FRESH Friday, May 18th, 2018
Shastra Deo’s first volume of poetry, The Agonist contains many poems about corporeal life, and about the separation of bodies, problematising the connections between body and thought. The poems often turn the inside out, as it were, opening up a poetic anatomy of internal organs and interior life.
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Friday, May 18th, 2018
The Water Bearer by Tracy Ryan
Fremantle Press, 2018
‘… the poem / will cover a multitude of signs.’ This line, appearing early in West Australian author Tracy Ryan’s ninth poetry collection, can be read as connecting directly to what’s been posited as the very purpose of poetry: to confound or thicken language, to free it from its mere communicative dimension, as Walter Benjamin might put it, and allow it to bump up against things-in-themselves. In fact, this line also bears witness to what the volume as a whole achieves. For the remarkable poetic field that is The Water Bearer sets in motion a multitude of signs and their constellations, but importantly, through the skill of a poet at the height of her powers, also leaves them covered. A line from a later poem (ostensibly about the function of windows) illustrates this achievement differently: ‘Hold threads under tension, a frame.’ With the multiple readings the collection provokes it becomes evident that the volume itself performs as a frame, holding together threads of signs, objects, meanings, but always ‘under tension’: the essential muteness of the outside – the overflow side of language, or what Rilke designated as ‘unsayable’ – feels ever pressing.
The word ‘overflow’ is entirely apposite here, for the volume’s metaphorical linchpin is water. Water, we might think, is a particularly pure element, and could be dealt with more plainly than the muddied subject of Ryan’s previous book, Hoard (the Irish boglands). But purity is not realisable, and Ryan’s rendering of water is a dexterously admixed one. Given her feminist poetics, an Irigarayan notion of fluidity could be expected to drive the work; indeed, many poems do depict the maternally figured intersection of herself and her son. But for this reviewer, some classical conceptual undertones are more perceptible: an Ovidean deployment of water as a symbol of perpetual metamorphosis, for example, and a Heraclitean vision of water as change and flux. Throughout these poems water fluctuates through a concatenation of material forms: snow, ice, storms, vapour, rivers, clouds, household water, swimming pool water, and more. Never a stable entity, neither is water independent: it coexists (as in Ovid) with its elemental counterparts – air, fire and earth – and is explicitly or implicitly manifest in portrayals of how the changing seasons impact both the human and non-human. This attention to the materiality of water and its position in nature fuels one of the work’s marked topical concerns: ecopolitics in the context of the anthropocene. The sequence ‘Self-Supply,’ chronicling some of Ryan’s vexed efforts to live responsibly ‘off’ the scheme water system, evidences, with compelling irony, her committed ecopoetics.
But to return to a larger current: there is a distinct, overarching metaphysical focus on the unrelentingly paradoxical nature of life – for which water acts as a trope. From this thematic superstructure several sub-themes flow, constituting numerous explorations of always/already and both/and situations. Much of the diverse subject matter arises from Ryan’s personal experience, and place is important (the poems’ settings are about equally distributed between the northern and southern hemispheres). But the presence of place is always unsettled / ing: the pressures of time and memory, the eternal return of both newness and loss, and the way travel invokes sensations of both here and there, all put any sense of locatedness under strain. The very first poem ‘Carousel,’ set in the ‘foreign city’ of Paris, establishes some of these motifs: ‘looking out / from my still point, dead as a cyclone’s eye,’ the poetic I/Ryan watches a child spin around her, ‘hurdy gurdy,’ on a roundabout:
… I am what I was
and he is what will be, launching eternally
into a churning future … .
A later poem, speaking of a particular ‘sensitive’ plant on Réunion Island, observes the ‘fragility of interface,’ and tells us ‘[e]verything shut will open again.’ In the Australian-situated ‘View from Below,’ whose form (a line by line accumulation of load) superbly matches its content (the damming of rivers), the I, who is ‘aware of the vast loss for every valley flooded,’ acknowledges ‘the arch or edge / we teeter on … .’ If paradoxes are circumstances that suspend us between many possibilities at once, these poems effect the oxymoronic: floating the I again and again between childhood memories and the present, between staying and going, between seasons and lands, between self and other; and on it goes, continuously.
We must, however, acknowledge one realm of possibility that the text seems to move toward foreclosing; in a telling gesture, this matter is brought to the fore at the end of the volume. Holy water – the form of water consecrated by the church – has already been splashed intermittently throughout (‘Christian,’ ‘pagan,’ ‘secular,’ ‘absolve’ ‘unchristened’ are but a few of the cognate allusions), but in the last pages the issue of organised religion is faced head on. These closing pieces (which include the titular poem) autobiographically explore some of Ryan’s early Catholic church experiences: being influenced by Thomas Merton to join (briefly) a convent, enduring the ‘upright coffin’ of the confessional, and being marked as a penitent on Ash Wednesday. Finally, though, in ‘Crossing Myself,’ Ryan announces that the ‘God-shaped’ stoup at the door of the church is wholly bereft of water: it is now a ‘cracked plastic shell, with nothing to offer.’ She emphasises:
Though it lodge in the brain and beg for
response, I repeat: it is empty – no drop will grace
my ingressions, transgressions … .
Such a vigorous declaration leaves the reader to consider whether this, indeed, represents the resolution of one significant paradox. Does this signify a true stoppage, for Ryan, of the powerful force flow deriving from her involvement with religion? Methinks the poet doth protest too much. The last poem is not the last: the vociferousness of this issue, as covered by the book’s signs, indicates its propensity to live on, for this writer, as a negative demand.
This review leaves much unsaid regarding how The Water Bearer augments Ryan’s already long list of fine accomplishments. Poem after poem here demonstrates beautifully honed linguistic arrangement, haunting affective intensity, and stunning formal control. It is for this unsaid, and much more, that the reader should turn to this volume, many times.
Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
Cones by Andrew Pascoe
Bulky News Press, 2017
Slender Volume by Chris Brown
Bulky News Press, 2017
The Manifolds by Marty Hiatt
Bulky News Press, 2017
Words and phrases in Andrew Pacoe’s cones, emerge and float through the page’s whitespace like ‘vacuum packed clenches / listing downstream’. It seems that if you were to unfold this book, so that all the pages were arranged on the same plane, phrases would flow from their current position and create new combinations. Thus the physical barrier of the book itself seemingly restrains this collection from achieving formal synergy. In this way, cones makes us aware of how the physicalness of the book itself artificially restrains it’s content. This tension between content and form is emblematic of cones’s greater consideration for how the artificial restricts the natural.
Language itself embodies this tension, as it simultaneously allows for and restrains expression. Exemplifying this is the table that floats halfway down page 10:
By enforcing artificial unity on the six words, the amount of syntactic permutations that the table is cable of producing is capped. However, without this artificial unity, the reader would likely only produce one, linear reading of the words. Thus, as a result of the table, the reader is forced to pause and consider multiple interpretations. Paradoxically then, it is constraint that produces this multiplicity.
This collection goes on to consider the limits of this relationship between restraint and multiplicity. Towards the end of the collection, Chinese, English and Arabic phrases disperse across the page like ‘various acacias, hurtling … // thru wormholes’. This explosion of language continues until it reaches a black line that extends across the top of the last four pages. These ‘strewn vapours’ are unable to permeate across this barrier and instead gather together like ‘springs buffering in space’. The result is a ‘p a rt ia l pressure loss’ as language’s expressiveness is normalised when pressed against this barrier. Reading this collection thus causes one to consider where other arbitrary barriers are and how they work to normalise the periphery.
The poems in Chris Brown’s Slender Volume employ dissonant phonics, conflicting semantics, and ‘extended [metaphors] covered in barnacles’ (‘Popular Classics’, John Forbes) to create a dynamic reading experience that demands both alacrity and intensity. However, these poems are not made up of disparate parts simply left for the reader to assemble. Rather, when reading this collection, one receives an awareness of things happening without being able to intellectually determine exactly what these things are. It is this Ashberian evasiveness of subject matter that unites the collection’s aesthetic disparity: movement and surface tension are the ‘point’ of the poems. The success of this collection is then that it maintains its fluidity whilst also achieving unity.
An awareness of temporality allows for this balance. The second poem ‘City circle delay’ exemplifies this. Here, the poem transcribes the poet’s subjectivity whilst trapped on a bus in a Sydney traffic jam. The forced physical sedentariness (‘Find a seat (perforce) and B R E A T H E’) causes the poet’s mind to wander as it firstly considers and then creates the surrounding cityscape: ‘Down Broadway shows / whole buildings in yellow flour’. In this state, thoughts simultaneously occur and disappear without any value judgement attached to them: ‘the beach a thought and traffic a thought …’. The denouement of this journey occurs when the:
‘…street splits cheek firm
against glass lies the looming self-important face of a city.’
The poet’s own reflection and a reflection of the city are unified in this syntactic amalgamation. In this way, considerations for how we read this text; how we move about a city; and how we consider our own thoughts all collapse into a ‘tree blossom drift’.
In Hiatt’s previous collection, Hardline, the poet arranges abstracted phrases sequentially. This forces the reader to make synaptic inference between each line. The sensation created is an ‘ongoing halting’ of phrases layered on top of one another. This causes meaning to ‘appear to be approaching.’ Although these phrases are arranged episodically, insistent refrains create a sense of volume like a ‘swarming springtime tombstone chitchat’. In his latest collection, The Manifolds, the poet interrogates and expands the possibilities of this poetic form, by allowing it to embody a book-length poem.
Kant describes synthesis as rationalising what is manifold into a single cognition. In mathematical terms, a manifold is a three-dimensional space that can be imagined as a flat surface. If something is ‘manifold’ it has many or varied parts, forms, and features. In this collection, Hiatt shows that Poetry is a mode of thought capable of combining and expressing this multifarious concept.
The centripetal force binding this kaleidoscopic form is the poet’s own subjectivity: this collection is ‘not interested in your narcism… only [its] own’. ‘Narcissism’ in this instance does more than signpost a wry self-awareness for how intensely solipsistic this poem is: it is emblematic of the contradictions and ironies that this ‘rotoscoped diagram’ of subjectivity reveals. For instance, the assertion that you are ‘more than just a cog in a wheel’ only leads to the circular realisation that ‘im a cog in a wheel that says its more than just a cog in a wheel.’ In this feedback loop of poetic consciousness, internal awareness and external reality layer on top of one another and form an irreconcilable dichotomy.
This dichotomy exemplifies cognitive dissonance. Investigating this dissonance moves the collection from being enigmatically confessional to politically sensitive. One option for reconciling the tension is to ‘force yourself’ into ‘going to many personal and business trainings’. Although this will please the ‘big beleaguered american arsehole’ it likely won’t align with an ‘innate sense of superiority’. However, the necessity of ‘tryna make up a living’ will force compliance with the ‘amazing enemy’. This in turn results in ‘buying your inability … so variously’ that you become ‘powerless’ and ‘wholly abstract’.
Black humour dignifies this typically millennial paranoia. Like finding ‘a flash of joy’ amongst ‘a slag heap’, this collection consoles those caught in this state with the empathetic assertion that there is no way to escape.
Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
Dark Matters by Susan Hawthorn
Spinifex Press, 2017
Where, as Jovette Marchessault asks, is the Tomb of the Unknown Lesbian?
Susan Hawthorn’s Dark Matters is a culmination of over thirty years’ lesbian feminist activism and fifteen years’ research focused on violence – specifically torture – against lesbians in a global context. Hawthorn’s embodied experience and creative-intellectual rigour bring politics and poetics, desires and denials, silences and protests, bodies and implements of torture, intimate meditations and research expeditions, productive rage, testimony, speculative fiction and ficto-criticism together in a single novel.
The novel is framed in ficto-critical terms as a creative writing research project called Diagonal Genealogies. It is a project that examines ‘the ways in which women passed down memorabilia through their families, particularly looking at women who do not have children.’ Desi, the writer-researcher, has inherited boxes of writings by her aunty Kate (Ekaterina). On the verge of ‘junking the lot’, Desi sits down to read what the boxes contain. In them she discovers writings that document, in fragments and with enormous gaps, the abduction and torture of Kate and the attempted assassination of Kate’s lover, Mercedes.
From the decayed fragments of Sappho (Psappha) to the works of HD, Monique Wittig, Anne Carson and Marion May Campbell, fragmentation has been developed as a deeply political and poetically significant way to write stories of how lesbians live and die. The importance of fragmentation for writing lesbian stories derives from diverse, but entangled, situations: 1) the under privileging and active silencing of lesbian stories, cultures, histories and identities; and, 2) the activist practice of turning sites of oppressive silence into zones of speech and creativity.
Denial of stories is an agile way to nullify histories and identities. Desi discovers that lesbian lives are not something that can just be researched, they must be investigated because the gaps in the official, and unofficial, archives are enormous. She puts it like this,
That’s the thing about lesbians, it’s a kind of detective story that unwinds in scraps but half of the pages are shredded and the rest are so destroyed as to be unreadable.
Drawing on this history of poetic fragmentation, Hawthorn produces a generically hybrid and polyvocal novel with interloping stories of missing girls, abducted and assassinated women, silenced mothers, institutionalised aunties, as well as the abandoned and profaned monsters and goddesses of ancient myth. In Dark Matters these fragmented narratives cross over and into each other’s stories; they begin to read as a live archive of lesbian histories. In this novel, Hawthorn shows that the stories of women who refuse to live by the confining codes of heteropatriarchy can be entered through the portal of countless names which are not often spoken of within the dominant cultural scene: Vera Rubin, Demeter and Persephone, Baubo, Ekhidna, Sappho, Hecate, dyke, Monique Wittig, HD, Virginia Woolf …
While fragmentation as a writing strategy has often been theorised in relation to the white space of the page that surrounds it, Hawthorn situates her fragments in relation to dark matter. It was the American astronomer Vera Rubin who proved, in Western techno-scientific terms, that dark matter constitutes most of the mass that exists in the visible universe. Furthermore, Rubin showed that dark matter binds visible matter. Hawthorn activates dark matter as a potent poetic trope in Dark Matters. It is a trope that allows Desi to think through the invisibilisation of lesbian lives and deaths in social, cultural and political domains. ‘Imperceptibility’, Desi writes, ‘is not a clue to non-existence, as Vera Rubin discovered.’
So much can be discovered in silences, deletions and detectable absences. Each fragment in Dark Matters maps into histories and imaginaries that are carved out of gendered and sexualised violence. Violence in Dark Matters is considered on physical, conceptual and representational levels. Hawthorn is acutely attuned to the way the animalisation (or dehumanisation) of lesbian lives, loves and acts work as a conceptual violence that paves the way for physical violence. When Kate is first locked in isolation she is hit by smells,
… the smell of animal urine mixed with fear
… the smell of an abattoir or of a place where animals are slaughtered.
I shake and I sprout feathers. I take off and soar: a wedge-tailed eagle. I leave this horror behind.
For her torturers, Kate-as-lesbian makes Kate an animal. But Kate finds life in animal identifications. Reflecting on Kate’s writings, Desi notes,
She describes a range of animals from a lesbian-centric point of view. She is creating a universe in which lesbian symbols lie at the centre.
In isolation and after torture sessions, Kate tells herself stories about animals. She recounts animal visions from myth, she dreams-up narratives of other women who gather around her, who become her animal familiars. Dropping in and out of sensibility, and to escape the reality of torture, Kate becomes a myriad of animals:
I’m a wolf, loping (louping) through the forest.
My arms are growing wings. Wings of heavy metal. Collapsing wings. Too heavy like the wings of the Hercules moth …
… colourful fish swim by like a pack of women. Others travel singly or in pairs. Their sides, rainbow-streaked. Parrot fish. I am floating free in this tropical water. I am swimming back forth and around, over the bommies. Mushroom and brain coral dot the shallow sea floor.
In Kate’s lesbian imaginary, there is hope in multiplicity, in mutability, in stories about bodies that come undone and become-other.
Nowhere in this novel does Hawthorn seek to resolve the political and literary erasure of lesbian lives and deaths, but every page of this novel works to make those erasures visible. It might only take hours to read Dark Matters, because it is so often paced like a thriller or detective novel. But it will take many more hours, weeks or months to reckon (really reckon) with the myriad intertextual citations Hawthorn includes; all of which offer storied paths that lead toward ever more stories that track through the hidden lives and deaths of lesbians.
This is a book of underworlds and infernos, places of execution, practices of erasure and sites of desire. It documents the practicalities of attempting to break lesbian cultures woman by woman, finger by finger and story by story. Against such violence Hawthorn offers poetry as activism, as remedy, as mode of repair.
Dark Matters is a meteoroid. When it hits, it will make a different world of you.
Friday, April 20th, 2018
New and Selected Poems 1991-2017 by Alison Croggon
Newport Street Books, 2017
Alison Croggon has worked across many forms in her career, and connections to several are represented in these pages – the nine-part poem ‘Specula’, for example, comes from a larger work of the same title which also involves an essay and a radio play. Her previously published poetry collections are likewise represented. But there is no distinction in this new collection between these various sources from which Croggon has drawn – a deliberate choice she carefully underlines in her author’s note to this selection. In the acknowledgements, her own titles are grouped with that of the numerous journals she has published in, and given no special attention. There is no distinction in the table of contents or in the book’s design which demonstrates each poem’s source – the only overt indication is the inclusion of titular poems from previous collections. Recognition of these moreover confirms that the new collection is not arranged chronologically, or by any other immediately comprehensible logic. Something larger is at play in the construction of the collection than the ‘historicisation’ of a writing career.
The previously unpublished works included with the selection are not all new – as her note describes, Croggon has included ‘all the poems I care to remember. I wrote the earliest poem in this book when I was eleven, the most recent this year. Some, including older works, haven’t been previously published; some have been published many times.’ At 314 pages, it is a vast collection. Accentuating this is the scope of the poetry, which shifts across forms, themes and foci with dexterity. There is for example a thread of violence, regularly connected to patriarchal structures of sex and gender, which builds gradually and comes to lie alongside the experience of motherhood in a beautiful but disconcerting and often confronting way. The poem ‘For Ben’, roughly halfway through the collection, offers an example:
Child, the world is swelling, light wavers
over your unblinking eyes, the ocean lifts you
on dark mouths towards the sudden dawn
when you’ll howl the sea out of your lungs
and harden the air.
To welcome you I have these eyes and fingers
to open their delight on your sundered skin.
They’ll fail, as all desire fails, breaking on the reef
of human weariness and gathering past
its violation to simplicity
Perhaps. Here is a cushion of my blood
This concern with structures of the feminine spans the collection, and shifts subtly from the gentle embodiment of poems like ‘Owl Songs’ or ‘Communion’ (‘My flesh is sad with itself, it walks in the garden / heavy and opaque, an insoluble riddle’), to the open feminist politics of ‘Songs of a Dictator’, especially ‘1. He woos his mistress’. Powerful female figures abound – Persephone, Medea, Yseult, Euterpe and Cassandra all feature.
But this is not the only, nor always the dominant theme. As Euterpe’s presence suggests, a sense of joy in art of all forms emerges regularly through a rich and challenging intertext—poems cite sources from Rilke to popular television. Nature is also an important force, and unflinching. In ‘Bird’:
The bird is
a deep and troublesome fidelity.
Even as maggots crawl through its braincase, it is still bird.
In the skirl of storm
it is bird, torn feathers, tiny bones,
breasting the weight of air.
It is possible to read the collection in terms of the thematic, stylistic and emotional connections which Croggon cites as having structured her ordering of the works. But in another way, I also found myself resisting anything so active in the reading. The impression of narrative logic which emerged at points felt like a false temptation. Instead, again and again, I found myself wanting to play passive witness to the text, to take it as an offering on its own terms – in Croggon’s words, as ‘a new body of work that, like memory itself, exists spatially rather than sequentially’. This is a collection which finds structure in speaking to the experience of a life in words.
In an interview for Cordite Poetry Review with Kate Middleton in 2001, when asked about the diversity of her artistic outputs, and whether she considered poetry as her primary form, Croggon agreed that: ‘Poetry’s the first thing I did, and I think psychically it’s just in the middle, and everything else is related to it, branches out from it.’ The scope of this collection, representing the majority of Croggon’s life and testifying to the significance of her poetic output, can be read to stand then as this ‘physic middle’ in textual form. Like memory, it is fluid, richly imagistic, and has an intense and at times unsettling capacity for contradiction – in ‘Notes’:
little delicate animal
your thin shoulders press against my belly
the bones of your face stand out like an adult’s
and your neck that white naked stem
is laid across my thigh
as if I could protect you
Moments when the poetry approaches the melodramatic seem to push towards the subconscious, playing on the notion of the hysterical to suggest the capacity within the psyche for panic or pain. In the poem ‘Mnemosyne’, for example:
she writhes into the mystery of her body
herself dissolves and remakes itself
will not be still won’t stop it’s eating her it’s closed her up she’s lost inside alone
she hurts there are no words there is no hand no tongue no god no hate no
love nothing to save her
a crush a must a burn afraid a breath a
The lyric voice varies in its rhythms and pace but is more consistent in its timbre: the ‘grain’ of the voice is recognisable, and the work carries always a power for moments of both strength and sympathy. Form, too, shifts in subtle ways: the minimalism of ‘Attempts at being’ sits beside the more expansive ‘Beginning again’, a work taken from the same collection, but shifted into new relation in the re-ordering. Similarly, the tense energy of ‘Aubade’, tightly constrained in two couplets, is followed by the slowly building, twelve-part release of ‘Divinations’. Even when visible and connected, the themes and images move in and out of focus. In all these ways, the collection reads as an intense exploration of self. But its cohesion, paradoxically, is a product of its fluidity – it works in recognition of a life’s inconsistencies, of the manner in which the self can change, as much as it offers an image of a complete and contained poetic ‘I’.
Wednesday, April 18th, 2018
Anatomy of a Metaphor by Peter Goldsworthy
Garron Press, 2017
The Quality of Light by Jill Jones
Garron Press, 2017
Thump by Heather Taylor Johnson
Garron Press, 2017
Garron Publishing was started in 2010 by Gary MacRae and Sharon Kernott as a means of self-publishing work, but has since expanded into a successful run of poetry chapbooks by established and emerging South Australian poets. This Southern-Land Poets series is a return to the original pamphlets traditionally sold in fifteenth century England by ‘chapmen’, and as such, their unassuming bindings do not necessarily connote the quality of their contents.
Anatomy of a Metaphor (and other poems) by Peter Goldsworthy is split into in three sections. The first, the ‘Anatomy of a Metaphor’ sequence, is a searing, seven-part poem focused on the human heart. It not only stretches the limits of a poet’s metaphorical ability, but also creates an intra-poetic dialogue between the ‘diastole’ and ‘systole’ beats. There is a hypnotic rhythm on a macro level, alternating between the relentless images of the systole and the distanced observations of the diastole. ‘2. Systole’ is a good example of Goldsworthy’s seemingly bottomless well of metaphors:
Red centre of a growing iron-red continent,
epicentre of small-magnitude non-stop body-quakes,
plum-coloured boab bulb with thick upspreading roots,
multi-tentacled squid-head squirting jets of red ink
Goldsworthy’s relentless litany is evocative but also thought provoking. Under Aristotelian thought, the Ancient Greeks gave the heart the prime place in human biology; it was the source of life but also the centre of all thoughts and feelings. Goldsworthy’s sequence provokes a realisation of the beauty of the heart and all that it does, and also how often we do not think about it. It beats along without us needing to.
But Goldsworthy is not only writing about the heart, he is also writing about metaphors themselves, so that the human anatomy that forms the subject matter of his metaphors is also, when viewed from the ‘diastole’, a commentary on the nature of metaphors themselves. ‘3. Diastole’ is a particularly arresting example:
in a society
that is only an arrest
away from anarchy
Goldsworthy employs the same general style of writing in the second section of the chapbook, but applied to other body parts. His eight-part poem titled ‘Hand’ is another example of his astounding ability to provoke self-reflection through imagery:
Hand is our far-flung frontier reaching across
the limits of words the border of our matter
our mariner our voyager our miniaturized self
crossing the outer silence the empty space
between the worlds
Thursday, April 12th, 2018
Poems of Olga Orozco, Marosa Di Giorgio & Jorge Palma
Edited and translated by Peter Boyle
Vagabond Publishing, 2017
In 2017, Vagabond Press launched its Americas Poetry Series. This is a brave and much needed venture, one that borders on the quixotic: an Australian editor offering publications from poets from the Americas to the Australian reading public, for the love of poetry and the art of translation. So far, the series has three excellent entries focused on the translation of Spanish language Latin American poets into English. Notably, all three books in the series consist of translations by translators who are themselves poets. They seize the creative potential of the translating act, producing poems that walk the fine-line between the languages and cultures of the original and the translated texts, while seeking to conserve the imagery, expression and rhythm of the poems. Given that many of the translations published so far stem from the baroque to the vanguardist schools of poetry, it is no small feat that the books present readable, engaging translations that retain the playfulness, the shock, the allure and ambience of the originals. Though this review concerns the first publication in the series, it must be noted that it has continued successfully, with the two latest publications being Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón, focusing on a selection of Mexican poetry (reviewed in these pages by Gabriel García Ochoa), and the haunting Jasmine for Clementina Médici by the Uruguayan Marosa di Giorgio, with a foreword by notable poet, translator and academic, Roberto Echevarren.
Poems of Olga Orozco, Marosa Di Giorgio & Jorge Palma is selected and translated by Peter Boyle and consists of a selection from these three poets from Argentina and Uruguay. Boyle is himself a distinguished Australian poet and translator, with a long-running relationship with Latin American poetry, having previously translated poems by the Cuban José Kozer and the Venezuelan Eugenio Montejo, amongst others. Adorned with a beautiful photograph of a Uruguayan cottage taken by fellow Australian poet Stuart Cooke, that, with its ochre and blue tones, accentuates the connections between these distant souths (Australia-South America) and offers a glimpse of idyll that connects with the romantic tendencies of some of the contents. Yet, acting as the proverbial calm before the storm, this idyll also presages the turbulence of the pages to come. That is because Boyle’s book provides an eccentric, alchemical, if not iconoclastic selection that chooses the path of discovery, adventure and mysticism. To aid the reader, Boyle provides an excellent introduction that serves to not only to introduce the poets, but also contextualises the work of the three poets by placing them in their respective poetic traditions. Boyle’s introduction also addresses the task of translation itself, presenting different difficulties in each of the three cases. However concerned Boyle may be about those things that are lost in translation (rhyme, sound play), his anthology presents a delightful set of translations that read well, and most importantly, represent three different twentieth century conceptions of the poetic in Latin America: those who took up the call of surrealism, represented by Olga Orozco; the neo-baroque and experimental, in Marosa di Giorgio; and the conversational, socially engaged poetry in the poems of Jorge Palma. These are three forking paths that lead into different traditions that are well worth exploring.
The book begins with a selection of poetry by Orozco (1920-1999), and whose poems are carefully chosen from a lifetime of poetic practice, including a poem dedicated to her dead brother Emilio, dating from 1946, to the poet’s last verses, published posthumously in 2009. Orozco’s ‘Cartomancy’ sets the tone for what is to come, with its dense and dreamlike images and allusions to the world of the magical. In Orozco’s poems, this is a world where both poet and the reader are subjected to the twists and turns of fate and are surrounded by its symbols, often as jarringly juxtaposed as the twists of fate itself. Orozco was involved in Argentina’s Tercera Vanguardia, a vanguardist movement that drank heavily from the well of surrealism, embracing its formal experimentation and tendency to the violent juxtaposition of incongruent imagery. Perhaps, however, the most marked influence from the surrealists in Latin America was its play with the unconscious and its trust in dream imagery. Orozco takes from these traditions and filters them through images, experiences and places from her own past. As a result, there is in Orozco’s poems a marked tendency towards the magical and the fantastic. According to Boyle, Orozco’s faith in the magical stems from her own childhood through the figure of her grandmother who inculcated her with a belief in the magical and in the talismanic, in symbols, herbs and indecipherable turns of phrase. Orozco’s poems embrace these elements and render them on the page in the service of exploring her own recurring themes. There is in all of her poetry a fascination with both the fantastic and the fatalistic that is coupled with an exploration of the poet’s interior worlds. These are worlds marked by nostalgia for long-gone people and places of the poet’s past: the Argentine Pampa where the childhood home once stood; death; the animal-world, and the spaces once inhabited. Notably, many of Orozco’s poems are dedicated to the dead, ‘For Emilio in his Heaven’, ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ and ‘Cantos a Berenice’ are dedicated to her dead younger brother, to Alejandra Pizarnik and to Orozco’s cat. Orozco’s recurrent themes lead the poet to her own images and symbols of the plains, the elements of nature, the seasons, dogs, talismans, stones and snouts that “steal your breath”. Orozco puts these images to use to create a multifaceted image of reality, characterised as a space ruled by fate; a space in which one must attempt to decipher the runes of chance. Orozco explores this dynamic in ‘Mutations of Reality’:
Like me a captive, with constellations and ants,
perhaps inside a glass ball where souls wander,
I’ve seen reality shrink and take the form of puny Jonah
inside the whale
or endlessly expand into that skin which, in a stream of
vapour, breathes out all the sky:
indissoluble stowaway groping through the bilge water of the
or all-encompassing beast at the moment of exploding
against the wire fence around limbo […]
Like me, protector of one of destiny’s indecipherable masks,
Reality dresses up as a witch and with a sigh transforms
dazzling birds to legions of rats,
or puts all of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s wine in a pot to
Thursday, April 5th, 2018
Glass by Rose Hunter
Five Islands Press, 2017
Glass is a collection of elegiac poems, a memoir of free verse about the poet’s travels through Mexico and her own debilitating ailment. The ‘you’ in book is addressed with a certain fondness (‘where are you / i feel of course now we would have the most wonderful conversation’) and an intimacy that suggests the poet is speaking to someone she was once romantically involved with:
thinking of things i had to
tell you and what would you say and how you would laugh
The first poem ‘mixquic’ is addressed to ‘sean’, whom the book is also, in part, dedicated to: ‘for sean, again / for mum and dad’. The ‘you’ in the poems, it might be assumed, is Sean.
There are many allusions to Sean’s death. Whereas in ‘yellow’ Hunter makes reference – although not necessarily literal – to ‘cancers’, in ‘el edén’ Sean’s passing is the result of an accident:
magic wand bridge one-eyed fence canyon plunge buggy
tiny flimsy that killed you
There is also a passage that expresses guilt about the death of an intimate partner – presumably Sean – from alcoholism:
then i will bathe you clothe you feed you wash the dishes
hide the bottles take out the empties
call the doctor tie you down. now i will reel you back
from your brink.
Sean is the addressee of most of the poems and in this sense the book reads like a letter to the departed. Glass, however, is by no means epistolary in form or style:
(i would not interrupt say less backstory say
cut to the chase say what is the point
of this story or i would but that
would be okay too)
Often Hunter’s verse is conversational, but certain passages are also lyrical, somewhat oneiric, and almost surrealist:
the dragon head on your chicken back
turkey feet and cowrie legs. wattle dewlap quill cuttle
ventricular, come i will dab you bib you
we will be like the children we never were. show me
your pony gait your ice cream cone fur and jester ears
Many of the poems, such as ‘bajío’, include uncredited epigraphs:
– the exhibition was about lost things
you see. leashes slack on the ground.
Perhaps the epigraphs are fragments of overheard conversation, or words written by Hunter herself as ‘quotations’ of divergent voices or viewpoints. The epigraph in ‘bajío’ seems to suggest the existence of an escaped dog and, like most of the epigraphs in Glass, has an equivocal connection to the poem itself, which begins:
if we take a lobster for a walk well
how to put that harness and can they even go on land
and for how long? would they break their feet?
This passage, which could be observed as somewhat of a departure from personal narrative voice that continues more or less throughout the collection, brings to mind Gérard de Nerval, the nineteenth-century French poet who is said to have taken a lobster on a blue ribbon for a walk through Paris. Also, it is reminiscent in certain ways of Gabriel García Márquez. Hunter normalises the lobster on a leash with her conversational tone (‘can they even go on land … ?’) in much the same way as Márquez uses fairly ordinary language to describe fantastic occurrences. Hunter’s lobster on a leash is by no means physically implausible or as irrefutably surrealist as, say, García Márquez’s story ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ in which an angel falls from the sky during a storm, but the two are comparable in their use of dry, pragmatic language that draws the reader into an imagined realm:
He argued that if wings were not the essential elements in determining the difference between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels.
In Hunter’s poem, however, the fantasy lasts for less than a stanza before she flips into stream of consciousness:
[…] i ate squid dashed against the rocks
with a specified promptness or precision or something
for it to taste a certain way or something.
i have eaten lobster only twice and still don’t know what it
Elsewhere in the book, Hunter’s recollections of Sean and Mexico are often nostalgic, but ‘bajío’ is decidedly unsentimental:
listen. if you are talking to a person
on the street one day and the next day they go out and die
like going for a hamburger or barbacoa [barbeque] like big deal they just go.
Hunter, particularly in the ‘brisbane’ chapter, also refers to her own encumbering illness: ‘we just don’t know why / i have dead legs’. At the same time, however, the speaker is incapable of forgetting Sean:
if i could go back to that day. i would do more
than take a picture of you
Hunter’s use of form – the indented lines, the large gaps within the lines, the relentless enjambment – is central to her stream of consciousness style. In ‘wickham terrace’, among other poems, the sentences are enjambed not only over lines and stanzas, but also over numbered sections:
[…] my father whistles through his teeth
lifts one foot, then the other touches his hand
to his mouth, his glance a thrown bus. time
is lost no matter how you lived it
The rarity of end-stopped lines and the way in which Hunter positions the sentences across the page accentuates the free associative design of her syntax. When end-stopped lines are included (‘did they not fight enough / did they not love enough’) they are all the more forceful. The fact that Hunter uses enjambment across numbered sections and their respective page breaks and the way she often begins poems with ‘and’ or ‘or’ contribute to the impression that even though there are 21 poems divided into three chapters (‘mexico city’, ‘jalisco’, and ‘brisbane’) Glass in many ways reads like one extended poem. The extent to which Glass is autobiographical is of course irrelevant, but the personal and somewhat regretful tone that pervades the collection make the poems nearly always compelling.
Thursday, April 5th, 2018
River’s Edge by Owen Bullock
Recent Work Press, 2016
Owen Bullock stated in his ‘The Breath of Haiku’ article in Aoeteroa that ‘the modern haiku can be about anything, not just nature’. Readers of his previous collection, Urban Haiku (Recent Work Press, 2015), will be well aware of this position. Preferring to focus on the human and blur the distinctions between haiku and senyrū, haiku of human nature as opposed to the world, Bullock’s latest collection, River’s Edge lends itself well to investigations of textual forms.
The individual lines featured on the back cover hint at what lurks beneath the surface of River’s Edge: a focussed recollection of the wisdom and experiences of a variety of people that brings together multiple viewpoints at once. Like a recipe followed by heart, unpretentious and yet demanding, each poem represents the attempt to preserve the moment – at a loss to see clearly beyond the titular river’s edge:
some of the waves
the others (55)
Above all, the collection’s appearance is deceptive – while the haiku are characteristically brief and simple, they are intricately crafted and mindful as memories resurface and are subsequently overtaken, as expressed by the overtaking waves of the poem above. Sometimes as unobtrusive as a passing phrase about cleaning the mantel within someone’s home, the text demonstrates the advantage of a form that omits so much and yet hints at what is left unsaid, as revealed within the establishing haiku:
her little vases
this is my devotion (3)
By no means the last poem about seemingly irrelevant moments that at times evade understanding, words are rendered particulate within these fragments, the lines unstable and language suggestive of the personal. From the first page, Bullock appeals to the reader to not simply be satisfied with aphoristic haiku, inviting them to peer beyond what is printed on the page and read between and across the lines. For example, consider the following poems:
New Year’s Eve
to New Year’s Day
the unlit candle
that don’t work
top his kitchen cupboards (38-39)
In these two instants, the reader gets the sense that each line could be interchanged, omitted or exchanged within the individual haiku and considered a stanza within a larger poem. The potential of the ‘unlit candle’ in the concluding line of the first haiku to also serve as the establishing line in the adjacent poem is refreshing and reveals the multiplicity at the centre of the text, the potential for a myriad of interpretations and perspectives. These meditations on memory celebrate dislocation and uncertainty. Despite the repetitions of ‘I’ and ‘my’, the collection seems to relinquish a sense of possession:
walking a road
I drive daily
nothing familiar (25)
In this instance, Bullock suggests an ever-evolving experience and perception, one that is simultaneously informed by the speaker and referential to the reader. The reader approaches the collection with their own experiences and memories, ‘walking a road / I drive daily’ and Bullock, considering these several perspectives, offers ambiguity, ‘nothing familiar’, leaving readers with the feeling that what they’ve just read might be their own recollection. Suggestions for co-creation are hinted at in the text’s lack of a context or titles, in what might be considered an attempt to disavow ownership of words or narrative. Consider the following, from the middle of the collection:
in that mass of cloud
a few of your cells (51)
Above all, these meditations on individual and collective memory centre on the creation of a nebulous and subjective experience for the potential reader. This is not to say that Bullock doesn’t make space to return to tradition, such as in the vertical poems that appear in the collection:
avoiding the bumps mascara in progress (57)
These poems serve similar objectives to the poems described above, but Bullock’s decision to write certain haiku vertically may be considered a return to traditional Japanese haiku structure. The decision represents a further challenge to readerly expectations. With no syntax and cut to infer tone or emphasis, the reader determines the rhythm. The implications of these unfolding observations are determined by and revealed according to decisions known only to each individual reader.
It is the collection’s unpredictability and capacity to ‘reanimate old meanings and words to reflect radically new contexts’ (‘The Breath of the Haiku’, 48) that makes River’s Edge worth reading more than once. Held in an opaque, regenerative temporality, the instants sustained within this simple paperback are brief, captivating and ever evolving:
each day that passes
for Caron (33).
Monday, March 26th, 2018
Cartoon Snow by Aidan Coleman
Garron Publishing, 2015
South Australian poet Aidan Coleman’s previous book of poetry, Asymmetry, was published in 2012. It charts Coleman’s traumatic experience of a stroke, and the resulting loss of symmetry in his body, life and writing. The book strings together revelations made startling through poetic bluntness, from the initial shock of incapacitation to the excruciation of gradual rehabilitation. However, physical damage was not Coleman’s main worry, but rather loss of language. He conveyed his anxiety in an interview: ‘a poem relies on metaphor … if you don’t get that real high … you’ll never write a poem’. Happily, these fears were alleviated with Asymmetry, which not only teems with astonishing and idiosyncratic figures of speech, but also operates as an entreaty for readers to think about illness anew.
Published three years later, Cartoon Snow demonstrates Coleman’s enduring acuity. The 17-poem chapbook is thematically lighter than Asymmetry, but it does not lack in an underlying philosophical enquiry. The cover features ‘The Spirit of The Time’, Charles Gibson’s 1910 whimsical illustration depicting a joyful child being pulled along on a sleigh by an equally joyful relative. Windows are coated with heavy snow but there is no indication of malcontent. Cartoon snow, evidently, appears different to factual snow. The sharper edges of reality are softened by the gentle pixellation of a romantic, pictorial focus rendering the subject innocuous. The cover is apt for a collection that asks questions about simulacra.
The book opens with the titular poem ‘Cartoon Snow’, where the speaker observes a freezer packed with ice that is difficult to dislodge. Coleman writes: ‘You realise the benefits of cartoon snow’, drawing the reader’s attention to the notion that literary illusion often softens the blow of existence, the freezer a signifier for life’s hardships. The poem instantiates this act of softening but also offers a reflexive vision on how these metaphors are produced. They are as ironic as they are romantic: ‘Sugar cubes of igloo bricks … / dazzling acres, you would dress for’. Such lines juxtapose a contradiction between what we know to be true, and what we wish to be true. It is unlikely you would actually have a desire to dress for the necessary realities of a very snowy day.
‘Cartoon Snow’ sets the tone for the upcoming pages, as we are pulled into a shared, tacit knowledge of how poetry works upon us. The paradox in romantic irony is at play as the poem drifts into the phantasmagoria of the ‘snowy night’ of Anglo-American poetic tradition. The drift brings to mind such antiques as Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and Emily Dickinson’s ‘Snow Flakes’, operating within a snow-globe of ethereal, exquisite phrases. The phrases engender marvel and lift us up above the mundane, yet they can also trap us in a frozen, false perception of safety. Coleman’s poem offers similar repose from the actualities beyond – such as a snowy night that is bitterly cold and painful to trudge through:
How gently it erases
fox-prints and sleigh-tracks,
the stamp of hoof
The speaker expresses dyadic desire: for poems to convey brilliant verisimilitude, but also for a heightened version of our world. We are in want of cartoon snow because such representations ease ‘the vexatious sharp edges of our pasts’. It offers a respite from relentless facts and rationalism. The speaker admits that it is tempting and pleasurable to ‘retire/once more to the puffing cottage, its windows a blazing/ marmalade’. The huskies inside are peaceful as they ‘settle for the uncluttered life’, an admission that brings the poem full circle in its contrast to the early image of the cluttered fridge. Poetic illusion is a kind of truth, Coleman seems to say, and it occupies the edges of the corporeal to ease our lives as we graze against them.
‘Sideshow’ is Coleman’s playful exploration of an Australian Christmas, in which he writes of a ‘Christmas down by the river’ where the carols are distinctly Australian, in a location that cannot achieve the illusion of a wintry and cosy European Christmas: ‘ice-cream van carols/pour into evening’. Such European notions are irrelevant in Australia’s heat and among its plethora of unique native animals. Coleman points out ‘kangaroos instead of reindeer’, and the unintended blasphemy of the nativity display where ‘an echidna, a wombat, and a platypus’ brings the baby Jesus his gifts. This deliberate hybridisation operates through comic images, but the evident delight in this feels radical. Coleman displays his uncanny wit in the last stanza, as a sudden vagary reveals his fondness for it all:
Is it the joy of their delirium
that makes it look so much like looting?
Anyway, we liked it .
Such examinations continue in ‘Barbarian Studies’, which takes the everyday scene of supervising a child and deploys it to break down the illusion of stereotypical masculinity. Here, masculinity is stripped from the male parent and comically endowed to his child. The parent imagines himself carrying out a more ‘manly’ activity elsewhere, which could be singing drunkenly like ‘a coachman circa 1840’, or in a Viking boat rowing hard. The poem surprises as it illuminates the title’s significance: when one thinks of barbarian, one usually thinks of someone who dominates through aggression. But is that not an apt description of many children loose in a playground? Certainly, they invade and conquer such areas. However, and this is the hinge on which the poem pivots, they still need their parents to propel them and assist their navigation. They may behave like Vikings, but as Coleman grudgingly remarks: ‘the Vikings … at least did their own rowing’.
The concluding poem ‘Diagram and Leaf’ is a fitting, meditative moment among the comical metaphors and metaphysical questions. It addresses more directly the longing for truth in the semblances of poetry. After the disruption of poetic liberties, Coleman reveals an admiration for the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ – as Coleridge famously called it in 1817 – employed by readers to truly appreciate the poem’s interpretation of the world. Coleman admits to ‘tricks on paper’, but such tricks and illusions are celebrated in ‘Diagram and Leaf’. The water ‘sparkles’ – it is not grey and dull, and we arrive at who we are by asking why we value this. What lies beneath ‘obsidian and mirror’ is not how we are, but how we long to be – the world remade through our submersions in poetry. Coleman has not lost his touch for singular metaphors. As he deconstructs the role of such metaphors in this exceptional chapbook, these poems invite us to question our perceptions of reality, heightening our understanding of what we often need the world to be, even if only as ‘tricks on paper’.
Monday, March 26th, 2018
In Some Ways Dingo by Melody Paloma
Rabbit Poetry, 2017
The cover of Melody Paloma’s first poetry collection, In Some Ways Dingo, is a work by the artist Emma Finneran called ‘Into Stella.’ It’s formed from acrylic, ink and pastel on cotton drop cloth. Finneran’s work is interested in the material possibilities of drop-cloths: cloths typically instrumentalised into catching ‘the excess paint from Mum’s feature wall’ (in Finneran’s words) and to be eventually ‘rendered forgotten, formless, shapeless, degraded – to be dropped.’ Finneran’s practice reanimates and repurposes drop sheets into paintings, embellishing aleatory markings. The green and purple brush stripe near the centre of the cover art of Paloma’s book, for instance, elaborates on accidental strokes to create a marking that gestures towards a street strip, evoking the way In Some Ways Dingo drives its reader across the page. This is a poetry collection that Sian Vate suggests doubles as a ‘road movie’ (Melbourne launch speech, 2017). In any case, this cover displays discarded detritus as productive of making, meaning and abstraction. Finneran’s practice is both procedural and unruly freeform. Thick with the textures and the robust practicalities of art making, Finneran’s work mirrors as much as it frames In Some Ways Dingo.
Paloma’s poetry picks up and repurposes found phrases from youtube videos, a NSW government website ‘Wild About Whales’, pop culture refuse, and roadside waste. There’s a ‘catalogue / for the front yard of that one house on the street’. The ‘catalogue … in part includes:’
bird of paradise
(‘Small acts of self-preservation,’)
Loni Jeffs notes how, in Paloma’s book, ‘[i]nteractions with people are sparse, but the objects that they leave behind are present ‘in piles.’ Paloma’s poetry involves piling objects upon the page, usually compartmentalised with line breaks, but sometimes with commas as well, as in the case of ‘gum wrappers, receipts, packs of Panadol / and once, a stuffed crocodile,’ (‘On reality tv,’). The poems ‘Itemise lives spilled out’, an itemisation that involves naming, gathering and ordering things, even annotating specific features of interest, with a spacing that suggests a ‘notes’ column next to the items catalogued:
bottle with a crook neck now toxic
(‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’)
Paloma’s use of poetic catalogue as a kind of documentation of detritus could be read through the non-fiction poetry framework of the Rabbit Poetry Journal’s Poets Series (this book is number 9). At the same time, though the poems incorporate lists within themselves, the poems are not themselves lists, or rather, in their reading, they rapidly move back and forth from being lists to being less list-like, suggesting by doing so the way narrative, description, lyric, road movie can be boiled down to an itemised catalogue for a ‘knick-knackatorium’ (‘A letter in three parts or more’).
Returning to Finneran’s drop-sheet: it is also a useful reference point for In Some Ways Dingo because of the way these poems persistently return to what falls downwards, what is buried, and what it might mean to fall into the ground, ‘swallowed by pavement’ (‘Sinkhole Poem’), ‘Edge sinks back into the / Ground’ (‘Periphery’). This book is animated by the injunction to: ‘remember all things come from the ground’ (‘Olympic Australis’).
The poem ‘Special Values and Characteristics’ reads, in part:
Significant geomorphical interest; with attributes not yet fully identified but
which may include important fossil or sub-surface features.
Specialised habitat for plants and animals.
A geological resource that may have mining potential.
These lines, along with the title of the poem ‘Special Values and Characteristics,’ are taken entire from the Lake Gairdner National Park Management Plan from the Adelaide Department for Environmental Language and Heritage (2004). The only alteration is the excision of bullet points. Repurposing the language of the state, forcing us to read a government document as poetry, Paloma’s poem displays, with the arresting force of an open -cut mine, the way culture, environment, country becomes reduced into points of profit potential. The poem does not end with the words of the state: rather, set apart from the rest of the poem in italics, the repurposed material potentially functions as a page-long epigraph to a poem that registers a space ‘where the ground closes in’.
Paloma’s powerful use of ‘Remaindered, devalued goods’ as fodder for ecological and political poetry could be situated within the avant-garde aesthetic category of the ‘stale’. In a review in Cordite Poetry Review of Emily Stewart’s recent book, Knocks. Paloma describes Stewart as part of a ‘new wave of avant-garde poetry in Australia’ but that Stewart’s poetic processes simultaneously resist being boxed into a singular movement or community. Just like Stewart’s work, Paloma’s work can also be cited as part of a ‘new wave’ of Australian poetry and resists easy categorisation. I’m also thinking here of Paloma’s gripping experimental performance at her Sydney launch of the long closing poem of the collection ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme,’ where she squatted, jumped, crunched and ran her way through the poem. I think here also of her durational performance piece hosted by SOd, ‘Some Days’ taking place over the course of this year, a long poem which is written or edited every day of 2018. At the time of this review’s writing it is divided into monthly segments, each radically different from the last. But this of course is entirely subject to change. In Some Ways Dingo embraces lexical shifts on the level of the line, through the poem, across the page, between poems. Language tugs in multiple directions, across different spaces/places, moving beyond, through, away and deep beneath.
Monday, March 19th, 2018
Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems 1980-2017
Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner, eds
re.press Publishing, 2017
To begin this review, I would like to make the most important of declarations and acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which this review was written; and would like to thank Narungga scholar, writer and poet Natalie Harkin for having assisted in the editorial process. I would also like to acknowledge and pay respects to Lionel Fogarty, the Yoogum language group from South Brisbane, and the Kidjela people of North Queensland, whose inestimable linguistic, cultural and spiritual legacy is clear in Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems 1980-2017.
The publication of this collection marks a retrospective moment for the Australian literary landscape. Lionel Fogarty, born in South Burnett in Southern Queensland, is a poet praised by John Kinsella as ‘the greatest living “Australian” poet’ (2013, 190). The controversial writer, Colin Johnston, also described Fogarty in 1990 as ‘Australia’s strongest poet of Aboriginality’ (26). (Colin Johnston is also known by the name of Mudrooroo, or Mudrooroo Narogin, an act that is seen by many as a misappropriation of the Nyoongar language.) I mention Johnston’s voice above many more fitting critics in this review to juxtapose Johnston’s and Fogarty’s fortunes in the last two decades as somewhat of a tragicomic mirror of the Australian literary landscape and our need to seek out an ‘authentic’ indigenous Australian voice. I write in heed of the deeply tenuous position Johnston occupies in Australian literature as explored by Anita Heiss in her book, Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003). Heiss posits that from the time of Johnson publishing of Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature in the early 1990s, ‘he was regarded as the authority on Aboriginal writing, and anything associated with it’ (4). When Johnston’s authority to speak on Indigenous Australian issues came under question in the years to come, the fallout regarding his lack of consultation and misappropriation caused an indelible impression upon our conception of indigeneity. Such debates over identity politics and cultural authenticity have changed how we read the work of Indigenous Australian writers – creating an obsessively objective distance that misleads us from the real conditions of writing, as well as obscuring the literary production of unabashedly indigenous voices. I would argue that this is certainly the case with regards to Lionel Fogarty, one of the most unrewarded and unrecognised figures in Australian and World Literature.
In Fogarty’s poem, ‘Finalist Unnamed’, a previously unpublished work included in this collection, he writes satirically of his omission from the ‘honour-roll’ of literary prizes: ‘My name is now the finalists unnamed? Ha’. The irony in these lines speaks to Fogarty’s imagined opposition to white Australian society, as well as his management of the distance between himself as an Indigenous Australian activist from the literary community. These seeming tensions reflect many of the frailties of the Australian literary landscape; the inability for indigeneity to be properly conceived of and read adequately in mainstream literary landscapes and markets, the literary-suicide of labelling oneself an ‘activist and poet’ to a wider Australian readership, and further, a lack of proper close engagement with Fogarty’s poems themselves. This review intends to grapple with these incongruities and signal, perhaps ambitiously, a trail that leads in to Fogarty’s nebulous, and yet, capacious collection.
The editors, Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner, have collated both published and previously unpublished poems. The latter have been edited and published with close involvement from Fogarty himself. In this manner, Fogarty’s involvement as a co-editor and poet answers Peter Minter’s call for ‘a renewed ethical and aesthetic architecture’ (2013, 157). The poems are ordered in distinct periods where Fogarty was said to be particularly prolific: 1980-1995, 2004-2012 and 2013-2017. While this periodisation of Fogarty’s works may run the risk of emphasising perpetually relevant concepts (such as deaths of Indigenous Australians while in police custody or political representation) within discrete periods of production (many of the themes, phrasings and poetic rhythms are returned to, after decades), this structure offers a chance of seeing Fogarty’s images and turns-of-phrase evolve. This is particularly true of the 1980-1995 poems, a period described as a ‘high point’ for Fogarty while working alongside one-time partner, co-editor and publisher, Cheryl Buchanan, of the Kooma Nation in South Queensland. Buchanan’s work as an editor and publisher is significant for this section. A leader in her own right, Buchanan almost single-handedly published Fogarty’s first volume of poetry, Kargun, in 1980, stating in the official launch of the Yoogum Yoogum collection in 1982, that no publisher wanted to touch such ‘heavy political material’ (n.p.). It was her belief in Fogarty’s revolutionary style of writing as speaking rather than writing that moulded these poems, laying the foundation for his future work. In the foreword to the Nguti collection published two years later (1984), Buchanan would state: ‘Lionel regards himself as “a speaker, not a writer”, and does not like to be categorised as a “poet”’ (n.p). This sense of frustration against the identity of a ‘writer’ pervades Fogarty’s earlier poems. That is not to say that Fogarty’s poems can be read as discrete, singular entities. For instance, the demands of activism that pervade his earlier work transform into renewed decolonial thinking in the areas of education, Trans-indigenous solidarity and the historicising of Indigenous Australian activism. In this way, Fogarty performs a metaphorical encircling of his own position, what the Martinican theorist Edouard Glissant described as a reconstituted echo or a spiral retelling’ (1997, 16) regarding his own returns to earlier works. Morrissey himself notes that in revising each of the poems into English for publication, ‘the selection process has been complicated by Fogarty’s habit of revising and recycling sections of poems’ (Morrissey 19). As readers, then, we are privy to the forming up of Fogarty’s oeuvre in real-time. Such a re-processing, a spiral retelling of language-events, makes this collection of poems doubly worthwhile.
A reader might perceive, for instance, that the metaphorical implication of ‘death’ in the early poems – for instance in ‘Do Yourself a Favour, Educate Your Mind’ – differs greatly to the later poem, ‘Signing My Death Lionel and Hell’ (another example might be his variance in using the word ‘academic’ as the collection draws on.) In the former, ‘death’ acts as a metaphorical removal of Anglicised Australian identity imposed upon Fogarty in his being brought up in Cherbourg Mission: ‘(I) wrote my death in/George the Third’. In the latter, Fogarty imagines himself as a dying lion, Lionel literally translated to ‘Lion and Hell’ in order to convey his cyclical rebirth in the natural world, dying as a physically embodied writer, but eternalising himself through the potentially infinite re-readings of his works:
With my thousand words the dead woods are white dreams.
Whistle the dead calls at morning night and depart away my spirit.
Starless days are able to shine death, as rouse is use for me to die
Listen it’s time for me as a writer to die.
Another way of perceiving the poems in the structure the editors have placed them is by transposing Fogarty’s poems alongside the political events that helped to shape them. For example, often the themes and motifs of his poems are direct references to news articles and current events, as a metaphorical (and at times literal) pastiche of contemporaneous jargon. This is evocatively evident in the composition of the unpublished poem, ‘Academic Great Boundaries’, which reflects on the water policy in the Murray Darling Basin and the dams that stop the water flow. In the poem itself, Fogarty metaphorically conjures up a dam wall through juxtaposing a self-authorising scientific vernacular divorced from feeling with his own intuitive writing:
Governments and nunnery highlands lie
49,000 bores lowering the table pastoral
Non-flowing rate of 3% per annum.
In contrast, Fogarty alludes to the lack of benefits locals receive from the dam itself, remembering the incongruity of earlier colonial excavation of the land that eliminated native Australian flora and fauna. He questions the reader:
Are departmental shrubs destroying the remade reports?
Is every central country plain without pains?
Eliminate all inappropriate species
The fallacy of the first dugouts
Sunk in marbled stone.
It is also worth recounting the poet’s formative experiences, as they are at times presented, disfigured, in Fogarty’s poetry. For example, it is impossible to read his works without knowing of his politics. After growing up in Cherbourg Mission and becoming involved with the Brisbane Chapter of the Australian Black Panther Party, Fogarty was charged and arrested for demanding money with menaces and was detained in an adult prison while still legally a juvenile. Despite being acquitted for a lack of evidence, the experience remained with Fogarty and was recorded in a provocative account of his arrest in the poem entitled, ‘Related: Charged’:
Welcome here, you son of a cunt,
This pig said to me.
Sign your death warrant, you son of a fucken moll.
released on bail
The crucially formative event of Fogarty’s adult activist life was the tragic death of his brother, Daniel Alfred Yock, a talented painter and dancer murdered under police custody in Redfern. This prompted some of Fogarty’s finest elegiac works, as well as some of his more charged political statements. Side by side, the 1995 poems ‘For Him I Died – Bupu Ngunda I love’ and ‘Murra Murra Gulandanilli- Waterhen’ can be read as a most profound expression of grief.