Reviewed by Mani Rao
John Mateer’s poems visit the scene after violence and its echoes have vacated, and narrate what is seen or encountered--minus opinion, minus sensation. In “Sanjo-Dori” of the sequence “The Ancient Capital of Images,” “His shop is deep and dim, like the cavity left in the face / after an eye has been removed.” Taken as they are, the anecdotes and encounters have the content of haunting horror. In “The Tourist” of the sequence “Ethekweni”: “The wall persists, abrasive, against his cheek / as he’s being bitten on the shoulder in this land of AIDS.” But the approach strips them of horror before it forms: “The tourist just off the plane has no witness to his struggle, / no one but himself to testify to his calm.”
The encounters are also political (with the poet implicated), but the voice persists in calmness and the consciousness does not tip over into distortion and perspective--at the most, it veers at the edge of half-wondering about its own blankness. In “One Year”:
In the autumn, when the elms refused to shed their leaves
and I spent the long calm days lounging at the pool,
I found myself explaining nightly to my students that simply being awake
is not insomnia, is political.
In every poem, the reader is acknowledged, shown a seat, and presented to--explanatory titling acts as captions and locates the events of the poem.
Place-detail is firmed up in a summary slide, usually in the first few lines, setting the scene or arrival at the scene. In “Encountering a Bear” from the sequence “The Deepest North”: “Facing the Sea of Okhorsk, to my right the mouth of the invisible Iwaobetsu River.” In “Thoughts of Tatamkhulu Afrika” of the sequence “Uit Mantra”: “Climbing Bo-Kaap’s cobbled streets. In Nyoongar Country’s Statue of Mokare: I’m walking down the colony’s main street.”
These clear pointers at the outset are like postage stamps marking the envelope, but the postcard that falls out has the slap of the “plain simple,” and the movie is in mute. This is the distinguishing grain of Mateer’s voice--a quiet witnessing that is well beyond sensations, coming close to purity.
“Encountering a Bear” is a typical poem from this volume, an anecdote understood by the addition of the image (which is not a bear but “as a bear,” as if removed from reality) and the poet’s response (“nor do I know I’m running”.)
The is-it isn’t-it speculations and remarks, if any, are usually about the lack of pain. In “Contemplating a Migraine,” he writes, ”But maybe I am the mountain, / and the pain, hidden in cloud, is a foreboding shrine, unvisited.” In “Of the Northern Peoples” in the sequence “The Deepest North”: “Then he’s Yamamba, the Mountain Crone, my dying self/wordlessly screaming.” The structure of the narrative is chronological and goes like this: What was to the right, what was to the left, what was ahead, where was the poet, what went on, and did the poet act, oh? curious, and a mutter.
Stripped of event-based sensations, the sensations in these poems are the place-names. Mateer imports these new textures into his map and mouth of English: “Hanamikoji-dori,” “Sanjo-dori,” “Makwerewere.” This also sets up an opposition to the commonness of his own first name, notably in “My Name is Also John.”
Encounters with the twists and articulations of the cultures encountered are through words, without immersion, seen and heard from a distance: “Did you not hear the poet’s izithakazelo” in “The Valley of a Thousand Hills,” or “Of their words all I hear is the prophet’s name: Shembe Shembe Shembe” in “The Worshippers.”
South Africa, Japan, and Indonesia are the framework around which the poetic insight--and zen--is conducted, but if you take out the framework of places and characters, what you have left is emptiness as in the epigraph below--and this is evident even without the eulogies to emptiness in the book, functioning as the artist statement: “Because there is no answer but emptiness. --Tamura Ryuichi.”