Reviewed: John Mateer, João, Giramondo; Jordie Albiston, Warlines, Hybrid Press; Phillip Hall, Fume, UWA Publishing; Judith Bishop, Interval, UQP; Maryam Azam, The Hijab Files, Giramondo
John Mateer’s previous books have been faceted confrontations with the cultures that he travelled through—the far east, Australia, the Islamic world. João is a break from that: a somewhat haphazard collection of incidents and observations that together provide a portrait of the traveller himself. ‘It is unclear whether the author should now be seen as the Australian alter-ego of João of eGoli (Johannesburg) … or whether João … is more a transnational avatar who is deeply lost in a reverie, the remembrance, of Mateer’s twelve years of extensive travel and earlier years of Cape Town,’ writes Mateer, with a grin, in an accompanying author’s note. It doesn’t matter, of course. What matters is whether the poems provide a compelling refraction of a contemporary life: 62 free-verse sonnets whose rhythms are supplied primarily by the sure-footed management of a complex syntax, as it moves in and out of its distances of alignment—ironising, admiring, resisting—as João, a poet too, roams from city to city and from festival to festival: a physical ghost from the world of shifting identities—restless, nostalgic, but quietly insistent, when it matters, on the old virtues.
Mateer is a writer of the angular interaction of perspectives: his characteristic method is to aggregate assumptions, gestures and idioms in such a way as to let them speak to one another. Sometimes João offers a comment, and sometimes he doesn’t need to. In this collection, the work of the poet lies in recognising the significance of a particular combination of cultural edges, and in finding the means to allow them to interact. This may sound like a creativity of observation rather than of utterance, but the recognition of a telling juxtaposition has always been a key element in the writer’s armoury—and one still has to frame the collision.
The book is not simply a cabinet of telling placements, however: the aim, after all, is to provide a portrait of the ghost whose presence unites them. Beyond the pleasures and frustrations of the literary scene, João also thinks of his life as ‘a passing through this world into deeper memory / a searching for what’s beyond Elsewhere, an enquiry / into your previous lives. You are the evening wind / on an African lake, that silver rippling …’ (p. 29). And haunting his travels, with a little section of their own, are figures from his African past: his patriarchal father (‘men roam the world to be fatherless’, p. 65); his ‘stoic, withdrawn’ grandmother; and Carlos, his Brazilian uncle, an alternative possibility to the Anglophone voices that otherwise shaped him.
There is an element in Mateer that echoes the pursuit, in some nineteenth-century writers, of the exotic and unknown: always, there is another culture to be explored. The difference now is that this also means there is another thread to the explanation of who one may be. Some of the poems simply use poetry’s capacity to put a space around what has been said—to let incidents speak for themselves—as with the Austrian academic’s comments about Australia (p. 16); some of it is merely anecdotal, as in the poem about Vikram Seth, out sketching before dawn in a nervous, militarised Colombo. But there is also the pursuit of ‘depths no-one can fake’, (p. 37): dreams of being a god ‘storming through forests / of gigantic lotuses and skeletal trees—not fruit—jewels’, dreams which ‘come upon a glade of crows or a lonely beach …’ (p. 40) and that stumble into the difficult places that are also to be found in journeys like these.
Although each poem is self-contained, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: together, they generate a quietly resonant portrait of an open-ended life. As with other recent notable examples—Jennifer Harrison’s Columbine, for instance, or Philip Salom’s Fish trilogy—one of the strongest ways of writing verse in an extended format proves to be with a sequence of individual poems.
• • •
As a project for the centenary celebrations of the signing of the Great War armistice, Jordie Albiston worked with letters from Victorian servicemen to produce the compilation Warlines. ‘Each poem … consists of words redacted directly from soldiers’ letters and postcards,’ she writes in an endnote, ‘in this sense it is a collection of found poems.’ True enough, but the project required someone of Albiston’s experience to read for those things that are of most interest: her ability as a reader is the foundational skill for this book. Once she had selected the texts, Albiston played with them using the techniques of the wordsmith—for aesthetic reasons, and to maximise their visibility.
She inserted repeats for emphasis, she chose her endings with care, and she embedded the unsophisticated punctuation of the less literate in her nuanced understanding of the way language works on the page. The overall effect is the verbal equivalent of a shrewdly mounted museum display. Ultimately, this is a book about the voices of the soldiers, and Albiston never loses sight of that, but by arranging them so artfully she has made them more accessible than if they had been left unchanged.
The letters themselves represent a cross-section of a society. Most of the officers are articulate enough, but it is surprising how many of the lower ranks are too. Everyone, however, was struggling with language: not just with what could be said with respect to the censors—and that was unpredictable enough—but also with managing their responses to a horror they had never imagined. The material ranges from the humorous: ‘To make a camel lie down you spit at him and pull his headrope. As he always takes five minutes making up his mind before doing anything it is very dry work in a dry country’, wrote Captain Joske to his parents from Palestine (p. 66)—to the bleaker records of a war we still struggle to conceptualise: ‘I went with him when it was necessary to amputate his hand later Allen improved but unfortunately he seemed to get thin and fell away,’ wrote Corporal Goodman to Allen’s mother, about his death in a POW camp (p. 45).
Sometimes the phasing has an elemental force: ‘Drop me a line for tomorrow we die,’ wrote Albert Street (p. 56), not long before he died at Gallipoli. And occasionally the writer has a poet’s capacity to communicate what he saw, such as Sgt Walter Serle, who wrote of the ‘sobbing figure of a man stumbling through a broken line’, and who said of his men that they had a ‘look in the eyes as if they had seen some unbelievable thing’ (p. 112). The letters are all the more poignant because we are given the fates of the authors: RTA—returned to Australia; DOW—died of wounds; KIA—killed in action—and one finds oneself turning to the bottom of the page, as one forms an assessment of each one. Henry Pepper (p. 98) had death in his voice, and one hardly needed to look.
History just keeps getting bigger and bigger: the more of it there is, the more critical the issue of visibility becomes. Since one way of thinking of poetry is as a way of making things visible, Albiston was a shrewd choice for this project: her skills as reader and writer have enabled us to access a cache of courage and dismay that otherwise might only be available—now and again, and with reading slips—to professionals.
• • •
Phillip Hall’s Fume was written in Borroloola, in the Gulf country, between 2011 and 2015. Hall went there as a teacher but, as he explains in his introduction, he had ‘wanted to do too much, too quickly, and … rubbed [him]self out in earnestly trying to create programs’—to the point where he was medically evacuated in 2014. He went back there again afterwards—a period in which most of the poems in this book were written, ‘but found living amongst so much remote and repressed trauma [of dispossession] a dangerous thing’. He now lives and works in the south, while clearly retaining much sympathy for the people he had lived and worked with. In some ways, Hall’s story mirrors the difficulties faced by Indigenous Australians themselves, who must often participate in societies they struggle fully to internalise. Hall was there voluntarily, of course, but despite being welcomed into Gudanji culture and participating in it proudly, he was also a whitefella teacher, employed under whitefella terms, and there are inevitably gulfs between the two that are difficult to negotiate when one has investments in both.
This is not a part of the country that has been explored in the poetic styles that come from Europe, though it has been sung for thousands of years in Indigenous traditions. In this respect, Fume represents an addition to the landscapes available to the post-invasion imagination. One of its main achievements is to have given this country—and some of its cultures—a verbal presence in English. He incorporates Gulf Indigenous and Gulf Kriol extensively; his rhythms move between the watchful, managed distances of Western intonations and the liquidity and momentum of Indigenous phrasing; and he switches continually between Indigenous and imported perspectives—generally to the detriment of the latter. In a passage that illustrates the complex relations that he comes to inhabit, he climbs Tank Hill with his football team (‘Walk up Tank Hill’, p. 22):
Me a middle-aged munanga; you
my lil-dad, the teenaged ruckman shining
even as storms grazed
side-long with the ache of your sniffing,
a sadness-stone like the ngabaya’s bony
choking clutch threatening dead-of-night torment
on top this country’s Tank Hill.
Here Hall is an outsider (munanga) but he has also been given a skin name in Gudanji culture, and been sung as guardian for the ceremonies of one of its locations. As an adoptee, his ruckman has become his ‘lil-dad’—presumably with some priorities in Law—even though he is afflicted by his sniffing, and troubled by the sort of sadness that could take spirit- (ngabaya-) form at a site like this.
At its best, Hall’s access to Indigenous perspectives allows him to present our behaviour with a disturbing angularity. ‘Build-up’ is about alternative views of history—of a long history of Macassan visits (bringing tamarinds) in a context of ‘stop the boats’ sloganeering, and of Indigenous massacres in the context of the three wise monkeys:
So, at year end, we bundled
into troopies, and through
an avenue of tamarinds, headed
for Massacre Hill:
here an idyllic creek flat
nestled an ancient fishing weir at the foot
of a spur’s sweeping runway, up
to thrumming silence,
that bluff of pelted fruit:
here the vertical stratifications
of bedrock cut through
cheeky and rough.
It is surprising how little poetry has been written with a genuine doubleness of perspective—usually it is from one point of view or the other, even when done sympathetically. Sooner or later, dual habitations such as Hall’s encounter differences that are hard to reconcile. As Hall notes in an afterword: ‘stories involv(ing) interactions with spirits and magic … were always a potent challenge to my secular humanism’. At such times he steps back a little and just lets the stories speak: the reader can decide. ‘Da twin trees … might be somethin’ … / you know, big business … / dem old people watchin’ / dis one big kujika (songline) / an he come kickin’ against the pricks all through here,’ says one of the boys from the Borroloola mob as they head out into the bush in ‘Concourse’.
There is a sense of unfinished business in this book, ultimately because there is so much unfinished business between the peoples themselves. Hall has lived in both camps—and worked closer to the lines of resistance than most ever do. The poems represent a more intimately textured embodiment of the issues than we normally get—from either side. There are few answers here, but there is much honest portrayal of difficult questions. One might wish that the benign spirits of the likes of Nana Miller—the Elder who introduced Hall to Gudanji ways, and a quiet presence in Fume—would keep an eye on this fraught interface as it works towards what will inevitably be its difficult compromises.
• • •
Judith Bishop’s Interval is her first full collection since Event in 2007, and the two volumes are surprisingly different. ‘Voice’ is a complex and contested term, but it is hard not to think of the difference in terms of the emergence of a voice. Bishop is a poet who has always paid careful attention to the weight and texture of the phrase, but one sometimes feels of the poems in her first book that their feeling for language is stronger than their capacity to construct meaning. In Interval, however, there is a new confidence in the management of meaning—as in the beginning of ‘Argument’ (p. 66):
Let’s not say never, friend:
the no in never is a comet
ever after trailing ice into the farthest
depth of heaven.
and all it knows of touch
belong on the earth, where yet and still
assemble in the dawn chorus
to be sung.
This is not a note that Bishop struck in Event. She would not have been so direct, nor would her sense of context have been so strong. Some of this is maturation, but the shift is quite marked—more so than is normally the case.
Interval contains two distinct groups of poems: one of poems to her children, and one of general meditations, such as ‘Control’ and ‘Testament’, often prompted by the implications of science. There are, in addition, many left-fielders—the term ‘miscellany’ doesn’t do justice to the care with which their impulses have been pursued—which would constitute a category of their own, if they weren’t so impossible to categorise. It is not inconceivable that her poems to her children, grounded, contextualised and attuned as they are, have in some way contributed to her new ease of speech.
One of the uses we desire for language is as a vehicle for love: as if we could project a permanently tender space around the objects of its concern. There is a kind of hopelessness in this—the same hopelessness by which we understand that the other has a life of their own—and yet there are few more endearing artefacts than the almost palpable attentiveness which such gestures inflect. One finds such attentiveness in passages such as the ending of ‘Mother to Child’ (p. 5):
I dreamed you began to paint the ceiling of our house.
Every stroke erased the roof.
Every mark opened gaily on the universe of the stars.
I dreamed your expressions figured love, jealousy and rage,
but not as yet the murmurings
of longing and regret.
Then I dreamed that you came to me with drawings of a forest,
familiar yet unplaceable, and whispered you were homesick
and would I take you home.
Here the anxiety takes a darker turn in the last stanza, but its desire for language to take care never wavers. In ‘As If’ (p. 69), the awareness of the other—facing in what is only a slightly different direction—finds expression as happiness:
as if the words well and bell were
everything they mean to be
to try toward, to ward, to world—
to word this muteness, so
—where ‘muteness’ refers to the sense that ‘there (was) nothing between the self / and light’.
If there is a question about this book it lies in whether Bishop always gets the balance right between the sometimes abstract nature of her expression and the materiality it is ultimately grounded in. In some of the poems based on ideas—and I have difficulties with parts of the longer poems in this respect—there is a tendency for the play of ideas to usurp the impulses they have grown out of. In other poems—particularly where a strong emotional context is already implicit (‘In the Somme’, ‘Argument’, ‘T/here’)—the balance seems just right. Bishop’s craft and feeling for language are never in question.
Nor is her understanding of just how difficult the contemporary intellectual moment is—particularly insofar as action requires one to trust one’s own impulses: ‘All of your humanity / is simply out of date’, she says in ‘Testament’, and there are difficulties enough to stem from that acknowledgement. Sometimes, however, there are lines that just quietly capture the mysteries of the ordinary: ‘Somewhere in the night / our hearts settle / and the breath alone keeps watch’ (‘Home’, p. 61). Irrespective of the means of arrival, poetry just sounds like poetry when you get there—even if there are few things more difficult to define than the poetic.
• • •
Maryam Azam is a young writer from western Sydney whose first collection deals with the difficulties of growing up Muslim in a secular society. The focus of The Hijab Files, as the title suggests, is on that most visible symbol, the hijab, but the poems also deal with other aspects of maintaining her faith: searching for somewhere to pray; dealing with insults; easing her way, with the help of her mother, past traditional marriage diplomacy. Some of the poems, such as ‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’ (p. 14), are straightforward assertions of the correctness of her choices, but the more successful ones record what must often be frustrating and unpredictable negotiations. In ‘He Wrote’ (p. 25), she is hurt by a friend’s response to her writing poetry:
Sister, hijab is more than just covering your hair.
Even your words should be veiled.
And this from my supposed best friend.
Because writing poems is exactly
like exposing the lustrous nature of my hair.
In ‘Fashion Police’ (p. 32), she encounters a Muslim taxi driver who disapproves of her school skirt:
I go to my room and cry over the fact
that wearing a white scarf
has me sticking out like a stain
that white is not my colour
it washes out my complexion
and that wearing a skirt like the other girls
makes me feel a little bit attractive
There is an erotic vein to the demonstration of modesty that is acknowledged, but not, perhaps, fully explored. In ‘You Can’t Touch Me’ (p. 33), she writes:
A mere glimpse
of my hand pressed against
the carpet from under the rippling curtain
that divides the university musallah
can preoccupy a wallah bro’s thoughts
and stoke his imagination for days …
Power sizzles along the threads of my scarf.
There are also glimpses of a very different world. In ‘Jinns on Mt Kosciuszko’ (p. 49):
Jinns make their homes where humans don’t.
My older cousins told me this when they
said they’d passed a jinn on a dirt road in the bush
one night on the central coast, its fire spirit
manifested in the form of a hitchhiker.
At the heart of the book is Azam’s desire to insist on her choices—in the light of the realisation that the story of their difficulties makes suitable material for poems. When they simply express their point of view, the poems can be one-dimensional: ‘I listen to my aunty, / her hair tucked into an undercap, / explain that throughout history / only slave women went about / with their hair uncovered’ (‘Modestique’, p. 12). This is simply the articulation of a rule. But the beliefs are sincerely held, and their implementation causes difficulties that are real enough, and when the two clash, the poems create naturally sympathetic spaces that invite the reader to enter.
Azam deserves respect for writing out of the courage of her convictions. Collectively the poems are an honest and observant record of living with Muslim beliefs in a largely secular society. Whether she will be able to build on this in her work is difficult to predict. The quality of one’s assertions is a function of the counter-arguments and alternative perspectives they have taken into account. There is not much evidence that Azam really engaged with the complexity of the opinions that surround her—opinions she may not be able to ignore if she is to take her writing to the next level.
Martin Langford has published seven books of poetry, the most recent of which is Ground (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015). He is co-editor (with J. Beveridge, J. Johnson and D. Musgrave) of Contemporary Australian Poetry (P & W, 2016), and is chair of Australian Poetry Ltd.