Savige opens his poem with a dedication to the Indigenous Australian poet Samuel Wagan Watson, which foreshadows the work’s focus on the didgeridoo.
From there, Savige describes a man ‘with dreadlocks playing the didgeridoo in the Piazza di Santa Maria,’ reflecting the universality of culture and the sense of connection it may provide, even in the most unexpected of places and situations. The poet describes how children and tourists gather around to watch the man play. They are fascinated by the instrument, which looks out of place and is ‘not [from] this hemisphere.’
Savige then reminds us of the incredible history of Indigenous culture, by claiming that the sounds produced by the instrument are older than the Forum (an historical site in Rome that dates back to c. 7th century BC). The tourists are so intrigued that they forget about their shopping and other tourist activities.
Rather than show off with his playing, the didgeridoo player opts instead to play ‘one dark warm lush hum,’ suggesting that he is motivated to play more by spiritual reasons than anything material.
In the final stanza, Savige speaks of his desire to ‘claim the sound as a sound of my home.’ However, he is stopped by the jolting realisation that he never experiences this sense of pride when he sees ‘the truer player busking in King George Square’ in Brisbane. Savige is overcome with feelings of guilt and frustration as his ‘stomach fills with fire.’
Indeed, this complex examination of the intersection between personal identity and culture reflects the myriad ways in which individuals may forge a sense of identity by interacting with culture, but also highlights the universalising power of culture to remind individuals of their heritage.
The Cosmopolitanism of Multiculturalism
The poet’s references to symbols of Australian and other cultures affirms assumptions about the distinctive worldliness of Asian-Australians. Most crucially, that the persona is himself an Asian man watching a traditional Indigenous instrument being played by a non-Indigenous man in Europe, surrounded by other tourists, affirms the cosmopolitanism of multiculturalism. However in doing so explores how it can often be problematic, insofar as the merging and mixing of cultures may deprive each tradition and identity of the space and respect necessary to ensure it remains authentic and uncorrupted. The problematic, or at least confusing, nature of the cosmopolitanism of multiculturalism is further affirmed through the man’s indecision about whether he should feel a sense of connection to the didgeridoo or not. His sense of cultural identity has become confused by his multiple connections to different cultures.
The title of the poem is a reference to the poet’s hybrid identity, as ‘circular breathing’ involves breathing in and out, in much the same way as one who has mixed ancestry would oscillate between their two competing senses of identity. For Saviage, the cosmopolitanism of multiculturalism is frustrating: the man playing the didgeridoo reminds him of his inability to ‘fit in’ nicely to either of his Australian or Indonesian identities. The Rome setting and references to broader European culture emphasise the universality and cosmopolitanism of multiculturalism, but also force us to consider what is lost as a result of such global reach and appeal. There is a sense that the poet feels alienated and dislocated in this moment, as he watches others appreciate an art he feels he should have some claim to, but remains struck by uncertainty.