FRESH Sunday, March 4th, 2018
‘Toward dusk,’ writes Brown in the book’s penultimate poem, ‘when the sky is passport blue, / you return via the National Performing Arts Centre, / its vast half-egg reflected in the stirring water.’ This poem, ‘Blank face double vision’, is reminiscent in certain ways of Lorca’s Poet in New York. Both Brown and Lorca use the phrase ‘blank face’ as well as the word ‘egg’.
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Thursday, March 1st, 2018
Accidents of Composition by Merlinda Bobis
Spinifex Press, 2017
Marianne Moore called it ‘courageous attack’:
today, you span the far mountains
with an arm and say,
‘this I offer you —
all this blue sweat
So begins ‘driving to katoomba’, from the first poetry collection that Merlinda Bobis published in Australia, Summer was a fast train without terminals (Spinifex, 1998). The opening is typical of Bobis’s inimitable gusto and extravagance: the lines follow the gesture of the body that reaches for a view, simultaneously craving and offering the world while delighting in the knowledge that both impulses remain unfulfilled.
Sappho wrote, ‘I love extravagance,’ and she would have loved it here – the speaker and her fellow traveller entwined in mutual acts of impossible exchange under a high noon throb: one offers the scent of the Blue Mountains; the other, her recognition of love in the fertile yet futile gesture. Trips to the Blue Mountains often appear in Australian poetry; recently, in ‘blue mountains line’, Andy Jackson wrote ‘the carriage is the colour / of tendon and bone’. I notice a similarity in each poem’s approach to this iconic Australian landscape, in the way the body’s relation to this space is framed through cinematic motion. There is a shared sense of fleeting vision, of temporary impression, of passing through rather than staying put, of un-belonging to the land. The fellow traveller offers nothing concrete to the speaker, only the ether made by leaves waving in the air.
Accidents of Composition is Bobis’s sixth book of poetry. It sits alongside an impressive and multiform body of work that includes prize-winning fiction, drama, radio production and musical performance. After reading through the collection several times, I discovered a disarming afterward:
Let the poem speak for itself. No poet must explain. Do not betray the labour. Yet I choose to reveal the accidents, the gifts behind the book.
It began on the 18 October 2014 in a tourist bus across the desert, after visiting the Grand Canyon. As we sped along, behind the glass window was a black bird close to the eerie sun, like a white hole against storm grey sky. I took a picture: an accident of composition. A poem. (‘Because: An Afterward’)
It is a privilege to witness this accomplished writer illuminate her work with such naturalness, and it is precisely in this spirit that the poetry in Accidents of Composition proceeds. Bobis concatenates sets of impressions made at high speed; hidden meanings and relations reveal themselves under the speaker’s powers of observation. As a form of representation a poem can be so like a photograph, somehow indexical, tracing felicitous transits in time through an uncanny framing of things briefly seen and gone: ‘Recall is loss / turned inside out’ (‘A Little Scene’). An assemblage of images carefully brought together, the collection often resembles montage film. Accidents of Composition is full of jump cuts across the globe and its history: Spain in the sixteenth century, China and the Philippines in the twenty-first. One particularly cinematic passage presents a striking play on poetry’s ur-metaphor – movement – in which the speaker crosses three train lines over three poems: Legazpi to Manila, Wollongong to Sydney, and a slow train from Albuquerque to a destination undisclosed. What does it mean to cross a border, and what does it mean to never arrive?
for a train about to leave.
for that trip from home:
Legazpi to Manila.
I hear it now
four decades or so later.
Intransitive verb: without an object.
Present tense: it’s ongoing
like a train of thought
that never quite arrives, because the pink
is too pink, the red
too swirly when one remembers
(‘A Little Scene’)
Unsettled modes of habitation have recently emerged in Australian literature as the substantial ethical improvement upon the putative notions of belonging shaped by earlier national writing. The problem with creative visions that claim a ‘sacred’ relation between settler-colonial culture and the land – as the critic Julie Mullaney observes in her analysis of David Malouf – is that these invoke Indigenous Australian discourses of belonging to place, often while simultaneously erasing actual Aboriginal people from that textual landscape and ignoring the historical realities of settlement. The tradition of ‘white nativism’ or ‘white indigeneity’ traverses genre and medium in Australian cultural production – film, television, poetry, popular music, literary and popular fiction, and photography. Australian modernist photography reified the notion of the white native through figures such as the bronzed surfer and the athletic life-saver and these images still dominate the global branding of Australia. Born out of a quest for national identity that began in earnest in the 1930s, white nativist ‘home-grown’ tropes appear time and again in Australian literature. And though anti-colonial and postcolonial interventions have made some headway in contesting and destabilising this tradition, writers of all colours still come up against what Mark Davis describes as the ‘white logic of nation’.
Bobis’s writing materialises in the overlapping contexts of emerging unsettlement and the de-facto tradition of writers of colour reporting from the margins. Bobis begins her 2010 essay, ‘The Asian Conspiracy: Deploying Voice/Deploying Story’, with this directive:
Imagine Australia sharing ONE tongue. I do not mean language, but literally that little pink and perpetually moist animal in the mouth.
There’s that courageous attack. How would we hold this slippery thing, use it for what we want to say, pass it to our neighbour when it is time to listen? In the essay Bobis presents an account of her nineteen-year ‘problematic journey’ towards her place in Australian literature. This story, she stresses, is only one story among the narratives of storymaking of Australian writers from varied Asian backgrounds. In a discussion on Australian literature, these personal stories behind the publishing lines are as crucial as our literature works or the theoretical discourse about us. Our creative production is more than the ‘finished texts’, products to be unpacked or projects to be problematised. It is a story-in-progress. Just as in immigration, hardly any one of us can fly over the gate, straight into citizenship.
How does one acquire ‘citizenship’ of a nation’s literature? Bobis arrived in Australia in 1991 from the Philippines. She came with ten years of university teaching experience and, already a published author, brought an aesthetic sensibility that had developed in part through formal literary training and in part through formative years of immersion in the hybrid dynamic of cultures and languages of the Philippines. Long after her arrival in Australia, Bobis continues to write in all three of her languages: the Bikol of her home in Albay (at the foot of the active volcano Mt Magayon); the Tagalog of Manila, the metropolitan centre; and English, the imperial language of the American colonisers. As Bobis wrote and researched her creative doctorate during her first years in Wollongong, she continued to chant, to sing, and to dance – code-switching between languages and methods of expression.
Wednesday, February 21st, 2018
Lonnie’s Lament: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present by ken Bolton
Wakefield Publishing, 2017
Ken Bolton’s most recent collection expresses an intense sociability, co-mingling personal and communal memory to create poetry that draws on moments of apparent ordinariness, and ever so subtly transforms them into lines of understated enchantment. The poems are typically written for and about people close to and loved by the poet, reflecting a sense of togetherness tinged with an anxiety over the aspects of everyday life that separate as well as connect. Shifting between recognition and anonymity, conscious of finitude and erasure, they comprise a form of metis, or art of working things out that previous generations (indeed, ages) once had, and whose humour mass society seems to have lost.
Lonnie’s Lament opens with a long poem dedicated to the memory of Philip Whalen, referencing the San Francisco Renaissance and Zen Buddhist poet from ’67, crossing the dateline with its concomitant ambiguities regarding time and imagination. The poem creates and negotiates a thicket of names and years, working things out, with preoccupations and divagations cut short, looping back, seemingly in search of, yet evading an ending. As it circles with near repeats and recurrences, the poem creates an awareness regarding history and the ambiguity as to where it starts and who it includes: the folly of trying to pin down what demands to be lived: ‘Dreaming?) / My body turning, in some future’. Throughout the volume Bolton questions the dates he gives, just as he consistently reaffirms the names of his friends, bringing them closer, contrasting their reality and immanence with the unreliability of time. This process of questioning and reaffirming juxtaposes intimate and historical memories with dates and figures open to doubt: ‘A century / of interesting Times. More. Beginning when? / 1871? 1789?’ Revolutions consigned to the uncertainties of the disappeared past leave traces that are discernible in the seemingly unrelated present, through what Whalen’s contemporary, Charles Olson, referred to as a ‘syntax of apposition’. Bolton’s stream of thought continues with: ‘Anna, Lila // Sal // “Omaha” – the tugs – // now that name always makes me think / of the beach landing at Normandy.’ These cryptic yet clearly placed connections present space and time as the elusive elements that comprise the overall tapestry of interlinked lives, the cast of the overall shadow play.
The proverbial interesting times are not immediately apparent in some of the calmer stretches and sensibilities evident. For instance, in the poem ‘Train Tripping’: ‘thinking // of Pam & Jane & Cath & / Pam’s question – as to what Cath // does alone on Bruny & my / explanation: fishing and hiking around, // dinner with Lorraine & Ian / & friends up in town // & Pam and Jane’s life in Blackheath: / what they do’. This mustering comes without melodrama or self-importance: naming is creating, or more to the point reaffirming the existence of who and what one loves. The familiar comes with its attendant angst, and with his need to pull these human strands together, perhaps the poet is telling us that domesticity takes place just so slightly out of one’s comfort zone, or at least the immediately known environment. ‘I play some Dave Holland / move around the house / / doing things, picking up, / tidying, straightening – / / inside, outside – time / like an element around me’. Hints of the proverbial noonday demon are offset by a gentle irony, just outside recognisable surrounds, ‘including the street / where I almost fancy / I can see the restaurant / I ate in for years / where they threw me out once / asleep before / my raznichi’. Bolton adds with a touch of mischief : ‘I was aghast. / How could they?’
Further out, literally overseas, at apparently random meeting points, the sense of estrangement amplifies and demands more solidity in response from places experienced. Given that a cup of coffee can become ‘something different / in Adelaide: / the price of an air ticket. A / view of the blue thru pines’, the narrator of the travel sketches that fill out the middle of the book states: ‘I never go to Asia. / It is not a firm enough idea.’ Direct or disingenuous? Possibly both. Considering the extremes of terrestrial limitation gives rise to some semantic wordplay on furniture and geological fissures along with a gentle mockery of human delusion of control: ‘can large aesthetic / continental shelves co-exist, / in detente? They / can if I say so.’ Make things work or leave them to their own devices: the results are likely to be equally inconsequential. An essential and delightful part of this book is that it converses and jokes and refuses to take itself too seriously: its underlying melancholia is moderated if not by outright mirth then a tone midway between levity and the titular lament. As with Whalen, whose self-effacement and humour Bolton shares, this is poetry which can be found in everyday life, and literally everywhere.
Through these understated operations, Bolton recreates existence in the close company of friends, fellow poets and self-objects. Like Whalen, whose self-portraits ‘from another direction’, find elements of affinity here, Bolton puts forward a series of vignettes, not entirely settled and at times almost intentionally unsure and displaced, yet which indicate an essentially optimistic, nuanced and multi-faceted outlook on this uncertain age. Lonnie’s Lament decries enclosure and conformity, while celebrating the quiet joy of close and loving connections, adding another impressive and humanistic work to its maker’s extensive and generous oeuvre.
Wednesday, February 21st, 2018
Passage by Kate Middleton
Giramondo Publishing, 2017
In the prefatory poem titled ‘Lyric’, Kate Middleton writes of ‘Voices torn, / pieced, re-sewn’, a phrase that neatly captures the allusive texture and patchwork procedures of her third collection Passage. The volume is replete with centos and erasures, that is to say, modes of vicarious composition that sing ‘by song’s own mesh of I/ of we’. Its keynote is perhaps provided by that innocuous preposition ‘after’ which occurs in the subtitle to so many of the poems (‘Lyric’ is itself ‘after Dan Beachy-Quick’ and begins with a quotation from his 2008 essay collection, A Whaler’s Dictionary). For Middleton is above all a poet of second sight, of the revisionary afterimage; a connoisseur of the residual intimacies that survive in photographs and paintings, the recesses of the body, and the ruins of a landscape.
Like Middleton’s last effort Ephemeral Waters (2013), a book-length paean to the Colorado River, Passage is primarily concerned with questions of travel and proceeds by juxtaposing human scales of movement and growth with animal or ecological ones. In the title poem, bowhead whales from the Pacific and the Atlantic are imagined reuniting in the Northwest Passage, a fabled sea-route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago now being thawed out by global warming as well as the site of a fatal expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845. Middleton establishes an arresting parallelism between the ‘century-old grazes’ sustained by the whales at the hands of nineteenth-century whalers – ’the jade, the slate, the ivory/ sharps/ lodged in blubber’ – and the ‘starvation; hypothermia; lead/ poisoning;/ scurvy; dread consumption’ suffered by the explorers who ate food from lead-soldered cans and possibly each other in their last days. But the poem’s pathos derives less from the record of an historic failure than the lapsing of a legend of human hubris. It seems to ask delicately: what will become of stories like the Franklin expedition (or even the Titanic) once the polar ice caps have melted away?
Voyages have afterlives; as stories of survival, they themselves live on in strange and unexpected places, picking up what Middleton had called in an early poem a ‘mythological second-wind’ (‘What is in this bird?-’ from 2009’s Fire Season). ‘The Queen’s Ocean’ reminds us of the solace that the Journals of Captain James Cook provided Marie Antoinette as she awaited execution:
her imagination roved beyond
the cell, beyond the Conciergerie, tiptoed
slipshod up to the waves
she could not quite picture—at Calais,
at Le Havre, at Brest, at Point-de-Grave—
and finally beyond. (10)
The lines dramatise the appeal of travel writing for the sequestered monarch – an appeal that depends both on the romance of naming and an encounter with the unnameable (like ‘after,’ ‘beyond’ is another preposition that attains nominal force). In such poems, Middleton shows an instinct for the representative moment, the wider world-historical shift writ small, and just as ‘Passage’ deals with global warming without making heavy weather of it, ‘The Queen’s Ocean’ delivers an elegy to the Enlightenment in which the nominalization of the world through imperial voyages of discovery is counterpointed by the de-nominalisation of the ancien regime nobles (‘The Queen’ become ‘the Widow Capet’ become ‘Prisoner 250’).
Names, of course, proliferate throughout a volume in which Middleton summons up a whole host of tutelary spirits whose words she has fused into unforeseen eloquence: from contemporaries such as Luke Carman, Siri Hustvedt, and Eliot Weinberger, to golden oldies such as William Tyndale and Sir John Mandeville, to the lost-and-founds such as Isabelle Eberhardt (an early twentieth-century Swiss explorer and diarist who converted to Islam) and S P B Mais (once dubbed ‘the Modern Columbus’ by the BBC, though probably more accurately thought of as the Robert Macfarlane of the interwar period). Mais is the most conspicuous presence as Middleton ‘gleans’ (as she puts it in the helpful ‘Notes’ section) a series of erasure poems from his 1932 radio broadcasts titled This Unknown Island. Not much of the cosy self-recognition that Mais conjured up for his audience is left after Middleton’s alchemy of omission:
Think of home. The home of your ancestors. Of sun
and a child’s alphabet. A Lilliput of words and meadows.
Blast it with dynamite. (20)
When placed alongside the centos, certain patterns emerge: Middleton’s telegraphic compressions have a tendency to turn matter-of-fact indicatives or coaxing interrogatives into bracing imperatives; the physical strenuousness of Wanderlust often gets transmuted into the moral strenuousness of spiritual allegory. But these compositions retain the joy of chancing upon something half-invented and half-discovered that seems to have animated Mais’s travelogues in the first place (the England he sets out to find having already been prepared for him by Emily Brontë or Thomas Hardy or Arthurian legend).
On the whole, however, Passage is distinguished less by its continual textual gambits than by its absorbing appreciation for all that is singular. What Middleton has assembled here is nothing short of a cabinet of curiosities: a piece of gravel from Plovdiv, the oldest living land animal, the Chimera of Arezzo, a gynandromorph butterfly, the regenerative heart of a day-old mouse, the verb ‘guddle’. One comes away from this collection charmed and grateful to have been able to read and ‘reread the riotous colour of grace’.
Tuesday, February 6th, 2018
The Criminal Re-Register by Ross Gibson
UWA Publishing, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent. – Dragnet
This is a volume of (mainly) prose poems, derived by its compiler/adaptor/author Ross Gibson, from a large dossier of New South Wales Police records. If these can be described as ‘found’ poems (even if they have been edited) it would be as likely to refer to them as ‘accidental’. Certainly, these portraits and narratives may be challenging and at times infuriating, but when fully firing they are art, very entertaining and most instructive. Centred on criminals and missing persons, the cache Gibson has discovered seems to have been made for poets to find, they being much too important for writers of contemporary Australian prose fiction. One could of course imagine plenty of such material appearing in an historical Selected Documents anthology, in particular the prologue section ‘Notes for Detectives and Men in Plain Clothes.’
Why, though, poetry as the destination? Because so much of The Criminal Re-Register is propelled by language, a strange police dossier lingo from Sydney in 1957. Did the police involved realise they were concocting something fairly akin to poetry? I doubt it. Rather, it’s as if they had been instructed: ‘Whatever you do don’t write poetry …’ and little realising, they did it. Poetry for them may have had been connected with big rhetorical sweeps, and these were the domain of barristers, weren’t they?
Allied to the fodder for imagination, certain authors and their traditions came to mind reading the book: Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology of 1915, that wonderful sequence of brief monologues and a verse novel ahead of its time; the biographical portraits and the ‘Newsreel’ and ‘Camera Eye’ sections of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy; and Pi O’s epics, 24 Hours and Fitzroy the Biography, wherein he forges an incomparable bond between the documentary and the demotic. Though 1957 was too early to see much connection with television cop drama (that medium only arrived in late 1956), the stark style of the reports adapted by Gibson brings to mind the Los Angeles-based series, Dragnet. Quite often the folk Gibson portrays read like they are in some twenty-five minute Sydney-based episode in miniature.
Are these found / accidental / documentary poems to be judged by the rules of more conventional verse? When required, maybe; though for The Criminal Re-Register I’ll give an example as to where I stand vis-à-vis found poetry, giving my benchmark for such a genre. In the late 1970s I possessed a newspaper advertisement promoting an exclusive housing development out of Brisbane. This took the form of a letter from a very excited young property developer to his mate in wintry old Melbourne extolling Karana Downs, its country club and golf course. Far smoother than mere ocker it was more ‘young man in the know’ to fellow ‘young man in the know’, saying so much about those times, probably without being aware of it. I loved this piece of Australiana so much that I had to spread the word and would be found reading ‘Karana Downs’ aloud at dinners and parties. Soon folk were clamouring for it, near chanting for a recitation. That most were quite stoned doubtless added to the clamour. Was this ad a ‘found’ poem, was it indeed poetry? Well, it was a damn sight more performable than plenty of performance poetry I’d heard, and much more poetry than plenty of contemporary Australian verse I’d read. It had wit, it had vigour, it used the language imaginatively and it was a hit. Who cared about the ‘White Shoe’ values it expressed when the product and its promoter sounded great? Indeed, one wonders if its hyperbole was concocted by the agency to have some kind of laugh at the client’s expense … surely not!
Given the choice between a dull poem and a lively less-than-poem it’s obvious where I’m heading with The Criminal Re-Register. For one of the book’s delights, its major fuel, is that very formal, official cop-speak used in the reports, which hardly goes with the Police Force’s walloper reputation. Thus (and notice the amount of sheer observation and speculation):
Last seen at Central Railway Station carrying a green canvas sack cinched with red twine. Maybe at large in Bathurst or parts further west, or may have suffered a misadventure instigated by any one of the myriad reprobates he has antagonised in recent years.
Or try this:
Offender is of quiet disposition, sober habits, a dapper dresser and keeps no known criminal associates. A neophyte thief, perhaps in thrall to a newly risen mania that cannot be tempered by his will.
And once you are accustomed to such straight-faced seriousness, try imagining:
Fair go mate, just name us some myriad reprobates you’ve antagonized
Admit it, sonny, you’re nothing but a neophyte thief […] now tell us of your newly risen mania, we’ll understand.
And then there are those beautiful sentences telling enough with just so much being hinted at: ‘Ten minutes alone in a dim cell primes him ready to talk’; and ‘May have jumped a rattler to Casino’; and ‘Suffers from lumbago and irritable spirits.’ Or look at these from ‘Assorted Malefactor Quirks’ for which police should be on the lookout:
Skiting of unusual prowess: E.G. as a crooner, a songwriter, a fondler and copulatory, a horse or dog trainer, a floral arranger, a dancer, a bushman, a comforter of the sick, a hospital troubadour, a guardian angel to children.
Monday, January 29th, 2018
redactor by Eddie Paterson
Whitmore Press, 2017
As a physical object with an online extraction, Eddie Paterson’s new book of poems, redactor, presents the performance of mark-making in an ever expanding digital sphere. The juxtaposition between the white of the page and the black of the ink has long provided a site for textual collision, one that was used to great effect by the concrete poets and the French Symbolists. Out of the deep web’s detritus, Paterson’s collection discovers new poetic spaces of beauty in the banality of our metadata.
As feeds refresh and emails are automatically vetted for junk, redactor reclaims writing that would otherwise be lost, all the while preserving the decadent excess of digital information and communication, as the reader traverses the ‘aisleform’ of images that fit-out the collection’s mise-en-scène. Whilst found poetry and cut-ups, epistolary poems, and lyric monologues are all present in this collection, Paterson affirms a poetics of attention in the context of a superabundance of cultural production, naming his way through film titles, basketball players, critical theorists and fashion accessories. Paradoxically, the poetic practices of attention-grabbing and attention-holding are best exemplified by Paterson’s with-holding, embodied by the black mark: the redaction.
That the redactions are not random and that they are persistent throughout the collection remind us there is one actor performing. This redactor (or (red)actor) elicits a verfremdungseffekt by creating distance between the ‘i’ of the poem and the reader as the Brechtian directive suggests. By obscuring names and gendered pronouns, the Rimbaudian je est en autre is here remixed to establish a subject that, much like an online avatar, is capable of transcending the limits of the physical. This evasive performance of subjectivity negates the possibility for a reader to experience direct empathy or cathartic transference with the speaker and correspondingly the stage is cleared for the creation of an elaborate aesthetic through language.
In the same manner that Basquiat’s strikethroughs inevitably highlight the partially obscured text on his canvases, Paterson’s redactions demand the reader’s attention by their suggestion of silence in the steady flow of (non-acoustic) monologue. Formally, the monologues (and implied dialogues) in redactor are performed through statistics, articles, emails and instant messages. When Truman Capote slurred the work of Jack Kerouac as typing – not writing – few could have anticipated the personal computer (and by extension the smartphone / tablet) and the impact that these online typing machines would have not simply on creation, but on communication. Reading the physical copy of redactor as an anthology of calls and responses apprehended brings the audience into the immediate moment of poetry. The performance of creative writing in Paterson’s world becomes an instantaneous and embodied process of text communicated: generated as fast as the fingers move and read as quickly as the broadband connection allows.
Some wonderful blurring of the physical and digital occurs in redactor, particularly in the incantatory displacement of the poem ‘alert, but not afeared’. Beginning, ‘do not be alarmed. eddie the computer has taken on a life of its / own’, this poem equivocally warns a human about the improved capabilities of AI and / or assigns a subjectivity to ‘eddie the computer’, granting it its own non-gendered pronoun.
The aptly titled ‘rhetoric’ makes the case for reading the digital stage into this collection. The poem assumes the guise of an email / instant message that ends, ‘it’s about how it’s your birthday & i / really wanted to say happy birthday. happy birthday’. Informed by J L Austin’s theory of the performative speech act, this poem performs the birthday wish without the requirement of some other place or platform for the speaker to say happy birthday. Equally, ‘verfremdungseffekt’ is not just the title of a poem, but the actual enactment of what it purports.
This passage from ‘flow’ provides an insight into Paterson’s ironic displacement of the actor, as clothing is raised to the level of costume:
punk dressing went well though, as suspected, the
intellectual deliciousness of a person who identifies strongly
with the punk dressing up as a fake punk was lost to all.
Filmic titles used throughout the collection time-stamp the poems, but also suggest mise-en-abyme. In ‘just to the right of the heart of it’ the speaker’s re-watching of the film ‘Robocop’ is an important marker between the ‘hysterical garbage’ of a contemporary alien invasion film ‘battle: los angeles’ and the ‘white ribbon
xxxxxx films about nazi germany i generally don’t see’, both temporally and aesthetically. ‘Robocop’, as part-man/part-machine, suits the collection’s liminal treatment of the physical/digital by being neither dazzlingly post-modern nor pretentiously modernist. One can imagine the cyberpunk action hero redactor in its kitsch late-eighties resplendence tearing through a warehouse of digital correspondence brandishing a black marker.
The final poem in the collection, ‘love poem’, offers the best synecdoche for redactor. ‘love poem’ consolidates the collection’s aesthetic accretion of stuff, taking ownership for every aforementioned movie trilogy, serialised drama, basketball statistic, kitsch accessory and instruction manual. Heaping one reference upon another, Paterson shows how the accumulation of language can be purposed to build a wall for the actor to hide behind. As the poem continues one realises Paterson is not only assembling imagery, but also building toward a dramatic conclusion, eventually breaking this fourth wall with the poem’s final couplet:
have optimus prime wolf parade david hockney roman holiday
leave me with the park with the sun & that afternoon when
unexpectedly you moved away from kafka & toward me.
In a collection where ‘russel crowe’ (who ‘consistently brings us to tears’) and ‘hugo weaving’ (who stars in a poem ‘no one seems to get’) feature prominently, Eddie Paterson, emerges at the close of ‘love poem’ as an Australian leading man, capable of a deft and show-stopping performance.
Monday, January 29th, 2018
The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky
edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin
UWA Press, 2017
On 2 July, 2017, my father sends me an article about Jewish Australian poet Fay Zwicky’s passing in Perth. I am four months into my Masters in Brisbane, where I am writing a manuscript of poetry and a thesis about tensions between my Jewish identity, memory, mental illness and hybridity as mediated through cultural objects and poetry. Fay Zwicky is one of my contemporary case studies and as I read through the article, I discover that the day before she died at age 83, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky was published, spanning her life’s work.
After long silence my broken world sits sweet
with memory, its beauty dries my tongue
Including seventeen uncollected poems at the end of the collection, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky also contains her previous works Isaac Babel’s Fiddle (1975), Kaddish (1982), Ask Me (1990), The Gatekeeper’s Wife (1999) and Picnic (2006), in order of publication. An introduction from editors Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin gives insightful context to her works, as does Zwicky’s important essay ‘Border Crossings’ (2000). Both the introduction and ‘Border Crossings’ are pertinent additions to the collection as they discuss Zwicky’s cultural background and the Jewish rituals that inform her poetry.
The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky shows Zwicky’s style evolving from her earlier poems. However, there are still strong connections between these early and later poems; this is made particularly evident by the presence of Jewish motifs. Weaving together Jewish references through her witty, often-rebellious voice and her play on language, these can be traced back to Zwicky’s first collection Isaac Babel’s Fiddle. The title poem, ‘Isaac Babel’s Fiddle Reaches the Indian Ocean’ contains an extract from Babel’s short story Awakening and opens with Zwicky’s lines:
Just try and cast a piano
In the sea
Take it from me, you’ll
Never make it.
Her voice rises to the fore in Kaddish, which brought her international recognition, and continues powerfully throughout her later collections. Drawing on her training as a classical pianist, Zwicky’s poems have musicality, rhythm and revel in sound, giving voice to women and minorities previously silenced by history. In her series ‘Ark Voices’ from Kaddish, Zwicky speaks through Mrs Noah and animals such as the Hippo, Wolf, and Whale. Her uncollected poem ‘Domestic Architecture’ heralds back to this theme, also evident in the title poem from The Gatekeeper’s Wife:
Severed from my ancestors
I light a candle for you
Every night inside a clay house.
Memory is only half the story.
In ‘The Terracotta Army at Xi’an’ in Picnic, Zwicky lets the voiceless Emperor Qinshihuang, the spear bearer, the cook, the farrier, the archer and the potter speak through poetic monologues. Dougan and Dolin write in their introduction that Zwicky had a fear of being unable to speak and of losing her voice. In ‘Ask Me’, Zwicky explicitly references this anxiety of speechlessness as the speaker crosses China, America and Australia:
It’s the year of the Dragon.
Omens for the journey aren’t encouraging.
No language and I’m booked
on China airlines. In Hong Kong I dream
that I am born without a tongue
and wake up screaming…
—excerpt from ‘China Poems 1988’, part 1 ‘Roosters and Earthworms’
Of all Zwicky’s poems, her title poem from Kaddish best showcases the Jewish motifs displayed throughout this collection, and her reconfiguring and refreshing of language and ideas. ‘Kaddish’ is an elegy for Zwicky’s father and one of her most famous works, which took eighteen months to write. Drawing on Hebrew from the Jewish Mourner’s Prayer (the Kaddish), Zwicky also references the Passover song Had Gadya (One Little Goat) and turns the words upside down, making familiar melodies unfamiliar through metaphor. As I have recited the Passover songs every year since childhood, Zwicky’s inversion of Had Gadya is like a spot-the-difference game of rearranged fragments.
Zwicky credits the authors and influences that helped her find a voice in the 1970s: the Jewish American novelists Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, whose work gave her a community that she felt she lacked in the Australian context. She also discovered Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Kaddish’ seventeen years after it had been published, and this was the breakthrough that made her feel freer to finish writing her own ‘Kaddish’.
For Zwicky, poetry has always seemed to be ‘a source of hope, a means of speaking against an orthodoxy, be it religious, political, or social’. Featured at the end of the book, Zwicky’s new and uncollected poems continue in these modes. For example, in her poem ‘In Rehab’, Dr Kiberu asks ‘are you religious?’ and Zwicky writes ‘I could be but not so you’d notice’. This line intersects with Zwicky’s major themes of Jewish identity in her earlier collections and is one that resonates throughout The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky.
As a Jewish Australian woman writer, I am grateful that Zwicky has shown the possibilities of poetry for others to follow. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky is an extremely valuable addition to literature and a beacon for minority women’s voices to continue to break conventions, write and speak out.
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
The Quiet Blue World, and Other Poems by Rachael Mead
Garron Publishing, 2015
Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy
UWA Publishing, 2017
The chapbook is the ideal public presentation of poetry for the times in which we live. It is even more portable than the conventionally slim collection; its humbler production values permit poets to get their work ‘out there’, thereby meeting the democratic criterion of accessibility for both poet and reader, and it is conducive to the rigours of thematic focus that a small body of work encourages. Long may it flourish.
Garron Publishing’s cover design for Rachael Mead’s chapbook, The Quiet Blue World, and Other Poems, misleads – it invites the reader to anticipate a fairy tale, when the poetry is hard-edged and very much of this world. Mead observes that world closely and keenly, though not romantically. In our assault upon the very processes of natural renewal, a distinctly non-romantic mode of writing the natural world is called for, and for this Mead can serve as an exemplar. Not that she does not recognise beauty; she is as adept at depicting beauty at sea as she is on land. She writes, in the title poem, of:
… the bobbing disk of birds.
Then the pod of dolphins, gleaming like needles
sewing the swell with their swift running-stitch.
And finally the orca, hunting the peaks and ridges
of their world, parting from the faces of waves
which open to them like the throats of seabirds
taking fish in one clean swallow.
This could easily slip into lyrical sweetness, but Mead is at sea to dive – in a cage! – into Great White habitat, and in the following sections of the poem, when this actually takes place, the very drama of the event serves as an antidote to any temptation to a starry-eyed tone of telling.
My favourite poem is the one that follows the title sequence, a poem in three sections entitled ‘What the Fire Didn’t Touch’. In this poem Mead unsentimentally dissects the loss of the family home to bushfire, along with her emotional reaction to it. The writing is precise, its evocation vivid. In what I presume to be the generation of the poet’s parents, a mother’s world merged with the world of the home. I am reminded of Meyer and Schapiro’s notion of ‘femmage’, the woman’s art of the home-making collage, a quilt-patterned geography of meaning, one characterised by complexity and creative clutter. The home, then, is much more than a merely functional edifice, given its elaborate knit of emotional meanings. To fight for the home against the threat of fire was to fight death itself:
Mum, who was never late for a day in her life,
woke up early for her death and missed it.
With her nightie pulled up over her nose
and wielding water in Grandma’s preserving pan
she was focused on the flames
and didn’t notice her death slink away
through the charred hole in the laundry ceiling.
This opening passage seems capable of multiple interpretations, many of them probably more cogent than the one I have advanced, but at her best Mead is like this; descriptively strong and clear, emotionally and conceptually complex, even enigmatic. It makes for striking poetry.
But I want to return to the notion of femmage, that essentially feminine quilted pattern of creative meaning. I have introduced it in connection with a single stanza, focused on the author’s mother, in a single poem – but it seems to me that this notion powerfully informs Mead’s own praxis. The structure of the longer poems is that of collage – no great insight there, as that is a common mode of organising longer poems – but it may be that Mead has a front-of-brain awareness of why she does this, as the metaphoric field from which she draws relies heavily on those domestic crafts.
Yet in the final poem in her collection, ‘Behind Locked Doors’, an uneasy amble through a cemetery evokes disquiet over the reduction of lives to a few sparse lines. The poet of nature – the poet with a sense of the interconnectedness of all things – supplants the poet of femmage. She is looking, it seems, for more than the mere ‘pieces’ we use to weave stories. The pieces in themselves are unsatisfactory, the edges and lines arbitrary. They hide a more profound reality, and she gives voice to it in the lines with which she closes the poem and the collection:
… below the hard packed earth
the dead slowly get on with their dark work
of sifting themselves back
into the green world.
I read those lines and straightened my back – I’d just experienced one of those rare ‘I wish I’d written that’ moments. This is a fine small collection, then, one that does the chapbook format proud – tightly themed, resonant and democratically accessible.
Each of the volumes reviewed here demonstrate the extent to which the nature writing tradition can encompass a hard-edged non-lyricism. In Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms this is embodied in the enigma of the central motif of the snake. The intrigue begins with its title – no hyphen – thereby creating an ambiguity which is allowed to remain tantalisingly open. Not every poem features an encounter with, or a meditation on snakes, but one potentially lies in wait on every turn of the page.
In the case of snakes, the lyrical trend in nature writing has manifested in a tendency to depict them as misunderstood creatures, as forms of animal life to be primarily categorised by their remarkable beauty. The best-known exemplar of this is D H Lawrence’s much-read poem, ‘The Snake’. I, too, find snakes beautiful; so, on occasions, does Joy. But there is no escaping the fact that, exceptions notwithstanding, humankind has a visceral fear of snakes that kicks in sub-rationally, sending a wave of adrenaline coursing through one’s body. There are variations on this primal fear, with utter horror at the extreme end of the spectrum, and Joy is more inclined to explore these reactions than to sing of a lyrical beauty. The book is threaded with menace. Just when you thought it was safe to declare yourself at home in nature you are confronted by ‘the near silence/of an unseen snake in the grass’ (‘Spectacular Snakes’).
I suppose it’s okay to refer to Joy as a nature poet, for the snake is not the only form of more-than-human life within these pages, and the reader is always aware that this is poetry of the outdoors; poetry of wide views and skies. Joy is even explicit about it, telling us, in ‘Sensed through Opaque Windows’:
It’s hard to understand architecture
when my past is sea and desert.
But, just as with Mead, Joy’s poetry of nature is decidedly unromantic. That central motif of the snake ensures it so. It articulates the gulf between our fascination with nature and our inability, as a cultivated species, to be as one with it. The snake is there, over the next log perhaps, or in the empty wading pool with the author’s daughter (‘Wading Pool’), or in another young girl’s bedroom, drinking there from the saucer of milk (‘The Snake’s Ghost’). Nature, Tennyson told us, is ‘red in tooth and claw’. He should have added ‘fang’. And sometimes this brutality spills over into full-blown Gothic horror. In ‘Sea Krait, Broome’, we are given this:
After three days of seated travel
I lunge from the car, sprint the length
of jetty, deaf to the man screaming
warning. Only in mid-air do I look
down to the sea, the time it takes
Two yellow and black krait, vivid
bandwidth of danger, turning on
the turquoise surface, and all
I can do, is fall
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
Constitution by Amelia Dale
Inken Publisch, 2017
Aquarium Drift by Yasmin Heisler
SOd Press, 2016
Amelia Dale’s Constitution is deep blue with the Commonwealth Coat of Arms on the cover; it looks like a passport. Yasmin Heisler’s Aquarium Drift features, as its first image, a colour scan of Aquarium Fish (a 64-page special issue of the magazine World of Wildlife) with ‘Fish’ crossed off and in its stead ‘drift’ in aquamarine type off-centre on the page.
Each collection inhabits and collages other texts. And while the process of collage can be described, and its ingredients and method prescribed, the outcome of the process – the art – is alchemical. Dale’s source text for Constitution is transcripts of Malcolm Turnbull in interview on The 7:30 Report. And Constitution’s alchemy is its humour, its inducement to laughter. For instance, in ‘Chapter I, Part I, 3.’: ‘But in terms of editorial matters, a lot of people write to me all the time and say. Some people actually think.’ In Aquarium Drift, the alchemy is in the movement in fragile moments of narrative: ‘fish keepers look consumed’ (from ‘Useful scavenger fish’) and ‘restless dead / markings clear lips other internal markings’ (from ‘Egg-laying fish for the aquarium’).
Yasmin Heisler introduces Aquarium Drift with its concept of composition: ‘[a] single word from each paragraph in Aquarium Fish [the magazine] has been used to compose the following poems. The magazine’s subheadings are the poem’s [sic] titles.’ I was curious about the magazine and went hunting for it, unsuccessfully. The best I could do was tally the words in the poems – there are 265 (or 269 if you count hyphenated words as two distinct words …) of them – that’s four or five paragraphs a page. But, the magazine is only an echo of itself in the poems.
Every poem but the final one sits next to a photograph of two pieces of beach treasure: dry coral, shells, rocks. The poems, with titles sounding like captions – ‘Pools and ponds as coldwater aquariums’ or ‘Indoor water gardening’ – take on the quality of photographs in the sense that they record and catalogue. These poems exhibit images upon images, next to each other, falling into each other. The poem ‘Indoor water gardening’ witnesses ‘lighting bodies permanganate stick on / travellers acid strap-like lace’. Heisler crafts momentary narratives by transforming what-once-were-probably-nouns in Aquarium Fish into what-can-be-verbs in Aquarium Drift. The ambiguities are multiple: ‘they pocket backgrounds/the masses shell delightful like’ (‘Anemones, corals and shells for the aquarium’).
Unlike Aquarium Drift, Dale’s Constitution contains no explicit details of its source text, or its method of organisation. Elsewhere, Dale has explained that the source is transcriptions of Turnbull in interview on The 7:30 Report. The transcriptions have been edited by Dale to ‘make the convolutions of his speech visible’ (Messenger).
Constitution is a text that destabilises – it makes liquid one of the base texts of the nation of Australia and diffuses the words of the nation’s 29th Prime Minister. Constitution also warps the reader’s apprehension of the formal document. It is hard to read: the difficulty deflects readerly expectations about how a text should be organised. Constitution begins with the title and ends with the publication details, as if an afterthought or final secret, on the final page.
Footnotes, for instance, don’t lead anywhere, tables of data are empty of information besides Turnbull-speak, and the words of the text are organised linearly. But they are more than linear – they are absolutely linear: headings, subheadings, references, the table of contents, copyright information all slot directly into an unrelenting string of Turnbull-speak. ‘Chapter VIII’ begins:
Chapter VIII—Because It’s Not as Interesting as the Gossip
128. But the fact is22
There’s as enormous amount of common ground about what the shape is going to be:
Beyond its textual organisation, however, this poem is hard to read because the content is so self-similar you feel that you might start anywhere, rearrange, chop and change the text without effectively altering it at all.
Constitution is often laugh-out-loud funny – Turnbull fails standards of etiquette and conversation again and again: ‘Thank you. Great to be with you. Well that’s not right, actually’ (‘Chapter I Part III 24. (ii)’). Or: ‘From the first day: / (i) of the election, once we got into office, I said: “You have to be.” And so they were’ (from ‘Chapter I Part III 44.-44. (i)’).
The comedy of the poem is an unstable thing. Dale says, ‘It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his’ (Messenger). Turnbull himself is not particularly funny; his speech is deadening and bland. His government is not funny. In only the last weeks it has overseen and overlooked incredible violence towards asylum seekers, humiliation and dehumanisation of Australia’s queer community. But the emptiness, blandness, visible irritation, condescension and contempt Turnbull expresses towards his interviewers – and towards the citizens of Australia – when taken out of context and scrubbed of specific political reference, the words are so revolting and shocking that they become ridiculous and induce laughter. That these pages and pages of words fail so thoroughly to communicate anything concrete at all is hysterical. Who could say all this and yet so little? Hahaha! A J Carruthers has written of experimental poetry in Australia that its essential purpose is political – it seeks to ‘decolonise, question and critique nation and culture’. The poem is funny; its source material is not.
Monday, January 8th, 2018
Goodbye, Cruel by Melinda Smith
Pitt Street Poetry, 2017
Members Only by Melinda Smith and Caren Florance
Recent Work Press, 2017
Seeking to cast light on Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel alongside her collaborative work with Caren Florance titled Members Only is like approaching a hive of fully-formed poems. Your step halts in awe of the air abuzz, as your gaze zooms into vivid sharpness. Though thematically and stylistically distinct, these two collection burst with ideas, energies, shapes and reconfigurations of lexicons. They are laden with ripe, yet sharp, shape-changing artefacts.
As the pause in the title foreshadows, Goodbye, Cruel asks the reader to fill in the gaps across its poetic and thematic spectrums. It is in five parts, each one particular in focus and tone, yet also bound by a shared elegiac strand that combines landscape markers of geographical location with myth, intertextual references and enactments of crisis. It is a late modern elegy belonging to a hybrid genre that combines life writing, an Australian version of pastoral, with elements of allegory and tragedy. The collection tackles various topics and processes of disruption, interruption, redress and reparation where loss is finally transfigured through the creative act of writing. An exception to that transfiguration is in the second section and title sequence where, as they should, words fail to convey the despair at the heart of the ellipsis: ‘Goodbye, Cruel …’
The first section of the book, ‘Tiny Carnivals’ takes its title from one poem, ‘Leaves from the Lovers’ Almanac’:
here I am
to a tiny carnival
The theme of impossible or broken relationships is announced in the first poem, ‘A never-to-be-repeated-spectacle,’ a bittersweet piece that sets the tone for a kaleidoscope of experimental poems, some prompted by an image, scene, phrase or even graffiti – one is generated through a phone’s predictive text. These are playful, fun and inventive poems despite their elegiac undertow. As if to warn the reader of what is to come, this undertow grows in strength with the unfolding of ‘Tiny Carnivals.’
Suicide is the topic of the next section. To die by one’s own hand remains a taboo in societies where life is supposed to be a gift. It is therefore a fraught issue; a topic shrouded in silence. This is ironic as there are now websites listing ways of ‘doing it’ against graphs highlighting success rates in colour for the browser’s convenience. So, anecdotally, when it was confirmed that French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had indeed committed suicide by jumping off his third floor apartment, I could not help but silently praise his research skills. Yes, the most effective way to go. Head first, preferably. For those who think about it, the question of ‘how’ is paramount. For those who remain, it is the question of ‘why’ that matters. For them, there is often no answer, no closure, no comfort but the painful passing of time. The poems in the second section, ‘Goodbye, Cruel’, tackle these questions.
Smith approaches her topic obliquely through an ‘I’ with multiple voices and personae as well as an eye with multiple perspectives. With their common references to houses and rooms and paddocks and daily routines, the poems might set up a frame of domesticity or a shelter against various scenarios of loss and death; but there are no fixed frames here, only points of departure in the representation of a dynamic process pitting life against death, with lingering grief and incomprehension. The very ambiguity of the title of the last poem, ‘Contemplating the gap’, confirms the indeterminacy at the heart of this section.
To decide to end one’s life is an irrevocable decision. ‘A willed departure on foot’, a poem appropriately set on the way to the sacred Mount Kailah in Tibet, dramatises the irrevocability of this decision. It works by accretion and repetition, embodying the death drive, as it were:
Prayer flags on the bridge
stirring, all blowing only one way
the way you are going
treading rocks, ice, moss, grass.
Sun splitting the cloud
scraping its blade over the stones, their foreheads
flaring to yellow, to bright lichen-red.
In this tender yet brutal allegory, the protagonist is an anorexic relentlessly pursuing her goal step after step until:
There is the wind, no longer thin,
rocks, ice, moss, grass.
Here, each poem tells a micro-story that resonates with Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, either directly (‘We that were human once’ and ‘The Undiscovered Country’) or indirectly. There is, for example, the memorable story of the father who drowns so that his family can live off his life insurance for a while; the story of a child whose mother, like Sylvia Plath, gassed herself after performing her duties. There is the moving testimony of a lifeline attendant, the stuttering of a ghost, the ‘buzzing on the wrong side of the pane,’ the silent cry. Three pieces provide an overarching frame, thereby destabilising any certainties the reader might have entertained as to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of suicide. ‘The other manual’, with its ironic take on the websites invoked above, offers a contrast to ‘#otd’, a cento of obituaries, while ‘Incomplete’ considers apparent recklessness from two perspectives at once. The latter opens with an epigraph from Janet Frame’s poem ‘The suicides’, first published in The Pocket Mirror (1967): ‘they died because words they had spoken / returned always homeless to them.’ Smith then explores the desire of one who failed to die by hanging, building towards a statement about the impotence of language in the face of suicidal despair, repeating Frame’s words in bold. Pieced together by the reader, these words are now addressed to the protagonist’s relatives. For all its clarity of description, this poem is deeply fissured by the double vision of a narrator burdened or blessed with an intimate knowledge of her subject matter. Here, as elsewhere, wry wit undercuts despair.
The third section of Smith’s book, ‘Safina,’ provides relief from the emotionally demanding ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ via two tales of ill-fated love with reference to the tenth century poetess Rabi’a Balkhi’s true life story and Zuleika’s destiny as related in the Bible and evoked by Dante’s eight circles of hell. Bridging East and West in a meditation on death, Smith uses her characteristic sense of humour to give two women a voice across time.
The most distinctive feature of section four, ‘Riverine’, is its poetics of location. The speaking subject is situated both in an anaesthetised present and also the wilderness places of childhood memory. This liminal space constitutes the narrator’s home ground in imagination and memory. Here location markers are specific, as though charting an effort of subjective relocation which also forms the matter and structures the patterns of ‘Endtime.’ Again, the realism in these poems hides its own duplicities, for the landscape in the first, and cityscape in the second also shadow the psychic territory of grief, anguish, desire.
The ‘I’ in this collection travels in time and space, providing in ‘Somewhere in particular’ both a ‘Satellite View’ and a ‘Street View.’ As mentioned at the outset, Smith’s autobiographical ‘I’ is above all a shape-changer, and the last poem, ‘the bone tree,’ celebrates a kind of homecoming in a different dimension of subjective reality:
in the bare blue air of my dream
there is a bone tree growing
it may not know where I have been
but it knows where I am going
Members Only silences the autobiographical ‘I’ often muted or ghosted in Goodbye, Cruel. The first person is clearly excluded here, because it speaks the language of power granted by a long tradition of white male fantasising, all the better to query authority. The book grew out of a cross-disciplinary collaborative project undertaken at Old Parliament House in Canberra with artist Caren Florance, who is, among other things, publications designer at Recent Work Press. The collaboration yielded a text installation titled ‘Be Spoken To’, a print-performed letterpress artists’ book as well as original poems and cut-ups poems in response to the historic building’s furnishings.
Tuesday, December 5th, 2017
Girls and Buoyant by Emily Crocker
Subbed in, 2017
Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher
Subbed in, 2017
The Naming by Aisyah Shah Idil
Subbed in, 2017
I am always struck by the immense variability of human experience; the little and big differences that amount to the conditions of our individual and collective identities. The task of poetry is to write this nebulous, subjective humanity, while also probing the inefficiencies of the language we have to create and understand something so frustratingly out of grasp. How to apply an ostensibly tangible tool to an intangible quality? For instance, if we write emotion, or an emotion, as a word, it becomes incased in the materiality of language, becomes material itself, and is removed from the intangibilities of its initial feeling. Feeling is of course still there, but its nuance is limited to the shape and familiarity of the word, to the different ways we know the word in our different real world encounters.
As poets, we can attempt to challenge this materiality to better align the word with the unspoken aspects of human experience: we can disjunct, blot, disperse, misspell, reduce to phoneme and sound, scribble in illegible handwriting, feed poetry through a computer, or create a language. But our language, along with the words, letters and sounds that feed it, remain tied to the world we experience, for it is through these objects that we can know and create the world. Poetry uses these tools, cognisant and embracing of their limitations, to examine our identity and place within the world.
Three new chapbooks published by the independent literary organisation, Subbed in, provide acute examples of newish, young poets trying to come to grips with this task of poetry in a time when language has become a noticeably loaded vessel of opinion and feeling. The Naming by Aisyah Shah Idil, Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher and Girls and Buoyant by Emily Crocker, all present a poetics of identity through the scope of the modern world they have evolved and exist within. Idil can hear an ‘adhan blaring / in a full train carriage, / a work meeting, an elevator’ whilst searching for a mobile phone, and Crocker complains about EFTPOS minimums. Gallagher, presumably responding to an internet meme or video, writes, ‘right now / i am a dog wearing sunglasses,’ capturing ideally the weightless aspect of being one can suffer when head deep in a social media sinkhole. Indeed, when so much communication occurs via the type of an email, instant message, Facebook update, Instagram hashtag or Tweet, what then happens to our language and our ability to decipher its meanings? At times, I cannot help but feel that the act of literary interpretation and analysis is today at an all-time premium. Who hasn’t slaved over the meaning of a message; been infuriated by a troll; laughed at a well-worded meme; wondered at the legitimacy of a Facebook update? As Gallagher writes in ‘something that resembles everything’: ‘let’s invent new languages out of old worlds, / freely broadcast its cacophony.’ Even the chapbook form appears to encapsulate digitally limited forms of expression – where 140 characters can make a president – that nonetheless carry almost infinite meanings and permutations in the action of expression itself. I can consume a chapbook the same way I would a text message; in an inhalation, followed by a retrospective curiosity of what its phrasing actually meant.
Yet, in particular, all three books examine concepts of femininity, shaped by the experiences the poets allow to peep through their poetry. How they write their femininity is unique to the style and personal history / moment / identity of each poet. They write it bodily, emotionally, via social media, dualistically, intellectually, through other people, about other people, against and with masculinity, in relation/distance to motherhood, about themselves, ideal and not – ‘she imagines something graceful / lying dormant under her skin’ (Gallagher, ‘Promise’). On one hand, Idil, writing so often of her mother and family, muses in ‘Flagbearer’: ‘I will be your woman/bearer // wombs moulded by // the pomegranate heads of babies’; while, on the other, Crocker, who is fascinated by the raw shape of things, describes her ‘lumpy forehead. The slots / between my lanky toes / seized by chunky joints’ (‘Gaps’). The female body is a subject, divested of the object words we use to describe. As Crocker wryly writes in ‘Fruit,’ ‘The quack mistook you for a boy,’ and it is through such misapprehensions that the poets can come to know their own characters, personalities, biology, whatever aspect gives them identity. Crocker continues later in the same poem, ‘That night, / my skull on your breastbone, our uteruses lay / back to back in begrudged silence at the / suggestion they should be in time now,’ and lays claim to her individuality, particularly within an implied sisterhood.
Thursday, November 30th, 2017
Reading for a Quiet Morning by Petra White
GloriaSMH Press, 2017
Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball
Ginninderra Press, 2017
Approaching new work from such sharp, prolific and often dazzling poets as Magdalena Ball and Petra White is arguably no job for a quiet morning. Both White’s Reading for a Quiet Morning and Ball’s Unmaking Atoms demand (and duly reward) close attention. The perusal of such multi-layered, expansive texts is more suited, perhaps, to the intensity of early evenings, the drawn-out moments of twilight. For there is strident and persistent music erupting from both of these collections; sometimes it might seem serene, but more often the tune that floods out of the text feels more like an intense, liturgical dirge.
White’s mini-epic poem, ‘How the Temple Was Built’, which comprises the first half of her collection, reveals an authoritative voice delivering what feels like a Ted Hughes-inspired sermon on a new Ezekiel myth. The lens here, however, is distinctly female, the account feminist, and the protagonist, Ezekiel, the love-tortured, wife-haunted prophet who, like the bones he sees revivified, seems eternally ‘bruised with an ache / made not by the world.’ The imagery is often stark, always sublime and sometimes completely unexpected, bombarding the reader with free-flowing, often paradoxical image associations as we explore the ‘shimmery darkness’ residing inside a far too secular God. And all the while, humanity is being examined in turn by this same God: ‘What is a human. / Absorbed in their own existence / as the bees that bristle the air.’
In this study of prophetic vision and new mythology, the process of creation is a mess:
He made, oh what order did he make it in?
Time, space, darkness, light, air, water, earth.
Kicked off by sudden expansion
of something out of nothing.
A whole second he devoted to galaxies,
gleaning himself into the rip of black holes.
Planets cascaded like ash from his sleeve.
It quickly went out of control.
Everything started creating itself.
And the creator, insecure: ‘I barely recognise / the people I made. Am I God?’
Esther, the fictitious wife of Ezekiel (not to be confused with the Esther of the Old Testament), is arguably the most fascinating character in this plethora of biblical curios. Reinvented after revealing ‘the white wings of her death’, Esther becomes an angelic or goddess-like figure. ‘Bright light … bleeds and cries into the corners of the weak woman, the love machine, / she who falters,’ as Esther is metamorphosed from mourned wife into a type of foil to God, or at least the one who ‘lingers in the dark leftovers of Paradise’, berating the questioning, self-pitying, remorseful creator: ‘You fool, the world is / sweet birdsong and gross battle.’ The tone throughout is playful yet the subject matter is anything but. And the mythology surrounding Esther is both poignant and haunting:
She shivers in her wings. She is like a human
with no human part. Human enough to feel
all the grief, the waiting. Having to be somebody
in the face of nothing.
Indeed, this entire mini-epic is haunted. Ezekiel is haunted by God, yet also by the wifely expression of Esther; God is haunted by the goddess face of Esther; and Esther is haunted by the ghost of own self – the ‘mortal immortal’.
On facing what could be yet another reimagined quasi-biblical Miltonesque epic poem, the potential reader might well balk, but any speculative reservations are soon overcome by the sheer authority and gravity of White’s voice, by the elegiac music of the driving rhythms, by the authenticity of the characterisations (and, yes, this is a poem that concerns itself strongly with characterisation) and the potency of the imagery.
Faced with the difficult task of following this leviathan, the second section of Reading for a Quiet Morning, ‘Landscapes’, and the untitled third section of the collection, feel a little less cohesive and more bowerbird-like in terms of thematic layering and context. There is, again, plenty of myth to be had here, and not a little reimagining of it. We see a pining Jocasta naming herself, ‘A thing that was happened to’; the Sphinx’ the fantastical female executioner of Anne Boleyn; and inspired versions of Rilke’s old favourites. And yet there are simple, domestic relationship concerns here and social occasions ranging from weddings to funerals. In ‘The voice of Doom’, however, the fierce and recurrent concern of this collection is unearthed: ‘Love / that is made of words, / will be made of words that can be eaten,’ and we witness the vast aching void of word-eating especially in the elegiac ‘Filial’:
I unpick the stitches
of love from my coat and try to separate it
from the facts.
She survived her life but she was wrong,
call that a fact that crawls like an ant
away from the poem.
In ‘Filial’, a staggering sense of loss is consumed by the intensity of the imagery, or is perhaps subsumed in the fierce and wretched voice of longing for else or other. Yet the quest to move past it all, and an appreciation for those that can, is even more palpable in ‘The Seeming’, one of the collection’s shortest yet strongest poems:
she travels through the day half-mad,
one foot in front of the other.
People are marvellous,
those who go about their business.
This poem concludes: ‘Something makes them surge.’ That same ‘Something’ makes this entire collection surge; these poems are lit up and muse-inspired, mini Ezekiels all in the face of baffling Gods.
Magdelena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms grapples with a similar staggering sense of personal loss, mapping out the profundity of grief-altered states of being. This collection reveals a quirky (dare it be said) science-based spirituality, and enquires into what it means to be, and to continue to simply be, in the midst of trauma. The poem, ‘Beginner’s Mind’, succinctly dissects the struggle to continue:
If I weren’t here, sitting stock still
counting intake and outtake of breath
with each bony click
that says “still alive”
but not quite living
I could be on my way somewhere
this even respiration turned ragged gasp
running, like Buddha himself
into glory, like you did
lips parted in ultimate freedom
leaving me with all this
all this breath.
The poems of Unmaking Atoms, while on the surface exploring a penchant for the endless bifurcations of astrophysics, Buddhist spirituality and contemporary psychology, more aptly grapple with what it is to be human in a world dealing with its own extinctions and loss of foreseeable futures. In this collection, grief, both horribly personal yet also global, is coupled with a sense of wonder at the endless continuation that occurs in the aftermath of devastation. Divided into seven sections, these ambitious poems tackle everything from mirror neurons to hieroglyphics, leaving space in between for meetings with both private ghosts and a haunted ecology.
There is much to love in this collection that, though lengthy, never feels overwrought. The Australian bushland settings of some poems feel familiar and almost comfortable, from forest scenes such as in ‘Mirror Neurons’, where we feel the ‘eucalyptus crunch / choir of bats, owls, wuk-wuk’, to the beloved ‘Redhead Beach’, where we can bask in well-loved landscapes:
the water hitting the shore
in patterns fully familiar
the rocky outcrops
Other poems such as ‘Absences’ take us into dreamscapes as far away as the afterlife:
I’m not really there
but your ghost bleeds
through the rooms
trailing my lacuna with milky
vapour, like ghosts do,
all ectoplasm and wind
your body given up to longing
ten thousand miles
away across time