Saturday, 14 July 2018

Book review: The Agonist, Shastra Deo (2017)

This prize-winning collection contains a few good things: ‘Honestly’, ‘Road Trip’, and ‘When I Think of My Brother’. Otherwise, the substance of the work is rather thin, much like a piece of cloth with not enough weft to support the fabric for the purpose of making clothes out of it. Certainly, little of what I mentally tried on that I found here fit my experience of what good poetry is, although there were echoes at times of something published by a female poet in the middle of last century. In this vein, much of the collection regrettably brought to mind T.S. Eliot’s later poems, where any quality that might have survived the complacency brought on by his dotage is replaced by verbiage added by someone who has not been told often enough what is good.

Deo’s good poems are full of life and are animated by memory. They have a clear focus, easily-comprehensible referents, and a satisfying narrative structure. ‘Honestly’ is a love poem and the other two good ones are about the poet’s childhood (although it’s not clear if ‘Road Trip’ is a non-fictional account of an event or a fabrication).

In many of the poems the word “palm” (the body part) recurs with a frequency that has something disconcertingly deliberate about it, as though the poet were repeatedly trying on a favourite eyeshadow, in search of ways to generate a broader set of meanings encompassed by the totality of the poems in the collection. There is a lot of medical language that the average reader will not understand without the notes. This is a shame, as it impedes the process of comprehension. In fact, it is not only alienating it is quite unwarranted, there being no effort made to balance the burden these words make on the integrity of the poems by giving any other (ordinary) words the kind of weight and substance that good writing can impart. The words “blood” and “tendon” also appear a lot. One poem in particular, ‘Concerning Divination’, has more incomprehensible words per line than an obscure medieval theological tract. And is about as good.

The love poetry could have been better but the subject is often mixed up with things that lack any specific gravity and seem introduced into the narrative merely for the purposes of poetic effect. Meaning tends to get lost in the onrush of words. The person who is her love interest - I presume it is a man or men - has no discernible personality, and the play of feelings that these complicated poems should elicit is absent. If her lover remains largely faceless it’s hard to decide whether you agree with what the poet writes, for a sense of the poet’s own feelings is also so qualified and questioned that it is indistinguishable from journalism.

I felt reading the book that Deo is a young woman with a lot of good words and some sophisticated ideas who hasn’t sufficiently lived the things she cares about most, and so finds it difficult to encapsulate a vision in understandable verses. There is a rawness here that might have been leavened through the deployment of passion, but that emotion is missing too, the poet being an intelligent and educated young woman with opinions. You feel as though she probably belongs to the tribe who believe that recorded history started in 1848, and who like reading postmodern theory.

Reading the undercooked poems in this book made me sad and my mind involuntarily reverted to an image of the pathetic Senator Leyonhjelm in his contretemps with feisty Senator Hanson-Young: what right do I have to critique such things?

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