‘What Makes Something a Poetry Collection: A Review of Bella Li’s “Argosy”’, by Aden Rolfe

On March 10, 1788, the French explorer Jean-François de Galaup de La Pérouse departed the penal colony of Sydney, having spent six weeks stocking up on supplies, sending journals and letters to Paris, and reporting on the activities of the British for King Louis XVI. Now it was time to resume his exploration of the Pacific. He sailed north out of the harbour, bound for New Caledonia and the Solomons, due to return home the following year. He was never seen again.

In her new book, Argosy, Bella Li imagines what happened to him. It’s a bold collection, challenging what a poetry book can be and might look like. It’s a lavish work, heavy to hold, waxy to the touch. Printed in colour throughout, it has the feel of a fully curated art object more than a poetry publication.

“I didn’t know how to describe the book as I was putting it together,” Li writes in The Suburban Review, “and still don’t.” The collection contains poetry, collage and photography, labels that “adequately describe the parts” but fail to classify the whole. So what is it – a poetry collection, an interdisciplinary artwork or, as Kate Middleton suggests in her Cordite review of the book, an “adventure in form”, something “fundamentally hybrid”?

The first part of the book, “Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de disparitions”, uses collage and prose poetry to compose a vision of the explorer’s demise. Here the poems give voice to La Pérouse’s thoughts and observations – to what he might have felt and seen and remembered, shipwrecked on Vanikoro, an outlying atoll of the Solomon Islands:

Escarpment: in the centre the coordinates reassemble. On both
sides throughout the forenoon the vegetation resembling, in
some way, claws of giant seabirds. Most carnivorous, septic
on close inspection. The odour unbearable

(“Samedi: Les incendies”)

The clipped phrases evoke the reticent grammar of ships’ logs, alluding to what gets left out of such documents. Where words are elided, Li reminds us, so are thoughts, actions, lifetimes.

The collages, by contrast, seem to spring from La Pérouse’s unconscious. We move from “resembling” to becoming – to colossal birds and insects, animal hybrids, gargantuan natives. Li creates these from the drawings and illustrations attached to the journals he sent home from Sydney, and from those of the explorers who were sent to locate him.

But while these arrangements are startling in form and size and colour, the prevailing mood here is one of preternatural calm. Despite the monstrous figures and contraptions in their midst, the people in these compositions are characterised by coolness rather than panic. When avian giants take over a plantation house, the owners simply gather out front in casual conversation.

Such a contradiction is central to the Surrealist works that frame Li’s project. Both parts of her book are modelled on books by Max Ernst – the first following the structure of Une semaine de bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage, the second La femme 100 têtes. Commenting on the influence of these works for Peril recently, Li cites the Surrealist conventions of juxtaposing whimsy and terror, of ventilating the uncanny with an air of playfulness. Her creations are monsters, but not without humour.

Using the illustrations made by French explorers likewise contributes to the quietude in the collages. These are images that already contain a sense of unstable tranquillity, attempting to locate order in the strange and unknown. The resulting collages are otherworldly but recognisable, like a vision of the future from the past. There’s wonder here, but also banality – a firm grounding in the visual repertoire of the European colonial imagination. These compositions don’t depict the Pacific as it is or was so much as the explorers’ anticipation of it. It’s what they feared they would encounter, and what they perhaps sometimes saw – exhausted, starving, disoriented – before they rationalised their observations in journals and illustrations.

In this way “Pérouse” can be read as a kind of Pacific revenge against Europe, the natural world reclaiming the civilised, the colony subsuming the coloniser. Using the documentation of conquest and discovery to enact this revenge only makes it more poignant. By conflating the familiar with the exotic in her compositions, Li references both the influence Pacific flora and fauna had on European systems of classification – all but upending the Linnaean hierarchy – and of the multitude of things Europeans stole and appropriated from the region. La Pérouse merges with the unknown while the unknown disappears in the face of exploration and invasion.

In the second part of the book, “The Hundred Headless Woman”, a cast of female characters undergoes a series of erasures. These women are “both real and fictional”, writes Kate Middleton, the blurring between their public personas and private lives central to their doublings and disappearances. There’s the infamous dancer, Isadora Duncan; the “invented-and-still-real” novelist Elena Ferrante; the woman become fictional character Elena Obieta.

There’s not a work here that doesn’t reach outside itself, beyond the scope of imagination, beyond the experience of the author. Apart from Ernst, they draw on Thoreau, Apollinaire, Cormac McCarthy and Ricardo Piglia. They source material from interviews, poems, books and films, such as Luca Guadagnino’s Io sono l’amore:

… Young and alone, but Answering dutifully as
one does a vision Deserving of a fame all her own. Emma,
or Anna, wandering forgotten among the famous pictures

(“io sono l’amore”)

This is an aspect of Li’s work that I really love, using poetry – and now collage and photography – not to walk back over the known parts of a story, but to exist in the gaps. It’s a method ideally suited to the subject of disappearance, which Li describes in Peril as “a particular species of the unknown”, “a passing from the recorded and catalogued into the unnamed and unremarked.” The external referents anchor the work, creating a space for incompleteness:

Saturday is the day of reparations. We begin with the caulking,
stripping back the wood with care, hearts’ cinders flaring. We
begin with the pith of the cocoa nut, in such profusion here.

(“Samedi: Les incendies”)

Here, La Pérouse is attempting to repair his ships after becoming wrecked on the reef, “here” being Vanikoro, “this/blessed isle”. The nonfictional elements allow Li to adopt a tone of reticence, to deploy vagueness not as a poetics of indecision but as a strategy for modulating between herself and the voices and figures of her works. The resulting pieces are what Alison Whittaker describes in Overland as “generously, rather than frustratingly, non-prescriptive.” Li speculates in the unnamed and unremarked parts of documentary history – whether it’s the lacuna between La Pérouse’s departure from Sydney and the remains of his two ships in the Solomons, or the careful omissions in a Paris Review interview with Ferrante. At the same time, the particulars of these histories fill the gaps in her speculations.

In her recent piece for The Suburban Review, Li asks “what is it about poetry that makes it poetry, particularly in the absence of lineation?” It’s a question we might extend to ask of her book as a whole: What makes something a poetry collection, particularly in the absence of words?

“Argosy makes sense to me,” says Li, “all its components, and the manner in which they fit together.” The collection is many things, but it is also one thing, deftly integrating distinct genres and forms to become what Elena Gomez in Jacket2 calls “a new wild object, a declaration about how poetry can look and be.” It exists on its own terms – or, to quote the poem “아가씨”, “the way a sequence resembles nothing but itself.”

Aden Rolfe is a Sydney-based writer and editor. His collection of poetry and essay, False Nostalgia, is available from Giramondo Publishing. He’s currently working on his second book, The Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.