FRESH Monday, January 16th, 2017
At the time of his death, Francisco Guevara – ‘Kokoy’ to everyone who knew him – was becoming a unique, unwavering presence in contemporary Filipino poetry. An unlikely graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (reports suggest that he was repeatedly stymied by the rituals of the workshop lyric), in 2010 he returned home to the Philippines to take up a position at De La Salle, one of the country’s most prestigious universities.
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Monday, January 16th, 2017
The Two Romanticisms, and Other Essays: Mystery and Interpretation in Romantic Literature
by William Christie
Sydney University Press, 2016
Romantic poems are elusive creatures. Exhibit A is William Blake’s ‘The Blossom’ (1789), in which a mysterious voice asks a pretty robin, a blossom, and the reader, to ‘seek your cradle narrow’. Perhaps by the necessity of the uncanny danger of meaning, readings of Romantic poetry have always been accompanied by disputes about Romanticism as a movement. These conflicts seem to encompass an entire political shift in an age of revolutions.
In The Two Romanticisms, and Other Essays, Professor William Christie weighs in on this burden of mystery in Romantic poetry with some hope of avoiding ‘discipline games’. As head of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University (ANU), Christie is a respected teacher and scholar, and would appear well-placed to provide some measure of an answer for students and readers of Romanticism.
The Two Romanticisms focuses on ‘major lyrics’. There are a number of chapters that dip into Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Shelley’s ‘Julian and Maddalo’ or Byron’s Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The epilogue to the book offers a conceptual history of the idea of the imagination as a way to orient readers to the period of Romanticism.
One of the most compelling interpretations in the book is a chapter that dwells on Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Christie analyses a point at which the poem moves from what seems a simple pastiche of old ballads to something other, uncanny. A Pelican dangles from the mariner’s neck in a frozen, ghostly landscape: ‘We are in another world, the capital “r” Romantic has supervened upon the small “r” romantic, as infection supervenes upon a wound’.
This image of infection, wound and disease is itself a pastiche of much old literary criticism (Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, for example). We’re then reminded that Christie is offering us at least two cradles for Romanticism to play in, Romanticism with a capital ‘R’ – the symbolic movement that infects a reader with some greater wound beyond the pastiche – and a romanticism with a small ‘r’, a stormy collection of wild themes that can be rocked and broken.
That this argument about Romanticism is driven primarily by the major lyrics is telling. Even for a book aimed at the high-school curriculum, it is somewhat disappointing to find a focus on ‘major’ lyrics to the exclusion of the ‘minor’ ones; two romanticisms if there ever were two. After decades of critical work looking beyond the contours of masculine Romanticism, it is troubling to find still such a neglect of minor poets and writers who represented major socio-political trends in English Romanticism.
An entire historicist horizon of interpretation goes missing: the entry of dissenters, Catholics, Jews, radicals, women, working class and racially other into the Anglican establishment, or the brute fact of greater numbers than ever before reading and writing poetry and novels. And now, as Christie’s Two Romanticisms introduces prose novels such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there’s still a sense that avoiding ‘discipline games’ means obscuring so much: as if we are left with a mystery of literature that is a narrow cradle for a mode of Romantic criticism.
The result is a readable set of essays, but also an overall obscurity that leads Christie to return to some well-hashed critical fields. By the time the reader arrives at the epilogue, the definitional challenge that is the central matter of the book is lost, and not in an entirely productive way. The useful chronology of the Romantic Period appearing at the start of the book begins with the birth of William Blake (1757) and ends with the death of William Wordsworth (1850), the seer of imagination. Within this space, there are some characteristic political milestones for English Romanticism – a small taste of the vastness of Romanticism. But Romanticism is still thrown up as a disorientating movement that always seems to impress on us the need for some kind of ‘set of coordinates’ – which is how Christie puts it in his reading of Coleridge’s poetry.
The Two Romanticisms remains elusive in its definition of Romanticism, hardly electric or startling, but well worth reading for an overview of the challenges of interpreting the Romantic movement. There is a certain disquiet apparent in The Two Romanticisms, a hesitancy on the limits of meaning: the book plunges toward polarised sites of definition at times; at other times, it vaguely skirts critical fields. The space devoted to discussing the poems or novels in detail seems to be ever narrowing as the book skips from essay to essay; The Two Romanticisms as an exposition of a literary movement appears constrained. Romanticism nonetheless remains one of the most popular movements of literature, and continues to throw readers from narrow cradles to worlds of mystery and meaning.
Thursday, January 5th, 2017
Awake at the Wheel by Berndt Sellheim
Vagabond Press, 2016
In Awake at the Wheel, Berndt Sellheim’s debut collection of poems, Australia is imagined in gothic terms, from the eerie and persistent presence of the ‘bushland’s dark parchment’ to the bones and ghosts which haunt an endless landscape. An homage to country, there is little innocence embedded in these poems of insides and outsides, which speak not only to a transforming sense of self but also to an environment that ceaselessly, and often uneasily, shifts. It is a thematic captured most vividly in the attention to diurnal rhythms – the ‘dying light’, the ‘wash and ebb’ of the sea – which evolve poignantly in relation to the cycles of life and death. In Sellheim’s work, such categories are rarely exclusive, but invested in notions of everyday metamorphosis, such as in ‘The Divine Art of Compost’, in which a ‘lush thermal sweat’ creates a ‘sumptuous / chemistry / of season and decay’. These transformations are ‘all organic matter’, yet there is nonetheless an abiding disquiet, as noted in the suggestion that while there are ‘bodies which build and inhabit’, there are also ‘bodies which lie beneath’, a reminder of how the Australian gothic is interchangeable with the post-colonial.
Such a focus ensures that Sellheim’s poems resist romanticism, and while there are instances of the cliché, especially in the evocation of a Kerouac-inspired ‘road less travelled’, the landscapes (re-)imagined in Awake at the Wheel are problematic, difficult, and often uncomfortable. The beauty of the Australian bush, with its ‘green depths’ which ‘hazewhite past / the eucalypts’, and ‘jacaranda blossoms, like slow, violet hailstones’, is complicated by a history of violence and exploitation, and an insistence on the past as necessary to troubling patriotic visions of nationhood and, indeed, pastoral rapture. Sellheim’s acknowledgement of colonial destruction is nuanced and assured, particularly in those poems focussed on rural Australia, which cannot escape the spectres of past crimes. In ‘Wollombi’, for example: ‘Imagine, Uncle / th black silent feet / passing afore / th whiteblaze wind’.
The politics of Sellheim’s poetry, however, is most striking in its focus on consumerism, and the leaching of the natural world to feed the ever-increasing demand for material goods. Whilst sharp, Sellheim’s poems are more often melancholy than scathing, the collection a despair at the creation of an ‘abject earth’, an overwhelming feeling of depletion and exhaustion. Regional towns are ‘ute-filled borderlands’ while ‘brilliant / machines scrub desert skin’, ransacking for export commodities. The result is a horror-show, an image of monstrosity in which each attempt for more creates only less, until both the land and the individuals who work it are ‘emptied, utterly fucked out by it all’. In ‘Backfill’, Sellheim’s characteristic use of rupture and erasure figures such anxiety in desperate terms:
Great mouth we dug
th never-never great
mount in dug t dust
having gnawed the tin
from earth n bones u
mountains int ust aving
ug the art o bauxite in
dug ater from t sun
Environmental fatigue is connected with the dissolution of human life and energy, from the ‘half-forgotten pubs’ overtaken by ‘Big Mac primary coloured / burbs o middle / Australia’, to the rig workers ‘eyebent n crystal meth’. Sellheim is often sardonic in these descriptions – ‘don’t worry […] the drive-through / does bitchin trade’ – keenly aware of the degradation caused by monolithic mining corporations. In an eponymous sequence of poems, for instance, the air is ‘a permanent dusk /o swarming particles /on th scale o Exodus / where all fall short / o the glory o / Rinehart’.
Importantly, in exploring ideas about the loss that comes from over-consumption, Sellheim’s poems are stylistically experimental, increasingly fragmented, and ruptured – verb endings are dropped, letters are missed, and phrases are left incomplete. There is an uncanny use of vernacular that is both familiar and fractured, such as ‘red sky at morn, / she don’t bode well’, and ‘thin edge / o country hedge’. As a result of such techniques, there is a curious tension between what is recognisable – meanings found through obvious guesswork – and a more troubling sense that something remains missing. These gaps are arguably an acknowledgement of the limits of representation, but also a resistance to totality. Poems which begin relatively formally begin to unravel ‘till there’s no place left’ – a suggestion of Sellheim’s preoccupation with the cyclical, but also, perhaps, a refusal to promise completion or even coherence. Indeed, in Awake at the Wheel transformation and loss are perpetually linked, like bodies which ‘bloat and thin and eat themselves / even as we watch’, an abject mimicry of the butterfly, ‘itself a model of rebirth’.
Thursday, January 5th, 2017
Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos
Arcadia / ASP, 2016
The first poem of Tina Giannoukos’s second collection ends with the line, ‘In space I hold the horn of plenty’. This reference to the classical symbol of abundance foreshadows the poetic landscape that follows in Bull Days, a volume teeming with external allusion and internal reverberation. Giannoukos’s primary subject is a romantic/erotic love relationship, which is dissected in a series of 58 disparately patterned sonnets. In early incarnations the sonnet form was, of course, commonly applied to the theme of love, and here Giannoukos follows tradition, imbuing much of the work with a vivid sense of lyrical presence. This presence is maintained through constantly fluctuating tonal effects – melancholic, vexed, ironic, mournful are but a few – causing the lyrical ‘I’ (who addresses an unnamed ‘you’) to declare late in the volume: ‘These shifts in mood are impossible to endure’. But endure it does, through ‘the long hour of the love poem’ (as sonnet XXXVIII puts it) which comprises Bull Days. For it is feasible to conceive of this sequence as one long poem: while its pieces record diverse and seemingly discrete events, it constructs, overall, an undulating narrative shape.
One of the ways Giannoukos creates this sense of narrative is through the recurrent motif of journeying. Varying images convey this motif: trajectories of planets, migrations of birdlife, seafaring ancestors ‘gliding over oceans’ for instance. In the latter image Giannoukos deftly connects her own particular Greek heritage to classical antiquity – a period much characterised in literature by voyaging. Doorways to antiquity abound: ‘epic journey’, ‘heroic / lover’, ‘fallen stones and collapsed columns’ are a smattering of the phrases that evoke Greco-Roman civilisation, as do the many appeals to gods and mythological figures. That poems travel between present and past, and, indeed, into the future, and recount the overlap between these realms when it comes to love, has more than narrative impact; it is of purposeful philosophical significance. ‘All loves are linked’, sonnet XI offers, while sonnet XXXVIII locates love in its own space-time:
The sound of your name, like the echo of birds,
hovers in the honeyed space between eternity
and this instant.
For me, the metaphysical exploration of time carried out in Bull Days is one of its foremost achievements. Giannoukos’s sustained investigation into the ways in which the condition of love refracts differentially through what Gilles Deleuze names the crystal image of time (that is, time beyond horizontal, linear understandings) is both artful and evocative.
Other cultural touchstones mark these sonnets apart from those associated with secular classical times; much Judeo-Christian imagery is rhetorically employed, and references to Renaissance artists such as Shakespeare and Da Vinci appear here and there. But it would be remiss to move on to other matters without considering the strong resonances of ancient Hellenic poet Sappho throughout this work. Sappho’s poetry is alluded to both subtly and overtly (‘Fragments survive’, ‘Is this the Sapphic line? O sweet! O love!’), and Sappho’s non-normative female gender position finds echoes in Giannoukos’s occasional splitting of the female self (the ‘I’ sometimes slides into ‘she’, and in sonnet XI the ‘I’ is ‘in drag’). More crucial, perhaps, are the parallels between Sappho’s and Giannoukos’s characterisations of love. Anne Carson, the classicist who has made a study of romantic love in philosophy and literature, points out that it was Sappho who first called eros ‘bittersweet’ (‘glukupikron’). Giannoukos, too, employs this term: ‘Bittersweet lips angle me in sharp relief’ (LVI). Carson notes, also, that it’s difficult to translate Sappho’s glukupikron: strictly speaking, it should be ‘sweetbitter’. Carson surmises that Sappho meant to indicate that eros brings sweetness, and then bitterness, in that order. Overwhelmingly, the poems in Bull Days support this view. Love here has a ‘dark energy’ that begins as ‘rapture’ but ends in suffering, as sonnet VII suggests:
… Everything fails
at the crucial moment. O love! Wet your mouth
on mine. Let me be yours. The heart breaks
in the middle of the night.
Bleak symbols pervade the volume – wounds, blood, summer giving way to winter, the colour blue – leaving the reader in little doubt that, yes, ‘the heart is a murdering beast’ (sonnet XXVI).
But Bull Days also presents love as a game of passion difficult to resist. More than once a bullfight scene is metaphorically employed (hence the collection’s title), and although the ‘I’ in these poems is the bull, destined for death, it participates willingly. More broadly, games and play are frequently cited tropes of human desire, and – as artists and thinkers have expressed for millennia – desire is an experience fraught with paradox. It is put this way in sonnet LIV:
the burden is terrible, but borne
for the breathless promise of the hour.
Generally, this promise is what provides the sequence’s narrative drive, which concludes uneasily. ‘I’m back where I vowed I’d not return’ the final sonnet begins, the ‘I’ having been lured back, by desire, into ‘gambling on signs’ that are destined to remain empty. In relation to language-as-signs, Giannoukos also deploys a metapoetic stratum, reflecting on the role of words in this love game: ‘if I want a place in your canon / I must impress with my poetics’ sonnet XXV states, and there is much toing and froing between ‘voice’ and ‘silence’. Sonnet XV draws attention to ‘the cascading deluge of words’, and latter poems plead, ‘what if I were to tell you … ?’. Ultimately, though, the speaker admits that this is a game she cannot win; she is essentially ‘[w]ithout / words to describe the colour of [her] love’ (LIII).
On the whole, language operates across these sonnets at an intensely affective level, matching its subject matter, and this is another of the work’s strengths. Giannoukos also displays impressive skill in weaving together such a vast array of figurative elements, and in employing lexical and thematic repetition as a structuring device in the absence of consistent metrical and rhyme schema. Undoubtedly, some readers will find Bull Days heavy going due to its complex manoeuvring of meaning levels, and its occasional metaphorical discordance. Contrariety, though, is what this collection strives to comprehend and this, to my mind, means that the investment required to accompany Giannoukos through her ‘long hour’ is worth it.
Thursday, December 15th, 2016
Monster’s Ink by Sam Wagan Watson
Recent Work Press @ IPSI, 2016
Selfless by Zoe Dzunko
The Atlas Review, 2016
Since the late 1970s Warren Motte, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, has been collecting mirror scenes in literature, a studiously archived assembly of ‘moments when a subject glimpses himself or herself in the mirror.’ From an analysis of these more than 10,000 scenes collated in Mirror Gazing (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014) Motte suggests that in such instances ‘a curious effect of dissociation seems to be at work, for the face in the mirror typically presents itself to the subject with its otherness prominently on display’; the reflection becomes ‘the deforming mirror of another’s gaze.’
As the title suggests, monsters in many forms populate Sam Wagan Watson’s latest chapbook, Monster’s Ink, the third in IPSI’s chapbook series after Philip Gross’s Time in The Dingle and Katharine Coles’s Bewilder. Wagan Watson’s monsters are hidden in the darkness of closets and beneath beds – or they’re not hidden at all, proudly occupying positions of power. Many of the monsters, like Wagan Watson (of Munanjali, Birri Gubba, German and Irish heritage), are culturally diverse: a German vampire, Jenze Stager, with a taste for Aboriginal Dreaming; Bram Stroker’s Dracula evoked somewhere under a bed in Brisbane; a ‘7-foot arachnid-homo-species from a rare alabaster egg’; an indigenous equivalent of Mary Shelley’s creation, Frankenstein of the Dreamtime.
There is another folkloric monster in this ink, one that appears by implication, and not appellation as such: Bloody Mary, who will appear in a mirror when her name is said before it three times. The ghostly catoptromantic apparition, often bloodied, can be malevolent or benevolent, and prophesies visions of the future. It is as though, with the many I’s that litter Monster’s Ink, Wagan Watson has summoned himself into the mirror for honest inspection and reflection. In the tellingly titled ‘Butterflies And Premonitions’ he writes:
I was born with a bad headache and before I could write I predicted the wording
of incident reports before accidents occurred […]
Pulling into the driveway an empty house sleeps […] And before my key hits the
front door I know what lies beyond. I picture this scene while switching off the igni
tion in the car […] answering my stomach’s want, for butterflies and premonitions …
Like Wagan Watson’s most recent full-length collection, Love Poems & Death Threats (UQP, 2014), the majority of the poems in Monster’s Ink are haibun, a form of prose poetry traditionally comprising a paragraph or so accompanied by a haiku addressing or distilling the entry’s themes and content. Love Poems & Death Threats opens with ‘Blood and Ink’, which begins: ‘“I AM A RIVER …” / How your words reverberate off the mirror of our conscience.’ The possibilities of the plural pronoun – a river’s tributaries; Wagan Watson and the reader; etc – are numerous, but dominant amongst them is the idea of many selves, and reflections as a means for addressing these. Later in that collection, the water-like Wagan Watson again finds a mirror:
The bedroom mirror
can only reflect the serene skin of a lake;
a lake is an ephemeral living entity,
and the mirror will remain a dead-pool in the bedroom.
So what is discovered in this time spent before the mirror? We could begin with a survey of some of the many I’s mentioned above. ‘I was born in a land, borne from a Dreamtime …’ begins the first poem in Monster’s Ink, ‘Wonderland?’ Wagan Watson continues later: ‘I am free but have few democratic rights. I am the unforgiven scourge of the Ruling Class.’ In ‘A Brief Biography (Standard Operating Procedures #1)’ he once again introduces the mirror as a means for making and managing a self: ‘I am 175cm tall with a width that fluctuates seasonally. I live in a house with many mirrors as opposed to a domicile of glass that will only canvas certain reflections.’ One such reflection is Jenze Stager, first given voice in ‘Die Dunkle Erde [The Dark Earth]’, Wagan Watson’s opera with Stephen Leek, performed in 2004 with the Australian Voices Choir and special Dijeridoo arrangement by William Barton. Stager is a reflection of Wagan Watson’s mixed German and Aboriginal heritage; the German vampire finds his ‘black reflection / lost, I thought too / forgotten, forgotten / in the countless nights.’
The fruits of Wagan Watson’s introspection are not only reflected in mirrors or slick surfaces, but also in the revised versions of older poems. ‘Monster (Reloaded)’ is an updated version of a poem originally performed at the 2007 Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale, Indonesia. It is here that we find Wagan Watson as Frankenstein’s monster:
I am one of Tony Abbott’s monsters, hiding under his bed … I think like his
version of a monster, therefore I am, Frankenstein of the Dreamtime … I scare some
white people with my English, and some black people too, I am Frankenstein of the
‘Love Poem (Reloaded)’ is an updated version of the ‘Love Poem’ in Love Poems & Death Threats, in which the protagonist ‘no longer used his real name, just the combination of slugs, LOVE POEM’ from his tattooed fists. In the reloaded version: ‘In time and in all the accumulated violence, he forgot his real identity, and only travelled with his signature-combination of slugs.’ The inapposite paradiddle of punches is extended, and a haiku appended to the violence:
The hardest stones crack
in the weighting pains of time,
destiny so cruel
It is not just the prose poetry that makes this slim 28-page collection seem disproportionately dense, it is also the proliferate population of possible Wagan Watsons that occupy the pages.
Tuesday, December 13th, 2016
Anatomy of Voice by David Musgrave
Gloria SMH Press, 2016
This new, book-length poem by David Musgrave remembers the life, and especially the voice, of Bill Maidment, who taught English Literature at the University of Sydney. Firmly in the tradition of poetic memorial, and given the character of its protagonist, it becomes a book concerned with the broader memory of a culture and the ways that a human being can inhabit it. The book, from new publisher Gloria SMH Press, is attractively produced: woodcuts from early modern emblem-books interact with the poems and divide its four ‘partitions’; headings above the poems in the first section are ghosted through from the following page. Like the other books from this publisher, this is volume’s physical form is intimately linked to its contents.
The ‘anatomy’ of the title suggests the problem with which the book grapples: how to isolate the particularity of another’s voice, to represent it in one’s own words. It also announces a relationship to at least two other eminent anatomies: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and especially Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, from which Musgrave adapts the division into partitions. Etymologically, the sense of ‘cutting through’ (ana- tomê – dissection), with all its surgical suggestions, is apt. At the beginning of the third partition, Musgrave writes: ‘your voice is a relation / of larynx, tongue and lips to air / or past to liminal present’. Some pages later in the same sequence, rowing up a river is ‘anatomizing flow as writing divvies up a voice’.
The attempt to capture Maidment’s voice works best (for a reader who never knew him) when the poems are least sentimental, and when they incorporate the words of the subject himself. As is perhaps inevitable in personal elegy there are some obvious moves at times. On p.13, for instance, a phrase like ‘you / find me in my dreams’ is true enough to the psychology of grief but sounds tired. In the ghosted text on p.15 ‘god dog’ feels too familiar. By contrast the third partition, working in footnotes from some of Maidment’s few published works, makes excellent use of the crisp, wry tone of a good scholarly note against the fuller but thereby more diffuse surrounding voice of the poems. The collision of voices does much to bring out one side of Maidment’s own:
No identity without difference
no difference without decay12:
I am a puny riparographer
rubbing on in a strictly private life.
That which I have is stolen from others:
Diogenes went to the city
with his lantern, his tub, his sun
You went from Scone to Sydney
with your Keats, your charity and wit
But where are your poems now?13
and who is speaking here?14
Some soft thing stirring softly soon to stir no more15
12May claim too much in assuming need to disclaim. W.M.
13 One may also presume, supposing the lost material analogous to the saved, that nothing of ‘intrinsic literary importance’ has been lost, and still regret that loss. W.M.
14 The demand for an authorial voice masks a demand for proper moral answers, imperatives or formulations; and ‘unity’ becomes a consequence of issuing the right views, of being spiritually mature. W.M.
15 Necessarily a sketch, a preliminary rough ordering, a feeler towards further work? W.M.
The use of emblems, beyond their immediate visual effectiveness, draws upon a shared interest of Musgrave and Maidment, who researched these curious old books extensively in the latter part of his career. These emblems, which traditionally tend to embody inherited, cultural material, are used here both as the vehicles of this broader culture beyond the individual and for the more personal reflection of the poem’s speaking voice. They become, then, vehicles of personal memorial; though of a relationship built upon a shared interest in memory of the broader, less personal sort.
A great deal of the pleasure of this book is in the tracing out of literary and philosophical associations. The afterword and the substantial notes at the end fill in useful background, but thankfully stop short of spelling out everything. Musgrave’s inclusion of the poems and mottoes which accompanied these emblems allows these quirky, oddly homely texts their own voices. It is perhaps pedantic to complain of a few small errors in the translations from the Latin. On p.96 the abbreviated ‘sibi nequam cui bonus?’ must be ‘To whom is one good who is bad for himself?’, rather than ‘Something bad for oneself, a good for whom?’, given the reflexive pronoun, though the indeclinable adjective nequam does admittedly make this shortened form far from clear. The meaning is clearer in the longer sentence from Sirach (that is, Ecclesiasticus) which is quoted following it. On p.97, ‘audito multa, loquitor pauca’ cannot mean ‘hearing much, uttering little’, but must rather is imperative ‘hear much, speak little’.
The echoes of Plato’s Phaedrus (poem nine of the third partition) bring together the book’s main themes: the difficulty of reducing the spoken to the written word, and the nature of love. These are the two objects of discussion in this dialogue, the unity of which has been a topic of debate for two and a half millennia.
By the side of this river
near the tall plane trees
and the equally alien willow
washing its hair in the water
there is shade there and a gentle breeze
a green sward to sit on, or lie on if you prefer
The details of the setting of the Phaedrus (plane tree, cicadas) weave into Maidment’s poem and connect with others in the book, for instance the crickets in the fifth poem of the third partition, whose sound is sketched like Morse code and repeated on the back inside cover. Thematically, the memory of the Phaedrus provides a similar yet contrasting constellation of the same concerns that shape Musgrave’s own work. Like the Phaedrus, Musgrave’s book aims to preserve the memory and the voice of the writer’s teacher, and self-consciously probes the nature of such recording. This is, notoriously, the dialogue in which Plato has Socrates criticise the adequacy of the written word for capturing the spoken one. It is also a dialogue concerned with the complicated role of love (in a very broad sense) in intellectual life. How exactly this bundle of themes are to be reconciled is a very old question. In the case of Anatomy of Voice they cohere around the problem of remembering and memorialising Maidment.
Tuesday, December 13th, 2016
Selfish Bastards and Other Poems by Mike Hopkins
Garron Publishing, 2016
Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems by Steve Brock
Garron Publishing, 2016
Displaying an impulse that is communitarian and geographic by turns, Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards and Other Poems, and Steve Brock’s Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems address the quotidian of the present under the notion that place-based does not necessarily mean place-bound. Brock’s itinerary darts from France to Barcelona, Madrid to San Francisco, to arrival at the Hollywood hotel, taking readers beyond the physical boundaries traditionally ascribed to place and ‘on a walking tour / a literary one’. However, as much as these poems depend upon travels and traversals, Brock as our guide takes us through scenes and sets that reinforce our ‘role here / is confined to that of tourist / as much as we try and walk like locals’ (‘Jardin du Luxembourg 2’). Hopkins’ collection, conversely, unfolds in a specific place, articulating a contemporary critique of the Australian present. The poems are inflected with the volatility of political lyricism in ‘Selfish Bastards’ and ‘Anzacery1’, and Hopkins’ ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’ terrifically probes and parodies popular culture.
Upon reading Steve Brock’s Jardin du Luxembourg, you might say that the collection is a miniature epic of wanderers; it can be read as a quest book – except Brock is adamant that the trip is its own goal:
And the Gary Snyder Reader
I carried with me from Australia
reminding me about roots
and the need to plant seeds
upon my return home.
(‘The Hollywood Hotel’)
Undoubtedly, one could easily focus on a single poem in Brock’s collection and be done with it, but such a disregard for the complexities and diaspora within this collection would carelessly overlook how these poems serve as affective sites rather than fixed locations on a map. Brock beckons us not to focus on our ‘roots’ while ignoring the routes that made the journey possible, but observe the interactive motion and turbulence that remains in our minds long after the camera has stopped rolling, as in the titular poem:
the take begins again
and just as the man
nears the end of his walk
an elderly female tourist
ducks under the tape
and crosses the set
to cries of disbelief from the director
The interrupted syntax and enjambment gives the collection a terseness meant to convey immediacy without drama. Notational and observed, the poems seem to manifest seamlessly into the next. Indeed, Brock’s metaphor for this process of traversal could be considered ‘Jardin du Luxembourg’, the convergence of French and English in a single garden, the various statues contained within an apt representation of intercultural exchange.
In ‘Barcelona’, Brock writes:
I get the feeling
Since arriving in Europe
I’m finally arriving at the subject
Lorca’s cante jondo
street artists and a language
we can decode
re-united with long-lost family
we feel at home
As the ‘I’ recedes and the ‘we’ becomes more prominent in the poem, one gets a deep sense that the language alone possesses the power to bypass ‘the cultural faux pas and mis-readings’ of traversing multiple places. Fraught with predicates that ‘realise’, ‘think’, ‘look’, ‘wonder’ and ‘recognise’ that too much of our attention is based on the location of culture and too little on the displacement of culture:
I ask him how he feels
about the whole Napoleonic/Pantheon thing
walking in the steps of big writers
and history makers
he says you can let it stifle you
or look at it like
see what’s possible
see what can be achieved
(‘Jardin du Luxembourg 3’)
From one side of the world to another, Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards places his truth within the perception of Australia’s political stage. This truth can compete in the public arena with the ‘truth’ that is portrayed by politicians, such as:
Politicians who tell us we need to tighten our belt, and then
use a helicopter to go to a cocktail party — Selfish Bastards
Perhaps veering towards the overtly casual, the title poem might translate less well to a wider audience than others. However, as has been part of recent debate and scholarship, ‘Bastard’ is now part of the Australian vernacular and apparently yelling expletives in a public forum no longer constitutes offensive language. Being free from the same existential competition that obligates politicians to indulge their constituent public, Hopkin’s doesn’t flatter and indulge his audience in the eponymous slam poem:
People in the audience who don’t shout out “SELFISH
BASTARDS” when politely asked to do so — Selfish Bastards!
Rather, the poem performs in front of the reader’s eyes, the musicality of the concluding refrains unpacking the realities of our monotone and formulaic reality:
People who like their own posts on Facebook — Selfish Bastards!
Indeed, Selfish Bastards signals a condemnation of contemporary society. Reinforced in ‘The Template’ and ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, we are confronted with thick hectic prose, sentence fragments and the hackneyed that has taken ‘the world by storm, though it was a small world, when all is said and done’. These clichés humorously gain momentum in ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, as the people ‘did not stay glued / to the one true cliché’ but ‘ took to false clichés like ducks to water’. In ‘The Template’ Hopkins satirises the public treatment of our magazine society and paper-politicians:
Another soldier dead. Pull
out the template and we’ll
knock off the news story in
a flash. First the headline:
“Digger” and “fallen” are
mandatory words. “Brave”
and salute are excellent
Structured like a traditional newspaper spread in two columns side by side, such portrayals are confrontational to the say the least, but there is also a sense of warning that is conspicuous here. Hopkins, in similar tonality to Brock’s ‘Hollywood Hotel’, takes an itinerary of the cookie-cutter Australian media and divisive political scene:
Get a shot or two of
the politicians in the pews,
and the comforting the next
of kin outside the church.
After all they’ve sacrificed
their precious time to
attend the service, and
they like to see that we’ve
stuck to the template.
The words ‘cliché’ and ‘template’ are key here. The tired terminology is fixed in repetition, an endless ventriloquy hovering over texts, criticising and energising in turn. The geographic impulses that these texts address is one of renewal, the language resonating with a precise duplicity that recognises regardless of the place, we encounter distance, we are always a tourist on the outskirts of a template, political, humorous or based in the explorative:
This rule is our rule:
THIS DAY IS NOT FOR YOU
(‘Anzacery1’, by Hopkins).
Tuesday, December 6th, 2016
Waiting by Philip Salom
Puncher & Wattmann, 2015
‘How much of human life is lost in waiting!’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay, ‘Prudence’. Philip Salom’s excellent third novel takes this condition as its title and theme, focusing on four characters who have become mired, to greater or lesser degrees, within their lives and locations.
The eccentric couple known as ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ spend their days contently wandering between a few regular haunts in their North Melbourne neighbourhood: the IGA, the post office, the library and the boarding house where they live. Big is, quite naturally, largely than life: a hefty, bearded, cross-dressing autodidact who is often brash and loquacious in a manner that, as a number of reviewers have noted, evokes comparisons to Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Little, by contrast, is a shy, nervous and diminutive woman afflicted with Lupus, who quietly manages the practical affairs of life that seem to easily overwhelm Big, and serves as a gentle check on her partner’s excesses. Big and Little exist in a nebulous space – one that is meant to be temporary, but which has long ago become permanent for them – sharing a cramped room in their boarding house while making vague and often unrealised plans for the future, enjoying each other’s company and the sense of community they have built with the other residents.
The other key characters in the novel seem to be stuck in in-between spaces of their own. Angus, Little’s cousin, is a designer, who has moved from constructing fire-proof homes for rural Australian areas to working on lake-scapes for city councils. He is new to Melbourne, living a solitary life while he waits for his house in Adelaide to be sold and his divorce settlement finalised, still quietly haunted by the memory of a recent bushfire and the alleged failure of his safe house design. Early in the novel, Angus embarks upon a tentative relationship with Jasmin, a Melbourne academic who lectures in the field of semiotics and feels that her career has recently stalled due to the delayed publication of her second book. None of these characters are undergoing any profound doubt or stress, but they are all busy waiting for someone or for something to change.
Perhaps reflecting the sense of inertia experienced by its characters, this novel moves slowly, with the majority of its focus given over to the brilliantly captured descriptive details of its North Melbourne setting, and the subtle interrogation of its protagonists’ internal states, exploring their desires, beliefs and insecurities. However, as Waiting progresses, a narrative through-line starts to emerge, which promises tumultuous change in the lives of Big and Little, and slowly starts to pull Angus into their sphere. Little’s estranged mother in Adelaide is apparently dying, and, in a sudden change of heart, has decided to leave her house to her daughter, much to the chagrin of Little’s aunts in Adelaide, who are determined to ensure that the house will pass to them. Angus is roped in by his own unscrupulous mother to visit Little and convince her to either share or renounce her inheritance. While the Adelaide aunts are appropriately vicious in their disdain for Little and their underhanded scheming, they never really emerge as a credible threat or source of conflict in the narrative. Even Angus, their principal agent, is quick to dismiss their plans as both unethical and unlikely to succeed. Rather they serve as a source of underlying tension for Little, an intrusion into the generally calm world that she has created for herself with Big. Furthermore, the prospect of her mother’s death and an inheritance to follow, means that Little has potentially more concrete future prospects, allowing her to envision a new life for her and Big. As she consults with a lawyer and develops a cautious friendship with Angus, Little contemplates moving to Adelaide to occupy the house after her mother is gone, or using the proceeds from its sale to find a place for herself and Big in Melbourne.
Monday, December 5th, 2016
Writing to the Wire, Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, eds.
UWA Publishing, 2016
Hannah Arendt clearly noted it: a dog with a name-tag has a better chance of surviving than an anonymous dog. She also noted that the alleged protections offered by legal and moral rights – human or otherwise – would only be made available to those who did not need them. The right to have rights would be stripped from the rest; they would be consigned to the worst. And so it came to pass: governments around the globe, wearied by the difficulties of politics, turned themselves into servile machines whose only raison d’être is to help deracinated multinationals to extract as much surplus as fast as they possibly can from the peoples and places of the earth. Politicians of every stripe are now the sworn enemies of the people that they allegedly represent, preferring to torture children than risk being put out of office by an irritable corporate goon.
So Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, clearly horrified by the situation that they outline in their introduction to Writing to the Wire, have commissioned a truly diverse range of Australian poets and asylum-seekers to call us back to our responsibilities through verse. It is clear that this is an issue that should bring us together against the entrepreneurs and exploiters of human misery, and it is surely not nothing that so many well-known writers have answered their call. One exemplary bio reads: ‘Rachael Briggs immigrated to Australia from the U.S. Became a citizen. People in camps deserve the same opportunity.’ Yes they do.
Yet many of the contributors are not marked by their publications and other accomplishments, but only by an initial: ‘A. is from Iran’; ‘A. is a Hazara boy from Afghanistan who has been incarcerated in Australia’s immigration detention network for more than two years’; ‘B. is a young man who has been incarcerated in Australia’s Manus Island detention camp for the past 27 months. He chooses to withhold his name.’ Several have even lost their initials altogether: ‘Name withheld’; ‘anonymous.’ Such a severing of bodies from names is symptomatic of dictatorships, not democracies.
Whether anonymous or notorious, all contributors are concerned to speak as best they can about such a deleterious state of affairs, evident from even a glance at the alphabetised titles: ‘drone illuminations’, ‘Drowning Inland’, ‘The Duty of Punishment’. As Samuel Wagan Watson writes in ‘No entry anytime’, which has Muhammad Ali’s famous anti-imperialist and anti-racist boutade ‘No VietCong ever called me a Nigger!’ as an epigraph: ‘Restraining orders come natural to me…this isn’t my country unless a federal court deems it so. I’m not welcome here and I’m not welcome there …’ Or there’s Ali Alizadeh, whose ‘Who’ speaks of ‘the degradation of the political to policing’. Or, as B. describes in ‘Night’:
Every thing is worse than our nightmares –
torture and despair.
Bring me the night.
At this point, there is no difference between poetry and testimony: the true speech of the witness, which goes beyond the brute facts to touch upon what cannot be experienced without misery and dissolution; the address to others who were not there, who may not have eyes to see or ears to hear, but whose existence provides a (minimal) hope that there is more to the world than unjust incarceration, primitive accumulation, and murderous rapaciousness. Writing to the Wire does not provide a context for aesthetic evaluation, but for the transmission of testimonial gestures of justice.
We know the fiscal costs of one great Australian corporate and governmental cabal: nearly $10 billion dollars to date to keep refugees incarcerated by private companies on foreign soil. That this indefinite incarceration of innocents is now the preferred alibi for governments to transfer taxpayers’ money to private hands – and so impoverish their own polities, their welfare and education systems, as if that impoverishment were the very essence of the salus populi – is a kind of epitome of Orwellian double-speak and double-think. An epitome of contemporary charity, too, given that the sadistic sociopaths who chuckle and sneer on Q&A as if they were simply discussing the qualities of snuff, constantly congratulate themselves on taking the hard moral decisions for our benefit. Nathan Curnow’s ‘Reply to a father from a Federal Member’ takes up precisely what W H Auden would have called the ‘elderly gibberish’ or the ‘gushing drivel’ of these irredeemably corrupted personages: ‘Explain to your kids / that you can’t be specific / in the interest of national security’. When you live in a world where reporting on a crime is considered worse than committing one, it becomes ever easier for the culprits not only to evade responsibility, but to turn the victims into the true criminals. Sigmund Freud points out that, since that every individual, no matter how timid, submissive, or law-abiding, remains a potential threat to the masters’ rule, the ultimate telos of government must be to ensure perpetual peace through universal mortification.
It’s perhaps noteworthy that, despite the embittered irony evident in a number of these poems, nobody proffers a satire on the order of eating refugee babies or selling them for medical experiments, like Jonathan Swift on Irish impoverishment, or Monty Python on indigent Catholics. Perhaps that’s itself a sign of how bad things are, that the extremity of radical literature may be too uncomfortable to sustain in the ambit of these actual atrocities, that the concentration camps are simply too calculated in their evil to permit any too-extravagant an imaginative response. Still, I was queasily struck that several poets here almost seemed to compare their perceived lack of attention as poets in Australia with indefinite incarceration behind razor wire, out of sight out of mind on client islands – but there you are. It’s a reminder that the wire doesn’t simply divide us from each other, but runs within us, dividing our own actions from themselves, our affects from our effects. To that extent, we ourselves have become a ‘Trash Vortex’, to use Felicity Plunkett’s disturbing phrase.
As Julian Burnside QC writes in his foreword, taking up an image of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s: ‘I hope that all Australians who read these poems will be inspired to start hammering our government for a refugee policy which more honestly embodies the true values of this country.’ I hope so too. Yet I also fear that poetry itself isn’t really politics; it may even be the opposite of politics. Power politics is often the committed enemy of poetry. Still, even such politics must retain an attenuated link to the same language which poetry deploys. Opening and opposition, then: where there’s language, there’s life. Is that enough? Think of Bertolt Brecht’s refrain from ‘The Infanticide of Marie Farrar’ (in S.H. Bremer’s translation):
But you I beg, make not your anger manifest
For all that lives needs help from all the rest.
There are many ways to read Brecht’s plea, including that anger is a signal of despairing impotence that can trick you into moral self-regard rather than political action. At the very least, then, you should read this book, before hammering your Federal Member.
Monday, December 5th, 2016
The Silences by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn
Eaglemont Press, 2016
These 41 pages from a revived Eaglemont Press (once run by the late, revered Melbourne poet, Shelton Lea) contain the first collections (or first half-collections) of Lea’s much younger fellow-Melbournians, Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn. It’s analogous to two good friends buying a very small inner-city flat to get a toe-hold in the daunting real estate market of that city. Bigger things are sure to come later.
The book’s concern with various sorts of silence (and perhaps the reasons for them) starts from its first poem, ‘The Initiation’. It’s by Anastasi and details the treatment of a somewhat reluctant infant being christened, probably in a Catholic church, given ‘a constant male rhythmic murmur’ of the priests. The baby sets up ‘a persistent ostinato cry’. In reply, it receives ‘a protective stroke of the head’ before the poem ends with ‘and the hushing. / The endless hushing’. We’re not told which sex the baby is but one suspects she’s female.
The use of such implication and indirection is typical of Anastasi’s work more generally and yet she and Coburn stop well short of the densely-packed lexical obscurity that currently prevails in some of Melbourne’s poetry circles. Something of the future of the baby just referred to may be sensed in Anastasi’s later poem, ‘Wing’, where the flight of a bird demands that ‘the only posture is that of crucifixion’. The last four lines, however, are notably optimistic: ‘The open-mouthed dependency / of the bristling nest is far behind. // There are many destinations. / The sky is the resting place.’
A comparable sense of opening out occurs in Anastasi’s ‘Night Arrows’. First, the prevailing background of the book is re-established with: “A dog yelps / at the alteration in the wind. // The empty night is an ear, / collecting all that is dismissed.’ Finally, the speaker decides to ‘embrace the unknown, / not the frightening known.’
Robbie Coburn’s poems are somewhat different to Anastasi’s, despite a number of shared assumptions and techniques. This is felt particularly in those poems stemming from Coburn’s farming background. Like some other poets of similar origins (the late Philip Hodgins, for instance, or Brendan Ryan) Coburn’s rear-vision portraits are far from romantic. As he says in ‘Suicide Country’: ‘living in the country remains with you long after you’ve gone / becoming a second skin dislodged when away from the grasses …’
This ambivalence continues in other poems such as ‘How I Feel About Being Here’ which concludes: ‘I love all the things I hate about being here.’ The majority of Coburn’s poems are, however, like Anastasi’s, set in the city – Melbourne, we may assume. Most of them have a somewhat romantic, young man’s angst. ‘Night Walk’, for instance, ends with: ‘from where I am standing / the damage is immeasurable / / no one on the road at 4am / listening / to the cars approaching’. Later, a poem called ‘Missing’, in its opening lines, seems almost to continue the earlier one: ‘dawn comes not unlike / the sleeplessness preceding it, / unalterable and dragging through your breath.’
Sometimes, Coburn moves a beyond his youthful urban despair to produce slightly longer, more fully-achieved poems that go deeper into the causes of the malaise – and, even better, imply a way out of it. A fine example is ‘Lines to Myself’. It’s a persuasive evocation of a kind of undiagnosed and unnamed mental illness. Half way through, the poet says: ‘you must understand that your mind is not your own. / the emergence of fear settling into your breath / is not a fault of character, not weakness, / and this imbalance is beyond your control’. This could also be a helpful psychiatrist talking but at by end of the poem the narrator realises: ‘I can promise you something … / one day …. / you will recognise something new about / the image distorting in the wet glass. / I tell you now, // you won’t always be so unwell.’ At a time when young male rural suicides are a major problem in Australia, ‘Lines to Myself’ offers a sharp and useful insight.
It’s important to insist that The Silences is no mere arrangement of convenience. Indeed it’s something of a livre compose, despite its having been written by two separate poets. While Anastasi and Coburn do have their differences, the reader may surmise that, if their names were taken off the poems, The Silences would still read like a coherent, well-organised first collection. The title itself suggests a certain bleakness and the imperfections of human communication which are reflected in many of the poems. This is no chatty celebration of Melbourne’s coffee culture. It’s more an inside-on-a-winter’s-night-back-to-work-on-Monday sort of feeling. It will be interesting to see where these two young poets go next.
Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
Shebird by Lizz Murphy
I am a slave to the cocoa bean
So too the children who harvest it
It was these lines from Lizz Murphy’s book of micro poetry, Shebird, which entranced me into selecting it for review. The simple yet effective metaphor, the point at which the mundanity of western life and the horrific reality of child labourers converge, at the crossroads of consumerism: this was what brought me into entering the world of Shebird, the ‘woman or girl who wears the shroud of widows, guards the new grave, tastes gun’. The physical and emotional pain that the Congolese women experience is conveyed expertly in the sensory language that Murphy wields.
When I received the book, I felt like I was holding something fragile and intimate. The paperback format of Shebird gives the volume a textile, delicate feeling, much like the downy feathers of a bird. As the sixth poetry volume in Murphy’s career, the work is highly refined, and finely crafted. Readers of Murphy will appreciate the continuation of the feminine perspective from previous collections such as her anthology Wee Girls, which focused on Irish women’s poetry in Australia. Murphy’s preoccupation with the marginalised voices of women and girls is astutely conveyed in this volume, which translates the pain and violence experienced by women into brief yet profound verses.
The micropoetry format is a continuation of Murphy’s Portraits, inspired by her work with visual art. In the summary of this collection, Murphy describes the micropoem as ‘a flashing wing, a story in a heartbeat, a scrap of the living, a satirical stir’. In Shebirds¸ Murphy continues this slant of ‘a punch in a line’ with many of her poems consisting of only a few lines. The poem I have quoted above, entitled ‘Chocolate Fix’, has been transcribed in its entirety of two epigrammatic lines, yet the implications are expansive. By linking two classes of women through a single image, the coffee bean, Murphy creates a portal into the world of Shebird, the world of the child worker, the girl slave, the global ‘other’ whose voice is unheard.
Murphy demonstrates her ability to concisely portray complex emotions, issues and situations with style and grace. In ‘Dangerous Women’ the stripped back syntax and intensely corporeal language communicate a pain that is at once sharp and compelling.
she scrapes off her own mouth
grief tempest grey
Murphy’s poetics envelop the reader into the world in such a visceral manner, that it forces the reader to acknowledge the issue at hand. The poetry demands to be read, demands to be heard. Each poem is brief, sometimes only one line, yet it speaks to the heart of an issue that is so often left out of cold statistics.
The number of men
Who sexually assaulted
a twelve year old girl:
The colloquial tone of this poem, ‘Who’s Counting’, denies the news report’s cold distance of journalism, and instead gives the rape of this young girl a more human voice. Murphy addresses the issues of violence against women and girls in third world countries in apposite, yet highly imagistic poems. She refuses to let these women and girls be turned into statistics.
A bird motif recurs throughout the volume – in numerous incarnations it is deployed to allegorise the old woman, the child who toils, and the poet-narrator herself. The bird is a fragile, endlessly suffering creature, but also a figure of resilience, one that endures suffering and retains its beauty despite its trials. This culminates in one of the final poems, ‘A Woman is Raped’, in which the poet urges the figure to ‘rise like a shebird / against / the war on women’. As the notation indicates, this poem was inspired by an art and text work depicting the rape of Congolese women. These indices remind the reader that the girls, or shebirds, rendered in this volume are not simply poetic devices, but real human beings that theses horrors are currently being inflicted upon.
This ultimately gives the poetry a gravitas that is needed when handling such a distressing and often unheard of issue. Far from simply being a pleasing assortment of words and lines, though the collection is masterfully crafted, Murphy’s Shebird draws attention to the most vulnerable girls and women in the population, and urges the women’s voices be heard and their stories be told.
Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
Getting By Not Fitting In by Les Wicks
Island Books, 2016
Is Les Wicks afraid of love? Yes, Les Wicks is afraid of love.
I start this review with a swift homage to Charles Simic (1975) because of the feelings, affects and question marks I was left with after first reading Les Wicks’s Getting By Not Fitting In (2016).
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