review by Paul Munden
This review was written at the time that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, attending the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees convened by President Barack Obama, confirmed Australia’s long term commitment to an increased intake of refugees; ‘pragmatic and compassionate’ was his self-description of the approach. Writing to the Wire has plenty of compassion; its relation to pragmatism is altogether more complex.
The impulse behind the anthology is a belief in poetry’s ability to do better than political rhetoric, to speak in a way that is honest about difficult truth. Many of the poems included honour that belief, some of them relating painful, personal experience as straightforward testimony. Indeed the strength of these pieces raises a question about the added value that poetry of supposedly greater artifice can bring. The anthology has certainly taken a risk in mixing refugee voices with more established poets whose work occasionally looks poor by comparison.
The editors write well about the ethical credentials of a nation; about citizenship and privilege; and the concept of being human. Their brief aside about the treatment of sharks is an important one: the attitude problem represented by the treatment of refugees is part of something even bigger. The Terence / Lucretius statement that ‘I am human and so nothing human can be foreign to me’ (10) may be a statement of hospitality, even ‘all embracing love’, but the human capacity to hate is also part of the picture (see the Paul Verhoeven quotation cited by Kent MacCarter 187), and the polarisation of society, in its attitudes not only to other human beings, but to life on earth, has rarely been more evident. With almost half the United States population backing Donald Trump, and a similar percentage of United Kingdom voters were in thrall to Nigel Farage, Kant’s assertion (13) that one should ‘Act according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’ is in danger of becoming a bigot’s licence. Particularly alarming is the way in which Farage and others have held up Australian policy as a shining example of good practice.
These global connections are crucial. Writing to the Wire has an Australian focus, but the core issues are universal. The controversial roasting of a pig outside the Australian Broadcasting Commission studios could easily have happened in the UK, the US or elsewhere. And as Heather Taylor Johnson makes clear in her poem ‘In the Bottom Eight’, hateful incitements are sometimes evident in our own domestic environments: ‘There is talk about murder at the dinner table bomb the lot of them in my own kitchen’ (106).
It is interesting, given the book’s claim to be addressing identity (and specifically ‘the idea of being Australian’), that certain poets have chosen to be anonymous. In some cases this is clearly for self-preservation, but perhaps an editorial ‘offer’ caught on. Perhaps the issue of Australian identity was something that the poets felt reluctant to explore, an indulgence in comparison to the desperate traumas inhabiting the same space. (Coral Carter’s ‘Australia Day 2014’ is a notable and powerful exception.) Exploring the concept of ‘home’ is also somewhat avoided. ‘No home, (an inflexible, judged word – / foolhardy for any to claim)’ writes Les Wicks (174). There is a sense that, when faced with abhorrent political rhetoric, and a challenge (‘Surely we are better than this?’), some poets have – albeit understandably – balked. It is perhaps disappointing that so many poems adopt a detached ironic voice, mimicking bureaucratic speech. It seems too easy. It may aim to expose the shallowness of such talk, but it comes close to suggesting that it is all we’ve got; that poetry can’t do much better after all.
The ironic voice can of course be used to powerful effect, and in Jenni Nixon’s prose poem, ‘Under Canvas’, the ironic spotlight is not on political rhetoric but arts journalism. The poem offers a pseudo review of a pseudo new documentary, in which ‘In a pitiless slow tracking shot a child is sexually assaulted on a lengthy walk to the toilet block. Brutal. Disappointing is the lack of subtlety...’ (186).
There is a marked contrast between the ironic tone of many of the more established poets and the testimonies of those writers – perhaps less well known – who have suffered detention. There are powerful poem-stories with a bleak simplicity by Hani Abdile, B, Behrouz Boochani, Hazara, and Naomi So (only ten years old). Some, though harrowing, are beautifully shaped and have the quality of haunting fable. Other poets, without any such personal experience to draw on, have also chosen to keep things simple, and with positive results. By contrast, those poems that eschew such directness in favour of more elaborate constructions don’t always convince; they sound like faux-storytelling, lacking authenticity. Generalisations are also problematic: ‘like all of us, they come in the hope of a better life’ writes Andy Kissane in ‘Beached Dreams’, referring to asylum seekers reaching Christmas Island, but is ‘like all of us’ really true?
A scrupulous honesty about one’s relation to any ‘story’ is paramount. That is demonstrated well by Diane Fahey, whose poem ‘(from) A Death in Winter’ begins: ‘I read the newspapers, / learn of Leo’s life’. It goes on to say: ‘How can I venture / to speak of such things? // I step back now, / insist that I do not know / what Leo’s sufferings might have been like. // I can only create – for myself, for others – a space for imagining’ (58). Maybe that is the ultimate hospitality of which the editors speak.
Within the personal testimonies, depth of feeling does occasionally create problems. To suggest that ‘Morrison ... is enjoying my pain’ (51) seems unwarranted, but the writer, Sabrin Ahmed, is an 18-year-old Somali girl held in Australian immigration detention. It is understandable that she should write such a thing, even though it oversteps the mark, but it has to be recognised that naming is problematic and risks alienating readers. Jennifer Harrison makes a more tactfully anonymous (and perhaps more sophisticated) criticism when she writes: ‘once I saw a man killed on a motorcycle track as people / cheered the race on’. Perhaps, in any case, naming politicians is to miss the point. Mention of Abbott seems almost ridiculous, with his demise already history but having resulted in little change. Of the various mentions, only Stuart Cooke’s ‘(Tony Abbott is a) Flarf Fugue’ really works, executed as it is with considerable verve.
A feature of the refugee-voiced poems is to address the reader, ‘you’, as a potential source of help. Ravi’s poem ‘Slow death knocks my heart’ concludes:
This form of address feels both instinctive and rhetorical in its questioning, but occasionally there are answers, and Ravi’s plea receives (by sheer chance, owing to the alphabetical ordering of poems by title) a direct response from the poem that follows, by Maria Takolander (167). It’s a direct apology (‘I did nothing to save you’) but it also goes further: ‘it was clear that none of us would mean anything / unless we, like gods, decided to.’ Fortuitous dialogue such as this constitutes one of the book’s great strengths.
Several poems are in dialogue with themselves. There is dialogue between poet and the detained in poems by Anne Collins and Janet Galbraith; dialogue, or contrast of voice, is also key to poems by Melinda Smith and Richard James Allen, who contrasts ‘The secret language of border guards and those who wish to cross’ (169). The tactic produces a stereoscopic view of things that most politics avoids. Similarly, Jen Crawford’s ‘The Duty of Punishment’ (66) twists ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ together into a rope that makes us think. Jordie Albiston’s ‘I am you’ (101) works a comparable magic, with its inbuilt opposites (‘exist / unexist’, ‘extinct / unextinct’). And an amusing take on such self-contradiction is provided by David Musgrave in ‘Wire’ (201), his riff on the ‘yeah nah’ response at large in our quotidian conversations.
There is both hope and dread, sometimes balanced within a single poem. In ‘The Answer’ Eileen Chong writes: ‘The boy holds something / metallic and long: I don’t want it to be a gun’. This querulous balance is evident in a number of other poems focusing on children, where innocence is matched by the strongest of hearts. In ‘Dog, Mountain, Moon’, Graeme Miles’ writes: ‘Ask our daughter each morning what she dreamed. / Usually ‘a dog, a mountain and the moon.’ / She adds, ‘I wasn’t scared’ (62).
It is perhaps hardly surprising, given the sombre focus, that poetry’s more sensuous capabilities are seldom employed. An exception is Sarah Holland-Batt’s ‘Manus Green tree Snail’, ‘its body a foot chugging / over craquelure of lichen’ (124). The poem is distinguished, too, by its subtle intellectual movements:
This is superbly evocative and thought-provoking writing. Elsewhere in the anthology there is a tendency for the thinking to be too bald, not always rendered as poetry. Holland-Batt’s poem is sharply focused on the snail but is resonant of so much more, the creature ‘tugging its house, / trying to get rid of it / but glued there, hitched’ (124). It succeeds through its quiet obliqueness, and there are other poems in the anthology that are admirable for a similar quietude, all the more affecting for their sense of humility, their reluctance to be over-vociferous. Lisa Brockwell, for instance, demonstrates an unassuming humility in her poem ‘On Becoming a Housewife for the First Time at the Age of 41’ but is quietly striving to be of value. The title, in the context of the traumas addressed in neighbouring poems, might suggest an abdication, but Brockwell reveals a fundamental anguish experienced when perceiving other lives in the balance.
Beyond quietude, it is silence itself that is repeatedly mentioned, even revered – though with appalled ambivalence. We witness silence in lips sewn shut, mentioned here many times. Dael Allison writes, ‘we stitch tight our stories / sew ourselves silent’ (164), and the connection with story-craft (and therefore writing) is troubling. In countering the bad words of political rhetoric, one might decide that silence is preferable, but as the poet S (another asylum seeker) states, in ‘ONE MINUTE OF SILENCE’ (148), it also carries the connotation of betrayal, of being ignored.
This wrestle with silence is at the heart of what the anthology is about. We instinctively want a clamour of outrage about the subject, yet we also know how, as readers, we resist those poems with a design on us. Complicating this further is the lack of poetic model for taking on the task. As Tom Paulin has written, of poetry in England: ‘it would seem that political verse is virtually a lost art’ (Paulin 1986: 40). This echoes an earlier and even more fundamental comment by Iris Murdoch, that ‘we moderns have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary’ (Murdoch 1961: 18).
Writing to the Wire steps bravely into this literary desert, and not without problems. It’s all too clear that the very word ‘politician’ still sits uneasily in a poem, and yet we encounter it throughout the book. Moreover, some poems have the feel of being coerced: it’s hard enough writing an effective poem at the best of times; it’s doubly difficult to write one ‘to order’ and on a political mission. Nevertheless, there are many successes. Being asked to address a particular subject can have the benefit of making one look at the world in new ways. It seems likely, for instance, that Lorne Johnson’s description of the Superb Pitta, with ‘wings shot through with the lustrous turquoise of Iranian mosque tiles’ (126) was influenced by the multicultural context in which she was being asked to write. Other poems were clearly not written to order but are drawn from longer sequences of work in which the subject was already being taken passionately to heart. Poems by Lisa Jacobson and Samuel Wagan Watson have since appeared within longer works published by the International Poetry Studies Institute. Jacobson’s poem, ‘The Jews of Hamburg Speak Out’, is one of several in Writing to the Wire that underlines the long history of the current refugee crisis.
Writing to the Wire is a substantial anthology, and although the collection of work might have been stronger for being slimmer, its bulk seems important, and there are many surprises and rewards: Felicity Plunkett’s ‘Trash Vortex’; Michelle Seminara’s erasure poem; and Michael Sharkey’s trademark revolving non-sequiturs. Michelle Cahill’s ‘Interlude’ (a luxurious one), in which she states ‘I forgot everything I knew’ (112), makes us reflect on other interludes, such as detentions. Ross Donlon’s ‘Portrait of a Refugee’ (153) makes the point (well) that refugees are unlikely to be saints, but the Uncle Stan of his narrative (which it is, rather more than a poem) is nevertheless a figure that enriched many people’s lives.
The order (alphabetically by title) is in a sense random, thematically at least, and there might have been interesting, stronger connections made by a different approach. But any avoidance of editorial choice is probably justified by the principle of (random) neighbourliness; a poem lives with whatever it must, however ‘other’ to its own theme and poetics. There is a strange sense of responsibility, reading the anthology, to embrace those poems that are ‘other’, not as one might write oneself, or in the mould of what one tends most to admire. We have a duty perhaps, as readers, to keep open the borders of our literary tastes (though not necessarily to embrace poems that are not well written).
Overall, for readers familiar with contemporary poetry, the task is not a hard one, but what of those less familiar readers to whom the anthology would undoubtedly wish to speak? Adrian Mitchell famously stated that ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’ (Mitchell 1964: np). This anthology clearly avoids that charge, but might it have been slightly more pragmatic in its attempt to reach new audiences? Some poems seem unnecessarily obscure, burying their riches. Take these lines from ‘Whatever’ by Fiona Hiles: ‘For those who have nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth. / Like a man who has seen too much, I am tamed in the snare / of an earlier desire’ (195). This is compelling writing but it comes towards the end of a poem that many readers will skip over as too difficult. More welcoming, perhaps, for a poetry newcomer, is a poem such as ‘Queue-jumping’ by Anthony Lynch, still thought-provoking for all its simple structure of contrasts, turning the title on its head. Prose poems have a significant role here too, offering a poetic voice that’s rid of what, for some, are poetry’s more scary accoutrements. Jane Williams’ ‘Still / life’ (176) is particularly effective, as are prose poems by A Frances Johnson, namely ‘Lovesong’ (122) and ‘Free Quote’ (81) with its pose as a ‘found poem’ describing varieties of wire.
These are poems that avoid the trap of preaching to the converted – both poetically and politically. Other poems are in danger of reiterating well-rehearsed confrontations and lack of understanding, in a way that seems unlikely to be productive. In ‘Borderlines’ Jenni Nixon writes ‘climate change is absolute crap – says Tony Abbott’ (41). Most readers will share her outrage (and why do politicians fall into such predictable ranks, regardless of the particular issue?) but the poetic tactic risks dismissal from some quarters as a typecast stance; it is unlikely to change any hearts and minds, and that, surely, is the ultimate ambition.
Is poetry up to the job? Kevin Brophy, in his poem ‘From The Book of Examples’ (82), writes: ‘I should have queued / or appealed to you in a letter / of reasoned prose’. This is irony at its best; it underlines the concept of poetry as dissent, or ‘alternative’ strategy, the one in which many of us place our faith. As Jennifer Harrison confirms, in ‘drone illumination’: ‘reportage can’t capture the entire despair of a shell’ (63).
It is harsh to quibble with a book of such sincerity and heart, but one final small comment has to be made. In the otherwise exemplary ‘Foreword’ by Julian Burnside QC, it is surprising to find the phrase ‘boat people’ used uncritically. Andrew Melrose (2015) has written at length about the way the phrase entered media parlance in such a problematic, even derogatory way. Two poems in this anthology use it as a title, but immediately demonstrate its inadequacy; a third, ‘STOP THE BAT PEOPLE’ by Rachel Briggs, goes further in exposing its full nonsense. (Other poems, including John Brinnand’s ‘Newspeak in Wonderland’ (141), also make use of ‘nonsense’ in their probing for meaning.)
So for every quibble there is a compensation. Writing to the Wire is an important anthology: not only does it give us insight into the topic, it also asks us, as all good anthologies do, to re-evaluate our ideas of what poetry is, and what it’s for; what it can (and can’t) do. It has categorically not, to borrow the words of Richard James Allen, ‘already given up / on your ability to hear’ (169). The editors want us ‘to learn to be better listeners’ (18). That is a fine and fitting ambition for this, and indeed any, poetry anthology.
Paul Munden is Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Canberra, and Director of the UK National Association of Writers in Education.
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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste