Review: Southern Barbarians

It’s unusual for a new collection of poems to have an introduction. They often appear in a collected or selected poems, serving to frame a writer’s life and work; but I don’t recall seeing an introduction to an individual collection before John Mateer’s Southern Barbarians. The usual convention is that, aside from the obligatory blurbs, a single collection will autonomously speak for itself. The inclusion of Brian Castro’s introduction – in reality, an extended blurb – suggests a desire for sympathetic contextualisation, an anxiety wholly understandable in a culture which often seems wilfully deaf to its poets. It’s worth investigating, because it faithfully reflects the self-presentation of this most self conscious of books.

I followed my usual practice with introductions, and read it after the poems. Castro does contextualise Mateer, or, perhaps more accurately, carefully places him outside several contexts: most notably, the category of ‘Australian poet’. Mateer, says Castro, is a ‘poet of conscience’, a self-divided soul who consciously places himself outside national boundaries. Quoting the poet, he says that writing about Australia is for Mateer ‘to imagine the trauma of this place, to be a poet who could express mourning and the resistance of language in a landscape so populated with irony that it hardly seemed connected to the earth’. ‘This,’ says Castro, ‘was to be condemned to silent reception’.

For Castro, Mateer is the quintessential poet of exile; he is a poet of ‘disembodied irony, travelling to, and coming from, other worlds’, who remains unheard because ‘the [nationalistic] canon is so loud, so threatening’. Not only exiled, then, but embattled, finding in the deterritoralised persona of the poet a refuge and an (ironised and temporary) home and identity.

It’s unsurprising that Mateer should take the great Portuguese poet Fernand Pessoa as one of his avatars. Pessoa invented the heteronym, creating literally dozens of discrete poetic selves with their own names, literary histories and philosophies. It’s perhaps not irrelevant that, like Mateer, Pessoa was raised in South Africa, condemning both poets to that 20th-century curse, the plural national identity. In the poem ‘Pessoa as Photographed Child’, Mateer comments: ‘There is no addressee, only this photo / in which you, as much as I, proliferate.’ Gradually the poet Mateer colonises the photograph of Pessoa until he can claim: ‘You are my Self captured in this photograph / and I am your sole-surviving heteronym.’ This audacious erasure is the modus operandi of the book: the poetic Self John Mateer (not to be mistaken for the actual person John Mateer) invents himself before our eyes, out of the literary scraps of empire.

He relates this process directly to the hallucinatory ambitions of colonisation. In ‘After Returning from a Voyage of Exploration’, he ‘dreams the dream’:

                that one day there will be a poet
named John Mateer, just as there was once,
                off the edge of maps, a monster
called Australia.

The poet, like the ‘monster called Australia’, remains radically unknown and unknowable: like Australia’s terra nullius, it’s a quality erased in the very activity of discovery. In Southern Barbarians, Mateer particularly investigates the Portuguese empire, from the former colonies in Asia to the present poverties of Lisbon, although the dislocations he imagines and reworks splinter to glimpses of Australia, South Africa, Japan, Macau. Here the poet is the translator, an angel-messenger sliding between languages; or, in another recurrent image, a ‘hungry ghost’.

The poems are rich with fragments shored against ruin: glimpses of libraries in ancient cities, antique books, ‘cobbled Roman lanes’. One section, among the finest in the book, gives us reworked lines from Luís Vaz de Camões’s Homeric epic poem Os Lusíadas, ironising the voyages of discovery that Camões celebrated. The major chord is melancholy, the saudades invoked in many of the poems. Saudade is an untranslatable Portuguese word meaning longing for someone or something absent, which implies a sense of irrevocable loss. This is perilous territory, in that at its weakest it falls into an easy, even sentimental, lyricism that Mateer’s irony can’t save:

    …an opiate cloud like a beloved’s dark and floral vulva
or the savour of her quick and churning tongue
under those eyes that opened like trapdoors for my double- and my true-self.

More troublingly, I found myself wondering about the poet created in these poems: the poet is always male (although incorporating, as Romantic poets always did, the feminine into the masculine self), the ‘other’ invoked too often female or feminised, and the feminine always sexualised and exotic. Mateer satirises the orientalising of the exotic east, ‘wishing for a life absolutely Oriental: that rhino horn of Viagra and Ecstasy’: but he also exploits it. Nowhere is this ambiguity more troubling than in the poem ‘Pieta: The Allegory’, one of the book’s final poems. It opens with a reference to the war with Angola, in which the poet flees the burning down of his house in South Africa:

              what’s left except
running from one
              curtain of smoke
to another
              finding behind each
a golden whore? …
              a courtesan, compliant,
Eurasian, a small-
              capitalist dream

The poem goes on to recount an encounter with a prostitute, and in particular the poet’s reflections as she ‘sucks’ him, which he relates as ‘THE ALLEGORY OF THE COLONIAL DREAM’. It finishes with an image of an orang-utan from the Perth Zoo, which is displayed in a ‘soundproof room’. The ape, ‘that old man of the forest’, is clearly equated with the prostitute, ‘whose name he had forgotten’: it is a ‘kindly being’ with ‘mournful eyes’, deprived of language just as the prostitute claims that her ‘tongue is not real’; a cipher on which the poet’s reflections and fantasies may be projected. There is no space for the subjectivity of the ‘other’ here.

Of course, its self-labelling as a fantasy of colonisation and a certain poetic of romanticised disgust is this poem’s get-out, but all the same I am really not sure what to make of it. Is irony really a radical strategy if the poem merely replicates the colonial erasure it seeks to expose? Mateer is a poet of considerable abilities, with a strong lyric gift: but the poetic self adumbrated here is too often seduced by its own hallucinations.

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