Double-Wolf – Brian Castro

Double-Wolf cover

Today I look at a complex book, one that has received little attention since its publication in 1991, so little attention that there is a single review at Goodreads, from somebody who obviously enjoys more straightforward fiction.

“Double-Wolf” is a novel written between parenthesis, an aside, an interruption. The complete book appears between parenthesis, but does that mean it should be dismissed?

Brian Castro’s third novel investigates the famous Sergei Konstanovitch Pankejeff, a patient of Sigmund Freud more commonly known as the Wolf Man. However, in this work he is known as Sergei Wespe, the notes advising us “Wespe, Castro’s name for the novel’s Wolf-Man, is German for wasp. Freud never named his patients when reporting his case studies.”

But it is not only Wespe who appears here, we have the obscure autodidact, living in Australia, Arthur S. Catacomb a character whose book appears in the end bibliography: “Catacomb, Arthur S. Fellow Traveller: In Praise of Freud New York: International Universities Press, 1970”, google this book and you will notice it does not exist, is even the bibliography part of Brian Castro’s fiction?

Catacomb, now down and out and dismissed in the Blue Mountains, is reflecting upon his life, a life that took in working with the Wolf-Man. Castro has taken an existing interesting tale, appropriated it for his fiction, added colourful and complex characters and handed it to the reader to interpret or simply enjoy.

The book opens in Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains, 100kms west of Sydney, during winter 1978;

(A misty rain is falling.
It smears the glass like somebody’s spit. Somebody talking too loud, too fast. (p 1)

This section becomes a second person narrative, “your urine streams”, “you’ll have to go out in it”, “if you stand still now”.

We then move to Vienna in 1972, and then finally to Sergei’s first-person narration, the book being a jigsaw puzzle of narrators, voices, interpretations, a musing on fiction;

He’s just attended a conference. He said to them: All writers are wankers. His advice to writers? Get a proper job. He wanted to discourage the herd. You can only speak the truth once. After that, all is paradox.
Later a middle-aged woman came up to him. ‘Mr Wespe,’ she exclaimed, ‘I really didn’t think that was
necessary.’ She took off her spectacles. ‘What about your audience?’ she scolded. ‘You never think of them.’
‘Let them eat words,’ said Wespe.
He was tired of being a curiosity and was in a particularly bad mood thinking of his Th
érèse in the hospital mortuary, turning blue, her lungs still filled with gas. (p 4)

These multiple voices are alluded to in one of the opening epigraphs;

‘Only for the egoist and the dogmatist (and maybe they’re one and the same, although I’m thinking of two different friends of mine) is there one “history” only. The rest of us live with the suspicion that there are as many histories as there are people and maybe a few more…’
(Robert Coover ‘Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?’) (p xvii)

Many histories, maybe more than there are people, but is this also referring to Sigmund Freud’s case history on the “Wolfman”, to him there was “one history”. All of this adds up to a complex book of failed psychoanalysis, a man’s misinterpreted history, recollections, being ostracised, and the fiction created by Freud, as well as fictions created by fictitious writers!

…this idea that somewhere, inside, you were ready to become a hermit, to give it all up, to melt into someone else who inhabited the wilderness, distinguishable only by your handwriting, to be nothing more than an annotation, a note, a mark of such purity and yet of such insignificance that your life would be relished as a mere postscript, an afterword…this is the vanity of the repression of self…a social consequence…the pack gives birth to the outsider. But there is only the outside: you are a ghost-writer. (p109)

In “Double-Wolf” the patient, Wespe, becomes a writer in later life, a purveyor of pulp mysteries. Although there is actually a book called “The Wolf-Man by the Wolf-Man” written by Sergius Pankejeff, edited by Muriel Gardiner with a Foreword by Anna Freud, published by Hill & Wang in the USA in 1991, in this work it is more the fiction musings of Wespe that are the attraction of Catacomb.

A novel that works on numerous levels, using 1st, 2nd and 3rd person narration, a blur of characters, a blending of histories, real and imagined, a questioning of writing and of fiction itself, this work requires re-reading and unpacking on numerous levels. In the introduction to the 2005 edition, Katherine England sums it up so much better than I could;

Double-Wolf is so rich, so complex that virtually every sentence could be annotated. There is a compulsion to draw the prospective reader’s attention to more and more that an aficionado would not want them to miss – to the passing Lacanian play with signs and signifiers, the Joycean overtones underlined with a single Latin reference to Ulysses, to the parody Nazi’s, to Castro’s beguilingly equivocal answer to the wolf dream – another moment of haunting, multi-connected stillness that forms the climax of the novel. There is no way to capture it all, except perhaps to follow the author’s advice; to dance across his work, stepping lightly back and forth between reason and intuition, picking up what appeals and simply enjoying it. There is enough interest here for a lifetime of such dances – and to inspire Castro-informed meanders into Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Borges and Lacan into the bargain. (p xv)

In his two earlier novels, “Birds of Passage” and “Pomeroy” the role of the writer, the play of different narrators and the use of various narrative techniques were all used with stunning effect, here Brian Castro takes it to an extra level, where the fictions, dreams, histories and realities all become blurred, even the bibliographies and notes are fiction (or are they?). A playful addition to his oeuvre, a book I can’t adequately describe, but one I suggest you hunt down and “dance across”.

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False Documents – fiction I’ve had published

StreetArt

Shameless self promotion here.

Earlier in the year Australian based literary magazine Overland published a call out for “False Documents”, fiction disguised as or in the guise of ‘real’ textual artefacts. The special edition to be guest edited by writer Dave Drayton.

The call out gave a few details about a “False Document”:

These might include stories that take on the shape/form/language/appearance of prescriptions, shopping lists, report cards, instructional manuals, contracts, passive-aggressive post-its, users’ guides, guest books, curriculum vitae, transcripts, court summons, the side of a cereal box, emails, Wikipedia entries, etc.

I submitted a false Short Documentary Film Festival program, satirically looking at a number of Australian cultural myths. And I am very pleased to say that from over 300 entries I was one of the four chosen to be published.

You can read my “False Document” here.

Hope you enjoy it!!!

Bodies of Summer – Martin Felipe Castagnet (translated by Frances Riddle)

BodiesSummer

In a dystopian future (aren’t all futures dystopian?), your consciousness can be uploaded to the web upon your death (called “floatation”), where it will float and interact with others until you choose to inhabit a used body, if you have enough money of course. This is the basic premise of Argentine writer, Martin Felipe Castagnet’s debut short novel “Bodies of Summer”.

Our protagonist, speaking in the first person, was a male and was one of the first to have his consciousness uploaded, however he returns to earth “in the body of a fat woman that no one else wanted”, this was all his family could afford. He is returning to spend time with his son Teo, who, near death, has chosen not to have his consciousness uploaded to the web.

When I went through the process of entering into floatation, my body was destroyed. At that time they hadn’t yet figured out how to conserve bodies and burn people into new ones. The technological advances we’ve seen since then have been astonishing. First, mothers began to put their children on the waiting list for new bodies, just in case they were to die in an accident. Bodies cam to be seen as a valuable resource. Funerals became a thing of the past. Then, obituaries started to include information about who would be reincarnated in the body of the deceased. Finally, it was decided that cemeteries should be destroyed. Most were converted into community gardens, due to the fertility of the soil. The few cemeteries that remain now function as museums.
Each body has an average life span of three inhabitants until it finally deteriorates. Then it’s cremated. Some families prefer to eat the remains of their loved ones’ bodies instead of selling them to be used by other people. This is only legal if it’s been authorised by the deceased in their will.
I guess this is the future. (p12-13)

The premise allows for numerous intriguing debates and questions to be put forward, for example, on subjects such as religion, or politics;

The extension of life seems to have been accompanied by the extension of fascism. (p25)

Or sex:

And sex always finds a way to reinvent itself despite limited positions and combinations. It continues to be a powerful motivator: there’s a pervasive drive to earn more money in order to buy a more attractive body. (pp26-27)

The future world created by Martin Felipe Castagnet includes a whole tool-box of dilemmas, it is a fertile playing field for his imagination;

At one time society’s controversies were the printing press, medicine; today it’s the state of floatation and the appropriation of bodies. Death still exists; what has disappeared is the certainty that everything will eventually end sooner or later. There’s time to shave your head, time to let they gray hairs grow, to get pregnant, to torture, to be the world champion, and to rewrite the encyclopedia. With patience, a single person could build the pyramids; with perseverance, another single person could knock them down. I guess destruction is another form of love. (p28)

The novel also questions the role of the internet, a storage for everything, technological advances, and balances humour and social issues by not taking the story too seriously. There are numerous humorous quotes scattered throughout;

A person in the internet can become Buddha, as long as they avoid the social networks and the pornography. (p32)

However, with a fertile playing field this is ultimately a disappointing work. Why the need to bring up the tacky male in a female body questions? Quite senseless interactions with younger females and then debating homosexuality!!! I don’t want to add spoilers, however race also enters the fray, later in the book. Yes, further social dilemmas to add into the mix, however I found a few of them to be misplaced and not required.

I also found the characters to be very lightly sketched, for a short work of only 105 pages, there are numerous characters, and being a short book they do not have a lot of time to come into focus, therefore they simply disappear, even the son, who our protagonist has come to interact with, is only briefly sketched, where he could have been used as leverage to explain the reasons why a person would choose not to be uploaded to the web after death. A mid teen “Lolita” is simply out of place, as is the character that our protagonist needs to locate so he can settle old scores, and the household hired help, there was no need. It is as though a few extra strings were added to stretch this out to 105 pages, extra flesh on a long short story so it could be published as a novel?

The book won the Saint-Nazaire MEET Young Latin American Literature Award, and it was released, in its original Spanish, when Martin Felipe Castagnet was in his mid-20’s, leaving plenty of time for the young writer to develop. And I would probably revisit his writing again, as the satire is biting and the ideas fresh.

A book you can read in a single setting, that begins with a lively and entertaining premise, but one ultimately that peters out. Enjoyable, thought provoking, at times, but ultimately disappointing and forgettable. Pity as the premise could have delivered a bleak fictional social commentary.

Pomeroy – Brian Castro

 

Pomeroy (1)Earlier this year I read Brian Castro’s “Blindness and Rage; A Phantasmagoria – a novel in 34 cantos” and was immediately drawn into the depth and breadth of the author’s language, style and literary references. I have not reviewed this book, a review may one day be forthcoming, in part due to the Sydney Review of Books’ in-depth look at the work (you can read the views of Mark Byron here), however I have now sought out all of Brian Castro’s back catalogue of ten more fiction works and am slowly making my way through them.

“Pomeroy” is Brian Castro’s second novel, coming seven years after his Australian/Vogel Literary Award winning “Birds of Passage” (the award is for an unpublished manuscript for writers under the age of 35).

This novel blends several genres and styles, part thriller, part mystery, part romance, it shifts between first and third person, with our protagonist Jaime Pomeroy, an investigative journalist, down on his luck, either being omnisciently viewed or personally presenting his deeper concerns and feelings.

The plot follows Pomeroy as he relocates back to Hong Kong, from Australia, to investigate corruption, the backdrop of the island being handed back to Communist control is ever present, as is the censorship and dangers involved in being too investigative. Pomeroy has replaced a missing editor, a coded message on his typewriter ribbon and an unopened bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label the only remnants of his existence;

‘He got that the day he disappeared. It came in the mail,’ Frisco said, trying to appear mysterious. ‘Who knows? We get all kinds of gifts. It’s the way they do things here. The more gifts, the more compromised the journalism.’
‘Look at us,’ Guitierrez went on, ‘every one of us with a prize-winning story in his head, unable to get it down because we have a wife and children to feed, bills to pay, reputations to protect. Now and again to please Stella we nail some fish who’s swum into the wrong waters…’ (pp12-13)

Early in the novel Brian Castro is relaying the difficulty of writing the truth;

‘That’s why we’re in the prison house of language.’ (p13)

And there are numerous references delineating the reader and the writer, a masterful approach using a writer protagonist, even if he is a hack journalist down on his luck, whereby Brian Castro is debating the role of the writer with you the reader.

This murkiness becomes even more clouded when you consider Brian Castro’s migration from Hong Kong to Australia as a child. What elements of this novel are autobiographical? Are there any whatsoever?

Jaime Pomeroy has migrated to Australia, as has his Uncle Amando, leaving behind his businessman father, a man with shady dealings, lurching from one disaster to the next. The book opens with Pomeroy visiting a childhood friend Rory Harrigan, and Rory’s wife, Pomeroy’s cousin and love of his life, Estrellita.

The elements of cultural identity, hybridity, are another sub-plot at play here. Uncle Amando meeting a sad end when encountering a crocodile, the harshness of Australia, never being accepted bubbling along in background.

It was hot. After a hundred miles my motorbike broke down and I was between places in the middle of nowhere and nobody stopped. I tinkered around for two hours and found that the piston was fucked, completely out of shape, the rings snapped and splintered into chards. So I undid my bags and walk and still no-one stopped. I couldn’t believe people wouldn’t stop. (p123)

Not accepted in his adopted country, always an outsider, nothing changes when he returns to Hong Kong;

When I returned to Hong Kong it was as a tourist. That was the only way I could learn to live there again. Gone was that other place of old China, the rickshaws, the slow ramshackle docks and the cheap eatery stalls. Gone the stubby colonial buildings, the post office with its clock at the Star Ferry, the police barracks, the playing fields. The air was heavy with pollutants, the harbour water green and viscous. Buildings were taller and trees were dying. Nathan Road, once a leafy boulevard at the harbour end, was now a busy market thoroughfare. But I was glad there were still beggars, there were still tourists and there was still a greasy layer of humanity beneath the cut throat exterior. (p10)

The book is also peppered with literary references, at one stage Pomeroy and Frisco break into an apartment searching for an incriminating letter, knowing the recipient was a reader, Pomeroy finds the letter in a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, replacing it with a torn-out passage from Flaubert’s The Temptation of St Antony;

I’d like to have wings, a carapace, a rind, to breathe out smoke, wave my trunk, twist my body, divide myself up, to be inside everything, to drift away with odours, develop as plants do, flow like water, vibrate like sound, gleam like light, to curl myself up into every shape, to penetrate each atom, to get down to the depth of matter – to be matter! (p59)

Immensely readable on so many levels, as a mystery/thriller you do not know Pomeroy’s fate as the use of third and first person means this is not simply him recalling his tale, and therefore cannot meet a gruesome fate. As a commentary on writing and the role of a writer to tell the truth, the blurred lines between autobiography and fiction. As a study on cultural hybridity and displacement (note Brian Castro’s collection of essays published in 1999 is titled “Looking for Estrellita: Essays on Culture and Writing” – in “Pomeroy” the love interest is Estrellita, the protagonist’s cousin). As a novel playing literary games, with Proust, Barthes, Poe, Flaubert just a few references.

I could write about the themes of corruption, both in Hong Kong and Australia, or the themes of loss, fear of death, sexual awakening, love, and so much more. Although presented/marketed as a “thriller” this is a complex, multi-layered work.

A writer who has won numerous high-profile awards, but who seems to have flown under the radar of readers, I was moved to write this small piece to fill in a gap at Goodreads, this book has ZERO, yes ZERO reviews on that platform. A book sorely overlooked, a writer not often enough mentioned when discussions about Australian writers take shape. Dig around in second hand bookshops (this book is out of print) and see how popular fiction genres can be melded into literary works, adding in numerous sub-plots and themes. A book I will surely revisit.

Nocilla Dream – Augustín Fernández Mallo (translated by Thomas Bunstead)

NocillaDream

Disconnection or connection?

Augustín Fernández Mallo’s debut “novel”, “Nocilla Dream”, consists of 113 brief chapters, a hybrid work of fragmentation, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and space. Most critics have referred to the work as narratively revolving around U.S. Route 50 in the Nevada desert, “the loneliest highway in North America”, however the canvas here is much broader than the activities occurring on “a highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing.” In fact there is something, a central motif, a poplar tree with “hundred of pairs of shoes hanging” from the branches. Shoes that are recycled (you replace your worn ones with ones found on the tree), or shoes that are discarded, the tree becoming a place of connectedness with ones you do not know.

However, the tree of hanging shoes motif is only used, or encountered, by a handful of characters. The book populated with diverse characters from all over the globe.

“Nocilla Dream” uses many external references and quotes about computers, programming, internet networks and complex systems, in fact the opening chapter is a quote from B. Jack Copeland & Diane Proudfoot:

Digital computers are superb number crunchers. Ask them to predict a rocket’s trajectory or calculate the financial figures for a large multinational corporation, and they can churn out the answers in seconds. Bet seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading handwriting, have been devilishly tricky to program. Perhaps the networks of neurons that make up the brain have a natural facility for such tasks that standard computers lack. Scientists have thus been investigating computers modelled more closely on the human brain. (p9)

Using the premise of a global “road movie”, where characters move in and out of focus, it is a work that attempts to connect disparate groups, characters and theories into some coherent whole;

The most important element in any road movie is the horizon; it has to feature sooner or later, signifying something in and of itself; a far off point that comprises the spirit of the film in question. As any number of studies have demonstrated, in European cinema the horizon signifies loss or melancholy; in North American cinema, it’s hope, the magnetizing element for pioneers; and in Chinese and Japanese films it means death. (p47)

A complex web of events that somehow relate to each other, can scrunched up papers, rolling like tumbleweeds through the desert be collected and digested by another? Can an homage to Jorge Luis Borges, made by a man who had lost faith in his fiction, be truly understood by US residents?

It is precisely these differentiators, displayed through Augustín Fernández Mallo’s disparate characters, who populate the whole globe, including micronations, that brings me to the question of connectedness. As a reader, the fragmentary nature of the work, being disconnected from any simple narrative linear approach, forces you to attempt to apply some order.

One way to prevent people from accessing transmissions on the internet is to encrypt them: manipulate the information and make it unreadable so that it will, for the duration of the transmission, be unintelligible. (p108)

Is there a connection between the Chinese surfers and Las Vegas prostitutes, or Mexican truck drivers hauling black beans, or designers of man hole covers and their relationship with a permanent resident of Singapore airport?

‘The past is what we remember of the past, and memory consists of a miscellany of fragments that, now, in the present moment, we stick together, we bundle up. Thus the past does not exist, it only exists in the present emulsification moment, a compositional process governed by its own rules, ones which also make the process part of the present. But if the past doesn’t even exist, how can the future exist? Even more dismaying. (p131)

There is a character who is obsessed with Jorge Luis Borges and the labyrinths of Borges’ fiction occasionally sprang to mind as I absorbed this book. Something more akin to a performance piece, or an evolving fiction that develops on the internet, the book is unsettling, at times incomprehensible, and at other times moving and engaging. Covering such a range of genres, styles I am sure there are many many different personal interpretations. Maybe that is the connection we have in our disconnection?

The shoes in the tree a metaphor for the book itself;

At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona,…at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency – the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. (p16)

“Nocilla Dream” (published by Fitzcarraldo Edition in November 2015) is the first book in a trilogy, the next two being “Nocilla Experience” (which was published in November 2016 by Fitzcarraldo Editions also) and “Nocilla Lab”. An experiment over three works, one that has engaged me enough in the initial piece to ensure I read at least the second.

Although 113 apparently disconnected chapters, the vast majority deal with connection in some way, relationships, reliance, similarities, and it is through this landscape that balance in the chaos prevails.

“Argosy” & “Lost Lake” – Bella Li PLUS bonus poet interview

Argosy_Cover

Apologies in advance, this post contains links to numerous poetry reviews and interviews, it appears the last few years of reading, writing and talking about Australian poetry has resulted me building up a decent a resource!!! I have also referred to various other reviews of “Argosy”, not out of laziness, but read on to understand why.

In the last twelve months if you’ve delved into many of the Australian Poetry Awards, you would have come across Bella Li’s 2017 book “Argosy”. This year “Argosy’ has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Kenneth Slessor Prize (the Poetry Award for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards), and the book was highly commended in the 2017 Anne Elder Poetry Award (the winner being Rico Craig with “Bone Ink”- review and interview with the winning poet here) and commended for the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize in Poetry (the winner being Susan Fealy for her collection “Flute of Milk” – review and interview with the winning poet here) as well as being shortlisted for the 2018 Mascara Avant-garde Awards (the winner being Amelia Dale for “Constitution” – I have an interview with the poet here and my review appeared at Mascara Literary Review here).

“Argosy” has recently been reprinted after selling out the first print run, something I’ve only come across once in the last twelve months for Australian poetry, Shastra Deo’s brilliant debut collection “The Agonist”, a book that has been shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, alongside dual Booker Prize winning Peter Carey, Eva Hornung, Sofie Laguna, Steven Land and Gerald Murnane (review of “The Agonist” and interview with the poet here)

Bella Li has recently had a new book released by Vagabond Press, “Lost Lake”, and I have been fortunate enough to get in contact with Bella Li and she agreed to an interview about both of her books. Again, I am extremely grateful to the writer for their time and honesty and, as always, the full unedited text of the interview can be read at the end of this short look at Bella Li’s two most recent books.

Both “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” are sumptuous books, collections of collage, photographs, prose poems, found works, erasures and more, their presentation alone makes them stand out.

“Argosy”, an homage to Max Ernst’s collage novels, has two sections, “Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de dispaitions” and “The Hundred Headless Woman”, the first section using images and creating collages sourced from atlases and journals of discovery for the lost explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, a French Naval Officer whose expedition disappeared in Oceania in 1788. The second section uses photography and found texts to create further voyages of discovery. Here’s an excerpt from the section that responds to an interview with Elena Ferrante which appeared in “The Paris Review” (212, Spring 2015);

For instance, in Ischia. Those dark corners where the sound does not. But I remembered them that way and only that way do they appear. In each retelling, in the manner of chiaroscuro: stones shearing off the roofs of houses at sundown. Hunting the particularity, the moment, seen so closely from afar. Down the lanes, always in the company of a shadow, a woman, a cleaver. Always closer than before. (p123 “Argosy”)

“Lost Lake” continues the theme with eight distinct sections, one for each colour of the rainbow, plus pink, using found texts, collage and photography. An example, taken from “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” (translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey);

First

That I have written, of places I have not been. To Carthage I came, where there sang around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. And in the vast courts of memory, the caverns of the mind. I have heard great waves upon the shore, I have remembered what it is. In other ears: the scaling of heights. These circuits of stars, compass and pass by. (p 41 “Lost Lake)

Books that use memory, embedded experiences to present a layer thought provoking prompts. Dwell on the pages, contemplate the message, fill in the gaps, making both books an individual understanding.

Reviews and judges reports from the various awards have described “Argosy” as follows:

“Argosy” is a stunning hybrid artefact, textually and visually. Through Argosy, Li provokes the reader on the value of the object, of the book. This is a collection whose very reality insists on the necessity of print – it dwells within the materiality of form, and is a recognition of poetry as art and art as poetry. Argosy’s exquisite writing leads the reader through collages, prose poetry and photography, the meanings of which unfold through their juxtapostions – poetic gaps that spur haunting, dreamlike sequences. This is a collection of journeys and intertextual dialogues – between poems and works, and with culture and history.’ Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2018 judges’ report.

‘The powerful and surprising impact of the book made Argosy a clear winner. Bella Li’s sophisticated handling of language, form, time and image offers a remarkable synthesis of European surrealism and an antipodean sensibility, via a Chinese–Australian history. This important contribution to Australian poetic imagination and traditions doubles as a Southern Hemisphere rewriting and re-imaging of world traditions.’ NSW Premier’s Award (Poetry) judges’ report.

‘Bella Li’s is a cerebral, yet playful collection broadly presented in two movements. Li interrogates art, history, geography, film, philosophy, and language through the muscular form of the prose poem, juxtaposed with original photography and collage. Argosy is at once immediate and surreal, and self-reflexively leads us to question our received knowledge of the world, while engaging with and commenting on aesthetic traditions practised by experimental artists such as Joseph Cornell. As an artefact, the book is a singularly beautiful object that pushes the boundaries of what narrative, poetic meaning, and indeed, a collection of poetry might be.’ Anne Elder Award 2017 judges’ report

I find these “reports”, and my feeble attempts at writing a review, present a conundrum. Both books, amongst a range of techniques, draw upon existing texts and have numerous references to works that already exist in our psyche, Dante, Proust, Elena Ferrante, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Cormac McCarthy to name just a few. As a result, a reader approaches “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” with their own personal lens, a view that has already been tainted by our own experiences of these canonical texts. We bring our own learned prejudices and expectations to our reading, and any analysis or presentation of views subverts the texts that Bella Li has shaped. I feel as though adding my interpretation of these two books would be to bring my world view to the table, and I believe that is not what these works are about . As books that hover with memory (for example the collage prints use works I distinctly recall seeing in publications, images in “mercredi: Dans le sang” appear familiar, however they are drawn from “editions of atlases appended to…journals of discovery, held at the State Library of New South Wales, State Library of Victoria and Special Collections, Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne”, collections I have not seen, therefore my unreliable memory comes into play), they use recalled experience to add another layer to your reading involvement.

What I would suggest is for you to buy both books, open your imagination, immerse yourself in the delicacy, handicraft, and words, allow the mysterious gaps in Bella Li’s landscape to be slight shaped by your views, create your own cultural hybridity, journey with the writer/creator to places you thought you knew. You will not be disappointed.

Lost_Lake

Over to the interview, and thanks go to Bella Li for her time and her honesty.

Q. As you explained in a podcast for the NGV Triennial Voices exhibition, “Argosy” is a merchant ship, one that contains a lot of cargo. This implies there is a lot to “unpack”, however before a reader unpacks it, the packing needed to be done. Can you explain the project, how it started and the processes you underwent towards completion?

Argosy began with a small commissioned work for the Ian Potter Museum of Art. I was to use an item from their collections to write a suite of poems. My proposal involved a large terrestrial globe, which had the voyages of three explorers—Vancouver, Cook and La Pérouse—mapped onto it. But for practical purposes (the globe was too deep in storage to retrieve), I ended up reading through the expedition journals instead. At some point I learned that La Pérouse had disappeared, shortly after leaving Botany Bay, and his journey became my sole focus.

The journals led me to atlases from this and subsequent expeditions sent in search of the missing explorer, filled with beautiful and strange illustrations. Transposing these images into words seemed to miss something distinct and important, so I made collages (from photographs I took of editions of the atlases held at the State Library of NSW, the State Library of Victoria and the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne), and then wrote two sequences of prose poems, based loosely on the journals. These formed the first part of the book, ‘Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de disparitions’.

The prose poem sequences and collages that comprise the second part, ‘The Hundred Headless Woman’, were written just before, concurrently, or after the work on ‘Pérouse’. The book design was the final part of the process, and involved a steep learning curve with InDesign and hand-trimming hundreds of pages of test prints.

Q. There has been a lot of focus on the collage aspect in your work, your homage to Max Ernst, I’ll leave readers to read about your work with images elsewhere. Therefore, I’d like to understand a little more about the section “The Hundred Headless Woman”, a mysterious shaping of anonymity, for example Elena Ferrante, are Isadora shaped through a 3rd person narrative. Could you tell me a little about the text manipulation and creative process here?

‘The Novelist Elena Ferrante’ was written after I’d read an interview with the author in the Paris Review. It gave such a strong sense of place, and of a particular personality—which was all the more interesting because of Ferrante’s anonymity. I wrote the poem as a speculative piece—a fictive persona based on a real pseudonym—set in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples. At this stage I hadn’t read any of Ferrante’s novels. After Argosy was published, I read the Neapolitan Quartet and found that some of the most important events in the story occur in Ischia.

‘Isadora: A Western’ uses lines from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as chapter titles. Westerns are dominated by men, and by simple moral dichotomies. I wanted to write a miniature western—formally set somewhere between a screenplay and a novel—and to cast a central character who moved against type. The details were probably a composite of every novel and film in the Western genre that I’ve read or seen, guided by McCarthy’s text in particular, with its high lyricism and extreme violence.

Q. “Lost Lake” continues in a similar style, here eight colours of the rainbow (you’ve added pink) and found words using writers such as Proust, Jean Rhys, but also film “Blade Runner” and Tarkovsky for example. You are holding up a distorted mirror to works that shape popular culture. How does something grab your attention enough to be dissected?

For Lost Lake I drew on what I was reading, watching, seeing and listening to at the time—or texts that I’d encountered in the past—that spoke to particular themes. I have a great love of genre fiction—science-fiction, horror, adventure—as well as films, music and visual art in a range of styles, so the sources vary widely. Many of the texts I chose are classics or canonical in some way, and therefore more likely to be recognised by readers. Sometimes I was seeking to appropriate a certain mood or atmosphere, or gesturing towards subject matter without having to explicitly state what that might be. It was also a way of situating the text in a whole network of relations, among other texts and artworks. I find this very satisfying.

Q. You must be extraordinarily persuasive to get Vagabond Press to publish these exquisite, delicate, detailed works. Can you explain a little about that relationship?

I was lucky to have been found by Vagabond Press at a fairly early stage. I’m not sure anyone else in Australia (or anywhere) would have agreed to publish Argosy or Lost Lake as they are, and I can only say that I’m immensely grateful. Michael Brennan, the publisher, is a lovely soul and works tirelessly to promote the work of others. I have a great deal of respect for his dedication and judgment: many of the books on his list have won major prizes (half of the shortlisted titles for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry were Vagabonds; the winner of the prize last year was also a Vagabond).

Q. + the absence
a
of the Witch
cannot
does       not
Invalidate
a
the spell –

+

Are your works spells?

They are an attempt to create whole worlds that have a particular internal consistency—in this sense, they ask you to believe in something that does not otherwise exist, as do all constructions made from language. Emily Dickinson, to whom that epigraph belongs and who spent most of her life within the walls of her family home, was herself a consummate world-builder.

Q. The section “Lost Lake” is your photography. Is this a well-known, or a private, place?

It’s not a private place; I think it is well-known to some and not so well-known to others.

Q. Voyages are prominent in your work, and discovery, are there any boundaries of discovery that you do not want to cross?

I’m going to say no, but probably after I’ve crossed them I’ll realise I should have said yes.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment, is it going to make its way into future work, and why?

The last books I compulsively enjoyed were Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. (Alex Garland has turned the first book into a movie, but it’s such a different beast that it’s really its own thing.) I don’t want to say too much because the novels hinge upon certain blanks that are slowly filled in over the course of the series, but the story is a blend of weird fiction, science-fiction, horror, spy novel, detective fiction—pretty much everything that I love in one—and told in a manner that draws on existing conventions and tropes while also being entirely unpredictable and inventive. There are still parts that make me shiver in broad daylight.

I’m planning to write about Annihilation in my PhD thesis, but I don’t think it will make it into future creative work.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything that you can tell us about?

In the last eight months, with the aid of a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts for which I am extremely grateful, I’ve travelled to Finland, New Zealand and Japan, as well as domestically to Hobart and Sydney, to collect material for the next book. I did have a title and some loose themes, but I’ve made a start on the work itself and it already feels like it might be going in a different direction. Or maybe in the same direction with a different focus—I’m not sure yet. But I’m excited to be working on a new project and looking forward to seeing where it takes me, both in terms of content and method.

 

The Measure of Skin – Ramon Loyola PLUS bonus poet interview

MeasureSkin

Active social media followers would probably have come across Ramon Loyola, whose recent projects include poems in the new Verity La anthology, “The Hunger”, as well as designing the flyer for this new eBook, he is guest editing Issue 3 of “Pink Cover Zine” with Samantha Trayhurn, and he actively keeps his blog “ramon loyola in lowercase” up to date with references to his published poems (in the last month he has had work appear in “Pencilled In Magazine Issue 3: Food” and in “Other Terrain Journal Issue # 5”).

Earlier this year Vagabond Press released a small chapbook of Ramon Loyola’s poems as part of their “deciBels 3” Series, “The Measure of Skin”. The series was edited by Australian writer Michelle Cahill and is introduced at Vagabond press as follows:

Richly diverse in their cultures and communities, these poets trace their ancestries to South Asia and the Philippines, to North Asia, Europe, and South America. Their work encompasses a range of styles and voices that collectively challenges the biopolitics and narrow categories of white heteronormativity so powerful in the establishment. (Vagabond Press website)

In her introduction to the series Michelle Cahill says:

it is wonderful that we can celebrate the work of ten gifted poets whose cultures and languages, as much as they are inflected by an Australian belonging, trace to South Asia, to the Philippines, Greece, to the Jewish, Chilean and Taiwanese diasporas. Each of these poets is accomplished yet pressing against the limitations of their practise. Individually they are radicals, in the sense of breaking textual ground. They have applied language to new purpose and form as technê, by discerning thought, voice, tone and image. (Vagabond Press website)

And on Ramon Loyola’s chapbook she adds:

In contemporary Australian poetry we rarely encounter a poetics that attends to homoerotic subjectivity from the uncomfortable position of shared erasure and material suffering. Ramon Loyola’s The Measure of Skin nurtures the elemental strangeness of the other.

“The Measure of Skin” consists of twenty-one poems, this small book opens with “Familiar”;

your hands feel familiar

they are renegade tanks of warmth
charging through layers of hair
shooting pinpricks of invisible blood
through epidermis and veins

(from opening poem)

And there is a familiarity with Ramon Loyola’s work, he addresses the themes of loss, isolation, yearning, whilst creating a character who is searching for love, attempting to make concrete his place in the world.

If you are looking for gooey, love themed poems, where the poets find their perfect match and the sun sets on a beautiful romance (a la the poets on the bestseller lists), then Ramon Loyola is going to unsettle your hopeful views. Here we have a collection where the uncomfortable displacement of the poet comes to the fore, his fears, his pain, his laments;

Touch me here, where it hurts like no other
where the mere flutter of kisses linger
on my neck, reminding me of letters
never sent, of souvenirs never
took from places I had never been to.
(from “Touch Me Where It Hurts”)

A Philippines-born, Australian based writer, Ramon Loyola writes poems of displacement and unease, not quite sure of his surroundings where foreboding fears lurk around every corner. Is there a subtle referencing of a cultural hybridity? A writer on the fringes?  And Ramon Loyola also does not shy away from homoerotic subjects, further pushing himself outside the boundaries, where he then reflects and where he is not always comfortable with what he sees;

My hair is not black but dark brown
It has streaks of white and old strands
A rendering of unfortunate genes and
Of old age and memories and regret

                (from “A Rendering of Genes”)

Raw, honest poems, where the writer questions himself, these are works that contain a measure of uncertainty, an unsure human looking for acceptance. There are numerous fears approached, fear of the dark, fear of the ocean, fear of letting oneself fall in love and they are all rooted in the physical world of skin, flesh, eyes, touch.

A short book, however one that reveals a lot about a writer attempting to make sense of their place in world.

As always, I would like to sincerely thank the poet for making the time to answer my questions, and his honesty in his replies. I hope this interview brings a little more understanding of the creative process and the poems themselves.

You can follow Ramon Loyola via his blog here  and you can purchase the chapbook “The Measure of Skin” here.

Q. Your poems are rooted in the physical world, touch, eyes, skin (that’s even in the title!), is the physical your way of making sense of the metaphysical?

I tend to write from the physical and material plain to understand the realm of what lies underneath the skin, the invisible pinpricks that provoke a physical reaction, that manifest by way of physical pain and emotion. The body, for me, is the source of all our pondering, a trigger for contemplation about the world, how it reacts to the stimuli of love, loss, grief, mortality, and morality. So, yes, I guess it is my way of making sense of the force of nature and the attendant influence it has on me. To know what is beyond the physical, I need to first understand the machination of how the body works, how it interacts to these stimuli, how it folds in the dark blanket of suffering and sorrow, how the heart struts on its beats when the prospect of love rears its head in the horizon. It’s a long process for me, understanding what is out there, but I need to start from within, to know myself down to the bone, in order to confront the many possibilities — delicious and sordid — inherent in the realms outside my own skin.

Q. You confront a lot of fears in your book, darkness, the ocean, love, is poetry cathartic for you?

Someone once told me that my poems are too dark and emotive, which sounded like it was the worst thing one could do. For me, it was my way of realising the worst fears I have encountered (and that with which I am still struggling). It’s also a way of putting myself to the test on how far I could go with negotiating my own feelings about the fear of the unknown and what resides in a place I’ve never been to. In the most literal sense, yes, I guess my poetry intends to be cathartic in that way, and the process of confronting the fears I have since known — fear of the dark, of the sea, of normal things and ideals, of being hurt again — is challenging in itself because of the safeguards I have put up around me without realising that I’d been isolating myself from all these experiences. But the reason for my poetry is not just a methodical calculation of my strength in times of fear and uncertainty, it’s also because of my yearning to reach out for answers and the clichéd ideal of companionship, and, yes, love. My poetry is not just personal; it’s also a conscious clarion call for friendship and understanding in these dire times.

Q. Love and lust are the two dominant themes is this chapbook, but there is also a lurking loneliness, a yearning, are these poems a cry? Have you given too much of yourself?

I once used ‘crying poems’ as a working title in one of my earlier collections, but ultimately abandoned it in order not to give away too much of the themes I was working on. Then, again, my writing (as in this chapbook) has always embodied deep feelings of longing and yearning (hence, my first collection, not poems, just words carried a subtitle, ‘on loving, living and longing’). At first, it was a scary thing to reveal myself like that to the whole world. After the release of not poems, just words in 2014, I’d been branded a sham, a fraud, an imposter, a wannabe-Yeats and e.e. cummings-tragic. But I was also encouraged and feted by many readers as someone brave enough to make such intimate disclosures that it is what is now expected of my writing and myself. Loneliness, indeed, informs my writing, for it also pervades my life. I’ve been on my own, by myself, unpartnered — and, perhaps, unfortunately, still wistful for something else, even at my age — for over a decade now. It doesn’t get any easier, what with the increasing demands of the modern times to be more sociable and sympathetic, and the stigma attached to ‘aloneness’. But the fact that I am sitting here, right now, answering your insightful queries, makes it more real to me that there are times when the loneliness should simply take a back seat to make way for some inner joys, and to complete the cyclical fruit-bearing seasons of living. And, yes, I have given a lot of myself, of this loneliness, in my writing. But, in doing so, I have abided by my self-directive motivation of sticking to the truth. In one of my capricious jaunts in social media, I’d witnessed the online badgering (bullying, trolling) of a very talented and emerging poet when he posted an extract of a poem in the works. One conservative and ‘seasoned’ (but obviously ill-meaning) critic commented on the post by posing a bewildering query of ‘where is the truth?’ which then led to lengthy thread discussions by others and, sadly, resulted in the poet’s literal withdrawal from the world. But he was simply writing the truth. Since then, I have always kept it in mind: Write what is true, write the truth about you, regardless of the feelings the task evokes or entails, write about what you feel. I’ve steeled myself somewhat from all the potential trolling and rejection, despite the hurtful sting when it comes. And, so, in my own writing, the poems that come out carry the truth in me, about me, of what it feels like to be an outsider looking in, to be always on edge and always in the fringes, to be sexually ‘different’, to be gay, to be lonely. If my poems don’t give away a little about myself (like the ones in The Measure of Skin), then I would not be adhering to my own truth and I would have failed in embracing it. There’s always the risk of giving away too much of myself, yes. But, oh, there is so much of me to give … I have so much to give.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

My to-be-read pile is seriously big and bad. Among all the precious titles I’ve accumulated, I am currently engrossed in three poetry books (at the same time) by Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages (Giramondo, 2018), Nathanael O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure (UWAP, 2017), and the late Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). I have just finished gorging on the delights in Lachlan Bloom’s Limited Cities (Giramondo, 2012), which made me realise that the path towards brilliance and clarity for someone like me is always paved with difficulty and suffering before I could even reach that place where Bloom and the others have been. I chose these poetry titles mainly due to my affinity with the themes of diaspora, grief, identity, ideas of staying and leaving. I haven’t been to a lot of places in my long, uneventful life, and these poets are taking me to those places—real and imagined—where I will probably never be in. I have also started reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Less, by Andrew Sean Green (Lee Boudreaux Books and Abacus, 2017), perhaps in the hope of finding a common experience and mutuality of the writing soul. I like to mix things up a bit when it comes to my reading chores, so I have lined up, on the non-fiction genre, Welcome to Country by Prof Marcia Langton (Hardie Grant, 2018) with Stan Grant’s foreword alone making me quiver, so that I can show a deeper appreciation towards and convey an intimate gratitude for Indigenous Australia, and Jonathan Miller’s Duterte Harry (Scribe, 2018), to digest the unfortunate goings-on in my home country, the Philippines, brought on by an alleged despot-in-the-making. Winter signals my hibernating-reading phase, so there’s always something in my TBR pile of wonders.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

There are a few drafts of poems in my WIP folder that will probably never see the light of day. But I’ve been labouring on them for quite some time, always with tentativeness inherent in all my attempts to write truthfully. After receiving more than five rejections from various journals and publications in the last two weeks alone, however, I have this nagging urge to improve them even more, but not in haste, this time. I need to learn to edit myself more, to increase and improve my vocabulary, and to be more confident about my capacity to tell the truth. It’s never easy, but I persist.  In my still-feeble and not-so-bright mind, I encourage myself that perhaps it’s time to go back to learning and re-learning the basics so that I can be also be more sophisticated in mastering the complexity of poetry while manifesting my intentions in the simplest, most effective way. It may be trivial to some and pedestrian to others, but I’d like to think that The Measure of Skin has provided a glimpse of the interplay between complexity and simplicity. These rejections are my reminders, my signposts for those moments. So, in my attempts now to forge ahead on writing another full collection of new poetry on various (but, as usual, personal) themes, I’d like to think that I’d be more than ready to confront my personal truths and the world on all its doubts about what I have to say or can do in my own words. There is hope. There is hope.