FRESH Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
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’.
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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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Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
101 Poems by John Foulcher
Pitt Street Poetry, 2015
Over a career spanning more than thirty years many critics have praised John Foulcher’s skill at ‘capturing a moment’. The simplicity of such an observation, however, is no platitude considering how fully Foulcher achieves this. 101 Poems is a retrospective collection that shows the poet’s ability to illustrate how time can be clear and immediate.
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Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
Devious Intimacy by Ann Vickery
Hunter Publishers, 2015
Small Town Soundtrack by Brendan Ryan
Hunter Publishers, 2015
These two recent volumes from the distinguished Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets series are about as different from each other as umeboshi and camembert, and – as I’ve found when wanting to impress Japanese visitors with a striking new taste combination that has the energy and disorder of a good poem (to cite Tom Shapcott’s useful terms) – such obverses delight with both surprise and recognition.
Anarchically centrifugal, barely staying still for a line, a phrase, let alone a haiku curlicue of ‘gander gossip’ or ‘polyblivion’, Ann Vickery’s magical poems in Devious Intimacy tease the gazing brains of their readers with non-sequiturs, frizzle-tops and virtuoso titillation: disjunct, disarray, dishevel, discontinue … Vickery’s virtuoso sleight of word camps grandly (see ‘Vivienne’).
Building on notions of the ‘trace’ Vickery has re-framed both ‘devious’ and ‘intimacy’ in these elusive/allusive/illusive, playfully and deadly serious poems. ‘A poem is a mirage of distillation’, she writes in ‘Ecopoetic Ecumenical’:
Purgatory is by nature hot and full of hoons.
Temperature, not temperament, a nice set of wheels.
It’s generally the assholes that get all the love poems.
This poem’s ‘bucket list of romance’ suggests both ‘razing the grapes’ and ‘Cling to a hundred little homilies’; though ‘love’s climate countdown / is inordinately inevitable. Terroir on tap.’ Vickery’s distilling has produced concentration, sculpting, pruning, (self-)conscious architecturing. The poet might be pretending disingenousness, but like Socrates, Joyce and Pam Brown, she is well in control of the reins.
Devious Intimacy is unceasingly interlocutory. The facing page’s ‘Edinburgh guard: fragment’ might be taking us through that ambiguous ‘Malley country’, a ‘thistle-fisted, / cento puff to full-ferried existence […] you fuck angels / on a Duino roof’. Suggestive and ambiguously threatening, like ‘Ecopoetic Ecumenical’ the poem ends in the underbelly: ‘unsexed terroir’. Where conventional syntax and logic are abandoned for something more ‘porphyrial’, the poetry multiplies and mystifies connotation, creating both anxiety (about not being able to define, pin down, axiomise) and delight (in multiple, juicy, dichotomous meaning-making). In both poems the last words are thematically significant.
After all (and echoing AD Hope?) ‘We are all gulags / aren’t we? Migratory cycles / of need, energy and failure of the body. / Listening only when the expected comes unstuck’ (‘Russian Bit Player’) and our passion is ‘moulted’ like mutton birds, ‘Starved at / the end-point of love’. In ‘Adventure at Sadies’:
Down the rabbit hole, we find
a world of cottage cheese and over-inflated
… conjecture convivially on the poet’s last fuck—
Suggesting that traditional fantasy narratives may be untrustworthy, Vickery’s poetry celebrates its predominant trope of bathos, elevated to new heights of critical insight: ‘What price Russian formalism? / How unusual can an everyday poem be?’ Linguistic juxtaposition is usually unsettlingly polysyllabic so, a few lines later, ‘Circularity breeds / stove-top despair, the coffee always spills twice’. Clearly this poem’s rejection of conventional poetic fluency, cadence and lyrical organicism is a kind of conversation with poet friends—some names are mentioned towards the end, bearing out Devious Intimacy’s epigraph: ‘Poems should echo and re-echo against each other.’
Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
Plevna: A biography in verse by Geoff Page
UWA Publishing, 2016
Geoff Page is a well-known figure in the Australian poetry scene: a prolific writer with over twenty books to his name and an established editor (recently of the 2014 and 2015 Best Australian Poems), yet perhaps known most widely as a reviewer. A regular feather-ruffler, Page’s reviews frequently appear in prominent publications such as the Age and the Australian. Page’s trust in, and loyalty to conventional verse forms is no secret; he often takes aim at more experimental or avant-garde Australian works, as if such attempts to broaden the field of Australian poetics are to be regarded with some suspicion. See, for example, his 2014 post on the Southerly blog ‘Obscurity in Poetry—A Spectrum’, where Page specifically criticises what he calls ‘wilful obscurity’ in the work of ‘a significant group of contemporary (mainly young) Australian poets.’ Or his more recent review in the Sydney Morning Herald of the Australian issue of the American journal Poetry, in which the ‘adventurous but not avant-garde’ is praised, while the work of poets such as Fiona Hile (an award-winning poet, no less) are implied to be ‘outposts’, lacking in substance and complexity. Page’s opinions have challenged more than a few members of the contemporary poetry scene, this author included. Nevertheless, a little healthy sparring keeps all authors on their toes, and given the prominence of Page’s own opinions in Australian media, he is perhaps ready to receive some constructive challenges to his own poetry.
Page’s most recent release, Plevna is a verse biography of Charles Snodgrass Ryan, a Melbourne surgeon and army officer who served in the Turko-Servian and Russo-Turkish wars, then later at Gallipoli. He received the nickname ‘Plevna’ after spending four months in the siege at that city in 1877. From the first poem, Page suggests a reason for his interest in pursuing Ryan as a biographical subject: ‘Why have we no biography, / three hundred pages, dense with footnotes, / boasting your achievements?’ Ryan’s own 1897 book, Under the Red Crescent: Adventures of an English Surgeon with the Turkish Army at Plevna and Erzeroum, 1877-1878, left ‘a vivid whiff’ of his experiences, Page writes, ‘but covers two years only’. There is a sense, then, that Page intends to celebrate a life not yet well celebrated in historical narratives.
Fittingly, Page begins not with his poems, but by using Ryan’s own words from Under the Red Crescent. This opening quotation, in first person, documents Ryan removing the leg of an injured man who refused anaesthetic. There is a hint of humour in the patient’s casual demeanour:
He never said a word, and went on smoking his cigarette all the time … [and] answered all the questions quietly and unconcernedly while I was stitching up the flap of skin over the stump’ [italics in original source].
Page continues to present prose quotations as moments of pause between the poetry sections. Selection and quotation from historical documents are a common feature of documentary poetry, and Page has included passages that titillate in their gruesome and shocking details as Ryan portrays his dealing with injured soldiers: a man suffers a bullet through ‘the upper portion of the brain’ but recovers; another has his head blown ‘clean off’ and after ‘a spirting [sic] from the blood-vessels in the neck … the headless corpse spun around in a circle.’ There are also frequent quotations littered throughout the poems, indicated with quote marks, which increase in frequency as the narrative unfolds. The following passage, for example:
You meet his rather splendid wife,
just ‘twenty years of age’,
‘complexion of exquisite fairness’,
‘large blue eyes that looked me frankly
in the face’. In eighteen months
you haven’t seen a woman
anything like this.
The Bulgar girls are ‘squat and swarthy’;
Armenians are ‘frowsy’; the Turkish
girls all ‘veiled in yashmaks’.
Your heart is ‘beating’ with ‘delight’.
This method of including source material spoils the flow of the poems a little, and suggests an anxiety on the part of the poet regarding unattributed quotation. Some of the more successful documentary poetry – see, for instance, works by the US poet Susan Howe, Canadian poet Dennis Cooley, or Australian poet Jordie Albiston – will absorb the words of others into the poems as part of the performance of redacting history through the poetic medium. Page has opted to foreground his quotations, and while some of these do offer insights into Ryan’s voice or manner of speaking, a majority of ‘quoted’ phrases, such as ‘twenty years of age’, do not seem justified in their use of the same technique.
Page sets up an interesting dichotomy between Ryan’s first-person, prose passages, and the second-person voice that addresses Ryan in the poems and draws the poet-author into the field of narration. The first poem finds its way to approach Ryan through biographical narrative, with the ‘I’ of the author exposing a ‘maudlin’ desire ‘to address the dead’; and this conceit of direct address continues throughout the book:
Maudlin to address the dead,
but even so, Charles Ryan,
I have the urge to do so,
Melbourne surgeon, later Sir,
but ‘Charlie’ to your friends.
Also known as ‘Plevna’ Ryan
but that can wait till later.
Your dates are 1853
a life as long as mine is now
or was when I began.
The decision to use second person is a curious one, perhaps intended as an extended elegiac narrative; the remembrance that Page felt to be lacking. Or, perhaps Page intends to bring an intimacy between the subject and himself, the author of this life story. The approach works well in the initial stages of the narrative, as the poet matches some of grisly medical details to come with his own poetic metaphors. Page ponders the ‘shock’ that a young Ryan at med school must have experienced as a rural-born boy: ‘the way a scalpel slices in / to spill things on a slab / and how a ribcage may be sawn / to offer up its thoughts.’ There are several such moments of speculation, where Page muses in the space where details are missing; this gives us a strong sense of the poet’s attempt to ‘find’ and connect with his subject. This intimacy, however, is soon held back by a persistent tendency to document the facts of what happened at different moments in Ryan’s life in a rather plodding, chronological manner, rather than utilising the complex devices available to the poetic medium to help us understand more intimate details about the man. On this note, it is worth mentioning that Page has adopted an iambic metre for the poetry, which seems apt considering that much of this work is focused on Ryan’s involvement in World War I; the iamb recalls the rhythms of war poems of Wilfred Owen (‘Dulce et Decorum Est’), John McCrae (‘In Flanders Field’) and others. Beyond the promise of the first pages, however, there is a formality to the poems that comes across a bit flat, especially combined with their adherence to linearity and fact.
Friday, November 18th, 2016
Ghostspeaking by Peter Boyle
Vagabond Press, 2016
Peter Boyle’s Ghostspeaking belongs to a relatively rare poetic tradition, in which the poet creates heteronyms through which he or she writes. Indeed, the cover blurb of Ghostspeaking announces that the book contains ‘eleven fictive poets from Latin America, France and Québec. Their poems, interviews, biographies and letters weave images of diverse lives and poetics.’ As opposed to the pseudonym, which is merely a false name that allows the poet anonymity, the heteronym entails the creation of an entire life: not only distinctive poetic works, but also a biography for the poet that embeds them in real history. There are not many practitioners of the form, but a major precursor is Fernando Pessoa, the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth-century Portuguese writer, literary critic and translator. Pessoa created scores of heteronymous prose writers and poets, and is best known for four: Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, and Bernardo Soares. His creations were so much their own entities to him that, when writing as Fernando Pessoa, he often referred to their opinions, some of which were in contrast to ‘his own.’
To offer ways of thinking about what Boyle is doing in Ghostspeaking, I’ll start by characterising Pessoa’s writing and then move on to Boyle. Pessoa’s poems had affinities with dramatic poetry, where the poet creates characters in verse. He saw his poetry as being somewhere between dramatic and lyric poetry; in fact, he argued that the two are not as separate as they may seem. ‘There is a continuous gradation from lyric to dramatic poetry,’ he wrote in his essay ‘Heteronyms: Degrees of Independence’: ‘if we were to go to the very origins of dramatic poetry – Aeschyllus, for example … what we encounter here is lyric poetry in the mouth of various protagonists’. In an essay titled ‘Degrees of Lyricism in Poetry,’ he addresses the interrelations between the two traditions in a different way, by distinguishing between lyric poets who adhere closely to their own experience as the source of their poetry (the conventional Romantic sense of a lyric poet), and those who invent the experiences of others. Having categorised lyric poets into four ‘degrees’ which relate to their reliance on personality – with the first one being the most personal – he states:
The third degree of lyric poetry is that in which the poet … begins to depersonalize himself, to feel, not just because he feels, but because he thinks he feels; to feel states of soul which he truly does not possess, simply because he understands them. We are in the antechamber of dramatic poetry, its intimate essence … The fourth degree of lyric poetry is that much rarer one, in which the poet … embarks upon complete depersonalization. He not only feels, but lives, the states of soul which he does not directly possess.
The last of Pessoa’s degrees of lyricism is the one he aspired towards in his heteronymous works. It is also the one that Boyle inhabits in Ghostspeaking. This fourth degree of lyricism may seem similar to what the novelist does with her characters, but there are important differences. The structure of the realist novel typically has the author at the top, and the fictive creations below her. Such a novelist does not make any claims that her characters are authors in their own right: the privilege of authorship is reserved for her. Moreover, in the contemporary English novel there is often a coherence of style across the novel, at least in the narrator’s voice which ties the various characterisations together. The ‘master author’ is given special importance within the confines of the novel. This is not the case in heteronymous poetry, where each poet jostles for the status of author in their own right. It is also worth noting that heteronymous poetry is different to biographical poetry, such as in the work of contemporary Australian poets Jessica Wilkinson (Suite for Percy Grainger, 2014) and Jordie Albiston (The Hanging of Jean Lee, 1998). Such poetry animates real historical figures, and the poetry is a conscious act of writing in character while hovering at the border of fiction and fact. By contrast, heteronymous poetry entails the creation of a person who is not already in the world’s records, along with the creation of their rhetorical voice in poetry.
Heteronymous poetry is decidedly eerie if we conclude that its spirit is lyrical rather than dramatic (or that it is more lyrical than dramatic). Because the lyric is so closely tied to embodiment – the lyric authorial voice is often thought of in relation to a singular authorial body – heteronymous lyric poetry has a ghostly quality to it, as the voice seems to emanate from nowhere, from no body, even if, rationally, we are aware that all the voices in such a book emanate from the body whose name is printed on the cover.
Ghostspeaking follows Boyle’s excellent Apocrypha (Vagabond Press, 2009) in the use of heteronyms. But whereas Apocrypha seemed to featured one heteronym – a ‘William O’Shaunessy’ whose ‘translations’ of fragments of classical Western literature Boyle claims to have discovered and edited – Ghostspeaking clearly features eleven such figures. I say ‘seemed to’ because it becomes clear in Apocrypha that O’Shaunessy is not the only imagined figure in the book, that there are heteronyms lurking within ‘his’ translations. Because of this initial picture, which resolves itself upon closer reading, Apocrypha reads as a book of works by real poets, translated by Boyle-as-O’Shaunessy, whereas Ghostspeaking looks to be a meandering anthology of heteronymous writing, containing poems, prose, letters, interviews, and biographical introductions. A similarly expansive imagination motivates both projects, but in some ways Ghostspeaking is more upfront about the number of heteronyms in its pages.
Ghostspeaking contains work by the following poets: ‘Ricardo Xavier Bousoño (1953-2011)’; ‘Elena Navronskaya Blanco (1929-2014)’; ‘Lazlo Thalassa (1940?- ?)’; ‘Maria Zafarelli Strega (1961- ?)’; ‘Federico Silva (1901-1980)’; ‘Antonio Almeida (1899-1981)’; ‘The Montaigne Poet’; ‘Robert Berechit (1926-1947)’; ‘Antonieta Villanueva (1907-1982)’; ‘Ernesto Ray (1965-2016)’; ‘Gaston Bousquin (1957-2014).’ Let them rest here in quotations, to mark their fictive reality. In the remainder of the review I’ll refer to them without quotations, to honour them as authors in their own right, as Boyle asks us to. A further conceit of the book is that Boyle is the translator of all these poets. The effect of this is that Boyle is present in the heteronymous works, while proclaiming them to be someone else’s, just as translators are a quiet presence in the works they translate.
There are many allusions to the act of poetic ventriloquy in the text of the book. The title poem ‘Ghostspeakings’, by Ricardo Xavier Bousoño, contains the lines: ‘And you came floating, / A white witch in flowing robes […] / And I, a ghost led by a ghost’. If the poems in Boyle’s book are spoken by ghosts – the eleven disembodied heteronyms – then this poem suggests that ‘Peter Boyle’ should also be treated as a ghost, as a self that is no more permanent than the others: a ghost-self led by ghost-selves. In this title poem Boyle signals the arrival of the many selves within himself, in the manner of one of the book’s epigraphs, by Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik: ‘I cannot speak with my voice – only with my voices’ . This suggests a compulsion which is not always the case for Boyle: much of his earliest poetry is in a singular poetic voice, in a more conventional lyric style. A possible motivation for the poet to have written Ghostspeaking is proffered by Maria Zafarelli Strega in the penultimate section of the book titled ‘Package Received From Mexico City, December 2015’. In the introduction to this section, Boyle claims he received a package from Strega’s address in Mexico; we are told the poems in this package are the last that Strega wrote before committing suicide. The poems arrive at his doorstep after passing through many hands – a metaphor for the book as a whole. In one of the enclosed poems, Boyle-as-Strega tells us that:
In my twenties I hungered so desperately for fame—admiration
for my poems, recognition as the one to watch, to take note
of … Now it is anonymity I seek, the chance to become
completely nameless, to vanish.
The poet has also slipped these allusions of ghostliness into the poets’ biographies in a more playful way, like mischievous winks to the reader. In Boyle’s account of an interview with Argentine poet Ricardo Xavier Bousoño, we’re told: ‘A recurrent theme in Ricardo’s conversations was his sense of being passed over, never mentioned in awards, excluded from magazines, having to fund the publication of his own books.’ Likewise, the biographical note on Lazlo Thalassa reads: ‘The eccentric Mexican poet of mixed Bulgarian and Turkish origins is a shadowy figure whose very existence has been much debated.’
Friday, November 11th, 2016
Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes
Stuart Barnes’s early exposure to poetry reads like a literary fantasy. As a child he attended the same Tasmanian church as Gwen Harwood. The two struck up an unlikely friendship, and Harwood encouraged him to write. That formative experience saw him move to Melbourne to study literature where, in 2005, he was handed a notebook and, once again, urged to write. Barnes’s first collection of poetry, Glasshouses, is the culmination of years of carefully honed impressions, reflections and commentary. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the artist, covering a yearning childhood, the development of a writer self, the difficulty of coming out, the paradoxes of mental health, and the solace of bird-watching. Additionally, it is a multi-faceted mirror of the world he inhabits, of the moments gathered throughout Tasmania, Melbourne and Queensland, and the dusty inner roads of the roving poet. Barnes does not stand still, and neither do the poems in this collection, whose vividness seems to leap from the pages.
The first section, modestly titled ‘Reflections’, opens with ‘Fingal Valley’, a reminiscence of a childhood in the Tasmanian countryside. ‘Nan’s budgerigar’, it begins: situating this locale within a child’s perspective, where pets often occupy a large, looming presence. Remembrances follow in a sudden, hurried manner, as the overflow of memories intrudes upon the present. There is exquisite phrasing here, as Barnes writes of ‘squeezing like morning / fog between oxidised barbed / wire and gorse’, merging both action, weather and environment in a potent image. There is mention of slug guns, sheep skulls and plovers, an amalgamation of the experiences of country kids. There are perceptions that only a child would have, such as in the lines, ‘transfixed by sixpence’ and ‘a leering toilet roll’. One of the finest moments is when Barnes tells of ‘night’s deer-sprint to the outdoor / loo / the top bunk’s hexagonal wiring sprung, / mattress oozing through cells like honey’. There is a sharp beauty in ‘night’s deer-sprint’ as it captures the child’s fear of night time, and also captivates with its romanticism. The final simile could refer to memory – it oozes through the cells of the poet’s mind and drips into his present.
‘Ebon Cans’ opens with an epigraph from ‘Bone Scan’ by Harwood. This is her seminal poem about an epiphany experienced while looking at her scan, which allows her to know what is ‘beneath appearances’. This is also a theme within Barnes’s poem, though it is not obvious at first. The poem seems to be based on the poet’s experience with his early mentor, and begins: ‘In the twinkling of her eye, all is changed’, as he writes of a child ‘afraid of almost everything … but books, and paper and pen’, who finds poetry via his mentor in the church. A disturbing revelation follows. A priest in the same church abuses him. Later, he struggles in high school, and is told he will amount to nothing: ‘his father’s negativity’. There is a powerful use of internal rhyme, a wave-like rhythm: ‘oily priest’, ‘will roil minds’, ‘he’ll coil at high school’; rolling us through the devastation in order to emphasise the flame within the poem, revealed in the final lines – ‘he glances over his shoulder. She mouths Write’. The lack of a closing full stop stresses the possibilities that follow. As in ‘Bone Scan’, where the scan reveals Harwood to herself, Barnes hints that the poet mentor is a scan revealing the young writer to himself. Underneath the trauma and fear is a burgeoning artist, who will write himself out of the pain.
‘ValproateFlouxetineClonazepam’ is the first of the poems tackling mental health. The title references three psychiatric medications, the lack of spaces indicating the run-on nature of taking these pills at the same time. ‘Every day four purple pills’, he begins, and there is an ominous air throughout, as the verbs indicate: ‘cochineals … burned’, ‘elephant’s head severed’, ‘flowers crushed’. The images these pills bring to mind are not images of recovery. In the third stanza he describes one of the tablets as the ‘Eucharist’ and ‘a sport’, bringing to mind the unquestioning acceptance, and the game played by the psychiatrist to find the right combination. The last stanza is most disturbing, as Barnes uses rhyme to drive home the words that are the antithesis of a cure:
These are the cures that isolate
These are the cures that chill
These are the cures that splice the will
These are the cures that kill
These lines are a subtle remix of the final stanza from ‘Elm’ by Sylvia Plath, a poem that explores the darkness of depression. Plath writes, ‘it petrifies the will / These are the isolate, slow faults / That kill, that kill, that kill.’ Plath is referring to the mental illness itself, whereas Barnes applies the devastation to the medications. They are posited as ‘cures’ but the sicknesses they induce present an obvious contradiction. Barnes brings into question the role of psychiatric medication, revealing an insider’s account of the difficulties. It is perhaps too easy to assume these ‘cures’ are simply that, so we are invited to consider another perspective. In ‘ENDONE Oxycodone hydrochloride 5 mg’, Barnes writes ‘it does not take the place of your doctor or pharmacist … accident or emergency.’ Is he implying the accident of mental illness? The accident of finding yourself tied to a doctor? Is he commenting on the emergency of relying on a pharmacist when your sanity is on the line? Again, he presents the side-effects of medication, writing ‘swallow / it before meals with a glass of nausea’.
The final stanza is acute and precise, a surge of negation where before there was commentary. Barnes writes:
Do not show your pupils, abnormal,
do not show your restlessness, do not show your goose-
flesh, do not show your fast heart rate, do not show your new-
born child to a doctor or pharmacist.
The sudden shock of the final line jolts us out of the dream-like, early stanzas. It presents the doctor and pharmacist in an almost criminal light, as he lists side-effects that lead up to a child born with defects as a result of the mother’s medication.
Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
New Cemetery by Simon Armitage
Recent Work Press @ IPSI, 2016
Time in the Dingle by Philip Gross
Recent Work Press @ IPSI, 2016
Poetry has a peculiar provenance in the public sphere. To describe the situation with egregious simplicity, some allege that poetry should speak to and for the people, while others assert that poetry should be avant-garde, testing the conventions of language and enacting nothing less than a transformation of society. The demands we make of poetry – arguably more pronounced than of other forms of literature – were recently explored in Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (2016), which argues that such idealism inevitably results in dissatisfaction with actual poetry. Poetry ends up not being accessible or representative enough, while the avant-garde poem, as Lerner memorably describes it, disappoints like a bomb failing to go off.
These reflections seem pertinent to a review of two chapbooks by the British poets Simon Armitage and Philip Gross, published by IPSI (International Poetry Studies Institute), a poetry research centre housed at the University of Canberra. The work of the Yorkshire poet Armitage, in particular, has been celebrated for its accessibility and popularity, while also being criticised for betraying the avant-garde poetic ideal. In 2013, Armitage was the third best-selling living British poet (after Carol Ann Duffy and Pam Ayres). That year, he also published a non-fiction book documenting a walk along the Pennine Way, during which he famously gave poetry readings in exchange for food and board, emulating the troubadours of the Middle Ages. However, his considerable skill as a poet has also been institutionally acknowledged by his 2015 appointment as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, suggesting that, for some, Armitage’s poetry would undoubtedly not be accessible enough.
The author of over 20 poetry collections and numerous other works across different genres, Armitage has the reputation of being a ‘working poet,’ and New Cemetery is further evidence of his impressive professionalism. The untitled poems concern the construction of a new cemetery, which is memorably compared to the construction of a housing estate. It is an event that inspires reflections on the mortal body, as well as on the poet’s vocation in the face of such impermanence (in a way that echoes Heaney.) Each of the poems shows off Armitage’s formal assurance. I quote from the thirteenth poem:
Today the poet
repairs his shed,
last night’s storm
having scalped from the roof
some forty square feet
of weatherproof felt,
lifting and slinging the job lot
into next door’s field…
Armitage’s poetry is perfectly measured and typically distinguished, as here, by its outward gaze. The distancing use of the third person figure of ‘the poet,’ as in a number of poems in the chapbook, is interesting in this regard, refusing the autobiographical musing that render some lyric poetry obscure. (Some of Plath’s work comes to mind – though, interestingly, Armitage has named both Plath and Ted Hughes as key influences on his work, along with that other ‘popular’ poet Phillip Larkin.)
Armitage’s work is also known for its wit. In the fifth poem, the poet portrays himself working in an attic while it snows outside. An automatic sensor repeatedly turns off the light, due to the perceived lack of movement in the room. It is an episode rendered uncannily resonant in the context of a collection implicitly about death. The entire poem reads:
A cheap ballpoint
usually does the trick,
just enough drag and flow,
like this one, striped
with the faded name
of a Munich hotel.
like old fashioned static
fell into the night, blanking
the tiled rooftops.
At the writing desk
in an attic room
I pushed forward, except
every fifteen minutes
a sensor detected
no signs of life, and turned out
the one light bulb.
Philip Gross, like Armitage, is a prolific writer across various forms (from young adult fiction to opera libretti). Despite winning the TS Eliot prize (notably, when Armitage was a judge) and writing a book of poems about the concrete stumps of electrical pylons, Gross has, like Armitage, been criticised for writing poetry that is popular and therefore, by implication, compromised.
Time in the Dingle, like Armitage’s New Cemetery, is more accessible or ‘reader-friendly’ than some other works of poetry, but it is also far from facile, demonstrating Gross’s considerable skill with poetic language. Gross’s chapbook is a sequence of poems that centre on a local ‘dingle’ – a term the poet playfully defines in a poem called ‘Sounds’ (in which we see echoes of Hopkins and any number of contemporary lyrical ‘nature’ poets).
… I’ve tried cleft
cleave coomb chine for this sudden steep slip
of a strip of stray wildwood
into this crack crease interstices slightly
unpicked seam between breezeblock railing fence
over which, not quite concealed
by under-tangle, small spews of rubbish get spilled
as if over-the-hedge was outside-of-the-story
and into hiatus, the kind of between
we make with backs turned, where a place, a whole
order of things, might absent abscond conceal
itself under a word like
dingle – there, I’ve said it. Yap-dog in the leaf-mould.
We can call its name but it won’t come to heel.
The linguistic excess here distinguishes Gross’s lyrical verse from Armitage’s, even as they share a Romantic interest in environmental – as distinct from environmentalist – topics. There is also similar wit in some of the imagery. In ‘…or the squirrel,’ a squirrel is described as pouring ‘up a fifty-foot oak as if I’d spilled him.’ Another similarity: despite their shared working-class origins (often foregrounded in establishing their populist credentials), there is a great deal of ‘middle-class’ emotional restraint or ‘tastefulness’ in these observational lyric poems.
Will these chapbooks ‘change the world’? Probably not. There is much to admire and enjoy but little that is urgent here – though some of the other titles on the IPSI list (by Samuel Wagan Watson, for instance) offer different poetic models. Is this poetry that ‘speaks for everyone’? Probably not, given the complexity of some of the poetic language and diction, though the work of Armitage and Gross has proven relatively popular. Do such questions matter? In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner recommends that we rediscover our love of actual poetry by reading poems without such idealistic baggage. It might be worth a shot.
Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
Vessel by Alison Flett
Garron Publishing, 2016
The Martyrdom of Bees by Louise McKenna
Garron Publishing, 2016
Lost Property by Judy Dally
Garron Publishing, 2016
Garron Publishing’s recent ‘Southern-Land Poets’ collection is a ‘pathway trampled with voices’ (Vessel, by Alison Flett), intricately connected by a ‘golden thread/ still hanging from’ the readers flesh ‘like the sharp point of a stylus / forcing its message’ (The Martyrdom of Bees, by Louise McKenna). Composed of five individual chapbooks (of which this review will tackle three) Alison Flett’s Vessel, Louise McKenna’s The Martyrdom of Bees, and Judy Dally’s Lost Property move ‘closer to the beautiful empty at the centre’ of ‘human’ experience, oscillating between modes of nostalgia, loss and mortality (‘Here is a pathway Trampled with Voices’, by Flett). The result of such a collection is a series of coalescing filaments restricting and expanding with experience:
never really knowing
who he is who she is where they stop
where the outside begins
‘Vessel III’, by Flett)
Louise McKenna’s revelations of immanence in her titular poem, ‘The Martyrdom of Bees’, are subtle, precise and filled with a ‘deafening silence / as if the whole world tilts on the brink of loss’ (II). Composed of three distinct sections, McKenna’s prologue quote depicts the self-sacrificial nature of the bee to ‘protect the nest’ and the sequenced Passion of Christ narrative is split between the three sections (arrest, trial and suffering). Part one begins:
One of the swarm has left
her honeycombed sanctuary to find him.
This initial aphoristic couplet is suspended by the anthropomorphic possibilities in the ‘her’ and ‘him’; the subsequent stanzas concentrate on the physicality of the turbulent, mimetic world of bees. There’s a swift modulation between human and animal drives before the ‘her’ is resolved to the animalistic, as ‘she alights upon his arm, testing for sweetness / on the inside of it’. This double voice resonates between the three sections as part two establishes the masterful power ‘bees’ possess within this para-anthropocentric world:
‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man
would only have four years of life left’. – Albert Einstein
Undergoing a perspectival shift to the human, the ‘martyrdom’ the bees embody becomes the inner experience of a modern man who, disregarding the ‘stylus / forcing its message’ and being hallowed of the bees ‘etiquette, / their lessons in humanity’, is doomed to be crowned ‘queen of a desolate queendom’. In part three, the martyr-bees are rendered as a perfect metaphor of humanity’s inner turbulence; this metaphor serves as a loose meditation upon the transience of life and imminence of death. Indeed, the suffering the bees experience at the hands of ‘aerosol venom’ is dual, as McKenna illustrates in the opening line and closing line: ‘Sometimes death is a mist the cell drinks’, and ‘Tonight I dream I am Dali’s wife, naked / beneath airborne tigresses, poised to kill’.
Lost Property adheres to familiar themes of nostalgia and loss, however it is Dally’s meticulous typesetting and spatial-organisation on the page that sets the two collections apart. Take for instance, Dally’s ‘My Mother Dreams’, a vision of mortality impeccably realised through the mundane:
My mother dreams she’s making cups of tea
for people she doesn’t know
or doesn’t like
or doesn’t want to disappoint
with tea bags that break
or fall off their strings
in cups that overflow
or fall to pieces.
These disconnections articulate, spatially and typographically, an understanding that our visceral experience of reality (the lines at the margin) is contingent upon a cerebral counterpart (made manifest by the repeating ‘or’ conjunctions), as the final two stanzas conclude:
In her dreams
my mother thinks she’ll die
if the tea doesn’t get made.
when it does.
In a sense, one feels like Orpheus looking back on Eurydice knowing that if we look too long ‘it will be — / careless, forgetful me —/ who loses / her mother’ (‘Lost Property’). At the same time, Dally demonstrates that by not looking back we become the ‘Lost Property’, our reality simply a placeholder for death:
I missed my father today.
forty-four years ago
and back then I felt relief
more than sorrow.
an old photograph
called him to mind
and I missed
not missing him then.
In a similar vein, Alison Flett’s Vessel is concerned with departure and revival. The opening poem an embodiment into metaphysical geography, tracing the ‘Vessel’’s departure into time, the ‘hollow gaps at the surface’ of reality, and peering past ‘CEMETARY SONGS’ to ‘Arrival’ at the beginning again:
No-one else has seen inside this child.
This establishing line is a synthesis of juxtaposing modes, nostalgia and present, the narrative focused on the existential:
When you get older do you remember more?
And her mother has answered yes I suppose you do
and the child knows this is the wrong answer:
she knows her mother means you have more things
to remember there’s more living filling your head
Accordingly, the following poem, ‘Vessel II’, traces trajectories of ubi sunt (‘will she remember / where she was / before // she was born’ (‘Vessel II’)) and transform the mundane into memento mori:
a cup is holding itself together around a cup’s
worth of space. In her head something is pulling
The after images of the cup taking on a second-life:
She watches her hands move apart.
She watches the cup drop and break
The pieces thrown outwards making new
‘It seems a thing of itself / a thing that appears / and disappears’, mediating and obstructing reality as a shadow that is always in the peripheral of Flett’s ‘Vessel’ – the splintered fragments of the broken cup oscillate between the ‘fore’ and the ‘after’ of the object. This equivocation of mise en abyme is transfixing and dually destabilising as Flett continually moves between the discontinuities and splintered traces of words. Perhaps best envisioned in her eponymous poem sequence, each half/third is its own absolute entity:
She just asked her mother a question
When you get older do you remember more?
And her mouth has answered yes I suppose you do
And the child knows this is the wrong answer.
In this instance, we cannot help but be captured by the present-tense nostalgia lingering in the final line. There is a remoteness of reality as we see the ‘beginning of / an understanding of how we go beyond what / we are an awareness of being and not being’, until we/’she comes to see / the cup isn’t what matters’ (‘Vessel I). The only concrete knowledge we may possess within Flett’s existential mediation is the centripetal and centrifugal motions of life, ‘the filling and emptying of the world’ (‘Vessel II).
These individual collections are a ‘balance of substance & space’ (‘Vessel II’, by Flett), reflections of the same reality shifting between experiences and perspectives. Such a series cannot be perceived alone; it is the whole and not the sum of its parts, to paraphrase Aristotle, that fantastically revises and reformulates aspects of the human condition to determine whatever text the reader experiences first,
path we took
it was always
going to end
(‘Arrival’ by Flett)
Friday, November 4th, 2016
Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter by Stephanie Christie
Titus Books, 2015
In Stephanie Christie’s first collection, Luce Cannon (2007, as Will Christie), language is a fissile material, words are rendered particulate, unstable, always threatening to devolve into their component parts. And while its subject matter is, often, not what you would call exactly bright, its tone is also not sombre, language tumbles along with a kind of free fall intelligence:
T- d rails the rushing scent
Sound of gull wheels fin e
Gers in water th. Oughtful
Lady ailments her bod is décor
A shun scars and wheeling away
Holds out two wrists wit
Her second collection, The Facts of Light, was published as part of Vagabond’s deciBel series edited by Pam Brown, in 2014. This book continued certain elements of her previous poetry, but also saw a break in style, its poems assuming a more regular stanzaic form.
Her third collection, Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter (2015), may represent a more comprehensive merging of the two modes. As with The Facts of Light, there are lines of around five-to-ten words, and these are grouped into stanza-like formations; but concurrently there is Christie’s unusual cantilevered spacing, rapid switches in tone, puns, use of paradox, and characteristic word-grafting. In the latter modes, Christie’s poems are wonderful heterogenising machines: breaking words open to reveal their internal differences, recombining them with others (‘We simplicate things so much’ (‘The Old Story’)), making allusions (see, for example, the eighties/nineties song titles buried in the poem ‘Hung r’). The first, isolated word of the collection is the amalgam, ‘strugglue’, and indeed this insight into the somewhat sticky, glue-like nature of ‘struggle’ percolates through the book. Struggle involves time, and like time it can both flow and harden up or congeal. The reader is left with the sense of Christie’s respect both for personal resolve, and for vulnerability:
We all know our multiplying sides
get into messes. He fights himself
a long time, then heads down
Cuba St with a golf club
just going for windows.
The knowledge that we are living in an epoch of climate change is one that rarely leaves these poems, and it follows that a current of anxiety runs through the book, along with a desire to find ways to think, feel, and love in light of that knowledge, and a reckoning of the capacities of hope. It is a curious characteristic of this book that the weighty descriptions of the previous sentence co-exist with Christie’s ebullient language: these are not poems that seem to map out a certain idea and then follow it through, but are always moving and shifting.
This reader must now admit to being at first disappointed that Carbon Shapes was not as immediately visually exciting as the earlier Luce Cannon. It was not until I heard an audio recording of a reading given by Christie that I began to understand what the poems were doing in their own right. Christie’s precise renditions of the poems brought across the highly tensile nature of the work as a whole, and attuned me to the more subtle level of experiment going on in the collection:
How did the future become this?
Sadness sits down on my chest
I can see it breaking up
before the fifty years the researchers
assume in their ethnographic sketches.
My mind is out of its debt.
Hope’s a feeling of progress
towards an empire and a safe bed.
My irrational terror is really reasonable
when you look at the big picture.
Modulations of tone occur line by line: from the apparently sincere statement, to ambiguous wordplay (the mind ‘out of its debt’; logically this suggests ‘freedom’, though sounds like something quite different), to, one assumes, a kind of ironic sarcasm (‘an empire and a safe bed’), to paradoxical fact. In her book Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai refers to tone as, ‘the affective “comportment” of a literary text’. The rapidly changing nature of tone – that conventionally worded statements of feeling are neighbour to Joycean neologisms and word-splicings – might be one mark of the tone of Carbon Shapes; that’s to say, it stably evokes a mood of instability. While not confessional, there is a sharp clarity (and dry humour) to its reports of extreme states:
Being destroyed is wild and drastic
and for a while you’re intact enough
to enjoy the show.
The theme of climate change runs alongside frequent references to elements of Christianity, specifically Protestantism, to which the poet seems to have a complex relationship. Words such as ‘prayer’, ‘God’, ‘heaven’, and ‘redemption’ appear, usually accompanied by a measure of ironic distance: ‘God’s love is the heavy black mass / in the brain that helps us sleep’ (‘Parachute’); ‘As fast as we chase it, redemption keeps / the same distance away’ (‘Clod’). In ‘Parachute’, again, we read: ‘Each day, the extra light fills us / with a worn hope’. The last two words read as richly suggestive about the utility of hope in regard to climate change, or indeed to the political change necessary to avert catastrophe.
The eternal themes of love and loss, and sadness, are found throughout Carbon Shapes, while a kind of everyday violence and fear flickers at the edges of many of the poems. This is a collection of many brilliant lines (‘Lust stutters in the blood’ (‘Post-protest/ant’); ‘Intense moderation’s hypnotic’ (‘Clod’)), and for this reader, Christie is one of the most exciting poets writing today in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Friday, November 4th, 2016
Diary of a Naked Official by Ouyang Yu
Transit Lounge Publishing, 2015
Well known as a poet, translator and literary critic, Diary of a Naked Official marks Ouyang Yu’s second foray into the novel form. His first, Loose: A Wild History (Wakefield Press, 2007), mixes fiction and non-fiction, poetry, literary criticism and diaristic writing.
Continue reading →
Sunday, October 30th, 2016
Judith Wright: Collected Poems by Judith Wright
Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2016
The Unknown Judith Wright by Georgina Arnott
With Love and Fury by Brodsky Quartet & Katie Noonan
Kin Music, 2016
When Judith Wright died in 2000, at the height of Prime Minister John Howard’s cultural hegemony, Veronica Brady was called upon to deliver a eulogy at the public memorial held in Canberra. This eloquent and impassioned speech was reprinted in a national newspaper under the headline, ‘Giant in a Land of Pygmies’. In her eulogy Brady would evoke the monumental loss of Wright but also the legacy that would continue to sustain those left behind: ‘[Wright] lived, she loved, she suffered, she thought, she dared and she spoke for so many of us who feel, at the moment, pretty much abandoned. She didn’t just lead the people here in Canberra across the bridge. I think she has led all of us. She has brought us to a pinnacle of feeling, a pinnacle of hope. I think she has given us energy and inspiration for the long haul.’
A few years earlier I had eagerly awaited, like so many other devotees of Australian poetry, the publication of Brady’s historic South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright. I have long admired this scrupulously researched and beautifully written, five hundred-page recount of the life of a generous and inspirational ‘giant who lived amongst pygmies’. Twelve months after Brady’s book we had Wright’s autobiography, Half a Lifetime, edited by Patricia Clarke. And a decade further on we would receive Fiona Capp’s lushly evocative My Blood’s Country: A Journey through the Landscapes that Inspired Judith Wright’s Poetry. So in 2015 when I heard about a new Wright biography I was excited, but also suspicious of the hype suggested in the proposed title: The Unknown Judith Wright. Georgina Arnott, however, is an exemplar historian. She not only delivers on the book’s marketing buildup, but judicially positions her own text not as replacement but as essential companion to the biographies that have come before.
Wright distrusted biography as an intrusion into her privacy. Like all of us, she expressed some views and performed some actions – especially in young adulthood – that she would have preferred, with the benefit of hindsight, to have kept hidden from public scrutiny. As Arnott says:
Judith’s life story offers particular intrigue because it suggests that conservative and conventional upbringings can sometimes produce the most radical of thinkers. This book might add that, by extension, in some cases at least, even the most radical thinkers do not necessarily ‘shed’ the conservative traces of their heritage.
Arnott knows that she would have been unable to ‘convince Judith of the value of biographical research or of [her] particular approach to her life’. Arnott maintains, though, that her approach is ‘unapologetically historical’ and that her portrayal of Wright’s first twenty-one years is a very different version of events from those ‘oft-repeated narratives recounted by others’. As well as presenting a more human figure of the young Judith Wright, with all its contradictions, Arnott reaches beyond her subject to the historical milieu that she occupied:
[Wright’s] life story reveals much about colonial race relations; the gulf between expectation and reality experienced by early European migrants; early attempts to develop a distinctly rural politics; the difficulties faced by women on isolated properties; and historical relations between the city and the country. The final five chapters, which centre on Judith’s time at the University of Sydney between 1934 and 1936, and the work she produced there, tell of the class and gender distinctions embedded in Australian tertiary education; of the birth of modern Australian cities; the rapid social transformation which took place in 1930s Sydney; the liberties this transformation afforded to young women; the origins of Australian historiography; and most forcefully, the birth of modern Australian poetry – a birth largely brought about by this woman.
Arnott reveals that the Wright forebears were more involved in the act of dispossession – and of First Nations massacre – than Judith Wright implies in Generations of Men (1959). She also shows how Wright tries to make amends for this by writing Cry for the Dead (1981), but while this book does not shy away from the horrors of colonialism, it still does not forensically examine her family’s role in these events. Wright continues to influence the approach taken by biographers like Brady in retelling this family history by perpetuating the mythology that the Wrights won their prosperity against the odds by hard work. Wright also continues to portray her forebears as ‘moderate, careful and cautious’, especially in their relations with First Nations; but, writes Arnott, this portrayal defies the evidence.
Arnott argues that Wright’s time at Sydney University has not been recognised as the crucially formative time that it was. It was there that Wright came to maturity as the ‘quintessential modern woman’ – confidant, teasing, eager to fit in – but also reflective of her conservative New England values. It was at this time that she would encounter many of the ideas that she would develop in The Moving Image (1946) and Woman to Man (1949). And, a decade before her first two celebrated collections, her student poetry shows how important it was to her to evoke physical intimacy in words. As Arnott argues, Wright developed a poetic technique that:
worked to imply an innate, emotional and sexual connection between a woman’s body and the natural landscape. This alone was not new; what was distinctive was the bold assertion of a woman’s active subjectivity. These female bodies were not made purely receptive by comparisons with the land; they became alive, yearning, and even spoke their wishes. The poems of that first collection asserted a taboo subject: female desire.