FRESH Monday, July 16th, 2018
Confession: I should not have read Michael Farrell’s launch speech for Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage before attempting this short review. I had a large attack of Bloom’s anxiety of influence, but I simply couldn’t help myself because I truly appreciate Farrell’s wit and (worldly) wisdom. And now the damage is done.
Continue reading →
Monday, July 16th, 2018
Zanzibar Light by Philip Mead
Vagabond Press, 2018
‘Words have a universe of qualities other than those of descriptive relation: Hardness, Density, Sound-Shape, Vector-Force, & Degrees of Transparency/Opacity.’ – Clark Coolidge
For experimental poet and jazz drummer Clark Coolidge, words are never impressions. They are sonic inscriptions, vectors, movable actualities. They alter by degrees in the company of others and in time. I started with Coolidge for many reasons; first among them, his stellar understanding of improvisation.
Philip Mead’s new book Zanzibar Light is at home with the idea that words themselves are a kind of improvised approximation. They are musically dense, historically freighted, intense in their vocalised intimacy, and humming with Coolidge’s ‘universe of qualities’ – to which I would add light and lightness. The poems in this collection fizz with erudition that is worn lightly: ‘sections of the national lake appear / in your arrangements, but there’s no myth anywhere I can see, / only material.’
By opening his book with the short lyric ‘Cumquat may’, Mead riffs on the importance of punning as a key and serious improvisational vehicle carrying these poems. I think the pun almost works as a leitmotif for Zanzibar Light. Puns embody a splendid insistence on every word being unoriginal – but since there is ‘no such thing as repetition’ in a post-Steinian poetic, every pun ghosts a kind of ur-originality. Light is, of course, another of the book’s signatures – punning on itself, a leitmotif bundled into a knowing title, a leading statement. The book’s many extemporisations on light are open-ended, numerous in effect and resonance as much as presence. They are, after Coolidge, ‘other than descriptive’, and never about a dogged conversation between words and things. ‘Sideways platinum cornettes of light’, ‘whirring light’, ‘tiny lights / from the other side’, ‘Lightly institutionalised behaviours’ – Mead improvises upon light at the level of grammar, sound, perceptual field and emotional texture. Or as he writes in a poem beginning ‘happy days, bold geraniums’:
Nothing we want any more is credited, what with
the damp, zinc-matte, blue-white of dawn, the words going back and
then forth boundlessly, it’s like a thick network of reference, or washed away
Zanzibar Light is the composition of a dedicated and careful listener. Good listeners make the best improvisers. Mead hears the ideational history behind many of his lines, washing about ‘like a thick network of reference’. Punning on his own distinguished contributions to contemporary innovative poetics in Australia, he ventriloquises a library or two – ‘the words going back and / then forth boundlessly’ – aware he’s coming to readers from the other side of ‘time and language’, making it new, repetition and difference, and the status of concepts as objects. ‘Any idea how many layers you might be dealing with?’, quips a poem beginning with the nifty axiom ‘cones and bollards have been the ruin of our youth’.
These are not inventions that lionise the poetic image, or the transcendent experiential moment, or the artifice of narrative completion. Nor do they reify language as it constitutes and transforms reality. At all points, however, they pun upon these critical histories and their non-stop repurposing as commodities in a system of literary and cultural capital, even while keeping their work alive – un-relegated and human – in a babble of voices moving through. ‘A chorus / of manouevres charges past at a furious pace, you’d hope everything / stays open for another hour at least, before being relegated / to sayings?’. Ideas are cared for by the people who make and use them, ‘lovely and runaway’ like a garden.
This book is full of people: children, partners, friends, characters, authors, internet memes. It’s wildly social, operatically un-isolated. A poem might deliberate for an instant upon an ecology or habitat – a ‘rocky inter-tidal zone’ or ‘a paddock with thin mist and occasional crows’ – but these are populated spaces, thresholds to communities. Mead’s reflections on place are always mediated by a political awareness of human territorialising, and the labours of language in surveilling or indexing ‘landscapes’ and their aesthetic functions. In the poem ‘Greetings from the heart of the country’, Mead enters the technologies that settle, generate and police something he calls ‘our vantage point’ – a collective imaginary, perhaps, or ‘a record of our national selves’, in which “weather” is partially a synecdoche for country and nation:
Now a computer-generated coastline swims into view, nautilus-wise
from our vantage point among the weather satellites
that’s real world data, including the little spikes of order
scrolling across the screen; our pilot has frank, grey eyes.
Such poems gently perform a reckoning of decades in which Australian culture has been repositioned, slowly at times, within a globally interlinked economy. Zanzibar Light swings across half a century and acknowledges local, communal and cultural gains and damages along the way, including the social and post-colonial fallout of severely stratified wealth: ‘way below the slipstream of contemporary social life those subsist / who can’t accept any of the messages, who can only shake’. The book never loses sight of what Mead calls ‘Things / in their everyday zones’, including hubs of power that shape real lives. ‘No doubt the open country of daily life has a lot to offer’ he observes, ‘but it’s hard to cross, troublematic.’ Satire is applied with a light brush: ‘The world is a weird village / of established goals’.
I briefly want to note three more formal improvisations. I love the contents listing of this book and it deserves a slow read. Comprising mostly first lines, it prefigures their later appearance in poems, stitching them into a kind of self-sampling prologue and echoing the book’s indexical logic. This creates a happy polyphony, a foundational chaos of part and whole. Secondly, it would be remiss not to mention sonnets. Mead finds more to do with sonnets than we might imagine possible, moving deftly from unbroken 14-line lozenges to sonnets in stanzas and couplets, or 28-line poems that double a sonnet’s stakes and turns (lines ‘return’ and ‘overturn’ in ‘Roadside Grass’). The book flicks from one sonnet to another, sometimes punctuating first and last lines so they feel like syntactical run-ons from previous poems or conceptual bridges to the next, and elsewhere keeping poems discrete. There is nothing formulaic about the ways Mead’s sonnets interact. Sections one and two read like radical estrangements of the fifteenth century ‘sonnet corona’, further ad-libbing on light and its ‘circles of story’.
Thirdly, the opening and closing poems condense the sonnet’s lyrical impulses into paired 10-line blazons – in the fashion that John Tranter understands John Ashbery’s use of the term: an ‘emblem / of the work itself, a tiny mirror for the plot’. Vital tropes enter and depart like theme tunes in both lyrics, one addressed to Mead’s partner and one to a fellow poet, Gig Ryan. Together, the most private and public of relationships hold up this suspended net of poems, through which light and water pass easily as a lifetime of conversations.
Philip Mead makes a brilliant return to poetry publishing with Zanzibar Light. I recommend the book as the feat of a principled innovator who has spent years listening closely to ‘the source code whose portability is illumined’ in the act of writing with, and for, others.
Thursday, July 5th, 2018
Captive and Temporal by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng
Vagabond Press, 2017
It’s with an almost exquisite eccentricity that Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng’s Captive and Temporal unfurls, immersing the reader in a discursive cartography over composite planes of memory, history, heritage, culture and dreams in surreal and interpenetrative riddles, dedications and elegies. With one eye open to the telescope, the other open to the periphery, Nguyễn’s distinctive poetry charts unexpected co-ordinates in a constellated pitch somewhere between historical materialism and an intuitive, sensuous phenomenology. It opens:
NOVEMBER, END OF A STREET, MELBOURNE
Islands forming clouds and miniscule breaking eddies, washed in first
lights, an avenue of trees, full and abundant
a jaywalker among volumes and cubes.
A lot of the titles of the poems in the collection read almost as titles to artworks. They are gnomic run-ups to an image/performance/installation. Rather than labelling a poem, here they launch the reader into them. The above poem rolls poetically enough from its blunt title, into a dreamy evocation of energy as a water-like flux, anticipating the end of something – Spring? Maybe said street? – or is it a beginning? Light is new, the trees are healthy, established, ordered. Then: ‘a jaywalker’, among adjective-less forms and geometries. This is weird, and an opening example of the idiosyncrasies in Nguyễn’s poetry.
Nguyễn’s bio mentions he migrated to Australia from Vietnam under the Colombo Plan Scholarship in 1974. In Vietnam, a pedestrian getting across the road according to their own judgement and wits is just the way it is; in Australia, it’s a legal transgression, albeit a minor one. With this, the ‘jaywalker’ becomes a rapid signifier of a sense of estrangement and association, a foreigner among foreign forms whose transplanted customs and culture make an enigma of arrival (to hijack a De Chirico painting title). The place of arrival is a mutable site, in this case itself the result of an invasion/incursion and an imposition of foreign orders and laws. Site and person meet as a consequence of war and violence centuries apart.
why the other side?
you can’t answer, you simply look
books of histories
diaries of survivors
memoirs of retired generals, men of
Living, lived and petrified records of victors and their disposable subjects then become fetishised in a vitrine or bookcase:
stacked up nicely in a full frame
behind impossible glass
The skittered use of parataxis and enjambment throughout the poems communicates these unpredictable transversals and polyvalences. Peculiar words jolt as pivot or checkpoints. At these points, the schema of the collection surge and cascade in, out and through and, at any moment, Nguyễn’s seemingly disconnected elements and symbols are presented less as disparate layered things than as squashed together between the slides and slotted under the gaze of a microscope.
The lines are immediately imagistic, cinematic even, then the real poetry starts to take hold as recurring motifs and themes are repeated and re-inflected through inventive metaphor, each time angling us into a new perspective where these folds and creases become another avenue of scrutiny.
In ‘Autumn Writing’, Nguyễn crafts a stunning meta-poem. It also serves as a nexus for several strands of ideation. He attempts to test the medium while remaining faithful to its traditions in the promise of uncovering verity.
Can one simply write about a fire
to warm up a morning, that perfect vault of sky?
From this poem, autumn, fire, skull, high grass, even cattle are cast repeatedly into the rest of the collection. And when you come across them, a new interpretation colours the preceding one. The fire in the opening line here, surrounded by the words ‘autumn’ and ‘warm’ can be read as a pastoral ritual: burning-off time. The bucolic sense of chilled air with a scent of wood smoke has a cosiness to it. Writing as a leisure pursuit where there’s time for philosophising. Then ‘grey coarse ash / falling from the rough skin’. Something’s happened. Fallen red, orange leaves and autumn’s ablaze? But the colour has gone. Seeing ‘seneca’ above ‘white noises of rotor blades / to the sea and wagner’ a few pages on (‘APRIL’) throws me back to take a pile of burning leaves as the stoic self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức. The Vietnam War? Napalm? The poet’s been attacked? He’s in a war zone? Poetry is getting serious as the disquiet of the unconscious memory and present poke about. A head enters:
simple, concrete, a head
of a person, an animal
in the neck-high grass
but it’s not so simple; even something concrete ain’t so concrete enough to hold down. The high grass conceals something, it drowns the body, which is choking as a figure ‘takes aim … Now, the heart of a cross (+) / A sound, terse, metallic’. High noon for subject and object. Things intersect.
But this is not a poem, this is
an alphabet F
Like a bullet nudged into a cartridge: F!
F? Faust? Or Fate?
It’s all only matter, perhaps. Words, letters are expendable in the pursuit of resolution. They furnish the confluence of events that cause both private and public attritions. (I read the above passage in my head as a kind of Taxi Driver soliloquy). Each letter may be no more useful than a wasted bullet after an elusive target, or a reckless spray in fear or last-defense, or anger. Joy? Each poem is no more than a jot in the body count ‘wincing from thousands / heading a scurry / to the footnotes’ (‘APRIL’).
The use of a polyseme; ‘FIRE!’, is another example of how Nguyễn sets a point that launches new lines of interpretation. Is it a warning? An order? A noun? Verb? An element? A transcendental gift? The high grass is not solely incidental as setting for a shoot-out. Nor is it just an ominous presence as flammable environment. Nguyễn brilliantly flattens the field of vision. In the last stanza of ‘AUTUMN WRITING’, the phrase ‘out of the clearing of the wood’ hints at a threshold, but again, it’s not as metaphorical stage set. Two pages later, there appear ‘bites / Neanderthal, but ewes [& carcass] and crows heralding / daybreaks’ (‘QUAGMIRE’), adding a few scattered Paleolithic references – the crossroads of our genealogy. This is where the changing climate saw the Neanderthal need to leave the forests to survive and, ‘like a toddler, before yet / another fall’ (‘AUTUMN WRITING’), take to the plains where Homo sapiens was better suited.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
The Facts by Therese Lloyd
Victoria University Press, 2018
Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press, 2018
Midway through Helen Heath’s Are Friends Electric? I find:
The large electric that is you
is like the help that is you and
the mouth and the associated
These lines have come from feeding the collection into an online text randomiser. What sounds and looks like decisions made by a person is the work of a consciousless algorithm capable of capturing a question that charges the whole book: What does it mean to be ‘you’?
There are many resemblances between Heath’s collection and Therese Lloyd’s The Facts. Both were written during doctoral candidature at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. Both are answering with poetry philosophical questions regarding what it is, feels and means to be human.
Split in two, Heath’s collection speculates about the effect of rapid technological change on humanity: the first section is a succession of testaments spanning from 370 BCE to 2018, polyvocal as the internet itself; the second, an imagined first-person narrative, sci-fi in verse akin to Fleur Adcock’s disturbing sequence, ‘Gas’, and, more recently, Bonny Cassidy’s Final Theory.
Beginning with Socrates’s famous dismissal of writing is wise. Those who rely on the written word will be ‘tiresome company – a reality show having / the show of wisdom without the reality’. Prescient curmudgeon that he seemed to be, Socrates’ worries, Heath proves in this collection, were unfounded. This opening tempers the anxiety that rises (for me, at least) in the face of certain futuristic scenarios; if writing didn’t obliterate our memories, imaginations and selves, then AI may not destroy us either. It is Heath’s own inquisitive, intelligent humanity that energises her poems; the voices of people who have fallen in love with inanimate feats of engineering glow with uncanny familiarity:
I can feel her right
now. What we have
is real and if it’s only real
to me and it’s only real to her
then that’s fine.
In the unusual and the extreme, Heath finds not freaks but relations. The Victorian spiritualist attempting to commune with the dead, the robotics engineer creating a third animatronic son, and Heath herself tracing her genetic code back to 1500 — each is simply testing the limits of human life with the available technology.
In the second section, ‘Reprogramming the Human Heart’, Heath gives us the voice of a grieving woman who refuses to accept death as an inevitability. Profound loss is made meaningful with lyricism:
. . . this black night, into which
I must send you out in the longboat
of your body, seems endless.
If the body is a vessel, then where is the loved self? Following John Locke’s theory of the self depending upon memory, the narrator of this sequence collects ‘enough to build him’ – a digital version of Pygmalion, sculpting Twitter feeds instead of clay into not the ideal but the pre-existent.
An intricate thought experiment, this section considers not only the logical possibility of such a recreation, but the emotional and ethical consequences. In tandem with the robotic reanimation of her deceased husband, the narrator undergoes IVF treatment to conceive his child. This juxtaposition of science that in the last two decades has become conventional with that which still seems hopelessly futuristic is brilliantly perturbing.
As in her debut collection Graft, which was the first non-non-fiction work to be shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book prize, Heath has shown how lightly and easily poetry can wear serious research.
If Heath’s collection casts an electric brightness over what it means to be human, Lloyd’s is feeling about in the shadows of the self. The epigraph to the first section, titled ‘Time’, invokes Anne Carson: ‘It grows dark as I write now, the clocks have been changed, night/ comes earlier—gathering like a garment.’ The atmosphere does grow dark as Lloyd writes. The opening poem, [to begin], centred on the page, symmetrical as a Rorschach inkblot, signals the psychologically testing quality of the collection. Intended to resemble a moth, the poem adopts the perspective of a trapped specimen, while simultaneously examining it:
the hot glass ceiling
reflected only her
This double view, from within and outside at once, is maintained to agonising effect throughout the collection. Lloyd’s gaze isn’t just calm and resolute but at times hilariously dry. On the farcical hypocrisy that tends to characterise weddings, Lloyd recalls a meeting between her, her ex-husband and their wedding celebrant, at which the celebrant said in:
a quivery, timid voice
that she was in fact, divorced—
like a chauffeur owning up to a DIC charge.
I was more offended by her sandals.
‘[I]n fact’ is apposite. This collection consists of facts that might be described as confessions due to their personal nature. ‘Confession’ comes from confiteri meaning ‘to acknowledge’, which is to notice and to name. Lloyd does this exceptionally well (to borrow from Plath). There is an art to such revelation; it is not mere exposure of detail but an excavation of the self that requires sharp intertextual instruments. As well as frequently referencing Carson, Lloyd looks to Edward Hopper. In ‘On metaphysical insight’, she writes, ‘The red line of the shop lino blows itself out in a frowning bowl of fruit’, painting herself as she examines Hopper’s ‘Automat’. ‘. . . Hopper liked to think his / paintings weren’t desolate. ‘I’m trying to paint myself,’ he said.’ If the poem is desolate, it is only wryly so. The title’s faux-aggrandisement provides exactly the perspicacity it parodies.
‘What is eros anyway apart from sore backwards?’ Is Lloyd’s understated version of Carson’s conceptual triangle, which defines desire as consisting in equal parts of itself, lack, and the desiring of lack. As she navigates her own experiences of these, Lloyd reads Carson:
something is filling up in her
blocking in the surface of the triangle
that she’d sooner not have.
It is ambiguous which surface is being referred to: ‘lack’, ‘desire’ or ‘desiring lack’? Lloyd makes the art of lacking look not easy or glamorous, but human – specifically feminine – pulsing with blood and wonder.
In the second section, ‘Desire’, there is a sequence, which particularly hurt to read. This may sound insufficiently academic, but it seems fitting for pain to be mentioned without a footnote in regard to a book whose words are so bodily. ‘What is to be celebrated here? My meat? My fur? I expand outward, and in a fantastic trick of perspective my internals shrink, my vitals no longer vital,’ Lloyd writes with abstruse clarity of pregnancy. A poem later, ‘Imogen’, could be narrated by mother or miscarried baby.
Signs of miracles
are important to the faithless
stigmata, a vial of moving blood,
saints. My little saint suffered
via her lungs
found it hard to say the word imagine.
Mother, baby, saint and miracle are stirred together in this profound description of lack and desire. In the following poem, Lloyd writes, ‘What do we do when we serve? / Offer little things / as stand-ins for ourselves’, suggesting how oneself can be lacking, either eroded or unavailable.
Just as convincing as her depiction of this lack is Lloyd’s account of a self brimming over. In the title poem, about a noxious relationship, the self is inflated with infatuation. ‘Boundlessness streamed from me like the forever movement / of air. I could feel people breathing me in.’
Earlier in the poem, Lloyd refers to the poet’s medium as air: ‘I breathe and live, nothing more or less’, the words a source of survival. Indeed, this is a work to be inhaled.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Tightrope by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Auckland University Press, 2017
I like the way a backyard door opens ‘parting sooty / veils of flies,’ in the first poem of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Tightrope. Outside are Max V, Lima and Ono (‘knotted fur, nettling bones / fat eyes, fat hunger’), and they have found a dead dog on the road
sniffed out its decayed meat
dragged it home
and in pecking order
began to eat
Uncle puts on his overalls, they are navy blue: ‘Don’t worry I take it. / Good, bury it deep, we think.’ I like these vivid words, the dance of the lines and the way Uncle comes through.
Marsh rhymes often, and keeps things fresh with pararhyme – e.g. the move from ‘said’ to ‘red,’ to ‘road,’ in ‘Apostles’ – and slant rhyme – ‘bed’ chimes with ‘world’ in ‘Tightrope Tantrum,’ ‘north’ with ‘taut.’ But what I particularly enjoy is the intelligence and poise of her cadences:
heavy and sweet
clings to the bone
These lines open a poem entitled ‘Kwitea Street in the ‘80s.’
Another poem is called ‘The Path,’ which is ala in Samoan. We learn that ‘The ala /is a bridge/ a road’, the ala is ‘a dog walking,’ it
is a tuna flying
through the sea’s
salt and spit
is a tongue
These are exciting and evocative lines. But the poem turns into something of a list from here, and the punning at midpoint (‘is a root / a route / a vein’) adds to the sense that things are getting a bit arbitrary.
A sense of insubstantiality affects many of the poems in Tightrope. At times that is because the topic is too occasional (e.g. ‘Nadadola Road,’ a light-hearted poem centred on the poet’s embarrassed failure to tell off a Fijian taxi driver for texting while driving), or the dance too automatic (e.g. ‘Led by Line,’ which is entirely composed of plays on the word ‘line’). In the case of ‘Dinner with the King,’ it feels like the occasion is standing in for the poem. The language dwells nicely on the ‘Cool sliced cubes of fish’ the poet and her interlocutor (Samoa’s most recent head of state, the royal Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi) share, its ‘flesh speckled with salt.’ But the idea that that fish is
Raw as Nelson’s hunger for independence
As bitter lemon sweet as Tamasese’s peaceful
Call for freedom
feels forced, and so too the idea that the ‘Crab soup broth / Coriander, lemon grass’ the two are sipping is ‘Clear as the conversation between us.’ The imagining in these lines is all just a bit flat, and the prosaic rhythms and word choices in the lines that follow reflect that:
I spoke of e-books and twitterature
Self-publication, facebook and literature
Of Al’s Prime Ministerial Award
Of Lani’s storming of Amazon.com
Another place where we belong
Gathering kindle, setting fire with words
Setting fire to worlds.
To this sort of perfunctory style, I would compare the lovely lines to ‘Dr Ngahuia,’ which at one point turn from the doctor to invoke
Te Arikinui Dame Te Ātairangikaahu
hawk of the morning sky
the longest glid
over Taupiri mountain
an unmarked grave framed
by Tyrian purple roses
and also the way Marsh circles around the difficult and intriguing task of performing for Queen Elizabeth as Commonwealth Poet in 2016. The poem she delivered in Westminster Cathedral is set here alongside a series of elegies to ‘Queens I have met’ including Dr Nghauia Te Awekotuku, QEII herself, Oprah and Alice Walker. This juxtaposition hits just the right estranging note: after all, the Queen is pop culture. On the other hand, popular (and at times even academic!) culture has a sort of royalty to celebrate as well.
Marsh’s Westminster performance is further described in a poem that bounces from the appropriate nursery rhyme – ’Pussy cat, pussy cat, / Where have you been? / I’ve been to London to visit the Queen’ – into the kind of self-fashioning and strut which hip hop has brought along with pararhyme and half-rhyme to the fore:
My Niu Ziland drawl
My siva Samoa hands
My blood red lips
My Va philosophising
My poetic brown hips
Then standing before Her Majesty
And the Duke of Edinburgh
I centred Polynesian navigation
Making sure to be poetically thorough
In proposing a timeline
Inverting West is Best
Instead drawing a circle
Encompassing all the rest.
For me, the best poem in Tightrope is ‘Essential Oils for the Dying.’ The poem is an elegy for Teresia Teaiwa, poet and former director of Va’aomanū Pasifika, the Pacific Studies unit at the University of Wellington. Marsh dedicates the book to Teaiwa, describing her in that dedication as ‘Teresia Teaiwa / shooting black star / (1968-2017).’
‘Essential Oils’ again has some lovely cadences, and a real tenderness in its opening offerings of cardamom and ginger, its concluding balm that ‘for the rest of us’ there will be
cypress for sorrow
chamomile for resentment, tension
and bitter-sweet melissa
to press against the loss.
In 2010, Teaiwa and Marsh co-edited a special issue of The Contemporary Pacific, an issue dedicated to the critical and creative work of the great Samoan poet, novelist and essayist, Albert Wendt, a contemporary writer who should be far more widely read in this country.
One of Wendt’s most celebrated works is his 1977 novel Pouliuli. The word means ‘utter darkness’ in Samoan. Wendt and the novel play a central role in Tightrope too, via what Marsh describes as her ‘black out poems.’ Marsh has taken Wendt’s story of a Samoan chief’s self-revulsion and descent into (an initially) simulated madness and she has quite literally blacked out all but a few of the novel’s words with thick texta. A full 20 of the 98 pages of Tightrope are given over to full page reproductions of the resultant work. Tom Philips’s A Humument is an obvious generic predecessor. But the effect in Marsh’s case is overwhelmingly of black texta hues, with small patches of grainy white around the few words that remain. Those words leap in strange directions: ‘burning’ ‘hands’ ‘Draw’ ‘no visible marks’ ‘as if’ ‘whole mean-’ ‘ing’ ‘was reflected there’ (page 83 of Pouliuli). Interspersed through Marsh’s book, these blacked out pages provide important (because intriguing, vanishing) subtext to the surrounding poems, giving a sense of curious and undisclosed purpose to Marsh’s book as a whole. I like the effect very much. The following – page 104 of Pouliuli – appears between some lines on Philippe Petit’s tightrope walking (‘Le Coup’), and a fine poem on gafatele, a word left unglossed. All the rest of the page is black:
‘the dark ground’
‘bone by bone’
Thursday, June 14th, 2018
False Claims of Colonial Thieves
by Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella
Magabala Books, 2017
False Claims of Colonial Thieves weaves together two disparate voices, Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella, in a demanding collection that reaffirms the troubling environmental era we are living through. Structurally, the book shifts between traditionally oppositional views – an Aboriginal woman and a white man. Neither dominates the narrative: instead, we witness their shared commitment to challenge the environmental direction Australia is spiralling towards. Their concerns take the form of protest. In ‘Dream mine time animals’ Papertalk- Green writes:
Contemporary mechanical mine dream time animals
Hills broken into millions of pieces
Deep cuts into the flesh of earth
Gapping wounds with polluted waterholes
In ‘Histories,’ Kinsella illustrates the devastation of mining with equal ferocity, writing:
To make it no more
Then bullion – the veins
Of the earth
And the killer
Chases a kid
To his death.
And the earth
Cries out of the dry
These similarities suggest how their collaboration has evolved through a mutual desire to nurture our country in a time where neo-liberal mining agendas supersede social, moral and environmental consequences. But while these relationships are crucial, they exist within a history of uneven power dynamics where white Australians – however well meaning – have often spoken on our behalf. With this firmly in my consciousness, it was impossible to approach False Claims of Colonial Thieves without some hesitation. Was Kinsella aware of his privilege and the responsibilities that go with it? And had he considered the benefits of proximity that blackness might bring to his career? These concerns may seem harsh, but they are present in the minds of black Australian poets and authors.
This years Judith Wright Poetry Prize winner, Evelyn Araluen, commented on the ABC radio program AWAYE! that the [Australia’s] poetry scene initially felt like an encouraging space for black people, ‘but the more I learnt, the more I realised it was usually just about containment, possession and appropriation.’ Given the extraordinary rise and dominance of black writers – Araluen took out both first and third prize, Alexis Wright won the Stella Prize and Tony Birch received the Patrick White Award amongst a growing list of achievements by others – her words seemed to reveal the ironies of success. For a long time, Aboriginal writers have been creating some of the most exceptional work in the country, yet our identities and stories are often contained and controlled elsewhere. And, as the growing appetite for our culture rises, it has attracted some white writers who have benefited from the new black wave far greater then we have.
Given these complexities, it felt reasonable to consider Kinsella’s voice more closely, analysing the role of a white ally instead of asking people in his position to simply listen and learn? A cover quote by Bruce Pascoe alleviated my concerns, stating that the book ‘takes no prisoners, but goes into the heart of Australia’s darkness.’ As I delved into the collection, his reflections accurately described the catastrophic atmosphere the reader is thrown into. The words of both authors reveal the destructive consequences of colonisation or, more specifically, the environmental chaos mining has caused. Poems like ‘The Salt Chronicles’ demonstrate that, despite my questions regarding their pairing, Kinsella expresses a deep longing to repair the damage done to Western Australia.
Beyond the elements that unify the writers, one of the most compelling aspects of the collection is the assured way that both reflect on their stark differences. Kinsella doesn’t hide his positionality and the structural advantages he gains as mining destroys the land. In ‘Grandmothers’ he writes
My grandmother was a mining town child –
worked for decades in Karatha and Kal -
so it’s not as if I come to the mines
In contrast, Papertalk-Green writes:
My grandmother washed
White town fella’s clothes
To feed her kids and survive
I don think mining would have
Meant much to her
These sharp distinctions ensure that the complexity of race and Australia’s cultural landscape isn’t erased. Although both are fighting for environmental justice, their connection is never constructed simplistically, and with the kind of reconciliation approach that so often becomes tokenistic gestures of unity. Instead, some of the most powerful moments are the reflections of how difficult it is for black and white Australia to unify and address ongoing injustices. In ‘I won’t Pretend,’ Papertalk-Green draws out these frictions writing:
I won’t pretend it’s easy
Living in an intercultural space
Cultural clashes and tensions
Bounce and collide
And sometimes explode
These moments leave the reader wondering how the two worked together, and what the experience would have felt like for them, responding and playing off each others work as the collection developed. These intercultural differences are articulated in one the most effecting poems, ‘Shopping Centre Car park,’ and response. Set in a Woolworths (Woollies) car park in Northam – a familiar town I have visited frequently on trips back to York where my mother’s family of Ballardong Noongar descent live – I recognised the tensions immediately, familiar with the irritable looks white people often gave mob that congregate in the air-conditioned supermarket in waves of extreme heat. Kinsella writes about this racism with a sense of disgrace and apology:
I think over this town and it’s foul history and I think over this town and the friend
I have made and I say to myself Brother if you ever read this
Know I admire you
But in Papertalk-Green’s response, there is no need to apologise to mob getting pushed around … instead, she shows them getting on with it:
Centre manager pushed them out
But they refused to retreat to wollies car park
With their get of yamajiland Pauline H banner
A major strength of the collection is its opportunity to see the colonised and colonisers’ voices in parallel, fighting for the same cause in different ways, both determined to see justice, yet never shying away from the enormous gulf that exists between them.
Thursday, June 14th, 2018
Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold by Andy Jackson
Hunter Publishers, 2017
Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold’s premise is unique: 54 poems for the 46 chromosomes in the human body. Each poem is distinctive in typography and voice, gleaned from a primary source interview of a public or private figure believed to have Marfan syndrome. Often very tall, slender and gifted, those with Marfan syndrome are aesthetically, artistically, intellectually, athletically extraordinary. As the collection’s poet, Andy Jackson puts it: ‘Marfan troubles the boundaries between “disability” and “extraordinary ability”’; much anguish is caused by this illness, and there is a sense of being ‘dumb with pain / suffused with light’, ‘when the genetic stars align’’.
Marfan emerges as a kind of magical affliction with a sense of tragic inevitability. It represents being touched by something great and terrible, evident from the selection of historical individuals represented in this volume: Akhenaten, Mary Queen of Scots, Abraham Lincoln, Osama Bin Laden. These figures appear in the volume along with lay people with Marfan, and in keeping with the musical theme, there is a prelude, interlude and postlude that operates as the book’s connective structure. Here is a chance for Marfan to justify its genetic mischief. And mischief it is, because Marfan can potentially devastate the body and cause premature death and great physical suffering in the process.
It is Jackson’s refusal of reductive sentimentality and cliché when representing his subjects that imbues the volume with power. The dialect in which the subjects speak, their rhetorical inclusions and exclusions, and the attendant typographical experiments all indicate the integrity and ingenuity of the project. Jackson’s curation of disparate voices creates sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant portraits of a broad historical and cultural spectrum of individuals, from pharaohs to teens on MSN. Each poem expresses pathos without pity, where unexpected humour collides with trauma such as in ‘Charlotte’:
(There) are always corridors, classrooms,
chewing gum, scissors, a hammer.
And at home, the classroom, MSN.
Go kill yourself, you lanky bitch …
Really, I’ll keep studying
footwear design. It’s so hard
when you’re tall,
to find fashionable shoes
A sense of ongoing off-stage dialogue between the poet, the subject and the reader develops, as in ‘Bradford,’ as Jackson includes non-verbal cues from the invisible narrator (interviewer / curator / God voice):
On the solo album cover you
thought would be your last
bare-chested pectus excavatum
your halo burns a hole in the sky
so, should we start now?
In another poem, ‘Krystal,’ a series of italicised interjections paint a picture of a very young subject who has had a series of open heart operations and the removal of glaucoma:
She holds five pink balloons, smiles for the camera …
I want to meet Elsa the Snow Queen and go on all the rides.
Her pale floral dress. Her thick glasses.
The date of birth (and for some subjects, the date of death), adds another element of graveness; with adult and infant subjects alike, lives are defined by multiple medical interventions and some are horribly truncated like ‘Micthell’:
Wedding night my temperature
Was a hundred and seven,
An axe stuck mid-arc in my chest ….
I’m on one end
of the see-saw, our baby girl in my lap
A smile on my face. Is it mine?
As this ‘disorder of the connective tissue’ itself asserts, ‘names are critical’. The naming of subjects, and the naming of the parts that hurt and might give out, humanise diagnostic criteria and reclaim subjectivity from surgeons’ reports. The naming of things as the practice of poetry: for Jackson, this is music that lives in us, that saves and elevates us. As in ‘Geoff,’ he skilfully delivers a sense of transcendence of visceral limitation with a sense of imminent physical consequence:
Guitar amniotic with sweat, drops
of blood, I feel the room tilt, pixelate
Tinnitus screams, my heart thumps
Pain’s shadow looming over my joints-
I’ve thrown myself around the stage
Like an evangelist for oblivion, again
But this is the last time I swear …
It is alchemy, this melding of words and worlds, this colliding of systems of language. Medical, vernacular, medico-vernacular, at times mundane and at others, celestial, its expert polyphony makes Music our Bodies Can’t Hold extraordinary. Each poem is a portal to a unique perspective, a soul spilling over with desires for their life, some furious, some shattered, some philosophical, but all touched by the same collective destiny.
Friday, June 1st, 2018
The Flaw in the Patten by Rachael Mead
UWAP Poetry, 2017
Wildlife of Berlin by Philip Nielsen
UWAP Poetry, 2017
Holding each of these books is a pleasure. Their two-tone covers have different but complementary botanical design motifs while the master design elements of the UWAP Poetry series, pushing on 23 titles, of which they are part gives them a uniform appearance. They are a credit to Terri-ann White and her team at UWAP in Perth. The miserably small print runs for volumes of poetry often lead to scrimping and saving on design and production, but here at least design costs have been defrayed over the entire series and it pays off in the look of the finished product.
Inside, the paper is cream matt with sufficient weight to limit show through, an important consideration for a poem set out upon a page. Again, each book has the same interior design. The font is specified as Lyon Text, one unknown to me but a serif font bearing a close resemblance to Times. It is elegant and does justice to both poets’ poems. It is interesting to see different uses of capitalisation in the titles of the poems in each book, suggesting that editorial style was sufficiently flexible to accommodate each poet’s personal preferences.
Both books also feature extensive notes on the poems, acknowledgements and a liberal use of epigraphs. There are also endorsements from other poets both within the books and on the covers.
Rachael Mead’s book, The Flaw in the Pattern, was first highly commended in UWAP’s 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It is easy to see why. There is a continuity to the sequences of poems within, surprising when the acknowledgements reveal how widely published the individual poems have been, not only within Australia but internationally.
The book opens with a sequence of seven poems, ostensibly each from a day on a trek though Tasmanian wilderness. As the poems progress the poetic voice grows more accustomed to the bush and natural environment (‘If I misspoke, if I held eye contact too long, these trees don’t care’ ‘On not being lost’ p.17). To me, some discords sounded in literary and artistic references almost forcing themselves into the poems. A reference to Emily Dickinson just works in an image of leeches as dashes she would covet (‘The wild grammar of leeches’ p.16) but a reference to being in a McCubbin painting in “On not being lost’ is an image too far for me. However, that is a rare misstep for Mead and a forgivable one in an otherwise flawless poem.
Then there are the poems like ‘The water tanks’ (p. 63) which have no such quibbles. Here, those iconic constants of rural Australia are transformed into saviours ‘still cool and full, standing guard/among the fresh acres of ash.’ ‘What the fire didn’t touch’ (p. 47) doesn’t mention the flames. Instead, it recounts the scenes after a domestic fire, the family home ‘a charred nest’, a childhood bedroom now ‘a post-apocalyptic theatre set’. Fire also features in the final poem in Mead’s book, the five-part ‘Smoke signalled death threats’ (p.87). This poem chronicles the stages of a bushfire from ‘the drone of fire bombers’ to the uncertain ‘survival plan burned out with the pump.’ The final part, ‘Next of kin’, also contains the superb opening lines: ‘Morning drags itself in like a wounded soldier/but I’m taking no prisoners today’ (p. 90).
Philip Neilsen’s Wildlife of Berlin is arranged in five sections, though this is not indicated on the contents page. The reason for the sections is theme. The first section deals, broadly, with love and death; the second contains poems that feature birds, though this is a far from adequate description of the beautiful poetry therein; the third section, often in first person, features character narratives with poignant humour or sharp irony as in ‘The University Makes a Poem (‘a student seen reading Proust on the quadrangle lawn/is hailed as a guru’ p. 58); section four contains elegant musings, some such as ‘Testimonial’ (‘You wrote today of loneliness. / But I did not like you then, / I would not like you now’ p. 73) revealing the poet’s darker side; while the last section almost wearily ponders youth, aging, climate change hope and regret. The poems traverse the world, but Queensland is a constant throughout, not merely as a lace but as a state of mind. Take ‘Guitar’(p.64), for instance, set on Kelvin Grove Road in Brisbane at the scene of a traffic accident witnessed by the first person narrator; ‘A man in shorts comes out of the nearest house’. What else would a man in Queensland wear?
Nielsen’s humour is apparent in ‘Messaging’ (p. 90) where in seven two line stanzas he flays those who ‘peck at their phones like birds’. Again drawing on digital technology for thematic material, he also flays an apparent rival poet in ‘My Enemy has asked to be Friended on Facebook’ (p. 96). This is a gleefully malicious poem: ‘your chagrin at being passed over, failing/to make a bigger splash in the shark pool of poetry –’. I laughed out loud at that frank image; it evoked so many memories of overblown egos waiting their turn to bore each other stupid in dank and chilly rooms.
Both of these books are fine contributions to Australia’s literary culture. I shall return to each with pleasure. What I particularly enjoyed was how contentedly Australian each is. Both show that the poets are worldly; Neilsen’s title references the German capital and other European locations feature in his poems while Mead has the Cook Islands and Antarctica as settings. Yet Australia is home. For Mead, it is the Western states: ‘The eastern states seem separate as islands.’ (‘Homecoming’ p.29). For Nielsen, it is Queensland’s beauty and ugliness that underpins his poetry: ‘By the mangroves/at the far side of the airport, a steel crane/like a stranded stegosaurus lifts its head’ (‘Sunset at Brisbane Airport, p. 70). Each book is dangerously familiar, and we could ignore their place poems for foreign places. However, I recommend them as guides to a current, vibrant Australian literary consciousness.
Friday, May 25th, 2018
History and the Poet by Robert Wood
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017
Although Robert Wood’s History and the Poet is described as essay, it defies being labelled as one genre. Perhaps like the definition of poetry itself, which shifts and changes between individuals and contexts, language and culture, so do Wood’s words. With sincerity and curiosity, Wood invites the reader into a personal journey, asking us at the start: What is Australia? What is poetry? and What is poetry in Australia? In search of answers, what follows is heartfelt discourse; meditations, manifestoes, letters, mythical stories and, at times, academic hyperbole that is steeped in the author’s philosophical, poetic and political relationship with the natural world and its languages.
Wood’s work is a terrific survey, a wordy appraisal of Australian poets past and present. It is refreshing to read a collection of essays from a practicing poet that celebrates his contemporaries like Omar Sakr, Clare Nasher and Michael Farrell. This inclusion of emerging poets – a category within which Wood places himself, ‘taking language from all over to make its nest’ – suggests that poets are investigating their histories, the derivations of languages, the richness of land in multi-dimensional ways. And yet, Wood calls poets to look further, deeper into their histories as denizens of this land.
The chapter titles are often ambiguous and the essays follow the patterns of someone thinking aloud rather than chronologically. Wood’s subjects include whiteness in the Australian poetry bureaucracy, the epic, poet laureates, crayfish, genius and money. All essays are written with care and honesty yet the shortness of each piece results in skin-deep research. By the book’s close one is left feeling a sparky, interesting conversation has been had rather than an intellectual and provocative reading experience. The audience of poets that thrive outside the academic arena may not venture further than the title History and The Poet, accompanied by an image of introspective suburban architecture. Meanwhile, poets in the academic space may find books such as Philip Mead’s superlative Networked Language cover much of the same territory as Wood but with finer articulation and razor-sharp perceptions. Still, Wood’s voice is earnest and energetic and anyone who cares about poetry will find something to appreciate.
Wood’s many questions, assertions and experiments with ideas are infectious. Fellow critics and essayists could be inspired by his attempt to reframe academic writing. For example, he intersperses satirical pieces that break up some of the critical posturing with ironic playfulness. Although the satire won’t bring about social change, it reminds us how comedy can expose our own foolishness and the limits of scholarly prose. In these sections, Wood includes an epistle, flashbacks to childhood reading lists and personal reflections on his own identity. In doing so, he gives the collection a warmth and friendliness that almost compensates for more abstruse expressions: ‘The fetish for the search of influence as answers. And hence originality as an anti-mimicry that privileges an ur rupture, fails as common sense Socratic imperative’.
When not being inscrutable, Wood’s writings are a courageous attempt to reframe how we read and write essays, they are attempts to create a new scholarship of poetics by addressing our history as Australians living on this continent, country or nation. Wood’s poetics are a poetics of the body, the bones and the cells as they connect to and flow on from the history in the earth – be it the earth of Tagore, Robbie Burns, or Wood’s own feet on Western Australian desert. At its best, his writing aims to be evocative and musical: ‘I know that my country home is Redgate. Here are the crayfish, abalone, herring; white belly frogs, black and red cockatoos, skinks; loam, limesetone, karri and cave.’
History and the Poet brings to our attention aspects of poetry or writing about poetry that may otherwise sit below the surface. In ‘New Mimicry’, Wood critiques the accent that many Australian poets use when they perform, noting that ‘today’s young Australian poets sound positively Yankee’ while his friend visiting from the US remarks that ‘They all sounded like they were from the Mid-West, that kind of newsreader voice, not as serious but still.’ Wood proffers we need to be active listeners on the lookout for imitation in all parts of poetry and in ourselves, too, if we are to make sense in and of the world. In ‘Reading Performance’, Wood attempts a discourse around performance poetry and questions why there are no critical reviews of readings, performances or talks. Working through various lenses (a sociologist, an economist, a poet) the piece ends with a surprise phrase, more disconcerting than illuminating: ‘That is why a reading is not best described in the metaphor of the market. It is all invisible hands in the poetry world and reading is simply a magic trick that pulls the rabbits from the hat that was never seen to begin with.’ This is a statement that snares the reader in a rhetorical trap, which seemingly fails to progress the questions at the core of this collection: What is poetry?
Wood encourages us to find poetry in the everyday, to inhabit poetry as a language of performance, to see poetry as ‘noticeable asides’. Throughout the book, one senses Wood is lost in wonder at the possibilities of what poetry is or what a poet can be. Potentially this is anything and everything, if we reframe how we think about language. There is always poetry in our daily lives and this, he asserts, is what poets can do: expose this everyday poetics and enable us to time-travel, to see the world anew without ever leaving the lounge.
Most meaningful in the collection is Wood’s call to all of us to learn Indigenous languages. ‘It isn’t just the cult of forgetfulness but dismissal of that which is actually difficult’, he writes, explaining why this learning hasn’t happened. Wood acknowledges there are difficulties to this engagement, such as the necessity of of cultural protocols and the ‘complicated and confusing legacy of new settlement governmentality’. This seems a rather polite way of acknowledging that the actual loss of Indigenous languages are rooted in colonisation and racist policies of assimilation. In the piece, ‘You Must Let Go of the Anger in May’, he asserts that ‘No poet working in Australia today has realised the potential of the available linguistic material’ in the country, which almost suggests Wood is that poet. However, it may be that the task is impossible for any singular poet, and that many poets whom Wood cites are exploring their own languages and linguistic heritage – Ali Cobby Eckermann and Jeanine Leane, for example. If one looks at the contemporary landscape of poets and poetry producers and publishers in Australia it seems that many are creating and promoting work that reflects the exciting multiplicity of voices and histories.
Friday, May 18th, 2018
The Agonist by Shastra Deo
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. They dwell periodically on in-between states – to some extent symbolised by skin, space and emptiness – and they persistently return to tropes of rupture and penetration. As they explore such territory, they tend to alienate usual notions of humanity, asking the reader to consider whether their mind/body assumptions hold true – and intimacy itself is sometimes viewed askance through such perspectives, as in the lines: ‘You may be forgiven/ for thinking that love/ is a butcher’s ritual’. For Deo, it is not so much that the human body has a life all of its own, but that the flesh ‘speaks’, as it were, of human experience and human circumstance in lateral ways.
To give a couple of early examples, the opening poem in the volume, ‘Five’, addresses ‘what lived in the space between/ our bodies, our words’ and the second poem, ‘Scorched Earth’, sets ‘The body/ and the space it occupies’ alight. Following Emily Dickinson’s examples in her poems ‘One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –’ (quoted by Deo as an epigraph to one of her sections) and ‘I dwell in Possibility –’, this poem imagines the body as a house. While Deo’s metaphorical and metaphysical concerns are generally very different from Dickinson’s – Deo’s is dominated by the evocation of certain kinds of burning – she is, like Dickinson, interested in notions of haunting and absence: ‘your heart is a house/ with the doors left open’, and there is a ‘stranger roaming the hallways’. Because the narratives in ‘Scorched Earth’ are not explicit enough to give the reader the full context for such expressions, it conveys a sense of scorching and damage, and of failed relationships, while challenging the reader to connect with its uncompromising tropes.
The book also explores the disjunctures of family life and, as mentioned above, various exigencies associated with intimate relationships. As it does so, it adopts what might be understood as a mythopoeic stance towards much of its subject matter, emphasising the strange and unknowable rather than the familiar, and creating various narratives with tropes of violence and loss at their heart. It is not that we cannot know the subjects of Deo’s poetry, but she continuously shifts the focus of her work away from the readily explicable.
This means that even the poem ‘Road Trip’, which starts with an apparently simple idea – ‘In the summer of 1995 my mother and I took/ a road trip’ – soon morphs into a kind of fable, in which the lives of the speaker and her mother, ‘bundled up / in garbage bags’ are thrown ‘into the river’. It is characteristic of Deo that these thrown bags are simultaneously the real thing and a metaphor for change and dislocation. It is also characteristic that the poem introduces a sense of uncertainty and occlusion: ‘I don’t remember the trip back, but I imagine / it must have been like the drive past the redgum wharf’. For Deo in this volume the known, the quotidian and the mysterious are usually entangled, and there is a persistent sense in her work that what is remembered is not the whole story.
Deo uses images drawn from mythology to achieve some of her effects, such as in the lines, ‘My lover, blinded by his tryst / with the sun, crafted cartographies / of the labyrinths in my brain’ and is preoccupied by ideas of divination and ritual. She is also interested in the Tarot, writing a sequence that briefly evokes Ovidian metamorphosis (‘I lived in the woods so long my ankles / tapered into hooves’) before rewriting the symbolism of The Hanged Man, The Priestess, The Emperor and Death. Deo’s alertness in crafting a contemporary and transformative version of these tropes prevents them from being a recycling of received notions and imagery. The Hanged Man, for instance, finds his ‘god in an oil spill, poised / to light a match’ and Death ‘escapes / our mythology’.
Further, the body and written and spoken language are intimately – indeed viscerally – connected in this volume. For instance, ‘Anatomy of Being’ opens with an account of what makes up the physical body, inflected by sometimes unexpected ideas – ‘organs, / constructed of cells and stored in the / dorsal and ventral cavities, lined with / epithelia and ebullience’. The enjambments of these lines are unusual, emphasising prosaic rhythms – suitable to a kind of catalogue – but what is most interesting about the work is its accumulations of abstractions, especially effective in: ‘Rumination held, always, in the / stomach, in its roils and rugae. The / trachea tight with every kept secret.’
There are four poems entitled ‘The Soldier’, depicting someone who remembers ‘the war through crosshairs’ and who was ‘awake when they sawed / through your humerous’. These are complemented by a series of found poems drawn from the index of titles and first lines from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. The found poems are quirky and sometimes poignant, but the poems about the soldier address troubling issues connected to the loss of human identity, the manner in which bodily life continues despite alienation and crisis, and the way memory becomes encoded in corporeality:
Your bones are the topography
of a hidden landscape; your pale blood
vessels run rivers beneath
your skin. Your muscles, your
tendons, your delicate joints
hum with memory.
Overall, this is a thought-provoking debut collection that is perhaps overly encumbered with notes at the end and is occasionally prosaic in its expression, but which addresses serious issues in imaginative and original ways. Deo’s gestures at other writer’s work – for example, she writes a response to Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ – do not always produce her strongest poetry, but, overall, her interest in intertextual gestures deepens this volume’s preoccupations. The Agonist is a book that risks considerably more than many contemporary volumes of poetry, and when these risks succeed Deo creates startling and inimitable poetry.
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.