The Queen’s Play
by Aashish Kaul
Reviewed by SUBHASH JAIRETH
Queen Mandodari’s Clever Play
Once upon a time in a kingdom on a little island lived a queen by the name of Mandodari (the ‘soft-bellied’). The king was busy fighting wars and so bored, or perhaps to challenge her husband’s authority, she invented a new board game. No, the game wasn’t new but a modification of Chaturanga, a board game popular in ancient India. The changes the queen introduced turned the game into something similar to what we now know as chess.
This imagined invention of chess by Mandodari, the wife of King Ravana, one of the ultimate prototypes of evil in the Indian epic Ramayana, is at the centre of Aashish Kaul’s intriguing novel. The dare of this conceit played upon us by the author is as breathtaking as the act of disruption the queen herself crafts. The epic’s narrative fabric of stories within stories is sliced open to retrieve a little string from which a clever writer like Kaul can weave his own stories.
“The need for tales they say arose, when the fetters came stuck round our ankles with a clank of inevitability, when our wings were torn slowly the earth’s fierce pull, when even the skill of climbing trees or perching on a branch was forgotten. And yet the longing remained.” These are the words with which Kaul begins his story. Like most writers, a longing to explain the urge to tell stories also drives Kaul’s project. A writer self-conscious of his own design and intent, Kaul is ultimately aware of the limitations all stories, including epics, are burdened with. Limitations announced emphatically in the final pages of the book by one of the narrators: “Thus it occurred to you that not even of your story were you the hero. Privilege and history overran you there as well.” Desire to make and tell stories drive us because it is meant to remain unconsummated. The satisfaction that comes our way is not only transient but also illusory.
In a way, the longing that takes hold of Mandodari forcing her to transform the board game is quite similar to the longing most writers feel. The board game Mandodari invents is not merely a game but also a symbolic space within which new stories can be imagined and told by playing the game. In fact playing of the game, moving this or that piece, and imagining and calculating consequences of the moves aren’t different from the way writers make their stories. Thus, the board game, the origin of which Kaul wants to imagine, turns into a trope of story-telling itself.
Mandodari introduces two vital modifications to the game of Chaturanga: discarding the rolling of dice, and introducing the figure of queen as a piece on the board. Once the dice is removed the role of chance in the game and that of fate in life are challenged. One can now become a master of one’s own destiny. Freedom to exercise one’s will and act is there to enjoy. Suddenly Mandodari begins to remind me of a modernist informed by the traditions of European Enlightenment. “Why was the dice abandoned?” Asks the narrator in the novel. “For one reason alone. That fate ruled the board as it ruled us,” he explains soon after.
But Mandodari isn’t merely a modernist. In her I also spot traces of a latent proto-feminist. In the game invented by her, the most powerful piece on the board is the figure of the queen. All power resides with it. It can move freely in all directions. The power of the figure of the king, on the other hand, is drastically curtailed. The moves it is allowed are minor, restricted and almost ritualistic. His fate is nothing but to turn into a mere symbol of victory or defeat. Kaul’s Mandodari is clever. The ‘soft-bellied’ queen has guts.
Most of the story in the novel is told in the third-person voice of an omniscient narrator. His power is occasionally disrupted by two narrators who prefer to talk in first person. One of them is most probably Hanuman, commonly known to readers familiar with the epic Ramayana as the monkey-god. The identity of the other narrators remains illusive. He appears and disappears as if he were a piece on Mandodari’s board game. Narrative time also shifts from past to present without any warning. I found these changes abrupt and unsettling. But the irritation was soon assuaged by luminous prose, its rhythmic movement and its poetic cadences. There are many passages that lingered in my mind. Here is one: “During the day, sparrows the size of a child’s fist with indigo and blue patterned crowns and sword-like erect tails, flitted in the hedgerows enclosing the yard, splashing colour everywhere, and in the evening, before the pine torches had pushed the darkness further into itself, a martin returning to a nearby tree would sometimes brush its open wings against my cheek.”
The book begins with a note from the author. “Among many things that this book is,” it says, “that every book is, it is a book about chess. Not chess as we know it, but chess as was known at the time in which the story is based.” I deliberately ignored the note and read it after I had read the book and felt cheated by it. A book, at the centre of which is a daring move to get rid of the power the rolling of dice played in Chaturanga and thereby granting freedom to think, feel and move, doesn’t need the imposition of a note that tells its readers what should be read in it. The story is wonderful, told masterfully by a writer who knows his craft well. I don’t want to believe that the note, in some way, reflects the author’s doubt that without this clarification the story would fail to do the job it has been asked to. Why such doubt, such indecision?
This is Kaul’s second book. His first, A Dream of Horses and Other Stories (2014) is recommended by J.M. Coetzee who notes that “… dreamlike setting, the fastidious melancholy sensibility of their no-longer–young narrators, lead us directly into the territory of late modernism of Borges and Beckett and Nabokov.” A very high praise form a Nobel Laureate, reproduced deservedly on the back cover of The Queen’s Play.
Once the game is invented Mandodari invites the king to play and they play more than once. Often the queen wins but she is clever to let the king enjoy a win too. The game is followed by sex. It has to. It is often said that good description of sex scenes demands utmost control. Unfortunately the writing begins to fail and loose control in these passages some of which can easily place the book on the short list for the Bad Sex in Fiction award. Here is one: “At last the vulva surrounds the phallus, engulfs it. Like dark space engulfing matter, like a lake possessing a mountain’s image, like night covering the gloss of the world. Like a wedge his torso locks into her wet angular thighs.”
“Well, less is more Lucrezia,” reminds Robert Browning’s faultless painter. Fortunately Kaul does his best to follow the rule. The language, apart from the passage cited above, is precise and use of metaphors are disciplined and efficient. They add to the tonal quality of the narrative asking to be read and heard aloud.
I read the book twice and I am sure I’ll read it again to enjoy the resonant prose. The book is meant to be reread. Not because the prose is opaque and the plot complicated. No, it isn’t a plot-driven book. The book demands slow reading to appreciate its carefully crafted prose and to think about the ideas it explores deftly. I hope that this book is able to find the empathetic reader it has been written for.
SUBHASH JAIRETH was born in India. He spent nine years in Moscow and moved to Canberra in 1986. He has published poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Hindi, Russian and English. His book To Silence: Three Autobiographies was published in 2011. Two plays adapted from the book were performed at Canberra’s Street Theatre in 2012. His novel After Love was released last year.
The Intervention: An Anthology
by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss (eds)
Concerned Australians/New South Books
Reviewed by KATE HALL
In The Intervention: An Anthology (2015), editors Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss add their voices to a diverse and impressive range of writers and speakers, from renowned Northern Territory Elders like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks of Utopia and Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra of Galiwin’ku to literary heavy-weights like Alexis Wright and Bruce Pascoe. This is an important book, and the calibre of its contributors is only part of what makes it essential reading. As Scott explains in her launch speech, and in the acknowledgements, ‘This book has had a unique provenance. Being unable to find a publisher became a positive factor once the tide of support from the community and individuals [. . .] rolled in’ (261). The anthology was published through the combined efforts of social justice advocates Concerned Australians, crowd-funding and individual donations, and so it is a resource made possible by those whose opposition to the injustices of the NT Intervention has translated into concrete support for the anthology. This is heartening news for a country whose successive governments seem to care so little about the rights of its first peoples. As Larissa Behrendt notes in her contribution, ‘the intervention in the Northern Territory is a textbook example of why government policies continue to fail Aboriginal people’ (67), and the contributions The Intervention: An Anthology explain, in various ways, some of the reasons for this failure, while the book itself is a symbol of community support.
The Intervention: An Anthology contains several reports, essays and transcripts of speeches that document the NTER, and these are important forms of historical witnessing, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. But this anthology gives equal weight to writing as truth-telling that doesn’t require footnotes, and the anthology also contains a wealth of such responses. Poetry from Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann sits alongside short stories from Debra Adelaide and P.M. Newton. There are several first-hand accounts of life lived during the Intervention, by what the fiction and life-writing pieces share with the essays and reports is a unifying tone comprised of outrage, pain, anger and despair, as well as solidarity and a commitment to social justice and the pursuit of human rights. What sets the life-writing contributions apart is the way they function simultaneously as protest statements, trauma narratives and testimonials; and many of the most powerful pieces of life-writing in the anthology come from people who are not well known as writers. Some of the life-writing in the collection is transcribed from recorded speeches and so the act of writing itself morphs into the act of recording; spoken into written testimony. The personal recollections of what it feels like have to pay for groceries with a basics card, or to be terrified when the inexplicable arrival of army and federal police troops evokes the intergenerational trauma of the child removal are powerful, affecting acts of testimony.
There is a call for immediate action evident in all of the statements, stories, personal essays, and works of creative non-fiction in the anthology, and the collection reminds readers that, like other human rights disasters in this country, there’s no belatedness about the intervention. It is not consigned to history, not finished, and not yet dealt with. As Heiss points out, ‘no Australian today can claim “not to know” what is happening in the Northern Territory’ (13). For those who might not know enough, the anthology should serve as a useful primer, as well as a scholarly resource for students and academics. The collection provides a number of factual accounts that offer insights into the intervention from its inception, such as Pat Anderson’s ‘The Intervention: Personal Reflections’, in which Anderson, as the co-author (with Rex Wild) of the Little Children are Sacred report describes the conflicting responses of Aboriginal people to the initial implementation of the intervention’s policies:
The Intervention presented a real dilemma for Aboriginal people, at the local community level as well as at the national level. For some, this was a long overdue recognition of the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal communities and the need to act decisively to end it. On the other hand, there were those who opposed the Intervention for its attack on rights that had been hard won by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians over many years. (37)
The intervention is the term commonly used to describe both the initial thrust of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), in which a slew of new policies were imposed in a matter of days across seventy three remote communities, and the continuing impact of these policies up until July 2012. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act, to use the intervention’s official title, ended in name only at that time, but the paternalistic and racist policies continued under the banner of Labour’s Stronger Futures Act and remain in place today. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the NTER, which John Howard launched in response to Wild and Anderson’s Little Children are Sacred report, did not take up any of the recommendations in that report, and imposed a series of other initiatives not recommended in the report. Crucially, the NTER did not follow the first recommendation in that report, that governments ‘commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.’ (197)
Instead, as several commentators in the anthology point out, the Howard Government sent in the army and federal police to enforce a series of blatantly racist policies, some of which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. These included quarantining of welfare payments, restrictions on alcohol and pornography, compulsory so called heath checks for children to check for signs of sexual abuse, the compulsory acquisition of land through long leases, the removal of permit systems and the exclusion of consideration of customary law in sentencing. Rosalie Kunoth Monks describes the fear and bewilderment when the army arrived in her community:
My recollection of the Intervention in my home community Urapuntja, commonly known as Utopia, was the day the soldiers in uniform, the police and public servants arrived and we were ushered up to the basketball stadium and we were all told that we were now under the Intervention. (15)
Opponents of the intervention do not deny the existence of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, though the intervention failed to produce evidence of this during its so-called emergency response. But, as Jeff McMullen points out in his essay, the sexual abuse of children is wide-spread in this country and not limited to Aboriginal communities. The point to be made, of course, is that ‘no one ordered NT-style interventions into the church and state institutions, or into the barbed-wire detention camps where the children of asylum seekers had been locked up for years.’ (121) Jaowyn Elder Rachel Willika also points out the hypocrisy, the racism and the blindness that fueled the focus on Aboriginal people during the NTER: ‘I have been thinking about those words: little children are sacred. Who are the little children? Are they talking about all the children? Black children and white children? That’s what it says to me. We should be protecting all the children. Aren’t white children sacred too?’
In her 2015 speech commending the anthology, Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs acknowledges,
of course Little Children are Sacred and, of course, we must do what we can as a nation to stop their neglect and abuse. But we should do so consistently with human rights. To juxtapose human rights versus child protection is a false binary. Australia can both protect our vulnerable children and respect the fundamental rights of our first nations peoples to dignity and meaningful consultation and consent to laws that affect their lives.
The contributors to the anthology are in agreement about the need for change, but in a manner that is consultative and which respects Aboriginal people and cultures. In her contribution to the anthology, ‘what I heard about the intervention’, Melissa Lucashenko quotes Alexis Wright: ‘Yes. Yes, of course the government should do something about the living conditions and the violence. But not this . . .’ (111)
The Intervention: An Anthology has, since the writing of this review, been acquired by New South Books (forthcoming in July 2016).
Triggs, G (2015) ‘Northern Territory Intervention 2007’, Transcript, Australian Human Rights Commission, viewed 14/4/16 https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/northern-territory-intervention-2007
KATE HALL lectures in Literary Studies at Deakin University Geelong. She writes fiction and non-fiction, with recent work appearing in Overland, New Community and Pure Slush (forthcoming in 2016).
Black Rock, White City
by A.S. Patric
Reviewed by NICOLE THOMAS
The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ fuelled fierce debate during the 1990’s when it was applied to atrocities being committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The euphemism for genocide was coined by perpetrators and adopted by journalists and politicians, penetrating official language. The definition of ‘ethnic cleansing’ remains a scrutinised topic. Defined by intent, genocide is a punishable crime that signifies mass murder while the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ remains undefined and denotes a lesser degree of harm. Blum et al. believe the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ “corrupts observation, interpretation, [and] ethical judgement”.
Black Rock White City follows poet Jovan and his wife Suzana, exiles of Sarajevo, as they struggle to find purpose in their life in suburban Melbourne. They survive in a displaced reality, in an emotionless afterlife punctuated by a war that claimed the lives of their two children. The displaced poetry of Jovan’s past emerges when he is forced to remove cryptic messages embedded in graffiti from the bayside hospital where he is employed as a cleaner. As Dr. Graffito’s destructive acts become increasingly violent, Jovan is forced to confront the trauma of his past.
Set in a hospital, the novel comprises an arrangement of euphemistic expressions, exhibiting the obscurity of figurative language to convey distinct meaning. The title, born from Melbourne suburb Black Rock and Belgrade’s literal translation to White City, takes the form of equivocation. The title’s contrasting colours, black and white, indicate a clear distinction between right and wrong doing—evil and virtue. Patric’s discourse leaves no rock unturned and solicits with bone chilling intelligence an examination of ethical judgement and decision making; an agenda intended for a distinct recognition between the terms ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide.
The destruction begins with a message, The / Trojan / Flea, written on the hospital X-Ray screen. Accumulating throughout the narrative is an assemblage of visual implements analogous to seeing and not seeing which stimulates an effect of clarity or obscurity. Words are engraved into optometry lenses, eye charts are altered with messages of graffiti, blurred reflections viewed through glass. The X-Ray screen acts as an object of awareness, prompting closer observation of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in relation to genocide. Reference to the Trojan can be seen as a parable to the subterfuge the Greeks used to win the Trojan war, conveying by comparison the implications of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ which as a result of judicial interpretation excused perpetrators of war from legal consequence for atrocities which would otherwise be punishable in international law under the crime of genocide—by default making the perpetrators victorious. “Fleas on the Trojan Horse. Who knows what he actually meant?” (230). “Flea” is one of many words that comprise examples of word ambiguity. In this instance the character’s own interpretation offers an example of how meaning can evolve from common acceptance of a term, similarly in the way ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide are interpreted generically albeit far removed in meaning. Later in the narrative, Jovan comes upon stencil markings of dead bodies on the hospital floor and Dr. Graffito’s titled message “ethical cleansing”(200). Patric’s word evolution from ‘ethnic’ to ‘ethical’ supports an review of justice in relation to perpetrators of war and the ethical responsibility for genocide.
Patric’s main characters, Jovan and Suzana, exist without expression, rejecting language and communication in their struggle to survive displacement. In the afterlife of war, words written and spoken are as mute as the unspeakable deaths of their children, “Their names were Dejan and Ana. And there’s nothing more that can be said about the dead that doesn’t make them small, lost and forgotten” (51). The significance of rejecting words denies the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ as a euphemism to communicate acts of genocide. In contrast to the characters rejection of words, Patric has focused on communicating the senses both in content and form, with acute awareness of sight, sound, and language expression. Patric punctuates expressions to emphasise force of meaning, “A finger tapping him on the chest any time Jovan looked as if he might rise from his seat. Not as a threat, as punctuation for the story Mitrovich was telling…” (203). Punctuation too, is expressed by representation of exact words in their basic sense, which works to disambiguate meaning, “’A question for you,’ Jovan says loudly, placing a full stop into the doctor’s mouth” (44). This literal language—in contrast to symbolic marks of punctuation—is in a sense, another way of demonstrating the disambiguation of meaning. Patric’s literal translation of punctuation is seamlessly executed at the close of Chapter Two when the spotlight of focus is on the hospital Optometrist waiting at the station for a train.
“There has been a notion on many such occasions. It has always been a small idea barely the size of a full stop in whatever she was reading. She’s read that famous book by Tolstoy and remembers the images of a flame being blown out and a book being closed. But it’s not as easy as that. Or poetic. It is more like a pig hung from its rear legs and getting its throat cut. It is a mutilation the splintering bones of her skeleton had never prepared for. It is a demolition of her soul her imagination could never have conceived. There is no book to close. There is no candle. Such absurdly poetic images for the pages of a story.
When Miss Richards leaps off the platform at Hallam, she hits the shiny, clean, steel rails and breaks bones in her wrists and knees, and then the impact of the train shatters everything else, and tears her meat into bits, and spatters her blood across the hot dry rocks of Hallam station.” (53-54)
The scene at Hallam station ignites the senses. The shock of Miss Richards leap is a visceral sensation that plunges the reader into a punctuated vertical drop; the leap acting as a terminal line of exclamation above the “full stop”. Patric’s discourse is both figurative and literal and offers a collision of realities. The trauma of Miss Richards body hitting the rails and the impact of the train emphasises clarity and aids any uncertainty of meaning: In a sense the reader confronts the trauma head-on. The impact of pain and coming apart is contrast to a flickering image of death analogous to the scene from Anna Karenina, that expresses a metaphorical image that fails to convey the reality of death. The significance highlights the obscurity of figurative language to convey distinct meaning.
The narrative juxtaposes Jovan’s poetry and messages of graffiti to emphasise the disparity between forms of expression and interpreted meaning.
A river of Waste
Just below Your skin
your Bones rot in
history’s flowing shit
The poetry of Jovan’s past dislodges as it collides with the messages embedded in the graffiti, forcing Jovan to relive scenes from the war on Bosnia. Jovan’s recollections derive from actual news broadcasts of NATO’s air strikes on Belgrade in 1999. Patric’s use of discourse from real events imposes reflection and perspective, enforcing a way of understanding yet being far removed in experience from the reality of war; it’s a way of necessitating rememberance of events so the memory does not forget.
“Do not visualise the details. Do not try to imagine what husband and wife may, or may not, have thought or felt. As those images on television broadcasts could not fully penetrate the minds of Suzana and Jovan, or anyone watching anywhere else at the time, so no one will ever know anything of this experience… It can only excite brief feelings, the the way something might from a film, one of Jovan’s books, or the poetry that he used to put to paper…” (141-142)
The medical community and Jovan’s occupation as hospital janitor in this novel are details that spotlight attention on the delusion that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is as a measure for public health, the cleansing of a society or race, a euphemism that Blum et al. believe “bleaches the atrocities of genocide” (204). Dr. Graffito’s destructive acts turn to obliteration when a woman is found inside the hospital drowned in a bleach bath, and what emerges will leave no reader in two minds of this novels intent. Black Rock White City takes issue with war, examining the ethics of justice and crime in the case of Bosnia. It explores immigrant displacement and refugee experience, interrogating the nature of language to reveal how interpretive meaning can trivialise the realities and atrocities of war, impeding justice.
Blum, Rony, et al. “‘Ethnic Cleansing’ Bleaches the Atrocities of Genocide †.” European Journal of Public Health 18.2: 204-09. Print.
Singleterry, Douglas. “”Ethnic Cleansing” and Genocidal Intent: A Failure of Judicial Interpretation?” Genocide Studies and Prevention 5.1 (2010): 39-67. Print.
Sirkin, Micol. “Expanding the Crime of Genocide to Include Ethnic Cleansing: A Return to Established Principles in Light of Contemporary Interpretations.” Seattle University Law Review 33.2: 489-526. Print.
NICOLE THOMAS lives on the South Coast of NSW. She holds a Bachelor of Creative Arts with Distinction from the University of Wollongong, and was awarded The UoW Centre for Canadian Australian Studies (CCAS) Award. Nicole is currently working on her memoir.
Strange Objects Covered With Fur
by University of Technology (Sydney) Students
Reviewed by KYRA THOMSEN
If the Greek poet Meleager considers an anthology as a garland of flowers, Strange Objects Covered With Fur is an outrageous arrangement of pastel-petal roses alongside long-pronged fern fronds and outrageous birds-of-paradise; its contrasts in theme and structure create a book that leaves the reader stunned and slightly unsettled. In the foreword, Ceridwen Dovey warns us that this anthology is “not a pretty bouquet… Some pieces are fetid or a little poisonous, unafraid of revealing their furry stems or filthy roots”, and this is true for a number of stories and poems within the collection.
I found myself being lulled into the fiction with the depth of characters and contemporary language only to be stumped by a plot twist at the last second; I found myself inspired by the non-fiction to the point that I discussed it with my work colleagues; I fell into the poetry and didn’t want to re-emerge. Reading Strange Objects Covered With Fur, I was in a constant state of flux, of knowing that nothing was quite as it seemed, that things here were indeed a little bit strange.
Striking language, such as that used in the prose piece ‘The Buzzing’ by Harriet McInerney (“He is feeling bruise. Black and blue. Sitting on the floor hugging himself as Mum is soothe”), is one of the first indications that Strange Objects Covered With Fur is going to be a book full of modern writing and intriguing challenges. One story, almost entirely dialogue between two men, ‘Yeah’ by William (Sam) Patterson takes the idea of talking-head characters and gives it an edge, having the two discuss their criminal convictions with language that is fast-paced, honest, and familiar to any modern Australian:
—First offence, assault, guilty, no conviction recorded
—Six fucking months
The poetry, too, embraces play in language and structure, such as Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s ‘She Imagines They Hold Hands in Silence’, which uses punctuation and repetition to create a stunted rhythm and emphasise key concepts surrounding love and relationships:
he-he does not understand this guilt/pleasure
the loved-she she tried to make him feel
and she succeeded—for a while
While such rule-bending and technical play may, in some other modern texts, feature as pure postmodern experimentation and lack any literary depth, the pieces in Strange Objects Covered With Fur always manage to balance story and character with contemporary form, artfully and with purpose.
Not only were there surprises in the structure and language of particular texts, but the content of the book itself is rich with labyrinthine turns. As with any collection, you’re not sure what you’re in for from piece to piece, from corner to corner, but this anthology leaves no safe place. Just when you think you’ve settled into a simple, contemporary story you’re presented with somewhat outlandish scenarios.
Benjamin Freeman’s short story ‘There is a Tide’ is a good example. A young male protagonist is coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis and attends a friend’s party. The story is written with realism, following him as he skirts around the party guests as an outsider, meets a girl and goes for a midnight swim, and disappears to his friend’s bathroom to cut a mole out of his face. Freeman confronts the reader with visceral imagery of sausage meat left of the serrated knife, ending on a note of madness to contrast the subdued realism of the rest of the piece, and providing a shock factor.
Another story, ‘You Cannot Comb A Hairy Ball’ by Emma Rayward, begins simply enough and then sinks into a strangely surreal narrative of a woman who eats a man, and the man who then eats the woman in return: “You fucking bitch, he says, as the last of her toes go in, I’m going to teach you a lesson in respect. Oh whatever mate, she says, you’re not the only one who can turn into stone… She has to decide where she wants to go. Jump in his ears and snap the hairs like tinnitus…Perhaps she should flamenco in his colon.” What is clear is that Strange Objects Covered With Fur aims to confront the reader at every step, to challenge our suspension of disbelief and our concepts of comfortable, ‘neat and tidy’ literature.
The non-fiction essays, too, were surprising in content by taking the most everyday objects and making them interesting. Shamin Fernando’s ‘The Oblong Mandala’ is about the hidden intricacies and history of the humble paperclip. Fernando’s metafictional style of writing (“When I submit this paper the last thing I will do is slide a paperclip onto the corner of it”) creates a fictional feel to support the anecdotal facts about the simplest of stationery: a clever way to frame an essay piece.
It is important to note that amidst the prose, poetry, and non-fiction there are two pieces of script writing. It’s generally less common to include script in printed anthologies, so coming across the stage directions and almost-distant feel of both ‘In The Deep End’ by Dale Alexander and ‘Pirate’s Play’ by Nicole Lame was another shock to my readerly system. The translation of commands and prompts to the written page is a unique one, where the reader begins to imagine the scenes playing out without the need for prosaic descriptions or poetic language. ‘In The Deep End’ is a surrealist piece, so it not only confronts the reader with its script structure and technique but also its Lynch-like scenes:
3. INT BEDROOM-NIGHT (SURREAL)
Luminous blue moonlight casts a ghostly hue on the MAN and the WOMAN entwined in and among rippled white sheets. The area of fabric around them is vast, so that they appear to be asleep in a kind of ocean. The couple are close in the space, yet they lie separately.
Though I was warned in Ceridwen Dovey’s apt foreword (“here is literature, in all its furry, heartbreaking strangeness”) I was still in wonder of the weirdness that was this anthology. While all the pieces are of a high quality, some do border on the stale side when compared with their playful and quirky counterparts; there is a level of risk when realism is published alongside fantastical writing; some pieces will stay with a reader for longer than others, and there may be unevenness.
That is not to say that the book, as a whole, was not impressive enough. Written by students from the University of Technology it is challenging, confronting, literary, and thought-provoking. In this, all the authors featured should be commended for their talents. Strange Objects Covered With Fur is a wild thing, a temperamental Venus Fly Trap ready to snap, or ready to be tamed.
KYRA THOMSEN is a writer and editor from Wollongong, NSW. She studied at the University of Wollongong and was the winner of the Questions Writing Prize in 2012. Kyra has worked with several literary publications, has been published numerous times both in print and online, and is Deputy Editor of Writer’s Edit.
Michael R. Griffiths is a Lecturer in the English and Writing Discipline at the University of Wollongong. He received his PhD in English from Rice University in 2012 and was INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University from 2012 to 2014. As an academic, he has published on topics ranging from settler colonial biopolitics to indigenous life writing to the critical theory of decolonizing poetics, and much besides. He is writing a scholarly book, tentatively entitled The Distribution of Settlement: Indigeneity, Recognition and the Politics of Visibility (under contract, UWAP). His poetry has previously been published in Paper Nautilus.
Sidney Poitier Sighs
Now the green waste truck has gone,
they’re coming to take me away.
Moth-like I sit; Blanche DuBois
not swooning over Stanley,
but broken as the teapot they find
going through my garbage
in the surveillance van.
Sidney Poitier sighs.
If there is order to this world,
it is a reckoning of remainders.
With chips of brick on a building site,
bloody wedges, redolent of cartilage,
the earth reminds us of what is stripped away.
Three hundred and sixty five days in a year;
three hundred and sixty degrees of rotation—
those five days hang heavy as lead fishing weights
choking the wire even as they aid the lines passage—
to the depths where the dhufish live.
Lost in Mid-Verse
by Angela Costi
Reviewed by ALI JANE SMITH
Poet and graphic artist Peter Lyssiotis writes in his introduction to Lost in Mid-Verse, “Costi’s verse has been written when the movement of people from one country to another is probably the defining characteristic of the time.” Emigration is the central event of the book, and Costi’s poetry is worked in specific temporal and cultural detail, but as Lyssiotis hints, her themes of rupture and continuity, of the pains and freedoms that come from hiatus, have broad relevance.
This chapbook is one in a series from Owl Publishing, established by Helen Nickas to publish the work of Greek-Australian writers, a nomenclature that here includes Cypriot-Greek. Angela Costi’s Lost in Mid-Verse contains just seven poems, but each poem branches into recollection and reference to family and history with enough thoughtfulness and depth to make the chapbook a satisfying read that includes memorable images, phrases and ideas.
The first poem, ‘Sugared Almonds’ is visually as small, symmetrical and compact as the familiar but significant confectionary, a traditional wedding favour, for which it is named. In this poem, Costi makes the most of the possibilities of enjambement, using the words at the beginning and the end of lines almost like waymarkers, while retaining the pleasing, natural and speechlike patterns of each line’s rhythm. The poem describes the practice of sleeping with sugared almonds under one’s pillow and dreaming of one’s husband-to-be. Those future husbands appear in the poem, “coated in frightened white”. Thoughout Lost in Mid-Verse, husbands, fathers, uncles, grandfathers are faint presences, sometimes opressive, but marginal, dependant for their existence on the women at the centre of the experiences in these poems. In ‘Sugared Almonds’, possible husbands are overshadowed by the great-grandmothers who have passed on the almonds in the first place, symbolically inducting their grandaughters into “games of caress / hide and seek among fingers and / sheets.” The poem about sweetened seeds is a kind of conception, a beginning for the themes of matrilineal language, intimacy, inheritance, connection and hiatus, that are to come in the next six, longer, poems.
There is a narrative to be read in these poems. The reader could approach them as stories of generational experience, of great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and granddaughters. However, narrative and chronology is not the most important organising factor in this collection. All of the poems deal with continuity and rupture experienced in different ways, most often through migration, but also, as in the poem ‘Gate’ through the experience of the neoliberal institutions of care compared to care in the context of family and kinship ties.
In ‘The Question’, a woman lives the rupture between the old place and the new. Objects in her home show that her role within her family, her marriage, her religion and culture is both meaningful and burdensome. Photographs of female ancestral figures, the “nun and her battered suitcase”, and “the virgin bride and her heavy glory box” emphasise tradition as burden, but the company of a real life neighbour cannot compare with the company of these foremothers who cannot see the wattle and magpies of the new place, only the mouflon (wild sheep) and “drooping carobs dripping with their nectar” of Cyprus. The woman in this poem secretly plants a bottlebrush in her garden at night. Digging to plant the sapling, the woman discovers that the soil holds “no blood, the roots of trees don’t weep.” This absence is another expression of the double experience of loss and liberation, although perhaps the crimson of the flowering bottlebrush is a dormant image of blood associated with the new place.
The poem ‘Mothers’ describes the way one generation connects to the next, through breast and mouth in the feeding of infants, and through language, the mother-tongue, in song and speech. The context for all this is love, both wild and serene. Costi describes the strange undulating presence and disappearance that can be part of mothering, to experience oneself as a self but also as a part of a continuity of women feeding and fed, comforting and being comforted, teaching and learning. Interwoven with the physicality of this experience is the imaginative space that is opened up as a part of the work of caring for infants, nurturing them and inculcating them into their linguistic and cultural heritage. Passing on songs and stories, reading, dreaming, and singing again, old stories and new imaginings.
The notes at the end of the chapbook provide the translation for ‘Stede’, the word used for Grandmother in Cypriot-Greek. ‘Stede’s Monologue’ is an account of a reading of coffee grounds. An old woman and a young woman “travel the cup” and see a new place, a place the cup reader describes as cold “because politics and religion / were fought with pen and paper.” The poem uses the reading to foretell the choice implicit in the younger woman’s emigration – to stay and see her as yet unborn sons “die with the Cyprus we knew” or to go and share with her sons an “ache in their soul.” The poem ‘Another Letter’ is addressed to Cyprus as though she were herself a Stede, generous and loving, but busy with the demands of many mouths and hearts. The rupture of emigration is here expressed through a familiar, sad and funny description of Australian garages, “congested with tables of backgammon / cards, ashtrays, bins of salted olives / songs lost in mid-verse / … a spit with a stuck rotisserie / a souvla tough like mutton / the radio tuned to static.” The closing stanza of the poem finds a warm, fertile image to describe the narrator’s relationship with Cyprus, “In my Aunt Maroulla’s orchard, / you offered an apricot pregnant with juice, / … / Aunt ate one half and I the other / while you kept the stone.”
Costi makes the image of the apricot the centre of the final poem in the collection, ‘Golden Apple’. The poem opens with a reference to the Classical myth of Atalanta, a famously fast runner, reluctant to marry, who challenged would-be suitors to a race. The man who eventually outran – and married – her, Melanion, received a gift of three ‘golden apples’ from Aphrodite, and by throwing these at the feet of Atalanta he slowed her down enough to win the race. Costi argues in the poem that Aphrodite’s three irresistible fruits were apricots, “smaller than apple / sun-licked … soft and firm – Cupid’s bottom.” Aphrodite’s fruit, the fruit grown, in Ovid’s version of the myth “in a field upon Cyprus, known as Tamasus”, also grows in the poet’s backyard, “challenging / the lemon tree to an annual race”. Costi’s final image of the apricot, transformed by cooking and served on a crystal plate, has the power to briefly interrupt the past. In the act of eating the skilfully prepared and beautifully presented apricot, Costi’s recurrent images of mouth, breast, language, and land are unified, and culture and nature, myth and mundanity, past and present, are briefly, temporarily, brought into wholeness.
by Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson
Puncher & Wattmann
Reviewed by MELINDA SMITH
The cover design of Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson’s dense and rewarding new book plays knowingly with the title, splitting the word Everyday across two lines and hyphenating it. Everyday Epic. Every day, epic. Fortunately the book lives up to both kinds of promise.
Starting with The Bundanon Cantos in 2003 Kerdijk-Nicholson has developed several distinct strands in her work. There are poems engaging with Australian history, poems in the lyric mode grappling with landscape, love , loss or all three, ekphrastic poems, and experimental works. In Everyday Epic each of these strands appears again, sometimes separately, sometimes woven together, all realised in Kerdijk-Nicholson’s precisely achieved language. She is a deft wielder of vivid one-syllable verbs (‘lug’ ‘swill’, ‘rasp’, ‘wrap’, ‘score’, ‘brand’, ‘pound’), which gives her work a muscular quality, a sense of hard physical work in the words like the hefting and honing of rocks. While working predominantly in free verse she is also technically adept in a range of forms, from the sonnet to the syllabic, skilled examples of each of which appear in this book.
Kerdijk-Nicholson’s landscape lyrics in Everyday Epic grow out of the beautiful poems in The Bundanon Cantos, and in fact this book contains two of the Cantos, slightly reworked: ‘Survivors’ (Canto XIII), and ‘Funeral Pyre’ (Canto XXXII). In this vein there are several more fine, sparely emotional yet resonant poems combining outer and inner landscape, such as ‘Driving to you’ and the perfectly achieved ‘Griefs’. There is a luscious sensuality in ‘Pears’ and ‘The first mango of summer’ which echoes Bundanon Canto XXXIV ‘Grace’. There are also fine elegies like the beautiful (and visceral) ‘Allotment’. These represent a broadening and deepening of her lyric achievement.
One of the central concerns of Everday Epic is art. There are several ekphrastic pieces: ‘Sketch and Oil: Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, contrasting the two versions of the famous work viewed side by side in New York’s MoMA; ‘The Polish Rider’, imagining the origins of Rembrandt’s painting, and the devastating ‘On the Exhibition of Yosuke Yamahata’s 119 Photographs of Nagasaki’. The ‘Truganinni’ sequence (discussed below) also falls into this category . Several more poems, concentrated in the sixth section of the book, consider the nature of art and making more generally, and their complicated relationship to ‘reality’ (‘Life Drawing’, ’Studies for a Nude’, ‘Notebook’, ‘Still Life’, ‘Bangarra’, ‘New York Lens’, ‘A woman walks towards a horse, in a poem’, ‘untitled’, ‘The mind travels’, ‘About seeing’, ‘What Landscape is telling’). Kerdijk-Nicholson’s position on these matters is perhaps best encapsulated in the ‘Jet vapour-trails’ section of ‘What Landscape is Telling’:
Back here, bees throb on purple
stitch herringbones, fall quiet
In this landscape
idea and picture compound.
To steal one damages the other –
as in trying to get sand
back from glass
This book also contains new experimental poems, harking back to works like ‘Cento’ in The Bundanon Cantos (Canto XXIII). Chief among these is ‘The Gubba Effect’ sequence, re-mixing the words of Brenda Saunders and Patti Smith into an unsettling meditation on the dispossession and denial at the heart of the Australian nation-state. She also ‘speaks back’ to poems—‘Pears’ is a riff on Stanley Kunitz’s ‘My Mother’s Pears’, told from the point of view of the pear-sender rather than the pear-receiver.
Everyday Epic continues Kerdijk-Nicholson’s engagement with Australian history in the sequences The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills (of which more below) and ‘Truganinni’. The two main Truganinni poems compare an 1830 painting and an 1866 photograph of the woman named variously as Truggernana, Seaweed, and Lalla Rookh. Not surprisingly both poems think very hard about the concept of ‘gaze’; in both of them Truganinni herself is described as frowning, and in the second there is ‘No doubt who looks at whom’. In a postscript to the sequence (‘The interpretative nature of art’) Kerdijk-Nicholson enacts the complexity of viewing the images today, through a post-colonial lens, as it were. Language almost breaks under the strain, leaving the reader (and the poet)
with interpret, crucible, mutilation
with stupid heart
why not leave what’s done alone
neighbour, we live in your home.
To the pre-existing strands of history, landscape lyric, ekphrasis and experiment, Kerdijk-Nicholson adds in this book a group of poems dealing with contemporary political and social issues: ‘The Goat-Song of the Bone Folder’ traces the journey of a maker of books who has become a refugee and is interned on Christmas Island and then Villawood. The poems use conceits of ink, stitching, leather and text, while the bone-folder of the title, a book-tool, comes to symbolise lost livelihood, agency, and love. Everyday Epic also contains (perhaps less successful) attempts to render contemporary life in Sydney (‘Diurnal – Slurry Heights’ and ‘Greek Orthodox, Surry Hills’) (although she does explicitly state this is a ‘diurnal that won’t be grasped or writ’). Here, too, are engagements with casual violence (‘From the kitchen window’, ‘At Sculpture by the Sea’) which are laudable in their witness-bearing, but which perhaps do not quite attain the resonant quality of her other work.
And so to the final section of the book, The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills. These eight long, linked poems continue Kerdijk-Nicholson’s ‘Australian History from Inside the Heads of Historical Personages’ work—seen previously to great effect in Possession, her acclaimed 2010 collection of Captain Cook ventriloquy.
The Burke and Wills poems are impeccably researched and follow the sprawling farce of the ill-fated 1860 ‘Victorian Exploring Expedition’ in chronological order, with a nuanced point of view that takes in the broader tragedy of the colonial enterprise. As she did with Possession, she has taken the poem titles from the lines of poets completely removed in time and place from the events recounted: in this case mining Louise Gluck and one of her favourites, Charles Wright. This tactic produces a distancing, estranging effect which in most cases works to freshen the well-worn subject matter.
There are, characteristically, perfectly-wrought images: ‘dams, great plates of sky nailed to the ground’, and narrative salted with comic dialogue, like the German-accented asides of ‘Dr Becker (the Surgeon)’ : ‘Vot is he saying?….Zere’s a lot of camel excrement’ and Charley Gray’s ‘lor luvva duck’ on riding over an eight-foot snake. The poems also, as they did in Possession, speak fully to the grit of the experience: ‘A man farts. Wills runs fingers/ through last night’s beard-spit…’. Small moments open out to greater historico-political resonance, but with a light touch: watching Dr Becker sketching a vividly coloured spider, ‘Burke thinks: anything that / colour red, in this place, means death./ And then he thinks this is just the place/to run a steam train through.’
As things become increasingly desperate for the expedition (spoiler alert: almost everyone dies) she does not shy from depicting it in spare, telling detail, so that the last lines in the sequence, spoken in lone survivor King’s voice, feel like a necessary unfolding rather than hyperbole. King is sitting in the camp of his indigenous rescuers, reliving the trauma of seeing Wills’ body after ‘wild dogs had eaten bits of him’ and sobs, startling the children playing near him, ‘survival,/ starvation’s bottom line, what we discovered/ – loathsomeness, vileness, horror – /is about me, it is me, it’s us. ‘
In Everyday Epic, Kerdijk-Nicholson continues her important engagement with history, politics and the continuing legacy of colonial violence and ignorance. She has, in addition, contributed several beautiful sentences to the never-ending conversation about art and life, and has also arrived, in her lyric poems, at a new clarity and tenderness. This is a hard-won, meaty collection, and a worthy addition to a significant body of work.
Year of the Wasp
by Joel Deane
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
A stroke is among the most disconcerting and disabling afflictions we humans are likely to encounter. Joel Deane, poet, speechwriter, novelist, had one in 2012 and Year of the Wasp is his three-part, book-length poem recounting that event and his recovery from it.
Although there are details of the wards, the nurses etc Deane has preferred to find “objective correlatives” for his suffering and so has, in effect, mythologised the experience. The mythology he uses is mainly classical but some allusions range more widely. While such a decision can frustrate the reader’s desire for medical and rehabilitative detail, it also generates a forward momentum so that the poem threatens almost to break free of the author’s control. Given that lack of control is the defining feature of a stroke, Deane’s strategy is not inappropriate.
The metaphorical energy employed in Year of the Wasp also reminds one of Luke Davies’ long poem, “Totem”, though that was essentially a love poem and this one is about pain (though love does intrude). A willingness to forgo literal coherence in favour of metaphorical intensity also goes back to the American poet, Hart Crane (1899-1933) in his “Voyages” and “The Bridge” sequences. It’s a fine, sometimes risk-taking, tradition.
Deane starts the title sequence clearly enough — and with a distinctly country-Victoria atmosphere: “South of Shepp / the Renault punched a hole / the shape of the first man / in a storm of locusts. / Confirming the irrigation flats / as God’s chosen wasteland.” It’s a characteristic mixture that continues through the rest of the book. The event (the stroke, though we are not told that at first) takes place south of “Shepp(arton)” but already we are in the Old Testament with locust plagues and a looming Jehovah. Later the gods will be classical, rather than the Jewish one, but we know the terrain we find ourselves in.
Another instance of Deane’s mythologising can be seen at the beginning of the very next poem. “It was foolish to hope. He prayed / for rain but the heavens let fall / Tithonus instead, / whose every atom / was transfigured into a wasp.” Here we have a straight statement of the poet’s initial helplessness — and then a reference to the Greek mythological figure, Tithonus, whose divine lover, Eos, asked Zeus to bestow immortality on him but forgot to ask for youth as well. Thus, according to some versions, Tithonus was transformed into a ancient cicada who calls out eternally, begging for death. The analogy to a stroke victim’s situation is more than apposite.
The wasp at the end of this excerpt symbolises the debilitating effects of the stroke throughout the book and, to a lesser extent, the sheer senselessness of strokes. It’s not as if anyone “deserves” one. It’s like being struck down by one of those arbitrary gods who had nothing better to do on the day. At times the wasps are particularly vindictive: “ a wasp performs a pig Latin liturgy / on the tabernacle / that is his tongue.” And we know how important the tongue is to a poet.
The distancing provided by the intermittent third person viewpoint seen here is also part of the poem’s overall effect. It contributes to the “objective” part of the “objective correlative”. And helps to avoid any self-pity.
A further contributor to the work’s overall tone is Deane’s use of literary allusions. His dog, apparently, is called “Caligula”, Robert Lowell’s schoolboy nickname, and so provokes a quotation from Lowell’s poem, “Skunk Hour” : “My mind’s not right.” Earlier on, a “black swan / of a woman” (his Somali nurse?) reminds the poet of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Both allusions are lightly made but they also help to connect the poem with the mainstream of poetry in English. Year of the Wasp is not at all a “confessional” poem about someone’s reversal of fortune.
A lot of the poems here are short, free-standing ones which contribute only obliquely to the whole while serving to ramify and widen the work’s overall intent. A fine example is seen in the opening four lines of a section which begins: “The way the setting sun shadows / a stand of pines that had no right / to colonise the river bank, / but did and do and shall remain”.
It’s also a foreshadowing of the more explicit political elements in the book’s final section, particularly the longer poem which begins: “Let us talk of Knoxville, Tennessee” and which goes on to intone lines like the following: “Let us and our children and our children’s children / not be burned to the bone. / Let us talk of the sorrow of being. / Let us waterboard General le May until he explains / how a killer is a hero is a father is a son.” Australia, too, does not escape: “Let us argue / at the Hague that the prisoners on Manus Island / are not people but haunted boku-zukin — / and that what is hidden beneath those hoods / is no longer human. “
Some readers may feel that, in these moral/political reflections, Deane has drifted somewhat from his first preoccupation with stroke and recovery. The poet’s response would probably be that the intensity of his suffering has forced him to look beyond himself and to now see his experience in a wider context. The stroke has not diminished his previous moral concerns; rather it has intensified them.
These concerns also lend pressure to the book’s final poem which begins: “There are no happy endings. / There is no life eternal. / There is only grace ephemeral.”. The poem goes on to remember “the years and months, days and hours / of that great unhappiness … “ Deane insists he “will not beg the Fates / for mercy, / for one day more than is my due.” There’s also a passing, and perhaps belated, tribute to the poet’s wife who has been seeing him through all this. “… and — / should tomorrow come / … give me the love I have loved / all my adult days / so that I might watch her clockwise / track the diurnal passage of the chariot / of the sun … / For though we have no time to live, /we have just enough time to love.”
As it was in the beginning, so it is at the end. One minute the poet is asking: “Remember Box Hill Hospital?” The next he’s talking about “the chariot / of the sun”. It’s been a heady combination of the literal and the mythological throughout. If some readers become momentarily lost along the way, the experience of reading Year of the Wasp is likely nevertheless to stay with them. It’ll be some time before they forget the impact of lines such as: “And on the third day / a seagull with ants for eyes / found him half-buried / in winter sand, and wearing / a surgical gown and a hospital bracelet / on a stranger’s wrist.”
Year of the Wasp is a brave book, packed with metaphorical energy, and repays multiple readings.
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra based poet and critic. He edited Best Australian Poems 2015 and his latest collection is Plevna, a verse biography, (UWA).
by Judith Beveridge
Reviewed by STU HATTON
According to the collection of Buddhist scriptures known as the Pāli Canon, Devadatta was a first cousin of the Buddha. Devadatta created a schism within the Sangha (the Buddha’s order), and tried to murder the Buddha on several occasions. In her introduction to Devadatta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge writes:
Some commentators say that Devadatta was the brother of Yasodhara, Siddhattha’s [i.e. the Buddha’s] wife, but I have also read that Devadatta was a suitor to Yasodhara, but he failed to win her hand in a test of arms, and that part of Devadatta’s animosity towards the Buddha was based on jealousy (p. 3).
Beveridge takes the latter version of the tale and runs with it, casting Devadatta as the speaker/poet in a book-length sequence of 48 monologues that she is quick to label as ‘highly fictionalised and dramatised’ (Introduction, p. 3; Beveridge’s emphasis). Here it’s worth noting Buddhist scholar and teacher Reginald Ray’s contention that ‘within the Indian Buddhist corpus’, portrayals of Devadatta are ‘not entirely consisent’, ranging from his being synonymous with evil, to being a saint praised by the Buddha himself (Ray, p. 162). Although Ray’s argument has been criticised in some quarters (see, for example, Bhikkhu Sujato), nevertheless as a mytho-historical figure, Devadatta’s status is unresolved to a certain extent, and this can be seen to offer Beveridge considerable licence.
The book’s title attributes the poems to Devadatta, but of course this is still very much a collection of Judith Beveridge poems. Had it been published anonymously, it would surely have been obvious to dedicated readers of her poetry that this was a Beveridge collection, partly due to hallmarks of style and form. The Buddhist subject matter would also have been a significant clue, since this is not the first time she has traversed this territory. Her 1996 collection Accidental Grace has a short sequence entitled ‘The Buddha Cycle’; and Wolf Notes (2003) includes ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’, a longer sequence in which Siddhattha is cast as the ‘I’, tracing the time from when he adopts a mendicant life, up until he is about to attain enlightenment.
Devadatta’s poems tend towards a formal neatness: most have a set number of lines per stanza, and some of the shapelier stanzas use indents with regular patterns. There are a number of variations on the pantoum—whereas ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’ offered variations on the stricter, more exacting villanelle. Repetition, simile, alliteration, assonance and rhyme are key linguistic components of the Pāli Canon (see Bhikkhu Anālayo), and all feature in Devadatta’s Poems. Alliteration and assonance are pushed to the limit in ‘Ground Swell’ (p. 8), in phrasings such as ‘the swippling swishes of fly-maddened flails’. Rhyme is employed occasionally, in poems such as ‘In Rajagaha’ (p. 28) and ‘Nightmare’ (p. 44). The concluding rhymes of ‘trash’/‘panache’/‘hash’ in ‘The Hermit’ (p. 48) examplify the humour that invigorates much of the collection.
Repetition comes to the fore in ‘Tailspin’ (p. 19), where practically every word or phrase is repeated at least once. The repetitions convey Devadatta’s obsession with Yasodhara (‘I want to say my prayers / and mantras, but I smell her hair, her scent of jasmine’). We also hear of his struggles with bodily aches (often the bane of the meditator). Devadatta says, ‘I find it hard to have / self-discipline’ and ‘I find it hard / to gain self-discipline’ [Emphasis mine]. It’s as if self-discipline might be ‘had’ like a coveted other, or bought, or hoarded like wealth; he doesn’t say he finds discipline hard to develop or cultivate.
Beveridge’s poetry, though, is aligned with an avowed practice of cultivation. She pursues a hard-won poetry of the ‘finished article’, of the ‘exact phrase’. But such a poetry, when paired with formal niceties, arguably sits a little awkwardly with the disposition and voice of Beveridge’s Devadatta. But perhaps his poetry can be seen as a cathartic outlet, with the formal, ordering processes undertaken therein constituting a mode of sublimation. On the other hand, Devadatta doesn’t seem to embody the kind of discipline needed to produce a ‘hard-won’ poem, and he is certainly not ‘the finished article’. But he doesn’t feel the Buddha fits the latter description either—and this scepticism regarding the Buddha’s attainment, teachings and methods makes for some pointed, scathing or even scandalous poems where much of the collection’s drama emerges.
In ‘The Buddha at Uruvela’ (p. 26) the Buddha is addressing a crowd, and Devadatta wonders to himself: ‘Can’t they see Buddha speaks from the privilege / of a high-borne, well heeled past?’. Devadatta continues: ‘Don’t these / / folk know what shackles them to suffering / is not desire, as the Buddha exposits, but the hard-set, / iron-fisted system of caste.’ Note the full stop after ‘caste’, where one might have expected a question mark. It’s as if Devadatta, being some kind of proto-Marxist, couldn’t bear to see a question mark following what he perhaps sees as a statement of fact.
It’s difficult to deny the importance of caste to the Buddha’s life; indeed, he can be seen as a radical of his time because he allowed members of any caste to join his order. He went against the ideological grain by pointing out that caste, in and of itself, was not an index of one’s spiritual birthright, or one’s potential for awakening. And while Devadatta is right to raise questions of caste and ideology, he seems to put the cart before the horse by nominating the caste system, rather than desire, as the ultimate source of suffering. For what is the caste system if not a programmatic structure to serve the desires of the few at the expense of the desires of the many? From a Buddhist perspective, it might be said that the caste system arises out of craving and aversion (i.e. the two sides of the coin of desire), as well as delusions associated with essentialistic separations between ‘self’ and ‘other’.
Beveridge eschews any claims Devadatta might have to saintliness, and makes no mention of his demand that monastics be more rigorously ascetic than required by the Buddha. As recounted in the Pāli Canon, this demand was, on one level, a ruse employed to create a schism; but it might also be seen as heartfelt. Beveridge has admitted that, compared to his canonical counterpart, her Devadatta is ‘much more lascivious and pleasure seeking’ (p. 3). He is marked as obsessive, covetous, bitter, vengeful, conniving. He’s a gambler, a drinker of wine and koumis, a smoker of hash. He craves delicious food, sexual pleasures, a carnival; if not luxury then certainly not the ‘poverty and slim pickings’ he ascribes to the monk’s lot (p. 15). He lets ‘desire have its ground’ (‘Vultures Peak’, p. 29). All of this flies in the face of the Buddha’s prescriptions for overcoming suffering and attaining enlightenment.
As a kind of nemesis or anti-Buddha figure, it seems appropriate that Devadatta’s cravings and attachments come to nothing. His scheming is ineffectual, and his attempts on the Buddha’s life are botched. In ‘Rocks, Vultures Peak’ (p. 52), Devadatta dislodges a sizeable rock from on high as the Buddha passes below; but the Buddha is ‘barely injured. A cut on his toe.’ Devadatta is at a distance; there is no direct confrontation as such—and this is true of all three methods he employs in attempting to kill the Buddha. Indeed, in forging his character and voice, Beveridge seems to have honed in on Devadatta’s remoteness. He does get on famously with his partner-in-scheming Ajatasattu, who seems just as grasping as him. But it’s noteworthy that all of Devadatta’s poems involving Yasodhara, and almost all involving Siddhattha are either recollections or (day)dreams. There is no ‘direct’, ‘present’ interaction or dialogue between these key characters. Perhaps if Beveridge had attempted to convey such interactions directly, it would have put too great a strain on the voice of the poems—or else some dramatic vehicle other than Devadatta’s voice may have been required?
It’s as if Devadatta has attained some kind of anti-nirvana of infinite, unfulfilled desires. He seems to be caught in past and future; he’s either stewing over past ‘injustices’, plotting Siddhattha’s downfall, or fantasising about Yasodhara. The ‘now’ only seems to get his attention when it involves sensual desire or disgust. And these are interwoven with imagination: cravings clawing towards an imagined future, aversions tending to draw upon the past (e.g. traumatic experiences).
I found Devadatta’s Poems a more grounded sequence than ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’. Certainly Devadatta’s diction in the former is less elevated than Siddhattha’s in the latter. ‘Between …’ was dedicated to Dorothy Porter, but it is Devadatta’s Poems that calls to mind Akhanaten and the darker soundings of Porter’s verse novels. Devadatta’s Poems gains vitality from its strokes of humour and playfulness; its flights of sound and sensuality in describing Devadatta’s world; its narrative frictions; and its gritty exploration of the all-too-human.
Beveridge, Judith, Accidental Grace, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1996.
Beveridge, Judith, Wolf Notes, Artarmon: Giramondo, 2003.
Bhikkhu Anālayo, ‘Oral Dimensions of Pāli Discourses: Pericopes, other Mnemonic Techniques and the Oral Performance Context’, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, Number Three, 2007, Toronto: Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies.
Bhikkhu Sujato, ‘Why Devadatta Was No Saint’, Santipada, 24 Oct 2012, accessed 11 May 2016, <http://santifm.org/santipada/2010/why-devadatta-was-no-saint/>.
Ray, Reginald, Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
STU HATTON is a poet, critic and editor based in Dja Dja Wurrung country. His work has appeared in The Age, Best Australian Poems 2012, Cordite, Overland and elsewhere. He has published two collections: How to be Hungry (2010) and Glitching (2014). Sometimes he posts things at http://outerblog.tumblr.com.
by Sandeep Parmar
Reviewed by NABINA DAS
The reading of Eidolon for me started with the cover art of Sandeep Parmar’s book. The Gustave Moreau painting evokes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as also of solitariness in a ravaged world—emotions that continue to run through the slim volume.
The 50 title-less poems numbered in Roman numerals is a narrative of Helen of Troy’s life then and after, literally. The poetic in this collection embodies artifact or memory, unspoken desire or a snapshot of both past and present.
The classical entity that we know Helen to be, is realized in Parmar’s poetry as a modern identity engaged in acts of everyday ennui or philosophizing about her immediate environs.
fetching the paper from the front lawn in her dressing gown a lot of the time
But that is only one dimension of this ideating the poet indulges in.
The word “denuded” is not only a reference to the body exposed and ensnared but also one that talks of a self shorn off the grandeur one imagines with the feminine representation of Helen of Troy.
Helen denuded Helen
a place of palor where
silk shrinks around her throat
exits the office”
“Silk” becomes the marker of a certain bearing, status or pretension. The idea of beauty, finesse, perfection can well choke the body as well the legacy of all bodies that inhabit a public space in our society.
Eidolon is a compass to memory, a newly annotated reference book to Helen the classical heroine, as well as to the so-called burden of a colonial history that Parmar has seen percolating her own history.
Tippeted old Colonial –
Uncle, his mustard handkerchief
like a standard raised to his lips
asks: ‘If it’s England vs. India
at the Cricket, where do you stand?’
This deviation from the ‘Helen narrative’ actually helps in understanding it better. The “standard” is a sign of power, one that was used by the British colonial masters. The history of the standard is ancient and one that is mostly associated with power and domination. This is further highlighted by the allusion to an “England vs. India” cricket match which, although less charged than an India-Pakistan face-off as any subcontinental would know, is a matter of great pride being staked on the either side. Divided loyalties is the crux of the matter here. Helen could have supported her own husband or her furtive lover. Either way, she would be doomed because she would have to carry the burden of identity pitted against love and duty. The “mustard” can be seen again as a nationalistic indicator given that saffron or mustard still plays a big role in contemporary politics especially in India, where Parmar’s roots are. Originally seen as a color of sacrifice, this hue acquires a complex meaning in the history of war/s and engaged body that the poet explores.
The narrative structure of Eidolon takes us back and forth through the personal emotions of the individual named Helen, her projected historical aura, as well as through Parmar’s own voice of listlessness. Sometimes, the latter appear to be a longing for locating the self through this designated character of Helen.
Helen where are you
and where is your shadow Helen
circling the horse
packed with soldiers
in the voices
of their wives
Something interesting here is at play other than the call for attention. It’s the “shadow” that supposedly addresses the tired soldiers. The multiple becoming of Helen in this manner is an indication of her being seen by the poet as a unique device for iteration. The men are taunted, for they have wasted time in warring. Parmar’s feminist personae through this shadow-talking is highly evocative. The voices that the shadow mimics is a perfect impersonation to drive home notions of love, repose, longing, and feminist futurism.
Throughout the collection, one may say Parmar’s ‘Hellenic ideal’ through the narrative of Helen is also a call to democracy, justice, and equal rights:
US National Interests. Matters of vital interest to the United States to include national security, public safety, national economic security, the safe and reliable functioning of “critical infrastructure”, and the availability of “key resources”. [PPD (Presidential Policy Directive) 20, Top Secret]
It has of course occurred to me that this conversation
is being recorded but what you say
does not anyway belong to me (vii)
The all-too well known image of “Uncle Sam/a pitifully silvered Abe Lincoln/his sinewy hands pray” is the flag bearer of a masculinity-riddled civilization that Helen’s imagery seeks to appeal to, requesting sanity in politics and personal life.
In fact, this conglomeration of ideas—the individual and the collective states of mind—could seem to be jostling too close for elbow space. While the gamut of concepts in undoubtedly eclectic, the sparkle ebbs now and then because the reader hops over staccato sentences, jaunty phrases, abrupt transitions and somewhat loosely structured topic switches.
However, this is where the reader also feels that Parmar toys with space and page and we see a lot of long and short sentences, as though history and lore keep vying for focus, At times, the line breaks, lengths and indents seem too frequent. Language in Parmar’s hands is a tool or a trick. Like memory it rambles or prances. At times it diverts one’s interest in the subject matter. There is no denying the fact that at the end Parmar’s craft provokes to gauge through the verses. Eidolon emerges in the reader’s vision as that ‘reincarnation’ that is at once empowered, prophetic, and questioning.
NABINA DAS is a 2015-16 Commonwealth Writers Correspondent, a 2012 Charles Wallace Fellow, and a 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellow. She is the author of a short story collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped and a novel Footprints in the Bajra. Nabina’s debut poetry collection Blue Vessel was cited as one of the best poetry books of 2012 while the most recent volume Into the Migrant City was cited as one of the top 11 poetry reads of 2014. An MFA from Rutgers University, Nabina teaches creative writing to students in universities and workshops. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Prairie Schooner; The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians (Queen’s University, Belfast); The Indian Quarterly; Caravan; The Missing Slate; Good Housekeeping, etc. Nabina occasionally blogs at http://nabinadas13.wordpress.com/