Philton reviews The Bearded Chameleon by Chris Mooney-Singh
by Chris Mooney-Singh
Reviewed by PHILTON
There are poems for the page and poems for the stage. Chris Mooney-Singh is an established live performer. His second poetry collection, The Bearded Chameleon, transposes his performative skills into poetically good reading. Mooney-Singh is a chameleon because his ‘makeup’ stems from two cultures: his native Australia and India where he has mostly lived in recent decades. He is never quite at home in either, his ‘colours’ change according to which country he’s in. His adoption of the Sikh faith, which forbids cutting hair, has him bearded. This theme is encapsulated in 40 end-rhyme couplets tightly presented with perceptive cultural observations (‘village life is one food chain’). India, exuberant and traumatic, contrasts with Mooney-Singh’s other life:
Suburbia was a dumb cartoon:
here, typhoid sweats through each monsoon;
There’s exquisite images of interaction between the newcomer and villagers:
I wet my tongue, pretend what’s best
and they are kind, pretend the rest.
An ‘internal ode’ to the poet’s fauna namesake weaves engaging snippets; the chameleon is ‘prehistoric, spiky, punk’ for whom ‘sun-bathing is the reptile’s art’. ‘Abstract Studies with Monsoon Green’ distils the adopted environment’s fecundity’:
The days of humid blindness are upon us,
the rain has left a steamy haze of green.
The mulberry limb drips into the milk pail,
green are the tears upon the chilli plants.
There’s an innovative reprint of humanity’s footstep:
I follow footprint puddles to the pump.
Mooney-Singh aims to
…learn the way of planting rice:
green thumb, invite the fingers to make friends.
Among captivating images of India there’s a night-driving view of a truck’s decorated rear: ‘Krishna and the milkmaids/ were dancing in our headlights’. ‘Indian Standard Time’ includes ‘eating pakoras and deep-fried gossip’ and ‘yesterday or tomorrow, neither too late, nor too early’ whether that be ‘in this birth or the next’. There’s arresting street-graphics:
the lifters of dead-cows,
collectors of the shit-bins,
And vivid imagery that could be from anywhere such as this forest-after-rain metaphor:
sunlight opens up its peacock tail
Personal aspects of Mooney-Singh’s journey embrace the evocative pain of witnessing his (first) wife’s death.
I was helpless, a passenger
during the final act of her breathing
that slipped beyond even its coma
as the taxi halted at the traffic light.
Aftermath is poignant:
…I lift your old cup from a suitcase
of last things you touched on earth.
I see the lipstick: two firm petal prints.
I will never clean away the kiss.
‘My Fallen’, images of deaths in Mooney-Singh’s family, innovatively commences ‘These last photos I don’t have’. Significant memories are often associated with background detail and these are captured with powerful brevity:
The strident starlings of 2001
still halo your head on soft grass.
Mooney-Singh produces striking aphorisms including ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is a clear conscience’. ‘To the Dalits’ demonstrates well-crafted rhyme is effective for invocation of traditional Indian folklore. Tradition is also invoked with the ‘ghazal’, a love song comprising couplets with an end-rhyme refrain that usually repeats the same word; Mooney-Singh diffuses the refrain’s monotony by introducing ‘unattached’ prefixes which form cross-rhyme patterns — neither end-rhyme nor internal (within-a-line) rhyme, but constructed on rhyming words appearing within different lines:
Make money, not art, says the plastic rose.
I have no nose for that stillborn rose.
Poetry got divorced from the rose,
yet the New Thing’s still a fresh-worn rose
Seventy million years of the rose:
fossils lime the time-sworn rose.
The cross-rhyme is ‘stillborn/fresh-worn’ etc. Creating effective cross-rhyme is difficult. Kipling, Hopkins and Swinburne were the only poets of whom I was aware to have crafted it well until I encountered Mooney-Singh’s ghazals; in this challenging form he rubs shoulders with the best. Innovation doesn’t always work. Coining neologisms (new words) has potential pitfalls – they can seem forced, too-clever or obscure. A neologism in ‘I Come in Winter to a City Without You’ doesn’t suffer these flaws; the now Australian-based poet and his (second) wife (temporarily in Singapore) communicate by mobile and internet, chatting in ‘glocal tongues’. ‘Glocal’ is an engaging creation: these technologies may be global but they allow for an intimacy which is effectively local. Attractive eclecticism is quirkily reflected in ‘found poems’ of Indian highway-side graffiti including ‘riotous’ examples like ‘HORN IS TO HONK/ PLEASE DO IT ON MY CURVES’.
Mooney-Singh’s India is not all traditional. A woman who dares to reject her violent husband by deserting his family’s home evocatively observes:
To move in public is no easy choice
if you wear divorce’s question-mark
upon your forehead.
With riveting figurative language she urges:
also swept beneath the family carpet.
Fight! I say…
Never shall we let them make us feel
like wedding ornaments, like nose-rings
returned dishonoured to the jeweller’s shop.
The Bearded Chameleon has a piece de resistance, ‘Another Bhagwanpur’, which opens:
A country village stuck in the buffalo mud
piles up its cow-pats, balancing clay pots
of mosquito water on the heads of women
who wear pregnancy under flimsy shawls.
The metaphorically stuck-in-mud village is personified by its ‘orchestration’ of cow-pats and women’s actions. The stereotypical heads balancing pots become thought-provoking with ‘mosquito’ water — potential drama not associated with the image. Women ‘wear’ prominent pregnancies. We learn much from skilfully packed lines:
The village council of five cannot fight
the school’s wrong sums and cane-learning;
cement walls, white-washed by government,
the young men employed by opium.
There’s doctors who ‘deal in snake-bite mantras’ and this arresting portrait:
…the last Gandhian freedom-fighter
props up old glory on a walking stick.
More transfixing language concludes this village vignette: ‘the night-long typhoid prayers to Ram.’ Sixteen lines have the reader experience a tour de force.
There are flawed moments. If information becomes a poet’s ‘driver’ the poetry usually suffers; this happens with Mooney-Singh’s portraits and some traditional-story retelling. ‘Mr Chopra’ is mostly prosaic description. ‘Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire’ and ‘Mrs Pritima Devi’ are generally similar and include unnecessary didacticism. In ‘Yogesh Meets Ganesh’ and ‘Advice From An Uncle’ storytelling dissolves the poetry. There are moments when things don’t work. ‘A Punjabi Leda and the Swan’ presents an ostensibly good metaphor between the Western myth and a man raping a woman in contemporary India, but there’s awkward passages; the mental wrestling needed to wrap one’s head around these reduces effectiveness — a forced sensibility suggesting the legend doesn’t fit the poem’s context. Sometimes poetically good ‘moments’ are undermined by additional figurations:
Saffron priests say Out!
like big sticks hunting rats
along the temple drains.
The images of saffron priests and big sticks hunting rats in drains are vivid; but the linking simile is not – verbal commands and running with sticks are dissimilar actions. The ‘common ground’ is intensity, a minimal likeness. Since the commands are projected by priests, effectiveness is further reduced; whatever the faith, clerics don’t undermine their authority with doing-the-shitwork frenetics. The collection has instances of overwriting.
I look out into the darkness for you.
Rest is the wraith
that will not let me sleep.
This image’s potential is under-realised with the superfluous ‘out’ and the prosey ‘let me’. Direct ‘ownership’ of the wraith and tighter presentation like (for example) ‘Rest is my wraith that will not sleep’ increases metaphorical impact. ‘I Come in Winter to a City Without You’ is curiously headed by this Mallarmé quotation: ‘Oh so dear from afar and nearby’. What is this quote’s purpose? True, it fits the theme – but Mooney-Singh’s poem says it much better than this (unusually) ordinary Mallarmé line; a redundant epigraph, it may imply credibility is sought through an artificial hitch to the famous. High-profile quotations can be epigraphically effective. But there’s risk that contrast with iconic lines may diminish one’s own and inclusion may appear to ‘name-drop’. If the same poem’s ‘the god of small transactions’ is an allusion to Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning Indian novel The God of Small Things, should this be acknowledged? Or is it a subliminal reference to the novel? Could it be pure coincidence? Of course the reader is never ‘party’ to writers’ thoughts. It’s suffice to say that if Mooney-Singh was aware of his line’s similarity to Roy’s title, it was advisable to not use it and rely on his own words.
There are minor irritants; an alcoholic’s problems are lessened with a cliché (‘all have raised a storm’) and curiously excessive use of colons and semi-colons. These ‘punctuations’ enhance pauses but frequent use impairs poetic flow and produces a ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect – reduced impact of their effective moments. The poem ‘Families’, mostly a prosaic list, has poetry in its rhythm, which leads to the other key feature of Mooney-Singh the poet: performance. It was informative to attend the collection’s launch. Prosey patches were enlivened, reflecting that a not insignificant proportion is ‘poems for the stage’. His performance embraced skilful light/shade vocals and effective nylon-string guitar accompaniment. The Bearded Chameleon progresses strong poetic qualities Mooney-Singh crafted in his first collection The Laughing Buddha Cab Company (2007). To gain full appreciation one should experience the performance.
PHILTON’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in Overland, Island, Quadrant, Envoi (UK) and translated into Chinese for Chung Wai Literary Monthly.