Russell Winfrey studied English at Wabash College and is currently working on an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His poem “Saddlesore” appeared in Belleville Park Pages in 2013. He is currently working on a poetry collection titled Changing Quarters. He resides near Charlotte, North Carolina.
the bustle of your wind-up legs
your pizzicato charge
at receding surf
and whitecaps chase you back
such a spot this well-churned earth
spitting ancient critters, knotted wrack
I don’t mean to lighten
your serious business
your clumsy syringe
rooting for sandy noshes:
some spare unseen meat
or diminish your noble frame
your little fur coat
perched on spindle galoshes
my god, in this heat!
— surely inured
face burnt and over-exfoliated
my hair crunchy like a beach weed
two days on a towel
and I’m ready to throw it in
much as I might
like to put you in my pocket
this is the place you are
and just a place I’ve been
Letter to Pessoa
by Michelle Cahill
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Letter to Pessoa fuses prose, poetry, and literary criticism, and is a hymn to the Republic of Letters. Michelle Cahill’s stories are set in multiple locations: Kenya where she was born; London and Australia where she grew up and now lives, respectively; India which is her family’s country of origin; but also Europe, Latin America, and the USA. As a writer, reader, and fellow traveler, she revisits through the power of fiction the literary canon and authors such as Lorca, Borges, Woolf, or Derrida. Like the South Asian-American character Gogol, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Cahill’s description as Indian-Australian as referenced on the Giramondo book cover, seems to be a misnomer. The sophistication of the collection’s display of a painting by Madeleine Kelly entitled Treatment for Hysteria is unusual of self-proclaimed Asian Australian literary works, whose cover often betrays the cultural provenance of their author by assimilating the latter to an archetypal Orient. Cahill uses the unmarkedness of the Western referent to develop universal themes linking hysteria (from Greek hustera meaning ‘womb’) to femininity, artistic creativity, and the pleasures of Eros.
Many stories in this collection deal with the subject of erotic relationships, although they are not all pleasurable. Inspired by the teachings of Buddhism, Cahill shows lust to be the cause of much of our suffering as human beings, drawn as it is by an illusory desire for completion. Yet at the same time, this is an illusion worth falling for and pursuing, like writing and reading. Lovers’ words and word lovers are treacherous, as Sartre realised when he published Les Mots, and as his complicated relationship with De Beauvoir attested. In post-structuralist fashion, for Cahill’s characters commitments of various kinds (religious, philosophical, political, amorous, humanitarian, filial or otherwise) are always-already fragmentary, postponed, and proxy-like, if only because of the self-referential, relative, and contingent nature of our identities. The part of self-control or randomness in the detours, distractions, and choices we face both as conscientious and conscious agents leave us stranded, exhausted, even suicidal. With an existentialist nausea, tempered by the difficulties of the writing life, Cahill’s characters long for spiritual detachment and freedom while remaining faithful to their elusive quest for meaning, as in ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’: ‘Is it unassailable as death then, this fate of being a slave to signification? And who determines it? How did this happen? I am shattered and vaguely nauseous.’ (230)
Uncertainty is true of the human condition in general but is characteristic of the writing process in particular. Repetitions, draftings, effacements, are part and parcel of a ‘medium — language—’ which, unlike other forms of artistic expression such as painting or music, intrinsically involves precision of meaning.’ (Haskell) This is one reason, I believe, why Cahill used the letter form in her collection. Her fetishistic epistles to various totemic figures of the writing scene — Nabokov, Hemingway, Genet, Conrad, and many others — interpellate the reader with a directness that is as intimate as it is disquieting, for it inscribes the insignias of difference, absence, and death in the very place of the addressee. In some passages, Cahill lays bare the fallacy of first/third-person narratives, for ‘accordingly, this author, this narrator, this third person, is other than me entirely.’ (Cahill 40) One always writes for an idealised Cause or Other, if only for one’s projected, fictional selves, in the manner of ‘internal monologues.’ (Cahill, 60) Through the dreaming of reality, the origin, sex, or trace of an author’s haunting presence within the text matters little. With Barthesean sensibility, Cahill thoroughly deconstructs the artificial distinction between author and narrator/narration, since epistolary exchange always-already involves a double address, to the Self as to the Other; writing under erasure, thus.
Cahill’s collection further posits the impossibility of the presence of the body in writing, other than as an object of fantasy which must be distinct from its author. The body has its own logic, will, and language that cannot be captured in words, unless as prosody. Language’s failure to enshrine presence is where poetry starts: ‘Language is fundamentally abstract (unlike movement, colour and line) but literature uses the rhythms, sound patterns and textures of language to overcome that abstractness and capture something of the sensory qualities of experience.’ (Haskell) We can speak of the material and visual resonances that certain choices of words and assemblages Cahill’s aesthetics will not fail to elicit on the reader. Some metronomic cadence or ‘meretricious rhyme’ (60), such as the ‘automatic’ (Cahill 20) nature of physical pleasure or the ‘mechanical’ (21) to and fro of heart valves heard reverberating inside the head on sleepless, feverish, lonely nights, prove to be a source of pain while other, more soothingly ‘joyful repetitions’ (34) are found in the ostinato of a tenor saxophone (33) or in ‘tabla rhythms.’ (91)
For Cahill, writing, too, can be both a painstaking and indispensable activity. At times, her personas write to be loved or to be heard (‘words are all we have — they speak to us and we echo back’ (61). At others it is either the deeply ethical nature or the amoralism of writing; the way writers are ‘smugglers of the imagination,’ (232) which petty criminals such as the drug dealer in ‘Letter to Jean Genet’ find attractive. Most of the time, though, writing consists in a form of hallucinated daydream in which the Self is allowed temporary escape from pressing commitments (professional, marital, motherly or otherwise) as well as from the humdrum and agitation of modern city life, as in Cahill’s story ‘The Lucid Krishna.’ Her literary creations seem like playful recreations, as in ‘Letter to John Cotetzee.’ Melanie Isaacs, the marginal, silenced woman of colour and university professor David Lurie’s illicit, secret student lover in Coetzee’s Disgrace is given the possibility of a ‘write back’ in the manner of Susan Barton’s letters in Foe, Coetzee’s adaptation of Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe. Can we see in Melanie an avatar of Cahill’s own multiple personifications? Who is this voyeuristic eye/I addressing us as readers from the footnotes of history? As Cahill argues in the author’s note, ‘The letter form…creates a double address and a double narrative between two subjects, reader and author. In this way it can question the status of identities.’
Following Cahill, equally questionable is the status of the literary critic or ‘re-viewer’ as a cover-up for the belated gap which writing as immanence irreducibly inscribes. The commanding ‘you’ form may seek to destroy the illusion of the critic as an objective intermediary or neutral arbiter between author and reader. The letter form, besides, encourages such an intersubjective intimacy while at the same time situating the object of criticism in a slippery realm which, as soon we seek to grasp it, evades us. This is a similar ‘skittishness’ (Cahill 240) which Cahill’s characters, as outsiders, feel — their outsider status not always the product of actual marginalia (in fact, quite a few of them come from a privileged, middle-class background) as it is the manifest expression of an inner struggle for authenticity. As the ‘spirit’ of Cahill writes in her last envoi in ‘A Miko Coda’: ‘If you are passing through me for the first time please enjoy my characters, disguises, sabotages and micro-prose.’ (241-2)
As a reader I appreciate the sincerity, the insecurity, and subtlety of Cahill’s hypertextual montages, Purloined Letters, and Post Cards. I would like to address Cahill just as she addresses me ‘as subject, as author of my own desires, anxieties and caprices.’ (56) It was Derrida, without whom Cahill’s narrator is ‘powerless’ (41), who once declared or wrote that he’d never considered himself to be a philosopher or a critic but rather a careful and patient (re)reader; likewise, that deconstruction is not a school or theory but a methodology and practice. I remember Derrida also retorting in a YouTube video that he wasn’t interested in l’amour (love); or did the interviewer mean la mort (death)? La petite mort is a metaphor for orgasm, which in French translates into jouissance, another word for bliss. Cahill is aware of both the magnitudinal intricacies of language’s future anteriority, (as in ‘Borges and I,’ the story of a resuscitated scientist), and of the rejuvenating potential of love, as of death.
In this age of digital and smartphone romance, amateurish stardom, pathological narcissism, and the proliferation of empty signifiers in the form of social medias such as Twitter or Facebook, the lead story ‘Duende,’ which won the 2014 Hilary Mantel International Short Story Award, struck a chord with me. This has eventually little to do with its tragic ending, I believe. Rather, it must be the character Julio’s antiquated yet genuine understanding on seeing the killing of a bull at a corrida in Seville, of the practice of art and poetry in particular as akin to what Artaud called a Theatre of Cruelty: ‘There’s a café by the river bank in Arenal where he orders wine and starts to write. For the first time in months the poems bleed. They spill from his pen to the paper almost monotonously.’ (Cahill 51) As his soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Miguel also feels, ‘There’s a mutilation to art which can’t be named.’ (Cahill 53)
Writing involves sacrifices. This, Hemingway understood, as Cahill does. I do not have in mind the refugee crisis in ‘Sleep Has No Home’ or the Christmas Island disaster which she exposes so tragically in ‘A Wall of Water.’ As its title suggests, these are distant nightmares, although they ought not to be. Neither do I allude to her tackling of the subject of libidinous desire in ‘To Show A Little Hustle’ or ‘Chasing Nabokov.’ These are necessary engagements, especially in the field of self-identified Asian Australian women’s writing where the erotic often remains a non-issue or a commodity, and Cahill addresses them with elegance, insight and cleverness.
What I mean instead are the ‘tortured souls’ in ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’ (Cahill 224) and the ‘apocryphal realms’ of ‘Borges and I’ (133) which, following historical precedents and political oppressions, may be invented by the minority writer for their own sanity, stranded as they are in a hostile material reality, with personal failures and industry hurdles to the letters being issued. There is an irony in this. Cahill knows perfectly well that her letters might remain forever unanswered; that they must stop somewhere, at some point, for ‘the book to find its destination’ (236) into the collective mainstream of a readers’ consciousness; though that may never be, for a book’s message, particularly as a short story collection, is bound to be fragmented, like two lovers parting or like a divorced couple. And yet it is the aesthetic of the fragment that most concerns the minority writer. Cahill’s anguish in ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’ to unburden herself from the writing process, to be free of writing, makes of the text, a reader, interpreting the figurative voices, compiling all the fragments: ‘I am not the writer, it is Mochizuki that I see.’ she plangently confesses in ‘A Miko Coda.” (Cahill 240)
There is an intentional ambivalence to this text-author, text-critic correlation. It can appear at times like the relationship between patient and psychoanalyst; the latter not really there, a silent listener. Can this delayed conversation however, be more accurate and the only material available in this age of immediacy, the Internet? And does Cahill use the handmade flow of a pen and paper or the dictates of a computer machine to compose her Letter?
While these interrogations may be none of her concern, they are part of my own thread of thoughts as a devoted reader. Letter to Pessoa trembles under the structure of dialogic, incandescent narratives. It is a profound, subtle and important collection; one deserving of a deep appreciation through reading, and (re)reading.
Haskell, Dennis. “Seeing Eye to I: The Power of Asian Literatures.” Asialink, 01 Dec 2010.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).
Paths of Flight
by Luke Fischer
Black Pepper Press
Reviewed by ROBBIE COBURN
The philosophical subject of Luke Fischer’s poetics aligned with his astounding use of language and form create a poetry born of beauty and existential exploration. In Paths of Flight, his debut collection, the natural world and the internalized world of the poet collide and create a space beyond both.
Often, when a poet intends to create the perfect poem technically and structurally, the emotional drive that stimulates the reader can become quickly buried beneath the words, and the balance between quality writing and emotional honesty is undoubtedly a difficult one. Fischer himself ‘regards poetry as a mediation and articulation of truth’, and this book embodies this while still standing as a technically impressive body of work.
Fischer’s work has appeared in various places and has been appropriately acknowledged for its beauty and skill, but to categorize this as a “first collection” seems impossible. The poems demonstrate assurance, control, balance and precision, without becoming forced at any time. One of the most interesting aspects of Fischer’s poetry is the approach and careful execution of the work. A highly-regarded scholar, his work is deeply rooted in philosophy, with a focus on the work of Rilke.
‘I follow the fluent sequences’, a line quoted on the back cover of the book, indeed evokes the sequence of both living and poetry, seamlessly tied to the flight of birds as the poet watches two black birds ‘arcing more smoothly than figure skaters’. The startling imagery, which is characteristic of Paths of Flight, is deployed with immense subtlety and control, while detail is used as a device that evokes complexity and depth, such as in ‘Aristocratic Party’:
I notice in one corner
a hem of brittle lace
not quite hiding
Fischer’s poems notice aspects both prominent and hidden within the natural and the internal. There are a great many forms taken on, though the imagery that characterizes Fischer’s poetry has a way of pervading his oeuvre. The presence of birds, as the title suggests, is a recurring feature. Much like the work of Robert Adamson, Fischer views the bird as an intelligent, endlessly beautiful creature, despite acknowledging its capacity for violence out of necessity and survival.
Sometimes the bird is a vehicle for metaphor, or could describe an emotion, an experience or a landscape, such as in ‘Swift’:
Hawkish face and eyes,
pared to necessity;
planed by supernal winds,
The image of a ‘feathered-bullet’ to describe a bird is a breathtaking example of the way Fischer uses the man-made world to explore the subjectivity of birds, with ‘pared to necessity’ describing the bird in flight, doing as it must beneath the drive of nature.
Birds and landscapes are, also, often linked to history and mythology, demonstrating the immense knowledge possessed by the poet and his skilful ability to use it as a device in his work.
The excellent ‘Everything is water’, the title of which is itself a quote from the Pre-Socratic philosopher,Thales, uses nature as a metaphor for the body, while creating a history of understanding the ways in which the body operates in the natural world as ‘a system of currents/wrapped around the body/and limbs of a goddess/defying gravity’. This serves as a meditation on evolution and discovery in the ancient world, and contains some of Fischer’s most beautiful lines
They must have learned from water
and with fluent strokes
imparted their knowledge to marble
until the river itself stood up
Some of the poems that rely less on imagery are equally as powerful. These poems flow with sincerity and honesty, the seasons and landscape almost always still entering the poems minimally. In ‘Reverie’, the poet reflects on a simple moment of peace and clarity, sitting beside what appears to be a partner, watching the sun, celebrating the beauty of this moment and the solace it provides:
After a long winter,
imitating the lizards on their stones
we rest on benches strewn along the river
with our faces turned to the sun; closing our eyes
we dream of golden palaces forged by Hephaestus.
One of the finest poems in this collection, written from the point of view of a hermit in the 15th century, is so precise and haunting, so free of any excess, that it leaves the reader startled. Fischer writes starkly, brilliantly affirming his speaker ‘when the inner sun/dawned my mind turned/into the glittering face of the sea’. This is a moving, somewhat troubling piece, as the hermit contemplates the fact that his diary may never be read and his words may never be heard as he ‘[speaks] and does not speak’:
Even as I write
(“Transcription from the first page of a hermit’s diary (c. 1500)”
A stunning achievement within a book of many, the poetry of Luke Fischer is unquestionably diverse and unique. It is testament to his range, skill and depth that he can evoke and marry the natural landscape with the internal landscape, while also exploring many states of mind, and aspects of what it means to be human. Intelligent and filled with a deep sense of humanity, Paths of Flight shows us there is as much need to look into the sky for meaning as there is to simply look into the sky for beauty.
ROBBIE COBURN is a Melbourne-based poet. His second full-length The Other Flesh is due out in early 2017.
William Russell, born in Victoria, has been published in journals and anthologies in Australia and overseas, including: This Australia; Meanjin; Borderlands; Antipodes;and Paintbrush—and Inside Black Australia; Spirit Song; and The Sting in the Wattle. Poems like Red, God Gave Us Trees To Cut Down, Blackberrying and Tali Karng: Twilight Snake have been included in international anthologies and education curricula. Peer poet-playwright Gerry Bostock spoke of him as someone really up against the odds: “a blind, ex-serviceman of the Vietnam era, with PTSD, a fair-skinned Aboriginal male—and, worst of all, a poet.” William draws from defining and extraordinary life experience, disability and deep cultural roots to create a diverse repertoire of poetry.
This fella here…
king, king, king, king…
White fella call him Bellbird—
Yeh, he sound just like little bells—
We call him King.
White fella loves these bellbirds—
king, king, king, king—
All day singing like every tree
Is hung with bells whose random toll
King, king, from every quarter.
Bellbirds: they are liked by the White fella
Because, they are just like the White fella.
They march into a country king, king,
And chase all the other birds away.
All their king, king, kinging is them talking
About where all their land is…
king, king, kweek…
They farm lerp on leaves for food,
And soon enough, all the trees die.
King, kweek, dtjak, dtjak, dtjak.
This forest changes—another habitat—
Another ecology. No bells today,
Something new tomorrow…
The wind sighs through the forest
And branches sway…
I prefer tongue-tied knowledge to ignorant loquacity.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero
In the earliest hours of winter
My mind commands adamantine
Thoughts as sharp as the frost
Yet my tongue is marled tight
In my head and the keen words
Are as lost as the leaves of trees.
Eggs, over easy, on a bed of chili and fried potato,
washed down with Mexican hot chocolate:
breakfast in Santa Fe.
The moon wears a shadow-shawl
over her bright-silvern head
and tied beneath her protruding chin.
She is attempting to enter the window
past garlands of dried red chiles
to the chocolate and watermelon.
Frost enters the casita with the moon.
An owl sighs in the stark tree of the court;
it has eaten, and now watches the moon’s
progress through the window toward the chocolate.
Stars rain in a clear black sky, and a coyote
howls—demanding the moon’s attention.
Juniper and piñon smoke marry
to fly with the silent owl
over adobe and around flakes of snow.
The moon kisses the chocolate
but the frost is thwarted by a fire.
And the coyote moves further up the cañon.
the moon has tasted the chocolate;
I have slept late and now am hungry
for a simple, warming breakfast.
Under a turquoise sky and a dry straw sun,
the adobe has the color of ripe persimmon.
The air is chill and barely moves.
There is a long, deep and descending crack
in the wall of the courtyard outside my casita—
filled with iced snow and a feather of an owl.
I walk up Galosteo toward the shops.
Piñon and juniper incense drifts—no,
sidles along the calles like a cursed dog.
Eggs, over easy, on a bed of chili and fried potato,
washed down with Mexican hot chocolate:
breakfast in Santa Fe.
He shovels food into his mouth
like a stoker stoking coal;
fingering every morsel
as though the tips of his fingers
are preliminary taste buds
assaying the grease and grit
of his hamburger and chips.
He quaffs the dregs of his beer,
snorts like a pig at a trough,
then delicately dabs his lips
with the corner of his napkin—
every inch the epicurean.