Adam Aitken’s Tonto’s Revenge

Adam Aitken, Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press 2011)

Tinfish Press is a small Hawai’ian publishing house run by Susan M Schultz, the poet who wrote Dementia Blog. It publishes poetry in the Tinfish journal, in books and in chapbooks. Even if Adam Aitken hadn’t been Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawai’i–Mānoa in 2010,  would have been a natural fit for Tinfish. He wrote recently on his blog:

I have spent my whole career as a writer trying to critique and understand a cross-cultural poetics and [my] multicultural cultural capital.

Almost like call and response, the Tinfish website says:

We publish work from the Pacific region, concentrating on language issues, colonialism, Buddhism, place, and poetic form. Above all, we seek to create alliances between writers whose work crosses national and aesthetic borders.

Tonto’s Revenge is the second title in the Tinfish Retro Series, which will comprise 12 chapbooks, $3 USD each or $36 for the set, available from http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com. (You can read Susan Schultz’s blog entry on this book here.)

I enjoyed the book’s twelve poems very much. Most of them are responses to Hawai’i: conversations on TheBus (not a typo), an encounter with a homeless woman, an elegy for the actor who played Danno in Hawai’i Five-O, a meditation on a major shopping precinct. Five monologues by ‘The Sheriff’ are less Hawai’i specific, but they too relate to encounters with the US more broadly. For example, ‘The Sheriff as Recidivist’ which gives the book its title, plays with a particularly US flavour of political correctness, in which certain words have been declared ‘bad’:

I know I can’t call him that, my dusky Injun,
but I does.
[…]
Tonto.
Now that Tumbleweed U’s banned the term
now that it’s banned
it’s even sexier.

Here, as elsewhere, the play turns serious in a surprising way, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out how.  There’s a lot of playfulness in the book as a whole – playful puns, play with syntax, play with paradox – and a lot of affection.

Since this is a blog entry and not a review, here begin a couple of paragraphs on a very minor matter:

As is pretty inevitable these days, when we can never assume a common set of references between a poet and any given reader, there are plenty of obscurities. For example, in ‘Ala Moana’, the piece on the shopping precinct, which to my mind is the most interesting poem in the book, the narrator has been meditating on nostalgia:

So I want to write 747 poems
and not worry. Whose home is it?
Whose nostalgia?

Presumably he doesn’t mean he want to write seven hundred and forty-seven poems. Is he looking forward to the time when we will be nostalgic for 747s?  Perhaps he is stating an ambition to write big poems that will carry many people to new places. This morning, re-reading the poem while walking the dog, I stumbled on this line, and moved on – as you do. Just now, checking to see if Adam had uploaded the poem to his blog as he has some of the others, I read this: ‘I feel deeply complicit in a kind of poetic tourism, where I am always unmoored, or detached from a deep sense of belonging to a place. Susan Schultz calls this the “747” poem, a poem of shallow impressions, a sketch.’

Ahh! (And since I wrote that last sentence, I’ve googled ‘747 poems’ and found lots of references: it’s not a deliberate obscurity.)

Added later: Susan Schultz has added a clarification in the comments.

3 responses to “Adam Aitken’s Tonto’s Revenge

  1. Thanks, Jonathan. I did not come up with “747” poem myself, though I do use the term. Pam Brown wrote an entire chap of such poems, published by Wild Honey I believe. Appreciate the review.

  2. Pingback: Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 2 | Me fail? I fly!

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