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/
Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal
by Charles Baudelaire (trans. Jan Owen)
Reviewed by JUDITH BISHOP
‘– Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!’ With these halting, celebrated lines, Baudelaire most hauntingly begs the reader to look inside herself, and to recognize there what he has seen in himself: ennui, avarice, vice, disgust and death; but also, in quite other moods, the dancing chimeras of escape from all that, portals to a half-glimpsed and brilliant immensity of existence.
Baudelaire today still seems our semblable—our counterpart, despite the distances any comparison must acknowledge: the intervals of sensibility as much as time. Exclamatory and forceful, vitriolic and ecstatic, poems such as ‘I worship you’ (‘Je t’adore à l’égal de la voûte nocturne’) bring to their subject matter, an unsatisfied lover’s complaint, an existential intensity often absent from contemporary poetry[i]:
I worship you as I do the midnight sky’s
majestic vault, O silent brooding vase
of sadness, and all the more as you take flight
and I cherish, cruel, unyielding creature, even
the icy air by which you are my heaven!
The intensity that writes each image on a far larger canvas than a personal experience (here, the immensity of the night sky) is arguably the poems’ true subject, as Gaston Bachelard suggested half a century ago:
‘Baudelaire says […] at such moments ‘the sense of existence is immensely increased.’ Here we discover that immensity in the intimate domain is intensity, an intensity of being […]’ (The Poetics of Space, 1958: 193).
Through work such as Baudelaire’s, the reader is invited to share in the (re-)discovery of the intensity of existence—to read her own experience writ large.
Baudelaire lived between the waning of the first and the onset of the second Industrial Revolution. For the mass of those not fortunate enough to lead or to profit from those enormous innovations, the lack of control entailed by the changes could be crushing. Many of Baudelaire’s images and metaphors circle like vultures around an absence of control—in his amorous relations, unable to restrain the desires that he curses; the omnipresence of death; even in his joy and exaltation, when a beloved perfume transports him, half-dreaming, to some distant, voluptuous realm of inner experience. In all of this, Baudelaire seems rarely, if ever, the master of his vessel, and his personal life holds a mirror to his contemporary situation.
Should the revolutions of Baudelaire’s time seem far distant, we might recall that we are, some argue, on the cusp of a fourth technological upheaval or revolution, following on closely from the third, the so-called digital revolution, just as the second industrial revolution built upon and radicalised the work done by the first. A convergence of new materials technologies, biotechnologies, robotics and artificial intelligence, vast data sources and data processing capacities – not to mention the impacts of climate change—may soon overhaul aspects of existence we currently take for granted, and concomitant social changes may knock us out of our own familiar orbits, in ways similar to the existential blows experienced by Baudelaire and others in his time.
In proposing these new translations of selected poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, Jan Owen has risen to the challenge of bringing us a Baudelaire who remains our brother, despite the intervals in time and conventions of emotional tenor: reminding us of an intensity of living which is also ours, even when we choose to look away from it. The resultant poems are a marvel, both technically and in the empathy for their content demonstrated by each choice of word and phrase. The extent to which they succeed underlines the necessary kinship, also, between the translator and the poet she renders.
Jan Owen’s own poems, as illustrated in her most recent new and selected, The Offhand Angel (Eyewear Publishing: 2015), are gentle and ludic—at times delightfully impish—in their tone. They are a deft and melodious tissue of inhabited places from around the globe, people known, birds, insects and flowers, lost times and lost objects, woven together with questions and philosophical asides that open like windows onto gravity and silence. They are, at first, no obvious kin for Baudelaire’s, aside from a certain thread of melancholic memory. Yet our kin are often those who, like ourselves in certain ways, differ in others that we yearn for.
Owen’s musicality, technical facility and her sheer inventiveness in finding ways to echo, if not to mirror, Baudelaire’s content and form in sonnets and other taut forms are one sure sign of her kinship. Take, for example, the transformations in this stanza from Hymn to Beauty (Hymne à la beauté), which, choosing a colloquial music over literal correspondence, result in a poem that, more muted in its energy than the original, is nonetheless in harmony with it. Note in particular the felicitous choice of ‘seraph’ in place of ‘angel’, the ‘velvet eyes’ of the fay rendered as ‘doe-eyed’, the deft half-rhyme of siren/lessen; and the introduced, but apt, ‘dead’ of ‘dead weight’:
Are you from God or Satan – seraph or siren –
you doe-eyed fay of rhythm, scent and light?
Who cares, my queen, since only you can lessen
this world’s ugliness, this hour’s dead weight?
De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène,
Qu’importe, si tu rends, – fée aux yeux de velours,
Rythme, parfum, lueur, ô mon unique reine! –
L’univers moins hideux et les instants moins lourds?
The success of these translations may be judged by their rendering of the most celebrated poems, such as The Albatross, Correspondences, The Voyage, Meditation: Owen does not falter on any of these poems. Her Correspondences is the most delightful translation of that poem I have read; she is bold, here also, leaning on her affinity with the poet to judge when a changed expression is nonetheless a fine equivalent:
All nature is a temple. Words and cries
drift from her living pillars and arcades;
a thousand symbols throng those woods and glades
and watch us pass, with long-familiar eyes.
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des fôrets de symboles
Qui l’observe avec des regards familiers.
Where others have wrestled with the literal meaning of ‘confuses paroles’ (literally, ‘confused words’), Owen translates the emotional element of confuses with the addition of ‘cries’. For the sake of mellifluous rhythm—a key element in the pleasure of Baudelaire’s poems—she adds ‘and arcades’ to ‘pillars’ and ‘and glades’ to ‘woods’, choosing, in each case, a word that recalls the mythological world of ancient Greece, present in so many of the poems. The forest of symbols through which men pass becomes a more active presence in Owen’s version, multiplied to ‘thousands’ that ‘throng’ about the passer-by; yet again, one suspects Baudelaire would have approved, sensitive as he was to all that may impinge on the solitary wanderer: city crowds, perfumes, the sunlit clarity of day. The poem’s final line is likewise a departure from other English versions, yet has a resonance that other versions lack; I will not cite it, but only urge the reader to look it up and judge for himself.
Read these translations for their boldness, yet affinity with a great poet; and read them for the impish joy that here and there comes through in a slangy choice of words, which, perfectly musical, gives the poems a new and contemporary voice.
[i] Though in Sylvia Plath’s work there is many such a moment; and Plath, of course, had been a close reader of Baudelaire, as Harold Bloom reminds us (Sylvia Plath, Bloom’s Literary Criticism: 2007). Meanwhile, advertising has tried to co-opt exclamatory language and existential intensity, cf.: Toyota’s ‘Oh what a feeling!’ and Coca Cola’s synaesthesic ‘Taste the feeling’ campaign, not to mention the exhortation to drink ‘Life’.
JUDITH BISHOP is a poet and professional linguist. Her first book, Event (Salt Publishing, 2007), won the Anne Elder award. Aftermarks appeared in the Rare Object Series from Vagabond Press in 2012. Interval (poems) will be completed this year. Judith lives with her family in Melbourne, Australia.
by Natalie Harkin
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
‘Consider this words
Natalie Harkin’s first collection of poetry, Dirty Words, illustrates the effects of words down the generations of white Australia’s history. Harkin is a Narungga writer from South Australia and this suite of poems, what Harkin calls ‘an A to Z index of poetry’, begins with ‘Apology’ and continues through ‘Genocide’, ‘Political Correctness’, ‘Xenophobia’ finally completing the cycle with ‘Zero Tolerance’. Describing the work as a short survey through Australia’s recent political and racial history though, while doing justice to the overarching structure of the collection, undermines the real power of Harkin’s work.
Writing into the space between popular assumptions and lived experience Harkin is interested in examining the real and the remembered against the commonly held conclusion. Overlaid with statements by politicians, comments on contemporary Australian society, and texts from the white documentation of this country, Harkin makes obvious the effect of words on lives and histories, both past and future.
Harkin describes how an Aunty would undertake the ‘much work to be done’ as her ‘sing-chant-rage’ and Peter Minter, in his introduction, picks up on this phrase, expanding the triptych to encompass the whole work. Dirty Words is a ‘sing-chant-rage’ but it is also a lament and a call to action.
In particular, the poems form a snapshot of the years from 1996 through to 2014, with former Prime Minister’s John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, the Intervention, land rights and sovereignty, and the Stolen Generations, all appearing within the text. Many of the poems draw on archival texts as far ranging as government legislation, politicians speeches, royal commission recommendations, academic writing, news reports, magazines and personal letters to contextualise and expose racist attitudes towards Aboriginal people in this country, attitudes that are still present in government policy for, and community expectations of, Aboriginal people generally.
For instance, ‘D’ in Harkin’s dictionary is for ‘Domestic’ and begins with a quote from academic and writer Professor Jackie Huggins,
‘The stories of Aboriginal women domestic servants cannot be told enough. They illuminate a deeply-rooted racist facet of Australia’s history. They tell of the trials tribulations and triumphs amidst the backdrop of oppression.’ (p10)
What these histories do within the text is to reveal how interconnected we all are to colonialism in its history and its present within this country. The point of view that Harkin brings to these issues is personal but also national, revealing the links of complicity, trauma and loss. To highlight the complicity of white women (for whose domesticity were these women serving?) in the processes of colonisation, discrimination and oppression Harkin quotes directly from a 1926 publication, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, and shifts the phrasing and enjambments to force the reader to slow, to grasp the extent of the horror these young women endured:
I got her direct from a camp some miles from here and until she
became used to things I had to tolerate the company of her mother and
younger sister for a fortnight [she] was then about 12 years …’ (p7)
That line ‘I got her from a camp’, and the (white) space around it, catches me every time I read this work, reminding me of the everyday power that has been exerted by individuals throughout white Australia’s history. It is also a phrase that, for me as a white woman of this land, holds the mirror clear and still. Harkin’s work is without irony and can be brutal in her demand that the reader recognise herself on the page.
This focus on Aboriginal women’s experience of colonisation is one of the themes of the work, particularly under the inclusion for ‘R’, Resistance. Here Harkin invokes her Aunties lives as rhyme and rage and sophistication and vision, listing their character, work, accomplishments and her ongoing relationship to them:
These days I think of Aunty Irene … and her look grounds me’, (p25)
These days I think of Aunty Elaine … all tough-love-grit …
all elder-knowledge-strength’ (p26)
These days I think of Aunty Charlotte …
one of the wise-ones she survived
this country’s shame and lived on to tell it Like. It. Is’ (p27)
These days I think of Aunty Veronica… big-
she fought hard proud strong …
today’s picket-lines and rallies
are too gentle without her today’s healing-circles are broken
without her’ (p28)
These days I think of Aunty Doreen … her brilliant photographic-
memory begins … almost impossible to take in … she
puts me in my place family history
stories float gently…’ (p29)
These days I think of Aunty Vi …
we always end up talking about what connects us …
quietly writing documenting speaking for justice education
peace … this yearning for
more conversation is an un-settled mourning …’ (p30)
This section closes with Harkin’s action of remembering how useful it is to remember who and what has gone before:
I think of the women
who fought and loved so hard
I raise my hand catch their last breath
I thank them
The image Harkin creates here also draws the reader to that powerful image of the African American athletes on the winners podium at the 1968 Olympic Games, fists raised with pride and so they could not be ignored. Similarly, Harkin’s embedding of these women in her text, and these passages are the foundation of the work, means that their lives, their energy, their purpose can not be ignored or dissembled or dismissed.
There is much movement throughout all the poems: oceans storm, tall ships float, words are carried, we are instructed to walk, we are told of hugs, of protests, of talk, of going bush and of love in many guises. Harkin understands the way words can lift and sweep the reader along, and how to create shock and surprise on the page. As I read, from front to back, then dipping in and out, then back to front, perspectives changed, vistas loomed and retreated, some phrases glimmered as though they were mirages in the desert:
elicit great excitement
into tomorrow (p34)
The other foundation of the work is the land itself and Dirty Words is a significant pleading for environmental restraint and recuperation. ‘Apology’ might be expected to draw on the Stolen Generations and Kevin Rudd’s 2007 apology to those Aboriginal people taken from their families because of government policy. But Harkin neatly and profoundly uses this moment to place the issue of uranium mining up front, linking the mining of uranium in Australia, Aboriginal land rights, and cultural dispossession to the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters:
Traditional Owners state
Welcome Mr Naoto Kan
[ex-Prime Minister of Japan]
we are very sad
we are very sad
the ongoing disaster
come witness the impact
of where it began
at the start
of this nuclear
This work can be opened at any page and the reader will be met with a layered, complex, re-telling of contemporary Australia. Harkin’s words carry weight and demand the reader recognise their relationship to the map of Australia that Harkin writes. Dirty Words is shimmering rage, weary heartbrokenness and careful optimism and it stands tall and unwavering, a landmark in Australian publishing.
PIP NEWLING’s first book was Knockabout Girl: A Memoir (HCA) and her creative nonfiction writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and the Fish Anthology. She is currently writing about local swimming pools, and has a Doctor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) from Wollongong University in which she wrote about place, race and community and wrote a memoir of her hometown, Taree in NSW.