review by Tina Giannoukos
Michelle Cahill’s collection of poetry, Vishvarūpa, crosses spatio-temporal and subjective borders to become a lyrical meditation on being. In its rich imagery, textured musicality and experiential multiplicity, the collection draws to itself and releases its richness. Throughout it offers a plethora of sensations and perceptions, all refracted through meditations on Hindu gods and other realities, the erotic as liminal experience and place as imaginal as much as real landscape.
A metaphor for the collection’s profusion of images, its variety of moods and its linguistic suppleness is the utterance in ‘Kissing Hamlet’ that ‘Words come / to me as freely as a sparrow falls, unfastened by the sky’ (66). In its crossing of spatio-cultural boundaries, or its interrogation of the speaker’s self moving between and across India, Australia and other locations, it challenges the notion of the local as repository of poetic signification. As the speaker says in ‘Lung-Ta’:
It is not that Vishvarūpa opens the local to the translocal (Ramazani 165), which it assuredly does, but that it is translocal in its beginnings. The translocal becomes the liminal space of its exploration: its natural ground not as essence but as difference. In ‘Somewhere, a River’, we sense the speaker’s desire to remain suspended between states: ‘For now, I am frozen, somewhere between aquatic / and terrestrial’ (85). The liminal is the ground of the speaker’s experience.
To claim the translocal rather than the local for Vishvarūpa is not to entrap Vishvarūpa in an alternative canon of diasporic or migrant poetry (though that is not a negative) but to note that Cahill’s poetic imaginary traverses multiple locales of being. Less about locale and more about being, Vishvarūpa is the unencumbered imagination at work. It explores the way the self splits into the myriad possibilities of its spatio-cultural connections and disconnections. Vishvarūpa invites us to engage with possibility as incarnate consciousness in the body of the speaker.
The speaker may move in a liminal space of otherworldliness, but it is precisely this that yields a productive interrogation of being as multiple. In the worked tension of her lines, Cahill makes the most of the notion of Vishvarūpa, the divine revelation by Krishna to Aravanan in the Indian epic Bhagavad Gita, as ‘manifold, having all forms and colours’. She celebrates the imagistic and musical potentialities of language without eliding language’s limitation as a vehicle for experience. The sensual also assumes its place:
To separate the poems into their assumed categories of geography and experience is to overlook how the poems in Vishvarūpa open to one another. The speaker’s untranslated words, scattered like pebbles of otherworldliness as much as the condition of the multi-lingual, perform their silent displacements and reinscriptions. This is a poetics of the conjectural:
India, in all its multiform manifestation, troubles the poetic sensibility of the speaker who is estranged yet imbued in its sensual essence. In ‘City of Another Home’ the speaker is ‘half-aware that it’s ineffable to love a city that was never / really my home, or a home whose walls are flaky as paratha’ (38), while in ‘Ode to Mumbai’ the speaker is reflexively aware that ‘Mumbai, even your name / is a philologer’s conundrum, as mine is the antithesis / of my self, a colonial slip’ (23).
Yet even though the city has a history in which the speaker’s is missing, language potentially reinscribes her, not as a sure thing, but as ecstatic flight: ‘Your poem has a history, in which my pages are missing. / I rise from the poem on a burning ladder of language’ (23). To be foreign yet not foreign is to be like Hanuman, the monkey god, whose ‘shadow / slips between temples, an alter-ego moving between two worlds’ (41).
The multiple points of the speaker’s locations, like ‘Mumbai, London, Goa’ (35) in the poem ‘Childhood’, remind us how much these poems, whether they speak of India or Australia or some other place, are a proliferating reiteration of different realities and experiences, sensual and emotional. The speaker’s identity is not necessarily defined as Indian or Australian. This lack of definition is an instance of the rich yield of an imagination that traverses fields of being. In ‘Ode to Mumbai’ above, the speaker argues that:
This suggests that it is in the spectral zone of the dream that the speaker’s consciousness takes form. The imagination becomes the liminal landscape of the speaker’s multiple reality rather than any one place. While the speaker walks her daughter to the classroom in ‘Rainy Days’, she receives ‘passing smiles from other mums: Chinese, / Pakastani, Sikh’ (50). This is place as slippage, the site of difference, not essentialised location, that opens the self to the Other. Driving home in ‘Pastiche’, the speaker tries ‘to imagine a world without diversity’ (54), noting a little later how:
The speaker’s consciousness moves easily from one mode to another, from one place to another, now India, now Australia, drawing extraordinary images and sounding a diverse music. A poem like ‘Parvati in Darlinghurst’ draws together the various forces of Vishvarūpa. Not only is it a witty rewriting of erotic desire, the speaker draws attention to her difference, as she ironises her performance of the ancient erotic rites:
If there is an image in which to cast the speaker, then one is temptingly offered in ‘Durga: a Self Portrait’: ‘What I see is myself in this world: deviant, without genealogy’ (59). The poem, ‘The Stinking Mantra’, carries its reflective questionings on the death of a possum with the lightness of the speaker’s dark musings on India. As the possum’s body decomposes, the speaker hears in her sleep ‘the quiet vowels, rising from / wisteria, from the hot ground, and falling back into silence’ (46). In ‘Pastiche’, the Otherness of the speaker’s self is juxtaposed to the Otherness of art itself:
The linguistic fluidity of Vishvarūpa bears productively upon poetry as an art form. The sensuality of the text’s language performs a double movement. It releases the lyric’s political edge as much as folds it back into the individual poems. Cahill puts under pressure the notion of the lyric as retreat from the world, implicating the speaker’s lyric persona at the juncture between connection and disconnection. She reclaims the lyric moment, not as confession, but as interrogation. This ethics of interrogation as lyrical outpouring makes Vishvarūpa a powerful interrogation of the erotics of difference in all its manifestations. The lyric emerges as much ethical as experiential in concern. As the speaker asserts In ‘(In)Visible’:
Sound is never strained in Vishvarūpa. In the slippage of the text’s language, its seductive enunciation of difference, and the otherworldliness of its images, their imaginative scope, dislocation assumes its performative face. In opening the collection with ‘Something Like a Reverie’, Cahill signals Vishvarūpa’s elusiveness: its imaginal leaps. Throughout the collection, the poems perform their dislocations not through a fragmented poetic but through the contrasting sensual richness of the speaker’s observations. The poems celebrate the imagistic potentialities of language but do not elide language’s limitations as a vehicle for experience. As the speaker says in ‘(In)Visible’ above:
Cahill is a sensual poet whose sharp poetic intelligence underscores her rich evocation of difference. In Vishvarūpa she invites us to engage with poetry, not as a closed field of experience, but as open to multiple imaginaries and states of being.
Tina Giannoukos is a poet, fiction writer and reviewer. Her first collection of poetry is In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Australians (Arcadia, 2011). Her most recent publication is the sonnet sequence in Border-Crossings: Narrative and Demarcation in Postcolonial Literatures and Media (Winter, 2012). A recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship, Giannoukos has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne and has read her poetry in Greece and China.
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Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo