Judith Beveridge launches Vishvarūpa by Michelle Cahill
by Michelle Cahill
5 Islands Press, 2011
second edition UWAPublishing
Launch Speech by JUDITH BEVERIDGE
As Michelle tells us in the notes, Vishvarūpa is a Sanskrit word meaning: manifold, having all forms and colours. This aspect of diversity is beautifully played out in Michelle’s book. She ranges from different locales in and around Sydney, to Mumbai, to Dharamasala, around an impressive range of mythical and cultural references, and around voices, which are both personal and imagined.
This is a book of highly textured, rich, elegant poems that probe into Eros, power, mortality, place, dream, culture, myth. The particular way this book juxtaposes and interweaves Australian and Indian experiences makes it unique. Its contribution to contemporary poetry I’m sure will be regarded by many as highly significant, and a book that will act as an important touchstone for the way that different cultural experiences can be sustained and interwoven.
So Michelle is juggling quite a few balls with this book, yet I never had the sense that she was taking on more than she could manage, or that the risks were tipping her over, making her lose control. What is so impressive about the book is the singular strength, confidence and vigour of the language.
We as readers know when we are in the presence of language that’s being used in exciting, brilliant combinations, whose effect is immediately intoxicating. You’ll notice an astute control of diction in this book, a diction that can accommodate formal elegance, the vernacular, specialised knowledge, the mundane world. A diction that can range from words such as: tumuli, orogeny, haptic, myocardium, porcine, swithering, glutaraldehye: to crow, magnolia, butterfly, motorbikes, possum, rain.
We know as readers we have to be a little wary of poets who create dazzling surfaces, but who don’t, finally, have all that much beer under the foam. But with Michelle’s work there is a sense that text and texture are rightly married, that the poems are “imaginatively right”, that the rhythms move as the mind moves. Michelle’s poems flow exquisitely from phrase to phrase and line to line. She also has a remarkable ability to do jump-shifts that seem to change the tone quite drastically, yet still maintaining an overall coherence.
One of my favourite poems in the volume, “The Abbey” illustrates this point. This is an intensely evocative poem, full of a strange, unsettling sensuality, and it attains its power from the way in which beauty and menace play off against each other. There’s both a sense of the corporeal as well as a ghost-like insubstantiality, which provides a great deal of tension and suspense:
Why do you ask? Haven’t we already touched
as we lay on the lichen, the stones, uneven and
tessellated into a path, your hand on my dress.
We lay with forget-me-nots, whispered vows
resting our gaze. The air was heavy as the scent
of lilies stewed and spilt across the dry grass.
I felt the shock when you parted my hair.
I saw crushed petals falling from the sky
like paper moons in flawless pink and red.
I believe there was a dead dove, its neck swollen
as if it had been strangled. And I saw what looked
like one stagger into the shade of a fluted yew
We could hear the voices of those we knew,
the organ player’s notes receding from the abbey,
the sound of wooden bells. Or was it broken wings?
Impossible to read the names. How could we see
the living or the dead ghosts rise from their graves,
pacing, becoming frantic. Our eyes were stitched.
All that we saw was the soil, sweet and sad, leaves
beginning to fray, to curl, and the splatter of moss
sown like a seam through stone, a silent threnody,
a trickle beneath the earth’s skin as if something
stirred in darkness that was unspoken, the dove’s
wings, perhaps, or the heart weighing its secret.
This is a common feature in this book, the play of contradictions. Pablo Neruda in his essay “Toward an Impure Poetry” said that he wanted poems “smelling of lilies and urine”. There is something immensely appealing about juxtaposition, about the concurrence and interaction of unlike truths, of lines or sentences where one impression confronts another. In Vishvarūpa Michelle has made this her own aesthetic, she is often shifting her stance, or assertion and making us as readers feel the world as multi-toned, as manifold.
In the poem, “The Ghost Ship”, another one of my favourites, the scent of the albatross feathers are described in terms of both beauty and disgust:
pungent as magnolia, tossed with brine and bilge.
In the poem “The Chase” the speaker talks of:
the lavender scent of evening
which is a drug. It drives you to the periphery, the deepest part
of this gorge where we last crossed the river, our feet cold
amongst, the tangled roots and the rain.
In the poem “Tryptich of Wings” – the dead butterfly has one wing “bright as velvet” the other “Mendelian, a mosaic sequined with ants.”
In “Ode to Mumbai”, the speaker declares:
I hang in a gap between the sound and meaning of words
dipping my subconscious in different time zones, where
my bed is a temple and a brothel, where dream defines me.
I love the richness and all the compound, multi-layered impressions that Michelle evokes. She seems so able to make cosmos out of chaos. Her two poems about Mumbai – “Ode to Mumbai” and “City of Another Home” so adeptly portray the multitudinous and multifarious aspects of such a place. All the contrapuntal comings, goings and doings of a wide-range of people- from the haggling women, the taxis, the beggars, the spivs, the sadhus, the cows, the dogs, the middle class folk, the members of a Laughter Club, the auto-rickshaw drivers that inhabit Mumbai are all so seamlessly threaded through the poem, and by the end we get a sense of rightness and peace:
City of divine deliriums, the dogs are chained. the Laughter Club
members fatigue their raucous morning bellows from a plinth
of recreational park. the auto-rickshaw wallahs doze in the shade.
Some of the most powerful poems in the volume are the poems, which either speak about or assume the voices of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses. There’s ” Kālī from Abroad” ” Pārvatī in Darlinghurst, ” Durgā: a Self Portrait”, “Ganeśa Resurrected “”Laksmī Under Oath” to name some of them. Michelle has a great deal of fun with these destructive and capricious deities. She modernises them, flirts with them, taunts them, brings their faults and foibles to the fore. There’s a strong sense of the erotic, of taking these figures off their pedestals and revealing their feet of clay. These are multi-toned gods and goddesses revivified in contemporary settings.
Kālī is described as ” adroit in drugs and aphrodisiacs/ a nude dominatrix/ a feminist export with a sado-masochistic bent”. She wears “punk-blue leggings” and has “skull-and-scissor charms.”
Here’s the goddess Pārvatī speaking of the affair between herself and Shiva in the poem “Pārvatī in Darlinghurst”: The tone is sarcastic. Pārvatī is confident, fully empowered, full of her own intentionality and will:
We scorned the Purānas, our tryst no Himalayan
cave, but a hotel bed I had draped with stockings,
lingerie, and the crystal ice of a Third Eye. I admit
that’s why I spoke with the speed of an antelope.
It seems the acharyas were mistaken: I hadn’t
dated for marriage or adultery, nor with a wish
to deck his house with flowers or sweep his floors.
I am too busy, I declared, for dalliance or abstract
gossip. I have no interest in honeybees and birds.
All I wanted was a good time. I swear as the river
is my sister, that this guy was not my sun or my sky.
No way did it even enter my mind to have his kids.
His first wife’s ashes are scattered all over the city.
Goddamn it, Shiva is a walking disaster; whatever
he touches burns.
Again the language is uncompromising, beautifully weighted and nuanced.
I found that Vishvarūpa kept me engaged with its rhythms and patterns of sound, with its narrative power and sense of exact detail, with the way the imagery and tone negotiate the very subtle changes of mood or modes of feeling. I love the humour, the nostalgia, the regret, the obstinacy, the tenderness.
There is so much more I could say about Vishvarūpa, there are so many fine poems I haven’t touched on or mentioned. So I urge you to buy it and relish in the poems as I have. I’d like to end on a quote by Octavio Paz because I think it sums up that wonderful quality that Michelle’s poetry has:
Each time we are served by words, we mutilate them. But the poet is not served by words. He is their servant. In serving them, he returns them to the plenitude of their nature, makes them recover their being. Thanks to poetry, language reconquers its original state. First, its plastic and sonorous values, next the affective values; and finally the expressive ones.
Michelle has done all of this is in her book and I’d like to congratulate her and 5 Islands Press for the great gift of Vishvarūpa.
JUDITH BEVERIDGE is the author of six collections of poetry, all of which have won major Australian book prizes or been shortlisted. Devadatta’s Poems (Giramondo Publishing) was short-listed for the NSW and Qld Premiers’ poetry prizes and the Prime Minister’s Poetry Award. Hook and Eye, ed Paul Kane was published by Braziller in New York. Sun Music: New and Selected Poems, was published in 2018 by Giramondo.