FRESH Friday, July 31st, 2020
Jennifer Nguyen’s debut chapbook, When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon, investigates the multifaceted natures of pain and sadness.
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Monday, July 6th, 2020
Noonday by Ursula Robinson-Shaw
Slow Loris, 2019
Noonday is an intriguingly built set of poems. As a reader, I am looking to be jolted into a new paradigm. I want the poet to raise the stakes and am generally looking for puzzles I cannot solve. It seems a bonus if the work doesn’t remind me of anybody else’s poetry. In this debut chapbook (out of the excellent Slow Loris imprint of Puncher and Wattmann), Robinson-Shaw does all of this with a curious and compelling combination of elan and humility. How do these even belong together – elan, humility – and how does this operate to bring us the silkily resolved work of this collection? And by resolved, I don’t mean without room to take this style even further. And by ‘belong together’, I’m not suggesting for a second that there isn’t texture and dirty hip-and-shouldering aplenty in these poems, between ideas and between fragments.
‘Sonnet for the Good Meat’ exemplifies this by propping a dare in the opening lines – ‘g says the only way to write a love/poem is to make sure you’ve never read a sonnet before in your/life’ – and then unleashing a neon wave of unhinged, pacey lines that gather up every punkish extremity and surprising inclusion they can conjure in their wake. Almost every line begins with the name ‘Jenny’, until it feels like a new form of punctuation: ‘jenny jenny jenny/jenny we are fucked from the perspective of eternity/jenny it’s scary but that’s the price of freedom/lolling around in the interminable present’.
The poem ‘Noonday Demon’ concocts a psychogenic topography, a kind of meandering, mental detritus diorama. It is a list poem, but with teeth. This begins with a ramble over literal landscape signifiers, sprinkled with self-deprecation – ‘it is taking myself for a walk/down to the hill or the mountain slope/down to the ravine’ – pitstopping at ‘it is my pink rubber trousseau filled with divorce letters’ and ‘it is to steal butter from my neighbours . . . like a fox’. It then broadens its own field with other ‘definitional’ gambits – ‘it is my floor mattress and my industrial conditioner’, ‘it is my gnarly emotional plasticity’, ‘it is living on the cream at the top of the bottle’ – which seem to cluster around two capitalised segments. At first, I wanted to read these as two separate climactic points, two word-peaks (to continue the metaphor of landscape) compelling us to pay attention with their bold stance:
I DON’T WANT TO SEE YOUR HOMEWORK
NOR A SAUSAGE MADE
DO NOT USE THE PENDANTIC SIC
I MEANT IT EXACTLY AS I WROTE
HAVE YOU RUINED ANY LIVES LATELY
Perhaps, though, they function as primarily stylistic, for the pleasure of their author and for us as readers. The poems do bounce with confidence and energy but in saying that, Robinson-Shaw does this – arrangement of suppositions, poking us in the eye poetically and offering up despair reconfigured as curiosities – with a lit match nearby, and an escape plan folded neatly in her pocket.
Measured scepticism features as an intended corrective; it seems to both undercut – or unbalance – the declamatory or commentating words or segments it interleaves. This adds up to a sweet wryness. Robinson-Shaw’s poems can have it both ways by never proclaiming answers, even while actively critiquing that which deserves evisceration:
had you made to order
and delivered, by the merchants
of elliptical reality . . . they make you write an outline chart
of your life . . . . the scene has many dramatic possibilities . . . . . however
to do mental hygiene
These lines, from ‘Conspiracy Party’, perform this wryness in a kind of circular dance – the ‘elliptical reality’ the lines name – where no one is sure where self-hood begins or ends. Or that it was dreamed up in ‘marketing’, and now no one can stop this deluge of absurd meaning–manufacture we unwittingly swim around in. I see this in other poems also, such as ‘Vogelfrei’: ‘this is the post-scarcity/digital psychosis phase even the sacred/penetrating in the chinks of the profane/has been paywalled, your mentors/all died of indecent exposure/altho good news population decrease makes it easier/to run crotchless between houses’.
This somehow calls to mind and trumps Anne Carson’s famous ‘If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it’. i
iKate Kellaway, ‘Anne Carson: I do not believe in art as therapy’, The Guardian, 30 October 2016.
Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020
Timestamps by Sofie Westcombe
Five Islands Press, 2019
Finds a tempo with a friend
Who lifts condor wings
To call herself into the universe,
To answer solipsistic notes
From the moon.
Miming a hike
With an Argentinian man, she says
Like the traffic light heartbeat
She wiggles long fingers:
I come in peace.
Puts his hands on her face
So begins Sofie Westcombe’s debut collection Timestamps, one of the last books to be released from the Five Islands Press traps. At first glance it’s a curious choice for an opening poem, the ethereal New Age tone seemingly at odds with the rest of the collection’s insistence on the concrete. But this is poetry that shrugs off first glances, that beckons the reader in, inviting full engagement. The poems resist our habitual mode of poetry-decoding by refusing to state their intentions: the ‘meaning’ is often vague, forcing the reader to participate in the creative process by filling in the sense-gaps. And ‘Mochilera’ introduces us to this idea via the backpacker who journeys into new territory, communicating in novel ways, using sounds and finger-wiggles. Like the ‘Quiet One’, we as readers must find Westcombe’s tempo, staying open to the possibilities of a different type of interaction.
There’s no titular poem in the book, but the relevance of ‘timestamps’ is apparent in its definition: ‘a sequence of characters or encoded information identifying when a certain event occurred … sometimes accurate to a fraction of a second’. Westcombe’s poems are certainly careful records of split-second events: a wasp interrupting lunch, someone yelling from a bridge, napkins flapping on a table. Each is recorded with a precision and openness, an almost haiku-esque quality, that reflects and celebrates the potential depth of meaning in any ordinary experience. As in haiku, everyday events are given significance through the simple act of recording: ‘There is a sheen on the road,/ Sound a half tone deeper where the tires move/ Their tonnes (‘Toll’). At the same time, the open language enables a multitude of possible interpretations: ‘The edge of the mind/ Is at home in the bush./ Out here you could—/ Blank—/ Camera, memory/ Moot.’ (‘Lure’).
The neat and tidy structure of the collection (52 one-page poems, each line left-aligned with the first word capitalised) also seems pertinent to the title. The uniformity and brevity of form (the longest poem is 19 lines) makes it easy to imagine the collection as an album of timestamped events, one for each week of the year, pressed between the pages so as not to be lost in the annals of time, a way of saying
Here is what I felt/
Here is where
I have been. (‘Demerara jar’)
But the poems are much more than reportage. Their structure is often paratactical or, more specifically, what Brian Reed has described as ‘attenuated hypotaxis’ – clauses and phrases that are ‘tenuously interconnected’ though the connections are unclear.i It is this, to return to an earlier point, that forces the reader to make their own sense, draw their own lines of connectivity. What do we make of the opening lines of ‘Flypaper’, for example?
Make a go of it!
Says an old man in the mouth of a garage,
The spent cigarettes doing black wonders.
Is it a call to ‘seize the day’ uttered by someone nearing the end of their life? And what is the relevance of the garage? A place where one’s mode of transport lies dormant while one tinkers, wasting time on never-ending tasks? Or is tinkering the point, an attempt to ‘make a go of it’, fixing the dormant vehicle so that one can go places/ move on? Or does ‘the mouth of the garage’ simply allude to the jaws of death? Then there’s that mesmerising phrase, ‘the spent cigarettes doing black wonders’. A reference to lung cancer? Or just cigarette butts pirouetting through the air, having been cast aside (since ‘doing’ suggests some action) or lying squashed on the ground (as ‘black’ and the title ‘Flypaper’ suggest)? The line might have read ‘The spent cigarettes squashed like dead flies’, clearing up any ambiguity. Instead, the twisted syntax shies away from fixed interpretation, allowing the moment to become, as Lyn Hejinian puts it in ‘The Rejection of Closure’, ‘potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed and certainly incomplete’.i
It’s a practice often associated with the Language school—writing with an intent to involve the reader in the composition — but is Westcombe a Language poet? She certainly employs many Language school devices (insertion of overheard conversation, parataxis, deconstructed syntax) but she’s also happy to flirt with poetic elements that many Language poets rejected (personification, jeu de mots, simile, the poetic ‘I’). In this respect, she’s very much post-Language poet, or what Stephanie Burt dubbed ‘the elliptical poets’, those who rose from the dust of the Language v. Romantic-lyric battleground happy to wield the odd hammer or chisel from the Language toolbox but equally prepared to take up some of the old traditional tools (form, narrative, lyric) to create ‘poems as volatile as real life … (poems that) remake the self, pick up the pieces after its dissolution’.ii Terrance Hayes, Meghan O’Rourke and Burt herself are examples.
i Hejinian, Lyn. ’The Rejection of Closure’. The Language of Inquiry, Lyn Hejinian, University of California Press, California, 2000, p. 41
ii Burt, Stephen. ‘The Elliptical Poets’, American Letters and Commentary 11, pp. 45–55.
Thursday, June 11th, 2020
Sweatshop Women: Volume One
Edited by Winnie Dunn
Sweatshop Women: Volume One is an anthology of poetry and prose by twenty-three emerging writers based in Western Sydney. As a text, Sweatshop Women unapologetically claims space in the public archive of literary testimony crafted on this continent by women of colour. Equally, I can’t help but regard this anthology as more than simply the text itself. After all, Sweatshop is a self-professed ‘literacy movement’, a community arts initiative providing local literary programming for creators of colour in Western Sydney. Naturally, the anthology is grounded in this function and purpose. From mentorship, to editing, to graphic design of the work and, of course, the writing itself, Sweatshop Women asserts the right of women of colour to exercise autonomy throughout all aspects of sharing their voices and stories, and facilitates an opportunity to do so. This is a more generative place for my mind to meet this work: in first acknowledging the process and practice of bringing a publication like this together, and the work of initiating relationships, opening to the communal and individual (un)learning and risk-taking that community arts practice entails. In her introduction, editor Winnie Dunn references the writers of this anthology as ‘the collective’, describing their monthly workshops and crediting guidance from established writers such as Randa Abdel-Fattah, Roanna Gonsalves and Alison Whittaker as formative in its creation. Within the settler colony of so-called ‘australia’, gathering emerging and established women artists of colour together to think critically, speak and share freely and take ‘charge’, in Dunn’s words, of representing themselves is important and meaningful work, though not without challenge and complexity.
In this work, I am transported to local community celebrations and family gatherings, quiet and contemplative moments of grief and loss, Islamophobic job interviews and school visits, suburban hangouts and raucus childhood disputes. While styles and forms of writing included are broad, there is a pervasive sense of groundedness, attentiveness and intimacy throughout the collection, magnified by the confessional and interior nature of many pieces, which sit in an ambiguous space between fiction and memoir. Themes of cultural assimilation, coming of age and finding a sense of balance between belonging and autonomy among family and community take various shapes. One of my most cherished motifs (both in life and in this anthology) emerges early on: migrant elders and their beloved fresh produce! Lieu-Chi Nguyen’s vivid ghost story ‘The Long-Boobed Ghost’ is populated with scenes of grandmothers and aunties who vigorously suck lychees and rambutans, sitting peacefully among fruit pips as they share in gossip and instruction. Shirley Le’s short fiction in ‘Vietnam Still Remains Vietnam’ meditates on her mother’s love of mandarins, ‘IMPERIAL’ stamped, a humble vessel through which to consider the colonialisms of her homeland, and the present-day Australian colony. Such meticulously told short stories brush up against the enigmatic, bold free verse of Jessica Wendy Mensah’s poetry in ‘Tracing Our Waist Beads’, whose rhythm and emphasis I crave to see amplified in live reading, with its heavy use of capitalisation — ‘I’M BLACK BAKED!’ — and thunderous, Ṣàngó-imbued imagery of ‘black rain’ and raging weather. Mensah weaves together subtle yet striking histories of migration of Yoruba people from Nigeria to Ghana — ‘Yoruba packaged their empty souls into cubed boxes’ — and now to a suburban setting where the ungodly ‘Women’s Weekly falls’. Mensah’s work is a stark outlier in comparison to the three remaining poems of the collection: ‘Dirty White’, ‘Best Little Brothel on Parramatta Rd’ and ‘Spice Mix’, which exhibit a much more explicitly narrative approach and remind me of the often vulnerable ways narrative storytelling and poetic form might merge at an open mic night filled with free verse, and interior reflections.
The stories and poems of Sweatshop Women weave deftly between Dharug land — with its recurrent ‘white fibro houses’ signifying Sydney’s Western suburbs — and elsewhere, as we follow storytellers’ familial lineages abroad, through travel or memory. Unsurprisingly, these writers’ attentiveness to place is one of the collection’s strengths and pleasures in reading. The first lines of Monikka Eliah’s story ‘Bethet Dinga’ open like a map to reveal the epicentre of her tale, an example of the care taken throughout the collection to orient readers within shifting settings.
The first house I remember was on Jabal Amman — Mountain of Amman. It was in the first circle, an area marked
by eight large traffic spots spread out along the main street named Zahran.
Another contributor, Claire Cao, subtitles the halves of her short story ‘Going to Kuan Yi Temple’ according to the soil of the suburbs she writes of: part one, ‘Cabramatta Dirt’ and part two, ‘Canley Vale Dirt’, which I learn are neighbouring yet distinct. I find myself on Google Maps on more than one occasion, seeking visual confirmation of locations already precisely described. Much of the collection is lightly punctuated by scenes at local train stations, schools, public and community spaces such as Yagoona Station, Bankstown Girls, Belmore PCYC. As a non-local of any of the domestic or international locations described, I lack experiential knowledge and connotation of my own regarding these places, and I’m sure many subtleties wash over me. I imagine for any Western Sydney locals, Sweatshop Women presents a series of winding paths, diverging and converging again, down many of which will be familiar landmarks, establishments and scents. Recognisable to those who know, a kind of insider intimacy lies inherent within these writers’ approaches to space and geography.
The plight of the Third Culture Kid who inhabits a liminal space between the culture, time and place of their parents, and that of their own surroundings (whether in childhood or now grown) is a thread that runs throughout this text. I find that much of the most evocative and deftly handled writing of Sweatshop Women occurs in the interactions between parents, elders and those who have come after them. The warmth, care and often impatience which marks mothers’ interactions with daughters are carefully recounted. ‘Mumma knows every path through my hair,’ is a soft and graceful line from Raveena Grover’s story ‘Frizz Witch’. In ‘Wall of Men’, a young woman holds her breath after hearing her mother speak openly about the patriarchal violence she experienced in her first marriage, reciting from a deep well of heteronormative advice, ‘I tell you to be careful. The man you choose is the life you choose.’ The sombreness of this revelation continues to infect the tale, which moves on through acidic humour and unabashed, cheeky exploration of the young protagonist’s sexual and romantic desires. In Naima Ibrahim’s short story ‘A Curse and a Prayer’, a Somali mother is devastated when her son returns home with his ear pierced, distressed that it will be interpreted by other parents and elders in the community as a reflection of inadequate parenting. Though unwilling to remove the earring, the gentleness of her son’s response is evocatively described, and the complicated terrain of intergenerational relationships, religion, gendered cultural expectations and mental health within communities who have survived war, exodus and relocation is delicately evinced:
I couldn’t help it. I started to cry. He wrapped an arm around my shoulder, his clumsy boy hands held mine tight.
‘It’s okay, Hooyo.’ These breakdowns had become common in the last few years. I’m still not sure why.
I’m entranced by Ibrahim’s succinct ability to capture both the sense of emotional intimacy and dissonance between mother and son in this vignette. This story excites me as another nuanced local voice broadening representation of African families in the full vulnerability and personhood systematically denied us.
Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
To Gather Your Leaving: Asian Diaspora Poetry from America, Australia, UK & Europe
Edited by Boey Kim Cheng, Arin Alycia Fong and Justin Chia
Ethos Books, 2019
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. Towers of Babel are invariably more interesting than angelic choruses and it is a credit to the editors that one comes away from To Gather Your Leaving not entirely sure what poetry of the Asian diaspora ought to look or sound like. The sense of intractable heterogeneity about this volume—its ‘sand-grain variousness’ to borrow a phrase from Suji Kwock Kim—is certainly an effect of its capacious size and ambitious sweep. A handsome soft-cover weighing in at almost three quarters of a kilogram, To Gather Your Leaving devotes over 600 pages to poets with Asian heritage writing out of the Anglophone ‘West’: America, Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe.
The continental scale of this volume allows it to sidestep the essentialising slide of other more localised diasporic categories such as Asian American, Asian Australian and British Asian. Part of the problem has to do with the very concept of diaspora. As Ien Ang pointed out not so long ago, ‘diaspora is a concept of sameness-in-dispersal, not of togetherness-in-difference.’ As such, it may point not so much towards the dissolution of the individual nation-state as an intensification of sentiments of ancestral rootedness and belonging; not so much a transnationalism, then, as a nationalism sans frontières. But set against the centripetal force of diasporic identification is the sheer size of that sprawling variegated landmass: Asia. ‘Where are its boundaries?’ the editors ask in a handy if slight introduction. While the volume ends up with a ‘focus on South, and East and South-East Asia’, they are careful ‘to stake out boundaries without trying to dictate what Asia should be’. Whether one draws the border at Pakistan or Iran, Asia in this book is less a fixed geographical zone than a marker of collective difference, a natal horizon ever receding from those, like the speaker in Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng’s ‘Hàn River’, left ‘tast[ing] the fluid of accident’: water, blood, history.
But while the poems are grouped according to continent, they might well have been arranged generationally. The volume spans four decades of work by two, arguably three, generations of poets: from Ee Tian Hong (b.1933), who emigrated to Perth from Malaysia in 1975, to Ocean Vuong (b.1988), the Vietnamese-American winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2017 (he also gifts this collection its elegant title). Generational distinctions have become somewhat hackneyed, but they provide a useful way of tracking the longitudinal stylistic shifts observable in an anthology as capacious as this. Making one’s way from the Boomers to the millennials born in the very decade that the former began to receive recognition from the Anglophone literary world (Vuong was 8 when Shirley Geok-lin Lim won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize), one notices, very broadly, a growing linguistic self-consciousness that attempts to ‘weird’ English (to borrow Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch’ien’s term) through polyglottal fluency as well as the increasing influence of other media, particularly the visual arts (photography, film, collage), on these poets’ textual practices. Even in a collection wedded to a fairly conventional idea of what constitutes poetry, one gets the impression that the future of Asian diasporic art will be multimedial.
It isn’t entirely surprising that of the book’s three sections, the first group of poems written out of America is by far the most substantial. Asian American writing arrived relatively early on the scene (compared to the other Anglophone contexts considered here), emerging as a distinct field of literary, cultural and political activity in the seventies through collections such as Roots: An Asian-American Reader (1971) and Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974). But the selection of Asian American poetry presented in To Gather Your Leaving is less representative of the field’s polemical birth than it is of its maturation in the mainstream. A large part of this recuperative process can be put down to academic institutionalisation: the preponderance of the book’s American contributors work at universities and colleges, in English and/or MFA programs. The wages of institutionalisation are counted with ambivalence in Kimiko Hahn’s ‘Asian American Lit. Final’, a poem which alternates between the programmatic questions on an exam paper (‘How does the Asian American body appear in Jessica Hagedorn’s poem—/ In Cathy Song’s poem—/ In Marilyn Chin’s poem—’) and a more vulnerable mode of questioning recorded in diary excerpts (‘Do I recycle images hoping they will endlessly ignite? Do we all recycle them? make our own clichés?’). Through this alternation, the poem registers the burgeoning gap between the diagnostic confidence of a specialised discourse and the uncertainties of a living (and lived) tradition.
For the most part, the American poems just about manage to skirt the pitfall of cliché through the competence and consistency of their craftsmanship. But more than anywhere else in the volume, one gets the impression here of a lyric sensibility unified around memories of warfare, scenes of filial piety, and migrant melancholia. Two poets, however, felt like outliers. Bhanu Kapil’s work is impossible to mistake; her divagations on monstrosity, feral children and psychosis bring the relief of a perverse strangeness to a routine of respectable estrangement. In ‘Notes on Monsters: Section 2 (Wish)’, the migrant is transformed from a forlorn wanderer to an insatiable hitchhiker—equal parts monster and cyborg. Lyric perception is spliced with the uncanny (‘It’s as if the day has a memory of her and not the other way around’) in Ovidian fables where the boundary between bodies is always provisional.
As mnemonic and mourning, songs have always been a potent trigger for the diasporic imagination, but in Pimone Triplett’s verse there is musicality to match. Her poems are a fair way in from the experimental edge of Kapil’s work, but there’s something irresistible about Triplett’s command of cadence. The speaker of ‘Driving Eye’ lays out a stereoscopic vision of Bangkok in a freewheeling approximation of sprung rhythm:
drifting in instances, a grit
in wind worrying
the surface, the facts,
out to finger the invisible
gap we would inhabit, pulsing always
There’s evidence, too, of the sharpness of Hopkins’ reverential eye in ‘On Pattern’, an intricately arranged poem in which the speaker’s commitment to formalism in both art and ritual opens a way to being maintained by tradition (‘how your vessel is rented,/ a work/ to be given back’).
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.