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Adam Aitken
Eighth Habitation
reviewed by
Michelle Cahill
Giramondo Publishing, April 2009, Paperback, 144pp
ISBN 978-1-920882-46-4 AUD$24.00

book cover

Rendezvous between texts


Eighth Habitation, the title of Adam Aitken’s most recent collection of poetry, suggests an allegorical abode akin to the six Buddhist realms of conditioned existence into which living beings are reborn. Aitken has referred to the Hindu-Buddhist notion of purgatory wherein the meaning of human life is judged. It follows that these poems collate a multiplicity of perspectives through the personae of devas, asuras (or demons), asparas, émigrés, the political ghosts of a Cambodian genocide, chroniclers and French colonialists, as well as being carried through the voices of familial and personal suffering.


While the book’s thematic concerns with home, identity, authenticity, cultural context and idiom are developments from his previous collections, Eighth Habitation engages more intensely, and with greater psychological penetration, with the subjects of history and memory. This is evident from the opening poem “Fin De Siècle” which captures in mood, tone and image, the opulence and decadence evoked by the closing of one era and the onset of another, the speaker elusively caught between past and present, between memory and forgetting.


The Latin lovers waved and she didn’t wave back.
She was the pleasure of the world passing, about to shake
her wings free of the disaster, and take off, and leave you
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.


Like its whimsical heroine, with her “sighing, mood-wracked” promises, the poem teases and complicates the surface of language, pivoting meaning and ambivalence. Poems like “Fable”, “At Rozelle Asylum” and “Iononian” allegorise historical scenes of invasion and colonisation. They provide descriptive hints: the “quartermaster”, “the botanist”, the “springtime ports’, which limn with elegant fluency an incomplete, quasi-mythical depiction. One is always impressed with Aitken’s remarkable facility in diction, the precision of his classifiers, the way they can slant meaning and create nuances. Take the following lines from the poem “Fable”:


All land codified
as the visible,
scoured and clearfelled,
great land
of the forever language.


Here, through the choice of active verb participles like “codified”, “scoured” and “clearfelled”, cultural representations are verbalised as a negative landscape. The imperial agency, the empire of signs heralds, in its reverse, the emptiness of received language. It is impossible, Aitken suggests, to make visible that which is marginalised.


The poem “At Rozelle Asylum” plays out a different ambiguity, one of voice and speaker. The poem begins with the speaker describing a “quartermaster who’d cracked”, “a madder Captain” suggesting perhaps the infamously cruel Bligh, fourth governor of the first colony, and an unnamed botanist (? Banks), who composes names for the “exotic” trees and flowers. The speaker’s voice refracts, however, as the poem’s narrative unfolds, to address by turns, the botanist, the crazed inmate, the poet’s alter-ego:


Fig trees, for instance, just
appear between the stones, green
as immigrants or refugees
hidden in the shade.

Are they natives now by instant decree?
You wear their leafy heads, and see
yourself once again,
historical footnote, crazed misfit.


The poem’s ambivalence moves through these inferences from historical detail to allegory and metaphor, questioning how knowledge of the past is obtained. At the same time, there is sufficient detail to suggest an early colonial circumstance, which writes back to an Australian cultural context.


In closing the gap between myth and history, Aitken invites a critical re evaluation of the past, and perhaps more obliquely of what determines credence. In the poem “Archive” which contains miscellany taken from his father’s diary, the reader’s perspective, as a contemporary interpreter of the past is intentionally unsettled. Style and bias become transparent, in both writer and reader.


Poems like “Translations from the Malay” which riffs English phrases for British colonial administrators, or “Louis De Carne’s Diary”, which draws from the memoirs of the French colonialist Mekong explorer, ventriloquise the pretensions and prejudices of a prevailing mentality. This kind of historiography becomes a thematic concern of this collection, as elements such as authorship, interpretation, source and audience are questioned.


The range of sources for many of the poems includes texts by naturalists, colonialists, authors and fellow poets. The collection interpolates free verse forms with memoir, historical text and collage. This kind of hybridity of source and form is a development of the poet’s earlier works. “In One House” and Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles; contain poems of subversion and syncretism, which move beyond adoption or appropriation to entertain new cultural possibilities. Aitken’s earlier poems are ironic, playful, itinerant, situating the speaker’s identity at the crossroads of competing cultural, social and critical discourses. The mood of Eighth Habitation is more intense than those earlier books.


There’s a movement away from this kind of cosmopolitan bricolage, and an emphasis on the relationship between texts recycled; the interconnections between writers and readers, as if these connections depended somehow on a misreading or a miswriting of text; or perhaps that which Harold Bloom refers to as misprision [1], a relativity, an afterthought, which inadvertently stumbles not to a conclusion but back to the creative source. This metatextual development in Aitken’s work reflects his maturing vision, the images played with less exuberance, the voice partly agonised, having abandoned hope of unexpected discoveries. Addressing the Anglo-French explorer Mouhot, in the poem
“Dear Henri” Aitken writes:


These days it is not so easy
to discover anything,
or to re-discover anything,
let alone die looking.


The poems shift from the epistolary to the soliloquy. The poet addresses himself, as he traverses the landscape of the real and the imaginary, a space from where he might reach out to the past, to other poets, as one understated; a modest, erudite writer of letters, for the scholarship of this collection is surely one of its strengths. Many of the poems are reworkings, misprisions of other writing. They adopt an intimate tone, the source acknowledged by first name: from “Essentials: words and phrases” he acknowledges the poet Jane Gibian: “Like your poem, Jane, about a list/ of no use to business:” In “Coins Falling” a spare, wrenching poem he adopts the letter writing mode of address to the poet, Agnes Lam: “Dear Agnes/How I wanted to respond/to your poem ‘coins falling’/ but here there are no coins/and no buses/that will take me where I want to go.” How far removed these lyrics are from the dressed riddles and wit of his earlier work.


Aitken, arguably one of Australia’s finest exponents of free verse, deliberately avoids formal stanzas and metre, his verse characterised by a remarkable fluency in expression and tone and by ample variations in pace, so that the line breaks are rarely found wanting. The image, Aitken is saying, is empty of meaning, as language is indulgence, a commodity of late capitalism. There are “sounds/to remember”, “but no poems to write/and end like that.”


The book’s weakness is possibly an over-inclusion of poems in the first and second section. Poems like “First Contact”, “To A Cyborg” or “The Curse of the Chicken Rice Hawker, Penang” are a little superfluous to the collection’s shape and themes. Despite this excess, a mood of futility builds in poems like “The Fire Watchers: A Memoir”, “Kuta Diary” and “Nostalgia.” This slowly escalates into what becomes the existential crisis of the Cambodian section with its interrupted sequence of aubades to an imaginary lover:


Love? Are there metaphors
We haven’t mentioned?
We are surrounded
by minutes and hours
we can never use.


Suffering, death, the afterlife, the reincarnated life are preoccupations the poet explores through the real, the historical, the imaginary and mythic: a genocide of Cambodians; the wreckage of history; the Bali bombings; the fabled Bishma, son of the Kauravas lying on a bed of arrows; the poet himself recalling a former life of surfeit as he recovers from a trauma of being stabbed. Fragmentary, interrupted, haunted by misprision and intertextuality the poems become increasingly less descriptive, more evocative to the reader. Their truth does not persuade or provoke as much as it resonates disturbingly, effecting an active reader-response.


The river motif infuses this last section of the book in sonata-like form, a structural and verbal abstraction, rendering with tenderness its themes of exile and futility. Aitken articulates this crisis most poignantly in “The Photo”, a poem answering to an image of genocide “To forget or not to, /to write or not to-therefore live-/to forgive the monster.”


Caught between past and present he writes against hope, addressing the beloved, an imaginary audience, both living and dead, through sustained lyrics, which surpass imitation or fastidious style. This rendezvous between texts, their interconnectedness and causality is essentially Buddhist in thought. I’m reminded of how Bloom’s notion of strong poems suggests they are “omens of resurrection”:


The dead may or may not return, but their voice carries alive, paradoxically, never by mere imitation, but in the agonistic misprision.


With the omission of some poems Eighth Habitation might thematically have been more cohesive but this is a minor point. The collection is a superb, haunting achievement. It negotiates lyrical shifts between prosody, myth and history, between realms of existence, marking a new and compelling direction in Aitken’s oeuvre.


[1]  1. Bloom, Harold The Anxiety Of Influence: A Theory Of Poetry. Oxford University Press, second edition 1997: preface xxi

Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill is a Goan-Anglo-Indian who writes poetry and fiction. She has written and edited two collections of poetry. Vishvarupa, themed on Hindu deities, is her manuscript in progress. Her work was highly commended in the 2009 Blake Poetry Prize. Michelle edits Mascara Literary Review


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