• Nick Riemer's October 10 launch speech

    We’d obviously be here all night if I tried to do justice to each of the five books being launched, so I’ll simply limit myself to some brief remarks about each and then let the poets read, since I don’t think there’s anything I could say which would be preferable to just listening to their work.

    It’s a real privilege to have two visiting poets, Yan Jun and Jan-Willen Anker, with us here for the launch of their books. Vagabond’s doing a real service in publishing the first full English collection of both poets. I’ll get to Jan-Willem’s book later, and I’ll start with a few words about Yan Jun’s You jump to another dream, which has been limpidly translated mainly by Glenn Stowell, who’s also supplied a useful introduction. You jump to another dream presents an almanac, full of dates and immortality, written over a 20-year period. The poems show an impressive discipline in maintaining a consistent imaginative vision, with the poet ‘distilling himself from one day to another’ as he puts it at one point. It’s not easy to keep up such a consistent voice over a long period like this. The poems are highly aphoristic, they present a dazzling vision of Yan’s world – Yan’s principally involved in electronic music, but you wouldn’t divine that commitment from the highly varied sensory canvas of the book – and they’re often couched in an idiom that to my untuned and no doubt crudely orientalizing ears recalls what I think of as the aesthetic of some classical Chinese poetry. All in all, the wonderful images and vignettes of Yan’s book present a vision of experience rather ‘like a bird looking down on the struggle,’ to quote one of the most striking phrases in the book. Yan tells us in an early poem that ‘An ocean forced into a fishbowl is murky’, but if there’s anyy murkiness here it’s that of the kaleidoscope, and it generates a clarity and expanse in the poems which is full of movement and light.

    Jessica Wilkinson’s book, Marionette, is a poetic biography of the actress Marion Davies. In the very interesting and full notes to the book Jessica tells us that she’s concerned with the way that Davies has been erased from the historical record, and how her story is constituted by ‘whispers, gossip, rumors, lies, and plot holes’. The book itself unfolds as a series of reels, with an extremely inventive, elaborate and tantalizing typography, consisting of overlaps, collages, shadings, font variations, ellipses, cut-aways, fragments and pictures, and frequent long vertical lines connecting different parts of the page: we can variously take these as marionette strings, cracks in damaged celluloid, or – which amounts to the same thing – erasure signs. It’s hard to convey the extremely worked nature of Marionette as a physical object: Nicholas Walton-Healey carried off an extremely impressive task in designing and typesetting it; the poet’s imaginative power in conceiving of it is even more striking, and demonstrates the power of conceiving a book of poems as a whole physical object in every detail. As well as being headily contemporary, the book stands in a tradition of pattern poems that comes to us from Greek antiquity, via George Herbert and Apollinaire, presenting the reader with a wonderfully stimulating and engaging experience. ‘Poems have heads/,’ we’re told right at the end, ‘and——feet/ and are filled with anxieties/’, and there’s certainly something feverish and energizing about the remarkable sequence of textual moments that the reader experiences.

    There’s a strong visual element too in Lionel Fogarty’s book Mogwie Idan: Stories of the land: the book contains numerous intricate and beautiful drawings and well as a large number of poems, which are couched in a dizzying idiom, appropriately, I think, described as surrealist, and full of indigenous words. In fact the interplay and contrast between the drawings and the poems is not the least of the book’s attractions. The first part, ‘Connection requital,’ which won the Scanlon award, is committed to the page wholly in upper case letters. That typographic choice seems to me to be particularly appropriate to the muscularity of the voice in evidence here. Fogarty expresses a sustained protest in this book against the shameful continuing state violence of which indigenous people are the objects – ‘Abo’s that are in the pit of assaulting jars,’ as he puts it – about which politicians and the electorate are, it would seem, entirely relaxed and comfortable. The relation between artistic creativity and appreciation on the one hand and urgent crises of human rights on the other is rather a fraught one, non-indigenous artists and their publics all too often seizing on issues like indigenous social justice as a way of enacting their progressive credentials, but in a form which paradoxically risks confining their sincere expression of moral outrage to the solipsistic realm of taste, aesthetics and opinion, thereby severing it from the very possibilities of political expression that are the direct motors of social change. Art isn’t politics, in other words – and this is what makes it so refreshing to read Lionel’s book, which is, of course, an expression of a deep and longstanding political commitment that’s seamlessly connected to his poetry, but goes well beyond the aesthetic realm. ‘Where there are houses now/There was an awareness before’, we’re told in a poignant couplet that carries in it the whole history of Aboriginal genocide. We recognize an anger and an outrage in Mogwie Idan, but it’s one which asserts its own language and is couched in its own terms – and it’s in turn funny, arresting, and buffeting. There’s an important reminder here, I think, namely that the demands of the oppressed for justice and freedom from oppression don’t derive their legitimacy from being expressed in the codes, either literary or linguistic, of the oppressor. This is something which jolts the reader on pretty much every page of this extremely vibrant, accomplished and surprising book.

    As I mentioned before, Jan-Willem Anker is the second of our two visitors, and it’s great to have him with us. His collection I didn’t know what is a highly entertaining, drole, and oblique sequence of prose poems, the first occasion on which Anker has expressed himself at this length in English. Jan-Willem is reported in Daljit Nagra’s introduction as explaining his choice of the prose poem format by saying that he ‘couldn’t press the return button anymore’, which I found a fascinating observation, as myself someone who’s rather fond of the return key, since it takes you one step further to the end of the page. There’s a certain self-deprecating irony in evidence In Jan-Willem’s book: the first text, for instance, is about bike-riding, both an ironic registration of an emblem of Dutchness, and with its references to skidding and frozen fingers also perhaps a metaphor for the pitfalls of the transition from one linguistic universe to another. The body is omnipresent in these texts, in the chaos, humour and abjection of all its processes. There’s also much of the poignant ennui of everyday existence, the feeling of not knowing what to say when the moment comes to speak, all of which gives us some funny moments: ‘I stirred my cereal with a spoon I bought at a flea market. As I was munching I thought: so this is life’. There are some haunting and lyrical ones, too: the speaker at one point tells himself that he is safe, ‘like the inside of a flame is safe from darkness’. In one of the poems the speaker describes himself as speaking softly and being hard to undestand: if we can take that as a comment about Jan-Willem’s engaging book, the reader is all the better for it.

    Last, but certainly not least, we get to Ali Cobby Eckermann’s exceptional Love dreaming and other poems. It’s a real shame that Ali can’t be here to read to us tonight, since she’s not only responsible for Love dreaming, but also had a hand in the editing of Lionel Fogarty’s book. We’re fortunate though that her friend Maggie Walsh will read for us. Like Lionel Fogarty’s, these frequently breath-taking songs are lyrical meditations on or perhaps enactments of Aboriginal people’s soiling and deadly encounter with White colonization: the continually recut scars, the recurrent cycle of violent dispossession, the theft of language and lives, the fracturing of social ties, the crippling of subjectivity. These are topics that have been almost wholly disappeared from public awareness in Australia – largely, perhaps, as a result of the hollow sham of the 2008 apology, whose real role in national affairs was made clear by its sequel, the continuation and subsequent generalization of the brutalizing Northern Territory Intervention, itself a recurrent and powerful theme in Cobby Eckermann’s book, and the focus of the long poem ‘Intervention Pay Back’. For all their lyrical moments and their beautiful metaphors, these magnificent poems are, frequently, unashamed of stating their message directly, and are all the more powerful for it. They don’t find it necessary to adopt any spuriously universalizing or abstract language: they’re grounded in contemporary reality, with references to John Howard and Mal Brough, and the actuality of life in central Australia in particular is vividly and beautifully evoked – it’s many years since I spent a bit of time in that part of the world, but these poems took me right back there. There are many arresting lyrical moments, many telling and memorable images enlisted to register the complexities of emotional and political existence as an indigenous person in central Australia. All of it is discharged with a compelling strength, tact and delicacy, and with a poetic variety that couldn’t be more impressive.

    Five wonderful books; poets and a publisher who deserve our support; congratulations to everyone involved – Yan, Jessica, Lionel, Jan-Willem, Ali, and, of course, Vagabond itself. May there be many more. 

    Nick Riemer 10/10/12

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