Despite having been raised Catholic, my brother’s fascination with gaming means that the phrase “Spirit World” conjures up the 28th level of Doom II, so it was interesting for me to see the range of submissions received in response to this edition’s theme: Spirit Worlds.
Among the fifty or so submissions, were a range of treatments of the concept. Everything from “oh look, I went to China and saw a temple” to “wow, I do so love this branch of interesting religion from Asia” to more subtle, and sometimes more obscure, reflections on place, on spirit, and on the relationship between the real-time person who is present in that place to the spirits and stories that might also inhabit it in some more ephemeral way.
Ultimately, the four poems selected for this edition all speak to that final category of ideas: the etheric, the residual, the intangible things that remain in “matter that is more immaterial than light”, often in relationship to a place.
Siobhan Hodge, an Australian writer who divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong, presents “Stars over Kai Tak”, a compact meditation on the former Hong Kong International Airport, once renowned for its hair-raising landing and now relegated to a forgotten altar of sorts. Ouyang Yu’s translation of Hu Xuan’s, “Shadow”, speaks more to an internal spiritualism, the place where “there is no light”. David Prater’s work, however, contrasts in tone, and relates to the spirit beings of the South Korean island of Jeju-do. With its prayer-like repetition of “i remember” it draws us into a series of tender, oblique character pictures that are revealing and evocative. I feel inspired to write more letters to Noam Chomsky, or at least to start punctuating my greeting line with more verve.
In all three pieces, there is a sense of memorial and although it’s a slight stretch, a sense of “memento mori” – the latin phrase meaning “remember you will die” and conjuring that genre of art that seeks to remember mortality. What lies beyond, however, is obviously still a matter for conjecture and in many ways these poets are connecting with a more contemporary and less fixed idea of spirit world/s outside structured religion.
With the theme speaking to a more abstract notion of place, race and identity, it was difficult in some cases to connect the dots between works and the theme. Initially, works were de-identified and judged anonymously on the basis of poetic interest. Ultimately, however, poems were reconnected with their authors as the position of the author – whether the writer concerned with themes of inter-culturality, as an Australian or an Australian of Asian heritage, as a writer who is writing in/to/about Australia or Asia – became important as a decision making framework for the final selection of poems.
There is no neat resolution in any of the works selected, no definite statements about Asia, Australia or the spiritual worlds that exist (or do not exist) in those places or for those people. I think perhaps, with my Doom II attitude, I was looking initially for some clearer statements: just what do Asian-Australians consider is their spiritual world? As a poet myself, I would have almost certainly opted for a more linear and narrative, and arguably less original, exploration of the conflict between my secular Australian identity and the incense-laden spirituality of my Filipino-Catholicism.
But perhaps that is what makes these works most suitable to Peril – they are not about easy assessments of what is Asian and what is Australia and where do these two things meet. Who is looking at, and who is being looked at, and what it is that draws those two together is more oblique and somehow more interesting as we overlay the “real worlds” of Asia and Australia with their “unreal” companion spirit worlds.