March 2018

Back to Issue 3

The Agonist

By Shastra Deo

University of Queensland Press, 2017.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.

Shastra Deo’s almost preternaturally-accomplished début collection, The Agonist, winner of the 2016 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, displays the detailed delight of a masochistic forensic scientist poring over a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to find exactly which muscle, tendon, or ligament is causing their exquisite ache. Indeed, each of the three sequences that make up the cohesive collection is preceded by an illustration from this tome: vivisections of the heart and lungs, the hand, and the throat and mouth. Deo devotes her work to blood, bone, organ, and flesh, at times homing in on the reader’s carotid artery with vampiric precision; at others staking the reader’s heart as she takes on the converse role of Van Helsing. Although Deo’s work is not confessional, peopled as it is with a number of spectral speakers, the title may be read as eponymous: the agonist is the poet herself. “Agonist” means, variously, a muscle which contracts in order to move a part of the body directly, the protagonist of a literary work, and a person devoted to the study of agony.

Thus it is that the poet agonises over tortured and tortuous relationships in poems such as “Scorched Earth,” where “moths / threw themselves onto the bonfire and I knew what it was / to burn” and the beating of a lover’s heart is like “an unlatched door: open, shut, open.” In this poem, anatomy merges with architecture as “your heart is a house  / with the doors left open; your brain is the basement // filled with smoke” and the “skeleton” is “hidden under the flesh / of floorboards.” The architecture and mechanics of the body fascinate the speakers of these poems as they prod at their pain like a child pokes at a loose milk tooth with his tongue. These agonists are not immune from antagonism, as evidenced by the repeated images of blood passing from mouth to mouth which symbolise shared culpability and the blurring of boundaries between the self and the other. The repetition of imagery throughout this collection lends both cohesion and a sense of haunting to Deo’s work as revenants and remnants of the divided, fractured self occupy the poems and preoccupy the protagonists.

Recurring figures of the agonist in this collection include the soldier and the boxer’s son with a number of poems devoted to each sufferer of sorrows and sinewy pain. The boxer’s hands are described as “scabbed / sutured and remade wrong” in a virtuoso rendering of words into image. When not taking pains over gruesome and grotesque detail, the poet agonises over cliché in “The Boxer’s Son (3)” as the boxer’s grip on his boy’s legs is “like a steel trap, / as though he wanted to hang on / to something he thought / he had already lost.” Indeed, loss is a recurring theme: loss of love, limb, or life but also lost opportunities and ways of being. Bereavement manifests itself in acute pain and, sometimes, an obtuse lack of empathy that impedes communication between friends, divides lovers, and dismembers the family.

Dismemberment is at the core of Deo’s work, along with the damage, destruction, and defacement of the body. She traffics in horror. Repeated images of dissection, blood, bone, wound, sutured flesh, sinew, blood vessel, brain, heart, abdomen, mouth, throat, tooth, vertebra, knuckle, eye, and hand pile up into a monstrous mound of pulverised flesh until each anatomical part is meshed with the mass of tissue like in a teratoma tumour. The cancer of which she writes is the “rage inside / of you cinched deeper than the spear in your side” (“martyr”). Indeed, rage is a livid keloid scar disfiguring the bone-shatteringly beautiful face of Deo’s poetry.

And the anger runs deep into the subcutaneous layer, sometimes latent, masked, but at others flashing vermilion hot through its cloak of smoke. The smouldering coals that feature prominently in these poems do not produce communicative smoke signals but, rather, the smoke is an obfuscating presence that risks aggravating the apiary instead of rendering its winged inhabitants somnolent and docile: she cautions us that “burning a wasps’ nest will not always stop / the buzzing, the rage” (“Suburban Witchcraft”). Smoke seethes and seeps through the gaps between words on the pages of this book and the speaker of “Five” confesses their fear of “what lived in the space between / our bodies, our words.” The spaces between words in Deo’s poetry seem claustrophobically confined as the text is cluttered with recurring images: motifs such as body parts and partial bodies, fire and funeral pyres, augury and haruspication, light and tenebrous shadow, birds and ornithomantism, and martyrdom and the Christian sacrament of communion. Wine and blood are not merely exchanged but are interchangeable as Deo’s poetry apparently inscribes and enacts the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation.

The Agonist commands attention and demands a second and third reading, proving that its worth is much greater than schlock-and-shock value. Deo’s poetry is a weapon that is precise and arcane. The only misfire of the muscat occurs when she includes three pieces she calls “found poem and cento” that are comprised of the first lines and titles of poems as listed under a particular letter of the alphabet in an index to an anthology of First World War poems. These are not truly centos as Deo has not selected and arranged the lines herself. It is a neat trick but it requires little artistry and I would question the value of repeating it three times (for H, L, and T).

However, these three found poems are anomalous: the rest of the collection is highly inventive and innovative as Deo clears space inside the rabbit-warren-like interior of the body to accommodate new perspectives on selfhood. She devotes her incisive gaze to what is physically under the skin rather than self-obsessively analysing emotion and feeling, plots human anatomy with the precision of the cartographer, and relishes the reconstruction of the self with the same joyful sense of rediscovery as the paleontologist. In this way, Deo revivifies the poetic and revitalises the lyrical study of human psychology by grounding it firmly in the physical. Like the protagonist of “Tarotology,” Deo “escapes / our mythology” as she loosens the shackles of conventional poetic perspective to really get under our skin, piercing the dermis, stripping away flesh, worrying at our bones like a hound, and, above all, insisting on being heard. Here is a fresh new voice, as memorable and pervasive as the wraiths that she depicts.