FRESH Sunday, September 8th, 2019
Sergius and Bacchus were fourth century soldiers in the Roman imperial army and also devout Christians and lovers.
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Wednesday, July 17th, 2019
The Gang of One: Selected Poems by Robert Harris
Grand Parade Poets, 2019
In ‘The Day’, Harris writes a stunning eschatology for Gough Whitlam. For Harris the dismissal was ‘the day of deceit’, ‘the day to lose heart’. As I write this review, I too am demoralized and anxious, despite the beta-blockers. In the crisis of another general election, the causes of a progressive and civil society have again been defeated. And in our election wash-up, the ALP seeks a new leader. Tanya Plibersek, our Kiwi-model hope, has already withdrawn her candidacy for the top job, citing family reasons (this does not appear to be an obstacle for her male colleagues). In this society, is any male (really) a ‘gang of one’? And while I hear the self-referential humor implied in the title, I also find myself butting up against its hyperbole: the allusion to romantic nonsense of one-off, singular (almost always male) creative genius. Will Connie Barber, Barbara Fisher and Grace Perry (amongst so many others) also be recognized/celebrated with the Selected/Collected milestone?
This being said, Harris is an incredible poet of place, of faith, of historical sequence; and many of his poems’ endings shimmer with all the ecstatic vibrancy of Hopkins (or Murray). I do not believe in miracles, I was grown in Baptist/Pentecostal faith traditions, but this book is miraculous – a triumph of its (crowd funded) gang of supporters. And I am so joyful that they have introduced me to this poet.
In writing place, and its settlement, Harris is capable of juxtaposing such lyrical imagism with strongly interrogative purpose. ‘The Dancer’ is a very fine example. Here the poem-sequence is centered less on narrative momentum, and more on an almost surrealist automatism and fizz of unforgettable imagery:
Miriam, in the hallway,
a girl wears a papier mâché mask
and tinsel stars down Brunswick Street
a bird a lumbering wagon of sky
- this ghost that can go with aphasiacs
without feeling panic
arise, like a kite
Trout leap out of the river, command the night.
But this is also a place ‘before Cook’ where: ‘You have guessed Cook is a cipher / (but of what forest, my dear little trees)’. Historical perspectives might be as beautiful as ‘trout become water’:
but what Cook carried, along with slaves
the seven sheep on eleven ships
conversations that of no volition rise like waves
: my hands on my lover’s body are forgiven
everything they have been and touched and turned to
that did not feel good or auspicious
This lyrically interrogative intent is continued in ‘Clear Days in Winter’, another beautiful poem of place that is also attuned to ecological concerns:
I often feel walking on the flats
that I’m in a face that is laughing,
especially when the south-westerlies
set the ghost gums shaking. They have come back
year by year, throwing their suckers forward,
moving up saplings, bridging the old torn diggings
with roots, ignoring the hectic counter-attacks
of isolated chainsaws, the spiteful weekend
initiallings done with axes. Lanes and streets
have crumbled before them like redoubts
until they camp equably on mounds.
Then they throw up white arms, they spend
their modest torsos on a place between the earth
and air, loyal to old, unrestricted alphabet,
although the lesser banished them, wrote
lonely on entire skies, brought calves, found gold
and apparitions to worship every moonrise.
There are so many major poems of place in this book, all hinting at mystery and the exquisiteness of ‘creation’ while also adjusted to postcolonial/ecological commitment. There is ‘Concerning Shearers Playing for the Bride’, which is also a poem of ekphrasis in response to Arthur Boyd; and the poems of North Queensland sugarcane country: the sequence ‘Cane Country’; and ‘Canefield Sunday, 1959’. These poems are fueled by a searching necessity for a Treaty with First Australians, for social justice, and by such dramatic and vivid descriptive language. This is a poet, with strong convictions, in love with the world in which he finds himself.
This ecstatic vision is most evident in the way Harris ends poems. In ‘The Call’, a poem evoking the ‘eye of summer’, he concludes:
Christ, called me through from the other side of lightening.
Now I would seek out a comelier praise;
then I felt like one in a room of crimes
as the blind rattles up, and the light crashes in.
While ‘The Snowy Mountains Highway’ finishes:
The vivid blue & heat, at times
so thick it curved and shook,
recalled Bertolucci’s camera.
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also
to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write.
A pair of shoelaces could be an event
if tools got me by, chains on
retreads and rising early, when
axe handles split, good hickory too,
how far then I drove in His paradigm,
early mornings on ochre roads
to see the light lift silver off slush.
These poem endings are unforgettable in the way they employ concrete imagery and sound to express such delight and wonder towards ‘God’ and the world ‘he’ has created. It is difficult not to be seduced by the simplicity and beauty of this language, but of course, this language also raises difficulties.
I still remember the first time I read Les Murray’s majestic ‘The Last Hellos’. I was a young adult (desperately) trying to maintain my faith, and this poem reduced me to tears. It is a beautiful hymn of love written for Murray’s father who had just died. In this delicate eulogy Murray addresses his father concluding (with a dramatic crash):
Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.
Like Murray, Harris seems to enjoy championing the unfashionable cause of God (though he is obviously more progressive in his politics); and in these convictions both leave me nostalgically longing, but also cold. In writing a poetics of faith Harris and Murray prioritize the role of individual submission to God, neither one examining their faith too closely, or asking difficult questions. In Harris this is especially problematic, because his progressive politics would seem to be so often in conflict with his obedience to God.
In ‘The Cloud Passes Over’ Harris writes a magnificent hymn of praise for rejuvenating rains. This is rain that breaks riverbanks as ‘water flows sideways / from faucets outdoors’:
the Lord God of waters
moves down the freshwater,
the estuary, rivers
veiled in darkness.
In silence He inspects
where the bank drops away,
examining every rotting trunk,
every hole where fish sleep.
He sets aside mullet and trout
for Koori people,
for dairymen mourning
under the quota system.
Leaving aside the issue of Harris’s non-inclusive language, in focusing only on God as the source of creation and renewal, this beautiful hymn of praise is not entirely honest. This ‘Lord of all / is at large throughout His creation’ as judgment and death also (flood). ‘He’ was never only about love and life – there were always strings attached.
Thursday, June 27th, 2019
Milk Teeth by Rae White
University of Queensland Press, 2018
Aril Wire by Anders Villani
Five Islands Press, 2018
Poetry debuts are not necessarily juvenilia. The vagaries of poetry publishing mean that by the time a poet’s first collection is published they often are, at least by some standards, emerging fully formed, able and ready to demonstrate their skill to a willing audience.
By the time a poet has amassed a book’s-worth of work and managed to secure a publisher, it’s a fair assumption that they have found their voice. This isn’t to say that their voice won’t develop and change as they continue to write, but that a debut poet is by no means an inexperienced or untested one.
The debut collections of Brisbane-based Rae White and Melbourne-based Anders Villani are the work of people with honed and confident voices. These are poets with extant careers whose books are a celebration of the culmination of their work to date.
White’s debut collection Milk Teeth was the winner of the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and published in 2018 by the University of Queensland Press. It was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2019, whose judges described it as ‘challeng(ing) pre-existing categories: gender, interior and exterior landscapes, the way we assume language is fixed.’ Milk Teeth is an energetic collection, equal parts experimental and traditional, in which formal and structural innovations lie comfortably alongside poignant and personal observations. White is equally at home disrupting an otherwise familiar scenario with fairy-tale elements as they are with anchoring the reality of unreal scenes with finely crafted detail.
‘Mother’s Milk’, the first poem in the collection, ably demonstrates White’s capacity as a lyric poet while also showcasing their taste for disruption. In this poem the ordinariness and intimacy of a mother showing her daughter’s partner a box of saved baby teeth is expanded upon and heightened into a visceral body-horror exploration of the desire to possess and encompass a lover:
feel it scrape & chafe
lodge in my throat.
That night, its crystal
White’s lyrical facility is also proven by ‘Skyward’, depicting an intimate encounter between partners. It zeroes in on the patterns of light cast onto one person’s bare belly through a canopy of leaves:
each teardrop spectre
Sitting alongside lyric qualities that demonstrate White’s facility with language and image are more experimental works that challenge both poetic convention and readers’ expectations. White has enlisted a number of other-than-poetic forms into their poetic service, including Twitter posts, programming code and bureaucratic language. These poems use their mimetic forms to highlight the social structures and frameworks that are used to declare, confirm or erase identity.
At times White’s counter-use of such languages and forms to convey political messages occasionally threatens to destabilise those forms to the point of neutralising their menace. The point of these exercises, however, is consistent and clear. One of the most powerful examples of this re-weaponised language is ‘Regarding your Suspension’, a parody of the implicit biases baked into bureaucratic processes. The poem simmers with weary but still-sharp sarcasm:
Your gender has been flagged
and suspended by our team, due to being
one or more of the following …’
In addition to these poems calling structural biases into question, other poems in Milk Teeth challenge another almost invisible preconception: that of the physical orientation of poems on the page. Many of the poems in Milk Teeth are set at 90 degrees to the usual orientation of a book, requiring the reader to turn the book sideways in order to read them.
While this design decision may simply be a result of White desiring a longer line for these poems, and while it may be connected to the common poetic experience of being published on a screen before ever being published on a page, it’s hard not to think of this particular challenge to convention as being of a piece with the challenges to bias and preconception that White puts forward in other aspects of their work.
White’s challenges to poetic structure and style are in keeping with the way their poems’ subject matter also challenges conservative views of gender. With poems like ‘Microaggressions’ and the award-winning ‘what even r u’, White centres the personal experience of insult and aggression, both passive and active, regularly experienced by non-binary people.
But while gender identity is at the fore of some poems, White also challenges the potential assumption that a non-binary activist poet can or should only write about their activism. This point is successfully made by poems like ‘Plants my exes gave me’ and ‘Enraptured’, which depict experiences like gardening and falling in love that are common to all humans. In doing so White validates and celebrates the continuum of gender with other modes of experience, and hopefully educates those who believe they can only experience non-binary life vicariously.
There’s an appealing messiness, a futz and clutter, a chaos to the world White writes. It’s a world of ‘Biscuit grit in / bed Enoki mushrooms / woven with pubic hair’. There’s tenderness here too, portrayed by a deft hand that pens memorable, shy and gentle love scenes that share space with the boldness and confidence of experimentation and political assertion. Milk Teeth is an eclectic mixtape of a book, a stellar debut exhibiting equal parts ‘fuck that noise’ and a visceral love of life.
Tuesday, June 4th, 2019
A little book of unspoken history by Elif Sezen
Puncher & Wattmann, 2018
Where do footsteps lead, these frustrated blind hunters
In these times many of us from all corners of the globe have more than one place we call home. Concepts of nationality, attachment to place, a sudden annunciation of enlightened belonging or steadfast refusal of it can be dissociative, painful and conversely full of artistic promise. The very notion of home may be welcome or fraught with regret. It may involve mixed emotions or at worst, trauma.
Elif Sezen, a Turkish-Australian multidisciplinary artist currently living in Melbourne, has developed a sophisticated methodology to work across media and to explore these themes. By foregrounding a personal inner life within the rigours of artistic and spiritual practice, she eschews narcissism through a focus on the transformative image. As a poet, translator, and as an artist Sezen has access to a world of imagery which appears to float in an imagined but deliberately structured dimension. Through deft selection, her practice of writing does not overwork its own tropes, which centre on childhood, trauma, displacement, the politics of migration and the metaphysical ambiguities integral to journeys real and imagined. Sezen’s images of trauma carry with them an apparent resonance, tantalisingly suggesting an overcoming, but also simultaneously suggesting the indelible trace of that trauma.
An example of this effect can be seen in the epigram ‘Slap of the morning’:
Slammed doors are still being heard
Who are they?
Coming after two poems focusing on childhood, ‘On the topic of first parents’ and ‘Childhood’, the poem resonates as a deep early memory suggesting violence with the sonorous slap and slammed, and fear through the final line Who are they?. The poem, employing Sezen’s regular trope, the door, appears to echo through space in a similar way to a masterly haiku.
Speaking generally of her artistic practice, Sezen has written: ‘I suggest the continual expansion of a poetic persona as a methodology of surrendering to the infinite’. Her poetry renounces the world’s ability to deliver infinity; instead its imagery emerges in devotional splendour or in political anger at the cruelties inflicted on refugees, especially those in long term detention.
When I first encountered Sezen’s work several years ago, I was attracted by what I saw as the European texture of the work, with its philosophical emphasis and often-romantic interiority. This connection has been astutely observed by Nadia Niaz, in a review in this publication of Sezen’s first English collection Universal Mother. Niaz focuses on the influence of Rilke (and importantly, his use of Sufi imagery), but also stresses Sezen’s access to diverse traditions, including Ottoman and Persian poetics, and to modern protagonists such as Forugh Farrokhzad. Several poems in A little book of unspoken history are dedicated to what can be seen as a constellation of artists, images of whom form something of an interior gallery, a feature many of us share, functioning as icons of our very existence. Sezen’s gallery includes Holderlin, Kahlo, Camille Claudel, and significantly in ‘Our celestial doorway’, a moving tribute to Farrokhzad:
Let’s meet up in your
in a city where women glow in green, head to toe
when we bend down from
the Khaju bridge, our reflections
on the water turn into non-poisonous ivies,
a city of secret sovereignty
where bombs won’t explode
A significant poem included in A little book of unspoken history is ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’. The open, sequenced structure of the poem allows the key state of the suffering of the body to move effortlessly through themes of spiritual renunciation, the trauma of non-belonging and the vicissitudes of migration doubly effected and politicised. In an artist talk at her recent exhibition The Second Homecoming at Counihan Gallery, Sezen mentioned how moving back and forth between Izmir and Melbourne had left her without a sense of home. In this poem, fatigue enforces a focus back upon the self. In 1. Awareness, Sezen writes:
Now that I am tired
I must open up inwardly, like a lotus blossom
yes, I must open my paper-like lids
towards the benign feature of absence
for I will encounter her, in the very bottom:
that archetypal mystic, resembling my mother
by her glance perforating the silvered smoke
my small self will pass away
because I am tired
because fatigue is a lovely trap made to
save my body from its old cage
I get rid of the worldly clock
losing beguiling sleep
This sequence leads to a surge of empathy, where like an ascetic removed from the fray, the poet releases the possibility of benevolent compassion:
become a voluntary mute
so I can speak for them
They surrender their souls
wrapped with flesh and blood and breath
back to where they came from
As the poem continues, it develops a floating sense, the pinning of an elusive image, the transformative power of angels, and the devastating liberation of surrendering to pain:
La Minor impatience
Do black humour
CRESCENDO the pain
Is so glorious here
Wednesday, May 15th, 2019
Vanishing Points by Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, 2017
Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, 2017
Michelle Leggott and Elizabeth Smither are both former Poet Laureates, with distinguished careers behind them. Night Horse won the poetry category of the 50th Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and Vanishing Points has already been received to great acclaim. Even though there are some major stylistic differences between these two books, there are many surprising coincidences.
Published by Auckland University Press, they offer intimate observations about family, bodily deterioration and death. As New Zealand poets, they belong to a relatively small community so it’s not entirely surprising that they both commemorate Jeny Curnow, the wife of poet Allen Curnow, who died in 2013. As a poet in her late seventies, Smither is concerned with the mortality of friends and family yet she takes obvious pleasure in everyday encounters. In ‘Tonia’s cemetery’ she visits her friend’s future resting place and remarks drily: ‘how well you had selected / your place, far better than your houses.’
Leggott’s gradual loss of sight is a central theme in her book, as it was for her fourth collection of poetry, As Far As I Can See (1999). The tone can be mournful, regretting the loss, but she also recognises that other senses are sharpened. There are scents of frangipani — whether real or imagined — karaka berries knobbly underfoot and the sound of Segways passing by. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is perceived in the moment or recalled from another time: ‘So it is still possible to step ashore on the islands of visions and say I remember. It was like this.’ And there’s a sense of wonder at certain moments of partial sight: ‘I saw my hand against a sunlit wall. Just for a moment.’ For Leggott, moving through interior spaces feels like a kind of swimming, with a choreography of its own: ‘Blind Swimming. Let your hands find each doorway, let your / fingers trail the edges of furniture, the tops of balustrades and / the walls of hallways with their punctuating spaces.’ For Leggott, swimming is a way to extend her reach.
The attention paid to non-human creatures is another common theme: Smither populates her book with birds, cats and horses. She writes of a kangaroo with a ‘look of deep retiring modesty / one in authority with the landscape.’ The horse of the title ‘moves in a trance / so compelling, so other-worldly/ it doesn’t see the car lights’ Leggott’s guide dog, Olive, is a constant companion in her prose poems — there’s even a photo of the two of them in the press release. Her canine companion is riffed on, transformed, becoming ‘the dog of tears’ who will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. Leggott also enjoys her presence when Olive is not working, shaking hands repeatedly: ‘I feel her toes flex and the nails close over the hand that is holding hers. I do this again and again, to feel her hand close on mine.’ This is as good as listening to her drinking from her water bowl, which reminds the poet of Gertrude Stein’s little dog and what listening to the rhythm of his drinking taught her about the differences between sentences and paragraphs: ‘That paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not.’ The dog takes part in a Modern Poetry class and her lapping is recorded and amplified for the purpose of close listening.
Smither and Leggott are very much concerned with family and questions of inheritance. Smither describes a drive past ‘my mother’s house’, of which the view is intimate yet distant: ‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see / the best of a friend, the best of a mother / competent and gracious in her solitude.’ She recognises the precious nature of this passing glimpse and its intimation that her mother ‘would soon walk into the last room / of her life and go to sleep in it.’ Smither’s mother re-appears during a stay in hospital: ‘I shall have my way with my daughter / I shall bring her out of this place / of bogus and fruitless whiteness / her wound will heal under my ministrations.’ The poet’s mother, with Marcel wave and gloves, is more real than the details of the room, suggesting that the desire for your mother persists even into later years.
Wednesday, May 15th, 2019
Hot Take by Liam Ferney
Hunter Publishers, 2018
In a review for Cordite, Stu Hatton commented that the reader will need to google the obscure references in Liam Ferney’s poetry in order to keep up. The epigraph of the poet’s fourth collection reminds us of this:
‘The purpose of this book is to convince you
(the reader) that something is terribly wrong’
This quote is lifted from Milton William Cooper’s book, Behold a Pale Horse. A quick google-search and Wiki-read revealed that Cooper was an American conspiracy theorist whose book ‘unfolds the truth about the assassination of John F Kennedy, the war on drugs, the Secret Government, and UFOs.’ Like a conspiracy theory, Hot Take attempts to expose the world’s hidden logic in all of its confronting glory.
Ferney’s second collection, Boom (Grand Parade Poets, 2013) was an explosion of language and imagery. In Boom, Ferney’s typically diffused subject matter often spilt over multiple pages, creating poems that are equally fantastic and exhausting to read. Ferney’s third collection, Content (Hunter Publishers, 2016) saw a refinement of this expansive style into a more self-assured and recognisable aesthetic. Ferney continues this trend in Hot Take, which offers a significant range of masterfully controlled poetic techniques.
In particular, Ferney dutifully exemplifies theories and practices developed by the New York School, then refined by their antipodean counterparts. He pays homage to O’Hara in the poem ‘Sardines’ by going on his nerve to produce a Ken Bolton-esque poem-in-progress that revels in its almost flippant existence: ‘this is a poem because it has words in it.’ Gig Ryan’s sardonic tone pervades the collection like ‘cigarette smoke and a hangover’s regrets’ (‘After the Rain’). The poem ‘Modern Love’ does more than use Forbes’ classic ‘Speed, a pastoral’ as a scaffold: it brings the Forbesian sense of devotion and craft into the Snapchat age: ‘It’s weeks since you’ve slept / & it’s not fun to stay up all night / tapping these iNotes of poetry / just thinking about is bad for you—’. ‘On the occasion of Buzz Aldrin shooting down a conspiracy theorist on Twitter’ is reminiscent of Benjamin Frater at his most absurd and dynamic. The ease with which Ferney uses sporting metaphors reminds me of Peter Rose’s prowess using cricket and footy imagery. This potentially reductive list of influences shows Ferney to be far more than an imaginative hack: his confidence in using an array of techniques confirms the poet as a diligent and devoted student of OzPo and its traditions.
A distinctive wit characterises each poem in Hot Take as irony dominates this collection. Only Ferney could write ‘[b]y the time you stop paying your HECS debt / you’ll understand no one cares about what you have to say’ or ‘PTSD was straightforward / when you could just belt your wife’ without it seeming crass. If you think Ferney is being genuine, then the joke’s on you: ‘Of course I’m obtuse. / Civilisation is all about / me not telling you what I really think.’ This humour, deftly laced with cynicism and mordancy, attacks our sensibilities ‘like a jihadi’s dull blade through / an aid worker’s pale neck’. This is seemingly the purpose of the collection: to zap the reader out of any complacency toward the world and its realities. Above all though, Hot Take is funny. Lines such as ‘PWN the n00b descending the staircase, / these Chads will know the beta’s far cry’ transcend literary theory and are simply hilarious.
Despite its range of techniques, Hot Take still maintains a unifying aesthetic. Politics, economics, sport, Brisbane, twitter, drugs, millennial slang and naff Australiana are all poured into these formal vessels to produce a distinctly Fernian effect. As a fellow sports-nut, I always enjoy it when Ferney uses sporting imagery to personify abstract ideas. Indeed, sport’s woefully ignorant attempt at being apolitical is exactly the type of flawed logic that Ferney’s poems target. Mixing sport and politics creates confronting and farcical lines like ‘graham richardson in dick togs / staggering through the last k of the city 2 surf’. Ferney’s poems themselves are like modern athletes: juiced-up and muscular.
Ferney’s editorial for Rabbit’s SPORT issue (2018) explores the relationship between sport, poetry, politics, and economics: ‘The jubilation, the actual physical sensation of snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat refuses commodification in the same way that a work of art can be bought or sold, but the way it moves you can’t.’ The deftness of the poem ‘63 no’ which deals with Phillip Hughes’ tragic death embodies this: ‘we struggle / with the ramifications / of a hook shot’. With Ferney, poetry, sport, economics, and politics are so tightly intertwined it’s impossible to separate them. This is typical of Ferney, always hyper-aware of the world’s logic and its structural interconnectedness.
Friday, April 26th, 2019
South of Words by Iris Fan Xing
Flying Island Books, 2018
Christopher (Kit) Kelen has described Iris Fan Xing’s South of Words as ‘not translation’. The intersection between English and Chinese Mandarin lies at its heart, reflecting Fan’s converging identities across settings and cultures. Her publisher, Kelen identifies that readers’ engagement with bilingual poetry can be limited by our evaluation of translated works predominantly by their faithfulness to the assumed ‘original’ product, often regarding translation itself as necessarily an act of ‘watering down’. Fan has previously subverted this notion in her debut collection, Lost in the Afternoon (2009), which was intended instead as a conversation between parallel texts, capable of greater richness and imaginative value in tandem than as a standalone works.
South of Words operates in a similar manner; as a non-Chinese speaker, I am acutely aware that my reading of the collection is incomplete. Nonetheless, it is this prospect of her multilingual poetry that allows Fan to represent cross-cultural identity on its own, authentic terms, while offering a uniquely nuanced experience to readers, particularly those belonging to the author’s diasporic communities. In the same way, South of Words does not convey Fan’s relationship to Australian and Chinese cultures as discrete influences, but rather in their cultural synthesis.
The most overt representation of this occurs in the titular poem, which lies at the centre of the collection as a division between the English and Chinese sections. In ‘south of words’, the languages weave in and out, with English words in black text and Mandarin in white, together on a hazy, grayscale photograph. As the poem progresses, its background fades closer to black until the English words are almost fully obscured and the Chinese characters are starkly clear. This transitive quality serves to exemplify the collection’s emphasis on journeys, tenuously mapped out with direct and indirect references alike:
the music will never be lost 又比如在黃昏的鄉間路上
透過飛馳的車窗 if you know how to listen
sit under a jacaranda 瞥見一匹桉樹下的馬
豐滿垂墜的腹部 when it’s blooming
let it play out loud 懷著一輪橘紅的太陽
The dialogic relationship between English and Mandarin is echoed with Fan’s thoughtful paralleling of physical locations – not by means of seamless, perfect comparisons, but through the sincerity and occasional disjointedness of personal perspective. This can be seen in ‘smog’, where Perth and Macao share common ground within their respective opposites:
don’t know why but parting
always reminds me of drifting clouds
maybe because I know that Xü Zhimo poem
embarrassingly well and you’ll agree with me
a seaside town like Macao presents
the best kind of summer cloud
generous in volume and almost tangible
the same kind in Perth in winter
Similarly, ‘after Hayashi Fumiko’ elicits an unsettled emotive response by drawing connections through—and in spite of—elements of disconnect:
living in a country
on the condition of a visa
is a visa is a visa
and our cat
lost one of her nine lives
to a passing car
but we know in Chinese
eight is the lucky number
In this sense, the bleeding of cultures into one other allows Fan to subvert the notion of a perfect metaphor in favour of a perfectly subjective metaphor. Memories are conveyed in their esoteric honesty – closer to the odd, internal logic of a child trying to rationalise the world, than the platitudes of an adult attempting to neaten it. Fan’s metaphors feel uniquely authentic in their refusal to be overwrought—or sanitised in a social vacuum—for the sake of universal relatability. The result, however, is relatable in its affective significance as a reader. Speaking a truth that is equally personalised by direct confession and subtle contextualisation of Eastern and Western influences, contemporary and mythological figures, and multilingualism, Fan produces work that is layered with interpretative nuances, but can still be appreciated at different levels of depth. This allows for a diversity in readership of Chinese and non-Chinese speakers alike, and both casual and academic readers of poetry, without alienating those who lack specific contextual knowledge and may simply enjoy the thoughtful intrigue of Fan’s language choices.
South of Words demonstrates the subjective merit of its intertexts in their capacity to enrich traditional modes of evocation. The relationship between experiential and referential elements allows for an undiluted representation of the self that is not confined to the East or West either in physical location, nor language, nor self-identity. This is also depicted frankly in ‘love it or…’:
love it or write it in your language
ignore grammar – tense and gendered nouns
mine for the sound of storm in clouds
for the image of a peninsula and its reflection
on the sea where evening tides
race like ten million octopuses
love it or reverse the mirror
a waratah is still a waratah
a frangipani a frangipani
but a word is not the same word
love it or live it
Not only does this poem portray an uninhibited self, but it intertwines the entities of place and person. ‘love it or…’ also emphasises the metapoetic urge to create one’s own rules and write in a manner of authenticity that is self-defined in expression. In ‘Canton holiday’, the wider implications of valuing subjectivity are also conveyed as a protest against detached, officialised views of history:
when representing history
you need to defamiliarise
does she mean we should see
through the eyes of that stray cat?
The poignant simplicity of these words is undercut by the power of their suggestion, simultaneous calling on the reader’s internal and societal awareness. South of Words ultimately feels like an exploratory journey of re-familiarising, where the self is as elusive and evolving as its physical settings, and histories are personalised within experience itself. In Fan’s poetics, while nothing is immune to change, nothing is quite devoid of familiarity either.
Monday, April 8th, 2019
New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham edited by Nathanael O’Reilly
UWA Publishing, 2017
Devotees of Australian literature are unlikely to possess more than a half-dozen single volumes by poets born before Federation, and their reading of such poets is generally limited to anthologies. The problem, I’d suggest, is one of availability more than desire. University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) is one publisher looking to redress this through an intermittent series of titles, which include Lesbia Harford’s Collected Poems (2014) and the Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson (2012), together with more recent classics, such as Francis Webb’s Collected Poems (2011) and the Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewitt (2010). UWAP’s latest volume is the elegantly produced New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham, edited and introduced by Australian-born, poet-scholar Nathanael O’Reilly, which republishes 100 poems from Wickham’s five collections together with another 150 previously uncollected poems.
The book’s short introduction provides a brief outline of Wickham’s biography. She was born Edith Alice Mary Harper in London in 1883, but lived in Australia for most of her childhood in Maryborough (Queensland), Brisbane and Sydney – taking her pseudonym from a Brisbane street. Wickham returned to London in 1904 to pursue a singing career and there she married a successful solicitor, Patrick Hepburn, who remained her husband for over 20 years. The marriage, which produced four sons, was unhappy, largely because Hepburn opposed Wickham’s artistic pursuits – in 1913 he had his wife institutionalised for three months. George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Katherine Mansfield, Laurence Durrell and DH Lawrence were among her circle of friends. Having struggled with depression for most of adult life, Wickham suicided at the age of sixty-three, leaving over a thousand poems, most of which remain unpublished.
Among the work collected by O’Reilly are free verse and strict forms, monologues, sonnets and verse in ballad-metre, short chiselled lyrics of regular rhyme and metre, imaginative narratives and dramatic monologues, and some mixing of distinctly different forms. A reader is often struck by a deliberate asperity. Wickham asks in ‘The Egoist’:
Shall I write pretty poetry –
Controlled by ordered sense in me –
With an old choice of figure and of word,
So call my soul a nesting bird?
The answer is a resounding no. Living in the age of aeroplanes, she reasons – in the line that resolves the poem and stretches to a comic twenty-one syllables – that she will write her ‘rhythms free’. The homely Georgian imagery of the opening stanza is not entirely rejected but the work is generally more direct than that of most of Wickham’s contemporaries – ‘Paradox’, for example, opens with the phrase: ‘My brain burns with hate of you’ – but it can occasionally be esoteric and obscure. It is an erudite poetry in a literary sense, steeped in the classical tradition, in Shakespeare and the Romantics. The content is often more radical than the forms, as she explores and interrogates gender roles, marriage and motherhood. Perhaps most modern of all, she celebrates the therapeutic power of poetry.
The strength of Wickham’s personality, and the power of the work is manifest in ‘Mare Bred from Pegasus’:
For God’s sake, stand off from me:
There’s a brood mare here going to kick like hell
With a mad up-rising energy;
And where the wreck will end who’ll tell?
She’ll splinter the stable door and eat a groom.
For God’s sake, give me room;
Give my will room.
The poem’s force comes not only from the equine imagery that Wickham often returns to but from a diction that is both rhetorical and colloquial. It is a charged language of strong verbs, spiked consonants and quick vowel sounds. The compound-adjective, ‘up-rising’, is particularly powerful, while the eating of the stable boy, or figuratively the husband, manages both to menace and charm. The repeated plea for ‘room’ is central to another of the book’s strongest poems, ‘Divorce’:
A voice from the dark is calling me.
In the close house I nurse a fire.
Out of the dark cold winds rush free
To the rock heights of my desire.
I smother in the house in the valley below,
Let me out to the night, let me go, let me go.
Night is presented here, and elsewhere, as synonymous with the feminine and the creative. While the concerns of this poem are personal the imagery is, characteristically, elemental. We see the subtleties that Wickham is capable of in the adjectives ‘close’ and ‘rock’ and the verb ‘nurse’, the interesting use that ‘smother’ is put to, and the beautifully measured refrain. In other poems, Wickham prefers the role of the passionate lover to the dutiful wife, as in the ambiguous three-line ‘Function’:
I do not grudge you to your wife:
but take a mistress
And I'll have her life.
While the poet-speaker is resigned to dissatisfaction with marriage and concedes acquiescence to be the easier path, she refuses to be silent. The shrew is a trope to which Wickham often returns and, as the poet delighted in flouting social conventions in her lifetime, so the poet-speaker embraces this role with gusto.
In the poem, ‘Meditation at Kew’, which may remind of Thomas More’s Utopia, Wickham reimagines marriage. Written in rhyming couplets but set out in quatrains, it begins:
Alas! for all the pretty women who marry dull men,
Go into the suburbs and never come out again …
Wickham goes on to lament the sufferings of such suburban women and, in contrast, presents a sort of Arcadia:
I would enclose a common in the sun,
And let the young wives out to laugh and run;
I would steal their dull clothes and go away,
And leave the pretty naked things to play.
The dullness of the clothes the speaker steals picks up on the poem’s earlier uses of the word, which include the ‘old dull’ gentle classes, who ‘must breed true’. The sun contrasts the sterile drabness of the earlier imagery, as the looser spirit of play contrasts the passivity and stasis implied by the poem’s opening. In Wickham’s ideal the women are to see all the men of the world before they make their choice of partner, and the resolution that follows fuses Wickham’s critique of patriarchy and the class system:
From the gay unions of choice
We’d have a race of splendid beauty and of thrilling voice.
The world whips frank, gay love with rods,
But frankly gaily shall we get the gods.
Though the wife-husband context suggests the primary meaning of ‘gay’ to be something like joyous or carefree, the term’s modern usage was becoming more common in Wickham’s lifetime, and this secondary meaning reinforces a subtext of lesbian desire.
Monday, April 8th, 2019
and my heart crumples like a coke can by Ali Whitelock
Wakefield Press, 2018
Despite the sorrow of its title, and my heart crumples like a coke can will have an utterly expansive effect on the reader’s beat-box. My little heart almost burst as I read through this collection for the first time. And then the second. Like some classic 90s rom-com – or was it drama? – that you watched and then re-watched every weekend on VCR as a teen, Ali Whitelock’s book seems to encourage a closeness, invites the reader to experience a genuine connection with the poet/protagonist and with their bevvy of sidekicks, both the heroes and the villains. I find myself genuinely touched by the liquid, visceral rawness, the careful simplicity and confessional glory of Whitelock’s poems.
Perhaps it has something to do with the seemingly breezy style; I picture Whitelock scribbling these poems in five minutes – maybe ten – on the underside of napkins in a crowded café somewhere on Glebe Point Road, the Bukowskian edginess of it all just floating off her fingers to bless everything it touches like butter grease. This, I thought as I read, is precisely the poetry I would like to write. This, I thought, is the poetry I should be writing. Why am I not writing this bloody poetry? I thought, these odes to the horrid heat and shopping centre scourge of of the suburbs, the aging body, vaginas, chicko rolls and the farts of the dying? I am awestruck when confronted with such passages as this one, from ‘what you must you do/ you must keep your mouth shut’:
if you want you can tape it shut
with the snoring tape – he keeps it on the side of his bed.
it rolls off onto the carpet
the cat hair sticks to it because
what you must understand
is how you feel is not how others
feel. The important
thing you must do is not say how you feel
if you say how you feel he will roll his eyes and sometimes
after the eye rolling
there will be a sigh and what that means is you must not say
that thing again. Eventually
you will get to know the things that make the eyes roll and
the chest sigh and you will stop saying
them. If you hold a hermit crab shell to your ear
you can hear a rushing
and this rushing is the sound
of everything and the sound of nothing
This excerpt – and I would have included the whole poem if there was room for it – reveals Whitelock’s singular flair. The emotive content is moving without falling into sentiment, the motif and metaphor clever without leaning towards the pretentious. Even the centred structure works to jolt the reader into the importance of the particulars. This familiarity – imperative yet as casual as a conversation with a bestie – is I believe, is the kind of tone we all aim for, while endlessly editing and re-editing that seemingly unavoidable bullshit out. Her no-holds-barred, uncensored honesty when it comes to the small things – snoring tape, choice of lipstick when you turn fifty, brand of cooking chocolate – and the terrifyingly large things – death, exile (both voluntary and forced), aging, the mid-life affair, the aftermath of the affair – is so powerful it is contagious. Here are a few lines from ‘your friend said it was a love poem’:
the therapist had seen it all before – a thousand
times apparently – in women my age with no children
go on then rub it in at least i’d had the presence
of mind to ask about diseases you said
you had none backed it up with a printout
of your latest blood results you kept in a folder
marked ‘bloods’ which I didn’t find strange.
This blunt conversational tone is echoed, with perhaps even more harrowing honesty, in this excerpt, from the stand-out poem, ‘water’s for fish’:
as cliché as it sounds i always
imagined i’d get the call in the middle
of the night the one that would announce
that you were dead or at the very least
be dying i’d be bleary eyed would thank
the caller and hang up grateful
that i am safe my seventeen thousand
kilometres away and geographically exempt
from delivering your eulogy from shaking
hands with those i have no wish to shake
These excerpts also highlight the less cohesive aspects of the collection, which are the slightly discombobulating lineation choices, and collisions of atypical sentence structures. Quite often, the poems appear as performance texts adjusted for the page; sometimes fully punctuated and precise, and sometimes – part emphasis, part rebellion, I’d imagine – utterly not. While Whitelock’s lineation most often works to build emphasis, at other times it can start to feel a little heavy-handed, especially when the powerful and poignant word choice is more than capable of speaking for itself and perhaps needs no further emphasis. That said, anyone who has read the Beats, perhaps especially Bukowski (who is clearly, wonderfully, a strong influence on the collection), will have little or no problem navigating the momentary bumps caused by unpunctuated sentence collisions. Certainly, when listening to these poems read aloud (in a smoking hot Scottish accent; Whitelock is an impressive reader), any thought about formatting fades away.
Monday, March 25th, 2019
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker
Magabala Books, 2018
My sister and I devoured Blakwork. She’s nine and I’m not sure if she understood most of what Alison Whittaker talks about in this collection, but it resonated with her. With both of us. Whether that was our shared identity as women, as Aboriginal women, or something more, I’m not entirely sure. In Blakwork, Whittaker combines her career as a lawyer and her craft as a poet to peel back colonialism until it’s left exposed, raw, bleeding in the hands of the very people whom it has subjugated. She examines Indigenous work and labour, a physical theme manifested in a collection that embodies that exact physicality through form, structure, and rhythm. From her commentary on the subjugation of black bodies to the way the poems sit on the page, the reader is constantly thinking and moving with the collection.
Jumping from poetry to prose to memoir, Blakwork comes together, eagles out, then comes together again. It makes you turn your head and the book, it has you reciting lines aloud to feel the way they hang in your mouth. The reader is constantly working for the words on the page, so it’s difficult to get comfortable when reading this collection—but that’s the point. Too long has the comfort of a colonial readership within been valued within the Australian literary scene. Like that shadowy place in The Lion King, Blakwork situates the reader in a place of unrest – a place that has been pushed to the outskirts of history, shrouded in darkness. From the first, titular poem in the collection, Whittaker outlines her poetic thesis through commentary on the physical oppression and indentured work of Aboriginal people and the emotional work colonial Australia still expects us to do, including being tasked with the responsibility of reaching reconciliation and with being an emotional leaning post for people seeking to alleviate their white guilt.
The theme of indentured service is particularly significant in ‘many girls white linen’, which co-won the 2016 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. This poem discusses the physical labour of Aboriginal women by reimagining the missing girls from Joan Lindsay’s novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The reference to Australia’s literary past, however, is a throwaway, almost as if the scripts were flipped and, in this alternate history, it is the white women, rather than their black counterparts, who are not deemed significant enough to be mentioned. A more explicit reference to Australia’s colonial literary culture is the poem, ‘a love like Dorothea’s’. From the rhythm of each line to the fresh twist on Dorothea Mackellar’s famous phrases, this poem speaks back to Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. While Mackellar wrote ‘I love a sunburnt country’, Whittaker hits back with ‘I loved a sunburnt country’ (my emphasis). This subtle but powerful shift from present to past tense echoes the trauma the land now known as Australia has endured, the trauma the First Peoples of this land continue to endure, including the loss of land, culture and connection:
I loved a sunburnt country—won’t it
please come back to me? Won’t it
show me why my spirit wanders
but is never free?
I will soothe its burns with lotion, I will peel off its dead skin.
If it can tell me
ever further from my kin.
In both ‘many girls white linen’ and ‘a love like Dorothea’s’, Whittaker rewrites a colonial history all Australians have grown up with and offers a counterview of which most people are ignorant. This strategy is seen in a series of poems scattered throughout the collection, each one constructed using forty-nine most common three-word phrases of well-known court cases. A lawyer by training, Whittaker uses the law as well as acknowledging its misuse and colonial nature. A poem about the Mado decision, ‘the skeleton of the common law’, is full of phrases referencing colonial structures and names. In particular, references to ‘the Crown’ are in almost every stanza, lingering, giving the poem a heavy weight. Similarly, ‘exhibit tab’ looks at the death of Ms Dhu in a detached, clinical way. The removed ways these poems consider the displacement and death of Indigenous people only serves to highlight the rigid, colonial nature of the Australian legal system and the historical way leading figures in this country have and continue to talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so that our voices are muffled or all-together obscured.
Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
third body by Marion May Campbell
Whitmore Press Poetry, 2018
Third body takes form on the cusp of metamorphoses between species, ecosystems, technologies, existential planes, and even between art and artist. ‘passing’, the title of its first section, becomes a motif of the entire collection – perhaps most significantly for its variety of meanings. Passing can indicate a liminal phase in journeys bound by space or time. Passing is a euphemism to tactfully describe the transition between life and death. Passing may also represent social transition, such as one’s perceived conformity—or lack thereof—to socially defined binaries like gender and sexuality.
I do not pass at all as
poet man or woman
myself to bits
as I pass
into this last
As a scholar of French Literature and avant-garde practices, Marion May Campbell deftly weaves principles of European postmodernism and academic theory into her work to produce an incisive post-structural commentary. The sensibilities of l’ecriture feminine, à la Hélène Cixous, are evident in the inspiration that Campbell draws from female literary figures such as Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson. These are uniquely synthesised with her own eco-poetics and perspectives of marginalisation and globalisation in current-day Australia. The beach serves as common backdrop to these considerations, as demonstrated in ‘semaphore’, where the paradox of human disconnect is conveyed through mismatched flag signals:
our prickliness our devastating need
to kill the other in each other
we resist yet long to merge
though this be murder of all desire
& know to trust these pulses
& yet are raw with the infinite unsaid
Le sujet en procès, the subject (or the self) in process, is also a key postmodern feature of third body, given its ironic self-awareness despite an inherent tenuity of ‘self’ as a concept. The collection presents a challenge for the reader to gain purchase on its subjects in a concrete sense. One moment, we are enveloped in the consciousness of a dog, and the next we may find ourselves as a cat, a painting, a map, or even amid a poem’s own inception on the page before us. This ephemerality, however, works to keep the reader keenly on their toes and open to endeavour of thought:
wounds & exalted jouissance
what kind of history
& what kind of witness
when I never coincides with me? (‘passing’)
Mise en abyme, an image mirrored continuously within itself, is another technique that Campbell employs, particularly in the ‘incipient foredune’ section. Ecology is a strong focus here, where each poem represents a different layer of the coastal vista characterised by uncertain vicissitudes but unwavering resilience, as fragile yet unforgiving. For example, ‘in the slack’ allows us to experience the environment in a tactile manner:
through which in dune &
shifting dune we stage
for our ductile selves to meet
beyond these skins
Alternatively, ‘progressive plants’ depicts a more narrative-focused view of the same landscape:
before the hoons
come with their pre-mixed cans
& campfire exploding bourbon bottles
we whisper our way forward
like what dune ecologists call
The final poem in this section, ‘U₂: romance of the sonic survey’, personifies both the setting and the poem itself to merge sensation and environmentalist commentary alike:
the poem shakes
the fault line runs
third body breaks
in a million mercurial
forget the lads
who toss a bourbon bottle
in the campfire
here come the real dune hoons
trailing their sonic sensors
through all the image-clusters
of our living
The impact of mise en abyme as a poetic function is something to the effect of a Matryoshka nesting doll brought to life, where each segment bears its own significance—its own story-within-a-story—to what lies at the eventual heart of a broader collective narrative. The ‘incipient foredune’ section also effectively highlights Campbell’s Rimbaudian influences, both in her symbolism and the synaesthesia of her language choices. The unpredictable sensory confusion of third body adds to the constant ‘shapeshifting’ nature of her subjects. Nothing in the collection is immune from sentience – that is, from becoming a third body. This idea is playfully demonstrated in the dreamlike dynamism of ‘if not in paint’, where subjects are not bound by the constraints of their original medium:
ashes in her voice
my mother speaks back
on the fourth page
from the long coast of illness
in my dreams
she tugs to the fifth
page the sky’s
willing the whole body
in like a calf at the teat
now she strokes
the keyboard of the palette
with a tenderness she can’t relay
if not in paint
Campbell’s use of colour keeps us suspended in the realm of visual art, only for this to be subverted at each turn with incongruous senses such as sound, movement, and texture. The sequential references to pages not only make the reader aware of themselves literally turning the pages of the poem, but also play into the notion of a self-aware subject progressively ‘painting’ their own narrative. Campbell’s ability to imbue fresh perspective and surrealist humour into once-static images is also evident in her ekphrastic piece, ‘Dorothea Tanning’s Guardian Angels’:
baroque & broken
fold on fold all
falls & shakes
struggling out from
underpaint of palest gold
her angels shriek some sort of
apical metamorphic need
bearing in beak the remnants of
their own demise
As a highly intertextual collection, Campbell provides a unique intersection of creative and academic concepts. Her work is not only referential of other poets and artists, but also incorporates Freudian psychodynamic theory, philosophical principles in its self-aware ineffability, and knowledge of native flora and fauna as sourced from the Ngaruk Willum people of Port Phillip Bay. Campbell demonstrates the strength of intertextuality in producing a highly-informed collection of transgressive poetry. She holds a mirror to the concept of milieu, not simply as defined by social context, but in its literal translation – a middle point.
Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
Broken Ground by Steve Armstrong
Steve Armstrong’s Broken Ground is an extended walking meditation cleverly disguised as a book of poetry. Inside this collection resides a determined drive towards immersion and a deliberate movement beyond text, into a numinous, continuous cadence: a secret rhythm of stride known only to those who would seek to map out earth and sky.
At times, in review, it feels like a Sisyphean task to gather together the fragmented rhythms, thick with the natural world, with love story and family history and, above all, reverberating with the connotations of contingency. My natural yearning is to let the work’s pulse nestle quietly down inside the mind. Or perhaps that pulse would find itself lodged in the gut, for Armstrong’s poems are so very embodied and at home in and of themselves; so self-aware that the already excavated ground seems to require no further diviner.
Broken Ground explores a very specific poetry of time and place. From the first poem, ‘Black and White,’ we receive glimpses of the bedrock that the subsequent poems will continue to excavate. Here, landscape takes on a more than general significance – specific places are invoked by naming, and the tenor is that of memoir, nostalgia and a belonging in time:
A photograph, a fading Kodak of a boy.
On the back in my mother’s hand –
Turramurra Bush, 1965
Themes of family, and of finding a significant place – perhaps home – in the greater Hawksbury are paramount here:
My substrate is rocks and trees,
and there’s a prehensile ache at the sight of a branch
that leans across a cerulean Sydney sky. Here is
the ground of a well-weighted line.
The key to Broken Ground is this transference of meaning, outwards from the landscape and into the body. Armstrong’s poems divine truth from the wandered -through world, as explored in ‘On the Delta’:
Later remember not this place, and
the way water mirrors trees and sky,
but what it is that you’ve found instead –
this solid thing that’s light within you –
let it wing into the regions of wider
sight, and feel for the company of words.
Go on recalling the seamless flow over
mud if you must, then claim what’s yours.
However, this is not the collection’s ultimate tendency. Instead, Armstrong offers a boon in return for the composition of these poems. An interior geography of human connections and disconnections – from mother, father, lovers, children and elders – somehow seeps out from the poet to enter the exterior landscape. We see this collaboration in the collection’s titular and final poem, ‘Up and Down a Dry Lake,’ where country is seen to be:
too dry out here for tears at my coming
up short, for the words that won’t land. A lake two-hundred
meters deep with silt. Long accumulation chokes in the throat
like grief, nonetheless a small figure standing in the middle
I’ll speak for what inheres, lay down on dried mud and tufted
grass; be baptised by dirt and re-membered by earth.
This exchange between landscape and the walking body-in-landscape is also explored in ‘Dreams and Imitations’:
Your step is the step of a younger
you, or perhaps the ground presses back
and offers to lighten your load a little. You
falter unused to such reception, and yet
the rhythm you settle on is both your whole
being and your nothingness.
Broken Ground does not merely offer a poetry of nature-based lyric philosophy in the manner of a Lake Poet. As the collection progresses, Armstrong’s drive is to participate, to partake of what is offered. Ritual pervades the poems: longing is somehow danced out into the landscape.