Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Bella Li’s Argosy and Lost Lake

Argosy and Lost Lake

by Bella Li

ISBN 978-1-922181-96-1
ISBN 978-1-925735-18-5

Vagabond Press


A publishing highlight of 2017 was the appearance of Bella Li’s Argosy, and this has been followed by the recent release of Lost Lake. By introducing an intriguing blend of collage, photography and sparely-written text, the poet has provoked, as well as enthralling us with her original poetics, a fresh way of looking back on some poetic traditions, particularly that of Surrealism. Although a number of responses present themselves for discussion, I shall focus on what is a dominant focus in both collections, that of the journey. With the theme of voyages or journeys reverberating through Argosy and Lost Lake, they reveal themselves as an imminence, in which all images and words surrender into an inevitable beauty.

It is apt indeed that the principle poem in Argosy, Perouse, ou, Une semaine de disparitions, connect the maritime expeditions of La Perouse to the collage novels of Max Ernst, these being Une semaine de bonte: A Surrealist Novel in Collage, and The Hundred Headless Women. The voyages of such explorers as La Perouse and Bougainville were a major inspiration for several French writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In prose, Balzac, Flaubert and Proust come to mind, and in poetry the influence appears considerable when we think particularly of Gautier, Segalen, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Rimbaud, with his notorious and basically unrecorded escapade to the then Netherlands East Indies provided in A Season in Hell, a picture of the endgame in colonial domination : ‘ the white men are coming. Now we must submit to baptism, wearing clothes, and work’(1)

Apollinaire, one of Li’s sources in Argosy, coined the term ‘Surrealism’ in regard to the ballet Parade, created for the Ballets Russes in 1917 by Massine, Cocteau, Picasso and Satie, a ballet in which disruption of surfaces and sound, with noise-making instruments and cardboard costumes, confounded aesthetic expectations. As Surrealism developed in both literature and art, Max Ernst led the way with his collages, so integral to the method in Argosy. The artist described the technique as ‘the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities…[to bring about]…a hallucinatory succession of contradicting images’.(2)

What Li has achieved in Argosy is quite remarkable. In La Perouse, the voyage is depicted as hallucinatory, a collage of surrealist dreamscapes, of oceanic encounters which liberate the ekphrastic from its often reproductive impetus. With language taken out of its temporality,  an archaic texture creates its own spatial idea and its own measure. At this point, I would like to refer to Ernst’s technique of frottage, where as the artist stated ‘the boundaries between the so-called inner world and the outer world became increasingly blurred’. There is a sense in the restraint in the use of language in Argosy, in the deft rise and fall of the poetic line, in the masterly control of phrase and silence, that the measure itself delineates erasure, delineates trace.

It is fascinating to see in Argosy how collage and text situate each other, not as complimentary or elucidatory, but as transforming the actual experience of reading and of viewing into the poetic intention. The collages, with their gargantuanism, their contrast between the splendour of the discovered and the sometimes small scale of the discovering, the extensive use the avian directly inspired by Ernst, play on the monstrosity of the quotidian. To quote from the text seems something of a travesty, considering how well the sections knit together, but in  jeudi: Les reves we are immersed in the experience of the speaker, the measured voice containing a flourish of an image, Our man at the helm, broad-shouldered and in love, suggestive of other worlds that remain unspoken, or only hinted at:

This day we sail, dividing the waters from the heavens. I am
my own guide, the steerage, the hull. This day by sea, by the
sea we lie. Sharp peaks divided, three by two by three. Our
man at the helm, broad-shouldered and in love, saying: This
but not this. This, but not this.

You ford the stream. You move. (52)

And in the final text section, samedi: Les incendies, there is a sense of fatality and an acceptance at the end of a journey which always portended the abyss:

In the perilous passage, prepare for death.
Though tempests rage, take shelter in fate.
At every harbour, seek solitude and rest.
Through sickness and sorrow, find solace in faith.
On days of fine weather, breathe and drift.
When evening comes, set fire to the ships.

Everything lies. Everything lies to live.(84)

Before that, in what is one of the most telling passages in this section, we find La Perouse, with his companion M. Lavaux, looking down into what seems the very essence, or being, of the world:

Morning on the dim shore, hours coming and going. We step
down, M. Lavaux and I, to the water’s edge. Mirror of the
world as it dips and slides from view, wave beginning its slow
path to infinity. There we discover the first of the objects, of
which I will relate only. The barest details, ashen. Though the
day will begin and begin again. Though we meet, he and I, with
no sign of land. Circling, in the upward draughts, a curious
sight: Buteo buteo. Buzzards, so far south.(79)

This seems to be a good point at which to turn to Lost Lake, which displays a further development in the integration of image, text and theme. Sourced texts resonate through the poetry, which raises some interesting questions about how we read, about how images resonate or reside within the imagination. Recently I attended a talk given by the artist John Wolseley, during an exhibition of his work at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne. At one point, he was discussing the importance to his own work of Max Ernst and his technique of frottage, of how the technique enables both erasure and emergence, that an image may ultimately reveal itself as if from the beginning of time. In Lost Lake the language does something comparable, as it is deliberately set out of context or any quotidian reference, having a tone placed somewhere between the Bible and Calvino. In relation to the way photography and text play into this field, especially in terms of natural imagery and this veering to the origin, a comparison could be made with the cinema of Terrence Malick, where the voice, spoken into the creative space rather than being merely perceived as dialogue, forms an imminent connection with it.

At the same time, however, this seemingly shared method stresses the isolation, the ‘out-thereness’ of everything. Such a sense can be found in the sequence Confessions. Eighth is a stellar example of this intent:

That the entire forest was plunged as though under a sea. As
at the beginning of the world, as if there were only the two. So
was I speaking when – with a more premeditated return, with
more precision, as though upon a crystal glass- I asked my
soul why she was so. Over the forest did my heart then range.
I shut the book. And I cannot say from which country, which
time, I cannot say from which it came. (44)

Also in Confessions, in Sixth, there is a hint of Zen:

There are sounds I do not hear. Sometimes, at the edge of
water and surrounded by trees.(43)

and in Second, there is an apprehension of home, but also not-home, that dwelling is but an absence, a shadow:

That what I have seen I have seen from houses. That in my
father’s house was a strange unhappiness. That I had searched
for it, in my life, in the hollows of doors, that I had found it,
that it had found in my home. And in my home I had neither
rest nor counsel. The days, the soul of man riveted upon
sorrows; now and then the shadow of a woman, in the far
corners of the house.(41)

Grand Central, in a stunning series of images, presents another form of the journey, this time by rail. The poem brilliantly situates composer Steve Reich’s composition, Different Trains, where his wartime experience as a child of regularly shunting across the United States, splices with the European temporality of Hitler’s death trains. Lost Lake concludes with the luminous sequence The Star Diaries. The journey/s and its/their destinations are varied and unsettled. Home is unattainable, but the journey continues in dystopian fashion. One thinks of the sourced Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but also the work of that one-time Surrealist, Rene Char. Presences appear and vanish like a shadow as in The Eighth Voyage:

… I must have been ill because I can’t recall. But I remember him
standing there in the shadows of the firelit room, barefoot.
Calling me by my name. In the following weeks the radiation
decreased, a slow bleeding away. Then the quiet zero weather
broke. And we continued – me one way and him another.(134)

Further on this sequence in the vision becomes apocalyptic:

                                  …Drifting over former
libraries and museums, all sunk beneath the jelly-green water.
The old scow navigated, under a white moonlight, past ghostly
deltas, luminous beaches; each in their turn submerged and
sinking. Overhead, dusk was vivid and marbled. Clouds of
steam filling the intervals between buildings, motionless and
immense; silt tides accumulating in dense banks beyond th
concrete reef. Darkness fell. In the surrounding suburbs the
streets were filled with fire until four o’clock.(135)

The textual sequence ends with a statement of record in The Twenty-fifth Voyage:

I am obliged to give an account of what I saw: a moving
walkway, slowly unreeling. On the ocean surface, something
moving. Something looked like a garden; I recognised an
apiary. Sometimes seemed to be standing upright, sometimes
lying on its side. There occurred a magnetic storm and the
radio links were cut.(151)

 The Twenty-eighth Voyage presents a vision of a conservatory.

Both Argosy and Lost Lake are beautifully presented and designed. They are a pleasure to look at and to hold, and both collections raise as many questions as you may care to ask.



1. Translation by Jamie James in his Rimbaud in Java, Editions Didier Miller, Singapore 2011, 69
2. Quotations from Max Ernst in www.modernamuseet-se>max-ernst


JENNIFER MACKENZIE is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about the Asian region. Her most recent work is Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012).