Time-trav­el­ling col­lec­tion takes sur­pris­ing paths

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright

IT’S been six years since Jaya Sav­ige, who is po­etry ed­i­tor of this news­pa­per, pub­lished his first col­lec­tion of po­ems, the award-win­ning Late­com­ers. Sur­face to Air is a much an­tic­i­pated re­lease, and there’s been a great deal of in­ter­est in Sav­ige’s new work.

This is a star­tling and of­ten sur­pris­ing col­lec­tion, ex­plor­ing new ter­ri­to­ries — ge­o­graph­i­cal, emo­tional and for­mal — as well as new tech­nolo­gies that are of­ten spurned or sim­ply ig­nored by po­etry and its lan­guage.

In­deed, there is a con­stant play with new­ness in Sur­face to Air, re­volv­ing around strange ne­ol­o­gisms and the new and chang­ing frames that tech­nol­ogy brings to our ex­pe­ri­ence of the world. It is of­ten tech­nol­ogy and its shift­ing ref­er­ence points that spark the po­ems. Re­cy­cling Night, for ex­am­ple, opens ‘‘ By the elec­tric cyan glow of my phone/ I swing open the screen/ il­lu­mi­nate a snail­sil­vered path/ to the con­crete un­der­world’’.

But the new and ul­tra­mod­ern are al­ways brought to bear on the an­cient and mythic, as in the ref­er­ence to the un­der­world. Else­where, a car be­comes ‘‘ a mis­sile to Pleiades’’, a vol­cano an ‘‘ ig­neous in­box’’. The sec­tion of travel po­ems in the mid­dle of the book is even ti­tled ‘‘ Mem­ory Card’’, bring­ing the odd jux­ta­po­si­tion of the term into sharp re­lief.

Where this mix­ture of the mod­ern and the clas­sic works, it brings real vi­brancy and en­ergy to Sav­ige’s po­ems, as well as a won­der­ful sense of hero­ism to ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences. And this hero­ism is im­por­tant to the po­ems, which find hon­our and great tragedy, with a re­fresh­ingly non-ironic sense of hu­mour, in fig­ures as di­verse as Otzi the ice­man, for­mer rugby league player Wally Lewis, and Mer­lin Luck, an ac­tivist who ap­peared on the re­al­ity TV show Big Brother.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, how­ever, the lin­guis­tic in­ter­play be­comes too ob­tru­sive, and in­ter­rupts the emo­tional core of the po­ems: ‘‘ lis­ten­ing/ to your c fi­bres fire, pack­ets of fas­cist/ elec­tro­chem­i­cal mail.’’ ( The Pain Switch). In The Il­liad (disambiguation) more­over, a sense of scorn, which is ab­sent from any of the other po­ems takes over, in some­thing that feels like a cheap shot: ‘‘ The Il­liad fea­tures a touch screen with sty­lus for in­put,/ an ac­tive ma­trix elec­trophorec­tic dis­play/ with film man­u­fac­tured by E Ink Cor­po­ra­tion.’’

But what makes Sav­ige’s in­ter­est in the new most ex­cit­ing in his work is the ease with which it is brought to bear on po­etic rather than mythic tra­di­tion. Some of the most star­tling po­ems are very for­mal, and deal with travel through Europe, New Zealand and Australia. There’s a emo­tional del­i­cacy to Sav­ige’s trav­ellers, and a keen ob­ser­va­tion of place and space. And this of­ten all oc­curs within the con­straints of for­mal verse. Sav­ige ex­er­cises a dex­ter­ous, light con­trol over his lyri­cism. His rhymes in par­tic­u­lar are al­most un­ob­tru­sive, as in this from Public Ex­e­cu­tion:

The forms the po­ems en­gage with are com­plex and di­verse. The book opens with a se­quence of haiku-like verses; there are even a few dar­ing if not en­tirely suc­cess­ful con­crete po­ems, about a stingray and a moun­tain re­spec­tively. River­fire, the poem at the end of the col­lec­tion, is sim­i­larly un­even, but ends with a mad­cap kind of plaint, di­rected at the ex­plorer Ox­ley, and echo­ing the struc­ture and en­ergy of Allen Gins­berg’s iconic Howl.

But there’s also an imag­i­na­tive kind of travel of­ten present in Sur­face to Air, a kind of em­pa­thy, or aware­ness of the move­ment of the wider world be­yond the lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ences of many of the po­ems’ speak­ers. A con­tem­pla­tion of bare knees and calves in the won­der­fully ti­tled Shorts Weather, for ex­am­ple, leads the speaker to con­sider an am­putee ‘‘ far off in Su­dan’’; fire­works in Bris­bane con­jure ex­plo­sions in Bagh­dad.

At the same time, a rhetoric of con­sumerism and cor­po­rati­sa­tion forms an un­der­cur­rent to other po­ems. In The Min­utes, it is ex­plicit: ‘‘ the sun, CEO/ of Sky Inc./ cruises the block/ in its gold Maserati’’.

This col­lec­tion is, then, in many ways a po­lit­i­cal one — and it is against this rapid, va­pid com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, and against the mad­ness of a world at war that the po­ems work, striv­ing for mo­ments of still­ness and con­nec­tion. The beau­ti­ful love poem Sum­mer Fig ex­presses it thus:

De­spite the con­stant in­ter­play with the past and with the ever-mor­ph­ing fu­ture, Sur­face to Air is full of mo­ments like this, where time falls away and respite is found — on beaches and in bed­rooms in par­tic­u­lar. In these mo­ments, some of the more daz­zling leaps of lan­guage that Sav­ige dis­plays else­where fall away, but they do so in place of some­thing poised and poignant. It’s in these quiet mo­ments that the power of Sav­ige’s po­etry drives home hard­est, in the pock­ets of calm be­tween the wild imag­i­na­tion and bold metaphor that en­er­gise the book as a whole. Fiona Wright’s de­but vol­ume of po­etry, Knuck­led, is pub­lished by Gi­ra­mondo. The sharp sun stu­diously scans each com­plex hi­ero­glyph then set­tles into heat like a stiff whisky; the parched city gulps it back. To not spill this thim­ble­ful of still­ness. Soon we will re­turn to the im­pos­si­ble puz­zle of light, cut by hot os­cil­lo­scopes.

Jaya Sav­ige

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