By Michelle CahillPoetry 5 Islands Press
Michelle Cahill’s Vishvarupa is a uniquely Australian–Indian hybrid. Subjects range across the Hindu deities, meditations while bushwalking, travels in India and a mother reflecting on her life in suburban Australia.
‘Can there be any Australian poet who has entered with such lyrical depth into the intermingling voices of Australia and India?’ asks Chris Wallace-Crabbe.
These poems are astonishingly rich and new, with roots in myth and references to contemporary life. Vishvarupa shows how poetry can absorb and transcend our secular selves – and how we can find the mystery in the everyday.
‘Many of the Hindu deities get a guernsey in Cahill’s smart and worldly collection,’ writes Mark Tredinnick in Australian Book Review. ‘But none of these gods – nothing at all, in Vishvarupa – is offered as itself alone, or as a simple metaphor … Cahill handles it here with wit, craft, and courage.’
From its dreamlike opening poem ‘Something like a Reverie’ Cahill’s luminous collection of poems about India and Australia opens up its own reverie that is rich, insistent and full of lush sensory detail. The poetry’s naturalistic, often story-like style is unassuming, yet executed with great precision and discipline. Transporting the reader from Darlinghurst to Mumbai, from garden to temple, these poems resonate with the author’s clear-eyed wonder, quiet, precise powers of observation and gleaming turn of phrase. In a long list full of technically brilliant poets working at full stretch, Michelle Cahill’s Vishvarupa was a quiet, poised delight.
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The desire for home is a powerful and complex longing. So much more than the literal need for shelter and safety, the idea of home goes deep into the psyche of human beings as a symbol of how we make and inhabit identity. Home is a place that at the same time is a way of being, a unity of self and self-belonging. And yet the notion of home is bound up inevitably with loss. The word ‘nostalgia’, for example, is compounded from the Greek words for homecoming and pain. In the very centre of the idea of ‘home’ is the possibility, the reality, of homelessness and exile – from ourselves, from our origins. It’s a tension that goes to the centre of what it means to be alive and changeable. The beginnings of consciousness, the very acquisition of language, inaugurate a sense that we are irrevocably dislocated from a world that once, however imaginary that belonging was, belonged to us.
Emigrant identities take these complexities and complicate them further, especially when, as with Michelle Cahill, they are spread across vastly different continents and cultures. Her biography in her fine second collection of poems, Vishvarupa, describes her as ‘a Goan-Anglo-Indian poet’. She was born in Kenya of Indian heritage, and raised briefly in Britain before settling in Australia as a child. It’s a very modern, post-colonial biography, a series of personal, generational and historical dislocations that open up the falsities of thinking of language as a transparent tool for self-identity and expression. Perhaps the first question that occurs – and certainly for a poet – is ‘whose language’?
For a writer like Cahill, this is a deeply vexed and fruitful question. Anglo-Indian is itself an inscription of colonisation: a state of in-betweenness, a hybrid identity that points toward a long history of violence and subjugation. She is a poet, one apparently tasked – as Eliot said, reshaping Mallarmé – to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’. This tasking assumes a sureness of identity, a knowledge of one’s tribe, an at-home-ness with language, that Cahill cannot claim. Even her name is a problem: in the poem ‘Ode to Mumbai’, she says her name is a ‘philologer’s conundrum’, the ‘antithesis / of my self’, After all, as is pricklingly clear through this whole book, she is a poet who speaks the language of the colonist. What dialect, then, should she ‘purify’? Certainly, the poems in Vishvarupa seek no purity: Greek gods jostle with the Hindu pantheon, the dislocations and speed of modernity cut against the slow silences of tradition. As Cahill says starkly at the beginning of ‘At West Head’, ‘There is nothing pure’.
A central aspect of dislocation/relocation is gender, which here is another layer of colonisation: many poems are about the poet writing herself into narratives where she is absent. As Cahill says directly in ‘Durga: A Self Portrait’, ‘What I see is myself in this world, deviant, without genealogy’. She speaks of being ‘swept in currents of borrowed language’ (‘Hanuman’), or, in the poem ‘(In)Visible’, of ‘my home, / colonised by language, / (Yours)’. Ambiguities, doubleness and doubt haunt all the poems in this book. Searching for a place of belonging, of commonality, she finds it in the body: ‘my body, sensual, without culture/ bears no initial’ (or, more darkly, in death, where she sees ‘the same ivory teeth in any caste or creed’.)
These poems create a world of almost suffocating lyrical density, in which intimate personal moments – memories of lovers, domestic interludes in Sydney – are interwoven with larger political questions: Tibetan activism, the rags of British colonialism. It’s a contemporary world in which the ‘carelessly numb’ act of texting a friend in a street is placed next to an acute sense of the transience of meaning, of the mortality of the body and language. In ‘Six Myths of Love’, she invokes a Heideggerian sense of the sacred in speaking of a lover, linking art and love in the same double act of revelation and hiddenness:
…There is no
language other than now. Like candle or snow
you disappear, leaving what is undisclosed.
There are long, intricately rhythmed lines that wind Sanskrit into English, serving as subtle reminders that colonisation is a double movement, and that Sanskrit has itself colonised the English tongue:
She came from the chawls of Karnatipura,
those ancient five-storey houses with their long varandas,
swanned by ladies of the night, who leant over banisters,
whispering in dark alleys, wearing rouge and kajal. (Sita)
In all this sensual splendour there’s a danger of exoticism, which sometimes threatens to overtake some of the lesser poems; it’s no accident that so many poems speak of breathlessness. But Cahill is far too intelligent a poet to do this. The lushness of her language is leavened with a sceptical self-awareness and a scalpel-like wit, which is especially clear in the poems that draw on her medical knowledge. This scepticism emerges in poems such as ‘The Sculpture Garden’, one of the finest in the book:
Her ribs could be
shelved with blank verse
so tidy, the syntax so wrought
that it’s dishonest.
It gets hard to breathe.
Likewise, the startling poem ‘Reading The Mahabharata’ is almost a prose essay in formal verse, written with a wry, satirical dryness. Cahill summarises the epic story and gives a potted history of the text ‘first inscribed by Ganesa, a hundred thousand verses, a frame-tale / of the Iron-Age, which, according to Panini, the grammarian, /alludes to Romans, Huns and the Hellenistic floruit of Antioch’. The Mahabharata is given us, as in Cahill’s poetic mimesis, as ‘a fossilised verse’ which nevertheless reveals, almost miraculously, the fleshly rhythms of birth and death.
As she says in a footnote on the meaning of vishvarupa, the poems open up a world that’s ‘manifold, having all forms and colours’. Cahill’s poetry constantly challenges the stasis of authority, whether it’s nationalistic, gendered or cultural, searching for the truer movement beneath it. What shines through Cahill’s sure craft and control is a sense of a mind in transition, restlessly looking outwards and inwards on worlds dizzying in their multiplicity.
Alison Croggon is a poet, critic, literary editor and author. Her second book of poems, Blue Gate (1997) was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. She blogs at Theatre Notes.
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