Adam Aitken : Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles
(Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 2000)
Adam Aitken began what he calls his "narrative life" in Australia in 1968. He was born in London in 1960 to a Scots-Anglican father and a Thai mother. In 1984, in his first collection of poetry, "Letter to Marco Polo", he wrote no East, no West / East of no West to describe the predicament his identity then posed. His second book "In One House", published in 1996, furthered his quest for solution and became a joyous, although unresolved, representation of what used to be called "multiculturalism".
The quote from "Romeo and Juliet" that begins Adam Aitken’s third collection suggests that the poet will not only survive, but will actually triumph over the darkest adversity -
During Aitken‘s Asialink-residency in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 he was almost killed by a knife-attack when he defended a female friend in a street melee. This fact colours the quote from Shakespeare and the powerful, bitterly-tinged poem "Sheryll" is a literary synthesis of the effects of this trauma. The poem is slightly coded and this distancing facilitates thoughtful staging. It becomes Shakespearean -
Adam Aitken continues to articulate the problems of identity canvassed in his previous books. He writes through perplexity towards a desired (if ever-unattainable) transcendence. A series of biographical, though guarded, sonnets called "Sonnets for '58" documents the early days of his Thai mother's and English father's relationship.
"At the Registry" -
The poet roves from Waverley Cemetery in Sydney to Uluru, Italy, Hawai’i and various Asian places - an arts festival, a tropical garden, some lakes - via Changi Airport - Real orchid forest in Terminal 2/ where gypsies rest, fazed/ by taped bird-song and the so-called "Asian meltdown" -On the X-ray my collection/of South East Asian coins,/more useless by the hour on to the very dark meditation of the title poem about watching Baz Luhrmann's film in a crumbling Malaysian cinema, while partly paralleling the civil unrest in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 – dark Mercutios who danced and clapped / and got shot down.
In this book, Aitken’s dense, distinctive imagery is enhanced by an unsettling, almost cynical deepening -
In pursuit of concision he favours punchline closures - and the epic goes to salt on the wind.; Marlboro Man closes the gates,/ like an earnest God, when you leave.; They like the dance of the smashed plates./ They spell 'decadence' with a k.; as their bodies tired, their wings grew heavy,/ and they too turned for home. culminating in the book's more open-ended final line –I hear the question that the Lake must ask.
In an interview last year, Aitken cited the prolific poet Stephen K. Kelen (although only four years older) as an influence on his early writing. Kelen has published six books since "The Gods Ash Their Cigarettes" appeared in 1980. Like S. K. Kelen, Aitken engages, often humorously, in a critique of tourism and its plastic-fantastic reductive universals and simulations. Aitken's "Killing Rats" in Asia the rust / of the trap and rats' blood / blend harmoniously-/iron in the soul is perversely black. In his recent collection "Shimmerings", Kelen's "House of Rats" in an Australian suburban home, They're up there alright,/ In the roof playing scrabble, is a hilarious entertainment.
It could be seen as a large claim but I think that this poetry offers the kind of interaction and exchange of ideas that act as a means of countering fearful reactions to cultural hybridity or difference. The concerns of exile, identity and ethnicity that have been components of a topical post-colonial discourse for the past twenty -odd years (since Edward Said's "Orientalism" appeared in 1978) are subtly represented here, providing access to poetry readers who might be unlikely to read Said or to participate in the kind of cultural exchange that the Asialink residencies afford.
This review was published together with a review of S.K. Kelen's "Shimmerings", in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in August 2000.
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