Eileen Chong: Burning Rice; Mathew Abbott: Wild Inaudible; Vanessa Page: Feeding Paper Tigers; Carmen Leigh Keates: One Broken Knife

Eileen Chong: Burning Rice (Little Lonsdale St, Vic.: Australian Poetry Ltd, 2012), 40pp.
Mathew Abbott: Wild Inaudible (Little Lonsdale St, Vic.: Australian Poetry Ltd, 2012), 39pp.
Vanessa Page: Feeding Paper Tigers (Brisbane New Poets III: np, [2012])
Carmen Leigh Keates: One Broken Knife (Brisbane New Poets III: np, [2012]).

Among all the new poets emerging at the moment I’ve chosen these four though I might have looked at others and, in fact, hope to do so in later reviews. Unfortunately the last two of this group are represented by “micro-collections” of only a few poems and thus resist any confident description but the same can’t be said of Eileen Chong and Mathew Abbott. The saddle-stitched books of Australian Poetry’s New Voices series look minuscule but they have the standard dimensions of, say, a Penguin paperback and run to thirty-five pages or so of poetry. They are, in other words, roughly two-thirds of a conventional volume and are thus quite long enough to get some kind of provisional sense of how the creative part of a poet’s mind is working. Among the four poets you can detect two fairly conventional poetic approaches and two that are, in some respects at least, unusual.

Eileen Chong’s book is “conventional” to the point where, on initial acquaintance, you are likely to miss its virtues. It does look, at first, as though a Creative Writing supervisor had said to a prospective student, “Look: you’ve had an interesting life with an interesting background that will be exotic to Australian readers. Why not write a series of family poems? And then you can fill out the MS with some monologue poems where you enter the characters of women in Chinese history. It can’t fail.” The great virtue and charm of this book is that its poems go far beyond these expectations and grow on the reader – well, this reader at least – with each successive reading. I’m not sure that I can specify with any exactitude why this is the case but it is worth the effort to try. To begin with, there is a level of certainty about both tone and technique: if they seem, initially, unadventurous poems then they are also fully-achieved. Secondly, they never give a sense of being exploitative, of focussing on the gap between the perspective of the writer and that of the Australian reader to the point where it can be used for effect – especially for melodramatic effects. So the poetic cast of mind seems calmly inward-turned and explorative rather than showily dramatic even though the poems have conventionally dramatic shapes. “My Hakka Grandmother”, celebrating a Chinese ethnicity noted for its migrations, its extraordinary domestic architecture, its separate language, and the comparative freedom of its women, can stand as an example of this poetry:

If time could unwind for you
yet be still for me, we would run
through the fields, feet unbound
and pummelling the ground towards

the earth-house. I read about it once:
its architecture unique to the Hakka people
in Fujian. Dwellings like wedding rings
stacked and interlinked. You would lead me

through the building's single gate
and show me where you slept, above
the communal granary. It would smell
of rice husks, like your dark hair

in the mornings before we'd braid it
long and sleek. I would speak
in your tongue, but we would not need
words. The lines on my palms mirror

yours almost perfectly. I wonder where
our bloodline begins. We are guest people
without land or name, moving south and south,
wild birds seeking a place to call home.

Thematically, like so many poems of Burning Rice, it focusses on links, especially generational links. This poem is, in those terms, mildly disruptive in that it wants to shortcircuit the generations and let the poet live alongside the grandmother as a coeval. The poem is strengthened and held taut by a subtext of images deriving from the idea of lines so that time is imagined unwinding, feet are unbound and identity is expressed in matching lines of the palm. This sets up a nice conclusion whereby it is lines of blood – bloodlines – which have put the poet where she is today, Sydney. Contrasted with this are the circular images: of the Hakka houses joined like rings and the symbolic braiding of hair.

All of this is predictable enough and doesn’t account for more than a well-made, thoughtful and successful modern lyric poem but somehow the poems of Burning Rice are a lot more than this. Asian sensitivities to family history and the loyalties and respect within the generations of those families is a familiar enough trope in twenty-first century Australian poetry (there is also Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s 2004 book, Against Certain Capture) for there to be no especial frisson of exotic otherness and so the answers must lie elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a matter of the tension between the calm of the poems and the blandness they would fall into if they were not as structurally animated and woven together as they are. Somehow they have to be perfectly achieved not to be faux-oriental banalities and they are perfect of their kind (though one might quibble at the last five words of “My Hakka Grandmother”). I’m not expressing this at all well but I’ll resort to the defence that it is a complex issue.

There are also poems in Burning Rice which are, in terms of lyrical tactics and disposition, more ambitious than the calm quatrains of these family poems. The book’s first poem – as though to demonstrate that there is more to the author than well-made Austral-S.E Asian poetic pieties – is a surrealist love poem influenced by Joseph Pintauro: “. . . . . You’ll simmer a cauldron / of silver stars and I, I will weave / you stories from gossamer / and dew. Wait now – the cat’s / coughed an elf. Wake now.”  And there are a group of poems in the middle of the book which deal with great personal pain and which evolve their own complex strategies for doing this. The best of these is “Chinese Ginseng” which fools us into thinking that it is a “memories of Singaporean life” poem activated by the smell of the ginseng before revealling that it is really about the inadequacies of the poet’s mother’s traditional medical suggetions in the face of an acute problem:

"Try ginseng," my mother says. "Must be Chinese,
not Korean or American." I remember the ginseng's
bulbous head, its desiccated torso, smaller roots

for arms and legs - bound with red string to cardboard backing,
displayed in boxes stacked for sale. Panacea, tonic, necessity.
The medicine man extols the virtues of each unique root,

then shaves the ginseng into slices so thin
I could melt them on my tongue. He weighs them
on a brass scale pinched between forefinger and thumb,

then wraps portions into paper packages. There is no point
in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear: polycystic ovaries,
endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen - I can almost taste

her soup: sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica and lilybulb,
but above all, the unmistakable bitter-sweetness of Chinese ginseng.

That’s a sophisticated poem because its structure is evolved to deal with a personal issue whose pain is increased by the emphasis, in the other poems, on family links. Finally there is the second last poem of the book, “Lunch”, which adopts what one would think of (I’m on shaky and potentially ethnic-essentialist grounds here) as a very un-South-East Asian referential structure. The poet and friend go shopping after lunch:

. . . . .
Your basket is half-full. We are mirrored
in the glass-walled fridges when I tell you
about the time a man tried to pick me up

by telling me how much he liked
the way I shopped. "Like an animal,"
he'd breathed, "smelling and touching."
Put that in a poem, you said. I have.

I’m always attracted to this kind of elegant self-referentiality which I think (although I’m not at all sure about this) occurs first in Western poetry in the wonderful Catullus VI. One problem is that, having used this structure, you really can’t repeat it.

 

Mathew Abbott’s poetry is a different phenomenon and poses entirely different questions for the reader. Even at its most concretely visual – in a set of comparatively approachable poems devoted to the western states of the USA – you want to say that it remains highly abstract. But “abstract” is a dangerous word with many subtle colourings and one wouldn’t want to give the wrong idea. “California” is different to conventional poems of place because it doesn’t seem to separate its interests (what the place is and “means”) from its conception. It certainly isn’t one of those poems that begins with some poetically concrete description and then moves onto understandings in the back half of the poem. It seems to be a poem trying to embody, rather than stand outside of, the Romantic question of the relationship between observer and observed:

the field out there
is that expanse

hazed in glary
tired light

          the field
          gone to yellow
          at the endings

birds are out in it
and too much with us

the passing of our train
indistinct to them

                    they know
          in the upwash
                    finding shapes
                              to split the flow fields

the towns
have the sense
of being paraded

          the life in them
          stripped back
          to glint

                              the turbines

                    turn the head
                    anemotropic

                    hum the skull
                    to juice the mind

          the field out there
          meets the field of the mind

at the horizontal

          the faked water
          of the heat
          the turbines cut

Here is a poem about the American state which is simultaneously the home of the “field theory” of postwar American poetry and the home of popular visual culture and an actual, non-metaphorical field is seen as a set of flickering images from the inside of a train carriage – as though the characters of a film were animated into observers. Although the idiom is difficult and its fractured quality foregoes the relaxed rhetorical sweep of philosophic meditation, it certainly has to be counted, at the very least, as an example of organic form!

Two poems of Wild Inaudible, perhaps the next most approachable after these “travel” poems, are list poems: “Twelve Surfaces” and “Ten Maladies”. Again, there is nothing new in this structure – it recalls Stevens, a poet who atttracts and explores the word “abstract” – but it is always an intriguing one. The individual examples cluster around the theme and lead us to wonder how exhaustive the catalogue is, whether they point towards a definition of the central term, what is the principle of ordering, and so on. The twelve surfaces of the former poem are: word, shrill, copper, bribery, kubrick, god, comedic, bad, gnomic, bug, doggy, and surface. There is no doubt about its reasons for beginning with the first, a call to reading, “look at this / word surface // gets you to look / at this word here” or for concluding with the last “surface surface is / all the way down surface”, which recalls the famous William James story and has its inevitable paradox, but I can’t proffer any reasons for the selection and ordering of the others: it might be thematic or aesthetic (in that it responds to internal juxtapositions which seem to “work well”) or it might be deliberately aleatory. At any event, it’s an engaging poem.

Other poems seem to focus on physicality, the status of our corporeal existence in the world. “Attenborough” concludes by speaking of the “wonky natural 2 / -step of the animal / human heart” while “Wetware” uses (I think) the physical situation of being caught in very heavy rain to play against the idea of the body as “wet”-ware (as opposed to “soft- ” or “hard-“). It is hard not to connect this with a later poem, “Rain”, which seems to be a meditation built around the linguistic phenomenon of our use of an impersonal verb (“it rains”) in this situation and to ask the question of what this “it” actually is, suggesting that it is, perhaps, the “rain” of events and experiences. At the same time, to read it in conjunction with “Wetware” is to invite the idea that it connects to our physical selves.

These rather ropey readings get even more provisional when Abbott takes as his subject liminal states of awareness. These seem often connected with poems about love and relationships so that the fine first poem, “Good Morning” is simultaneously about being next to a state of awakening and being next to the loved-one: 

 there's a plateau in the night
                  learnable in surfacing

          to wake is this one thing
          the arrival is peripheral

as i turn up
you move to speak

                   asleep
                   asleep to it
. . . . .

And the book’s final poem, “Cusp”, is, well, about cusps and rather beautifully and richly lyrically connects the loved-one with a liminal state that – though I can’t follow the philosophy of it exactly – is a highly significant one in terms of imaginative expressiveness:

i wake to the good
of the small of your back

                    heat at the skin's hand

          your breath
          is the fall
          of sleep in you

grace of arms
               and rift at heart

points of fact
               abstracting the line

the cusp of the world
curves at the touch of you

That is a very fine poem, very beautiful in structure, very intriguing in its meanings and in no way related to any existing formula. Wild Inaudible is a really impressive debut collection and, if I have made it out to be “difficult” intellectually, I should also point to the grace and attractiveness of individual poems. The New Voices format seems almost too humble for something as good as this.

 

The same, rather shaky distinction between a poet who explores and exploits conventional structures and one who seems, from the outset, to be doing things in his or her own way is re-enacted in miniature with the two poets of  Brisbane New Voices III. Vanessa Page’s poems tend to focus on emotional states: the first, “Five fifty-three am” is about happiness, and its structure – a set of rhapsodic metaphors (“It’s the morning rubbing the last of a dream from its eyes / as day-broken birds open their throats to the light”) – mimics the way the state lends itself to imaginative celebration rather than, say, sceptical analysis. A more common state in these poems is loss and separation from the loved-one. This seems a state more easily connected to exploration and one really fine poem, “Chrysalid”, does this within the metaphor established in the title:

This day is made for breaking.

I lie awake inside the shell of sleep.
Outside my window, agapanthus
heads invite deconstruction

There are only incidental details left.

I inhabit shadows like silk-sheen
resting my fingertips on your detritus . . . . .

The poems of Carmen Leigh Keates have an eerily individual quality which derives not so much from their subject matter – though that is often disturbing enough – as from their disjunctions. Some times these disjunctions are stylistic: in “Leaking Through” it seems as though the the world of dream (at least I think it’s a dream) dominates and the disjunctions are a mimetic way of conveying the weird logic of dreams. In “Out There By the Airport” which “tells the story” of the experiences of a Salvadorean hospital cleaner there is a disorienting and very unusual juxtaposition of direct and indirect speech.  But the title poem uses this technique in the most radical way. It begins with a domestic enough set of comments about the use of knives which modulates to:

It is the twin of a knife
found in the grave
of someone you used to be
in the fourth century.

before beginning the next stanza, even more radically:

Radio feels mysterious.
You walk about
listening with your eyes . . . . .

Disjunctions and unexpected movements such as this between the domestic, the sinister, and the analytical, give these poems a tremendous internal drive. It is not a rhetoric but a very distinctive way of exploring the different levels on which we live – domestic world, dream world and intellectual world – and their collisions and interactions. It’s full of possibilites and one wants to see a lot more of it.