Aqua Spinach – Luke Beesley PLUS bonus poet interview

AquaSpinach

It is not my custom to weave any kind of fantastic plot about the figures I amuse myself in contemplating. I just see them, and their value lies purely in the fact that I can see them. Anything I might add would diminish them, because it would diminish what I term their ‘visibility’.
– Fernando Pessoa “The Book of Disquiet” opening to Fragment 125 (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” sits on my bedside table, I dip in and out of the fragments quite regularly, it is not a book one reads from cover-to-cover, a collection of artefacts that add to/take away from your daily mood. I read Fragment 125, above, soon after finishing Luke Beesley’s latest collection of poetry “Aqua Spinach” and I thought it was utterly relevant. Into my notebook it went “Use Fragment 125 opening for Luke Beesley review”.

Scrap that thought….start again.

I quite often visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (‘ACMI’) where they screen iconic films. Recently I’ve seen movies by Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman, Breton…there are so many movies to see.

Luke Beesley’s “Aqua Spinach” closes out a trilogy of books that explore the intersections between poetry, music, the visual arts and cinema. The epigraph coming from Leo Charney’s “Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift”:

In the empty moment, what you call identity ceases to be continuous,
linear, apparent.
It’s hazy and insubstantial, a jumbled, fragmented surface.
It skips around from one time to another, from one place to another.
It refuses to respect the need to keep one moment consistent and con-
tenuous with the ones that precede or follow it.
It’s a film.

And this collection of prose poems is a “jumbled, fragmented surface”, skipping “around from one time to another, from one place to another.”

Scrap that thought….start again.

“Aqua Spinach” is broken into three sections, “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, writing, visual arts and cinema being the points on a three pronged surrealist compass, the sixty-four poems seeping into your awareness, leaving scar tissue memories and setting off synapses of past experiences like miniature firework displays in your brain. Ah yes, the lobster telephone, I saw that at the ‘Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire” retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria back in 2009…or did I, maybe I thought I saw it? I’ve definitely seen Dalí’s collaboration with Luis Buñuel, “Un Chien Andalou”, hasn’t everyone who is into film? You know the one, the dissected eyeball, or am I thinking of “Le Voyage Dans La Lune”? No definitely not that, it was made in 1902, Georges Méliès made that, something to do with the moon and eyes…

Scrap that thought…start again.

Luke Beesley’s final instalment, following on from “Jam Sticky Vision” and “New Works on Paper”, has just been released, by Giramondo Publishing. Get your bus ticket organised as you are about to board public transport, head to work, view several exhibitions, watch a film or two, however it is all going to take place at once.

Incomprehension came to mind as I started reading this new collection of poems, I was attempting to make sense of the surreal. Once I let go and allowed the journey to just unfold, the seemingly disparate images began to build a story of an artistic life alongside mundane everyday actions. Just as watching a single star in the sky of the city, polluted with light haze, is not as magnificent as seeing the same star as part of the the Milky Way in the clear skies of the desert, it is still the same star.

A Century of Poetry in English

Over pottery in the language inherited a century of prose
and lilac Iliads. The Iliads by binoculars and binoculars by
lower lake and the century in English against the French or
Spanish soccer grace, Keatsean anticlimactic brilliance,
William-to-William, wheeled in on bright cuts and English
lessons. The sentence flosses the Armadillo mountains in the
east and the sun reaches out of atmosphere like a sneeze,
centuries. We work around the spine.

The above poem appears in the “Ink” section of the collection.

The front cover features a still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, the 2010 Palme d’Or winning film at the Cannes Film Festival. A movie that explores past lives and is the final instalment in a multi-platform art project centred in Thailand’s northeast. The mystical use of various media and the subject matter aligns nicely with Luke Beesley’s work that uses art, objects and humans to transform. The exploration of literature, visual arts and film through small bursts of comprehension creates a hybrid questioning of absurdity in the everyday. A collection that lingers and haunts your dreams…or your reality.

Yet again, I pass on my sincere thanks to the writer for taking the time to be interviewed and Luke Beesley’s answers and engagement with my high-level questions is really appreciated.

You can buy “Aqua Spinach” direct from the publisher here (where you can also purchase the poet’s earlier books).

Q. “…dust motes float around verb in all literature, the dust motes float.” Are your thoughts dust motes?

I like that idea. Rings of Saturn Sebald-ish and dust-like. Part of what my writing process might cause, I think, is a dust-like illustration of distracted thought. But also none of the metaphors in the poems are achingly mulled over with the full weight consciousness – they swim up out of somewhere during the fast first draft and, to me, this anchors them to something deeper, or they’re easier to trust.

 

Q. You reference Apichatpong Weerasethakul”s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in the poem “Wild Thing” and the cover image is taken from this film. The Director in an interview with the Bangkok Post says it is primarily a film about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”. Two questions here, (1) were you involved in the cover design, and (2) are your poems about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”?

1) Very big yes! The book cover is something I’m really into, as I’m sure the very patient staff at Giramondo Publishing will tell you. Whereas New Works on Paper’s key focus was the visual arts (hence a drawing for the cover) and Jam Sticky Vision’s a little more on the side of music (hence the detail from a Pavement record on the cover), this book was always tipped to the side of cinema. Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the film that has had the most transformative effect on me over the last few years. I didn’t go out of my way to reference it; it was just a big part of my imagination around the time Aqua Spinach was written. I did a whole series of drawings based on the film, too. I was fortunate to be able to track Apichatpong down, via a friend, and he was really responsive and lovely. He provided that beguiling image. I love the way the cover turned out and am grateful for Giramondo for including me in the process. (2) I guess everything’s moving and shifting in the writing, in the world, in the way we see each other. The film is mysterious and darkly aesthetic: bringing in photography, playing with formality, day-for-night filming, humour, banality, surprise – it’s the stuff of contemporary poetry. It’s the kind of film that puts me in the type of alert daydream place that is productive for writing.

 

Q. The collection is arranged into three sections, the nouns “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, can you talk a bit about the “Film” section, your influences by Éric Rohmer, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñel, Joanna Hogg for example?

Embarrassingly perhaps, I discovered Rohmer only a few years ago. I’ve since watched nearly all of his 25 or so films. It was so great to re-watch Full Moon in Paris on the big screen at MIFF. Actually, today I happen to be watching A Tale of Springtime which is one of the few films of his that I haven’t seen. I enjoy his use of colour, but I love that you spend time with a thoughtful, sensitive, hesitant, indecisive character and you gradually grow very close to them. And Rohmer will show his characters thinking while folding clothes or walking or reading or just popping back to an apartment to pick up a couple of books. He’ll show the whole sequence so that you as the viewer have time to think and you understand that the character’s mind is busy in thought while they fold or walk or read or eat or stare at a view (a view which more often confounds expectations by being either disappointing or unexpectedly interesting). Joanna Hogg, who is influenced by Rohmer, is probably – along with Apichatpong and Suwichakornpong – my favourite filmmaker of the last few years, and I’ve watched her three films over and over. I write while watching films – that dream trance they put you in – so it’s natural that they appear in my daily writing. Image-wise, I like the idea of the book springing up out of Un Chein Andalou (maybe minus the eye scene which I can’t watch, more ants, armpits, absent mouths and moth eyes). I like the following question: What has Un Chien Andalou got to do with inner-Melbourne?

The trilogy – New Work on Paper, Jam Sticky Vision, Aqua Spinach – ends with film, which goes back to the book’s epigraph. In the end, film wins, I think, concerning its relation to its influence on the moment.

 

Q. “Ink” being writing, “Paint” being art (painting) – you have an active cultural life – can you talk about some of your major influences from the poetic, painting arts?

If you went through the visual art references over the three books and took down names my obsessions at the time of writing would all be there. It’s more than the actual art, too. I like the names of artists and the way their names work in poems and how the name moves out, almost topographically, beyond the art, or rhymes visually with other names. A writer can be linked to a musician or painter via this visual rhyme.

I feel I always have a pool of artists I’m focusing on, and then those artists will lead me to others. I could probably trace this movement, via hundreds of artists, over twenty years. In my 20s it was Rothko, Coltrane, Ondaatje, Lee Ufan, Malick, Egoyan, Pavement, Silver Jews, David Brooks and Leonard Cohen. Then later it was Kelly Reichardt, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Bill Callahan, Carlos Reygadas, John Ashbery, Gerald Murnane, Helen Frankenthaler. My favourite-pool of the moment is probably Joan Mitchell, Cesar Aira, Aldous Harding, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Lydia Davis and Enrique Vila-Matas. I also just finished a forty-odd-thousand word exegesis on the enthralling and elusive writing of poet Barbara Guest, and I’m in no way willing to let go. Her ekphrastic poetry has led me to many other painters, too.

Essentially the story of Modernist painting and the innovative writers of the 20th century are significant influences.

 

Q. The poem “The Lobster” uses André Breton and surrealism as a theme. Is your work surrealist automatism at play?

Yes, the lobster is a double reference to Breton and also a contemporary artist such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who is trying to work today with what the surrealists offered up. Regarding automatism, it’s hard to say. My process is to write fast in pencil every day, and I’ve built up an improvisational approach by doing this for about eight years. There is a calm centre to it. I try not to think, that’s very important, but then it’s maybe, over the years, been honed to control the levels of pure automation so that I can have a poetry mode and a more narrative short-fiction mode. I like the idea of calling the writing surrealist, though.

 

Q. Individually these poems may appear incoherent, but as a whole the reader can see your day to day activities, catching a bus, in an office, reading poems, sitting on a park bench and all of the associated random thoughts that go with these activities. Can you explain a little about the timeframe where these poems were written and the writing process itself?

I feel I’m with you with this Q & A, in that we’re anticipating each other. It’s really pleasing to know that there is a shape to the book when you step back.

I’ve written a bit about my process. Perhaps I could add that the handwriting is important. I can’t read what I’ve just written – it can only be deciphered afterwards – so all my attention is focused on the associations thrown up by the what is going on around the point of the pencil. One phrase – its shape, images and sounds – leads to another, not unlike the way one author leads to another, below.

Concerning the timeframe, the poems were drafted in 2014 and a little bit in 2015 (there are one or two poems from my Barbara Guest research trip to New York and New Haven in early 2015), and edited from 2015 to 2017.

 

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

Hmm. I generally have about 2-3 long Modern classics on the go, on the bedside table, that I’m re-reading. And I tend to move between a number of books at the same time. I’m reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room just because I love her writing and that novella had escaped me. I’m also reading Lydia Davis’ recent short story collection Can’t and Won’t which came out of reading her novel The End of the Story. I walked into a secondhand bookshop and saw the novel and picked it up and it helped me finish a long prose piece I was working on.

I’ve been in an Anita Brookner phase – her books are so crisply written and deceptively dark and sad. I sped through Look At Me and then A Start in Life but I’ve slowed a little to modulate the sadness. I’m now reading A Private View. I’m also reading the new Ondaatje, Warlight, but I’m disappointed with it, as I was of his last novel, in comparison with his earlier books, or I’m arguing with my younger self. Who’s changed? Him or me? His poetry and fiction were my first major writing influences, way back, and so I’m kinda sulking about this novel and only reading a few pages at a time. I guess I’m being a bit melodramatic.

I’m reviewing an Australian poetry collection, and I’m also re-reading the fabulous poetry collection Knocks by Emily Stewart. I’ve been reading Harold Brodkey’s wild and bold short fiction: The World is the Home of Love & Death and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, and I’m always moving through Cesar Aira’s books in translation – am about to start Conversations. I’m also reading Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz’s bazaar Borges-like The Other City. Also Julio Cortázar’s expendable-chapters novel Hopscotch just arrived in the post.

I mostly read what might be termed contemporary experimental fiction/short fiction, and Modernist classics. And it leads to the next question.

p.s. for more on my reading habits go here

https://southerlyjournal.com.au/2016/05/27/followed-by-patrick-modianos-dog-what-ive-been-reading-last-part/

 

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

One of the reasons why Aqua Spinach is a full stop – the end of a trilogy – is that since I finished drafting it a few years ago, I’ve mostly only been writing short fiction and fiction. Having written that, sometimes stories come back from literary journals with a note from the editor saying hey this is poetry. Anyway, I’m writing what I love to read most at the moment, and I’m really into it. Ahead of me is a lot of crouching over my terrible handwriting, trying to transcribe it to the computer, but I have more than one manuscript that is getting close to completion.

 

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Milk Teeth – Rae White PLUS bonus poet interview

MilkTeeth

The Annual Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, for an unpublished manuscript, is awarded at the Brisbane Poetry Festival with the winner having their book published by University of Queensland Press and launched at the Festival the following year. I have interviewed 2015 and 2016 winners Stuart Barnes, for “Glasshouses”, and Shastra Deo, for “The Agonist” and continue the association with the Prize by interviewing 2017 winner Rae White, whose book “Milk Teeth” was launched on 3 September 2018.

Rae White is a non-binary poet, writer and zinester living in Brisbane. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth won the 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and is published by the University of Queensland Press. Rae’s poem ‘what even r u?’ placed second in the 2017 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize – you can read that poem here. Rae’s poetry has been published in Australian publications such as Meanjin Quarterly, Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Rabbit.

Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife, a collaborative zine about non-binary experiences. They hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing Production) from Queensland University of Technology.

Before you prepare yourself for a haunting journey encountering decay and body parts you need to crawl under your mother’s bed…

Each of your milk teeth, toddler shoe-
boxed under your mother’s bed.
You giggle, call out
her sentimentality but I’m dizzy
at dinner, preoccupied
with thoughts of tinkling
dentin slipping on my palm.
I excuse myself, lurch
into the bedroom.
My arm zigzags in the dark
touching fusty carpet before finding
the muted box compact with duct.
Pinpoint fingers remove
one creamy molar.
(from “Mother’s milk”)

This is taken from the opening poem to the collection and your “pinpoint fingers” are going to be working overtime collecting such matter as teratoma, a wand made from “the knotted dried leg of an ibis”, rusted tweezers and bones (teeth, osteopenia, “skeletons with eye sockets/for mouths”).

Most of these bodily parts undergo a transformation under Rae White’s microscope, a world of insomnia and nightmares.

Broken into six thematic sections, each with a epigraph, it is not always a dark place, there are humorous references, for example a flooded Macca’s, and nostalgic reflections. Part II primarily focusing on gender, enlightening the reader of the inherent bias in the everyday, for example the opening of the HTML poem “<title>gender options</title>” ;

<!DOCTYPE cis-centric>

<option value=”biological”>          MALE</option>
<option=”TRUE”>                            female</option>
<option=”Other”>                           404         404</not-an-option>

>>Gender not found<<

(taken from “<title>gender options</title>”)

Please note – rendering of this text is not ideal on a mobile phone.

Section IV are poems of love and sensual pleasures and section V the natural world, highlighting the broad and multi-faceted subject matter in this collection.

Engagement with other poets another highlight, the poem “under \ over” is in response to Shastra Deo’s poem “There Is a Cure”

under \ over

half awake stretch point the toes \ you shift rollicking the bed
edge phantom arm between cracked slats \ play my spine with fractured
knuckles like ice water                    trickling bone

press my skull onto mattress \ your whisper-teeth tracing pulsing neck
slide leisurely, bed screeches \ mother’s voice plump with
childhood warnings                        in my head

There Is a Cure

                The air was never sweet
here but now there’s oil

                slicked across the water,
the dark of it crawling

                four-footed into the house
I tell you not to let your feet

                dangle over the edge, because I
have found footprints

                that stop at the foot
of our four-poster bed,

                your phantom weight
crumpled in the covers.

These are only excerpts from each poem, to fully understand the response you’re going to have to invest in copies of both Rae White’s “Milk Teeth” and Shastra Deo’s “The Agonist”, the last two Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize winners to have their books published by UQP.

“Milk Teeth” is another engaging, thought provoking collection, with decay and body parts becoming glistening, with the human place in the natural world being questioned, but at the same time it can be playful, and humorous, using symbols, codes, social media posts, emails and a raft of textual techniques (for example how the poems are placed on the page) to engage, unsettle and ultimately reaffirm.

As always, I am forever grateful to the poet for their time in discussing their work. Rae White being extremely busy with the Brisbane Poetry Festival and the book launch was very generous in giving their time to discuss another brilliant addition to the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize Winners.

You can follow Rae White here https://raewhite.net/ where links to online stockists of the book are provided and you can follow them on Twitter using the handle @wings_humming

Over to the interview

Q. Nostalgia is a prominent theme, fishing, camping and the whole of section VI are examples, the poems “Sabbatical” and “Go and gone” ending with pumps pushing a “cat back with a slosh” or with trainers pushing “the gutted cormorant” it toppling “Into the water”. Is there such a thing as redemption?

I loved tying together both those poems about mobile games with similar themes of nostalgia, loneliness and, at the end, the bodies of animals and themes of morality. As for redemption, I wonder what the characters in these poems would do if given a choice? How far would the character in ‘Sabbatical’ go to have back ‘the lost days of breakneck fishing’? What lengths would a lonely fan of an augmented reality game go to in order to reconnect with kinship?

Q. You’ve shown that emails, Twitter, online dating profiles and Pokémon Go can be poetic, is there anything you don’t look at with a poetic gaze?

Probably not to be honest! My interpretation of things in life is quite reality-adjacent, where anything and everything could be mystical or memorable or have creative potential. Folks could interpret this as a side effect of my depression and mental health, but to be honest the conflation between ‘madness’ and creativity has always concerned me. If I look at the world with a poetic gaze, mentally tagging anything I could possibly use later in my work, does that make me ‘mad’ or does it simply make me a creative adult human? I believe the latter.

For example, I recently made this zine called Junk. I used words and phrases from a spam email I received to create poems and then crafted them into a zine. When people do or see something everyday, like a spam email in their inbox, it can become mundane. I like to polish the mundane, the domestic, and give things back their shine. I’m also not the only poet or creative person doing this either. For example, Zenobia Frost and Rebecca Jessen wrote a 12-poem performance based on the Bachelorette! And Holly Isemonger’s award-winning poem ‘OK Cupid’ is another great example of looking at something that perhaps wouldn’t normally be considered poetic in a poetic light.

Q. Several poems speak of the battle involved in “gender options” or of recognition, they bring home the exhaustion, the constant battle. Is writing cathartic for you?

Oh absolutely. The process of using things that have happened to me or someone I know (the misgendering, microagressions, discrimination, abuse…) is something I can angrily, exhaustingly piece together puzzle-like and massage into a poem. Once it’s complete, I feel this tremendous sense of relief and my shoulders relax. If that poem then brings something new to the non-binary conversation or acts as catharsis for someone else, then that’s even better.

Q. I’ve used this question for other poets, so pardon the repetition. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Some of your work is “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Definitely a fair and accurate assessment. I find this weird beauty in the grossness of things. At the Queensland Poetry Festival launch of Milk Teeth, a friend of mine gave me a stunning gift: a small jar containing crystals, lichen, butterfly wings and the small bones of a possum. I was both captivated and unsettled. It was utterly gorgeous but at the same time, would be something that some people might find yucky. I try to bring a similar conflicting duality like that to my work: to engage the reader through casually unsettling their expectations, asking the reader why they might find something unsettling and why. And for all those lofty goals, I also just like writing about mysterious, creepy and gory stuff because I enjoy it, and I can only hope it’s also entertaining for the reader.

Q. Besides the recent book launch, you always appear busy launching zines (in fact I have a copy of your “diary of a lavender plant” zine). Can you tell us a bit about this format of creating and how you got involved?

I got involved in making zines when I was published in Woolf Pack, a Brissie zine for women and non-binary folk. They were also the very first place to publish my poetry! From there, I decided to start making my own zines because it seemed fun, cathartic and accessible. All you need is some paper, glue, scissors and an idea, and you can make a zine! I think it’s that low barrier to entry that gave me the confidence to start getting work out there, being a part of zine fairs and stocking my work at rad places like Junky Comics (Brisbane) and Sticky Institute (Melbourne). One of the things I love about zines is how diverse and DIY they are. You can get your own voice out there and explore new ways of creating.

Q. You have a strong connection to the natural world, section V of the collection focusing on plants for example, is nature the “ultimate triumph”?

Ooh part of me hopes so! I have over 100 plants in my house and outside on my balcony, and I love watching them grow: they wrap around objects in my house, around each other, some of them close their leaves up at night to sleep. I love the idea that perhaps plants are just waiting for us to fuck up the world even more than we’ve already done, before saying enough is enough and taking over, triumphing over us. I like to explore that concept in poems like ‘Abandoned greenhouse’ and ‘EVIDENCE: house plant, Holland Park’.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I just finished reading Jos Charles’s feeld, which is explores trans narratives and the reclamation of language through this Chaucerian-like transliteration of English. It was utterly incredible and inspiring.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m currently working on my second poetry collection focusing on non-binary people and space: how non-binary transgender people are allocated or denied spaces in Australian society (including socially, politically, physically, digitally and linguistically), and the way in which our bodies continue to take up space despite marginalisation and violence. I’m also slowly working on a short story collection and on a couple of secret exciting projects, which I’ll hopefully be able to announce soon!

You can read some of my work, order my book and check out my upcoming events at https://raewhite.net/.

 

 

 

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”.

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.

Saudade – Suneeta Peres Da Costa

Saudade

I wondered what home may mean and what different routes one might take to get there.

Independent publisher Giramondo, has recently released two books in their “Shorts” collection, one titled “João”, a collection of sixty-four sonnets by John Mateer, the other a short novella, “Saudade”, by Suneeta Peres da Costa an Australian born author to parents of Goan origin.

This short work consists of eleven single paragraph chapters, runs to 114 pages, and is a coming-of-age story set in Angola, a colony about to move from Portuguese rule to independence. The cultural hybridity that I recently discussed with Asian-Australian poet Adam Aitken really comes to the fore in this novella with the protagonist narrator and her family being Goan immigrants in Angola. They had fled Goa, India, after the Indian “liberation” of the state from Portugal in December 1961. From one Portuguese colony that had been “liberated” to another which is now undergoing a similar fate.

Written in the first person, the book opens with childhood memories of a young girl and the simplicity of simply observing her mother, however there is a juxtaposition of fear, with the image of the dead walking backwards shimmering on the periphery. She is safe in her mother’s presence, but as a reader you know that fear and danger is always lurking in the shadows.

Told through the innocent eyes of a child the unsettling nature of being an exile in a land where you may soon be exiled is a wonderful balance of innocence and vulnerability.

I could hear them talking in lowered voices in Kimbundu. Ifigênia had been told to speak Portuguese in my company but she often forgot and spoke Kimbundu anyway. Though I could understand only a smattering, I found Kimbundu, with its spirited rhythms, beautiful. And if it did not occur to me that they may have been talking about me, this was less because of humility than beacause it has not yet dawned on me that Kimbundu might be the language, as I might be the source, of some of their plaints and grievances. When this became evident I might find Kimbundu a cacophony, at the first sound of which I would reach for pliable beeswax to stop up my ears! (pp 15-16)

Our narrator when young refuses to speak, but occasionally sings, and the awkwardness of being a single child, adoring of her mother, is beautifully presented through personal recollections and simply crisp language.

When the soldier had gone, her mother struck Inês across the face. Susana looked away ashamed and so did some others nearby, yet no one protested against this act of cruelty and little Inês herself seemed well acquainted with it; she only folded up her legs, rocked and murmured quietly to herself. I turned over the insight – those who hurt you may be the same who otherwise claimed to protect your interests and care for you – (pp 59-60)

A tale that has elements of domestic violence, fear, infidelity, but these are matter of fact events, part of our narrator’s make-up. It is the mother-daughter relationship that is more forefront here, even in the quote above it is not the shock of a domestically violent situation that comes home to roost with our young girl narrator but more the realisation that those who love you may also hurt you.

On the morning of my Crisma my mother braided my hair with moringa from the garden. She stood back after plaiting the buds into my hair and, congratulating herself on the work of art which I, lace dress, lace veil, and wearer of her well-tended blossoms had become, said see what a pretty girl I could be. The more often she said such things, the more I resented my sex and the awkward complications of my body. I looked with envy at boys my age, kicking footballs, able to go out late and return whenever they pleased, and swearing in the street. If I were a boy, I believed, I might escape all that those blossoms and my mother’s words seemed to prefigure… (p69)

The title of the novella, Saudade, means melancholy in Portuguese and it is through melancholic eyes that our protagonist views the end of colonial rule, with an innocence of youth and of being an immigrant.

Although short, this book opened up an understanding of Portuguese rule in Angola and Goa for me, it was only through reading this work that I spent some time reading more information about the political situations in those countries/states in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is one of the beauties of reading fiction from many cultures, it expands my understanding of other diasporas, it opens my eyes to displacement and multi-culturalism from many different angles.

Congratulations have to go to Giaramondo for delving into the publication of shorter works, in the United Kingdom we have Peirene Press whose motto is “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film” and it is a welcome addition to Australian publishing to have a similar outlet here for smaller works, books that fit somewhere between a long short story and a novel.

A lingering work that may not answer the question of what routes need to be taken to get home, or what home may even mean – but you may need to read it to see if it does!!!

False Claims of Colonial Thieves – Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella PLUS bonus interviews with both poets

Colonial

It has been quite a few months since I last published a poet interview here, however I have been working away in the background at getting a few new ones for you. Today I have two poets, the recent release being a collaborative effort.

The first thing that strikes you about “False Claims of Colonial Thieves”, a new release from Magabala books, is the striking cover. It is a collaborative artwork by Charmaine Papertalk Green (one of the two poets) and Mark Smith. As advised in the book itself;

This print tells the story of Geraldton’s foundation around colonialism and its impact on the First Peoples – the Wilunyu of the Yamaji Nation. Colonial structures built on traditional campsites, forced the traditional occupiers out of their long held space to become onlookers of where they once lived – sang, slept, ate, danced and yarned. Colonial and contemporary structures only hide the surface but not the memory or connection of Yamajii to their land, 2016.

A powerful statement and one that ideally sets up this important confronting book.

Poets Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella are in conversation throughout this work, coming from two completely different perspectives, Charmaine Papertalk Green the traditional owner voice, John Kinsella the voice of the whitefella. The prologue contains two short poems, one by each poet, with John Kinsella talking of mining companies “filling the holes they make in country with propaganda” and Charmaine Papertalk Green telling us “If environmental scientists say so/water comes from a plastic bottle”. If the cover, and explanation, alone is not enough to set up the depth and subject matter of this book, then the opening two poems surely let you know. Here is poets response to mining companies funding environmental scientists and their reports, funding education to fill the minds of future generations with mining messages all the time forgetting “country”, the very land they are exploiting.

Yes this is also a dedication to country, a book that comes at man’s relationship with nature from two very different perspectives, the Traditional Owner, First Nation perspective where the “country” is part of their make up their very fibre, as opposed to the invader perspective of it being “land” a place to use. Although John Kinsella has always been a poet deeply rooted in the natural world, so his “whitefella” view is not exploitative, more appreciative and in awe of his surroundings, you still get a view from two angles.

For a reader who has spent time in remote Aboriginal communities, who has set up a charitable event to raise funds for the retention of Aboriginal women’s law and culture, I have an understanding of the elements at play here. As a result I found the this an emotionally tiring work, draining as I became more and more outraged;

Balu winja barna real winja
Real old ones them ones
Man is a greedy monster
Interfering to satisfy self
Pulling old ones to surface
Birthing a dangerous little boy
Naming after a god and
Worshiping like a god
For the warfare toys of
Other little boys worldwide
Energy, power, death, destruction and money
Uranium is safe in the earth
Like a sleeping Elder

(from “Undermining 2.” By Charmaine Papertalk Green p2)

This is confrontational poetry from both sides of the fence, we have First Nationas people selling their country, selling their kids dreaming, for a “car four wheel drive car” and then pretend “owners” who have stolen the land. We have bashings, protecting the names of people from the police as there is a knowledge that any blackfella naming will end violently for the people involved (ie. They will be bashed by the police), growing up rough…

We have John Kinsella taking a more celebratory approach of the riches of the land, the flora and fauna, at times a chemical, educational view (especially when it comes to the impact of salt on waterways), whereas Charmaine Papertalk Green has more of a connected view of her country,, more immediacy, “right here on this land right here”.

The controversial, and hidden subject matter, is confronted head-on here, the reality of slave labour on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) and how it should now be a memorial site not a holiday attraction is one of the subjects brought into play.

Two balanced voices addressing the same subject from two different points of view, as the work progresses you see a connection transpire, a mutual understanding, the commonality bringing an element of “reconciliation” to the book.

Although confrontational this is a powerful, important, and revealing book. Australia’s dark past is not sugar coated here, a work I hope gets overseas traction.

Over to the interviews, as always I am very grateful to the poets for their time and their honesty. I hope this brings a little more understanding of the creative process and the poems themselves.

Charmaine Papertalk Green

Q. “Mass Rock is not my significant site”, is the refrain in “No other road”, can you tell us a little about your significant sites?

A. Mass Rock was named by religious sector of society and the name continues to be privileged today disregarding the  Yamaji space in  which it  sits.  The space in which it sits  is the historical campsite  of my people – a historical site of significance  where families lived and  ceremonies were held   .  This is the significance of the site not that a catholic priest came on horse back to preach  to a group of Yamaji who had to live on the outskirts of a township.

Q. “Don’t want me to talk” is about you having a voice but we don’t listen. Do you feel poetry gives you a stronger voice?

A. I have a strong voice and poetry adds to this strength . The problem is not my voice or the strength of it but rather that Australia either has selective hearing , is deaf or has a certain level of amnesia when it comes to the First Nations people of Australia.

Q. The retention of culture is a strong theme throughout your work. A culture that is 40,000+ year’s old but has taken a blow in the last 200 years. I see a resurgent awareness of the importance of Aboriginal culture happening, do you see a bright future for the retention of your cultural practices, or is it more “still invisible”?

A. First Nation peoples are very resilient people to have survived everything that has happened to the many nations across Australia since the time of Invasion . The process of colonisation has not been  and is not kind to the  First Nations people of this country – especially in devaluing our culture, continual denial of our cultural worth  and attempting to continually  erase our knowledge systems.  The Yamaji cultural practices have felt the brutal  force of colonisation and assimilation yet we have survived as a people even though the many contemporary colonial structures in my region continue a process

Q. As part of this project there would have been a large time reflecting, recalling your youth, was there anything that surprised you, that you thought you’d forgotten?

A. I am in a continual process of recall of my formative years which of course includes my youth. As a young female Aboriginal growing up in Mullewa my youth was quite difficult in some ways and then not so in others .  Recall is so important in telling our stories and sharing what we need to or want to share.  There are things I want to forgot but remain part of my story so there is always a form of tension in this storytelling.

Q. Two distinct poetic identities “in response” would have been difficult project to be involved in, could you share a little about the process for writing this book, what did you learn through this process?

A. I think this process emerged organically through conversation over a 10 year period . I learnt through this process John is genuine in his interest in the protection of country/land  and the position of  Australia First Nations people  and for a better Australian Society .  I would not have got involved in this project  if this was not the case – please dont call it an experiment as I think one reviewer did it was a genuine conversation process  between two poets .

Q. As I ask all my interviewees, as it has given me, and readers a wonderful reading list, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

A. Right now I am reading Ali Coby Eckermann Too Afraid to Cry 2012 and Lionel G. Fogarty Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo Mobo ( Future) 2014 simply because I love their words and storytelling .

Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

A. I am currently working on a manuscript around mother-daughter letters – I am responding to letters my mother wrote to me when I was going to school in Perth in 1978=1979

John Kinsella

Q. When you return to Geraldton to what part of you is there, you “rest in a dry creek bed/and listen to their river gums” amongst several connections to the natural world, and your work is always grounded in the environment. Have you always had this “nature” connection?

A. Yes, it goes to the core of all my responses to the outside world, and likely my interior world as well. I can’t separate off from the natural world, and don’t want to. That doesn’t mean I necessarily comprehend the natural world, but I try to be respectful to it — to observe closely, to learn.

Q. A lot of your poems are about travelling throughout the west, with white man’s interference a constant. You appear as having a restless past, is that a fair assumption?

A. Yes, I struggled with many years of alcoholism and addiction. I have been sober now for twenty-three years and am grateful for it. However, my distress at ongoing colonisation, at a lack of adequate actual material response to the theft of Aboriginal lands, is more relevant to my restlessness. I acknowledge I am part of the problem, and wish to contribute towards fixing the problem.

Q. Through many relationships with the First Nation’s peoples over many years, do you think there is a recent change towards accepting traditional cultural practices, is the future looking brighter or is it “still invisible”?

A. I hope there is — and I hope there’s a realisation that Aboriginal people define their own practice in whatever form it might take. Non-Aboriginal people have no right (in any capacity) to tell or even suggest what is right to/for Aboriginal people. I listen and learn. There’s nothing else I can say outside my absolute commitment to learn (and to keep learning) how to respect. I should also add, Aboriginal knowledges are intense and massive — all the sciences all the arts all the skills are in their knowing. Listen, experience, learn, if you are offered the opportunity. Never take this learning for granted, but be grateful if it comes your way.

Q. As part of this project there would have been a large time reflecting, recalling your youth, was there anything that surprised you, that you thought you’d forgotten?

A. Interesting question! Yes, I think you get to one of the most vital threads of the writing process – to reveal those bits of ourselves we have left behind or even closed over. Maybe I didn’t recall things I’d forgotten, but I did reconsider and consequently — I hope — better understand what had happened in my past at salient points (to my mind).

Q. Two distinct poetic identities “in response” would have been difficult project to be involved in, could you share a little about the process for writing this book, what did you learn through this process?

A. It was a sharing process. A process of exchange. Of swapping stories and experiences and finding a way of talking out of those stories and experiences. ‘Larger’ pictures developed as we built the layers of our stories, finding overlaps and digressions, working towards a common purpose of speaking out about injustice (and justice) regarding country. I needed to hear, I needed to learn. When talking of family we found such different experiences — different experiences wrought (and imposed) by the wrongs of colonialism. How to we address these issues? I think we found some ways over many many years. We had purpose and we needed to speak together then out loud to others.

Q. As I ask all my interviewees, as it has given me, and readers a wonderful reading list, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

A. I am rereading the earlier novels of Ursula Le Guin, not because of her recent death, but because they were so formative for me in my teenage years and were part of my strong growing awareness of anarchism around the age of sixteen/seventeen. I am also (re)reading the poetry of Rita Dove with whom I am co-editing an activist issue of The Kenyon Review. And slowly remaking my way (again and again) through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – to undo the things I want to undo, it’s a useful text!

Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

A. A long poem against the arms industry — I despise what the federal government is attempting to do regarding turning Australia into a ‘top ten’ arms exporter. I resist this as a pacifist, and I resist it as a human being. The arms industry should be shut down, not expanded! Life, not death!

The Book of Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil

BookChocSaints

You’re a critic. There’s no worse thing that can be said about a man.

As I was working my way through Jeet Thayil’s second novel, “The Book of Chocolate Saints”, I was wondering why the publicity and reviews have been a little thin on the ground. In fact, I have seen one short review in “The Guardian”. The quote above appears as the novel comes to a close, a slap in the face for critics.

When Jeet Thayil exploded onto the mainstream literary stage with his debut novel “Narcopolis” his reputation as a hard living former drug addict seemed to overshadow his achievements as a poet and novelist. “Narcopolis” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and subsequently won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2013 and most reflections, critiques of the book seemed to focus on the persona of the writer, the drug elements and less on the tale of Bombay. For example, does anybody mention the novel’s opening and closing word is “Bombay”?

“The Book of Chocolate Saints” is not going to change Jeet Thayil’s hard playing reputation, it is probably only going to enhance it, merely through the seedier elements. However this is a multi multi layered work, running at close to 500 large pages, it is a complex story of the fictional poet and painter Newton Francis Xavier, an alcoholic, womaniser, a character who is highly intelligent, famous but with no self-control. It is also the story of Dismas, the young admiring writer who is compiling a biography of Newton (or Xavier, or simply X), in fact two books “two hundred and fifty pages of heft”, are we reading those two books? Or maybe  it is the story of Goody Lol, Newton’s latest partner, or possibly the “The Hung Realists” a group of Bombay poets, Newton being the co-editor of an anthology called “The Hung Realists: A Subaltern Manifesto”. Or possibly this is a tale of the “Chocolate Saints”, dark skinned Saints who throughout the ages have been redefined as fair skinned with blue eyes, this includes Jesus. Surely it is also an homage to Roberto Bolaño, the similarities to “The Savage Detectives” are too obvious to ignore, fragmentary, an alter-ego (Dismas is Thayill?), the multiple character narrations and simply the celebration of a literary movement, here we have the “Hung Realists”, Bolaño with the “visceral realists”.

Structurally the book is presented in alternating parts, the first, after a short Prologue, consisting of interviews with numerous characters conducted by Dismas and the next a narrative of Newton Francis Xavier’s life, alternating back to interviews and so forth. A novel presented in a series of fragments, it is not linear, although you can follow the exposes quite simply. But it is not simply the narrative plotline that is the attraction here.

Poets Man! They’re the same all over. Mendicants, martyrs, lapsed monks convinced the world owes them an explanation or an apology or a meal, wine included. But fuck the dumb shit. I tell you this, if you’re planning a revolution or founding a new religion go to the poets. Don’t waste your time with fucking scriveners. Go to the source, the bards. At least you can count on them to be true to their essential nature. And what is this nature? Ruthlessness, I say! Enlist the poets and expect blood. There will be a lot of it. Enlist the poets and stay away from the novelists because novelists are feckless. They have no feck at all. They are yes-men hungry for approval and patronage, always looking out for their own interests. As for playwrights, all they do is talk, talk, talk about the revolution and social justice, women’s empowerment, humanism, anarchism, but it never goes anywhere because that that’s all it is, big talk, back talk, chitchat, gossip. They’re good at it because that’s how they gather material. When it comes to putting words into action? They’ll be the first to disappear. You will also come across scriptwriters and screenplay doctors. Be warned. They live in their own reality and it rarely coincides with anyone else’s. I advise you to tread carefully with those bastards. Walk among them as if you’re in a den of goddamn vipers. Count on nothing and you’ll be okay. The only ones you can trust are the short-story writers because they’re like the poets in at least one respect. They shoot their shot in one go and this leads to an understanding of luck and discipline. They learn early that discipline lies in waiting and allowing the circumstances for luck to arise. The point I am trying to make is that poets are born with certain unenviable traits. For example, paranoia. For example, they admire self-sabotage and the perverse. And for a last example, they are born with a capacity for cruelty, followed by and infinite capacity for remorse. (pp23-24)

A work that every few pages throws a new revelation, or a quotable quote, right at you, for example Dismas, low class, low caste is in the USA, of course he is displaced, what does he do for acceptance? Consumerism?

Two weeks later, with his first paycheque in hand, Dismas went to the Macy’s flagship at Herald Square and bought a pair of premium wheat nubuck Tims for $189.99 and a Kangol Two-Tone 504 for $39.99. He wore the cap back to front so the logo would face the world. He packed his Converses in a Macy’s bad and wore the Tims out of the store. He picked up the new Alicia Keys and a portable CD player shaped like a frisbee. All the way home he noticed others like himself, recognisably set apart by the bags they caried from various retail giants. The young father in baggy jeans and white T-shirt who proudly carried purchases from The Gap, Urban Outfitters, and Calvin Klein; the elegant older lady with the distinctive Barney’s bag; the couple with matching sets of Bed, Bath & Beyond. He was one among them, an extended family on a weekend outing, people from all kinds of ethnic and economic backgrounds bound together by the same great yearning. With his first substantial act of shopping since arriving in New York he felt American at last. Nothing else mattered, not his past, not his caste, not the weight of his degraded history. In this great country the only caste marks were the brand names you accessorised. (pp82-83)

It is these moments of clarity that keep drawing you back into the work. The controversy of 9/11 also presents itself in a rumbling distorted presentation, the impact on Indians, Sikh’s mistaken for Muslims, is one of racist payback and revenge killings, the fear of those marginalised groups in the USA at that time being masterfully captured, and although this is fiction, you feel the opinions of Newton will rile quite a few readers.

You are an American with a job on Wall Street and an apartment in Park Slope. People give you their money and you knead it like dough: you supersize it. You run in the park in a warm-up jacket with headphones strapped to your arm. You don’t take sugar in your coffee. You don’t eat white bread or potatoes. You don’t drink beer. You have a body mass index calculator on your computer and it tells you your weight, real and ideal, in relation to your height. You take your coffee black. In your office there is a leather couch and two leather armchairs and a framed lithograph of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed and numbered by the artist. You are an American: a New Yorker: a Brooklynite. Then the towers come down and you find yourself on a plane headed west. It is 2003, wartime in American. You have to be wearing a turban and sitting on a place to Arizona via Texas to understand the meaning of this. (p127)

This is a confronting work, poverty, sodomy, rape, drug abuse, flow in and out of the storyline. In one beautifully constructed section Goody Lol tries heroin for the first time and the text becomes more garbled and slowly disintegrates in front of your eyes.

However it is not all horror, there are some wonderfully humorous lines, for example;

The year I’m talking about is 1996. I remember because of the music, angst-in-my-pants from North America. Bands named after food items, pumpkins and honey and jam, suicidal white boys trying on grime like a flannel shirt. (p224)

This book is an inadvertent lesson in how not to write.

Full of digressions, this homage is full of tortured souls, poets, painters, writers, the fictional blending with the factual, there is a large powerful section where Jeet Thayil lists writers who have committed suicide. Where was Eduardo Leve? However you could spend a lifetime just reading the works of the writers Jeet Thayil has referenced here, let alone all the other authors and poets chronicled throughout.

In certain ways the lives of the poets and the lives of the saints are similar: the solitary travails, the epiphanic awakening and early actualisation, the thwarting and the mercy, the small rewards, the false starts, the workaday miracles, the joyous visions and fearful hallucinations, the flagellation of the flesh and the lonely difficult deaths. (p355)

It is the “Chocolate Saints” always hovering in the background, the wrongly treated, originally dark skinned these “Saints” are now known as fair skinned, and it is Newton Francis Xavier who is going to bring their true heritage and tales to our attention, through his artwork and his poetry. Is his name Francis Xavier a co-incidence? Francis Xavier was “the patron saint of wanderers without destination”… “a small exhausted dark-skinned man”.

This novel charts the “unmapped world of Indian poetry, a world known only unto itself.” The listing of numerous real Indian poets is phenomenal, for example there is a passing reference to Lawrence Bantleman, a young poet who gave up his art and died young. If you Google him you will find no information about his life, but you will find his poems.

Covering displacement, artistic creation, political motivation, caste politics, race, skin colour, the fringes of society, perversion and so much more, Jeet Thayil has created a vibrant homage to Indian poetry and forgotten Eastern Saints. The similarities to Bolaño are obvious, however I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’d wager the author couldn’t care less either, that persona preceding him!!

If the Man Booker Prize judges show some fortitude and reward writing that challenges you, that tries new things, then we will be hearing a lot more about this book when the long and shortlists are announced later this year. If they go with their standard safe, non-disruptive fare then maybe this book will become one of those obscure works rarely referenced, rarely read, and that would be upsetting.

A revelation, with disruptive and thought provoking exposés throughout, you can’t go many pages without something gripping you and tossing you out of your daily slumber. Great to see poets, by trade, shaking up the literary world.

…he would make his subject a window from which to view a broken society and a vanquished literature.