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The title of this collection of new and selected poems describes a series of permutations that drift through the work: the idea of language as smoke — shapeshifting product of combustion, transformed material; the idea of transformation as generator of language; the idea of language as breath, life. Arranged chronologically, there are excerpts from four previous collections: of muse, meandering and midnight (2000), boondall wetlands (2000), hotel bone (2001), itinerant blues (2002), as well as a section of new work which gives the whole its title. The book begins with poems for the ‘muse’ of the first collection:
I was kissing the girl with magnesium breath,
all over me her burning hot magnesium
ahh to touch
the boundaries of delight
and pain ...
(magnesium girl, 4)
Here is a formal introduction to a process that generates poetry, describing the touch of experience that burns, enlivens, destroys, to be followed by the dragged-in gasp, inspiration, and the outbreath of work. The role of writing has famously been described as making strange that which is familiar, but Wagan Watson’s poetry acts to find a vocabulary for experience that is already estranged. Set mainly in and around Brisbane, poems work with the problem of how to speak when language has gone or is no longer/ not yet adequate to experience: we’re city people without a language/ and some of us have even less (jaded olympic moments, 126). What’s at stake is not versions of events but the capacity to speak and understand at all, after the bitumen vine ... drove right through the bora ring/ and knocked our phone off the hook (we’re not truckin’ around, 90).
How is it possible to speak when your experience is not acknowledged? How is it possible to wrench meaning from language that is available? The poem ‘warning’, spells out Wagan Watson’s intention to reconnect the phone — to use ‘life experience’ encounters with silencing forces as moments of transformation that ‘induce’ speech:
The smoke from some of the pages in this collection contains ... residue of life experience, including some agents that cause anxiety ... encrypting moments with a semi-permanent fixture of tungsten glow ... inducing whispers that stutter across the conscience.
The struggle to speak becomes a locus of resistance, and moments of speechlessness in the face of change are used productively. In this sense Wagan Watson is working in the tradition of writers like Paul Celan, who used fire imagery in a comparable way, and for whom smoke from the ovens of Nazi death camps where his parents died became ‘black milk’ that nourished remembrance. Like the movement of traffic on highways and across boundaries — recurrent themes in smoke encrypted whispers — writing is generated from two directions. From one direction, cultural perceptions have to be rearticulated when languages that formed them become inaccessible:
been trying to write for days
... language of black-rain thoughts
crossing the boundaries
smuggling ideas solid and fatal
as flying bricks
as my mind tried to reason
the heights of Bundjalung dreaming
the night creatures’ endless songs,
praise and condemnation
of attempted human magic,
dialects foreign to my own native ears
white matter foam
picked off the brain,
in which I carved my products of Mexico
making a mad dash for the border
(products of mexico 109 — 110)
Wagan Watson describes the process of rearticulation as one of ‘carving’ the ‘solid and fatal’ ideas of one culture using the ‘white matter foam’ of the language of another. Crossing back, he describes how new modes of experience demand adequate language, in order to create breathing space for their bearers and pass the widened vocabulary back into the community. The collection’s title is drawn from a poem that exemplifies new experience of this kind:
For a while, Dad worked in a ghost town ... the government moved an entire community ... Wandering through deserted houses we were the first Aboriginal people to analyse the remains of the first Europeans to be cleared from this soil ... silent twisters of smouldering debris ... the smoke encrypted whispers of this mass grave ...
(cribb island, 151)
Across this boundary, Wagan Watson brings work that analyses and decodes worlds of ‘encrypted’ urban experience.
From the body of work represented by the book as a whole, the figure of a small boy emerges as an image of the struggle to speak. Vulnerable, ingenious, open to possibility, the boy searches for ways to understand the sensations of his Brisbane (‘Tigerland’) childhood:
Council buses projected spectral images onto my bedroom walls ... teeth-baring monsters; fangs that remained on the cogs working my mind, keeping me awake for years to come ...
Dracula, witches, Bigfoot and
Bjelke-Petersen-police at my parents’ backdoor ...
(scared of the dark, 149)
Terrorised by demonising tendencies of available language as much as by sensations themselves, the child begins to try for new ways of understanding, listening for the voices of things, going out towards terror rather than letting it come for him:
To counter these fiends, I built machines in little boxes — fantastic contraptions that I made from components of old televisions, radios and motorised toys.
For years I rigged these gadgets, hoping to snare the whispers of my demons as they crawled out from under the bed, drawn to the warm, uneven breath from my tonsillitis-ridden throat.
The chance encounter of hearing these whispers was what I feared most.
But as chance encounters happen, it was ultimately the construction of a poem that enabled me to finally capture a whisper. One breath, deep inside of me, always within my possession.
(author’s notes #1, 155)
Facing collective demons conjured by the vulnerability, the ‘uneven breath’ of broken language, Wagan Watson captures language that can give the ‘one breath’ of life. These poems create and articulate a technology for the reclamation of speech, responding to and transforming the fear of darkness that haunts many poems, so that ‘dark room’ becomes ‘darkroom’, developing countless images of everything I see (darkroom, 156):
Travelling around the place, experiencing the darkness of different hemispheres, I lost my fear of night ... Living back in Tigerland, the only whispers I hear in the night are on the breath of my little boy when he mumbles to the spirits that playfully encroach upon his dreamtime.
When we smoke the houses that our loved ones have lived in, and say ‘Yenandi’ in the old tongue, we’re not evicting them ... we’re ensuring their whispers continue the journey ...
(author’s notes — conclusion, 170)
If the work of creativity is to find language for that which cannot yet be said, for Wagan Watson, this includes the creation of two-way translations between times and languages so that neither is reduced to caricature or presented merely in the other’s terms:
I had to grow up some day ... so I moved to Boundary Street, West End, in the last residence on the old bitumen line ... Now I live on the brown river, this is my outpost on the dark snake. And at 31 I may not speak the rhetoric of ghosts, but here, I can understand the tongues of mangroves, or what mangroves there are left ...
The effect of these poems is powerful both individually and cumulatively. Together they form a body of work in which recent poems take up, involve and recontextualise earlier pieces. They repay reading and rereading that allows them to whisper among themselves, and in keeping with their expressed intent to capture and project voices, they should also be read aloud. Speak these poems, repeat them. Lean in, pay attention, put your ear to this phone.
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