Kerry Leves reviews la, la, la by Tatjana Lukic
la, la, la
by Tatjana Lukic
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Reviewed by KERRY LEVES
Born in Ojisek, Croatia, in 1959, Tatjana Lukic studied philosophy and sociology at the University of Sarajevo, and published four poetry collections in Serbo-Croatian while she was still in her twenties. After long-brewing ethnic conflicts broke out into war in what was then Yugoslavia, Tatjana Lukic came to Australia, as a refugee with a young family, in 1992. Poignantly enough, two Serbo-Croatian-language poems of hers were translated into English for the Yale University Press publication, Cross Currents, a Yearbook of Central European Culture, in the same year.
In Cross Currents, Lukic’s poems were published with work by five other women poets from (then) Yugoslavia and the translator, Dasha Culic Nisula, identifed Lukic’s topic areas as “human relationships” and “the relationship of a poet to her craft”. Nisula did not comment on the technique of Lukic’s poems, that not only present an emotional situation, or broader life situation, through evocative details and/ or compressed but telling images, but also submit the subject matter to a detached, critical working-over. Comparison, Buddhism tells us, is always bitter; but the speaker of Lukic’s ‘Measured Units’ balances the inevitable gall (the poem closes on an image of time as “bitter honey”, dripping like water from a leaky tap) with an even-toned valuing of things-in-their-own-right, as she contrasts a poetic and a domestic vocation.
you were pregnant with a son
I was pondering comparisons
time is one
but the hours are different
your clock – a wall decorated
with a barometer, a spoon
a red box for pepper
cinnamon and salt
as a second hand
you tiptoe quickly after a man
while you quiet a child with a pacifier
I erase a title
before dawn I question: should I put a period?
you change diapers
you have your own room –
a line full of clothes
your own midnight next to your husband’s breath
from ‘Measured Units’, translated by Dasha Culic Nisula
Neither the speaker nor the object of her inquiry – sister, friend, neighbour, another self – is overtly a winner or loser; the poem leaves it to the reader to make such judgements, according to need and/or desire. One of the mysteries of the translation is whether the Serbo-Croatian for the English word “period” – denoting the punctuation device – also connotes menstruation. This ambiguity tends to leave ‘Measured Units’, good as it is, floating in a kind of bi-lingual limbo or fog. No such difficulties attend Tatjana Lukic’s new poems, all written in English.
After arriving in Australia, Lukic worked as a researcher and data analyst for various government departments, mostly in Canberra, according to some circumstantial evidence.
east row, mort st, canberra
it started just at the time of morning tea
‘no sugar for me’, one of the fleshy gods said
and emptied his spoon over concrete land
‘it’s snowing!’ at one dash
we all left our desks
and rushed to the windows
‘open, sesame, open!’
just to catch a flake
and we’ll behave well again
staring at the screens till dark
‘open now, it’s snowing!’
but there is no magic fit enough
to move the glass walls of our cell
one by one
we walked quietly back
to our chairs
a dear one
‘it’s snowing, darling, open the window!’
recorded all answering machines
across the lake
la, la, la shows that Lukic’s technique, of which a reader gets tantalising glimpses in the Cross Currents selection, proved transferable into her new tongue. Lukic’s poems join an expressionist impulse – and a warm emotionality – to a disciplined consideration of the place, weight, value of emotion as it “looms” in the world’s “small things” (quotes here are from the book’s epigraph, taken from Euripides’ Ion). The result is surprisingly satisfying, as the “small things” that the poems attend to are actually made to connect with history. The poem ‘1959’ manages this with enviable simplicity and magnificent found surrealism. The poem launches, almost all-at-once-together, a new-born child; the Cuban Revolution; the first marketing of Barbie; a hit pop song (Rocco Granata’s Marina); the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary; and the great Australian post-war immigration boom, as if all the above were so many helium balloons with different faces.
war was freezing in the air, everywhere
lost in a purple patch of a magic land,
the grapes were ripening
when i slipped into the world
before i had time to cry
the red dust swept the olive green
off havana’s streets
the winds were playing over the seas
with a bunch of new flags of all colours
above freed lands
at the back of his new weatherboard cottage
down under, in yarralumla, where the world will end,
a young settler, an italian builder, was planting an olive tree
the earth was circling slowly
getting its strength
even a gipsy searching a baby’s palm
could not guess
Lukic goes in less for knock-out-one-liners, than for the whole poem as multi-dimensional construct. The critical distance that the poems practise towards even the most touching or tender life experience, nudges the reader into the sense that a poem, regardless of its tonal intimacies, is an artificial thing, a feat and also a fiction. The speaker of ‘to a reader’, from the final section of la, la, la, is upfront about this:
how simple it is to trick you, you dear sitting duck
a diddler master takes you for a ride just like that,
a snake in the grass, from time immemorial
grinning at your silly bookish trust
from ‘to a reader’
Perhaps this verbal flaunting and taunting merely shows that flamboyance does not begin or end with Kylie Minogue’s galactic hairdo and mirror-panel dress. Lukic’s subtler showiness makes room for wit aplenty.
he eats roots and leaves
and that’s fine as he eats well
and then quietly walks away
this is not what i complain about
but why like a wombat?
his dull depart is saying
i would and i would not
leave you darling
or: yes i am leaving with no doubt
but see it’s not so easy for me to slide out of
this warm burrow onto loose tracks
or: i am leaving now my love
but you have a very good chance
to catch my leg and turn me back
and if you don’t
it’s not my fault
when our story comes to its tearful end
or: i am not leaving in fact
oh i never do that
i’m just sniffing out a rooty soil
while walking around
what is he trying to tell me
a chubby eater
sneaked into the myth
where i prefer to see the elegant
of a flying beast?
la, la, la is structured around the changes in Lukic’s life. The first section, ‘there’, is mainly a recollection of a Serbo-Croatian past, personal and historical; the second section, ‘here’, from which ‘east row’ and ‘fallacy’ come, offers broad-brush social description of Australian life; the third and final section, ‘anywhere’, contains the book’s most ambitious writing.
Lukic’s expressionism is not trapped in a box of style: it connects with others, remakes itself. ‘anywhere’ includes poems dedicated to Australian poets that Lukic encountered when she started writing again and was once more getting poems published, both here and overseas. Joanne Burns, Margie Cronin and Laurie Duggan are dedicatees of three of the book’s most unconventional offerings. Each is a prose poem: ‘crater’ (for Cronin) begins by associating the great, passionate Chilean Pablo Neruda with “turning fourteen, rosy and tender, each monday falling in love forever”. But Lukic’s speaker provocatively asks herself/ her reader: “how could i possibly love what everyone does”:
nobody ever borrowed this tome? i will, and i will fall in love with these oddballs and dudes, a moment i turned to my side of the bed, my russian lovers were shooting themselves in the head, quiet French men, holding me like a champagne glass and sucking my tongue, gazed at the time past behind my neck…
The speaker honours her sense that she is “turning fourteen for ever”; then turns the direction of the poem towards the internet, to a “petition for a crater on mercury to be named for neruda”, and to Margie Cronin, in a display of verbal fireworks that mingles postmodern playfulness and a fiercer, perhaps more durable modernist commitment to making it new. Managing a generous homage to Margie Cronin’s own complex and versatile poetics, ‘crater’ equally makes it new and plays. The prose works for Laurie Duggan and Joanne Burns likewise engage with the ways in which these writers actually write.
It may be hard for any reader to decide whether ‘there’ or ‘anywhere’ contains the most poignant writing. The first poem in the book presents the “la, la, la” title phrase as what a young mother, walking her baby in a stroller, sings to entertain/ reassure the child in a war, while bombs drop in backyards and an unknown man is seen for the first time “coming out of wires with a bullet in his chest”.
what did i sing?
about a cloud and a bird,
a wish and a star,
la la la,
yes, nothing else
from ‘nothing else’
The book’s final poem, ‘reverse’, takes up the “la la la” phrase in the context of a pleasant but coolly disengaged encounter, lunch in a peaceful land.
when the coffee arrives after the meal
we will sigh and talk about the weather
a lovely day, we need rain
la la la
i will nod and gaze
behind your shoulder
where are you?
i am here,
licking my cream
licking my sugar
That last line sounds the note of solipsistic finality: in peacetime or war, there is no escape from the solitary confinement of self. Yet how lightly the point is made, with a flirtatiousness that mocks, even defies the rather scary recognition embodied in “where are you?”
The book’s final poems are also Lukic’s last: ‘thinking in months’ writes the aftermath of a pessimistic diagnosis.
life was like a tiny colouring book, short and sweet,
returning now to a black and white fight,
the evil cells and the good cells, a simple story
before a long sleep, the only war on terror i am in
from ‘thinking in months’
Tatjana Lukic, a poet of the inner life, but also of the ironies that attend the mind’s to-ing and fro-ing between a given world and a private view of it, has built, using English words, a testament to her life; it is spacious, generous, and as full of joy as it is of sorrow. Lukic’s distancing techniques – her multiple ways of opening a lyric poem to participation in a big, un-lyrical world – relate her to the great Central European poets of an earlier generation, to the Polish Zbigniew Herbert and the Czech Miroslav Holub; perhaps Bertolt Brecht is a common ancestor. We can regret that Lukic is gone, but rejoice that her book takes its place among some of the best cross-cultural poetry written in Australia, alongside the very different poetics of, for instance, Ali Alizadeh, Kim Cheng Boey, Ouyang Yu, Ania Walwicz and the Vietnamese-Australian Xuan Duong.