FRESH Thursday, September 24th, 2020
The reader will have to imagine for themselves what Maria-Àngels Roque, editor-in-chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània, a twice-yearly journal focused on authors from the Euro-Mediterranean, must have felt upon hearing these words.
Continue reading →
Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020
The Empty Show by Alice Allan
Rabbit Poet Series, 2019
Alice Allan’s debut collection opens with the declaration, ‘A sonnet is always a love poem.’ Absolute statements like this tend to attract consideration of their opposites, gesturing to their qualities and equally calling to mind all that they are not: always/never, empty/full, lost/found or wrong/right. But in the poem ‘Melbourne sonnet’, after this declaration, the speaker immediately retreats with ‘So I was taught’, retracting their initial conviction in favour of the comfort of the murky middle ground. Throughout the collection, Allan ruminates on what it is to be lost. She asks and attempts to answer how one knows they’re lost, how to travel from lost to found, and, then, whether there really is a difference.
The collection’s title, The Empty Show, references a guerrilla art movement from the early 2000s, where organisers converted abandoned buildings into secret art galleries. This, combined with the photographs of lost and found signs peppered between the poems, lend the collection a sense of urban listlessness, a tone of wandering through city streets searching for something. One in particular reads ‘LOST (?) RABBITS SPOTTED HERE … Too fast to catch!’ The poster’s hesitation to label the rabbits lost introduces the complexity of lost and found where it’s not always clear whether something or someone is lost and needs finding.
Many of the poems are written after another’s or feature interjections from other texts, including Auden’s journals and Love Actually (2003). The huge variety of the intertextual references demonstrates Allan’s eclectic reading habits but, within the wandering world of the collection, they stand out like signposts, disparate texts chosen for their unique messages. In this way, reading the collection and encountering the references feels like a web of interconnected messages and maybe, just maybe, if you can string them together correctly, they’d reveal a hidden message, a larger scheme with which the poems’ lost speakers could direct themselves. But, at the same time, the great variety in tonal and formal choices between the poems creates a scattered reading experience, making it difficult for the reader to gather their own bearings in the collection.
In the more experimental poems where Allan works with word repetition and shapes, she appears to be working to construct a voice for the collection. For example, ‘Lyric’ is a column of ‘I’ repeated 196 times. It is a visual assertion of the central perspective for the reader but could also be read reflexively as a reassuring mantra. Additionally, in ‘On the threshold of the hive’, composed with words from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Stings’, Allan shows the shift from someone watched to someone performing as a reclamation of self.
a third person is watching
The transformation from ‘third person is watching’ to ‘persona’ seems like the speaker wresting control of their perspective and reclaiming the gaze of the third person but, as the language continues to dissolve, the barriers between the third person with their gaze and the speaker of the poem become muddied, becoming indefinable sounds. From here, the central figure remains hazy, with an uncertain sense of self.
Similarly, in ‘Geraniums’, the speaker’s uncertainty about herself is revealed in the relation to another person:
I’m nervous to tell you about this woman, about what she said,
because there’s nothing significant about it at all.
Even though I still remember it. Even though I still want to tell you.
Wanting to tell you doesn’t mean it’s worth telling.
She has experienced something significant in overhearing a woman while walking but, while she is confident in the personal value of this message, she is less confident about its value to others. Against the insistence of self from ‘Lyric’ and ‘On the threshold of the hive’, this poem reveals a vulnerability and a lurking feeling of self-doubt that the other poems are attempting to shake off. These poems together show Allan’s interest in construction of self with the added complication of the dangers of ‘losing yourself’ to uncertainty.
Tuesday, August 11th, 2020
Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today
Edited by Alison Whittaker
University of Queensland Press, 2020
2020 is a hectic year, ay? Severe bushfires, Covid-19 outbreak, the subsequent lockdown, the colonial government funding an idolised re-enactment of the starting point of the invasion of these lands, Black people being harmed and murdered by state agents such as the police and those same police protecting boring statues of colonisers all while Rio Tinto destroys a 46,000-year-old sacred site.
However, watching Country being destroyed is not new for us First Nations people in the colony. Neither are new diseases, the glorification of a violent history or experiencing violence by the hands of the state. We’ve had 232 years of ‘hectic’ years.
For this reason, Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today, a collection of 53 poems which have been previously published and/or spoken between 1964 and 2019, feels extremely relevant in 2020. It’s as though they were presciently written in response to this year’s events. But if this anthology seems timely, it’s because many of the poems in Fire Front are timeless – they are part of a continuum of First Nations storytelling that has existed here for millennia. This storytelling has connected us to Country, our ancestors and kin since time immemorial.
The poems and essays that make up this anthology are also part of a long-lasting resistance to the colonial invasion of these lands that has continued since James Cook’s boat came to these shores. They are part of a collective refusal to be silent in the face of colonial forces desire for us to be gone.
Fire Front will always be relevant, at least for me (and maybe many First Nations readers like me) no matter what the year because of the Blak love and wisdom that exists within its pages. We will often have the desire to feel the strength of words it contains, like feeling the heat of a campfire on your face.
As an introduction to some First Nations poetry, Fire Front, curated by Gomeroi poet and law scholar Alison Whittaker, creates space for rethinking our world and sparks the imagination on what could be. For non-Indigenous readers, a collection of this introduces them to voices that challenge their world view. This could be a catalyst for these non-Indigenous readers to reflect on history, the violence of the colonial state, on nationalism and on themselves.
This reflection should include considering how humanity’s role as part of the environment around us could be different. What cannot be overlooked in this consideration is how our First Nations people’s connection with Country has sustainably and holistically ensured the mutual health of Country and us since time immemorial. This connection is constant: all of what makes up Country is our kin and Ancestors. We ourselves are Country. Many of the poems within Fire Front illustrate this connection by conversing with place and acknowledging and invoking the history and sentience of Country. This is compellingly exemplified in Lorna Munro’s ‘YILAALU – BU-GADI (Once Upon a Time in the Bay of Gadi)’:
THE LAY OF THIS LAND, IF YOU CARE TO LISTEN WILL TELL ITS EXCLUSIVE STORY
THIS TERRAIN EVOLVED OVER MANY EONS AND IN A RAMBUNCTIOUS FLURRY
The violent theft of First Nations’ lands by colonisers over centuries has comprised trying to sever this connection. Colonisers have murdered us and removed us from our homelands, paving the way for industries such as Western agriculture and logging, just to name a few. The colonial state continues to undermine First Nations sovereignty to protect other extractive capitalistic enterprises, such as mining. This has contributed to and produced anthropogenic climate change that has taken place for the last 232 years, and will only get worse in the future. Any chance to rectify this needs to start by addressing ownership of these lands. Alexis Wright speaks to how climate change is a result of our dispossession in ‘Hey Ancestor!’:
You seem all radical, in a hurry. The environmental science people said that the freak storms coming more frequently are a consequence of climate change, but I think that your appearance is the result of those little pieces of paper telling lies about land ownership by people who don’t know your power. I suppose the ancestral story should look the way you have decided to show yourself, your powerful story of millenniums revealed in full swing.
The colonial violence we face is intertwined. There’s great sadness in watching this destruction to your kin, your Ancestors, before your eyes. You can sense this sadness in many of the poems in Fire Front, for example in ‘Municipal Gum’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal:
Municipal gum, it is dolorous
To see you thus
Set in your black grass of bitumen –
O fellow citizen,
What have they done to us?
And in this passage in Claire G. Coleman’s ‘I Am the Road’:
My Boodja has been stolen, raped, they dug it up,
took some of it away
They killed our boorn, killed our yonga, our waitch, damar, kwoka
Put in wheat and sheep, no country for sheep my Boodja
My Country, most of it is empty, the whitefellas have no use
Except to keep it from us
Because we want it back, need it back, because they can
I am the road
Friday, July 31st, 2020
When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon by Jennifer Nguyen
Subbed In, 2019
wheeze by Marcus Whale
Subbed In, 2019
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. The opening poem of the collection is called ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’. An interesting thing to note about this chapbook, and, uniquely, Subbed In’s most recent chapbook series, is that the titles of poems takes up their own pages. Coupled with the twice repetition of ‘pain’, this title is largely unforgettable in the context of the collection.
In the poem, Nguyen’s narrator searches for the answer to the question, ‘Why am I this way?’; that is, why all this pain? The speaker scrapes together some provisional, unsatisfactory answers:
Is it because my parents never once said ‘I love you’.
I asked and wasn’t happy with ‘of course’.
You asked me if I loved you. I said ‘always’, but you still
What does it mean to open a collection with a poem such as this? Most of the poems in the chapbook talk back to the declaration of ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’; they are filtered through it. One particularly striking dialogue is between the poems ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’ and ‘Love at first laugh’. ‘Love at first laugh’ is a poem made of three simple lines: ‘On a date with a girl I liked, she said ‘Isn’t The Walking / Dead just Home and Away but with zombies ???’ I have / never fallen in love so fast before’. In the landscape of When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon, if, sometimes, pain is just pain, then, crucially, joy is just joy.
Joy, in Nguyen’s writing, is tethered to the quotidian. In ‘Quiet love scenario’, the speaker wakes up in the middle of the night with a leg cramp and the lover ‘half-asleep, massaged / And stretched my leg out’. In ‘Death drives’, the father ‘overheard me say I suffer from / chapped lips and after work the next day presented me / with a tub of Vaseline’. Among poems populated with defeat, these tenderly written, small acts of love are sacred acts of care.
Ocean Vuong, a clear influence in Nguyen’s work, writes in his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: ‘Do you remember the happiest day of your life? What about the saddest? Do you ever wonder if sadness and happiness can be combined, to make a deep purple feeling, not good, not bad, but remarkable simply because you didn’t have to live on one side or the other?’i Among the dichotomy of pain and joy, Nguyen boldly orients towards such balance, such ‘purple-ness’, by approaching the quotidian with astonishment.
In Nguyen’s poems throughout the collection, there are depictions of interior complexity. For example, in ‘Time as best friend and worst enemy’, pay attention to the ‘and’, its call to duality: Nguyen’s speaker picks both best friend and worst enemy with the announcement, ‘I trust in time / even when it betrays me’. The metaphors in this poem are sprawling: ‘a second becoming an hour & / not in a cute way like when you’re / kissing someone / but more like / when you find out a dog is almost eighty’. The metaphor contains a small pairing: kissing someone and finding out a dog is eighty. Through these metaphors, Nguyen demonstrates that she is a poet, yes, of wonder, with her upbeat, dreamy syntax—even while she captures the loneliness of transitory joy: ‘I trust in time’. Later in the collection, the poem, ‘The trick is to think you are not an exception, that it happens to everyone, too’, is a lyric catalogue of loneliness. It is the poem that works as the clearest partner to ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’. It opens with: ‘I’ve been left behind a lot. My high school class / Who picked me last for team sports’. In a previous poem, ‘My misery doesn’t love company’, Nguyen includes a simple image that is provocative in the framework of ‘pain is just pain’. ‘My misery / listens to sad k-pop playlists with nice backgrounds’. It echoes of a section in Taije Silverman’s poem, ‘On Joy’: ‘… with a stranger’s curiosity, she seems to ask / What can I do with your sadness?’. What is there to be done with sadness? How can it be spoken of? How can it be made bearable, to make it pretty against a nice background? If sometimes, pain is just pain then sometimes, pain is just unbearable. In ‘The trick is to think you are not an exception, that it happens to everyone, too’, here is Nguyen’s resounding answer: ‘Things with less permanence were fine too, / Like a pot of jasmine tea. I was thankful even if a bird / Landed near me and stayed for a few curious seconds / Before flitting away’.
If sometimes, joy is just joy, then, sometimes, joy is just welcome.
i Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Penguin Press, New York, 2019, p122.
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.
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
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
CRAVE by Holly Friedlander Liddicoat
Rabbit Poets Series, 2018
First books are a big occasion for poets. Their publication makes something heretofore unofficial official while announcing the poet as one committed to ‘the art of language’, as Gig Ryan describes poetry. Their publication chronicles and makes tangible the labour of what is often a long time—of feeling out, of experimentation—for writers attempting to find a voice, a language, even as they’ll discover post-publication that finding voice and language is a forever concern. And so, kudos to Rabbit Poetry Journal and its Rabbit Poets Series imprint, which publishes slim first books, often strong selections of poetry by emerging poets who might not otherwise have had such an opportunity in the frankly saturated Australian poetry scene. I’m not saying there are too many poets—if only there was more poetic, lateral thinking in the public sphere—but in terms of a market, it’s a positive sign when first books in particular are given space and attention.
While we’re talking markets, of being subject to commerce, Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s debut collection CRAVE unabashedly quips, ‘sry if this poetry ruins yr party’ to Sydney’s Inner West as it flips the bird at real estate agents, SUVs and a plenitude of jerk-offs. The poems—‘too damn caffeinated / too damn beat’—self-consciously flaunt their own inability to avoid their complicity in the ever-gentrifying neoliberal capitalism of Sydney with an intoxicated (and intoxicating) nonchalance, if you can forgive the paradox. That kind of paradoxical tone in poetry is interesting to me because it allows poems to do multiple things at once, from critiquing the world around us to subverting and questioning the self that sees fit to write about the world with any authority. It can allow the poet, or the speaker(s) of a poem, to occupy a liminal, othered, space. The frenetic and nonchalant oscillations of Liddicoat’s poems operate in this way. They work to reflect, perhaps, how the contemporary moment is being felt by some: a hyper-simulated, anti-climate change, death-spiral parody of a paradigm, in which the sun is ‘unsetting’ (i.e. stuck) and, as with many bright people, not always welcome in gated communities: ‘the sun is invited to the stairs / but can’t afford admission.’
Poetry by paradox is actually just poetry representing the world. Alongside an intoxicated nonchalance, Liddicoat embodies another paradox: a gentle punk attitude. The poems aren’t simply bratty but self-aware—too metamodern, full of ‘informed naivety’, ‘pragmatic idealism’ (key aspects of post-postmodernism and/or the postdigital paradigm, according to cultural theorists like Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker) and self-care, to be simply punk. We can see this attitude in the shifts between poems. For instance, after ‘a woman works in a lick-her store’, a snarling list poem of all the kinds of patronising snippets of speech from male customers to a woman working in a grog shop, we encounter, in the poem ‘in erko + five floors up’, images of retreat, defeat—that sinking feeling brought on by despair and emotional trauma:
a fluke hits the bottom of the sea
envision throwing myself
from this balcony but landing
in a firefighter’s net
In the next poem, the plants come alive with empathy: ‘bottlebrushes fidget in the wind’ and ‘the palm fronds wave to me hello’, which also offers up a kind of cute, even zany, aesthetic (see literary theorist Sianne Ngai for how to read ‘our aesthetic categories’ today—the ‘cute’, the ‘zany’, and the ‘interesting’). There’s a hint of Pam Brown’s poetry in the way Liddicoat chronicles the urban via sketches of all the things that assemble in front of our eyes to create a place and culture (or lack thereof). There’s also a contrast between the two poets, in how their poems are formed. Jotting down the world, performing their own ‘zany’ labour (‘where r those poems now’), Liddicoat’s poems reach for their poem-ness—perhaps anxious to be poems—whereas Brown’s are more relaxed about their own incompleteness, relying more on accumulation, accretion, a surface tension between images and phrasings, and an ‘interesting’ aesthetic. For Brown’s work notes what’s of interest, no matter how uninteresting things might seem, or disinterested we as observers can become, in the face of the many things fighting for our radically altered attention spans in the postdigital age. Both poets, meanwhile, are interested in the ‘cuteness’ of the specific, pointing out what we might easily miss—what might seem too small or inconsequential—in the everyday. Of course, Brown has had years to hone her craft, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect that level from a first collection, and so perhaps Brown’s mastery of style is one direction toward Liddicoat’s poetry could develop.
While these poems travel—to Hamburg, Berlin, Bruges, Oslo, Malaysia, New York, Central Queensland, looking for life less insular yet finding similar ‘anxiety and weird vibes’—they are also keenly observational of the local, in this case Sydney’s Inner West. The poem ‘New Town’ outlays a series of Newtown cafe specifics:
the old chef sits tears basil leaves
(bonsoi) Mecca Alchemy
corrugated iron as windowpanes
steel and mint as smell as taste
bring us brunch in jars
and, later, typographically breaks up:
this place dis
int egrates when it rains
The end line here, with its rupture before the half-word ‘egrates’, allows for an echo of the pejorative ‘ingrates’, as if to sneakily taunt any surrounding scenester-capitalists; and if you’ve experienced walking down the ever-changing shopfronts of King Street when it’s busy and bucketing down, it might hit home how easily a community built on rising rents can feel like it’s falling apart.
Monday, October 7th, 2019
The Bruise of Knowing by Phyllis Perlstone
Puncher & Wattmann, 2019
The Bruise of Knowing is Phyllis Perlstone’s third collection of poetry from Puncher & Wattmann, and arguably her best to date. It tells the story of Sir John Monash, highlighting themes of ambition, power and warfare. A talented engineer and commander, Monash’s progress was conflicted by religious bigotry, the rise of feminism, and a growing awareness within himself of the devastation wrought by war. But this is not just history, although the Australia and Britain of Monash’s lifetime are vividly recreated. Perlstone selects revealing episodes of strength and weakness in her protagonist, interpreted through poetic devices that allow the reader to experience undercurrents well beyond the series of events. At the same time, this anecdote is counterpointed with several parenthetic poems drawing the writer-researcher into the framework and underlining current concerns with the encroachment of the built environment on the natural.
Part 1, shifting back and forth in time, deals mainly with the nineteenth century. The collection begins with the poem ‘Two Incidents as Engineer …’ in 1901. In this poem, the language is deliberately hard-edged and precise in its description:
the bridge twists
concrete bits break off
the water's splash, the crashing pieces
the slow time of gravity's next
is like glass
in an accident
the traction engine tips
The impact is heightened by concrete, enjambed lineation and broken syntax, brief lines directing emphasis to where the poet wants us to pause and absorb. In this poem, also, the reader is given early notice of Monash’s ‘greatest regret’ for the needless ‘loss of life’:
stilted, his mind's stall
word's remove him from the moment −
as if he could speak for the pall
of ends in the air, of being stopped
By contrast, in poems such as ‘In the new Barangaroo Reserve’, we are offered Perlstone’s perspective on the resultant feats of engineering:
As in Sydney now, walking in the city
that some dreamed we would
the heights and bridges built −
though sometimes we want to descend from these
sharp-cut graze of concrete
the intimacy of trees
She follows this with ‘Barangaroo’, where her evocation of the natural world is uplifting:
In this place that's retrieved today
this recreation of a ruined shore
buoys now sway
again, against the white trailed water
of a ferry's wake
Monash married Victoria Moss in 1891. Three months later, diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis, she was convalescing with her sister in Beechworth, Monash travelling back and forth by train from Melbourne. As Perlstone notes, ‘The Law and its outlaws / mixed in Beechworth’, none the least the infamous Ned Kelly. She describes the settling of power that happened here:
like Kelly's makeshift headgear −
dark imprisoning iron −
more than masking
armour − Nolan's later icon.
A disputed mythology has grown up, linking Monash to Ned Kelly, as in Peter FitzSimon’s 2014 biography of the bushranger. Perlstone has eschewed including any such incident but uses the iconography with metaphoric force. She introduces an attested meeting between Kelly and Monash’s father (in Jerilderie) and suggests Monash’s later interest in the Kelly Gang. In an ekphrastic poem ‘The Slip’, based on a well-known painting by Nolan, the horse’s fall from a ‘precipitous’ height is perhaps reminiscent of Monash’s own trajectory.
In this first section of the book, Perlstone begins to show the uneasy relationship existing between Monash and his wife Victoria (or Vic). This, she mostly develops through interpretation of photographs and artworks, with an impressive sensitivity to bodily language and gesture, as in the poem ‘1898’:
Vic's full skirt, jacket and jaunty hat
free-stand on her, almost
and match the double-breasted suit
The rift appears more strongly in ‘An Early Photo of Monash and Vic’:
looking in separate directions
they have the same
upholding of themselves for the camera
to be seen, yet between them
their expressions dilate with defiance,
expose opposite views
And what is inner with Vic is there
by her mouth
her dark hair and dark dress
the high collar around her neck
and head, prevent
or lean into
The continuing disintegration of their relationship is interwoven with related themes including the growing rise of feminism and husband’s and wife’s opposing responses to it:
He's avoided Vida Goldstein, feminist,
18 years old.
Monash announces she is "all too self-possessed and affected".
He should be "the master"
their future should be shaped
so he can succeed.
Once again, the poet’s voice interposes, interpreting and responding to emotional overtones, as in the visually evocative ‘Damp Window in the Rain’:
umbrellas passing under the fig tree leaves
hold the patterns like a slide-show
each walker giving way to another
on the wet black pavement
the tented colours screening shapes
traced like under-lit shadows
without the sun
Abstrusely a sight I turn to
reflecting on Vic
watching the hesitant configurations.
It was her time of not wanting a life rushed through
Hardly one to seize
Sunday, September 8th, 2019
Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Translated by Tiffany Tsao
Giramondo Publishing, 2019
Sergius and Bacchus were fourth century soldiers in the Roman imperial army and also devout Christians and lovers. They kept their religion and sexuality secret but once their Christianity was discovered they were to suffer terrible torture and eventual death as martyrs, hence their sainthood into the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church (centred at that time in Byzantium). Bacchus’s and Sergius’s sexualities remain contentious, particularly within the Church and at least as far as some church historians are concerned. However, as travel writer Will Harris points out, ‘parallels between their secrecy and that of so many queer communities across the globe has turned them into something of a symbol for queer visibility.’
This ‘visibility’ remains especially potent, indeed emblematic, for the Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu. ‘Sergius Seeks Bacchus’, his first book, is located firmly within an apprehension of sexual oppression. Many queer Indonesians (of whom Pasaribu is one) endure persecution or, at the very least, the fear of it at the hands of an increasingly fundamentalist, non-tolerant society, particularly in some regional areas across this huge island group. While homosexual acts between consenting adults are not illegal across the archipelago, there exists widespread harassment, prejudice and shaming especially in Aceh and West Java where the strict observance of Sharia law is more pronounced. Also, in other parts of Indonesia, where Sharia law is not practiced, there exists an implicit tension within society in relation to matters of sexual identification and gender mobility. And while much of the country moves inevitably towards more democratic, secular values, there is an opposite push to shift society in the direction of more conservative, Muslim orthodoxy. It is indeed a paradox worth noting that while democratic impulses remain strong, as millions of Indonesians continue to explore and experience western-style electoral democracy, prejudice towards homosexuality is also marked, as significant numbers move to defend what they see as threatened religious orthodoxy. My own partner’s family is representative of this development in thinking and observance. Nieces, aunts, cousins and sisters are more than ever drawn to wearing the hijab, as a sign of their own virtue and religiosity. That they feel this is necessary, particularly where the prospect of marriage is concerned, was certainly not the case even ten years ago. Their male counterparts are also drawn to stricter and more public observance. The increasing numbers of those attending religious service is evidence of a move towards conservatism in Jakarta – hitherto the centre of a more relaxed attitude towards Islam and its teachings.
Being both gay and Christian, Pasaribu faces difficulty on two distinct fronts within his own country. His response is a creative and rebellious one. In Sergius Seeks Bacchus, a book that appears to be mostly ‘biographical’, even ‘confessional’, he explores the confusion and complexity of his own identity, while expressing deeply felt individual protest and determined self-belief – a belief honed, as it appears, within very personal family difficulty, religious questioning and more broadly, social alienation.
In ‘Erratum’, the opening poem, he asks:
What was he thinking here, picking this body
and this family [?]
Pasaribu expresses a gay lament, via a second person narrative, that is unfortunately all too familiar to many individuals in Indonesia and elsewhere. In Indonesia especially, the experience of familial alienation is one that millions suffer, leading to the kinds of domestic scenarios as described in ‘Erratum’. In this poem Pasaribu writes within a kind of casual and conversational address that invites the reader to share intimate feelings including the stress of conflict. The very casualness of address is distinctive in the poems generally and encourages an immediate identification, if also at times representing an expressive awkwardness as the author attempts to marry poetry with narrative urgency or political statement.
In ‘Erratum’, we can certainly feel Pasaribu’s sense of dislocation when describing what happened:
not long after his first book came out,
[when] as his family sat cross-legged together and ate,
he told them it wouldn't end with any girl
and here as he stood by the side of the road
that night, all alone, cars passing him,
his father's words hounding him,
Don't ever come back, Banci,
and he wept under a streetlight ...
While this particular scene, or a version of it, is enacted over many households across the Indonesian archipelago, it appears here to be a painful and immediate memory for Pasaribu himself as he continues to negotiate the thickets of family rejection and intolerance, while attempting to live a creative life in the capital far removed from his family. That the poet asserts ‘biographical fact’ is of course an assumption on my part. However, the intensity and consistency of information provided across the poems would seem to support this view. While Pasaribu provides a ‘speaker’, my suspicion is that the speaker is a mask for the poet himself and that the resultant work is to a large degree ‘confessional’. The ‘mask’ also provides at least a little protection from potential difficulty, legal and social.
Wednesday, July 17th, 2019
The Gang of One: Selected Poems by Robert Harris
Grand Parade Poets, 2019
In ‘The Day’, Harris writes a stunning eschatology for Gough Whitlam. For Harris the dismissal was ‘the day of deceit’, ‘the day to lose heart’. As I write this review, I too am demoralized and anxious, despite the beta-blockers. In the crisis of another general election, the causes of a progressive and civil society have again been defeated. And in our election wash-up, the ALP seeks a new leader. Tanya Plibersek, our Kiwi-model hope, has already withdrawn her candidacy for the top job, citing family reasons (this does not appear to be an obstacle for her male colleagues). In this society, is any male (really) a ‘gang of one’? And while I hear the self-referential humor implied in the title, I also find myself butting up against its hyperbole: the allusion to romantic nonsense of one-off, singular (almost always male) creative genius. Will Connie Barber, Barbara Fisher and Grace Perry (amongst so many others) also be recognized/celebrated with the Selected/Collected milestone?
This being said, Harris is an incredible poet of place, of faith, of historical sequence; and many of his poems’ endings shimmer with all the ecstatic vibrancy of Hopkins (or Murray). I do not believe in miracles, I was grown in Baptist/Pentecostal faith traditions, but this book is miraculous – a triumph of its (crowd funded) gang of supporters. And I am so joyful that they have introduced me to this poet.
In writing place, and its settlement, Harris is capable of juxtaposing such lyrical imagism with strongly interrogative purpose. ‘The Dancer’ is a very fine example. Here the poem-sequence is centered less on narrative momentum, and more on an almost surrealist automatism and fizz of unforgettable imagery:
Miriam, in the hallway,
a girl wears a papier mâché mask
and tinsel stars down Brunswick Street
a bird a lumbering wagon of sky
- this ghost that can go with aphasiacs
without feeling panic
arise, like a kite
Trout leap out of the river, command the night.
But this is also a place ‘before Cook’ where: ‘You have guessed Cook is a cipher / (but of what forest, my dear little trees)’. Historical perspectives might be as beautiful as ‘trout become water’:
but what Cook carried, along with slaves
the seven sheep on eleven ships
conversations that of no volition rise like waves
: my hands on my lover’s body are forgiven
everything they have been and touched and turned to
that did not feel good or auspicious
This lyrically interrogative intent is continued in ‘Clear Days in Winter’, another beautiful poem of place that is also attuned to ecological concerns:
I often feel walking on the flats
that I’m in a face that is laughing,
especially when the south-westerlies
set the ghost gums shaking. They have come back
year by year, throwing their suckers forward,
moving up saplings, bridging the old torn diggings
with roots, ignoring the hectic counter-attacks
of isolated chainsaws, the spiteful weekend
initiallings done with axes. Lanes and streets
have crumbled before them like redoubts
until they camp equably on mounds.
Then they throw up white arms, they spend
their modest torsos on a place between the earth
and air, loyal to old, unrestricted alphabet,
although the lesser banished them, wrote
lonely on entire skies, brought calves, found gold
and apparitions to worship every moonrise.
There are so many major poems of place in this book, all hinting at mystery and the exquisiteness of ‘creation’ while also adjusted to postcolonial/ecological commitment. There is ‘Concerning Shearers Playing for the Bride’, which is also a poem of ekphrasis in response to Arthur Boyd; and the poems of North Queensland sugarcane country: the sequence ‘Cane Country’; and ‘Canefield Sunday, 1959’. These poems are fueled by a searching necessity for a Treaty with First Australians, for social justice, and by such dramatic and vivid descriptive language. This is a poet, with strong convictions, in love with the world in which he finds himself.
This ecstatic vision is most evident in the way Harris ends poems. In ‘The Call’, a poem evoking the ‘eye of summer’, he concludes:
Christ, called me through from the other side of lightening.
Now I would seek out a comelier praise;
then I felt like one in a room of crimes
as the blind rattles up, and the light crashes in.
While ‘The Snowy Mountains Highway’ finishes:
The vivid blue & heat, at times
so thick it curved and shook,
recalled Bertolucci’s camera.
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also
to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write.
A pair of shoelaces could be an event
if tools got me by, chains on
retreads and rising early, when
axe handles split, good hickory too,
how far then I drove in His paradigm,
early mornings on ochre roads
to see the light lift silver off slush.
These poem endings are unforgettable in the way they employ concrete imagery and sound to express such delight and wonder towards ‘God’ and the world ‘he’ has created. It is difficult not to be seduced by the simplicity and beauty of this language, but of course, this language also raises difficulties.
I still remember the first time I read Les Murray’s majestic ‘The Last Hellos’. I was a young adult (desperately) trying to maintain my faith, and this poem reduced me to tears. It is a beautiful hymn of love written for Murray’s father who had just died. In this delicate eulogy Murray addresses his father concluding (with a dramatic crash):
Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.
Like Murray, Harris seems to enjoy championing the unfashionable cause of God (though he is obviously more progressive in his politics); and in these convictions both leave me nostalgically longing, but also cold. In writing a poetics of faith Harris and Murray prioritize the role of individual submission to God, neither one examining their faith too closely, or asking difficult questions. In Harris this is especially problematic, because his progressive politics would seem to be so often in conflict with his obedience to God.
In ‘The Cloud Passes Over’ Harris writes a magnificent hymn of praise for rejuvenating rains. This is rain that breaks riverbanks as ‘water flows sideways / from faucets outdoors’:
the Lord God of waters
moves down the freshwater,
the estuary, rivers
veiled in darkness.
In silence He inspects
where the bank drops away,
examining every rotting trunk,
every hole where fish sleep.
He sets aside mullet and trout
for Koori people,
for dairymen mourning
under the quota system.
Leaving aside the issue of Harris’s non-inclusive language, in focusing only on God as the source of creation and renewal, this beautiful hymn of praise is not entirely honest. This ‘Lord of all / is at large throughout His creation’ as judgment and death also (flood). ‘He’ was never only about love and life – there were always strings attached.
Thursday, June 27th, 2019
Milk Teeth by Rae White
University of Queensland Press, 2018
Aril Wire by Anders Villani
Five Islands Press, 2018
Poetry debuts are not necessarily juvenilia. The vagaries of poetry publishing mean that by the time a poet’s first collection is published they often are, at least by some standards, emerging fully formed, able and ready to demonstrate their skill to a willing audience.
By the time a poet has amassed a book’s-worth of work and managed to secure a publisher, it’s a fair assumption that they have found their voice. This isn’t to say that their voice won’t develop and change as they continue to write, but that a debut poet is by no means an inexperienced or untested one.
The debut collections of Brisbane-based Rae White and Melbourne-based Anders Villani are the work of people with honed and confident voices. These are poets with extant careers whose books are a celebration of the culmination of their work to date.
White’s debut collection Milk Teeth was the winner of the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and published in 2018 by the University of Queensland Press. It was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2019, whose judges described it as ‘challeng(ing) pre-existing categories: gender, interior and exterior landscapes, the way we assume language is fixed.’ Milk Teeth is an energetic collection, equal parts experimental and traditional, in which formal and structural innovations lie comfortably alongside poignant and personal observations. White is equally at home disrupting an otherwise familiar scenario with fairy-tale elements as they are with anchoring the reality of unreal scenes with finely crafted detail.
‘Mother’s Milk’, the first poem in the collection, ably demonstrates White’s capacity as a lyric poet while also showcasing their taste for disruption. In this poem the ordinariness and intimacy of a mother showing her daughter’s partner a box of saved baby teeth is expanded upon and heightened into a visceral body-horror exploration of the desire to possess and encompass a lover:
feel it scrape & chafe
lodge in my throat.
That night, its crystal
White’s lyrical facility is also proven by ‘Skyward’, depicting an intimate encounter between partners. It zeroes in on the patterns of light cast onto one person’s bare belly through a canopy of leaves:
each teardrop spectre
Sitting alongside lyric qualities that demonstrate White’s facility with language and image are more experimental works that challenge both poetic convention and readers’ expectations. White has enlisted a number of other-than-poetic forms into their poetic service, including Twitter posts, programming code and bureaucratic language. These poems use their mimetic forms to highlight the social structures and frameworks that are used to declare, confirm or erase identity.
At times White’s counter-use of such languages and forms to convey political messages occasionally threatens to destabilise those forms to the point of neutralising their menace. The point of these exercises, however, is consistent and clear. One of the most powerful examples of this re-weaponised language is ‘Regarding your Suspension’, a parody of the implicit biases baked into bureaucratic processes. The poem simmers with weary but still-sharp sarcasm:
Your gender has been flagged
and suspended by our team, due to being
one or more of the following …’
In addition to these poems calling structural biases into question, other poems in Milk Teeth challenge another almost invisible preconception: that of the physical orientation of poems on the page. Many of the poems in Milk Teeth are set at 90 degrees to the usual orientation of a book, requiring the reader to turn the book sideways in order to read them.
While this design decision may simply be a result of White desiring a longer line for these poems, and while it may be connected to the common poetic experience of being published on a screen before ever being published on a page, it’s hard not to think of this particular challenge to convention as being of a piece with the challenges to bias and preconception that White puts forward in other aspects of their work.
White’s challenges to poetic structure and style are in keeping with the way their poems’ subject matter also challenges conservative views of gender. With poems like ‘Microaggressions’ and the award-winning ‘what even r u’, White centres the personal experience of insult and aggression, both passive and active, regularly experienced by non-binary people.
But while gender identity is at the fore of some poems, White also challenges the potential assumption that a non-binary activist poet can or should only write about their activism. This point is successfully made by poems like ‘Plants my exes gave me’ and ‘Enraptured’, which depict experiences like gardening and falling in love that are common to all humans. In doing so White validates and celebrates the continuum of gender with other modes of experience, and hopefully educates those who believe they can only experience non-binary life vicariously.
There’s an appealing messiness, a futz and clutter, a chaos to the world White writes. It’s a world of ‘Biscuit grit in / bed Enoki mushrooms / woven with pubic hair’. There’s tenderness here too, portrayed by a deft hand that pens memorable, shy and gentle love scenes that share space with the boldness and confidence of experimentation and political assertion. Milk Teeth is an eclectic mixtape of a book, a stellar debut exhibiting equal parts ‘fuck that noise’ and a visceral love of life.