“Onkalo” by Bernice Chauly reviewed by Jennifer Mackenzie


by Bernice Chauly

(Math Paper Press, 2013)


Say it loud, say it silent’ (Socks)

Bernice Chauly’s Onkalo begins with an extraordinary quotation in the preface from Michael Madison, director of Into Eternity, a documentary on Onkalo, a nuclear fuel repository being built on the coast of Finland:

You are now in the tunnel. This place is not a place of honour. No esteemed deeds are Commemorated her. You should not have come here. You are heading towards a place where you should never go. What is there is dangerous and the danger will Still be present in your time, as it is in ours. Please turn around and never come back. There is nothing here for you. Go no further

This sense of a forbidden place, a place where entry will cost you, where there is no reward and only risk, is an apt vehicle for Chauly’s collection, which documents the poetic idea of bravery and risk, not in the sense of the confessional but in hard-edged reflection of decisive moments in a life; it is a place where the social, personal and political intersect. This place of intersection, this Onkalo if you will, reveals itself through the poet’s mastery of form, whether it be in the refinement of the love lyric or in the exhortation of the political cry. It also reveals itself through the apt placement of individual poems.

It is of interest to reflect on why the quality of bravery is so inherently important to an appreciation of Onkalo. In an earlier collection, The Book of Sins (2008), Chauly challenges her readers by writing with a starling lyricism of incidents of violence (This Love) to tenderness (Forgiveness). It is difficult indeed both psychologically and technically to write of what is inflicted upon us, or indeed bestowed upon us, but the poet succeeds in this regard through the concision of language and image.

In Onkalo inquiry is placed decisively in the political realm as a kind of political ecology, effectively underscoring the personal. The first long poem in the collection, Jerit, speaks to Malaysia as Ginsberg spoke to the  United States of the 1950’s in Howl:

Will you let us write of new pages by those
who in yellow-infused riotous colour
betrayed the hallowed streets of the city
in the hundreds, in the tens and tens of thousands
who fought back the tear-gassed alleys
with brave tears and Maalox

Following on from this is Still, a rhythmically concise poem questioning where ethnic divisions may lead:

When does thought become action?
Will the keris strike yellow flesh?
Will it know when it is satisfied?

The emphasis on what I have termed the ‘political ecology’ of the collection is revealed through apt thematic placement. The title poem Onkalo for instance appears straight after these two overtly political poems, and segues into an evocation of the personal at once  endangered and exposed. Onkalo, a place of ‘eternal thirst’, of ‘spent eviscerated/energy rods’ is called to rest ‘until the fiery skies/call out to you’, captures the sense of flame and risk that appears in Untitled 1 where rest suggests protection and renewal:

I am better off like this
in between the gnarled roots
the folds of black earth, the hands
of fertile leaves that are now in bloom

In Untitled 2 the city is portrayed as a site of metal, fuel and corruption, an Onkalo of now:

The city is tiresome
it vomits interminable streams
of coloured metal, engaged
on roads that toil underneath
the weight of the familiar

But it is also a place (Untitled 3) where one flames, one lives, a place you are compelled and indeed willed to inhabit:

The irreverent thrill
of a wanton evening –
on the flat road to home.

All under the gaze of a malevolent heaven:

The concrete sky
aloof, adamantine
decapitating the haze

With Signs we find an extension of a Persephonian trope, where the poet leaves the Onkalo of a landscape ‘translated by fear/ruled by pain’ to become springlike and ’green again’, ‘populated once again/like pollen’.

This is not to suggest that the collection is subsumed under this conceit. Poems of love, travel and challenge (see the brilliant The Snatch) follow their own trajectory, but with the motif recurring like a theme in musical composition. Mood and climate weave their own variation in such poems of chill winter as The Nut House and In Amsterdam, or in the love lyric Novo Tel. In the exquisite Luang Prabang, longing flows through blossoming nature in order to define what the poet must say, must apprehend:

Maybe this is enough
I tell myself – perhaps longing
is enough

As I imagine reaching out
for your hand, across the
continental drifts
across the long banquet table
pierced with white lilies,
sugared roses, the spirals of jasmine
and the scent of a new world.

The penultimate poem, Sometimes, takes us to the world of death and grieving familiar to reader of Chauly’s fine memoir Growing Up With Ghosts, and in the concluding poem, 1973, she writes:

I chose my suffering
I walked with it
I ate it with deliberation
I breathed it, I drank it all
in its brief longevity

I chose my suffering
but I did not choose to see you die
I have paid grief its price
from the realm of the living
to the dead who still haunt me.

In the scoring of this suffering, Onkalo brings us the complexities of a life, the nerve of being.
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of  Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as “Borobudur and Other Poems” (Lontar, Jakarta, 2012). She has presented her work at many festivals and conferences in Asia, most recently at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar (supported by the Australia Council for the Arts) and at the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Singapore.