FRESH Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
An anthology like this one that aims to be so broadly representative puts itself in a paradoxical position where the failure to articulate a coherent voice amounts to a kind of success.
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Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians
Edited by Sudeep Sen
Sahithya Akademi, 2019
Postcolonial poetry has always lagged behind postcolonial fiction on the world market. Yet in most cases, this is attributable to poetry generally lagging behind fiction in sales and publicity. In Australia, for instance, the profiles of Tim Winton and of John Kinsella, internationally known Australian writers of comparable achievement, are about what one would expect given the different profiles of the genres they are best known for writing in.
The disparity between Indian and Indian-diaspora fiction and poetry, though, seems even greater. Every even barely conversant reader can reel off ten or so prominent novelists of Indian background that are part of the world literary conversation on its most basic level, but few could come up with any Indian poet. And those that would be mentioned—Nissim Ezekiel, Meena Alexander, Dom Moraes, A. K. Ramanujan—are no longer on the scene.
Sen’s anthology is an adept guide to an emerging body of work not as known, in a literary world that thinks itself multicultural and cosmopolitan, as it should be. It does not favor or prescribe one sort of poem or one poetic modality. There are some formal poems (sonnets, ghazals, rhymed quatrains) but also many free-verse poems bound together by imagery and insight, and a generous amount of prose poems, which comprise some of the most stimulating aspects of the book. The formal aspect is well-represented by Uttaran Das Gupta’s “Iron In The Rain”:
Or will my clockwork stop its endless run
on its own? There’s no medication,
no bulwark against this growing mistrust
that eats away my iron coat like rust. (131)
This poem bears effective witness to environmental damage, delves into the apparent consciousness of the nonhuman, and also is very urbane in its sense of panache and style. Just as the formal verse is vitally contemporary and does not smell of the lamp, so are the prose poems engaged with life and not stuck in the avant-garde miasma which so often afflicts the genre. Umit Singh Dhuga also is an absolute master of form:
How many loads of laundry can I do
to pass the time until I might or might
Not be hearing back again from you? (135)
Dhuga is arguably one of the best poets of his generation in English today, and certainly the one whose formal achievement seems the most effortless. Other poets shadow classic forms, as Hinali Singh Soin does in ending “Invisible Poetry”, her seventeen-line poem: “Sonnet like wandering and wondering. Sonnet like all fourteen lines. like one.” (192) Navkirat Soodhi’s micro-poems, though not rhymed, are so concise to be exquisite in form, as in “Act Three”:
We begin to leave
Just as we
Begin to love (232.)
Rohan Chhetri’s “Everything For Me Is Something Else” is both observational and surreal, sensitive to feeling but also holding back some level of awareness, or stretching at communicating something ineffable:
Outside the Public Library in New York, a man pushing an empty pram
on the sidewalk, a woman behind him with a drowning face screaming
at the back of his head. A little girl whose eyes I once looked at through
the pale webbing between her fingers clawing mechanically on the glass
window, beggaring at an intersection in Bombay. Rainwater awning
over her eyelashes, her hair plastered on her skull, & lips trying to
spell something inconsolable.
Rochelle Potkar’s “Transmogrified,” about the love between a he-snake who first loves a she-snake but then, as he changes species, has different encounters with lovers bound to the one species, was my favorite poem in the book. Its vision of interspecies samsara is both catchy and droll, and evocative of traditional Hindu metaphysics, Darwinian evolution, and the dangers of the Anthropocene all at once. The poem’s closing line, “Sometimes evolution and progress is so fast, blessings and curses are all mixed up, and One” (192) would be apophthegmatic inverse but as a prose poem it is pleasingly grave, arch, and dry at the same time.
Modal diversity is accompanied by diversity in tone. Though most of the poems stay in a high, ceremonial register, some, such as Nawaid Anjum’s “A Poem”, are refreshingly colloquial and conversational:
“I don’t hold with this,” you say, “how is this possible?
this doesn’t, what do they say, hold water.”
“It happens with me. I must be real weird.”
I blabber on, even as you look at me with
disbelieving eyes. “No, you’re not gonzo.” (51)
The conversational energy here is between the lines of the clichés, in the rapport and critical attention of the dialogue. The poets included here operate as much by the ear as the eye, and this is especially important in conveying to non-Indian readers the sound and the beat of contemporary poetry from the subcontinent. The Canada-based Priscilla Uppal, who sadly died of cancer in 2018, is engaging in her first-person honesty, as when she says, of her own body, “I am no/longer the love of your life” (251).
Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
Lyre by Stuart Cooke
UWA Publishing, 2019
Stuart Cooke’s Lyre is the most ambitious work of ecopoetry in recent years. Few other writers could be employed to embark on this kind of project either, I think, considering Cooke’s long engagement with the central questions of ecocriticism not only by way of extensive reading and writing in this field, but also with immersed fieldwork in diverse ecologies found outside Australian metropolitan and suburban zones: notably, the Philippines, Chile, and the West Kimberley. Lyre represents a high point in a substantial career devoted to a life of ecopoetry. The collection channels a career of attentive learning into striking, unpredictable ecotextual records, of the nanosecond-shifting foci of the firefly in flight, the stammering tremulant sonar of the Eastern Whipbird and the deep time shapes of Antarctic Beech distribution.
in the temperate forests, the wet
sclerophyll forests where tempests
moan in yourm leaves, a storm beating
muffled drums at the entrance
to the underworld, the lands
of Gondwana, motherland of Australia,
South America, the hundreds
of years creeping, the moss about youm creeping
‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’
Lyre represents an ambitious realisation of a practice that in one sense has been the result of four distinct companionships with particular writer–critics: Stephen Muecke, Peter Minter, Michael Farrell and Martin Harrison. Companionships, more so than mentorships or influences, would no doubt be the preferable term for many of the parties involved here. And these companionships concern most of all shared ethical and intellectual commitments. Of course, there are countless more one could mention. Jerome Rothenberg is another key companion we should consider in Cooke’s ecocritical project, certainly as one of the first writer–critics to so engage in a poetics learnt from non-Western poetic traditions with the same degree of suspicion for the Western literary ancestry as Cooke employs. But fusing such contrasting yet companionable poetic trajectories is to also achieve something in poetry, at least, that has not looked like this before. No poet has so visibly digested the many alternative trajectories offered by these poets and thinkers into a singular practice.
These companionships signal a more influential body of thought than concepts of practice attributable to them. That body of thought is First Nations thought, most specifically Indigenous Australian thought, but additionally South American Indigenous, especially Mapuche thought. Muecke, Harrison and Minter have been channels to these epistemologies, Farrell a central collaborator in thinking about them, but Cooke has for some time now come to distinguish himself in a project of receptivity and learning with regards to these forms of knowledge.
In tune with the objectives of the postcolonial philosophical endeavour to return to cultural trajectories destroyed and distorted by colonisation, Cooke has shown decolonial attentiveness to contexts whose modes of thought and cultural authority have been poorly understood or integrated into visiting language practices through his own major studies in Indigenous language and thought. These studies have been best represented so far in Cooke’s work as editor of Nyigina lawman George Dyuŋgayan’s West Kimberley-based Bulu Line in The Bulu Line (2014), and in Cooke’s monograph on comparative Australian Indigenous and South American Indigenous poetics, Speaking the Earth’s Languages (2013). Cooke’s linguistic, philosophical and critical endeavours add up to a considerable resource for rethinking environmentally informed writing that tries to divest from the colonial–industrial enterprise.
While the vast majority of poems in Lyre do not make the achievement of earthly consciousness through political strategy per se, unlike the poetics of, say, John Kinsella, the book’s last poem, ‘Lake Mungo’, is an exception and, like Kinsella’s poetics, the poem’s remonstrances stem from the scandal of colonisation, with a heartfelt inquiry into the spirit of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, names attributed to the oldest remains of Indigenous people discovered on the continent. This section of the expansive poem alludes to Oodgeroo’s ‘We Are Going’ in a key reversal:
[. . .] youm reveal
history’s carcass as yourm progress
youm reveal what descends
until futures unleash reversions
a Man and a Lady convene worlds, having been dispersed in them
they are returning, they will return
To continue reading the poem, as with the rest of Lyre, we must follow the line guided by textual kinesis, pattern and some of our own instinct, rather than follow conventional left-to-right, top-to-bottom consecutive flow. In fact, the following excerpt continues the line beginning ‘they are returning, they will return’ on the opposite page of the book, and thenceforward we clearly should read upwards to continue the flow starting from ‘stories in the land as we see it’:
the subtlety of Aboriginal time / the force of White settlement
in yourm lakebeds, dunes and sediments
yourm plants and animals, their evidence
stories in the land as we see it
So, this is the philosophical heart of Lyre. The book chronicles ‘organism’ in Alfred North Whitehead’s sense of it, as an immanent suborganization of a totality, something we see in Cooke’s willingness to base poems not only on birds and marine life but also ‘Mangroves’ and the ‘Shallow Estuary’. However, the principle has been learnt from Indigenous thought, that organisms generate their meanings, and that these epistemologies still prove obscured, ignored or misunderstood by a settler nation and polity. ‘Lake Mungo’ avows this influence and engages in an imaginative project with the discoveries of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady to allegorise it; the preceding poems activate the same project, but through an osmotic textual practice attempting to collaborate with the expressivities of nonhuman life as they seem to sound and dance through the page.
Following the decolonial ambitions of a nomadological, earthly journal-ism a la Muecke, a metamorphosed, archipelagic (and therefore post-national), ecologically informed consciousness a la Minter, a polyvocal repertoire of textual registers attuned to local alterity a la Farrell, and an entrustment of philosophical value in heightened sensory experience a la Harrison, Lyre presents the most sustained effort in recent memory of an ecopoetics that combines textual experiment and wild earthly experience in such dynamism.
Lyre does not present the landscape-wandering phenomenologies we are familiar with in the ecopoetry of, say, Louise Crisp or Peter Riley. Such poetry’s experiential motion explores new phenomenological mobilities inspired by earthly contact, and tends to mean visual, cartographical results. In Cooke’s case, in line with the posthuman becoming theorised in Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy and presented in Cooke’s opening epigraph – ‘writing as a rat draws a line or flicks its tail, as a bird casts a sound, as a feline slinks or sinks in sleep’ – the result is a transformative and sensory textuality. Both phenomenological and posthuman approaches to ecopoetry have their comparative appeal; the former is invested in the embodied experience of the environment while the latter is in trans-subjective intensity. Consider Cooke’s ‘Satin Bowerbird’ chronicle, remembering that such a bird should mean some of the most visual delights of the avian world:
yourm lamp’s intense licks of lilac
full blue-black in yourm seventh year
or it swerves and collides with the leaves
pours over youm, seeps into youm
seal shape, sealed slick, light
youm build scene with yourm
black root, lure of scene
splayed azure from its sleek
yourm anatomy spills into art
Not merely visual, the sensory palette of the passage considers architectural, chemical, erotic, haptic and aural qualities also. As such, the practice continually strays from conventional single-voice-centred phenomenological orientations found in lyric poetry, or vignette, so-called objective approaches influenced by modern technology, such as Imagism. While Cooke cannot entirely refrain from the temptation of imagining what some of these organisms think and feel – it is only human – mostly in Lyre tremendous patterns of footfalls, swish, flutter, scamper, explosion, bluster, blaze, flower and furl shape the page-overflowing behaviour of unruly life.
Lyre represents a multi-modal effort to bring logics of environmental relation into textual play that seem to motivate the gecko’s shifting attention, stir the air with the compound utterances of magpies that network their communication systems, or even explain the despondent laziness of an idle cat in the afternoon. Achieving less in terms of the descriptive, existential or political means for the urgent need to improve humankind’s sustainable intimacy with nonhuman life – the prominent poets past and present in this line from this continent include Lionel Fogarty, Judith Wright, Minter and Kinsella, and Cooke hardly resembles these stylistically – Lyre realises an unlikely itinerary of vibrant ecospheres, mammalian, marine and volcanic, that continues a complementary project to such necessary poets in a new vein.
This use of ‘yourm’, and ‘youm’ later in the quotation – obviously meaning ’your’ and ‘you’ respectively – seems puzzling, but in my understanding represents a desire to estrange pronouns from their linguistic invisibility to English speakers and thereby bring attention to the a priori function of human subject identification within this language, especially since saying ‘you’ refers in many of these cases to nonhuman subjects; that is nevertheless what we do in English – attribute others, whether human or otherwise, with ‘you’ when referring to them. It appears then that Cooke wishes to estrange that invisibility of the pronoun and so too alert the reader to the act of naming in the encounter with others.
Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
Rogue Intensities by Angela Rockel
UWA Publishing, 2019
It’s January. As I begin to write this review it’s over 40 degrees celsius outside our small non-air-conditioned house in inner suburban Sydney. I’m indoors, perspiring lightly, with a desk fan on, windows closed, blinds drawn, listening to wails of gusts of hot wind. In Melbourne some of the international tennis competition matches have been closed. It’s been raining mud there. Canberra airport has been closed. There is thick smoke and nearby fire and runways are needed for water tanker aircraft. Friends in Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands, who have already been evacuated three times during recent bushfires, are on ‘Watch & Act’ alert as a fire a few kilometres from their place has reared up again. In the context of these extreme climate-changed conditions I’ll attempt to ignore my anxiety and temperately address Angela Rockel’s Rogue Intensities, though I know that the intensities I’m talking about presently are more commonplace than rogue.
Angela Rockel’s book is a journal of place. It’s a contemplative, highly literary diary documenting five of her more than forty years of observations and experience of living in rural Tasmania. Evolving from blog posts and structured almanac-like by Gregorian calendar, described as ‘moving month by month across five turns of the solar year’, the book works its entries through connection with nature, history, terrain, mythology, philosophy, family, farming, community as well as involving several international locations. Rockel says that she ‘bears witness to this place as I attend to it’.
The title is taken from a line by US anthropologist and ethnographer Kathleen Stewart – ‘Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary’. Rockel’s introduction explains ‘a rogue intensity’ as a moment of potent feeling when an object provokes a brief, acute response, for example, being suddenly stopped in your tracks by a leaf animated by sunlight or the particular colours of an insect. Not so much ‘the streets of the ordinary’, these entries already seem less banal because of their location in terrain where ‘the ordinary’ is the complex superdomain of a rural biota.
Originally from Aotearoa, in the early 1980’s Rockel settled on her husband’s farm in fire country on the Huon River in south eastern Tasmania. Her husband is identified as T throughout the journal. His antecedents were ticket-of-leave settlers from Tipperary, Ireland. His great grandfather was a convict transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1853 for stealing sheep. T’s great grandmother arrived as an indentured servant. In the late 1850s the emancipated and by then married couple was granted the parcel of land on which T and Rockel now live.
Wild fire has long been part of the area. Only a few pages in, in a climate-altered summer month of January, there is the realisation that Aboriginal methods of land management with fire have been disregarded since colonisation. T and Rockel’s old farmhouse had burnt down in 1981, from a chimney cinder, not a bushfire. She writes looking out on a thicket of deciduous food forest ‘in a provisional reprieve’ from catastrophic climate change and knowing ‘a lick of burning air could still flick down from the red centre and take us out’.
Natural flora and fauna are documented in precise detail, in lists, and significantly, in description of their return once, half a century ago, T had stopped the old practice of cutting regrown trees for box timber and also ceased dairy farming, leaving the land to grow as forest.
One autumn, walking through the forest’s undergrowth Rockel and T look up to see a Wandjina cloud spirit blown in from the Kimberley that as they move closer morphs into a large tall masked owl. The bird is injured. They wrap her in a shirt and take her to a local raptor rescuer. He thinks the bird has been hit by a car. He places her in a box to rest and, possibly, recover. Worried that the bird might not live Rockel spends the night fretting.
At times her language seems quaint and a little anachronistic, as if from earlier times. She has already written in this entry that she is ‘restless and heartsore and full of dread’ on hearing that a friend, M, in Aotearoa is sick.
Perhaps she should have killed the owl. She philosophises about damage and death, unintended suffering inflicted on both humans and creatures ‘and to communities and cultures’. The rescuer reports that the bird has grown stronger in the aviary. A year later, although not free, it’s surviving well and is being visited by a wild male masked owl. Rockel sees the wounded owl as having ‘somehow presaged’ M’s death and that leads her into a meditation on loss and love. Then she muses on her family’s story that their last name onomatopoeically means owl ‘somewhere in the forests of Northern Europe, up near the Baltic Sea’.
Rockel takes her ‘foreignness to the foreign place of my maternal ancestors in Ireland who had left a place scoured and ruined by nineteenth century famine’ to emigrate to Aotearoa. The visit to the old stone farm house outside Bantry, an area ruined by conquering English land grabbers (here named only as ‘landlords’), is unsettling. Until then she had regarded her dispossessed relatives as ‘virtuous escapees’ to Aotearoa but now (quote ‘here be monsters’) she reflects on the complex idea of ownership and the unease of living herself on unceded Aboriginal land in Tasmania.
‘Bearing witness’, she records dire situations like that of the critically endangered swift parrot on Bruny Island. She investigates ocean heat as a prime effect on climate change in scientific articles. There are many instances of lists that form a kind of personal biological taxonomy. There is coverage of research into toxoplasma and zoonoses like the lyssa virus transmitted from fruit bats to humans. There are notes on the inventive Scottish road builder John McAdam. There is the care of dairy cows that Rockel tends and milks. There is a daughter’s grief when her mother dies – and renewal – in a return to Aotearoa, via Christchurch, ‘the quake-shattered city’. To share the strangeness of her mother’s absence with her sisters, without overstating, the topics here are wide-ranging and the book is of substantial length.
Tuesday, April 14th, 2020
Under Glass by Gregory Kan
Auckland University Press, 2019
Fish Song by Caitlin Maling
Fremantle Press, 2019
Under Glass is the second book of poetry by New Zealand author Gregory Kan. Blurbed as a ‘dialogue between a series of prose poems … and a series of verse poems’, a reader might also happily call it a long poem or a verse novel. The poetic fragments that span its 65 pages are untitled, two voices of a conversation that is separated visually by style and formatting: single stanza, double-spaced verse poetry, and (mostly) two stanza (or paragraph) prose poetry. Both styles are unified by sparseness and brevity, with much of every page accounted for by blank space. The two poetic threads describe ostensibly separate journeys. The verse fragments are all interiors, the speaker’s process of trying ‘to make sense of things’, while the prose fragments appear to describe a more physical journey through a landscape with physical parameters such as natural landmarks and a lighthouse, and always return to the motif of a ‘second sun’. Though they alternate, I couldn’t determine how the two voices are responding to each other — whether what happens in one section has any bearing on the other, or whether perhaps the verse fragments are meant to be the thought processes accompanying the exterior journey of the prose.
What I feel more certain about is that my suggested definitions – that one thread is interior, one an actual journey – are misleading. The physical journey through space described by the prose poems is shorn of names and specifics, and with descriptive landscape elements seeming increasingly more fantastical, the journey begins to seem more like a hallucination, or a dream, a story, a parable. Meanwhile, the verse fragments refer to a plural ‘us’ and an othered ‘you’ that arc from an intimacy to conflict and back to a togetherness, suggestive of a reflection or a shadow of events that might be construed as more ‘real’. The lines between physical and cerebral, actual and imagined events, become indeterminable.
Under Glass maintains a commitment to ambiguity that might be described as both central concern and style. ‘Help me understand you without the need for names’, an early verse fragment implores, and indeed this is a poetry that self-consciously takes place entirely in an abstract imaginary. The speaker remains suspicious of their own intentions, or perhaps their ability to express events accurately through language:
I want to seem to you
the very same thing that I seem to myself
and I want to seem to myself
the very same thing
that I am
but nothing is honest enough
walking around and around a thing
I do not know, and cannot touch.
Befitting the title, Under Glass becomes a prism of responses, a mode of trying to see via reflections and refractions of things that happen entirely off the page. In some ways, this makes it an interesting investigation of language as bound to relationality – how do we go about expressing something without also upholding the (various, problematic) power structures that language perpetuates? Simultaneously, these passages tell of intimacy and conflict and can be read as the arc of a literal relationship between the speaker and their subject; describing problems and closeness between two people that, shorn of specifics, feels both very true to life and bordering on the absurd.
However, Kan’s fragments are also characterised by interjections of strong feelings that invoke death and destruction, such as: ‘We have been so tired and ashamed / that the past could kill us’, or ‘I know some questions can destroy us / if we are denied the answers long enough’, and ‘Some days it feels like you might kill me / for what you think the world owes you’. This emotiveness seems to put us in an awkward position as reader because it is difficult to relate to the strength of the reactions alone, cut off from any real sense of the events that they’re responding to, or what they mean in isolation. I’ll also admit feeling a sense of unease at Kan’s linking of violent language to (what can be interpreted as) a relationship with another and/or with one’s self. Given the thematic concerns of ambiguity and interpretation, the way extremity of feeling is expressed through these images (in a way that is, I think, meant to act as a counterpoint to the otherwise pervading tone of circuitous neutrality) strikes me as an odd contrast.
In lieu of more narrative specifics, Under Glass is dominated by the recurring motif of the ‘second sun’. It appears each time with different characteristics: after ‘eating its / way out from inside me’, it’s ‘hiding in the submerged roots of a nearby tree’, something that is swallowed, fallen into, a ‘house made of many doors’, ‘falling through me’, ‘the immovable neck of the world’, ‘a dark seed in my palm with my fingers closed over it’. I’ve struggled to make sense of this referent’s shifting nature — to the point of bemusement, but also irritation. Is it a puzzle I’m meant to solve? Is there something obvious that I’m missing? Its elusiveness combined with its prominence in the text arguably reads as trite, or forced, a refrain that seems important without providing any sense of its material bearing. Suns are, as a rule, visually oblique, difficult to look at, a point of infinite, outwards generation. But it’s too big a metaphor, too vague for all the uses it seems to have in the poem.
Still, perhaps my frustration at not knowing is part of the point. In the book’s notes, Kan attributes the motif of the second sun to Clark Coolidge’s The Crystal Text (1986). Coolidge’s book is also a long poem, and is also, I think, largely about the act of writing, or more particularly about the (im)permeability of modes of communication. In it, the crystal is a recurring metaphor that describes the work of the author, or perhaps also the form a text takes on for a reader. The shiny glass or crystal layer suggests a fractured transparency that shows (or reflects) something of the outside world, has some relation to a truth, to events, but in the process of recording is permanently separated from it. And I quite like this for a reading of Under Glass, if we follow Coolidge’s metaphor as a cue for Kan’s title. That the author persona is stuck inside their text, making a commentary upon it, but unable to relate it to anything named outside the text, able to talk only in metaphors and vagaries both about their text-making process and about the events that inform the making of the text:
I thought that the things I loved
were places I could always go back to
but the spaces between things become places themselves
and threaten to swallow me whole.
The second sun falls apart as the speaker continues to describe it. It seems to frustrate Kan’s speaker even as they continue to return to it and as it fails to be fully useful; a broken signifier, a metaphor that doesn’t work. The speaker dismantles it both in action (in the poem) and in practice. But at the conclusion of the text, they continue to walk into it (where they remain, because they have always been both inside and outside the image), suggesting a final, amiable acceptance of something imperfect that the author has no real power to dismantle. The thingness of what is being said cannot be gotten any closer to, only circled around in an (un)easy equilibrium.
Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
Massaging Himmler: A Poetic Biography of Dr Felix Kersten by Anne M Carson
Hybrid Publishers, 2019
‘The world today is a sick world,’ wrote Estonian-born Dr Felix Kersten in 1947, ‘and it was made so by a group of sick men.’ Dr Kersten knew about the diagnosis and treatment of sickness – he was a healer, a physiotherapist and masseuse. Practitioner of a style of ‘deep, neural massage,’ Kersten was educated in ancient Tibetan and Chinese lineages of medicine and his healing powers were highly sought after by the social elite of interwar Europe; clients responded to the exceptional sensitivity of his hands, ‘able to detect / the smallest movement of muscle, nerve.’ An appointment as Physician to the Dutch Queen secured Kersten’s reputation and ensured a steady demand for his services, but he consented to treat only those patients who he deemed capable of total cure. For migraine-wracked insomniacs, for bent bodies with wrangled nerves and twisted guts, Kersten delivered his rigorous and painful therapy. The frequent result was great relief, if not complete cure.
In 1933, one of Kersten’s ‘sick men’ was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s second-in-command and head of the Nazi SS paramilitary unit, was another: a ‘weedy’ man with a ‘narrow chest’ and a ‘weak chin’, Himmler suffered from debilitatingly painful stomach cramps that at times left him prostrate and writhing in pain. An old patient of Kersten (an industrialist desperate to halt the Nazi nationalisation of industry) hatches a plan to open up a covert channel of influence within the Nazi party – Kersten is persuaded to take on Himmler as a client. In 1939, Kersten found himself deep within the National Socialist Headquarters in the ‘hushed’ and ‘anodyne’ atmosphere of Himmler’s rooms, at the commencement of several long years of an appointment as Himmler’s personal physician. Dr Kersten disguised an ulterior agenda throughout the course of the entire therapeutic relationship, using his position to secure pardons for political prisoners, labour camp inmates, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, and ultimately negotiating the release of tens of thousands of Jewish people from concentration camps.
Melbourne poet Anne M Carson’s ‘poetic biography’ of Dr Kersten, Massaging Himmler (Hybrid Publishers, 2019), imagines this first treatment session from Kersten’s perspective:
He writhes, begs for release. A man like any man
tormented. Pinched is too small a word for the mess
his nerves are in. No energy can pass through that ganglia
of knots and burls. As my fingers bite into him he
moans. Hard work for me, agony for him, but gradually
torque improves, his writhing stops and something
approaching peace softens his face …
In Massaging Himmler, the ‘hard work’ of physical therapy becomes an allegory for the ‘agony’ of political change. Carson explains in an author’s note how she discovered Kersten’s story by chance and immediately recognised the historical significance and poetic potential of the story: ‘It was an Oscar Schindler-like story,’ she writes, ‘but Schindler had been responsible for the release of 1,100 prisoners – the numbers attributed to Kersten are as high as 600,000. Why don’t we know about him?’ Over more than 200 poems organised into six chapters, Massaging Himmler explores the tantalising ethical, political and poetic possibilities that Kersten’s story evokes.
The tale refigures remedial intimacy as a kind of diplomacy, the therapeutic relationship as a site of acute political intervention against genocidal intent: it’s challenging material for contemporary political sensibilities that feel urgently called to action, confrontation and revolution. In spite of the profoundly impactful results of his actions, Dr Kersten himself is not a poster-boy for any coherent political movement, and perhaps this is the answer to Carson’s question about his absent reputation. Not exactly a committed Buddhist (‘far too in der Welt for that’), Kersten is absorbed by his aspirational epicurean tastes (‘the soul / of a nobleman … trapped in the body of a burgher’), and with ‘apolitical blinkers’ firmly affixed he dines exquisitely with Mussolini (a dinner at which, he proclaims, the ‘fineness of the meat almost finishes me’) even while he schemes with representatives of Swedish, Finnish and American causes. This from the poem ‘Felix talks about his philosophy’:
There is little point in worrying
about what you cannot control –
that has long been my view;
it suits my temperament.
And about Hitler, Kersten says:
I do not like the man
but there is nothing I can do
one way or the other. It will pass,
I tell them. We need to focus
on work, our loved ones, that which
brings us pleasure, and be willing
to lend a helping hand. All the rest,
I say, will be blown far away by
the always-reliable winds of history.
The complexity of Kersten’s position – a powerful agent of anti-Nazism, and a nonpartisan aesthete who submits to the ‘welcome bite of raspberry’ that ‘cut[s] the cream’ – provides Carson with rich material for a challenging character study.
Massaging Himmler is an unusual addition to the already diverse and busy field of holocaust literature, joining works such as Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus (the first volume of which was published in 1986) and, more recently, Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (2017). Carson continues the compelling and important work of this field, as events in the changing global political environment continually refresh the relevance of the questions raised by the Holocaust – the ‘battle between good and evil is perennial,’ she writes in her author’s note, ‘and we have much to learn from individuals who are courageous enough to … use whatever power they have to help others.’ Although many of these works use the literary imagination to revivify what was inexpressible about the Holocaust experience, Massaging Himmler stands out in this field for its hybrid status as both biography and poetry.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2020
apparently by Joanne Burns
Giramondo Poets, 2019
Breathing in Stormy Seasons by Stephanie Green
Recent Works Press, 2019
Parts of the Main by Jane Williams
Ginninderra Press, 2017
This is a review of three collections of poetry by women, two published in 2019, and one, Jane Williams’s Parts of the Main, in 2017. Of the two more recent volumes, Stephanie Green consistently uses prose in Breathing in Stormy Seasons, whereas Joanne Burns writes in prose in only one section of her collection, that which bestows its title, apparently, on the collection. Williams uses prose occasionally too, with her volume including three sections with prose works in each of them.
Burns refers to her prose texts as ‘prose poems or microfictions’ – I prefer the latter, because it allows us to circumvent the hazards of falling into a discussion about whether such works are poetry or not. Since many people seem to regard ‘prose poetry’ as an oxymoronic expression, it renders the expression rather ineffective. But the form isn’t so easy to differentiate from ‘other’, or ‘conventional’ poetry; which is generally the lyrical style of the poetry that dominated English writing during the nineteenth century, when many of the canonical collections still influencing our ideas today were assembled.
Prose poetry/microfiction uses many of the devices that lyrical poetry does; for example, it may use figures of speech or metaphor, or evoke sensory or emotional impressions with the sounds of words – assonance, alliteration rhyme or rhythm. The form’s key variation from more traditional styles of poetry is that it tends to foreground narrative or story over emotional or sensory impressions, or ‘feeling’ (which is otherwise well conveyed by the ‘non-wordy’ aspects of lyrical poetry – its sounds or rhythms). Where sensory perception is conveyed, visual perception is usually prioritised, which is what enables those writing in the prose form to dispense with lyrical poetry’s prosodic structures. Emotional and non-visual sensory impressions are thus demoted in favour of the storytelling or narrative aspects of the text. Perhaps it is the emphasis on visual perception, however, that makes this style of writing ‘poetry’ – its stories are told, or its narratives conveyed, at least in some significant part, through sensory perception rather than reasoned thought or ‘ideas’.
The foregrounding of narrative is very much in evidence in Burns’s microfictions. In the ‘apparently’ section of her collection she ‘recounts unsettling dreams’, and the texts certainly read that way. They have the visual quality of dreaming, moving from one scene or event to another in ways that may be unrelated, but which the mind strings together seamlessly – the reader’s imagination finds relationships, and in so doing, makes its own narrative. Here is an example, from ‘evaluation sheet’:
i dropped into the sanctuary of asclepius purely to sleep, investigate my future. i entered the long hall of the enkoimeterion and lay down waiting for morpheus to download. in the dream I was offered a plate of what looked like boars’ eyes smelling like leatherwood honey, and balls of cotton wool that cackled then buzzed like bees.
This extract has a strong visual component that encourages readers to construct a ‘world’ in which the other parts then take their places. This allows meanings to emerge as part of an enveloping narrative. But, apart from its visual aspects, the work invokes other senses – smell and sound, as well as the heavy pull of sleep. It offers insights into the strange workings of the human mind, as mini-battles play out between its different parts – the deep mind that wants to sleep, and the buzzing active surface parts that run their own programs.
Such works may be entertaining and offer psychological insights, however, I find that they don’t take me far beyond an initial ‘oh, that’s interesting’ reaction. Burns’s microfictions read as a dream journal, and I think that this is where the significance of her collection lies – as psychological case studies. The other sections include: ‘planchettes’, which ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’, ‘dial’, that ‘acknowledges the bewildering sense of daily time and the dizzying spectacle of social and worldly matters’ and, finally, ‘the random couch’, which ‘presents a number of drifting poems, written while the poet was lounging on the sofa’. These sections trace the workings of the human mind in similar ways to the ‘apparently’ section. In so doing, they may offer a launching place for others to try following their own dreams and musings, and to learn about themselves and the way human minds work. This is of value; Burns’s work has been used effectively in schools to encourage students to write, to trace their own thoughts, and in doing so, to work on the important task of making sense of their own lives through the power of narrative.
Stephanie Green does not call her works microfiction, but writes that she ‘would like to call them “moments of poetry”’. This is insightful, for her description helps bridge the divide between poetry and the ‘poeticness’ of much prose. I have written already that I think poetry emerges when we attempt to express the less concrete, irrational or excessive parts of our experiences as humans, especially those that we sense and feel, rather than those we ‘think out’ in ways that we can express through more disciplined, grammatically logical or rational uses of conventional language (language of words, rather than of, say, visual expression, music or other aural utterances, or performance). Thus I think that we tend to call writing poetic when it has an ineffable quality, when it makes a direct appeal to our senses or emotions, but expresses that which we struggle to explain logically. This is particularly in evidence in lyrical poetry, but Green’s prose texts can be like this too. Her works often have a drifting, haiku-like quality.
Green writes that her approach is informed by an interest in the ‘confrontation between the shock of materiality and the sensitivity of imaginative apprehension’. She is forthright about this in the text called ‘Scar’, within which she probes the disjunct between what we can see or openly communicate between one another, and what we feel, and is significant, but is hidden and difficult to share:
There is an invisible claw against my face that never lets me go … Every day it reminds me skin is testimony … My skin may not record where your hand glides … But this thin cloak for blood and sinew shows how it is torn: a pane of falling glass, a surgeon’s knife. … Whatever else, I am knitted together by its claims.
Because they probe the indeterminate and contradictory, Green’s works can sometimes resemble Burns’s dream-fictions, reflecting the ‘boundless resistance’ of the world as we experience it; or how it doesn’t always make sense. In ‘The Catch’, she writes:
At first they seem nothing more than a small cloud of dust propelled out of dawn, passing over the cliffs and out beyond the purple cove. Closer now they are some kind of wave, animated angles rising and falling … I am breathless, surrounded amidst a fury of great wings trapping and sweeping the air … as the air falls away, as the ocean rises … I fall helpless towards the depths…
In such writing, Green questions the notion that narrative is a central feature of prose poetry. If her works contain stories, these often seem surreal or not quite cogent. If readers are looking for narrative, they will require introspection, as well as active questioning of the text, in order to force that narrative to the light.
Meaning can be elusive in Green’s work, but I found the glimpses of the world that she offers stimulating, and often deeply moving. For example, ‘Pre-Memory, Papua’ made me think about my own earliest memories, which I believe I now lack the ability to fully access due to having lost the Czech language I knew in my early childhood. Green masterfully depicts the excessiveness of such ‘pre-verbal’ experiences and the difficulties we may have in integrating those into our sense of self if we lack the languages necessary for this.
Tuesday, February 11th, 2020
Selected Poems 1971–2017 by Laurie Duggan
Shearsman Books, 2018
Laurie Duggan has long been a star within the light-filled firmaments of Australian poetry that first burst into prominence around five decades ago. A so-called ‘Monash poet’, Duggan’s recently published Selected Poems is suffused with images in which he trains an unrelentingly quizzical, reverent eye across apparently mundane terrains:
a slight variation
from scrub to open forest
latitude or altitude,
one watercourse to another
whether those verges are
sheoak or eucalypt
– this goes on
for a thousand kilometres
Here is a poet paring back embellishments and, amid the ennui, Duggan’s images often shift toward transcendental inclination. Hilariously and pointedly, he defines poems as ‘momentary lapses of inattention’, and these texts take opportunity to rove across vacant surface levels while simultaneously interrogating for access to deeper structures. So often this plays out as a culturally constituted position, Duggan imbuing with dissonance the urban frontiers of Australian cities, those places ‘an accident, / a sport on the banks of what river?, / a collection of plate and cotton’.
Early in this book, one senses that Duggan’s peregrinations are a mode by which he casts a visionary’s gaze across ritualised domains while understanding these as mere access points to deeper epistemological possibilities. In one of the first poems, a telling non-question is posed:
How can I comprehend
cloud across the Dandenong Ranges
sponge squeezed over the tilled field
the back hills under mist
foliage dense, clotted,
a treeline like brushed ink,
lit shafts of trunk stripped of bark.
The scene could just as easily have been written from England’s Lakes District, and this seems entirely Duggan’s point. Scanning arenas both local (Gippsland, Melbourne, Sydney) and beyond (Europe, etc.), he understands settler rituals to be echoes rote-repeating across someone else’s lands, the reverberations shunting through spaces that remain barely sensible to the poet. Indeed, in the presence of transposed cultural performances – Christmas, and indeed those who would celebrate Christmas – Duggan is no mere cosmopolitan, and instead acknowledges his own voice as illogical, insensible and unknowing, confabulated with lyrics from elsewhere and ‘adapting Wordsworth or Snyder to see those blue ranges toward Warburton’. This is a poetry of profoundest disorientation, and the book leads this reader toward wondering specifically how to be a poet in a colonised place when one’s forbears (maliciously or otherwise) participated in founding colonising structures which both create genocidal erasures and exist still today. It seems that Duggan’s is a style that comports non-connection: his images are blurred or curbed while at once yearning for deeper engagements than the ‘air is hard and cool’, in places where ‘road[s go] nowhere under the clouds and the high-tension lines’. Delivering a specifically antipodean nostalgia, Duggan’s work may well compel us to consider which kinds of poetry can come from places where histories have been silenced, murderously broken, and forcibly overlaid with the very language from which one may hope to shape poetry.
While never explicitly critiquing his colonial position, Duggan insistently understands the vocational discourse that is ‘Australian Poetry’ to be disqualified from delivering mere lyrical unities. The cultural amnesias of this sovereign colonial state consign to Duggan an eye he knows cannot see but which seeks, nonetheless, to take in the ‘acid green paddocks’. Indeed, leave all attempts at disingenuous poetic unities to someone like the ‘Bunyah lad’, a visage toward whom Duggan credibly reserves enduring scorn. In Les Murray’s work he sees the performance of whitely conservative apologias delivering a mountain of content that is ripe for parody and satire:
God bless Doug Anthony,
the Pope, St Peter,
the Liberal Party,
the illusion of metre
in English verse written
as she is spoke
by the absolutely
While Duggan may well write toward landscape (The Ash Range and Blue Hills being his major contributions), he is also pervasively aware that to pretend to be part of a so-called new world’s historical landscape by means of an invading empire’s transported romantic traditions is at best bunkum or, much worse, a contribution that serves to keep in place those themes, forms, prosodies and preoccupations that structurally empower whiteness and white erasure. In other words, a fascistic enterprise of colonial purification, and one in which Duggan will have no part to play.
Instead, here is a poet expressing his motivations toward creative production as a compulsion toward recording flux and chaos; aside from the (perhaps predictable) disavowal that ‘I’ve never wanted to write poems’, here is a poet letting us know he is interested instead in ‘[t]rying to look hard at something’, as if locked into a (Platonic, agonistic) struggle toward clarity:
my eyes glaze over – the idea of appearances takes over from the observation (which works more in the way a sneak photographer would – you don’t really see the photographs until they’re developed – and the scene is no longer before you).
Duggan participates in a late twentieth century Australian iteration of that longstanding trope which understands all poems as failures (recently reiterated in Ben Lerner’s magnificently speculative The Hatred of Poetry, specifically when he retells the myth of Caedmon’s dream). Duggan’s influences are explicit (Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, others from Black Mountain, more), and these poets from elsewhere remain both indelibly and invisibly interpolated within his texts, spectrally present and ghosting these poems the same way Duggan seems to ghost the domains across which he flits. Indeed, the work in this Selected Poems seems an ‘elsewhere-ing’, not so much an ostranenie (which knocks image sideways by reordering what is seen and then known), but instead a wholesale acceptance that knowing is largely impossible. At one point, Duggan asks ‘[w]hy should I, who have lived in this country all my live, suddenly feel myself an exile in a distant province’, and asserts elsewhere the ‘importance of strange poetry, of unfamiliarity’ as a mode that can contrapuntally disrupt accustomed modes of perception. This seems Duggan’s enduring concern, and his disconnective states seem a generative cultural condition:
The sky reflects the wilderness.
There are miles on the map without
the blank spaces Dorn talks about
& which are usually somebody’s home;
places I know nothing of
save those blanknesses,
colour of highways, unfathomables
suggesting more from less.
A kind of geography
which isn’t, finally, a nationalism
– isn’t a wallchart for a mining company –
announces there’s more out there
than we can take in.
If anything, these emblematic texts reveal Duggan’s impossible quest (or methodological concern) toward understanding and connection, written from a place many readers will understand as a colonised place where neither understanding nor connection are so easily claimed. This book makes palpable those absences in a poetry that seems to crave epistemological stability, as if this poet is a seer fumbling blindly their way across unrecognizable, everyday settings. The tones here are almost always paradoxically nostalgic, the content filtered by lenses (critical and creative) made elsewhere.
Thursday, January 23rd, 2020
between wind and water (in a vulnerable place) by berni m janssen
Spinifex Press, 2018
In ‘speaking out’, the final poem of berni m janssen’s fifth collection, between wind and water (in a vulnerable place), a choral cry for resistance is offered, a lyric that insists on the ability of individuals to provoke immense change: ‘one voice small forms fight in strength / one voice strong gains another / i’m with you, go boldly’. In a context of climate strikes and impassioned environmental activism, such lines might be attributed to Greta Thunberg, whose reminder that ‘you are never too small to make a difference’ has become the slogan of protestors worldwide demanding action against an impending ecological crisis.
Yet between wind and water speaks of a different kind of truth to power, one which explores the detrimental consequences of climate change solutions that have otherwise been framed as a panacea to the polluting ills of industry. Examining the complex repercussions of the installation of wind turbines in a small rural community, the collection has been described by Javant Biarujia as a ‘cautionary tale’, revealing the nuanced conflicts of corporate vs. community interests while the plundered earth is leached, and can no longer provide. In its analysis of the ways in which battlelines are drawn, between wind and water presents a vision of discord and loss, an image of a landscape and its tormented inhabitants that is rendered by greed, silence, and disillusionment.
Multi-vocal and multi-layered, this collection is comprised of a series of oppositions, not only between the corporate-speak and enviro-savvy gurus who insist on the safety of the turbines and the community which seeks to resist them, but also in relation to ideas about the natural and the material world. Such tension is neatly encapsulated by the figure of Dan—one of over twenty-one characters and voices in the narrative—who as a farmer and poet embodies a mythic, if not mysterious, Australian archetype reminiscent of Banjo Patterson or Henry Lawson—a man of the land who is also in tune with a profoundly Romantic sensibility. Characterised as a ‘steward’ who desires little more than to live ‘full prosperous happy […] without end forever and a day’, Dan presents as a battler aligned with spaces he inhabits, yet keenly aware of the increasing separation between the human and non-human. It is a distance marked by a progressive series of haiku in which Dan observes the physical and psychological impacts of the turbines on the community: ‘south west wind blows hard / another letter of complaint sent / as if hands crush skull’. The intrusion of technology creates an atmospheric shift that results in a sense of suffocation and disquiet, making the ‘body buzz ears hum’, an unseen, creeping force that unravels and confuses: ‘am all over the shop’. In a sequence by fellow anti-windmill activist Vera, whose ‘living is with the earth’, the disruption of the turbines is vividly imagined as an anxious threat that invades the bodies of its victims:
They know their bodies pulse, quiver and twitch, the pressure
and pain, in ears, head, chest, all tightening, they know this as
what has happened and still happens, from day to day, night to
night, not every day every night, but never before the turbines
The industrialisation of the landscape is thus conceived in intimate terms, worming inside the minds and bodies of those who live within its vicinity. In the poem ‘Mattie’, the eponymous narrator describes a state of disquiet in which she ‘can’t settle today can’t settle / wind in my bonnet bees on breeze’, an image of jittery restlessness, but also of being imposed upon by a greater force. The effects on self are ‘jangle jarred’, an experience of agitation and loss in which ‘things don’t stick in my head neither pin nor word basic / structures articulated imprecise’.
Catherine Schieve notes in the afterword—an oddly explicatory addition—that such portrayals demarcate the careful balances maintained by the ‘fragile landscape’, an ecosystem which ‘includes our very own bodies, as the work of capitalism affects everything down to our dreams at night’. The invasion of the ‘industrial windmills’ throws the machinations of the natural world into chaos, creating a constant friction between object and subject, each fighting for space in the bionetwork. As Dan writes in ‘early autumn’: ‘fingers of pale light / turbine blades locked together / cannot concentrate’.
Importantly, each of the embattled residents is presented in relation to a singular, extraordinary connection with the natural world, enamoured by a quasi-spiritual understanding of land awarded to those in rural spaces and denied to those on the outside. It is a question of ownership, made clear in the animosity towards the governmental agents and advocates who are unable to explain the phenomena: ‘complaint no 315 draws mister grey suit / thirtysomething urban company tool slickster / this not his territory’. Such binaries are mimicked via the performative language of janssen, whose remarkable conjuring of movement and sound replicates not only the invisible peril that menaces the community, but also the positions from which each actor speaks. As Schieve observes, janssen constructs ‘a full theatre of voices arranged in space’, a cacophony of accents, jargon, and quirks that synthesise into an intricate expression of corporate-lingo, outrage, and grief. More formalised structures and rhyme schemes are reserved for representatives of The Company, for example, who revel in cropped clichés and weasel-words to parody bureaucratic emptiness and repetition without meaning: ‘I’m here to listen, to listen to you, to listen to your concerns. Yes, really listen. Listen really. A real listening’. Alternatively, the opening section, ‘Still’, narrated from the perspective of the landscape, is constructed of long fluid lines and lists, eschewing static choruses in favour of language that is alliterative and verb-heavy, echoing a sense of seasonality, transformation, and impermanence: ‘small feet tickle my dust print into decay a lace of living strung from tails swooping bounding switching surface to air fleet the colour the pattern the texture each to their own and of their passing they home in me guests’. Similarly, in evoking the horror of the windmills, the source of so much dis-ease, janssen attends to a sense of perpetual, fragmented motion, a nauseating refrain of clipped and frantic energy: ‘they spin do spin spun spin spin spin forward, do spin around round spin forward round whirred spinning turning spun spin sizzling speed fast’.
Thursday, December 19th, 2019
Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word
Edited by David Stavanager and Anne-Marie Te Whiu
University of Queensland Press, 2019
Is an anthology greater than the sum of its parts? Does it effectively capture its milieu? Who’s been included, who left out? Is it genuinely of the moment? Will it endure? The case of Solid Air is even more complex. This is a collection of spoken word that’s been published as a book, rather than as a downloadable album, a film to be streamed, or a live show on tour (though there have been a string of impressive launches). Voice turned to ink, accent and emphasis turned into font, the unfolding of a poem in time turned into a presence on paper which is there in its entirety at one glance. Is this the stage surrendering to the supposed dominance of the page? Should I consider these poems purely in their physical form here, or as reminders of their performance elsewhere? Of course, editors David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu know you’ll ask these questions, and it’s proof of their adept curation of voices that – while such questions persist after reading, transformed into something more productive – the poems themselves overwhelm any theoretical position or argument about what or who this anthology represents.
Firstly, a disclosure: I was chosen by the editors to perform at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2017. I don’t appear in this anthology, though, so perhaps that balances any perceived bias. What Solid Air does so powerfully is remind us that poems involve positions, a precarious and essential bridging of sites, a profound resonance between bodies, such that the reader or audience is unavoidably implicated. The cover illustration by Des Skordilis is emblematic – four hands, of various skin tones, grasp a single pencil, whose lead becomes a microphone lead looming in the face of the reader. The opposite of siloing, this is a poetics of coming together, the potential for solidarity. Contrary to the image, however, rather than one microphone, the anthology contains 120 of them. And it’s partly in the juxtapositions of voice, not in any implied harmony, that this anthology makes its considerable mark.
There are the ‘big names’ expected by anyone acquainted with contemporary spoken word – Omar Musa, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Miles Merrill, Luka Lesson, Selina Tusitala Marsh – brushing up alongside emerging artists like Melanie Mununggurr-Williams, Jesse Oliver and Eleanor Malbon. Solid Air also takes a boldly expansive definition of ‘spoken word’, too, refusing the binary of ‘stage’ and ‘page’, including a great number of writers whose work confounds that outdated distinction – Nathan Curnow, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Quinn Eades, Omar Sakr and many more.
The selected authors are arranged alphabetically by surname, which means that Solid Air opens, entirely appropriately, with Hani Abdile’s ‘The beautiful ocean’, a breathtaking poem which somehow manages to hold the trauma of seeking asylum by sea within a refrain of love and survival. Immediately, Solid Air seems to be suggesting that the best ‘Australian’ poetry punctures holes – sometimes gentle, sometimes angry – in the idea of Australia itself. Behrouz Boochani, still imprisoned by the Australian government in offshore detention and denied citizenship, also appears in these pages, with a poem of longing and displacement in the midst of beauty.
Also appearing early in the anthology is one of the most exciting emerging voices around, Evelyn Araluen, whose ‘Fern your own gully’ lands with a thrillingly unsettling punch. The poem’s satire deconstructs ‘the smell of eucalypt’, ‘gumnut coins’ and ‘pastel bush dreams’ with fierce intelligence and a subjectivity that is both defiant and strategically elusive:
Just hop in that pouch, unusual girl
hop in the swag this whole home waits
in handpainted frames of silk native frocks
wear them to your reading
wear wattles from your ears
it’s all metaphor for the beautiful thin white woman
whose body slides linenly through bush
Resistance to colonialism – not only on the political and personal level, but in the idea of what literature is and should be – is a major theme in this book. Anahera Gildea, Te Kahu Rolleston, Grace Taylor and others from Aotearoa New Zealand fluidly integrate indigenous languages without translation. The casual disruption of English by these linguistic interventions is synecdochical – the words themselves standing for the ongoing embodied perseverance of all Indigenous peoples.
These juxtapositions feel more like mischievous channel surfing than any kind of straightforward argument. Araluen is followed by Ken Arkind, with his poem ‘Godbox’. With its long lines arranged vertically on the page, the poem is a jarring chorus of found prayers, numerous voices pleading in confusion, whispered despair and shouts of anger towards a deity who ‘will not answer’. The experience of reading it is shocking, visceral, tenderising.
Another poem driven by a prayerful refrain is ‘Tramlines’ by Arielle Cottingham, which riffs on the racialised implications of hair straightening and ‘straight-ness’ itself in the context of family and public ideas of beauty. To write such a thematic summary, of course, reduces the poem – it’s much more exhilarating and untamed than that, merciless in its honesty and how it implicates the reader. Here, the voice is capitalised, italicised, enjambed and run-on, so that its rhythms and pressures (both internal and external) are made acutely tangible.
These poems are not simply transcriptions of what is spoken. There are experiments with the space of the page that make a hesitant, stuttering or self-correcting voice concrete, but there are also elements here that can’t be understood purely in terms of the heard voice, but include a kind of unheard, internal voice. Emily Crocker’s ‘Spooks’ enfolds complexity into caesura and strikethroughs:
Glitching in the aisles, mate ah ma’am
I knew I was a wo
rryman when I began using my form
as a flotation device, a skeleton key, a dustpan –
On a similar note, while to my ears Amanda Stewart’s poetry really does need to be heard, her ‘postiche’ allows a reader to experience the scrapes, slippages and ambiguities of her voice in a rigorous and playful page translation. Reminiscent of experiments with typewriters, but also of sound-artist DJs, ‘postiche’ manages to evoke late capitalism, surveillance and anxiety, without explicitly naming any of them.
Thursday, December 19th, 2019
Yonder Blue Wild by S K Kelen
Flying Islands, 2017
Poor Man’s Coat by Kit Kelen
UWA Publishing, 2018
We came from the ice
and out of the trees
and wanted the whole world warmer. (Kit Kelen, ‘Parable’)
Award-winning author S K Kelen beautifully explores the theme of travel in his collection Yonder Blue Wild. For some, travel is a benefit awarded to them by virtue of their class; for some it is a tool to attain an idealised version of the life they want to lead. For others, travel is something they have no choice in. The connecting thread is indeed a kind of escapism, and an attempt to express, through movement from place to place, one’s own humanity. In that expression hides stories untold.
Kit Kelen’s collection Poor Man’s Coat complements the theme of his brother’s collection, as he looks at conversation and argument as expressions of personhood. The interesting parallels between the collections are their ability to pronounce these themes through mirror poems and window poems. Mirror poems function as poems that connect people with themselves by way of revealing the self to oneself – the key feature being revelation. Window poems are observational poems that provide the self with insight through observation.
The effect of reading the title, Yonder Blue Wild, contradicts the theme of the collection. Each noun, ‘yonder’, ‘blue’, ‘wild’ stands alone, only moving with when animated by the reader. They are like the state of a stagnant person suddenly moving after unexpected change, triggered by their lack of control. Change is an invisible signpost required to adapt in the world. We have no choice but to be alone in this world even though fighting it seems natural – drugs or alcohol or sex or the chaos of people. The theme of the collection is that travel is part of the human experience, but for me, a person whose stomach begins to turn at the thought of travel, reading this work automatically calls into question the idea of a collective existence. I find it difficult to ignore the idea of travel as an opportunity to temporarily glaze over being born into this world without choice.
What do we have if not our context? It’s a position from which our humanity can be found. In his poem, ‘Love In The Tropics’ S.K. Kelen gives context to his characters. It is precisely due to the contextualisation of their scenario that Frank and Kathy are understood in a complex fashion:
people on the trail, intent on experience...
Wait, Frank the American civil engineer
staying on the beach now six weeks tires
of his Australian girlfriend, Kathy, who
speaks of literary life in Sydney
boring Frank in the chai shop making
eyes at Yvette vivacious French hippy
Kathy might be jealous, she might not be
& life goes on.
‘Love In The Tropics’ sheds light on a reality that is too often ignored and or is too painful to acknowledge. Kelen speaks to a kind of exhaustion that takes place when a person doesn’t confront the state of their relationship. Such exhaustion eventuates into dysfunction. This is indeed the beauty of poetry: its commitment to the reality of the lives of people and its strength to hold two otherwise opposing things in equality. What is the root of Frank’s exhaustion? Is it his relationship with Kathy? Is it his insistence at ‘making eyes’ at Yvette? Similarly, with Kathy: is she jealous? Should she be?
If poetry guides us to take life as it is, then what happens when change doesn’t occur by virtue of our stubbornness? Will poetry be lost? I must make mention of John Keats’ poem ‘On the Sonnet’: ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chained’. He fears that if a change in form doesn’t occur, the beauty of poetry will be lost. He uses Andromeda, known for her beauty as well as getting chained up, as a simile for the ruins of poetry. Although Keats speaks about the consequence of adhering to the rules of a sonnet, he sticks to the rules. This draws a comparison to Kelen’s poem when he writes ‘& life goes on’, calling upon an objective truth about the world, a universal law, despite his contextualization of his characters’ conflict. Like Frank, many of us continue on our path:
Frank makes a joke ordering
banana cakes from the boy
Yvette smiles but Kathy
Shrugs it off as part of travelling,
Find a man on the beach.
Like Frank, we suffer through life in tiny ways as our pain nibbles at us. In S K Kelen’s poem ‘Tiger Show’, however, we see a different perspective on the notion of evolution. He stops his characters to ask: ‘What are you doing here, middle aged Australian / couple?’ A question as universal as love, a question that forces us to a stop: ‘Left the kids at home, let loose / seeing Bangkok’s dizzy lights / before it’s too late’. The difference here is evolution triggered by outside forces, of evolution starting to manifest outwardly.
Friday, November 15th, 2019
A Coat of Ashes by Jackson
Recent Work Press, 2019
One part is conceptualising and ordering the world and the other is accepting the world as it is. – Agnès Varda
Poetry tries to get at something elemental by coming out of a silence and returning us—restoring us—to that silence. It is one of the soul’s natural habitats. – Edward Hirsch
Jackson’s third book, A Coat of Ashes, published by Canberra’s Recent Work Press, is a contemplation about how the discourses of Daoism (or Taoism), physics and systems theory might be fused through the methodology of poetry. The collection springs from her acclaimed PhD project, which was awarded the Edith Cowan University Research Medal, the Arts and Humanities Research Medal, and the Magdalena Prize for Feminist Research. The accompanying prose component of her thesis offers a rich background of selected writers whose work is imbued by physics or Daoism, as well as her creative approaches to this book.
What compels a poet to unite and experiment with such varying discourses? It turns out Jackson was looking for answers about being and matter; what it is to be, what matter is and what actually matters. Her wager is that poetry, as mediator of spirituality and science, could provide deeper understanding about existing in a world of ecological and postcolonial turmoil. It seems to have paid off in this striking volume of work.
The language features and text structures of conventional scientific writing (impartial, technical, objective) and mystical writing (superlative, interpretive, repetitive), might seem incompatible to merge, and experimental poems like ‘Spangles’ and ‘That vast sea’, which incorporate and respond to cut up texts from science books and the Dao De Jing, do produce dissonant tones and styles. However, the organising element of poetry satisfies chance and we find it possible for facts, laws, theories and mysticism to blend and create new flows. Perhaps the relationship is not as troubled as we are led to believe. Philosophical Daoism, as Jackson says, ‘values silence, listening, humility, mindful presence and the shedding of ego and attachment’. This too, seems to be what Western science values; the self is suspended to allow for observation of the systems in which it operates and to which it belongs.
The poems in this book are deep, long breaths; an opportunity to stop and reflect or enter the room of a poet’s meditations. Despite the intermittent scientific insertions (quark, cambium) or Chinese fragments from Daoist texts (wu, dào kĕ dào fēi cháng dào), the plain and mostly quiet language of these works is gentle and subtle even when the content is grappling existential, environmental and social catastrophes.
In ‘One, two three’, Jackson applies the theory of a cartwheel to childlike nostalgia and a sense of forgiveness:
The child doesn’t know
momentum, centres, gravity.
She blames her mother’s
This poem also demonstrates Jackson’s excellent use of poetry to give and then take away, maximising space and silence:
Her father mows the grass
Space and silence are manipulated in the constraint-led ‘What is Tao?’ which employs a word-length stipulated erasure of Thomas Merton’s translation of the Zhuangzi, ‘Cutting Up an Ox’, where the motion of the space provides the rhythm of the meditation:
I feel slow down watch
hold back move
Readers can refer to ‘On looking at the Pointers’ to see what happens when science and Daoism meet, and to the list poem ‘The Sage and the Physicist’ to find out what each is not. The Is and the Not are used frequently in this collection, either through affirmatives and negatives (can/can’t, was/wasn’t) or the naming of them, as in ‘That’:
the What and Not I saw
Dreams abound and become another way of watching emotions and reactions, like the apocalyptic opener, ‘The silicon lip of the precipice’ or ‘The other way, the long way’, which challenges the narrator’s inflexibility and anxiety. The use of silence in the final line of ‘The fundamental forces dream’ gives the reader a waking sensation, where blinking eyes search for sense, returning to the title or to the following page for continuity:
is the fundamental force
from which all the others are derived,
And there are accordingly five
The one associated with Hunger is called
Objects and animals are instrumental to the noetic quality of this collection, either through narrative, symbol, personification, allegory or metaphor. These include birds, whales, plants, planes, trains, chairs, cars, acid, bass guitars, dolls and dress shoes. A couple of gems, first from ‘on the path’:
a tiny sock
on the path
and from ‘between’:
there arose a beautiful horse,
brown and white with white-fringed feet,
but it wasn’t possible to speak with her.
In some poems Jackson utilises a stream of consciousness or form of spaced-out, non-intentional writing. Language becomes tenuous or rambling or rhythmic or all of these things. See ‘lamps’ and its near-language-sense, such as ‘I’ve been curling to juice the drug dumps’, or ‘That girdle!’:
I at the surface don’t see the drip
I see the wave, not the jump
Ripples in the pooliverse
Someone says that there is no rock
and that there is no rock is the rock