Reviews / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Beyond 'A Cultural Look and See': Chris Mooney-Singh's The Bearded Chameleon

by Sam Byfield


Chris Mooney-Singh, The Bearded Chameleon, Black Pepper Books (Australia); red wheelbarrow books (Singapore). 86 pgs.

It's not very often that the first poem in a collection involves defecation, and rarer still, I suspect, that it does so with grace and artistry. The first poem in Chris Mooney-Singh's collection, The Bearded Chameleon, does just that and sets the scene perfectly for the works that follow. In "Punjab Pastoral" we find Mooney-Singh, an Australian poet who in 1989 adopted Sikhism, squatting in a field, cotton shawl pulled up around his ears, "bobbing like a sunflower." Having moved to India in search of meaning and "deeper experiences," he questions his motivations and the wisdom of his choices, suggesting that "they all want to leave and yet I've come/to squat and shit and chew on grass and spit/for 'a cultural look and see'."

Perhaps in response to his own preconceptions, this poem starts and finishes with the observation that he can hear no mermaid singing; indeed, he notes, "I am the fool round here." This search for identity, for wisdom and for a "legitimately" lived life is a common theme in this collection, though it is interspersed with poems of both great loss and great hope, as well as some of the most effectively wrought depictions of Asia and its people that have been published in Australia.

As an Australian writing from India, Mooney-Singh can be viewed in the context of a broader pattern among the country's poets engaging with the region—think Aitken, Cahill, Caddy, Kelen, among others. Australian poetry is clearly benefiting from the country's growing engagement with Asia. Yet this collection is notable in that it's not simply a tourist's weeks or months spent in-country, but years—a whole life that's been packed up and relocated.

One of the most notable elements of The Bearded Chameleon is its ghazals. They possess a more playful tone than some of the collection's serious offerings, and highlight both the poet's preoccupation with the culture he is writing within and with the possibilities of language more broadly.

The series "Bonehead Ghazals" consists of five poems. In "Puzzle" the poet writes—"The system sucks: can't click, can't knit with it./Round peg, square slot. I'm quit unfit for it"—demonstrating a sense of lyricisms and rhythm, and also emphasising the questions around identity and purpose which pervade the collection. "Roses" shifts to an exploration of the many types and connotations of "roses" and again displays a sense of playfulness: "The redhead rose has that playboy look./the bee is hooked on the soft porn rose" and "Make money, not art, says the plastic rose./I have no nose for that stillborn rose."

"Belonging" turns to the themes of entrapment and the desire to be free, and draws them together with a lovely image—"Absurd, this cage, so where do we belong?/In peach-faced lovebird-heaven we belong"—while in the Bearded Chameleon, the ghazal series from which the collection derives its title, the poet writes: 'Suburbia was a dumb cartoon:/here, typhoid sweats through each monsoon."

Several poems in this collection deal with grief and loss. "Casualty" is an unsettling description of the death of the narrator's first wife, who passed away en-route to hospital in a taxi. This is a poem of acute loss played out in an alien environment, full of effective details. Where it would have been easy to alienate the reader through overt bathos and an absence of detail, this poem and several that follow avoid such traps. "Casualty" opens with

At 8 in the morning,
at exactly 8 in the morning,
they wheel her through swing doors
banging like a poltergeist.

and continues with an effective mix of image and simile: "a woman who gasped like a dove," "ripping off her wedding ring," "dehydration on wheels," "this absurdity of roses outside the window." The only questionable note comes right at the end, with Mooney repeating the opening but adding a play on words which is perhaps out of place: "at 8 in the morning,/at 8 in the period of your mourning."

Some of the most effective poems in this collection are portraits. "Mrs Pritima Devi" takes the form of a monologue by a school teacher who has escaped a troubled marriage and left her son behind, and who appreciates a sympathetic ear to speak to. The language and grammar of the poem bring it to life and demonstrate the Mooey-Singh's attention to the rhythms of the language around him. In "Advice from an Uncle," a business-owner explains the realities of business to his "MBA-fresh, Harvard-hyped nephew," noting that "Bribes are bad, dear boy,/but we must get the job done" and

…you must become
a practical chap: serve all
Superintendents of Police
their God-allotted cup.

Ever-practical, the Uncle even

incense in a brass holder
before the Guru's photo, so
he, too, will turn a blind eye.

The only sticking point in this poem is the short line lengths, which disrupt the flow and give a sense that the line breaks weren't thought through, whereas many of the collection's other works employ a longer, more natural line length.

In "Families," Mooney-Singh broadens out this portrait approach to capture the diversity and complexity of families in India:

This family left the village, that family found the city,
this family emigrated on false passports,
this family placed an ad in The Times of India,
this dutiful daughter got a green-card husband.

Several other poems share this focus on observation and "naming." These poems are particularly effective and benefit from the narrator taking a step back. "Indian City," for instance, is comprised of a list of often contradictory images:

Satellite dishes     on a temple sky-line
low-flying jets     vultures in a flock
a bicycle loaded     with electrical fans

In "Laws," Mooney-Singh provides a series of contrasts between the human and animal worlds, in essence noting that despite our foibles and occasional destructive urges, the natural world continues. In this same observational spirit, "PEEP PEEP DON'T SLEEP" is an amusing list of signs seen while driving on Indian highways:



The second half of The Bearded Chameleon contains several traditional love poems, dedicated to "Savinder," Mooney-Singh's second wife. These contain strong moments, though at times lose focus and momentum. In "Long Distance," the poet has returned to Delhi from Singapore and is struggling through a rickshaw ride.

and queasy, I missed home
badly— the flicker of your hair,
breezy as the East Coast palms

The details of this ride are, as with much of the collection, strong and believable. The final two tercets, however, are somewhat unclear in their language and syntax, and detract from an otherwise strong work.

By contrast, "Yatra, 1999" is a more complete poem. Starting with "You had come to lure me/from my white-robed life/in a marble sanctuary" it describes how his lover has come to visit him after a period of long-distance communication. In the taxi, "We counted the mile markers;/time was rushing to harvest/as you agreed to marry me."

The final poem in the collection, "I come in Winter to a City Without You," continues with this theme of long distance love, of finding a way to bridge the separation of continents. The poem is a worthy finale to the collection, marking a clear and definitive finish to the themes leading up to it. There are a few moments, however, when the strong images and tone are somewhat undermined—the following lines, for instance, veer too close to clumsiness: "I know peach-pink lips still unlock/the zone of your aromas: this is the future/and I will always kiss your rose."

I also question the need for this poem to constitute the whole of the collection's third section, when the previous two amounted to over 70 pages. At the very least, the other works dedicated to Savinder seem to work well with the final poem and could have constituted a section of their own. More broadly, the allocation of poems to specific sections, as well as their ordering throughout the collection, is at times confusing, with different themes and forms being broken up and interspersed. The overall cohesion and flow might have been aided by more judicial editorial intervention.

These criticisms aside, this is an impressive collection by an interesting poet. Future anthologies of Australian poets who have "written Asia" should certainly contain one or more of Mooney-Singh's offerings, especially those that engage strongly with locations and people and those which utilise the ghazal form. In a literary climate where poets sometimes end up sounding rather alike, Mooney-Singh stands out.

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