. There are also occasional echoes of poems by Borges and Yves Bonnefoy in The Apocrypha, but only to a minor degree. Perhaps to some extent surrendering to a heteronym resembles putting one’s poetic skills at the service of another poet in the process of translating, but I suspect it is a fairly limited resemblance. After all, in The Apocrypha there is no literal text guiding my versions.
MC: What kinds of challenges did you encounter in the syncretism of the work; by that I mean the shifts from lyrical to historical, from abstract to discursive voices and the alternating syntax that these might require?
PB: Only the difficulties everyone experiences in writing. Writing in different styles is a challenge, writing in the same style for a twenty page poem is also a very big challenge. Avoiding monotony in style was one challenge in a work this long. In some sections the challenge was to sound archaic and slightly bizarre (to fit a particular persona) without being merely confusing and clumsy for the reader.
MC: The verse novel has established itself as a successful sub-genre in contemporary Australian poetry. How might your book differ from a verse novel?
PB: As I see it, the verse novel narrates a story using the line-breaked form of poetry – the line breaks and certain typical rhythms of poetry, its conciseness, its omissions, perhaps certain more striking metaphors mark it out as poetry. If a verse novel was in prose poetry we would simply call it a novel, possibly a rather fragmented one, but there is a long tradition of that going back to Faulkner and including something as wonderful as In the skin of a lion.
The Apocrypha has some elements of a novel but it isn’t a novel. It is as much in prose poetry as in free verse form. Its fundamental concern is not narrating a story where the fate of the characters is the reader’s chief interest, though there are quite a few characters in the book. It is more open in form than a verse novel and has, at heart, a different conception of poetry. I am most interested in poetry as a way of perceiving and relating to the world, an alternate way of thinking that uses thought-experiments, paradoxes, playfulness to get outside the limitations of the reasoning self. There are some verse novels I deeply admire, like Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and Walcott’s Omeros, but in general the idea of writing a verse novel hasn’t appealed to me very much. It does seem to come out of a different, more technical perhaps, concept of poetry.
As to The Apocrypha, I think it is a form of its own.
MC: Did the work stem from the writing of individual poems, which are integrated into a whole; or was it written more through the filtered perspective of characters forming a discontinuous narrative?
PB: I worked in both these ways. The second was, though, very important. If it hadn’t been close to the dominant mode of writing The Apocrypha I don’t think the whole would work. There were, also though, several individual lyric poems or prose poems I wrote separately and then had to think about where, if anywhere, they might fit.
MC: The world of these poems seem to be governed by an order of physical and ethical beauty which prevail over inconsistencies and distortions in time, logic, grammar and language. Does this suggest a kind of political or philosophical allegory?
Yes, though I trust in a way that is not preachy.
Certainly I agree that beauty is a key value that runs through the work, whether it be the aesthetic beauty of the lost music of Parmenides, the physical beauty of Ebtesum and Kitezh, or the kind of ethical beauty found among the peoples of Phokaia and Siripech.
MC: What are the functions and the conceivable limitations, do you think, of repetition, in poetry?
Repetition gives the reader the chance to encounter something from many different angles. Repetition lets a poet go deeper into something they have visited before. You write one poem about your mother or father; later you write another. In The Apocrypha because it’s so long certain themes, issues, ideas, places, fantasies get revisited a few times, always I would hope with the aim of going deeper. The danger is obviously monotony; the danger is that by giving more you will be giving less. This is, in principle, no different for The Apocrypha than for a collection of poems about your family like The Dead and the Living or The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds or for a collection of poems largely inspired by Science, like Carol Jenkins’ superb Fishing in the Devonian.
As a reader when you’ve read something good you want more of it. As a writer or a poet when something draws you strongly, a topic, a style, a structure, you want to see how far it can take you. The danger is monotony or mere mechanical repetition. As poet or writer, you have to trust your instincts with this.
MC: Has your work, do you think, progressed from description and expression to inscription?
Interesting. I would have to tease out what this might mean. There has been a development, or at least a shift, from the first two books published in 1994 and 1997 to the last two books, especially Museum of Space. While I’ve always written some surrealist type poems, more experimental in form, the first two books tend to have more poems describing my early life, people, historical or social themes in a fairly direct way. What the painter saw in our faces has some poems like that – “Paralysis”, for example, but there are more prose poems than before and the long title poem is an experiment with voices and with fusing different dimensions of experience. Museum of Space tends to be more prose poems, thought experiments and poems that have a playful surreal feel, though there are still a few, “Memories” or “To J”, for example, that might have been in the early collections.
Largely this is about the need to move forward, to find new ways of writing and not be caught in merely repeating myself. There are also the natural shifts you might expect in a poet as they get older – for example, death is around me more now than it was twenty years ago. Writing about myself in any direct way has perhaps become more difficult, as the self I look into is a more gloomy one. In this regard, it’s interesting that The Apocrypha takes me further than ever away from myself, though not, I would want to stress, away from the real world.
I am drawn by the fluidity and playfulness poetry offers, by its possibilities for inventing meaning, inventing other lands and new structures. Counterbalancing the rather bleak image of becoming a gloomy old man endlessly writing poems about himself, a danger I felt with certain poems in Museum of Space like “Rain at Midnight”, “These autumn days” or the various “Jottings”, this new book launches me out into a wider world that offers a sense of creative freedom.
One other way of thinking of the description/expression/inscription idea would be to think of a shift towards a type of writing where awareness of writing itself becomes an equal focus of the work. So within The Apocrypha there is this multiplicity of authors and books, this fascination with the trajectory of writing as a human activity. There are gradations from the awkward, slightly gauche tone of some of the prose writers to someone like Irene Philologos. I always think of her as someone who writes from a place of purity, a place where only the essential is possible. Her name, lover of the logos, the meaning, the essence of things, the word, points towards notions of inscription.
This sense of inscription, this turning towards the act of writing as a focus, is also reflected in the use of a multitude of heteronyms. The tradition of heteronymous writing is so strong in the Latin American world, such an inventive and rich tradition. There is Pessoa and Machado. Eugenio Montejo practised heteronymous writing, as in El cuaderno de Blas Coll. One really peculiar coincidence I wasn’t aware of till nearly finishing the book is that the Argentinian poet Juan Gelman has a collection Los poemas de Sidney West, which he published as translations of an American poet living in Melody Springs in the Midwest, a completely invented figure. Within the book there are references to one of West’s friends, a certain O’Shaunessy. So far I’ve only managed to read a few excerpts of Gelman on the web. The Apocrypha, however, is unlike anything I know in the tradition of heteronymous writing by having so many writers and poets in the one book, by using imaginary lands and histories and also by being largely a satire in the Swiftian tradition.
MC: Your poetry slips across the boundaries of the visible and invisible world, and seems to be thematically fluent or connected: an excursion into the real and abstract spaces of galleries, museums and libraries. How intentional has this engagement been?
I don’t think my work, either in The Apocrypha or in earlier books, is obsessed with dusty libraries, art galleries, museums and concert halls in the sense of being the daydreams of an aesthete. The museum of Museum of Space is something open to transience, something that always has to be created, not individual works that could be owned by anyone, almost an anti-museum. Paradoxes interest me and the desire for beauty, for meaning, for whatever might counterbalance our commodified world. In the absence of credible religion, art in this deeper sense intimates the possibility of a more humane world.
MC: How can the poem be free from reality, or from the poet’s inner reality?
PB: Hmm, you wouldn’t want a poem to be completely free from reality – if it was, how would it speak to anyone? On the other hand, part of the delight of poetry is that it frees us, at least for a while, from the oppressive mundane limiting sense of reality – our domination by the jobs of the moment, anxieties about the future, obsessive and futile regrets over the past – all of the stuff that could be called “reality” and that largely serves to block us from living.
Likewise you wouldn’t want a poem to be completely free of the poet’s inner reality – even if it could be. However, equally, in states of gloom, depression and difficulty, as a poet you don’t want to be monotonously repeating that in your poetry. You want to get outside yourself. Every poet seeks ways to do that. You might engage in writing experiments or take inspiration from photos and paintings of the wider world or write verse novels about other people or experiment with a range of styles and contents. And, sometimes, you might be able somehow to siphon that gloom and darkness into a poem that works.
MC: In what ways does this book pose a new direction in your work?
PB: I think it is a new direction, but there are no guarantees as to what will come next. I mean it is new; it is very different from what I’ve done before. However, I don’t know if it is a one-off experiment or will be a recurring feature of future poems.
MC: You have said that when this work leaves your hands, you might take an entirely different direction. Is The Apocrypha Of William O’ Shaunessy essentially ontological, or, a book of the self?
I’m not quite sure what you mean by ontological here. It is a book about the world out there and about philosophical ideas, but it does trace certain parts of my life. O’Shaunessy strongly resembles some aspects of myself as I was in my twenties and early thirties – there are a few prose pieces attributed to him written during my early thirties. Likewise the love poems and poems about death, depression and pain come from experiences over the five years of writing The Apocrypha. During those five years I was doing my best to cope with a largely unhappy marriage, fell in love, got diagnosed with cancer, got separated and divorced, started a new life. I’m sure traces of all these experiences are in many of the poems.
Tenzin Tsundue is a writer and activist in exile. He published his first book of poems Crossing the Border with money begged and borrowed from classmates while undertaking his Masters degree in Literature from Bombay University. His literary skills won him the first ever Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction in 2001. His second book Kora is in its fifth edition having sold more than ten thousand copies. His third book Semshook, is a compilation of essays on the Tibetan freedom movement. In January 2002 Tsundue’s profile peaked when he scaled scaffolding to the 14th floor of the Oberoi Towers in Mumbai to unfurl a Tibetan national flag and a ‘Free Tibet’ banner down the hotel’s facade. China’s Premier Zhu Rongji was inside the hotel at the time. He is also known for his trademark red headband which he has vowed to wear until the day Tibet is free. Tsundue’s poetic voice speaks powerfully of the suffering of Tibetan exiles.
From home you have reached
the Horizon here.
From here to another
here you go.
From there to the next
next to the next
horizon to horizon
every step is a horizon.
Count the steps
and keep the number.
Pick the white pebbles
and the funny strange leaves.
Mark the curves
and cliffs around
for you may need
to come home again.
A Personal Reconnaissance
Tibet is just a gaze away.
from that black knoll
at Dumtse, it’s Tibet.
For the first time, I saw
my country Tibet.
In a hurried hidden trip,
I was there, at the mound.
I sniffed the soil,
scratched the ground,
listened to the dry wind
and the wild old cranes.
I didn’t see the border,
I swear there wasn’t anything
I didn’t know,
if I was there or here.
I didn’t know,
if I was here or there.
They say the kyangs
come here every winter.
They say the kyangs
go there every summer.
Thirty-nine years in exile.
Yet no nation supports us.
Not a single bloody nation!
We are refugees here.
People of a lost country.
Citizen to no nation.
Tibetans: the world’s sympathy stock.
Serene monks and bubbly traditionalists;
one lakh and several thousand odd,
nicely mixed, steeped
in various assimilating cultural hegemonies.
At every check-post and office,
I am an “Indian-Tibetan”.
My Registration Certificate,
I renew every year, with a salaam.
A foreigner born in India.
I am more of an Indian.
Except for my Chinky Tibetan face.
“Nepali?” “Thai?” “Japanese?”
“Chinese?” “Naga?” “Manipuri?”
but never the question – “Tibetan?”
I am Tibetan.
But I am not from Tibet.
Never been there.
Yet I dream
of dying there.
Space-Bar: A Proposal
pull your ceiling half-way down
and you can create a mezzanine for me
your walls open into cupboards
is there an empty shelf for me
let me grow in your garden
with your roses and prickly pears
i’ll sleep under your bed
and watch TV in the mirror
do you have an ear on your balcony
i am singing from your window
open your door
let me in
i am resting at your doorstep
call me when you are awake
Eucalypt: A Tanka journal, Issue 3, 2007
Beverley George (Ed.)
PO Box 37 Pearl Beach 2256
RRP: $30 for two issues p.a
Reviewed by MARGARET BRADSTOCK
I was impressed by the inaugural issue of Eucalypt, appearing in 2006 and positively reviewed by Jan Dean in Five Bells (vol.14, no.2, p.38). Eucalypt, the first literary journal in Australia dedicated to tanka, published bi-annually, has gone from strength to strength.According to Amelia Fielden:
Tanka, meaning ‘short song’, is the modern name for waka, ‘Japanese song’, the traditional form of lyric poetry which has been composed in Japan for over thirteen hundred years. It is an unrhymed verse form of thirty-one syllables or sound-units. There are no poetic stress accents in Japanese, so traditional poetry is given rhythm by writing to a pattern of 5/7/5/7/7 sound-unit phrases, with varying breath pauses being made when read aloud. (On This Same Star, 5)
Waka remained virtually unchanged from its inception during the Heian period through to the end of the nineteenth century, by which time it had fallen subject to stereotypical imagery and a lack of originality. Beverley George tells us:
In the late nineteenth century, several distinguished poets questioned the lack of originality and adherence to outmoded diction in the waka that were being written. To indicate their desire for reform, they renamed it tanka meaning short song or poem. The broader interpretation encouraged adoption of this genre by an expanded audience outside Japan. (10)
Tanka, then, is modern and modernised waka. Makoto Ueda’s introduction to Modern Japanese Tanka provides valuable insights into tanka reform in the twentieth century.
In English, the requisite format is more flexible still, as Fielden’s preface to her own recent collection makes clear:
In English, tanka are conventionally written in five lines to parallel the short/ long/ short/ long/ long components of Japanese tanka. Few contemporary non-Japanese tankaists adhere strictly to the original thirty-one syllable count, however. It is now generally agreed that English lyrics of around twenty-one syllables in a 3/5/3/5/5, or looser, pattern most closely echo the essential concision and lightness of Japanese tanka. This has been called the ’21 +/- theory’; it is a theory which I endorse, and my poems can usually be counted out in twenty to twenty-six syllables. More important than a specific number of syllables is the internal rhythm of tanka, the impact they make on the ears as well as the mind. And in content, contemporary tanka are unrestricted…. multiple poems – any number between two and a hundred or more – on a similar or related theme, can be grouped under a common title. This is then designated a ‘tanka sequence’. (5)
In order to contain the poetic moment within a set number of syllables, Japanese tanka rely greatly on the power of suggestion. Fielden apprises us that “a certain haziness is an intrinsic, indeed admired, characteristic of the form.”( On This Same Star, 11). The same distillation is apparent in contemporary tanka, which may sometimes seem, as a consequence, fragmentary or ambiguous. However, what is unsaid carries as much weight as the words that appear on the page. Individual tanka are not given titles, and must therefore convey meaning(s) as effectively as possible through an evocative situation.
Issue 3 of Eucalypt is arranged thematically, with topics ranging from the spiritual through family, health, celebrations of life, love and betrayal, to mention just a few. Some ‘sections’ (which segue into each other) are uniformly sad, others joyous or humorous.
The keynote poem sets the tone, matching inner and outer landscapes:
ghost gums near Kata-juta
the dry heart
too full of memories
to go back alone
Michael Thorley (Australia)
Barbara Fisher’s delightful closing piece, reminiscent of W.H Auden’s “Thank You, Fog” (written on an afternoon too foggy to take a walk), is rife with innuendo:
lying in bed
this rainy morning
a walk is utterly
out of the question
Barbara Fisher (Australia)
To my mind the wittiest of these poems, playing with the spirit of tanka without overturning it, is the following:
thirty years later
the pale blue petals
pressed in my journal
what was that flower
– and who was that man
Margaret Chula (USA)
Likewise, a note of humour creeps into a christening ceremony:
water phobia –
the preacher pushes
her head under
bubbles floating upwards
she’s saved but terrified
Barbara A. Taylor (Australia)
Other tanka that struck a chord, situation evoking memory and emotion, are:
I remember the little
on a mirror pond –
arranged mother’s way
another summer gone
if I should eat
or store away
the sunflower seeds
Stanford M. Forrester (USA)
I really am
and the wide sky
Mariko Kitakubo (Japan)
on an updraft of our own
we brush outstretched wings
Rodney Williams (Australia)
a distant roar
of lions from the plains
father’s steady voice
telling childhood stories
by the fire’s warmth
Maria Steyn (South Africa)
As may be noted, submissions have been accepted on an international basis, and each reflects the writer’s own country. In the January 2008 issue of Stylus Poetry [www.styluspoetryjournal.com], Janice Bostok, a pioneer of haiku and tanka in Australia, has said: “The poets of each country, while embracing Japanese forms, need to internalise their cultural origins and hope that they will become distinctive of their own country,” and this is the hallmark of tanka published in Eucalypt. Many of them exploit their own idiom, picking up on colloquial expressions, and all celebrate their native imagery and seasons. Perhaps that’s why my eye has fallen upon so many from Australia.
In an earlier article, “Tanka: ‘the myriad leaves of words’” (11), Beverley George elaborates further:
A convincing argument for the adoption of tanka into foreign utterances lies in this form’s versatility. A tanka poem can capture the essence of human emotion and it can also be demonstratively used as a form of diary writing to chart the more pedestrian aspects of our lives, as well significant events. (p.11)
In Eucalypt # 3, George is to be congratulated on another fine and representative selection.
Amelia Fielden, Foreword to Still Swimming, ACT: Ginninderra Press, 2005:.5.
Beverley George, “Tanka: ‘the myriad leaves of words’ ”, Five Bells, vol.13, no.1 (2006): 10.
Introduction to On This Same Star by Mariko Kitakubo (transl. Amelia Fielden), Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2006: 11.
Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology, edited and translated by Makoto Ueda. NY: Columbia UP
Ashley co-founded Egg(Poetry) in 2002, which sadly ceased publication in 2006. He is currently studying Arts and Education at Monash, while co-editing www.holland1945.net.au and singing for his band. His work has appeared in a range of Australian print and online publications and his poem ‘Ember’ was runner up in the 2007 Monash Poetry Prize. His first collection of poetry pollen and the storm (2008) was published with the assistance of Small Change Press.
like Sophocles inventing
as she rakes the spyglass across the horizon
in one long smudge
as she leads him home
weary of visions
of fighting him, placating
in the possible hush
of 6am the
road is dusted
feet bully the pavement
and cars slip down the highway.
on rubbish bins
crows flick glances
like struck matches
and the wind
squeezes by, rustling
with clumsy arms.
I know there’s no way to stand out –
and it’s very easy
to make someone’s throat clench
and a montage or a bit of slow
up for substance
but what have I got – just lines
and really, why bother when
everything is so obviously impermanent
I guess the great lie of our time is capture –
it’s comforting to believe
everything can be caught, recorded
so we don’t have to appreciate
anything in the moment.
could we meet
with rain beading in your hair
I’d listen for once and you’d be strong
I’d be able to sit still
and you’d be happy
for the first time since april
everything would work
and we’d be able to talk, without
feeling crushed by the weight of stars
their cold light, dry as wind
and the streets, empty at dawn
but full, of yellow leaves
and little hurricanes.
splattered on the field
Writing The Pacific
Jen Webb and Kavita Nandan (eds)
Reviewed by MARTIN EDMOND
The title of this anthology, Writing the Pacific, immediately called to mind an extraordinary story James Hamilton-Paterson tells in his long essay Sea Burial. It is about the mid 19th century shipwreck of Italian writer/philosopher Giusto Forbici, also called Justus Forfex. He was the sole survivor of the wreck and found himself stranded on a waterless islet somewhere in the western Pacific. Hamilton-Paterson is careful not to divulge where exactly this islet is – probably in the Sulu Sea. Forbici salvaged from the wreck a number of large sealed glass jars which he at first assumed held water but in fact contained ink. It was an ink made out of organic materials, including that substance extruded by squid when alarmed. This ink was all he had to slake his thirst during the many weeks he subsisted on the islet. When he was rescued by a party of Bajau – sea gypsies – who had come to the islet to inter one of their leaders, Forbici was in a state of delirium in which the real and the imagined were inextricably entwined together; and for the rest of his life would try to understand this unique and paradoxical experience
It is a story any writer would feel compelled to interrogate and also one that most of us would fail to realise in all of its implications. The ink was to some degree toxic but on the other hand it kept Forbici alive long enough to survive until rescue came. Ink would also be the medium through which he would attempt to communicate both the fact of this survival and the possible meanings it might have: as if you could write the sea with an ink that was itself a distillation from that sea. The reason Writing the Pacific brought Forbici’s ordeal to mind is because of the history ink has as a medium for tattoo in most indigenous cultures of the Pacific in the period up to and beyond the first European incursions into the region. Early observers, for example in the Marquesas, sometimes called tattoo writing, and those who tattooed themselves made an explicit analogy between the marks on their bodies and the marks inscribed in European books – usually, though not always, the Bible. Hermann Melville in Moby Dick continues this line of thought when he states that Queequeg, the Pequod’s Polynesian harpoonist,
had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth…(Melville 491-2)
Strangely, Queequeg cannot read this writing even though, as Melville says, his heart beat against it. He is thus in and to himself a riddle which will, along with his body, in time decay without ever being solved. Each and every one of us is such an insoluble riddle; but that does not prevent us trying to understand heaven, earth and the way of truth; and one of the means of attempting this is writing.
Missionaries in the Pacific tried to expunge traditional tattooing as an example of a heathen practice that they would supplant with their own writing derived, via Constantinople and Rome, from heathenish Hebrew and ancient Greek sources; while at the same time sailors picked up the habit of tattooing and communicated it to their own home cultures. Today there is a fluorescence of tattoo both among fashionable Europeans and in the revenant indigenous cultures from which it ultimately derives; while the European tradition of writing on paper has been adopted wholesale across the region, often on a basis provided by the Bible and the Christian faith it promulgates. All of these contradictions are alive in writing that originates today in the Pacific and this fine anthology is one of the witnesses to those contradictions.
Edited by Jen Webb and Kavita Nandan, Writing the Pacific is a compact and elegantly made book published in Fiji by the Pacific Writing Forum at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, and funded by the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. ACLAL was initiated at a conference in 1964 at the University of Leeds and has an executive that is based in Europe, with branches all over the world in places that were once a part of the British Empire and are now affiliated with the British Commonwealth. I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s decision to withdraw his novel The Glass Palace from consideration for a Commonwealth writer’s prize because he didn’t think it appropriate for a quasi-imperial body to judge a novel that is about the ravages of empire. Even so, a proportion of the work in the anthology is not from writers who live in the Commonwealth: one of the pleasures and innovations of the collection is that it includes quite a lot of writing from French Polynesia and some also from the French colony of New Caledonia, or Kanaky: the French have not yet relinquished their Pacific colonies, preferring to regard them as a part of Greater France the way Hawai’i is now one of the United States and American Samoa remains an equivocal unincorporated territory of the US.
Albert Wendt, in the introduction to his pioneering anthology of Pacific writing, Lali, points out that there are 1200 indigenous languages spoken in Oceania, plus English, French, Spanish, Hindi and various forms of Pidgin: a huge variety of tongues. He constructed Lali geographically, by territory, and did not include any work from the French or American colonies in the Pacific. There is a particular emphasis in Lali on writing from Papua New Guinea, reflecting the innovative teaching there of German scholar Uli Beier in the 1970s; but Wendt’s anthology also emanated from the University of the South Pacific in Suva and it is interesting to note that the two writers –Satendra Nanden and Raymond Pillai – whose work appears both in Lali and in Writing the Pacific are Fijian Indians who have, on occasion, been university teachers in Suva. Their voices take their place among an abundance of others which, as the editors say,
suggest the complexity of a Pacific identity and multiplicity of spaces this identity can inhabit.
(Writing the Pacific, editorial, pVII)
Some of these voices are naïve: Sanjaleen Prasad’s brief, intense memoir of her father, “A Painful Memory”, has the rawness of a tale of heartbreak told by one person to another in the immediate aftermath of a death. Others are of some sophistication: the extract “Sepia” from Mary Daya’s novel Aristotle’s Lantern could stand comparison with the work of Gabriel García Márquez. Or perhaps I mean that some of the pieces are more writerly than others – there is often a sense of oral tradition bursting through literary structures. This can take the form of a consciously vernacular voice:
The floozies here, people say they’re more sluts than whores…(Writing the Pacific, 109)
is how Titaua Peu’s “Breaking the Silence” begins. This has been translated from the French and, as always in translation, you wonder how it sounded in the original. What’s notable about that first sentence is how, along with the rest of the piece (an extract from an autobiographical essay), is the way in which it retains through its metamorphoses the rhythm of Polynesian speech.
About two thirds of the anthology is prose, one third poetry. It’s perhaps an example of my own prejudices that I mostly preferred the prose. Or it may be that poetry as a form is more resistant to reproduction in print, since it arises out of that part of oral tradition we call song rather than from the more discursive habit of story telling that is the basis of prose. I was intrigued, though not always convinced, by the habit of many of the poets published here of presenting their work centred on the page: again I wondered what it would sound like if spoken, chanted or sung? Nicolas Kurtovitch, who has here a longer poem “Within The Mask” and an extract from a novel, “Goodnight Friend,” seems at home in both forms. He is Noumea born, and writes in French; so once again we have the beguiling sense of two other languages, or forms of thought, behind the English texts. In the poetry in this anthology, as in the prose, there is a wide range of strategies, from the simplicity of Marama Warren’s haiku to Matariki, “The Pleiades,” to Michelle Cahill’s “Castaway” with its complex perceptions:
My mind, so often black
is calm as a slip of heroin.
(Writing the Pacific 19)
All of these writers represent in themselves at least two worlds and in some cases many worlds. That is the condition of most of us these days, but for the still colonised, the recently decolonised, or the newly migrated, such ambiguity is far more insistent. I was fascinated by the extract from her novel Arioi by Viraumati No Ra’iatea because it gives a brief glimpse into the strange world of that much discussed institution from a contemporary Tahitian perspective, albeit filtered through the twin veils of French and English language. This sense of a perhaps mythical, certainly veiled, past coming equivocally into the present is also strongly present in Jione Havea’s “The Vanua Is Fo’ohake” which, as the editors point out, concerns “a Tongan eavesdropping on Fijians in a traditional talanoa about the vanua – that is, a talk about the land.” (editorial pVII) This piece is both a story and a story about stories and discusses, as much of the work here does and must, exactly how the past is to be accommodated in the present in such a way that it can become part of the future we are engaged in making. The most devastating piece of writing on this theme is Pauline Riman’s brief tale “The Boy In The Man,” about a young kid in Papua New Guinea, who, while hunting birds, finds a rape victim dying at the foot of the tree into the branches of which he has been firing his slingshot.
Another innovation of this eclectic and wide-ranging anthology is the inclusion of writers who have lived and worked in the Pacific but are not native to it. These include African American Sybil Johnson, whose meditation upon racial identity, “White lines on black asphalt: discovering home”, finds that belonging is not in the end about colour at all, but about culture. These inclusions broaden the scope of the anthology but also raise questions that are probably unanswerable – which is not a reason for not asking them. Zadie Smith concluded a recent essay on Franz Kafka by saying: “We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.” The word “Ungeziefer”, from Kafka’s famous novella The Metamorphosis, is usually translated “cockroach” but, as Smith points out, actually means “vermin.” It’s a startling insight and one that many of us would at first sight reject: but after all, who could claim purity nowadays and on what basis would it be claimed? Writing the Pacific, in its complexity, its ecumenical approach, its heterogeneity and its generosity, suggests a different approach to any assumed or nostalgic purity of identity: that we can use our own mixed blood as the ink with which to write the various and fascinating tales of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.
Lali, A Pacific Anthology,ed. and with an introduction by Albert Wendt. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1980.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, Oxford World Classics. London: Chancellor Press,1985: 491-2
Smith, Zadie, review of The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay, Atlas and Co, 221 The New York Review of Books, Vol 55, No 12 (July 2008) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21610
E A Gleeson is a Ballarat based writer and Funeral Director. Earlier this year she featured at the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival in Castlemaine. Her poems have been published and read in Australia, Ireland and the USA. Gleeson was awarded the 2008 Interactive Press Best First Book Award for her poetry manuscript, which will be published later this year.
Making a different path
Plunging into the huge pile of rubble, digging through it
she rescued them, whole bricks abandoned for a chipped
edge or a flaw in colour, and then, when it looked as if
there were no more to be had, she went back into that pile
uncovering the halves, throwing them into the barrow and
then thrusting her arms deeper into the broken bricks, each
time going down further, fingers tipping the bricks, sliding
along them, feeling for length and then, gripping fiercely
with her finger tips, she pulled the new found brick through
the pile, setting the others crumbling and tumbling.
With the string lines curving across her block, she placed
the bricks across and down, three by three. She wove
the path across the yard, curving it around the place she’d
marked out for fruit trees, setting it beside the squares
that would become a vege patch. All evening, she carried
aching muscles about the house. Unused to the heft of work,
she filled a bath and eased her body in, stroked the cloth
along each scratched arm, dabbed at each blistered palm
and later, found herself clasping her hands as if she were
holding some hard won precious thing.
Sunday Afternoon Bush Walk
Eucalypts drip amongst the quiet voices
of strangers taking each other’s measure.
Fog clings to the stand of mountain ash.
We step out slowly. Mud sucks our boots
We scramble fallen logs, wade through bracken.
Cautiously, we move to higher ground.
Sliding alongside one another, keeping pace
with bits of chat, we slip in on other conversations:
film reviews, travel stories punctuated
with bird calls, snapping twigs. Paragraphed
by steeper slopes, the talk moves up a notch
hedges on the personal.
You’re telling us about your birth.
Doctors thought you good as dead
offered your mother special care staring
through Plexiglas at your ribs heaving
Rejecting this, she took you home. For fourteen
days and nights, she held you. Snuggled between
her breasts, dribbles of milk, temptation to suckle.
Her heart beating like a metronome.
Her skin. Your skin.
Her breath. Your breath.
We tramp along the sodden track.
Bursts of warm sunshine challenge
the winter landscape.
Is this all there is?
We spend the whole day together and then the next.
For me, it’s as if we’ve always had and always will
have a part together. Haio becomes my teacher. I
want to know how to behave in this different country.
I learn that it is not OK to eat a naked banana and eye
contact is not such an important thing, though I notice
that when we are part of the throng of motorbikes
surging along Tran Hung Dao, she turns right round
to talk to me. I am relieved when she leans forward
again, until I realize that she does this to read
the map and answer her mobile phone. I am not sure
of the protocol of gripping her buttocks with my thighs
but as my jeans take the dust from the buses we pass,
I am thinking about other things.
Never have I felt such a part of a people’s movement.
There are more people on motorbikes on either side
of me than could ever fit in a Swanston St. peace march.
Haio weaves her bike through the city traffic as if these
days are all that we have. She wants to show me what I
need to learn. She cuts to the chase. She asks questions
that I never ask before a third date. She points to the people
whose disfigured bodies bend awkwardly along the pavement,
She tosses coins, chats to the locals, coerces the officials.
She takes me to see her friends and the paintings that she loves.
I feel as if I have met someone who might be a Buddhist, well
along the path to enlightenment, or perhaps that rare thing,
a Christian who knows what it is to love one another.
When she is not asking questions, she is my tour guide.
I begin to understand why the figure of Ho Chi Minh
whom I feared in my childhood, will always be Uncle Ho
for her. She shows me what she wants me to understand
and says, “This is what you need to write your poems about”.
I want her to tell me that these huts made from split boards
and bits of tin are summer residences for the rice growers,
shepherd’s huts for the farmers, that way up in the hills
beyond the paddy fields are cosy cottages all decked out
with woven mats and polished teak and that behind these
are gardens full of vivid vegetables and bunches of bananas
bowing from the trees, but I know before I ask the question
that this is all that there is.
Each time we pass the central Post Office, the man with
the gummy grin is sitting in his cyclo smiling at the tourists
because he does not have the quick repartee of the cyclo
owners with the clean cotton covers and the sunshades,
“Where you from, Madame?” “Ah my friend in Melbourne.”
“How can I help you?” “Special price for you, Madame”.
Tell me that last week it was different, that the tourists
hurried to his cyclo like children to a merry-go-round,
that he took them to the mountain statue of Buddha
and the huge church with its concrete Virgin Mary
and said same same but different and laughed at his own
joke and the irony of it all, but I know that when we’ve
ridden past late in the afternoon and he’s sprawled
across the cyclo, that every day, this is how it is.
Haio takes me to visit the children whose parents
were hit by the orange bombs. The crazy boy
who is tied to his cot with his skin dropping onto
the linen, yells at me. And the girl who seems to be
all torso and head, reaches out and pulls me towards
her as if to show that for a hug, a neck is not necessary.
There are children who stare blankly from misshapen
bodies and others who grin and giggle and bottom shuffle
towards us clutching at our hands, rolling us the ball,
peeking into our bags. As we walk from the last room
in the Peace Hospital where the children’s heads
are bigger than any of my questions or answers,
I turn and ask, “Haoi, what do you believe?”
She tells me, ” I don’t believe in anything.
I know that there is nothing but this.”
On John Mateer’s Southern Barbarians
(Zero Press, Johannesburg, 2007)
(Originally published in Kris Hemensley’s blog, available at http://collectedworks-poetryideas.blogspot.com November 2008)
Reviewed by KRIS HEMENSLEY
Such presence exists in John Mateer’s Southern Barbarians (Zero Press, Johannesburg, 2007), bolstered by plenty of first person, and maybe that’s the reason it’s so pleasurable to read – first person and present tense and what I’ll record as whole sentences. Post-colonialism or Mateer’s post-colonialist reflex, is part and parcel of this book as it has always been in his oeuvre, and I’m not sorry to say that it irks me politically and poetically! Naturally, ideas and narratives are interwoven here as with every writing, so it’s almost passé to say that ultimately “attitude” doesn’t reduce the collection’s pleasure, and what provokes thought and reaction, as Mateer’s writing does, should be music to one’s ear.
Regarding whole sentences, what a relief after contemporary poetry’s inexhaustible anthology of fragment and discontinuity! I don’t, of course, mean the single words and phrases, rhythmic explosions or embellishments, abundant in poetry, guaranteed to either shake up patter or create another timbre. More so, the attenuation of thought and address in favour of the flatly annotated inventory which has overseen a relegation of the very discursive language John Mateer resourcefully indulges. Sometimes what one wants is a narrator and not a breathless reporter – sentences to breathe in and to hear a poet hold breath, that is nerve, as narrator.
Southern Barbarians is another of Mateer’s non-commercial books from Zero, the collectively run South African little press; the second since The Ancient Capital of Images (FACP, 2005), which in turn was his fifth major collection.
It’s ten or fifteen years since I first met him, and his work. A double emigrant, as I was also, in a way – he, a young South African living in Western Australia, exiled to the extent that the Apartheid republic was an impossible homeland and the new South Africa no less difficult, had come to Melbourne in what seemed a steady flow of West Australians to our seemingly greener fields – Philip Salom, Marion Campbell, Micheal Heald amongst others. And I, half-English in England after infancy in Egypt, then English migrant to Melbourne. Apart from the Alexandrian heritage through my mother, I had South African Huguenot (grandmother Rose Waterina de Vaal) on my father’s side. We’ve talked about this as some kind of actual basis for an outsiderness we may share as poets in Australia – agreeing about the need for an international perspective, sharing enthusiasms for art and artists, disagreeing about the status of American poetry and poets, courteous about one’s politics and religious beliefs!
“What is another English word, he mused, that rhymes with sadness?” (“Anecdote”, p11) The protagonist is Xanana, probably the first president and now prime minister of the independent East Timor… Another English word? Gladness? Badness? Madness? Depends how strong you want the rhyme. Plenty to echo “ess” – “less”, for example. But that would be an odd word for this poet of baroque expansion, of a conceptual and verbal density that makes the most of every morsel of the matter that comes to hand.
John Mateer is the poet behind that hand. One would like to say, the Noh-actor’s fan-fluttering hand or as thief passing on the gen, shading mouth with quicksilver fingers, or the spy, happy to be identified as either of the others – except that Mateer has already given us as disquieting a narrative as could hang on an image in The Ancient Capital of Images : he comes to us as the poet of the grotesque white hand. The scenario is fraught :
The poet, a New South African, holds his fist out to me.
I extend mine to meet his, our knuckles snug as in a knuckle-duster.
“Welcome home,” he says, swaying his fist back to his chest, his heart.
I do likewise, but feebly, and mutter, “This is strange…”
Earlier he’d told of when they’d razed his grandmother’s house with her inside.
In the interrogation he’d been asked, “What do you think of your comrades now?”
And he had shouted back: “Every revolution has its casualties!”
But when in gaol, alone, he wept for her for the first time.
I look at my hand on the table between us: a pale, grotesque thing.
Why without reticence, did I press that against his dark fist?
(“Ethekweni, #1, The Poet”)
The black fighter’s belated tears hardly expiate the immorality of the revolutionary modus operandi. (I also squirm, recalling the justifications one uttered, as an anti-Vietnam War activist, for a similar level of atrocity.) But the white poet’s mae culpa and the poem of and as mae culpa – is dishonoured in that degree of self-abnegation. Political guilt has become a pathology. Fair enough, as they say, it’s only a line in a poem in one of the three recent books and, of course, its author is the brilliant maker of the fictions stimulating one here, but this colour consciousness, so candidly expressed, is the failure of person that distorted logic always produces. The mis-perception – typical of John Mateer’s candor – mocks the intelligence one’s want to trust of the visionary poet, where the quality of perception is the measure of truth. Mateer’s rhetorical question might well be truth to the person which the poem forms, but only transiently like a thought best let pass, as Buddhists would have it. Existence is not a contortion, nor is its poetry. And self-excoriation is not humility.
John Mateer is the author of this book of questions even as he is one of its characters. It is a Portuguese book of questions necessarily skirting the adopted and natal countries previously encountered in his work. However both Australia and South Africa continue to be impugned in a serious and lyrical interrogation of the first person and several personae.
Mention Portuguese, and English-language readers will pronounce the name Pessoa. And Pessoa meets us in the epigraph (“I write to forget”) and every so often in the book. Southern Barbarians (and who are they? Australians? South Africans? 16th Century Portuguese?) is a Pessoan book if the slipping in and out of legal and imagined selves is a further meaning of the increasingly invoked 20th Century European master – a quality one identified in all things Borges too in the ever so recent past. But fantasy it isn’t since spectral shivers and metaphysical speculations aren’t Mateer’s purpose. Rather, it is history and politics, the burden of knowledge, in the already full rucksack of our peripatetic existentialist – as though doomed to wandering as the price of revelation. History and politics not so much counter-pointed by the erotic as punctuated by it – a chapter in itself in the eventual Mateer monograph. (Regarding eroticism in its explicitly sexual form, it’s instructive that one poem here, “Heard in a geijin-house in Kyoto” (p48), isn’t about the contrast between fucking and masturbation, which would be juvenile to say the least , but its receipt as language; thus the difference for this poet between Japanese a traveller’s “gagged whispers” – and Brazilian:
the woman’s urging in that tongue
I love, of slurs and growls and lisping
requiring eroticism’s necessary conclusion in what should be the poet’s rhetorical question, “Is that what makes of my listening a poetry?” And history and politics also feeds his fine topographical lyricism.
Compelling, marvellous, but that irk will not leave me as sympathy for the poems leads me closer than I like to the post-colonial attitude I almost always find wearisome as polemic and gratuitous as poetry (either the only point of the poem or an unwieldy embellishment). Much more of it in Words In the Mouth of a Holy Ghost (Zero Press, 2006) than the present collection, and particularly annoying because of the juxtaposition of the mellifluously insightful and the stridently pat. “Composition of Unease” (p15) a perfect example :
With the deceptive ease that the Dutch
swapped Manhattan for a now forgotten isle laden with cloves,
the biochemistry in my brain catalyses
the enormity of ice-blue sky between downtown skyscrapers
into a sensationism of memories and concepts,
the question of the composition of this unease:
For what may Ground Zero be exchanged?
Whoa!… For what may Ground Zero be exchanged? How about the Twin Towers and three thousand lives? How about Bin Laden’s head? What is Mateer’s question but naive poeticism, a quirk of the brain of the poet’s biochemistry? It could simply be pure contempt for the USA, for the West – in which case, why not dance on the monster’s grave and spare us the tease? (Sometimes a poet must surely overcome the compulsion to write another poem!) Gripped by the narrative finesse of the opening line; gnashing my teeth at the last!
The 2006 chapbook wears post-colonialist stripes on its globe-trotting narrator’s combat-jacket! The Aussie-South African’s “I, being Americanized” (“Empire”, p9) is the manner in which the subject problematizes the conventional first person, yet it’s also the means by which subject is let off the hook, seduced by rhetoric (Gold Coast bikini’d cheerleaders, astroturf, moon flag)… In “The College Girl as Cypher”, she’s code for America, obviously (“bountiful college girl among bored nations”), and owns sufficient particularity
bounding along in your new sneakers,
your wit openly declared on your t-shirt
for the cliché to work – but
streamlined, sans memory
is cliché colluding with cant. Recalls Gertrude Stein’s quip, possibly riposte for that earlier era’s European tub-thumping, that one ought not forget America is the oldest country of the modern world, a comment stronger now with the conflation of America and global modernity. Mateer’s “Americanization” is as quaint as post WW2’s “coca-cola-ization” in this time of the world wide web and the satellite-dish. Arguably, his earnest, rather than zealous, post-colonialism delivers as recherché a sensibility as its other side, the unselfconscious colonial, the unabashed imperial, and is as emphatically upstaged by history as Malcolm Lowry’s tragic, dipso consul in Under the Volcano, and for all his perspicacity, any protagonist of Graham Greene’s, whose foreign correspondences might be as hummable now as Noel Coward!
Irony, of course, that the erstwhile Developing World (– oh yes, developing into modernity, which is the psychology behind “everyone wants to be an American”, thus Ed Dorn, the first of the Anglo-American New Poetry’s post-colonials, calling the shots in The North Atlantic Turbine (1967)) doesn’t distinguish between one American (Australian, British, South African, European…) and another. Indisputable too, that Chinese and Indian have joined Japanese and Korean et al in modernity’s new imperial order, who are recognized for what they are, everywhere in the “developing world” despite the non-white camouflage… Doesn’t John Mateer wonder how it could be that post-colonialist poet and friend are greeted “Hey snowflakes…” (“Salutation Heard up in Harlem”, p17)? Isn’t Harlem’s ‘greeting’ the racial underpinning of that recently surpassed epoch (post-colonialism) which might henceforth be applied to the entire motley of perceived and attributed trespass? Of course, the pungency’s retained either side of the snipe but the Great Wheel keeps spinning and the arguments flap dizzy as 16th Century Portuguese circumnavigator’s sailcloth in each qualitatively different sphere. Yet, “First Person”(p12) tenders Mateer’s identity question’s classiest pun.
Barns and schools and houses hovered over the harvested fields
as he spoke, hesitant parenthesis around his words,
that Mesquakie telling of what was before the Americans.
The poem reports rather than bewailing or heavying the message. The poet is the listener whose heart and mind the reader is trusted to understand, and so the first line’s imagery guilelessly combines environment and occasion of vital communication and political sentiment. One’s given the crucial contradiction of the collection: listener and teller. “I have inadvertently been born as karaoke” (“Thoughts of Employment”): the paradox at the heart of lyrical poetry.
Southern Barbarians is John Mateer’s Portuguese book. I can’t remember another collection where he has been as enlivened. Travelling always has this affect upon him, ‘grounding’ his rootlessness, but Portugal and the Portuguese is more than ambient here. In the previous collection, Words in the Mouth of a Holy Ghost (2006)
metaphysics funked-up by a black college band
on a corner of Michigan Avenue where the whole of Chicago is musical theatre
is no more than travel-writer’s tic-tac, and there’s some of that in Southern Barbarians too. It’s what home often is – the place from which to resist, the mind-set with which to resist and re-engage with the questions of the world.
If Pessoa is the Portuguese book’s predictable node, guarantor of the plural identity, implying its own negation (“I am your own surviving heteronym”, “Pessoa as Photographed Child”), then Luis de Camoens (Camoes) as the figure of the once glorious Portuguese empire, glorifier of the great mariner, Vasco da Gama, in his epic poem, The Lusiads (1572), is our own wanderer’s barely known (like all our classics) guiding star. And Portugal is where the racial and ethnic stereotypes besetting the poet are lost in a new tempo. Portugal, only two or three decades beyond its own fascist dictatorship at home, its colonialism in Africa and Timor, is an aroma, a taste, and a tongue from which he has created fantastical wings. In this Portugal, Mateer can securely be a native, in his case African; that is, where the contortion meted upon the poet’s soul by politics and psychology can conjure paradise of weirdest paradox. Portugal, where he’s confrère to the Mozambicans and Angolans, who doubtless suffered at the hands of these same Portuguese, who jib the Afrikaaner on his father’s sins.
From the beginning John Mateer has spoken as an emissary of African writing. I remember him telling me about the prodigious Tatamkhulu Africa – the equal of Senghor and Césaire, and a school text in England now.
I am reliving Uncle’s poems – They people the streets
with slaves named by the hinterland, Afrikas …
(“Uit Mantra”, The Ancient Capital of Images)
Tatamkhulu, the “grandfather” of the new South Africa’s African poetry. Fully realizing now the complexity of Tatamkhulu’s ethnicity and personality, I can perceive Mateer in a self-creation that recalls Tatamkhulu as a reflecting mirror. And what a complexity: Egyptian boy whose parents were Arab and Turk, fostered at age two by a Christian family in South Africa after parents’ death, who appeals his “white” status at age thirty and chooses “coloured”, and in later life, whilst involved in the guerrilla war against the apartheid regime, adopts Islam as an Arabic-Afrikaans Chan dialect speaker.
If that incredible pot-pourri can be African then surely the African John Mateer can be Australian or Mexican (Spanish or Indian) (see the “That I Might be Mexican” section in Words In the Mouth of a Holy Ghost or Japanese, where I suspect his Zen yen has taken him) or Portuguese as seen in the new book.
Of course, born of the complex, through complexity the only way to go…The problematised subject may always be John Mateer’s self-representation although the defining language will surely change. The post-colonial with its anti-Western reflex has provided the poet with a ticket to negotiate the complexity, but evidently so does his immersion in palpable life, all around the world, which is how and where I feel his gift will continue to prosper. And I wonder if he’d agree that ultimately Tatamkhulu’s dictum is better than all the -isms strung together:
Poetry must stem from the self, not outside the self. Indeed, it records the landscape of the heart, not the mind.
(Karen Shenfeld, Books in Canada, http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=138).
Jane was born in South Korea, but has grown up in Sydney, Australia. She works at the Museum of Contemporary Art and is inspired by paintings, ceramics and music – a lot of which figures in her poetry. Jane studied a B.A. Communications at the University of Technology, Sydney.
This is the dream that most people never have
unless you sleep
It might be a wait
when I am living again
& meant to help men with their desire for a drink
and never ending queries for another
story or reassured lie.
never comes easy to the men
who sleep sound
a terrible day. It doesn’t chase them, this
life and leaves them so free, I’m
constantly stepping over
a gap to make
sound – so
my limbs, how young is my heart & how flex, this muscle,
doesn’t keep me up, and waiting for the next day
or the next, or
to be done.
After today, which really is the hardest part, I’ll
say nothing more & wonder
whether it was right
to ask him an easy question –
it’s put us back in touch. I’ll slip away
right away again.
I won’t come around
and see we both bought black
jumpers by the same
the same wool &
machine & make
but different cut, one for a man’s shoulders
and the other for a girl’s waist.
I’m sure another distant friend might buy
a similar garment to wear
while out for a drink &
I’ll think it’s him because I
look for him everywhere, even though
it was decided – the way
is not enough.
I imagine you sitting there on a box
but it’s alright, there are four hideous chairs & perhaps music, lots
of it, stacked,
you know where everything is.
is the driver to every artwork that you’ve bought
& the posters that you like.
Sometimes, we find another prison to love. Is
freedom an edge that you find on a stage (?)
I’m reminded when you engulf somebody, arms open
her wooden waist
it was always there. A song to grow into & find