John Mateer, João. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-925336-62-7.
John Mateer uses a Portuguese version of ‘John’ for both the title of this collection and its central character, while the black and white cover shows off the author’s face reflected in two mirrors. The collection plunges the reader into a world of travel, present-day seductions (including our obsession with celebrity), and modern-day concerns. It also generates powerful emotional responses.
The first sonnet takes the reader to a funeral in the ‘far mountains of Honshu’. The poem concludes with the warning that the deceased ‘… could also be you …’. The ‘you’ refers to João, but perhaps also to all of us. The deceased person, and any relationship s/he may have with João is not referenced. There is ‘only one of the 108 Buddhist sins erased as the bell tolls’. We read that whatever was lurking in João’s soul felt exposed through telepathy. In contrast, the writing is quite inscrutable. It’s a haunting poem, pointing the reader towards themes such as mortality, good and evil, ‘pure extinction’.
At the heart of the 62 sonnets is a character firmly rooted in what Yeats and Jung called Spiritus Mundi; a sense that each place on earth, embodies all of its past historic moments. This world view is not new to First Nations peoples who view themselves as inseparable from the land. João appropriates this ontology. By doing so, Mateer is deliberately provocative but he also gives us cause to reflect. Again and again, the work taunts us to dismiss something and to then explore what might happen if we try to hold on to it. We can’t escape the zeitgeist we are born into and unfortunately the early 21st century is an age of polarisation, and absolutism, rather than an era where oppositional forces are tolerated, upheld, and respected.
Mateer fuses together past and present, so that they become embodied by his character in moments of life which are lived in diverse locations.
… Your life, not a ghosting,
João, is a passing through this world into deeper memory,
a searching for what’s beyond Elsewhere, an enquiry
into your previous lives. You are the evening wind
on an African lake, that silver rippling …
Past and present float in and out of consciousness and back into nothingness leaving only our uncertain interpretations. Mateer pares back human existence revealing the residue of what happened before.
‘João still believes in the power of literature to create a sense of belonging’ (back cover). But despite the richness of people he brushes shoulders with, he remains an outsider. He struggles to belong anywhere.
One fascinating feature of the work is that we come to see João through the eyes of an omniscient narrator who can be empathic towards João but at other times surprisingly dismissive. The narrator has access to João’s inner world, knows what constitutes his innermost thoughts and his special memories. The interplay between narrator and character is not without its problems. It seems to leave the reader questioning their own point of view. The narrator tells us how to think. This same narrator informs us that João is ‘lost’ while later goes on to tell us he is ‘not lost’ at all.
João travels everywhere, and I had to look up numerous place names to get my bearings as I moved from poem to poem. He pops up with people of some fame (many of whom I had to Google as well). He has a string of sexual encounters, but his world is one of passing moments, not sustaining relationships. Despite his worldly, literary and Buddhist interests, and his encounters with writers, singers and artists, João can seem somewhat shallow. His passing encounters with women, not to mention ‘the dominant’ in the BDSD (50) could easily be read as a string of sexual conquests.
João’s world seduces us. He has a way of bringing together somewhat more than the reader can hold. On Sunyata he reflects:
… such a being, who in the midst of breakfasting poets
Brings ‘La Traviata’ and Brisvegas into a synergy
that can only be listened to unspeaking, marvelled
Lines like this are pregnant with possible interpretation and might leave the reader longing for this delicious poet’s breakfast, wishing s/he too might obtain some intuitive feel about ultimate reality, feeling s/he ought to know more about ‘Brisvegas’, or perhaps feeling that this is just a comic shot at one of Australia’s smaller northern cities.
Whatever you might come to think of him, João takes us into our colonial and parochial past. Of the 62 sonnets in the collection, 58 are in the section ’12 years of travel’. The final section, ‘Memories of Cape Town’, consists of 4 poems relating to João’s family. The section heading comes as quite a surprise, as by this stage the reader is almost at the end of the collection, having not encountered a section heading since the first page. This makes the collection seem quite out of balance. But it is does leave us with the view that after all, João did once have some family, some birthplace, some personal rootedness.
Overall, João is a challenging read and its central character is sure to provoke some powerful negative responses, but the collection is tight, thought provoking, and complex. The book encourages reflection on some big contemporary issues. The world view explored through this book, the way the poems position the central character within our human history and spirit of place, should be of particular interest to readers of ecopoetry.
Henry Briffa is Melbourne Psychologist. His chapbook, Walking Home, was published by Melbourne Poets Union in 2019. In 2018 he received a special commendation in the Queensland Poetry Festival Elder Emerging Poet Mentorship Award. His poems have been published in local journals and overseas.