FRESH Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
third body takes form on the cusp of metamorphoses between species, ecosystems, technologies, existential planes, and even between art and artist.
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Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
Broken Ground by Steve Armstrong
Steve Armstrong’s Broken Ground is an extended walking meditation cleverly disguised as a book of poetry. Inside this collection resides a determined drive towards immersion and a deliberate movement beyond text, into a numinous, continuous cadence: a secret rhythm of stride known only to those who would seek to map out earth and sky.
At times, in review, it feels like a Sisyphean task to gather together the fragmented rhythms, thick with the natural world, with love story and family history and, above all, reverberating with the connotations of contingency. My natural yearning is to let the work’s pulse nestle quietly down inside the mind. Or perhaps that pulse would find itself lodged in the gut, for Armstrong’s poems are so very embodied and at home in and of themselves; so self-aware that the already excavated ground seems to require no further diviner.
Broken Ground explores a very specific poetry of time and place. From the first poem, ‘Black and White,’ we receive glimpses of the bedrock that the subsequent poems will continue to excavate. Here, landscape takes on a more than general significance – specific places are invoked by naming, and the tenor is that of memoir, nostalgia and a belonging in time:
A photograph, a fading Kodak of a boy.
On the back in my mother’s hand –
Turramurra Bush, 1965
Themes of family, and of finding a significant place – perhaps home – in the greater Hawksbury are paramount here:
My substrate is rocks and trees,
and there’s a prehensile ache at the sight of a branch
that leans across a cerulean Sydney sky. Here is
the ground of a well-weighted line.
The key to Broken Ground is this transference of meaning, outwards from the landscape and into the body. Armstrong’s poems divine truth from the wandered -through world, as explored in ‘On the Delta’:
Later remember not this place, and
the way water mirrors trees and sky,
but what it is that you’ve found instead –
this solid thing that’s light within you –
let it wing into the regions of wider
sight, and feel for the company of words.
Go on recalling the seamless flow over
mud if you must, then claim what’s yours.
However, this is not the collection’s ultimate tendency. Instead, Armstrong offers a boon in return for the composition of these poems. An interior geography of human connections and disconnections – from mother, father, lovers, children and elders – somehow seeps out from the poet to enter the exterior landscape. We see this collaboration in the collection’s titular and final poem, ‘Up and Down a Dry Lake,’ where country is seen to be:
too dry out here for tears at my coming
up short, for the words that won’t land. A lake two-hundred
meters deep with silt. Long accumulation chokes in the throat
like grief, nonetheless a small figure standing in the middle
I’ll speak for what inheres, lay down on dried mud and tufted
grass; be baptised by dirt and re-membered by earth.
This exchange between landscape and the walking body-in-landscape is also explored in ‘Dreams and Imitations’:
Your step is the step of a younger
you, or perhaps the ground presses back
and offers to lighten your load a little. You
falter unused to such reception, and yet
the rhythm you settle on is both your whole
being and your nothingness.
Broken Ground does not merely offer a poetry of nature-based lyric philosophy in the manner of a Lake Poet. As the collection progresses, Armstrong’s drive is to participate, to partake of what is offered. Ritual pervades the poems: longing is somehow danced out into the landscape.
Friday, February 22nd, 2019
deciBels 3 edited by Michelle Cahill and Dimitra Harvey
Vagabond Press, 2018
Poetry as a form permits one the ability to see, touch, bend and examine the human experiences that we may find elusive. All of a sudden, the glances from others we would have otherwise missed, start to make sense. Haunted words that follow us our entire life begin to destruct. And a voice that belongs leaps out of the page and into the world, leaving a roadmap to follow.
This process, a reader’s reckoning with her awakened self, may be colourblind. Poetry gives birth to intuitive knowledge, which is a powerful way to explore the subject of race. In her introductory note, series editor Michelle Cahill argues the importance of poetry that talks about race. She also highlights race as an entity moving within time and place, a function of what is real. Cahill concludes ‘that the value of a poet’s work is largely transacted by their identity, whether that is visible or whether it is concealed’. As such, her series celebrates ten exceptional poets whose poetic voices illustrate a redemptive focus away from the concerns of the dominant power. They invert that power through poetic disruptions, and not of race but also gender.
Cahill has collected poets whose cultures and languages trace to South Asia, the Philippines, Greece, to the Jewish, Chilean, and Taiwanese diasporas of the world. They have in common a tendency to choose realism, in which identity is expressed unapologetically and in conjunction with the universally charged experiences of life: loss, loneliness, mental health, sex, love and grace.
Jessie Tu’s collection You Should Have Told Me We Have Nothing Left is a visceral body of work that finds acceptance of the drama of life, which is filled with the voices of everyone else. Tu’s candour speaks to the way life forces us to sober up if we are to survive. In her poem ‘And It Is What It Is’, she illustrates the intersections between gendered conditioning and the universality of sexual desire:
Mother told me to slip through like a good girl
so I take buses around the city to find
the sunken bottom lip of your bitter tasting mouth
Tu seldom shies away from the empowering nature of sexuality, which is a level playing field on the page. This is further demonstrated through the poem ‘Almond Butter’ when the proclamation is made:
I am absolutely in favour of all kinds of sexual fetish,
fart, feet, rings,
All the while, Tu is exercising the complexity and mobility of what it means to be human:
I am lonely
for other lonely
people. Not only
rot but the
fantasies I left
By comparison, the title of Sumudu Samarawickrama’s chapbook is demanding, almost daring the reader to Utter The Thing. The thing is what the reader must decipher, in plain sight on each page. Is Sumudu daring us to utter hate? Or is she directing us to find out how resistance can rummage through a burning building? ‘Foxes’ is a poem that feels like war and liberation simultaneously:
Give up on this supposed detachment
There was a battle fought.
Grasp the nettle leaves and the
They are only conquered by force.
And what is more powerful than a force filled with the wisdom that evil consumes all? Like the rest of this collection, ‘Foxes’ is such a vessel:
But I’ve given up that dishonest detachment.
Allow the fire.
Angela Serrano compliments the series with her collection Else But A Madness Most Discreet. It highlights the voices of grief, power, culture and destruction in stories from the fringe. In her poem ‘Sydney Road in 2011’ she articulates the darkness that lives around us, especially known to women:
Where catcalls of all sorts
punch the mid-evening air,
where contests of all sorts,
between all sorts are
the topics of chatter between
slow sips of single origin coffee.
Friday, February 22nd, 2019
Sugar Kane Woman by Manisha Anjali
Witchcraft Press, 2017
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and after the turn of the twentieth, colonial British rule brought indentured Indian workers to the fertile shores of Fiji. The colonisers hoped to boost the local sugar cane industry without antagonising local Fijians, and so boats filled with indentured labourers from all over India were trafficked to the island for a life of servitude and abuse.
Such is the bleak background from which Manisha Anjali’s colourful debut, Sugar Kane Woman, published through Witchcraft Press, comes alive. Snakes, hibiscus and tobacco smoke twist up from the pages of this mid-length collection. We are drugged and danced through generations of Anjali’s women as they work to find their identity, the instinctive connections between each other, and the sand between their toes.
The poems begins with ‘all woman is a snake’, a poem that at first asks specific traits of woman (‘all woman who has brwn spot … all woman who has long black hair … all woman who has red dot on her skull’), then takes them away from her again, repeatedly shouting ‘ALL WOMAN IS A SNAKE’. This generalisation so early on might set the reader on edge, implying a certain set of requirements for woman-ness, the inescapability of the serpentine and its connotations of the untrustworthy, sly and slippery. Anjali follows this opening up, though, with a collection of poems discovering the unique in her women, avoiding a proscriptive consideration of gender.
She swings from the woman general to the woman specific with grace, narrativising the unique existence of the Fijian Indian woman in the whitewash of the global patriarchy, and imagining what it might be to break free:
how lovely it was when we burnt our saris
& swam naked with tiger sharks in the white cyclone
the garlic from beneath our fingernails mixxin’ with saltwater
i was no longer a wife but a fish
swimming under the stars of mo(u)rning (‘3 wives’)
In ‘marriage advice from two kaiviti sisters in a nadi bakery’, the cultural and social politics between Kaiviti (indigenous Fijians) and Indian Fijians becomes apparent through dialogue. The implication is clear – a Kaiviti woman thinks that ‘you marry fijian ok. / fijian good. indian bad.’ Cultural assumptions and generalisations leak in on top of uninvited commentary on the right weight and shape for a woman to be when seeking a husband: ‘here you take two cream buns / you too skinny lewa / fijian dont like skinny’.
Anjali makes distinct choices to own the language in which she writes this collection. Non-English words are not italicised. Sugar cane becomes sugar kane (which might reference Marilyn Monroe, or Sonic Youth, the Velvet Underground; or it might reference none of these), brown is reclaimed as brwn—in the same way the spelling of blak in some Australian Indigenous writing takes back the positive power and ownership of the word—and your is always yr, which can be a divisive stylistic move in itself. This ownership, as well as the non-capitalisation and, I assume, intentionally inconsistent punctuation throughout, feels youthful despite its generational retrospectives and magic realist time-travel.
Indeed, it can be difficult to place the woman subject in Anjali’s timeline – whether the poem be from the perspective of the poet, a mother, a nani (grandmother), or otherwise. The collection might have benefitted from delineated sections, or chapters, to establish the generations in structural form – thus borrowing from Marquez not only the magic realism of the oppressed, but the generational storytelling elements of the master’s prose work. It may be, however, that this uncertainty is precisely what builds the sense of continuity, of a layering that cannot be unlayered. In any case, ‘my mother’s dreams are not my own / ’, insists the voice in ‘girl shaman’. So, ‘who is the owner of these little brown shoes?’
Poems like ‘3 bloods’ work to gather the generations for the reader and make the connections clear, and often painful:
kicked my mama
dunked her head in 3 rivers
until the bloods came
because mamma’s papa
was a drunk & a cheat
so my mamma paid.
my mamma beat me blind
broke my two cheeks &
scratched my two eyes
until the bloods came
cos my papa is a drunk & a cheat
so I paid.
when I am a mamma
and I have a daughter
and her papa is a drunk & a cheat
what will I do
to make the bloods come?
‘The bloods’ are removed from the natural association of menstruation and pushed into a generational history of domestic abuse. As foils to love and warmth, violence and exploitation are constant, frequently masculine presences in Sugar Kane Woman, writing a reality that surfaces in the kava- and alcohol-driven furies of Anjali’s men:
he moon drunk.
he kava shine.
he smell like piss and smoke
my pots and pans he throw
broke on the floor
or our the window (‘moon drunk kava shine’)
when he is angry he will piss on his red plastic chair on the front porch just so he
can watch me clean it up & anybody else walking past can watch me clean it up too.
And though there is some anger and resentment in return, more often the female presence in the works is simply self-assured, imbued with ‘magick’, marigolds, coconut, kava. I am reminded of the strength of older women I have known, who have learned not to break after years of almost breaking despite the pressures of oppression, assault, medical mistreatment, unhappy marriage and other injustices.
I was born in the field & made to work the same day
with the blood the blood running down my legs
the blood the blood running down my legs
yeah I moved mountains in my dreams.
I don’t care for sunsets
I’ve seen them one hundred and one times. (‘sugar kane woman’)
Monday, February 18th, 2019
Distance by Simeon Kronenberg
Pitt Street Poetry, 2017
In his debut collection, Distance, Simeon Kronenberg establishes himself as a poet of inclusive intimacy, both as oddly as that sits as a phrase and in relation to the collection’s title. Intimacy is, of course, personal and the vicarious imagined. But Kronenberg’s acute sense of place and placement and his etched language and image-making draw the reader in as an almost-fellow-poet and almost-protagonist, a tendency heightened when the verse is recited aloud. And ‘distance’ is multivalent, speaking variously of time, geography, observation, contemplation and the journeys from inspiration to publication and of the heart over a lifetime of love.
The collection begins in Bali where ‘the world had caught its breath’ (‘Coming Home’), ‘birds shriek in the black palms’ (‘Darkness doesn’t descend, and then it descends so quickly’), ‘a myna’s throat rips a cry, sharp like rent silk’ (‘Legian beach’), weddings are made in sarongs in ‘the splendour of thunder and wet heat’ (‘Wedding’), fishing boat lamps are a ‘glittering of insects on a dark map’ (‘Looking south west’) and distant ships ‘attach ocean to sky at the curved horizon’ (‘Geography’). Local terms expand the poet’s vocabulary and their fricatives help orchestrate his gamelan of sensory inputs and responses. Deep affection resides here and, though not indigent, the poet is no interloper and the scenes recounted evidence a refuge and a (second) homecoming.
Kronenberg clearly reads widely in poetry, with many poems dedicated to or recalling individual poets or poems. He riffs on Anthony Lawrence twice – Lawrence was the official launcher of the collection – firstly in condensing Lawrence’s ‘Three Men’ into his own ‘Two men’; then in savouring a 2016 collection, Reading Headwaters, that renders older idioms and their ‘words suddenly new / and bright again’, in a lardy kitchen in which the poet worries about ‘a heart ready to falter anyway’ as he trips through Lawrence’s reminiscences.
Robert Lowell directs ‘Waking’ with his ‘coltish pride’, an ability to find ‘poetry and guilt as you shovelled / anxious, in the silt of family memory’ and the transcendence of ‘an illness made music’ even in a ‘conflicted time’. While Kronenberg touches on family, he is perhaps more interested, perhaps more moved, by the wider circles of friendship.
Krononberg shares David Brooks’s frustration in ‘No poem for weeks now’, the title adopted from Brooks, though ‘there’s pleasure / in the sometimes lonely drift, the tender space / between the trees’. And he imagines Keats travelling to Bali for his health in ‘If only’, rather than to Rome, where he could have enjoyed ‘the cloak-warm sky’ and, ‘breathing again, in the slowed / wet sliding between flanks’, would have called for his ‘quills and ink’ and added exoticism and piquancy to his oeuvre.
In the case of the title poem, ‘Distance’, Kronenberg melds influences in jointly celebrating Constantine Cavafy and Po Chü-I – ‘both were trapped by failure / and overlooked in distant towns / but, they railed against provincial lives’. Their homo-sensuality also links them to Kronenberg. The collection sees homo-sensuality move from an awakening of desire at a party – ‘a red-haired boy, / tight-jeaned, moves like Nureyev / … / I look at his crotch and want to marry (‘Bringing It All Back Home’) – to outright lust (‘I couldn’t get enough and he squirmed, / delighted, offering everything to me, shining with sweat,/ abandoned’, ‘Saeculum aureum’), a gentle undercurrent in the landscape (‘A fisherman absently rubs his crotch and his sarong fabric swells’, ‘Legian beach’), a tribal lament at the desolation of HIV/AIDS (‘When the plague came, we lost eighteen friends/ and endured eighteen funerals in the winter of it’, ‘Rome to Florence 1978’) and the context of the poet’s ongoing love in ‘Late’:
‘and you in your man’s dark wedding sarong, white shirt ‘but rolls into me
and black cap, elegant as an egret his hand searching
wading in the shallows’ my chest for the muffled
(‘Wedding’) heart beat, the soft thud
of time passing’
Kronenberg’s other abiding influences appear to be history and art and their transmission again evidences his literary curiosity, e.g. ‘My Caesar’, ‘Akhenaten to Smenkhkare’, ‘Unravelling’, ‘God knows I languish’ (based on correspondence between a Count Algarotti and Frederick II of Prussia). His poems are not always, or even often, interested in historical detail or artistic appreciation. They attach more to the person, recount (mainly) his attractions and loves and marvel at how he copes with travail and vicissitude.
This points perhaps to a larger theme of the constant awareness of death’s inevitability and imminence. It is a tide that touches many poems, through the direct mention of death, the memorialisation of the poem in question, the mention of impending natural disasters such as bushfires (‘Bundanon night walk, summer’), a pervading sense of loss (‘Saeculum aureum’) or ‘the tug of a persistent melancholy’ (‘Vanished’). It also suggests a need for the celebration of the ordinary things of life, as in domestically-centred poems, and people who live ‘at a slight angle to the universe’ and are ‘odd like a deer in a tree’ (‘The tilted house 1994’). The latter expand possibility for all of us.
Death is nowhere more prominent than in ‘Death of a poet’ when ‘Optimism now/ was too exhausting’ and the protagonist preferred ‘just breathing/ in benign neglect’. Eventually his friends ‘came to mourn / his readings, / his wonderful voice, / gifted him / by a million cigarettes’. Oddly, there is no mention of the dead poet’s words, despite this being his most obvious legacy. In any event, Kronenberg’s own swell into this void.
Distance is the work of a wonderful new voice, albeit of a mature poet, that is intelligent, heart-direct in diction and nuanced in comprehension, lingers awhile in the ear after reading and allows you the necessary space to ponder.
Monday, February 18th, 2019
Sun Music: New and Selected Poems by Judith Beveridge
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems begins with the eponymous poem of her debut collection, The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), concerning a giraffe in a zoo.
She languorously swings her tongue
like a black leather strap as she chews
and endlessly licks the wire for salt
blown in from the harbour.
Bruised-apple eyed she ruminates
towards the tall buildings
she mistakes for a herd:
her gaze has the loneliness of smoke.
This opening stanza gives us key features of Beveridge’s poetics: a lyricism notable for its wit and startling imagery, balanced by an intense interest in language’s sonic potential.
In ‘How to Love Bats’, from her second collection Accidental Grace (1996), we find another characteristic feature of Beveridge’s work: the conjunction of playfulness and catalogue. To love bats, the poem states, one must ‘Spend time in the folds of curtains. / Seek out boarding school cloakrooms. / Practice the gymnastics of wet umbrellas.’ In ‘Flying Foxes, Wingham Brush’ – one of the 33 new poems in Sun Music – Beveridge brilliantly reprises this last image, describing some bats as ‘a collection of broken / business umbrellas’. These lines can suggest, wrongly, that Beveridge’s poems on non-human animals – of which there are many – are primarily concerned with comic or quasi-comic conceits. Beveridge’s poems about animals are notably mixed in their tone and approach, bringing in the elegiac and historical, in addition to the comic, and they never sentimentalise or trivialise the lives of animals.
These poems show Beveridge as a profoundly post-Romantic poet for whom animals are part of a natural world that is, if not redemptive, then consolatory and inspirational. This domain, and these animals, allow for the poet to look beyond her own subjectivity, and to deepen and renew her, and our, understanding of the material word. While a number of later poems – such as ‘To My Neighbour’s Hens’ – also show a more explicit animal-rights perspective, all of Beveridge’s animal poems are essays into the otherness of their non-human subjects. In her extraordinarily artful linguistic constructions, Beveridge paradoxically allows us access to the profoundly non-linguistic world that animals both inhabit and represent.
But Beveridge is not, of course, concerned only with the world of nature and animals. Many of her poems focus on humans, often (as is consistent with her post-Romantic poetics) marginal figures, as seen in ‘Man Washing on a Railway Platform Outside Delhi’ and ‘The Saffron Picker’. These, and numerous other, poems attend to and/or give voice to subjects who are conventionally voiceless and unseen. Perhaps the most ambitious example of this project in Sun Music is ‘Driftgrounds’, a sequence that had the subtitle ‘Three Fishermen’ when it appeared in Beveridge’s 2009 collection, Storm and Honey. These poems, in their depictions of fishing life, tilt Beveridge’s poetic more to the side of the sonic. As Beveridge points out in Sun Music’s introductory ‘Author’s Note’, ‘I have amplified the poems’ nuances and tones through their sound structures’. This is easily seen (or heard) in ‘The Shark’, the sequence’s opening poem, which begins:
We heard the creaking clutch of the crank
as they drew it up by cable and wheel
and hung it sleek as a hull from the roof.
There is the ghost of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse in this poem, with its conjunction of heavily stressed syllables and alliteration. In the rest of the sequence we also find the use of caesura as a structural unit, a key feature of alliterative verse. But as ‘Spittle Beach’ shows, Beveridge’s imagistic inventiveness (and the modern world) is far from overwhelmed by such stylisation:
Near the boathouse is a washed-up skate,
a boy lifts it above his head—he’s a waiter with a drinks tray—
then he hurls it hard, back to the sea. It whidders down
as quietly as a UFO.
For what it’s worth, I wasn’t altogether sure about this sequence upon its release, but its appearance here makes me realise that what I took for factitiousness is a sophisticated example of piscatorial (anti-)pastoral. Like classical pastoral, these poems strategically confuse the simple and the complex, the baroque and the unadorned, and the sophisticated and the rustic, as seen especially in the lyrical dialogues of the fishermen. But like modern anti-pastoral, they do not idealise the milieu, offering instead some of Beveridge’s most inventive, gritty, and (sometimes literally) visceral poetry.
‘Driftgrounds’ is narrated by one of the fishermen, showing Beveridge’s attraction to the dramatic monologue. As Beveridge writes in her ‘Author’s Note’, ‘I use masks and voices frequently in my poetry. These allow me to open up and expose my emotions in ways that are far more interesting to me than simply using the first person singular’. The interest in the dramatic monologue and the sequence also comes together in Beveridge’s poems on the life of Siddhattha Gotama (who became known as the Buddha). Sun Music doesn’t include any of this poetry. Instead, Beveridge promises (again in her ‘Author’s Note’) a new volume that will bring together a selection of this work (which includes the 2014 collection, Devadatta’s Poems) with a new sequence on this subject.
Because of this, Sun Music doesn’t represent a career in the way a ‘New and Selected’ usually does. But it is nevertheless a profoundly important summary of one of Australia’s leading lyric poets. (It also makes for an interesting comparison with 2014’s Hook and Eye, a selection of Beveridge’s poems published as part of Paul Kane’s Braziller Series of Australian Poets. Interested readers should definitely seek out Kane’s deeply insightful introductory note to that selection.) The new poems in Sun Music deepen Beveridge’s characteristic concerns and practices, especially with regard to place, animals, and imagistic catalogue. They include ‘Peterhead’, with its memorable description of the eponymous Scottish coastal town – ‘Stone houses, side streets // with shadows limping like cruelled dogs’—and two powerfully elegiac poems, ‘Sun Music’ and ‘As Wasps Fly Upwards’.
Even within these elegiac works, Beveridge’s poetry is notably sensual, deeply concerned with embodiment and the intense rendering of corporeal (sometimes erotic) experience. Beveridge’s sensual mode is related to her stylistic exuberance, a feature one finds throughout The Domesticity of Giraffes, and still present in her later work. But, as also seen throughout her career, Beveridge is clear-eyed about the world’s injustices and violence. There are few lyric poets, here or elsewhere, who write with Beveridge’s skill and power. It is not surprising that Beveridge is so esteemed among her fellow poets and readers.
Monday, February 18th, 2019
Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
What is it about the sonnet? How is it that the infinite possibilities of those 14 lines can remain as persuasive and perplexing in 2018, in Newcastle, as they did in fourteenth century Italy? The persistence of the sonnet – the fact that we continue to return to, remodel, and mess with the form – is part of its charm. On one level this speaks to the sonnet’s original function – to express desire, a desire that lusts not only for the other, but for the poem. In writing a sonnet, the poet exercises the will of the troubadour, that is to demonstrate one’s ability as a singer. The purpose of the sonnet then is not only to woo the beloved, but to woo poetry itself. For Keri Glastonbury this return to form, this return to court to prove one’s spunk, is designed to ask a question hanging over the crisis of late capitalism – where did our court go?
Like the spunks before her, in Newcastle Sonnets Glastonbury pursues this desire to make new, to do things better, to speak back to, and to reach further. However, this ‘making new’ is perhaps less interested in what the end product looks like and more interested in the process of this making, specifically as it relates to the construction of self and place within the post-digital. In traditional, formal terms these are sonnets in as much as they contain 14 lines and because Glastonbury tells us they are, but there’s no rhyme scheme or metrical measure. Rather, these sonnets speak specifically to the New York School (most persistently to Ted Berrigan and Frank O’Hara), and those poets who reshaped the form, struck out against its rules in order to redefine what desire looked like. The collection opens with an extract from Ted Berrigan’s ‘Personal Poem #9’:
I think I was thinking
when I was ahead I’d be somewhere like Perry street
erudite dazzling slim and badly loved
These lines astutely capture the kind of desire that drives Newcastle Sonnets; in this collection we find a desire for the other, for the self, and for place, but most importantly we find a willingness to dwell in the uncertainty of that desire (‘I think I was thinking’). Notably, this is an uncertainty that is characteristic of the self-conscious new-confessionalism established largely by the internet.
‘In Newcastle, in Tokyo …’, the collection’s opening poem, is in the grip of this uncertainty and offers a mapping of its process. It positions Newcastle, a city still in the beginnings of its technological expansion, still entering and absorbing modernity, in relation to Tokyo, the ultra-modern techno-hell/heaven (depending on what angle the light hits), the metropolis that has by now toppled over its own peak. There is the desire to be elsewhere and among the expanded world, as well as a nostalgia for a younger and more naïve self.
who knew when I read those sonnets
in the library, that I’d later be penning them
from an office in a world-class
We also have Newcastle as it desires its own past lives, or, more importantly, the way in which this nostalgia is produced as capital: ‘a local shop / sells pannikins & Mason jars, the post-industrial / as an in situ conceit.’ There is the humorous quip of ‘Oh public transport envy!’ which signals a desire not only for Japan, but also for great poetry (the line being a reference to O’Hara’s ‘Meditations in an Emergency’).
There is the desire for immortality, or at least the desire for a long (but mostly importantly remembered) life, notable here in a reference to Misao Okawa, who was for a period the world’s oldest living person (and remembered because of this). Again, this is a desire that is placed in direct relation to the past as capital, a dialectic that Glastonbury presents throughout the book, reaching as far back as the stone age: ‘There’s a Misao Okawa / in us all, drinking paleo hot chocolates / the way our ancestors made them.’
In the end the speaker doesn’t get what she ultimately desires, ‘but there are small advances’. What we get instead is a willingness to exist somewhere between having and not having, an uncertain space, but a space that makes room for valuable and cutting critique. Glastonbury is willing to pause in process; these are poems that show us a willingness to exist in the ‘ums’, an ‘um’ that is both discerning (um, are you serious?), and unsure (um as stutter).
Monday, February 11th, 2019
Fume by Phillip Hall
UWA Publishing, 2017
This review was developed in consultation with Cordite’s Guidelines for Indigenous Writing and Editing.
Phillip Hall’s Fume is rare for the raw, fresh force and integrity of experience that lies behind the poems. Fume was largely written during a period of five years (2011 – 2015) that Hall and his wife Jillian spent in Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Hall worked as a sport and camp teacher in a role focused on activities for local Indigenous kids. The poems are framed by two personal essays, ‘Bad Debt’ and ‘The Stick’, which orient the reader by providing biographical and local context. As Hall observes in these essays, indigenous youth and elders in Borroloola continue to suffer daily from historical, structural and intentional white racism. In Fume, Hall provides a personal testimony to the intensity of this trauma. In the last two years of his stay, Hall was treated for mental illness arising from the suffering he witnessed in Borroloola – a fact that underscores its extremity for the Indigenous people who undergo that trauma directly.
Many years ago, I spent a few months in Arnhem Land, learning from speakers of the Bininj Gun-wok language. During my time there I was directed to read Richard Trudgen’s book Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, which first brought home to me the severe consequences of ongoing and original trauma for Indigenous health and wellbeing. Like Hall, I also witnessed the joy of ‘two-ways’ education at work, led by an Indigenous principal and teachers. This is a model that, in opposition to colonial assumptions, proudly supports primary learning in Indigenous cultures and languages (including Kriols). In this context, formal English serves as a bridge for Indigenous kids to choose to connect with the non-Indigenous world. Two-ways education encourages learning that grows from the ground of Indigenous knowledge that even the youngest kids bring with them to any formal classroom. Hall drew on a similar principle in the Indigenous story-telling group he worked with in Borroloola, called Diwurruwurru or ‘message stick’; the group’s members expressed what they wanted to say, in the language they chose to say it in.
As Hall describes in ‘The Stick’, he arrived in Borroloola with the understanding that ‘First Australians must be listened to. You cannot work [in partnership with Indigenous people] successfully if you do not first sit down and listen’. Fume provokes many questions in response to this act of listening. What is the nature of such listening? What does it mean for a non-Indigenous person to listen to Indigenous peoples’ experience and knowledge? An answer might begin with the fact that listening first requires a speaker: it positions the Indigenous speaker as the possessor of sovereign knowledge and experience that may be shared, or not shared, as she or he decides. But where the listener is white, the act of listening is shadowed by the possibility of the appropriation of Indigenous knowledge and experience, on the one hand, and on the other, a too-easy resolution of colonial shame. Fume is keenly aware of both dangers. Hall admits to having been driven by a desire to ‘empower Indigenous youth to make their own choices … and to assert their own choices and culture’ – and having learned from a Gudanji elder, Nana Miller, who adopted him as kin, to ‘embrace … humility’ with respect to that desire.
I first read Fume alongside Ali Cobby Eckermann’s splendid Inside my Mother (Giramondo, 2015), in order to hear them together: a celebrated, female, Indigenous poet, and a male, non-Indigenous poet, each using the lyric mode to bear witness to the cross-generational and daily effects of trauma on the custodians of Country. Eckermann’s poems feel gentle, spacious – questing and questioning – but patient, as if written from a place beyond, or beside anger. Fume, as the title suggests, contains poems written in the aftermath of an anger that remains.
Though very different, both are strong works: they are spiritually powerful and affecting. A spiritual meaning is particularly present in the word strong as used by Indigenous speakers. As Hall notes in his introduction, ‘Bad Debt’, massacre sites are ‘strong places’ for Indigenous people. But strong can be positive also, as it is in a poem by Hall’s Indigenous kin younger sister, Trishanne, cited in ‘The Stick’:
This makes us all so
Brolga joyful, leaping and trumpeting
To the world this welcome
To Culture and Country –
This strong one memory of place.
The word ‘strong’ provides a glimpse of how deeply Indigenous varieties of English – and the Kriol languages they give rise to, when kids begin to speak them as their first language and make them their own – are inhabited by ancestral memory. Their meanings have been shaped by Indigenous languages and cultures from the start of contact history. They are deeply resonant.
Listening to the many poems in Hall’s book that convey the words of indigenous friends in Aboriginal English, such as ‘Millad Mob Da Best!’, the non-Indigenous reader needs to work hard to hear the resonant depths of these words and their meanings:
wen do gate crack open my big one buja come crashin
out on gun fired screwed-up muscle ngabaya of a horse
come on buja, hang on
dat big one horse, e bin bash, buck an sling
A glossary is provided for words that come from local languages. But dem, dat and other half-familiar words remind the reader that Indigenous languages have different sound systems from the standard English one, and those systems have changed the English sounds. Another word, ‘millad’, as in ‘millad mob’ (meaning we, us, ours), seems to remember the English used when colonisation first began, and has turned it into an expression of Indigenous solidarity, belonging and resistance. (Interestingly, there is a fine distinction made in many Indigenous languages between ‘we’ including you, and ‘we’ excluding you).
Poems such as the one above are important for their representation of Indigenous speakers, with their explicit permission (as recorded in the book). These poems try to pay respect to the many dimensions of Indigenous worlds – worlds that exist in the same spaces as non-indigenous ones – and dimensions that can only begin to be intuited in their difference and complexity through listening to their words.
Tuesday, February 5th, 2019
November Journal by Diane Fahey
Whitmore Publishing, 2017
Meteorites by Carmen Leigh Keates
Whitmore Publishing, 2017
The most recent work by Diane Fahey, November Journal, and Carmen Leigh Keates’ first collection, Meteorites, represent two offerings of quiet intensity controlled and mediated by distinct voices and their respective energies. These volumes, both published by Whitmore Press, comprise a young poet’s sequence brimming with restless, cinematically inspired content, in contrast with a more deliberately delineated work, using an ancient, stripped down discipline to let its luminous ideas and images more clearly emerge.
Fahey’s method is expressed in one of her hundred tanka poems with such clear and concise elegance it is worth citing ‘Day 11 / Research’ in full:
Fields, woodlands explored
on foot. Shining-eyed fauna
who’ll gaze, later from
page, screen. Poems take shape, curved
inside bellied drops of time.
The tanka form is over a thousand years old, and is typically used to convey a strong sense of connection to nature and the elements, while allowing for the self to express itself as part of these, with just enough space for personification. From the outset of her journal, Fahey encounters bright and almost beatific beings of the natural world, which by a sleight of hand, or pen, may also constitute ‘a treasure trove / to be sacked.’ Birds and insects come into view as crystalline entities, in the company of other animate phenomena that could well have arisen from a text such as Rimbaud’s Illuminations, recalling the hallucinatory wonder of unmediated contact in their apprehension and presentation. In her responses to Country (which is acknowledged with due respect and embodied in the book) Fahey takes careful measure of her wandering, and winds her lines through the leaves and light of late Spring days as they lengthen.
The phases of each day emerge with their living protagonists, animal life marking a sense of synaesthesia seeming to derive both from instinct and a palpable sense of Deep Image poetics. In the pre-dawn darkness, for instance: ‘Only the birds’ voices shine.’ Pipits, swallows, starlings and cormorants are just a few species which embody emotions ‘when you / enter the bird soul … felt and known as real.’ Addressing the wattlebird, Fahey asserts: ‘I know, wattlebird / we are one’, the bird and poet with their respective craft and materials, deriving lattice, mesh and text from the same original source, as ‘fingers splice and wreathe / vinous lines, language in leaf.’
This cross-species kinship is adumbrated by the presence of others, such as the snake world, unseen yet no less present in its semi-visibility, both an initial caution and ‘fugitive signature’ that marks her parting. By contrast, the solid forms of cattle stand as correlative for a slightly alien assertion or imposition on the landscape, but ‘As they graze, hide shifts over / rib cages shaped like small hulls’, implying transformative potential in the vessel-like structures mammals share and sometimes come to imagine in worlds beneath the skin.
On the surface, Keates appears to operate in an entirely different kind of landscape, one that has shifted onto screens, in liminalities and borderlands, and where: ‘If there are animals here / they have not yet been added. / Not even their voices.’ The poetry operates in spaces that are cleared, connected and preserved across time, yet punctuated by palpable absence or transposition. In a landscape of absent animalia there is also a shift in transportation: ‘Walking among the boat-graves, we must remind / the tree and stones of the fish before the fossils.’ This extends to construction. In an Estonian church, ‘The cathedral walls have stone fins like tendons. / Look what we are in.’ Even at the polarities of geographical location – Keates writes from the extremes of northern and southern settings – there appears to be no way of evading the multiple layers and dimensions of evolution.
Keates presents a number of these poems upon a backdrop of her own subconscious: ‘usually my dreams have a grey light’, and uses the intertextuality provided by images artfully recreated from cinematic masterpieces to eloquent, oneiric effect. A standout example is her take on Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, with deft paraphrases of the pagan rites and raw power of youth, coupled with his novice monk’s sense of sexual transgression. The poem concludes with a pair of evocative images, before ending with what could be the book’s most memorable line:
On the surface of new knowledge
his shame makes steam.
The horses flush leather-black nostrils
to test how far he’s gone.
If you feel shame before a horse you are on fire.
Keates also indicates her imagist leanings and writerly role: ‘This poet is a photograph’, a special self-object, comprising silver dust, an animate artefact. This comes with a sense of Tarkovskian ‘Nostalghia’ in her final poem, applicable to the here and now as well as to the forces of history that create spaces between scenes that we remember, and others that are either forgotten or emerge from the strata of memory as discrete if uncontrollable events: ‘and in this layer, memory / is a demon that walks / like a soldier from a tunnel.’ This trope of return is far from being randomly placed, and in this alone, Meteorites finds grounds of affinity with Fahey’s ending which, ‘in its own time, in its own time’ is titled as an arrival and finds its metre in the footsteps of an echidna.
Keates’ endnotes tell us that the even the places seemingly unrelated to the cinematic strands that tie this book together are in fact significant in the history of film, as shooting locations or sites of residence for the auteurs themselves. They help form a palimpsest upon which presences from a recurrent past are reimagined and inscribed, just as Fahey’s living canvas collates eternally immanent forms of being in strands and sediment, capture and release.
Tuesday, February 5th, 2019
Seas and Trees
by Vahni Capildeo
Recent Work Press, 2018
by Jennifer Harrison
Recent Work Press, 2018
Numbers 8 and 10 in the IPSI (International Poetry Studies Institute) limited-edition chapbook series, Vahni Capildeo’s Sea and Trees and Jennifer Harrison’s Air Variations comprise crystalline, eidetic poems that attest to language’s capacity to renew and reinvigorate.
Trinidadian-British poet Capildeo’s Sea and Trees celebrates language itself – in its mutability and its material suggestiveness; its relationship to the world. Indeed, the natural world is signalled as a concern of both collections, by way of their titles, yet both demonstrate an extensive and transitory scope, along with a tendency to play.
In addition to each author’s prize-winning works in poetry, Capildeo has worked as a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, and Australian poet Harrison is a neuropsychiatrist. These biographical details feel germane in how they resonate with the sense of the two poets’ interest and fluency in realms of language broad and specialised.
In Capildeo’s ‘From Journal of Ordinary Days’, we read:
Sometimes I dream in a language that is mine only by scratches,
but I can get the tune of it, a whole conversation
between strangers friendly to each other, dawdling behind me
somewhere outdoors, a sandy cone of syllables
rising and falling, whole sentences
coming smattering to the surface from an occluded source.
Images such as Capildeo’s ‘sandy cone of syllables’ give language a concrete, textured presence (even, as here, in its obliqueness), in ways observed across the collection. Indeed, the poems often focus acutely on sensory perception. In the first section of the sequence ‘After a Hymn to Aphrodite’ (‘I. That Voice Revises Several Languages’), Capildeo writes:
[ … ] Don’t
we think of light and warmth together, cold
rock carries no weight, no, interstellar space
cannot impress us – to my knowledge. And
if we put our skates on? Though unplanned,
each ecstasy’s, each hesitation’s, trace
does cut some ice, in sharpened progress curved
again by lines on whiteness.
Here the attention to language concerns the colloquial, with the idiomatic ‘put our skates on’ – move, hurry – set in the poem’s vivid, tangible space, where actions are in negotiation with atmosphere.
There is also an acute interest in the intricacies of language – its composition and junctures – in ‘Vowel Poem: Albedo’, which begins:
Will you tell me a word
so beautiful that mourning
yields up its you to life
an o towards an r,
or is a vowel’s ghost
so powerful that mourning
invests with amethyst
the lily fields of dawn?
The poems are often comical, wry. The next section of ‘After a Hymn to Aphrodite’ (‘II. Put the Girls in Florals’) opens:
are showing off their reproductive organs
mostly like a froth and creamy dazzle
all over themselves, unstoppable
The poem itself dazzles with its effervescent, playful portrait of the trees ‘displaying airy brilliance sheer of fruit’; there is ‘something dancing: / a heart’ (these latter lines are also indicative of the poems’ playful reworking of the kinds of abstractions that abound in clichéd expression).
‘For Adjectives are one Road Cut into the Precipice Bordering Perfection’ offers a close reading of colour, association and translation:
I saw a sky the colour only of bluebells
the clear blue loved, reserved, only for bluebells
for imaginary equatorial cumulonimbus bluebells
– little like the actual absent weak-stemmed lilac flowers –
If you see,
we have that reading in common,
bleu celeste celestial blue
There is also a clear sense of dialogue with discourses on poetry – its dictums and tendencies. ‘Salthill Blue for Mr Laughlin’ opens:
Thinking unlike a poet,
quit making it new
or dragging netted memories
for the breathless why
Veering by Pound’s often-cited maxim, and rejecting affinities for nostalgia and earnest or precious breathlessness in verse, Capildeo offers less of an ‘ars poetica’ than the poem might initially motion as it shifts back to a sequence of concrete images:
this milky blue is also
taffeta, a sheen
of pouring fabric
beyond a purchaser’s means.
The sea creeps up on walking,
on the unsinkable sun,
shoes unburying seaweed,
sandworms burrowing down.
A similar sense of vim threads through Harrison’s poems, which, like Capildeo’s, are strikingly polished and musical in their composition. Air Variations opens with
‘I Topiary’, where a quiet energy hums through an associatively expansive garden space:
he cuts the hedge into a flat top
the bay tree and olives into disco balls
clipping and trimming paring and shaving
he spends all day on his version of a city
a border collie lies nearby ticdreaming
and outside in the street a neon blue ford
In the same poem, a succession of silhouettes produce a striking alchemy:
shadow and cone oblong circle and cube
emerge into clipped form distempered
the lavender now a hard blue spoon
Harrison’s poems are consistently rich in their immediate and emotional atmospheres, as we see too in ‘VII Scrap Yard’, with its ‘swash of autumn pear leaves meant to yellow / fall without attention’. The poem closes:
yes this is another kind of swimming
out here alone beyond the lovely reef
and did you not expect it to be cold
even though that shard of memory came
so suddenly from nowhere like a psalm
of the past piercing the heart of breath?
A strong sense of place often figures, along with the presence of interlocutors – both human and cultural. In ‘II My Cousin Rachel: The Movie’, Harrison writes:
Afterwards none of us liked the film we
Said all words felt sharp a little unsafe
we embraced lightly the night’s aftershine
thimbling from a thin quarter moon gloom
emptying us home through manicured streets
sleeping birds empty shops in pirouette
This careful pacing and filmic sequencing of detail and view – achieved through the poems’ artful structuring and lineation – extends across the collection. In ‘XII Emily Dickinson: The Movie’:
squares of sunlight appeared appositely
in windows and phantoms slipped in and out
of the fascicles my favourite part
was how she sewed her pages together
a large blunt needle pushed pulled through paper
as though paper was the skin of herself
At each turn these collections are ultimately joyful, even as they elicit various moods. Capildeo’s, for instance, opens with a sense of menace: ‘The trees had evolved to eat other trees. / That this happened at the end of a garden. / This was first noticed in a small tree’s wincing’ (1). The chapbooks provide compelling and rewarding samples of the poets’ work. Poems in Seas and Trees appear in Capildeo’s collection Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018) – true to IPSI’s intention that the chapbooks offer more than might appear from any one poet in a single journal issue, ahead of publication in book form.
IPSI’s slim, smartly produced volumes showcase two invigorating voices, inviting further or renewed engagement with Capildeo, Harrison and each poet’s luminous, vitalising music.
Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
Species of Spaces by Ken Bolton
Shearsman Books, 2018
Ken Bolton’s thinking is never too relaxed, but moves restlessly and anxiously, across people, cultural references and disparate locations even as he writes, or so it appears. And the resultant poems also seem to be unfiltered by any desire on the poet’s part to be ‘poetic’. But perhaps this is illusory. The poems are, after all, carefully considered and crafted, occupying the page determinedly even though the poet writes as if the events and thoughts he references are taking place in an ongoing, urgent present, via a stream of consciousness, and that the last thing on his mind is making ‘poetry’. Indeed, Bolton records something that looks like immediate, unfiltered thought and his compelling purpose is to register rather than editorialise.
The poems are laconic, sometimes funny and disarmingly casual in their address, coupled with seeming randomness in both diction and punctuation. He appears to avoid any striving towards the considered, drafted poem and instead follows impulsive thought as an end in itself. We are provided then with access to the joys, anxieties and emotional complications present in a life recorded in real time and space. However, we would be wrong to consider the work to be confessional in any sense, nor is it ever reliable autobiography as such. Bolton is not interested in either but rather in wider philosophical questions about the nature of perception and what impact cognition has on emotion and happiness. Further, the poet himself is the investigated subject and the focus of an ongoing, self-scrutinising, scientific experiment in poetry that is essentially about thought.
The first poem in the book opens with an account of an ‘Ongoing Moment’, and demonstrates Bolton’s capacity to register his own shifting thoughts via a disparate narrative that has the poet and his partner, the author, Cath Kennealy, at an airport where they are soon to ‘fly out / a few hours late’ on some trip or other. The situation is described as ‘– anxiously perilous –’ but it is also charged with possibility and as a consequence the poet feels:
less pissed off
& separated –
because we booked our flights
I don't know
where Cath is sitting
or what she's doing –
well, reading probably ...
(‘In Three Parts: A Report on the Ongoing Moment.’ 9)
This is remarkably ordinary and prosaic, even dismissive. However, it is also extraordinary in its insistence on the recording of the banal vicissitudes of a lived moment. And there is a febrile urgency here that is compelling in a poem that provides an eye onto the realm of the poet’s ‘live’ thinking and writing (as illusory as that might be) and these are inseparable. Here, the ‘place’ in the poem, in this case the airport, becomes an anchor of sorts. This is critical, not because the poet is bent on ‘location’ for its own sake or because he want to ‘document’ as such, but because each space or person mentioned (or indeed any wider cultural reference that pops into his head) is ultimately and sadly fugitive. There is a deep apprehension of inevitable and painful loss even within the lived ‘present’. The mind traveling as it does, erratically, uncontrolled, with ‘a mind of its own’ as it were, inhabits a deeply anxious space (one of the ‘species’ of spaces in the book’s title) where in any poem, the wider world can and does intrude: Miles Davis might wander through, or Stendahl, Cath (Kennealy), Pam (Brown), or indeed any of the poet’s friends and fellow poets, past and present as well as abstracted, wider philosophical concerns, or whatever. And while these thoughts might well be triggered by a particular place, in this case an airport (there is also in this and other poems: ‘Leigh Street’, ‘on the train back to Sydney’, ‘Gilbert Place’, ‘Melbourne’, the ‘South Coast’ and so on, names that are all familiar enough), the poet remains alienated. ‘Place’ becomes ‘no-place’ and in Bolton’s mind anyway, out of time.
For this reason, the airport, along with the delayed flight experienced in ‘A Report on the Ongoing Moment’ provide the perfect metaphor to represent the poet’s dislocation from his own life and that of his friends, because forced to exist in a no-place, the airport, even temporarily, the poet finds himself unattached, a notion that is both exhilarating (because it allows space for the mind to wander associatively) and anxiety provoking (because Bolton is subject to the vagaries of forces beyond his control). It is this that becomes the subject of the poem as he riffs about: meeting friends, working with a friend on a catalogue, describing book launches that made everybody ‘too nervous to relate much’ and thinking about poets like John Tranter who goes off for a drink ‘while the computer composes poems for him …’ and Pam Brown whose work: changed then, too / & continued to change, /And then there’s mine / – my abiding problem. / When does this plane land? This is marvellous in its accumulation of apparently disassociated thought so exhilaratingly and urgently expressed.
While on one hand this poem and more in Species of Spaces, celebrates the mind’s wanderings as a kind of freedom, there remains a palpable anxiety and underlying sadness to do with the notion of impermanence that haunts many poems otherwise witty, even rakish and certainly perverse. And as Bolton reminds us, the world moves and everything that we know (and love) shifts too. So, by implication, despite an apparent surface banality and ease in the poems, time and death remain ever present for Bolton, investigated in poetry that concentrates on the spaces occupied by a shifting, lonely mind at work: ‘Too many /… of the people I know about, / care about / are dying / a / feeling / more than a thought’ (‘Spot Check’ 61)
Bolton travels as the ‘hero’ in his own poems, wandering like a flaneur, with apparent casualness. And if he needs to be funny at times, that is belied by the utter seriousness of the ultimate mission, an attempt to understand or at the very least register the unalterable motion of ‘thought’, as mercurial as that is: A guy, / unintentionally debonair, / using a long, furled, / pink umbrella / like a walking stick / flamboyant / but not consciously so, / lost in thought. / As who isn’t? –Thought’ / Each with / our own. (‘Gilbert Place–Cafe Boulevard’ 78)
Evidenced here in this ‘quest’ towards understanding (that’s what it is, as old fashioned as that may sound) there is a lyric heart at the core of the seemingly random, even sometimes chaotic life lived, or anyway surveyed in the poems. Further, there is a yearning for ‘fixedness’, predictability and contentment.
Act as if
the world exists, the Surrealists
said. It, certainly, won't act
as if you did &
me, I'm barely here.
Tho happy at this moment.
(‘Two Melbourne Poems, June 2012’ 95)
‘at this moment’ suggests that there may well be other moments, perhaps many moments, or even ‘usually’, when the poet finds happiness more elusive.
Bolton’s testing, roaming lines attempt to address, even within their shape and arrangement, the impossibility of pinning the sometimes banal mind-scape he inhabits, where accidental meetings in thought are always possible, where love is given and taken, where poems begin and end, where people are described as going to events or not, where friendships always matter and from where the mind is free to wander albeit through uncertain terrain. Thought itself wanders, sometimes anxiously, from place to place, person to person, idea to idea. And this is what Bolton captures best, in verse that is itself a vivid representation of the very mind shifts that go on relentlessly and for most of us, unconsciously.
...with Kurt, whom I've never
been closer to, & Dennis
& Laurie (whom
I finally got to
(‘In Three Parts: A Report on the Ongoing Moment’ 9)
That Bolton replicates a mind shifting through mental and physical ‘spaces’ of various kinds in his poetry is his particular achievement. In this, he proclaims the extraordinariness of the ordinary, with the proviso that we must understand an essential paradox: that is, to travel (in thought or bodily) is only possible if there is also a notion of fixedness and stasis. The poet to be free (and this seems to be what the poet desires) must first locate a space to travel from, to move away from. The obsessive quest to locate a place that the mind occupies in stillness and quiet is ultimately doomed. This dilemma is at the heart of the poet’s fundamental anxiety. Bolton’s poems are like the notes pinned to the door when you go out. Are you telling others where you are, or yourself?
Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
Archipelago by Adam Aitken
Vagabond Press, 2017
Present by Elizabeth Allen
Vagabond Press, 2017
In a judicious review of two ‘lucid and intelligent books’ on the job of the literary critic* and of a new edition of Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, Edward Mendelsohn argued against the essential nostalgia of criticism in favour of a version of Kant’s ‘universal subjective’: finding ways to cross ‘the disputed border between popular and elite culture … without pretending it doesn’t exist’. One of the recurring negotiations for the critic – and, I would argue, for the poet – is the difficult business of intimacy: how to inscribe the subjective as both ‘confessional’ (and ‘lyrical’) as well as observational, satirical, evaluative.
These two very different collections from Vagabond Press offer tangential, engaging and verbally sinuous takes on this interplay. Adam Aitken’s Archipelago dramatises consciousness as a scattering of (dead?) islands – the cover image shows famous graves marked by numbers (to which you need a key) in the underground city of the Cimetière Montmartre. The poems are ‘postcards’ of places in France (from Paris to Avignon), French art, writing and history; freewheeling thinking and memories, cultural commentary. The gods invoked and played with in Archipelago include Henri Rousseau, René Char, Gustave Flaubert, Arthur Rimbaud and Ezra Pound (that troubadour riff ). Aitken’s perspective is ‘cool’, ironic at a playful, postmodern distance. Elizabeth Allen’s Present, with its cover hommage to Frida Kahlo’s What I Saw in the Water suggests a more ‘felt’ concern with habitation, process, subjectivity. Allen’s poems focus on personal relationships, the dimensions and language of experience and affect. They present themselves as epistolary and confessional – like carefully sculpted journal entries. I am tempted to suggest the volumes embody the differences between the modernisms of Joyce and Lawrence, between observing and feeling, negotiating ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ in overlapping ways.
Consider Aitken’s ‘Lyric’ for example: ‘First there is the picking of a rose / then the theory of what it means; / … / First death, then empathy. / … / There are the interiors, / then the interiors of the interiors / and what comes between us / is precisely the subject of the poem / … / padded with medieval tapestries, / perhaps the mineralised torso of a God, / or even a country that can’t address us / as [it] lacks a studio or [eyrie]’. Pervading Aitken’s poetry is a sense of something almost confrontationally personal, kept at arm’s length by constant thinking, observing, wordplay, juxtaposition of contrarieties (for example, ‘death, then empathy’, above).
Liz Allen’s poems are often almost heartbreaking, with their crystal craziness and their just-so-ordinary, almost casual vernacular. The fine ‘Absence’ sequence apostrophises the concept in five definitional movements which are wry, but testify to intense sadness as well as defensive indifference. The first poem’s ‘frangipani tree / outside the window / that I will never see again’ suggests a sense of family and childhood connectedness that the poet has lost, irretrievably. Like Robert Adamson’s ‘Things Keep Going Out of My Life’, the poem elegises loss through images of house and garden. The second poem points to a sense of distances in a relationship: shoes abandoned on a floor image a transitoriness of connection, a hankering / keening. The third poem gestures towards ‘a deficiency / that does not have a name’ yet it is evident and seems to taunt the poet. The fourth poem asserts ‘the mind’s need / to slip away for a while’ and is a measure of our tenuous connection to the reality of our lives. The final poem’s ‘absence’, ‘failure to attend or appear when expected’, is deemed ‘unauthorised’ and ‘will result in a failing grade’, dramatizing the failure of relationship. Though these poems look crisply formal, their power is in the emotional force of the language.
Aitken’s fifth collection of poems begins and ends (if we take the final poem ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’ as a kind of postscript) with Paris and the Seine – as place, river, ethos and motif, framing a sense of location and identity ‘thrumming with submarine frequencies’. The opening poem ‘Tributaries of the Seine’ has the ‘hypothermic’ poet ‘obsessed’ with measurement and origin, wondering if we are products of geography ‘in the gust of a mistral’s ancient grammar’ or dredged from the ‘mudflats of someone’s youth’. As well, there’s an awareness of the minute ‘vestiges of our heritage … drunk on a minor fifth … in time’s self-immolating hangover’: so the poem opens the collection on an allusive, dense, agnostic note, playfully destabilising the poet / reader’s consciousness and suggesting he/we are subject to subtle local influences which shape our macro-awareness. A bird bath’s ‘blue meniscus fluttering’ suggests that relationships and identity, including parents and their foods and failings shape us and embody limitations that the subject/individual is left to deal with.
In ‘The Foreign Legionnaire’, near the end, the Seine is ‘a limpid green gutter / in which the stars will shine … an absinthe grin’ which allowed poets to ‘[wring] eloquence by the neck … when poems were babies / born in clouds of spoor.’
Geography is an opportunity for Aitken to muse on the associative capacities of centrifugal imagery, so every attempt to explain personality, motive or art in terms of origin, influence or accidental connection, is equally specious. As ‘Nostalgia’, the second poem in the collection implies, acknowledged memories don’t fit the bureaucracy’s determinants: ‘it’s dream-French, not real’. The poet is a ‘drunken swift / nest[ing] in old bell towers’. Identity and history are less a matter of colonialist capitalism or geomorphic shift but more a function of a ‘galaxy map of his head’.
Early on, in the first of Allen’s three epistolary dramatic monologues, the ‘I’ affects diffidence, self-deprecation in the face of poignant moments: ‘I’m sort of on the run but I am not sure what from … I bought a box of Toblerone, telling myself it would be an excellent example of a triangular prism to teach three-dimensional shapes to the kids … before I remembered I am not a teacher anymore.’ The triangular prism becomes a motif for the repeated misprision in self-analysis and relationships: ‘You can only look from one vantage point after all.’ The poem links this to being ‘seated in a theatre in such a way that you get a glimpse of what is happening in the wings.’ But Allen’s ‘I’ wonders if changing perspectives is about advantage or vulnerability, giving us a palpable sense of moments passing.
In ‘Avignon-Paris TGV, Winter 2012’ Aitken writes, ‘Plain speaking is in again. / They say poets can’t do it / but I can, and I will say / that all or part of you (Old Londoner, old plain-speaker) / is all of this, the very scene itself.’ Of course, it’s more complicated than that: the poem positions ‘him’ on the train and conjures images of autumn ‘burning off / when chaff vapourises into rain’ against a ‘palette-key for provincial sunflowers, / lavender and geranium scents.’ It’s a fragmentation of bi-cultural awareness, charged with significance and memory (ghosts of Wordsworth and Coleridge haunting the conversation). Aitken calls it ‘remnant optimism’: ‘a gift / compressed to / miniature, sleight-of-hand, / synecdoche’. His poetry pulls us towards intimacy while remaining grounded in so-called ‘objective reality’. And synecdoche is right, too, as a descriptor of Aitken’s poetry: dazzling – so many parts standing for many more wholes. The poems move constantly from micro to macro; the minute as lens to the world and back again. So the train’s high-speed ‘passing’ and ‘leaving’ embodies separation – cleaving, in both antithetical senses: a ‘French railway after-effect / that radiates the idea of you’.
We see Aitken’s idiosyncratic wit at its most roccoco in ‘Junier’s Cart’, apostrophising the famous Rousseau painting and its apparently unexciting neighbourliness (‘nor lion’s dream of Arabs, / No nude lady of the desert / dreaming of a lion.’) Wondering if ‘it’s a joke on Paris … the irony of a flat tableaux’ [sic]) Aitken sees Rousseau the artist (as we see Aitken the poet) as a ‘malingering taxidermist / who practised on living humans and called it art’: ‘Your eyes in sideways glance / at yourself, the viewer and the viewed’. And then there’s an Australian gaze: ‘others saw it, Nolan’s constable / on a camel’. Aitken is taken by the playful and ambiguous constructedness of the painting – how art and poetry reframe in order to ‘pose’ and ‘arrest’. Later, in ‘Dreaming Rousseau at the Pont Du Gard’, poet and painter are ‘surveying time’s mess’.
Conversely, beneath the pointedly sarcastic surface of Allen’s trenchant ‘eHarmony Quick Questions’ shudders an existential angst, cleverly caught by her juggling of different verbal registers: ‘How important is chemistry to you? / Hyoscine hydrobromide is thought to prevent motion sickness by stopping the messages sent from the vestibular system from reaching an area of the brain called the vomiting centre.’ There is a kind of bipolar fluctuation between intense embrace and almost nihilism running through the poems. The sensuality of ‘Orange Delicious’ when memory of roadside fruit ‘small / and ugly / but so delicious’ leads to a teasing awareness of ‘something / sweeter / more right, more real / just out of reach’. Or, more darkly, in the post-Plath ‘Thirty Minute Meal’ where the family ‘cake’ is metaphorised as a recipe after which ‘[you] put the kids to bed / then put your head in the oven.’ Elsewhere playfully morbid, Allen imagines ‘Emilia Fox slicing me open, / taking out my lungs, weighing my heart’ or herself as a psychiatric ‘Outpatient’: ‘here I’m not mad enough / whereas everywhere else I’m too mad / … / I’ve decided / everyone can come dressed as their favourite / unhelpful thinking style. / … catastrophising, overgeneralisation, / crystal balling’.