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Made for Export
by Evelyn Juers

Southerly, (Sydney), Winter 1995

Made in AustraliaMade in Australia is a bilingual English-German edition of selected work by eighty contemporary Australian poets. This literary crowd, and its host of German apparitions, is squeezed into a mere three hundred pages, as a kind of export package. Each poet’s name is actually stamped with the familiar, triangular “Australian Made” trade logo. Poetry as merchandise. Please consider.

In the past, if you lived in an isolated place, hawkers used to go from town to town, offering a selection of wares. In “Morning Becomes Electric”, the poet Bruce Dawe writes about “door-to-door salesmen,/ irrational, obsessed, opening sample cases in the kitchen,/ giving you an argument of sorts/ before you have even assembled your priorities”. This book is like a hawker’s suitcase, offering the customer a bit of everything: two Zwickys, one Malouf, three Kefalas, a Nigel Roberts, a joanne burns, plenty of Les A. Murray, much Tranter, a Couani, a couple of Beveridges, and a few items of dubious value. If you scratch your head, unable to choose, the top layer’s just for show; there’s more to entice; you’ll end up buying something. I like this inversion of the usual priorities, that Australian poetry should be dispersing these samplings from its rich literary centre to the remote German readership of the global village.

If they buy, what will they get? How is Australia being presented through its poetry, and how is poetry being transmitted from an Australian base?

Above all, I imagine, Australia is still perceived by those who live elsewhere as both exotic and quirky. In this respect Made in Australia will not disappoint. Departing Europe as a child in the late 1950s, I was given a book with the portentous title, In Australien ist Alles anders, which I read on the boat out. Eventually, looking through a porthole at a huge tree in inky purple splendour and working hard, and failing often, to pronounce “the jacaranda” at “Woolloomooloo”, the bizarre image of my new home was set.

A surrealistic and exotic mix of Pacific sun gods, fruit-green parrots, boomerangs and fire-sticks, Sydney harbour and figtrees, Buladehlah, Coolongolook, Wang Wauk, Biersorten, Traumzeitvolk, Huck Finn in a Volvo and Voss in a campervan, the tangled abundance of antipodean Gestrüpp and Gespenster, desert, blue sky, sea, wombats and crocodiles, spills from this tightly packed poetic cornucopeia. It should brighten the winterdulled imagination of many an armchair traveller from the northern hemisphere.

But confirmed sightings of disruptions of European expectation aside, what will the non-Australian reader make of the darker or duller moods expressed here? Alienation looms large in this collection of poetry, often overshadowing expressions of beauty, romance and humour: from John Tranter’s “the map of Australia’s a pathetic thing”, to the guilty pioneering folk of Amanda Stewart’s “picturesque slaughter”, Anthony Lawrence’s tortured crows, the road-kill at the centre of Peter Rose’s, Geoff Page’s and Rod Moran’s poems, or Franco Paisio’s question “What is Australia?” and unhappy answer, “Three empty syllables and no Montmartre”. Foreign readers must wonder at our odd contradictions of exuberant pride on the one hand and deep despair on the other. While Oodgeroo Noonuccal is “proud of race and proud of skin”, Jack Davis has his people “stumble along with a half-white mind.” And it is as prevalent a dichotomy among the white writers as among the black. While Les Murray’s “Mitchells” keep at least the rituals of respect, Ania Walwicz shares Paisio’s derision of the place, “You big ugly. You too empty.” The energy of estrangement competes with the glare of exoticism throughout this volume.

It is significant that Margaret Diesendorf’s “We Immigrants” should be the book’s first poem. For although the other poets come from a range of cultural backgrounds, most of them, like Jack Davis above, are expressing their own version of Diesendorf’s pain: “We immigrants of 1938/ were chopped in half/ even before we left our homeland.” Diesendorf’s memory of immigrants crippled “by the hatchet of one man’s fierce will” is like a German boomerang. It takes the agonies of displacement back to its doorstep.

The overall impression then, is of Australia as a nation of split identities whose poets are either addressing or repairing this condition. Investigating our dualities, our multiplicities of identity, has become a national obsession – the pursuit of an aesthetics of imperfection. Thus, in his poem “Conflict”, Dimitris Tsaloumas finds it “strange, that in the native heart/ of this unending summer/ there should be another land”, and Robert Adamson is equally disassembled, drinking “american whiskey from a champagne flute” while thinking of “Lawson at The Rose & Crown”.

A book of Australian poetry in translation inevitably tackles questions of comprehension and translatability within the confines of one’s own language. If foreigners are attracted to our Otherness, lured by sweeping stereotypes of outback adventure, flora and fauna and endless blue sky, this volume will be like a venus fly-trap, letting readers experience the lesser details, the world of differences within the big difference. As for Fay Zwicky’s Mrs Noah, here is an opportunity to “see the small as too little/ the great as too much”, to develop sensitivities of finer discrimination, of grief, or guilt, or duty, and to think about what can and cannot be saved by Mr Noah, or translated. Like Peter Goldsworthy, in “After Babel”, we read “of a valley/ where men and women/ spoke a different tongue.” We ponder John Tranter’s “False Atlas”, and with Judith Rodriguez ask “How do you know which is the right one?” With Antigone Kefala we study her faceless and speechless nightmare companion, her shadow self, in the poem “They Are Still Coming.” Occasionally a bilingual reader comes upon a detail that cannot really be translated at all, like Tranter’s expression “hyacinth honey” or Grace Perry’s “scribble” gums. And so specificities are lost, and sometimes gained.

As a young immigrant I struggled to distinguish the subtle differences of English sounds, confusing “smell” and “smile”, and earnestly researching a fifth class science project on “weed” when it should have been on “wheat”. Now, like Manfred Jurgensen in “the end of the affair”, I’ve “learnt the calling of a different tongue”, and I wonder whether Jurgensen, who writes in German and English, chooses not to conform to the convention of capitalised nouns in German as a protest against what he calls that culture’s “violent splendour”.

I stopped speaking German on a day-to-day basis before the invention of “white out”, and was rather shocked to learn, from Marita Beinssen’s poem “Bag Lady”, that this innocuous substance is called “Tintenkiller” – it sounds far too trigger-happy to be used with abandon.

English nouns have a softness which is not easy to translate into German. Take the word “noun” itself. In German it is “Hauptwort” – you salute it, it’s dressed up with a capital, it’s the one that gives the orders. I found that the poems which do not depend heavily on nouns – Randolph Stow’s “Landfall”, or Jennifer Rankin’s “Sea-bundle”, for example – translate most easily into German. They seem to slide out of one language and into the other. Poems packed with nouns, or noun-related concepts, however, develop a strange German harshness, a robotic jerkiness, which gives many a line a bumpy phonetic ride. In “The Flight from Manhattan”, Les Murray’s “hot-air money-driers” hit a particularly rough patch, becoming “Schmutzgeldwaschanlagen” – and you have to take a couple of dramamines before you go on the German version of his Bulahdelah-Taree holiday trip.

Ania Walwicz’s volley of words, on the other hand, sounds as powerful in German as in English. She captures magnificently the spitting and cutting speech-emotion of harangue and the frustration and intensity of bilingualism and biculturalism. Her work erupts and produces new language-laws from the cracks of our multicultural volcano. How sensitive will the German reader be to this phenomenon?