In a recent outing with Aitken, you can find “The Hybrid Vigor Institute is dedicated/ to stimulating unconventional/ thinking and/ unexpected discoveries . . .” (in the Cordite Poetry Review, see below) and the subsequent warning that “To one like you, who cannot access it, you/ may perceive it only as light.” Beware the refrain of ‘hybridity’, reader, don’t whole this pigeon till it’s cooked.
Beware exotica and its institutionalisation, its mass marketing and production seems to be the ironic twist in the back of the critic approaching Aitken’s work. For a body of work that is generally engaged with as a fine example of postcolonial hybridity mixed with a post-New York School cosmopolitan cool, below the fascinating surfaces of Aitken’s work runs a lucid and finally lyrical voice. There is a detachment to his extreme playfulness that at once allows for an ironic sense of the vignettes he assembles from the bric-a-brac of travelogue, language theory, family history, poetics and everyday life – that these are made things, designed for an audience – while also, and perhaps more subtly than such irony would allow, engendering a sense of the human subject amidst and at the mercy of the ever multiplying flows of cultural information and identification.
Aitken’s poetry is a circuit-breaker in the flux and flow of competing theories and arguments about inculturation in its various, often crossed and transmuting forms, from ethnicity to pop, from imperialism to nomadicism. Aitken’s poetry is formidable for its ability to form a sense of the subject as a meeting-point of the various competing and conflicting discourses and markers (conscience, advertising, political theory, travel brochures, current affair programs, Dante, consumer goods, Marxism).Take for example, the unrelenting cut-up denoument of ‘Learning Paralinguistics’:
He says Pay Up, or you’re Tragedy.
Sheena, from Bradford,
contagious Kharma, murmurs
just wait till we get to the endless
corridors of silken Heaven
where she’d be waiting,
like an eight armed Swiss army knife
of a goddess on wheels.
The monkeys smear her with a kiss.
Sulphur bubbles up from the gutter of Conscience.
Commandos playing tennis
see me to the witness box
at the trial of an Empire – the crime:
and a weak back-hand.
There are traces of Tranter here but for all of that, there is a basic human identity at work and at play in Aitken’s poetry that enlivens the language games, disallows cryptic crossword poetics, by maintaining a sense of a human centre, which might be best seen in Aitken’s ability to question with empathy, self-directed irony and a degree of censure:
Some days I pass the handiwork of tribes, that tribe that’s gone,
Why make their loss
speak for us or me, the nation’s patchwork
Why make of their defeat
the lyric lie you call preamble
which says we mean to keep it
The voice is human, forceful before a bewildering influx of cultures cross-wired and at cross-purposes, and gives bent to a sense of a slave new world. At times, amidst the deluge of cultural white noise there almost seems to be an inverted animism taking place, wherein the anima mundi was produced by a material, rather than an immaterial, soul – coined by Marlboro, Coca Cola or the World Bank (recall the “eight armed Swiss army knife of a goddess”). For all of that, still human: not a product of language, or humanism, or postcolonial theory, or contemporary poetics, or inherited traditions, but that most contemporary point at which all of these forces collide and coalesce, breaking the circuits of established thought and order through the sheer force and sometimes violence of the speaking voice.
Aitken’s work is wholly original on the Australian scene and a vital point of reference in English-language poetry attempting to access the new territories the shifting and shifty nature of colonialism is opening up (as much through Getaway Programs and frequent flyer points, as through the democracies of an American peace). Aitken’s work shows us with ludic wit the shifting, pixilated selves we become and become again in the contemporary datastream of light.
The Tidal Wave (A Dream)
Rock Carvings, Sydney
The Fire Watchers: A Memoir (in the Sydney Style)
The Anti-travel Travel Poem
Burning the Boats (Hawai’i)
Saigon The Movie
Sonnets for ’58
Letter to Marco Polo. Island Press, Sydney 1980.
In One House. Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1996.
Crossing Lake Toba. Folio (Salt), Cambridge 1998.
Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles. Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2000.Impermance.com. Vagabond Press, Sydney 2004.
Poets’ Union Website
Poems by Aitken.
Poems in the Australian Journal of Poetry and Poetics, edited by David Prater.
Poems in the international poetry journal edited by John Tranter.
Interview with Adam Aitken.
In English and German
Gangway: bilingual poetry literary magazine
More poems by Aitken.