Adam Aitken

Giramondo Publishing Co
1 February 2022


Adam Aitken

The title of this collection, Revenants, suggests spirits and ghosts who return to the human world through dream and art, not to haunt it, but to remind the living that the present and the past are intertwined.

At the heart of the collection is a series of poems about the poet’s father, a Melbournian who travelled and worked in Asia as a young man, who married the poet’s mother in Bangkok, and whose life and death are commemorated here. The poems have settings in Asia, Australia, Hawai'i, and France, which has become the author’s second home. They reflect on the legacy of colonialism, not as theory, but as inherited experience. In them the poet himself may be thought of as a revenant, sharing his awareness of secret histories and local knowledge, stories of migration, the vestiges of forgotten people and places.


2022 is going to be another incredible year for Australian poetry, with debuts, new books from established poets and out-of-print titles being reissued. I was thrilled to begin theyear with Adam Aitken’s latest work. Aitken is a stellar poet, having received the Patrick White Award in 2021, and has previously been longlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, and shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. He is also co-editor of the Contemporary Asian Australian Poets anthology.

The Revenants is a journey. ‘Something or someone is trying / to mail me empathy right now, and tomorrow / is the grand un- boxing’ is the opening line of ‘Illuminated’, and I feel this is an apt description for the collection as a whole. Aitken preserves a strong sense of place, moving fluidly between Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Hawai’i and France throughout. There is a slow reveal of each part of Aitken’s life and family history. His father, from Melbourne, travelled and worked in Asia, and married the poet’s mother in Bangkok – poems throughout remember them both, observing moments through his father’s eyes.

Many poems explore the poet’s relationship to place – finding memories and trying to locate a nostalgia that is always slightly in the distance. While the first two sections are beautifully mixed through with family history and the legacy of colonisation, I was also impressed with the final section, which explores Aitken’s love for France. These poems are calm, yet also haunted with tension: ‘Would I die for France like this? / I doubt I’d be invited’. It is unsentimental, and the collection ends with a feeling that the poet is just passing through, observing and making sense of the world around him.

This is a short book, and it sits well as late summer reading. Fans of Eileen Chong and Boey Kim Cheng will enjoy this thoughtful and tactile collection.

Clare Millar is from Readings online.

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