Features

Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia: Part 4

Angela Gardner, "Double Hawai'i" (Linocut print, 2009).

The fourth installment of Pam Brown’s feature “Fifty-one Contemporary Poets from Australia” (ordered, “[i]n the interest of objectivity,” by “a recently invented ‘downunder’ method — the reverse alphabet”) includes work from Jane Gibian, Claire Gaskin, Angela Gardner, Liam Ferney, Michael Farrell, Kate Fagan, Chris Edwards, Laurie Duggan, Anna Couani, and Stuart Cooke, along with artwork by Angela Gardner and Chris Edwards. You can read Brown’s introduction here, and the first three installments can be found here, here, and here. — Michael S. Hennessey

A Schuyler of urgent concern

James Schuyler at the Chelsea Hotel, 1989. Photo by J. M. Baron.

Just a little more than twenty years after his death, James Schuyler seems to be doing well, thank you. The bulk of his work is in print (his collected and uncollected poems, three of his novels, and his letters), while the out of print materials (his art criticism, his diaries) are easy and still relatively cheap to come by. The reception of his unpublished poems, Other Flowers, two years ago was hugely positive and offered reviewers an opportunity to make big claims for Schuyler’s achievement, such as Dan Chiasson’s lovely statement that “James Schuyler is a supreme poet of articulated consciousness” or Ange Mlinko’s judgment that “the weight of the world is a ballast against the levitating effect of James Schuyler’s courteous English, which made him our most angelic poet: full of air, intelligence, light.”

Nevertheless, Schuyler still doesn’t quite fit. He might be well respected but there are, as yet, almost no studies of him. (This will change, one hopes, with the publication of Nathan Kernan’s biography.) Everyone likes Schuyler, to be sure, but few people try to write like him. Schuyler is in part to blame for this situation, because he made his agility look easy and so let his extraordinary artfulness be mistaken for an aw-shucks immediacy. He was, as he maintained in an interview, anything but a realist. Nevertheless, this admired member of the “last avant-garde” has not made a direct claim on the avant-gardes that have come after him — you can hear odd echoes here and see short, sharp glimmers there, but he gets little of the full-throated emulation that goes to Ashbery and O’Hara.

I think this has to do with that commitment to consciousness, with Schuyler’s admitted distrust of the unconscious. So much experimental writing of the last century has tried to make good on Rimbaud’s claim that the textual “I” is an other. Schuyler’s biographical “I” often really was an other. He suffered from crippling mental illness. As a result, the steady, gazing, reflecting subject of his poetry was really a remarkably psychic accomplishment, an achievement that is hard to imitate.

With any luck, this small collection of essays, appreciations, and poems will help bring Schuyler’s wiliness and particularity more sharply into focus. The writer who emerges here is a skilled stylist (but we should already have known that); a radical collagist; a grand celebrator of small failure; as much a meditative poet as a descriptive one; our finest watercolorist of mood and a version of Benjamin’s storyteller who “bathes us in a self-reflecting death, polite yet radical.” He remains, two decades on, of urgent concern.

Adaptations in Bengali poetry

Top row, left to right: Raad Ahmad, Mesbah Alam Arghya, Santanu Bandyopadhyay, Subhro Bandopadhyay; bottom row, left to right: Sukanta Ghosh, Aryanil Mukherjee, Sabyasachi Sanyal, the logo of the Circumcontentive Poets.

I was first introduced to Bengali poetry when I received a small book coauthored by Aryanil Mukherjee and Pat Clifford. Titled chaturangik/SQUARES, and published in Goa by CinnamonTeal, this book uses the game of chess to bring together two languages, English and Bangla. Each page renders nine squares of the chessboard with one outlined in black — if you flip through the pages this outlined square progresses across the board in accordance with the rules of the game. In this way, the book suggests its inspiration by the renowned director Satyajit Ray’s 1977 classic The Chess Players. One of the film’s plotlines features two chess-loving noblemen, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Meer Roshan Ali, who retreat to a small town where they can continue to play their beloved game of shatranj (chess) unaffected by the turmoil of the British overthrow of Lucknow, India.

Although this plotline is often humorous, Ray’s larger message is that the detachment of the ruling classes, illustrated by the chess players’ voluntary exile, allowed the British to overtake the region without opposition. A similar theme of social engagement can be detected in chaturangik/SQUARES. The form of the book, with its circumscribed movements and tight little blocks of text, suggests the extent to which our own movements are restricted to specific, approved patterns; the face-off between the players is reminiscent of contemporary global struggles. Each section begins with an image by Mithu Sen that reinforces the work’s contemporaneity — knight, bishop, rook and king are depicted as humanimal blends, and Sen’s use of skeletons reinforces the disastrous consequences of unchecked power. At the same time, chaturangik/SQUARES explores the creative possibilities that emerge from disaster: much as the rules of the ancient Aryanic Indian game of chess changed and developed with the Mughals and again with the British, so too the rules and procedures of this book developed through the writing process. Mukherjee explains that it was composed through a process of continuous exchange, translation, and modification: Pat Clifford would write something in English, to which Mukherjee would respond in Bengali; Mukherjee would then translate each text into the other language, and Clifford would alter the text in English, necessitating further revision to the Bengali texts. The two-player structure empowers both to adapt continuously to the conditions imposed by the other.

As this feature explains, Bengali poetry has a long and rich history of incorporation and adaptation both in its language and in its sources. In spite of the private, concealed mood of the earliest Bengali poetic texts, contemporary Bengali poetry differs significantly from Anglophone poetries insofar as it enjoys a high public profile. Well-informed readers, often with extensive backgrounds in information technology, enjoy poetry as an entertainment art. And Circumcontentive Poetry in particular engages its readers’ as well as its authors’ scientific backgrounds: drawing upon the languages of thermodynamics and systems theory, explaining their poetics through complex equations, combining referents according to the logic of tensors and vectors, imagining the construction of a poem through the complex mechanics of genetics, Circumcontentive Poetry is a wholly different discourse than any Anglophone poetics of which I am aware. Mukherjee’s comments on Louis Zukofsky’s Anew exemplify this unique approach to literature. Focusing on Zukofsky’s use of words like “condense” and his attention to light and waves, Mukherjee outlines contemporaneous trends in scientific writing upon which Zukofsky might have drawn: “I thought Zukofsky’s description of the sea came very close to [nuclear physicist George] Gamow’s model,” Mukherjee explains. “Especially where he talks about ‘many condensers large and small’ … That a great deal of electric stress (and light) can be stored in between the surface waves and the seabed in layers and all of that can be actually ‘transmitted’ without a real ‘felt’ medium in between is perhaps not just scientific truth but also poetic electricity.”

The poets included in this feature, Mesbah Alam Arghya, Subhro Bandopadhyay, Sukanta Ghosh, Raad Ahmad, Sabyasachi Sanyal, Santanu Bandyopadhyay, and Aryanil Mukherjee, are a young group born in the 1960s and ’70s. Primarily educated in the sciences, they live in many countries and read and work across a broad variety of linguistic and national traditions — from Canada to Chile to Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, India, and the USA. Many of them have never met in person; the group has never gathered. But they read each other’s work and converse online, creating a densely interwoven conversation that draws upon Bengali-language news sources, scientific journals, lyric meditations on exile, and cybernetics. Using equations and charts to map the flows of these discourses, the pulses of their texts, the members depart from each other as much as they do from other poetries with which I am familiar. But the quality of surprise in their shared experiment astounds me. Sitting across the chessboard from Circumcontentive Poetry is a profound intellectual challenge, a demand to adapt, and above all a delight.

This feature, created collaboratively by all of the poets, but spearheaded by Mukherjee, provides a deep and wide introduction to this exciting movement in Bengali literature. I am thrilled that they have undertaken the laborious process of translating all of this work in order to share it with Jacket2.

Circumcontentive poetry Circumcontentive Poets
Fence consciousness Subhro Bandopadhyay
A poetics of informationalism Aryanil Mukherjee
'Woodense': A close twinning Mesbah Alam Arghya
Poems by Raad Ahmad Raad Ahmad
Poems by Mesbah Alam Arghya Mesbah Alam Arghya
Poems by Santanu Bandyopadhyay Santanu Bandyopadhyay
Poems by Subhro Bandopadhyay Subhro Bandopadhyay
Poems by Sukanta Ghosh Sukanta Ghosh
Poems by Aryanil Mukherjee Aryanil Mukherjee
Poems by Sabyasachi Sanyal Sabyasachi Sanyal
Unmechanical Madhuja Mukherjee and Aryanil Mukherjee