By Charles Manis for Transnational Literature, November 2012
By Tara Safranoff for Kin
The Wheeler Centre
Review by Alison Croggon
Australian Book Review, April 2012
Vishvarūpa, Michelle Cahill’s second collection, is a convocation of untouchables and deities – unbelieving, irreverent, and sardonic – each a proxy for an aspect of the poet’s (post-colonial) self; each a stand-in, even, for a moment in every human life.
‘Vishvarupa’ means manifold, and alludes to an episode in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna discloses the infinite and contradictory multiplicity of Himself, indeed of everything on Earth, to Arjuna. Many of the Hindu deities get a guernsey in Cahill’s smart and worldly collection. But none of these gods – nothing at all, in Vishvarūpa – is offered as itself alone, or as a simple metaphor; mimesis is, like identity, a complicated business, and Cahill handles it here with wit, craft, and courage.
All manner of castes and incarnations run through Vishvarūpa: Dalits, dhobis, ghosts, cities, creeks, Greek deities. Much more than a deft postmodern exegesis on Sanskrit texts or on language itself (a fraught, if sometimes beautiful, trading floor for identity and power), Vishvarūpa practises a tough kind of spiritual journalism. The book traverses a wide emotional and physical geography, singing, as it travels, half-embarrassed hymns to the world, ‘as if all singing has been censored’.
From Kuring-gai Chase to Dharamsala; from a child’s swing to a ghost ship; from transvestites in Mumbai to the antipodean grammar of a daughter’s crayon drawings; from Hamlet at the Opera House to Parvati in Darlinghurst and Ganesa, these poems do, with restrained, sometimes pained eloquence, what only poems can do: they make moments enormous; they speak for the voiceless; they arrest time; they recharge language; they turn the sensual world inside out; they complicate and clarify perception.
Cahill’s poems rise from that place where the personal self bleeds – often under the weight of grief or under the influence of love in its many forms – into the Self (as Krishna might put it); where the private escapes the ego’s grip and becomes the human.
‘Ode to Mumbai’ – perhaps the richest poem in the collection – instantiates this yearning best. Mumbai, in the poem, becomes the uncanny (unheimlich), indifferent Beloved, from the book of whose poems ‘my pages are missing’; and the poem is the poet’s triumph over ‘the unwieldy syntax’, the travesties, of silence, and the historical and personal erasures it encloses.
By forcing hard linguistic choices on a poet, poetic form frees language (forces it, even) to perform the more than merely functional work we need it to perform: recasting trauma, transfiguring pain, unseating banality, throwing soft bombs. And Cahill’s poems are rich with the kind of language that gets that work done: ‘In the temple of ears, you are daylight’s voice’; ‘the splatter of moss / sown like a seam through stone, a silent threnody’; ‘the khaki songs of cicadas’; ‘the grass / whose rumours are haptic’; ‘nature’s choked with similes’; ‘a small emergency of words’.
Cahill pulls off these feats of language across an array of poetic forms of varying lengths: tercets, quatrains, prose poems, and free verse. Her collection is visually, as well as linguistically and sonically, satisfying.
Many of the poems are philosophical pastiches, urban remixes of old stories. They are ironic, erotic, and erudite. ‘Two Souls’, ‘Kali From Abroad’, ‘Ganesa Resurrected’, ‘Durga: A Self-Portrait’, and ‘Laksmi Under Oath’ may be the strongest. But the eros and originality of the Hindu poems, including the frighteningly accomplished ‘Reading the Mahabharata’, may distract a reader from quieter, perhaps better, poems in Vishvarūpa, subdued and complex lyrics such as ‘The Chase’, ‘Enough’, ‘Joy’, ‘Alchemy of Leaves’, ‘Kissing Hamlet’, ‘Childhood’, ‘In My Father’s Absence’, ‘At West Head’, and ‘The Stinking Mantra’. Each of these poems – so resonant with the edgy melancholy, the unconvinced lyricism characteristic of this poet’s work – aches to unburden itself, but pulls back. These poems muffle their confessions. Now and then, plaintive hints like ‘all this to slake me, to dress my grief’ and ‘though I’ve stopped searching love’ feel evasive. But on the whole, Vishvarūpa betrays more vulnerability, more hard-won and deeply felt emotion, than does Cahill’s first collection, The Accidental Cage (2006). The poet writes herself in Vishvarūpa as neither victim nor hero, but as a wayward god, a beautiful stranger. She could be any one of us.
But perhaps, after all, this poet tells her truth truest when she tells it slant. ‘Cowan Creek’, a short nature poem, reveals more in its gorgeous speech music (‘oyster shells necklace the creek, its mangrove decay’) than any of the confessional poems. It closes with two self-reflexive lines that feel like a thesis argued by the place: ‘it’s so quiet you can hear the heart speak – / petulant, contradictory, famished.’
But you would misread the poems in Vishvarūpa if you missed their philosophy, their politico-poetic project (to free castes, pasts, mythologies, identities, and language itself from colonial and paternalistic oversimplifications); and if you didn’t hear in them the subcontinent, whose scents and rhythms sleepwalk Cahill’s thought and sclerophyll syntax.
These poems are diasporic and compassionate, open to the otherness and mystery inside the personal, the everyday, and the disdained, as well as to the more conventionally sacred. Vishvarūpa proclaims no theology, but a spiritual intelligence infuses it. There is no god here; no simple binaries. ‘There is nothing pure’, the poet writes. In Vishvarūpa, Michelle Cahill finds a singular voice for multiplicity, and she edges language out of silence and toward its own place in this world.
Mark Tredinnick, winner of the Montreal Poetry Prize, is the author of The Blue Plateau (2009), Fire Diary (2010), and nine other acclaimed works of poetry and prose. He lives in the highlands southwest of Sydney, Australia.
Westerly, June 2012, Reviewed by Judith Beveridge: “Australian Poetry 2011-2012″
Michelle Cahill’s second full length collection Vishvarupa is highly textured and elegant. The poems probe into Eros, power, mortality, place, dream, culture, myth. The ways in which Australian and Indian experiences are juxtaposed and interwoven make the book an important touchstone for cross-cultural exploration. Cahill has astute control of her diction, a diction that can accomodate formal elegance, the vernacular, specialised knowledge, the mundane world. She can range from words such as tumuli, orogeny, haptic,myocardium, porcine, swithering, glutaraldehyde to crow, magnolia, butterfly, possum, rain. “The Abbey”, an intensely evocative poem full of strange, unsettling sensuality, attains its power from the way in which beauty and menace play off against each other. There’s a sense of the corporeal as well as a ghost-like insubstantiality, which provides tension and suspense. The play of contradictions is a common feature of the book. In the poem “The Ghost-Ship” the scent of the albatross feathers is described in terms of both beauty and disgust: ‘a musk pungent as magnolia, tossed with brine and bilge”. In “A Triptych of Wings” the dead butterfly has one wing “bright as velvet”, the other “Mendelian,a mosaic sequined with ants.” Some of the most powerful poems in the volume are those which either speak about or assume the voices of various Hindu gods and goddesses: “Kali from Abroad”, “Parvati in Darlinghurst”, “Durga: A Self-Portrait” , “Ganesa Resurrected”, “Laksmi Under Oath”. The poet has a great deal of fun with these destuctive and capricious deities. She modernises them, taunts them, flirts with them, bringing their faults and foibles to the fore. Her more recent chapbook, Night Birds, is equally impressive, the language uncompromising, beautifully weighted and nuanced.
October 2011, Reviewed by Heather Taylor-Johnson
Australian Poetry Sotto
August 2011 ~ Reviewed by Margaret Bradstock
Michelle Cahill’s poetry thrives on cultural crossings, assembling the materials necessary to sustain an identity in multiple settings. The poems of Vishvarūpa draw deeply on mythic elements, using those elements not just as markers of another tradition, but with the express intention of animating contemporary anxieties. The result is a poetry of observation in which the subject position, and so the way of seeing, is always in flux. We have no reason to suppose that the speaker of any given poem is the poet. All we can establish with any certainty is that the person in question is in a dialogue with her environment, where the terms of that dialogue are not given. So while the mythic elements are frequently Hindu, Cahill’s poetry draws also on Greek archetypes, or just wanders the street noticing new sights and sounds, registering (as in ‘Hymn’) the presence of a military that is ‘hardly visible’. Nothing is taken for granted, and anything might serve the purpose of explanation; this is poetry seeking constantly to find a place in the world. The lasting impression is of a language made beautifully specific, where the specifics in any given poem serve to construct not simply reflect the speaker’s environment.