Year of the Wasp by Joel Deane, Hunter Publishers, 2016
In 2012, Joel Deane suffered a huge shock to the system that could have ended his life. In Year of the Wasp, he tries to come to terms with this devastating experience, attempting — by means of novel and often weird imagery — to reproduce in the reader something of the intensity and alienation he felt. But how do you convey a highly unusual life-episode without toning down its otherness? And how do you convey such otherness in a way that enables others to share in it? These are two questions that reverberate throughout Deane’s Wasp.
Be prepared for the unexpected! Deane spends little time dwelling on the medical details of his ordeal. In the third poem we are given the briefest of glimpses — “Paramedics arrive. / Give him a shot of Stemetil / [ . . .] He slurs, ‘I have to spew.’ / ‘Use the bag, champ’. / And the nurse goes, / ‘Do you know where you are?’” — but from then on in, anything like a realistic therapeutic scenario is withdrawn from the writing and is replaced by a series of idiosyncratic, imaginative responses, hallucinogenic in nature, and fringed with both strong violence and occasional eroticism. It is these ingredients which offer him a means of translating the raw data of incident into a language with enough vital texture to engage us:
The owl floats across the darkened ward;
lands on the metal bed head
with a click. Stares, does not blink
at the face shining on the pillow,
white as a pharmaceutical moon.
……………‘Did you fall?’
And the face replies,
‘But first I flew.’
At which the owl nods,
‘That much is true.
What falls must first fly.’
Shifts, claw to claw, then decides,
‘But I have only ever flown.’
……………And hops onto the pillow.
Baits her beak with his lazy eye.
And the face screams.
……………How could you never fall?’
And the owl does not blink.
……………Does not speak, but claws
her answer into his skin.
There are plenty of arresting details here. A technique Deane uses frequently is the omission of the grammatical subject, and here it contributes to the spooky atmosphere and enables some very effective compression (“Shifts, claw to claw, then decides”). The precision of “click” is well judged, I think, and demonstrates a wonderful attentiveness to sound, equalled elsewhere in lines such as “walked back to the car / popped the boot”. More striking is the simile “white as a pharmaceutical moon”, an intriguing case of a kind of double simile combining “white as the moon” and “round and white like a pill”. And then there’s the understated horror of the verbal metaphor in “Baits her beak with his lazy eye”, another brilliant gesture that evokes in a sudden flash of insight the wounding point of the fish-hook. We cannot but squirm in response.
Greek mythology is another important feature. “The owl floats across the darkened ward” is one of several poems that hints at the story of Icarus, and the loss of power that comes to one who falls. The owl’s lesson on this score is not something that can be translated into clear ideas — the bird “claws her answer into his skin” — but this clawing looks very much like writing, a visceral kind of writing reminiscent of an enigmatic poetry that perhaps, at least occasionally, attains to that extraordinary still-point beyond flying and falling, that seems to last forever, in the same way as a sublime passage of music: “She says, ‘Remain perfectly still,’ / although nothing ever is. / Then Something Blue begins and he thinks, / ‘Almost nothing’.” (“The giant toad squatting”). This is the knowledge that the owl, symbol of wisdom, brings obliquely home to us.
Such pronounced weirdness in the writing can tend to obscure the human truth of the subject-matter. In “And so he wakes”, for example, a brief description of the ambulance journey ends with the lines “ . . . siren singing / as a wasp performs a pig Latin liturgy / on the tabernacle / of his tongue” is both surreal and demonic, but it is bizarre rather than apt, and veers towards absurdity. In another poem, “And on the third day”, the speaker tries to placate a seagull which has “ants for eyes” by tossing it scrabble tiles of “the most expensive kind — Q, X, Z”. This kind of blending of the far-fetched and the grotesque appears to be essential to Deane’s experience of serious illness, and it provides the reader with some insight into how the mind responds to severe stress and medication, but ultimately I found such passages unenlightening with regard to the nature — and value — of human suffering.
But there is a whimsical side to Deane that counterbalances the showy melodrama of his dominant mode:
Doors painted red,
summer night drowsy with smoke,
he walks out to the courtyard.
……………………..instead of fireworks.
Apologises to Caligula,
the crossbred canine.
‘My mind’s not right, Cal.’
The Japanese willow,
also middle-aged, has thickened
where he has thinned, scratches
his head with a sympathetic branch.
‘Much obliged,’ he says,
‘Gong Xi Fa Cai.’
‘You don’t speak Mandarin, do you?’
And the willow offers
not a whisper in reply,
‘Neither do I.’
Somewhere, somewhere close,
people are talking in a backyard.
A barbecue is burning flesh.
Cal brushes against him and
he leans hard against the willow,
where a mosquito finds him,
…………..gives him an ang pow kiss
to mark the going and the coming
of the year of the wasp.
The chatty, relaxed tone makes good sense here, because the poem is about reconnection with life in its everyday manifestations. The doors are “painted” red by New Year’s Eve fireworks, and this launches the speaker into a gentle-witty drift of associations: Caligula, the Roman emperor, a nod at Asia as a contrast to Europe, a desire for speech and physical contact as a support for powerlessness (“lean hard” indicates this), even if it comes in the form of a mild insect bite. There’s a muted hopefulness here, alongside a clear-sighted recognition that the world goes on as it always has, with the smell of “burning flesh” usually somewhere nearby.
What of the central wasp motif as an effective symbol of malevolence, of the death of desire, of anti-life? Apart from the examples we have already encountered, its major uses in the first section are as follows:
It was foolish to hope. He prayed / for rain but the heavens let fall / Tithonus instead, / whose every atom / was transfigured into a wasp. And / every wasp was born in fury / and showered down and / stung and did not slake the thirst.
A wasp is in the ward: / scrawling graffiti in negative / space: / tapping / against the windowpane / searching / for the crack / that lets in / the cold:
The wasp / that was inside / the ward / is now inside / (his head).
His head, / blunt as a bowling ball, / lies heavy [ . . . ] / and the wasp / strains to lift him / by his fingerholes.
The wasp in the umbrella tree, exclamation marks / in search of an ending. / Turn people into verbs.
In my view, these wasps aren’t particularly menacing, especially when evoked in the singular, as they almost always are here. Surely a single wasp in a ward is a minor irritation in comparison with an owl! When Deane tries to invest the wasp with greater significance, he sometimes strains in the attempt. The first example makes use of another mythological reference, this time to immortal Tithonus, a figure well-known to poetry-readers thanks to Tennyson, who wrote a poem that describes his unique predicament in the following lines: “Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, / And after many a summer dies the swan. / Me only cruel immortality / Consumes . . .” When this is coupled with deliberately archaic language (“and did not slake the thirst”), the effect is histrionic rather than chilling. In the third example, the image of the speaker’s damaged head as a blunt bowling ball has a certain appalling force, but to extend it by adding “and the wasp / strains to lift him / by his fingerholes” requires too much negative capability on the part of the reader to achieve the desired result. But it’s true that many people associate wasps with toxic peril. Judith Beveridge, for instance, in her recent prize-winning poem “As Wasps Fly Up”, describes the insects squirting venom into the eyes of unlucky entomologist as he dangles from a tree over a Costa Rican gorge.
“Eight Views of Nowhere” is the evocative name of the book’s second section, and alludes to both mortality and nothingness. It is borrowed from the title of a series of inkjet and digital prints made by the artist Meredith Squires in 2013. Most of these feature mist-shrouded mountains with a very Chinese feel, except for the second view, which shows a waterfront cityscape reminiscent of Hong Kong’s Central District. All the views include extensive areas of blank or “negative” space, and it is this presentation of formlessness that seems to appeal to Deane, as well as the Oriental ambience.
The first poem is a long one and opens as follows:
Contemplate her eight views of nowhere:
…………these eight views of myself
to which she made me an accessory.
Gaze unblinking into the mirrored,
reversed world of an extinction in progress,
a transfiguration from infinity to infirmary,
…………delusion to allusion, god to wasp.
And the wasps, born anew
…………diurnally as deities would,
should they be reproduced to scale on
the digital archival paper that holds these views,
…………be reborn as dragons
……………………to rival Ishiro Honda’s keiju —
ink jet manifestations of the past anxieties
…………of our tokusetsu life. As for today,
fear sets me free, gives me flight,
…………transforms me from an insect
into something greater/lesser, blinding me
to the moment fast approaching when
…………these wings are no longer able to defy
gravity and I, too, shall fall
…………from the monochrome sky
and break my imagined self against
…………the footpath of a confected world . . .
Casting himself in the role of a nowhere man, Deane reads Squires’ images as a mirror in which to imagine himself as “an extinction in progress” — the fact that her eight views contain only one city-scene hints at the transience of our presence on the Earth. However, the passage is not as straightforwardly gloomy as it sounds: our ordinary life of anxieties (symbolized by the wasp) may be “transfigured” by the encounter with nothingness, and we may be able to “fly” for a while, until we “break” open our imaginary selves and become enlightened to a reality beyond that of this “confected world”. The remainder of the poem conducts a brief investigation into reality and illusion. This may be designed expressly to allow for a positive, perhaps Daoist- or Zen-inspired, interpretation of apparent nothingness (“nothing — nowhere — is as it seems”).
This poem is heavy-going in places and is made even more difficult by its use of Japanese words. Deane clearly delights in the texture and aura of foreign terms and enjoys the way they can influence the atmosphere in a text — it is part and parcel of how he relates to language. He includes a few snatches of Latin in “Old, yet always new”, and there is the Mandarin Chinese expression gongxi facai (literally “congratulations, make money”, but roughly functionally equivalent to our “Happy New Year”) in one of the poems quoted above from the first section. In this particular instance, understanding the meaning of the phrase is not strictly necessary: we are put in the position of the tree, that of course has no idea what the speaker is saying. In addition, we are told that the phrase is Chinese, and that is probably all the information we need to appreciate the text.
The meaning of non-English words may, however, be vital to our comprehension of the sense of some lines, such as in “Contemplate her eight views of nowhere”. Here, there is no real context to help us understand the meaning of keiju and tokusetsu, and yet they are not just there for the sake of mood. A translator colleague explained their significance to me: keiju (or kaijū 怪獣) means “monster” — Honda Ishirō was the director of the original Godzilla film — while tokusetsu is probably tokusatsu 特撮, a word that is the equivalent of our “special effects”. When the meaning of non-English words is vital to the sense, it would be a good idea to provide a note with a simple translation. Otherwise, the reader is deprived of access to a crucial part of the text.
A serious rival to the prominent theme of personal extinction emerges quite strongly in the second section: the theme of eros. Deane has hinted at it largely in passing in the opening part of the book — there is the television sex-scene in “His life repeats on the portable TV”, the moment when he becomes aroused as a Somali nurse “polishes and rolls him”, and the lines “Old, yet always new, / desire not departing, / appetite redoubled, became / the blood and bone of him” — and he returns to it in two poems that conclude his “Eight Views of Nowhere”. One presents the peculiar image of “origami vaginas” that dissolve into an eternity of white, while the other sings of love, that romantic, all-too-human mode of infinity:
If this star of my affection
were love enough
……………………….no darkness would you see,
but shadows of longing.
…………The negative of ardour,
hard as obsidian,
that will burn until I fade —
…………blind the eternity of midnights
with the blink of one midday.
Nevertheless, we are reminded in a roundabout way of the primacy of the death theme when we realize that these poetic “Eight Views” only include a total of six pieces.
The collection closes on a Hopkins-esque note with a further nine poems grouped under the heading “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”. In it, Deane reprises elements of the previous two parts, especially the weird strain of the opening section. It begins with a brutally confronting poem about the mercy killing of a fox that has been run over, and includes a further appearance of the wasp symbol, although the phrase “in some crowded hive / a riot is awakened” blurs the entomological line between wasps (which gather in nests) and bees. Political themes, indicating a public turn in Deane’s writing, become prominent, with acerbic poems about Australian identity and refugees, “those embalmed alive / with razor wire” (“This devil’s bridge”). Significantly, the rambling final poem returns in its concluding lines to the theme of eros, and finishes with the lines “for, though we have no time to live, / we have just enough time to love”: despite the nightmarish quality of much of the poetry, something fragile but life-affirming emerges from the carnage. Coincidentally, Deane harks backs here to territory he explored in his previous book, Magisterium, when he writes “What matters most is that / we love this life we are leaving / and are unafraid of the next” (“Requiem”).
For me, an unexpected highlight of this section is the following low-key item:
Face a fist,
seven years of muscle
she forces me to lean hard
…………to hold her flat
on the table
as the doctor — who
insists on being called Daisy —
…………dabs liquid nitrogen
into my daughter’s sole.
I hear cold skin burning
as I tell her to be brave,
…………but the truth is
she is brave enough already.
It takes courage to be scared.
At once, all the phantasmagorical elements in Deane’s poetic repertoire fall away in the act of dealing with a child’s suffering. At once, we feel the situation with some immediacy. The metaphor “face a fist” embodies this directness, and finds support in the monosyllabic physical keenness of the simple description of the speaker leaning “hard to hold her flat on the table” (there’s a deft reference back to “he leans hard against the willow” here). We get a sense of fierce pain even before we have a clear idea about what is happening. The detail about the doctor insisting on being called Daisy (she would have to have a floral name, when the girl has been stung on the foot by a flower-feeding wasp/bee!) allows Deane to indulge his wit without straying from the facts of this mundane situation. This is turn clarifies the action and keeps it focused. Finally, the ingenious shift in the choice of preposition — not the obvious “on my daughter’s sole” but into it — proves how much more effective precise effects can be in comparison to extravagant oddity.
A striking instance of paradox closes the poem to give the reader a further jolt. However, this comes at too high a price: it distorts the meaning that the rest of the poem works towards in order to deliver another surprise. Actually, it doesn’t take bravery to be scared, but it does take courage to fully accept pain and one’s very human vulnerability to extremely unpleasant situations. There is something emblematic in this moment: throughout the collection there is a tendency to opt for exaggerated dramatic touches at the expense of absolute precision with regard to the difficult realities of pain and suffering.
Craig Sherborne has written that Deane is capable of “moody, strikingly versatile poetry” and this is certainly true of Year of the Wasp. Perhaps, though, one of the most impressive things about Deane’s poetry is his daring. At various moments in this collection, he puts himself into poetically very fraught situations, just to see what he can make of the difficulty. A memorable example of this is a short poem about desire:
And the man asked the mountain,
“How does it feel to become
something more than desire?”
And the mountain asked the man,
It would feel as though
the sun stared too hard,
the sky forgot to rain,
the rivers lost their way.”
Deane sets himself the challenge here of trying to imagine how it would feel to live free of human wanting, stone-wise. There’s a welcome sense of surprise and relief in the mountain’s reply: at once, it denies the questioner’s assumption that there is anything intrinsically superior about transcending desire. But none of the images in the final three lines presents a convincing expression of what the mountain is trying to tell us about its desire-less state — a state possibly akin to the liberation from our imagined selves proposed in the second section. In this sense the promise of the poem is not fulfilled. Nevertheless, I find Deane’s willingness to take on such challenges admirable. Why shouldn’t we think of poetry in the way Simone Weil thought of philosophy, as a posing of insoluble problems, while “facing them in their insolubility, contemplating them in humility, without hope, indefinitely”?
Deane’s courage extends to his use of simile and metaphor. There are some remarkable examples of this scattered throughout the book. In “Paramedics arrive” we have “weeping trailers”, a metaphor that vividly indicate the distinct pattern of dripping that happens when boats are loaded onto them. The word “silk” is irresistibly sensuous, and Deane employs it with great effect in the lines “The way children wade over: / paint each other black / with the silk of volcanoes / that grind basalt to talcum in their sleep” (“The way the setting sun shadows”). And then elsewhere there is the dynamic “whirlpool of sparrows” contrasted with a sinister “scree of drones”.
Such boldness can create its own problems, however. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser makes some helpful remarks on the question of unwanted shades of meaning, referring to them as “noun shadows”. For instance, when Deane writes of “the polished cheek / of a floor”, the meaning of “smoothness” highlighted by “cheek” is disturbed by the unwanted association of “roundedness”. Another noun shadow also undermines the effectiveness of “metronome skyscrapers” (“He laps the oval while”): yes, the buildings may be tall and narrow like the needle of a metronome, but they are unlikely to swing rhythmically from side to side! A third example appears in this description of a dawn sky: “they wait / for the Ferris wheel of the horizon”. This effectively summons up the looming orb of the rising sun, but again the reader has to fight hard against the distracting implication of wheeling rotation.
Shock then — as novelty, or as weirdness, or as violence — can make a strong momentary impression on readers, but there is something paradoxically powerless in it, perhaps because it is essentially a superficial effect. We are unlikely to be touched deeply by it, and our ideas about the world will not be enlarged as a result. In contrast, when the surface agitation of the poetry calms, there are occasions where Deane achieves the subtler and more powerful shock of real insight, and these are the moments that linger longest with me from the writer’s harrowing year of the wasp.
– Simon Patton
Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. He recently spent two months in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong as translator-in-residence at Lingnan University.
Year of the Wasp is available from http://hunterpublishers.com.au/books/year-of-the-wasp/
A number of poems from Year of the Wasp were published in Verity La http://verityla.com/poems-from-year-of-the-wasp-joel-deane/