Kris Hemensley reviews John Mateer’s “Southern Barbarians”

On John Mateer’s Southern Barbarians
(Zero Press, Johannesburg, 2007) 

(Originally published in Kris Hemensley’s blog, available at  November 2008)



Such presence exists in John Mateer’s Southern Barbarians (Zero Press, Johannesburg, 2007), bolstered by plenty of first person, and maybe that’s the reason it’s so pleasurable to read – first person and present tense and what I’ll record as whole sentences. Post-colonialism or Mateer’s post-colonialist reflex, is part and parcel of this book as it has always been in his oeuvre, and I’m not sorry to say that it irks me politically and poetically! Naturally, ideas and narratives are interwoven here as with every writing, so it’s almost passé to say that ultimately “attitude” doesn’t reduce the collection’s pleasure, and what provokes thought and reaction, as Mateer’s writing does, should be music to one’s ear.

Regarding whole sentences, what a relief after contemporary poetry’s inexhaustible anthology of fragment and discontinuity! I don’t, of course, mean the single words and phrases, rhythmic explosions or embellishments, abundant in poetry, guaranteed to either shake up patter or create another timbre. More so, the attenuation of thought and address in favour of the flatly annotated inventory which has overseen a relegation of the very discursive language John Mateer resourcefully indulges. Sometimes what one wants is a narrator and not a breathless reporter – sentences to breathe in and to hear a poet hold breath, that is nerve, as  narrator.

Southern Barbarians is another of Mateer’s non-commercial books from Zero, the collectively run South African little press; the second since The Ancient Capital of Images (FACP, 2005), which in turn was his fifth major collection.

It’s ten or fifteen years since I first met him, and his work. A double emigrant, as I was also, in a way – he, a young South African living in Western Australia, exiled to the extent that the Apartheid republic was an impossible homeland and the new South Africa no less difficult, had come to Melbourne in what seemed a steady flow of West Australians to our seemingly greener fields – Philip Salom, Marion Campbell, Micheal Heald amongst others. And I, half-English in England after infancy in Egypt, then English migrant to Melbourne. Apart from the Alexandrian heritage through my mother, I had South African Huguenot (grandmother Rose Waterina de Vaal) on my father’s side. We’ve talked about this as some kind of actual basis for an outsiderness we may share as poets in Australia – agreeing about the need for an international perspective, sharing enthusiasms for art and artists, disagreeing about the status of American poetry and poets, courteous about one’s politics and religious beliefs!


“What is another English word, he mused, that rhymes with sadness?” (“Anecdote”, p11) The protagonist is Xanana, probably the first president and now prime minister of the independent East Timor… Another English word? Gladness? Badness? Madness? Depends how strong you want the rhyme. Plenty to echo “ess” – “less”, for example. But that would be an odd word for this poet of baroque expansion, of a conceptual and verbal density that makes the most of every morsel of the matter that comes to hand.

John Mateer is the poet behind that hand. One would like to say, the Noh-actor’s fan-fluttering hand or as thief passing on the gen, shading mouth with quicksilver fingers, or the spy, happy to be identified as either of the others – except that Mateer has already given us as disquieting a narrative as could hang on an image in The Ancient Capital of Images : he comes to us as the poet of the grotesque white hand. The scenario is fraught :

The poet, a New South African, holds his fist out to me.
I extend mine to meet his, our knuckles snug as in a knuckle-duster.
“Welcome home,” he says, swaying his fist back to his chest, his heart.
I do likewise, but feebly, and mutter, “This is strange…”

Earlier he’d told of when they’d razed his grandmother’s house with her inside.
In the interrogation he’d been asked, “What do you think of your comrades now?”
And he had shouted back: “Every revolution has its casualties!”
But when in gaol, alone, he wept for her for the first time.

I look at my hand on the table between us: a pale, grotesque thing.
Why without reticence, did I press that against his dark fist?

(“Ethekweni, #1, The Poet”)

The black fighter’s belated tears hardly expiate the immorality of the revolutionary modus operandi. (I also squirm, recalling the justifications one uttered, as an anti-Vietnam War activist, for a similar level of atrocity.) But the white poet’s mae culpa and the poem of and as mae culpa – is dishonoured in that degree of self-abnegation. Political guilt has become a pathology. Fair enough, as they say, it’s only a line in a poem in one of the three recent books and, of course, its author is the brilliant maker of the fictions stimulating one here, but this colour consciousness, so candidly expressed, is the failure of person that distorted logic always produces. The mis-perception – typical of John Mateer’s candor – mocks the intelligence one’s want to trust of the visionary poet, where the quality of perception is the measure of truth. Mateer’s rhetorical question might well be truth to the person which the poem forms, but only transiently like a thought best let pass, as Buddhists would have it. Existence is not a contortion, nor is its poetry. And self-excoriation is not humility.


John Mateer is the author of this book of questions even as he is one of its characters. It is a Portuguese book of questions necessarily skirting the adopted and natal countries previously encountered in his work. However both Australia and South Africa continue to be impugned in a serious and lyrical interrogation of the first person and several personae.

Mention Portuguese, and English-language readers will pronounce the name Pessoa. And Pessoa meets us in the epigraph (“I write to forget”) and every so often in the book. Southern Barbarians (and who are they? Australians? South Africans? 16th Century Portuguese?) is a Pessoan book if the slipping in and out of legal and imagined selves is a further meaning of the increasingly invoked 20th Century European master – a quality one identified in all things Borges too in the ever so recent past. But fantasy it isn’t since spectral shivers and metaphysical speculations aren’t Mateer’s purpose. Rather, it is history and politics, the burden of knowledge, in the already full rucksack of our peripatetic existentialist – as though doomed to wandering as the price of revelation. History and politics not so much counter-pointed by the erotic as punctuated by it – a chapter in itself in the eventual Mateer monograph. (Regarding eroticism in its explicitly sexual form, it’s instructive that one poem here, “Heard in a geijin-house in Kyoto” (p48), isn’t about the contrast between fucking and masturbation, which would be juvenile to say the least , but its receipt as language; thus the difference for this poet between Japanese a traveller’s “gagged whispers” – and Brazilian:                   

the woman’s urging in that tongue
I love, of slurs and growls and lisping

requiring eroticism’s necessary conclusion in what should be the poet’s rhetorical question, “Is that what makes of my listening a poetry?” And history and politics also feeds his fine topographical lyricism.

Compelling, marvellous, but that irk will not leave me as sympathy for the poems leads me closer than I like to the post-colonial attitude I almost always find wearisome as polemic and gratuitous as poetry (either the only point of the poem or an unwieldy embellishment). Much more of it in Words In the Mouth of a Holy Ghost (Zero Press, 2006) than the present collection, and particularly annoying because of the juxtaposition of the mellifluously insightful and the stridently pat. “Composition of Unease” (p15) a perfect example :

With the deceptive ease that the Dutch
swapped Manhattan for a now forgotten isle laden with cloves,
the biochemistry in my brain catalyses
the enormity of ice-blue sky between downtown skyscrapers
into a sensationism of memories and concepts,
the question of the composition of this unease:
For what may Ground Zero be exchanged?

Whoa!… For what may Ground Zero be exchanged? How about the Twin Towers and three thousand lives? How about Bin Laden’s head? What is Mateer’s question but naive poeticism, a quirk of the brain of the poet’s biochemistry? It could simply be pure contempt for the USA, for the West – in which case, why not dance on the monster’s grave and spare us the tease? (Sometimes a poet must surely overcome the compulsion to write another poem!) Gripped by the narrative finesse of the opening line; gnashing my teeth at the last!

The 2006 chapbook wears post-colonialist stripes on its globe-trotting narrator’s combat-jacket! The Aussie-South African’s “I, being Americanized” (“Empire”, p9) is the manner in which the subject problematizes the conventional first person, yet it’s also the means by which subject is let off the hook, seduced by rhetoric (Gold Coast bikini’d cheerleaders, astroturf, moon flag)… In “The College Girl as Cypher”, she’s code for America, obviously (“bountiful college girl among bored nations”), and owns sufficient particularity

bounding along in your new sneakers,
your wit openly declared on your t-shirt

for the cliché to work – but

streamlined, sans memory

is cliché colluding with cant. Recalls Gertrude Stein’s quip, possibly riposte for that earlier era’s European tub-thumping, that one ought not forget America is the oldest country of the modern world, a comment stronger now with the conflation of America and global modernity. Mateer’s “Americanization” is as quaint as post WW2’s “coca-cola-ization” in this time of the world wide web and the satellite-dish. Arguably, his earnest, rather than zealous, post-colonialism delivers as recherché a sensibility as its other side, the unselfconscious colonial, the unabashed imperial, and is as emphatically upstaged by history as Malcolm Lowry’s tragic, dipso consul in Under the Volcano, and for all his perspicacity, any protagonist of Graham Greene’s, whose foreign correspondences might be as hummable now as Noel Coward!

Irony, of course, that the erstwhile Developing World (– oh yes, developing into modernity, which is the psychology behind “everyone wants to be an American”, thus Ed Dorn, the first of the Anglo-American New Poetry’s post-colonials, calling the shots in The North Atlantic Turbine (1967)) doesn’t distinguish between one American (Australian, British, South African, European…) and another. Indisputable too, that Chinese and Indian have joined Japanese and Korean et al in modernity’s new imperial order, who are recognized for what they are, everywhere in the “developing world” despite the non-white camouflage… Doesn’t John Mateer wonder how it could be that post-colonialist poet and friend are greeted “Hey snowflakes…” (“Salutation Heard up in Harlem”, p17)? Isn’t Harlem’s ‘greeting’ the racial underpinning of that recently surpassed epoch (post-colonialism) which might henceforth be applied to the entire motley of perceived and attributed trespass? Of course, the pungency’s retained either side of the snipe but the Great Wheel keeps spinning and the arguments flap dizzy as 16th Century Portuguese circumnavigator’s sailcloth in each qualitatively different sphere. Yet, “First Person”(p12) tenders Mateer’s identity question’s classiest pun.

Barns and schools and houses hovered over the harvested fields
as he spoke, hesitant parenthesis around his words,
that Mesquakie telling of what was before the Americans.

The poem reports rather than bewailing or heavying the message. The poet is the listener whose heart and mind the reader is trusted to understand, and so the first line’s imagery guilelessly combines environment and occasion of vital communication and political sentiment. One’s given the crucial contradiction of the collection: listener and teller. “I have inadvertently been born as karaoke” (“Thoughts of Employment”): the paradox at the heart of lyrical poetry.


Southern Barbarians is John Mateer’s Portuguese book. I can’t remember another collection where he has been as enlivened. Travelling always has this affect upon him, ‘grounding’ his rootlessness, but Portugal and the Portuguese is more than ambient here. In the previous collection, Words in the Mouth of a Holy Ghost (2006)

metaphysics funked-up by a black college band
on a corner of Michigan Avenue where the whole of Chicago is musical theatre

is no more than travel-writer’s tic-tac, and there’s some of that in Southern Barbarians too. It’s what home often is –  the place from which to resist, the mind-set with which to resist and re-engage with the questions of the world.

If Pessoa is the Portuguese book’s predictable node, guarantor of the plural identity, implying its own negation (“I am your own surviving heteronym”, “Pessoa as Photographed Child”), then Luis de Camoens (Camoes) as the figure of the once glorious Portuguese empire, glorifier of the great mariner, Vasco da Gama, in his epic poem, The Lusiads (1572), is our own wanderer’s barely known (like all our classics) guiding star. And Portugal is where the racial and ethnic stereotypes besetting the poet are lost in a new tempo. Portugal, only two or three decades beyond its own fascist dictatorship at home, its colonialism in Africa and Timor, is an aroma, a taste, and a tongue from which he has created fantastical wings. In this Portugal, Mateer can securely be a native, in his case African; that is, where the contortion meted upon the poet’s soul by politics and psychology can conjure paradise of weirdest paradox. Portugal, where he’s confrère to the Mozambicans and Angolans, who doubtless suffered at the hands of these same Portuguese, who jib the Afrikaaner on his father’s sins.

From the beginning John Mateer has spoken as an emissary of African writing. I remember him telling me about the prodigious Tatamkhulu Africa –  the equal of Senghor and Césaire, and a school text in England now.

I am reliving Uncle’s poems –  They people the streets
with slaves named by the hinterland, Afrikas …
(“Uit Mantra”, The Ancient Capital of Images)

Tatamkhulu, the “grandfather” of the new South Africa’s African poetry. Fully realizing now the complexity of Tatamkhulu’s ethnicity and personality, I can perceive Mateer in a self-creation that recalls Tatamkhulu as a reflecting mirror. And what a complexity: Egyptian boy whose parents were Arab and Turk, fostered at age two by a Christian family in South Africa after parents’ death, who appeals his “white” status at age thirty and chooses “coloured”, and in later life, whilst involved in the guerrilla war against the apartheid regime, adopts Islam as an Arabic-Afrikaans Chan dialect speaker.

If that incredible pot-pourri can be African then surely the African John Mateer can be Australian or Mexican (Spanish or Indian) (see the “That I Might be Mexican” section in Words In the Mouth of a Holy Ghost or Japanese, where I suspect his Zen yen has taken him) or Portuguese as seen in the new book.

Of course, born of the complex, through complexity the only way to go…The problematised subject may always be John Mateer’s self-representation although the defining language will surely change. The post-colonial with its anti-Western reflex has provided the poet with a ticket to negotiate the complexity, but evidently so does his immersion in palpable life, all around the world, which is how and where I feel his gift will continue to prosper. And I wonder if he’d agree that ultimately Tatamkhulu’s dictum is better than all the -isms strung together:

Poetry must stem from the self, not outside the self. Indeed, it records the landscape of the heart, not the mind.


(Karen Shenfeld, Books in Canada,