Monday, July 9, 2012

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 -
  And all this day an unaccustomed spirit
  Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
  I dreamt my lady came and found me dead -
  Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think ! -
  And breathed such life with kisses in my lips
  That I revived and was an emperor.

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 -
  If I switch the blade on him
  what will I sing ?
  Dark sensurround of muscle & flesh
  holds me down between two cars
  drives the bolt across hell's gates,
  I push back & his eyes go black with fear
  & slow extinction.
  Eternity in two breaths of air.
and a little further on
  I stare my failed assassin down as doubt
  assails me doubly: my eyes
  now, or have they ever been
  such polished mirrors
  that multiply the mirror of that evening sky?

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" -
  They signed. She: with subtle pregnancy
  in white shot silk, craving fish sauce.
  He: smoking Pall Malls, nervous, in Saville Row.

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 -
I drove her to a temple by he sea/on a World-Bank moped . It is also, oddly, accompanied by a maudlin strand– so much softer than my buried heart. Though more coded than Aitken's earlier work, these poems are accessible and firmly consolidate an expansion. Overt politics flare occasionally - in "Rock Carvings, Sydney", lamenting indigenous Australians’ losses he writes-
  I pass the handiwork of tribes, that tribe that's gone.
  Why make their loss
  speak for us or me, the nation's patchwork
  constitution ?
  Why make of their defeat
  the lyric lie you call preamble

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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