I needed books to read on a long plane trip and in the interstices of the conference at the end of the trip. These two jumped off the bookshop shelves, Brendan Doyle’s because I knew a little of his work from a previous life, Ali Alizadeh’s because I’ve heard him read from his memoir and have found his critical writings bracing.
To be honest, I’ve found Alizadeh’s critical writing intimidating rather than just bracing: way out of my intellectual league. So I approached Ashes in the Air expecting to struggle with obscure (post-)modernist play. Instead, I got a human voice, plainspoken, generous, sometimes raw, at other times laugh-out-loud funny, and at moments piercingly lyrical. There is impassioned politics, childhood reminiscence, love lyric, a number of verse essays.
Though it’s not a memoir, a narrative emerges: Ali Alizadeh came to Australia from Iran in 1991 in his mid teens. He struggled with the cultural transition, was subjected to xenophobic bullying and humiliation in Brisbane high schools, became an alcoholic and – if I’ve pieced the chronology together correctly – found his way to sobriety and equilibrium through the influence of his elder sister, through his relationship with the woman who is now his wife, and through poetry.
In some respects, this might seem like poetry that’s ripe for the dubious success of being set for classroom study, a sure way to generate sales but not necessarily build a readership. (A young friend of mine loathes the poetry of Peter Skrzynecki, which he was compelled to study for the Higher School Certificate.) Individual poems may be seized on in this way as shedding light on the immigrant experience: ‘Us and Them’ juxtaposes two deaths – of ‘another working class adolescent / charred by another Iraqi chemical / attack’ in the early 1980s, and of a ‘promising Creative Arts student / who threw himself under the train / one sunny day, at Southport Station’ a decade later; ‘A Familial Renaissance’ charts the immigrant family’s traumatic path to some kind of well-being. And others, including the complex and discursive ‘The History of the Veil’, would stir animated classroom conversation on ‘hot’ topics.
But the book as a whole is unlikely to be taken up by curriculum setters. It’s a long way from being categorisable as ‘immigrant poetry’ or ‘culturally diverse’. Some of the sweetest poems, including the first in the book, ‘Marco Polo’, are about travel that’s closer to tourism than migration. And how would you pigeon-hole ‘Sky Burial’, in which the speaker who has eaten many birds in his life contemplates making atonement by having his body eaten by vultures after he dies? On top of that, there are too many swear words, too many references to Baudrillard and other high theorists, too much fierce politics, too much that can’t be put to straightforward instructive use – you might say too much that a certain kind of teenager will love but that will deter a curriculum committee.
I expect I’ll reread it many times.
Glass Bicycles also has an autobiographical dimension, but though the poems travel to Cambodia and France, and reach out to events in Iraq, Bali, Bosnia and East Timor, the unifying persona has a stable home base in the Sydney region. He starts out, in ‘Newtown Boy’, ‘Sittin’ on the gas box, / waitin’ for me dad’, has a romantic encounter in ‘Nielsen Park’, is revived by the Blue Mountains bush.
I read somewhere recently that a common difficulty with first books of poetry is that they lack thematic or structural coherence. In this book, structure seems to have been deliberately avoided: it would have been easy enough to group these poems into, say, commentary on current affairs, travel poems, nonsense poems, nature poems and family matters, but there seems to have been a deliberate decision not to do so. For what it’s worth, I think this was a good decision: it has given us a book where each poem stands alone, responding to its own occasion, whether it be a political commentator’s callousness, the bitter-sweetness of a child-access arrangement, or ash from a bushfire falling on the Harbour. the result is a friendly feeling, suggesting subliminally that readers could make poetry from their own occasions.
Since by happy accident I’m talking about these books together, how would this be for an exam question: ‘Ali Alizadeh and Brendan Doyle have both written poems about refugees. Compare and contrast.’
By Brendan Doyle:
I kneel before the boatman.
The price is far too high.
I kneel before the pirate.
Not my daughter, not my wife.
I kneel before the aid man.
The land’s no longer mine.
I kneel before the soldier.
Will you spare a father’s life?
I kneel before the policeman.
A permit, to buy some rice.
I kneel before the altar
and pray for an end to strife.
I kneel before the embassy,
its heavy doors shut tight.
By Ali Alizadeh:
So he’s shut up. Vilified:
an unpleasant recalcitrant,
gagged for penning
Imperialist turpitude, then
to purgation in Tehran’s
Evin Prison. How the writer
finally escapes, his fingers
nearly crushed and chopped. Has
himself smuggled, his heart
simmering with a whim,
freedom of speech, democracy
etc. Then branded ‘illegal
immigrant’ and caged in a camp
in Australia for three years, before
Temporary Protection after
his wrists have been indented
by his own razor, a rib fractured
by an overweight guard. He wants
to return to writing, but anger
blocks the passage of language
from the heart to the page. So he’s