Reviews - August 2012

Resurrectional poetics

A review of Raúl Zurita's 'Dreams for Kurosawa'

Dreams for Kurosawa

Dreams for Kurosawa

Raúl Zurita (Translated by Anna Deeny)

arrow as aarow Press 2012, $10,

Raúl Zurita’s Dreams for Kurosawa belongs to a very small genre of what might be called “posthumous poetics.” Its practitioners are few: Dickinson, of course, but also Rilke, Celan, and Beckett. It was Roland Barthes who, in “The Death of the Author,” consigned the persona of the writer to the grave of textual effects, a symptom of the cult of authorship and the chain of its material production, distribution, and reception. But it was also Barthes who resurrected the author out of a desire for his presence, a desire to call back the ghostly trace into the warmth of human company. For Barthes, the text sometimes permits a transmigration, as he calls it, from the author to the reader. It establishes a coexistence.

In Dreams for Kurosawa, Zurita writes toward this coexistence from the other side of consciousness, a place to which the living have been disjected, but which poetry stubbornly reclaims. It is a place endowed by language with faith in being’s persistence, which is not the afterlife at all, but the voice of the poem as it speaks from the flow of logos, lit by a mortal darkness.

In these harrowing and ecstatic poems dreams of dying and resurrection commingle promiscuously. The presiding angel of these scenes of repeated nullity and affirmation is Akira Kurosawa, whose film Dreams allowed Zurita to imagine the possibility of a life after the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in 1973 through a CIA-backed coup. For Zurita, this sorrowful territory underlies all he has written since 1979’s Purgatory (also translated by Deeny). His imprisonment and torture were etched, most memorably perhaps, in the ephemeral skywriting poems of 1982 that appeared over New York City, spelling out “My God is Cancer / My God is Emptiness / My God is Wound / My God is Ghetto.” Dreams for Kurosawa is in some ways a less radically formal book (the poems have been assembled from three separate collections). But their seemingly calm hypotaxis belies the excruciating trauma that informs them. 

The calm emanating from these poems is eerie, though. Emotion recollected through loss, not tranquility. Zurita’s primal aesthetic scene, as it were, is drawn from Kurosawa’s film and provides him with an image by which he can begin to address the horror of Pinochet in a new key: a squad of Japanese soldiers emerges from a tunnel and are confused to find that they are dead, and the war over. Like the soldiers, these poems wander restlessly through a posthumous landscape, searching for the remnants of the life they once knew. Unlike the lost revenants however, who must return to the darkness of the tunnel, Zurita depicts his former life with an incandescent glow, albeit stained with profound melancholy:

I saw the first cities of water heading north, in Atacama.
They were suspended in the sky, like gigantic
transparent aquariums, and the luminous reflecting
lines swayed on the ground covering the immense
ocher plane. It was 1975, the end of summer, and I
suffered then. (“Poem 5”)

Suffering haunts these poems with recollected pain and the yearning for the lost object. It is that very yearning which constitutes the poet’s resurrectional poetics. His family and friends come back once more, vivid with life, as in a dream. Yet the matter-of-fact tone, which moves between calm dignity and anguish, imparts both a piercing immediacy and a kind of finality to these scenes, preserving the distance death imposes even as it strives to close that distance. The dreamer suddenly wakes and realizes he’s been dreaming:

                                            Now he had died and
I dressed him while mother and sister waited in the
living room. As I opened the door to tell them they
could come in the fury of the wind and hail thrashed me
stunning me and blind I ran across the field. Kurosawa,
I cried out then, he returned to die again with me.
As I opened my eyes above me I saw the dizzying
white of the summit and much further below the first
lights of the city illuminating. Only then could I cry.
(“Poem 12 — Papa Has Returned”)

Moving with the logic of dreams, their sudden shifts in register, their condensing of time and place, these poems are cinematic and fluid, a continuous montage of images culled from a childhood of deserts and waterfalls, life in the city, life under the tyrant, and the liberating interior life that only the movies can give us. Like the movies, poetry lets us live out a second life. We may die, but we can still be called back. For the dead in fact are never gone; they are the ones who are always returning. The crisis of living is in how we remember them — the shame and struggle of remembering them — and how we also look ahead into the horizon of our own finitude.

This is a beautifully crafted book, with hand-sewn binding and individually silk-screened covers, produced by Michael Slosek and Luke Daly’s arrow as aarow press in Chicago, and translated with extraordinary sensitivity by Anna Deeny. In her eloquent afterword, Deeny links Zurita’s resurrection poetics to Paul de Man’s explication of the central trope of poetry, prosopopeia. For Deeny, the act of poetic figuration “marks the ultimate limit of the self that is death at the same time that it imposes a greater concern for the limit of the other, that is, the other’s death.” In Deeny’s reading, Zurita’s concern for the other, what he himself calls “the resurrection of the dead,” aims toward and is affirmed by “language’s infinite yes.” But getting to that ‘yes’ means dying.

                                                                   As I opened
my eyes my small body floated at the base of
the falls, and it wasn’t a dream Kurosawa because
I was dead and the waters were tearing me apart.
(“Poem 4”)

Then my eyelids froze, I saw the dark blue of the
sky open up above me, I tried to tell them and died.
(“Poem 17”)

                                                                  As I
got up I noticed I couldn’t move my arms frozen
beneath the snow. Kurosawa, I said, I was just a
typewriter salesman and now I’m dead and it snows.
(“Poem 19”)

Dying is the central predicament of these poems. It occurs over and over, with the repetition compulsion that colors dreams. For Zurita, dream is the portal to the imaginary of the afterlife, its capricious logic reenacting scenes of catastrophe and rescue through recurring images of the sea, waterfalls, the Atacama desert, Pinochet, and the poet’s deep sense of shame at having died only to come back again, forced to relive his trauma. A sense of lucent vertigo carries these twenty-three poems forward. Their brisk narrative pace has the momentum of a diary composed under duress. Laid out in block-like single stanzas, each roughly twenty-five lines long, their regularity reinforces the power of repetition, of a compulsion to retell the same scenes, the poem pushed to the point of exhaustion and, beyond that, to a floating transparency, to the voice of a recording angel that both inhabits and testifies suffering.

                                                                      Then I plunged in
and saw that the sea was endless plains of
torsos and backs exhumed, of stomachs that
waved like rags extending themselves to the
horizon …
                                        they were millions
upon millions of faces with their mouths open,
infinite hips, arms and legs sweeping again
and again the beach as if painted ropes. Kurosawa, I
managed to cry out, this isn’t a dream, this is the sea.
(“For Kurosawa/The Sea”)

Raúl Zurita’s sea is both an actual repository of the victims of Pinochet’s cruel regime — not a dream at all, but the nightmare of history — and a surreal site beyond sitedness, where the dead are received, first as the mangled corpses of massacre, then as the hallows of living memory. They do not so much haunt the poet as allow him to reimagine what it means to be. In a word, they are messianic, since their return intervenes in the trauma of their violent deaths, re-potentiating the present for those who, like Zurita, can still speak for its dream of becoming.

The care and the courage

A review of John Mateer's 'The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009'

The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009

The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009

John Mateer

Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2010, 152 pages, $24.95, ISBN 9-781-921-361-869

With The West: Australian Poems 19892009, his second review selection of his work — following Elsewhere (2007) — John Mateer has decidedly happened to Australian poetry. The impact of his work is one of example rather than stylistic influence: that of an individual writer concerned with their relationship to the world, rather than a quarrel with it or himself, and rather than a self-portrait of sensibility — though quarrels and self do occur in these poems.

Mateer’s use of English makes his estrangement of Australian culture seem like a reflex, making a phrase like “Supreme Court Gardens” sound foreign (“Strolling in the Supreme Court Gardens”). Are poems products of tensions? Or do they rather stream (or step) from a poet in inconsistent variations of bicultural glory? Two qualities that colour Mateer’s poems are the formal and the melodramatic. In this sense the poems are like serious photography: Mateer has a very steady hand. Any extant discomfort is in the viewer-reader.

And yet the poems have a definite 3-D quality also, like a photo being shaken perhaps, or a slowed down accident: where nothing bad has happened necessarily, we’re just checking. I shouldn’t generalise: an early poem like “Outside the Nightclub” has a particular curling around itself that reads a bit like Mateer is asking what enjambment’s all about, doing it and then moving on. (“The sandstone architecture sailed / upward. She asked: “Where?” My / fingers clambered between hers.”)

What makes a Mateer poem? It seems standard enough in some ways: a narrator is somewhere, describing something; something is happening, someone says something banal or striking. The poems are distinct through their attention and their democracy. What happens at the beginning of the poem is as important as what happens at the end — and the end is a happening, not an anticlimax. Mateer’s is an ethical narrator: there to think and question, not to go around having sentimental experiences at Mateer’s expense. If there is awkwardness at times, it is the awkwardness of honesty. The (unawkward) poem of defeated compassion, “Exile,” ends, “And I thought of comparable tortures, / those I’d read of and my friends in / other countries that I can’t imagine. / And I said nothing. I thought: ___.” Another, thematically — albeit subtly — related, is of a dream of being a black cockatoo; its conclusion is: “I / was uneasily considering if I had the right perch” (“Last Night”).

Mateer is fearless in his use of metaphor and simile — like these from a series of poems dealing with bushfire: “I approach a tree, / trying to tell its type from reptilian / evenly scaled charcoal skin: / apartheid?” (“Aftermath”); “Then bushfire // reduced the plantation to ash. After thirty years, like a nation after decades of martial law, bodies unclenching, eyes opening, native seeds are sprouting” (“At Gnangara”); “When the living fire comes, the flames advancing in a straggly line, / like Emergency Services people searching for a lost child.”

The West contains some ambitiously short poems. “On History” is just nine short lines. Even shorter poems make up sequences, or are stanzas or fragments dispersed over a number of pages. While at times Mateer achieves simplicity, the poems are mostly complex — in their composition, their implication (such as the apparently throwaway conclusion of “To Jack Davis”: “You have your own culture. Go back to the Greeks”) — even, occasionally, in syntax: “on the freeway void / and infertile as the European idea / of desert” (“In Real Time”). Mateer’s is at times a bitter sympathy.

Mateer grew up in South Africa under apartheid, a place more difficult than Australia to ignore the privileges of being white. He is unusual in acknowledging whiteness (“between the demolished white man’s school / and the whispering grove of London plane trees,” “The Brewery Site”), and also unusual in his direct address of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and in his use of (West Australian in particular) Indigenous material. Three great long poems all justify purchasing The West: “The Brewery Site” (a poem of mourning), and two sequences on Yagan, the Aboriginal General: “Talking with Yagan’s Head” and “In the Presence.” As Martin Harrison, in The West’s introduction says, “Much Australian poetry flees from this sort of history.”

Creatures (including humans), things, realities tend to have equal weight in these poems — an equal call on existence; mountains breathe, digging-sticks are “hungry.” This might be the influence of Indigenous philosophy, or maybe it’s just what happens when Mateer writes the world-as-poem, the poem-as-world. There is much more in The West: poems of Melbourne, of sex, of a statesman (white) cockatoo; an ironic “Nocturne.” It’s a book that requires far more consideration than a review can give, and while those considerations may not be in the newspapers where should be, they will happen.

Mateer isn’t pretentious enough to have a “collected” at thirty-nine. Or perhaps he knows it would do his work a disservice to be read in bulk. The West is an attractive volume, pocket-sized for anyone tough or sensitive enough to carry it around. Take The West with Elsewhere and you’ll see, that for range, care and courage, Mateer is as good a poet as we have. Whether we have the care and courage enough to hold onto him is another matter.

Method for facing a chaotic and threatening world

A review of Chad Sweeney's 'Parable of Hide and Seek'

Parable of Hide and Seek

Parable of Hide and Seek

Chad Sweeney

Alice James Books 2010, 88 pages, $15.95, ISBN 188229582X

In Parable of Hide and Seek, Chad Sweeney offers highly allusive and sonically textured lyrics that bring the reader to the edge of darkness, but always with a wink, the sense of menace tempered by the taut music of the pun. “Diurne,” the book’s first poem, gives us clues to the ways Sweeney’s rigorous imagination works. Here, he conflates time and frequency, subverts the ordinary much as Chagall subverts the laws of gravity: “I listen to my heartbeat / on the radio, 89.6 A.M.” Whimsical distortions continue as the speaker tells us he hears his heartbeat as “a prolapse then a whimper.” With a bow to Eliot’s “This is the way the world ends / “Not with a bang but a whimper,” Sweeney warns us — whimsy is deceptive. The day (“Diurne”) is dark. “It’s fear and something else — / black milk,” and we can’t help but taste “Black Milk of morning,” the visceral refrain of Paul Celan’s Holocaust masterpiece, “Death Fugue.” What follows, “static from a sermon, initially seems a pun, but becomes charged when the reader questions whether “static” implies irritating noise, or lack of progress. Here, as in many of the poems in this collection, Sweeney plays hide and seek with clues as opaque as Malevich’s painting, “Black Square,” the poet’s method made clear in “Captain’s Log”: “The only art / is the opaque art / of surfaces.” In the final tercet of “Diurne,” the reader is pulled back to the initial image:

 … a feeling of dread.
In the memory of that day
I can’t keep the wind in its box. 

Sweeney’s speaker must release that mouthful of air to convey his concerns.

“Diurne” serves as an entry into Sweeney’s large themes: What are the possibilities for a self, a society, a world? What does history tell us about restriction, oppression, annihilation? Life is fragile — “the ribs of the tiger are rippling” (“The Piano Teacher”). 

In “The Factory” workers build cages with careful preparation: “Each cage has a unique serial number.” As Sweeney explores restriction, the kinds of imprisonment humans have imposed on self and others, surreal details accrue:

We refrigerate each cage for one month.
We bury it in lime.
We sleep three nights inside each cage.
We hang it from the eaves.

Work numbs where only “once an hour the sun was caught inside our cage. / I swear it, the colors changed, / wind paused for the outcome.” While sun signals freedom, the freedom is transitory. The speaker reminds us that numbing happens so slowly, we’re unaware it’s happening: “It takes one year to grow a cage … / Long enough to teach a child / to weave a clothing from the keys,” something to protect the child from cages he or she will endure — perhaps in school (Paul Goodman’s notion of miseducation) or at work (the shuffling Chaplin in Modern Times, a hapless cog in the machine). The speaker suggests keys to unlock the cages:

One key is a rib.
One key is a cypress.
One key is a hammer.
One key is a sound.

Here again, we puzzle over Sweeney’s koans: Does rib as key refer to Eve, to a rib used to support a structure, or to the rib a potter uses to shape and smooth a vessel? And surely it’s the rib in our own rib cage, and the rib/the joke’s on us. We soon discover the speaker’s playful tone’s a ruse: “We line up the keys and paint them with water.” But water will quickly evaporate. The paint is ephemeral. The cages have no protective coating. Not so easy to change things. The speaker continues: “We export our cages everywhere. / Packed in sawdust. Packed in wool.” Ah yes — the rest of the world can fashion itself after us, but our influence, packed in soft stuff, will be insidious. These cages recall the cages sculpted by the late Louise Bourgeois, cages she named cells. Uncanny how both poet and sculptor lock us out while at the same time drawing us in. We can’t help but wonder who will occupy these cages. Finally, the speaker “inspects the locks,” says, “One cage is a method. / One cage is a story.” These lines surprise, reverse the mood. Irony plays against order. A method, though it may cage, can serve for making art, for structuring a life. A story can be a key to knowing, to being in the world beyond the cage.

Joy and delight dominate “Embark” and “Little Wet Monster.” In “Embark,” we hear endearment as the speaker addresses a beloved in lines that kindle images of pregnancy and parenthood: “Sit here little mumsy, a red pillow / for your bunion.” But “Mosquitoes climb the delicate. / Thus in a back alley / archaeologists maneuver a pirogue.” Mosquitoes bite; the pirogue (open boat) is stuck, not fit for a journey. Risk is everywhere, but the speaker is lucky; he faces risk with a beloved: “Help me, sweet bread, / mountains unravel by the hour. / This isn’t what we came for.” Ah “sweet bread” — sustenance in a soul mate and beyond — the speaker seeks sweet, not bitter, and sings so with assonance: unravel / hour / for.

 Befitting the title, opposites, overt or implied, appear frequently in Parable of Hide and Seek. Gratitude opposes despair in Sweeney’s rollicking loose ghazal, “Little Wet Monster,” a celebration of impending fatherhood. We hear the speaker implore his unborn child:

The cornfield winds its halo darkly
Come home my little wet monster

Time in the copper mine, time in the copper
Come darkling soon, come woe my monster

Distance shines in the ice like a flower
Come early little bornling

Images startle, convey foreboding. Birth is a trial; woes will pile up. Yet the speaker’s voice is gentle; the child is wanted, already loved: “Come whole my homeward early” intones the speaker. “You devour the night’s holy sound / Come home my little wet monster.”

Throughout this collection, we find disparate images yoked together, lines that tug in opposite directions, yet images and patterns recur, reveal the poet’s preoccupations. Most salient perhaps is his focus on language as method for facing a chaotic and threatening world. Sweeney’s speakers tell us “I rent / this language / to stay dry in” (“Holy Holy”); ask: “What is the method for hatching an act of speech” (“A Love Song”), the method for when “we’ve nowhere to go // and the oblique syntax of bones / repeats its inquiry / in the language of the world” (“The Sentence”). Ultimately, what Chad Sweeney shares with mischief, thoughtfulness, and generosity, is infectious joie de vivre to help us survive as self, nation, and planet.