Jaya Savige: Change Machine

St Lucia: UQP, 2020, 107pp.

Jaya Savige’s third book has arrived nearly ten years after his second. And there was a six year gap between that book and his first. It’s not a prolific publishing record for an important younger poet but it does give the sense of major developments happening between the volumes, something that a reading of the poems themselves supports. It certainly seems a career in which risks are taken and unpredictable avenues are explored rather, as is sometimes the case with other poets, of a successful method being intensively mined to produce a book every year or so. The title of this third book is Change Machine and, though the poem of that name is about a change machine at Waterloo station which is not disinfected during the English version of the Covid crisis when “charity lags in the polls”, it can be secondarily read as a description of the poet (or perhaps, any poet) himself. (It might also refer to a poem itself though the changes poems effect are more likely to be in the life of the author than in the outer, political world where, as we all know, it “makes nothing happen”.) Notions of change and development vary of course with the situation and background of the individual. As someone of mixed Indonesian/Australian parentage born in Sydney, growing up on Bribie Island and now domiciled in England, there is a lot of hybridity in Savige’s history – something explored in “Spork” a poem from late in this book – and that must affect any ideas about development.

At any rate, change, and it’s more judgemental counterpart, development, seem to me to be the proper way into Change Machine. One of the first things one notices is the high density of formal play in these poems. The first of the four sections is an extensive set of sonnets whose familiar fourteen line form does nothing to harmonise the subjects of the poems in either content or tone. In other words, it’s not a “sonnet sequence” but more an extended interplay whereby the variations in sonnet form itself – the various rhyme schemes, the positioning of “turns”, the division into stanzas, and so on – are mapped on to equally important differences in subject and tone. It begins with poems about personal difficulties and ends with poems celebrating a child’s appearance in the family, though, without detailed biographical knowledge, it’s hard for readers to be absolutely confident about this personal element. One of the features of the experiments here – though it is something that can be found in the other two books – is what might be called aggressive juxtapositions. The first poem is an excellent example. Its title, “ROTFLMAOWTRDMF”, is an immediate challenge for anyone from the pre-social-media age but it is, thankfully, explained at the end:

Egypt hasn’t had a native king since Nekhtnebf
held out at Memphis
against the Persians, then his nephew
didn’t. But even that wait seems no more excessive

than yours. Engineers measure the average life
expectancy of a system by the Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF).
(Working backwards, then, from Brexit to Suez,
Westminster needs an oil change about every seventy years.)

Replays show a peloton, summoning the dregs of oomph,
grow tangled in the thirty elbows of itself
before crashing into the base of the Arc de Triomphe,

when – finally – your jacket pocket vibrates with a kiss,
and the emoji for rolling on the floor laughing my ass off
with tears running down my face.

This is a striking and rather wonderful little poem. It is “about” good news, presumably good medical news, arriving after long delays and frequent attempts and the poetic pleasures it contains derive from the way in which something intimately personal is conceived, initially, on a vast scale (not unlike my own favourite in this mode, Catullus 11, which I think I have written about on this site). So the poem begins with the history of Egypt over the last two and a half millennia, moves to the technical measurement of a systems failure, comments on the contemporary horrors of England, describes the slow-moving but inevitable catastrophe of a crash in the Tour de France (a perfect metaphor for the current English crisis) before finishing with the crucial phonecall. Tonally, the gap between the beginning – in full scholarly/esoteric mode – and the conclusion – in social-media mode – is so wide that the way the poem can hold them together is one of its pleasures. At the language level there are all kinds of pleasures too. The title looks not entirely unlike the typically unpronounceable name of the last native Egyptian king in the first line and it’s repeated in the acronym MTBF. Something similar happens with the oomph/Triomphe rhyme. Here as elsewhere, conventions of rhyming are adhered to but the extreme (not to say silly) nature of the words being rhymed conveys the impression that complex feats of linguistic manipulation are being achieved but that they aren’t designed to sink into the background as necessary poetic structuring but to draw attention to themselves and thus create a tone of effortlessly overcoming formal requirements but without having any real belief in their ultimate value: it’s all part of a game.

One of the functions of rhyme in this book, as in the case of “oomph/Triomphe”, seems to be to highlight verbal weirdnesses in English, to create an alienation effect which will prevent the language being a mere transparent carrier of meaning. English is a weird language, looked at from the outside, with its mix of Germanic and Romance elements and some Greek thrown in at the technical level. Of course for native speakers it is very difficult to see a language “from the outside” and one’s own language always seems absolutely “normal”, even “natural”. I like to think that one of the features of this book is an attempt to help us see its oddness. It is present in Savige’s earlier books but not to such a degree and interestingly, those earlier poems which use this effect feel very much like the poems of this first section of Change Machine. “To the River Burning”, in Latecomers, (it is also a sonnet) begins with a suite of bizarre rhymes: “backache/Andromache”, “pax/Astyanax” and “nicotine/St Augustine”. In Surface to Air there is “26 Piazza di Spagna” – again a sonnet – with “blitz/glitz and “fountain/Yves Saint Laurent” as the rhymes of its first stanza and “First Person Shooter” finishes with a truly grotesque rhyme: “Oh, go on then, grope in / the darkness of your purse for ibuprofen”. Although it’s an effect I noticed on first reading these books I wasn’t then sure what the point of this deliberate ungainliness was. It is such a common feature of the first part of Change Machine that it does allow for these speculations.

In Change Machine the issue of rhyme is brought to the surface in “Give It a Rest, Mr Fowler” which is angry not about language but about Thomas Fowler’s comment in the DNB that a clergyman commemorated the deaths of his ten children “in doggerel rhyme”. Having lost a child himself, the poet is especially sensitive to this – understandably so – and it is tempting to allegorise the poem out into a critic’s insensitive dismissal of poems, metaphorically a poet’s children. It also has that pleasing structural complexity of being a text about a text so that three elements are nested inside each other: the poet’s comments on Fowler’s comments on Staunton’s comments. It reminds me (not entirely randomly) of Hope’s “Meditation on a Bone” where the same three-part nesting occurs: the poet speaks of a scholar who speaks of an inscription which contains a story as tragic as the life of Edward Staunton. Similarly “Plunder (Business as Usual)” is about the strange rhymes of the song, “Down Under”, which always seem desperately forced and one has always had the impression that the group singing them didn’t want anyone to look at them too closely. This poem finishes with a direct address to the song-writer: “P.S Colin, in case you think I am pulling a fast one, / I readily admit I nicked your ‘Kombi-zombie’ rhyme / for my Woombye poem / (but not the ‘nervous-breakfast’ one.”

If the first section of Change Machine is a kind of putting of the sonnet through its paces, the second section explores the possibilities of a different kind of rhyme. Called “Biometrics”, it’s made up of sixteen pages of poetry rhyming by anagram so that a line ending with the words “wiring hadn’t” can “rhyme” with lines ending in “handwriting”, “din, gnat, whir” and “thawing rind” amongst others. It’s a daunting technical framework to establish but it has two advantages. The first (I assume) is that it gives the poem a chance to generate its own meanings rather than slavishly follow, prose-like, the path established by the subject. In other words it reminds one of Auden’s comment that one of the virtues of rhyming is that the rhymes suggest new meanings. The second, and more relevant to what I think Savige wants his poetry to do, is that it taps into the linguistic weirdness that I’ve spoken about in looking at rhymes. Everyone who does cryptic crosswords knows that anagram clues often declare themselves to the solver by their slightly unidiomatic quality (they don’t have to of course: “racing tipster” is a perfectly idiomatic anagram of “starting price” and “eleven plus two” is, eerily, a perfect anagram of “twelve plus one”). It can be seen that in the world of crosswords, anagrams create the same issues that rhymes do in formal poetry: are the best examples those which are so skilfully done that we barely see they are there, or are the best those which have a slightly alienating linguistic effect? I think Savige is committed to the second of these alternatives.

The results can be, at a poetic/linguistic level, quite striking. The opening of the first of these poems, “The Convict Lying Low by Hampton Court, Speaks” is elegant rather than grotesque in its weirdness:

Home is the hoof-crushed water mint,
the hard rushes, and an adamant stonechat
declaring mid-morning’s parliament
again in session. I wear stag scent - oath

hosed into the osier in ample train,
chains of white-gold water like enrapt mail,
warm links aglitter in the pearl matin.

Here “parliament” rhymes anagrammatically with the last three lines. Another poem, “Credo, Décor, Coder” extends the rhymes into terza rima formation and the final of the group, “Carousel” begins and ends with lines in which the last words are anagrams of the first: “Dense night is a needs thing”, “A slide show of old wishes”. Although there is a degree of verbal play in Savige’s first two books – the third poem of Surface to Air, for example, begins, “A serene riot of bees, a pollen air”, not an anagram but a homophonic pun on the French poet’s name – these new poems are all a long way from the rather Maloufian early poems set in the sands north of Deception Bay. But I like the change.

The book’s third section, “Hard Water” is, as its title suggests, a home for poems about the hardness of things: dead and beaten children figuring prominently. The developments here tend to be conceptual rather than verbal and poems like “Hard Water” and “Mr Michelin” – “Mrs Allen was fond of discipline . . .” – are not even especially striking at a conceptual level: they seem to rely on the domestic horrors of their content for their strength. But “Hossegor” and “Tips for Managing Subsidence” are a couple of poems which have their own way of going about things. The first of these is built on the odd fact that a town in Gascony and a town in Tahiti host successive events in the surfing tour. There are extracts from Banks’s journal recording the proto-surfing practices of Tahitians at the end of the eighteenth century but, of course, nothing from the literature of the Vikings who established Hossegor nine hundred years earlier. At this level it isn’t much more than a poem built around a particular historical irony, a not uncommon mode. But the poem gets animated by the conjunction of the sort of solemn scholarly style of its opening (shared also by the opening of “ROTFLMAOWTRDMF”) and the brasher language of pro surfing:

Surfing probably didn’t occur to the Vikings
     but then you never know – maybe one of Asgeir’s men
          found himself oaring his chieftain’s faering

for this Biscay shore, just as a set wave jacked -
     the kind that narrows the eyes of the guns
          who yearly light up the Quiksilver Pro

(Slater, Fanning, Medina, Florence, Parko) -
     and intuiting to lean down the face of the monster
          felt it take, the shove as the hull slotted flush

into the vein of the sea god . . .

It deserves its place in this section because, for all its linguistic brio, it is, ultimately, a poem about the arrival of European thugs on a comparatively innocent shore – “the guns will return” – and this is more “hard water”. Ultimately one might have reservations that this is no more than a contemporary piety from one side of the culture wars but it remains a terrific poem in which an historical conjunction is animated by a conjunction at the language level.

The second of these two striking poems from the third section, “Tips for Managing Subsidence”, has a similar, though less intense verbal fracture in that it begins with a rather solemn discussion of a structural engineer’s comments about cracked foundations before moving into a far more tragic idiom. But this only reflects the conceptual shape of the poem whereby the narrator moves from a quiet engagement with the engineer to a surreal development whereby the death of their child prompts the narrator’s wife to descend into the cracks in the house searching for the child. Surreal might not be quite the right word and “magical realist” might be better but the power of the poem derives partly from the tragedy of the loss but more from the painful gap between the po-faced opening and the painful conclusion whereby the narrator, by training a telescope down the cracks in the foundations of the house (as well, symbolically, as the foundations of all stability) can just “make her out: / ropeless, shivering, a speck // at such a reckless height . . .”

You can look at the final section of Change Machine from either the perspective of content or form. It’s title, “There There” bridges both because the “content” meaning is one of consolation, and this is a section that has poems which deal with other aspects of its poet’s current status. These include being a hybrid (“Spork”), an Australian in the weird environment of English culture (“Stagger Lee at Her Majesty’s”, “Surveying What Adheres”), and being an Australian Joyce scholar (“Coloratura”). There is also a poem about wingsuit flying that I assume is a poem about writing poetry. But, formally, “there there” is a repeated phrase and two of the poems of this section set themselves the bizarre task of ending each line with a phrase that involves a repeated word – “Lang Lang”, “hush-hush”, “Wagga Wagga” or a word that has a repeated syllable – “murmur”, “pawpaw”, “couscous”. I’m not sure that the result is very attractive for a reader but, presumably, for the poet it fulfils the requirement that formal restrictions should be able to create meaning to an even greater degree than does ordinary rhyme. The first of the poems, with the wonderful title, “Fort Dada” – Freud’s “fort da” distinction reduplicated to make both a place and an offshoot of surrealism – spins out into the biography of a girl from Wagga staying at a spa in Baden-Baden drinking ylang ylang and so on. At the end of this last section is an experimental move – which I suppose can be called formal – of writing in the mode of Finnegans Wake, distorting words into a constant stream of puns so that “Husband, mountain, cooled volcano” becomes in the transformed version, “Hushbound, mountchain, coiled for-kin ache”. How permanent a development in Savige’s career this is, I’m not sure. Nor am I sure as to whether, if you copy Joyce’s mode, you also copy his world-view: in this case the idea of a world-dream that Finnegans Wake was designed to be. On the surface it doesn’t seem a fruitful possibility – it hasn’t been a road many have followed since the book’s publication eighty years ago – but then, with poets, one never knows where developments will lead.