The first poem of Adam Aitken's new collection Revenants is a curiosity that demands close attention:
Xmas, Singapore 1957
Much better than that
in '56 - so my father wrote
in blue fountain pen
on airline parchment
to his mother Jean.
English goose + trimmings,
a bottle of BOAC Bordeaux,
2 anti-acid for dessert
all in best company.
Review: Revenants - Adam Aitken (Giramondo)
At first, I am unsure of its purpose - it seems a fragment of an idea, a slight documentary poem constructed from personal archives, which leaves out much more than it includes.
But as I sit with this poem for a while, as good poems encourage one to do, several questions arise: are we to act as detectives to extract this father figure from between the lines? Are we to observe the poet's undertaking of such a task - an attempt to piece together clues as to who his father was, as a young man, in the marks and contours of his handwriting? Will this be possible, considering the seemingly unremarkable details provided?
Soon, an alchemical process - that magical quality unique to poetry - is set in motion, as the juxtaposition of words, lines and breaks begins to signify beyond the symbolic gestures of the text.
The opening and closing lines, for instance, emphasise a barbed tongue directed towards home, a dissatisfaction (with family? the nation?) that perhaps goaded the "father" to travel abroad. The mix of English goose and French wine at a Christmas dinner in Singapore (all reported to family back in Australia) foregrounds colonial legacies. And the attention to detail points to the father's meticulous note taking, discussed elsewhere by Aitken - a practice which, evidently, has been passed down to the poet.
Taken as a stand-alone poem, then, Xmas, Singapore 1957 might be appreciated as a kind of miniature portrait of the poet's father, one that emits the combined energies of familial, national and colonial tensions, and which provides a shadow of the poet's own "figure".
Excavating the archives
Once the reader has progressed through the collection, this opening poem reveals itself to be an economical preface to what I consider to be Aitken's two major preoccupations in Revenants - first, his excavation of archives and texts; and second, his enacting of a poetics of hybridity. Indeed, the more-or-less visual symmetry of this poem, separating "writing" and "foreign food", subtly gestures towards these two preoccupations.
Aitken's interest in sifting through archives and texts for buried or obscured meaning can be seen in his earlier writing. Previous books - including Eighth Habitation (2009) and the memoir One Hundred Letters Home (2016) - have investigated the inherited archive of his father's photographs and the letters he wrote to Aitken's grandmother while living and working in South-East Asia in the late 1950s.
Perhaps prompted by his father's death, which came after the publication of those earlier books, several of the poems in Revenants revisit this archive. Aitken uses the space of the poem to deconstruct and investigate his father's written correspondence, as if attempting to see and understand the world his father was seeing, and not seeing.
Poems such as Cognac and Cigars and Gentleman in the Parlour (after Somerset Maugham) establish the "knowns" - [...]
- and situate them alongside the unknowns:
Yet both are unreliable:
They leave Aitken questioning what is left unsaid.
I sense that Aitken's intention here is to bring poetry's toolkit to the task of retrieving not only that which is absent from that which is present, but to expand on that which is present in light of what is absent:
Interrogating the language of colonialism
While this focus on the family archive opens the collection, Aitken's scrutiny of texts extends beyond the personal and into the public. He interrogates the language of William Somerset Maugham's colonial writing and a 1932 British Armed Forces Phrasebook once used in Malaysia.
He interprets the subtle gestures made by painters onto canvas, too. In The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro, which takes its title from the 1857 painting by Raden Saleh, Aitken reads signs of protest in the artist's depiction of the Javanese people "squatting on their own ground".
It seems as if Aitken is testing what a poem can do with cultural texts, how poetry can be employed to submit language to a certain pressure, demanding the release of complexities and contradictions, hidden narratives and motivations.
In another example, both amusing and tender, Aitken finds meaning between and among discarded objects. Bootsale, Chateau St Victor is a list poem, a catalogue of objects that symbolise lost attachments and absent narratives:
The poem reeks of loss and grief, yet ironically signals a new life for these objects: they have the potential to be picked up by new owners and made useful once more.
A poetics of hybridity
Aitken's second preoccupation in Revenants, developing his poetics of hybridity, emerges from his attempts to gain a greater understanding of what we inherit, not only materially or genetically, but also in terms of sensibility.
Addressing his father again, in the poem The Far East, Aitken writes:
This echoes an idea explored by Aitken in an essay published in Southerly in 2013, in which he refers to his father as "an agent of hybridisation". His Melbourne-born father travelled abroad as a young man to work in Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and then Bangkok, where he met and married Aitken's Thai mother; they moved to London, where Aitken was born, and then to Australia in the late 1960s.
When Aitken writes that his father is an agent of hybridisation, he is not simply referring to the fact that he married and had children with a "diasporic Asian wife". He is referring to his father's "status as a postcolonial [...] Westerner in South-East Asia", who involved himself in the everyday of any place in which he lived, and who struggled with the colonial legacy in Asia.
As such, Revenants delivers a string of hearty zingers against colonial British expats and wayfarers - - and celebrates his father's declarations: "Eastern food, and chopsticks. / If you can't use them you can't eat!"
Hybridity, Aitken writes in the Southerly essay, "is more than identity: it is a poetics of Being with no dominant template". It involves a respectful adapting "to diverse demands placed upon you when living in the foreign place".
As such, the poems that pursue his father's experiences in South-East Asia in the first section of Revenants provide a pathway to Aitken's own traveller's perspective and sensibility.
This is more fully explored in the second and third sections of the collection. These poems rove from Sydney to Malaysia, Hawaii to France, but they are not "tourist" poems that observe each location from a comfortable remove, nor are they geographical renderings sketched along nationalised or nostalgic lines. Indeed, Ala Moana explicitly reviles the nostalgia-machine of tourism that pervades the Hawaiian islands.
Instead, the poems dwell curiously in and with the everyday realities of these very different places. They are attuned not only to the now of a place, but to its layers of histories, memories and texts.
This multi-layered sensitivity can be seen, for example, in the long poem Notes on the River, referring to the Mekong River in Laos. Scientific reports about fish in the region are interwoven with lyric poetry that records and reflects on time spent in Siem Riep. Imagery arising from movements along the banks of the river (of people, rubbish etc.) collides with memories that appear to be evoked in situ.
Curiously, there are also quotations (or echoes) of lines by other poets (acknowledged in the notes at the back of the book), yet these lines are not directly related to Aitken's subject matter. It is as if these texts were part of his daily reading at the time. As he moves through the spaces of the poem, they resonate with the landscape.
The intertextual nature of the poem enacts Aitken's engagement with the river, self-reflexively noted in the poem itself:
Aitken's use of quotations, fragments and anecdotes that he has pondered or scrutinised in previous works is a minor feature of Revenants, also prefigured by the opening poem. Yet I find this feature to be a significant and exciting one.
We might recognise, for example, the "return" of the Xmas meal in 1957, the swapping of the digger's hat for Dutch clogs, and the assessment of Maugham. These language "bites" are reframed and reconsidered, as if the data is being interpreted in different ways, as if Aitken is a forensic poet with an obsessive resolve.
One could compare these various texts and uses of documentary material from book to book, yet it is perhaps more significant to note how this activity foregrounds the ways in which our relationship with and to texts - as with people, places and things - changes over time.
Attuning to these changes and their stimuli, Aitken roams across personal, historical, geographical, cultural and textual terrains in Revenants. Yet that first poem, Xmas, Singapore 1957, hovers like a navigational compass or companion, keeping us close to his purpose as we move through this wide-ranging, exploratory work.
Author: Jessica Wilkinson - Associate Professor, Writing and Publishing, RMIT University