LAUNCHING SPEECH for John Mateer's ELSEWHERE (Salt, UK, 2008), at Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne, Wednesday,April 2nd, 2008.
I'll begin by congratulating John on his new book -- [APPLAUSE]
It's his fifteenth all up --books & chapbooks, commercially published &/or privately circulated --and it's adding up to his work, to the John Mateer oeuvre, so to speak .
Notwithstanding certain ironies & paradoxes, on the social surface as well as deeply inscribed within his poetry, he writes & publishes with a regularity one could call prolific. As far as publishing is concerned, he is out there --out & about. I wish I had now some of that zest for the writing & publishing life --
I have written at some length recently on John's book, Southern Barbarians (published by Zero Press, South Africa, 2007), and dont want to repeat myself here. Actually, when John told me he'd read my long blog I was intrigued he wanted me to launch this new book! But, whatever our differences, I welcome at least a couple of important things -- One, is John's essayistic line --not always employed of course, but often enough to have impressed me into feeling that his was a sustained alternative to the imagistic or expressionistic phrase composition abundant elsewhere! I mean, misusing a comment about a poet I like a lot, namely Robert Creeley, John could never be described as an asthmatic poet! So, I've enjoyed the sense of a whole sentence --of space for the poet to walk & talk & think in --and congratulate him for this essayistic, discoursive poetry.
Secondly, he has something to say --issues he needs to explore --and in that way is political. And he, necessarily, invites us to react. So I praise him for enabling thought & discussion. Agreeing or disagreeing is one's own privilege --but being enabled to think & discuss is everyone's.
The postcolonial --whatever it is to be called, although it seems now to have changed from adjective to noun, become the place where the end of the "hegemony of the West" is assumed --and for literature that means the repositioning of the so-called Western Canon, often its side-lining if not repudiation -- : this "postcolonial" appears to be where John Mateer is at -- : as the blurb, he may or may not have written himself, states, "one person's poetic & moral accounting of the past 500 years of Western colonization" [INTERJECTION, John Mateer : "And why not?"]
Yes, indeed, that's your prerogative, just as there are, of course, different positions held & espoused in this place --and I guarantee that the readers of John's book will find their own thoughts & feelings reacting to the --and I struggle for the word --the sensation-ism? the vibrancy? the vivacity? the visually seductive & authoritative language of Elsewhere --indeed, of all his work hitherto. The reader cant fail to rise to the intimacy each poem invites. By the same token, the palpability of the poet's scenes of life are accompanied or informed by the identity questions which assuredly course their author's being. And because of John Mateer's place of birth, in South Africa, his Western genealogy & its dramatic face-off with the risen African heritage in the new South Africa & in this place of the postcolonial everywhere, these matters of identity are conduits of revelation -- : of the conventional personal type & of the person-as-body-of-the-political (--a trope well known to even dilettante browsers of Continental philosophy or theory!) -- : they are unpredictable --and this I think is a strength, despite an occasional howler or let's call it a John Lennonism, -- this unpredictability is a strength of a writing which often elsewhere is an exercise in control, from first line to last. For many "political" poets, the poem is basically therapy & political opinion (as of George Oppen's famous comment) and not one of consciousness and the perception which flows from acute consciousness, from nerves-on-end attention to what is given --
To be sure, John is often riven --his heart aches. At this level of pain he doubts the efficacy of communicable language even as he plays his hand in poetry's compulsive and, indeed, required game. Because he is a "poet", isnt he?
I'm reminded of my New Left / Counter Culture youth, coming across this comment by John Dewey, and whether I've misquoted him or not this is what I've always remembered : "community is defined by the ability to communicate what is held in common." What a delicious spanner to be thrown into the works, mid 60s, when "community", "communication" & "commonality" were assumed by so many to be as natural as the flowers in one's hair?!
You may recall this poem, which I'll read, Dark Horse (for J M Coetzee), from the Calyx anthology published in 2000 -- : Calyx, 30 Contemporary Australian Poets (--and John's also been in a new South African poets anthology --the more the merrier, perhaps, in the postcolonial?!) --
As I write this line it is in a foreign language.
As I think What does this mean? I remember a sentence
by the allegorical novelist who is said not to speak.
He was a linguist, and his wife is said to interrupt party conversations
by saying : "John has something to say." Can I say,
I oppose all civilization, without being in a city under siege,
without being a Trojan horse?
As I write these words,
the sentence I DO NOT SPEAK MY OWN LANGUAGE is in my head
like the line of an ascending aeroplane piercing through cloud.
But I must tell (who?) --
Beware of those bearing grief in comprehensible words.
Beware of your mouths.
--in a way, this is the John Mateer poem par excellence. It carries a vulnerability, a tentativeness --but it reads to me didactically. Yet it is also lyrical --slightly mysterious despite the strength of its closing words. It is candid of the poet --it admits his vulnerability and relinquishes the usual control of the didactic author. It refers to the famous novelist but as tho the narrator were also at the party --he's made the information an essential piece of gossip (as Robert Duncan might have said)! He admits the vulnerability at his core and makes it his strength --"I DO NOT SPEAK MY OWN LANGUAGE" -- : he might be talking about Dutch-South African, he might be talking about the Mateer version of the pure poetry which the 19thCentury & into the 20thCentury French & others aspired to; he might be alluding to political shackles & burdens and their psychological corollaries --think of Paul Celan for an awful moment --the Paul Celan who is one of the very, very few Western poets referenced in any of John Mateer's writing --but that's for an academic paper, not for this book launching!
From the blurb, "Elsewhere is an exciting introduction to a poet whose work has been receiving international attention for the past decade." I imagine this means an introduction to the British readership in the first instance, for whom John Kinsella's Salt is one of the big three poetry publishers alongside Neil Astley's Bloodaxe & Michael Schmidt's Carcanet, or four when you add Tony Frazer's Shearsman, from Exeter. Shearsman, by the way, have begun publishing a complete edition of Pessoa who just happens to be a key reference in John Mateer's previous book, Southern Barbarians --the Pessoa he quotes at the head of that book, "I write to forget"; and the Pessoa John addresses in a poem, "You are my self captured in this photograph / And I am your sole surviving heteronym."
It would be deeply ironic, tho very Mateerish, if one were introducing John to an Australian or, specifically, Melbourne readership! He's lived & published here extensively after all --
But he's the peripatetic poet --never happier, perhaps, than when on the move, which could cast him as Romanticism's iconic subject, the other half of the exoticist, the adventurer, the traveller, namely the Stranger, a stranger on the earth, stranger to society --and maybe there is some of that in the postcolonialism I've given him here.
He'll often quote expressions of negativity, e.g., heading The Ancient Capital of Images in the new book is the Japanese poet, Tamura Ryuichi, "because there is no answer but emptiness."
I'll close on that theme (--the academic paper if anyone here wants to write it will be called something like "John Mateer's Azanian Poetics of Negativity"!) and read the poem on page 77,
DEAD LEAVES OF TOKYO
--an aquarelle series by Eugene Carchesio
Whether collected from the gardens or temples
fallen leaves are an undoing of substance,
a subtle melancholia, an almost unheard of music.
Bell-solid and a whispering, little deaths and the Chinese whimperings of memory,
those leaves under intense light on a city desk, observed
by a miniaturist's eye or a composer's ear, prove existence
as in the mind they are perpetuated in aquarelle,
each life-size on a page large and white and void.
A chronicle, a diary?
The poet's mouth opens slowly, releasing the leaves and the wind
that these words are.
--I declare this book, Elsewhere, launched --and invite John to speak & read to you.
Kris Hemensley, April 2nd, 2008