Adam Aitken, Eighth Habitation. Giramondo, 2009.
To Mr Aitken, then – this is his fourth collection and though I have read some reviews I am not familiar with his earlier books. Works in this collection have appeared in a whole swathe of publications from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Australia and the US.
Of particular merit within this book is a long suite of poems about Cambodia. Aitken introduces the accounts of French colonial diarists as more than simply padding in his Cambodian poems – that of naturalist Henri Mouhot is a rich reworking, even though Aitken claims:
Let’s be modest, your notes were
hasty, rough, with no claim to any merit
but to record the truth.
Destined as good books are
to see the light.
And also destined, I think, to give Aitken a poem where he can revisit l’Indochine:
to discover anything
or to re-discover anything
let alone die looking…
Now we will know how the hunter
was once truly beautiful…
Though he is quick to counter Mouhot’s seductive influence with a brief homage to the deeply cynical trade commissioner Louis de Carne, who predicted India would fall into the hands of Australians:
…I could write all night in my tent
Cobwebbed in ennui and
Sucking on the leg bone of an iguana,
Or recline under the implacable serenity of the heavens,
The all-powerful constraints
Of influences so fatal to human personality
That thought dies away by degrees
Like a flame in a vacuum.
(You can read the whole poem and another, ‘Francais’, here.)
There is almost nothing of landmines here save the fearsome ‘The Scream’, but chilling echoes of cruelty are everywhere – try ‘The Wearer of Amulets’ on for size. This suite of poems (has it been published on its own?) builds tenaciously into an indictment of the ’70s reign of terror in Cambodia, punctuated by a curious set of aubades (no less than six of them), probably worth reading in sequence themselves, in one of which Aitken wearily complains:
There are poets you know
who hardly sleep.
Your method is different.
The last poem in this sequence, addressed to a Cambodian writer as the person speaking throughout these poems leaves the country, suggests that not enough people can speak of the terror even now (he was last in Cambodia to work on these poems in 2008). The writer he addresses was married off, “let’s say at gunpoint”:
to write or not to – therefore live –
to forgive the monster
is this impossible question
Those who do not read
are still with us
and so few of you who write
with any skill or beauty
We move forward all the same, dear friend
back and forward
across the moat
one more time.
The opening sequence is titled Broken/Unbroken (echoing Jill Jones’ prize-winning collection Broken/Open) and contains a poem on fire ‘in the Sydney style’ in which he pays tribute to Robert Adamson’s denims, a poem about relatives and war, a beautiful, resigned poem on Gallipoli (‘Ionian’), and the pellucid and quite mysterious ‘Force Zero’.
Crossing Lake Toba contains other poems about South-East Asia – Malaysia, Singapore and post 12/02 Bali all accounted for at various points in their histories, as well as a great nine page conversation in tercets with his mother about the niceties of a retiring life in Cairns.
Though I did not, one might read the Cambodian poems first, and then work back – the intensity of that suite certainly lends its power to rereadings of the whole collection. I’m sure it’s a part of Eighth Habitation I will visit again. Aitken has a travel and poetry blog with many photos of his Cambodian sojourn, here.