John Mateer, João (Giramondo 2018)
João is a man’s name, the Portuguese equivalent of John. So it was serendipitous that a copy of this book was in the mail waiting for me when we got back from the trip that included a memorable couple of weeks in Portugal.
The Book is made up of two unequal parts. The first, ‘Twelve Years of Travel’, consists of 58 sonnets – 58 fourteen-line moments in which the character João travels the world, seeing the sights, attending poetry events, partying, having sometimes embarrassing sexual encounters (mind you, I tend to find all writing about sex embarrassing), spending time with friends and inlaws, occasionally hobnobbing with the famous, and ruminating self-consciously. The sonnets make up a kind of discontinuous narrative, which is a term I first met in the context of Frank Moorhouse‘s short stories. The comic self-deprecation of many of the sonnets also reminds me of Moorhouse’s early stories. One of the famous writers who appear is Vikram Seth, author of The Golden Gate, a fabulous novel made up of sonnet-like stanzas, but even though it might be possible to discern a narrative through-line in João, it is not a verse novel in that way, and nor are his sonnets as formally strict as Seth’s stanzas.
These sonnets read as if they were written during John Mateer’s own travels, João being a semi-transparent mask that allows for a playful distance between character and poet, while gesturing to Mateer’s complex relationship to national identity: for example, he was born in South Africa, spent part of his childhood in Canada, is an Australian citizen, and has strong connections to Portugal and the Portuguese diaspora (hence João rather than, say, Giovanni or Johan). I imagine Mateer walking back his hotel room in Macau or Colombo or Prague, finding the words to squeeze something from his day into fourteen lines about João, partly as discipline, partly as play.
The second section, still featuring João, is just four sonnets grouped under the heading ‘Remembering Cape Town’. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are in a separate section is that Cape Town is in a sense home for both John and João, so involve encounters with family and childhood memories.
Here’s a sample. It’s the 50th sonnet from ‘Twelve Years of Travel’:
Vomiting as critique, João thought bent
over in the millionaire’s dark Balinese garden,
while in the marquee the other writers went
through the motions of being gracious. Forgotten
was introspection; they were just acting true
to their personae. Then he wiped his face,
went back to the table where he and others, too,
watched those more famous. ‘My disgrace,’
he quipped, ‘is that affluence makes me sick!’
His mind loved the tropical opulence, his body,
though, was still political. No laughter. Restricting
himself to French, the Egyptian writer, now less moody,
was again bragging to a younger Australian woman.
João, like the watching servants, was alone, forgotten.
This probably needs to be read aloud. The rhyming is important (as it is in the whole book, though not always consistently as here). It avoids the feeling of glibness that can be created by perfect rhyme (rotten/forgotten, say, is more obtrusive to modern ears than garden/forgotten or woman/forgotten), but its regularity makes the reader aware that there’s a verse structure at work. Though I don’t think there’s a regular metre, there are five conversational beats a line. True to the sonnet form, there’s a turn at the halfway point: up to then João is vomiting in the dark garden looking back into the marquee. In line 7 he becomes one of the group again.
The story is relatively trivial. A less than famous writer has a reaction to the food at a writerly party (presumably at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival). He vomits in the garden. On his return he makes a joke about his sickness which falls flat, and then is left feeling alone and socially awkward as the conversation near him, possibly sexually charged, is in a language that he’s not proficient in.
But it’s interesting how much happens in these fourteen lines. Wordsworth’s notion that ‘poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’ comes to mind, only the origin of this poem is a bit more physical than that. The emotion, and the thinking – the ‘critique’ – stem from the intense experience of regurgitation. If you’re out in the garden vomiting, you’re very likely to feel alienated from the people who are still happily chatting inside, so from the start there are invisible //irony// markers around João’s ‘critique’: yes, it’s a millionaire’s garden in a country where most people live in poverty; yes, people at parties tend to put on their party faces (their ‘personae’) rather than go in for ‘introspection’ (which I read as shorthand for serious thought). But what do these reflections amount to other than another form of self-indulgence? When João returns to the party, he tries to mould his observation into a quip. The fact that he fails – ‘No laughter’ – doesn’t take away from the fact that he wants to maintain his status as a partier.
Then, primed as we are from Shakespeare to expect things to be wrapped up neatly in the final couplet of a sonnet, we come to the lovely twist in the final line:
João, like the watching servants, was alone, forgotten.
Well, no, João isn’t like the servants, and the poem doesn’t expect us to think so. João is on the outer because he got sick, because he’s not one of ‘those more famous’, and because the French-speaking Egyptian writer and the Australian woman aren’t interested in him. People who work as servants in Bali are excluded by much harsher factors. And it’s in the nature of a party that they are more or less ignored by the partiers. João thinking of himself as ‘like’ them is self-pity, not solidarity. By putting them in the picture, though, the poem takes a mocking step back, suggesting a wider perspective. And I don’t think it’s stretching the point to read the repetition of ‘forgotten’ as a rhyme word as talking to us over João’s head, suggesting that whereas the vomiting João thought that forgetting ‘introspection’ was something to be criticised, actually forgetting a whole class of people is o a whole other level. We’re still fond of João, but a lot happens in the space between him and ‘John’ the poet.
I’m grateful to Giramondo for my copy of João.