Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Eddie Paterson’s Redactor, a collection of poet-censored poems, compels the reader to creatively interact with the text in search of meanings. With its blacked-out words (mostly names but also other identifiers), the poetry forms an act of resistance against contemporary consumer capitalism. Witty, memorable, and offbeat, Paterson’s poetry makes the banal seem beautiful and the mundane magnificent even as our physical and virtual existences are subject to ever-increasing surveillance.
The recent introduction in Australia of laws enabling the mandatory retention of metadata raises a number of issues relating to transparency and government power over citizens and our information. How does my right to privacy conflict with government responsibility to protect? Where does freedom of information end and national security begin? Who has access to metadata and what will they do with it? Will my words be used against me?
Such topical issues are raised by Redactor. To black out a word is to exercise a form of power over the reader, deleting information that had been available to them. However, it is also an act of empowerment: no longer is the reader’s response dictated for them. The reader is free to interpret the subject of a poem more creatively when that subject is a black smudge that could stand for anything within the realm of the reader’s imagination.
In this way, the particular and the private merge with the public and that which is communicated becomes personal to the reader almost as much as it is personal to the writer. The characters in the poems, their names blacked out, become Everyman.
But any such blacking out risks marginalisation and omission. When the private is generalised, it may be rendered not only impersonal but also darkly comic. Thus, the opening to “bureau of statistics” is deeply unsettling:
31 australians have died
since 1996 watering
their christmas tree while
the fairy lights were plugged
in the last 3 years by eating
christmas decorations they believed were
chocolate hospitals reported 4 broken
arms last year after cracker pulling incidents (4)
Should the reader laugh? The statistics grow increasingly macabre as the poem progresses, disturbing and disrupting the reader’s response.
Another poem engages with a similar subject: “christmas instructions” takes on the form of a memo to retail staff in a department store instructing them to keep segregated the three Christmas stories into which the merchandise has been arranged. We are told that “it is very important that they stay / merchandised in their stories” (42) and:
christmas is only to be merchandised
on these tables &
is to stay merchandised together.
spread christmas around the store. (42)
This poem represents a fresh inspection of a trite cliche, that Christmas in our time is commercialised — as emphasised by the repetition of “merchandised” — and devoid of any suggestion of grace or redemption. There must be no spreading of Christmas cheer. There must be order in the store to compensate for the disorder and disarray of the world outside.
Indeed, in this realm of consumerist and pluralist anarchy, everything is relative, including time. Thus, we are told that the Russian cosmonaut of “timetraveller” has moved forward in time 0.5 seconds:
now he is early.
he catches plates, falling from the bench.
he anticipates the mailman.
he picks up the phone before the first ring. (8)
Time means nothing and there is no transcendence to be found. Hence, religion becomes a series of impossible-to-interpret statistics devoid of faith and power in “the figures”:
catholics up 7 anglicans down 8.5 uniting down 15.5 novels up 17
other: inc. pagans sikhs baha’is spiritualists up 91 religion down 3
higher beings are at 34 personal gods 4 atheists 40 uncertains 22
& 52 are judging the book by the cover. (9)
There is nothing to be relied on, not even the present moment: Uri the cosmonaut attests to that. So, where do we turn? Inwards?
Paterson creates a bleak depiction of the contemporary world but he finds a humane sense of humour in the interactions between lovers and strangers, the connections and missed opportunities for communication. Thus, “aisle 9” tells of an encounter with a screaming child being pushed around a supermarket in a trolley. The speaker says:
he grabs on
he just latches
& screams in my face.
he pulls himself
up my arm
& screams in my face. (19)
After the incident, the poet observes: “i go on looking for the Special K” (19). Nothing comes of the moment except for the moment. The poet turns inwards once more.
And, yet, consolation is to be found in the embrace of another. In the final piece, “love poem,” the speaker lists all the memories he says his lover can keep just as long as you “leave me with the park with the sun & that afternoon when / unexpectedly you moved away from kafka & toward me” (114). Love may be frustrated in these poems but it is never entirely thwarted.
The themes present in Redactor — love, isolation, commodity culture, censorship — may be nothing new but Paterson’s voice is distinct and urgent. There is a fractured beauty to be found in these poems composed of factoids, figures, and still frames. The mundane moments and fanboy fragments combine to mimic the internet, pop culture, and social media cacophony that awaits us every time we click a mouse or tap a screen. Our minds are set to catch trillions of slivers of experience from the universe and somehow put them together into a coherent whole.
Sometimes these poems cohere but at other times they diverge, refract, split the light into a kaleidoscope of would-be patterns of meaning. The effect is compelling and love-affirming. Paterson’s is a light-filled poetry that offers no answers but accepts all comers. His poetry is of the moment, whenever that moment happens to be (0.5 seconds into the future, perhaps?) and it should appeal to any lettered-generation struggling with its appellation.