John Mateer: The West: Australian Poems 1989 – 2009

Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2010, 149pp.

Everything about the poetry and position of John Mateer seems interestingly complex. He was born in South Africa, spent some of his youth in Canada and has been based in Western Australia since 1989. West: Australian Poems 1989 – 2009 is, as Martin Harrison points out in the book’s introduction, only a fragment or facet of this poet’s work. Focussing on Australia, this book forms a kind of companion piece to his previous volume, Elsewhere (Salt, 2007) which republishes groups of poems dealing with experiences in Africa, Indonesia, Japan, the US, and Mexico. Mateer is, for reasons which will become apparent, a great travel-poet. The titles of both books are carefully chosen and each has a double perspective. “Elsewhere” is, at one level, merely everywhere but the poet’s home in Australia: Auden’s “altogether elsewhere” whose function seems to be to teach us about home by confronting us with the utterly different. But the book has as an epigraph a line from Rumi, “my soul is from elsewhere” and this reference to the “invisible world”, the gheib of the Persian mystical tradition, tells us that we need to look inwards as well as outwards when thinking about spaces in this book. Similarly this selection of Mateer’s poems with an Australian focus is called West but west is not only that far and isolated state of Australia (weirdly, at least for a citizen of the East Coast like me, oriented so that it faces Africa across the Indian Ocean) it is also, to quote Martin Harrison, “that post-World War Two, socio-economic mega-project none of us anywhere has escaped from”. One of the later poems calls this “The Empire of the Obvious” and to live in Western Australia is, in this respect, a double heritage.

The act of notionally separating one’s Selected Poems into two volumes (Elsewhere and West) might seem on the surface to be an act of simplifying or, at least, unravelling, but each book carries with it the full complexity of its author’s personality and background. Of course, everybody is complex (perhaps, like languages, equally complex) and, for all I know, a poet who has lived all his life in a TV-free village and has never travelled or been exposed to alien cultures, might have as complex an authorial position as Mateer, but in Mateer’s case the complexity is built into the voice and into the variety of his poetry – as literary scholars used to say, it is a foregrounded element. You can see it in a poem like “One of the Earthrings at Sunbury”:

Like a grassed-over plate, the earthring is almost invisible,
an upturned lip of dirt, an O, like an invocation in a pantheist’s poem,
yet also banal, this site of men’s initiation
fenced-in by the bright clear-cut architecture of outer suburban dreams.

                  A memorial, a sanctuary, archaic post-object art?

I sit cross-legged just outside the ring whispering a dharani.

Notice that? Faint, the whirring traffic on the freeway, the slight tilt
of the ring towards the city’s sparkling skyline, the bay’s silence
and the boring khaki plains that are rising up
to me here, to this ring and to the vanished feet that would have been
- more than a Noh play’s concluding (stamp!) ”“
an African pulsation, an Ancestral dance . . .

                  What is this history? a dematerialising?

even as I, an alien, a haunting, bow down to the empty ground.

It is tempting to call this a typical Mateer poem, although one would need to stress that the modes in which he writes are very varied, but I’ve chosen it as an entry point because it makes such an interesting contrast with Judith Wright’s early poem, “Bora Ring”. The dynamic of that poem works by contrasting the first three stanzas – written almost in the late nineteenth century mode of elegiac lament for the loss of the Aborigines – with a final stanza that reminds the reader that there will be a price to pay, that this is not a comfortable elegising: “Only the rider’s heart / halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word / that fastens in the blood the ancient curse, / the fear as old as Cain.” Though the poet is clearly “the rider”, she never appears in the poem in propria persona and you have to wait for great poems like “At Cooloolah” for the white observer to become something more than a cipher, to become more a fully complex observing human being. In Mateer’s poem (which I don’t suppose is likely to be as widely anthologised as Wright’s) the observer is an actor whose complexities and conflicted quality are highlighted rather than smoothed over. He sits outside the ring singing an Eastern Buddhist chant and using a metaphor from Japanese theatre. His sense of the dance that might have occurred in the ring is that it is “an African pulsation” and he sees himself, as a white man, as a ghost, haunting the site. And his distinctive presence is not only there as a character but it is there in its initial metaphoric reaction to the place because, looking like a grassed over plate, it has a double face: it is simultaneously an “Oh” of ecstasy and a banal grass circle.

Mateer is always going to be present in his poems certainly to the extent that he never allows himself to be a neutral “presenting” voice like the speaker of the opening stanzas of “Bora Ring” (continued in the lyric voice of an even more famous poem, “The Old Prison”). It is always a complex and conflicted self, and the poems, if misread, can seem self-centred. But they seem to me never to be trivially egocentric. They face up to the complexities of the perspective that the poet brings to the world and he is representative only to the extent that his self is, like the selves of his readers, complex, multilayered, altered by context and the situation in which he finds himself. And ultimately unanalysable.

The poems of West are grouped in sections and one might expect the section called “The Nature”, unlike the ones called “Exile” and “Among the Australians”, say, to contain poems where the lyrical ego might be simplified in the face of the immense complexity and weirdness of the Australian natural environment. But even here interestingly odd things occur. “At Gnangara”, for example, begins like a standard poem about an ecological crime whereby native trees are ringbarked and uprooted to make way for a pine plantation. Nature takes a hand in the form of a bushfire which destroys the pines and activates the seeds of the native trees:

. . . . .
                                                          Then bushfire

reduced the plantation to ash. After thirty years,
like a nation after decades of martial law,
bodies unclenching, eyes opening, native seeds sprouting.

It’s a strangely chosen metaphor and is surely a South African reference applied to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Where we might have expected something neutral, we get something highly poet-specific. The situation is recreated in a later poem, “Aftermath”, where the poet is implicated as an actor/observer much as he was in “One of the Earthrings at Sunbury”:

              Walk into my mouth,
into the head that isn’t mine.
              Sit cross-legged on the crinkly, sooty ground,
on the wisps of singed hair
in the aftermath. 

. . . . .

I approach a tree,
trying to tell its type from reptilian
evenly scaled charcoal skin:
apartheid? Near my hand on the bark, an ant.
In its jaw-hands a huge load of food.

In the last of the poems in this section, “Last Night”, Mateer recounts the experience of dreaming (“lucid dreaming” he calls it) that he was a black cockatoo. For a moment it seems a poem that has to decide whether it is going to describe yet another odd creature of the West Australian environment or explore the murkier world of the totemic animals and beliefs of the original inhabitants of the place where he is sleeping and who may be contacting him. At the poem’s end, the black cockatoo is his totemic animal but the tone is comic:

                     I was naked,
shaggy with feathers, and lifting
one foot, then another, flexing, looking
around the branches’ fretwork
under the roof of leaves. I
was uneasily considering if I had the right perch.

There are many birds, especially cockatoos, in this book and they can be treated, as here, reasonably lightly but they can also be part of the way older, deeper levels of personality – associated with the seeping influence of the land – can impress themselves on the already culturally mixed individual. In “The Cockatoo” – a mildly comic take on national identity – the bird stands for a kind of ethnic purity (it is, after all, a “native”) and is surrounded by a group of more representative, modern Australians:

Others might have expected conversation. We didn’t.
Standing with a Malaysian-Chinese man outside his furniture store
on Sydney Road, Brunswick, we have no need to talk.
The Lebanese bloke on his silver bicycle, taking a break from the kebab shop,
glides past us. We don’t notice. We don’t look up
from the sulphur-crested cockatoo unsteadily perched on the back of a chair.
We are waiting for him to hold forth on the subject of AUSTRALIA.

Also at this comic level another totemic animal appears in “The Local” which describes one of the wealthier suburbs where “professional men and genetically-chosen women, / or vice versa, sleep through this musky briny night”. These are prey to a menagerie of seditious animals and insects including cockroaches, possums and native and immigrant birds. Mateer, however, chooses the fox as his representative:

expert survivalists cosmopolitan as you like - 
who hide in the parkland and limestone
caves on the foreshore, who mesmerise chooks in the
millionaire’s backyard and are never
sighted slinking down these leafy streets.

In those poems which concern themselves with interactions between poet and people rather than poet and landscape, there is also a tendency to focus on a kind of parallel complexity of identity. “. . . Hermes is to Blame” contains a set of anecdotes of odd people and their odd fates, and a complex poem, “Invisible Cities”, describes the fate of Italian migrant for whom

being here will be like having sleepily boarded a European ship at noon
to wake startled at midnight on an unimaginable continent in a deserted industrial city.

What will happen will be a powerful act of transformation whereby eventually being in the place will be like

transferring all your possessions to some other room,
                                                          then taking the floor as your bed,

or like painting a nocturne blindfolded, the cityscape being in that darkness

as much noise as memory, seeming as Italianate
                                as those paperbarks in the summer moonlight.

Even a poem devoted to a detailed examination of a lover’s body (“I had told her I’m always / embarrassed by poems that aren’t specific enough”) in an attempt to fix a powerful experience forever in the face of entropic loss, cheats the author when the most striking memory is of an irrelevant trinket – importantly an exotic trinket:

                                           Most vivid, though,
I don’t know why, was that Ethiopian crucifix
hanging from its leather thread on
the back of her neck.

If the book falls into engagements with people, engagements with landscape and engagements with the self, there is also a substantial number of poems devoted to the history of race relations in Western Australia, notably “Talking with Yagan’s Head”, “In the Presence” (which is fifteen brief poems addressed to Yagan) and “The Brewery Site”. All of this puts a lot of strain on the poet’s already conflicted self-identity though the texts they produce are, because of this, more honest than the average poem-about-cultural-issues. It’s probably only typical of me that I prefer the lighter, comic touch of the poem, “Pinjarra”, which ends this section:

Down at the site of the battle which was more like a slaughter
some Nyoongar blokes showed him the crossing
where, there low over the blackened water,
they’d seen that fireball hovering white as a blind eye,
and he’d asked them if they’d tried to call out to those spirits 
and they’d laughed:

                   “No way, mate, we was off like a shot!”

Though this only recounts an anecdote, it must be a rare thing for a massacre site to be the subject of a serio-comic poem.

Twenty years’ worth of poems show John Mateer still to be what he was in his first book, Burning Swans, a poet who has done things in his own style and who seems never to have been interested in matching existing poetic movements and fashions. The complexity of the self which is behind the poems can make for difficulties for a reader: if you’re trying to come to grips with an item in the Australian landscape which you have never seen, it doesn’t make it easier when the describer himself is a bundle of complexities. But the result is always an honest one and there are probably more dishonest poets (“painters of fakes” in Picasso’s description) than is generally recognised. My reservation about West is that it is only a part of what this poet does. It was probably a careful decision involving parameters and considerations I know nothing of, but I wish that Elsewhere and West had been combined. It would have given a fuller picture of this poet’s abilities and achievements