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Geraldine McKenzie reviews

Calques, by Javant Biarujia

Monogene, ISBN 0 9587249 4 6 Cloth, ISBN 0 9587249 5 4 Paper
in Association with the Faculty of Creative Arts,
University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia
Monogene, PO Box 224, Thirroul NSW 2515 Australia
Email: jtaylor (at) uow (dot) edu (dot) au

In Twentieth-Century Modernism, Marjorie Perloff presents a persuasive case for the vigorous survival of modernism into this century. The distinction between postmodernism and modernism has become a ‘tired dichotomy’ and the perception of modernism as largely the province of an elite of white males has given way to a reappraisal of the modernist canon. Perloff’s selection of Eliot, Stein, Duchamp and Khlebnikov reflects this enlarged perception of modernism.

As for the postmodern, she identifies concerns and practices in the work of leading Language poets which are intimately connected with the revolutionary projects of the early modernists, ‘the aesthetic of early modernism has provided the seeds of the materialist poetic which is increasingly our own’. Perloff quotes statements by a number of Language poets and notes:

The key concepts for each of these poets is that of constructivism — an understanding of poetry in its classical Greek meaning as poesis or making, with the specific understanding that language, far from being a vehicle or conduit for thoughts and feelings outside and prior to it, is itself the site of meaning-making.

Of course, constructivism is integral to the early modernists. It is also the generating impulse of Javant Biarujia’s Calques, as the poet makes clear in a prefatory note on the text.

I have gone beyond translation, through the various ploys/plays of amphigory, paronomasia, mistranslation, dislocation, collage, etymology and ‘extravagation’ (i.e., wandering beyond proper bounds), in order to test poetry — and prose — as Zukofsky would have it, through ‘the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection’ (A Test of Poetry, 1948).

Calques is a diverse and dazzling collection of poems that invites a medley of adjectives that would sit well in any blurb. It is flamboyant (being both flammable and buoyant), erotic, witty, acute, satirical, savage, compassionate, playful, thoughtful and, above all, resonant. This is a poetry that leads the reader not only in and down but also, through re-sounding, across, crossing boundaries, making unthought of connections, exploring the fertile errata of translation. Biarujia sends out sounds that skip from language to language in a series of transformations/ interactions. In ‘LET OM BODHI LAND’, for instance, the poet follows the word/syllable ‘om’ through Sanskrit, English and French in what becomes an ominous and mangled mantra, signaled by the disruption of the main text by bold upper case, spelling out variations of atom bomb.

Atom, of course, is derived from the Greek atomas, a point not usually worth making perhaps but relevant in the context of Biarujia’s use of languages, a selection which includes Sanskrit and French (as already mentioned), German, Latin and Taneraic, a language invented by the poet. These are overtly ‘other’ but even the English used frequently features words that have been absorbed from other languages while still retaining an aura of the foreign. Leafing through the first few poems alone, one finds avatar, latte, hetairisms, centaur, caryatatides and then the marvelous VLNCLL:

Gyorgy Ligeti pppppppp Pierre Boulez across five octaves
cloud clock cadence clock cut cloud clock cut clock cadence
their aim to please or displease equally is their party trick
eye aye oysters orchids orchestrates fate talisman dance

carbonic acid jazz Aesop cloying transpicious
a slow and steady hemidemisemiquaver tirra lirra lay
a woman in the nude (in the dunes) idem sonans
rubato rubayyat rub a dub dub roundelay

it might be better left unsaid out of contesseration
translate rataplan asundeton post Saint-Saens
the players sometimes tune their instrumentation
oh concerto for rima rime and epsilon

This is characteristic of the joyous bravura of much of the verse in a book which surprises not so much in its combination of playfulness and erudition (impressive as this is) but in the sheer fun of it (and fun is not a word I use lightly).

The English language has been as omnivorous as English empire builders but Biarujia’s use of Latin in ‘NISI PRIUS SHEM ABOUT THE PRIMA FACIE’ highlights an earlier imperial power and the way it penetrated the worlds of those it colonized, providing, among other things, a veil, a sanction, for the brutality of colonization. ‘Terra nullius’ is a manufactured concept, a justification for theft and destruction and, just as Latin permeates and shapes the text, so Australia is immersed in the residue of an empire from which it seems unable to break free.

Heroic figures, poetic, imperial, erotic, appear in the poem in various guises beginning with Joyce’s ‘he lunged away on a wildgoup’s chase across the kathartic ocean...’ and resounding in the list that follows:


The reader has to peer into this section to discern the words, generally figures from Greek mythology but with odd intrusions, including the word ‘usher’ which is there and not there, a nameless figure emerging between heroes and then disappearing. In the following sections the pseudo heroic world of the imperialist is shown ugly side up, ‘the tramp and ore lost mines trophies lashes sword fent’. Local references invoke the Australian experience, drawing on a shared anger and grief,

                                    Woe be janderlin,
mortal mad, move men delve loom, vote
doomsday a mirage as for a respublic.

The poem shifts to an earlier occasion of empire-building by ‘the cagmag Sassynacks’ and one hears a voice, initially conversational and humorous, ‘Let’s cut to the Jase, for Argonaut’s sake!’ endowed with a sense of horrors past and to come: ‘open the floodgates’, and indeed they do open in the last section. This is visually distinct from the preceding sections which are precisely arranged on a single page, a sprawling paragraph shifting through a range of discourse, and featuring the intonation of a Scottish accent ‘Mock ma wurds, more fraudulentfoul than a stallion’s pissplot’, which intensifies the sense of one raging at this ‘foreign land’,

                                                                                             Boner Fidos
presented with, hahaha victory, the viz. Multinayshunalls which don’t
give a Shem come rain come shine, what glory, they’re all grown men
tussle a twank be steward and stock, grand bacchanal, mobile phones in
the clash and clamor, lay the mettle, lay the mint, lay which no jackeroo
ridden monstrocities in a foreign land, this Cretin’s camp or indeed a
maze with the cruelty of all choice: No gain without pain.

‘WHEN I DANCEE’ also uses an accented English, suggesting both a child and an Indian or Asian speaker. It exploits a tension between the innocence of the nursery rhyme and the corruption signaled by ‘President Oily’, moving from the insouciance of ‘a friend say bum to the corner Muse’ to the explicit ‘ a friend suck up the cunt again’. The poem hints at political commentary, reminding the reader that many nursery rhymes originated from political/social trauma.
‘DEM S DE HANDDS’ also uses a voice identified with victims of colonization but, unlike ‘WHEN I DANCEE’, the poem moves in and out of this intonation, playing with sound and following its transformations. The letter ‘d’ which is emphasized by the double d in ‘handds’, moves from ‘dem s de hands’ to ‘dis bull s dandy’ to ‘de rim cunt Decca’ and is picked up again  in ‘datura aperitifs’ ‘dementia paralexia’ ‘dear Faust’.

This sort of sound play is in some respects reminiscent of the process by which Khlebnikov sets up connections between words, a process of selection that doesn’t necessarily derive from philological correctness. Perloff writes ‘he was writing translogically which is to say that his task is precisely to convince the reader that if one tries hard enough, a case could indeed be made for the’s just a matter of imagining connections’ Biarujia is also challenging us to make connections but, whereas Khlebnikov deliberately worked within one language, Biarujia is working within a number, jumping the borders, at times positively dizzy:

say Ramayana gas masks
ca va Savak savants athwart
my raw flanks ram and ram
by laws as savvy as any Balkans (RAMA)

The puns, a recurring feature of these poems, are another way of jumping the border; particularly striking are the punned phrases/sentences e.g. ‘Calcutta’ which resolves into a mischievous double ‘quel cul t as’, ‘let om bodhi land’ and its shadow ‘le tombeau de l’Inde’ or, from ‘PURGES’, ‘J’accuse DaDa’, a mistranslation of Jacques Derrida.

Earlier I mentioned the importance of constructivism in Biarujia’s work, bringing to mind Thoreau’s ‘Shall we forever resign the pleasures of construction to the carpenter?’, but the word I want to salute is pleasure. The materiality of the word is a common enough concept but few poets revel in the physical properties of language quite as successfully as Biarujia, captivating the reader with sound.

kiss thus the one mirliton
    dig the retama
fucking the quaff of a runty cassock
    khamsin the roomer
prove the rammer
hi! I don’t blanket the blues of nothing moribund
                         (THE BLUES OF NOTHIN MORIBUND)

Biarujia also uses repetition and rhythm to great effect, the opening lines of ‘SCORDATURA’ catch up the reader in their momentum, shifting with each line as Biarujia alternately urges us on and restrains us and again, the sheer pleasure of words, ‘how rough he is and how tumble scrum and scurry’.

Calques is imbued with this intricate, textured, multi-layered music, intensely lyrical in its rendering of ‘the lyric valuables’, a phrase used by George Oppen and taken up by Hank Lazer as the basis of an essay which explores the ways in which avant garde verse can be lyrical. Lazer argues for a resistant and disruptive lyricism based on ‘a shifting of discourses’; Biarujia, of course, does this but pushes it even further in his use of languages. Lazer writes of ‘shifting as a mode of exhilaration (and acceleration)’, the ‘layering of sound-notes in the multi-directional play of the written word’, the way the ‘sounds of words constitute a specific music’ and, finally, ‘an ecstasy of lyricism’, all of which speak to the heart of Biarujia’s project in writing Calques.

The spirit of inclusion and awareness which animates this text is not confined to language. Biarujia is keenly alive to the wrongness of this world. This first surfaces in the social satire of poems such as ‘INHERITANCE’ and ‘ZEN CHREVOLET’ but ‘a recollection of war’ prompts a grimmer humour, ‘The Branch Davidian/ sect’s ranch burns like a Waco call’ (AVATAR). ‘LET OM BODHI LAND’ explores the tensions and contradictions between ‘aeons of wisdom’ and possession of the atomic bomb, the corruption of materialism is linked to war.

If the rupee be a dearer
currency than life,
it is a symbol of violence. (AHIMSA)

Language is perverted and intimacy the province of torture rather than love.

do they silence each other with dirty stories
do they bugger each other with electricity
they refuse ‘ambergris’ as a lapsus linguae
people consider themselves scrap metal     (YVES TANGUY)

This powerful sense of disorder climaxes in the concluding section (the book is in three, Q, E and D), BAQUIN/ PURGES is a stunning prose poem printed side by side with the Taneraic original. Again, Biarujia juxtaposes a range of discourse, the puns are wild,

So said the Idiot Seer of Algerium
with a certain Genet-sait-quoi.

the humour is black,

‘We do serve lobster Maldoror. May
I suggest Nerval gas No. 5 for the

and the text is disrupted with asides both comic (‘Pass!’) and serious.

(Isn’t it just as wrong to say of the disenfranchised poor, gays, immigrants, feminists, ‘It’s their choice’, as it is to say ‘I have an unconscious toothache’?)

Amidst the blistering parade of references to Nazism, the US and a history which ‘IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY’, there are those on the margins: the Idiot Seer who has mislaid his documentation and those ‘illegal immigrants without documents’, we are warned not to confuse one with the other but it’s an easy mistake to make, uncertainty is rife ‘Perhaps...Perhaps...Perhaps...’ and the reader/ seer/ assorted others are stuck on the border, the unknown world of Taneraic looming to the left, occasionally a line is identified ‘J’accuse DaDa’, but it’s a mistranslation, ‘The Girl from Treponema’ is paralleled by ‘jau jau Gabor’, ‘I only have socraties for you’ by ‘«Voulez-vous me socratiser ce soir? »‘. What is going on? Of one thing we are ‘assured’, ‘The innocent still die’.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to a book of poetry in a review (especially if it’s good) and I am beset with my usual doubts. There is so much to be said about Calques but, if nothing else, I hope that these pages will alert readers to the work of Javant Biarujia, most thoughtful, provocative and accomplished of poets.

Works Cited

Hank Lazer, The Lyric Valuables: Soundings, Questions and Examples. Modern Language Studies 27.2

Marjorie Perloff, Twentieth-Century Modernism. Blackwells Manifestos, 2002

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