The Path of Ambivalence: On João by John Mateer

Australian poet John Mateer’s recently released book João can be read as a meditation on colonialism, even as it is also about love, travel, language, the body, sex, longing, and art. After all, colonialism is a many-headed hydra and, because it is a world historical system, it should come as no surprise that there are other concerns here. One could also use neo-liberalism, globalization, cosmopolitanism, capitalism, or the transnational to frame a reading of this book, but it is colonialism that links João to the rest of Mateer’s work. In this way, we could see one through-line in his oeuvre as “Australia,” including the people classed as Indigenous and settlers in current discourse. But, cut off that head and forget to tar it, and two more appear; this time a question of “the South” and “the world,” including those people tied to different places. João itself moves through a great many locations in a linked 64-sonnet sequence written during Mateer’s travels. This came after Mateer’s self-imposed poetic exile from Australia, which was partly the result of a public controversy with Kim Scott. This was detailed by Bonny Cassidy in “Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty,” where she addressed Mateer’s work in a context of colonization.

Building from Cassidy, the question immediately prompted by João is the following: if Mateer’s attempt to belong as a settler in Australia is resisted, where does he retreat to? What does this mean for other settler poets? Poets are already anxious about speaking of belonging here in Australia, for fear of displacing Indigenous people. This consigns many to being lost, hungry ghosts without a hope of grounding anywhere. It also gives them an excuse not to do the work of engaging with traditional owners thoughtfully, critically, or respectfully. Many of these people are “unbelongers,” be they unsettled or rootless, people who just happen to be in Australia. This causes poets to ignore the material in their very midst, which we see when we look at reading tastes. As Ben Etherington wrote in “The Poet Tasters”:

The poetic education and tastes of those in the poetry community are structurally Eurocentric. It seems all Australian poets took the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.” A handful also took a course on French symbolism.

Of course, you will find it hard to belong here if you do not read local poets with any historical depth, be they A. D. Hope or Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and there is a lot of great contemporary public work by Indigenous people that helps us decolonize. The intersection between Eurocentrism and colonialism is worth unpacking further and needs to be developed in poetry critique at large. Where Mateer is immediately idiosyncratic is in his reading list, which is decidedly different and includes a great many references outside the obvious coordinates that Etherington cites. It seems he took more than two courses at university, and the third was not on French symbolism but Fernando Pessoa.

Mateer’s reading list is “archipelagic” and it has attempted to engage with “the Indigenous” inside and outside Australia, however complicated and fraught that is for a white man. As Peter Minter and others have acknowledged, Mateer cares about islands that are linked, and has written on this at various points, including for Garland:

Australia’s only, and lonely, Indian Ocean city [Perth], I imagined, could then be seen as merely one of many culturally-rich, tropical islands in a large, spreading Indic archipelago. But a change in terminology, or even the redrawing of new maps thanks to the American “pivot to Asia” and China’s artificial islands, is much easier than changing our vision of the Indian Ocean region to one that can allow us to see wonderful, connected islands — an archipelago of the decolonized mind.

Nationalists and others have challenged Mateer’s long-term engagement with the Indian Ocean. In an Overland piece that condemned him as a racist and an Orientalist, A. J. Carruthers argued that “for any poet writing in Australia, the land itself — this geography, its positioning, its character and hemispheric bearing — is the Asia-Pacific region.” I would question whether the land itself is anything other than land, something Alexis Wright suggests in her piece “Hey Ancestor!” In addition, assuming this orientation might not be altogether engaged with the political realities of today. To only be in a language game of the “Asia-Pacific” might not hold true for Mateer, who lives in a city with many names, which could be called Whadjuk land, Western Australia, Noongar nation, GMT +8, Indian Ocean, and many other names. Carruthers’s critique is an east coast narrative that has designs to be national, but it does not take into account Mateer’s Indo-African orientation from the west coast, let alone what this means as a decolonizing perspective that challenges dominant ways of knowing “Australia.”

The differences between Mateer and Carruthers in this Overland exchange are not only geographic. The former placed a hope in European modernism, exoticism, and close reading, and the latter emphasized American experimentalism, anti-racism, and emancipation. Yet, as much as they appear to disagree, their references suggest something else, for Mateer turned to Victor Segalen, and Carruthers reached for Kyoko Yoshida to support their respective positions. As different as these figures are, when taken together, we can assume that both poets agree that Australian poetry benefits from international engagement, and so, they share an anti-isolationism if not a residue of peripheralism. This might be at the heart of Mateer’s emphasis on archipelagos, namely, that they are a way of creating communities that are not contiguous, which can become post-nationally decolonized by responding to the empirical past from our present perspective. If this is the case, where does Mateer go in João? What is his archipelago now and what does it suggest about post-colonial belonging?

The archipelago of João includes Honshu, Brisbane, New Zealand, Timor, Warrnambool, Zanzibar, the Yucatan Peninsula, Medan, New York, Hawaii, Naples, Capri, Slovenia, Canada, Galicia, Paris, Portugal, Iowa City, Brazil, Kenya, Czech Republic, Russia, South Africa, San Francisco, Vienna, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Romania, California, Korea, Colombo, China, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Leipzig, Berlin, Europe, Middle Europe, Kurdistan, Indonesia, Bali, Nigeria, Greece, Chile, Santiago, London, Melbourne, Yogyakarta, Venice, Zurich, Ethiopia, Egypt, Cape Town, and Lisbon. João, the eponymous protagonist, goes to all these places or meets people from there. This is a world where colonialism matters, but it is not only the former empire where we are taken, not only the places where the Portuguese extracted people and commodities. It is the world as a whole — as a totality of particulars that cannot quite grasp its immensity — that “reminds João of how little he really knows / about the world.” This is world literature after the fall of European empire, which is nevertheless living in the shadow of an American superpower haunted by time itself.

João does not only move through space, stopping off here and there without a resting place; it also moves back and forth through time, through the personal biography of the character to the historical moments that matter for imagined communities. We go back and forth from the “discovery” of Australia to the publication of The Satanic Verses, from the death of Captain Cook to current literary festivals, from Marx to a contemporary Leipzig Book Fair. Throughout, it includes “those old colonial cities peopled as if by ghosts / smugglers and poets, where chance meetings / can lead to friendships.” These friendships are fleeting, half invited, never lasting in a cosmopolitan world that lives in airports and memory itself.  João is a somewhat lonely figure, not quite in our time, but someone aching for the past. This is something most developed in his long list of lost loves, the exes who people the book, who reflect back the poet-character’s own isolation. He is “not belonging / as always,” and a sense of self-aware melancholy permeates the book. Ghosts become a recurrent motif, and in the final two poems, we realize that João is a lost child of sorts. Their respective last lines read:

João remembers: Men roam the world to be fatherless.


Anyway, the Tibetans say: Mother is space, her depths you.

Taken together, we know João is searching, passing from the logic of the family to the experiences of empire to the religious hope of a world historical system that sees itself truly, in spirit, alone. He moves through life with an observant calm, not wholly disinterested but Zen Buddhist in disposition, able to sit at a remove from the chaos below. João is watching and never stopping long enough to move beyond the vignette, never lingering beyond the image.

João is, in some ways, an avatar of Mateer who is both the poet and not the poet. Mateer has used him and similar characters in the past, including those called “John Mateer.” In her review of Southern Barbarians, Alison Croggon argues that:

… the poetic Self John Mateer (not to be mistaken for the actual person John Mateer) invents himself before our eyes, out of the literary scraps of empire.

João is an invention from the scraps too, or better yet a figure wrapped in the skins of colonialism’s hydra, which includes the decolonized and post-colonial people of today’s world. Yet, he functions in the way Mateer’s past avatars have — voicing ideology, commenting on art, sharing meals, speaking with other people, thinking about his craft, translating from one place to another, having sex. In many of these poems, João is affectionately and critically portrayed, including in sincere and ironic ways that build toward a shared language.  And, for all the melancholy, there is a sense of profound ambivalence. Mateer doesn’t seem to mind, and tries not to judge, but cannot help what he is. We see this in the following:

The bliss of lime soup from the Yucatan Peninsula

tasted in an upper floor restaurant a few blocks from the Zocalo;

or an African-American, on paseo, with his tiny local wife and cigar;

or the granite snake coiled mandala-like for João’s

edification in one of DF’s vast museums: all are midst the squalor

of his thoughts. Very near his hotel in Zona Rosa,

on a crowded pavement, he has a déjà vu moment,

mistaking himself for Christopher Columbus in his befuddlement,

his colossal, historical — actually continental — error. João’s memory

is of an identical street, but in Medan, Sumatra,

its bitter blue exhaust smoke, small talkative people,

each recognising him as the young, lost poet

João really isn’t. Yet Chapultepec Park was his favourite moment,

eternally repeated, being greeted with the revolutionary: ‘Amigo!’

There are the hallmarks of a Mateer poem here: subtle Buddhist referents (“bliss,” “eternally repeated,” “mandala”); the peripheralism (“a few blocks from the Zocalo”), which is to say, close but not quite where the action is; the white gaze with raced identity categorization (“African-American”) and almost interchangeable local people who are “tiny” and “small” respectively; the reference to the high end district (“Zona Rosa”), perhaps, bringing with it a complicated stance towards capital that occurs so frequently in the book (and that Croggan does a good job of addressing in his prior book connecting it to misogyny); the colonial reference to great historical men he could be (“Christopher Columbus”) even as this is “befuddling”; the déjà vu moment and with it the pathways of personal memory in the era of globalization where jetlag re-wires the synapses; the self-aware acknowledgement of what a poet is to other people and the claim that he is “not lost” at all; and the personal pleasure of a courtesy in a non-English language, an apparently “revolutionary” “Amigo,” which would be simply a passing greeting to almost anyone else in the world, and which brings us full circle to the quotidian beginning of eating out alone.

We can read the tone of this poem in light of Cassidy and Croggon. Both critics have asked if Mateer is sincere or ironic, albeit for different collections. In João, he is both, he is ambivalent. He might care greatly or he might be indifferent. He might find succor in BDSM but does not care for sex. He might be a tragic figure or comic. But, he can be both, and so, it might be better to respond to Croggon’s rhetorical question:  “is irony really a radical strategy if the poem merely replicates the colonial erasure it seeks to expose?” For ironic poems to be political or not depends on context, lest we divorce registers of emotion from ideology, style from circumstance. To divide them is bad criticism.

I am not certain that radicalism is necessarily the only thing to be cultivated in overcoming any world historical system, including empire. Nor am I convinced that an attack on mimesis is anything other than an unoriginal colonial move that dates, in Western terms, at least as far back as Plato. We can also find discourses on copying in the Upanishads that complicate the idea that any replication can be only erasure and not also creation. So now, even if João, like Southern Barbarians, involves erasures, Others speak back also, such that reading Mateer after Croggon’s question changes our understanding of erasure because “the world” has changed too. We are no longer in “the South” alone but in a post-colonial world that is looking back at the past to wonder what went wrong all those years. To think instead of the politics of the poem itself, and hence of the politics of ambivalence, I would remind readers of Cassidy’s judgement that Mateer “risks the annihilation of the Indigenous sovereign subject for the sake of the settler’s inhabitation of place.” Mateer runs risks in this poem, not least of all the displacement of the local for the sake of a cosmopolitan sense of self, of the invisibilized crowd who heralds him amigo, of the gazed at African-American, of the small and tiny people from Othered places.

Yet, if it is always pitched as a battle — always a division between west coast and east coat, Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean, Croggan and Cassidy, nation and archipelago, empire and colony, Indigenous and settler, sincerity and irony, local and cosmopolitan, tragedy and comedy — then they and we cannot co-exist. When we see the attempt to share, when we see ambivalence in its true sense of being both sides, we might find something distinct once again. This is not compromise, hybridity, or the third space, but the higher synthesis that comes with knowing that we have a future together, of being both tones, of being the mixed love child of empirical parents.

An ambivalent reading of João challenges declamatory judgments such as Carruthers’s when he writes the following:

Orientalism of any kind, in any context, is bad. It is not good practice, and not good for poetics. It does not do the work of cultural critique, nor does it offer any emancipatory potential.

Despite the tautology implied above, Orientalism, like sincerity and irony, does offer critique and emancipation, especially as something to negate, let alone to meta-textually comment upon. It offers bedrock for many poets who might be lost without it, and even gives Carruthers a specter to work against. The reified discourse of “Othering,” which João is part of, might not even be the best framework in approaching Mateer and I would point readers to the introduction of Ben Etherington’s Literary Primitivism for a distinct take on how to approach similar material in general terms.

Conversation between two subjects, at its simplest, might be what João is reaching for. This is its post-colonial hope, not that we forget empire but that we enter more fully into our own histories, experiences, and observations as a way to see where we are now. This is its hope even if Mateer cannot overcome his white privilege, his interests, or his place in the world. This does not mean that critics should over-read his biographical details in particular, or that we should believe that João is simply one of the names Mateer calls himself when no-one is around. Formalist close reading has an important place in historical poetics, as does the open-ended possibility of refusing final judgment. After all, João might like to know that I am glad we speak enough of the same language to have a conversation across time and place, that he and I can form an archipelago of two bodies among the many others beside it.

With João, Mateer’s great poetic gift to us, at the level of content, might be that he takes us out of our comfort zone by continuing to travel beyond the well-trod road, which in the most immediate way is not the Australian framed Anglophone one, let alone the rooted parochial one. This road is often a lonely path, but we might learn how to talk to each other if we have reports of what once was out there and what remains. With Mateer, we might find our ancestors buried in a nearby church, or the paintings of a local master, or the skin of a hydra that once used to be everywhere but is now only a shadow if not a myth on the tongues of Othered poets themselves. The ambivalence of his reportage is what we might build-from to question our national shibboleths and ask about the rightness of our very own style and tone.