Adam Aitken’s Archipelago

Adam Aitken, Archipelago (Vagabond Press 2017)

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Adam Aitken is a Sydney poet whose work often deals with aspects of living, working or travelling overseas. He has written about time spent in Asia, particularly his mother’s birth country, Thailand, in England and Hawaii. Most of the poems in Archipelago have to do with Paris or tiny villages in the south of France.

Aitken has written about his own work (in ‘A poetics of (un)becoming hybridity’, an article in Southerly Nº 73, 2013):

I would say that like many Australian poets who live and work overseas, I write as a temporary sojourner who is acutely aware of the limits of a touristic perspective.

In most of the poems in Archipelago, the voice is that of a temporary sojourner who may at times be a tourist (and part of the pleasure of the book for me is that evokes my own time in the south of France a couple of years ago), but is generally more engaged.  Possibly the closest thing to a simple tourist poem is ‘What (not) to do in St Victor-des-Oules’, in which the (non-)attractions of a tiny village are enumerated with wry humour:

Out of reception we stroll to the recycling depot
through a pall of burning autumn leaves.
A shooter lets off his blunderbuss
in a village with no twin – no cafes, no post office,
no fountain in the square.

Other ‘touristic’ poems are less ironic. In ‘At Maruéjols’, for example, the speaker’s stroll through the town is also a stroll through the centuries, beginning in the 5th Century, and arriving in 2012 with ‘two men on extended leave /around a fire / growing beards in a silk worm attic’.

Mostly, though, the poems engage with their places more intimately, as from the perspective of someone visiting family. Pam Brown told us at the launch of this book that Aitken has visited the south of France regularly because his partner’s parents lived there, but even without that information, that kind of connection is palpable in the poems themselves. ‘Postcard’, for example, which made me laugh out loud, could only be addressed to someone of whose affection you were confident. It starts out ‘Chère Margaret, / Thank you for letting us stay so long’, and goes on to a litany of complaints – not about the hospitality, but about the winter weather:

I am yet to cough up blood.
The other day I found a dead thrush in the letterbox.
I swept a few frozen comrades off the driveway.
Every day they are falling out of the sky.

‘Maruéjols’ (a different poem from ‘At Maruéjols’) captures the eerie process of going through the possessions of someone who has recently died:

Later, coming to empty your house, we felt
the dark matter of your brain
and what came through it.

The poems move beyond touristic engagement with place in other ways as well, mainly by engaging with other writers and artists associated with the place, and with its history.

The book drew me in and held me. I spent time reading around it, looking up the places, artists and poets described, addressed, mentioned or imitated, and then rereading the poems. My copy of the book is now bulked up with printed-off photos of tiny French villages – including Maruéjols-lès-Gardon (population 179 in 2007), Saint-Victor-des-Oules (pop. 254), Notre Dame de la Rouvière (pop. 410), Mareuil (pop. 1130) –  and images created by Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Rousseau, John William Ashton and Charles Méryon. I’ve read or reread work by or about Jean Jacques Rousseau, Roland Barthes, Ezra Pound, Raymond Roussel (including Adam’s blog post, which is a very useful gloss to his poem ‘Rousselesque’), Jules Renard, John Clare, Kenneth Slessor, New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt (the poem quoting her being one of the few with no French connection) and Australian Ouyang Yu, among others.

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