‘Catharsis interruptis’ | SMH (Jul 26 2008)
Sydney Morning Herald. Review of Pointcounterpoint: New and Selected Poems by Javant Biarujia (Salt) Jul 26 2008. Spectrum: 30.
Like Daedalus, the cunning artificer in Greek mythology who designed and built the labyrinth at Crete to house the Minotaur, Javant Biarujia is a consummate, innovative craftsman. This new collection presents an overview of the poet’s work, with selections from his previous six volumes, including the critically acclaimed Calques (2002) and Low/Life (2003), together with twenty-two new or previously uncollected poems.
Biarujia is arguably the pick of a steadily increasing, though still relatively small number of Australian poets working within and expanding upon the Modernist tradition. By turns erudite, erotic, political and humorous, his poetry pushes the English language to its limits by reveling in ellipsis and etymological slippage. These poems are replete with misreadings, mondegreens and puns in Latin, French, German, Japanese, Sanskrit and Arabic – always clever, though sometimes confounding. Most of the works are as spectacular formally as they are linguistically, with the typographical pyrotechnics of concrete poetry, slabs of unspaced text, cascading columns and various forms of antistrophe found in abundance.
Biarujia’s primary influences are the French Surrealists and their affiliates, especially Jacques Prévert, René Crevel and Jean Cocteau (in addition to Apollinaire, Breton and Éluard). Much of the energy in his early works seems dedicated to rescuing the literary arm of that movement from its own internecine political struggles. Russian propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg’s charge that all Surrealists were pederasts underscores a number of these works, especially his second volume, Eye in the Anus (1985), which examines Cocteau’s relationship with the poetic wunderkind Raymond Radiguet. Despite the highly cerebral nature of these poems, they are also starkly sensuous, deeply corporeal.
Other primary lenses include the giants of European and American modernism (the multilingual punning of Joyce, the self-conscious intertextuality of Pound and Eliot, the hypnotic repetition-with-difference of Stein), continental European philosophy (Derrida, Foucault), and the Oulipo and pataphysics movements (Queneau and Jarry). Secondary influences range from Louis Zukofsky’s Objectivism to the Black Mountain poets, the New York School and certain elements of North American ‘language’ poetry (Charles Bernstein blurbs the collection).
All this makes for a heady brew, and Biarujia’s incessant philological escapades make for an endlessly rewarding if extremely challenging read. ‘The Warholy Grail’, a new poem that harps on the pop artist’s shoe fetish, for instance, is prefaced by two misreadings: an epigraph after Proust, á la reshoe du pumps per tutti (for À la recherche du temps perdu), and a subtitle at the expense of Keats, “Beauty is shoe, shoe beauty.” The recent trend of supplementing poetry volumes with endnotes seems to have been resisted by Biarujia as much out of practicality as circumspection; notes to a work such as this would perhaps run longer than the volume itself, and more importantly, would be counter-intuitive to Biarujia’s poetics of playfulness, openness and potentiality.
The final section consists of seven prose arguments which contain poetic and narrative elements – or “poessays”, to use the term coined by the literary critic Marjorie Perloff – each adhering to an Ancient Greek, Vedic or Zoroastrian archetype. “Tvashtri,” from the Sanskrit for “carpenter” or “heavenly builder”, examines the films of Peter Greenaway (described at one point as “celluloid Prozac”). “Minotaur” begins as a discussion on two films by Fellini, before chicaning through a maze of cultural and political concerns, setting up a wonderful dichotomy between the jetsetter and the refugee, before tackling his central subject, what he calls the “East-West compound”, via an analysis of the dreamlike qualities of the Arabian Nights and Turkish Delight, the Orientalism of Delacroix, and Al’Qaeda and Jema’ah Islamiah.
“You wonder where I’m taking you with my little craft, where you’ll be dropped off,” he states in the final poem of the book, “Being, Its Own Reward”, which works as a manifesto of sorts, a piece of string with which readers might keep their bearings. Here the poet openly admits to subverting the conventions of lyric poetry by “practis[ing] catharsis interruptus.”
According to Ovid’s version of the myth, Daedalus’ maze was so effective that he could barely extract himself once he had finished building it. In this volume, Daedalus and the Minotaur become one; for Biarujia has no compunction remaining in the labyrinth of linguistic possibility – he might even call it home.