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Complexity drawn from emptiness

by David Burleigh

THE ANCIENT CAPITAL OF IMAGES by John Mateer. Fremantle, Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005, 61 pp., A$22.95 (paper).

The poet John Mateer has published previously in South Africa, where he comes from, Australia, where he now lives, and Indonesia, which he has traveled in. A group of his poems about Japan appeared here last year in a small bilingual edition following a visit to this country, and has been incorporated into his new collection. Mateer’s style is plain, but the references and content are often quite abstruse.

The opening section of the book is called “Makwerekwere,” a South African term of insult for poor immigrants from other parts of the continent. “Uit Mantra,” a set of three poems here, is about the Cape Malay community of Muslims. “Uit” in Afrikaans, I am told, means “out” or “from,” and entrapment or escape is thus implied. Mateer, though not himself a Muslim, invokes heroic figures of the local Muslim tradition. In the third poem of the set, he meets a scholar of that history, but concludes “I . . . am a poet, another name for emptiness.”

Emptiness, along with blackness and whiteness, are themes that resonate throughout the book. Another suite of poems, “Ethekweni,” considers the roles of different people (poet, tourist, prostitute) in the New South Africa, and worries about the ethics of individual encounters. In a further poem Mateer calls up a landscape “as the home — and heartland that isn’t mine, the chiasm / of my African being.” Keys, chains and fences emerge as the symbols of this restrictive world.

The same moral and metaphysical concerns follow the poet through the remaining three sections of the book, as he moves across Australia, where he has settled, and into Asia. Again there is emptiness, as when he crosses the southern Australian desert:

Being interstate I AM the Treeless Plain,

a transit zone, the door through which the world walks

while squinting at the schizoid horizon.
The Nullarbor (“treeless”) Plain is completely featureless and empty

The final section, “Mu no Basho,” appeared as a chapbook in Japan with a cover of solid black. It completes the book’s parabola or arc, and varies the themes even as it repeats them. In one excellent pair of poems Mateer observes the homeless in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, and then a tout in Shinjuku: “Being foreign is the democracy that allows the Nigerian, / in all the accouterments of a gangsta, to address me as brother . . . ” These are not descriptive poems, but anxiously reflective ones.

The Kyoto sequence that gives the book its title begins with a startling image: “His shop is deep and dim, like the cavity in the face / after an eye has been removed.” Nuanced variations on erotic pictures and on the photography of nature probe the meaning of memory itself, “( . . . a world floating on the canals and rivers / that pull our images away)” as the final parentheses suggest. One symbolic blackness here is the dark tunnel underneath a Buddhist temple that is meant to show the obscurity of life.

That obscurity is reflected on the cover of the book, an intriguing image of an artist painting what he evidently cannot see. There is much more to this book than a brief summary can reveal. Mateer’s manner and the complex resonances of his work reminded me a little of the prose of his compatriot, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee. The poems are inquisitorial, ethically preoccupied and sometimes powerfully intense.