by Jaya Savige
Published August 2020
I am a roving / gum, and this koala is my son.From ‘Bach to the Fuchsia’ by Jaya Savige
Approaching Jaya Savige’s third full-length poetry collection—a substantial and unusual work, one that appears nine years after his last, Surface to Air—I found myself thinking about what poetry is. Not all poetry reminds you of this question, and it is because Change Machine offers several models of poetry as a literary art that it occurred to me. Contemporary poetry collections typically employ a single model of poetry: for instance, as a method for formally resolving intense feeling/impression/thought using a first person voice, or as an artful exploration of language itself, often in the absence of narrative. Discussion around contemporary poetry can also suffer from under-definition. Readers and critics may label a piece of writing ‘lyrical’ or ‘poetic’ without arguing why, thereby implying that anything can be lyric or poetry. Over-definition may also occur, particularly by the academically-trained, who may insist on rigid demarcations between poetries with longer lineages and ‘non-poetries’ of experimentation (‘for experimentation’s sake’) and off-the-page performance. Western literary criticism has accrued taxonomically complex definitions of poetry over millennia. But as I read Change Machine, I thought loosely of the free-verse poem as a formally inventive puzzle, often in a first person voice, that subtly or radically conceals its ‘content’.
The last three poems in the collection are exemplary of this: taken as a trio, they progressively become more puzzling, while staying committed to formal invention. ‘Crookneck (Coonowrin)’ and ‘Coonowrin (Crookneck)’ face each other on the page, as in a bilingual edition. In the notes, Savige tells us that these poems ‘both concern the Indigenous Dreaming story of the Glass House Mountains in South East Queensland’. This story goes that during a flood, the father, Mount Tibrogargan, becomes furious that his son, Mount Coonowrin, does not go to help his mother: ‘He struck him, dislocating his neck.’ Savige cites the historian Gwen Trundle: ‘Even today Tibrogargan gazes far out to sea and never looks around at Coonowrin, who hangs his head and cries, his tears running off to sea’ (quoted in Steele). The first of the two poems is in the voice of the mother, Mount Beerwah, speaking to her husband. These are its final stanzas:
Like I say: I know we are rock, but seeing as once you snapped
his neck, surely you could break the laws of physics again
and pay him some attention.
It would mean the world
if you could
take a quick
squiz at his homework.
The poem on the opposite page, ‘Coonowrin (Crookneck),’ appears to be in the voice of the son. The language is semantically ambiguous, and devolved. It is a mirror-image of ‘Crookneck (Coonowrin)’ in that it contains nearly the same number of syllables per line, and uses half rhymes of each word in the first poem. Here are the final stanzas of this second poem:
Lark eyes, hey: ignoble earruck, obscening in sense you sniped
inuksuk, surly you cold brook the lows of viz-aches agon
imply hymn same intention.
It word mine the whorled
torque a quark
squeeze as his dreamwoke.
The poem performs the language of a child mimicking a parent, talking back to their every word (his vocal chords bent out of shape). As a puzzle, its outer layer is not difficult to solve, though each devolved line invites sustained interpretation. Another reader may also see a different ‘solution’—such as that the poet is simply playing, and that we need not attribute a persona to this second poem—which is the mark of a decent puzzle. It is the next and final poem in Change Machine that accelerates this sequence’s puzzling. ‘Cinemetabolic’ is written entirely in the style of ‘Coonowrin (Crookneck)’, featuring devolved and invented words. These are its opening lines:
Hiera that gufforging in the popcorn bushes?
Who gopher, wearing my super money under plans
on ’is nonce, murmuring in backhards elvish,
slobbering on gin jeering cinememe eye creme?
The poem closes like this:
ache hoof hour crate clam shelled wren,
hand haul off there shelled wren to calm.
There is a progression in this sequence from readily comprehensible language to that which is harder to grasp, and seems to have been, to take up the suggestion of the title, metabolised. The two earlier poems offer a clue as to how the third might have been written: using a mirror-template that it has been written against, using rhymes or half rhymes. While we are not given this poem’s mirror-template, we can try if we like to figure it out—like we are solving rhyming slang. ‘Cinemetabolic’ is the ultimate puzzle in Change Machine, exemplary of the poem-as-puzzle model. It also expresses Savige’s scholarly work on James Joyce. In the poem’s note, he states: ‘“Cinemetabolic” is inspired by the recurrent “Mutt and Jute” episodes in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake’.
A major theme of Savige’s collection, which is related to this scholarly interest, is technology. While technology is not an obvious concern in the poems I cite above, it is part of their language. Change Machine bears the imprint of modernist literature, which responded to the astonishing new technological realities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. James Connor writes that modernists such as William Faulkner and Joyce reset the ‘linguistic level of entropy’. He draws on Norbert Weiner’s theory of improbability in communication, with respect to the balance of entropy and content in a message, to make his argument:
…up to a point, chaos itself increases information by increasing the possibilities of that information’s content, up to the point when the very randomness of the signal makes it less and less able to bear meaning. If you graph this change, as did Claude Shannon in his ‘Mathematical Theory of Communication,’ it forms a bell curve, with information rising to a point, then dropping off at an equal rate.
He claims that long before Shannon graphed this mathematical insight for information theory, ‘modernist poets, painters, musicians, and novelists were experimenting with concrete examples’. For Connor, Finnegans Wake progressed Joyce’s experimentations with fluidity in points of view, multiplicity of voice, and directness of thought; in doing so, it came to stand ‘at the top of Shannon’s bell curve, halfway between pure order and pure chaos, constructed, and yet constructed in such a way that it packs a measure of improbability into every line’. Technological contexts for the production of Finnegans Wake are important to note, as they relate to the forms and subjects of Change Machine, even as Savige grapples with newer digital technologies:
Radio air [in the 1930s] was full of noises, wandering signals, high altitude skips, and super-heterodyne screeches, and anyone who listened to it had to gradually attune themselves to a cacophony of voices all speaking at once. For Joyce the exile, Joyce the aficionado of popular culture, radio air was not something to be ignored … The language of the Wake flows and shifts, is noisy and hard to grasp, much like competing radio signals, so that a reader must listen with the same intensity as a radio hound in 1933.
Connor hears formal and thematic resonances with radio in Finnegans Wake’s frequent references to the technology, and the frequent appearance of radio transmissions; in the pervasiveness of advertising, which forms part of Joyce’s ‘encyclopedic mix of codes from opposing forms’; in its polyphony of voice; and in an array of extra-verbal sounds that feel intrinsic to the language of the text, which in the case of radio we now describe as ‘static.’ In Savige’s collection, we find signals of expression shifted by ever-fluctuating rhythms, and punctuated by semantic wobbles and whistles.
Change Machine’s references to technology begin with the first word of the first poem: ‘Egypt’. As well as other, more contemporary connotations, the word evokes ancient technological marvels: pyramids; hieroglyphs; papyrus; ink. The poem leads the section ‘Mean Time Between Failures,’ which is named after these lines in its second stanza:
Engineers measure the average life
expectancy of a system by the Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF).
(Working backwards, then, from Brexit to Suez,
Westminster needs an oil change about every seventy years.)
Having started with Egypt and engineering, the poem recalls televised replays of ‘a peloton’ crashing in a tangle in Paris, and ends with contemporary communications technology: ‘when—finally!—your jacket pocket vibrates with a kiss, / and the emoji for rolling on the floor laughing my ass off / with tears running down my face’. The collection’s temporal range, from ancient times through to our digital present, is signalled here. Present too is the first sign of Change Machine’s irreverence, in the poem’s title, ‘ROTFLMAOWTRDMF’: an acronym for the italicised phrase above.
Technological references are constant from this point on. Here is a selection of them from across the collection: a mechanical dog; ‘the ambient warmth of the fridge’; a cordless leafblower; ‘the Skytrain’; ‘the interstellar cockpit’; a glowstick; contactless payment; phone memory; biometrics; Prometheus’s fire; UFOs; NASA; vaccines; the ‘spork’; nanotechnology; and writing, as in cuneiform and calligraphy. Another ever-present reference, especially in the first section of the book, is language itself. Poems such as ‘Toodaloo,’ ‘Mirrigin’, ‘Citicity’, ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, ‘Plunder (Business as Usual)’, and ‘Infant Speech Bubble’ demonstrate an abiding fascination with language. The title of the section, ‘Mean Time Between Failures,’ suggests equivalence between engineering and language—specifically as it is used in poetry.
This equivalence, and the ‘machine’ of the collection’s title, points us to another model of poetry. This was first defined by Ezra Pound in ‘Machine Art’ (1927). Pound proposed there that the beauty of machines is concentrated in, and arises from, the moving parts of their engines; the better a machine functioned, the more beautiful it was. He used this idea about beauty, as an effect of function, to locate art’s production of beauty in its form. This scheme was later taken up by William Carlos Williams in The Wedge (1944): a collection he wrote upon request for soldiers on the front lines of war. In its preface, Williams frames his thoughts using the machinery of war, stating that he does not see writing as ‘a turning away [from war] for relief.’ He then makes two proclamations:
There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matters like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
This is the modern lyric stripped of Romanticism, understood not as a vessel for feeling but as a purring engine made of parts that need to function together with absolute precision. Williams argues that our attention should be on the construction of such a machine, and not its ‘meaning’: ‘It isn’t what [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.’ Here is the (ideal) poem beheld as a technological wonder—its ‘mechanical’ functions worthy of awe.
Change Machine is an ambitious collection which has two standout accomplishments. One is its formal eclecticism and dexterity; the other is its contribution to Australian poetics in drawing on local vernacular and literary influence, and subjecting these to international currents. The collection’s formal accomplishment is evident in the many poems that try on new and regular rhythms to structure thought in halting or propulsive ways and to abet their irreverent humour. ‘Below the Line,’ a poem that uses halting lines to create a whimsical tone, is about the comments people leave on web articles. Channelling the frequent triviality of such commentary, Savige builds the poem on the epigraph, ‘personfromporlock wrote at 23:55: / Yeah yeah’; he uses the repetition in the last two syllables as a template:
nostalgic for the promise of Expo ’88,
longing for the turquoise lagoons of Bora Bora,
where flash as sailfish, headstrong as mahi-mahi,
muscular as leaping marlin, I … yadda yadda.
Likewise, the poem ‘Fort Dada’ maintains its whimsy through syllabic repetition that feels arbitrary:
Bowls heaped with wild mushroom couscous
suit the one girl from Wagga Wagga
who knows her rendang from her gado gado.
Bright and rare as a golden bulbul
she caught on quick, so flicked the frou-frou,
went off-piste: first tai chi, then the cha-cha.
Other poems employ propulsive rhythms: ‘The Offing’ uses staccato phrases to build momentum, which is then released like steam by its line breaks: ‘On the bluff, by the lookout, off the path, in the scrub, no-one is coming / but us … behind the wreck, further up, where the angelfish are flashing / in and out of the rust’.
The second section of the collection, ‘Biometrics,’ suggests a third model of poetry. This is the poem understood as a literary object that is constantly changing its form, to keep renewing the expressive capabilities of language. Anagrams are a significant formal feature of this section, in poems such as ‘Her Late Hand’, ‘Credo, Décor, Coder’ (the title itself anagrammatic), and ‘Magnifera’. Sarah Holland-Batt has perceptively argued that the collection’s title cites this anagrammatic spirit: ‘Just as a change machine transforms currency into different denominations while returning the same sum total, so an anagram reshuffles the letters of a word and produces something new from the same materials’.
Rhymes, half rhymes and internal rhymes crop up often, as sonic complements to a quirky or kitschy subject—as in ‘On Not Getting My Spray Can Signed by Mr Brainwash,’ about a work by the artist made famous by Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). In other cases, the opposite applies, with rhymes making their subjects kitschy by anachronistically mashing imagery together; take ‘The Endeavour’, on Joseph Banks:
Flushed, hopeful, awkward as a spaceman,
he opens the chute and pushes his specimen
jar into it […]
His senses are haywire: wafts of jasmine and pine
weave with clove, boot leather and semen.
Savige uses tools associated with lyricality to give his poems an anti-lyrical aesthetic (the aspect of lyricism I am citing here is its routine exaltation of its subjects). This produces the prevailing climate of irreverence in the collection. However, more conventionally lyrical aspects, such as mellifluence and an emphasis on feeling, also exist in the collection. Such poems are among the more obviously beautiful, and include the several poems on fatherhood. But at times, aural beauty is used for jarring effect—as in ‘Flight Path.’ This poem, beginning with the line, ‘It’s raining men in Richmond upon Thames,’ is based on a historical event. Its epigraph is taken from a BBC news story about a refugee who stowed himself on a British Airways flight’s undercarriage in 2015, and whose body was discovered on the roof of a fashion building in London:
Above the High Street’s summer dioramas,
did he twist like a samaroid
seed, or whistle like a samurai sword,
swiftly and without words?
Savige grew up on Bribie Island and studied in Queensland, but has lived abroad since 2009 (he currently lives in London). Yet Change Machine is full of Australia, or Australias. In ‘Mirrigin,’ an earnest poem about the poet’s relative ignorance of Aboriginal histories, Tara June Winch and Sam Wagan Watson appear as interlocutors. References to the country’s geography and history abound, along with literary, cultural, and technological nods.
One Australian influence on the collection seems especially pronounced. In their raciness, irreverence, constant intertextuality, density of pop culture references, and their ‘thought bubble’ quality (thoughts seem to rise from the poet’s head on an endless array of subjects, as in a cartoon strip), many of the poems in Change Machine demonstrate the influence of John Forbes. While Forbes had modest success during his lifetime, he has had a marked influence on (especially male) Australian poets of the current generation, including Liam Ferney, Aidan Coleman and Savige. Poems in Change Machine such as ‘Hossegor,’ which imagines the Vikings surfing, and ‘Starstruck,’ which recounts an accident the poet had on his BMX, in Cambridge, that brought him face-to-face with Stephen Hawking, recall movement in the poetry of Forbes. The comic ‘Starstruck’ also reminded me of the real-life Forbes, who was known to ride his racer slowly around the inner-suburbs of Melbourne while chain smoking. ‘Hossegor’ begins, ‘Surfing probably didn’t occur to the Vikings,’ and then entertains the opposite thought at length. It imagines a Viking ‘oaring his chieftain’s faering … as a set wave jacked’:
the shove as the hull slotted flush
into the vein of the sea god, frisson pitching through
the crew like the shudder of a brained seal
as they fluked the drop on an outside bomb.
You can almost see them now, rolling in from
out the back like hoons on a banana boat,
on course to plough through locals. A Nerf howls
to a thud; a kitesurfer eats it.
While distinct from Forbes’ work in its sonic tautness, the poem’s combination of wry humour, irreverence, improbability (including the appearance of a banana boat and a kitesurfer), references to the beach, and speed of movement are reminiscent of Forbes poems such as ‘Europe: A Guide for Ken Searle,’ ‘Rrose Selavy’ and ‘On the Beach: A Bicentennial Poem’. Speed in Forbes is as much about thought—his mind racing to make connections between ideas and things—as it is about the actions he describes. The setting and the improbability of ‘Hossegor’ evoke Forbes’ ‘Ode to Tropical Skiing,’ though one might cite any number of the latter’s poems to demonstrate quick thinking:
the tropics are slowly drifting apart & a
vicious sludge blurs
the green banks of the river, a chalet
drifts thru the novella where I compare thee
to a surfboard lost in Peru,
flotsam like a crate of strong liquor
that addles our skis
& when they bump
it’s a total fucking gas
Other resonances between the two poets are their fondness for blending Australian pop culture references with contemporary American (Forbes’ specialty) and European ones, and their treatment of feeling. Pop culture is especially present in the final section of Change Machine; its title, ‘There There,’ conjures a song by Radiohead that expresses scepticism of feeling. In both Savige and Forbes, the kind of high feeling we associate with the lyric through Romanticism is shunned in favour of cerebral wit—with some clear exceptions. In Savige’s collection,these arethe tender poems about fatherhood; ‘Ladybugs,’ which imagines a sibling’s self-harming; and ‘The Cobra of Djemma el Fna,’ a poem about a partner’s miscarriage that manages to be both sincere and playful. In Forbes’s oeuvre, we find such lyric feeling in the unrequited love poems, such as two titled ‘Love Poem’. Another, specific resonance: Savige’s ‘The Longman-Dickson Axis,’ dedicated ‘for the ALP,’ echoes the sharp satire of Paul Keating in Forbes’ ‘Watching the Treasurer’.
Savige deftly incorporates sentiment and conceptual play into various free verse forms with regular rhythms, giving the work a structural rigour not found in Forbes (whose poems rely, for their rigour, not so much on set structures as the logic of discursive argument brought to verse, as Ivor Indyk has argued). In this sense, Change Machine adds to a tradition of emigrant poetry—including by the contemporary poets Caitlin Maling, Cassie Lewis, Corey Wakeling, Dan Disney, David Prater, John Kinsella and Michael Brennan—that enriches the breadth and depth of Australian poetry. At their best, these poets use physical dislocation to energise transcultural engagements with language, place, and literary and other histories, while staying committed to formal invention. For as Williams stated in his short thesis on the poem as a machine: ‘There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention’.
Connor, James. ‘Radio Free Joyce: Wake Language and the Experience of Radio.’ Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, edited by Adalaide Morris, U of North Carolina P, 1998, pp. 17-31.
Forbes, John. Collected Poems, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2004.
Holland-Batt, Sarah. ‘Unlocking the Savige Machine.’ The Weekend Australian, 16 October 2020.
Indyk, Ivor. ‘The Awkward Grace of John Forbes,’ Homage to John Forbes, edited by Ken Bolton, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002, pp. 87-101.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Faber & Faber, 1939.
Pound, Ezra. Machine Art and Other Writings: The Lost Thought of the Italian Years, edited by Maria Luisa Ardizzone, Duke UP, 1996.
Steele, John Gladstone. Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River, UQP, 1984.
Williams, William Carlos. The Wedge, Cummington Press, 1944.