Onkalo by Bernice Chauly reviewed by Jennifer Mackenzie

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.

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