It’s striking that the works of hip-hop artist and Australian Poetry Slam champion Omar Musa and prize-winning contemporary poet and novelist Judy Johnson reflect so well against one another. Where Musa’s work cuts an edge with a sharp slick blade – the parang’s many uses rolled about in Musa’s clear and definite style – Johnson’s poems trace the edges, the places where the cut and tear have left their mark, in their various stages of healing and decay.
Each of these poets starts in an intimate space – where the voice is set and the location defined – and transports the reader to ‘elsewhere’. In Musa’s case this is often to the jungle of his real and imagined Malaysian homeland. In Johnson’s she travels back in time to reveal remarkable tracts of Australian heritage and history. In this, these two books sit so well side by surprising side. They are strung together with similar themes of location and belonging, of how the personal explodes outwards to reveal the universal.
Musa has a video to promote Parang (which is Malay for a large knife that can be used as a tool or a weapon) and in it he recites the opening poem ‘A trance’ while he walks through the mist created in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Australia, and speaks briefly about what drives him to write poetry. With this piece he demonstrates that he is not only cross-cultural but also cross-media. He knows his audience, he is speaking to them directly – his poetry is there to be consumed, as it should be. But what strikes home about this promotion is that this poetry-writing thing is not what he’s known for: the video is acting as a bridge (as indeed his poetry and his persona does) between the tough-guy rapper image and the more contemplative side to his work.
Johnson has no promo video, but if you’re seeking to be impressed the poems in this collection have accumulated a long list of prizes and accolades. The longer poems are winners of the Banjo Patterson Award, the Patricia Hackett Award, and highly commended in the Newcastle Poetry Prize.
At the centre of these two books is this notion of place, or more specifically, of where the speaker is located, extending even the displacement of this voice. The titles are also worth comparing – Musa’s knife blade – which can ‘with a swish calligraphic/take a head/clean/off’ to Johnson’s Stone Scar Air Water: ‘to tell you how it once stood apart/stone, scar, air, water./And fail the moment pen touches paper/the two becoming one’. Each element of the collection, in some way a marker on the map of the body, a movement in the landscape.
With his subtle knife, Musa does have the capacity to leave the scar that Johnson traces through her poems. But, it seems, he also bears this scar himself. As he reveals in ‘In Amsterdam’: ‘the cold air stripped me of edges/and left me dancing/pure’. In Musa’s poetic the scar redeems, the very moment of being sliced open by the cold of the air, separating him from what he loves and longs for, allows ‘…joy & strength/& the perverse freedom of the lost’. The very title of the poem locates him in the measurable world, but what he explores is the arcane and unmapped spaces of the emotion, the heart’s remains.
Parang is full of panache and bravado. It delivers a heady tropical jungle of wrenching delicacy, balances the blunt instrument of telling and explaining with finely wrought writing as shown in ‘The Parang and the Keris’, which is central to this collection. Demonstrating his understanding of form, Musa uses the line of the poem as the edge that is sliced. The repeated ‘I’ resembles the blade itself, the handmade parang, which, unlike its magical cousin the keris ‘… is not heaven forged/blade five-waved,/smelted from metoric iron,/divine’. The clue to this poem happens at its centre, where Musa’s almost song-like lyric impulse tells us:
found the iron ore
in a river bed,
heated it bright, hammered the red hot
until sweat ran in my eyes
beat it into italic font
sharpened the blade
and carved my history in its handle.
The poetic device and the knife blade are at once the language and form of the self, a self-reflexive simile that can cut and be cut at the same time. The italic ‘I’ represents more that the persona of the poet, but the knife he wields in the dialect of the poem. A lot is achieved through this poem that would be lost in the spoken word or song that Musa often works in, and shows a multidimensional understanding of the capacity of the written poem to focus and play with language and form. This is why this is a book of poems, and not an album. As Jeet Thayil endorses on the back of Parang:
Never mind page versus stage. This is poetry: listen.
But perhaps it is the very use of this ‘I’ (extended to ‘my’ throughout Parang) that begins to gnaw at the reader. And the very confidence of the primary voice of the collection – that takes Dransfeildian pleasure in the woven word – begins to lecture, sweeps the knife a little too close to the reader’s nose and starts to insist instead of sing. In tracing the journey of the poet’s own revelations, perhaps the book as whole begins to bleed at the slice marks, and instead of writing from the personal to the universal it stays located too close in?
There is a chance that this criticism of Parang would go unmentioned if not for the comparison with Stone Scar Air Water, where Johnson takes on the voices of many characters, letting them speak for themselves. She thus breaks out of the confines of the poet’s self and the personal story. That is not to say that embedded within these characters there is not some element of the poet or no poems in the collection that explore the poet’s own experience. But Johnson goes on challenging the reader to find within the poems fictional selves based on real characters, and here she reveals the scars and slice marks of history.
In the longer sequences Johnson asks the reader to listen to the character’s more intimate thoughts, a technique that Musa employs, but only in terms of his poetic character’s self. Here, Johnson erases that self to become Mary Watson (a white woman trapped on Lizard Island in 1881) or Rose de Freycinet (who in 1817 stowed away on her husband’s ship) both of whom perish in pursuit of their freedom. Their stories are the scars on which we have built our modern life. They are feminist stories, and yet they are told with clarity of language that immerses the reader so completely in their experience that it is not until we step aside to take a breath that we see the pattern of the knife blade on the map. As Rose de Freycinet says towards the end of her sequence:
What else would be left
having searched and plundered every corner
of the earth’s vast pocket
but to turn it inside out
and expose the black lining?
Or in ‘Michelangelo’s Daughter’ where deteriorating from the scars caused by abuse the character models a figure from plasticine in the asylum commenting on: ‘A soul’s apparent muscular squirm/under its fallen circus tent’. Here Johnson seems to be drawing attention to not only on the act of creation (the poem, the sculpted object, the child) but also Johnson’s own place as author of the poem, somewhat theatrical, somewhat illusory in her ‘fallen circus tent’ façade.
Though it is interesting to note, throughout Johnson’s collection the I voice is reserved for fictional poetic characters, in the title poem ‘Stone, Scar, Air, Water – after Wang Wie’ the I is in abundant use. It is a personal sort of poem that shows off Johnson’s ability to take the ordinary and explode it into image after image of extraordinary luminosity.
Husked between seasons in this cinnamon air
I watch the sails of skiffs
on the birdbath lake
dip beaks to the tinseled water and realise
my heart’s adrift.
She writes of a personal longing, with finesse and clarity : ‘Leaving only words to recapture/detachment…’ and this seems to be what Johnson’s collection is circling around. The possibility to express the mood exactly and be true to both form and function of the poems while remaining at a distance, as far as language will stretch and the imagination follow.
Stone Scar Air Water
Walleah Press, 2013