Reviews / November 2009 (Issue 9)

Journeys and Journeys Inward: Reviews of Three Poetry Collections

by Edgar Y.B. Mao

Image Image Image

John Mateer, The Republic of the East, ASM, 2008. 37 pgs.
Sam Byfield, From the Middle Kingdom, Pudding House, 2007. 23 pgs.
Jill Chan, These Hands Are Not Ours, Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 2009. 60 pgs.

Published in limited edition by the Association of Stories of Macao (ASM) and for sale in Macao only, South African-born Australian poet John Mateer's The Republic of the East is a serious and challenging work—not only because of its detailed and often elusive narrative style, but also because it requires its reader to do his/her research on Portugal. To fully grasp the collection, one should be familiar with country's language, history and most of all, its national poet, Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524 – 1580) and his epic work, Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads). Camões's life and his Os Lusiadas, which is based on Portugal's voyages of exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, have informed this poetry collection, and they explicitly referred to in several poems: "Jardim de Camões" ("Garden of Camões" which is a place in Macao), "In a Mind" in "Of War and Redemption," as well as "Regarding Canto Nine." Still the collection also has a great deal to offer the casual reader, especially its ruminations on the nature of travel and identity.

Like Camões masterpiece, Mateer's Republic presents a poetic voyage of discovery. The sections in the book are grouped under three subtitles: "The Book," "Our Republic of the East" and "The Return," an arrangement which highlight the journey taken by the speaker in the book. The narrator's travels take him/her to Japan, Macao and Portugal, and these places correspond roughly to the three sections of the book. But the photo of Casino Lisboa on the cover, taken together with the title of the collection, may also reveal that this is more than a simple record of journey. For the poems in the book represent not only the narrator's footprints on different geographical terrains (or for that matter, their impressions on the narrator), but also, and more importantly, the traces of a quest into the self and its relationship with culture and history.

The question of identity is carried through in the entire collection, lending the speaker a keen awareness of his own cultural position in Japan, Macao and finally Portugal—the speaker's country of origin but not his regular living place. The three sections are artfully arranged so as to achieve a sense of development, a colonial journey of exploration taken in reverse. Thus the narrator moves towards his/her origins, starting furthest away in Japan, moving on next to the former Portuguese colony of Macao, and finally finishing in the European country itself. As the trip develops, we see the speaker's endeavour to come to terms with the legacies of his culture's colonial past, re-locate his identity in that culture and renegotiate his relations with that culture as required by the change of cultural context.

In the very first poem, the speaker, upon viewing a Japanese book that depicts 15th and 16th centuries Portuguese tradesman in Japan, reflects on his/her own origin:
On the theatrical deck sailors and merchants, slaves and missionaries are readying themselves
but I, adjusting my glasses, can't see my own face among those of my people. Had I hoped to ID a degredado or find what's behind my own passport photo ("The Book of Namban Arts")
The collection then moves on to Macao. The poems in this section present some slight but significant changes in the speaker's quest into his/her origins. The speaker's view of personal identity seems to have become more fluid, and possibly open to a closer connection with the "Orient," especially Macao—where the half-imagined "exotic" East and the "familiar" West meet and merge:
I am a man of the Twenty First Century, roaming Macau,
falling up the cobbled Roman lanes, wishing for a life absolutely Oriental:
that rhino-horn of Viagra and Ecstasy and a free orgy,
yearning to cease being God's verb –

In the final section of the book, "The Return" this voyage of discovery finally leads the speaker to Portugal, the place of his ultimate cultural origin. It does not, however, yield a resolution to his disorientation. Upon visiting a cemetery, he finds that

When I across paths with the three old women bundled in their black,
they don't murmur Bom dia. To them I am less than the dead,
not even a curator of the remains, not even a ghost-writer—a tourist.
("Cemitério Da Ajuda")

The search for identity, as Mateer seems to suggest, does not yield easy success, since as the narrator discovers, he/she is still fundamentally a "tourist" even in his/her own culture. Thus, in Portugal, the speaker is ultimately led to ask: "Where am I?" and "Who am I?". ("On the Train From Cascais to Lisbon")

This confusion about identity is perhaps also reflected in the shifts in voice found in the work. Interestingly, although Mateer is an Australian who primarily writes in English, most of the poems in the collection create an illusion of being works under the hand of a Portuguese traveler. It is this voice, which John Mateer maintains throughout most of the collection. However, it occasionally jumps into another voice (as in the last poem "After Returning From a Voyage of Exploration") to comment on the poet himself. The poem zooms out from the experiences of the Portuguese traveler and instead places Mateer himself and Australia and its history at the centre:

                  that one day there will be a poet
named John Mateer, just as there was once,
                  off the edge of maps, a monster
called Australia.

While the last poem of the book stands out and refuses to help conclude the book in a conventional way, it does serve to unify the entire collection and illuminate it in the light of a grand and overarching analogy—between the poet John Mateer and the Portuguese traveler. While the traveler earlier talks about his "adopted country" (Line 14, "Cemitério da Ajuda"), one can perhaps hear in it the voice of Mateer, the South African, who in a sense, has also been "adopted" by Australia.

Although Sam Byfield's chapbook of prose and poetry, From the Middle Kingdom, is shorter and perhaps more accessible than The Republic of the East, the two collections do share a number of themes, especially those of travel and the search for identity.

A collection of prose and poetry written as a kind of travelogue during a journey to (or perhaps a sojourn in) China, From the Middle Kingdom is not as inquisitorial in tone as Mateer's work; yet it has an equally keen cultural awareness. This collection is more personal, specific and time-bound. Most of the writings in this book tend to be narrative and are often made of short, quiet phrases, a style which conveys an air of spontaneity:

The jets are back. I'm writing.
There's no connection. It's morning
and I've slept too well, dreamed of people
from long ago, my friend…

So— poetry, a run, some Chinese study.
I have a hand woven Naxi rug
to put on my wall—a good day
when I brought that—visits to arrange,
a woman to avoid writing about,
coffee before all that.

Then one more week of this.
("Week Two, Year of the Dog")

The book's typography and punctuation add to the impression of works sketched by a writer "on the move." For example, Byfield leaves the initial letter of some titles and sentences uncapitalized, perhaps to provide a sense of poem written by someone jotting notes while travelling.

Also like many travelogues, this collections features ruminations on life and existence. Travelers, when faced with the varieties of human and natural experiences, are often led to think about life's larger questions. Byfield is no exception. For example, in his journal about his visit to Xi Hu, the West Lake in Hangzhou, the writer records one of life's reflective moments:

Goldfish scatter as my shadow passes over them. It strikes me something else is scattering, something I didn't know was there. The stain of my own loneliness (existential loneliness, a man I used to know called it) is being washed away by the whites and pinks of the lake's edge, by the ceaseless music of birdcalls and the smallest details of colour reflecting on water, of bold flowers brushing the sky. I feel it washing off me. ("Xi Hu")

Such quiet, pensive moments are only one part of in From the Middle Kingdom. They peak through, interspersed among the writer's other thoughts and ideas. As a kind of traveler's diary, the chapbook adopts a mosaic and pastiche-like style, blending the writer's synthetic abstractions about life into the seen, heard and done, forming a collage of a life spent in motion; a life spent in cultural contexts which are at once exotic and familiar.

Jill Chan's third poetry collection, These Hands Are Not Ours, deals with topics such as life, human relationship, faith, knowledge and the issues of language, words, speaking and silence. Unlike The Republic of the East and From the Middle Kingdom, Chan's book does not seem to display a movement in any particular direction. While it has its own thematic concerns, it does not evolve into a definitive statement. Rather, it circles and approaches its themes from different angles.

Most of the poems in These Hands Are Not Ours are quiet and meditative in mood— with a fair bit of influence traceable to Emily Dickinson. The simple wording and short line lengths are often calmly woven around abstract themes:

The day ends,
leaving with each of our differences.
Every similarity,
we bring inside.

There's no wish to believe in
where to begin.
No need to place this night
that follows into darkness.

Staying still
and the same,
we bury something
of ourselves.

Such a poem does not carry a sense of progress, but possesses instead an air of stillness—sensitive, acute, yet quiet.

On her blog Chan's writes that "the best thing to remember about writing controversial subjects is to forget about having a specific subject matter in mind". In one way or another, most of her poems can be seen as embodying this working theory; however, the reader still finds recurring themes in her work. This book is divided into two parts, with the first focusing more on human relationships, and the second exploring, as the comment on the back cover of the book aptly puts it, "the deep and sometimes uncanny relationships between our human experiences and our wider, more tenuous though, at times, no less ambiguous experiences of the divine." From this second section:

We listen
over and over,
to this silence,
how we never come to it
expecting it to be different,
but somehow letting it change
the way we approach it,
turning ever more quite ourselves,
as if befriending
some wide thing
we know never leaves
but continues
to let us fall
jagged and small
into its perfect

Chan is very skillful with rhythm and line breaks. By breaking sentences into semantic groups scattered over several lines, or sometimes punctuating them with parenthetical structures, she suspends the flow of a certain thought and weaves it into another, creating a language style in which different meanings germinate and modify each other.

In a way, Chan's language has the quality of silent, ambiguous thoughts instead of that of vocalized speech. And it is thus quite sensible to read Chan's language as "an almost subliminal language filled with beautiful tension and silent immensity." With a profound inwardness and a language more suitable for the task, Chan takes the journey into a deeper level of human experience where she explores the fundamental truth and condition of our existence, where we do not really have a hand, as an ambiguous god may perhaps have it, in the making of ourselves.

Editors' note: Read Sam Byfield's creative non-fiction "From the Middle Kingdom" here and his poem "Jilin, circa 1261" here.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.