John Mateer

I write in response to AJ Carruthers in ‘Four perspectives on race and racism in Australian poetry’ (Overland 222).

Aside from noting that his characterisation of what seems to be the undefined majority of Australian poetry as ‘conventional verse culture’, which simply imports and slightly renames ‘official verse culture’, that term of dismissal used by US experimental against what used to be called ‘academic’ or ‘confessional’ poets, I thought I should say something about the way he portrays part of my poetry.

It’s unfortunate that he presents my work in the context of racism and orientalism, not by readings of my poems, but by quoting first a negative and not entirely accurate review by Alison Croggon and then the blurb from another of my books. I think that were he to read me, even the poem mentioned by Croggon, he would see that my work is far from unsubtle, ideologically and tonally, in its addressing questions of race, subjectivity, language, literary tradition and history. In fact, Croggon’s accusation that there ‘is no space for the subject of “the other” here’, when referring to ‘The allegory of the colonial dream’, is to me a failure on her part to read that poem carefully. To see that the woman of the poem and the orangutan referred to at its end – based on the orangutan in Perth zoo who suffered from the trauma of the bombing of the city in which it originated – are both employed, through their restraint and silence, as a subtle critique.

‘Orientalism of any kind, in any context, is bad,’ declares Carruthers. ‘It is not good practice, and not good for poetics. It does not do the work of cultural critique, nor does it offer any emancipatory potential.’

But I would say that there are at least two kinds of Orientalism: that of Edward Said, largely addressing the western worlds’ relationship to the Middle East, and that of the poet Victor Segalen, who was almost solely concerned with China. While Segalen is far from the sort of enlightened figure we might wish for from today’s vantage, his idea of Orientalism clearly contradicts Carruthers’ view. For Segalen, and a few other thinkers, that kind of otherness is emancipatory. In recent years, a number of theorists have been returning to Segalen, and his ideas underwrite the Chinese poems contained in my book Emptiness.

If readers are interested in contemplating these questions and not simply reading quotes of secondary material by means of which my ideological impropriety is alleged, I would hope they would look at my essay ‘In the Chinese mirror: Victor Segalen and the quest for the Chinese face’, which addresses these kinds of questions in the Chinese context. Of course, there are my poems, too, which go beyond the Australia of Carruthers’ ’conventional verse culture’, being not only about Indigenous presence in this country, but also about South Africa, Mexico, Portugal, Macau, Andalusia, Sumatra etc. – the work of over 25 years of publishing in an environment where I too have felt, like Carruthers, that I would have stopped writing had I not found a small number of peers, most of whom were not part of ‘the mainstream’ either.


AJ Carruthers

I thank John Mateer for his response. I hope this discussion will be constructive in a poetics that works to undermine the edifices of racism in poetry.

My question still concerns subjectivity. The theoretical tenets of the article Mateer cites on Victor Segalen are again problematic: the Han face Segalen seeks is that of the idealised muse, the unattainable symbolic fetish-object. This ‘obsession’, ‘mania’ or ‘unsettling devotion’ with the Han man as a ‘mirror-image of himself’ is the classic mistake of Orientalist thinking: Segalen must fail to obtain the face of the Asian man, and thus imagine the Han face as effaced, in effect avoiding the return of his gaze.

This is precisely the problem with an Orientalist philosophy; to continually frame it within the matrices of European ‘knowing’, as Gayatri Spivak puts it, narrows rather than widens perception. The Han face is the position of the problem, as Edward Said writes in Orientalism:

the only Orient or Oriental ‘subject’ which could be admitted, at the extreme limit, is the alienated being, philosophically, that is, other than itself in relationship to itself.

The Han face is this alienated being. Consequently China becomes the ‘Great Unknowable’, a solution to the ills of the West. Orientalist ‘mania’ reduces culture to the scene of a psychical conflict, and affords no clarity to thinking about race, especially in conjunction with class. Orientalism obscures. It offers no cure, no escape. What Mateer calls the ‘kink of otherness’ remains just that – a kink, not an investigative subjectivity.

Why Segalen? What does Segalen do for race politics now, to transform our thinking of the racial subject? What is so poetically enticing about a European wanting an Asian face? How can resurrecting Orientalist subject positions transform the way we think about racialised subjects – those who have been spoken for, or framed, by Western discourses? After Said, the decolonising manoeuvres of postcolonialism and now Critical Race Studies offer a different model of subjectivity: an Other for whom one cannot speak.

For any poet writing in Australia, the land itself – this geography, its positioning, its character and hemispheric bearing – is the Asia-Pacific region. There can and should be regional solidarity contra white supremacy of the kind in Lionel Fogarty’s poem ‘Advance Those Asia-Pacific Writers Poets’. North, not East. To route all the way to Europe then reroute from there all the way back to China is absurd. Taking up European modernism is not a problem, but using it to mount a politics of race is.

A better and much more radical term is Kyoko Yoshida’s ‘Disorientalism’. The crux: ultimately the voices we use to define our discourses need not be early twentieth-century orientalists but writers of color themselves. Disorientalists. The poets in the Vagabond Press Asia-Pacific series, for instance, are such voices. Should more Asian-Australian poets find publishers (and they are), the very concept of ‘foreignness’ in Australian poetry might slide into irrelevancy.

Neo-Orientalism offers no emancipatory potential for poetry, neither as poetics nor as politics. A poet must know that only its abandonment can signal the beginning of a culturally critical poetics of race.


Image: ‘The Snake Charmer (1880), by Jean-Léon Gérôme’/Wikipedia

John Mateer

John Mateer’s books of poems in Australia include The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009, Emptiness: Asian Poems 1998–2012 and Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’.

AJ Carruthers

aj Carruthers is a literary critic and experimental poet, author of Stave Sightings: Notational Experiments in North American Long Poems, a group of studies on Langston Hughes, BpNichol, Joan Retallack and others, two volumes of a lifelong poem AXIS Book 1: Areal and AXIS Book 2, and a sound work Consonata. He has just completed Languages of Invention, a study of Australian avant-garde poetry and the uses of literary history, and writing has commenced on his next project The Critical Exterior, a study of criticism’s “three exteriors” – theory, history, prophecy – and literary exteriority. He is a lecturer at SUIBE.

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