Adam Aitken

Creative writer and teacher

John Mateer


Southern Barbarians by John Mateer
Giramondo Publishing, 2011

(This article first appeared in Cordite.)

Southern Barbarians is a book that explores both the colonised and the colonizing impulse through the inflections of the Portuguese epic Os Lusíadas by Camões, the explorer/soldier/poet-traveller and heroic poet of the Portuguese. The book ranges from Lisbon to Macao, taking in Indonesia, Malaysia, Warrnambool, and Japan on the way. This is a world where African businessmen in Macao see ‘African wildlife’ in a travel agent’s window, in an image of savannah they are no closer to than the Macanese.

Brian Castro notes Mateer’s concern with the question of literary ownership. Mateer has made of wandering and exile from his birthplace of South Africa, a means of dismantling the clichés of a Pico Ayer style ‘global soul’. The world’s privileged (including its artists and writers) have unprecedented means to travel the globe and to wear the trappings of happy hybridity, but no easy means to overcome alienation from the native’s deeper and more authentic experience of their place. Mateer’s achievement is another archive and critique of the moments of connection of tourist/poet with the other. But the book is more than a travel diary: it is an impressive poetics of the inarticulate, the unsayable and what it means to make sublime cultural connections with the other. Contact occurs as much outside of language as inside. In poems that address Zen Buddhist practice, Mateer shows how we can know through forms of perception and affect what this unspeakable is. Mateer’s book is wonderfully generous and sensitive to the economy of difficult cultural encounters.

Mateer’s poetry has always been aslant of much of Australian poetry. If emigrant poets suffer, it is to be perpetually underrated compared to more nationalist poets. Again, Southern Barbarians wrestles with the question of how voice and nation work together, either as a tag team or as adversaries. This book offers no easy answers on that score, but mines the division of lyric from person, land from owner, imagination untethered to epic or imperial destiny. Mateer’s tribute to literary precursors is teasing and ironic. Its intertextuality is evident, but lightly and affectionately indulged: Baudelaire, Lorca, Éluard, Breytenbach, Pessoa, and Camoes. What poet would not want to be remembered as a massive public statue? Who doesn’t want his or her works translated for all time as a national hero for everyone? But then, the valorisation of The Author as Public Property is not the aim and Mateer is not travelling to find himself, unlike those who hawk ‘a book of photos of The Poet gradually disappearing / on the beach said to be Maputo’ (‘Eduardo’). Who is Mateer, and who is the Author but a wearer of masks, a serial user of Pessoan heteronyms, or a mess of personae operating under more than one false name?

Whether Mateer is a tourist, Australian, South African, poet, art critic, or Southern Barbarian of uncertain ancestry, the book is written in a spirit of ‘disembodied irony, travelling to, and coming from, other worlds’ (from Castro’s ‘Introduction’). But unlike a lot of books on travel, this is a mournful book of saudade or sadness in Portuguese, with the sense of nostalgic longing, of the exile and of the deterritorialised voice. The poet records the sadness that infects the colony that suffers its distance from the centres of culture. It is the sadness of suffering undergone by the dispossessed and homeless. In ‘Angela’ he writes: ‘Poeticising shelter is another way of speaking loss’. Above all, it is the sadness of poetry confronted by its own dis-articulation and its marginality. Such is poetry’s nostalgia for the epic function it once enjoyed, or perhaps still enjoys in tiny pockets of the old empire, where the traces of grandeur persist in the figure of a custard tart in ‘An Essay on Sweetness’:

There is the idea of the perfect colony;
for instance, Saint Augustine’s City of God.

Then there is the Empire of Nostalgia,
inhabited by inebriated poets, 

its laneways and tiny late-night bars
manifold and luminous as the cell of the brain


Yes, we have Bartololomeu Dias and Alvares Cabral
but more important are the pastéis de Bélem of decolonisation.

It is also, simply, the pathos of the heroin addict, the sailor stuck on shore, or the demobbed soldier. Despite this nostalgia, Mateer’s cosmopolitan voice is a generous one that tests solitude to the limit without rejecting the social encounter. Mateer in the guise of poet of the bar, the flaneur, encounters the aporias that emerge in his attempts at communication and the occasionally dark search for the erotic encounter. There is, ominously, the risk of a terrifying disconnection from the other. Moving outside our comfort zones, there are moments of conflict and violence. Before we can love the other, we must overcome fear, make an approach and speak; before speech we must pursue the code.

We are constantly negotiating the ironic moment in which we are confronted by those who have every reason to hate us, and who reject our humanistic gestures towards comradeship. Mateer describes the Mozambiquan he meets in a bar who berates the poet with the words ‘you fuckers kept invading my country’, the soldier who learned a foreign language by fighting the enemy, the ambiguous lover (perhaps a sex-worker) who knows she is a small cog in the economic machine, whom her client ‘Mateer’ declares is a projection or ‘THE ALLEGORY OF THE COLONIAL DREAM’ (‘Allegory’). In other poems, women are addressed via more old fashioned Romanticised forms, for example, the translator who isn’t quite the ‘angel of timelessness’ that Mateer is looking for. Mateer’s romance with the female figure (the dream-economy’s Other, the abject and the fetish, as messenger/muse) risks sentimentality or self-indulgence, but Mateer is makes sure to salt these gestures with acute irony.

Of course, the code (the allegory or the metaphor that gives meaning to form) exceeds words and symbols; the poet (like the code-breaker or the symbolist poet) needs to maintain intuition, openness and philosophical sensitivity; Mateer’s poetry examines the connection between consciousness and the object perceived/conceived. Openness allows the poetic moment to emerge in the real encounter on the street, and to persist in memory and imagination. Like all of Mateer’s poetry, this collection maintains this intensity of gaze and purpose, and here there is a pleasing prominence of intimacy over self-regard.

Mateer’s book recuperates what Chris Danta has called, in his review of one of Mateer’s previous collections, ‘inarticulate vicinity’. It testifies to the mute Right Mind of a Zen meditation. 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.’

But how does that add up to a worldly understanding of cultural difference? If Mateer works as cultural translator, he also critiques the limits of this project. Our attempts to co-habit in the language of the other, or to borrow their means of expression, will lead to ‘failed translations’ or what Danta sees as a ‘desultory form of universality … The presence of the loanword is also a sign of the recalcitrance of discourse as it is forced to emigrate’. Southern Barbarians is rich in loanwords: Portuguese and Japanese, and a whole section is dedicated to translation of selected cantos of Os Lusíadas. Mateer is aware that the material of poetry is borrowed and ancestral, and in that way the contemporary poet achieves a reverse haunting of the ancestor.

Ali Alizadeh rightly identifies Mateer’s earlier collection The West as a book of ‘unanswerable questions, enigmatic references to absent beings, allusions to unknowable facts … literal and figurative remains and echoes of the past’. This refusal to take up a commodified identity, language, or voice that simplistically represents nation (or its multicultural sub-divisions), is perhaps why Mateer’s work is somewhat neglected in Australia, and deserves more discussion. But more than that, it is an issue of reception and how the poetry can be read as a part of the Australian context. But Mateer is keen to float above the bog of unresolved postcolonial history. By looking into material history he gleans a certain spiritual understanding of how our barbaric destinies have made us. Existence is experienced at the level of the body, language, and memory, and a successful poem transacts these levels at a heightened level of comprehension.

If not spiritual, Mateer’s approaches his material in an holistic spirit which is psychological, linguistic, and philosophical. Southern Barbarians continually addresses the question of ‘the tongue’ in its multiple meanings of language, speech, taste, and sexuality. The word itself emerges after the agon of human (and sometimes unhuman) encounter. What then is the ethics of encounter with the other (including the non-human), and is the poem of greatness belated? If poetry is conquest of language, and via language a disciplining of culture, isn’t the epic of the traveller-poet Camões a colonial vanity project? Mateer borrows Camões’ words here: ‘They were already sailing when I uttered my warning, / my words flitting away like gulls over dull water’ (‘The Old Man’). But this collection also includes refreshing celebration of human folly, which is also its hybrid creativity – the colony that keeps the best of its inheritance, the transvestite’s expert performance, the linguist’s genius, President Gusmão sitting in a cold Melbourne winter struggling to translate ‘sadness’, a child playing shadow soccer, or the acoustics of a girl’s laughter.

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