Shastra Deo: The Agonist; Charlotte Guest: Soap

The Agonist, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017, 87pp.
Soap, Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017, 46pp.

Shastra Deo’s poems seem to inhabit the same symbolic space. This makes The Agonist recall something like Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares (though there may be much more recent and current examples outside the scope of my reading) despite the fact that the tone of the poems is much different. But you feel that there is a continuous symbolic landscape that the poems inhabit even though different poems occupy different parts of that landscape. Generally, the poems, as the title suggests, are about conflicts but these conflicts are never the clash of immovable objects or positions. An even more important principle in the mini-mythology Deo has created is that conflicts involve interpenetrations: these are poems where the border lines between one individual and another, or between an individual and the world are, if clearly defined, important sites of definition, mapping and change. Though many of the poems explore relationships between individuals, these are often people who have some sort of stake with each other, as lovers, brothers, parents and children.

In “The Bering Sea”, which is probably as good an introduction to the poems of this book as any, two siblings – the speaker and the speaker’s brother – make a kind of imaginary angled journey across America from the coast off Alaska, through Minnesota and Tennessee to Florida – from cold to warmth – one stanza per location:

Brother, do you remember the Bering Sea,
where we promised to go home again?
You caught rock greenling and I slid the knife
into their bellies – bird-egg blue, like your eyes at noon.
Brother, what a match we were: you,
the stolid fisherman’s son, and me,
a fisher of men.
. . . . . 

I will confess, brother, that
that night I dreamed of taking a knife
to your belly, the hidden machinations
of your body spilling past your palms,
the smell of it hot and rich like venison.

Brother, this is how I remember the end of the Bering Sea:
melted ice in overturned glasses, blood on my hands.
Far down the beach there was soft breath and silence
and the sound of your leaving.

That final reference to leaving touches on a recurring theme in this book but the dream of gutting also stands out as one form of the obsession these poems have with the insides of the body. One of the strengths of this poetry, it seems to me, is that the physical, inner world is taken as literally as the outer, even to the extent of including anatomical drawings in the pages of the book itself. Whereas poetry is happy to invoke the insides of the body it usually does this at a fairly generalised level as the world of hearts, kidneys, livers and lungs. Deo’s voyages under the skin are replete with all the precise technical language one could imagine. This turns the body’s interior into the known, precisely mapped world which holds its own in the conflict with the outer body of shape and skin and with the mistier realms of the inner – emotional and intellectual – life which poetry so often wants to make more specific.

In “Anatomy of Being”, a clever alphabet poem, each of the precisely delineated sections of the body is mapped as the home of a more abstract sensation – “. . . the worry forcibly exhaled by the / pyramidalis muscle; the panic placed, / quietly, in the quadrangular membrane. / Rumination held, always, in the / stomach, in its roils and rugae . . .”. And something similar happens in the book’s final poem, “Salt, Sugar” – whose title derives from the joke involved in saying “Pass me the salt, sugar”:

. . .  . .
          They didn’t stop searching until they found the sorrow,
tucked away in your thoracic viscera, the longing
distilled in the pedicle of your liver, hunger
hidden in the mitral valve of your heart . . .

And since the insides match the outsides in terms of precision it is no surprise that insides should be harnessed in the search for meaning. This is the reason for the numerous references to the various kinds of augury. What is, to most readers, a bizarre offshoot of humankind’s endless search for an ability to understand the processes of events is, in this book, something to be treated seriously, not for its lurid evocations of a magical world but as part of the way the interior is as compelling as the exterior. “Anatomy of Being” concludes “Each / zygapophysis interlocked, the process of prophecy in reverse”. That is: what holds the components of the body together fights against the processes of dismemberment which can lead to divination. “Concerning Divination” devotes itself to the issue of prediction through the flight and song of birds before concluding with the figure of Prometheus and describing his personal vulture as a haruspex

who grew weary of sectioning his liver
day after day, only to uncover
the same omen, regrown
and promptly forgotten.

I’ve focussed on this recurring image of ways of uncovering meaning from an investigation of the inside of a body but it is worth pointing out that Deo’s poems are also interested in the skin – the barrier between inner and outer. The skin too has its system of meaning most obviously in the still-surviving myths of palmistry. “Little Fists” begins by saying “The map – /made of tendons and bone shards / -written in your little fists / unfurled and vanished / when you took my hand” and “Knife Edge”, which is a good example of the principle of interpenetration (“I think I was thinking / skin should not separate us”) finishes with the blood welling up from a partner’s cut wrist “drowning / the fate lines / etched in my palm”. Finally, “Haven”, which I think is to be imagined as describing a couple faced with a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter (although that might, conceivably, be no more than an over-the-top metaphor for the decline of a perfectly conventional domestic relationship) ends with the woman describing the man’s back – “And his back, freckled / with oracular precision, the site / of more soothsaying than the stars above”.

The central section of The Agonist is highly organised and made up of a number of units – the life of a soldier, a boxer’s son, some found poems from the first line index of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry and three three-part dream poems defining words which turn out to be important in various places in the book. These “units” (a clumsy word) are allowed to interpenetrate in a way the recalls, deliberately or not, the wider theme of interpenetration. Again the emphasis is on insides and borders. The poems of the boxer’s son revolve around mangled hands and split skin. When he attacks a friend “the skin / stretched over my knuckles / split” and, thinking that his hands are split to the bone, he goes to a hospital where a nurse attends to his hands:

. . . . . 
That night I unclenched my fists
and held my hands up to the light.
I looked for the fortune in my upturned palm
but it could not tell me
how I would die.

The whole of this second section is prefaced by another, free-standing poem about boxing, “Cutman”, where the attentions of the assistant responsible for looking after cuts in the ring slide into a sexual embrace and then into dismemberment, interpenetration and finally into a kind of transposition of personality. Just as “Cutman”, related to the poems about the boxer’s son, prefaces this section, so “Tenebrae”, related to the story of the soldier, concludes it. At first the soldier’s tale seems like one of psychological rather than physical wounds but there is a good deal of the former as well when one of the poems describes a wartime attack that results in a dislocated shoulder and then goes on to describe – in the sort of precise detail I’ve been commenting on – the operation that will repair it:

You were awake when they sawed
through your humerus, popped the bone
out of the glenoid cavity, but
you could not speak. They shaved away
the coracoid process, coated the clavicle and scapula
with precious metals . . .

The final section of The Agonist includes two sequences: one a set of responses to an old text of the scouting movement, Scout Tests and How to Pass Them, and the other responses to a number of cards from the Major Arcana of the Tarot pack. In each case a set of themes seems to be reworked, almost like musical variations and the fact that they are highly organised and, at the same time, fragmentary, might point to some features in Deo’s imaginative personality. There is a high degree of fluency here together with what renaissance rhetoricians called copiousness of invention..

Charlotte Guest’s Soap contains poems, she tells us in an Afterword, written between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five and are thus a kind of document of achieving maturity. It goes on to say “While this is a book about selfhood, I hope it is not overly self-involved” and this tentativeness might be highlighted in the title with its suggestion of soap-opera. What makes it a striking first book is the way individual poems are stand-alone pieces with their own dynamic and their own stance towards the world so that feeling comfortable with one poem doesn’t mean that the next will immediately make sense. It’s also a very slim book, suggesting that it has resisted the impulse to mine late adolescence and early adulthood for material which can be transmuted into a series of poems all of which work in a similar way. This kind of book always appeals to me: its slimness isn’t a product of a constipated poetic imagination but one that produces poems not shaped by the same discursive pattern.

The diffidence about recounting personal change can be seen in “Hush, Memory” (an approachably conventional poem but possibly the best in the book) whose title is a nice variation on the title of Nabokov’s great autobiographical work. It’s about expectations and inevitable disappointments:

The lodgings at the end of girlhood
are not as advertised. I had not expected
these island features, or the grass
to whip. I wasn’t told hard rubbish
would run all month. Our doors are
red; our mirrors done over with breath.

It seems I have forgotten all I learnt
at Revolution School, and instead glide
past Neptune Pools in a car I do not own . . .

as well as recollections of a friend who “disappeared” – “Some of us didn’t make it to the lodgings / at the end of girlhood”. Modally it is entirely different from the next poem, “Baskets”, which is a comic dream poem set in a supermarket and it is certainly very different to pieces like “Picnic at the Rock” and “Hey Preacher” which are surreal prose pieces. “Hush, Memory” is balanced by a later poem, “Autobiographical Fragment” (whose title might allude to any number of texts) in which memories of celebrating a friend’s eighteenth birthday – with a ceremony involving burying a symbolic doll – are set against watching a birthday party in an opposite apartment: seeing in the “nearly-women and nearly-men” the next generation going through the same processes. The epitaph to Soap, Fay Zwicky’s “Is anyone ever ready for who exactly they are?” perfectly catches the sense of the unpredictable developments into selfhood that these poems deal with.

The virtues of both these books are, in a way, equivocal. If one wanted to be hostile to The Agonist, one could say that the effortless mining of an idea to produce series that could be almost infinitely extendable is nothing more than facility and facility ultimately is a marker of a certain superficiality. If one wanted to be hostile to Soap, one could say that the slimness of the book – the product of many years’ activity – is a sign of a sluggish creativity. I don’t think either of these objections are valid but it is difficult to judge on the basis of a single book by each author and we will have to wait until each writer has produced three or four books before being at all confident that the more positive judgement – that The Agonist is marked by a powerful poetic imagination and Soap by a system of high standards which result in poems quite unlike each other – is the correct one. In any case it is interesting to find two first books which operate in roughly the same area of subject matter and which show such opposed ways as to how the poetic faculty operates.