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Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill
Giramondo, 2016.
ISBN 9781925336146
Jennifer Mackenzie reviews

Letter to Pessoa

by Michelle Cahill

Flaneur, you’ve made me dream of Lisboa, as if I had roamed its streets with nostalgia, becoming the dramatist or the character of a book in progress. (2)

From the very first story in Letter to Pessoa, Michelle Cahill sets us up for a journey through shape-shifting fragmentation, and the emergence and dissolution of identity, in a world of sharp light and shadow. Protagonists are half-awake, half-sleeping in crepuscular dawn or in the dazzling light of Iberia, or of Sydney with its blooming jacarandas. Voices, finely word-shaped in the writer’s poetic crucible resonate as the heteronym becomes flesh: ‘All that we have are fragments of the mirror. Not cold or sharp in their edges but precise and dazzling when the light sweeps back into them and we seek outside of time’ (4).  In Letter to Derrida, writing floats as fragment and trace, between loss and ecstasy, between tragedy, violence and suffering’s trusty residue, humour. As a collection, Letter to Pessoa can be read as a discourse on shifting realities, parallel and otherwise. As the narrator of Borges and I observes ‘it was alarming to consider that reality was little more than a palimpsest …’ (124-5).

The heteronymic mode works successfully as a link between the narrators, who vary in character and experience, but connect through Cahill’s evocation of place and situation. As a rule, protagonists are at a loss, coming to some kind of understanding in worlds of half-light or dream (Dirty Ink). They experience journeys in search of the spiritual (The Sadhu), or the circumstances of marginalised drifters or criminals (Letter to Neil Young), or betrayal in the sharp light of day (Duende). Throughout, flowers are the vehicle for the expression of the intensity of emotion, as they reflect and absorb conflicting, contorting feeling. Such a trope reaches its apogee in The Flower Thief, which features one of Cahill’s endearingly demented narrators:

I love the snapping sound when the leathery foliage breaks between fingers leaking sticky sap … I’ve come to think of myself as a flower thief, a nocturnal stalker, a dawn raider. Our Lady of the Red Japonica … Never one to waste a petal, I’ve drunk dandelions, candied violets and sugared roses. I’ve pickled lavenders, tossed them with nasturtiums. I’ve foraged from urban precincts: council parks, the garden beds of churches, roundabouts, the communal grounds of units and apartments. (168)

At the end of this story, after such entrancing interludes of onomatopoeia, the mood becomes elegiac, a momentary dissolution:

Once, by moonlight, I left a hundred petals at my lover’s gate. The wind scattered them. They were swept from pavement to gutter, from gutter to bitumen. They were crushed into little pieces that ricocheted skywards or became jammed in the tread of tyres on some nihilistic course. (173)

The first story in the collection, Letter to Pessoa, sets the tone for the preoccupations of the book as a whole: a sense of place, shifting realities, references to the addressee weaving in and out of the narrative. The protagonist has just woken up, and finds a note from Aleandro, last night’s pick-up:

On the desk next to your Selected Poems, there’s a note, saying ‘Thanks’ with no address. Not even a number. It’s so humid my wristwatch could be melting as in Dali’s famed masterpiece but the dream is my own and the mattress is hard against my back. (1)

He makes his way through a city of bars, a sensual, over-stimulated environment lit by a sky which ‘crushes me with its vivid blue’. The floating world of the city both consumes the narrator and leaves him open to multi-faceted apprehension of the mysteries of identity: ‘I wonder if [the poems of Alvaro de Campos] were fabrications or if he lived in you?’ (2-3).

In like vein, the prize-winning Duende captures Iberian light within its fabric, as it constructs a powerful evocation of ‘the terror of evaporating love’. A couple of sentences hint at the impending betrayal, as when Miguel says to Julio, ‘I’m going to Sevilla this weekend for the corrida. It’s going to be crowded. You could stay here and write?’ (45). Later on, when they are both in Sevilla, Miguel says, ‘Why don’t I meet you in town later?’ They arrange a time and a place. (46). There is a fragility of detail in the writing as if observed under panic: ‘All afternoon Julio is fidgety … A scent of jasmine wafts in from the garden of a nearby home and there’s a strong smell of pork meat’ (46). Imminent break-up embodied in sensory overload setting up a tragic denouement; he is compelled to write:

There’s a café by the river bank in Arenal where he orders wine and starts to write. For the first time in months the poems bleed. They spill from his pen to the paper almost monotonously … Miguel calls twice. But Julio keeps writing and doesn’t answer the phone. He sends a text that he’ll skip dinner … the drought has broken into a thick rain. (51)

The deep pathos of Duende has its echoes in other parts of the collection, but themes explored through place, the senses and the vicissitudes of love can appear in other modes, as in the often hilarious Dirty Ink. Here, the image of the lover seems to shift and change, drifting like a series of pixilated images on a screen. As in Duende, the erotics of the text rest on a single line of suggestive syntax from a text message, ‘I may be passing through the city but I wouldn’t be in a rush … She adores his grammar … There was so much syntax to quell, the soul in spasm!’ Filming a video on her iPhone ‘as she crawled over the rug’, next day ‘when she bumped into the neighbours at the letterbox they seemed to be rolling their eyes’ (22). In similar mode in The Lucid Krishna, a psychoanalyst is ‘lying on a futon in a silo apartment in Newtown. Just before the airport curfew ends she passes into REM, transported from the simmering November light’ (31). Once again, here is a protagonist wafting between dream worlds, refracting out of a blurry presence/present, ‘sweating in that strange continent of sleep, her dream-self aroused’ (34). Here, the dream lover is a ‘re-programmed’ Krishna, who is at once a driver whose ‘face resembles a rain cloud, his dark hair lustrous as peacock feathers (31), and ‘a ripped dairy hand from the Darling Downs in southern Queensland … [with] … a weakness for ghee’ (32), who has a strong resemblance to ‘the guy in the elevator talking all the way up to the 23rd floor’ (35). The dream tryst ends at day break as ‘day birds croon their urban memos. The first aircraft crosses the flightpath above her silo’ (36).

Between major works such as Letter to Coetzee with its interrogation of the text by a fictional character, to Borges and I with its exploration of shifting realities (‘slanted are the reflections of history’s shifting mirrors’ (126), are stories of travel to centres of the spiritual in Nepal and Thailand. These stories in some cases represent a counter-narrative, the annihilation of freedom, as in the young Italian girl imprisoned in a house with a charismatic guru in Sadhu, or the tragic case of the misplaced Rohingya refugee in Finding the Buddha, whose experience contrasts with that of the sensory preoccupations of the narrator, who ‘moved from the inner world of meditation, my perceptions heightened. There was something desolate yet consoling about the night’s inchoate shadow, cast by facades of the stupa, the vihara, the sala’ (113). Azima had not come to the temple to meditate, but ‘was an orphan with nothing but the jungle swamplands between countries to call home’ (116). Other stories like Disappearing introduce the scathing voice of a narrator triumphantly celebrating his lack of empathy, particularly for women.  This voice has quite some similarity to the voice of the sociopathic husband in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

Two other major pieces, Letter to Virginia Woolf and Letter to Tadeusz Rozewicz, address issues which appear to have personal significance for the writing life of the author. In Letter to Virginia Woolf, one preoccupation is how the memory of garden and place can signify loss: ‘I’ll always miss the house with its cool hearths, the timber verandah, the old cherry blossom tree, the bones of our cat and our terrier buried beneath the maple and the flaky, termite-ridden jacaranda’ (29). In Letter to Tadeusz Rozewicz, the narrator, after travel to Poland and suffering jetlag (‘when I sleep it is in a 4 hour cycle’, 221) and overwhelmed by seasonal change, notes that ‘The light in my room is too bright … Sydney summer is harsh’ (224). With the sorrows of the trip, and being exposed to the particular tragedies of history, comes a personal awareness of trauma, and of how memory can trigger a sense of a before and after image of violence, as when ‘how during my walks I would step to inhale the perfume of billowing magnolias’ (226).

This beautiful and compelling collection owes its strength to the gifted hand of the poet in the crafting of its sentences, and in the depth of its observations. As Cahill puts it in Letter to Tadeusz Rozewicz, writing ‘cannot be separated from dreaming, even dreams that are steered through hallucinatory images, post-flight mirage’ (230), and in writing of love, the migratory, home and heartbreaking loss, Letter to Pessoa speaks to who we are.

Michelle Cahill, Letter to Pessoa. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2016. ISBN 9781925336146

Published: September 2023
Jennifer Mackenzie

Jennifer Mackenzie’s most recent work is Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012). Her ‘Map/Feet’ should see the light of day soon, and she is currently working on a series of essays on Asia-Pacific writing, ‘Writing the Continent’, plus a new Indonesia-focused poetry project.

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