Last year I met a young Sydney poet and doctor Michelle Cahill at
a book function at Gleebooks, Sydney’s premier retailer of literature. The
event was lively and cheerful but I was in a state of distress, and unable to
talk about book launches or poetry. No, I wasn’t in despair that I’d
been rejected or some rival had won a prize for a book I didn’t like. No,
it was spring in Sydney. It was my hayfever. ‘Have you tried Becanase?
It’s a cortico-steroid that works topically.’ ‘Really?’
I replied. ‘Does it work?’ ‘I know it works. I’m a
doctor,’ Michelle smiled wryly. ‘I can write you a prescription if
you like.’ She then suggested I read her new book and launch
As one other doctor-poet William Carlos Williams showed, one can be a doctor AND a poet, write prescriptions and write poems, both forms of essential relief for human suffering and sources of alchemical cure.
Michelle Cahill’s spirit, projected through her first collection, is that of a specialist doctor, one who is Western-trained to be scrupulously detached from the bodies she diagnoses and treats, but who realises that detachment and objectivity are only necessary fictions that enable us to cope with death and suffering: ‘Perception is both bliss and indifference’; the perceiver cannot be unmoved by any living creature’s suffering, whether it is a bird caught in a room, or the memory of speaking to a mother whose son is an addict. The poet writes of her shamanistic duty and need:
wanting to enter
of all these forms.
But that’s where the tension in her post-Platonic language and thought lies: in the disjunctive relations between things as dead form, and stuff as living matter. A postmodern pessimism about mimesis as a guarantee of experience perhaps, or a kind of Buddhist mysticism tempered by science, means that these poems do not close the gap between real things and their perceived forms. Dead form haunts the landscapes of this book — ice in the Himalayas, dead birds, deceased pets, missing persons, scars on skin. There’s always the danger that poetry about death leads to the dead place of nihilism, but I think most of the poems turn away, deftly, at the right moments, to meditate on living as the goal and experiential ground for poetic meditation. In the book’s title poem, ‘The Accidental Cage’, the poet witnesses birds flying trapped in a room, and although the poet has been trained to think that birds don’t feel, she is struck by the paradoxical nature of their suffering — their death-defying movements are lethal yet aesthetically beautiful, even seductive. The poem is both a cage and a protective space of the dirt-smudged glass that saves the birds from final collision and destruction.
The poet’s job is to describe and interrogate how what we see affects how we feel in our cages, or to expose those others who see and feeling nothing in their cages, if only to ask why they have lost the power to feel:
perception is both bliss and
indifference. I was drawn to kinematics,
the arbitrary motion of the birds confined,
their ruffled choreography. The empty barn’s largesse,
its insulated walls held nothing else organic, but
this kindred pair who shot tormented laps from beam to beam.
Thus, a poetic that celebrates the indifferent way of seeing
things can be beautiful, but empty. Doctors who arrive at the scene of a car
accident can cope by depersonalising the victims and by reducing the field of
their perceptions down to an image of “dressings” applied to torn flesh. By
turning to poetic metaphors the poet and reader is also one move away from
reality, which enables a coping with reality, and this somehow offers the
possibility that we “understand” the crisis more deeply.
But if these are epiphanies, can we go on staring at the wreck? And at what cost to ourselves? Cahill turns to the question of the indifference people feel about a refugee camp — the human cages sanctioned by the state? Cahill’s unease with Australia’s border protection goes beyond the political problem and focuses on the deeper effects of indifference; to dehumanise refugees for instance, the free citizen chooses not to contemplate the stranger as a total human being. Refugees survive the sea, pirates and hostile navies and governments. But above all, they survive the language of dehumanisation:
Famines are forgotten, your husband
(Was it for war crimes? Electronic adultery?)
Cities burn. Crazed bloggers and cross-eyed robots.
Tell us in your own language what happened.
The second person address to the victim reveals Cahill’s disconnection from that world and language-experience of the refugee, but also from her own roots as an Indian migrant. I really had a complete personal empathy with Cahill’s poem of returning to Bombay, a city of her distant relatives: in this narrative of partial return, the prodigal daughter begins to know who she is, but only in terms of her difference and obvious inability to become “native” again. The migrant returning “home” begins to understand that homeliness contains its dark side — aporia and estrangement.
returning to Bombay — the visceral experience I’ve had of being in the right place, a movement from feeling foreign to feeling at home. (‘The Garden Of Understanding’)
Also close to my concerns are the themes and images of the exotic, of taking root, and of floating, vertiginously uprooted. Take for instance the marvellous lines of ‘Black Bamboo’:
There was no written contract;
I arrived by circumstance,
It is a cliché to call this a book of “migrant
experience”: as if “ethno poets” were invented to serve this ready made subject.
For Cahill’s book goes beyond the limits of a genre of migrant confession
or biography. It does not attempt to give us the fact of Michelle’s life
or how she ended up in Australia, but it gives us the feelings of a more
universal subject who is possibly at home anywhere, or no-where.
The book is rich in rhizomic beings, invoking hybridity, as the poem about bamboo illustrates — parts of ourselves shoot up everywhere. There are other voices, also, that Cahill speaks through: the oracle of the moon, the lesbian lover, Hindu and Buddhist avatars of the supernatural, hybrid forms of the half-reptilian, half-bird, and other cross-species types. In one poem she compares her unborn daughter to a snake.
This is a dystopic collection, elegiac and valedictory in tone. The tragic early Russian Symbolists come to mind — Ahkmatova and Marina Tvetayeva in particular; there are traces of the politically focussed dystopia of Gig Ryan, the red-light demi-monde of Vicki Viidikas, and the suburban gothic of Gwen Harwood. Inevitably, comparisons will be made to Plath and Sexton, but a better comparison would be to Denise Levertov’s anti-war poetry. Of an obvious later generation, Cahill takes into her stride the high priest of the postmodern media theory Jean Baudrillard:
The mass and the media are one single process.
— Jean Baudrillard
Last night I dreamt I was captured on screen
by covert forces armed in the sprawling city.
Driftwood limbs were floating signatures,
blood the currency in the tenement, corridors
stale with rumour. Pornography was kept
by the merchants of munitions, the living dead.
Last night, I was taken at breakneck speed,
drugged and gagged. Punched by flash-backs.
In the evocative Sydney poem ‘Fourth Veil’ ‘a cocos palm seems artifactual’ in a view of Sydney painter Brett Whiteley’s Lavender Bay view, now a clichéd trope of modern Sydney itself. The picture
granting to perception what is made new:
a skiff’s metronome, the audacious blue.
OK, yet another poem about the harbour, the water-view icon
that underwrites Sydney’s glamour-status. But Sydney’s beautiful
harbour is only the façade that masks the vast suburbs (the harbour now
fast becoming a massive car park for boats). Cahill contrasts the Whiteley
romance with the frustrations of working as a suburban doctor and doing
puddles of wee,
they’re crying out for surgeons in Cowra
What’s the way out then? Reminiscing about old love affairs in New York perhaps,
with Delores, our bladders brimming,
the long crisp whistle of our pissing,
and everybody laughing.
Or worse: the evils of self-medication: ‘ a slip of prozac’, or a cigarette, or perhaps writing as a meditative escape:
The air’s heavy with a daft
broken by the tapping of a keyboard.
It’s the kind of silence you find in the suburbs.
Part 2 opens with a note of hope
by Sharon Olds, ‘under the thick trap
door of ice, / the water moves’, and Cahill’s strategy is familiar to the lyrical project: to expurgate despair by invoking optimism or hope; the reader is variously reminded of the spiritual solutions to suffering a grief — atonement, baptism, Buddhist and Hindu practices from prayer to yoga. Another familiar lyrical strategy is to establish a lyrical response to nature — the sea or moon. But for Cahill the diction of organic Romanticism fails to satisfy:
my solitude, what had brought me to the headland?
I was a coward hiding behind bracken, burrawang,
watched by a curious wallaby. And I said:
tell me about love, the price you pay for being loved?
How it’s impossible to retrieve the ephemera lost to distraction.
Bell-bird. Dragonfly. Bluetongue.
How the search for happiness somehow becomes warped.
In my solitude, what had brought me to the headland?
And this a kind of epiphany whose intensity fades
While the ‘epiphany that fades’ is left
behind (after all, so much Australian lyric/modernist poetry is fading with it)
Cahill finds interesting alternatives to the sadness of the poète maudit. She
writes in a man’s voice about a seduction in ‘Writing Eva: a
fantasy’. For me, the poem’s turn is when the poet’s
lover Eva can say to the poet do you miss me in a Czech accent. Later in
the poem she actually speaks Czech (Cahill as cunning linguist?) The moral of
the poem is that ‘I write to invent myself / ‘as someone
else’. This is on the whole a successful rescue, with poetry’s
popular “confessional” function pulled from the gutter of self-pity. In a time
when poets need more medical facilities than publishers, Cahill is fortunate to
be both a doctor AND a poet of consequence.
This is a book for our time and place — a time and place of melancholy. But Cahill gets on with living. A Sydney poetic preoccupied with hedonism, sensuality and decadence pervades the book. Cahill explores the stunned wreckage of history and morality piling in the form of media imagery, but the real victims know what is real, real in the sense of what is organically present — what lives and dies — in this space.
Ingenuous fictions are spun in city
drizzle, its grey romance.
Adam Aitken and Michelle Cahill, Glebe Point Road Sydney, November 2006. Photo by Ian Cameron.
Adam Aitken is the author of three books of poetry, and teaches Creative Writing and Theory at the University of Technology, Sydney. A new collection, Eighth Habitation, is in preparation.