“The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Unsettlement is a recurring theme in Tony Messenger’s debut collection ‘poems to be found in the desert’. Colonial unsettlement, traversing an uncomfortable environment,
d i s l o c a t i o n and the blurred lines of imaginary \\\borders///. \\\Boundaries/// & limits that appear, settle and dissolve.
This conflicting duality works to unsettle the reader, forcing them to ???question??? their place in the vast Australian →landscape←, an environment where nothing seems as it appears.
The epigraph for the opening section of poems comes from Ely Williams “I find that out in the desert my words wander too because here thoughts and words are things unleashed.” A warning that the collection is peppered with thoughts and words unleashed, a cryptic murmuring, a maze of ideas that circle, repeat, fade and reform. It is easy to become lost in this text, thinking you’ve already experienced an image, but a refresh and a re-read show slight differences, an erosion, a morphing of concepts.
This is the desert where the obvious is not so obvious.
The collection opens with the poem “longifolius” (the scientific name for the spiky spinifex grass that is abundant in the central deserts). The poem can be viewed as a metaphor for Australia itself. The grass grows in a ◌circular◌ clump, and as it ages its shape becomes nest like, with the centre ►dying◄ off as the grass uses all the available nutrients in the soil, the newer stems sprouting on the outside forming ◌concentric◌ patterns. The inner “►dead zone◄” is a haven for ants, who feed on the ⸙seeds⸙, and reptiles and birds, who feed off the ants. Hence the ◌circular◌ shape of the poem. Something that may appear barren is in fact teeming with life. Look to the centre not as an ⸔inhospitable⸕ place, look for details, enquire with a local pair of eyes.
The second section of the collections uses various translated literary texts as either prompts or for remix content. Why is a poet, who is →“discovering”← Australianness, using works from countries such as Hungary, Scotland or Argentina? This is a not too subtle reference to the cultures and beliefs of other nations seeping into the lifeblood of Australia, whereas the culture of the First Nations peoples is blindly ignored.
The ♫Lutheran Hymnal♫ \\\interruptions/// that appear in a few poems referring to the Aboriginal ⌂missions⌂ set up in central Australia in the late 1800’s, Hermannsburg one of those missions, set up in 1877, home to famed Indigenous water colour painter Albert Namatjira, the first Northern Territory Aboriginal person to be freed from restrictions that made Aboriginal people ●wards of the State●. In 1957, he became the first Aboriginal person to be granted restricted Australian citizenship which allowed him to vote.
The epigraph to the second section comes to us courtesy of Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) “…the humility of nomadic life was one of the strongest images in Islam, the great renunciation, the stripping away of worldly trappings in the nakedness of the desert.” Here the collection uses s p a c e and shape to emphasise this nakedness, the stripping away of all worldly trappings. The poem “luscious skin” skin’ is an imagined conversation between Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima in an imaginary desert. The text was 1001001computer1001001 generated using random words taken from ■conversations■ in “The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer)
Although written in English, this collection reflects primarily on Europeans moulding a landscape that does not exist in their world into a creature to suit their unfertile minds.
is without any explanation he said staring there
because that is with the line that
is without any explanation traced toward the way back as the sky
the line that is with them
to think he had migrated the Portuguese border at
there because the that, them to
be over much,
he had migrated
the way back as the said
…….back as the young
wolf vanished, his point,
retraced the Badajoz road,
the line that
……male wolf vanished, his tracks
leading they made a
considerable detour to view
the young male wolf
(a remix using found text from László Krasznahorkai’s “The Last Wolf” (translated by George Szirtes))
This collection is a reflection on Colonialism, a search for stability in an unsettled place, d i s l o c a t i o n and \\\borders/// (real and imagined). An interesting and thought provoking collection////\\\\.
Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in many places including Overland Literary Journal, Southerly Journal, Mascara Literary Review and Concrescence. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker and can be found on Twitter @messy_tony
Cover art credit: Tania Verbeek, used with permission.