Ali Alizadeh’s Ashes and Brendan Doyle’s Bicycles

Ali Alizadeh, Ashes in the Air (UQP 2011, 2013)
Brendan Doyle, Glass Bicycles (Ginninderra Press 2012)

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.

0702238724To 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.

1bdgbGlass 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:

Shut Up
So he’s shut up. Vilified:
an unpleasant recalcitrant,

gagged for penning
Imperialist turpitude, then

summoned, sentenced
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

shut up.

5 responses to “Ali Alizadeh’s Ashes and Brendan Doyle’s Bicycles

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing these two writers I am going to have to track down their work!


  2. In the early 1980s I was in touch with Peter SKRZYNECKI re his poetry – and he let me know of an English Folk Opera: “The Transports” – about my First Fleet ancestors out of East Anglia – Henry KABLE & Susannah HOLMES. Some years later I was teaching with AMES – and we had an invite to the launch of Joseph’s Coat – the anthology edited by Peter SKRZYNECKI. One of my Gardener’s Road PS community evening AMES class members was a sister to Yota KRILI. The whole class attended – proving the desire of adults from various parts of the world to be engaged with issues of the mind – not merely discrete structural aspects of language. At the national AATE English Teachers conference in 1985 in Hobart – Peter was one of several writers who formed part of my seminar team – the Australia Council provided me some funding to enable their participation – I hear the originality (in those long ago days) of having writers participate as writers was much remarked upon. Writers festivals of contemporary times have drawn a veil over those days when the writer was not so central to our thinking of literature – certainly not in schools. A forum such as this will have clearer thinking on such an issue – but the reality of then was quite different. And some years later when I was teaching at Nelson Bay High – Peter came to address my 2 Unit General HSC classes. I have never forgotten such generosity. So Jonathan – I am sorry to think that your young friend’s teacher so destroyed Peter’s poetry that he can’t read any of it now! I’d like to think he loathed the teacher – in preference to Peter’s work. The Ali ALIZADEH rondeau you include is tremendously moving – thank you for drawing my attention to this significant Australian poet. As for the poem “Sky Burial” – it would seem that the poet is a Zoroastrian – since this fits the traditional funeral rites. At least this is how I might pigeon-hole the possibility! Makes me all the more want to read the entire volume.


  3. Jonathan – recalling your time in Turkey – our travels there begin September 8 – for a little over three weeks …Orhan PAMUK hoving into view!


  4. Rhiannon: I hope you find joy with them.

    Jim: Thanks for the stories about Peter Skrzynecki. I’m hoping that my young friend’s loathing will pass, that it’s more youthful bravado that an entrenched hatred, but it does seem that many young people find it hard to love something they are made to study – a sad thing all round.

    I didn’t know sky burial was a Zorastrian thing. That does add something to the poem, but it’s more in the way of sly extra humour than in pigeonhole-ability, as you’ll see when you read it.

    I hope you enjoy Turkey as much as we did.


  5. I agree absolutely with you that many young people dislike/hate what they are made to study. For many years such an awareness guided my teaching of literature – to ensure that when my students passed on from me they would still love reading (to take that study into realms permitting the illumination of self within the work being focussed upon – and to know something of the writer – whether by writing letters to those whose work we were studying or by having them visit our classes when I could “twist their arms” to do so – so I owe much to their generosity – in the days before it was properly understood that such visits merited (of course) a monetary honorarium)! In fact such ‘guest’ appearances were themselves still largely over the horizon of possibility. And those letters – from “their” writers (as they would henceforth be) – were thrilling for us all: Ian SERRAILLIER, Roald DAHL, Gillian RUBINSTEIN (aka nowadays Lian HEARN), Ania WALWICZ, Ronald McKIE, Alma (ALDRETTE) IRIS, Margaret DIESENDORF, John ENCARNAÇÃO, Yota KRILI(-KEVANS), Hansi FOKS, et al.


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