After I sent you the text and there was silence
it occurred to me it felt like a wave about to break.
Last time I heard your voice startle—hesitant as
though you’d guessed I could drown in that suite
they’d upgraded me into because cocaine addicts
were flipping, trashing the next room. I was so high,
you knew our drinks were spiked with ice, that I’d
switch amnesia for insomnia, No wake-up, please,
that soon enough the Mumbai dawn would flood
the glazed facades of the thirty-something floor, a
miasma of smog over the Dharavi slums, the marsh
redevelopment, the Indiabulls and Oberoi towers.
That I’d catch my flight all the way back to oblivion
until the next stop-over. Assuming your Bollywood
diva permits, we’ll take a ride to Tryst in Lower Parel,
you’ll smoke in the heat of a taxi, windows down,
talk boys and dance to the electro house screen as
overweight brokers and expatriates admire. Or else
we’ll drink tequila, eat takeaway with your old man,
avoiding awkward questions while filling in the gaps
for what little we know of each other. Let’s face it,
however easygoing you seem I’m like any foreigner
you’re obliged to entertain, one who has finally
acquired the sense to keep her opinions unpacked.
We may never wake in the same room again, unsure
if I should go to Goa with you or chance a rebel poet
in Chhattisgarh. I guess the disparity between my
intensity, jet-lag and your street glamour won’t ever
change. Time is a fixed currency without counterfeit,
so brief it leaves me cheating myself with words.
For some very strange reason, Michelle Cahill’s poetry reminds me of a line from the Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, A Song in the Front Yard, where Gwendolyn proclaims “and I’d like to be a bad woman, too”. It’s a long bow to draw, I know, but I hope you will indulge me as I struggle to express just how much curiosity Michelle’s poetry arouses in me.
Both poets come from different backgrounds – Gwendolyn was a civil rights activist and poet from the United States, particularly active in the 1950-1960s, the first black poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, while Michelle, a contemporary “migrant” writer based in Australia from an Anglo-Indian-Goan background, has a flair for the sensual and spiritual. They use different styles, conjure complex and different mythologies and archetypes, deal with different eras and politics and yet there is something in Michelle’s poetry that speaks to my Brooks-esque inner good girl, the girl who has “stayed in the front yard all [her] life” and now wants “a peek at the back”. Reading Michelle’s work gives me the distinct ache of knowing that I’m not seeing all that there is to see, that somewhere there is a rough and untended garden where “hungry weed grows”, and something dangerous and verdant that attracts me in her writing.
There is a deeply sensual quality to Cahill’s poetry, in the sense of it being both seductive and highly sense-laden – a quality to writing that can often be complex, particularly for female writers faced with audiences that continue to be confused by female sexual/creative representations. Michelle acknowledges that ‘Of course, audiences are perturbed because of the Orientalist lens through which they have been conditioned to regard the sensual, the imaginative, the excessive as inferior, as Other, as not rational, and therefore of a lower status. This Western, rationalist perspective completely elides centuries of Eastern knowledge, philosophy, of wisdom, of phenomenology”. Michelle admits that, while she is no expert in Hindu Buddhist perspectives and knows little about Indigenous knowledge and stories, she’d like to be respectful, “to lose [her] Western arrogance”. She sees her task as a writer to bring “the complexity of the unspeakable into language, to make it tangible and here is where the senses play a pivotal role.”
The seduction of language is not merely a stylistic device for Cahill. She says that “Though it is not always intentional, seduction is a colonising force my poetry tries to reverse. As a diasporic writer, almost everything inhabits language and must be reconciled in language, if not its parallels.” Only recently, however, has she more fully understood why the senses are so inherent to her writing:
“It’s because they manifest the erotics of difference, allowing boundaries to be crossed with fluidity and sanctioning the taboos which imbue our stories as individuals and as nations. So that what is absent becomes imperceptibly infused into the present moment; so that the unspeakable may be uttered, and in that utterance transformed is why I write of, and from, the body.”
Cahill’s mixed ancestry (Goan-Anglo-Indian) is “a diluted but not uncommon pairing”. Because of her name, she likes to emphasise her mixed ancestry in bios as, otherwise “my Indian heritage might not be apparent – it’s a practical, familiarizing gesture”. At other times, she describes herself as a ‘migrant’ or as ‘an economic refugee from the Third World’. This is a more cogent, political strategy, “the visibility and voicing of marginalised writers being essential for the survival of our diversity”. She doesn’t believe that such a thing as ‘equality’ can possibly exist even “though my work may have entered the mainstream”. Interestingly, however, for someone who has obviously taken such time to consider these sensitive politics of nomenclature, she says:
“For a reader to respond to my poetry and my other writing I don’t think any of these designations are essential but they may enable a deeper appreciation of the sources of, and the directions my writing is taking.”
That writing, while contemporary and accessible, references mythologies, stories, philosophies and deities that are not commonly evoked for a mainstream Australian audience. I asked Michelle about her hopes for an audience that was “naïve” to those references, wondering how she finds that readers without a shared “literacy” react to her work. She replied as follows:
“The editors of my book, Vishvarūpa, astutely suggested that I include a glossary of terms. At first, I wasn’t sure about that since it tends to imply that I have special cultural or linguistic knowledge. It’s a very complex matter to consider how best to publish translations, transliterations and intertextual disciplines (poetry/ethnography/mythology). All I could complete was my best effort which was not perfect, but as the poet Stephen Dunn once said in a lovely conversation we had about a poem’s ending: ‘it doesn’t matter.’ (I took him to mean that the main work of the poem was already done.) I think rewriting is an intrinsic part of writing. I prefer to take risks rather than try to get it all ‘right’.
I would like the so-called ‘naïve’ reader to recognise their correspondent in me. I opened myself to these elements by reading, by travelling and by questioning my experiences, testing them against the litmus of many different ways of knowing. The poems are not intended to be maps or directions, but more like spaces and bodies to enter; the ‘selfless things becoming selves’ to quote a line from ‘Indra’s Net’.
I like it most when readers whom as you say, don’t have poetic literacy with these elements, enjoy my work. I wouldn’t like my poetry to be dense or cryptic; complex, yes, but never inaccessible or obscure. The poem tells me what it needs me to do and every poem asks in a different manner.”
Michelle has co-edited the newly published Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, a collection that showcases the depth of writing in this area. In collaboration with Adam Aitken and Kim Cheng Boey, the project has taken some three years to realise. Naturally, I am curious about Michelle’s impressions of the poems anthologised: do they speak to a contemporary “general” poetry audience, to Asian Australians in particular, to the academe, or to some other demographic? To reviewers such as Ali Alizadeh, who question collections such as Contemporary Asian Australian Poets as “defensive – and potentially ghettoising”? Michelle’s response to such questions is a fitting rejoinder to an understandably robust debate about the nature of projects and endeavours such as these (including of projects like Peril itself!):
“Well, I think that naturally the work is applauded by Asian Australian audiences with their first-hand experience of racism, marginalisation, and discrimination. It becomes a source of cultural pride, a gift really. But most of our work is trans-local, shifting between places, languages, cultures and ways of thinking. We are products of more than one dominant culture and it is the hybridity of these elements that gives birth to rich creative possibilities. The economic and political subordination that strangles our voices is now being articulated, and visibly resisted.
This has been vital to a variety of registers which range from ironic to elegiac, mythically ground-breaking to politically unswerving. There are many aesthetic styles to be enjoyed and considered deeply. Certainly, historically Australian poets have long been inspired by Asian tropes of haiku and imagism; it was inspirational to John Shaw Neilson, to Slessor and Mackellar.
But I think Australia is ready for new fetishes that begin with difference, departing from French symbolism and the New York schools. I think the mainstream academe is listening keenly to Asian Australian poetics, for which I’ve recuperated the descriptor ‘la nouvelle poétiques’. I like this term because it contextualises Asian Australian poetics in an historical framework of resistance to the authority of one meaning or state. It evokes for me excesses like the très nouvelle of Mallarmé (the ultimate Australian Idol) and the négritude movement, which Sartre endorsed for its anticolonial, antiracist activism. Surpassing novelty, I think there is value in models of the past being so referenced and intertextualised just as language itself in a Bahktinian sense is never singular or entirely independent, responding instead to past utterances and patterns of meaning.
The mainstream is aware that these new voices are of the evolving present; these stories and languages complicate our identity; they tether us to ourselves, to the world, to the future of this nation, our home.”
Michelle’s poem is mapped to the city of Mumbai, “the hub of its club scene, the diasporic anxiety, a desperate impossibility of connection through intimacy and despite separation. I find the concept of a topographical mapping of lyrics very intriguing; it’s a kind of hovering in my mind”. Both “like any foreigner” and familiar enough to find the city’s seething nightlife, Michelle’s piece inhabits the in-between. It also touches on her relationship to writing, connecting her to a “marvellous, complex world beyond my inner life”.
Michelle says she trusts serendipities, “the way that destiny is altered circumstantially and we go deeper and deeper into the journey of writing”. Her own writing and research turned in a profoundly different direction when a chance conversation with an academic suggested she could extend her poems on Hindu gods by reading Vedanta philosophy. Cahill writes of this encounter:
‘Perhaps he also mentioned this because I am Christian by birth, not Brahmin Hindu. Either way, his recommendations lead me to investigate and as a result changed the intention of the book. I realised that I could permit myself to go beyond the perceptual, the mythic and historic space; I could bind the emotional layers with a philosophical gauze. But even this metaphor sounds too horizontal and contrived for what the Vedanta offered me. It was a way of falling into something ancient, beautifully tense, multiple in its dimensions and contradictions, resonant and mystical, and yet with the possibility of being read through a contemporary political lens.
Maybe the questions I am seeking to explore will follow on from similar accidental conversations. How to speak the voice of a mixed ancestry, a split soliloquy, in the best way I possibly can is the question that bothers me most since this is the voice which is most excluded from sovereign speech. So far I have had a little success. But I am also a dreadful perfectionist and I’m troubled when I have to compromise my writing just to get it finished. Thankfully, discerning editors are sensitive to this and they advise me when it’s not ready. I am wary of publishing work that relies on one’s reputation.”
For me as a reader, there is little in Michelle’s poem that I know directly – I have not experienced those particular glazed facades, that specific miasma of smog, never had a drink spiked with ice – but still I have experienced the terrible suspicion that I will never wake in the same room as another again and cheated myself with words. Sometimes, as Brooks writes, “A girl gets sick of a rose”. I find myself on tip toe peeking over the metaphorical fence into ‘Mumbai By Night’. If someone would only give me a boost over the palings – I suspect that everything is deliciously complex and elegantly simple just over the other side.
– Interview with Eleanor Jackson, Peril Poetry Editor