Reviewed: Lucy Van, The Open, Cordite
The first thing you need to know about Lucy Van’s The Open is: yes, ‘The Open’, as in ‘the Australian Open’, as in, the tennis. Take heed: as Van points out in a recent interview, ‘the etymological origin of tennis is tenez (French)—a command to the other player to ‘hold’.’1 Although tennis clearly structures the chapbook, the work is only minimally concerned with this ancient game. Still, in the Caesarean tradition of European colonialism, the Australian summer is punctuated by tennis, and the Australian Open is the first in a quadrifecta of imperial tennis matches known as ‘the Grand Slam’. Each year, Britain, the United States, France and Australia take turns importing celebrities to put on a show for the bored and decaying silent majorities, sticking to sofas hot like gum on pavement. The Open is a summons to think, in the tradition of Martinican poets and theorists Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant, about the horrors and absurdities of colonialism, particularly as re-illuminated via return. The return, or the dialectic, is one of the most central themes of this oscillating text.
The Open begins with the sensation of returning suddenly to oneself: ‘I have gone back and now I am here.’ In being drawn into this text we are constantly in the process of arriving and departing, this long game of tenez. In philosophical terms, we might call this the Hegelian dialectic, which implies [Western] history not as nonfiction, but as a system of logic, of dialectic, sweeping from A to B with perpetual amnesia; ‘in infinite regress with the doorkeeper’. Van writes that ‘the return is a consequence; it is not an answer. A return is a territorial swoop. There’s more juice on the return.’ To write is also to return or reflect, and The Open is filled with Van’s rich, errant observations of the colonial trace—from Hồ Chí Minh to Perth, and back to Melbourne. In the opening chapter, ‘Hotel Grand Saigon’, the poet observes Vietnamese waiters and French tourists while reading Civilization and Its Discontents at the hotel pool:
They are waiters, their work is to wait. Or they are servers, and their work is to service. To serve this cosmic tact. I am aware that this is this way because I am from a rich country. I am from a rich country because I was smuggled over from this poor one.
Waiting thus becomes a central feature in Van’s work, oscillating between boredom-core gore and contemplative implication. There is something beautifully meta about reading a book that asks us to reflect on how we mark the passing of time. But more crucial is the question: who is doing the waiting, and why? In Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination, theorist Ghassan Hage writes:
‘Waiting out’ is a specific form of waiting where one is not waiting for something but rather waiting for something undesirable that has come, like a spell of cold weather or a disliked guest, to end or to go. Unlike waiting, which can be passive or active, ‘waiting out’ is always passive, yet its passivity is, as I have pointed out, an ambivalent one.2
We might further imagine this ‘waiting out’ as the perception of oneself as patient—to have the privilege of ambivalence, or to perceive oneself as a bystander with a clear and (somehow) objective memory: ‘I have an exemplary view. I am a cultivated observer.’ To wait is thus to imagine oneself. Van’s multivalent observations show us the distinction between service and waiting as a thin and arbitrarily drawn line marking coloniser and colonised. This line demarcates a border or territory, sometimes mediated by the ocean. In Glissant’s work, the ocean is both a womb and a liquidating abyss. In the second chapter, ‘The Esplanade’, Van writes:
Waters clear the land. This place where the land is always cleared by water is called the beach. The sound here is the thump and the hiss of waves. A liquidation of territory. Only a little liquidation. All the territory must eventually be restored. But still, the sound does not relent, it is the sound of the ocean clearing land away, and I never heard it put back.
While the land is cleared and never returned, the bystander revisits their surroundings again and again, memory coming back clear through various doorways. The Open’s title hints at the work as an eponymous entry through which Van guides us to entertain tennis not merely as a sport but as an unhinged nanny state rocking chair for the settled colonial masses. This back and forth haunts Western discourse like a colonial spectre; a white wolf in sheepskin lingering through the paddocks of the Australian frontier.
Van immerses the reader via the dialectical structure of tennis to demonstrate how public discourse in the West has commonly maintained the colonial status quo by reducing the limitations of our social imaginaries. The Open critiques and creates, using poetics as a discursive medium. Echoing Glissant, who writes of Boolean thinking in Poetics of Relation, ‘every conclusion reached by such a system has been inscribed in the original data, whereas poetics open onto unpredictable and unheard of things’.3 And open onto the unpredictable Van’s work does, in an array of styles, from the precise and literary (‘Poetry is a possessive contraction’) to the informal and abstract (‘The video-tapes were stored away for future use’). By structuring this chapbook around tennis as dialectic, Van delineates the Leviathan phantasm of Western colonialism:
A complex knowledge that turns on margins, constructed by planners and geographers. This image is structured around a vertical marker and a horizontal marker. Each centres the space. It is an unbelievable exchange. Gestures, numbers, averages, with the existence of general laws. Parity and unity. A taste of soil. A distant land.
Glissant considers history a ‘highly functional fantasy of the west’, constituting a vast and oppressive narrative fuelled by the construction and maintenance of dominant Western mythology.4 Van carves out a critical literary space to investigate this functional fantasy in the context of ‘Australia’. Like Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, The Open presents us with an alter-political method for thinking through, refusing and reimagining. Boochani too critiques Australian colonial mythology with a focus on border protectionism. He characterises Western reporters as vultures to demonstrate the spectacular function of Western news media, ‘waiting until the wretched and miserable exit the vehicle; eager for us to come out as quickly as possible, to catch sight of the poor and helpless and launch on us […] and dispatch the images to the whole world’.5
In the final two chapters, Van returns more clearly to the subject of tennis before reliably meandering away again, as thought does, to a different door. The imperial game begins with the first serve, the first instruction: to wait, and for Van, tenez is also ‘the strong, subtle hold of the mother’.6 In ‘Australian Open I’, she and her son are at the tennis, ‘posed in our idea of gentlemen, applauding rallies and whispering “out” or “in” when Zhang challenged’. Throughout this second half, the poet sits with the various tensions of diasporic identity, thinking more clearly through the problems of lineage, inheritance and the irreconcilable bind of being a migrant on stolen land. The poet’s mother features via the tennis, ‘downstairs with the tennis on the television. Or she is sitting somewhere else, waiting for me.’ The nanny state is always in the other room, expecting its kin.
Anticipation gives way to memory in the final chapter, ‘Australian Open II’, which again begins with a door—this time, the door of Van’s friend George Mouratidis. Van wonders gently about the Greek custom of leaving a flower at an absent friend’s door. In ‘Leaves’ she wonders, more aggressively, about sanity, which comes and goes, which ‘treats a person like a hotel’. She concludes that ‘this is what we are like, what we like, we like being shitheads’.
In swinging between delightful colloquial banality and stark colonial realism, The Open dares us to reflect deeply on Australia’s numerous inheritances. We should consider this chapbook an invitation to investigate the imperial terror underlying the supposedly banal in our own lives, particularly given tenez also means to receive or to take. With Van’s encouragement, the mundane game of tennis is multiplicitous: to take heed, to cradle, to give, to take and to serve. •
Elese Dowden is a Pākehā writer, poet and recovering philosopher from Aotearoa. She lives in Naarm, where she writes on art and colonialism in Australasia and feels uncertain.
- Liminal, ‘5 Questions with Lucy Van’, <https://www.liminalmag.com/5-questions/lucy-van>.
- Ghassan Hage, Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination, Melbourne UniversityPublishing, 2015, p. 41.
- Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, ed. Betsy Wing, University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 82.
- Édouard Glissant, Carribean Discourse: Selected Essays, University Press of Virginia, 1989, p. 64.
- Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains, Picador, 2018, p. 92.
- Liminal, ‘5 Questions with Lucy Van’.