Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Kill the Radio

When I read Charismatic Megafauna and could only write cascades of exclamation marks in my notebooks until they looked like Woodstock chattering away in Peanuts, I wasn't sure how to approach making my thoughts public -- until I read Linda Hutcheon's latest thoughts on reviewing and it kicked my ass into realising that reviewing is about honesty, not making people like you. Reviewers are *not* charismatic megafauna (all those large mammals that people feel kindly towards while they eat their pig sandwiches). Or if they are, they're tigers.

Here's the thing: I think that Tamsin Kendrick has a compelling voice and has parlayed her striking performance poetry into poems that work on the page: no easy thing.

And yet.

And yet, with such a compelling voice at her service, she uses it to hymn female passivity and romanticise male violence. At first I thought that this pissed me off because it's within the framework of her Christian faith and I am not a fan of organised religion. But then I was reading Lorna Goodison's Guinea Woman today and her Rastafari poems filled me with their spirited joy. Also, I stand in awe of John Donne's metaphysical turn from human to divine erotic, and especially the poem "Batter my heart, three person'd God." Kendrick has her sights on a similar metaphysical shock and awe, but there's shock value in the violence of some of her images, there's also the yawn factor in reading yet _another_ cultural text that praises the passive, waiting female who gets turned on by a beating. I wonder if she could apply her talents to examining the conjunction of sex, violence and the Church in, for example, a residential school in Canada? Or the Inquisition? She has the verbal fireworks to make it happen: but the ethical imagination? Another question.

Of course, not all poetry has to engage in critical analysis or political history. But accepting, and even lavishing seductive descriptions upon, the metaphysical and masochistic knots of violence and desire in the Christian faith (and in patriarchy) seems, to me, a dangerous thing. And that's why I was so excited to discover Dorothea Rosa Hearliany's Kill the Radio on my reading pile -- reminded that it was there by the fact that she didn't come to Ledbury this week, courtesy of the fools at the Home Office. Instead of playing broken Barbies for teenage kicks, Herliany comes out swinging with love poems that end with images of castration and devouring. She brings an askance wit to the conjunction of violence and desire, exploring the hunger of it, its oscillation between the parties in a relationship, its flow _against_ power.

And that's where her book really stands out: this is writing with no time for the status quo, including the status quo that demands a polemic poetry of resistance. There's no spelling out a political stance here. Instead, her poems re-route communication: they send "secret sex telegrams" so intimate they burn the eye, "kill the radio," write "one letter after another, not knowing your address, / and never sent them to you" ("There Are Many Paths...").In the silence and the confusion of address, they speak with an amazingly direct language, a fierce assault on political and personal hypocrisy where the suppression of (female) sexuality in the public (and private) sphere is paralleled with political suppression. Like W.S. Graham, she is as fierce with the reader as she is with her lovers, paralleled in the "you" the poem calls out. Writing about the day of Suharto's resignation, she tells the reader:
you were aware of almost nothing
in the world where you lived
your life was a brief tale
which interested no-one. ("One Day in Indonesia").

Yet this strident poet striding the streets of Yogyakarta frequently compares herself to a snail "carrying [her] restless shell from one swamp to another" ("Uncoloured Symphony"). The snail's first appearance provides a beautiful metaphor for the work of poetry. Struggling to write in "Talking Trash," the poet says:
i am like a snail with no trail to follow.
searching for the home
it carries on its back.
Yes: this is the work of poetry, looking backwards and forwards at once, quixotic and never resigned, never comfortable, seeking the perfect, unseeable grammar of the snail shell's spirals. And there are many poems in the collection that offer a snail's-eye view of the shell, its immensity seen in fragments. I love the series of letters for Nadia, Jennifer, Julia and Lorena which articulate a rare poetry of female friendship, of the erotics of the letter, "the breath of your foreign love" ("A Letter For Nadia"). I rage with the furious poem "Cardboard Houses," which ends, in the voice of the houses' dwellers, " 'we are commercial objects / turned into victims / by your conscience!' " (The poem's subtitle, "—for a third-rate movie" makes me think, irresistibly of Slumdog Millionaire).

And then there are two poems that operate in some sphere beyond for me, because they are about music: something that I don't understand at all, but something that moves me, especially when turned into language. I should add here that the translator Harry Aveling, who worked with Herliany on the poems, does a fantastic job, preserving the immediacy of the poems. His introduction also papered over my shameful ignorance of Indonesian recent history. Maybe that's one reason these two poems catch at me, because the references to Western classical music make me feel that I'm on safe(r) ground.

And yet.

Part 4 of "There Are Many Paths in the Old City of Melancholy" begins with the poet imagining "Joan Sutherland singing Mozart's Die Zauberflote / but it is a tiny woman begging for coins," an image that reminded me hallucinatorily of Tsai Ming-Liang's film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (set on the Malaysian/Indonesian border), which was part of Peter Sellars' New Crowned Hope festival of work inspired by Mozart's late operas. An act of prescience, yes, but its uncanny force is met -- and perhaps exceeded -- by the haunting fragment 9 of "Kill the Radio":
i thought it was beethoven, reaching out:
silence had frozen around the door. the embrace
was perfect.

i was not yet asleep, but very tired.
i heard steps approaching,
they were too soft to be loneliness

the room was distant, sad: kilometers away
a car roared, half-way home.
then the silence returned - the old silence,
dancing alone.

but it was not beethoven.
That's my feeling reading Herliany: I thought it was [x] / but it was not. She leads you in, persuades you to listen, allows you to feel nuances of nuances, and then turns -- like Graham's "beast in the cage" -- and brings you into the "old silence", the chaos of making criss-crossed by silvery snail-trails of her lines. Their effect is gradual but utter. "One Day in Indonesia" is not enough for me: I want more "secret sex telegrams" and lost letters from this major poet. And I want to hear her read. Home Office, take note: this is not a woman to mess with.

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