Adam Aitken: Revenants

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022, 90pp.

Since his first book A Letter to Marco Polo, published in 1985, Adam Aitken has always seemed, at least to me, the quintessential Asian-Australian poet. The double-barrelled quality extends right down to the genetic level because he is not merely the child of an immigrant Asian family but the product of a marriage between an Australian man and a Thai woman.

His development as a writer took place during a period in which such issues developed rapidly. The migrant experience moved from postwar European migration to Asian migration. At the same time the response moved from a need for documentation to extensive theorization both of the migrant mind-set and of kinds of hybridity. As an intellectual development, this latter is not something I have followed but I can say, as an outsider, that it is more likely to produce interesting results poetically than the idea that poetry’s main function is to document. On the other hand, it’s not likely that much poetry of any interest will come out of an intellectual (and career-academic) subject area – something that good poets have always seemed to know instinctively.

Letter to Marco Polo is made up of poems written after its author’s stay in Thailand during his early twenties. The aim of the trip and the writing that followed is clearly to make some sense of the Thai component of his heritage which, at the time must have seemed the more exotic and intractable. The poems tend to be built around the strangeness of individual characters like his uncle, “the old chief prosecutor”:

. . . . . 
No one left to send to hell he took up poetry;
manuscripts scattered a desk wide as a raft.
Wrong-doing locked in glass -
teak cabinets, swords laid to rest.
Who knows what life subsists in buffalo horn trophies? . . .

but also around odd events, the kind that somebody welcomed as a long lost relative needing a proper education in fastidious Thai etiquette might experience. The key to what made Letter to Marco Polo an important book in the mid-eighties is that the poems result not from a desire to document strangenesses or exploit them as poetic material but from a forensic drive to make some sense of a hybrid self. It’s a book of exploration, in other words, rather than poetic exploitation.

There is a big shift in emphasis that slowly develops in Aitken’s subsequent poetic career. The early poems seem to suggest that it is the Thai side (the mother’s side) of the poet’s life which needs exploration. It’s understandable since for a boy growing up quite conventionally in the seventies in Sydney with a brother and single mother (the father left when Aitken was thirteen) the Asian component is what seems to need exploration. This is made doubly exotic by being mediated through the mother who is not in any sense a straightforward migrant woman, bearer of a simple ethnic identity: her background includes being fluent in French and a lover of French literature, and being the first Thai woman to get a fork-lift driver’s licence in Australia (her later life is detailed in the poem, “Cairns”, from Eighth Habitation). But as the books have gone on, the father has played a greater and greater role. The reason for this might be simply psychological – in middle-age all men have to come to grips with their father in some way or other – but I sense that the real recognition is of the fact that the father is just as mysterious as the mother. To generalise this out, in other words, “familiar” Australian culture is just as exotic as South East Asian. But to follow the psychological line for a moment, the father is certainly an ever-present, slightly larger-than-life extrovert for the poet’s childhood who, in the poet’s adolescence, becomes an absent figure. He doesn’t make a debut poetic appearance until “Sonnets for ‘58”, a sequence from Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles, Aitken’s third book. It’s a sequence built around trying to understand what happened between your parents and how they – whose life histories you have been intimately involved with – managed to actually fall in love, marry and produce someone like yourself. And the hard evidence – despite the fact that both parents are still alive – is only really letters and old photographs. “A Biography of 13”, in the next book, Eighth Habitation, is a fine poem built around that unlucky number, and it makes a start at exploring the father’s (and son’s, of course) genetic heritage from a great-great grandfather who established a successful brewery, to a great grandfather who was a successful major in the First World War, to a grandfather who fought in the next war, down to his own father:

. . . . . 
13 years after V Day my father went to Singapore
and bargained with a waif at Changi
for 13 postcards, “so cheap”
he just had to buy them.
His talents were letters, logistics,
advertising copy, wearing suits.
At the Office Party in Bangkok
he danced, quite pissed, in women’s lace
then swapped the Major’s “lucky” digger hat
for a set of Dutch clogs.

When I was 13 my father left home . . .

This initial view seems to see the genetic history as one of decline but the father is a much more complicated figure than that: his often apparently empty-headed extroversion being balanced by business (and social) talents and an odd drive to be obsessively detailed, both in the carefully kept-up correspondence home and, especially, in the keeping of lists. This emerges in “Archive” from later in the book which is really material excerpted from the father’s diary and gives a clearer sense of the obsessive behind (or in direct conflict with) the amiably, boozily social, being. Another fine poem which precedes “Archive” is “The Fire Watchers” built around his mother’s furious burning of all of his father’s (generally rubbishy) books after he had left and the father’s interest in accidents – which looks like a prescient response to the shape of his career – an interest that is passed on genetically to his son:

. . . . . 
In the city he would always love
my father would slow down to procession pace,
passing accident scenes.
I asked a lot of questions then, a kid stuck on “Why?”
Obsessive, thirteen, and forensic I could memorise
the number injured, type of vehicle, angles of incidence.
Years before crumple zones,
crash dummies or digital instruments . . . 

By the time of Aitken’s brilliant prose memoir, One Hundred Letters Home, the father is centre stage – although a good deal of time is spent on his mother’s later history as well. The book takes its title from the exactly one hundred letters, carefully recorded, that Aitken’s father sent to his own mother when he moved to South East Asia in 1956. As a book it’s a probing of the life history of Aitken’s parents but it also reflects – as perhaps all the writings about poets’ parents do – an interest in the genetic origins of the poet’s own creative drive. Seen in this perspective, the father, with his obsessions and an approach to life that is most likely to end in failure (conceived in terms of how competently one deals with the world and navigates one’s places in it), seems to have more to contribute than the mother who comes across as having a steely competence about such matters.

At any rate the growing significance of the father prepares the way for this new book, Revenants, which, significantly, begins with the poem, “Xmas, Singapore 1957”:

Much better than that
Melbourne day
in ’56 -
so my father wrote
in blue fountain pen
on airline parchment
to his mother Jean.

Apéro-time then
English goose + trimmings,
a bottle of BOAC Bordeaux,
2 anti-acid for dessert
all in best company.

In itself it might not be the strongest poem in the book but it is hard to imagine one which better heralds the obsessions that drive many of the poems. For anyone for whom Revenants is their first experience of Aitken’s poetry, it might be quite a puzzle: “Yes, but so what?”. But on the other hand it makes clear to such readers where the author’s interests lie. Another of the early poems in the book, “Luang Prabang”, tells the story of the Frenchman who improved his mother’s French (before her marriage) and inculcated the important love of French literature but it, too, is a poem exploring genetic inheritance since it concludes with Aitken recording the result of his researches into paternity that are written about in One Hundred Letters Home: “The Frenchman who was not my father”. It’s an important blow at simplistic notions of how the creative gene is passed on.

While the first section of Revenants goes on to contain poems about South East Asia, the second section begins with “Sincerity”, another father-poem. This time the location is a hospice, a sign that personal interaction between father and son is reaching its inevitable conclusion:

. . . . . 
In the end, when you’re in ICU
don’t be dumb enough
to talk fitness to your ailing father 
or compare that to poetry.
Talk Buddhism, or Hinduism,
allow the staff to believe.

We didn’t argue, we both agreed to agree
more often, or not to say we didn’t agree. . .

This is followed by a poem, “The Far East”, which perhaps provides what current cliches would call “a more nuanced view” of the relationship, exploiting Western views of the East – a region of inscrutable inhabitants engaged in endless, intense mercantile activity – to make what seems to be a final judgement about a tortured process in which “you became / the template of my becoming”. The ending is a sustained deployment of metaphors of the give and take of trade:

. . . . . 
Some days I’m so extreme,
in the sense of far away,
too far away to calculate a trade,
like Marco Polo locked in a castle
on the edges of a distant green sea.

But on a sliding scale I’m
neither Oriental nor mean.
My tender presence brings you the key:

the gates open, at least an inch,
and the corridor sounds again,
with all the merchants of my desire
wanting a sale, offering closure.

The other component of Aitken’s poetic drive is response to particular environments, as though the complexities of family can be put aside and the poet function poetically as the observer he is, no matter what the significance of his own hybridity and the international relations of the countries he is in. So Eighth Habitation concluded with a sizeable group of Cambodian poems. Archipelago is like an entire book of such poems (based in France) and the final section of Revenants is devoted to more “French” poems, reflecting his current home. There is a lot of variety in these poems and considerable density to the point where one is tempted to feel that leaving family as a subject behind enables a freer dip into the complex possibilities of poetry. There are poems that “capture” an ambience (“Seasonal Domestic”) or a famous site (“Monet’s Garden, Giverny”), a poem about Stendhal and even a list poem – the objects on sale at a bootsale in Chateau St Victor. There are also three poems which relate to the book’s title and introduce something of a new theme. The revenants are, initially, imagined ghosts of people “who died too young” and a kind of alter-self which appears in a dream. The issue is taken up in the last poem, “Revenants Again” which asks what the functions of these figures are:

Not here to entertain
Nor forgive . . .
Then for what?

Guaranteed to pester
Break the ice
Or clear the air

To bring out the shining
To remind me to relax

Cast off, troubadour,
Stumble into the dream
And get well soon.

It’s hard not to read this as a note-to-self about the poet’s entire history as a writer driven by obsessions, especially those relating to parents and heredity. They aren’t guilt figures, in other words, and can be seen as a source of emotional liberation rather than a nagging problem that simply has to be solved no matter how many words it takes. It looks, in other words, as though Aitken’s future poetry might avoid the issue of family altogether and concentrate on the registering and exploring of the places he inhabits. But, of course, that’s only a guess and, if he intended this poem to be read that way, it would be a guess on the poet’s part as well as mine: experience teaches us that ghosts which demand to be placated can be fractious and unpredictable, and have a habit of appearing when they are least expected.