A review of John Mateer's 'Unbelievers'
Reading John Mateer’s recent collection of poems, we experience a pleasantly alienating affect of suspension from emotional involvement, political certainties, and location. At the same time, Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’ is dominated by the condition of its speaker — a discursive, self-reflexive persona, which has been continuous throughout Mateer’s poetic oeuvre.
This voice is a shape-shifting entity that, poem by poem, turns to face or even walk right through itself. In Unbelievers it represents Mateer’s own South African youth and his immigrant life in Australia, from the perspective of a poet as well as a traveler. Wandering the region of Iberia, he cuts across time and place to seek possible, alternative, and imagined histories of Western imperial expansion and formation.
Mateer’s tone has a certain wistfulness that will be familiar to readers of his previous work. However, as new readers will find, its note is not self-pitying: Mateer boldly wields irony and elliptical techniques in order to abbreviate or undercut his work’s ongoing meditation upon postcolonial and exile identity. His truth-seeking is frequently thwarted, as in the poem “For Ibn Battuta.” Its cropped brevity and alternating indentation suggest a sense of the speaker’s drift:
I have sought
your Spirit here in scorching
Andalusia. But only found
of my travels, that
The poem ends upon the Taoist-Buddhist concept of shunyata or emptiness-openness; a concept that defies lyric neatness. A similarly ironic space is created in the sequence, “The Andalusian Poet,” in which the persona of “the Poet” might refer to the Andalusian poet Federico García Lorca, to Mateer himself, or to both:
Whose voice? (15)
To this open end, Unbelievers may be the most structurally fragmented of Mateer’s books to date. It is broken into numerous parts, each split again into sequences of varying lengths and procedural sections that both observe and defy their divisions. A shattered sequence, “The Language” is a particularly beautiful instance of this fluidity. In his afterword to the collection, “Echolalia, or an Interview with a Ghost,” Mateer describes this structural approach as rendering something like shunyata. He suggests that these poems take a similar lesson from Persian painting: “much like miniatures, and this prevents the poems from becoming statements, enactments, embodiments. I don’t want to be in the situation where I ‘proclaim’” (154). His poems embody the nature of identity: an appearance of composition that masks multiple and sometimes discordant realities.
Exploring the first rumblings of Western empire through to its ruins, Unbelievers uses poetry as a necessary site of diversion from monoculturalism. Mateer illuminates overlaps between Western and Eastern traditions — seemingly aberrant moments that are closer to cultural identity as we live it than as we proclaim it. He inserts himself into history, as in the symbolically erotic role-play of “The Moor,” and into graffiti, epigraph, and painting: drawing unexpected analogies between landscapes and bodies. He glimpses his doppelgänger, scattered around Europe and Africa like reflective shards; and his ongoing address to the “Beloved” makes a teasingly ambiguous reference to both the female object of the troubadour tradition and Rumi’s eroticization of the divine object.
Mateer may not be interested in making either a lyric salve or a didactic rant, but he is invested in a poetics of peace, in his words, “to rid my language of violence” (148). For example, in “On the Statue,” one cultural ritual threatens to repeat the violence of another:
When in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela I will be invited
to hug, for good luck, the marble torso of the Saint,
I won’t. Not for moral reasons.
Embracing someone from behind like that
reminds me too much of how, in the Apartheid army,
we were taught to approach the enemy,
to slit the throat. (13)
The poem’s future tense, however, turns toward the hopefulness of individual agency in contrast to the dictated collective action of the “Apartheid army.” Furthermore, in the succeeding poem, Mateer demonstrates his interest not only in juxtaposing cultural imagery but also in pacifying conditioned expression through the un/translation, research, and visitation of languages. The poem, “(Kaffir),” is named for the abusive term used under Apartheid and that morphed from the Arabic term for unbelievers of the Qur’an. Below its title, the poem consists of only one word: Mirror. Mateer effects an astonishingly simple reversal of etymology, to signify sameness rather than segregation.
It’s important to emphasize that, through Mateer’s constant recognition of emptiness-openness, Unbelievers avoids twee universalism. It tries, instead, to interrupt what he calls “hypnotic” uses of power (156) — a description that calls to mind Jennifer Maiden’s similar intention in her so-called “parallel poems.” Maiden is a powerful comparison with Mateer, in fact: their poetries construct ironic self-mythologies to discuss public affairs; and both poets are time-travelers, drawing continuums between global history and our immediate present in the West. Like Maiden, Mateer is a poetic poltergeist, radically intervening in the living world and possessing the dead with voice and gesture.
There is much talk of ghosts in Unbelievers, a presence Mateer alluded to in a symposium at the University of Western Sydney in September 2013, where he raised the possibility for poetry to access a “spirit world.” We might understand this notion — metaphorically and/or literally — as defining what poetry offers to a culture of migrants, postcolonials, postnationals, and borrowers. This is art for a condition in which our state-defined mythologies fail to express the complexity of our cultural realities. It is not an easy kind of authenticity: Mateer’s poetry struggles with subthemes of permanent loss, confusion and loneliness. Its expression, however, creates a liminal space that does not belong to classic identifiers of nation, language, or locality. Mateer exploits this possibility in Unbelievers, inviting his reader to dwell in un-belonging.
A review of Dean Rader's 'Landscape Portrait Figure Form'
“American Self Portrait,” the poem beginning Dean Rader’s Landscape Portrait Figure Form, introduces with considerable urgency the book’s interest in living and writing deliberately as an American poet. With a mouthful of bravado, the poem speaks almost exclusively in imperatives, demanding the materials of national portraiture:
Give me the sheriff star pinned to the mermaid
and that tiny piece of wood from your throat.
Give me the saw blade, the plastic cat’s eye.
Give me the flash drive of your tongue.
I want to save everything. […] (1)
The voice swings from demanding to sensitive, greedy for the power and romance of the sheriff’s Disneyfied star and outlaw enough to steal the cross right off your necklace, to take emblems of authority along with the power and the junk. Everything is potentially precious; what matters turns on a dime, and the American impulse to “save everything,” by rescue and in storage, is as close to its drive to dispose and replace as two sides of a page. The large, unfocused desires for kitsch and carpentry, badges and baubles, and for all possible worlds and words stored up on the tongue’s flash drive articulate the complicated American vision for which Landscape Portrait Figure Form seeks form and expression.
Throughout this compressed book, Rader openly inspects the American poet and the American nation in their mutual production in a conceptual landscape very different from Whitman’s matrix of soil and soul that produced his own exquisite voice and character. In Whitman’s world, the poet could watch and wait, gather the voiceless into his lines and give them voice, stand in the middle of a throng yet stand apart from the crowd and its conversations. In the 21st century, the poet cannot imagine the isolate individuality of Whitman’s “Me myself” — or can only imagine it — nor can the poet unselfconsciously envision writing from a protected interiority undisturbed by other people and nations and their news, wants, and views. Rader’s poetry asks how to be an artist in a nation founded on and still struggling with the demand for representation and what poetry as a medium means in an era of representational sprawl.
Many poems in this collection bear “America” and “American” in title or in body, but matters of portrayal and representation, of both personal and national identity, inform every poem in the book, including those in the middle section conversing with Paul Klee’s art and theory. “Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry,” the book’s second poem, underscores these related concerns in what begins as a joke about the current pressure nearly everyone feels to have a “web presence” and the open secret that Wikipedia is unreliable and entries easy to fake, even though it is the first source most consult (even its decriers) for information:
Dean Rader was born in Stockton, California during the Summer of Love. His sorrow is his own. He believes in star-sting and misnomer; he carries a toy whistle in his pocket. American by nationality, he was conceived in a Fiat near the Place du Chatelet. (2, links Rader’s)
Beginning with terms faithful to the traditional biographical template of birthplace and links to history, the poem moves swiftly to offset the humanist assumptions of individual specialness and achievement built into the biographical entry and encyclopedias generally. Absurd details that call attention to the ease with which one might invent facts mingle with plausible conclusions about poetic genealogy: “one of his recent poems […] suggests an influence of Simone Weil” (2-3). Notably, “Simone Weil” is not hotlinked, implying the medium’s (and Americans’) lack of interest in theology and disdain for the French.
This mixture and its mimicry of non-academic resources also imitate trends in contemporary poetry to celebrate the passing of authenticity by invoking ironically its codes. Many of Rader’s poems seem to participate in the trend to flout traditional authorities, especially and including sincerity, through a display of popular culture know-how blended with erudition, a trend that (also ironically) tends to serve the same elitist attitudes it often hopes to mock.
But I think it is a big mistake to see Rader as merely a meta-poetic self-deprecator in this poem or anywhere else, even in the cheeky blurb on the back cover. “Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry” ends with an excerpt attributed to Rader reportedly circulating on the internet. The fragment is spare but crammed with gorgeous aural and visual images that comment on the production of writing and its capacity to sustain the fragile connections of the collective “we.” Under the pretext of a dubious citation, the fragment permits the intrusion of the sincerely playful poet’s voice, converting a busy gag about wikipedic self-importance into a sly statement about the serious matters of poetry, like facing impermanence and the inevitability of suffering:
Line up and line out
says the moonwhittle.
Loss is the ring on our finger, the bright gem
compassing every step as we drop down.
Believe in what you know and you’ll go blind.
Experts doubt its authenticity. (3)
In this closing line, the mistrust of authenticity becomes a way of authenticating the poem while stressing the tangle of functions making “authenticity” always already doubted.
Significantly, Rader’s presentation of his poetic presence as a fragment drifting at several removes works like Sappho’s fragments to keep in view the poet and poetry as both whole and part, all there is and the mark of what isn’t. “Think of me as the broken you” (31) the speaker of “Study of the Other Self: American Self Portrait II” instructs the reader through a similar image. Throughout LPFF, drifting pieces of self sometimes wander up to and sometimes forcefully direct the reader to reconsider a relationship with the poems and with language. “Study of the Other Self” ends in a devastating comment on the little, unnoticed customs that connect us, like the American idiom’s combination of word and gesture:
Believe me when I tell you
that there is nothing beyond
these words, that wall, your name —
Here, stick your arm through the bar,
I want to sign your cast. (32)
Both the abrupt undercutting of what seems the start of a nihilistic or at least atheistic argument and the childlike bluntness of the command to “stick your arm through” end this poem in a familiar (but we forget!) template of our interdependency, the ways we heal physically and socially through attention to word and body. Rader’s cast is one of several images of protective care and social glue — others include a cape, coat, mask, and umbrella — but the custom of signing someone’s cast captures best that double-sided American egotism introduced in the first poem. Signatures on a cast can seem like claims to small-time celebrity (I know someone who broke her arm!) and self-advertisement, but they are equally signs of rooting for the other guy, the broken you, to be whole again. The broken you who sticks that arm through the bar trusts the grace of the ritual, that deep contract of mutual salvation and goodwill.
In these varieties of address and presence, Rader’s work urges a model of subjectivity that recognizes both humans and their poems as parts of one another, greatly in need of ways to see and feel our contact and closeness. These “I”s and “we”s and “you”s all hunger for tenderness and intimacy. And like the faux fragment picked up by the faux Wikipedia entry, the poems link loss and lapse to the danger of thinking you know it all or that what you don’t know isn’t important, of believing you are complete. “Believe in what you know and you’ll go blind” is a warning that combines Socrates’ paradoxical notion of wisdom (knowing you know nothing) with Dickinson’s directive about truth telling, accomplished through angles and repetitions. The moonwhittle’s playful command and description of both life and writing, “Line up and line out,” warns that ignorance and arrogance, as well as rushing the Truth, all can blind — this wry warning had me thinking of Dickinson’s description of delivering truth as apt for the interwebs’ era of self and study where information and revelation occur in a constantly expanding, multidimensional Venn diagram: “Success in circuit lies.”
Success also relies on looking, thinking, and patience — circuits of attention that are active but unhurried. The fragment predicting blindness for unexamined knowledge cautions, in this context, against the urgency that comes with technological connectivity: we are conditioned to expect information promptly in forms that can be gulped down right away or stored on a convenient (and fast) drive or in the cloud, not in long, looping circuits eventually lassoing us in enlightenment. Again, reminiscent of Whitman’s self-named speaker who leans and loafs, Rader’s speakers encourage watching, waiting, and listening. In “Rush,” an epistolary poem, the speaker laments “the / unfortunate man who rushes through” (34) in a hurry to satisfy wants rather than to examine them. These poems present alternative ways of occupying our multiplying territories. Rader’s is a poetics of slowing down and of wandering. It calls for a slackening of pace and a release of destinations in order to recover the sacred elements in the world around us, not only in the waves and clouds but also in the art that, like prayer, leads us out of ourselves and alters our vision of the ordinary.
Although spiritual appetites appear throughout the book, they are most explicit in the poems about Paul Klee’s painting. “Becoming Klee, Becoming Color” describes a stripping of self so thoroughly it’s almost Donneian in its pursuit of transformative vision. The poem’s voice enters into the processes of the artist, envisioned as an opening and offering of self to the materials of art:
When he closes his
eyes he tries to want what the colors want:
the agony of onyx, the sorrow of burlywood,
the obsessions of oxblood. Over and over he
asks of the colors to find their form. (12–13)
These lines narrate the efforts towards self-abnegation preceding creation as a struggle for pure vulnerability more important than the creation itself. Pressing against the book’s meditation on American portraiture, intense study of color, and the call for color to change shape further suggest an alteration in consciousness to accompany the shifting racial palate of the contemporary United States. The poem ends in a provocative genesis of shapes and boundaries, called into being by the release of ingrained perceptual modes,
[…] ochre lune the sun and its shadow
self, a black and white incircle this
city and its roads, that instead of pushing
us out, draw us in. (14)
The opening of spiritual and topographic borders results not in chaos or abandonment, but in embrace and inclusion. Released from “colors / that are not theirs,” hidden structures extend a vision of human community established on attraction and collectivity rather than security or institutions.
In echoing Whitman’s priorities and lyric strategies, Rader’s work carries Whitman’s faith that “Americans of all nations … have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” (711). It also carries with that faith the disappointment Whitman described in Democratic Vistas much later in his life that the truly American poem had yet to be written and that Americans were squandering the promise of democracy in hot pursuit of capitalist frippery. That irresistible structure hidden within ideas of color and order and concealed in the virtual piles of data, saved and protected but too vast ever to be interpreted, requires facing the many griefs that conceived them, like poverty, exclusion, exile, injustice, and loss. LPFF is in many ways a book about grief and its wandering, lonely states: “What is life but dark / waters washing us up? Tide in and tide out” advises “Self Portrait as Photograph Never Taken” (8). Our pains and failures are considerable, but they are not permanent — and they are not our whole story.
Facing personal and national sorrow, though, does not mean holding on to it. A popular political message for decades, especially since 2001, has been that to allow tragedy to fade from our immediate thoughts in the slightest is to dishonor and to disillusion ourselves. I think the most powerful, useful statement of this book is its rejection of the American preoccupation with remembering everything and being remembered and the belief that to do less is a failure of pride or moral will. If our Wikipedia entries disappear and our computers crash, so what? “We’ll be okay,” the same poem tells us. “We don’t need anything except what we will remember, and even that / will change, like a cloud whose rain is about to fall” (9).
That embrace of what cannot be known, like what we will remember or where we will end up, is a difficult path of faith, one that poetry and the poet can still, as Whitman maintained, encourage us in, although the practice is a solitary wandering. “Paul Klee’s Winter Journey at the Beginning of Spring,” my favorite poem of the collection, ends with an affectionate comment on the reader-poet/poem relationship:
Reader, I want to apologize
for bringing you here. I know you thought we were headed
someplace else. I confess I did as well. Grief is a
snow squall. It blinds but it too moves along. Do not be angry.
It might be cold, but I have left you the coat. (25)
Our wanderings, like our waste lands, are temporary, though painful and real. Throughout Landscape Portrait Figure Form, poet and poem offer us garments of warmth and kindness that help us endure the loss of control over the narrative of ourselves and our intentions. We cannot save everything nor have everything, but when we stop cherishing origins, ends, and the superlatives accompanying them, we enter a landscape of adequate comforts and plenty of company.
Not everything Gertrude Stein wrote is worth calling poetry. Stein says so herself in “Poetry and Grammar,” because “for me the problem of poetry was and it began with Tender Buttons to constantly realize the thing anything so that I could recreate that thing.” This pronouncement on Tender Buttons directly contrasts with her account of The Making of Americans in the same lecture and, we presume, to the present participle-filled portraits consuming Stein’s attention pre-1912 — these she would call prose. Stein’s turn from prose to poetry even merited an evolving kind of attention: while writing The Making of Americans Stein was “completely obsessed by the inner life of everything,” but with Tender Buttons she recalls, “I struggled I struggled desperately with the recreation and the avoidance of nouns as nouns and yet poetry being poetry nouns are nouns.”
I struggled I struggled desperately
There is pathos here, in the struggle and desperation, that even being “completely obsessed” doesn’t convey. To be obsessed is to be preoccupied, to be consumed by something else. The active capacity of “I” is diminished. And one might be obsessed with a lover or enemy, but also an experiment, a logic problem, or collecting carafes. Obsession is a surprisingly neutral affect. But to say, “I struggled I struggled desperately,” is a resolute assertion (and reassertion) of an active “I” and of active effort. It is this sense of struggle, rather than completion, that in its desperation feels both necessary — as if the very existence of “I” depends on this ongoing recreation — and filled with desire, that brings me back to Tender Buttons, to Stein’s poetry.
with the recreation and the avoidance of nouns as nouns
Two phrases circulate through Tender Buttons, particularly in “Objects,” and they frequently begin its sentences: What is the use and Suppose. I read them as the book’s imperatives. What is the use asks us to recall past uses of a word or phrase — literally asking what its use is. But the phrase also extracts language from these uses — “What is the use?” is also asked rhetorically, indicating uselessness. Under this dual-sided umbrella, we have common phrases upturned (such as “a piece of coffee”), allusions through rhyme (“slender butter” to “tender buttons”), puns (such as “sam in” and “salmon”), transliterations (“land cost in” for langoustine), and a number of other plays on language. The used is rendered useless, the useless finds new use. But what I’ve always found more thrilling is the incredible force of the voice demanding, Suppose. Even at moments when we can’t identify, or have any hope of identifying, the variations of phrases used or the language games played, we hear such determination and desire in Tender Buttons’ voice — perhaps this is the basic definition of voice — that we find whatever it says possible, even plausible. In these moments, Tender Buttons is not about the inadequacies of language to convey reality, or even about the ambiguities already existing within language, but about a will learning and rehearsing to wield language however it wants, to wrench out new meaning from even the most unlikely and unyielding words.
and yet poetry being poetry nouns are nouns
This is not unlike the collagist who in 1912, concurrent with the writing of Tender Buttons, pulls out a receding table from a flat box label; or conjures up the vibrant specter of a guitar through a square of sheet music, a blue quadrangle, a piece of woodgrain, a schematic drawing of a wineglass and a curved black strip (perhaps a boat). The point here is not representation, or even substitution, but the recreation of composition. It is how recreation is neither leisure nor luxury, but it is necessary and brimming with desire. It is that I struggled I struggled desperately, and this is how I learn the stakes of being I. And this is how, for me, the problem of poetry begins with Tender Buttons.
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass (1912).
In his book on Kafka, Gilles Deleuze writes of the difficulty of both eating and speaking — one must choose, it seems, whether to ingest or express. Gertrude Stein, whose soundplay is so tongue-quickening that it always seems pronounced aloud, makes reading both speaking and eating. The “Food” poems of Tender Buttons are full of glorious, sensual mouthfeel.
In the section’s opening two poems, the grand edifices of “Roastbeef” and “Mutton” — both muscles, and so disconcerting reminders of the consuming body’s own potential consumability — draw prolonged, even elegiac responses (“in the evening there is feeling”). Further in the section, the humble daily chicken, with its comic “ick,” provokes four brief entries, as if Stein couldn’t stop repeating its rickety, abrasive sound, or curb the childlike teasing of “alas a dirty bird” and “stick stick sticking.” We are far here from the spondaic long-vowelled sonorousness of “Roastbeef,” or the schwa-muted assonance of “Mutton.” It must be mutton’s humming m that makes it so much graver than its off-rhyme, the titular Buttons with its bumping b and final z sound. When pronounced, mutton’s consonants glide smoothly, hypnotically, from that lip-buzzing m to tongue-tipping n. The mouth-movements of these sounds are near relatives to chewing.
“Food” delights in the comic oddity of what we put in our mouths, that wild diversity of shapes, sizes, and textures, and the responding oddity of what words and sounds our mouths can produce. Its range can even encompass transformations from raw product to cooked; the dynamism of writing contains the processes food is put through — raising or harvesting, cooking, digestion, absorption into the body, and eventually defecation. In the days before refrigeration, Stein would have been acutely aware of the alterations any edible object went through over time — ripening, rotting, changes in color and smell. Although she didn’t cook, it’s easy to imagine her in and out of the kitchen, curious and bemused by its ceaseless inflow and output of matter, by the malleable material in its heaps and hunks, its masses and splatters and precise julienne.
Two of the final “Food” poems are called “Salad Dressing and an Artichoke.” The formidable, sculptural whole artichoke is a very different object than the wedge or round of its “hearts” and “bottoms” (terms not used, but certainly suggestive of Buttons’ recessed emotion and eros), the forms it would be found in accompanied by a salad dressing. The prickly dactyl of a word contains both possibilities, as well as the nicked fingers, heap of discarded leaves, parings, fibers of the choke, squeeze of lemon, and bowl of acidulated water generated by the preparation. This extreme, even violent metamorphosis may be what sends her back (more mischievously) to the emotional yearning of “Roastbeef”: “please butter all the beef-steak with regular feel faces.”
“It is not what I eat that is my natural meat,” rhymed Marianne Moore in a somewhat Steinian moment. In its ranging degustations, Stein’s natural meat was what she wrote.
The dominant stylistic trait in Tender Buttons is not fragmentation or perspectivism but looping. Stein writes by looping similar or associative words, phrases, riffs, objects, units of meaning, or sonic hooks. She calls it “exact resemblance.” She also loops sense with nonsense, doing and undoing, continuity and discontinuity, sensual interiors with external surrounds, looping the environs into the work. Actually, any kind of binaries can be entwined, just as two identical terms can be spooled. Here is a sentence from “Rooms”:
Sugar any sugar, anger every anger, lover sermon lover, center no distractor, all order is in a measure
Stein’s recursive riffs become their own act of description describing itself in the act. She is writing through her own writing. Or one could say that looping is itself partly doing the writing.
A no, a no since, a no since when, a no since when since, a no since when since a no since when since, a no since, a no since when since, a no since, a no, a no since a no since, a no since, a no since (344)
Innocence threaded through a nuisance. The famous phrase “The difference is spreading” perhaps refers to the minimal difference between looped terms. The spread: the difference between terms and their relations.
But why loops? If you asked this question for today, here are some immediate responses: computers, programming, cognitive modeling, financialization, new media, ecologies, carbon cycles, weather, DNA, galaxies, quantum mechanics. So why loops in Stein’s era? Perhaps: personhood, meditation, grammar, mechanism, neurology, automism, joy, history, sensuality, sex, objecthood, nature, female masculinity.
A great example of the combination of these “beautiful circuits” (Mark Goble’s term) can be found in Jackson Mac Low’s “Stein Poems,” written from 1998 to 2003. Mac Low used a computer program to generate a “diastic” poem that was made by running an algorithm through a cross between a source text and seed text. In “Mercy Entirely Astonishing,” the seed and source text comes from “Objects” in Tender Buttons.
Mercy, giving color, hardening interest, changes mustard dangerously.
Use an empty umbrella.
Desperately, the handy extra particles are practically complaining that facts are stubborn.
A purse is a purse and nothing is nothing.
We are reading a text-generated reading of Tender Buttons made by subjecting Tender Buttons to itself. Reading means no need to draw the line between poem and post-poem, seed and re-seed, Stein’s “Mildred’s Umbrella” and Mac Low’s “empty umbrella.”
One more thing: Stein’s loops are never really faithful to recursion and they often swerve, break apart, spin out, or leap somewhere else. There is no superloop. There is much of an aftermath of loops, reverberations of reverb (a nice term for a self-reflexive verb looping within itself). One hundred years of loops. One hundred years of reading and unreading. One hundred years of read-back and read-forward. 100 years of not unreading, not unordered in not resembling.