B. R. Dionysius was founding Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival. His poetry has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, newspapers and online. He is the author of six collections of poetry and won the 2009 Max Harris Poetry Award. He recently was a joint winner of the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize and will have a new book, ‘Bowra’ released in 2013. He lives in Ipswich, Queensland where he teaches English and writes sonnets.
Christmas Island Rat
We were worried about what you would bring
Into our country of nests & dark burrows, intrigues
You could only guess at. A nation of rodents brawling
All night, we encouraged high-pitched wars & rapid
Coupling, but kept those red land crabs in check.
It was the vanguard you sent ahead that finished us.
Not our black brethren who swarmed new continents
Walking planks to explore the world through a rat’s
Tunnel vision. But the other refugees they carried.
Diseases that pushed like railroads through virgin
Bloodstreams. If only you could have been processed
Offshore on some other ocean rock & kept at claws
Length in mandatory detention. Not perfect, but it
Would’ve given us time to think up a (s)pacific solution.
We came from the largest single cells ever to be thought
Into existence, larger than dinosaur eggs our shells cracked
Open your legends, your mouthwatering myths imagined us
Hauling off elephants; heavy-lift choppers, the East named
Us – Roc; who messed about with Sinbad & we probably
Were a little imposing for you standing at a little over 10ft,
Weighing in at half a tonne. Big Bird’s streetwise prototype.
Then Marco Polo, that intrepid reporter of misquoted facts
Named us Elephant Bird, now that hurt, how would he have
Liked us to call him ‘lemur-man’. Coastline huggers came next,
French too scared to pick through our deepest secrets, gave us
Pirates’ status – a lost treasure by the 16th century. Voromapatra In the Malagasy tongue – ‘marsh bird’, fitting really for we sought
The most lonely places of all; at least your imagination took flight.
Paul Kane has published five collections of poems, including A Slant of Light (Whitmore) and Work Life (Turtle Point), and is the author of Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge). He serves as poetry editor of Antipodes, artistic director of the Mildura Writers Festival, and general editor of The Braziller Series of Australian Poets. He teaches as Vassar, and divides his time between New York and rural Victoria.
~Photograph by William Clift ~
The Fire Sermon
Here in the Drowned Lands
the black dirt is the blackest
black I know—give it
time and it’s oil, to blacken
earth, air and water with fire.
In winter, without
snow cover or a crop, winds
granules under windows
and doors. That’s our peck of dirt.
a world away—are fire tough,
their carbon footprint
black trunks, seared soil, and fresh green—
the Aboriginal park.
Last year we fled floods,
this year a grass fire near Clunes—
one wind shift away.
The Fire Sermon gets into
your blood: the black days ahead.
But let’s not leave it
at that. Winter played possum,
then ambled off—now
we’re marching towards spring—Daylight
Saving all the grace we need.
The bottom fell out
and it was a long way down.
He surfaced once,
saying he was back, but then
we lost him, and now he’s gone.
You could say he killed
himself with drinking, or drink
took him out at last,
but his ex-wife’s suicide
was murder on him, poor man.
Poor woman! And now,
poor daughters to sift the ash.
I cannot shake it.
Not a close friend, but friend still
in a world growing friendless.
The circle closes,
tightening like a rope loop,
or, rather, it breaks
open, with each loss gaping,
until it’s all detritus.
That’s the view inside,
but when I walk out midday,
nothing is natural
because it’s all what it is,
soft air, clouds, wood thrush, the grass.
I could describe it,
but to what purpose? We all
live in the same world,
though world’s apart, and never
to meet—except life to life.
Exile is a powerful undercurrent in the Indian imagination. One of its defining myths, the Ramayana, tells the story of a noble prince banished from his home and spending much of his exile rescuing his wife from the clutches of the tyrannical ruler of the island of Lanka.
Despite Rama crossing a still extant land bridge to reach her – and the Ramayana spreading throughout South East Asia – Hindus were forbidden from crossing the kala pani, or black water, for fear of losing their caste. It was only starvation and desperation caused by the imposition of imperial cash crops such as cotton, jute and opium that forced many to become indentured coolies in far-flung plantations in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, South East Asia and the South Pacific, making Indians one of the world’s most widespread diasporas.
Exile and alienation also figure deeply in Australian mythology, the ‘tyranny of distance’ weighing heavily, our backs turned from the alien, hostile landscape of Frederick McCubbin’s lost white children and picnics at Hanging Rock to the sea, over the sea, overseas, to ‘old England, the beautiful’ and more recently, ‘the land of the free.’
Our alienation from our own ‘terra nullius’ have created a history full of, as Mark Twain quipped, ‘the most beautiful of lies.’ As the narrator of Michelle Cahill’s ‘A Wall of Water’ observes, ‘The past is a territory. So much of it has been excised.’ (68)
Both Australia and India – at once cradles of civilisation and new, multicultural nations – were founded not so much on inclusion as exclusion. India was born out of the trauma of Partition. The Federal Australian Parliament’s first Act was the White Australia Policy. And both countries have, by way of so-called ‘post-colonial literature,’ explored both the agony of exile and the mythology of history.
As the critic Pierre Ryckmans observed in his essay, Lies that Tell the Truth (quoting C. S. Lewis): ‘Myth is the oldest and richest form of fiction. It performs an essential function: “what myth communicates is not truth but reality; truth is always about something—reality is what truth is about.”’[i]
As Ryckmans points out, ‘truth is grasped by an imaginative leap.’ What makes us human isn’t language – animals, from bees to whales, can communicate; apes can be taught to sign. What makes us human is our imagination: to see and believe that which is not seen. When imagination succeeds, it can reveal the truth. Yet myth often arises when memory fails.
Myths abound about refugees and asylum seekers: they’re opportunists, economic migrants, queue jumpers, potential terrorists, they want to change the country, throw their children overboard, carry contagious diseases.
As Ross Gittens observed, the fear those myths engender is ‘so deeply ingrained, so visceral, that it’s not susceptible to rational argument. It would be nice if a greater effort by the media to expose the many myths surrounding attitudes towards asylum seekers could dispel the fear and resentment, but it would make little difference,’[ii] especially when neither side of politics cannot imagine any other ‘solution’ than the Pacific one, and facts and faces are lost amidst the lies, damn lies and statistics.
It seems ironic, then, to combat such rampant dishonesty and fearful mythology with fiction. But as Rosie Scott notes in her excellent foreword to this collection of ‘Tales of Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Australia and the Indian Subcontinent’:
It is the writer’s act of imagination which is the basis of all good fiction, the kind of fiction that opens new worlds
to the reader.
Asylum seekers and refugees have impacted on the popular imagination as much as they have the political debate, with the decade since the Tampa producing books and films such as Eva Sallis’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-shortlisted The Marsh Birds, Michael James Rowland’s moving film Lucky Miles, John Doyle’s acclaimed Marking Time, Nam Le’s award-winning short story collection The Boat, Anh Do’s best-selling Australian Book of the Year, The Happiest Refugee, and SBS’s successful Go Back to Where You CameFrom.
In all of these, refugees were not just presented as faceless statistics, but as real people with moving stories: even those opposed to ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’ and instrumental in formulating the Pacific Solution, such as Peter Reith, could not help but be moved when faced with real people and their often heart-breaking stories.
One hopes, too, that the stories found in Alien Shores will do the same. Many of its stories are devastating – not only for the horrific and tragic events that precipitated flight – but for the sorrow, regret and guilt that remain once immediate fear has receded: the father forced to leave his six year old daughter behind in Abdul Karim Hekmat’s sweet and sad Life Hanging in the Balance; the social worker who must live with her refusal to help in Amitav Ghosh’s eviscerating Morichjãpi; the little girl who cannot help ‘the kind man, someone else’s father from a strange land, being taken away’ in Anu Kumar’s delicate and haunting Big Fish.
Much less the guilt of the well-meaning ‘middle-class do-gooder’ like me, who, for all their ‘sense of shame at the cruel and opportunistic Liberal government’s inhumane treatment of refugees’ knows no amount of ‘waving placards’ – much less cc’ing internet petitions – will ever do much for ‘those desperate, innocent people locked up indefinitely in disgusting concentration camps in the middle of the desert.’ (Page reference)
Over the course of an entire book, this guilt could lead to the very thing Alien Shores must be seeking to avoid, if not change: compassion fatigue. As Go Back to Where You Came From showed, there is as much a limit to imagination as there is to compassion, watching those unsympathetic to refugees relating to them on a human or personal level, but continuing to justify their opposition to more humane treatment.
As the narrator of Linda Jaivin’s tender and hopeful Karim says, ‘I haven’t been able to cope with other people’s misery. It’s like I’m full up, there’s not room for one drop more. It’s also like I’ve become porous: it’s as if I let down my defences and opened myself up even a bit, all the sorrow in the world would come flowing in. I got good at fortifying my boundaries.’
I wondered—just as I did watching Go Back to Where You Came From—what reading Alien Shores will do to change closed minds and move hard hearts, when it’s unlikely the people who really need to read this book will? After all, although Go Back to Where You Came From’s viewing figures were the highest in SBS history, the X Factor had double the audience on the same nights.
And that indifference and resistance is as exacerbated by depictions of refugees as pitifully passive tragic victims as the demonization of them by right wing politicians and shock jocks. One wonders if Anh Do’s success is because the ‘happiest refugee’ leavens his suffering with hope and gratitude, as much as infusing his story with greater agency than flight.
Indeed, where Alien Shores especially succeeds is in offering, through often rich, evocative and sometimes visceral writing—as in Deepa Agarwal’s gripping The Path (which at first could describe any flight from danger, only small but telling details revealing that refugees have existed as long as war has), or Joginder Paul’s horrifying Dera Baba Nanak—not just new perspectives beyond those stereotypes, but within us.
Many stories from both countries feature middle-class protagonists or narrators, which work effectively at shaking the very middle class complacency many of us are guilty of, including Sujata Sankrati’s involving and moving No Name, No Address,Meenakshi Bharat’s The Lost Kingdom, Tabish Khair’s A State of Niceness, and especially Ali Alizadeh’s confronting and shattering The Ogre.
In this regard, the collection’s stand out story is co-editor Sharon Rundle’s excellent Ariel’s Song, which makes refugees of ordinary Australians, giving them the same hopelessness and impossible choices. The story offers, in the way only good fiction can, the imaginative empathy that comes with connection and compassion: of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feeling what it must really be like for them, especially when the ‘they’ are us.
The queue grows longer every morning. By the time our water container is filled I’ve at least sweated away half that much fluid. Somewhere down the line Bill repeats the same story he tells every day: I had a ute and a boat and a business—a big house—all gone—gone—all gone. (107)
The subtitle suggests a thematic connection between Australia and India, featuring subcontinental asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma. Unfortunately this makes the very good stories from China, Indochina and East Timor seem incongruous, and made me wonder: what about African refugee stories, such as Majok Tulba’s? Or South American? Or Balkan?
Still, what they do reveal is the way the lines between one region and another are continually blurred, the way countries are connected by tides of movement in a globalised age in which multinational corporations and transnational terrorists have rendered borders obsolete as much as hybridised identities like mine have dissolved national ones – a point made violently in Jamil Ahmad’s The Sins of the Mother, in which nomads are caught between ancient traditions and modern laws, ‘the lines of demarcation… confusing to all.’ Much like the increasingly bleeding boundaries between personal and political, truth and fiction, history and myth.
The waves of suffering crashing upon our shores, the tide of sorrow set adrift on excised territories, the razor wire rolled out around ‘unAustralians’ are disheartening, but for all the noise of political ‘debate’ and media commentary, the power of literature, as Scott points out, ‘to move people [and] allow us to see into one another’s hearts, to foster compassion and understanding and inspire political action works in a way that almost nothing else does,’ remains long after everything else has been washed away.
[i] P Ryckmans (writing as Simon Leys), ‘Lies that tell the truth,’ The Monthly
[ii] R Gittens, ‘Crack in the wall of xenophobia,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 23 February 2012
Global India and the Dialectic of the Ornament / Excrement:
“Light on exoticism, heavy on reality” and “India for Indians, not India for/in the West”. It is in those terms that Uday Prakash was introduced to the audience at a talk session I attended at the last Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2012. Translated from Hindi, The Walls of Delhi is a collection of short stories speaking directly from the Indian subcontinent with a rawness that can easily be conflated with a desire for the “authentic.” Yet Prakash is not Spivak’s “native informant”, more like Edward Said’s conception of the intellectual/writer ‘speaking the truth to power.’[i] In India, Prakash has been a controversial – at times persecuted – writer for daring to challenge the caste system and those he calls “power centres”. Although Prakash has resided most of his life in India, he considers himself a diasporic, since for him, ‘all Indian writing is writing in exile because of repression.’
The collection depicts ‘a different kind of globalisation, one so stealthy and so secret that not a single sociologist in the whole wide world knows a thing about it.’ (11) This secret world alludes to Indian elites, their corruption and lies, including the literary establishment: ‘These people are no longer like you or me – they’ve helped turn each other into name brands. […] If you poke the head of your broom into contemporary literature, you’ll find a hollow wall stuffed full of money – impure, dirty money.’ (38) It also refers to those “untouchables” – that ‘great mass of broken, maimed, crippled, halfway-human beings, like characters from a Fellini or Antionioni film.’ (10) These two constituencies rarely meet, kept hidden from view under the guise of economic prosperity brought upon by the globalisation we hear in the media.
The Walls of Delhi tells the story of Ramnivas, a sanitation worker living on the city fringes who discovers a cache of cash in a wall. Overnight, Ramnivas becomes a “slumdog millionaire”, but unlike Danny Boyle’s movie, Prakash resists a happy ending, knowing ‘the other ways you read about in the papers, and see on TV, are rumours and lies, nothing more.’ (40) Mohandas won Prakash many fans (and enemies) across India, and is perhaps the most poignant story in the collection. Mohandas (in reference to Gandhi) is from a low caste and the first of his kind to obtain a BA. Despite his qualifications, he is condemned to a life of misery because he neither has connections nor money. His fate echoes Surin’s lament in Mangosil, struck by a “mysterious” disease making his head and brain grow disproportionately: ‘Those who are more well-educated inevitably work as underlings or servants for those less well-educated. […] The most powerful, richest, and best-off people in the world are always less well-educated.’ (198)
We are told ‘all this was happening at exactly the same time as when the ‘India Shines’ campaign was in full force [while] seven hundred million didn’t have a place to wash, bathe, piss, or shit.’ (103) Globalisation had ‘transformed India’s big cities into little Americas, while putting people who lived in the same country into the poorhouse […] and creating countless Ethiopas, Ghanas and Rwandas.’ (107) In a land of contrast and contradiction, sounding like the blurb on a tourist brochure until reality kicks in, this is ‘what Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Bombay look like from way up in the sky compared to the rest of India: incongruous tokens of priceless, shining marble stuck in the mire and mud of the subcontinent’s swamp of chilling poverty.’ (142) In such a phantasmagorical land where glitter and gutter coexist, it seems logical that ‘Prakash has broken from a strict model of social realism that dominated Hindi fiction for much of the twentieth-century.’ (225) However, Prakash is not Salman Rushdie, and although abnormal phenomena occur, these are never left unexplained in the way magical realism does.
If in The Walls of Delhi, slum-dwellers keep disappearing from this city of ‘wealth and wizardry,’ (8) concrete reasons abound, including poverty, disease, internal displacement, and the simple fact that Ramnivas does not count in the eyes of policymakers. After his academic transcripts, including his very identity, is being stolen following a job interview at a coal mines, Mohandas starts wondering whether ‘all the people who had good jobs and held high positions and ran around in automobiles and caroused [were] who they really claimed to be.’ (95) Again, the culprits are well known, coming from ‘criminal, illegal connections and back-door deals, nepotism and nefariousness, bribes and rewards.’ (53) With a wink to Midnight Children, Surin’s disease in Mangosil turns out to be a result of poverty (198) and the heavy knowledge of social injustice (217), as we learn children around the world ‘have been falling victim to an illness for the past several years that causes the head to grow significantly faster than the rest of the body. […] The brains of these children were several times bigger than normal for their biological age.’ (217) They are from poor families, becoming adult before their time, and in their eyes is reflected a world turned upside-down where ‘they [the rich] eat so much they can’t lose weight [while] one kid dies from eating fish caught from the sewer.’ (17)
Beyond “ornamental fantasy,” Prakash like Marx before exposes ‘the major contradiction opposing the increasing pauperization of the workers and the remarkable wealth whose arrival in the modern world is celebrated by political economy.’[ii] As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues, ornamentation is ‘that which is not internal or intrinsic, as an integral part, to the total representation of the object but which belongs to it only in an extrinsic way as a surplus, an addition, an adjunct, a supplement.’[iii] Decorative in purpose, an ornament reveals as much as it masks a fundamental imbalance in an object, since ‘it is this visual absence of order that makes the inessential excess of ornament necessary.’[iv] Beyond the Orientalist glamour of Bollywood and superficial talks of India rising, Prakash unveils something fundamentally rotten in the state of India, to paraphrase Shakespeare.
As Derrida wrote in ‘La Parole Soufflée’ (stolen speech), ‘Defecation, the “daily separation with the faeces, precious parts of the body” (Freud), is, as birth, as my birth, the initial theft which simultaneously depreciates me and soils me.’[v] In opposition to the ornamental, Prakash writes (in) the “excremental” mode, not an addition to, but a separation from, the body in which the roughness of life in India – especially for women – is laid bare:
As she sat groaning and washing off her blood and the spit and semen of the contractor, inspector, and Ramakant, she had the feeling that at four in the morning she had been ogled by the eyes of many men in the darkness from across the bylane. Bloodletting, blood-soaked, bestial violence: these people stayed up all night to watch this? Not a wink of sleep, smelling the shit from the sewage all night long? This was their idea of fun? (149)
Here, we may refute that the excremental is a decorative, inessential adjunct, in that it draws from our basest instincts and a morbid fascination for others’ misery, as in the case of those voyeurs, so that ‘it is precisely these ‘everyday details’ that render Asian Australian texts exotic and ornamental.’[vi] To revert to Boyle’s movie, a liking for the excremental (in the opening scene, Jamal must dive into a pool of feces to get an autograph from his movie star) can be associated with a liking for sensationalism in the mode of ornamental fantasy. Boyle was criticised, precisely so, for making money out of, and romanticising, the misery of others.
What distinguishes Prakash is that his is a realistic portrayal, leaving no room for add-on elements, be they aesthetically pleasing or repulsing. His “excrements” respond to the internal logic of the text, where there is no escape – only temporary relief. Prakash never romanticises bohemia when his narrator declares: ‘Maybe every writer’s fate is to live on the street, in the gutter.’ (162) In the manner of a Jack London in his autobiographical account of the East End slums of London in The People of the Abyss, Prakash’s underworld remains fundamentally untranslatable: ‘When I tried explaining my troubles to Delhi’s influential writers and thinkers, I felt as if I were a snail that had surfaced to the world above, telling the divine bipeds patting their fat bellies about his wild, weird, othercaste experiences from his home at the bottom of the sea.’ (163)
Prakash’s characters evoke how the ghostly operations of capital through which part of a worker’s wage is extracted (excremented) to be then reinvested (ornamented) in the form of surplus value leaves no trace – is invisible – capitalism’s best kept ‘secret’[vii]. The Walls of Delhi thus starts with this epigraph, sounding a warning against the power of mystification: ‘This story’s really just a front for the secret I want to tell you – a secret hidden behind the story.’ (2) Strictly speaking, the money found by Ramnivas in a cache is stolen money – that is, money that should be duly his, just as Mohandas’ identity is stolen, or that each of Shobba’s children die in Mangosil, as many stolen lives sacrificed on the altar of modernity. Yet someone like Ramnivas ‘simply doesn’t exist anywhere – no trace is left,’ (33) since ‘newspapers’ raison d’être is to hide that news, to edit everything that they suffer.’ (8) Prakash’s characters are ‘like the tears of an ill-fated fakir, leaving only the tiniest trace of moisture on the ground after he’s got up and gone. The damp spot on the ground from his spit and silent tears serves as protest against the injustice of his time.’ (8)
In her last book, Gayatri Spivak has located subalternity in the excremental – where barely a trace remains – so that in the sewage of being, no “sewing” back of agency is possible. She quotes Derrida: ‘The essence of the rose is its non-essence: its odor insofar as it evaporates. Whence its effluvial affinity with the fart or the belch: these excrements do no stay, do not even take form.’[viii] As she asks:
How can ontology – the philosophy of being – lay hold of a fart? […] The ontic as fart or belch, the signature of the subject at ease with itself decentered from the mind to the body that writes its inscription […] is also the embarrassment offered by the subaltern victim in the flesh. […] This singularity blows gas in the face of political mobilization and fundamental ontology alike.[ix]
Enter the bowels of globalisation from below, where ‘everyday, one of these new arrivals would suddenly disappear, never to be seen again [into] the round building with a dome right beside the industrial drainage: a crumbling, dark-red brick ruin, with old worn stones.’ (5) Meet Mohandas, that roaming ghost, dispossessed of his livelihood and crushed by a corrupt caste system for trying to improve his status. Hear him now beg for an end to his very existence: ‘Please find a way to get me out of this. I am ready to go to any court and swear that I am not Mohandas.’ (129)
Enter globalisation from above, a world of ‘unccounted money, untraceable money – dirty money.’ (36) Meet those ‘engineers of the empire of money [who] send out the bulldozers – they fan out, non-stop, until even a dirty sprawl of shacks is transformed into a Metro Rail, a flyover, a shopping mall, a dam, a quarry, a factory, or a five-star hotel. And when it happens, lives like Chandrakant Thorat’s are gone for good.’ (136) Finally, do not think this is only happening out there, in a mythical third world of bygones onto which to supplement your deepest fears and desires. No ornament here either; only parasites: ‘There’s no such thing as the Third World. There are only two worlds, and both of them exist everywhere. In one live those who create injustice, and all the rest, the ones who have to put up with injustice, live in the other.’ (206)
[i] Said, Edward. ‘Speaking the Truth to Power’. Representations of the Intellectual, Vintage Books, New York, 1994.
[ii] Althusser, Louis. For Marx, London/New York, Verso, 2005, p. 121.
[iii] Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/
London, 1982, p. 57. Quoted in: Khoo, Olivia. ‘Whiteness and The Australian Fiancé: Framing the Ornamental Text in Australia’, Hecate, 27 (2), 2001.
[iv] Wigley, Mark. ‘Untitled: The Housing of Gender’. In: Sexuality and Space (Beatriz Colomina ed.), Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1992, p. 376. (Quoted in Khoo, op.cit.)
[v] Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, Routledge, London/New York, 1978, p. 30.
[vii] ‘The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers […] reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure.’ Marx, Karl. Capital (Vol III), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1959, p. 772.
[viii] Derrida, Jacques. Glas, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1986, pp. 58-9.
[ix] Spivak, Gayatri. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 174-5.
Patrick Holland’s second novel The Darkest Little Room is a pursuit, as its title suggests, of terminal, secretive spaces. Joseph, or Joe, is a 33-year-old Australian journalist living in Saigon. On the side he employs Minh Quy, an ex policeman, at fifteen percent of his own wage to help him collect compromising evidence on prominent Vietnamese political and business leaders. He also employs a young boy that he rescued from homelessness and now calls, appropriately, Peter Pan, to keep a look out for a beautiful girl with unusual hazel-coloured eyes that Joe had once met and fallen in love with in the far north of Vietnam. When a German businessman, Hönicke, seeks Joseph out with a story about his encounter with a flogged and bleeding young woman, what seems a routine pursuit of journalist copy turns into an anxious and very personal quest.
The Darkest Little Room is replete with sensitively drawn imagery. Particularly resonant are the descriptions of the marginal places in Saigon: alleys, bridges; the rat-infested edges of the city. There is humour too, some wonderful exchanges, such as this one between Quy and Joe:
‘How well do you like being alive?’
‘I have nothing to compare it to.’ (48)
Early on in the novel, the narrator, Joe, takes pleasure in observing that ‘[a] woman was committing karaoke in a room down the alley.’ (20) Despite this perhaps too cute remark, there is little of the clamour of minor commerce or popular music in The Darkest Little Room. We learn about the haunts and players of Vietnamese jazz. Joe himself listens to Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate as he resigns himself to his beloved’s heroin habit, and begins to wonder whether it wasn’t he who had abused and shackled her (107); his wealthy friend Zhuan Li listens to Górecki’s Misere as he prepares himself for an inevitable and violent death. (246) Such musical references contribute to the charged, muted colours of the novel, as well as its long aching trajectory. They also stir, somewhat, the difficulties at its centre.
Redemption is a key motif in the narratives of both Joseph and Zhuan. Zhuan, we learn, has been driven by his memories of standing helpless as his father beat his mother when Zhuan was a child – or as he puts it, when ‘[he] stood by and did nothing’. (240) By protecting and loving Thuy he seeks to make good what he had supposedly failed to do as a young boy. For Joseph, the notion of redemption seems to be connected to his decision not to give money in advance to the mother and uncle of the girl he had fallen in love with – an omission which he later links to their vulnerability to the sex slave traders who came around scouting after a flood. In an attempt, it seems, to atone for this scruple and its apparent consequences, Joe pursues his beloved’s kidnappers north into Vietnam’s heart of darkness where the ‘evil’ underlying this trade cannot be not traced, as he had expected, to one or two corrupt individuals, but flourishes everywhere and nowhere; everyone in this border territory is complicit; no one is ultimately at fault.
The narrator might appear to be harsh on himself. He regularly reports the way Quy and Zhuan describe him as an ignorant fool. His motives for his sideline work with Quy are both venal and trivial, although he is allowed a moment of sentimental decency when confronted with the love of an arms manufacturer for a politician’s wife near the beginning of the book. Our last sense of the narrator, however, for all this apparent weakness and the very brief moment of moral scruple while listening to Pärt, is Zhuan’s description of him as the ‘only decent foreigner [he’s] ever met’. (237) Joe is a sentimental fool, but a decent fool, the narrative implies. He is a man in love. Nevertheless, the story eventually makes clear that it is not the actual individual identity of the beloved that is most important, but her role as an abused, vulnerable, bleeding, worldless and also seemingly physically rare individual young woman. The narrator is aware of this peculiar and troubling aspect of his attraction to her, but somehow his romantic moral quest to get to the node of the slave trading business and, of course, to rescue his girl, takes all of his focus – to the very last page. There is no other perspective. The final image of the book, the dream, is perhaps the most disconcerting of the entire novel as it suggests that in supposedly accessing his heart of darkness, his innermost obscure and claustrophobic space, the narrator – this everyman with his flawed but sentimental aims – might so easily be able to cut the bonds and break the chains that hold the wounded and vulnerable to their fate – and so by extension his own troubling attraction to the erotically damaged. I suspect this final image has only been added to give hope to what otherwise might have seemed a scouring vision. How many fine narratives have been marred by that one hastily formed gesture that might only have been included to assure some carping reader that all is not bleak in this world? Patrick Holland, of course, is not at all unique in succumbing to such a reader.
The narrative seems fully aware of its own potential pitfalls. Early on in the novel, Joe dismisses the kinds of books that are ‘written by middle-class men and women who make safe dreams about poverty from a far far distance’. (23) Later he tells Zhuan about the way his reading public:
only ever get those wistful cri de coeur stories correspondents write, about how pretty the girls are and how sad it all is, so the readers can click their tongues and shake their heads at breakfast and the women go away and donate a few dollars to a Christian charity and the men secretly wonder how they might justify a business trip. I want to write something that shakes the seats of powerful men. (86)
Certainly The Darkest Little Room is not a story that is told from ‘far far away’. The narrator uses an intimate, knowledgeable tone with the reader. He tells us all we might need to know, from how best to get rid of an unwanted acquaintance and how useful it can be to appear drunk, to the widespread problem of carjackings in Vietnam. He also works as our interpreter and, unlike one who negotiates off-stage, allows the Vietnamese language to pattern his pages. And yet, we may ask, is there really any significant difference between this book that we are reading and one of those ‘wistful cri de coeur stories’? While there is an abundance of seemingly gritty detail and cold-eyed revelations about crime and dirt and desperate want, the narrative allows Zhuan and Joe to believe in their emotive attempts at redemption to the very last. It is for this reason that I find it hard to believe that a certain kind of reader might not, soon after finishing the final page, start looking up the cost of flights to Saigon, to this wounded darkness whose allure the small clear-water eddying around the problems of ignorance and sentimentality somehow fail to dispel.
My only other reservations about the book are completely minor. The first is pure accounting. While there is a moment in the journey to the north when Joe worries that he will run out of money and Quy decides to return home, the reader continues to count the specified amounts that Joe hands out to nearly everyone he meets as he pursues his beloved beyond the border into China. It seems to have been several weeks since Joe has done a paid piece of journalism and there is no evidence in the novel that his and Quy’s plan to bribe officials – ‘this other way we made money’ – has ever been set into motion, despite the certainty of that verb ‘made’. (9) The second relates to the way Joe’s slashed chest and busted ribs cease to trouble him after Thuy is kidnapped; François cannot be that much of a miracle healer. There are, too, sadly, numerous proofing errors: mostly omissions of punctuation, although on one page an entire sentence is repeated.
Despite these caveats, on the whole The Darkest Little Room is a well-constructed piece of fiction. The plot is expertly handled and the prose is spare and sensitively worked. As a thriller, too, it is an entirely successful book. If the murky strands of masculine desire had been examined with the same rigour as the morally confused exigencies of poverty, or at least not so suggestively severed, The Darkest Little Room would have been a very powerful book indeed.
Of the biographies of poets, it is that of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) which continues to perplex and confound. Why is it that someone so gifted should abandon poetry at the age of twenty-one for the life of a trader, filling his head with accounting ledgers rather than visionary poetry? Why did he, in 1876, enlist in the Royal Netherlands Army, taking an arduous journey to Java, only to remain there for a few short weeks before returning to France, most probably, though not conclusively, on the vessel The Wandering Chief ? Jamie James, novelist and critic and resident in Indonesia, turns his attention to those few short weeks. In his exquisitely written and presented little book Rimbaud in Java, James invites us to explore the very nature of poetic consciousness through the writings and journeys of this poet of the modern. He has succeeded in taking the reader on a journey by Rimbaud’s side, from the poet’s early days at school in Charleville in France, to his desultory wanderings in Europe, to his love affair with poet Paul Verlaine, and finally to the possible trajectories for his brief journey through Java. The book concludes with an enthralling account of the pervasive influence of Orientalist imagery on the art and literature of France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while at the same time connecting it with Rimbaud’s exposure to that current of thought.
In all its dizzying brilliance, it is the great work and the giving up of it which entrances us. How would Rimbaud be viewed say, if he had died at twenty-one, a poet of youthful masterpieces, a poet whose life was tragically cut short? In such a case the response would be overwhelmingly elegiac. It is the giving up, these journeys-trajectories without art which alarm, fascinate and compel us to hazard an answer. As James demonstrates, there is a sense that the trading, the journeys have become for Rimbaud’s readers part of the work, part of the way we perceive it. A trader in Abyssinia, a fugitive in the wilds of Java, are they not unwritten Illuminations in which we search for the touch of the pen on the paper, for the hand dictating the invisible words? We are drawn into the character of an artist who appears both impetuous and strong-willed, mercurial and knowing, and in regard to his legacy, the creator of a poetic persona both indifferent and calculating. As James so eloquently puts it:
The aesthetic, political and psychological reasons are much more rewarding to the imagination [than his status as a fugitive] …Rimbaud was already on his way toward a mythic identity as a protean hero, capable of becoming whatever one wanted him to be. The glamour that has attached itself to Rimbaud’s odyssey-in-reverse, the reason some people care so passionately about reconstructing the itinerary of his ceaseless efforts to escape from home, partakes of the magnetic attraction of his poetry (67).
Jamie James originally conceived the project about Rimbaud’s missing weeks in Java, of which no convincing explanation has been established, as a novel, as an account of his lost voyage, but the number of directions in which the narrative could run ‘saw disaster lurking’:
Above all it was the prospect of writing dialogue for Arthur Rimbaud that terrified me: he probably ordered a cup of coffee like anyone else, but who knows? Perhaps he made ordering coffee an interesting little event. Every previous attempt to put words in that pretty little mouth that I was aware of had ended in unintentional burlesque … (75)
On taking a ‘Rimbaud pilgrimage’ through Java some years ago, James writes that he could ‘do little more than tread in the Master’s known footsteps to the vanishing point’ (75). In his journey from Batavia to Semerang and to Salatiga, site of the army barracks where Rimbaud was billeted, the author found that, ‘The decommissioned train station in Tuntang [from where Rimbaud would have continued by foot to Salatiga] was the only place I sensed Rimbaud at my side’ (77). James delicately guides the reader through Java, from Batavia’s old port district of the still-extant Sunda Kelapa, to the capital’s colonial streets, to the compellingly rich landscapes of rural Java – those of Rimbaud’s ‘peppery and water-soaked lands’ (54) of ‘Democracy’ in Illuminations. He evocatively presents a ‘scorching two-hour march’ from Tuntang to Salatiga, with a glimpse of what Rimbaud would have seen, ‘The soldiers passed through terraced rice-fields, swampy lakes where carp were farmed, and small settlements of bamboo houses in the forest, sited beside the creeks that crisscrossed the dense jungle’ (54). A fortnight after that march, Rimbaud had disappeared, leaving his military uniform behind, probably wearing ‘a flannel vest and white trousers, standard colonial mufti’ (54).
It is at this point in the narrative that we reach the unknown, moving from that which can be faithfully portrayed, to a return to a deeper engagement with the enigma of the poet, and his protean consciousness, as he disappears from view. The only known account of these missing weeks is by his first biographer, brother-in-law Paterne Berrichon, who had noted that Rimbaud’s gaze ‘remained fixed with obstinacy on the Orient’(39). In a tale which James amusingly characterises as Rousseau-like, Berrichon claiming that Rimbaud ‘had to conceal himself in the redoubtable virgin forest, where orang-utans still thrive. They taught him how to live undercover, to survive the attacks of the tiger and the tricks of the boa’ (29). The misplaced orang-utan and boa pale beside the reality of what, as James points out, any reader of the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace would know, of the tropical jungle crawling ‘with tigers and rhinoceros, monitor lizards and crocodiles, pythons and kraits’ (70). As for Berrichon’s fable, would it be possible to imagine Rimbaud telling a gullible confidant this story? Could we add the helpful orang-utan to an imagined unwritten text?
Did Rimbaud plan his escape during that fortnight domiciled in the barracks, concealing himself near a port before embarkation back to Europe? Was it the sheer reality of what confronted him in colonial Java, of what he had previously captured in A Season in Hell: ‘The white men are coming. Now we must submit to baptism, wearing clothes, and work’ (69) that compelled him to up and leave? Did he travel to Darwin? Did he visit opium dens, encounter monks at spiritual retreats, trajectories acting as a coda to what had been written, to what would no longer be written? Rimbaud in Java concludes with a lively survey of the Orientalist imagination in France, covering the bizarre fantasies of writers such as Eugene Sue and his improbable Oriental prince, Djalma, the centrality of the East in the art of the Romantics and its importance to the Parnassian poets (of immediate connection to Rimbaud) such as Leconte de Lisle. Baudelaire’s aborted voyage to Calcutta is amusingly recounted, as is the Javanese painter Raden Saleh’s depiction in a letter to a friend of Paris as an exotic paradise, ‘Paris is a garden at the centre of the universe, full of fragrant and delicious flowers and fruits…’ (113). A text previously unknown to this writer is mentioned, Balzac’s imaginary My Journey from Paris to Java (106).
Throughout his book Jamie James has included quotations from Rimbaud’s poetry ‘at every plausible occasion’ (12). He is right to have done so, as his translations are excellent, comparing favourably with John Ashbery’s recent Norton translation of Illuminations (2011). Rimbaud is depicted with much love and respect, as well as with delight in the way the poet has left his readers with the enigma of his disappearance. In this indispensable book, Rimbaud in Java leaves us to consider the tantalising question: did Java in fact represent the very image of the hallucinatory which Rimbaud had determined to leave behind forever?
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge 2009) reprinted in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012)
Arcadia: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011, 317p
Reviewed by VRASIDIS KARALIS
Almost twenty five years after the last anthology of Greek Australian Poetry, Nick Trakakis’ recent publication comes to cover a considerable gap in the bibliography and at the same time in our understanding of how “Greek-Australian” poetry has evolved in a quarter of a century. Trakakis’ book is an impressive selection from young and not so young poets who either celebrate their origins or seem puzzled by their hyphenated identity. Trakakis stresses that “as editor, I was not in search for a Greek-Australian poetry (whatever that is) but only for poems by Greek-Australians” (p. xv). The statement itself shows the scope and the perspective of the volume.
Thirty five poets are selected—most of them writing in English. In the previous generation the poems of S.S. Charkianakis, all written in Greek, not only celebrated the existential euphoria of being Greek in the Antipodes but in his best work, the Delirium of the South (1988) for example, Charkianakis encapsulated the new frisson with which the Australian experience had infused Greek language. The poetry of Dimitris Tsaloumas on the other hand with its border-crossing bilingualism established the poetics of hybridity that we see now permeating the new poets in this book. Most of the poets in this collection seem to be the children of these two founding fathers.
The subtitle ‘second generation Greek-Australian” is another decisive marker in order to understand the scope of the anthology. Trakakis notes that the most common experience in second-generation, “or perhaps malady”, is an intensified dichotomy about belonging; this feeling framed the “dual nature of the second-generation” as he mentions and gave the title to the book: “born and nurtured under southern skies, we nonetheless gravitate towards the light of the Aegean” (p. xvii).
The reader of the poems is indeed impressed by the diverse tonalities in their poetic voice, the polymorphous linguistic experiences, indeed the completely new poetic abode expressed now in English. It seems that this generation, fully educated and formed in Australia, finds fearlessly and passionately its poetic home in the language of Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray and Judith Wright. They feel so much at home in their language as mush so as to take liberties with its potentialities, to recreate its rhythmic patterns, and to reinvent its musical patterns.
I feel that most poems maintain a strong sense of orality: the poems of George Alexander, George Athanasiou, Phillip Constan, Katerina Cosgrove, Komninos Zervos and Angela Costi are texts to be read aloud, indeed to be dramatised. A very strong performative element permeates their language, asking for its musical orchestration and corporeal expression. In other occasions, the poems are heavy with references, puns and experiments indicating a complex and somehow tense relationship with linguistic articulation. Anna Cuani’s poems for example frame almost a tragic vision of an adventurous transculturality. Peter Lyssiotis’ elliptical verses also frame an innovative relationship with English based on nuances, silences and omissions.
The same but from another perspective can be said about Tom Petsinis’ work: his poems articulate a profound existential vision about human experience that transcends national designations: “It’s time, leave your solitary work, /stop tapping syllables on your forehead./ Remember, the letter conceals,/ and images are worthless forgeries of God.” (p. 253) M.G. Michael’s poems also come from another way of being: their epigrammatic and semantically charged verses construct a new gaze over human homelessness through the perspective of eternity: “he was marooned/ on a large white tear/ sinking fast–/ all the while praying /for a passing/ isle of driftwood” (p. 231). Nick Trakakis’ poems meanwhile verbalise the shivering of human mind in front of the mysterium fascinans—the mystery of awe-inspiring otherness: “Do relationships ever die/ or do they merely fade to grey/ losing their colour/ their vibrant glow and fervor/ refusing nevertheless to let go/ hanging on to the last breath/ waiting in half-lit subterranean caverns/ completely hidden from passers-by/ venturing every so often/ to emerge unexpectedly/ shockingly/ in that verb you inflected in a way you didn’t recognise/ in that feeling of remorse that was never yours/ in that truthful answer you would never have given/ in the morning smile that doesn’t belong to you.” (p. 288). Also poems by Georgina Crysantopoulos, Melissa Petrakis, Rachael Petridis Chrisoula Simos, Helena Spyrou, Vassili Stavropoulos, Vicky Tsakonas and Panayiota Vertkas express in diverse ways and from different perspectives the liberating feeling of being at home within the English language. The feeling is extremely poignant, as Rachael Petridis writes: “Family is language” (p.244)—or maybe the other way around?
We must also point out the harmonic architecture of Tina Giannoukos’ Sonnets, the traumatised sensibility in Andrea Dimitriou’s verses, the agonistic assertiveness in Koraly Dimitriadis’ poems and the emotional density in Konstandina Dounis’ words. They all show that the old sentimental plethorism characteristic of first generation writers has been replaced by a balanced command of language, a symmetrical expression of feeling and the sense of a strong personal presence that cannot be refuted or overlooked. In Dounis’ poems, beyond the theme itself, the reader can feel the most central element of Greek poetics: the exploration of the phenomenality of light: “the sound of the dice/ falling rhythmically/ onto the marble board/ tempting strawberries/ languishing voluptuously / in porcelain bowl/ northern haze/ enveloping partial view/ through concrete mantle/ golden walls framing / fateful players/ within their iridescent glow.” (p. 110). And if a generalisation could be made about such a diversity of voices and poetics, the exploration of the enchantment with luminosity intertwined with the poets’ entanglement in the labyrinth of contemporary ambiguities expresses the central axis of most works included in this anthology.
Other poets experience a profound nostalgia for a long-long past not necessarily in Greece; the dream-like photographs of Evelyn Dounis-Hambros and the anger in Luka Haralambou’s words express the wide range of emotional re-enactment of those painful memories. Zeni Giles’ tranquil meditation on death and Luka Haralambou’s poetic revisionism of history frame an interesting polarity between generations and idiosyncracies. Nicholas Kyriacos’ sensitive depiction of ephemerality and Adam Hatzimanolis’ hamletian soliloquies also express creative experiments with language whereas Efi Haztimanolis’ serene subtlety frames a profoundly private vision of being.
Special cases amongst the poets anthologised are Dean Kalimniou and Christos Galiotos. Kalumniou’s writes in Greek and his minimalistc versification stretches language to its limits; it seems that his verses are confronting the ineffable and struggle to frame something that language evades and hides. Galiotos’ poems in both languages indicate the dichotomy of the poet expressing feelings of been “Greek” through English words. As Komninos Zervos put it in 1990: “nobody calls me a wog anymore/ i’m respected as an australian / an australian writer/ a poet.” (p. 304) Nevertheless several years later he will revisit the question: “look! up in the sky. / it’s a bird. it’s a plane./ no…it’s SUPERWOG […] “…who/ disguised as con pappas,/ mild mannered fish monger at a great metropolitan shipping complex/ fights a never ending battle against macdonalds,/ Kentucky fry chicken, and the american take away.” (p. 312) Obviously the transition from the simple to the super must have marked the real difference in poetic identity over the last thirty years.
By all means not all poems are of the same quality—but it seems that there is a distinct progress from the endless quantities of poems written in the previous decades. The works included in this anthology are primarily works of poetry and secondarily hyphenated/Greek-Australian literature. First of all they are pure poems and only afterwards poems belonging to a specific tradition or forming a special group. Consequently they all frame not only the profound emotion of self-recognition and self-assertiveness but at the same time impose upon their readers the ethics of transpersonal acceptance beyond dominant perceptions of difference and alterity. Indeed a distinct aspect of these works is their elemental similarity with parallel cases in the dominant Australian literature—a similarity, with Italian or Polish Australians for example, that needs to be explored and analysed; only then we will be able to realise that these poets are Greek-Australian poets indeed but their genuine space can be found within the heterogeneous tradition of Australian literature, as long as we still accept national literature as a valid conceptual framework.
Furthermore, the main characteristic of the anthology is that it is consisted of poems written after reflection and meditation. They are not any more characterised by the artless spontaneity of most works written in the sixties and seventies; they are not elegies to a lost village or a distant motherland, heavily idealised and mostly expressed through the nostalgia of loss and the trauma of displacement. Most poets look around their immediate environment: they experience the urban and rural landscape of Australia as their personal existential reality. The Aegean light is an internalised force: it illumines their gaze as they search around their neighbourhood and throughout their very intimate habitat. There is a strange absence of sensuality indeed of sexuality in most verses (the presence of which characterises the best poetry in Greece of the previous century). What most poets have adopted from Greek poetic culture is a sense of history; through such historicism they define themselves and their sensibility. Religion is also strong, not so much as spirituality but as an offspring of the Orthodox liturgical tradition, mainly to be precise as ritual language and less as spiritual quest. We must also stress the absence of the tragic as an existential dimension in the poems: emotional lyricism is probably the real poetic space where they emerge from. Judith Rodriguez in her insightful preface notes that: “Greek-Australian poets engage the huge problem: where is home, if the entire world is accessible? How do we know it, become its people and find and keep the traditions of leave-taking and home-coming?” (p. xii).
Indeed that’s the ultimate dilemma for the poets in this anthology: not only where they belong but where they are and experience themselves. Most of them struggle to attune themselves to the tension they feel as they stand at the intersection between collective space and personal temporality. The poems precisely frame the new poetic gaze over the self and the world as it is formed during a transition from a monocultural tradition to the polycentric openness of contemporary postmodernity. The poets recreate the extremely polymorphous osmosis in which the Greek experience is manifested as a distinct dimension of English; or indeed their personal appropriation of English through the sensibility of their origin. Probably we need a new conceptualisation of literature not only based on language in order to be able to appreciate the contribution of these poets to the renewal and the reinvigoration of Australian poetic experience.
This elegant, well-designed and beautiful publication establishes a new problematic about poetic language, belonging and memory. It deserves closer study and Mr Trakakis our admiration.
Professor Vrasidas Karalis is the Chair of the Department of Modern Greek Studies at the University of Sydney. His research has been in Modern Greek, Byzantine, Cultural Studies and more recently New Testament Studies. He has translated Patrick White’s novels into Greek (Voss, The Vivisector, A Cheery Soul).
Reading Rosemary Dobson’s Collected in those few short (and now poignant) weeks between its delayed appearance and her death at 92, I was particularly struck by how little these poems, beginning in the mid-1940s, have aged.
Most of the crucial ones, I was familiar with from having read her earlier collections and hearing the poet read them quite often over the four decades she lived in Canberra. It’s always a particular pleasure for a reviewer to be able to have in his or her auditory memory the sound of the poet presenting and interpreting her own work.
In Dobson’s case it was invariably a quiet, unassertive voice, almost shy but with an underlying confidence in the material — which she felt no need to “tart up” with histrionics of any kind. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature called this being “restrained and decorous” but this is to sell her way too short. Some others were inclined to mutter at poetry readings about “poets not reading their own works well” (not as well as Shakespearean actors, for instance) but in Dobson’s case this criticism was misapplied. She read quietly because (unlike much of, say, Dorothy Hewett’s oeuvre) Dobson’s are quiet poems. Quiet — and thoughtful. Quiet — and often wryly witty.
It is probably this decibel deficiency that caused her to be somewhat overlooked at times among that remarkable generation of Australian poets who emerged just after World War II — and who proceeded to dominate our poetry scene until the late 1960s (and beyond, in some cases). Many of them, such as David Campbell, Judith Wright, Francis Webb and Douglas Stewart were Dobson’s close friends. Others included James McAuley and A.D. Hope. Still others, such as Gwen Harwood and Dorothy Hewett (also born in the early-1920s and delayed by housewifery and politics respectively) were to emerge later — in the early 1960s.
While all these poets had distinctive and personal voices (that was a part of their greatness) they also shared some important values and preoccupations. Most had a metaphysical dimension to their poetry (even the atheists); many were concerned with art in its broadest sense — and with Australian history (particularly the role of voyagers and explorers). Dobson’s interest in art was perhaps more intense than that of the others since she, unlike them for the most part, wrote ekphrastically about particular paintings — often from the Renaissance period. Indeed, A.D. Hope, as a critic, was initially inclined to undervalue Dobson’s work for precisely this reason.
Looking back now with almost seventy years’ hindsight, we can see that it was only in her first book, In a Convex Mirror, that Dobson’s work appears at all dated. Here, at the age of 24 in the last two years of World War II, she was very much part of the zeitgeist and one can fairly readily imagine a number of the poems in In a Convex Mirror being written by someone else in the group.
Dobson, in this book, consistently uses the strict forms characteristic of Australian poetry at the time (though not necessarily of American poetry). There are phrases, even in highly successful poems like the title one, that could almost as well be attributed to, say, Judith Wright or A.D. Hope (“The hidden spaces of the heart”, for instance, or “Time’s still waters deeply flow”). There are inversions of word order — not intrinsically objectionable but much more popular then than now (“And words to wiser silence pass”).
On the other hand, in this same poem, we also have an example of Dobson’s evocative compression when she writes of how angels “Inflame a Dutch interior”. Such images already foreshadow the mature Dobson who was to appear so convincingly in her next book, The Ship of Ice (1948). Although the title poem can seem melodramatic in parts (“a bride of ice in a ship set southwards”) it is in Dobson’s second collection that we encounter the poet who will present through to her last full collection, Untold Lives and Later Poems — with which she won, at the age of eighty, The Age Book of the Year award. It is in The Ship of Ice too where we first see Dobson’s best-known, though somewhat atypical, poem, “Country Press” — which, fittingly, was read at her funeral.
Reading Dobson’s Collected from that second volume onwards, one is struck by the sheer consistency of its artistry, its author’s personal qualities and preoccupations. There is a tone of voice (quiet, meditative, wry at times) which is effortlessly maintained. There is an unstrained range of cultural reference. And there is her constant feel for narrative (even within the lyric) — culminating in Untold Lives and Later Poems (2001), arguably her best book (though not as technically formal as her earlier ones).
It was in this last full collection that Dobson’s empathy for others became most apparent. It comprises a persuasive set of observations of, or vignettes about, a considerable range of people. They are not types but individuals whose often low-key lives (and fates) have something important to tell us. Written in a flexible blank verse and in relatively plain diction, enlivened occasionally by a more colourful image or turn of phrase, these poems are very different from, and much more relaxed than, the ones with which Dobson began her career back in 1944.
In this context we can see that David McCooey is correct, in his Introduction to Collected,in stressing Dobson’s concern with the “the half-seen, the ghostly, and the half-understood”. Dobson, despite her insistence on the “simple” was never one for the trite. It is likewise appropriate for McCooey to quote from an interview he conducted some years back with Dobson where she insisted: “Simplicity, clarity and austerity are qualities I hold to.” She had no desire to complicate or extend poems unnecessarily — or to set up false barriers for readers. Communication was important to her but so was the complexity and elusiveness of what was to be communicated.
In Collected’s final poem, “Divining Colander”, Dobson says: “And here, in Age, I feel the need / Of some Divining Colander / To hold the best of all since done / And let the rest slip through.” In some ways, despite her characteristic modesty, this was a false problem. The divining had already been done in compiling the individual collections. Inevitably, there is some small variation in quality throughout the book but it is moving to see that, at the end, Dobson had so much that was worth retaining, that met the two criteria mentioned in “Divining Colander”, namely “style and worth”. It’s gratifying, too, that a small but indicative sample of the translations she did (in tandem) from the Russian of Mandelstam and Akhmatova and others during the 1970s has been added at the end.
Even if In a Convex Mirror is less remarkable than its successors, it is probably the right decision to have included it — not just to make a contrast with the more authentically personal poems to follow but to emphasise with what assurance Dobson began her career (even if some of that first collection’s techniques and concerns were borrowed or shared).
At 358 pages, Rosemary Dobson’s Collected is a book to be savoured over several weeks; then shelved for ready and repeated reference. With the (now often unavailable) “Collecteds” of her other eminent friends and contemporaries, this comprehensive and well-designed book, issued just a few weeks before its author’s death, will remain an important part of our literary heritage. Indeed, in the first few weeks after Dobson’s passing her Collected was on a best-seller list or two.
Despite their disparate appearance in journals over several years, and anthologised in Best Australian Poems, the poems in Night Train give the impression of a well-conceived, pre-determined collection. Night Train is not a capricious collection of dissimilar poems sutured together to suit the elegant necessities of book publication. The poems fall effortlessly into their particular arrangement. In their tonal and thematic correspondence, they make NightTrain seem like one long compositional moment. A mixture of forms sounds the collection’s stylistic range, from a well-executed pantoum to well-crafted, free-verse poems. The language crosses the boundaries of the reflective and the lyrical without straining meaning.
The collection is in three parts: “Topography”, “Interiors”, and “Splitting space”. Each part features a sequence: “Introduced” in the first part, “Five Easy Pieces” in the second and “Elegy” in the third. The sequences contribute to Night Train’s structural unity. In particular, two of the sequences, “Introduced” and “Elegy”, echo the haunted in Night Train. Each section throws a different spotlight on the shifting terrain of Night Train: “Topography” figures the larger landscape; “Interiors” places the inner space of perception under pressure; and “Splitting Space” invokes the liminal.
The collection’s title, Night Train, is intriguing. It has several popular culture references. At its simplest, the title refers to a train that runs at night. The cover depicts what appears to be a train rushing towards us at night, blinding us with it lights. Read off its own eponymous poem, “Night train”, a poem about a train journey, the collection begins to resemble a hypnotic train journey through the shifting terrain of these poems. In his essay, “Railway Navigation and Incarceration”, French theorist Michel de Certeau writes that motionless inside the moving train we see motionless things slide past (111). Trapped inside the moving train, we dream (111). The speaker in Night Train feels as if is immobile on a moving train watching immobile things rush past. These are intensely observant poems. The poems become the speaker’s imaginings inside the moving train. The travelling train is a speeded-up metaphor for the speaker’s kinetic consciousness. The entire collection begins to resemble a dream. In the eponymous “Night Train”:
The carriage sashays and groans,
freeway lights arc
and you pass the outer rings of suburban Saturn,
the depopulated moons of stations. (12)
This speculation turns ominous when:
Entering Geelong, as if you’ve clicked Start slideshow, you see chain stores,
shopping plazas, empty car yards.
The hospital you were born in.
The school where you were clapped
and buggered, the church
where you begged forgiveness.
Your whole life. (12)
The “Topography” section contains fourteen poems. The opening poem, ‘Rain, back road’, sets the tonal mood of the section and the collection itself. It is meditative, sure and surprising. The final line “To drown well is art” (3) can be taken as emblematic of the collection’s lyrical reach. This section expresses an ambiguity in the horizon of Night Train. The speaker is conscious of the complexities of European presence to remain merely celebratory of the landscape. The speaker knows that the terrain of Night Train is not innocent. It is too saturated in the implications of European presence, like the sheep he finds “strewn /along the gully, / gutted mattress of a former self” (4), to yield to mere surface appreciation of its natural and not-so natural beauty.
Night Train is not a polemical collection. The speaker does not proselytise, preferring to let the image do the work of figuring the alien. The sequence “Introduced” in the first section articulates this enigma of the alien in Night Train: the dead rats that ‘No matter how deep, / in the night / something dug them up’; the canola that is ‘There, suddenly perfect,/ as if sprayed from a can’; the foxes that are more often seen ‘flung / on the shoulder / of a newly widened road, / accessorising / progress’ (6-9).
The poem consists of seven sections, each bearing the title of one introduced species. In its troubling intensities, “Introduced” articulates the wry aporia of belonging and non-belonging. It also resonates with questions of violence and non-violence. In apologia, the speaker says in relation to the non-native bees that “We had heard of gentle smokings, / like those of a peace pipe” (9), but in place of the gentle, there is the violence of ‘a cube of pyrethrum, / cans of home brand spray’ (9). Yet the poem also asserts the beauty of the alien, rendering the poem complex in its figuration of the strange. As the speaker observes:
Later we swept bodies,
removed the strange cumulus
of hive. It was like something
from a sci-fi. White, alien,
In this section, Lynch also articulates the impasse of a European sensibility in a non-European landscape. In “Queenscliff-Sorrento ferry”, the speaker boards the ferry from Queenscliff with its ‘confidences’ and sails:
toward Sorrento, inviolable
in its all-weather whiteness,
its occidental logic and unimpeachable veneer
The trope of the antipodes takes a wry tone in “Continental” when the poet’s companion turns a map upside down (13). In his rendering of his companion’s words in “Back Beach, Point Lonsdale”, the speaker recalls the intrusion of the alien into the landscape:
It could be the eighteenth century you say, except for those cranes almost canons pistolling to port.
In its undertone of menace, the image of the Jaguar XJ moving, like a marauder, through the landscape in the poem, “Jaguar XJ 4.2, 1979”, is unsettling. In its figuration of the alien in the landscape, the poem also becomes an articulation of European nostalgia:
Yet it has a memory of northern forests,
yearning to search out old shires.
You can imagine a fondness
for Keats, Ted Hughes,
scarlet runners and poached artichokes.
The poem concludes on a difficult note:
As Anglophile fogs unfurl
across drought-stripped paddocks,
cells of coastal cancer divide
on metal skin.
The second section entitled “Interiors” places the inner landscape of observation under pressure. In the poem, “Sonnet”, the speaker observes that “Where the road withered / Lay a Switzerland of the heart” (32). This sensibility repeats in “Small things that lie ahead” when the speaker proffers that “The sun polishes hard surfaces, /every shadow is solid and still” (38). The repetition in particular of the line “We collect mail, and the years pass” (35) in the pantoum “Blood plums” reinforces the collection’s existential dimension.
The poem “Noise”, in the second section, can stand as a statement on Lynch’s tonal and chromatic aporias, his quietness and loudness, and his imagistic leaps:
Noise is fluorescent yellow, electric orange
and alarm bell red. It is licorice allsorts.
It is the green line on a cardiac monitor.
Then there is white noise. Like white light
when all the colours become one.
Noise like that is quiet. The colour
of bleach, the colour of death, the colour
of 20,000 tones stripping away.
Quiet can be black too. The colour
of absolute silence. The dial tone
before the Big Bang.
My wardrobe will now consist of black and white.
Like an old-time nun or priest
I’ll pass my days in silent prayer
embryoed in rhythms of monotone chant.
Sometimes I want my words ironed flat,
the soundwaves in space a waveless sea.
I want the universe to smell of starch again.
In particular, what emerges in the above line is an almost synaesthetic consciousness. The image becomes acoustic and vice versa. This coupling of image and sound occurs throughout the collection. In the first section, in the poem, “Topography”, we hear as much as see the yellow vibrancy of the canola:
is fitful, shutting down
for half a year before its furious
yellow electrifies the fence.
Throughout Lynch eschews the clever ending, or twist, for a more mutable poetics. At their end, many of the poems can be redrawn. Lynch is playfully aware of this when he suggests in the last line of “Blast” in the third section that ‘Now, here is my opening’ (50). This lack of closure contributes to the paradoxical movement and stillness of Night Train. The last line in “Blast” is also a reflection of Lynch’s wit. The speaker in Night Train resembles frequently a man with a mirror whose breath that fogs up the mirror also animates the world that stares back at him. In the stillness of the speaker’s mirror, all is paradoxical movement. Lynch’s wit contributes to this play. In “Plunge”, again in the third section, the speaker says:
An expensive trick with mirrors
or they are right
who say glass is liquid.
Perhaps the underworld is cool and turquoise
maybe the sky upside down
where we start flying.
Lynch himself ironises this mutability in his poems: their movement and stillness. In “Plot”, in the second section, the speaker says:
There is movement and there is stillness.
It’s almost a reckoning of love
but I just can’t count the ways.
In a counter-movement, Lynch undoes frequently the lyrical through his notation of reality. In “Subsequently”, also in the second section, the speaker remarks:
Sometimes I tell myself
can be a good thing:
a notepad with unbroken blue lines,
the concrete expansion of a suburb,
Lynch also plays with a restrained lyricism, as in “Saline solution”, in the first section, in which the speaker observes:
Salt and water become the ocean.
It’s an alchemy like want and consent
yet still we can’t discern
the quality of blue
or the rip in the heart.
In poems like “The big wave”, in the third section, the analytical and the lyrical are in dialogue:
See their eyes following, almost swooping (if we take some licence),
recognition taking wing.
He feels seaweed desperate at his ankle.
Note the sea at this penultimate moment is speechless,
its one thought roaming between thigh and neck.
The third part of Night Train becomes a haunting meditation on transience. The poems shift in location from the rural landscape of much of the “Topography” section or the inner space of perception in “Interiors” to the corporeal reality of mortality. The hearse moving through the street in “Yellow brick road” articulates the transient. This section echoes the haunted landscape of the first section and the metaphysical landscape of the second. It allows for that existential edge that gives Night Train its intensity. The poem, “Yellow brick road”, highlights the existential challenge of Night Train:
So slowly she now travels Ormond Road
with headlights on at noon.
Confused perhaps by the journey
or the destination.
Bringing together Lynch’s poems disseminated through various journals over several years, Night Train takes us on a multifarious journey through the shifting terrain of its poems. The poems never drop into stillness but remain animated. They articulate a contemporary experience of the outer and inner landscape in a language that is mediative as it is attentive.
 Michel de Certeau. “Railway Navigation and Incarceration”. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 111-114.
TINA GIANNOUKOS is a poet, fiction writer and reviewer. Her first collection is In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light:Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Australians (Arcadia, 2011). Her most recent publication is the sonnet sequence in Border-Crossings: Narrative and Demarcation inPostcolonial Literatures and Media (Winter, 2012). She completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. She has been a recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship. She has read her poetry in Greece and China.
While searching online for new collections of Australian poetry in 2008, I came across Heather Taylor Johnson’s debut collection, Exit Wounds (Picaro Press, 2007). As an Australian residing in the United States, I was immediately intrigued by Taylor Johnson’s bio – she is an American who moved to Australia in 1999, married an Australian and is now raising children in Adelaide. As an Australian living in America, married to an American and raising a child in Texas, I sensed that I would find much to connect with in Taylor Johnson’s work. When I read Exit Wounds, I was pleased to find a collection of wonderful poems about expatriation, family, loss, belonging, acceptance, distance and establishing a new life in another country. When given the opportunity to review Taylor Johnson’s second collection, I was eager to discover how her poetry has developed.
Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town addresses many of the same themes as Exit Wounds; however, the new poems are set in the United States rather than Australia, focusing on experiences, events and relationships during 2010, a year Taylor Johnson spent with her family living in Salida, a small town in Colorado. The collection contains forty-eight poems, some of which have appeared previously in journals including Mascara, Transnational Literature, Five Poetry Journal and Page Seventeen. Taylor Johnson’s poetics favours personal poems less than thirty lines in length, although she also composes the occasional prose poem. She experiments with stanza and line length, sometimes adhering to a specific pattern, such as the eighteen couplets of “Everything is Possible Today,” at other times incorporating stanzas and lines of varying length, as well as spaces within lines, as she does in “Ladies’ Night at the Vic.” Taylor Johnson often employs punctuation minimally, but it is never totally eschewed. The overall result is a style that is casual and playful, yet not highly experimental. Taylor Johnson’s diction favours the vernacular and is always accessible; her poetry invites and welcomes the reader into her world, never excluding or pushing away.
The physical environment in Colorado, especially the Rocky Mountains, plays a major role in Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town. The opening poem, “Salida,” establishes the focus on nature: “You have always been – / when the sun rose / as the trout swam / before the Rockies had a name.” Throughout the collection, the poet and her children, husband and friends are frequently depicted outside enjoying nature, marvelling at the mountains, playing in the snow, riding bikes, swimming in waterfalls, being caressed by “a sexy wind” (“Amongst It”) “while lazing outdoors, always outdoors” (“We Are All Consonants”). Thus, Taylor Johnson combines nature with the personal in a manner reminiscent of the British Romantic poets. The collections’ title highlights the personal focus of the poems, many of which are love poems to Taylor Johnson’s husband. The poet repeatedly celebrates love, joy, beauty, motherhood and family life.
In “We Are All Consonants,” Taylor Johnson mentions Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, and she also quotes Angelou in “Morning After,” while Rita Dove and Erica Jong are both named in “I will give you soup.” The acknowledgment of the influence of feminist writers is not surprising, especially for readers familiar with Taylor Johnson’s previous work. Taylor Johnson’s poetry celebrates many aspects of womanhood, including the physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional. Additionally, the acknowledgment of Angelou’s influence points to the inspirational aspect of Taylor Johnson’s work, which can be clearly seen in “Ladies’ Night at the Vic” and “I will give you soup.” Inspirational poetry is disparaged in some quarters, and the challenge for a poet like Taylor Johnson is to write about such topics without doing so in a manner that is trite, overly sentimental, or simply uninteresting to anyone who does not know the poet personally; whether or not Taylor Johnson’s work crosses the invisible border is purely a matter of the individual reader’s taste.
The engagements with the issue of expatriation in the new collection reveal an evolution in Taylor Johnson’s poetics. Rather than the exit wounds of her debut collection, the poet’s expatriate status is acknowledged and accepted, but not lamented. In the humorous prose poem, “An Ode to American Microbrews,” the speaker describes her accent as “hybrid” and “hemispheric,” signalling recognition of a changed identity and suggesting that the new hybrid status is an addition rather than a subtraction. In the same poem, the speaker declares “I love my country,” referring to the United States, but plans to mail the labels steamed from the beer bottles “back to Australia.” In “Love Poem,” an American flag is “torn to shreds” by the wind while the Australian flag flies solidly beneath it, perhaps suggesting that a choice has been made regarding allegiance. Throughout the collection, Australia is positioned as the permanent home of the poet, and America is presented as a temporary dwelling-place and former home. Nevertheless, the dark side of the expatriate condition is never far below the surface; in “Distant Cousins,” a poem about visiting relatives in Aberdeen, Washington, Taylor Johnson writes:
Sadness catches in my chest as I inhale Pacific mist
wonder if we’ll see each other again,
Australia so far it bends even time.
At our age we think about these things –
family, mobility, the hesitation of each day.
Funerals also too easy to imagine.
Despite acknowledging the dark side of life, Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town is an overwhelmingly positive collection. Taylor Johnson obviously enjoys and appreciates life and has the admirable ability to find joy in the everyday. Her ability to experience simple pleasures, rather than merely observe them, is evident in “I ♥ California”:
Cold patches in the lake
and oh, the water, how we drank
the runoff of the Sierra Nevada
how we caught it from the river
(The phrase “oh, the water” seems to be borrowed from Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” in which the phrase is used repeatedly.) The physical pleasure of engaging with nature is also declared in “Love Poem” when the speaker exclaims “it’s this sun my god licking me / I’ve been drunk on it all day.” Taylor Johnson also clearly derives a great deal of pleasure from reading, writing and publishing poetry. In “Book Launch,” the speaker declares, “Poetry / you move me to silence / … / I wake with you, all day / mine, others, friends, those dead / all day you, and the rest is life.” The poet’s joy is abundant in the final stanza of the poem:
Oh the bound book! The published collection!
The reason to wear my frock!
Poetry, you sly unspoken pearl,
tonight I wear you like a necklace.
For her second collection, Taylor Johnson has moved from one fine publisher of Australian poetry to another. Interactive Press has produced an eye-catching colour cover featuring a photograph of a turquoise flower with pink and red leaves lying in the sand. The back cover is adorned with a photograph of a smiling Taylor Johnson and blurbs from Chris Ransick, Jill Jones and Libby Hart. Interactive Press are to be commended for producing a beautiful book, but the choice of font, especially the cursive style of each poem’s title, strikes me as lacking gravitas. Similarly, I found Taylor Johnson’s use of spaces and forward slashes within lines distracting and affected. The spaces may encourage some readers to pause a little longer between phrases, but the forward slashes do not seem to add anything to the poems, appearing more decorative than substantive. Nevertheless, it is the content of the poems that matters most. I particularly admire Taylor Johnson’s willingness to write honestly about the personal and her ability to develop her own individual voice without regard for movements, trends or critical snobbery. Taylor Johnson has produced another fine collection of contemporary poems that deserves a wide audience and multiple readings.
NATHANAEL O’REILLY is the author of two chapbooks, Suburban Exile: American Poems and Symptom of Homesickness, both published by Picaro Press. He teaches Australian, Postcolonial, British and Irish literature at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.