Martin Langford launched Michele Seminara’s first collection of poetry, Engraft (Island Press 2016), at the Friend in Hand Hotel, Glebe NSW, on Saturday 6th February 2016.
Writing has a complex relationship with Buddhism. It is so weighted with the dirt and doubt and slew of ordinary living that it can never hope to walk in that territory where one is free of such encumbrances – the territory, that is, that Buddhism aims for. For this reason, some schools of Buddhism dismiss the arts altogether. What the two do share, however, is a common engagement with understandings. They may come at them from slightly different routes, and neither of them may quite have understanding as their ultimate aim – there is a point in Buddhism where one hopes to move beyond one’s understandings, whereas in literature, the aim is usually to take those understandings and work them into some sort of overall aesthetic experience – but both revolve, in important though different ways, around that fragile, verbal confrontation.
I was thinking of these similarities and differences reading Michele Seminara’s new book, Engraft. Many of the poems are attempts to shape the forces at play in experience in a credible and accurate way: in short, to understand them. ‘Contagion’ (p.27) tracks the way an argument plays out in the dynamic of a family. ‘Bleak Love’ (p.24) charts the defensive but self-defeating measures people can take when they are hurt. ‘Lotus’ (p. 35) considers the unsought and unanticipated effects a parent can have on children:
Tying your nooses around your necks each morning
strangling yourselves a little more each day:
obediently becoming (for me)
what I never wanted
you to be.
And then there are poems which try to understand the effects that time and loss have on our lives:
so full of lasts,
quivering, on the brink.
Time thrusts forward.
The body vehicle will not cease
decaying, children growing
ever distant, their cords
unravelling to unbearable lengths
as we circumvent this world –
Surely there must be a limit?
(There is not.)
Death, inbuilt in those I’ve born
is yet half grown in me;
close to flowering powerfully out
of my grandmother’s powdery furrows.
Routine lends the illusion of solace:
tranquillised to truth we sleep
fitfully, swaddled against horror.
There is considerable overlap with Buddhist perspectives here: the long views, the sense of change without limit. Some of the language is Buddhist: “The body vehicle will not cease/decaying”. But there is nothing here of Buddhist equanimity. These “lasts” are overwhelming. The distances between us become “unbearable”. The sense of flux is the same, whether one looks at it through Buddhist perspectives, or in terms of the hard-won understandings of the poem. But the effect on the reader is one of weight: of the grief of these losses; of the pain they cause. At this point, perhaps, I ought to declare myself and say that I trust this about art – and I trust it in these poems. I appreciate the impulse of the Buddhist to move beyond this, and I can believe that people find ways of being able to do so. But perhaps because it is the world that I share too; because I – like others here – will have experienced such things, this is a world I can enter as one I belong to, one in which I don’t have to keep asking myself whether I am worthy to be travelling in such territory.
And so the reader can enter poems of frustration about the constriction of daily
tasks, such as “Dog” (p.6) where the “World jerks my neck, master to/ slave, and drags me/ from world’s wonderment”. There are difficult, personal poems from Michele’s past, such as “Epistle To My Paedophile”. There are poems of love, and love’s arguments. One section, “Mother”, is given over to pieces governed or prompted by the author’s habitation of that role. (Such poems participate in one of the most important recent additions to the list of things we can write about. It is still astonishing to think that, for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, all the drama and dailiness of motherhood had somehow been invisible to the imagination, as if there was nothing worth saying about it.) There are plenty of poems which play with language too, where the focus may not be on the weight of experience, but where the play of words is saturated in it anyhow: found poems and erasure poems and remixes.
I don’t want to suggest that Michele is content with these things. Like everyone else, she wishes to gesture beyond it. “I crave some beauty to buoy me”, she says, in “Zhang Zhou Dreams in Pink” (p. 37). That is the poet speaking. But before that, in the same poem, the Buddhist in her had written:
I suck the pink flowers off the tree
into the negative space of my heart:
they spear towards me –
reverse Buddha blossoms –
transformed by mind’s Maras into weapons.
There is a tension here, between the Buddhist perspectives, and the saturation in the life of the self that underpins most western literary habits, and it is a productive tension. There is a case for saying that what writers really write about are the things they can’t resolve: there is no point in dwelling on what has been sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. It underpins the whole book, the way Michele not only has such good instincts for the weight of ordinary things, but the fact that she seeks to think beyond them as well: that she honours both elements of a tension that is so difficult to resolve.
Long may she continue the difficult juggling act between owning her experiences, and mistrusting them, between being at home in the life of the self, and staring right through it.
– Martin Langford
Martin Langford’s most recent collection, Ground, is avialble from Puncher and Wattmann https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/ground
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