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Colloquy, Issue 7, J. Mateer, Loanwords

Issue Seven

John Mateer, Loanwords . Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2002. ISBN: 1 86368 359 3

Chris Danta

loanword "a word adopted or borrowed, usually with little modification, from another language" (Shorter Oxford)

There is a certain violence to South African born poet John Mateer's fourth collection of poems to be published in Australia: Loanwords . Or, to be more precise, there is the certainty of violence, a need to bear witness - poetically - to the vicinity of terror. The first poem of the collection is called "The Bombing." The poet there writes, "We see the aftermath in a sports shoe store / on a TV high against the ceiling … The vicinity is inarticulate." The poem is about the phenomenon of a terrorist bombing, but a contemporary reader would be forgiven for asking: which "inarticulate vicinity" does the poet here have in mind? The specificity of this question does not seem entirely misplaced. The poem could be post September 11, 2001. It is definitely pre Bali October 12, 2002. For the Australian reader, for whom terror has entered the vicinity, its effect now takes place in the nervous intercultural spacetime opened up by these two dates and by the phenomenon of global terror.

"The Bombing" so becomes a prescient point of departure for a poetry that would seek to operate interculturally in a time of global distress - precisely by recuperating the recalcitrant signs of cross-cultural understanding: loanwords. And the image organising this new poetics is that of the "inarticulate vicinity." This image conveys a sense of proximity to the other in which the natural means of discourse have been interrupted - violently, in the name of a colonising impulse. With this image, the poet bears witness to a technological disruption of the locale.

It comes as no surprise when the succession of these admirable poems turns to the rubric of the "inarticulate vicinity" in history. In the longest poem of the collection - "In The Presence of a Severed Head" - Mateer does not see time in the eye of a cat (Baudelaire) but quite literally in the severed head of a fallen Aboriginal hero. The poem's subject is "Yagan"- "a Swan River Valley Chieftain" - whose severed head was once macabrely preserved and "shipped to the Old World" to be displayed as an historical trophy. Mateer opens the poem by citing and so recasting an earlier history:

The legend of Yagan did not end along the banks of the Swan River. The head, brutally hacked from his body, was wedged into a hollow tree stump and slowly preserved in the smoke of gum leaves. After several months the lank hair was combed, a band of possum string was wrapped around the forehead and a pair of red and black cockatoo feathers added for effect. Ensign Robert Dale acquired the trophy and took it to England where it was exhibited as the head of a Swan River Valley Chieftain.

The head will not speak and must be apostrophised by the poet. Yet, in the silence it (p)reserves, it nonetheless attests to a terrorising of vicinity by past colonial "invaders." The poem thus figures as a recuperation of an inarticulate vicinity within history. It literally testifies to the decomposition of colonial history into a muteness that must rest alongside that of nature.

Yagan,
even if I stab a redgum you will not speak

Yagan,
like the sooty tuning fork prongs of trees after bushfire
you, to whom these words are spoken, are silence
Addressed through sub-vocal song you are
more intimate than prayer, closer than flesh.

Mateer's poetry depends for its articulation on the possibility of the "sub-vocal song": a form of address that constitutes its subject in an exchange "more intimate than prayer, closer than flesh." This exchange takes place always with the hope of redeeming a head falsely cradled in the muteness of nature and so dressed up as the Noble Savage. A later poem provides an up-dated image for this process:"the city is thought, sounded, not yet words: psycho-acoustics."

In this poetic schema, the loanword becomes an ideal and a sign of hope. The loanword shows language to resist the movement of cultural violence (even while attesting to it or naming it: apartheid , jihad). In the movement of failed translation that characterises the loanword is the hope of a more desultory form of universality. There are loanwords throughout this book:vleiswond (Afrikaans), umwelts (German), guru (Sanskrit),amok (Malaysian), apartheid (Afrikaans). But perhaps more importantly there is also a logic or an ethos of the loanword: by which words are still thought able to communicate in the image of their recalcitrance. A loanword - like the poet - is an emigrant in the universality of discourse. The presence of the loanword is also a sign of the recalcitrance of discourse as it is forced to emigrate: in the disconcerting presence, for example, of a severed head. What these poems might lose in subtlety of topic or violence of explication, they nonetheless recuperate in the timeliness and urgency of their intercultural imagination.

"Disarmed, the poet is speech / to the powers. Only / loanwords arrive in his mouth, like placebos or wisdom teeth."