Mystery, wisdom and complication, Gregory O’Brien

The Lives of Coat Hangers
Sudesh Mishra
University of Otago Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781927322376

“A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.” I was reminded of American sculptor Carl Andre’s words, as I read Sudesh Mishra’s remarkable new collection, a book which focuses very much on objects and the (objectified) space around them. Like Andre’s sculptures, Mishra’s poetry is cerebral, yet based very much upon “the thing”, observed or felt. Units of reality are piled up or laid on the ground – in his case, a scarecrow, a fan, an ant, a slamming door, a leaf, a rose and, memorably, as the title suggests, a wardrobe full of coat hangers.

The book’s cover features a pen and crayon drawing by the Niuean/New Zealand artist John Pule. Roughly sketched and expressionistic, the image could be a hybrid of a Philip Clairmont painting and an early Flying Nun record cover. The coat hanger at the centre is made of human bones and, in the space beyond, we see a stylised, skeletal human head and a torso with a heart-eye which is dripping blood or rain. The empty coat hanger is as much a space – a “hole” – as it is a thing. In Pule’s picture, the implement wears its life outside itself; the heart/eye is a wound, but it also looks outwards. Such is the paradoxical, disjunctive reality we are entering.

Born in Fiji in 1962, Mishra gained a PhD from Flinders University in South Australia, before teaching in Australia and Scotland. The great-great-grandson of indentured labourers who were shipped from India to Fiji to work the sugar cane plantations in the late 19th century, Mishra has always been conscious of his writing both in the Pacific context and as a part of the Anglo-Indian literary diaspora. “My discovery of an oceanic present leaked into my memory of an Indian past,” he wrote, in the title poem of his collection, diaspora and the difficult art of dying (Otago University Press, 2002) and now, lamentably, out of print.

Rather than being mired in the colonial past or shackled to the endless task of its demolition, Mishra’s latest poems are positively-charged, inquisitive, and notable for their lightness. His world is a place of intimate talk and meditative calm, of movement, dance and gesture. That said, it is also a place of incisive comment, of rumination across the social and cultural spheres, and of memory rubbing against the present, “a thing” against “a thing it is not”:

A rower is shaving the sea’s foam;
My father shaves clouds in a mirror.

Here all tense and likeness end.

A rower is shaving the sea’s foam;
My father shaved clouds in a mirror.
(“Clouds”)

Space and sense concertina inwards, or they are stretched, horizon-like; the airy outdoors melds with the mirrors, doorways, windows and accumulations of the domestic interior. At this point, Mishra’s poetry heads off in its own direction, leaving Carl Andre’s notion of sculptural “thingness” behind. Through analogy and metaphor, “a thing” is no longer necessarily “a hole in the thing it is not” – reality has been rendered porous and mutable. Things coalesce and they flow. Ranging wider still, Mishra traverses the distance between a chapati on a stovetop and an antiquated cosmology in the portrait-poem, “Infinite Hubris”:

Tangaya is the wisest of fools.
He wants to understand the flat world of the
ancients

And he wants to emulate the sacred labour of
the gods.

So he makes cakes in a pan.
His golden atlas, when flipped, reveals new
countries, craters ….

Such a restless traffic of nouns – an inside-out movement, swapping foreground and background, past and present – is central to Sudesh Mishra’s worldview as a poet who lives in Fiji but writes very consciously “in the Western tradition”, also as an academic (he now teaches at the University of the South Pacific, Suva) living in a developing country, and as an Indo-Fijian who inhabits the complex reality of the present day South Pacific. His genius lies, I believe, in his capacity to see such opposing realities as a dialectic rather than a contradiction.

Busying themselves, as they do, amongst the monuments, toys and devices of colonialism, the poems have more than sufficient imaginative gusto to blow the lid off any systematised, academic version of post-colonial studies. In their spirit and purpose, they are akin to the writing of Epeli Hau’ofa, who hovers, a benevolent spirit, over Mishra’s career, and Caribbean writers such as Derek Walcott and Wilson Harris. Among Indian writers, Arun Kolatkar is a strong presence.

The Lives of Coat Hangers comprises a heady mix of faux-oracular utterances, fables, vignettes and family portraits. Eschewing the longer sequences that shaped earlier collections, such as Tandava (Meanjin, 1992), he also chooses, on this occasion, not to stretch as far as the Joycean stream of consciousness prose poetry which closed diaspora and the difficult art of dying. Through all these publications, however, he maintains a healthy suspicion of colonial and post-colonial structures, as reflected in his faux-encyclical, “The Government Gazette”, from the new book:

First the usual punishing decrees against graft,
defacers of public
property, sorcerers, defaulters, carpetbaggers,
three men talking
under a rain tree.

Next the injunction
against miracles, irony, lightning, lightning
rods, starvation, the easy laughter of the
children.

The butterfly’s erratic flight presents a picture
of anarchy. Hence

the Butterfly Decree.
The chemistry of rust undermines the Rule of
Forever…

As Mishra noted in the preface to his previous collection, the diasporical consciousness, while “characterised by shifts and breaks that impact on many fronts: topographic, mnemonic, cognitive, linguistic, etc”, does in fact present a great gift to poetry in its capacity to “make connections based on an underground logic of colours, tropes, sounds, textures, moods and secrets”. This is a characteristic Mishra exploits well. His penchant for riddles, conundrums and portents is another factor which underlines his allegiance with Indian literature, that “community separated by the sea”, as anthologist/novelist Jeet Thayil has described it. (Mishra’s poems were included in Thayil’s anthologies, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008) and Sixty Indian Poets (Penguin, 2008).) Like so much of the subcontinent’s verse, these are aromatic, flavoursome poems, equatorial or tropical in atmosphere and character, heavily laden with active ingredients and accelerants:

It’s a non sequitur perhaps,
but on an evening
transfixed by the slow cancan
of your cooker’s lid,
inside an entire granary
howled in chains,
I was the husk of poetry
returning to its grain … .
(“Sovi Bay”)

The sky is a particularly vivid presence in Mishra’s new poems, many of which are characterised by updrafts, gusts and convections, with their freight of bird-life, insects and plant matter. His world teems with sunsets, planes, wind, stars, clouds, moons and a seemingly endless supply of leaves. “After ten homecomings,” Mishra wrote in Tandava, “I find I’m indigenous to the sky … .” Whether he is referring to the lyrical flight of the Poet, or to himself as a visiting academic landing at Nadi International Airport, or whether he is signalling a more general question of geographical or ethnical indigeneity, this proposition is a thought-provoking and pertinent one. Where are his roots; where is home; how does he fit in?

Come belatedly if you must
In short sparrowy gusts
With the next sou’easter
When the light’s seedier
Than any brothel sheet
To rustle up a royal aria
On the harp of a crackle-tree
Hung with long-expired notes.
(“Wind”)

Reading Mishra’s book makes me aware how necessary and liberating it is to lose the Pacific Rim mentality which present-day commercial and political agencies are so enamoured with, and which has reached its nadir in the stagnant conceptualising and free-market fetishism of the Trans Pacific Partnership (a proposition which negates the existence of the Pacific Ocean itself, not to mention its island peoples). Reading Mishra, I feel a new point of attention and gravity in the oceanic region, and recognise the vital role the imagination can play in the evolution of post-colonial identities. As they sing their breezy songs, the poems stand their ground:

To hear banknotes crackle
In the crackle of leaves
Is not to hear leaves crackle.

The Lives of Coat Hangers is one of the most fascinating and notable collections of poetry published in New Zealand this year. It also confirms Mishra’s status as a crucial figure in the literature of the wider Pacific region, a literature of which New Zealand writing is also a part. Otago University Press is filling an important role by publishing Mishra (and by developing its Pacific-related list in general). Imparting both the sweetness and bitterness of Oceanic reality, the book is an antidote to the bland, simplistic and complacent notions of island culture which the West still holds so dear. Far preferable to have the ripeness, seductiveness, mystery, wisdom and complication of Mishra’s verse, heading south like a high pressure weather system, swiftly traversing the South Fiji Basin to reach our neighbouring shores.

Gregory O’Brien’s latest collection of poems, Whale Years, was reviewed in our winter 2015 issue, available at nzbooks.org.nz/archive.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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