Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

A City of Poets

by Michael Tsang


Paul Hetherington and Shane Strange (editors), Cities: Ten Poets, Ten Cities, Recent Work Press, 2017. 160 pgs.


Cities: Ten Cities, Ten Poets is an interesting project in which ten poets were asked to capture ten different cities in prose poetry. The cities were then organised from east to west, starting with Sydney, the farthest from the prime meridian, and finishing in New Orleans. While nine of the cities are recognisable places, there is also an additional "anonymous" tenth city. The collection's helpful introduction by the editors Paul Hetherington and Shane Strange explains these designs, and allows readers to appreciate the vision of the project more fully. In their words, they want to explore how in a city "place and memory are frequently mixed, and how lived experience is filtered and condensed into telling forms of utterance in the creative writing process." Herrington and Strange also state correctly that to write about cities is "to listen to and inscribe the rhythms and meanings that the city is always making." Thus it is only fitting to say that each poet manages to capture a different rhythm for each city. Luckily, the limitation of using the prose poem form does not confine the creative power of most of the poets to deliver their own twists on the theme.

Pooja Nansi places heavy focus on the theme of neighbourhood and homecoming, first by microscopically sketching the experience of growing up in a community, and then by macroscopically reflecting on that experience upon the speaker's return home. The speaker of "Mami" and several other poems seems to have grown up in Kum Kum Terrace in Bombay and returned to visit in adulthood. "Mami" uses a simple two-paragraph structure to achieve this temporal contrast. In the first paragraph, it describes a communal living experience in which every household knows each other, every one witnesses every child's growth and every lunch is contributed to by every flat. While the passing of time is bound to disintegrate the community ("vessels rust, shelves sag, children grow up, move away, old friends and neighbours age and disappear"), the second paragraph shows that a return visit many years later can redeem this loss because the solidarity of communal living will always be remembered by someone. Out of all poets, Nansi grasps the potential of the prose poem best, carving lines with a connected fluidity that lets poetic rhythm work its magic without the hindrance of breaks:

There's so many Bombays I do not know will not know would die to know but could never know even if I time travelled, whiskey marvelled, mused unsettled, left untitled, even if I puzzled over, battled with every punctuation pause in every family story …  ("Tell me the story")

For Alvin Pang, Singapore consists of a bunch of smaller locations, represented by a set of coordinates which become the title of each poem. Each location contains a snippet of a story, memory or reflection, expressed through skilful twists of Singlish and standard English. The linguistic side of the city is consistently explored, beginning with the sequence's exhilarating opening, "1.290270, 103.851959" (i.e. the coordinates of Singapore). The speaker attacks the politics and pretensions of Singlish (in all its various flavours) and of "standard" English: "this kind of chapalang notthreenotfour island, who wants to come?" However, the question is arguably not whether anyone wants to come to a hybrid island, but whether the city-state is already populated with stories and experiences worth exploring. For example, in "1.341526, 103.848966," the speaker describes a scene in Toa Payoh North thus: "Beneath the manwomanlovinginprivate, the coy buakmedicine behind lockeddoor, the enemayelp, the carnage of tongues, a boy wondering what the pain is for." One can hear the rhythm of life within the rhythm of language. By making language strange, the poems also make life in the city strange: "Narratives congeal. Not nostalgia in the sense of wantingback, but how things turn thankfully strange if taken far enough ("1.29457, 103.838014"). But what is to be gained by pushing that linguistic limit and making things strange? In the last poem, Pang's speaker answers this question by narrating a worldview: "What of the world's place in us? No language without air or friction. No here to be was the I" ("1.310721, 103.79796").

Jen Webb's poems about Cape Town span across four decades to unapologetically register the aftermath of postcolonial violence. The city, for Webb, is temporal and eventual. Her poetic voice is feisty, filled with a toughness tested by time and experience. Some of her best lines consist of simple but uncompromising sentences, such as: "When she stands on the edge of the beach, and roars, even the sea loses its nerve" ("Muizenberg Beach") or "The wind whips in from the beach with the scent of dead fish and the muted roar of mismatched oceans, as close as memory" ("Near False Bay"). Both are powerful final lines for a prose poem, the solemn and heroic tone echoing the trauma of political demonstrations and crackdowns. Nonetheless, because a city is temporal, there is a sense of hope. In "Rhodes Memorial," the mother city "is queen of the mountain, queen of the seas, she was born into shadow, and raised on the backs of lions." Thus the city and their people will thrive no matter the challenge.

One can detect a similar poetic voice and attitude in Ross Gibson's second poem about Sydney. Australia's settler colonialism does not always gain much attention in postcolonial studies, but Gibson's poem is a good reminder of the past:

Witness the:

Land Grabbing.
Coal Mining.
Booze Licensing.
Taxes on Gambling. […]
Police Force.

Throttling the town since 1788.  ("2")

Subhash Jaireth's Moscow and Cassandra Atherton's New Orleans are more episodic. In Atherton's poems, the speaker visits monuments related to writers like Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams, and thus unlike Pang's coordinates, the spatial dimensions of Atherton's New Orleans are weaved together through its particular literary history. Moscow for Subhash Jaireth is a megacity that enables chance and episodic encounters, such as meetings with old Moroccan women selling mandarins on the street. Jaireth's speaker is not the clichéd flaneur or flaneuse, but somebody who recalls and muses on the social relationships and lived experiences formed while wandering in the city like chiselled memories: "To forget being with you isn't hard, he says, but the remembrance of being without you hurts." For this reason his poems are long, titleless and often episodic, giving the illusion that they are all interconnected or about the same people.

While most poets tend to rely on the visual to bring out the experiential, Niloofar Fanaiyan's Haifa highlights sensorial experiences other than sight. "Soundscape" is a particularly impressive poem, featuring an identical opening and closing sentence: "the sounds of horns being blown as another ship leaves the harbour." But sandwiched between these routine rhythms is a cacophony of onomatopoeic wordplay that highlights the "clicking" and "chatter" of a city. It is as if each sound—like church bells or train whistles—signifies a kind of lived experience or lifestyle, inviting readers to imagine the bigger story beyond the sound. I would have wanted to lose the poem's final full-stop, to accentuate the sense of repetition, but the poem successfully illuminates a multisensorial experience.

Compared to the other poets, Shane Strange's sojournistic account of Kyoto is a bit disappointing, not least because of the many spelling mistakes of place names, such as Ryo-anji (Ryoan-ji), Kinka-kuji (Kinkaku-ji), Marayuma Park (Maruyama Park) and the world-famous Sanjusanjendo (Sanjusangendo). In "Fushimi Inari Shrine," the poetic voice paints the broad strokes of the scene, but ends with a banal observation: "On the way down grilled meats taste of salt and soy. Money changes hands. […] After all, this is the shrine to which business men pray." The connection between snack-selling hawkers and the shrine's function is random, and the Fushimi Inari is first and foremost a deity of rice. For centuries, the Japanese have worshipped him for individual and communal wellbeing, of which commerce is but a small part.

Strange's poems are best when they don't address specific cultural elements but are instead about a fleeting sentiment, such as in "Near Kyoto station," a station which could in fact be any station. The same can be said about Paul Hetherington on Rome. His poems read as if the speaker was scribbling a few lines to try to capture only the silhouette of a beautiful scene, like in "Metronomes":

When in the piazza I said to her 'stay' and she refused, a man on an awkward-looking bicycle nearly careened into us; a woman pushed past with a trolley, reaching for a glossy magazine; a boy blew soap bubbles from a plastic ring.

This bulleted description of synchronicity communicates an interesting conflict between the self and the world, but if you were to open the book mid-pages and come across Hetherington's poems, chances are that you would not be able to tell they were remotely connected to or inspired by Rome.

These issues shed light on a bigger ethical problem about travel narratives. Travel accounts can be perceptive, but the sojourner always carries a heavier ethical responsibility to ensure his/her observations are respectful and free of misrenderings. A weaker engagement with cultural specificity not only betrays the book's thoughtful designs (e.g. arranging cities from the fastest to slowest time zones), but also raises questions about the cohesion of the volume.

Paul Munden's poems on the "anonymous," virtual city which end this collection, explore the intersection between the abstract idea of the city and the possibilities of transport, imagination and experience it offers. Here are two examples:

Imagine finding one

abandoned, nameless, while hiking through the jungle, the clean lines of civilisation clotted with centuries of vegetative sprawl; the deeper into wilderness you went, the more likely it became. Today it's re-peopled, its ancient precinct extending down the mountain to hotels—and with a bus service second to none.

Here there are no horizons,

only tunnels you try to navigate with a colour-coded map. Its simple topology marks points of escape, but has no interest in space, or feature—the palaces and statued gardens overhead.

Munden's verse is powerful because readers know that the "city" is anonymous and could be anywhere. When geographical labels like coordinates and time zones are stripped away, all that matters is the pure experience of a place. But when a name is given to a city, then there are rich layers of history and culture that a sojourner needs to be aware of.

Ultimately, this misgiving inspires new questions on the concept of city itself. Arguably, the editors admit that the poets only speak for themselves in the city, and state that "cities ask us to invent not only ourselves, but a view of ourselves within the cityscapes we imagine." This may be true, but in this postmodern celebration of the individual benefit of free-spirited globalisation, perhaps one needs to ask: "What is it that brings this group of poets and their different voices and perspectives together?" After all, when funfairs can be "a temp city on the outskirts of another" (Munden, "The fun fair sets up"), then even the category of the "city" itself is threatened with the erasure of any definition. A cursory look at the poets' biographies shows that most are affiliated with the International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra or with the Australian poetry scene. Perhaps, then, a city is ultimately defined by a connection of people, and this anthology itself is a "city of poems/poets."


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