Once again, my attention turns to a work of contemporary Australian poetry, and this time it’s a remarkably gritty, often grisly, exploration beyond the raw edges of physical and emotional endurance. Embodiment. Disembodiment. Lyrical evisceration.
Evoking characters and imagery drawn from diverse, seemingly unlikely sources—anatomy textbooks, World War I poetry, a scout manual, boxing, entomology, ichthyology, divination, tarot cards—Shastra Deo’s debut collection, The Agonist, is an impressive, unforgettable experience. Like a sucker punch to the gut.
But in the best way possible.
Agonist: (n) one that is engaged in a struggle
The narrators that move through these poems—the voices Deo borrows or inhabits—cover terrain familiar to poetry. They speak to pain, love, loss, damage, healing. But they engage with the world at a visceral, cellular level. Their words work their way into and through the hollows of memory, exploring what slips though the passages of the brain, examining what the muscles retain and imagining the intersection between reading the past and foretelling the future.
So what does that entail? The Agonist is divided into three sections, each of which opens with an illustration from Gray’s Anatomy. Many of the poems in the first section deal with relationships, familial or romantic, employing surreal thaumaturgic, and anatomical imagery.
“Arrhythmia,” for example, details the painful, desperate emotions of the partner not ready to accept that a love affair is coming to an end:
You count the notches of his spine.
His eyelashes flutter and he sighs, his breath
so warm that for a moment you can
pretend you aren’t cold. You want
to crack him open and hold
his heart in your hands, sink your fingers
into the thin membrane of his lungs.
You want to pull back his skin
and curl up inside his ribcage.
You want to know what he is inside.
Find the symptom, the sickness,
the anomaly that let him love you.
You want to be warm again.
Deo is adept at creating a surprising, brutal beauty in her romantic imagery. We see it again with “Cutman,” a graphic, meaty piece that opens the second section of the collection. Here the connection between a boxer and the attendant who cleans and cares for his wounds between rounds is reimagined in intensely intimate context:
He comes home each night with his hands soaked red,
and when he smiles it’s sharp and jagged and his teeth
quake in his wet mouth. You card your cold fingers
through his hair and lead him to bed, wait
for the weight of his arms around your neck, warm
and drowsy, the familiar shape of his bones and tendons
cradling the base of your skull…
In this part, Deo calls on themes drawn from war and boxing to engage in dialogue with other poets and experiment with poetic form. Included are three centos formed from the Index of Titles and First Lines in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Moving into the final section, inspiration is found in, among other things, a Boy Scout manual from 1914 and a deck of Tarot cards. Consider “XIII—Death”:
. . . I live in the present tense,
tensed and present at the wheel
of a car wreck. My name is re-
membered. I apologise too often
for my lack of biography. He
does not yet know what divinity
he belongs to, but he knows I was
not born for this. He takes the
sheets off the mirrors. He escapes
In my experience of this work, which is of course, all I can honestly speak to, The Agonist is a collection in which the sound of the words and the impact of images are central, the point from which a narrative emerges and takes form. These are not autobiographical poems, for the most part. Nor do they read like “stories” so much as they remind me of paintings or photographs out of which vignettes have been abstracted with vivid, scalpel-sculpted, incantatory language.
Reading this book has left me with the sense of having spent time in a gallery. Attending a deliriously disturbing exhibit.
Shastra Deo was born in Fiji and raised in Melbourne. She presently lives in Brisbane where she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. The Agonist is published by University of Queensland Press and, as ever, the indefatigable Tony Messenger has a review and interview with Shastra on his website.