At any one time I have a number of books on the go—poetry, fiction, books for researching my own poetry projects and usually something on art. There are a number of poets—Stevens, Pound, Char, Lorca, Celan—who are as vital to me as breath, and a recent purchase has been Celan’s Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry translated by Pierre Joris. Its appearance is timely, coming as it does on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In his Introduction, Joris explains how he has focused on what Celan was doing philologically and syntactically with his subversion of the German language. I have just begun to dip into this treasure and to compare some of the translations with other versions I have, such as the wonderful Carcanet edition by Ian Farley.
It seems appropriate at this time to move on to what I am reading in fiction, as Sheng Keyi has taken Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ as the title for her new novel. The novel begins in the city of Beiping, capital of Dayang, where the sudden appearance of a tower of excrement precipitates civil unrest and violence. Subsequently the main character, Yuan Mengliu, finds himself in the utopian society of Swan Valley. There, language is employed in the service of the state, with poets granted supreme status if their verse is eulogistic. In an earlier novel, Northern Girls, also translated by Shelly Bryant, Sheng demonstrated her debt to the ribald comedy of the traditional and contemporary Chinese novel, but has in Death Fugue developed it into a refined, satirical allegory depicting a society satiated with extraordinary wealth, and which has become so pacified that its citizens can accept and justify any restriction on their freedom.
I am also working on a conference paper on the fiction of another Chinese-born writer, Xiaolu Guo. In her novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers Guo, through her principal character Zhuang, a language student, demonstrates the personal cost involved in second language acquisition and its cultural aporia. There is great skill involved in the writing as the narrator progresses from employing a few broken sentences until eventually achieving basic competence in the language. The globalisation of English and its fractured presence in cultural connection and disconnection is also a significant factor in Guo’s recent book I am China, where the perils of exile are explored in all their raw tragedy.
Exile and disconnection you could say appear to be an overriding theme of what I’m reading. I like reading works that give a sense of space, of words which capture place and distance, of chance conversations caught and remembered, as in the work of my favourite contemporary novelist, Michael Ondaatje. In his work, we are aware of the meditative presence of history, of a conferring of grace upon perception. In this vein, I have been enjoying two recent poetry collections by John Mateer, Emptiness andUnbelievers or ‘The Moor’ and Teju Cole’s novel Open City. Mateer’s fashioning of the phenomena of the encounter, of the image glowing with the modifications of history and the contemporary exchange, allows the reader to partake of the experience of the poetry in all its spare evocation. The beauty of these two collections is that this fashioning is done in a variety of ways. For example, in ‘An Acquaintance’, the poem plays with historical ambiguity and disconnection:
‘Promise not to write about me’
Late into the night she reads Musil in the original and remembers, fitfully, when life wasn’t a surveillance balloon black and drifting over another century.
Also from Unbelievers or ‘The Moor’, ‘Coimbra’ presents an image of the made, the weathered and its immanence:
Rivers of rocks running under my feet are streets,
and the weathered buildings my shadows skim
are photo-ready, after the fact, this:
that I look and look for the stone-mason’s words
engraved on the Cathedral, a Moor’s utterance
that could translate as:
…easier to change faith than re-hew stone.
Cole employs the trope of wandering and the establishment of a central voice to successfully set up a discontinuous narrative and a meditation on the floating world of the exiled, their displacement and points of connection both attempted and to some degree attained.
Another poetry collection on my review schedule is Dinah Roma’sNaming the Ruins. My devotion to ancient monuments being what it is, I cannot help but love Roma’s poems on Bagan, a place I visited last year after being a guest at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival held in Mandalay. After the excitement of presenting my work at a festival where the panellists included Aung Sung Suu Kyi, Jung Chang and Louis de Bernieres, a slow twelve-hour trip on a ferry down the Irrawaddy was like a slowly forming crystallisation of the image and its immanence, of all that is precious in a disconnected life which suddenly finds itself. Roma puts such a sense of things into her verse where in the first section of ‘Into the Plains of Bagan’, entitled ‘At 3 a.m.’, she writes:
To arrive at this hour forsakes the wandering self. Time to mistrust maps, and leave earth to its dark sprawl. Its colors will not guide. Blind to the barren and lush. Its symbols will not trace our terrains.
‘Sandpainting the Dewi’ is a very fine poem, in which the artist’s technique embraces the steeliness of the temporary:
I asked of his techniques,
those intricate sinews
in which the deity’s glory is hailed
firm by sand.
On that note, it would appear to be a good time to mention that I have Ian Fairweather’s The Drunken Buddha on my desk, having enjoyed the wonderful exhibition of this painting series at the Tarrawarra Gallery in the Yarra Valley. And also something I haven’t started yet, but looking forward to getting into, Julian Bell’s Van Gogh: A Power Seething.
Jennifer Mackenzie is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems(Lontar, Jakarta, 2012). She is currently working on two books of poetry and also likes to contribute the odd review to journals. Jennifer has presented her work at many festivals and conferences in Asia, most recently at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar (supported by the Australia Council for the Arts) and at the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Singapore.