Review: Paul Hetheringtonon John Mateer

Dissolution and Reclamation: Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’ by John Mateer

John Mateer is a poet with a peripatetic sense of self who is fascinated by cross-cultural historical currents and transformations. Conscious in his writing of his origins as a South African, connected to the Portuguese through his powerful interest in their history and art and their significant presence in South African history, and intrigued by, yet unable to fully identify with, the colonial enterprises of European nations over recent centuries, his poems frequently register how history and its associated human ambitions and cruelties taint or inflect much that we know.

In reading his previous volume of poetry, Southern Barbarians (2011), it was useful – and chastening – to remember that the Portuguese possessed a large colonial empire from the fifteenth century. Infamously, the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the ‘known’ world of 1494 into Spanish and Portuguese global hemispheres. This was one of the justifications used by these nations for their frequently brutal conquests and their colonisation of the Americas and other parts of the world (for example, the Portuguese enslaved indigenous Brazilians and Africans at the beginning of the sixteenth century and for centuries afterwards). In its various post-colonial legacies, the Portuguese empire exists in remnant form, reminding one – as Mateer’s poems regularly do – that the histories of colonisation are still alive. In many cases, they are present realities rather than past narratives.

An awareness of such matters is almost a prerequisite for entering Mateer’s work. His writing is steeped in this sort of historical consciousness – and a kind of historical self-consciousness, too, so that the persona of a number of his poems is less a persona per se, than a historical or cultural spokesman. As well as writing about the Portuguese, Mateer has written about aspects of the complex histories of South Africa, Australia and Indonesia, so this latest book of poetry is an extension of his continuing exploration of various, often connected post-colonialisms. It might also be understood as the latest installment in his ongoing investigation into how things appear to a South African-Australian with a sense of belonging and not-belonging that is felt almost equally everywhere.

Part of Mateer’s sensitivity to history and colonialism is his awareness of the irreducible specificity and particularity of various cultures, their languages and history. Notwithstanding this, another way of understanding the volume is that he has – on the face of it, rather improbably – found in medieval Al’Andalus (‘the so-called Moorish state which occupied much of present-day Spain and Portugal from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries,’ as the cover blurb describes it) a correlative for the Australia, South Africa and Indonesia he knows. He says as much in his ‘Afterword’ or ‘Echolalia’. In this belated introduction to the volume – by the time we reach this afterword, the poems have already done their work on us – he writes of his ‘feeling that the Great Southern Land was an upside-down Iberia, that Indonesia was [his] Morocco, Africa [his] South America’. What prevents these assertions from merely seeming preposterous is his interest in making this idea of upside-down correlations between cultures into a condensed and discursive series of metaphorical poetic gestures.

In an interview conducted in 2011 and published in Cordite in June 2013, Mateer told David Shook that ‘I usually feel quite “familiar” in any place’, and further

that places are exchangeable. That Canada [a country Mateer also has personal connections with] is a multi-cultural and – ideally – bilingual country [which] has strange parallels to South Africa and Australia.

Places are, of course, not exchangeable, but in Mateer’s roaming imaginary they become, at least to some extent, drawn into a kind of codification of broad historical tendencies and movements. This constitutes a way of rethinking traditional narrative historical accounts and their often doubtful ‘truths’. Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’ is a book about imagined geographies as much as real ones.

It is also a book that is as much about the Portuguese as it is about the ‘Moors’, despite a number of gestures towards Moorish culture. Portuguese places and cultural markers – and loanwords – feature almost everywhere in the collection, which is also preoccupied by tropes of the elusiveness of beginnings and origins, and by tropes of connection and disconnection. The collection is periodically fascinated by ideas of the exotic and the other, while simultaneously concerned to ironise and critique stereotypical constructions of cultural identity. As a result, the weight of history and culture sometimes lies heavily on these often short poems. Their frequently prosaic straightforwardness, and occasionally flat tonality also periodically contrasts with – or perhaps throws into relief – their concern with the mysterious, the unknown and the indeterminate, along with the immeasurability of history.

In his afterword, Mateer makes a virtue of the characteristic tonality of his work:

It’s this question of tone, though, that I would like to stress. What is it when a tone comes into one language from another, or from another poetry tradition? It could be that it usually meets with a deafness, the readers saying, ‘We can’t hear the voice’. There is also an interesting question of phenomenology here: What is it to hear a voice in a poem?

As he links this question of tonality to translation, he also references his own English-language poem, ‘The Language’, which had an ‘Afrikaans original … derived from the Arabic … [and] the Persian influence on Spanish poetry’. This poem has been translated into Farsi and has thus returned ‘perhaps, to its point of origin’. Here is the first section of the poem:

I will learn what the world is,
not from the beginning, that’s
the impossibility of meaning,
but from that place where
shiny thoughts are twilight
and everything, like a child’s first NO,
furthers the sun.

I am not sure that these lines are atonal. They are matter-of-fact and abstract at once, moving into rather ineffable issues as they develop their associations and meanings, and rather prosaic in their utterance. (I don’t say this as a criticism, but simply in order to note that they do not make use of many of the rhythmic or other devices available to poets everywhere, even in this age of so-called ‘free verse’.)

Mateer reflects in this poem on language and utterance. More generally, he considers associated issues of translation and the ways in which ‘the history of literature is a history of the importing of techniques and tones from one language and one literary tradition to another’. As he does so, his poetry registers some of the inescapable ironies connected to all complex language – bound as language always is to its cultural contexts – especially when he quizzes the ways in which the truths of various colonialisms and their aftermath are often unsayable, even in poetry.

The process of colonisation, and of history itself, ensures that languages and particular inflections of language disappear or are changed over time, along with cultures and peoples. In one sense, everything is hybrid and every culture and language is partly made up of other cultures and languages. In this context, Mateer’s poetry consistently and ambiguously posits the idea that the construction of linguistic facets and fragments might be the best one can do when speaking about the past. Additionally, as his poems attempt to register complex meanings and political, cultural and social positions, they offer a critique of the artificial polarities of the so-called ‘war on terror’ and comment on the Apartheid and post-Apartheid regimes in South Africa.

Yet Mateer often speaks less about the past or contemporary events than about his own reaction to, and interpretation of, what he encounters – people, places, situations, ideas, and various forms of injustice. He also frequently links what sounds like (but may not be) his personal circumstances to historical, cultural and geographic references. In this way, his book becomes, in part, a kind of documentation of visits to other places, actual and metaphorical, past and present.

Occasionally, this produces a disjunctive effect. Potential meanings embedded in a poem jar and resonate as historical material collides with contemporary references. Sometimes such jarring results from poems that explicitly ironise aspects of the conventional lyric, while trying to retain a residuum of lyric intensity. The collection’s title poem, ‘The Moor’, is an example: a poem that Mateer defends in his afterword as ‘a proper muwashah’ (it is not entirely clear what he means by this; a muwashah is a specific form of Al-Andalusian strophic song), even though he concedes that the poem ‘could, perhaps, be read’ as racist:

Let me be the Moor. You’re the Galician Princess,
slavegirl. OK? I’m on my own Reconquista;
you’re down on your knees. Yes,
I am an African who reads a lot,
and you are tilting back your wondrous head,
your dark hair twisted tight in my fist.
You are parting your balmed lips,
tongue taunting, bright as a bitten strawberry.
Yet, this is almost communion …
Are you on your hands and knees?
We’re both slaves to the blur of the mirror.
Or do you want to be that famous pulpo gallego,
squiggling away in my inky mouth?
I am the Moor, and you, my almost conquered,
interrupt: Enough History! Fóllame!

This is a loaded poem. Galicia expanded greatly during the so-called Reconquista of Moorish territory by Christian forces, which began in the early eighth century and continued until the fall of Granada in 1492. During this period, in 1139, Galicia and Portugal were established as separate kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. Mateer’s poem thus reverses the flow of history, as its speaker imagines himself a ‘Moor’ reconquering a Galician. So much is clear, and it signals an irony in the poem’s point of view. Yet tropes of the subjugation of a woman by a man are tricky to fully ironise in a poem where the enslaved woman finally says (when translated): ‘Enough history! Fuck me!’  For this reason, the poem risks being implicated in the exploitative tropes that it tries to subvert and critique.

To speculate for a moment, perhaps Mateer is aware of this and believes that such a risk adds a kind of literary frisson to the reader’s engagement with the work. And perhaps he is asking a question of the reader about the extent to which they are complicit in racist fantasies of colonisation and of the exploitation of (and the attempt to eroticise) subjugated women from invaded cultures.

Certainly, in Mateer’s hands, history is often a momentary glimpse into one or other historical episode or situation, which he re-inflects; or it is a remnant in the present that questions whether we have ever really escaped the implications of past events. Additionally, his poems suggest that truth and knowledge in general are often only able to be approached as a set of abiding and unresolvable questions:

The West
–graffiti for the ruins of Cordoba Cathedral

Here, in this unreconstructed mosque,
the arches and proliferating pillars
are a million stilled camels returning
to the Caliphate of the Invisible,
leaving us behind, here, in this emptied
mosque of Mind

It is characteristic of Mateer that in a poem about one of the architectural wonders of the world – the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba (originally a mosque, it was subsequently converted into a Catholic cathedral) – his emphasis is on reimagining history in the form of an ‘unreconstructed mosque’ to which a ghostly ‘million stilled camels’ return from an unspecified place and that, further, this is described as a return to an invisible Islamic state. It is as if Mateer is not so much writing about what he is able to see, or what history tells him, but about a third, shimmering idea of an alternative world or set of possibilities – an idea that is connected to the contemporary world and to history, but oddly abstracted from it too. Here history becomes a form of creative rumination, a way of tantalising and imaginatively destabilising ‘reality’.

What we often think of as reality is destabilised in other ways too. One of the hallmarks of Mateer’s previous book, Southern Barbarians – tonally similar to the current volume and broadly, and often laterally, about the activities of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and literary accounts of such activities – is its preoccupation with the dynamic and uncertain nature of personal identity. He pursues this preoccupation in Unbelievers, although it is expressed not so much through shifting voices in his poems – a recognisable voice utters all of them – as through the sometimes discomforting or disconcerting assertions the poems make about identity. It is as if, for Mateer, identity is never a single, given thing.

Rimbaud’s famous statement of 1871, ‘Je est un autre’ – astonishingly written when he was sixteen years old – is referenced by Mateer in one the longest inclusions in this book, ‘The Translator’, a rather laconic poem about poetry, literature, the Nobel Prize winners Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, free speech, Australia, South Africa, Apartheid, war and violence:

That’s war: Everyone
is Other. Rimbaud’s dream. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t strange
for Rimbaud to become an arms-dealer and slaver?

Are we to believe from this that anybody might, at least in theory, be anybody else? The poem ends by asserting that Lisbon is ‘a city of … that proliferating ghost, Fernando Pessoa, the First Person’. Pessoa’s ramifying heteronyms appear to be a symbol of dispersed and elusive subjectivity that, in Mateer’s mind, and in his construction of his poetic world, permeates everything.

In his interview with David Shook, Mateer states that he is ‘interested in the transparency of the Self in a way that is closely related to that of the Buddhist notion of the Self as an imageless mirror’. In this volume, ‘self’ and personal identity are frequently characterised as fluid and shifting constructs made partly out of history, partly out of the act of writing, and partly out of present encounters and engagements. Such constructs are almost always in conflict with nationalistic and monolithic ideas, and the poet-speaker continually slides away from the viewer’s gaze:

When in my dream I appear
I’m nothing like John Mateer.

I’m an old Chinese man with chopsticks fossicking
through dust, bones and ashen things

Adding to this drama of the disappearing and reappearing self, Mateer also plays in various ways with the name João, the Portuguese form of the name John. One short poem, dedicated to the radical Portuguese film director, writer, actor and critic João César Monteiro, asserts:

Yet – A confession! – on my deathbed,
my last sentence will, probably begin,


This book is thus, in one sense, a collection of ruminations on the fragmentary nature of self and human experience, and on the unknowable nature of things. Structurally, it also presents as a series of fragments – mainly short works, some of them like facets or shards – that make no claim to overall coherence. Instead, what matters to Mateer is that the light from these faceted fragments bounces into, around and off one other. They are suggestive of many different places and times, and many different kinds of experiences, but are never complete enough not to imply doubt, or not to be a source for further rumination.

All is provisional; everything is in the making. Even some of the informality of Mateer’s writing asks to be read as a gesture towards a kind of provisionality in the very making of his works. Perhaps this is a recognition that there are no ‘finished’ gestures in a world where so much is evolving, being continually borrowed, translated, cross-referenced and rewritten. Mateer himself writes that his book may be ‘a reminder of the extent to which every utterance is an occasion, a moment of connection, however fragmentary, before we fall back united again into the Void’.

There is an almost hallucinatory quality to this book, informed as it is by a kind of spiritual questing, as well as its engagement with history; trying as it does to speak of origins amongst the hubbub of worldly noise and, in its less fraught moments, trying to establish the possibility of connections to the Invisible:

There, in the valley,
you ‘catch a glimpse’
of a poupa, far away,
as he alights,
then disappears, and you
remember, maybe dreaming,
an Unseeing from
your previous life.
Neither spoke, yet you heard
this: I am the Messenger
of the Invisible. I know
the Way…And you still
try to follow.

For Mateer, such spiritual issues occur in ‘gaps’ in his life, or in time, or in states that are neither one thing nor another, or in places that are between other places. In the following poem, the Monsanto referred to is a historic mountainous Portuguese village that conveys an impression of sitting apart from the contemporary world:

Two bell-towers,
both ‘clocked’.

Between each
pealing of their hour

a few minutes’
discrepancy that

you allow to be
infinite, or


In this fairly lengthy collection, Mateer combines the quotidian experiences of a traveller with an exploration of problematic subjectivities and a metaphorical re-rendering of medieval Al’Andalus in ambitious, often speculative, frequently fragmentary poetic excursions. His book is both lyrical and anti-lyrical at once. At times, it presents a hallucinatory vision of alternative histories. It presents a poetry of meditation that is cognisant of cruelty and brutality, of cultural clashes and cultural connection. It knows that nothing is ever fully sayable; it denies the single and the monolithic. Even Mateer’s projections of self dissolve in these poems, or split, or face absence and emptiness.

And perhaps the collection’s main trope, apart from its continual weaving in and out of history, memory and the past, is that poetry may have a role in positing meanings to try to understand and articulate the lost and damaged; that, at its best, poetry may be one kind of evidence to demonstrate that incomplete and irretrievable things live on and are able to be newly envisioned and constructed; that everything, no matter how dispersed, may be joined, or at least combined, in a poetic dream of possible connections.

‘David Shook interviews John Mateer,’ Cordite (1 June 2013).