by Adam Aitken
Revenants creates a liminal zone of perception in Adam Aitken’s oeuvre. Drawing on travel, ‘place’, family memories and indeed his own memoir work, literature and an ongoing commitment to trace and critique the impacts of colonialism, there’s also a restive negotiation between the failed diplomacies of day-to-day life and the consequences of living with the dead that are and aren’t one’s ‘own’.
Some readers might say that it’s characteristic of Aitken to ‘journey’ from Australia to south-east Asia to Europe and Hawaii, but Revenants encapsulates Aitken’s disturbance around the need for such movement and what is potentially lost in such movement. Back at the end of the 90s Aitken wrote, in Landbridge, ‘Travel, backpacking, or tourism furnish a lot of the surface material for my newer poems, but the poems ought to reveal their own logic, and so I tend to see 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.’
The comment about ‘spectacle’ has a resonance given Aitken’s interest in France and French culture, especially in that it might echo Guy Debord’s 1967 text The Society of the Spectacle and possibly anticipates Aitken’s critique of inactivity by participants in resisting social degradations (around the world) that enact ongoing colonial capitalist controls. Though the blurb on the back of this new poetry collection insists that the poems ‘reflect on the legacy of colonialism, not as theory, but as inherited experience’, I would argue that Revenants does both: there is a specific subtextual knowledge of critical theory behind the lyrical (and even lyrical-rhetorical) lines, and Aitken positions himself as both recipient and enactor in these poems. His is never a neutral ‘gaze’, and there are levels of culpability and responsibility complicated by his own mobility and cultural privilege as visitor, as participant, as consumer.
It is a nuanced and complicated as well as complex positioning that arises in part out of an urbanity that frequently digresses and willingly steps out of that urbanity to ask questions, and even establish a residency of both participation and observation in the unfamiliar (with which he seeks to familiarise himself in various ways, as travellers do and residents have to). Alienation and a desire to overcome it, but also a seeking to understand its nature (whatever its ‘justification’ or lack of justification). In the Aitkenian matrix, this becomes absorption, but only ever up to a point, as shown in the numbered sequence ‘Sunlight on La Grande Rue’ (from part ‘4’). In a sense, much of Aitken’s later poetry is sequential as presented in his books, even if it’s not numbered as such:
Where is the cemetery, I ask,
but one wrong vowel and my neighbour is lost,
keen to get back to her tomatoes.
You want the cement?
She is asking herself why les arrivistes
want to ramble across her family plot.
I should have said that
I sought the local dead.
to read their names,
to see who knew whom, who spent
decades together, perpetually paired.
I will tell the marble I fear
the silence of the forgotten more than their death.
I will pronounce sweet words and leave them to it.
The concept of insider and outsider, the intruder and the intruded upon are caught up in motives and a need to connect. This is definitively an issue of ‘coming in’ and negotiating a way that all migrants experience, and also those who spend part of their time living somewhere else, and even ‘visitors’. Terms of negotiation and access are, if not established in the poem, talked over, meditated upon, and also, at end, baulked over. The interior monologue is significant here and in many other Aitken poems because it frequently morphs into conversations with others, and often with the reader. It is overt and it is often masked by tone-shifts. A lyrical conversational mode that fuses with an open formalism. Wry statements that are really interior reflections. It gradually narrows the poem down to a conclusion if not a ‘reconciliation’ (usually unobtainable) with things as ‘they are’. It’s direct and also evasive. It is… complicated and complicating, for all its ease of diction.
In the same poetics piece from Landbridge, Aitken also notes that readers of that time might be more familiar with him working with ‘Asian iconography’ and less so with writing poems of where he lived (Newtown in Sydney), but he was ‘redressing’ that in new poems. This ‘tension’ between where one lives and where one travels, where one comes from in so many cascading ways is what’s always interested me about Aitken’s work, which I have been reading for over three decades. I have always interpreted Aitken’s work though the matrix of what I term polysituatedness — that any and all of us co-exist in many places (and via our heritages, times) simultaneously, and that place itself is both material and abstract, spiritual and concrete. These are temporal-spatial issues around the consequences of how we came to be who we are, and how we will act with this knowledge. It implicates us in the past and affects how we act in the present.
Aitken’s work seems to epitomise the need to cross thresholds and retain a sense of what such a crossing might mean ethically and politically, and to exist in a liminality of doubt that seems paradoxically sure in its views of right and wrong. As a ‘dream symbol’ of ghostly return wherein what is returning might not be one’s ‘own’, or might be a misprision of a conceptualised past associated with a place one has moved to (as Aitken has in an off and on again way to quasi-rural France), a revenant ghost that is not necessarily (or only) one of your personal ghosts but also amplifies all ghosts, is a complex ‘device’. This idea of the revenant, the returning, runs through all the poems in this book to different degrees (either as allusion to family heritage, to the dead, or as drawn from the poet’s own travels and writing), are most succinctly put in short poems at the end of the book, in the ‘French’ (third) section of poems: ‘Revenants 1’, ‘Revenants 2’ and ‘Revenants Again’.
‘Revenants Again’ ends the book and its final lines show the level of self-questioning that drives Aitken’s pursuit of a cultural fluidity, possibly even a form of self-questioning intersectionalism, that can offer space of beauty, sharing and maybe justice. As a non-didactic poet, Aitken manages to not only critique, but necessarily lambast (lashings of irony) social and power-complex wrongs through robust and subtle lines that given the sense of lightness and freedom, beguiling us into a false sense of calm that’s not really there (at school, while the shit was going on, he was thinking of Airfix war models). There’s almost a passive-aggressive harnessing of energy at times.
And in this, Aitken is consciously exposing a trope of reading when it comes to Australian poems of non-Australian material — asking who is reading and why? Aitken wants the reader to question their reading certainties. In fact, the Indonesian painter Raden Saleh (1811-1880) becomes a fulcrum in this collection via his seeming appeasement of his Dutch ‘benefactors’ and William III’s patronage, through his painting of a Euro-art inspired ‘romantic’ masterpiece, The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro, that might well have been (I believe it was) an assertion against the Dutch (who had killed 200,000 Javanese in their attacks/warfare). Aitken’s poem ‘The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro’ confronts the subterfuge existing in the guise of artistic ‘conformity’ — the poem posits: ‘You can’t say whose side the painter’s on’ as the painting depicts the horror that both contests and serves the colonial aggressors. This masterpiece of samizdat painting that appeases and profoundly rejects, becomes almost an ars poetica for Aitken’s anger that fuses with an aesthetic sense of recording experience.
In his ekphrastic poems (and ekphrasis is a mode in Aitken’s work of interacting with the world… be it television, seeing a ‘site’ or ‘sight’, or a literal artwork), a disturbing beauty of painful contradictions is created: we are in the strokes of the artwork, and also stepping back to see what power they do or don’t serve. Those final lines from ‘Revenants again’ ironically but touchingly read:
Cast off, troubadour,
Stumble into the dream
And get well soon
The three sections of this book might trace rough geographies, but moreover they trace ways of conceptualising geography and history through personal experience, and, fundamentally, personal change that comes with ageing and being conscious of that ageing. This is focussed through the loss of his father and broken down within the complexities of a father-son relationship which is ‘offset’ by the intense memory and creative connection with the mother. ‘Using’ his father’s memory and life, Aitken projects himself into a colonial questioning that configures his mother as anti-Other, as the person via whom colonial France and Britain come into a more critical focus then even his father’s ‘Australian in Asia’ 1950s colonial morays and exploitations.
In fact, before being distracted by Leigh Sales taking on a politician on the television in the hospice, his father questions what Aitken will say ‘about him’. These tangled webs of heritage and historically culpability are in counterpoint to the reality of being a poet and writer investigating not only their personal meaning, but their part in wider demographic historicisms. Aitken is highly attuned to the subtleties and brutalities of these trajectories and has created a brilliant and unique way of embodying them in poems. This is displaced writing about place and placement, and questioning national constraints and impositions of power through the momentum of personal stories and acts of recounting.
One of Aitken’s great skills is the weaving of irony into the lyrical moment — often moments of ‘beauty’ overgrown with scepticism, a way of self-critiquing (as a tourist and not a tourist) but also dismantling the egregious. This irony is often associated with the Sydney years of John Forbes, and maybe Steve Kelen, but it’s also strongly inflected by John Tranter (i.e. ‘Tranteresque’) and possibly Pam Brown and Dipti Saravanamuttu. Can it really be called ‘Sydney School’? I don’t think so, and, in any case, if it exists, ‘this’ irony is far from Aitken’s only tone or register (complex as it might be) of irony: his irony is evasive and mobile and is strongly part of his positioning and repositioning himself in the slippages of family, ‘home’, place and ‘world’.
It is often a warm irony and a devastatingly undoing irony at once. Sometimes it’s just withering and that’s it. Whether it’s the ongoing colonial desiring of tourists (or, indeed, ‘world heritage’), or the perverse elisions of the far right in France with the incidentals of the day, or American patriots finding something to be happy about with the launching of a new naval ship in Hawaii, the irony is inevitably embedded in an empathy towards the greater world and the possibility of redemption, or, rather, it’s embedded in a self-doubt of how to act against the corrosive aspects of the seemingly ‘benign’. Aitken concludes the poem ‘Ala Moana’, ‘You want to shout Fuck Tourism, but that would be nostalgic.’… having a go at tourism and nostalgia, of course, but having a go at his attempts to critique it all as well. It’s an ‘endearing quality’ that keeps us with him, but maybe the joke is ultimately on the reader (as well).
And maybe I am over-reading, but I see the revenant dream-ghosts as suggestions of redemption even more than accusation or judgement (of the poet, of the circumstances of presence, of the discourse around circumstances which is too often bigoted). There’s a remarkable poem in the final section of the book titled after the train of the same name (Paris to Milan to Venice), ‘The Stendhal Express’, in which the poet positions the voice of Stendhal in a shifting, slipping juxtaposition to his own voice and choices (and compulsions) regarding transition and movement, politics and culture. In Stendhal’s voice we hear of his ‘perpetual flight from official choices’ through to the unofficial but familiarly directed encounter with his great novel The Red and the Black implicated in the poet saying, ‘At fifteen I adored the novel/ my mother read to me’ and we think of the mothering Stendhal lost, through to a coming together of disparate biographies is both made and questioned in the final line (of both voices, essentially): ‘The whole world marching onto a page.’
What’s fascinating about the ‘juxtaposition’ technique in the Stendhal poem is that it tells us a lot about how Aitken uses his family history and stories (and letters etc) as marginalia for his dialogues with that past that has become part of himself: separate but next to, alongside — an entwining that always qualifies separateness and agency (for good or bad), but allows ‘his voice’ to dialogue, to be part of an ongoing conversation that eventually becomes broader, communal and historic.
Sometimes he does this memoir-dialoguing of self and, say, father (frequently in the book’s first section), and introduces a literary subtext or extra ‘voice’ (that also functions as a kind of litcrit ekphrasis). In ‘Gentleman in the Parlour (after Somerset Maugham)’ the deconstruction, the challenging of logocentrism, happens within the multiple voice actions acting across the poem that are all woven with a beguiling and disorientating (and frequently withering) lyrical ‘delicacy’:
I read my father’s letter on Hong Kong,
how he loved it:
the heat, the beer in bottles, the tailoring,
I imagine him reading Somerset Maugham
with the temperature at 105.
Waited on by one silent Chinese boy (sic)
who lights his cigarettes.
Eastern food, and chopsticks.
If you can’t use them you can’t eat!
Dense traffic and ceaseless din.
These lines tell us a lot about Aitken’s particular deconstructive and dialogic technique. He contests the language of bigotry (always seeking to ‘centralise’ itself) through the ‘borrowed’ or ‘quoted’ language, as he does through the evocation of a bigoted colonialist and lauded British writer such as Maugham. A colonial positioning takes place and then is undone. The aligning of ‘tailoring’ and ‘freedom’, and the lighting of the cigarettes in the arrangement of master and mastered is painful and unaugmented. It is what it is. The chopsticks line is configured against the Western cliché of density and noise. This weaving of the marginal into the central dialogue of colonial behaviour and colonial imposition is polysituated into the fact of inheriting the array of experiences and impositions, and acting and enacting out of conflicting experiences. Aitken’s poems de-centre racist discourse. They break the binaries. That is not to say that Aitken is aligning his voices as either ‘subaltern’ or ‘master’, but rather attempting to deconstruct the language of such experience without owning that experience.
This tension between cause and effect, between objectification and reception, is further complicated (but never exonerated) by ‘My father was not English,/ not Maugham.’ He is not ‘Masterton, Maugham’s hero’… In parsing the story of his colonial white father and his Thai mother, Aitken never creates such binaries, and the French interests (and relationships) of his mother focalise the absurd colonially-driven separations of ‘East’ and ‘West’ rather than the generative conversations of difference that bring creativity and understanding.
Aitken often uses natural features to show the truth behind the shadows projected on the wall of Plato’s Cave; we are shown the truth via reason under the sun. His magnificent ‘Notes on a River’ (Tonlé Sap, Siem Reap, Cambodia’) modulates perception by both interpreting the shadows and naming them, and looking for the truth under the sun. Or, rather, though the sludge and pain of a stressed river, of finding broader ecological and social realities inflected through personal experience and storytelling and reception. After all, the poem begins: ‘Not a river at all/but a question’, and embarks on a history of interaction that remains ‘true’ through a ‘Miraculous hydrology!’ Being somewhere is engaging with that place and its people. It’s also about forging friendships and genuinely trying to articulate and redress wrongs.
Adam Aitken’s substantial body of work is rhizomic, but what so fascinates me is how the rhizomes are as much a priori as empirical, and part of his work is to trace pre-existing rhizomes and bring them into conversation with the new experiences and ‘discoveries’ of his life/the observed world. His life is also the life of those who came before him, and for all his critiques, it’s clear he deeply cares about how he retells those memories and interprets the texts he has received. He contests the legacies of colonialism and unpicks the implications of himself as a traverser of the world. But Aitken has always been concerned how a poet talks about what constitutes a home, and I quote here a few lines from a 1990s poem ‘In One House’, which amidst its compiling of ironies is deeply embedded in sharing, friendship and questions of ‘belonging’ in direct and tangential ways: ‘But who then ever were — strangers I mean —/in a house of friends.’