Aboriginal Country – Lisa Bellear (UWAP)
To warm my hands
I boil the kettle
of ideologically unsound
coffee go lovingly
into a medium-size
half a dessert spoon of
dash of Carnation Milk
Lisa Bellear’s Aboriginal Country begins with what ‘Always was, always will be Aboriginal country’. The eponymously titled poem follows a speaker moving through their colonised land and seeing/feeling the impact of ‘Waterfalls named / after princesses / and queens’ and of how ‘Indigenous lands / Indigenous dreamings / Indigenous spirits’ have been labelled-marked-desecrated with colonial names/symbols/monuments of violence and dispossession. Bellear closes the poem by emphasising the speaker’s subjectivity:
I pause momentarily
on Aboriginal Country
The ‘I’ of the speaker echoes the ‘I’ in Indigenous, which is written three times in the preceding stanza. There is immense weight resting on this returning ‘I’ and Bellear demonstrates that this ‘I’ is pressured. The inclusion of the ‘/’ signifies bodily movement – Bellear’s speaker is moving through ‘Aboriginal Country’ both inside and outside of this poem.
The documentation and narration of a person’s life, or their work, or their ‘life’s work’ is only empowering if assumed by themselves or by trusted members of family/friends/communities. This is why it’s important to acknowledge that after Bellear’s unexpected death in 2006, her friend Jen Jewel Brown began compiling this poetry collection with permissions from Bellear’s ‘brother and literary executor John Stewart, her uncle Sol Bellear and aunt Kay Bellear’. This information is detailed in Aboriginal Country’s editor’s note, along with Bellear’s personal narrative – which is integral for readers to be aware of, not to elevate her already compelling poetry, but because such detail demonstrates Bellear’s crucial actions as a writer, artist and activist.
Throughout the collection Bellear complicates colonial significations of apparent esteem and respect that have occurred – are still recurring – within Australia. The poem ‘Artist Unknown’ exposes colonial tokenism within the visual arts sector. Bellear dedicates the poem: ‘For all Indigenous/colonised artists inspired / by a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales / to look at Destiny Deacon’s work’. The poem closing with the lines:
Ochre on cardboard
And purchase date
Or Language group
The unknown artist
Reads like a memorial
The meaning of ‘memorial’ is problematised by Bellear as she motions to how western imperialist interpretations of tribute have removed and therefore disrespected the identities of the ‘Indigenous/colonised artists’ being displayed and supposedly honoured within this context.
Collections like Aboriginal Country are vital for current and future access to Bellear’s poetry. As detailed in the book’s introduction: no record has yet been found of Bellear’s poem ‘Native Title Now’, which was ‘nominated for the 1995 Human Rights Award for Poetry’. In the poem ‘A Significant Life’ Bellear refers to the ‘overwhelming grief’ of having to continuously speak out as an ‘urban/rural Indigenous / survivor’ not only for the sake of future understandings but also for the hope of reconciliation and change: ‘For the future, if there is to be one, / we must listen, talk and share. For the future.’
Body Poems – Anupama Pilbrow (deciBels series 3, Vagabond Press)
Meat paste I am squeezing
around in my hands I am
squeezing it like dough it is
under my fingernails and thick
Anupama Pilbrow’s debut collection opens with ‘The Body Poem’, which details a forbidden affair between a lover and ‘the body’. The lover is enamoured by ‘the body’, the lover accepts ‘the body’ and even appreciates ‘the sound it makes like / jangling keys’. The subject of the poem is never degraded, used or objectified. Pilbrow instead wraps ‘the body’ in a protective ‘gauze’ (instead of gaze?) which ‘sways in the breeze’. What is most subversive and overwhelming about this whole collection is that every multidimensional gaze upon a body/bodies (no matter the matter) is tender, considerate and celebratory.
The poetry in this collection is devoted to using language as a form of flesh – to validate bodies, body parts and bodily functions. It’s within such contours that Pilbrow’s bodies push up against the dominant conventions/limitations/judgements that restrict specific bodies and their expressions.
‘Ocean Poem’, for instance, presents the complexity involving the shaving of body hair, explicitly the shaving of the legs, which still persists as a beauty expectation for women or to be considered feminine. The speaker in the poem grieves the follicles they have removed via razor blade and only experiences consolation by seeing and feeling the discarded fragments (the abjection) of the self:
I have a bath and I shave my legs underwater
so all the hair pieces are swimming in
the bath water with me. Water is swirling
down the drain I drink a glass of white wine
I play with the little hair pieces I am
thinking I made these they are mine
The emphasis of ownership is significant to this poem. As the speaker soaks in and among their physical self – they turn inwards into the water held in their body and their imagination: ‘I fill the room up with saltwater / sand small insect and crab creatures and / we all play in the water’.
‘Insect Poem’ explores diasporic identity within the context of family and how even within the most connected relationships one may still experience alienation, which is often internalised within the body. The poem opens:
My auntie says look at
the difference in the colours of our skins
one lighter than the other (both brown)
in the hot air one sweaty the other dry
I hold her hand. We talk about race
Our unexpressed emotions are often physically retorted back at us in uncontrollable ways. Pilbrow purposefully doesn’t allow much space for verbal dialogue between the family members in ‘Insect Poem’ and instead the speaker and their sister are ‘bitten’ by ‘insects … each bite like a growing / bulb pink and sore near to erupt’. The sting is external/internal and the speaker’s desire for soothing manifests in the itching of their insect bites ‘until they scab yellow red shields’. A ‘shield’ is considered a form of amour: protecting ‘the itching treasure / underneath’ and this scratching – like Pilbrow’s poetry – is a response to and a validation of existence.
California Sweet – Kent MacCarter (Five Islands Press)
To be with the dancing women
cosecants of how their diet pops
wet mimeographs is to be organised just off
the gravitas of early jitterbugs
Kent MacCarter’s latest collection of poetry interconnects multiple and varying realities to expose the absurdities and hypocrisies of the western contemporary world – particularly and inescapably (post)colonial North America. The collection also exhibits 13 pages of pop-arty-surreal comics by Jackie Ryan. While transnational locales are also significant to this collection, the state of California remains the axis of rotation: ‘Things are getting altogether Beverly / around here’.
To be called ‘sweet’ is typically considered a compliment. We’re socially encouraged to be sweet not bitter. But to be a sweet is also to be candy: rich in sugar for ease of consumption. Sweetness also has a spectrum: you can be sickly sweet or you can literally become ill from sugar highs/rushes/hits. Sweets are also a treat: a reward or a bribe. The connections of sweetness and sweets are thus entwined with capitalism, and MacCarter exposes this instantly with the book’s title and more intricately with the poetry inside. The title California Sweet is also a homophone for the poetic term ‘suite’, as signified by MacCarter’s spelling of the book’s middle section, which is comprised of a series of ekphrastic poems responding to various found and archived materials depicting the complex and layered histories of the often-romanticised Californian state.
MacCarter’s poetry also encourages readers/listeners to consider the musicality of language and how it feels to mouth or read words aloud. It’s OK if you don’t immediately recognise the myriad of whirling references within MacCarter’s poems because they exist to destabilise what you think you might know and how you came to such understandings. As the essayistic poem ‘A Note on going Superfast’ suggests: this collection is concerned with the ‘marketing jingoism’ of past/contemporary expressions ‘designed to lasso’ and the ‘subterfuge’ language can and will fabricate. MacCarter’s poetics are inventive – toying with and stretching out the meanings and limitations of language to reveal both humour and devastation regarding our dependence on current technologies and literal/metaphorical modes of power: ‘coal so / post modern / bitcoins go variegated and tickle the pinkie / toe plugins’.
Returning to the sweet/suite: when I look at the word candy I see the associated word of ‘candied’ and then by removing one letter we have the word ‘candid’. To read MacCarter’s poetry is to feel a candidness – in essence (not vanilla!) because MacCarter never dilutes the flavour of his poetry, his influences, or the actualities/histories his writing reveals: ‘Hows’bout a Snickers then? The impossible /soon-ness and macaroni compunction?’
I occupy space, which is to say, i am always grieving – Chi Tran (Incendium Radical Library)
Someone writes the word controversial
but I think they might mean cruel.
Then blood and pleasure are, once again,
made normal, and I remember what I had
been told to forget.
The title of Chi Tran’s debut collection reads as a necessary aphorism. The two commas in the title: I occupy space, which is to say, i am always grieving offer moments for breath and reflection. The title is especially stirring for its acknowledgement of the ‘I/i’ which in turn activates the ‘U/u’ as reader. You are reading and therefore inhabiting this text. There is also a subtitle that expresses: ‘a small text / on identity and prosody’, further amplifying the existential and linguistic concerns of Tran’s poetry.
The collection is comprised of two poetic sequences that create tension between articulation and actuality, unravelling the paradoxical and ideological elements of language. One way this is subtly achieved is Tran’s use of decimal numbers to indicate the beginning of each sequence (for example, 1.1, 2.1) versus the spelling-out of numbers (or figures) within each poem:
How to break something apart, gently
firmly, without causing fissure or cavity.
Five. A figure is always incident to
something else that breathes.
Note how the broader gaps between selected words rupture an expected sentence structure ‘gently’ yet ‘firmly’. To be a ‘figure’ is to be a body – a somebody or a nobody – or a number. How a figure is perceived/coded is the difference between being humanised or dehumanised. And as Tran painfully reminds us: ‘We seem to begin and end with loss, / registering form without pause’.
This collection is concentrated in its exploration of the politics and poetics of identity and accentuates the corporality involved in language/expression and its concealed yet fracturing consequences/forces:
I drop a ceramic plate of raw meat
onto the gravel.
This is how I speak.
There is a potent awareness to Tran’s poetics and each line activates new possibilities for understandings and considerations of the substance, form and material required for what we say and how we say it. Tran addresses this paradox with lines like: ‘I talk of process over product, yet language / never fails to matter’.
Within both sequences of the collection Tran performs the acts/actions of re-writing/revising/recasting each preceding section by removing words and/or letters, pushing words together, and modifying lineation. The effect/affect of these actions creates and collapses spaces both visible and invisible, demonstrating/dislocating the continuous process of what we might think of as understanding(s) in regards to identity formation(s). Importantly, the order of the words in each poem doesn’t change because memories, languages, cultures, and histories don’t just conveniently assimilate/vanish for people/communities experiencing diaspora. As Tran elucidates: ‘I am selfish in that I would like to / be loved in a world where the concept of / replacement does not exist’.
Lead image: crop from Body Poems, by Anupama Pilbrow