‘Anti-travel: Greg McLaren reviews Adam Aitken’s Impermanence.com’ in JacketApril, 2005
Greg McLaren (first published in Jacket 27 2005)
[NOTE: I am so grateful to Greg for writing 2700 words on a 12 page book. Greg’s book the Kurrri Kurri Book of the Dead is more worthy of such attention and is reviewed here.]
The publication of Adam Aitken’s new pamphlet, Impermanence.com, marks an interesting, if not critical, point in his career. The concentrated, condensed format of the chapbook in some ways performs an inversion of the role that a Selected Poems might act out. For a poet just approaching mid-career like Aitken, it provides him, and his readers, with a still point that allows a re-appraisal, and suggests a willingness to move forward again. Where a Selected Poems might guide such a re-appraisal through the editorial process of selection and rejection, and confirm or deny a poet’s place in a canon, a chapbook-cum-pamphlet like this can decide on a briefer, more modest, mode of assessment.
Martin Duwell writes that Aitken’s poetic “hybridity is not a subject to be written about from without: it is an enabling situation to be written out of from within”. This hybridity is itself various, and is an area from where much of the energy in Aitken’s work — and productive ambivalences and tensions — emanates. When J. S. Harry remarks on a “fastidiousness — which a regular reader of Aitken may have come to expect”, and notes that his “tonal control is impressive”, she touches on the way in which the poems sustain this complex, sometimes awkward hybridity, instead of lapsing into an easy, catch-all ambiguity.
This control is necessary to avoid falling into a formulaic or complacent practice of cultural appropriation where images simply sit alongside each other merely as exotic embellishment. In a not dissimilar vein, Pam Brown suggests that Aitken “shifts/ between realms of identity”. The key word here, shifts, suggests movement across and between such realms rather than simply and pleasantly juxtaposing images that might seem to represent them.
My point here is that the relationship between Aitken’s concerns and aesthetics can be talked about in a variety of modes, and that this suggests a deep-seated capacity for hybridity within Aitken’s aesthetic. Experience, aesthetics, identity, culture and self are, in Aitken’s work, represented as unstable, but in a controlled, perhaps fastidious, manner. This seems a response to the impermanence the pamphlet’s title announces. This is not to say that Aitken is overtly concerned with Buddhist impermanence, but rather that the instability implied by such a concept is met and engaged with by Aitken in a manner both relaxed and rigourous.
The narratives within Aitken’s poems often raise, as something more substantial than a mere side-issue, the question of whether it is necessary anyway to tell others’ stories in order to tell one’s own, primarily because one’s story is not simply one’s own. Aitken argues that it’s equally necessary to remember the fictional and fictive nature of both memory and poetry, when he claims that he “see[s] the irony in the whole process, being acutely aware that the traveller creates his or her own spectacle and creates a provisional notion of the authentic” (Landbridge, 31). In writing about anything or anyone other than oneself, we inevitably construct such a “provisional notion” of what we write about.
Harry draws attention to the cultural and geographic moving-around in Aitken’s work: “Now, in Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles, travel seems so integral to Aitken’s poetic trajectory and praxis, that one would be hard-pressed to imagine a future collection without it”. It would seem not to be coincidental, then, that the first few of these eight new poems each involve a consideration of travel, images of travel, or they imply travel.
In this context, ‘The Anti-travel Travel Poem’ might come to be seen as a key Aitken poem, where the ambiguity inherent in both travel and belonging meld, and where Aitken’s ambivalence comes more openly into play. These ideas necessarily contain both themselves and their apparent opposites. Perhaps the postmodern, postindustrial “West” resists the idea of travel (and so in a way permits the ‘Anti-travel Travel Poem’) through its drive, through commercial, cultural or military hegemony, to replicate itself endlessly.
Rather than a “global village”, then, we must make our way instead through the much more ambiguous geographic and cultural terrain of the poem:
in a swamp of Choice we must take
the American grid pattern endless
military runways, the borders
Aitken ironises the romanticised intimacy implied in the image of a global village as “no-where-in-particular’s/ shady undergrowth & the poem’s farms & gardens/ revert to shaggy Edens where no-one is a stranger”, and in the closing image (which also opens everything up) of a “Kingdom of minute-by-minute ritual/ where we know belonging, we know how”.
It’s important, though, to remember that Aitken doesn’t close off cultural possibilities. The poem “suggests the road/ … / … we left behind”. This seems as rhetorical as any other of the other signposts the poem leaves. We also find an imagined “Singapore of metaphysics/ in food halls where no one’s lost,/ no one’s found, no one needs directions”. The images Aitken filters the poem through strongly suggest at the very least the outlines of an argument. Indeed, this is how Aitken structures much of his work, rather than through direct assertion.
In the world of Aitken’s poems, belonging can also be considered a sham, farcically impossible, or even the only viable possibility: there are snakes that are “cute & poisonous at the same time”, “exiles mistaken for natives” and
non-travellers who decide to stay
feral & primitive, develop the local accent
camp on the edge of what they know best.
These images seem to echo the observation from Letter to Marco Polo of “the perfect classics scholar/ turning pagan in the heat”. This “turning” confounds the possibility of belonging, or indeed exile, as a stable thing. Belonging, and its implications for identity and self, becomes a convoluted track through impenetrable jungles of culture, mind, technology, politics, geography. It is both necessary and impossible, and this is the serious farce that propels so much of Aitken’s work: how to belong in a world where belonging is not an option.
Structured in a roughly similar way is the first poem in Impermanence.com, ‘At Kingsford Smith’. This poem strains with a multiplicity of cultural perspectives and experiences, with tensions between cultures and within them. There is the difficulty of negotiating such differences: “I stride they float”; “souvenirs newsprint wrapped/ in foreign text/ unreadable to them/ meaningless to me”. The airport fills in as a liminal zone where one’s own otherness (within our “own” culture, and even to oneself) becomes more visible, if not necessarily legible. But in opening up this view of self-otherness, Aitken doesn’t set himself apart in any essential way from these girls. Neither he nor they can read the newsprint: it is either “unreadable” or “meaningless”. While there is a thin distinction here, in practice there’s little difference.
These negotiations and observations are made trickier because the speaker is “drugfucked/ after the office party”. This might seem to place the speaker’s hedonism in a similar category to the girls’ implied superficiality. If this development demonstrates the perhaps submerged self-reflexivity of the speaker, it also complicates the poem’s tone, and hence the interaction it contains.
The repetition of hospitality- and tourism-related tasks in ‘Nyepi’ suggests a close relationship between the mundane and the sacred. A series of recurrent activities, like cleaning the pool, clipping hedges and collecting sheets come to be seen as habitual, ritual-like tasks upon which the smooth running of the speaker’s portable First World experience depends.
These tasks mesh with more conventionally “exotic” rituals. During the time of Nyepi, when “they say/ magicians disguise themselves as pigs/ or glamorous women who kidnap street kids/ & give them jobs”, “séance/ & exorcism” seem to proliferate. Moreover, Aitken seems to suggest that in tourist mode, the exotic becomes, because it is sought-after, a normal, habitual event, while the mundane takes on qualities of the ritual, the exotic. In drawing attention to this apparent reversal of roles, Aitken also poses questions about the nature of tourism. The poem’s first line illuminates this position: “Grope around for matches”.
Aitken avoids the trap of emptily appropriating others’ culture. The information that the poem presents is only what is learnt from local lore: the locals “tell the tourist what’s Royal or divine”. They “say/ magicians disguise themselves”. “They tell us: all this fuss ensures/ the great darkness/ is a darkness… / … & why the ghosts/ are fooled by this”. Even among such seemingly exotic beliefs, the mundane activities of working life continue, but Aitken makes these tasks strange and exotic by providing them an “alternative” context.
This drawing-together of places that are nominally “East” and “West” is continued in the structure of some of the images in ‘At Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur’. The juxtaposition of cultural images and anecdotes seems at times perhaps a little easy, but even where they seem less effective than elsewhere, there remains a lightly comic spark: “dogs in shrink-wrapped ribs asking for nothing/ like miscast Buddhists” and “The Don with double-barrel fangs/ slurps a 7-Up” (though I initially thought Don Bradman, rather than a mafia figure: unless Aitken is suggesting a cricket-vampire-underworld vortex).
What can seem to be a less than cohesive flow of images resolves into a controlled lack of cohesion. This apparent drift is carried through a number of images and phrases which give some indication of where Aitken wants this poem to go. His speaker looks out upon “This view of modern curves and vistas/ won’t hide our scoured treeless hierarchies./ Everything’s open, precisely engineered”. This image is consolidated and expanded: “U-turn and we brood in traffic/ detour through modern consciousness./ Not to include chaos must have been/ a planning error”. Just like the newsprint text in ‘At Kingsford-Smith’, “We don’t ask to be meaningless”.
‘Elegy for John Forbes’ was one of the stronger poems in Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles. In this pamphlet, Aitken has included another, more private elegy in ‘First Contact’. This poem’s private references and allusions makes this, for me, a slightly attenuated and complicated emotional experience. The poem seems to not quite communicate its own context.
However, in his grappling with the subject matter and the tension between publication and intimacy, Aitken undertakes a key move. In making reference to his own (inevitable) fiction-making (“Take your pick they are all/ fictions some more/ fictional than others”), Aitken to a degree ironises the poem’s emotion in order, again ironically, to render the emotional tug more real. In setting up in the reader an expectation of an at least partly ironic stance through references to fiction and cliché (“Straight out of movies”), the series of images associated with the elegy’s subject actually gain rather than lose authenticity.
There is a certain lightness of tone in this poem that also alleviates, without entirely dissipating, the heaviness of elegy. This helps Aitken with the poem’s central irony of juggling private grief and its public display in the elegy. This tension is clearest, if also somewhat concealed, in the poem’s central lines: “what a/ coincidence I didn’t think/ anyone was interested”.
The fictive implications of ‘First Contact’ carry on into ‘Federation Mark 2’, particularly in that poem’s attention to the fiction-making involved in the construction of historical narratives, and of the creation and maintenance of national myths. This poem is interested in how various stories (such as those in earlier Aitken poems like ‘Morse Code Museum, Alice Springs’ or ‘Rock Carvings, Sydney’) might be pushed into or toward a single narrative that otherwise seems to recoil from accepting the otherness in our midst.
‘Federation, Mark 2’ approaches a set of questions about Australia, indigenous Australians and the possibility of belonging within or alongside models of Australian-ness. ‘Federation, Mark 2’ owes a small element of its tone to John Forbes’ ‘On the Beach’. In his location of the “old nomads stolen by the state” in a consumerist, commodified cultural setting, Aitken draws on Forbes’ now seemingly iconic passage:
… know that what they gave you when they took your land
is just a foretaste of what you’ll get
now your religious imagery looks subtle on fabric.
Aitken writes, faintly echoing Forbes, of
trading messages and recordings
like boomerangs coming back
as petrol, as a promise
to meet and talk
dreaming and telling
that story we all agreed was true.
Aitken is less certain about what “that story” is than Forbes is in his narrative of appropriation of indigenous culture. The strength of Aitken’s image rests in this ambiguity: while “we all agreed [it] was true”, he presents no consensus view of that “story”, sharply situating the poem within a historical moment where narratives of this sort are being reassessed in a seemingly ahistorical context. Questions to do with “social justice” are increasingly contested with ideological violence from a political right that seeks, among other things, to (re)install conformity as the new setting for democracy and belonging. The underbelly of Australia’s historical foundations drive a concealment of those foundations that is sporadically quite manic: “I can’t think of a nation/ so anxious to be happy”.
A number of Aitken’s key motifs and concerns coalesce in the last poem in Impermanence.com, ‘The Fire Watchers: A Memoir (in the Sydney Style)’.The interplay between and within cultures is visible in the intertextuality of Aitken’s borrowing from Robert Adamson’s ‘My House’: “I ask: Why did Mum/ never sew the hems of my jeans, even if Death on the TV/ reminded her of her children?”.
There is also a dim echo in the poem’s summing up of personal histories (both his father’s, and his own “Reaching forty”) of John Tranter’s ‘Having Completed My Fortieth Year’. These poets are among Aitken’s poetic forebears, and it is apt that he finds a place for them in a poem “about” his family.
Aitken continues his interest in matters to do with belonging and the construction of identity. Memory is maintained but also altered through being archived and cordoned off from daily life. This form of personal editing is due to a mixture of force of habit and means of storage: “the biscuit tins stacked and smiling, flipped through/ so often the narratives refine themselves/ with every passing year”. This matches the way Aitken constructs many of his poems, selecting, storing and reusing images and adjusting their contexts.
A sense of cultural or social dislocation provides a compelling irony when Aitken’s mother burns his father’s books in “the only city he ever loved”. While perhaps “belonging” in Sydney, the males in the family are open to overseas influences, namely American. Young Adam notes the differences “in pitch and rhythm” between local sirens and the “foreign ones on TV”. His brother “became a heavy smoker of imported/ Virginias”, and his father has a number of “habits he learned from Americans”.
Perhaps perversely, when “Mum burned Dad’s books I thought/ how modern she’d become”. Here, elevating her to her husband’s own status, the fire is a great cultural equaliser, cancelling out her “nerve wracked silence”. It becomes a postmodern inferno engulfing a broad variety of narratives and genres: “biographies, murder mysteries — / winged histories made permanent in print:/ ’50s crime classics, adulterous romance/ well plotted paperbacks”. These flames are a literary version of the impermanence Aitken heralds in his pamphlet’s title.
Aitken draws on an insurgent restlessness that might question the possibility of a stable, consistent belonging in a specific place or culture. An aesthetic grounded in such a position is able to adapt across a broad range of cultural terrains and contexts. Aitken’s poetry does exactly this. Pam Brown touches on this when she writes that in Aitken’s work,
the exotic, the “oriental”
charted, examined, lamented
dismissed, embraced —
the spectacle is integrated
Otherness and difference are cultural markers, certainly, but move about in relation to wider patterns of otherness and difference. The “Western” and “Eastern” cultures that Aitken draws from are not discrete, homogenous mono-cultural blocs: they are in constant contact with each other through a bewildering variety of cultural, political, economic, religious interactions.
Aitken’s poetry is one site where such relationships are established, reconsidered, explored, enjoyed, consolidated. There is no single, stable, reference point from which these relationships can be objectively viewed, and Aitken’s aesthetic acknowledges this, and indeed derives its fluidity and fluency from this apparent absence.
The closing notes of Duwell’s review looks toward further work by Aitken: “It is hard to guess what Aitken might do in his next book and one hopes that the enabling notion of an empire of floating signs doesn’t become an escape-proof prison. At any rate it will be something to look forward to even if it is with a mix of anticipation and nervousness”. While Aitken may or may not “keep changing as the middle years click remorselessly by”, he certainly does work through sufficient modulations of tone and perspective from book to book to retain the interest of his readers, and also probably to expand that merry band.
These eight new poems do not present a large or varied enough a body to demonstrate either a consolidation or a new direction for Aitken. If this gives no real indication of where Aitken is likely to go next, it is of little consequence. One of the rewarding things about reading Aitken’s work is that it seems simultaneously familiar and fresh. If this is true of Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles and In One House as both consolidations and extensions of the concerns and forms of Letter to Marco Polo, it is equally so of the poems in Impermanence.com.