Our final 'Poem of the Week' for 2015 is 'Déjà vu' by Maria Takolander. ABR's Poetry Editor, Lisa Gorton, introduces Maria who discusses and reads her poem.
A poem addressed to Ted Hughes
Death had been peeled away from my husband like a caul.
The months – nine of them – had been long,
but there we were, reborn to the day,
domesticating each fugitive moment,
more in need of such rites of order than before.
It was still morning, the sun marshalled by the kitchen window,
when the aftershocks hit – not him, just me.
They were like flashes of radiation, epileptic jolts,
coming one after another, shredding my
hold on those routines that made the world rational.
Each one dragged nausea behind it like a comet's tail.
As I packed a lunch, drove my son to school,
I stalled and sparked:
but I have done this, I have done this before.
Soon I was so memory-full and memory-less
it was as if I had been contaminated by the galaxy
through which eons bled unchecked.
I should have known that history, time-traveller,
takes any opportunity to repeat itself.
I was intimate with its narcissistic sickness.
Ich, ich: like your first wife I had once sung, tongue-stuck,
ecstatically impaled by a past thrusting
itself upon me like a man-swan.
Back then I consulted an exorcist (of sorts)
and bound myself to the quotidian,
remaining unmolested for years – until that mechanical assault.
There was nothing poetic about it,
and I did not know how to make it so.
Then I began to think of your gambols
with the French mistresses of Ouija and Tarot
– and Sylvia and Assia, of course.
How the ungodly weight of the heavens cracked
and blacked its light upon your sightless head,
not once but twice.
And what poetry you made of déjà vu.
Maria Takolander is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, The End of the World (Giramondo, 2014), which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Ghostly Subjects (Salt, 2009), which was shortlisted for a Queensland Premier's Prize. Her poems appear regularly in The Best Australian Poems, and have been anthologised in Thirty Australian Poets (UQP, 2011) and the Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (Turnrow, 2014). A program about her poetry aired on Radio National in 2015. The winner of the inaugural ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Maria is also the author of The Double and Other Stories (Text, 2013), which was a finalist in the 2015 Melbourne Prize for Literature's 'Best Writing Award'. She is currently working on a novel for Text Publishing and is an Associate Professor at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria. Her website is www.mariatakolander.com/
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- Custom Article Title Poem of the Week - Maria Takolander reads 'Deja Vu'
- Contents Category Poetry
- Custom Highlight Text Our final 'Poem of the Week' for 2015 is 'Déjà vu' by Maria Takolander. ABR's Poetry Editor, Lisa Gorton, introduces Maria who discusses and reads her poem.
Creativity is always an exercise in recycling. Vision comes from revision. In the ancient world, such wisdom was institutionalised; the task of the poet was to powerfully exploit a cultural storehouse of existing plots. Thus the early Greek playwrights reworked the same complex of myths. However, stories are inexhaustible, something that Scheherazade, in another ancient text, teaches us. Certainly, Greek myth continues to be a rich source of inspiration. Over millennia, writers, artists, composers – even psychoanalysts – have returned to the material of the Greek poets. Translators of the Greek classics form part of this revisionary and creative enterprise.
Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians, translated by the Canadian Ancient Greek scholar and poet Anne Carson, returns to the tragic story of the House of Atreus. According to that story, summarised at the start of this play, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis in order to cure ‘the disaster of windlessness’ that befell his ship as he set sail for Troy. The distraught Clytemnestra then murdered her husband upon his return from the war; he had compounded Clytemnestra’s grief over the loss of her daughter by returning with a mistress (Cassandra). Subsequently Clytemnestra’s son Orestes (with help from his sister Electra) murdered his mother to avenge his father.
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- Custom Article Title Maria Takolander reviews 'Iphigenia Among the Taurians' by Euripides translated by Anne Carson
- Contents Category Classics
- Book Title Iphigenia among the Taurians
- Author Type Author
- Biblio University of Chicago Press (Footprint Books), $19.95 pb, 74 pp, 9780226203621
What makes a story compelling? When I was an undergraduate student at Deakin University, I was fortunate enough to be instructed in fiction writing by Gerald Murnane. His key criterion for the worth of a story was its capacity to mark his memory with an enduring image. Over time he used to cull books from his shelves that failed to impress him in this way.
Gerald’s anecdote, in a satisfying mise en abyme, has passed its own test. After twenty years I still imagine him inspecting an old paperback, his memory going over the book like a Geiger counter assessing a piece of potentially radioactive earth. That said, one might adopt different criteria for determining the value of a short story. There is a memorable voice – Annie Proulx’s American West short stories are like no other in that regard. There is plot or character – who could forget Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis into a beetle?There is an innovative use of language or form – Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Figures in a Marriage’ tells the story of a relationship breakdown via graphs and charts. I am often struck by something perhaps less tangible but no less powerful: mood.
Literature is a moodful experience. This is perhaps most obvious in poetry, particularly of the Romantic kind, which is typically attuned to the ‘felt’ dimensions of language apparent in its rhythms, sounds, textures, and rhymes. Poetry, as the common complaint of students goes, is not always about conveying a ‘rational’ sense of things. Indeed, poetry often addresses experiences of emotional intensity that are difficult to cognitively process and articulate, such as love, pain, desire, or grief. The poet ‘feels’ his or her way into things, as does the reader.
However, feeling is important to fiction too. When I write fiction I do not ‘know’ what I am writing about, and as a reader of fiction I respond to moodful elements of stories that cannot necessarily be ‘understood’. The Metamorphosis, for instance, arouses feelings of disgust and confusion that are unforgettable. There is the humid and cruel mood of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, memorably set in the American South – and setting, of course, is another factor that can render a work striking. Just thinking of Stanislaw Lem’s absurdist short stories makes me laugh. My favourite is ‘The Seventh Voyage’ of The Star Diaries, in which our astronaut encounters various doubles of himself, generated by time warps, and tries to win their cooperation to fix his damaged spacecraft. The story is a proud farce, and it evokes in me a sense of rebellious glee. Thinking of my experience judging short-story competitions, it is a common misconception that the mood engendered by a story needs to be sombre or agonised.
Feelings are often viewed with suspicion (which is itself another influential feeling). Indeed, emotions are sometimes seen as the narcissistic source of bad writing. Certainly, I do not believe that good writing is simply about self-expression. It might be the case, however, that good writing is a hard-won expression of idea and feeling combined – something that the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, simultaneously intellectual and lush, beautifully illustrate.
‘It is a common misconception that the mood engendered by a story needs to be sombre or agonised’
In fact, separating ideas from feelings is becoming more difficult. Despite an enduring tradition of conceptualising emotions as forces that muddy thought – and art – this has undergone a re-evaluation in recent times. The role of emotion in the arts has also been revalidated. Antonio Damasio, who heads the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, is a leader in the kind of neuroscientific research that has shifted our view of the mind from some kind of cogitating machine to an embodied organ primordially responsive to feeling. For Damasio, feeling is actually inseparable from cognition. Feeling is also what provokes human beings to engage in the creation of art. Poetically evoking a potential feeling-rich scene of creativity, he argues in Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010):
No set of conscious images of any kind and on any topic ever fails to be accompanied by an obedient choir of emotions and consequent feelings. As I am looking at the Pacific Ocean dressed in its morning suit, protected by a soft, gray sky, I am not just seeing, I am also emoting to this majestic beauty and feeling a whole array of physiological changes that translate, now that you ask, into a quiet state of well-being.
If literature is moodful, it is in response to the moodful experience of being alive. Indeed, quietude, of the kind Damasio experiences upon observing the dawn, is an emotion that might provide the compelling ‘feeling’ of a short story – one that a reader might remember many dawns later.
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- Custom Article Title Maria Takolander on what makes a story compelling
- Contents Category Commentary
Imagine a cross between Tim Winton’s The Turning and Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright, and you might very well imagine John Kinsella’s latest collection of fiction, Tide. Kinsella, a Western Australian like Winton, writes of the coast and of the desert, of small-town life and small-town people. However, Kinsella highlights the corruption of those landscapes and people in a way that aligns his vision more with Cook’s (which should come as no surprise, given Kinsella’s anti-pastoral poetry). There are ships pumping ‘alkaline hell’ into the waters where children swim, meatworks leaking blood to the sharks, factories, mines, old batteries, and trenches. Men are ‘brutal and brutalising’. Even boys torment and humiliate one another, often with the approval or complicity of their guardians. If someone outside Australia wanted to understand a coutry that hounded its first female prime minister out of office and voted in Tony Abbott on a platform against boat people and the carbon tax, this is the book I would recommend.
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- Custom Article Title Maria Takolander reviews John Kinsella's 'Tide'
- Contents Category Fiction
- Book Title Tide
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Transit Lounge, $29.95 pb, 237 pp, 9781921924491
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- Custom Article Title 'Golden Sigi: An Advertisement', a new poem by Maria Takolander
- Contents Category Poem
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legendary discovery by Sigismund Freud
(also known as Golden Sigi)
John Leonard’s anthology of young Australian poets, showcasing the work of an exclusive septet, comes hot on the heels of Felicity Plunkett’s more accommodating Thirty Australian Poets (reviewed by Fiona Wright in the December 2011–January 2012 issue of ABR). Young Poets: An Australian Anthology also adopts an unfortunately polemical relationship to its predecessor. Leonard provides a Preface – originally published in So Long Bulletin, the often-polemical blog of three poets included in his anthology – in which he implies that this new anthology provides something of a corrective gesture. He claims that his anthology puts aside ‘eagerness at some newness’ for ‘more lasting consideration of artistic reach and achievement’.
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- Custom Article Title Maria Takolander reviews 'Young Poets: An Australian Anthology' edited by John Leonard
- Contents Category Features
Custom Highlight Text
John Leonard’s anthology of young Australian poets, showcasing the work of an exclusive septet, comes hot on the heels of Felicity Plunkett’s more accommodating Thirty Australian Poets (reviewed by Fiona Wright in the December 2011–January 2012 issue of ABR). Young Poets: An Australian Anthology ...
- Book Title Young Poets: An Australian Anthology
- Author Type Editor
- Biblio John Leonard Press, $27.95 pb, 170 pp, 9780980852332
Let us take a look at this place. Marshlands. All the way to the horizon. The land drained, but nevertheless sinking. Sinking into nothing, nothing but itself. Frogs volleying noise in the grass unseen. The hazy movement of mosquitoes low to the ground. On a blade of swamp grass a sleek cricket. Blacker than night and – look closely – its antennae twitching. Just think: there must be more of those creatures, in their thousands, perhaps millions, hiding in the swamp grass as far as your eye can see.
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- Custom Article Title 'Three sisters', a new story by Maria Takolander
- Contents Category Story
A Roānkin philosophy of poetry
by Maria Takolander
I worked for a while with the second cousin of an acquaintance of the notorious Minean nationalist poet, Honoré Tutkanen, whose book The Overall Underling had done little, my colleague and I agreed, to advance sympathy for the pig breeder. This colleague, a lecturer in the faculty of business and law, had initiated an ambivalent friendship with me when he connected the name on my pigeon-hole with a controversial sonnet on the Ugrilian practice of bovine circumcision, which I had been fortunate to have published in Moth, a journal widely regarded in an especially small circle.
On the few occasions I saw this colleague during my eleven years working as a casual tutor in professional writing, while I was undertaking my PhD, he regularly referred to a peculiarly sensitive tome written by the little-known Cronkian anthropologist Zed Roānkin, who had moonlighted in his time as a dog-sled driver. Roānkin’s book was about an extinct people, whose winters were spent under the oneiric flashes of the northern lights, and whose customs and language were distinguished by a charming mixture of bluntness and ambiguity. Their theory of poetry, my colleague in business and law promised, would be of interest to me.
One day, at the halting start of an academic year, I discovered the book – a well-preserved, handwritten, ten-page, stapled, A5 pamphlet – in my pigeon-hole, along with a note from my former colleague, who wrote that he had retired to dedicate his life to the Morgonites, rumoured by some to be a ruthless organisation. My old colleague, as the Post-It note revealed, had come across Zed Roānkin’s book while cleaning out the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, filled with reams of notes taken at various annual meetings of the faculty of business and law over his indubitably busy career.
I will not report here everything that Roānkin wrote in that excellent book, for I would be simply producing an unequal replica of a study not especially concerned with my particular field of expertise. However, of unusual interest to me, as my former colleague had predicted, was the final brief but consequential chapter on aesthetics and, within that chapter, the penultimate subsection on poetry. As a preface to my comments on these concluding parts, suffice it to say that Roānkin called the extinct northern ethnic group the Roānkins because they did not, as far as Roānkin could solicit with his limited Roānkin vocabulary, have a name for themselves. Roānkin also described the Roānkins as living in harmony with the catastrophic winters that took up an interminable part of each year of their existence until they all died.
In the chapter outlining their theory of art, Roānkin writes that the Roānkins believed that art should deal only with the superficial. More extraordinarily, Roānkin claims that the Roānkins believed art to know nothing of the abyss, although they conceded that art could certainly imagine the terrifying death to be met by one unlucky enough to fall, while being chased by a bear awakening early from its prolonged winter sleep, into an icy crevasse.
The subsection on poetry begins by demonstrating the astonishing economy – the charming bluntness and ambiguity, as my old colleague put it – of the language of the Roānkins in which single verbs can denote multiple complex activities. For instance, the verb for composing a poem and playing with one’s faeces are the same.
I must confess that at this point in my original reading – which occurred clandestinely during a class in which I had set the students an exercise defamiliarising a warthog – I did experience a certain amount of scepticism, suspecting that Roānkin, like many a scientist, might be hostile to literature and that this antagonism may have skewed the objectivity of his data. Perhaps I allowed myself, too, to question the good will of my former colleague in passing on the Roānkin treatise to me.
However, the final lines of Roānkin’s book, outlining the Roānkins’ philosophy of poetry, persuaded me that the findings of this valiant study of the vanished northern people named after its honourable investigator were true. Roānkin’s final words sung on the page as a plague of locusts granted only twenty-four hours to copulate before they die. Yes, Roānkin or the Roānkins spoke to me thus, even though, I concede, they would never have known of such creatures in the cold familiarity of their white world.
Years after that first reading of Roānkin’s sensitively worded translation of the Roānkin’s philosophy of poetry, long after I had forgotten the name of my former colleague in the faculty of business and law, I found myself, night after mysterious night, dreaming of the hairlessness of pigs and of Zed Roānkin. I had dreamt in a similarly obsessive fashion only once before: during the night-trance that led to the writing of a sequence of poems on the variegated forms of Bodeal flax and the wormy blackness of earth.
That sequence made up a large part of the creative component of my PhD thesis, eventually published by Inveigle, a small poetry press I established with the financial support of an emerging writer’s grant. I was particularly proud of the company logo, which I designed myself without assistance and which was comprised of the bold outline of the face of a man, featureless except for a large moustache, which I imagined had distinguished the visage of Zed Roānkin.
I attribute the tenure I secured subsequent to completing my PhD to the publication of my poetry manuscript – I had settled on Dabbling in the Dirt as the title for the published work – as I accredit the research leave granted afterwards to the favourable review of my chapbook posted on the blog of Liberty Quan, whose material person could be found in an unfamiliar suburb of the faraway city of Barcøl Tur. (I had used the Internet to sell copies, one of which had been purchased by that unknown but generous amateur vegetable harvester.) That research leave enabled me to pursue my recurring dream: to search for Zed Roānkin.
I chose the brief period of the northern summer for my solo recreation of Roānkin’s epic journey from his homeland to the realm once inhabited by the Roānkins, while conceding that my expedition would be less authentic for travelling in milder conditions. Having mapped a viable route, I found myself riding on the back of a mule along a gravel roadside in the uppermost province of Fermine in Cronk. My head was protected by a contraption called, I believe, a húttu-hátti by the introverted mule-rental operator, who charged me an exorbitant twenty-seven solanges for the mule and hat despite my stated interest in an eminent compatriot of his. This hat protected me not from the heat of the sun, which was surprisingly considerable, but from the swarms of mosquitoes that plagued the marshlands of the northern regions of Cronk during this time of year. The insects hovered over my faithful mule and me like a living silhouette, with the two of us granted a reprieve from the insects only when fast-moving cars stirred the air in passing.
I met not a soul on those first days travelling across the interminable marshlands. When the sun hung low and the light started to fade in a sky electric with mosquitoes, I would set up camp with my mule on the gravel of the roadsides where it was dry. The nights – such as they were in this perplexing place – lasted only hours before the region’s birds began their raucous darting through the mosquitoes. I believe that I truly began to understand the desperation and despair Roānkin must have experienced in order to realise the territory of the mythical Roānkins.
Then, mid-morning on my third day on mule-back, I arrived at the unremarkable village of Ostenich, which I estimated to be some distance further north from my starting point in the uppermost province of Fermine in Cronk. I tied my mule to a bicycle rack outside the Old Ostenich Inn, which I had seen announced by a neon sign, and upon making my entrance, advanced immediately on the only fellow in the place, an old bearded man residing at a burgundy-coloured table in a dark corner. He spoke little English, but when I showed him the pamphlet by Zed Roānkin – for I had it stowed in my shirt against my chest – and a brown ten solange bill, he became extraordinarily animated, demonstrating a thick tongue and poor habits in dental hygiene.
I cannot relate here everything that this loquacious native of Cronk said, for he spoke a language unfamiliar to me, but I can confirm that he verified that his compatriot Roānkin, precisely as I imagined, had passed this way, that he had a bushy handlebar moustache, and that he had travelled through vast expanses of snow with dogs which smelled more rankly than him. This last detail the old man communicated through a series of energetic yet simple gestures.
When my narrator, whose name I had been unable to fathom, retreated to a mirrored bar to purchase himself a refreshment – I was a teetotaller, poetry being my intoxicant – I heard a peal of laughter, and it struck me how grounded yet surprising these people were. Indeed, their paradoxical qualities were such that I wondered if they were not only compatriots of Roānkin but also descendants of the vanished Roānkins. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, and I knew that I could not help but write a poem about this place.
When I began thinking about what I knew would be my opus magnum on Roānkin and the Roānkins, a work which would far surpass Dabbling in the Dirt in its grappling with the unearthly nature of the earth, I held in mind the epics of the ancient Zarmqué – which sing of warriors, the seasonal assaults of crickets, and horses trapped in fishing nets – as well as the bons mots of the monk known to history only as Gorbes.
I had decided to continue on my pilgrimage along the highway for one more night, before retracing my route in order to return the mule to the taciturn mule-rental operator, as agreed, by the end of seven days. I knew it was unlikely that I would find any further trace of the Roānkins in this short time, but the rhythm of the mule, as it lumbered along the gravel verge in the glooming swamp, convulsing its head to relieve itself of the relentless insects, enhanced my poetic reflections. By the ambiguous light of nightfall, as I zipped up my swag to the sound of mosquitoes and the four-legged beast’s quivering, I had the most uncanny or marvellous dreams.
I dreamt that I was Roānkin lying among the stink of his sled dogs, the fur around their mouths stained with the flesh of hares shot for their supper, and then I dreamt that I was one of the Roānkins, moving quietly upon Roānkin sleeping among his dogs in the snow. I looked at the tenebrous flesh of his closed eyelids, at the ice beginning to encrust his heavy moustache and at the notepad nestled amongst the anthropologist’s reeking furs, and I knew that the philosophy of poetry scribbled down somewhere on those pages was mine.
‘A Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry’ by Maria Takolander won first prize in the 2010 ABR Short Story Competition (now the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize). Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.
CONTENTS: DECEMBER 2010–JANUARY 2011
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- Custom Article Title Jolley Prize 2010 (Winner): 'A Roānkin philosophy of poetry' by Maria Takolander
- Contents Category ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize