by Susan Hawthorne
Reviewed by MEL O’CONNOR
In counterpoint to how these histories have been silenced and extinguished, Susan Hawthorne, in Dark Matters, testifies to the horrifying reality of abduction and torture of lesbians—especially outspoken activist lesbians, such as Kate, the central character of the text.
This is not a quiet novel, of implications and subtlety: it is designed to upset, as human rights have been historically upset by happenings such as these. Kate is stolen from her home by men who brutalise her, in particular by attempting to ‘convert’ her to heterosexuality. Only after Kate’s death are her fragmented writings and journals from the time of her incarceration discovered by her niece, Desi, who attempts to organise and interpret them for a university research project. Dark Matters as a work lies somewhere between the research project Desi creates, and a charter of Desi’s reflections on Kate’s experiences.
Of the many notable features of Dark Matters, Hawthorne’s style is perhaps the most immediate: from her lack of descriptors on dialogue to the visceral empathy she evokes in her practised prose-poetic voice, her expertise is ever-present. In some ways, the text wars between genres—prose poetry, horror, and speculative fiction all have elements present—but it is poetry that the work most resounds with. Hawthorne employs recurrent symbols, and recalls found artefact poems, such as poetry in lines running back and forth (p5), stream-of-consciousness rhapsodising (p13), and free associative Latin, where the language runs as rampant as the wolf Kate envisions herself as. In step with prose poetry, the use of space is deliberately selective; Dark Matters swims, framing fragments as verse. When Kate’s poetry—or Desi’s found artefacts—occupy the work, they dance down the page (p29):
dance dance dance
dance the trata in your
red white and black garb
dive down dive down
dance dance dance
dance the trata
for bread and pomegranate
dance as we have
as is carved
on the tomb
` of the dancing women
dance a zigzag
dance the weave of a basket
dance the stars and spirals
The writing is alive and evocative—a distinctly lesbian call to motion in the style of prose poetry.
Further supporting a prose poetic angle, Hawthorne’s leitmotifs are hypnotising, not least of them the character of Mercedes. Kate’s lover before she was abducted, Mercedes’s perspective bookends the work, and indeed, she is a beacon throughout the text—“I will fill my mind with Mercedes” (p18), writes Kate, her “Querida Mercedes” (p37)—an icon of desire and desperation from page to page. This memory-Mercedes secures Kate to her identity, even throughout her torture, because Mercedes is concrete proof of Kate’s identity as a lesbian—something her abductors are desperate to erase and destroy.
Another leitmotif is the figure of the eagle. Tellingly, it is from Mercedes’s point of view that this creature is first seen—“My eagle swoops into view” (p1)—but it is Kate who recalls this eagle in her trauma, imagining her “arms growing wings. Wings of heavy metal … Too frail to fly” (p17). Throughout her incarceration, Kate grapples for symbols such as this, coding them into her being. This is her means to survive amidst the nightmare of her life (p50):
Aaaagh. I vomit. I shake./I shake and I sprout feathers. I take off and soar: a wedge-tailed eagle. I leave this horror behind.
There is a visceral empathy embedded deep in this, as there is through all of the work. Usually, it stems from Desi’s ignorance as a narrator. When Desi writes “This page fell out and I can’t figure out where it goes” (p114), or “I wish Kate had been a Virgo because then I’d have some chance of following her schema” (p20), it is heartbreaking—Kate is literally silenced by Desi’s lack of knowledge or understanding, symbolic of how lesbians throughout history have been silenced by a lack of knowledge or understanding on a much larger scale. But here in particular, the empathy for Kate is born out of a sense of injustice to her situation, and a sympathy to her desperate wish for escapism.
The eagle resounds both forward and behind in the text, tethered to Kate’s “Codex psapphistra” (p148): Desi writes, “She describes a range of animals from a lesbian-centric point of view. She is creating a universe in which lesbian symbols lie at the centre” (p148). Kate—by her Greek name, Ekaterina—moors herself to her Greek history. Because of this, Dark Matters bleeds with heavy Greek interplay. Kate’s obsession with the Muses and with Psappha may unmoor a reader not well-versed in this history. However, as Kate is herself unmoored, this decision is deliberate; the impact is viscerally sympathetic, rather than alienating.
Similarly, Kate, her physical and emotional boundaries under assault, wars between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ attitudes to her situation—the micro, an intrinsic desperation for herself alone, and the macro, a selfless agony for the thousands of lesbians like her. On a personal level, she writes: “There I am, still strapped in, covered by their hate. I cry and cry” (p51)—on a societal level, she writes: “I cry. I cry for all. For all the women. For all the lesbians” (p52). For Kate, this is another means of survival—she reminds herself of the bigger picture in order to stay strong and silent, refusing to give information to her abductors, knowing how much is at stake. She is painfully aware of how much her incarceration represents (pp109-112):
The boundaries between my flesh and theirs. They have violated those boundaries. They have violated me. And through me, as they know, they are symbolically violating every other lesbian on this planet … Lines of self. Lines of the other. They rip through the lines.
Inevitably, little by little, her resolve crumbles, her psyche under attack by these invasions. Lines relating to her torture, for example, that her captors “Took [her] hands and strapped [her] to the … I cannot call it a bed” (p47, author’s ellipses), are later matched by lines recalling her time in Greece before she was incarcerated, such as “for this narrow space could not be called a bed” (p59). This second line is provided as Kate settles down with a foreign paramour. The striking similarities in expression and language between these quotes evidence how the horrors of Kate’s incarceration have contaminated her memory. The reader sees her trauma, achingly, begin to corrupt her experience of significant lesbian encounters through life, buckling her sense of lesbian identity.
To match how the boundaries of Kate’s identity are compromised and attacked, her sense of self unmoored, Hawthorne provides a ‘shredded’ story. Desi struggles to piece together the narrative—“What we have left are fragments” (p3); “It’s a giant jigsaw” (p35)—just as Kate struggles to piece together a psychic defence—“I forget who I was, who I might have been” (p169); “I have died and died and died” (p173). This wounded sense of self and community is what makes the work so unforgettable.
In a rare moment of awareness from Desi, she writes: “Dark matter is almost imperceptible. Invisible and yet it takes up space. Like a lesbian in a room full of people” (p160). Hawthorne depicts a lesbian under siege, her personhood, psychic, and personal boundaries all compromised by systems which cannot accept her. Personally, she is attacked by abduction and assault. Societally, she is diminished through prejudice and inequality. The resulting text is something profoundly important. Dark Matters is a war-cry. It is a declaration of personhood and reclamation of identity from the traumas induced by these dark histories.
MEL O’CONNOR is a Professional and Creative Writing graduate from Deakin University. Her experience is in communications and administration. She is working on her novella, a literary fiction about the animal rights scene.
Chris Andrews’ latest translation, Melodrome (2018), published here in Australia as part of Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes Series, is a novella by the Argentine science fiction writer, Marcelo Cohen (1951-). The author of 14 novels, 5 story collections, many essays and countless translations, Cohen is already well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. He lived in Spain from 1975 to 1996, during the dictatorship in Argentina, and has been publishing fiction since the early 1980s.
In Melodrome, as in several other fictions written since he returned home, Cohen focuses on an alternative universe, the Panoramic Delta. An archipelago of loosely associated city states, it might be a near-future Argentina or a world remade in the country’s image by neoliberal capitalism and rising sea levels. Rather than improve living standards, technological and social change – including cyborgs, fly cars and a kind of telepathy called pan-consciousness – have universalised Argentina’s early 21st century experience of austerity economics. Cohen’s novella, published in Spanish as Balada (2011), concerns the aftermath of a turbulent affair between a psychoanalyst, Suano Botilecue, and his beautiful, temperamental patient, Lerena Dost. The two rekindle their relationship during a road trip in search of a folk singer-turned cult leader, Dona Munava. It’s an intriguing introduction to an author whose rich oeuvre is still largely unknown in the Anglosphere – but won’t be for long. I corresponded with Chris Andrews by email to learn more.
James Halford (JH): This is the first of your translations of Latin American writers to have been published in Australia. How did it come about?
Chris Andrews (CA): Marcelo Cohen participated in a symposium on literary translation organized by the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University in 2010. I had read some of his fiction and essays before that. Ivor Indyk was one of the organizers of the symposium, so he met Marcelo there. When Balada was published in 2011, Marcelo sent me a copy. I read it and really liked it; I found it haunting. Some years later, in 2016, I think, Ivor was invited to visit Argentina, and met up with Marcelo again. When he came back, he asked me if I would translate Balada for Giramondo, and I said yes. So it came about in a circuitous and rather slow way.
JH: Would it be fair to say Cohen’s work hasn’t yet been widely translated? How did you first encounter his writing and what attracted you to bringing it into English?
CA: I think it’s fair to say that, perhaps because it’s quite tricky to translate, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. I first encountered it in the book of stories La solución parcial (The Partial Solution), which is a kind of selected stories, published in Spain in 2003. Although the stories predate the construction of the Delta Panorámico, they are part of what Cohen calls a “fantastic sociology”: they’re set in a future world where social, political and technological conditions are at least initially unfamiliar to the reader. What attracted me was that within this speculative frame, Cohen was always interested in capturing and transmitting sensations, feelings and emotions.
JH: Cohen has an extensive back catalogue. Why did you choose Melodrome as an introduction to his work?
CA: Well, as I said, I really liked it, and Ivor Indyk is particularly interested in short novels and novellas (he has a series entitled Shorts). That’s an aesthetic interest, but translation is an extra cost in publishing, a cost proportional to length, since translators are paid by the word (or the thousand words), so starting with a short book is financially prudent too.
JH: Cohen often coins neologisms for everyday objects in the Panoramic Delta – cronodión for clock which you translate as chronodeon; farphonito for mobile phone, which you translate as farfonette. What was your approach to finding English equivalents?
CA: Sometimes the objects named by the neologisms are everyday objects or relatives of things that we have and use, as in the examples you cite. And those two words were relatively straightforward to translate, because English has some cognate morphemes that I could use: chrono- for crono-, and -ette for -ito. Far in farphonito is a “translation” of the Greek-derived prefix tele- (“far off”), and I toyed with translating that component into Spanish: Lejofonette. But the result seemed too cumbersome and opaque, so I stuck with far. In other cases, it was more complex, either because the referent was not as easy to place, or because the word itself was not made up of recognizable morphemes, or for both reasons. To take just one example, at one point, Lerena thinks: “She could no doubt have found an even better position in some other company, but she couldn’t see how she would ever disguise her character well enough to stop [ningún binimucho] shrivelling up with fear.” Binimuchos must be fearful, spineless people. One thought I had was that perhaps the word referred to the opposite of a marimacho (butch woman), i.e., an effeminate man. But I wasn’t really convinced by that gendering. In the end, the “equivalent” that I came up with, more or less intuitively, was nambicle, from the adjective namby-pamby plus the diminutive suffix -icle, which we find in the names of various small body parts (testicle, cuticle, clavicle). In forging these new words, I let myself be influenced by the rhythmic context of the sentence and the paragraph, because that’s what Cohen seems to have done when writing.
JH: The translated title doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. How did you arrive at the lovely and resonant: Melodrome?
CA: Credit where it’s due: that’s the invention of Nick Tapper at Giramondo. We were looking for an alternative to Ballad, and Nick came up with Melodrome. He put it out there half playfully, but I liked it straight away, because of how it sounds and because it’s so suggestive of the book’s content. You can analyse it as the combination of two Greek roots: melos, song, and dromos, course. Most appropriate for a road trip in search of a singer. And then the book is a kind of narrative palindrome, because the way there and the way back almost coincide.
JH: Cohen is a formidable and prolific literary translator in his own right, who has produced Spanish versions of writers like J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, William Burroughs and even Henry James. Did you have any contact with him while working on your English version? What was it like translating a translator?
CA: Marcelo sent me a glossary of deltingo, that is, words he has invented for the Delta Panorámico. Many of the invented words in Melodrome are not in the glossary, but it was a real help, and a fascinating document in itself. I also asked him questions when I was approaching the end, and he helped me to clear up some doubts. In one way it’s intimidating to translate such an eminent translator, but in another way it’s reassuring: I knew that he would understand the problems that I was facing.
JH: Roberto Bolaño once said that everything he had written was a love letter or a farewell letter to his own generation. That is, the generation of Latin American writers who were born in the 1950s and had the misfortune of being young during the military dictatorships of the 1970s. César Aira and Marcelo Cohen are also of that generation. What, if anything, do these very distinct writers share?
CA: Stylistically and thematically, they don’t share much at all: each is quite different from the other two. Bolaño and Cohen shared the experience of exile in Catalunya. Bolaño is the only one of the three to have thematized the dictatorships directly, but in that he is representative of his generation, while Cohen and Aira are exceptional. Your question has made me realize something, though: all three are novelists for whom poetry is important, who go to poetry as a space where literary language is reinvented. Bolaño began as a poet (and went on writing poetry up to the last months of his life). Cohen and Aira have both written wonderfully about poetry, Cohen in his book-length essay Un año sin primavera [A Year Without Spring] and Aira in his books on Alejandra Pizarnik and Edward Lear.
JH: Historically, there hasn’t been much direct literary exchange between the Anglophone and Hispanic Souths. Even for those with an interest in Latin American writing and some language competency, it isn’t always easy to keep up to date with the Spanish-language literary scene from Australia. How do you do it?
CA: The internet has made a big difference. I read reviews in a range of places. Otra parte semanal, edited by Marcelo Cohen and Graciela Speranza, is an excellent review site with new content each week: http://revistaotraparte.com/semanal/. Another good source of news, interviews, extracts etc. is the blog published by the bookshop and publishing house Eterna Cadencia: https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog.html
JH: I also like podcasts. There’s a weekly books podcast on Radio Nacional de Argentina called Resaltadores: http://www.radionacional.com.ar/category/resaltadores/, and there’s one called Recital (it’s on the iTunes store), in which a writer chooses and reads a story by another writer: very simple, but the choices are interesting, not the same old names.
And, of course, I ask friends for recommendations.
JH: Your academic work has framed contemporary Latin American fiction as a literary laboratory – a place where experimental forms are tested. What could a deeper engagement with writing from the region offer Australian writing?
CA: I think that deeper engagement with the literary culture of any part of the non-English-speaking world is bound to enrich Australian writing, but in ways that are hard to predict because they will depend on singular encounters. Fans of Alejo Carpentier or José Donoso might hope to see Australian authors enlarging their sense of the plausible, but writers will work with what works for them, and they might be inspired instead by all the patient fieldwork and sharp listening that goes into Leila Guerriero’s narrative non-fiction. There’s no point being prescriptive in this area.
JH: Thanks very much, Chris.
Marcelo Cohen (Buenos Aires, 1951) is a widely respected and highly innovative Argentinian novelist, who has invented a distinctively South American kind of speculative fiction. In an ambitious series of novels and stories he has constructed a future world, the Panoramic Delta, in which he imagines in detail a range of changes beyond those wrought directly by technology: political, cultural and emotional. One of the most agile stylists writing in Spanish today, he is also an internationally renowned translator, critic and editor. An fundamental name in Argentinian literature of the last two decades.’— Fernando Bogado, Radar‘
CHRIS ANDREWS is a leading translator of contemporary Latin American fiction, the author of two poetry collections and a literary critic. He made his name internationally as the first English translator of the Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). His translations of By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004) and Last Evenings on Earth (2006) – published in the wake of the author’s untimely death from liver failure – helped establish Bolaño as the biggest name in Latin American writing since Gabriel García Márquez. Since then, the Australian has been a translator in demand. Over the last fifteen years, he has curated an impressive reading list of Latin American fiction for English-speaking readers, much of published in the USA through New Directions. In addition to ten of Bolaño’s books, most recently the posthumous collection of short stories & ephemera, The Secret of Evil (2014), Andrews has translated nine titles by the prolific and inventive Argentine, César Aira: The Linden Tree (2018), and one by the Guatemalan surrealist, Rodrigo Rey Rosa: Severina (2014).
JAMES HALFORD is a Brisbane writer whose creative work and criticism have been widely published in Australia and abroad. He holds a literature degree and a creative doctorate from the University of Queensland, where he now teaches, and he has studied Spanish in Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. The recipient of a 2016 Copyright Agency/Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellowship, his academic research focuses on contemporary Australian and Latin American literature in transnational reading frameworks. His first book, Requiem with Yellow Butterflies, a Latin American travel memoir, will be published in early 2019 by UWAP.
Thuy On is a freelance arts journalist and critic, who writes for a variety of publications including The Australian, The Age, The SMH, Books and Publishing and ArtsHub. She’s also the books editor of The Big Issue.
Photograph by Leah Jing
Reams of dead trees
deadlines for other peoples’ words
sunk under the pressure
of domestic detritus
I am unread and shelved
between festive seasons
a cobwebby head needing to shake
for the new year beckons
This chance to flatten the path behind
roll it up and throw it hard
watch in awe the motes falling down
blinding the dusty ways
of living and loving
a clean lingua franca
to be seared
lessons and spite
swallowed and spat out
will not be lost
on unforgiving stone
I know I know now
what to do
as a sunflower
fed from blood in loamy soil
and minerals of salty tears
I will toss my golden halo
through showerbursts and thunder.
Renga: 100 Poems
by John Kinsella and Paul Kane
Reviewed by SIOBHAN HODGE
Renga: 100 Poems is a collection over ten years in the making. Paul Kane and John Kinsella, writing in exchange via the Japanese renga form, have compiled a long-running poetic dialogue – unlike traditional renga, each poem is individually written and a response then followed by the other poet. In his foreword, Kane states:
We each had a long history with the other’s country and we both wrote out of a sense of being firmly placed in our respective locales. Moreover, many of our interests coincided, particularly in aesthetic and environmental concerns. Why not continue an hour’s conversation over an extended period – and in verse? (iv)
Despite this light-hearted opening, consistently at the forefront of these exchanges is a deep concern for the environment, documenting anxieties and innate senses of responsibility to the world. For example, one pair features a biting criticism of mining in Pennsylvania and Western Australia:
Atop one ridge in
roll steeply, starkly away.
Coal country, that first black gold.
Miners digging graves.
Here, not meth but methane kills,
as an oil rig.
Hard country, anthracite black,
with pastel clouds, slate blue sky… (Kane, “Renga 27”)
Kinsella’s reply situates similar concerns in Western Australia:
There’s a fair chance
that one of our neighbours
is furtively mining away
the valley wall: the scraping
and hammering, back and forth
of a front-end loader. His trucks
that weigh heavy on axles,
…When the valley wall gives
way, the shockwaves will spread
for acres. We’ll all hear The Fall.
But hearing is selective still:
what we hear to the point of pain
others cancel out with paeans
of praise. Who’d refuse God
in God’s own country? (Kinsella, “Renga 28”)
For both poets, the collection is a means of consolidating frustrations regarding destruction of the natural world, but the text is not exclusively eco-critical. Rather, this is an organic discussion – political and philosophical – in a revised form of epistolary poetics. This is also a collection preoccupied (in the most playful sense of the word) with the many meanings of “home”. The poetic dialogue, labelled a contribution to the pastoral eclogue genre by Chris Wallace-Crabbe in his blurb for the book, Kane and Kinsella engage in a rhythmic dialogue that doesn’t stray far from the importance of situatedness in the natural and human-impacted world. In “Renga 3”, Kane introduces some of these ruminations:
So the poet asks
“Where do we find ourselves?” as
if seeking a place
of knowing could conjugate
“to be.” I am is future
tense when now recedes.
Yet think of the paperbarks
along the Murray
wetlands, how they need an ebb
in spring floods to grow young trees:
That’s why now is moment by
moment, and why I
find myself in your country
each year, like a second home.
By the time the collection reaches “Renga 78”, notions of home have become saturated, as shown in Kinsella’s response:
Homecoming homebound homebody homebred.
Homeland homemaker homeomorphic homeless.
Homebuilt homeowner homesteader homeostatic.
Homeschooled homework homer homeland.
Homespun homemade homebrewed homeopathic.
Whatever the case, the changing light.
Whatever the case, homewardbound.
Each poem is a means of traversing geographic and philosophical distance, but connection is also multi-faceted, growing and evolving, and linked with the speakers’ abilities to traverse these spaces. Experiences of others, including Aboriginal people, are highlighted but not co-opted. Renga is an accumulation of acknowledgements of outrages – against people and the environment – accompanied by ruminations on the personal experiences of both poets, but the focus is primarily on the voices and experiences of the poets themselves. Within these layers of observation neither thought nor experience are being colonised. This is a deeply critical collection, concerned with the impacts of pollution, environmental destruction and decay.
Why select the renga form for a collection of this nature? There is no detailed discussion of why this traditional collaborative Japanese poetic form has been selected, beyond Kane’s definition: “a single entity built by accretion, like limestone, and a virtual fossil record of the multiple procedures used to construct it” (a more comprehensive and generous assessment of the form than his earlier description of it as “the little brute”!) (vi). Renga are constructed by several poets working together. Kane adheres more firmly to the form than Kinsella, who splices in a lyrical approach. Stanzas are traditionally written by alternating poets, inspired by the one preceding, but Kane and Kinsella opt instead to present individual, entire renga. A discussion of motivations for this style of adaptation, as well as poems that reflected on the impact of the renga on their dialogue and the environments they discuss, would have been welcome, particularly in this collection’s depictions of emblems of colonialism and environmental exploitation. The decision to select a traditional Japanese poetic form is situated firmly in the opportunities offered by the form, regrettably missed is the opportunity to open discussion of the historical and cultural significances of the form itself, as well as the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this act of cross-cultural world literature, a contribution which would have well suited the thematic focus of the collection. Timothy Clark observes that:
In Japan, a renga was a collective poem written according to a great number of apparently arbitrary rules, which each participant adopted from his predecessor… Renga is not primarily a poem or a theory of poetry, neither is it quite criticism; it is a situation, an experiment with the nature of poetry and language (32).
Clark surmises that the poetic form is an incorporation of Buddhist conceptions of the dissolution of the ego, reflected in “the subversion that Renga brings to any thought of property in relation to a poet’s voice” (33). However, in Renga: 100 Poems, the author of each piece is acknowledged via initials in each piece’s title. There is no subsuming of authorial agency or identity, despite what the traditional form would typically entail.
For a collection preoccupied with communicating over distance, acknowledging room for empathy without complete mirroring of experience, the renga is an ideal means of conveyance, but the form gives room to both what can and cannot be shared. In “Renga 61-67” Kane and Kinsella highlight on-going issues of Aboriginal disenfranchisement in Australia, both poets employing a series of black-white binaries deeply critical of colonialism’s “…roll call / of slavery and land claims” (Renga 66, Kinsella). However, there are no directly Aboriginal voices in this collection; Kane and Kinsella acknowledge but cannot speak for these experiences. Rather, this is a vital discussion saved for another 2018 publication, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, a superb poetic treatise and dialogue between Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella. In Renga, Kane and Kinsella echo an earlier non-Japanese interpretation of the renga as a form that constructs layers of tension and selves, demonstrated in the 1971 collection Renga: A Chain of Poems, a multi-lingual exercise by Octazio Paz, Edoardo Sanguineti, Charles Tomlinson and Jacques Roubaud. In this renga collection, Paz, Sanguineti, Tomlinson and Rombaud presented “multiple voices, multiple selves”, embodying Paz’s notion of “the transient, unstable, relativistic self” (Starrs, 280). Despite adhering to the conventions of the collective, communal form, both texts do not render authors’ voices anonymous. Unlike the 1971 Renga however, Kane and Kinsella’s Renga moves to thematically bridge gaps, rather than emphasise them, while also strictly avoiding any appropriation of voice.
Kane and Kinsella’s poetic responses conversationally engage with the preceding piece before taking the introduced theme in a new direction. Among the shared concerns are mortality, environmental destruction, war, shifting between and intricately connecting the personal, political and philosophical. One recurring image is fire, as in Paul Kane’s “Renga 49”:
For two days we lived
in a stinging haze of smoke
as the Gippsland fires
far away burned beyond reach.
Smoke puts everyone on edge.
The plan: fight or flight? –
that atavistic question.
The Ararat fires
ended on our mountain,
the one house given to flames.
Our Warwick neighbor,
Burning off the adjacent
field one autumn, lost
control of the blaze in wind:
we were blackened fighting it.
it’s different: fire is fiercer,
and we’d likely flee.
A house I can rebuild, but
a life? I want my own death.
And yet, we’ve ceded
so much to indifferency,
our world – no, the world – ourselves,
blackening the days ahead.
Wounded in his den,
the baited badger will kill
a dog. The snarling,
the cries, are all we’ll hear when
we, in turn, are run to ground.
Kinsella’s “Renga 50” compounds anecdotes, voices and shared experiences, coupled with grim warning. For both poets, the role of preserving place is a constant and communal threat:
The restart of the fire season:
a mushroom cloud on the first
horizon – the penultimate –
an edge not far enough for
comfort. From his fire-tower
my great-grandfather scanned
the sea of trees for that wisp:
that leader, sign you can never
over-read. I went there
as a child and did the same.
I barely remember. Maybe
he was already dead. I’ve been
talking fire all day long: poets
writing it, neighbours discussing
the risks, all our preparedness.
The firebreaks are done.
Scraped and scraped again,
looking for that second layer,
that second safer layer.
It never reveals itself.
Mostly, it’s the smell: weird
Signs of noses cocked to the air,
like some unwholesome fetish.
It’s so dry that ‘dust to dust’
would seem our mantra.
But it’s not. ‘Fire to fire’,
‘fire to fire’ is all we utter
when the water-tanks are low
and flood (should we be smitten)
could only fill the valley
enough to lap at the foot
of our place.
Urgency and threat to human life, paired with suspicion of both method and motivation, permeates both works. The two poems are emblematic of the complex relationship Kane and Kinsella have adopted with the renga form; this is a collaborative poetics in politics, embracing the traditional symbolic theory of no distinct hierarchy of voice, communal assumption of responsibility by the two speakers, rather than perfect mirroring of traditional syllabic structure. But this is also a form that intrinsically excludes voices and control; the lead poet sets the tone and theme, and the later poets must follow. Absent voices – the colonised people of the countries flagged in the collection, lands, animals – are excluded from this hierarchy by nature of the form, but not with intent to oppress. However, moves are taken ensure that these experiences are not excluded, as in Kinsella’s “Renga 64”:
… Today, the sky is wheatbelt blue.
The still leafless trees shimmer a silver-green
Of what’s to come. Premonitions.
Though it’s all black and white.
I grew up with black and white television.
We don’t watch television now
Which is said to be in colour. As is Nature.
I’ve contributed to this knowledge. This rumour.
A sense of personal culpability is incorporated into this reflection of marginalised binaries, though no direct voice is given to those oppressed groups. Throughout the collection there is pressure to revise oppressive angles, recognising destruction and destructive tendencies wherever they may appear.
In “Echolocations: An Afterword”, Kinsella addresses the thematic concerns of place, mutual concern, co-writing, and the ethics of belonging. This is a collection of “commonality amidst the difference” as “Words crosstalk, lines subscript, and yet each line is ‘intact’, a moment in a place sent across a vast distance” but not without anxieties (115). Selection of the renga style for this long-running dialogue across continents brings to the forefront the importance of shared experience rather than subsumed voice, and the need to make meaningful connection.
Timothy Clark, “”Renga”: Multi-Lingual Poetry and Questions of Place”, SubStance
Vol. 21, No. 2, Issue 68 (1992), pp. 32-45.
Roy Starrs, “Renga: A European Poem and its Japanese Model”, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2017), pp. 275-304.
SIOBHAN HODGE has a Ph.D. in English literature, her thesis focused on feminist traditions in translating Sappho’s poetry. She had critical and creative works published in a range of places, including The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Westerly, Southerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, and Peril. She has won several poetry awards, including the Kalang Eco-Poetry Award in 2017, 2015 Patricia Hackett Award for poetry. Her new chapbook, Justice for Romeo, is available through Cordite Books.