Time-travelling collection takes surprising paths
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.