Made in Australia is a bilingual English-German edition of selected
work by eighty contemporary Australian poets. This literary crowd, and
its host of German apparitions, is squeezed into a mere three hundred
pages, as a kind of export package. Each poets name is actually stamped
with the familiar, triangular Australian Made trade logo. Poetry as
merchandise. Please consider.
In the past, if you lived in an isolated place, hawkers used to go from
town to town, offering a selection of wares. In Morning Becomes Electric,
the poet Bruce Dawe writes about door-to-door salesmen,/ irrational,
obsessed, opening sample cases in the kitchen,/ giving you an argument
of sorts/ before you have even assembled your priorities. This book is
like a hawkers suitcase, offering the customer a bit of everything: two
Zwickys, one Malouf, three Kefalas, a Nigel Roberts, a joanne burns, plenty
of Les A. Murray, much Tranter, a Couani, a couple of Beveridges, and
a few items of dubious value. If you scratch your head, unable to choose,
the top layers just for show; theres more to entice; youll end up buying
something. I like this inversion of the usual priorities, that Australian
poetry should be dispersing these samplings from its rich literary centre
to the remote German readership of the global village.
If they buy, what will they get? How is Australia being presented through
its poetry, and how is poetry being transmitted from an Australian base?
Above all, I imagine, Australia is still perceived by those who live
elsewhere as both exotic and quirky. In this respect Made in Australia will not disappoint. Departing Europe as a child in the late 1950s,
I was given a book with the portentous title, In Australien ist Alles
anders, which I read on the boat out. Eventually, looking through
a porthole at a huge tree in inky purple splendour and working hard, and
failing often, to pronounce the jacaranda at Woolloomooloo, the bizarre
image of my new home was set.
A surrealistic and exotic mix of Pacific sun gods, fruit-green parrots,
boomerangs and fire-sticks, Sydney harbour and figtrees, Buladehlah, Coolongolook,
Wang Wauk, Biersorten, Traumzeitvolk, Huck Finn in a Volvo and Voss in
a campervan, the tangled abundance of antipodean Gestrüpp and Gespenster,
desert, blue sky, sea, wombats and crocodiles, spills from this tightly
packed poetic cornucopeia. It should brighten the winterdulled imagination
of many an armchair traveller from the northern hemisphere.
But confirmed sightings of disruptions of European expectation aside,
what will the non-Australian reader make of the darker or duller moods
expressed here? Alienation looms large in this collection of poetry, often
overshadowing expressions of beauty, romance and humour: from John Tranters
the map of Australias a pathetic thing, to the guilty pioneering folk
of Amanda Stewarts picturesque slaughter, Anthony Lawrences tortured
crows, the road-kill at the centre of Peter Roses, Geoff Pages and Rod
Morans poems, or Franco Paisios question What is Australia? and unhappy
answer, Three empty syllables and no Montmartre. Foreign readers must
wonder at our odd contradictions of exuberant pride on the one hand and
deep despair on the other. While Oodgeroo Noonuccal is proud of race
and proud of skin, Jack Davis has his people stumble along with a half-white
mind. And it is as prevalent a dichotomy among the white writers as among
the black. While Les Murrays Mitchells keep at least the rituals of
respect, Ania Walwicz shares Paisios derision of the place, You big
ugly. You too empty. The energy of estrangement competes with the glare
of exoticism throughout this volume.
It is significant that Margaret Diesendorfs We Immigrants should be
the books first poem. For although the other poets come from a range
of cultural backgrounds, most of them, like Jack Davis above, are expressing
their own version of Diesendorfs pain: We immigrants of 1938/ were chopped
in half/ even before we left our homeland. Diesendorfs memory of immigrants
crippled by the hatchet of one mans fierce will is like a German boomerang.
It takes the agonies of displacement back to its doorstep.
The overall impression then, is of Australia as a nation of split identities
whose poets are either addressing or repairing this condition. Investigating
our dualities, our multiplicities of identity, has become a national obsession
the pursuit of an aesthetics of imperfection. Thus, in his poem
Conflict, Dimitris Tsaloumas finds it strange, that in the native heart/
of this unending summer/ there should be another land, and Robert Adamson
is equally disassembled, drinking american whiskey from a champagne flute
while thinking of Lawson at The Rose & Crown.
A book of Australian poetry in translation inevitably tackles questions
of comprehension and translatability within the confines of ones own
language. If foreigners are attracted to our Otherness, lured by sweeping
stereotypes of outback adventure, flora and fauna and endless blue sky,
this volume will be like a venus fly-trap, letting readers experience
the lesser details, the world of differences within the big difference.
As for Fay Zwickys Mrs Noah, here is an opportunity to see the small
as too little/ the great as too much, to develop sensitivities of finer
discrimination, of grief, or guilt, or duty, and to think about what can
and cannot be saved by Mr Noah, or translated. Like Peter Goldsworthy,
in After Babel, we read of a valley/ where men and women/ spoke a different
tongue. We ponder John Tranters False Atlas, and with Judith Rodriguez
ask How do you know which is the right one? With Antigone Kefala we
study her faceless and speechless nightmare companion, her shadow self,
in the poem They Are Still Coming. Occasionally a bilingual reader comes
upon a detail that cannot really be translated at all, like Tranters
expression hyacinth honey or Grace Perrys scribble gums. And so specificities
are lost, and sometimes gained.
As a young immigrant I struggled to distinguish the subtle differences
of English sounds, confusing smell and smile, and earnestly researching
a fifth class science project on weed when it should have been on wheat.
Now, like Manfred Jurgensen in the end of the affair, Ive learnt the
calling of a different tongue, and I wonder whether Jurgensen, who writes
in German and English, chooses not to conform to the convention of capitalised
nouns in German as a protest against what he calls that cultures violent
I stopped speaking German on a day-to-day basis before the invention
of white out, and was rather shocked to learn, from Marita Beinssens
poem Bag Lady, that this innocuous substance is called Tintenkiller
it sounds far too trigger-happy to be used with abandon.
English nouns have a softness which is not easy to translate into German.
Take the word noun itself. In German it is Hauptwort you salute
it, its dressed up with a capital, its the one that gives the orders.
I found that the poems which do not depend heavily on nouns Randolph
Stows Landfall, or Jennifer Rankins Sea-bundle, for example
translate most easily into German. They seem to slide out of one language
and into the other. Poems packed with nouns, or noun-related concepts,
however, develop a strange German harshness, a robotic jerkiness, which
gives many a line a bumpy phonetic ride. In The Flight from Manhattan,
Les Murrays hot-air money-driers hit a particularly rough patch, becoming
Schmutzgeldwaschanlagen and you have to take a couple of dramamines
before you go on the German version of his Bulahdelah-Taree holiday trip.
Ania Walwiczs volley of words, on the other hand, sounds as powerful
in German as in English. She captures magnificently the spitting and cutting
speech-emotion of harangue and the frustration and intensity of bilingualism
and biculturalism. Her work erupts and produces new language-laws from
the cracks of our multicultural volcano. How sensitive will the German
reader be to this phenomenon?