Book Reviews


Dan Disney Reviews Laurie Duggan’s Selected Poems 1971–2017

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

Laurie Duggan has long been a star within the light-filled firmaments of Australian poetry that first burst into prominence around five decades ago.

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Alyson Miller Reviews berni m janssen’s between wind and water (in a vulnerable place)

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

between wind and water (in a vulnerable place) by berni m janssen
Spinifex Press, 2018

In ‘speaking out’, the final poem of berni m janssen’s fifth collection, between wind and water (in a vulnerable place), a choral cry for resistance is offered, a lyric that insists on the ability of individuals to provoke immense change: ‘one voice small forms fight in strength / one voice strong gains another / i’m with you, go boldly’. In a context of climate strikes and impassioned environmental activism, such lines might be attributed to Greta Thunberg, whose reminder that ‘you are never too small to make a difference’ has become the slogan of protestors worldwide demanding action against an impending ecological crisis.

Yet between wind and water speaks of a different kind of truth to power, one which explores the detrimental consequences of climate change solutions that have otherwise been framed as a panacea to the polluting ills of industry. Examining the complex repercussions of the installation of wind turbines in a small rural community, the collection has been described by Javant Biarujia as a ‘cautionary tale’, revealing the nuanced conflicts of corporate vs. community interests while the plundered earth is leached, and can no longer provide. In its analysis of the ways in which battlelines are drawn, between wind and water presents a vision of discord and loss, an image of a landscape and its tormented inhabitants that is rendered by greed, silence, and disillusionment.

Multi-vocal and multi-layered, this collection is comprised of a series of oppositions, not only between the corporate-speak and enviro-savvy gurus who insist on the safety of the turbines and the community which seeks to resist them, but also in relation to ideas about the natural and the material world. Such tension is neatly encapsulated by the figure of Dan—one of over twenty-one characters and voices in the narrative—who as a farmer and poet embodies a mythic, if not mysterious, Australian archetype reminiscent of Banjo Patterson or Henry Lawson—a man of the land who is also in tune with a profoundly Romantic sensibility. Characterised as a ‘steward’ who desires little more than to live ‘full prosperous happy […] without end forever and a day’, Dan presents as a battler aligned with spaces he inhabits, yet keenly aware of the increasing separation between the human and non-human. It is a distance marked by a progressive series of haiku in which Dan observes the physical and psychological impacts of the turbines on the community: ‘south west wind blows hard / another letter of complaint sent / as if hands crush skull’. The intrusion of technology creates an atmospheric shift that results in a sense of suffocation and disquiet, making the ‘body buzz ears hum’, an unseen, creeping force that unravels and confuses: ‘am all over the shop’. In a sequence by fellow anti-windmill activist Vera, whose ‘living is with the earth’, the disruption of the turbines is vividly imagined as an anxious threat that invades the bodies of its victims:

They know their bodies pulse, quiver and twitch, the pressure
and pain, in ears, head, chest, all tightening, they know this as 
what has happened and still happens, from day to day, night to
night, not every day every night, but never before the turbines

The industrialisation of the landscape is thus conceived in intimate terms, worming inside the minds and bodies of those who live within its vicinity. In the poem ‘Mattie’, the eponymous narrator describes a state of disquiet in which she ‘can’t settle today can’t settle / wind in my bonnet bees on breeze’, an image of jittery restlessness, but also of being imposed upon by a greater force. The effects on self are ‘jangle jarred’, an experience of agitation and loss in which ‘things don’t stick in my head neither pin nor word basic / structures articulated imprecise’.

Catherine Schieve notes in the afterword—an oddly explicatory addition—that such portrayals demarcate the careful balances maintained by the ‘fragile landscape’, an ecosystem which ‘includes our very own bodies, as the work of capitalism affects everything down to our dreams at night’. The invasion of the ‘industrial windmills’ throws the machinations of the natural world into chaos, creating a constant friction between object and subject, each fighting for space in the bionetwork. As Dan writes in ‘early autumn’: ‘fingers of pale light / turbine blades locked together / cannot concentrate’.

Importantly, each of the embattled residents is presented in relation to a singular, extraordinary connection with the natural world, enamoured by a quasi-spiritual understanding of land awarded to those in rural spaces and denied to those on the outside. It is a question of ownership, made clear in the animosity towards the governmental agents and advocates who are unable to explain the phenomena: ‘complaint no 315 draws mister grey suit / thirtysomething urban company tool slickster / this not his territory’. Such binaries are mimicked via the performative language of janssen, whose remarkable conjuring of movement and sound replicates not only the invisible peril that menaces the community, but also the positions from which each actor speaks. As Schieve observes, janssen constructs ‘a full theatre of voices arranged in space’, a cacophony of accents, jargon, and quirks that synthesise into an intricate expression of corporate-lingo, outrage, and grief. More formalised structures and rhyme schemes are reserved for representatives of The Company, for example, who revel in cropped clichés and weasel-words to parody bureaucratic emptiness and repetition without meaning: ‘I’m here to listen, to listen to you, to listen to your concerns. Yes, really listen. Listen really. A real listening’. Alternatively, the opening section, ‘Still’, narrated from the perspective of the landscape, is constructed of long fluid lines and lists, eschewing static choruses in favour of language that is alliterative and verb-heavy, echoing a sense of seasonality, transformation, and impermanence: ‘small feet tickle my dust print into decay a lace of living strung from tails swooping bounding switching surface to air fleet the colour the pattern the texture each to their own and of their passing they home in me guests’. Similarly, in evoking the horror of the windmills, the source of so much dis-ease, janssen attends to a sense of perpetual, fragmented motion, a nauseating refrain of clipped and frantic energy: ‘they spin do spin spun spin spin spin forward, do spin around round spin forward round whirred spinning turning spun spin sizzling speed fast’.

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Andy Jackson Reviews Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word
Edited by David Stavanager and Anne-Marie Te Whiu
University of Queensland Press, 2019

Is an anthology greater than the sum of its parts? Does it effectively capture its milieu? Who’s been included, who left out? Is it genuinely of the moment? Will it endure? The case of Solid Air is even more complex. This is a collection of spoken word that’s been published as a book, rather than as a downloadable album, a film to be streamed, or a live show on tour (though there have been a string of impressive launches). Voice turned to ink, accent and emphasis turned into font, the unfolding of a poem in time turned into a presence on paper which is there in its entirety at one glance. Is this the stage surrendering to the supposed dominance of the page? Should I consider these poems purely in their physical form here, or as reminders of their performance elsewhere? Of course, editors David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu know you’ll ask these questions, and it’s proof of their adept curation of voices that – while such questions persist after reading, transformed into something more productive – the poems themselves overwhelm any theoretical position or argument about what or who this anthology represents.

Firstly, a disclosure: I was chosen by the editors to perform at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2017. I don’t appear in this anthology, though, so perhaps that balances any perceived bias. What Solid Air does so powerfully is remind us that poems involve positions, a precarious and essential bridging of sites, a profound resonance between bodies, such that the reader or audience is unavoidably implicated. The cover illustration by Des Skordilis is emblematic – four hands, of various skin tones, grasp a single pencil, whose lead becomes a microphone lead looming in the face of the reader. The opposite of siloing, this is a poetics of coming together, the potential for solidarity. Contrary to the image, however, rather than one microphone, the anthology contains 120 of them. And it’s partly in the juxtapositions of voice, not in any implied harmony, that this anthology makes its considerable mark.

There are the ‘big names’ expected by anyone acquainted with contemporary spoken word – Omar Musa, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Miles Merrill, Luka Lesson, Selina Tusitala Marsh – brushing up alongside emerging artists like Melanie Mununggurr-Williams, Jesse Oliver and Eleanor Malbon. Solid Air also takes a boldly expansive definition of ‘spoken word’, too, refusing the binary of ‘stage’ and ‘page’, including a great number of writers whose work confounds that outdated distinction – Nathan Curnow, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Quinn Eades, Omar Sakr and many more.

The selected authors are arranged alphabetically by surname, which means that Solid Air opens, entirely appropriately, with Hani Abdile’s ‘The beautiful ocean’, a breathtaking poem which somehow manages to hold the trauma of seeking asylum by sea within a refrain of love and survival. Immediately, Solid Air seems to be suggesting that the best ‘Australian’ poetry punctures holes – sometimes gentle, sometimes angry – in the idea of Australia itself. Behrouz Boochani, still imprisoned by the Australian government in offshore detention and denied citizenship, also appears in these pages, with a poem of longing and displacement in the midst of beauty.

Also appearing early in the anthology is one of the most exciting emerging voices around, Evelyn Araluen, whose ‘Fern your own gully’ lands with a thrillingly unsettling punch. The poem’s satire deconstructs ‘the smell of eucalypt’, ‘gumnut coins’ and ‘pastel bush dreams’ with fierce intelligence and a subjectivity that is both defiant and strategically elusive:

Just hop in that pouch, unusual girl
hop in the swag                this whole home waits
in handpainted frames of silk native frocks
            wear them to your reading
            wear wattles from your ears
it’s all metaphor for            the beautiful thin white woman
whose body slides linenly through bush

Resistance to colonialism – not only on the political and personal level, but in the idea of what literature is and should be – is a major theme in this book. Anahera Gildea, Te Kahu Rolleston, Grace Taylor and others from Aotearoa New Zealand fluidly integrate indigenous languages without translation. The casual disruption of English by these linguistic interventions is synecdochical – the words themselves standing for the ongoing embodied perseverance of all Indigenous peoples.

These juxtapositions feel more like mischievous channel surfing than any kind of straightforward argument. Araluen is followed by Ken Arkind, with his poem ‘Godbox’. With its long lines arranged vertically on the page, the poem is a jarring chorus of found prayers, numerous voices pleading in confusion, whispered despair and shouts of anger towards a deity who ‘will not answer’. The experience of reading it is shocking, visceral, tenderising.

Another poem driven by a prayerful refrain is ‘Tramlines’ by Arielle Cottingham, which riffs on the racialised implications of hair straightening and ‘straight-ness’ itself in the context of family and public ideas of beauty. To write such a thematic summary, of course, reduces the poem – it’s much more exhilarating and untamed than that, merciless in its honesty and how it implicates the reader. Here, the voice is capitalised, italicised, enjambed and run-on, so that its rhythms and pressures (both internal and external) are made acutely tangible.

These poems are not simply transcriptions of what is spoken. There are experiments with the space of the page that make a hesitant, stuttering or self-correcting voice concrete, but there are also elements here that can’t be understood purely in terms of the heard voice, but include a kind of unheard, internal voice. Emily Crocker’s ‘Spooks’ enfolds complexity into caesura and strikethroughs:

Glitching in the aisles,    mate              ah        ma’am
I knew I was a worryman when I began using my form
as a flotation device, 	            a skeleton key,               a dustpan –

On a similar note, while to my ears Amanda Stewart’s poetry really does need to be heard, her ‘postiche’ allows a reader to experience the scrapes, slippages and ambiguities of her voice in a rigorous and playful page translation. Reminiscent of experiments with typewriters, but also of sound-artist DJs, ‘postiche’ manages to evoke late capitalism, surveillance and anxiety, without explicitly naming any of them.

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Magan Magan Reviews S K Kelen’s Yonder Blue Wild and Kit Kelen’s Poor Man’s Coat

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Yonder Blue Wild by S K Kelen
Flying Islands, 2017

Poor Man’s Coat by Kit Kelen
UWA Publishing, 2018

We came from the ice 
and out of the trees
and wanted the whole world warmer. (Kit Kelen, ‘Parable’)

Award-winning author S K Kelen beautifully explores the theme of travel in his collection Yonder Blue Wild. For some, travel is a benefit awarded to them by virtue of their class; for some it is a tool to attain an idealised version of the life they want to lead. For others, travel is something they have no choice in. The connecting thread is indeed a kind of escapism, and an attempt to express, through movement from place to place, one’s own humanity. In that expression hides stories untold.

Kit Kelen’s collection Poor Man’s Coat complements the theme of his brother’s collection, as he looks at conversation and argument as expressions of personhood. The interesting parallels between the collections are their ability to pronounce these themes through mirror poems and window poems. Mirror poems function as poems that connect people with themselves by way of revealing the self to oneself – the key feature being revelation. Window poems are observational poems that provide the self with insight through observation.

The effect of reading the title, Yonder Blue Wild, contradicts the theme of the collection. Each noun, ‘yonder’, ‘blue’, ‘wild’ stands alone, only moving with when animated by the reader. They are like the state of a stagnant person suddenly moving after unexpected change, triggered by their lack of control. Change is an invisible signpost required to adapt in the world. We have no choice but to be alone in this world even though fighting it seems natural – drugs or alcohol or sex or the chaos of people. The theme of the collection is that travel is part of the human experience, but for me, a person whose stomach begins to turn at the thought of travel, reading this work automatically calls into question the idea of a collective existence. I find it difficult to ignore the idea of travel as an opportunity to temporarily glaze over being born into this world without choice.

What do we have if not our context? It’s a position from which our humanity can be found. In his poem, ‘Love In The Tropics’ S.K. Kelen gives context to his characters. It is precisely due to the contextualisation of their scenario that Frank and Kathy are understood in a complex fashion:

and these
people on the trail, intent on experience...

Wait, Frank the American civil engineer
staying on the beach now six weeks tires
of his Australian girlfriend, Kathy, who 
speaks of literary life in Sydney
boring Frank in the chai shop making
eyes at Yvette vivacious French hippy
Kathy might be jealous, she might not be
& life goes on.

‘Love In The Tropics’ sheds light on a reality that is too often ignored and or is too painful to acknowledge. Kelen speaks to a kind of exhaustion that takes place when a person doesn’t confront the state of their relationship. Such exhaustion eventuates into dysfunction. This is indeed the beauty of poetry: its commitment to the reality of the lives of people and its strength to hold two otherwise opposing things in equality. What is the root of Frank’s exhaustion? Is it his relationship with Kathy? Is it his insistence at ‘making eyes’ at Yvette? Similarly, with Kathy: is she jealous? Should she be?

If poetry guides us to take life as it is, then what happens when change doesn’t occur by virtue of our stubbornness? Will poetry be lost? I must make mention of John Keats’ poem ‘On the Sonnet’: ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chained’. He fears that if a change in form doesn’t occur, the beauty of poetry will be lost. He uses Andromeda, known for her beauty as well as getting chained up, as a simile for the ruins of poetry. Although Keats speaks about the consequence of adhering to the rules of a sonnet, he sticks to the rules. This draws a comparison to Kelen’s poem when he writes ‘& life goes on’, calling upon an objective truth about the world, a universal law, despite his contextualization of his characters’ conflict. Like Frank, many of us continue on our path:

Frank makes a joke ordering
banana cakes from the boy
Yvette smiles but Kathy 
Shrugs it off as part of travelling, 
Find a man on the beach.

Like Frank, we suffer through life in tiny ways as our pain nibbles at us. In S K Kelen’s poem ‘Tiger Show’, however, we see a different perspective on the notion of evolution. He stops his characters to ask: ‘What are you doing here, middle aged Australian / couple?’ A question as universal as love, a question that forces us to a stop: ‘Left the kids at home, let loose / seeing Bangkok’s dizzy lights / before it’s too late’. The difference here is evolution triggered by outside forces, of evolution starting to manifest outwardly.

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Pascalle Burton Reviews Jackson’s A Coat of Ashes

Friday, November 15th, 2019

A Coat of Ashes by Jackson
Recent Work Press, 2019

One part is conceptualising and ordering the world and the other is accepting the world as it is. – Agnès Varda

Poetry tries to get at something elemental by coming out of a silence and returning us—restoring us—to that silence. It is one of the soul’s natural habitats. – Edward Hirsch

Jackson’s third book, A Coat of Ashes, published by Canberra’s Recent Work Press, is a contemplation about how the discourses of Daoism (or Taoism), physics and systems theory might be fused through the methodology of poetry. The collection springs from her acclaimed PhD project, which was awarded the Edith Cowan University Research Medal, the Arts and Humanities Research Medal, and the Magdalena Prize for Feminist Research. The accompanying prose component of her thesis offers a rich background of selected writers whose work is imbued by physics or Daoism, as well as her creative approaches to this book.

What compels a poet to unite and experiment with such varying discourses? It turns out Jackson was looking for answers about being and matter; what it is to be, what matter is and what actually matters. Her wager is that poetry, as mediator of spirituality and science, could provide deeper understanding about existing in a world of ecological and postcolonial turmoil. It seems to have paid off in this striking volume of work.

The language features and text structures of conventional scientific writing (impartial, technical, objective) and mystical writing (superlative, interpretive, repetitive), might seem incompatible to merge, and experimental poems like ‘Spangles’ and ‘That vast sea’, which incorporate and respond to cut up texts from science books and the Dao De Jing, do produce dissonant tones and styles. However, the organising element of poetry satisfies chance and we find it possible for facts, laws, theories and mysticism to blend and create new flows. Perhaps the relationship is not as troubled as we are led to believe. Philosophical Daoism, as Jackson says, ‘values silence, listening, humility, mindful presence and the shedding of ego and attachment’. This too, seems to be what Western science values; the self is suspended to allow for observation of the systems in which it operates and to which it belongs.

The poems in this book are deep, long breaths; an opportunity to stop and reflect or enter the room of a poet’s meditations. Despite the intermittent scientific insertions (quark, cambium) or Chinese fragments from Daoist texts (wu, dào kĕ dào fēi cháng dào), the plain and mostly quiet language of these works is gentle and subtle even when the content is grappling existential, environmental and social catastrophes.

In ‘One, two three’, Jackson applies the theory of a cartwheel to childlike nostalgia and a sense of forgiveness:

The child doesn’t know
momentum, centres, gravity. 
She blames her mother’s 

ski-slope lawn.

This poem also demonstrates Jackson’s excellent use of poetry to give and then take away, maximising space and silence:

Her father mows the grass


Space and silence are manipulated in the constraint-led ‘What is Tao?’ which employs a word-length stipulated erasure of Thomas Merton’s translation of the Zhuangzi, ‘Cutting Up an Ox’, where the motion of the space provides the rhythm of the meditation:

I feel    slow down    watch
hold back    move

Readers can refer to ‘On looking at the Pointers’ to see what happens when science and Daoism meet, and to the list poem ‘The Sage and the Physicist’ to find out what each is not. The Is and the Not are used frequently in this collection, either through affirmatives and negatives (can/can’t, was/wasn’t) or the naming of them, as in ‘That’:

the What and Not I saw
was That.

Dreams abound and become another way of watching emotions and reactions, like the apocalyptic opener, ‘The silicon lip of the precipice’ or ‘The other way, the long way’, which challenges the narrator’s inflexibility and anxiety. The use of silence in the final line of ‘The fundamental forces dream’ gives the reader a waking sensation, where blinking eyes search for sense, returning to the title or to the following page for continuity:

is the fundamental force
from which all the others are derived,
    I said.
And there are accordingly five
fundamental particles.
The one associated with Hunger is called

Objects and animals are instrumental to the noetic quality of this collection, either through narrative, symbol, personification, allegory or metaphor. These include birds, whales, plants, planes, trains, chairs, cars, acid, bass guitars, dolls and dress shoes. A couple of gems, first from ‘on the path’:

a tiny sock
on the path
        it says

and from ‘between’:

there arose a beautiful horse,
brown and white with white-fringed feet,
but it wasn’t possible to speak with her.

In some poems Jackson utilises a stream of consciousness or form of spaced-out, non-intentional writing. Language becomes tenuous or rambling or rhythmic or all of these things. See ‘lamps’ and its near-language-sense, such as ‘I’ve been curling to juice the drug dumps’, or ‘That girdle!’:

I at the surface don’t see the drip
I see the wave, not the jump
Ripples in the pooliverse
Someone says that there is no rock
   and that there is no rock is the rock
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Toby Fitch Reviews Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s CRAVE

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

CRAVE by Holly Friedlander Liddicoat
Rabbit Poets Series, 2018

First books are a big occasion for poets. Their publication makes something heretofore unofficial official while announcing the poet as one committed to ‘the art of language’, as Gig Ryan describes poetry. Their publication chronicles and makes tangible the labour of what is often a long time—of feeling out, of experimentation—for writers attempting to find a voice, a language, even as they’ll discover post-publication that finding voice and language is a forever concern. And so, kudos to Rabbit Poetry Journal and its Rabbit Poets Series imprint, which publishes slim first books, often strong selections of poetry by emerging poets who might not otherwise have had such an opportunity in the frankly saturated Australian poetry scene. I’m not saying there are too many poets—if only there was more poetic, lateral thinking in the public sphere—but in terms of a market, it’s a positive sign when first books in particular are given space and attention.

While we’re talking markets, of being subject to commerce, Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s debut collection CRAVE unabashedly quips, ‘sry if this poetry ruins yr party’ to Sydney’s Inner West as it flips the bird at real estate agents, SUVs and a plenitude of jerk-offs. The poems—‘too damn caffeinated / too damn beat’—self-consciously flaunt their own inability to avoid their complicity in the ever-gentrifying neoliberal capitalism of Sydney with an intoxicated (and intoxicating) nonchalance, if you can forgive the paradox. That kind of paradoxical tone in poetry is interesting to me because it allows poems to do multiple things at once, from critiquing the world around us to subverting and questioning the self that sees fit to write about the world with any authority. It can allow the poet, or the speaker(s) of a poem, to occupy a liminal, othered, space. The frenetic and nonchalant oscillations of Liddicoat’s poems operate in this way. They work to reflect, perhaps, how the contemporary moment is being felt by some: a hyper-simulated, anti-climate change, death-spiral parody of a paradigm, in which the sun is ‘unsetting’ (i.e. stuck) and, as with many bright people, not always welcome in gated communities: ‘the sun is invited to the stairs / but can’t afford admission.’

Poetry by paradox is actually just poetry representing the world. Alongside an intoxicated nonchalance, Liddicoat embodies another paradox: a gentle punk attitude. The poems aren’t simply bratty but self-aware—too metamodern, full of ‘informed naivety’, ‘pragmatic idealism’ (key aspects of post-postmodernism and/or the postdigital paradigm, according to cultural theorists like Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker) and self-care, to be simply punk. We can see this attitude in the shifts between poems. For instance, after ‘a woman works in a lick-her store’, a snarling list poem of all the kinds of patronising snippets of speech from male customers to a woman working in a grog shop, we encounter, in the poem ‘in erko + five floors up’, images of retreat, defeat—that sinking feeling brought on by despair and emotional trauma:

a fluke hits the bottom of the sea  
envision throwing myself 
from this balcony            but landing
in a firefighter’s net

In the next poem, the plants come alive with empathy: ‘bottlebrushes fidget in the wind’ and ‘the palm fronds wave to me hello’, which also offers up a kind of cute, even zany, aesthetic (see literary theorist Sianne Ngai for how to read ‘our aesthetic categories’ today—the ‘cute’, the ‘zany’, and the ‘interesting’). There’s a hint of Pam Brown’s poetry in the way Liddicoat chronicles the urban via sketches of all the things that assemble in front of our eyes to create a place and culture (or lack thereof). There’s also a contrast between the two poets, in how their poems are formed. Jotting down the world, performing their own ‘zany’ labour (‘where r those poems now’), Liddicoat’s poems reach for their poem-ness—perhaps anxious to be poems—whereas Brown’s are more relaxed about their own incompleteness, relying more on accumulation, accretion, a surface tension between images and phrasings, and an ‘interesting’ aesthetic. For Brown’s work notes what’s of interest, no matter how uninteresting things might seem, or disinterested we as observers can become, in the face of the many things fighting for our radically altered attention spans in the postdigital age. Both poets, meanwhile, are interested in the ‘cuteness’ of the specific, pointing out what we might easily miss—what might seem too small or inconsequential—in the everyday. Of course, Brown has had years to hone her craft, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect that level from a first collection, and so perhaps Brown’s mastery of style is one direction toward Liddicoat’s poetry could develop.

While these poems travel—to Hamburg, Berlin, Bruges, Oslo, Malaysia, New York, Central Queensland, looking for life less insular yet finding similar ‘anxiety and weird vibes’—they are also keenly observational of the local, in this case Sydney’s Inner West. The poem ‘New Town’ outlays a series of Newtown cafe specifics:

the old chef sits                  tears basil leaves

(bonsoi)                 Mecca            Alchemy 

corrugated iron as windowpanes 
steel and mint as smell as taste 
zinc-sodium-magnesium shake

supple, mental
                              bring us brunch           in jars

and, later, typographically breaks up:

this place dis 
                             int     egrates when it rains

The end line here, with its rupture before the half-word ‘egrates’, allows for an echo of the pejorative ‘ingrates’, as if to sneakily taunt any surrounding scenester-capitalists; and if you’ve experienced walking down the ever-changing shopfronts of King Street when it’s busy and bucketing down, it might hit home how easily a community built on rising rents can feel like it’s falling apart.

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Margaret Bradstock Reviews Phyllis Perlstone’s The Bruise of Knowing

Monday, October 7th, 2019

The Bruise of Knowing by Phyllis Perlstone
Puncher & Wattmann, 2019

The Bruise of Knowing is Phyllis Perlstone’s third collection of poetry from Puncher & Wattmann, and arguably her best to date. It tells the story of Sir John Monash, highlighting themes of ambition, power and warfare. A talented engineer and commander, Monash’s progress was conflicted by religious bigotry, the rise of feminism, and a growing awareness within himself of the devastation wrought by war. But this is not just history, although the Australia and Britain of Monash’s lifetime are vividly recreated. Perlstone selects revealing episodes of strength and weakness in her protagonist, interpreted through poetic devices that allow the reader to experience undercurrents well beyond the series of events. At the same time, this anecdote is counterpointed with several parenthetic poems drawing the writer-researcher into the framework and underlining current concerns with the encroachment of the built environment on the natural.

Part 1, shifting back and forth in time, deals mainly with the nineteenth century. The collection begins with the poem ‘Two Incidents as Engineer …’ in 1901. In this poem, the language is deliberately hard-edged and precise in its description:

the bridge twists
concrete bits break off
the water's splash, the crashing pieces
the slow time of gravity's next
is like glass
in an accident 

the traction engine tips
and falls

The impact is heightened by concrete, enjambed lineation and broken syntax, brief lines directing emphasis to where the poet wants us to pause and absorb. In this poem, also, the reader is given early notice of Monash’s ‘greatest regret’ for the needless ‘loss of life’:

stilted, his mind's stall
word's remove him from the moment −
as if he could speak for the pall
of ends in the air, of being stopped
of waiting

By contrast, in poems such as ‘In the new Barangaroo Reserve’, we are offered Perlstone’s perspective on the resultant feats of engineering:

As in Sydney now, walking in the city
that some dreamed we would 
wish for,
the heights and bridges built −
though sometimes we want to descend from these
intersecting frets
strutting steel,
sharp-cut graze of concrete
the intimacy of trees

She follows this with ‘Barangaroo’, where her evocation of the natural world is uplifting:

In this place that's retrieved today
from industry
at Barangaroo
this recreation of a ruined shore
buoys now sway
again, against the white trailed water
of a ferry's wake

Monash married Victoria Moss in 1891. Three months later, diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis, she was convalescing with her sister in Beechworth, Monash travelling back and forth by train from Melbourne. As Perlstone notes, ‘The Law and its outlaws / mixed in Beechworth’, none the least the infamous Ned Kelly. She describes the settling of power that happened here:

Poor equipment
like Kelly's makeshift headgear −
dark imprisoning iron −
more than masking 
armour − Nolan's later icon.

A disputed mythology has grown up, linking Monash to Ned Kelly, as in Peter FitzSimon’s 2014 biography of the bushranger. Perlstone has eschewed including any such incident but uses the iconography with metaphoric force. She introduces an attested meeting between Kelly and Monash’s father (in Jerilderie) and suggests Monash’s later interest in the Kelly Gang. In an ekphrastic poem ‘The Slip’, based on a well-known painting by Nolan, the horse’s fall from a ‘precipitous’ height is perhaps reminiscent of Monash’s own trajectory.

In this first section of the book, Perlstone begins to show the uneasy relationship existing between Monash and his wife Victoria (or Vic). This, she mostly develops through interpretation of photographs and artworks, with an impressive sensitivity to bodily language and gesture, as in the poem ‘1898’:

Vic's full skirt, jacket and jaunty hat
free-stand on her, almost
and match the double-breasted suit
constricting Monash

The rift appears more strongly in ‘An Early Photo of Monash and Vic’:

looking in separate directions
they have the same

upholding of themselves for the camera
to be seen, yet    between them
their expressions dilate with defiance,
expose opposite views


And what is inner with Vic is there
by her mouth
her dark hair and dark dress
the high collar around her neck
and head, prevent
any premature
or lean into
Monash's plans

The continuing disintegration of their relationship is interwoven with related themes including the growing rise of feminism and husband’s and wife’s opposing responses to it:

He's avoided Vida Goldstein, feminist,
18 years old.
Monash announces she is "all too self-possessed and affected".


Quarrels start
He should be "the master"
their future should be shaped
so he can succeed.

Once again, the poet’s voice interposes, interpreting and responding to emotional overtones, as in the visually evocative ‘Damp Window in the Rain’:

umbrellas passing under the fig tree leaves
hold the patterns like a slide-show
each walker giving way to another
on the wet black pavement
the tented colours screening shapes
traced like under-lit shadows
without the sun

Abstrusely a sight I turn to
reflecting on Vic
watching the hesitant configurations.
It was her time of not wanting a life rushed through
Hardly one to seize
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Simeon Kronenberg Reviews Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Sergius Seeks Bacchus

Sunday, September 8th, 2019

Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Translated by Tiffany Tsao
Giramondo Publishing, 2019

Sergius and Bacchus were fourth century soldiers in the Roman imperial army and also devout Christians and lovers. They kept their religion and sexuality secret but once their Christianity was discovered they were to suffer terrible torture and eventual death as martyrs, hence their sainthood into the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church (centred at that time in Byzantium). Bacchus’s and Sergius’s sexualities remain contentious, particularly within the Church and at least as far as some church historians are concerned. However, as travel writer Will Harris points out, ‘parallels between their secrecy and that of so many queer communities across the globe has turned them into something of a symbol for queer visibility.’

This ‘visibility’ remains especially potent, indeed emblematic, for the Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu. ‘Sergius Seeks Bacchus’, his first book, is located firmly within an apprehension of sexual oppression. Many queer Indonesians (of whom Pasaribu is one) endure persecution or, at the very least, the fear of it at the hands of an increasingly fundamentalist, non-tolerant society, particularly in some regional areas across this huge island group. While homosexual acts between consenting adults are not illegal across the archipelago, there exists widespread harassment, prejudice and shaming especially in Aceh and West Java where the strict observance of Sharia law is more pronounced. Also, in other parts of Indonesia, where Sharia law is not practiced, there exists an implicit tension within society in relation to matters of sexual identification and gender mobility. And while much of the country moves inevitably towards more democratic, secular values, there is an opposite push to shift society in the direction of more conservative, Muslim orthodoxy. It is indeed a paradox worth noting that while democratic impulses remain strong, as millions of Indonesians continue to explore and experience western-style electoral democracy, prejudice towards homosexuality is also marked, as significant numbers move to defend what they see as threatened religious orthodoxy. My own partner’s family is representative of this development in thinking and observance. Nieces, aunts, cousins and sisters are more than ever drawn to wearing the hijab, as a sign of their own virtue and religiosity. That they feel this is necessary, particularly where the prospect of marriage is concerned, was certainly not the case even ten years ago. Their male counterparts are also drawn to stricter and more public observance. The increasing numbers of those attending religious service is evidence of a move towards conservatism in Jakarta – hitherto the centre of a more relaxed attitude towards Islam and its teachings.

Being both gay and Christian, Pasaribu faces difficulty on two distinct fronts within his own country. His response is a creative and rebellious one. In Sergius Seeks Bacchus, a book that appears to be mostly ‘biographical’, even ‘confessional’, he explores the confusion and complexity of his own identity, while expressing deeply felt individual protest and determined self-belief – a belief honed, as it appears, within very personal family difficulty, religious questioning and more broadly, social alienation.

In ‘Erratum’, the opening poem, he asks:

What was he thinking here, picking this body
and this family [?]

Pasaribu expresses a gay lament, via a second person narrative, that is unfortunately all too familiar to many individuals in Indonesia and elsewhere. In Indonesia especially, the experience of familial alienation is one that millions suffer, leading to the kinds of domestic scenarios as described in ‘Erratum’. In this poem Pasaribu writes within a kind of casual and conversational address that invites the reader to share intimate feelings including the stress of conflict. The very casualness of address is distinctive in the poems generally and encourages an immediate identification, if also at times representing an expressive awkwardness as the author attempts to marry poetry with narrative urgency or political statement.

In ‘Erratum’, we can certainly feel Pasaribu’s sense of dislocation when describing what happened:

not long after his first book came out,
[when] as his family sat cross-legged together and ate,
he told them it wouldn't end with any girl 


and here as he stood by the side of the road
that night, all alone, cars passing him,
his father's words hounding him,
Don't ever come back, Banci,
and he wept under a streetlight ...

While this particular scene, or a version of it, is enacted over many households across the Indonesian archipelago, it appears here to be a painful and immediate memory for Pasaribu himself as he continues to negotiate the thickets of family rejection and intolerance, while attempting to live a creative life in the capital far removed from his family. That the poet asserts ‘biographical fact’ is of course an assumption on my part. However, the intensity and consistency of information provided across the poems would seem to support this view. While Pasaribu provides a ‘speaker’, my suspicion is that the speaker is a mask for the poet himself and that the resultant work is to a large degree ‘confessional’. The ‘mask’ also provides at least a little protection from potential difficulty, legal and social.

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Phillip Hall Reviews Robert Harris’s The Gang of One: Selected Poems

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
rendering tithes
     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

tenacious intoxications

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’:

Some nights 
                             the Lord God of waters
moves down the freshwater,
                             the estuary, rivers
veiled in darkness.
                             In silence He inspects
the snags
                             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.

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Adam Ford Reviews Rae White’s Milk Teeth and Anders Villani’s Aril Wire

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:

I swallow
feel it scrape & chafe
lodge in my throat.

That night, its crystal
teratoma grows

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:

I trace 
each teardrop spectre 

with fingers
then tongue

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:

‘Dear Rae

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.

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Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Elif Sezen’s A little book of unspoken history

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
imaginary Esfahan
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
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Brigid Magner Reviews Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points and Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse

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.

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