FRESH Thursday, November 1st, 2018
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Thursday, November 1st, 2018
Subtraction by Fiona Hile
Vagabond Press, 2018
Aqua Spinach by Luke Beesley
Two very recent books by two mid-career Melbourne poets offer distinct intellectual gymnasiums in which to lift and push and run and sweat. I may not have been able to master these books, but they knocked the breath out of me.
Fiona Hile’s second collection, Subtraction is not poetry for the uninitiated. It is sophisticated and, honestly, inscrutable. In an interview with Sandra D’Urso, Hile saysid she sometimes makesde poems by stripping down chapters of a novel-in-progress. And, indeed, the poems do read as something like the opposite of story. Could it be this process of radical redaction (subtraction) to which the title, at least partially, refers?
It could be said tThe poems reject narrative and lyric conventions: the conventions of establishing context, positioning speakers or agents, and crystallising experiences. However, they feel instead as if they are generated in a world quite apart from such considerations. And I must talk about the ‘feel’ of these poems, because, at least at first, I was slipping off their surface like a novice climber on a slick slope. I admit, I did at some early point think: I don’t think I can review this book – not because I didn’t like it, but because I couldn’t understand it. However, unwilling to abort the mission, and more and more disinvested in the notion of expertise and mastery besides, I kept on. Those readers who managed higher than a B in their post-grad continental philosophy coursework may have an easier or more satisfying time intuiting the poems’ implicit philosophical preoccupations, but I must meet them on the level of affect and feeling.
And how do these poems feel? They are gloomy. They vibrate with dissatisfaction. They joke. They bite. They are baroque and insatiable. They torrent. They hold themselves in utter balance.
I want to say something about how the lines work. Staying mostly faithful to the syntax of the sentence, the poems pile vivid arrows of declarations and questions and conjoined imageries upon each other, and they all point in different directions. The poem ‘Aubade’ features a ‘bedside colander’, a ‘hatful of hollows’, ‘Two handfuls of sunrise’, ‘a fake hostage video’, screams, love, money, and choice – and that’s only the first quintet.
At times the poems display something like a warped Whitmanian impulse to radical inclusion: quadruple-visioned, and buzzing with the tension of opposites. The poem ‘Song for an Indifferent Italian,’ ends thus: ‘A wall of windows irrigated / by flights of sluggish moths, whirring in the chest of the / Moreton Bay Fig. An electrified bolt splitting the carapace, / plastic flowers strewing the dashboard, longish knuckles / ructioning the parquetry, the top half of a terrace / with its affordable glimpse of the harbour, her collection of nice / looking but impractically small suitcases’. At times the poems display something like a warped Whitmanian impulse to radical inclusion: quadruple-visioned, and buzzing with the tension of opposites.
How are these poems made, then? Why these choices? Why this particular almost-overflow of taut, utterly specific, yet seemingly unanchored private thought-cogs? What does this machine do?! The poems are embedded with clues as to how to read them. One poem asks, as I do:
What is Form and Why is this happening?
The later lines suggest a slant answer: ‘the poem is a container for the formless horror of your eyes as emotion … representation of the poem as a container for the formless.’ However, these lines are not fair or typical examples of Hile’s brilliant wordplay. Better to cite a line like: ‘The curlicue scent has not the mother in it.’ Just, wow. Or her reappropriation of sistine as a verb, as in: ‘I thought I saw you sistine through / the overstimulated waters of our local / swimming pool.’ See what I mean about her being funny? She is funny.
One penetrable theme of Subtraction is a continuum between love, domesticity, womanhood, and compromise. ‘My Views’ is one of the poems that announces itself as an intensive emotional self-portrait, and could be read in light of female experiences of domestic self-erasure. The poem ends with a quotation from Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: ‘Something frightening lurks in the song of birds’. What Adorno goes on to say, which Hile does not quote, is:The rest of the quotation reads, ‘… precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed.’ Women’s submission to the definitions of the male imagination, ideas of shape-shifting and being constrained, and the questioning of one’s own existence (‘Did you ever have a name? / It’s lost … You were designed to reflect’) preoccupy the collection’s later poems.
So, this is how I have steeped my brain in this collection. I now sense that these poems are not only inscrutable – not merely inscrutable – to the reader, but also to themselves. By which I mean, these are poems both somehow engorged and starving, starving for answers, and yet replete with their own restlessness, their own unanswerability. This is an amazing book.
Luke Beesley’s third collection Aqua Spinach is similarly restless, and similarly challenging. Although the character and feeling of Beesley’s work is distinct from Hile’s, both of these difficult, anti-lyric collections challenge the reader to disrupt her mind’s habitual grasping for logic, narrative, and cohesion. Further, both books are self-consciously intertextual. The poets employ allusion and use opaque strategies of collage as engines of composition. Hile’s influences and allusions may be more seamlessly folded into the fabric of the poems. However, she, too is liable to name-drop. Euclid, Jean Racine, and Kierkegaard (referred to, with causal intimacy, as K.) appear alongside Dolly Parton and Mr Softy, the American ice cream truck mascot. Both books claim access to and make use of the consolations and repulsions of both high and low culture.
Thursday, November 1st, 2018
Pokūahangatus by Tayi Tibble
Victoria University Press, 2018
Against the Whiteness of settler-colonial Aotearoa history, Tayi Tibble brings from margin to centre, her Indigenous experience as a Te Whānau ā Apanui / Ngāti Porou woman. Pokūahangatus is her debut poetry collection, which explores the violence of settler-colonialism against the imagery of pop culture, Māori activism and the strength and sensuality of Brown women. As Tongan, Palangi (Palagi) and Samoan poet Karlo Mila wrote in her PhD thesis, ‘Polycultural Capital and the Pasifika Second Generation: Negotiating Identities in Diasporic Spaces’, Tibble’s poetry reveals how ‘culture, ethnicity and identity signal the complexities of lived experience[s]’ for Indigenous and Pasifika folk. Pokūahangatus chronicles the struggles of being Māori and woman in a colonised land. By sharing this lived experience, Tibble aims to write beyond and despite marginalising stereotypes that deeply affect herself and her communities. Her work reveals authentic and creative representations of what it means to be a strong young Māori woman.
As a mixed Tongan-Australian woman from Mount Druitt, Western Sydney, born the same year as Tibble (1995), I resonate deeply with her poetry. Pokūahangatus is a fictional, hybridised Māori word paying tribute to Pocahontas of the Powhatan tribe. The title itself is poetry allowing for broader discussions of cross-Indigenous solidarity. A chance to understand each other. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the opening poem, ‘Pokūahangatus: An Essay about Indigenous Hair Dos and Don’ts’ begins with oral storytelling:
[G]reat-grandmother on her bed, cutting the thick peppery plait falling down her back with a blunt pair of orange-handled scissors. Remember the resistance. Imagine if the ropes of Māui had snapped and the world had been plunged back into the womb of darkness.
By speaking the whakapapa – the genealogy of Māori ancestry – as the opening for her collection, Tibble reshapes and reclaims her colonised land.
It is then that the Māori women flood in and rightly take up space. The poem, ‘In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women’, outlines the intimate domestic experiences of young Indigenous women who wear ‘printed mini dresses’, buy ‘vodka and dirty magazines’, who get their hair fixed straight at ‘Lambton Quay’ and ‘[t]hink about drowning themselves in the bathtub’ only to ‘[r]esurface with clean skin’ then ‘rinse and repeat.’ Tibble’s poetry shows the complex lives of Māori women who struggle with and resist the tools of colonial power such as fashion, print culture and alcohol. Their rising up with clean skin is an act of constant resistance, an act of sovereignty. It is the intricate politics woven into Tibble’s collection, which gives her writing strength and purpose.
But what does it mean to grow up Indigenous in the twenty-first century? For Tibble, growing up Māori in this day and age means navigating difficult family relations, understanding the allure of sex and dating, and feeling the whakamā – the shame and the aroha – the love. Her poem ‘Scabbing’ encapsulates all these experiences with phresh images, vernacular and tone. The narrator remembers regretting breaking up with her twelvie ex-boyfriend who, ‘makes $50 scabbing schoolkids for a dollar’ and to ‘make matters worse he’s a proper rugby player now’. The shame involved of having broken up with a Brown man, a ‘true hustler’, leads the narrator to lament about the life they could’ve had together as she beats out all the Bogan beauty queens of the Greater Wellington Region to become a proper ‘Kiwi socialite’. The love involved within Indigenous domesticity becomes paramount, where the narrator fantasises of being a Brown man’s housewife and fucking together until they both die. Even in all its irony, there is something powerful and sovereign in two Brown people hustling together until death.
However, while it may be overlooked because it centers on the pop culture franchise Twilight, the most significant poem in the collection is ‘Vampires versus Werewolves’. I was around fourteen when the first Twilight film hit cinemas. Well, hit my TV on a burnt CD my aunty had bought back from Tonga’s illegal DVD shop. I remember staying up until 3am playing the movie on repeat and murmuring along with a grainy Edward Cullen, ‘And so the lion fell in love with the lamb’. Then, I’d stand in the shower and scrub my brown skin with ALDI soap and wear long sleeved skivvys to hide from the sun so that I could look as White as Bella Swan. White enough so that someone like Edward could love me. Growing up, my nickname was Fie Palangi, which means Wanting to be White. I remember stomping around my kui fefine’s house in Mounty County, beating the soles of my Chucks on her freshly mopped wooden floorboards proclaiming to my hundred aunties and uncles who were over for a feed, ‘I’ll never ever marry a crazy coconut!’ All my fam laughed it up at me. Then, I ran to hide in the darkest part of my grandmother’s lounge room and under a statue of White Jesus I began to recite the entire dialogue of Twilight from memory.
What Tibble is actually writing about in ‘Vampires versus Werewolves’ is the experience of wanting to be White coupled with the experience of coming to critical consciousness as an Indigenous woman. The poem is complex because it is in the form of dialogue, which is shown by an italicised secondary voice who, from the left margin, repeatedly asks: ‘Could you be more specific? ’ This forces the narrator to continuously build on Twilight as a metonym for White supremacy on the right margin. Tibble writes, ‘Brown reminds me of leaves and sausage roll wrappers in the gutters’; an image of self-hatred. Later, she writes, ‘All you want is that pale sparkling on the television’, building on images where her self-hatred originated from. By using the phenomenon of Twilight, Tibble reveals how our White supremacist society leads many young marginalised people of colour to obsessively destroy themselves to Whiteness. As young Brown women, there is nothing we wanted more than to leave the gutter and become White; hoping that one of our own ‘wolf pack’ boys would take us home to their parents instead of the palangi girls, while we pinned Edward Cullen to our bedroom walls. Same sis. Same.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
SkinNotes by Kristen Lang
Walleah Press, 2017
Kristen Lang’s SkinNotes articulates an intense poetry and poetics of the body through a holistic series of lifelines in which skin, bone and organs are not so much dissected as regarded, reassembled and given human or other animate agency. Lang’s deft, original and at times startling use of metonymy places bodily parts and other material of daily life into alignments which convey an expansive range of meaning, dimension and depth.
The collection encompasses multitudes in both its scope and strata, with each skilfully edited section notable for a standout poem at its outset. ‘Glass’ is one of these, remarkable for the nuanced and multi-layered interplay between visible surfaces and what lies beneath:
The stained fringes of the shore
remember the water.
And the skins of the stones
sketch their memories of the waves.
What is glass but sand, broken down and recomposed into the possible illusion of a level plane? Its transparency is both deceptive and a means by which a more complete perception of whatever it covers may be obtained. Just as stones contain water, so their own intrinsic elements are held in by a surface that despite its visibility remains imperceptible. These reanimated self-objects resist isolation or definition other than by shifting their constituent parts. This is reaffirmed by the luminous presence of ‘The horse’ that presages the third section of the book. By this point, Lang has already proposed that ‘none of us / are angels’, and this Rilkean thought expands through the equine incarnation and immanence. ‘How the angels are not ourselves’, she muses. Nevertheless, there are angels we fabricate: ‘We dress them’, possibly to cover their stark and frightening essence. Her eloquent rejoinder continues:
Much, though, is familiar. Are they here? The presence
or absence of angels – how their songs
dissipate in the slanting gaze of our search and we cannot
guess what we would know of them.
The uncertain searching conveyed through the ‘slanting’ elision implies the same estrangement Rilke knew, that ‘we are not really at home in the interpreted world.’ Lang also concedes, despite ‘the familiar’ presences, this is mediated territory for human beings. Unlike us, the horse simply exists without apprehension of the terror that derives from the beauty each single angel encapsulates, even when its form seems to be within unsteady reach.
The animal world features in several, often shorter poems here, allowing for more condensed imagery when the discursive voice makes way for the emergence of ideas without reflective commentary. An example of this can be seen in ‘Dog quantum’, which begins with a simple physical sensation followed by creaturely emergence:
Swelling in our hands,
her horse chest, bear paws,
the loose giggle of her skin
This composes a gestalt of the immanent being, through connections that commence with the most palpable of feelings, moving seamlessly into ascription and metaphor that come off as effortless, despite the leftfield ‘loose giggle’ collocation. Another poem describes the recovery of a bird: ‘We follow the tide of its lungs, / the slow opening of its beak.’ The interplay between inside and outside space elaborates an instinct elaborated throughout the book, as the section ‘Blood harmonies’ ends with a poem for a young child, where
The birds of his heart
flutter into my arms, swoop
through my chest
Like the one recovered, whose ‘feathers hum with flight lines’, this literal embodiment moves in projective beauty and delight. The trope resurfaces, becalmed, in the wonderful and deceptively simple ‘Candlelight’:
the frayed flight-lines of the self,
somewhere in the body’s cells, are as real
as the flame you have painted by,
as the stone.
The exact corporeal location may be uncertain or unspecified, but is also entirely perceptible and solid as its components coalesce into concise and incontestable articulation.
Contact in more overtly self-contained contexts consists of interlaced elements that at times elude comprehension, if not apprehension: ‘The touch / we cannot choose to extinguish’ in the opening poem, in one example, leading in to the initial section where the creation of new life and the changes that occur in the body involved predominate. A longer poem, central to the tropes Lang follows, ‘The small house of her body’, is structured like the book in four parts, expressing the pain of an unnamed trauma, that hints at either abortion or violent parturition (‘the torn haze of what she had done’), and in ‘Lake’ – as a coda – ‘she is torn by the ripples.’ Around the repeated rupture and aftershock the encircling stones are ‘dark as eyes.’ These simple seeming lines convey the concept of deep song and unfathomable nature of duende: love and almost inexpressible loss, lines that can be strummed like Lorca’s best when stripped down, as
skin folds the shadows of her bones,
lays them on the bed in the slip
of the hour. Her lungs grip.
The poet returns through assonance and music to stark physiological consciousness, night and a phoneme removed from sleep. ‘Lake’ is one of several poems here related to the oneiric capacity for ‘crumbling’, a word used more than once throughout the book, as well as heightened sensory reception in its stages or absence. In ‘The slight translucence of the sleepless’, for instance, tiredness assumes the simile: ‘like moonlight / on the inside of her skin.’ Once again the reader is returned to the inside, complicit and becalmed at the source of things.
One characteristic of complex and original works is their confidence to operate outside established genre. SkinNotes contains Confessional and Imagist overtones without being dependent on either sensibility, creating enough space to manoeuvre and draw breath. Lang’s liberal use of personal pronouns and dedications punctuates a controlled discursive stream, with moments of spellbinding clarity and quietude that stop the reader short in sheer admiration. ‘Do play on’, she urges the body: a source of such splendour with its finely tuned and calibrated organs. As methodology, statement of intent or an invitation to start reading again, this underlines and understates a resonant tour-de-force.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
The Hijab Files by Maryam Azam
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
The third section of Maryam Azam’s The Hijab Files is called ‘The Piercing of this Place’. It captures moments of perforation of this world by jinn, prayer, memory, death, and other unnamed, unnameable, astounding things.
Jinns make their homes where humans don’t.
My older cousins told me this when they
said they’d passed a jinn on a dirt road in the bush”
‘Jinns on Mt Kosciuszko’
our memory electrified except we had forgotten
to go to class and felt the piercing of this place
the way that entering into prayer pierces a place.
‘We Meet (Again)’
She held the bird and it was stone heavy
as if to make the absence of soul clear
through an exaggerated presence of body.
The wondrousness of death chilled her.’
As a whole, what The Hijab Files does, is show that the piercing of this place is not only the piercing of the mundane by the transcendental; it is equally the piercing of the transcendental by the mundane. In contrast to ‘The Piercing of This Place’, the first two sections of the collection, entitled ‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’ and ‘Wallah Bros’, describe elasticity and porosity in the profound. And, let’s be clear, profundity is not often thought of in those terms.
In ‘Naseeb’, a poem in the ‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’ section, such profound topics as destiny and a potential arrangement of marriage for the young woman narrator are discussed. Meanwhile, the party of four sits ‘with our legs / crossed on the sofa eating / biryani from plastic plates. In ‘Shane No. 2’, from the section ‘Wallah Bros’, the sacredness of marriage competes with the very mundane needs of the human body:
Shane is shovelling the rice
into his mouth and I can see
that being my husband
requires a lot of energy.
This realistic seamless coexistence of regular and religious experiences is comforting to read. In a Liminal interview with Robert Wood, Azam has said that The Hijab Files is ‘a snapshot in the life and times of a young woman in Western Sydney’. The richness of detail of both extraordinary and ordinary happenings described in the collection is one aspect of the mechanism of Azam’s de-Orientalising impulse. The young Western Sydney women/narrators of the collection are people with their own concerns and considerations. This stands in opposition to often one-dimensional representations of veiled Muslim women in poems by some white Australian poets. For instance, compare with these references to purdah and niqab in much older poems by Philip Salom or Dorothy Porter.
The women of The Hijab Files have ‘bad scarf days’ (‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, p. 16) and deal with ‘fickle hearts’ (‘Facebook Relationship Status: Single’, p. 26). They pray, and they forget to pray. They have ‘stagnant Sundays’ (‘Layla and Majnun’, p. 30) and think about how weird their pets are. They go to school, and talk to their friends and parents, they go swimming and parasailing and snorkelling. But, as Azam says, ‘[t]o be a practicing Muslim is to bring your beliefs and religious practices to every aspect of life’. In the collection, things that happen are often conceived of as both religious and not, like the following, when the potential intervention of jinns comes into question:
In a dirt clearing surrounded by rocks
are scattered two dozen chillies,
plump and fresh as if they’d been picked
off the plant a minute ago.
The Woolworths down in Jindabyne
doesn’t sell chillies
‘Jinns on Mt Kosciuszko’
And with these complex representations, The Hijab Files allows young Muslims in Australia to enter a narrative usually reserved for white, secular, ‘regular’ folk: sometimes things are ordinary, sometimes they are profound. The stunning accomplishment of The Hijab Files, however, is the grace and eloquence with which Azam relates these sometimes-mundane, sometimes-profound, always-relatable happenings.
Azam’s style is often direct, uncompromising. The poems written in this way feel easier to process because of this quality.
The sick bay seemed an odd place
to use for prayer,
the smell of disinfectant
hinting at the volume and variety
of bodily excretions.
‘Praying at School 1’
Circumstances and action are immediate, description is minimal, but alive. Azam writes with an awareness of the sensory. However, there is an array of beautiful, surprising metaphors among which the following stood out and have remained memorable for me:
Far more frightening
than death the abyss
is death not the abyss
The broken gas cannister of sleep
slowly clears from my head.
I felt the world fold up around me
like a cardboard box.
she has not taken a breath
outside this prism of protection
since her father taught it to her
‘Duas Like Spells’
These beautiful lines, which often appear as a kind of gift / trip-wire within poems, are like the moments of profound clarity which pepper the life and times of the young Western Sydney women of The Hijab Files.
Apparent, of course, is that the collection is a text that cares deeply for its audience. It is a multilingual text. As a person of Indian origin with proximity (though not fluency) to multilingual thinking, speaking, and writing, I am very happy to see that non-English words and phrases are left unitalicised, often untranslated. This is a credit to Azam – and also to Giramondo – in normalising linguistic diversity. I do not know Giramondo’s house style, so this may be their standard, but it is certainly not the standard elsewhere. I, and other multilingual, migrant, culturally and linguistically diverse writers and editors welcome this intervention. As a non-Muslim, there is much of The Hijab Files that passes me by – language, custom, emotion. As a person of Indian origin, there are obvious moments where I am invited in – language, custom, emotion. But, Azam, in carefully selecting and ‘writing for an audience much like who [she] was in high school’, has not severely distanced other demographics whose own experiences may not align so closely with the young women in The Hijab Files. The poems are moving, there is joy and humour and gravity to them that is not unique to Azam’s specific slice of the Australian demographic pie. And, it’s a common truth that poems are not written to reach every reader with the same degree of clarity. These poems show there is much to be gained by centring young Muslim Australians.
Azam’s debut collection identifies and describes a flexibility and porousness in objects often thought of as stable and rigid. Cloth, faith, identity, reality become elastic. It conceives of worldly life as capable of sustaining simultaneity of perception, and as movement between piercing moments of profundity and mundanity.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems
by Cary Hamlyn
Garron Publishing, 2018
The Quality of Light and Other Poems
by Jill Jones
Garron Publishing, 2018
Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems, by Cary Hamlyn, and The Quality of Light and Other Poems, by Jill Jones, are two of five South Australian poetry chapbooks published by Garron Publishing in the spring of 2017.
In Jill Jones’s collection, The Quality of Light and Other Poems, ageing, mortality and memory are intensely private experiences that expand like ‘the nerve system of creeks leading into / the Torrens, or the oily wash / of Sydney Harbour’ to planetary dimensions, enfolding animals, city roads, streets, flowers, plants, bees, the skies and the galaxy into the rich particulars of its vast realm. Jones’s superb collection reinvigorates poetry as a quality of illumination amidst all kinds of opacity, sparking affective and rhythmic conversations between literature, politics, ecology and cosmology. Her poetry engages and enacts what T S Eliot called the ‘auditory imagination’, ‘the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and f eeling’. Deftly elliptical, suggestively insistent, and exuberantly introspective, The Quality of Light articulates the pleasurably enigmatic rhythms, tones and cadence of urban and modern existence.
An exemplar of poetry as practice, her collection recalibrates and proliferates our ways of seeing. Jones’ poems strike me as intensely democratic in effect and highly controlled in technique in its complex conjuration of spontaneous images as though independent of the poet, who becomes, in the process, one of the poem’s readers, acted upon and actively engaged in the practice of interpretation. In the opening poem, ‘The Quality of Light’, she writes: ‘the atmosphere, the clouds / I can see, any day I look up, are / there, and changing there / with or without me. With or / without me writing as though / they are there for me. / But I’m not there, in the letters / though I may scribe them’. She continues, ‘Luminosity perhaps is a dream, / like travel, building, or words. It all / comes and goes, it is / as if it’s happening…’ With characteristic elusiveness, Jones’s opening poem announces and enacts the collection’s process of seeing and interpreting images, memories and ideas in their slippery (re)creation, emphasising writing as inherently a form of active (readerly) participation.
There is so much here to explore. In the poem, ‘Wrack’, varied repetition and compressed, internal rhymes, which at times recall the characteristic style of American poet Kay Ryan, playfully perform and aggressively capture the ensnaring opacity of discourse: ‘it’s all brooding wrack or media flack, the rain / that never rains will rain and no attempt at / political hack will stop the weathering of weather / the tide comes, it’s not going back’.
Her writing communicates a profound ambivalence, expressing any emotion, state of being, sense of beauty, wonderment and imagination with measured equivocality. In this sense, Jones’s poems are imbued with emotional naturalism; her elliptical language but clear tone dexterously capture and engage but do not resolve or reframe life’s hard won and hard-battled ambiguities and complexities. The poem ‘Swoop’ sketches the spontaneous, raucous discordance and harmony of urban life without judgment: ‘leaves break in your hand, wing swoop / syncopates / blues of the galaxy / huge chords rush outside, rain, trucks / hard dreams / three stars in a pool / the grass shivers’.
One of the most mesmerising pieces in her collection, I think, is the poem, ‘Bitumen Time’. It evokes the familiar, yet profound, intangible exhilaration and melancholy of the journey home at night time. The run-on rhythm of dependent clauses is painfully staggered by pensive, insistent commas to create a sense of digressive relevance, a sense of the universal pull of ‘birds’, ‘bitumen thing’, ‘times, places’, ‘sounds that curve’, ‘roses…stripped/of winter colour’. With language and tone that blend enigmatic existential wonderment, the vagaries of memory and the crucial clarity of feeling, Jones asks: ‘[W]ho am I among/scent of this night flowering in dead arms of winter’? The poet’s language and pacing exert the central pull of the poem as though coming from forces beyond its control, what we cannot see but sense and experience as the subjective, invisible violence of humanity, of time, of systemic opacity, of collective, cumulative destruction, ‘…as though history ramps into/the moon’s famous indifference, the sky’s / night version of real things that hold into/strange corners, so help me, help me, / it’s transparent, but so alien, all these stories’.
Similarly, ‘The Vertigo Blues’ enacts a certain belligerence of fact, a fatalism that embraces both tragedy and beauty: ‘What makes it so / difficult is also what keeps me here, still. There are / silhouettes above my heart, a brace of baggy riffs / two-timing below.’
An intensity of tone at the heart of each masterfully crafted poem – ear, substance, subject matter, images and music deliberately, cautiously, vigorously consorting with each other –illuminates and intricately unravels our blinkered order of things. This, for me, is the pleasure of reading Jones’s beacon of a collection again and again.
Cary Hamlyn’s second collection, Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems, sketches everyday sightings, objects and experiences; to name a few, the eponymous ultrasound, a lovers’ quarrel, a Burmese train journey, Siamese fighting fish, a dying pelican, sunflowers, night.
The stand-out piece in the collection for me was ‘Rozelle Boarding House for Sailors’, which cleverly engages the conspiratorial atmosphere and architecture of the haunted boarding house to convey the sense of the resurrection, renovation and reclamation of histories through storytelling: ‘In each single room their lives unwind, / each a story spun within a story – / as if every old tragedy or joy / were reinvented by the next man,/their thousand lost ships/still silently listing under our beds.’ The story of masculinity here is a poignant and complex one; the voiceless anonymity of the lives of the drowned sailors distances and abets their poetic (re-)construction, thus carrying with it an expressively equivocal force.
Perhaps less successfully, Hamlyn’s other poems at different points explore the theme of violent or predatory masculinity. A poem about a Lothario, drably titled ‘Preying in the ‘90s’, describes the said predator with unwieldy lines like ‘scoring women on a bell-curve / of ‘hotness’ and potential sizzle – / the Big Bang had nothing on him.’ Like some others in the collection (‘Post-Skirmish’, ‘Arguing with an Ex-Lover’, ‘On Meeting an Old Flame’), the title also seems unnecessarily prescriptive and adds further perfunctory framing to the poem’s meaning.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Interval by Judith Bishop
Interval is the fourth book for Judith Bishop and her first with University of Queensland Press. The book is divided into four sections. The first begins with an epigraph from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard that ‘childhood is certainly greater than reality.’ It’s an apposite riff that informs the sentiment of the poems that follow it, in which speaker mothers talk to their children. These poems have a lyric modality, they feel intimate even confessional, while a tensioning quality of abstraction prevents slippage into pure nostalgia.
The first poem ‘Letter to My Daughters’ is organised around the refrain “bring me back to change the script’: a mother addresses her children about the failings of her parenting – (mild ones it must be said) such as restrictions on jumping in puddles, refusing the request for one last story – and asks ‘bring me back to change the script.’ ‘Give me time and I will stay with you / until our eyes have shut’, the speaker says, the irony of course being that time is so often the enemy of ideal parenting. Against the mildness of the complaint and the retroactive idealism of the improving parent, the shut eyes don’t just imply the bliss of mother and daughters falling asleep together, a kind of revelling in Blakean innocence, but also the threat and inevitability of mortality.
Reading the early poems in Interval, it is impossible to tell whether the swelling undertone of tragedy is due to the regrets of the parent, or potentially the loss of a child. Bishop’s lines resist such easy identification of event to emotion and are all the tauter because of it. When reading lyrical poetry, there is always the temptation to conflate the poet with speaker, a temptation whose satisfaction is deferred, not least by the speaker’s battle with time, which we also see in ‘Poem for a Little Girl’, elegantly comprised of six three-line strophes, the last three of which are (movingly) as follows:
But how her hands urged her to hold! Her legs, to run!
Language flew into her ear and she could speak!
Sun and wind were her friends. So you held her in her sleep.
And you held her small body when she stumbled into night:
for days the black river went plunging into night.
But in the place you’ve come to there is only care.
She has woke, your love, in the house of your heart.
Oh, now she is laughing, saying Look! Ma! Pa!
I’m a bird – I’m sunlight – I am everywhere you are.
There’s a powerful current of tragedy at work here, but it remains protean, despite the intimate clarity of the utterance. This creates an emotional shimmer that is consonant with flickering hopes of transcendence. The notion of tragedy is thematically supported by the following two poems which invoke Greek mythology, ‘The Blind Minotaur’ (via Picasso’s painting) and ‘Reading Myths the Greek’, a digest poem, playful, that finishes:
We’ll send the golden apple back
before there’s damage done.
The gods can find
another game to play.
A brace of poems that reflect upon conception and birth are followed by ‘Snow,’ in which Bishop works cleverly through a series of riffed juxtapositions: cold and hot, snow and Icarus, death and life, black and white, word and life. It’s a movement away from the lyrical intimacy of the earlier poems towards a more intellectually abstracted universalising stance.
This abstraction persists in the following poem, ‘Openings’ which is a powerful meditation on emerging into the world, running out of a Roethke epigraph, ‘I could say hello to things.’
Here Bishop confronts the mortifying thought that the price of entry into life is death:
Loveliness and horror pass through
the open gate.
Appear in the field,
and the widening ripples
begin, startled dancers
and audience beyond, all place in the brain
where the judgments
rise and shout.
How do you open
the gate to a birth?
How do you
open the door on a death?
Open, knowing what must
dart out like a cat;
how the rush will numb the fingers
to any further action
and the mind
be transfixed before the scene.
The superb poise Bishop shows in her balancing of affect and abstraction, and the creation of an incantatory container for these sentiments that is organised around the repetition of ‘open’ is one of the highlights of the book. Primed by the mythology of the preceding poems, it’s almost as if Bishop is exploring birth and motherhood by the positing of an alternative Pandora: the box must be opened, even if there are terrible consequences because the only other option is not to live at all. This is in the second section of this 5-sectioned poem, and in following the poem, it becomes clear in section IV, a vignette of a young neighbour’s suicide how precarious this situation is.
The second section of the book begins with an epigraph from Dickens; ‘we had everything before us, we had nothing before us’. In this shorter section Bishop experiments with form such as in the prose poem ‘Fairytale’. It’s a less intimate and ultimately less powerful section. ‘Best of Times’ for instance starts powerfully in the present before veering into ekphrasis that dilutes the force of the poem’s opening statement, ‘Too much beauty is disturbing.’ The strongest poem here is ‘Miniatures’, four pithy yet elegant quatrains such as
Laid are the eggs, and the traps, and the plans.
One is closed, until broken by urgency and life.
One is open – and then –
One is closure, with haunted dreams of opening
These are beautiful lines that shape the space of meaning without filling it in. Bishop’s great strength in Interval is as an explorer of uncharted interiorities where emotion and intellect entwine. The final two poems of this section ‘Rising Tides’ and ‘The New Maps Keep a Weather Eye,’ veer towards the eco-poetic by way of the cartographical and lack the same urgency even as they evince it.
Ecological perspectives continue into the third section. ‘The View From 10,000 metres’ plays with the estrangement of looking at the earth from a plane, while ‘Tunings’ juxtaposes the idea of a wind-driven leaf with the advent of self-driving cars. Meanwhile ‘The Ambun Stone’ is an intriguing if overly anthropomorphic address to a fossilised echidna foetus. The poems here feel lack the same collective impetus as section one. They feel more like clustered occasionals. They all have their merits, but they do detract somewhat from the consonance of the collection, evidence of the difficult balance of how to organise disparate poetic intentions in the one volume. Indeed the title Interval itself suggests a book perhaps composed from different times and mindsets.
Section IV returns to some of the collection’s earlier strengths. It’s highlights include ‘The Wild Has No Words,’ a musing on our inescapable animality, how wildness sings its songs in us, and drives us to action despite this lack of words. Again, Bishop confronts mortality, the poem finishing with:
… that I’ve kept my ears uncovered, but have asked
for ropes to bind me, sailing by
what seems the one thing inescapably
pure: a song of minds gone
naked, a hymn
to human consonance
– knowing, songs unheeded,
your rocky mouth
closes on the singers for all time.
There is more to say and much to admire in this strong collection whose intellectual integrity is marked by the way its thoughts are constantly butting up against the unknowable. This primary sense of accomplishment, however, might have been further enhanced if there had been a greater correspondence or a clearer logic of division between the volume’s sections.
Thursday, August 30th, 2018
Tilt by Kate Lilley
Vagabond Press, 2018
click here for what we do by Pam Brown
Vagabond Press, 2018
In 1915, H G Wells published Boon, a satirical novel that featured long passages pastiching the literary style of his erstwhile friend, Henry James. It kicked off an epistolary barney over what art should be about. ‘It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,’ James wrote in one of the letters. I’m no Jamesian (and it’s not in my stars) but what he seems to be saying is that one of art’s functions is to give structure and meaning to existence by elevating moments, objects and sentiments, however vague or fleeting, out of the formless flux of stimuli that is our world. This curation process is how art helps shape our sense both of ourselves, our communities and cultures and our past.
I came across James’s letter chasing down the epigraph of the third section of Kate Lilley’s Tilt. It seems an apt way to consider, at least partially, Lilley’s latest work as well as Pam Brown’s new collection, click here for what we do. The epigraph begins: ‘I hold that interest may be, must be, exquisitely made and created, and that if we don’t make it, we who undertake to, nobody and nothing will make it for us.’ Brown and Lilley are both poets invested in making interest and exploring how it is made. This is particularly explicit in a number of Lilley’s poems that funcion through the accretion of unadorned detail and, in doing so, interrogate that act of depiction itself. This Jamesian notion of art is also a useful way to read the confessional vignettes that powerfully level serious allegations against Dorothy Hewett, her mother, and rape allegations at several countercultural figures, as well as the alternative history of Oxford Street the title poem recounts.
It’s also a helpful framework for understanding Brown’s work, which continues to mine the quotidian. This is a mode she has described, in 2002’s Text Thing, as:
(writing a poem) -
(‘The ing thing’)
In determining which moments from life’s shambling contingency make the cut, Brown is, in James’s terms, making importance. It is a democratising poetics, privileging the mundane and the minor. The poems are a kind of poetic mindfulness enacting the benefits and pleasures of living in the present.
Tilt is only the third book in a career that began in the early eighties. ‘Academia buried her talents under bushels of work for more than a decade,’ wrote John Tranter in an introduction to Lilley’s work when her first collection, Versary, was published at the beginning of the aughts. But while readers waited ten years between her first collection and 2012’s Ladylike, a mere six years have elapsed since her last book. In some ways Lilley is picking up from where she left of. Like her earlier collections, Tilt is as concerned with how poems say things as what they say. This isn’t to discount the content, but to stress how important form is in her work. What is unique, though, is the way formally experimental or innovative poems sit snugly alongside more conventional lyrics and, in this case, confessional poems.
It is the confessional poems, which comprise most of the book’s first section, that have propelled the book into the nation’s newspapers. Predictably, the allegations contained in them have attracted far more attention than the poems themselves. This is a terrible shame. Not because Bob Ellis and Martin Sharp, or even Hewett, should be spared sanction and opprobrium, but because the poems are amongst the book’s best, revealing yet another facet of Lilley’s skill as a poet. Take ‘Conversation Pit 1971’, which recounts a conversation with her mother, Dorothy Hewett:
Are you having sexual intercourse?
She wanted to know what was going on
in the sports shed at South Perth Primary
Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap
Lilley was ten, turning eleven, in 1971, but set aside, for a moment, the allegation these stanzas levy about Hewett’s appalling parenting and listen to their music: the decasyllabic staccato of the third line; the alliteration of ’s’, ‘th’ and ‘p’ in the fourth; and the balanced bookends of the fifth line. Other poems are less showy but no less virtuosic. ‘Chattel’ is driven by tone:
He appears in the doorway
his white yfronts bulging
A teenage girl is a come-on
I get it
Face to face on the living room floor
so long as you’re enjoying it
I’ve read his feature articles
it doesn’t help
I’m told I’m very good at this
Tuesday, August 7th, 2018
The Alarming Conservatory by Corey Wakeling
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
The Sydney launch of Corey Wakeling’s second collection of poetry The Alarming Conservatory at Frontyard Projects in Marrickville upended the traditional build up of acts that most expect from a poetry launch, with poets reading in an order drawn from a hat. The environment is amicable and warm, with young children running and playing and affectionately stealing attention from the readers by unwittingly performing alongside of them.
When Wakeling reads (third out of the six readers, the launch speech by Astrid Lorange is fifth), he commences with a long absurdist style poem Alfresco dining area dining alfresco; it’s a long poem, performed at high speed with no pause, and featuring preposition-propelled lines such as:
the hegimonicon of the alfresco dining area reasserts itself by collapsing its
loft and filling in its basement, by plastinating the crowds, by patenting the
perimeter of the area, by force
the plastinated crowd, by vaporising the excess, by a trigonometric archive of the
final limits of the alfresco dining area, by the universal preservation of the
trigonometric archive of the final limits.
Actions are always being done to the alfresco dining area: it is given an eviction notice, a loft, and a basement, punished by patrons levitating, swimming and dining at competing restaurant, confused by patrons licensing their own restaurants. It finally comes full circle by, itself, dining alfresco. It’s fitting, here, too, to note that Wakeling has a doctorate in English and Theatre Studies. An exploitation of the performative nature of language is never far from the work, nor is a constant reconfiguring of language, objects, place and structures (linguistic, familial, political, social). It reminds me of how in Beckett’s theatre, the subject of Wakeling’s thesis, objects often become the focus when dialogue stops, and how frequently en scène there is a negotiation of subject-object.
Talking to a friend from Perth, she provides another context for this poem: In 2017, local counsellors tried to reinstate previously banned alfresco dining areas in the CBD, and put these spaces ‘on trial’. The term ‘alfresco dining area’ and a debate around their existence taking momentary prominence in local politics.
This situation strikes as ripe as a premise for a Wakeling poem, that often twists found fragments and occurrences to a logical-illogical end and interlays reference and place, as in ‘Pupils of the Goat’:
Albany, you might say is heaven
Kalamunda calls itself hell.
They honeymoon in the shadows and the ferns.
Darling Ranges make a really arbitrary purgatory
Referencing Dante’s Inferno and Beatrice, chalk circles, hip hop, Katherine Prichard, and Datsuns, these poems are phenomenal in that that gather so much phenomena.
There is a tangible joy at an excess of language and its resituating; for all the startling incomprehensibility that arises, the collected work is also grounded in the everyday and the current environment: Take the opening epithet for example: ‘He took you for a bubble gum America/ But now he finds that you speak kangaroo English’, a line attributed to a barista at the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin, or in the poem ‘Ecstasy’, that shifts common salutation:
Language is poetry is to be expected
-- where could they possibly have
Come from otherwise?
Is find, I should add, and sends her
There is never simply one thing going on. There is much to work under and through, themes expand and contract, taking on new meanings and contexts at each shift. They are poems that you can spend time with, deducing reference and connection, or read rapidly, startled by the strange juxtapositions and metaphors, perhaps intended to jolt one out of complacency.
The concept or noun ‘Australia’ also undergoes shifts of form. Aus is referred to as a ‘secret car park’, a goat, and, in ‘Available for Public Events’, is turned into stationery: ‘Poor Australia, he has no recognised partner or legal aid. / But he must be assured, we’ve rolodexed him.’
Having grown up in Australia, the title of the volume The Alarming Conservatory evokes several allusions. It brings to mind a Howard era ‘be alert but not alarmed’ mentality; the conservatory aspect could refer to a humid greenhouse, school, or alternatively, to a place that breeds conservatives. The title Alarming Conservatory could function simply as a moniker for colonial Australia.
Themes of an Australian tepid comfort are a recurrence, as in the poem ‘Ward’, that crawls through the Yu Yangs and abounds in lines that mention couches:
The couches intrigue by a slow invitation which becomes entrapment (…) the constant reminder / of Albert Namatjira, who is the only immediate rescue / here and now from the couches. / The saluting couches./ (…) Like a couch, the advantage is earned by those / who sit with you to console and comfort themselves.
The meaning, punning, and resulting associations in this volume are never settled, and frequently when I’m reading I’m saying ‘What what what?’ in my head, or out loud, trying to find level ground that is always escaping. But the poems are deeply funny and revelatory of current economic farcicalities and social perspectives. For example, in ´Being Paid to Live the Dunes’ that begins, ‘you are ready for the end of the world because / you are paid for it, and the apartment is good.’ This continues in ´Sydney sydney’, that speaks excessively and appropriately of landowners and in ‘The Person is Real’ that closes with the line: ‘Good bargain of education, you bought us up – yes, bought! – so well.’
Dissonance and decline emerge as other themes, two poems, in fact, are elegies (‘Elegy Written in a Dead Metropolitan Library’ and ‘Elegy for Epithalamium’). The poems capture a shifting world, and can be read more widely to comment on virtuality, mediatised environments, and family.
The ‘Afterword’, too, is worthy of note. Shifting form, it presents a lucid eight-page poem-essay that is vividly transporting and recounts in a measured, gentle and suspended tone the poet’s childhood in Western Australia. Cars trips to Fremantle, garage sales, adventure stories, comics, fiscal difficulties. It provides a commentary of the social climate: ‘I grew to dislike the perpetually bold sky of Western Australia (…) the weather to me mirrored a self-satisfied, recreational population’ and of the situation of childhood where a lucid narrative is easier to obtain.
Reading the afterword following the intricately layered, complex and at times close to indecipherable poetics, is somewhat similar to having the answers and the clues to the previous day’s cryptic crossword side-by-side and working backwards to fill the grid in.
Frequently in these poems, the economic climate, neo-liberal free market, and housing market are all thrown together; The Alarming Conservatory is the site of the fall-out. It is recommended reading, and provides a counter narrative if you’re reading closely.
Tuesday, August 7th, 2018
Hush: A Fugue by Dominique Hecq
UWA Publishing, 2017
To some readers, like me, Dominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue may be daunting at first appearance. This starts with the cover, which has the sort of self-assured, intellectual air I find a little intimidating. A wary look inside reveals unstable text formatting – blocks of dense prose broken by verse, haiku, couplets, one-liners. And whether you do your page-flicking right or left-handed, you surely cannot avoid noticing a list of references at the back, containing some imposing names: Barthes, Freud, the dreaded Derrida, Lacan. Hesitating on ‘Heaney, S.’, and ‘Rimbaud, A.’, I found myself hoping for reassurance. Some readers will undoubtedly have put the book down by this point, but others love a challenge and they will certainly find Hecq’s book stimulating. It is rich and satisfying on many levels, whether or not you enjoy Derrida’s games.
As a story, read in a simple readerly way, Hecq’s poetic narrative is moving and beautiful. A child dies and the voice of the poet is the voice of its mother, travelling through the surreal world of grief. Motifs of affluent, inner-city life appear throughout, but become strangely unfettered; splashes of colourful hedonism in an otherwise colourless, mist-like free-fall through pallor and darkness:
I read to the child and helped him draw his own story of loss [. . .]. I cooked.
There were pancakes and French toast and brioche. Lemon pudding and orange cake and rhubarb pie and apple crumble. Poppyseed cake. [. . .]
I longed for food. [. . .] I felt so greedy. [. . .] I would not eat. There was no room for me. I rose and fell. Flailed around me in a sea of black. Lack. Living and wanting to die. I fell into the waterfall of my mind.
Hecq’s juxtaposition of an external life of food, music and flowers against an inner world marred by lack, opens a tense space. It is a space weighted in one direction by absence (of the child and of language/meaning) and in the other, by the continuance of life; life which must be negotiated and travelled. To heed the call of life, meaning is needed, but normal language fails. Hush’s complex formal structure flows, like Orpheus’s music, into the void it leaves:
Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice.
Hush is both poetry and prose; and in its poetry it pushes the written language away from denotative meaning, into sound and back again. Form changes and responds to content, even becoming content itself. And Hecq’s writing is double-layered: she writes her protagonist writing; the grieving mother’s struggle to understand what she experiences through the construction of language. This strategy enables Hecq to reveal the spaces before and after an act of writing, and the other ‘languages’ that inhabit these spaces – music, song, performance, the words of other tongues. Actions, impressions and sensations whirl chaotically, or coalesce on the body of the narrator.
Let us start with the language of Orpheus:
Chalk, rice, zinc
. . .
In music, ‘fugue’ denotes a short phrase that hangs and is taken up successively by one part after another, like the above lines. As the phrase is repeated and embroidered, it attains the texture of a song. Hush is a fugue in this sense. It is scattered with lines that echo, repeat, and drift quietly like a refrain, the sort that gets stuck in your mind yet returns reassuringly, rather than annoyingly. Hecq’s style is at times reminiscent of T S Eliot, in the way she sets stubborn gleanings from commonplace life into her poetry, like in the lines above. In doing so she elevates them from the ordinary, revealing them as wondrous and gem-like.
Music is an important motif in Hush and it would be accurate, I think, to surmise that Hecq’s intention is (after Barthes) to allow her writing to ‘sing’ by freeing its spoken qualities from a weight of written meaning. She allows the sounds, rhythm and allusive qualities of words to ‘speak’. Hence her use of repetitions like refrains, and also her liberation of the sounds of French, the ‘mother tongue’, to which she returns, seeking a means of expression and understanding:
Une mise en abîme to write of desire, of water and fire.
Music is allowed to express itself without the intercession of words and their symbolic meanings; as a complete signifying system in its own right. By contrast:
I tried writing. Words came in bursts and spurts. Made no sense.
But Hecq demonstrates that writing and its failure can be overcome by using language in ways more akin to music. She uses structural motifs throughout the text: akin to epigraphs, haiku-like tercets or couplets separate passages. These also evoke ‘fugue’ in another sense: that of a vagueness or loss of identity that sometimes arises in response to trauma. In Hecq’s hands, these passages seem like instances of clarity, setting a tone for what is to come, yet they are deceptive:
Dark then light
Uno makes rainbows
doubling the sky
Fugue, in the psychological sense, often involves wandering. And here lies the heart of Hush: A Fugue. Hecq charts the impact of trauma, the shattering and slow reassembly of self as a person drifts through a netherworld that is neither Hades nor sunlit. Like music, action itself provides another language that expresses, reflects, and perhaps draws both reader and protagonist towards understanding:
The fear was so strong I bolted for the door and into the street. I ran to the park as fast as thoughts ran through my mind. I ran oblivious to the traffic. Oblivious to time. Oblivious of the cold. I ran to the pond. And stood. When the shadows merged with the waters in the cold, when the wind moaned in the branches of the gum trees, when the last rays of sunshine gilded with mystery the white snowdrops and camellias, I turned back home.
Wandering through a seemingly ‘nonsensical’ yet concrete world in a state of fugue, Hecq’s protagonist finds a kind of meaning that nudges her back, inexorably, towards the written word. Words offer reassurance, even if their meaning is obscure:
… I needed to write for the sheer satisfaction of keeping fear at bay, of experiencing the vanity of meaning, even if words did not make sense.
Thursday, July 26th, 2018
João by John Mateer
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
Of the 62 sonnets that make up John Mateer’s João, 58 are given to ‘Twelve Years of Travel’ and only four to the second and final section, ‘Memories of Cape Town’. This weighting emphasises travel not so much as the mode of exception but as regular or even habituated experience, while suggesting only a marginal place for the ‘home’ of Mateer’s South African origins.
The book’s title suggests trajectories that are personal and cultural. The name acknowledges Mateer’s and João’s matrilinear Portuguese ancestry, and João’s diverse cultural origins. João is the name of a line of Portuguese kings and gestures to European colonialism. It is also the most common boy’s name in Portugal and implies João’s non-identity in a world where travel means vertigo and cultural displacement.
Moving his persona through a series of places and relationships, Mateer affords João few moments of positive connection. Via his travels and an insecure cultural identity João is the ‘Lost Boy’, the ‘young lost poet’, ‘the Foreigner’, ‘the Foreigner!’ He has little interest in his world of literary conferences and festivals, friendships evoke uncomfortable pasts, he enjoys at best tenuous relations with his long list of girlfriends. Where intimacy is concerned, it ends often enough in that staple of travel, separation. In his relationship with Anna, for example, João is the ‘lost and nameless’ ingénue to ‘the more worldly Anna’, ‘who almost loved him’. Love is a near-thing but a matter of loss.
Irony and meiosis, however, inflect the poems’ sense of distance:
They dropped João outside a typical saloon bar
for him to find working there the young
Brazilian girl, the student who’d offered him a bed. As always
João was thoroughly charmed, even with knowing he must wait till
she finished work.
The indefinite article and affected syntax (‘for him to find working there’) suggest a chance event, casting João as naïve (or, alternately, calm and unassuming when love seems a sure thing). There’s further irony at a ‘BDSM dungeon’ in Melbourne: ‘Not that, really, / João and his beloved were ever there. Not that her lily-bright flesh / marks up easily, bruises photogenic’, the anaphora highlighting a comic denial. Sonnet 49 tells of a becak driver who wears a Superman T-shirt, and who, in João’s eyes, has a ‘superhuman simplicity’; everything proceeds casually enough until the last lines:
But, in a confusion,
João had watched this old becak driver, his near complicity,
not being shocked, on witnessing an accident, one man
knocked down in the street: how he’d just pedalled past deadpan
The scene exposes João for his dutifully middle class view that the appropriate response in an accident is to assist. Warmer regard for the becak driver gives way to the bathos of a world traveller’s cultural shortcomings and we read on across a shifting affect, with the feeling that João’s next moment of cultural misperception is imminent.
Much of the distance João feels in his perpetual travels is transferred to the reader via this irony and via Mateer’s use of allusion. In his reference to a friend, Josef, who teaches ‘in a morgue’ and keeps ‘Marx’s Collected Works in the library as a memento mori’, Mateer’s appropriation of Marx as a lament for contemporary culture seems clear enough and integral to a poem loosely about societal failings. In other situations allusion seems vague, and for the reader, open; inferential. In Sonnet 44, for example, João and his girlfriend are found by a colleague, ‘mid-argument’ in a park. In the last line João ‘sadly […] remember[s] a statue’s lifted foot, that art.’ The statue remains nameless, the adverb an apparent indictment of João’s caricaturing of a partner who dramatically ‘stamps one’s foot’ or ‘puts one’s foot down’. Significance can seem at once incidental and staged; cultural references are often only, potentially metaphors.
Mateer’s grammar can be similarly obscure: ‘With his new flatmate, João, I should say ‘landlady’, an old famous punk rocker, he might learn more about life.’ And what seem important biographical details are often omitted. João’s ‘beloved’ in Munich faces ‘her own exile’, ‘her own tragedy’, none of whose details are given. As for João’s situation and his corresponding exile and tragedy, these, likewise, are never directly explicated.
In a shifting context that dramatises João’s lack of belonging, travel has a range of implications. If travel conventionally suggests the search for something different in a world of increasing sameness – ‘the body of legends […] lacking in one’s vicinity’ (Certeau) – or release from life’s routines; if it promises the kind of movement that wards off a stasis associable with death; or if it brings us, as it does Barthes at the beginning of the memorable Empire of Signs, the joy of the foreign and of language returned to its sensory substructures, then none of the above resound in João. Travel, rather, becomes an act of perpetual endurance. João finds his middle-class literary milieu tiresome: there is the ‘bespectacled lady […] who had once translated Sophia de Mello, really knowing only Spanish’; João is ‘appalled’ at the fame Rushdie wins by a ‘sporting quip and […] repartee.’ There is ‘vomiting as critique!’ in the millionaire’s garden as the writers ‘go through the motions of being gracious’. João’s world is inauthentic, ‘made-up’, ‘a movie’, ‘cinematic’, ‘a dream’. When Sonnet 20 asks, ‘What João were you doing there’, it feels like a question the reader has been asking throughout. Travel, largely, recedes to the human and psychological dramas it proposes.
Domestic or familial images are scarce and often only further remind João of his detachment from home. To his aunt in Cape Town, he has ‘returned from the Void’. While the boatmen of Capri are ‘stout, sweating […] indifferent to the tourists’, João, on learning that the women following the Flautist in Apollinaire’s ‘The Flute-Player’ ‘were probably whores’, remains ‘the Foreigner, worried they may have been overheard’. These kinds of hyperbolic and comic depictions of the well-travelled and polyglot, but unworldly, João are broken up to the benefit of the collection with moments of more forthright emotion. An example is when João spends a night in Chateau Rouge with a group of Senegalese and leaves ‘the dinner, yearning for Africa, unconfused’. Or, in Mateer’s homage to his friend Goran: ‘Goran, gentle, his speech the kind of warm quiet / that seems an uninterrupted silence, an endless, emancipated poem’. Irony aside, the sudden affect surprises, creating a tonal complexity that needs careful attention.
Monday, July 16th, 2018
The Honeymoon Stage by Oscar Schwartz
Giramondo Publishing, 2017
Confession: I should not have read Michael Farrell’s launch speech for Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage before attempting this review. I had a large attack of Bloom’s anxiety of influence, but I simply couldn’t help myself because I truly appreciate Farrell’s wit and (worldly) wisdom. And now the damage is done. I read the speech and now I’m starting to fear I might be involved in this after all: colluding with, if not an active participant in this – Schwartz’s – whole transcendent digital Otherness that I was previously going to perhaps pooh-pooh just a little in this review. Now I only want to state wholeheartedly that both I and all the online avatars within – without? – thoroughly enjoyed reading The Honeymoon Stage. Meanwhile, I’m left to wonder what there is left to say about the entire identity crisis of this collection, let alone the process of creating a type of posthuman internet-based poetics.
Schwartz, seemingly only too aware of his own process, poetics and dare I even say poesis, states in his notes for The Honeymoon Stage, ‘To write many of the poems in this book I invented alternate personas who lived on the internet, made friends, got into arguments. The poems are thus spoken by and convey the actions of persons living parallel lives to mine. This doesn’t make the book less sincere, but just shows the sincerity can be an act of creation rather than confession. This is an idea that we’re becoming more familiar with – as we increasingly use our devices to communicate – but is also rarely celebrated or encouraged as a poetic act.’ Whilst I perhaps found myself more caught up in the construction of identity than the poems themselves, I do think the ‘poetic act’ is worth celebrating. This collection is brave, witty, intelligent and a beacon of post-post-modernity while also being curiously relevant, heartfelt and human. There’s an innocence here, somehow still accessible through all the manifold hurdles of clubbing in Melbourne, in-laws and late night (most of these poems evoke the wee hours) adventures in sci-fi. I had a genuine LOL moment in my own dimly lit house in the wee hours while the four-year-old slept beside me as I read such lines as, ‘will game of thrones be all I have left?’ Astute and hilarious. Perhaps even haunting. The only real glitch I felt came from the sense that in order to truly read these poems I should be squinting my eyes, scrolling down the screen with a bile-yellow night light filtering out those no-sleep blue lights, yet instead I was rubbing the rough edges of paper between my fingers, dog-earing the ones I might quote later. These poems felt a bit beyond paper.
The collection begins with an intriguing epigraph, ‘The I, You and We in this collection do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless and invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.’ The ‘I, You and We’ are ostensibly section titles of the collection, but the pronouns (including the ubiquitous lowercase ‘i’ utilised throughout) can also be thought of as somewhat interchangeable reference points, little dots in the map to keep the reader grounded, here on Earth, or at least here in a body, in what might otherwise seem to be a sea of virtual (popular culture) stars. I felt at times like I was partaking in, as the persona of the penultimate untitled poem of the ‘part two: you’ section states,
… a text for which I felt a
detached, objective pleasure yet whose provenance
was, by definition, unknowable.
In this collection, we navigate the rough waters of being everybody else all at once via the mediums of keyboards and Kanye. The personas adopted are most obviously the voices of now, of the Facebook-hacking Twitter-dissecting fake news zeitgeist of it all, yet they are also somehow raw and true and even, dare I say it, more real for being a conceit. These ‘friends’ aren’t beautiful Americans living next door to each other in an apartment building (or maybe they are sometimes but that’s beside the point), they are instead a beautiful sequence of codes residing inside a parallel universe and even though we might not understand a thing about that, maybe it’s ok to just celebrate the simple beauty of lines such as these ones lifted from ‘how to write an e book of poetry’:
For a brief time become part of the consciousness of
some superior life form
observe that all previous intelligent data on earth has
been accumulated by this super intelligent life force
view your e book of poetry again amidst the troves
of intelligent data
be there when the super intelligent life form
disintegrates for a reason beyond your comprehension
become diffuse consciousness in the universe
become reduced entirely to hydrogen atoms floating
billions of light years away from each other
spend many eternities doing unknown things
start vibrating rapidly
become infinitely fast and infinitely hot
end in a way that is, by definition, unknowable
‘how to write an e book of poetry’ is one of the finest poems in this collection, alongside the aforementioned untitled, longer poem that begins the second section. In these longer, more expansive poems, Schwartz’s many and varied personas can quest outwards into the more free-wheeling realms they appear to be more comfortable in. The typical philosophies: who are we anyway and what in all virtual hells are we doing here, seem both central and irrelevant to this quest. The idea that may flit across the reader’s mind of all these collaborating internet-based Others as being transcendent, a type of new god, is not really necessary. Perhaps we are discovering who we are from interaction with these liminal spaces where the Other resides. Perhaps we aren’t. Perhaps that question is, by now, entirely passé. As the (other)worldly wise sage Michael Farrell states in the launch speech, ‘the posthuman might already be here.’