FRESH Wednesday, April 14th, 2021
Despite the publishing limitations in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 restrictions, Melbourne Poets Union remarkably released seven chapbooks last year in its new Blue Tongue Poets and Red-bellied Poets series, all under the auspices of the soon-to-retire editor, Tina Giannoukos.
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Thursday, March 25th, 2021
Navigable Ink by Jennifer Mackenzie
Transit Lounge, 2020
The blurb of Jennifer Mackenzie’s 2020 collection Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge) begins by introducing Indonesian writer and activist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in 2006. Mackenzie had been offered Toer’s novel manuscript Arus Balik for translation back in 1993, but it seems this translation was never completed. Navigable Ink is described as a ‘poetic exploration of Toer’s tragic, visionary and ultimately triumphant life’. At first glance a reader could be forgiven for thinking that this is the translation of Arus Balik, but Mackenzie’s acknowledgements clarify that this is not the case, rather the poems ‘created out of episodes from the novel are based on my own translation (with interpolations) of the text’.
From the first poem, ‘Before Nightfall’, a European sensibility affects how we are invited into the scenes of the poem:
a bucolic radiance
which a painter trained in genre
might have pronounced
Imposing a European-style gaze on a muddy Indonesian rice paddy sets the tone for the book. It’s actually an interesting mirror for the steady infiltration of colonial forces that Navigable Ink catalogues, from the Dutch East India Company, through the French, British, Portuguese and Japanese and into the move towards independence amid the terror of the twentieth century. Mackenzie jumps between these historical moments adeptly, using the source material of Toer’s novel as well as documentaries, essays and interviews. The comprehensive notes section explains the sources of the poems, but there are no markers or footnotes throughout the text.
The language is at once spare and vivid, aiming at the spirituality and potency imbued in natural scenes: ‘on the road / a mudslide / on a high peak / gleaners.’ Gig Ryan described these as ‘lyrical descriptions of unvarnished nature’, though the descriptions themselves run the risk of becoming the varnish when they stoke the senses to embellish:
the colour is luminous here
memory is of pastel
blue, pink, lemon robes in the marketplace
dwellings a slash of yellow & mauve
a constellation of red roofs
dimming only for star showers
Pared down to its base nouns, this passage is of ‘robes’, ‘the marketplace’, ‘dwellings’ and ‘roofs’, but Mackenzie coats these with such ‘luminous’ colour as to render the scene painterly, and forms the background for far more menacing events. These seem distanced from such a metaphysical and aesthetic context, operating in a different material realm. The disparity between the vibrant natural world and the ‘unnatural’ death and destruction of colonisation and ecological destruction is palpable.
Mackenzie’s choices of historical moments are not always political, and the work comes alive when revealing smaller stories. The poem sequence ‘Bogor’ uses Mackenzie’s own research to tell the story of Samida, a manmade forest established by the ruler of the Sunda kingdom in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The sequence begins again with the plural first person, as ‘we’ are shown the king’s forest and told of its later burning and haunting, with the sole remnant an orchid destined for ‘a lifetime behind conservatory glass’ – just one of the many references to captivity and confinement that mirror Toer’s multiple incarcerations as an activist. The poem then moves through history and imagery as we are left only with ‘one last row of banyan trees / providing shade / for tigers’.
‘Anger’, another short sequence, evokes the destruction of art and letters under Suharto’s suppressive New Order regime:
thrown onto the path
paint, brushes scattered
painting ripped from the frame
made of the wood of a jackfruit tree
left out in soaking rain
it could no longer be called a painting
the painter flees, finds safety in a friendly state
This imagery effectively captures the physicality of suppression, the act of violence against culture. The italicised line reminds us, too, of the reality for artists and writers in Indonesia like Toer, whose choices were jail or fleeing the state in fear of persecution. Such ongoing persecution is perhaps not well known to Australian readers, who are treated now with a diverse stream of contemporary Indonesian poetry, despite ongoing political conflict in the country. As one such ‘friendly state’ to which Indonesian refugees fled over decades, Australia seems to have been largely ignorant of the literary culture of Indonesia. Perhaps this book is a step in the right direction to redress that lack, offering Mackenzie’s long relationship with the country as a means of entry, and pairing it with her translation and interpretation of Toer’s life and work.
Wednesday, March 10th, 2021
Infernal Topographies by Graeme Miles
UWA Publishing, 2020
In Infernal Topographies, Graeme Miles traverses mythology, landscape and notions of selfhood to reveal moments of approachability and tenderness that are rare in Australian poetry. The poems are not so self-referential, nor overtly ambitious. Miles wants to get lost in the musicality of the moment, or the surrender of a second, and so his poems tend to read like reflections on an event that would have otherwise been lost to the everyday eye. Such is the charm of his words. When one reads Infernal Topographies, one reads them not to witness an act of innovation, or sound and image taken to completely new directions, but to meditate on one singular Tasmanian’s relationship to selfhood and tradition.
Let us start with what I consider the strongest poem in the collection, ‘Dunes’. Divided into three shorter poems, ‘Dunes’ peers deep into what appears to be the childhood memories of tan unnamed narrator. The invocation of the poem is a coalescence of memory into landscape.
The dunes perform the same
mutations. In sands like these:
first swigs of furtive whisky
to dull a bit the self-consciousness
of adolescent kisses. You could come home
with insect bites or love bites
vivid on your neck. Always the same smells
of coastal scrub: acrid, yet food-like,
inhumanly elevating like an incense. Intimate
as bodies newly mature.
It’s hard not to imagine the swirling sands while reading these lines: note the wiggling of the sentences caused by the enjambment, the words toppling over themselves. The organisation brings the ups and downs of the dunes into the structure, and yet the language is fundamentally about memory, with ‘love bites vivid on [the] neck’, moments of ‘bodies newly mature.’ What else causes the feeling of being in a sand trap? The chugging of Miles’ language, its perfect combination of mundane household words (‘smells’, ‘food-like’ ‘incense’) with the topographic (‘coastal, acrid, elevating’). The poem imprints the reader in a dust storm by hurling honest lived experiences with no stop for reflection. It acts as an excellent exemplar of how to keep a poem grounded in a specific ecology while writing about events that have nothing to do with that space at all.
The second poem in the suite moves on to being eighteen, the narrator imagining the life he has lived is in fact a dream.
with waking, dragging my nauseous body
to the thin, buffalo-grass lawn
and seeing the remorseless blue sky pulse
with the rhythm of blood-vessels
behind the eyes.
These lines summon not only the sensations of sight but also the beats of music. Comparing ‘blood-vessels’ to the colours of the sky immediately renders a certain image into the reader’s mind, but then we remember that we are comparing ‘pulse’ with ‘rhythm’, and so we think of the thudding of blood vessels against the arteries, that velocity, that urgency, coupled with the quotidian suburban lawn. The line exists to remind us of the reality behind dreams. Despite the language being lofty, filled with all of the opacity of the ad-hoc clacking of words, Miles seeks to ground us in the corporeal. He is attempting to do justice to not only the surrealism of being inside of a dream, but also the very real parameters of it.
The final poem in the suite brings us to a Tasmanian street – boys partying, getting into fights. One feels fully immersed in the teenage years of suburban and self-destructive Australia. And yet, the ending does not personalise the boys further, nor does it give the reader a chance to delve into their hearts. Instead, Miles takes a cosmic glance upwards.
sky , stars
and everything, and all the sharps and flats
and in the cool out on the patio
the bruises on those mangled boys.
Miles’s poems reflect on vastness and the meaninglessness of individual experience. Sometimes this is done through linking the daily with the divine, the lordly with landscape. Other times, it is through referencing the traditions of Greek mythology and Hinduism. In ‘The Iconoclast’, a discussion takes place between the narrator and a sculptor who has been hired to fix damages done to murtis outside a house.
tours us through the damage in the morning,
shows us where he’s repaired
the impossibly spherical breast of a Lakshmi,
one finger from the Ganesh they’ve been doing puja for
twice a day for weeks, and the snake-head
curled around the neck of an ascetic Shiva
outside our door.
The language is simple yet descriptive. The pared-back words give the narrative a sense of reportage. The point of the poem is not to beautify words, but to render a scene, and engross the reader in it. The resulting poetic effect comes, then, not from the language but from the gravitas of the story itself. At the end, the sculptor says, ‘I don’t worry about punishing him, the god will punish him’, implying that those who do bad to others will inevitably receive their comeuppance. And yet, the poem ends not by turning a circle to the conceit, but by sacking the premise entirely:
And after four months he’s gone,
this bearded American, taking
the stolen pieces like a bag of teeth and charms.
The rhyme between ‘gone’ and ‘charms’ solidify what is a strong ending to this fable masquerading as a poem: often, those who preach justice are the ones who act unjustly the most.
Monday, February 22nd, 2021
Self ie by Alice Savona
UWA Publishing, 2020
Reading Alice Savona’s Self ie feels a bit like taking a vacation inside a palindrome. It’s a wonderful escape, albeit sometimes fraught with all the rocking movement, backwards and forwards, until you aren’t sure what the runes and symbols that make up the words even mean anymore. The deconstructionist postmodern poetics are evocative and relentless throughout Self ie and the self-awareness threaded throughout the entirely intentional linguistic activity is at times dazzling to the point of dizzying.
Throughout Self ie poems often take up all the space of the page, ignoring any idea of traditional line spacing entirely. Other times they seem to rely on negative space, leaving the page sparsely populated with words. The result feels like fine artwork. Words scrawl across and out of the page, with misspellings and fragments sometimes seeming unintentional (until they slap you across the face with poignancy), and sometimes feeling directed right at you (until you realise they are a mirror, referring only and always to themselves). Self ie is, perhaps, primarily concerned with the visual, and is exactly what it says in its title: a captured image of the performed self.
There is, however, so much energy in Self ie that the poems seem to impact deeply, somewhere in the gut. At times the collection feels like an experiment in embodied responses to language: so much of reading Self ie seems to be almost visceral, a felt sense. In fact, the poignant lines, the repetition of those lines, the italics and symbols and spacing and line breaks create such an embodied responding that sometimes the instinct is to stop. Make a cup of tea. Sit back and let the sounds of the words as you read them in your mind just wash on over you.
Potentially, we see a whisper of the process of composing moments of complete absorption in the poem ‘Prognosis’:
Our good days & bad days & fuss mutters God
our hiccup of peace | bit of this | spit of odd
In poems like ‘Prognosis,’ where the syntax shifts to fragments, revealing Haiku or Zen-Koan-like morsels of meaning, we can see that Savona’s text is refreshing and innovative and all those things, yes, but it is also very deliberate and clever. Furthermore, the text is at times almost surprisingly emotive, as revealed in lines such as, ‘He finds your tears more alien than your anger.’ from ‘Verisimilitude’. There is of course depth of knowledge here (one doesn’t have to read too far to ask the question: is the author also involved in some science of the mind? Answer in bio: resounding yes), and clear mastery of a technique that seems to be creating a nouveau experiment of the avant-garde. And at times the result is laugh out loud hilarious. The irony, word play, optional syllables, in ‘Hypothesis’, for example, ‘Father (f) (h) (ch) ucks mother,’ is utterly affecting, if in a droll, sarcastic, perhaps taboo sense. Tragicomic springs to mind. When I first started reading, I immediately started thinking of Charles Bernstein’s A Poetics and his insistence that ‘poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means’ (Bernstein, 1992).
Bernstein’s ‘other means’ abound here. Lines of poems double up, exchange meanings through movement and repeat themselves seemingly ad infinitum for emphasis. Discombobulation abounds. Fonts change, symbols enter and exit, things stand in for words, which are already standing in for perceived signification. By the time we arrive at the entire final poem sequence, ‘Honey’, we discover that the entire collection is, perhaps, a practicum, a science experiment masquerading as a collection of poetry. The abstract seems to be something about uncovering underlying, deeply human uncertainties:
when it is really her own fears &|&
anxious attachment to discovery
that she needs to (f) (h) (ch) uck.
In ‘Honey’ we have a cut-up, a found poem discovered in the collection itself, a festival of reframing, which perhaps conveniently dissects the collection for us. Or perhaps it’s merely meant to display the Cliff notes to the collection: the important take-aways, the pith, the skip-to-the-ending revelation. And though this type of unveiling process might seem trite or forced anywhere else, in this collection the self-reflexive naming practice doesn’t ever make the reader feel that the writer is attempting to be coy, nor trying to explain anything away. This example of unveiling is also from ‘Honey’:
Me, A. (2020 →)
I love people so they’ll do what I want.
he. B. (2020 →) You don’t have to be perfect for me to love you. Friday, February 5th, 2021
The Jewelled Shillelagh by Duncan Hose
Puncher & Wattmann, 2020
‘HELLO FAERE CUNTIES!’ we are hailed in the opening lines of this rough-and-tumble volume, which swings between the campy and the choleric, the vatic and the venereal. The voice is sometimes that of a feral troubadour with pretensions to the lordly libertinism of Rochester (that ‘witty equivoque’):
Being too Bastinadoed for dancing tonight I’ll take my intol’able pleisure right here.
Would you rather get plucked off by elsa martinelli
or watch sian roarty clear a little bit of your warm live shot from her lip?
—at other times that of a poet-shaman evincing an Artaudian fascination with pagan cosmology:
It is the season of Xipe Totec (Sheep-he To.tek) Our Lord the Flayed One
Alive to the tiniest thing by being ritually turned inside out
In all dead forms the impersonator of life ...
A shillelagh is, as the back cover informs us, ‘a blackthorn club used variously as a walking stick, a companion, and a weapon’. Accordingly, these are combative poems and the ‘haranguing quality’ that Hose (who is also a literary scholar) has detected in John Forbes’ work (‘one is always being upbraided, or at least addressed’) provides a key to understanding his own. This poet does not mean to leave his readers alone:
I ought to take my wages in kisses I know bot
Headbutts are the major bullion
So come here ............
The tone of companionability edged with aggression closes the possibility of a polite distance between addresser and addressee. Hose’s shillelagh is thus an emblem of not only the rhetorical efficacy of his poems, but also their distinct modes of sociability – modes which reach both higher up and lower down the social order than the conventions of bourgeois respectability. We are as liable to be challenged to a chivalric duel as we are to be honoured as a fellow denizen of the demimonde (or simply another person on the pub crawl), but we are never allowed to settle comfortably into the position of the gentle/genteel reader.
Hose’s verse – what he dubs ‘Duncanpoiesie’ – takes some getting used to. It is wildly discontinuous in ways that the poems themselves seem to recognise: ‘Certainly what we see in operation is the Science of Motley’; ‘Mixa:mitosis ought to mean thinking and making in a ragedy fashion / Thinking in rags’. The raggedy edge of Hose’s wit makes ‘a sonic riddle for the human voix’ pulled in one direction by an appetite for rhetorical extravagance (‘-GET THE GOLD- I tell my disciples / Open up the ancient blue jets of rhetoric’) that brings to mind the pungency of Carlyle (‘Our fervid bio-squalor burned down to n egg-cup’s worth of snuff’) and pulled in another by a fidelity to the cadences of demotic speech:
Feelin so bolshie which means being
Like an uppity peasant as felt
By the Bourgoisie
Like the fat fuckin farmer who talks tender
To his workhorse
O’er the phone (Yr. a darling)
The erratic orthography and dynamic page prosody are crucial to the disheveledness – ‘a little shabbois (de- shabbie)’ [déshabillé?] – of Hose’s characteristic pose; they also contribute to an implicit privileging of the contingencies of oral performance over the fixity of the published text. The sheer pleasure of phonemic drift (‘Begatten Begettin Begotten’ or ‘Betelgeuse … Betelgeux … Betelguise’) in these poems is a testament to the vagaries of pronunciation and the richness of such imprecision (especially at the mongrel linguistic intersections of the Arabic, the Romanic, and the Anglo-Celtic). So is the unpredictability with which words such as ‘Bunratty’ are spelt (is it with one, two, or three ‘ts’ this time?) All of this means that Hose’s lines are more easily memorised and recited than transcribed with exactitude on the page, and it is with specifically oral traditions of songcraft that Hose is prone to associate his ‘chanteys’, which channel both the sea shanty and the medieval chanson.
While bracketing the obvious stylistic differences, it’s useful, I think, to consider Hose alongside PiO; these are two poets who consciously position themselves outside the mainstream of Australian poetry and one significant way in which they do so is by aligning their work with genres of oral performance. Long considered the doyen of ‘performance poetry’, PiO has nevertheless pointed to the parochialism of such a label when it overlooks its connection to one of the originary practices of Western poetics, namely, the recitation of Homeric epic by itinerant performers called ‘rhapsodes’. Hose’s work can also be considered ‘rhapsodic’ – not in the Homeric sense, but in the early modern usage of the term to mean a compilation or medley of verse riddles or slang rhymes. Rhapsodies such as The Hye-way to the Spyttel-House (composed in ‘cant’ or criminal jargon) and the Bannatyne manuscript (an anthology of medieval Scots verse) tapped into the obscure and sometimes disreputable registers of the vernacular, their linguistic esotericism tied to their speakers’ social marginality. In his study of lyric obscurity, Daniel Tiffany observes that in addition to an aesthetics of the miscellaneous, ‘the rhapsodic paradigm encompasses … various recurring waves of “indigent” poetry’ including ‘infidel oaths, thieves’ carols, beggars’ chants’ which ‘present a side of the rhapsodic tradition associated with profanity, malediction, and enchantment’. Compendia of shady language, rhapsodies record the songlines of a maligned if at times malignant shadow society.
Friday, February 5th, 2021
OPEN by Sarah St Vincent Welch
Rochford Press, 2019
Cuando Fui Clandestino / When I Was Clandestine by Juan Garrido Salgado
Rochford Press, 2019
The achievements of the poets who started publishing in the early 1980s in Australia have tended to be overshadowed by those of the generation immediately prior to them. Rochford Press was started in 1983 by Mark Roberts and Adam Aitken, catching the tail-end of the little mag boom of the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s it was the imprint of the poetry little mag P76 and also published four collections (by Mark Roberts, Rob Finlayson, Les Wicks and Dipti Saravanamuttu). The press wound down activity in the early 1990s, and nothing more was published until Rochford Street Review started up in 2011, a neat demonstration that poetry makes its own time. Alongside the Review, which will shortly publish its 29th issue, there have been a handful of publications, mostly retrospective: the ‘best of’ compilation drawn from Rae Desmond Jones’ little mag Your Friendly Fascist, and the wonderful festschrift for Cornelis Vleeskens. More recently, with Linda Adair as publisher, the press has focused on current poetry, specifically a series of chapbooks that includes the two books under review: Sarah St Vincent Welch’s OPEN and Juan Garrido Salgado’s Cuando Fui Clandestino / When I Was Clandestine.
OPEN is a first book, though as the biographical note indicates, the author has been writing, both poetry and fiction, for many years. The chapbook consists of ten poems and an untitled prologue. An initial overview will give a sense of the range in what is, after all, a short book. The first four poems evoke a semi-magical atmosphere; the next two, ‘Nintendo’ and ‘He won’t be any trouble’, offer gentle, comic, parental realism, the latter in the form of satire; ‘Archaeology of Gardens’ continues the parental theme in addressing the poet’s own mother; ‘Fox’ returns us to some of the strangeness of the earlier poems, evoking the figure of Vali Myers; ‘821.3 in the old Civic Library’ offers observational, suburban realism (and incidentally is not the only Australian poem to reference that call number in its title: David Prater’s ‘A821.3’ begins, ‘that place where we all someday hope to die / or rot at least’); and the book closes with a freewheeling prose poem on the theme of openness.
It would be fair to say that OPEN took this reader a while to properly appreciate, partly, and somewhat contradictorily, because of this theme of – and the book’s entreaty towards – openness. The emphasis on openness came across, at first, as tendentious, an attempt to shepherd one’s reading of the book in a particular direction, and at worst as a kind of special pleading for the openness of these poems, which was in any case unnecessary. But on further reading, these misgivings were not borne out; only the prologue and the final, title poem could be said to labour the theme, and the rest are left to do their own thing. ‘Open’ is invoked by St Vincent Welch also in a different sense, that is, different from the way we might think of all poetic language as having the quality of being ‘open’, this being open as an imperative. In other words, the book contains a call towards openness. This comes through in a number of ways: the cover image, slightly reminiscent of a Magritte, depicting rustic windowshutters thrown open to reveal an interior ocean; the title poem’s refrain of ‘open me’, and in the prologue, which aestheticises the appeal – the magic – of opening a book specifically, seeming to position this book almost as a grimoire. This latter sense is also apparent in the poem ‘Story Time’, in its evocation of the speed and inventiveness of children’s games, their ability to create worlds: ‘We are old now, he says’ – and then they ‘are’. The boy’s bedroom, in this poem, becomes the interior of a ship, and it’s here the story time of the title begins, embedded within a story already created by the boy, ending: ‘He says, This is where / the old man and woman / left their books. // We read them.’ The interesting thing about this poem, and others in the book with the same theme, is that play is not deprecated or merely observed from an adult’s perspective, but taken seriously and participated in.
The first poem, ‘Half Moon Bay’, alerts the reader to St Vincent Welch’s fondness for chiasmus-like repetitions: ‘we waded out / out through . . .’; ‘so many people waded back / waded back / through the bay’. These read as ‘urgings on’ of the poem as it continues, a way for the poem to go on by folding back on itself, something like a cobbler’s stitch, wherein the thread is doubled-back to strengthen the stitch, before continuing. This poem introduces the atmosphere of the semi-magical mentioned earlier. Things happen – ‘we waded out’, ‘I found you singing’ – but the connections between them are permitted to remain vague. The title’s evocation of incompletion, of midpoint, might connect to this poem’s most irresolvable lines:
in the old year’s night
in blue violent haze
so many people waded back
through the bay
Who are these people? And why are there so many of them? By these lines a poem that, from its first stanza, a reader might expect to resolve into a lyric commemorating a day at the beach with family or friends, turns strange. Are the people revenants? And is there any relation to the HMVS Cerberus hulk, mentioned in the first stanza, grounded as a breakwater in Half Moon Bay a hundred years ago? This poem exemplifies the double aspect of a number of these poems, on the daily world (‘quiet kitchens’) and a more mystical one, which Melinda Smith in her back-cover blurb describes as the poet’s ability to draw on ‘memory, myth and dream, while remaining tethered to life’s dailiness’.
‘Vasko asks me to play, and so I do . . .’ is influenced, as a note indicates, by the Serbian poet Vasko Popa. It begins:
in line we step now
now some out of line
long long toe steps
some now left behind
Which would go anywhere. It continues:
the wolf puffs, he
stills a statue, he
checks the sky
counts the shadows
we shout and totter
we scream and question —
what’s for dinner?
From this point – while keeping its pace, even speeding up – the poem moves into a mode of fragmentary impression, the pronouns of the first stanza (he, we) disappear, and it veers into a form of concatenated sound sense, commingling with nursery rhyme:
polished bone raps
bone poked skin
throw it missile straight
toss up hair high
high to pick up
quick a twelvsie
Without particularly wanting to challenge the old truism of the personal being political (by placing St Vincent Welch on one side and Garrido Salgado – of whom more shortly – on the other) these poems are personal, their meanings sometimes private ones. Something about the poems evokes for this reader the word ‘cherished’, which is definitely not to make a sly implication that they are over-esteemed by the poet, but rather the word is offered to try to communicate the sense that they feel lived-with, carefully selected, important for the poet, sometimes turned towards a realm of meaning and images that are intimate or private. While it is a reviewer’s cliché to conclude of a first book that it will be ‘interesting to see what the author does next’, in this case it seems justified; being a chapbook, OPEN provides only a glimpse of St Vincent Welch’s work, and yet within that, different directions are suggested, from the experimental to the more conventional.
Tuesday, December 8th, 2020
Ask Me About the Future by Rebecca Jessen
UQP Books, 2020
Is the future something to fear, or is it our saviour from the present? We have no idea what’s coming; we hope it’s something better, but suspect it’s only getting worse. In 2020, it is hard to be optimistic without caveats; you’re not alone in thinking of what lurks around the corner, or off in the distance, brings about a spike of anxiety. Is there still space for seeing what’s to come as a haven? Rebecca Jessen’s second literary publication but first poetry collection, Ask Me About the Future, though written in the Before Times (pre-pandemic), is a timely call to face our fears, to wade into the unknown with Jessen as our intrepid guide.
Ask Me About the Future is poetry as cartography, winging its reader through ports of bittersweet nostalgia and the rough sea of selfhood. The collection’s poems are waypoints; when followed, they reveal how quotidian occurrences and dramatic moments alike form a winding path through our lives. This churning journey whips up emotions like seafoam. The first poetry collection from Rebecca Jessen, author of 2014’s verse novel Gap, confidently, traverses the intimate, familiar spaces of beds and hometowns, suburbs and birthing suites. Gap, too, was shaped by a juicy preoccupation with connection, escape and love in all its forms, a fascination Ask Me About the Future takes up and extends. Here, Jessen’s potent sense of unbelonging, purposeful and melancholy, captures the feeling of waiting on a better world. Jessen describes these poems as ‘launch pads, not escape hatches’, a guide rail that is apparent in the collection’s concern with our propulsion into the future, as well as its refusal to sideline the past’s best efforts to tug us back down to earth. ‘11 Trippy AF Poems About the Total Eclipse’ recalls the 2017 total eclipse as ‘spying on the sun’, and suggests that ‘in the future we will look back fondly / at the pictures / and say things like / remember when / I Survived Totality 2017’.
The collection’s commitment to rocketing onwards doesn’t prevent Jessen from turning her gaze to matters of the present. A revelation of the imperfect present offsets a promise of goodness to come. In ‘triage’, the speaker says ‘there is no here. not for you.’ The future, on the contrary, appears in the collection as a place of progress and freedom. This is perhaps most explicitly explored in ‘Go Farther in Lightness’, a vision of a queer future viewed through a rocketship-shaped lens of retrofuturism. Jessen’s reflections on the past and present are the foundations from which her future imaginings sprout. Love is a major theme – familial, sexual, romantic. Jessen’s work deals with the ephemeral reality of emotions. As much as this collection looks forward, it is also a semi-nostalgic still life on past love and old family homes. Like in ‘some days’, where the speaker tells us ‘home is a big-screen TV and a three-tier cat scratcher’, and that ‘Mum’s place is like a time capsule. yet to be sealed’. Or in ‘prepare to merge’, where the central couple has become ‘the stock photo of ‘couple cooking’. ‘I keep my domestic past / folded squarely in my back pocket’, the speaker of ‘prepare to merge’ confides. ‘The Birthing Suite’ is a quiet epic, told from the perspective of an older sister as her younger sister gives birth, its sweetness and angst a perfect encapsulation of family drama. The ebbs and flows of intimacy are starkly painted, pinballing between contentment and anxiety. In ‘digging into eternity’, the speaker finds herself
at the rail underpass
you photograph me next to the other me
but I am larger than myself here,
where the stray cats skulk in the succulents
and planes fly so low I can taste
their metallic underbelly, where we kiss
with tea-soaked tongues, and I am still learning
the gentle ways to wake you.
Here, photography is a method of capture beyond the obvious – it splits the self into pieces, splits time into ‘now’ and ‘later’. The present is vivid and flavoured; the juxtaposition of metallic and tea-soaked a palate that distils the bittersweetness of losing yourself in love. These pieces feel crafted by a poet with skin in the game. Jessen’s authority on love and dating translates to humorous, cutting observations of contemporary text relationships and dating app woes. Jessen gives space for the unromantic romance of modern dating – in ‘(after) HER: dating app adventures’, the heart emoji is a repetitive, hollow marker between stanzas filled with txt spk, pick-up lines and winky faces, a distillation of the dating app game into the parts of its sum. (Jessen also asks the real questions here: ‘is it wrong to click ♥ because I think your Burmese is cute?’) The lived-in feeling her poetry arouses continues with her musings on twenty-or-thirty-something adulthood. In ‘The Late September Dogs’, blunt sentences are second person peerings into older-young-adulthood:
driving cars worth more than your self-esteem.
feeling like an old soul and too young to know what life really is.
Encapsulated in these poems is the quiet drama of being young-ish, playing with phrases that bounce around social media as much as they bounce around our heads. Jessen softly satirises the language of millennials, her self-deprecation reflective of a generation (mis)-characterised by an odd combination of self-obsession and self-loathing – ‘Season 1: 12 Episodes’ begins with ‘1. My life becomes a series of consults with Dr Google.’, and ends with the pithy ‘12. My life becomes a series on Netflix no one binge-watches’. ‘Self Portrait as Index’ similarly investigates the self as a series, indexing terms with the ages to which they correlate. ‘Chronic emptiness, 18–31’ and ‘dole bludger 18, 25, 30–31 / see also underemployed’ dwell with ‘aunty 21-31’ and ‘queer 18–31/ see also lesbian; soft boi’ in this systematic, funny-sad attempt to define the self. Jessen’s poetry, romantic and otherwise, is formed and informed by queer existence, explicitly and implicitly. Poems like ‘sillage’ beautifully engage with queer eroticism, painting desire with olfactory notes of ‘black plum and aniseed / late summer / cherry’ and ‘top notes of acetone’. Queer love poems still feel radical in their own vital way, and ‘sillage’ is a gem.
Monday, November 23rd, 2020
Edited by Michael Farrell
Tinfish Press, 2019
The presence of John Ashbery shines over contemporary literature, for many as an enigma, indisputably as a catalyst. Part of the post-World War II wave of new American poetry, his name is grouped not just alongside his contemporary poets but among their literary schools and movements: the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school, the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, our own ’68ers and J.A.
With its larrikinism and easy-going feel, even, not paradoxically, but inventively, at its most serious and radically experimental, it’s not hard to see how Ashbery’s poetry has almost always been popular with Australian poets, as much as the poetry of any other international poet. It is fitting then that Michael Farrell, undoubtedly one of Australia’s leading Ashberyians, has put together an anthology of Australian responses to John Ashbery’s poems, published just a few years after Ashbery’s death.
Ashbery Mode is a refreshing and innovative addition to Australian literature and a timely and illuminating opportunity to see how Ashbery’s mode has found expression in Australian poetry across two centuries.
I will first explore that expression by looking at how some of the most successful poems in the anthology adopt some of the most vital aspects of Ashbery’s mode in relation to poetic form, self, society and politics.
Let’s start with Ashbery’s use of the meta-poetic and a strategic metonymy. Ashbery can frequently be found commenting on his poetics within poems, whether cryptically, ironically or more directly. Ashbery’s poetry, like life itself, also presents a plurality of meanings. Often certain meanings are more dominantly implied and made buoyant by background strategies of metonymy. Even so, lines are simultaneously kept open to other interpretations, like music, acting as analogous channelings for any number of experiences or emotions.
Take these lines from the poem ‘Awkward Silence’ by Angela Gardner:
This is the moment to decide what to leave behind, instead
we get biblical, no longer recognisable. Familiar text
spews from what we say is our m. (marginalia) m m.. (marginalised)
m m m...(mouths).
The use of first-person plural invites the reader to position themselves as the poetic personae. In these lines, and the lines preceding, the specific situation has been kept vague. We are forced to lean into the language. Metonymically, with allusion to the creation of text and the ‘awkward silence’ of the title, we are leant into the interpretation that we are sharing the ‘awkward’ composition of the poem. In ‘our’ moment of deciding ‘what to leave behind’ we are taken over by an upsurge of ‘biblical’ but ‘familiar’ text. The narrative voice suddenly stalls and enters a comedic B-grade horror movie death throes, achieved with an A-grade literary acrobatics.
The conflict of composition is revealed as the conflict of self, a perpetual flux of inside and outside worlds.
Craig Hallsworth’s poem ‘Dolors’ begins with a meta-poetic moment which both parodies and hyper-realises the role of influence in poetry:
My mound was effectively to meet a poet
High up in the food chain – that is awful of me
I must admit In any case I imagine
He would have sat right where you are sitting now
Within the collocation of its line the use of ‘mound’ suggests lot and fate. Within the wider context of the stanza it meta-poetically suggests oeuvre. The authority or sanctimony of a poet’s status or voice is playfully diminished. The personae then bitingly presents poetry as a consumerist hierarchy before opening the fourth wall to bemoan the espousal.
Like in Ashbery’s poems ‘Rain’ or ‘Europe’ from The Tennis Court Oath, the scattered form of the poem presents the poem as process rather than product, as mental-activity concurrent with the page. All pronouns dissolve into the poem’s planar treacle ego and the space of the poem becomes an all-encompassing meeting place, integrative rather than imposing:
But then ask yourself
What am I not
A turgid member of Am I not every bit
As embrangled in these fatal paraphernalia Have I not
Myself on occasion found it rather cosy All of us
In a hyper-connected world where connection is often superficial and information is often torrential Hallsworth’s, following Ashbery’s, embodiment of a collective societal identity amounts to a radical democratic maneuver which constitutes ‘a commitment to democratic communication which is a challenge to, not a legitimization of, a society which makes it increasingly difficult’ (Herd 10).
In Ashbery’s poetry discursive tones and registers are blurred and mashed. The oversaturated and constellated nature of our discursive world is simultaneously illuminated and leveled out.
Take the following lines from a section of stanza two and eleven of Toby Fitch’s ‘All the Skies Above Girls on the Run,’ a collage poem assembled with parts of lines that reference the sky in Ashbery’s book-length poem Girls on the Run:
in the comet of the lighthouses
plastic star removal continues the real message
being written in big air bubbles
how serious we are as we dance in the lightning of your rhythm
like demented souls did we outwit you
The odd collocation of ‘the comet of the lighthouses’ echoes titles of American westerns and country songs such as Riders of the Purple Sage and ‘The Coward of the County’, the collocation of ‘plastic star removal’ echoes an advertised service such as ‘chipped paint removal’ and ‘written in big air bubbles’ sounds like the simplistic awe of a child. Shift to the next stanza and we have two lines that are more uniform in register and tone, presented with a verbose Elizabethan syntax.
In Girls on the Run this intricate tapestry of tone and register, aside from being delightful, presents the complex time-warp of the present in which the innocent girls must build and position their own identities, buffeted by a barrage of pre-existing positionalities and contexts. Fitch’s collage poem distills, rearranges and crystallises this effect.
The poem ‘Cloud Cover’ by Julie Chevalier exemplifies what John Koethe has called Ashbery’s ‘metaphysical subject,’ in which the subject or personae of the poem is refracted and dispersed, ‘yield[ing] only a personality or image that is ‘other’…timeless’ and knowable only as fragmented ‘surface’ (Koethe 92). Chevalier presents us with a series of floating images:
a cloudboat becalmed
a ghost ship sipping iced tea floating islands in a lemon sea
waves rolling in like mountains breaking iceberg floes ice blocks
a monolithic baldie a dancer a twister i couldn’t resist’ er
chicago daily trib clouds buck rogers clouds in the 25th century
The images and syntax appear like incomplete mental representations of an unmediated self, directly confronting the reader. The images crackle with personality. Associational sonic jumps like ‘iceberg floes’ to ‘ice blocks’ and the surrealistic, jumbled and retro subject matter give the impression of a daydreaming mind in scatter-thought. What is brought into relief here is the sheer magnitude of mind and identity.
Thursday, September 24th, 2020
blur by the by Cham Zhi Yi
Subbed In, 2019
‘I have always advocated: adding, adding and adding cultures and languages instead of literally eliminating them in the name of a pure identity.’
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. The sentiment belonged to the bisexual Spanish novelist (and scabrous critic of its society) Juan Goytisolo. Through the multiplication of languages, cultures, and viewpoints, Goytisolo sought to honour his birthplace’s Moorish and Jewish roots, and the long-suppressed influence of Arabic on the Spanish language. The project formed part of a broader mission aimed at undoing the strictures he inherited as a child growing up in Franco’s Spain: a stifling admixture of fascism, Catholic monotheism, and heteronormativity dubbed nacionalcatolicismo (Goytisolo credited the phenomenon with having given Spain a ‘long holiday from history’). He made his modus operandi even clearer ten years earlier, talking to Maya Jaggi for The Guardian:
The vitality of a culture is in its capacity to assimilate foreign influences. The culture that’s defensive and closed condemns itself to decadence. […] When I was a child in the 40s, the Catalan language was forbidden. I realised that to have two languages and cultures is better than one; three better than two. You should always add, not subtract.
Published last year, and receiving the 2019 Anne Elder Award, Cham Zhi Yi’s debut collection, blur by the, is informed by linguistic heterogeneity. Like Goytisolo, Cham employs a combination of languages and styles, raising questions about who speaks and who is spoken to. They question what it means to write your identity when others have already presumed to try to write it for you (even in a reductive and brutally essentialised form). For writers who have not traditionally been included in the Western canon, the problem is one of narrativisation and self-recognition; of always having to wonder whether you are the protagonist of your story, or simply writing against a colonial frame. As Cham observes:
i tell people to call me zhi. but
truly my heart swells when
my mother says me whole
i want to know this joy daily
but cannot bear
the affliction of a name
Cham’s poetry is founded in the interstices of her birthplace (and its Malay-Chinese inheritance) alongside the cultures of her adopted home (Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Ngarigu, and Canberra-based settler). She often makes connections between eating and migration as a way of exploring multiple cultural affiliations. Indeed, food functions as a useful metaphor for Cham’s entire practice: a substance that breaks down boundaries between internal and external, living and inert, essential sustenance and surplus pleasure. It also affords Cham an opportunity to demonstrate her keen eye for food’s detail and gauzy tactility: in the poem ‘colonisation 2 ways’ eggs are ‘white pepper bleed yolks/edible Pollock’.
At times, the food/migration motif can risk seeming like a familiar trope (although a large part of that problem lies with how food has been received and marketed locally, where it is made synonymous with a certain kind of liberal settler tolerance and cosmopolitanism). Farrin Foster recently wrote for Kill Your Darlings about how MasterChef’s latest season (internationally syndicated in 86 countries) has become a paradoxical source of soft power for Australia; one in which ‘A viewer in Port Moresby could conceivably be served this online ad demonising immigration to Australia, before switching on TV to see MasterChef contestant Khanh Ong speak emotionally about coming to Australia as a refugee.’ Although the presence of food in blur by the is perhaps closer to a source of sensual pleasure, a way of connecting with home, Cham also signals an awareness of how it may be received by a settler audience. During ‘let me by survived by loneliness’, a meta-authorial voice interrupts the connections Cham draws between hunger and nostalgia to speak directly to the reader:
when i wake i set about cutting & bruising anything that bleeds tears
cook everything that stings
begin eating a meal that will satiate my hunger before it does my nostalgia
put away the leftovers
ma i am wanting. i am wanting to go home. let home be as simple as proximity to you.
home need not be Swatow
– & because this poem is for a white audience let me clarify Swatow is the city in Guangzhou where generations ago my family was ‘from’. before australia. before malaysia. & generations before Swatow we must have been from elsewhere but my longing for this specific city stems from a fantasy: that no one in Swatow ever asked our ancestors ‘where are you from?’ –
Caught between the dilemmas of identity in Swatow (and it is worth recalling that the ‘swa’ or ‘shan’ (汕) of ‘Swatow’ refers to bamboo fish traps: the city was a fishing village during the Song Dynasty), Cham finds
despite my location my ancestors
all their trades their tongues their gods & their ghosts be my legacy
remind myself i am many
Subtle gradations of typographical colour serve to anchor the poet’s sense of liminal space, drawing attention to the way those less visible aspects of cultural inheritance might be limned on the page:
when did white arrive on the shores of time?
she too has been colonised
expel white from spine
let it be ash
But is the success of the colonial – and, by definition, assimilationist – project simply a matter of pragmatic acceptance on the part of those colonised? A resignation to the idea that material circumstance and exigencies demand adaptation to the dominant culture? And if so, what does the poet do with the redundancies that emerge from that acceptance? In a culture as determinedly (yet falsely) monolingual as Australia’s, the poet necessarily finds some part of themselves denied a voice, a purchase on a distinct identity. Dedicated to Naarm-based Oromo poet and artist Saaro Umar, Cham laments, in ‘post-Solange’,
what else am i to do. with
this moist southeast asian mouth
in the southern hemisphere
edge of split-fraying
loosening seatbelt like
ready to disembark
from this face
now that ive stowed away
four of my five tongues for winter
what else are they to do with me ?
The ‘Untitled’ sequence of poems shows how this abbreviation, the four of five tongues stowed away for winter, might be rendered visually legible. In ‘Untitled 1’ various words are blacked out. For ‘Untitled 2’, most of the poem is erased (and, had the pattern continued in this fashion, ‘Untitled 3’ might have simply been once large vertical black box; instead, different phrases are omitted). Occasional words surface like stray light, capturing the sense of self-permission described in ‘be sure we aren’t dreaming’: ‘allow myself/the mourning of redacted history’. The sequence is especially notable for drawing attention to what is missing – a kind of clarified erasure:
What you see is what you get; and what you get are those caesurae and absences that compose and structure poetry. It represents a kind of meta-working, a demonstration of how the poem (Here’s one I made earlier! ) is constructed. By rearranging the intercessionary redactions throughout the sequence, the poem assumes different readings, while leaving the reader to guess at what the initial gaps might signal.
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’.