Poetry review by Derek Motion
Giramondo Publishing Poetry, 2009
It did take me a while to get through Aitken’s Eighth Habitation. There’s a lot of poetry within – 146 pages – but the stop / start manner I found myself reading the work in came about, I think, more from a particular poetic style. The poetry so often encourages you to think about a particular reference, to chase it up, and then return later to ponder the poems some more. So I wasn’t propelled through the book from start to finish, but this wasn’t a bad thing. I haven’t read Aitken’s previous collections before. I will now though, and I will be interested to note if this density is a regular approach of his, or a product of the subject at hand. For now, what follows is a more or less start-to-finish stroll through Eighth Habitation. After reading through a few times it still seems like an apt way to approach the work. It is a voyage.
What is an Eighth habitation? The back cover blurb declares it ‘the Buddhist notion of purgatory, a mythical realm where the meaning of human life is judged’. There’s always the possibility a title is something applied after the fact, something that luckily seems to fit the content, which I must admit is the way I title a lot of my poems. But via light research (Google, of course) I gather that Buddhist purgatories are progressive states of enlightenment one must be born and reborn into. And the duration of each ‘habitation’ is dependant on karma being resolved, and, I think the title has a deliberate depth. So what does it mean applied to a collection of poems? Is the arrangement of pieces an attempt to understand the process, or a simple task of documenting an inevitable process of personal flux? I previously wasn’t aware Buddhism covered a notion of ‘purgatory’. But I will allow that it seems an interesting concept, and attempt an understanding of Aitken’s work that includes this.
The book is broken up into three sections. The first is aptly titled ‘broken / unbroken’ as if to remind us the book is broken up into parts. All existence is as made concrete by a poem is broken into lines (sometimes seemingly arbitrary lines; sometimes musically precise breaks) but these poem-objects are part of a whole too at the same time, an unbroken oneness. It’s also similar to the title of a Jill Jones book of a few years ago, and I wonder if this is a nod to her work, an identification of similar pursuits I think the writers might share. Jill mentioned the idea of ‘self-discovery’ when we were on a poetics panel together last year. She was citing it as a positive thing poets can allow into their work. This idea returned to me again and again while reading Eighth Habitation. I think there’s a link.
The poems open with a ‘fin de siËcle’, an invocation of ending at the beginning. The term brings with it all the connotations of an era ending, of decadence and opulence on the brink of being shaken up, yet Aitken also captures a broader sense: an ominous undertone stemming from this opulence, and the anticipation of change. Is this general sense conflated into personal detail, represented by a woman, a lover, ‘the slender young ÈmigrÈ’ at the centre of the poem? Perhaps she presages change in a more definite lifetime (a poet’s) using the titular conceit. I thought so at first, but similarly thought her to be an image from the past, painted filmed or photographed, then imagined into a poem-life. We are left with the paradoxical notion of preferring our own lifetime when the poem attempts to
once again thinking this had been the best century ever
and you were haunted by what she could not forget,
already beyond your knowing, what she is and was.
All we know is that we cannot step inside the thoughts of another – we can only approximate true connections through shared art and communication. And which century was the best? This one, or that? After reading this poem it reminded me of Tali White singing ‘…I prefer the twentieth century’, in the Lucksmiths track of the same name. The nostalgic tone of that of that line while sung suggests that things seemed better before, but only here, from this particular vantage, on the cusp of change (the twenty first century barely begun). Aitken’s book of poems immediately indicates the intention to ‘inhabit a range of perspectives’ – this first poem admitting to the complexity aesthetic judgment entails in the face of time. Like the last line suggests, an understanding of anything that is not you and right now (firmly situated on your own dynamic cusp) is somewhat ‘beyond your knowing’. Not that that will stop us wondering and searching. You can think of this human momentum with a sigh… or wait, defiant jubilation: Nothing’s gonna stop us now!). We persist and inhabit.
‘Fable’ inhabits a perspective just as distant, skirting around first comings to Australia in general – and fittingly after a fin de siËcle introduces the general concepts of memory, change, but moved to a geographically particular view. This places me in NSW, with the Googleable idea of the Pig & Sows reef… The way that things are interpreted as instances of being claimed seems to me at stake in Aitken’s work:
Another’s lack seemed
no more than their own.
All land codified
as the visible.
And similarly, in ‘At Rozelle Asylum’ the actual quartermaster mentioned is hard to find, but the meaning is there – the marks we leave are the representations of us. The story etched in the past, in this poem too, is a ‘historical footnote, crazed misfit’
‘A biography of 13’ gets more specific, introduces the poet’s father, and, amazingly, a brief image of his grandfather, the inventor of VB. The interesting connection here for me is that searching out of people or ideas in any form, numeric, familial, might be a generative method? In their song ‘16 military wives’ The Decemberists use numeric analogies to get at a greater idea (America can’t say no), but also I suspect as a mode of discovery – in their case the numeric method makes the images more particular, thereby illuminating something more general (America’s political and cultural rhetoric is at times suspect, but so often reduced to the anodyne soundbyte, represented by the solitary anchorperson on tv going ladedadedada…). For Aitken the connections searched out via the number thirteen lead him to familial connections, especially down the male line, leaving him with the story of his father:
I think of how to honour a tattooed grazier
who became an auditor of destruction;
how he went to hell and back again
like a number 13 horse…
It’s as if the image and placing of his father has been discovered, or re-awoken, and this then takes over narrative arc of this collection. Because ‘Ionian’ then follows the thread of war, announcing it as key concern. A documentary method is this time the spur. Vague idea forged of rumination leads to a stricter mode of research, and so on, thought and poetry dancing in cyclical fashion. ‘Ionian’ (one meaning pointing to the Western region of Asia, colonised by the Greeks) shows a long history of battle cannot be ignored. There is an ingrained process at work. Are all battles alike (personal or national); are all histories alike?
Aitken’s concerns never forget that personal viewpoint. At times I wonder who the references are directed towards – is this the father figure, or the historical figure? – but regardless of the exactness there’s always a personal immersion. I’m not sure who this botanist is, but does it matter?
My mind aslant with your haunting
they said that you’d been thrown
off the edge,
whom I imagined I once knew
Are we all explorers still? Like George Bass (I was in Kiama recently – he therefore becomes the dominant seafarer occupying my mind) doomed to a fate of expedition, but final ignominious loss.
Aitken’s preoccupation with his self is most felt in ‘broken / unbroken’. I think there’s a conscious attempt to locate various questions about his agency here, before moving on toward more geographical rovings in the latter two sections. In ‘To my double’ he writes ‘Even my beautiful other half / reminds me of you’. The ambiguity that colours many of his poems here makes you wonder – is this a reflection that reminds the poet of another half, even a ‘better half’? Or is it something more nuanced, the gaze locating a partner that reminds me, of me, (non-beautiful and all):
Love is a kind of
intense plot awareness
I look at myself
I see you
This, what I hazard as a sort of loss of identity, brought on by deep submersion, is perhaps the reason for a poem like ‘To a cyborg’. I thought the poem had some really nifty turns of phrase, and arresting images, but that it got lost in its particularity. On reflection however this is an accord. We get lost in the details all the time. ‘A’ cyborg? Like the centuries that pass us by, which one is best? ‘will you / lie with me fake tiger? / Are you mine?’ Is anything constructed that can be owned completely?
‘First contact’ a poem that treats the entirety of culture as an manufactured explosion, by widening the gaze out to alien life. This is a lovely anti-conceit, sincere and original, and it submerges you in the imagery, even though you aren’t forcefully made to ‘get’ the specifics. Ambiguity is really pleasurable when used in such a way – ‘Friend of friend at cocktail party!’ – and another important thing to note: how hard is it to find good use of the exclamation mark in a poem these days? I don’t think a grammatical flourish is Aitken’s point, of course. I think he plumbs the notion of ‘Australian’ with assiduity, or with all the beautiful impossibility of an overheard thought:
We could hardly move, we moved.
You wanted forests. I didn’t.
Your life so crowded I had to leave.
Crossing Lake Toba opens up further thematic lines. This lake is a site of major human disruption, one of the largest ever volcanic eruptions that theoretically may have caused a population ‘bottleneck’, a reduction in the diversity of human species. Though no poem seems to deal geographically with ‘crossing’ such a lake, the crossing is still there
This middle is the shortest section of the book, perhaps somewhat of a bridge itself, between the Australian & Cambodian poems. As such, it feels hard to locate a voice – ‘Kuta’ repeats the ‘You’ accusation, and perhaps this is the poet, this becoming more likely as the section goes on. Perhaps its shortness represents his brevity – a short stay in Singapore / Bali, an attempt to gain some insight into past events / personal histories (a motif for the collection?) that instead only can produce small snippets of history, small experiences of ‘moment’ (the voice blurred, as if to indicate a lack of ownership of even those small moments), and riffs on the otherness of other cultures. Then to my mind ‘The Bargain’ introduces a family connection. Is this Adam’s Grannie? That truth is uncertain, not something we are given to know. But the couplets are formally perfect for this rumination on addictions of a varying type, mediated with the understanding of an older vantage. It an affectionate picture:
Time-ravished, leathery and dentureless
she crooned for the heat-rashed brat
His selfish pleasure pulled her limb from limb,
but what dissolved her jaw and gums
were pink alkaloids of a crushed nut
wrapped in a bittergreen leaf’
The Lake Toba section ends in a different tropics, and a more locatable language too, where the poet and his mother have ‘have hit the red burgundy, and talk / of fixing the condo, and why she’s here / living out retirement / in a cycle of sugarcane harvests’…. the talk takes in a lot over the course of the poem, a fitting seal on the poets own rambling, anti-travel thoughts, seeking to locate himself in a history. This is more immediate, filled with neighbours who aren’t recognisable, but whose manner of description are: Heinz, Charlene, and Marcel for instance. The conversational poem ends with a casual discussion of having a holiday:
‘For the culture!’ she says.
‘For the culture and what’s left of it!’ I say
And we’re halfway there…
The book takes us on this holiday too (a holiday in the strictest sense – filled with the heat and disaster that always attends the most well-meant plans). Eighth Habitation takes us there both physically and as an imagined ideal.
The final grouping, Cambodian Poems, seeks to give you a map of the poetry. The first poems say it explicitly: These are the concerns of a map – to guide you geographically; these are my concerns – thematic travail: bombs, forced eviction, pain. By welcoming us in this way to the country Aitken declares his personal link. I think his technique becomes more apparent too. Tactically placed end-stopped lines and short clipped stanzas when combined with the subject matter – all things Cambodia – emphasise the sonority his verse can create.
But why the emotion? ‘Ruins’ tells us:
In Phnom Penh a mountain of junked bicycles
is a monument to Welcome!’
Aitken takes two kinds of ruination – here the despoil of warfare, and an americanised commodification – and weighs it up against his notion of purgatory. A feeling of zen, where cares are not real, must be difficult. The lines seek to tell a reader how to overcome all in the world that doesn’t fit, by seeing it as an ongoing process of habitation:
It took no time at all to learn what I needed
and years to relies what I’d learned
was what I didn’t need.
Feel your mind empty with the statement – repeated with the insistence that object and word lack importance: ‘for the collector: // the bottles a boy sorts / more valuable than the boy’
I liked Aiken’s obvious writing tactics throughout this collection. The ‘Postcards (after Michelle Cahill)’, employ the idea of using another poet’s response as a springboard to further personal enquiry: ‘Who knows if suffering’s inquiry leads you anywhere / but back to suffering?’…then ’And yet, you’re right Michelle. the children / still wave here… The flux of the form carries this mode of speaking to a reader. We read Cambodia as simultaneous poets, drifting alongside Aitken as he discovers. Sometimes there is no agency at all in what we must consume. In ‘A note on the river’ he writes ‘no-one / writes or can // this my accident / of passing by’. We pass by with him. We wake to alternate takes on the aubade also – compelled to negotiate the various perfections that are, or are not, present in the world, in Cambodia.
I’ve heard the author Alice Pung talk about the genocide museum in Cambodia before, the Tuol Sleng Prison, describing her family’s link to the region. At the same time she explained why she has never written of it herself. She claims a novel that goes to this hell (I am paraphrasing loosely, with the lack that passing time grants us) is not her story to tell. Accordingly I found it interesting to see Aitken attempt this. Throughout this book, I read the poems as his story, even going so far as to see him on a journey, one that could have been spelled out for us with the addition of diary entries. (And previous poems, like ‘Archive’ and ‘Translations from the Malay’, feel like gestures to the more traditional mode of interpreting a travel experience. The words of others are interesting interludes, interesting jabs at poetry. The words of ‘Archive’ cannot be the words of Aitken, if the date is to be believed. Is this a diary from his father’s military service? The Ionian pursuit? so many questions. A nice spare prose though becomes poetic, and further fills the journey: ‘Danced with my first Asian’….) I assumed Aitken went to S21, the genocide museum where thousands were killed under the Pol Pot regime, and then described the visit poetically. In fact we know traveling in this way is important to Aitken as it is shown on his blog. But it doesn’t have to have happened this way – we read it as such because the story is created in poem and arrangement. The affect is telling. In a poem like ‘S21’ Aitken seems only to be able to describe things optically, mechanically, and then question any proper role his words can have in this:
Someone who’d been to Belsen
had written ‘Justice’ in the visitor’s book.
But this was a rustic and ham-fisted machine
with no industrial prototype.
I too have to write, wondering where I am
on the chain-link of paranoia…
It is fitting that ‘The 32 Hells: A Sampler’ follows this – a footnote to a museum to hell in this realm, a musing on the hells to confront us in others. I gather our karmic debt will right, but not easily.
I was left feeling as if the writer’s self had unraveled over the course of this collection, this voyage. We are introduced to a mode of personal and historical probing, but eventually left imagining ourselves as but dream versions of ourselves. Aitken questions the other man in a lover’s dream in his final aubade: ‘what’s he got / that I haven’t / and if its really me’. In ‘Pol Pot in Paris’ he finds an empathy with the monster, thinking ‘We could have been lifetime friends, together / rooting out evil, picking mushrooms, / sipping coffee…’ reminding me a little of the necessity of seeing the darkest of aspects in ourselves. A radical leap that makes sense, like the final lines of the Sufjan Stevens’ song ‘John Wayne Gacey’, where he sings ‘And in my best behaviour / I am really just like him / Look underneath the floorboards / for the secrets I have hid’. With these various dissolutions I think the poetry of Eighth Habitation achieves some of its aims for poet and reader alike. No, I didn’t know at all times what Aitken was doing. I even suspect that it only became clearer with the writing of this review. But his poems are formally beautiful (never unruly), and despite this contain a mess of allusion and thought. I guess in a way I now identify with Aitken, in the act of identifying with a figure in a photograph, posing an ‘impossible’ question to them both:
To forget or not to,
to write or not to – therefore live –