FRESH Friday, April 20th, 2018
Alison Croggon has worked across many forms in her career, and connections to several are represented in these pages – the nine-part poem ‘Specula’, for example, comes from a larger work of the same title which also involves an essay and a radio play.
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Tuesday, February 6th, 2018
The Criminal Re-Register by Ross Gibson
UWA Publishing, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent. – Dragnet
This is a volume of (mainly) prose poems, derived by its compiler/adaptor/author Ross Gibson, from a large dossier of New South Wales Police records. If these can be described as ‘found’ poems (even if they have been edited) it would be as likely to refer to them as ‘accidental’. Certainly, these portraits and narratives may be challenging and at times infuriating, but when fully firing they are art, very entertaining and most instructive. Centred on criminals and missing persons, the cache Gibson has discovered seems to have been made for poets to find, they being much too important for writers of contemporary Australian prose fiction. One could of course imagine plenty of such material appearing in an historical Selected Documents anthology, in particular the prologue section ‘Notes for Detectives and Men in Plain Clothes.’
Why, though, poetry as the destination? Because so much of The Criminal Re-Register is propelled by language, a strange police dossier lingo from Sydney in 1957. Did the police involved realise they were concocting something fairly akin to poetry? I doubt it. Rather, it’s as if they had been instructed: ‘Whatever you do don’t write poetry …’ and little realising, they did it. Poetry for them may have had been connected with big rhetorical sweeps, and these were the domain of barristers, weren’t they?
Allied to the fodder for imagination, certain authors and their traditions came to mind reading the book: Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology of 1915, that wonderful sequence of brief monologues and a verse novel ahead of its time; the biographical portraits and the ‘Newsreel’ and ‘Camera Eye’ sections of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy; and Pi O’s epics, 24 Hours and Fitzroy the Biography, wherein he forges an incomparable bond between the documentary and the demotic. Though 1957 was too early to see much connection with television cop drama (that medium only arrived in late 1956), the stark style of the reports adapted by Gibson brings to mind the Los Angeles-based series, Dragnet. Quite often the folk Gibson portrays read like they are in some twenty-five minute Sydney-based episode in miniature.
Are these found / accidental / documentary poems to be judged by the rules of more conventional verse? When required, maybe; though for The Criminal Re-Register I’ll give an example as to where I stand vis-à-vis found poetry, giving my benchmark for such a genre. In the late 1970s I possessed a newspaper advertisement promoting an exclusive housing development out of Brisbane. This took the form of a letter from a very excited young property developer to his mate in wintry old Melbourne extolling Karana Downs, its country club and golf course. Far smoother than mere ocker it was more ‘young man in the know’ to fellow ‘young man in the know’, saying so much about those times, probably without being aware of it. I loved this piece of Australiana so much that I had to spread the word and would be found reading ‘Karana Downs’ aloud at dinners and parties. Soon folk were clamouring for it, near chanting for a recitation. That most were quite stoned doubtless added to the clamour. Was this ad a ‘found’ poem, was it indeed poetry? Well, it was a damn sight more performable than plenty of performance poetry I’d heard, and much more poetry than plenty of contemporary Australian verse I’d read. It had wit, it had vigour, it used the language imaginatively and it was a hit. Who cared about the ‘White Shoe’ values it expressed when the product and its promoter sounded great? Indeed, one wonders if its hyperbole was concocted by the agency to have some kind of laugh at the client’s expense … surely not!
Given the choice between a dull poem and a lively less-than-poem it’s obvious where I’m heading with The Criminal Re-Register. For one of the book’s delights, its major fuel, is that very formal, official cop-speak used in the reports, which hardly goes with the Police Force’s walloper reputation. Thus (and notice the amount of sheer observation and speculation):
Last seen at Central Railway Station carrying a green canvas sack cinched with red twine. Maybe at large in Bathurst or parts further west, or may have suffered a misadventure instigated by any one of the myriad reprobates he has antagonised in recent years.
Or try this:
Offender is of quiet disposition, sober habits, a dapper dresser and keeps no known criminal associates. A neophyte thief, perhaps in thrall to a newly risen mania that cannot be tempered by his will.
And once you are accustomed to such straight-faced seriousness, try imagining:
Fair go mate, just name us some myriad reprobates you’ve antagonized
Admit it, sonny, you’re nothing but a neophyte thief […] now tell us of your newly risen mania, we’ll understand.
And then there are those beautiful sentences telling enough with just so much being hinted at: ‘Ten minutes alone in a dim cell primes him ready to talk’; and ‘May have jumped a rattler to Casino’; and ‘Suffers from lumbago and irritable spirits.’ Or look at these from ‘Assorted Malefactor Quirks’ for which police should be on the lookout:
Skiting of unusual prowess: E.G. as a crooner, a songwriter, a fondler and copulatory, a horse or dog trainer, a floral arranger, a dancer, a bushman, a comforter of the sick, a hospital troubadour, a guardian angel to children.
Monday, January 29th, 2018
redactor by Eddie Paterson
Whitmore Press, 2017
As a physical object with an online extraction, Eddie Paterson’s new book of poems, redactor, presents the performance of mark-making in an ever expanding digital sphere. The juxtaposition between the white of the page and the black of the ink has long provided a site for textual collision, one that was used to great effect by the concrete poets and the French Symbolists. Out of the deep web’s detritus, Paterson’s collection discovers new poetic spaces of beauty in the banality of our metadata.
As feeds refresh and emails are automatically vetted for junk, redactor reclaims writing that would otherwise be lost, all the while preserving the decadent excess of digital information and communication, as the reader traverses the ‘aisleform’ of images that fit-out the collection’s mise-en-scène. Whilst found poetry and cut-ups, epistolary poems, and lyric monologues are all present in this collection, Paterson affirms a poetics of attention in the context of a superabundance of cultural production, naming his way through film titles, basketball players, critical theorists and fashion accessories. Paradoxically, the poetic practices of attention-grabbing and attention-holding are best exemplified by Paterson’s with-holding, embodied by the black mark: the redaction.
That the redactions are not random and that they are persistent throughout the collection remind us there is one actor performing. This redactor (or (red)actor) elicits a verfremdungseffekt by creating distance between the ‘i’ of the poem and the reader as the Brechtian directive suggests. By obscuring names and gendered pronouns, the Rimbaudian je est en autre is here remixed to establish a subject that, much like an online avatar, is capable of transcending the limits of the physical. This evasive performance of subjectivity negates the possibility for a reader to experience direct empathy or cathartic transference with the speaker and correspondingly the stage is cleared for the creation of an elaborate aesthetic through language.
In the same manner that Basquiat’s strikethroughs inevitably highlight the partially obscured text on his canvases, Paterson’s redactions demand the reader’s attention by their suggestion of silence in the steady flow of (non-acoustic) monologue. Formally, the monologues (and implied dialogues) in redactor are performed through statistics, articles, emails and instant messages. When Truman Capote slurred the work of Jack Kerouac as typing – not writing – few could have anticipated the personal computer (and by extension the smartphone / tablet) and the impact that these online typing machines would have not simply on creation, but on communication. Reading the physical copy of redactor as an anthology of calls and responses apprehended brings the audience into the immediate moment of poetry. The performance of creative writing in Paterson’s world becomes an instantaneous and embodied process of text communicated: generated as fast as the fingers move and read as quickly as the broadband connection allows.
Some wonderful blurring of the physical and digital occurs in redactor, particularly in the incantatory displacement of the poem ‘alert, but not afeared’. Beginning, ‘do not be alarmed. eddie the computer has taken on a life of its / own’, this poem equivocally warns a human about the improved capabilities of AI and / or assigns a subjectivity to ‘eddie the computer’, granting it its own non-gendered pronoun.
The aptly titled ‘rhetoric’ makes the case for reading the digital stage into this collection. The poem assumes the guise of an email / instant message that ends, ‘it’s about how it’s your birthday & i / really wanted to say happy birthday. happy birthday’. Informed by J L Austin’s theory of the performative speech act, this poem performs the birthday wish without the requirement of some other place or platform for the speaker to say happy birthday. Equally, ‘verfremdungseffekt’ is not just the title of a poem, but the actual enactment of what it purports.
This passage from ‘flow’ provides an insight into Paterson’s ironic displacement of the actor, as clothing is raised to the level of costume:
punk dressing went well though, as suspected, the
intellectual deliciousness of a person who identifies strongly
with the punk dressing up as a fake punk was lost to all.
Filmic titles used throughout the collection time-stamp the poems, but also suggest mise-en-abyme. In ‘just to the right of the heart of it’ the speaker’s re-watching of the film ‘Robocop’ is an important marker between the ‘hysterical garbage’ of a contemporary alien invasion film ‘battle: los angeles’ and the ‘white ribbon
xxxxxx films about nazi germany i generally don’t see’, both temporally and aesthetically. ‘Robocop’, as part-man/part-machine, suits the collection’s liminal treatment of the physical/digital by being neither dazzlingly post-modern nor pretentiously modernist. One can imagine the cyberpunk action hero redactor in its kitsch late-eighties resplendence tearing through a warehouse of digital correspondence brandishing a black marker.
The final poem in the collection, ‘love poem’, offers the best synecdoche for redactor. ‘love poem’ consolidates the collection’s aesthetic accretion of stuff, taking ownership for every aforementioned movie trilogy, serialised drama, basketball statistic, kitsch accessory and instruction manual. Heaping one reference upon another, Paterson shows how the accumulation of language can be purposed to build a wall for the actor to hide behind. As the poem continues one realises Paterson is not only assembling imagery, but also building toward a dramatic conclusion, eventually breaking this fourth wall with the poem’s final couplet:
have optimus prime wolf parade david hockney roman holiday
leave me with the park with the sun & that afternoon when
unexpectedly you moved away from kafka & toward me.
In a collection where ‘russel crowe’ (who ‘consistently brings us to tears’) and ‘hugo weaving’ (who stars in a poem ‘no one seems to get’) feature prominently, Eddie Paterson, emerges at the close of ‘love poem’ as an Australian leading man, capable of a deft and show-stopping performance.
Monday, January 29th, 2018
The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky
edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin
UWA Press, 2017
On 2 July, 2017, my father sends me an article about Jewish Australian poet Fay Zwicky’s passing in Perth. I am four months into my Masters in Brisbane, where I am writing a manuscript of poetry and a thesis about tensions between my Jewish identity, memory, mental illness and hybridity as mediated through cultural objects and poetry. Fay Zwicky is one of my contemporary case studies and as I read through the article, I discover that the day before she died at age 83, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky was published, spanning her life’s work.
After long silence my broken world sits sweet
with memory, its beauty dries my tongue
Including seventeen uncollected poems at the end of the collection, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky also contains her previous works Isaac Babel’s Fiddle (1975), Kaddish (1982), Ask Me (1990), The Gatekeeper’s Wife (1999) and Picnic (2006), in order of publication. An introduction from editors Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin gives insightful context to her works, as does Zwicky’s important essay ‘Border Crossings’ (2000). Both the introduction and ‘Border Crossings’ are pertinent additions to the collection as they discuss Zwicky’s cultural background and the Jewish rituals that inform her poetry.
The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky shows Zwicky’s style evolving from her earlier poems. However, there are still strong connections between these early and later poems; this is made particularly evident by the presence of Jewish motifs. Weaving together Jewish references through her witty, often-rebellious voice and her play on language, these can be traced back to Zwicky’s first collection Isaac Babel’s Fiddle. The title poem, ‘Isaac Babel’s Fiddle Reaches the Indian Ocean’ contains an extract from Babel’s short story Awakening and opens with Zwicky’s lines:
Just try and cast a piano
In the sea
Take it from me, you’ll
Never make it.
Her voice rises to the fore in Kaddish, which brought her international recognition, and continues powerfully throughout her later collections. Drawing on her training as a classical pianist, Zwicky’s poems have musicality, rhythm and revel in sound, giving voice to women and minorities previously silenced by history. In her series ‘Ark Voices’ from Kaddish, Zwicky speaks through Mrs Noah and animals such as the Hippo, Wolf, and Whale. Her uncollected poem ‘Domestic Architecture’ heralds back to this theme, also evident in the title poem from The Gatekeeper’s Wife:
Severed from my ancestors
I light a candle for you
Every night inside a clay house.
Memory is only half the story.
In ‘The Terracotta Army at Xi’an’ in Picnic, Zwicky lets the voiceless Emperor Qinshihuang, the spear bearer, the cook, the farrier, the archer and the potter speak through poetic monologues. Dougan and Dolin write in their introduction that Zwicky had a fear of being unable to speak and of losing her voice. In ‘Ask Me’, Zwicky explicitly references this anxiety of speechlessness as the speaker crosses China, America and Australia:
It’s the year of the Dragon.
Omens for the journey aren’t encouraging.
No language and I’m booked
on China airlines. In Hong Kong I dream
that I am born without a tongue
and wake up screaming…
—excerpt from ‘China Poems 1988’, part 1 ‘Roosters and Earthworms’
Of all Zwicky’s poems, her title poem from Kaddish best showcases the Jewish motifs displayed throughout this collection, and her reconfiguring and refreshing of language and ideas. ‘Kaddish’ is an elegy for Zwicky’s father and one of her most famous works, which took eighteen months to write. Drawing on Hebrew from the Jewish Mourner’s Prayer (the Kaddish), Zwicky also references the Passover song Had Gadya (One Little Goat) and turns the words upside down, making familiar melodies unfamiliar through metaphor. As I have recited the Passover songs every year since childhood, Zwicky’s inversion of Had Gadya is like a spot-the-difference game of rearranged fragments.
Zwicky credits the authors and influences that helped her find a voice in the 1970s: the Jewish American novelists Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, whose work gave her a community that she felt she lacked in the Australian context. She also discovered Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Kaddish’ seventeen years after it had been published, and this was the breakthrough that made her feel freer to finish writing her own ‘Kaddish’.
For Zwicky, poetry has always seemed to be ‘a source of hope, a means of speaking against an orthodoxy, be it religious, political, or social’. Featured at the end of the book, Zwicky’s new and uncollected poems continue in these modes. For example, in her poem ‘In Rehab’, Dr Kiberu asks ‘are you religious?’ and Zwicky writes ‘I could be but not so you’d notice’. This line intersects with Zwicky’s major themes of Jewish identity in her earlier collections and is one that resonates throughout The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky.
As a Jewish Australian woman writer, I am grateful that Zwicky has shown the possibilities of poetry for others to follow. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky is an extremely valuable addition to literature and a beacon for minority women’s voices to continue to break conventions, write and speak out.
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
The Quiet Blue World, and Other Poems by Rachael Mead
Garron Publishing, 2015
Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy
UWA Publishing, 2017
The chapbook is the ideal public presentation of poetry for the times in which we live. It is even more portable than the conventionally slim collection; its humbler production values permit poets to get their work ‘out there’, thereby meeting the democratic criterion of accessibility for both poet and reader, and it is conducive to the rigours of thematic focus that a small body of work encourages. Long may it flourish.
Garron Publishing’s cover design for Rachael Mead’s chapbook, The Quiet Blue World, and Other Poems, misleads – it invites the reader to anticipate a fairy tale, when the poetry is hard-edged and very much of this world. Mead observes that world closely and keenly, though not romantically. In our assault upon the very processes of natural renewal, a distinctly non-romantic mode of writing the natural world is called for, and for this Mead can serve as an exemplar. Not that she does not recognise beauty; she is as adept at depicting beauty at sea as she is on land. She writes, in the title poem, of:
… the bobbing disk of birds.
Then the pod of dolphins, gleaming like needles
sewing the swell with their swift running-stitch.
And finally the orca, hunting the peaks and ridges
of their world, parting from the faces of waves
which open to them like the throats of seabirds
taking fish in one clean swallow.
This could easily slip into lyrical sweetness, but Mead is at sea to dive – in a cage! – into Great White habitat, and in the following sections of the poem, when this actually takes place, the very drama of the event serves as an antidote to any temptation to a starry-eyed tone of telling.
My favourite poem is the one that follows the title sequence, a poem in three sections entitled ‘What the Fire Didn’t Touch’. In this poem Mead unsentimentally dissects the loss of the family home to bushfire, along with her emotional reaction to it. The writing is precise, its evocation vivid. In what I presume to be the generation of the poet’s parents, a mother’s world merged with the world of the home. I am reminded of Meyer and Schapiro’s notion of ‘femmage’, the woman’s art of the home-making collage, a quilt-patterned geography of meaning, one characterised by complexity and creative clutter. The home, then, is much more than a merely functional edifice, given its elaborate knit of emotional meanings. To fight for the home against the threat of fire was to fight death itself:
Mum, who was never late for a day in her life,
woke up early for her death and missed it.
With her nightie pulled up over her nose
and wielding water in Grandma’s preserving pan
she was focused on the flames
and didn’t notice her death slink away
through the charred hole in the laundry ceiling.
This opening passage seems capable of multiple interpretations, many of them probably more cogent than the one I have advanced, but at her best Mead is like this; descriptively strong and clear, emotionally and conceptually complex, even enigmatic. It makes for striking poetry.
But I want to return to the notion of femmage, that essentially feminine quilted pattern of creative meaning. I have introduced it in connection with a single stanza, focused on the author’s mother, in a single poem – but it seems to me that this notion powerfully informs Mead’s own praxis. The structure of the longer poems is that of collage – no great insight there, as that is a common mode of organising longer poems – but it may be that Mead has a front-of-brain awareness of why she does this, as the metaphoric field from which she draws relies heavily on those domestic crafts.
Yet in the final poem in her collection, ‘Behind Locked Doors’, an uneasy amble through a cemetery evokes disquiet over the reduction of lives to a few sparse lines. The poet of nature – the poet with a sense of the interconnectedness of all things – supplants the poet of femmage. She is looking, it seems, for more than the mere ‘pieces’ we use to weave stories. The pieces in themselves are unsatisfactory, the edges and lines arbitrary. They hide a more profound reality, and she gives voice to it in the lines with which she closes the poem and the collection:
… below the hard packed earth
the dead slowly get on with their dark work
of sifting themselves back
into the green world.
I read those lines and straightened my back – I’d just experienced one of those rare ‘I wish I’d written that’ moments. This is a fine small collection, then, one that does the chapbook format proud – tightly themed, resonant and democratically accessible.
Each of the volumes reviewed here demonstrate the extent to which the nature writing tradition can encompass a hard-edged non-lyricism. In Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms this is embodied in the enigma of the central motif of the snake. The intrigue begins with its title – no hyphen – thereby creating an ambiguity which is allowed to remain tantalisingly open. Not every poem features an encounter with, or a meditation on snakes, but one potentially lies in wait on every turn of the page.
In the case of snakes, the lyrical trend in nature writing has manifested in a tendency to depict them as misunderstood creatures, as forms of animal life to be primarily categorised by their remarkable beauty. The best-known exemplar of this is D H Lawrence’s much-read poem, ‘The Snake’. I, too, find snakes beautiful; so, on occasions, does Joy. But there is no escaping the fact that, exceptions notwithstanding, humankind has a visceral fear of snakes that kicks in sub-rationally, sending a wave of adrenaline coursing through one’s body. There are variations on this primal fear, with utter horror at the extreme end of the spectrum, and Joy is more inclined to explore these reactions than to sing of a lyrical beauty. The book is threaded with menace. Just when you thought it was safe to declare yourself at home in nature you are confronted by ‘the near silence/of an unseen snake in the grass’ (‘Spectacular Snakes’).
I suppose it’s okay to refer to Joy as a nature poet, for the snake is not the only form of more-than-human life within these pages, and the reader is always aware that this is poetry of the outdoors; poetry of wide views and skies. Joy is even explicit about it, telling us, in ‘Sensed through Opaque Windows’:
It’s hard to understand architecture
when my past is sea and desert.
But, just as with Mead, Joy’s poetry of nature is decidedly unromantic. That central motif of the snake ensures it so. It articulates the gulf between our fascination with nature and our inability, as a cultivated species, to be as one with it. The snake is there, over the next log perhaps, or in the empty wading pool with the author’s daughter (‘Wading Pool’), or in another young girl’s bedroom, drinking there from the saucer of milk (‘The Snake’s Ghost’). Nature, Tennyson told us, is ‘red in tooth and claw’. He should have added ‘fang’. And sometimes this brutality spills over into full-blown Gothic horror. In ‘Sea Krait, Broome’, we are given this:
After three days of seated travel
I lunge from the car, sprint the length
of jetty, deaf to the man screaming
warning. Only in mid-air do I look
down to the sea, the time it takes
Two yellow and black krait, vivid
bandwidth of danger, turning on
the turquoise surface, and all
I can do, is fall
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
Constitution by Amelia Dale
Inken Publisch, 2017
Aquarium Drift by Yasmin Heisler
SOd Press, 2016
Amelia Dale’s Constitution is deep blue with the Commonwealth Coat of Arms on the cover; it looks like a passport. Yasmin Heisler’s Aquarium Drift features, as its first image, a colour scan of Aquarium Fish (a 64-page special issue of the magazine World of Wildlife) with ‘Fish’ crossed off and in its stead ‘drift’ in aquamarine type off-centre on the page.
Each collection inhabits and collages other texts. And while the process of collage can be described, and its ingredients and method prescribed, the outcome of the process – the art – is alchemical. Dale’s source text for Constitution is transcripts of Malcolm Turnbull in interview on The 7:30 Report. And Constitution’s alchemy is its humour, its inducement to laughter. For instance, in ‘Chapter I, Part I, 3.’: ‘But in terms of editorial matters, a lot of people write to me all the time and say. Some people actually think.’ In Aquarium Drift, the alchemy is in the movement in fragile moments of narrative: ‘fish keepers look consumed’ (from ‘Useful scavenger fish’) and ‘restless dead / markings clear lips other internal markings’ (from ‘Egg-laying fish for the aquarium’).
Yasmin Heisler introduces Aquarium Drift with its concept of composition: ‘[a] single word from each paragraph in Aquarium Fish [the magazine] has been used to compose the following poems. The magazine’s subheadings are the poem’s [sic] titles.’ I was curious about the magazine and went hunting for it, unsuccessfully. The best I could do was tally the words in the poems – there are 265 (or 269 if you count hyphenated words as two distinct words …) of them – that’s four or five paragraphs a page. But, the magazine is only an echo of itself in the poems.
Every poem but the final one sits next to a photograph of two pieces of beach treasure: dry coral, shells, rocks. The poems, with titles sounding like captions – ‘Pools and ponds as coldwater aquariums’ or ‘Indoor water gardening’ – take on the quality of photographs in the sense that they record and catalogue. These poems exhibit images upon images, next to each other, falling into each other. The poem ‘Indoor water gardening’ witnesses ‘lighting bodies permanganate stick on / travellers acid strap-like lace’. Heisler crafts momentary narratives by transforming what-once-were-probably-nouns in Aquarium Fish into what-can-be-verbs in Aquarium Drift. The ambiguities are multiple: ‘they pocket backgrounds/the masses shell delightful like’ (‘Anemones, corals and shells for the aquarium’).
Unlike Aquarium Drift, Dale’s Constitution contains no explicit details of its source text, or its method of organisation. Elsewhere, Dale has explained that the source is transcriptions of Turnbull in interview on The 7:30 Report. The transcriptions have been edited by Dale to ‘make the convolutions of his speech visible’ (Messenger).
Constitution is a text that destabilises – it makes liquid one of the base texts of the nation of Australia and diffuses the words of the nation’s 29th Prime Minister. Constitution also warps the reader’s apprehension of the formal document. It is hard to read: the difficulty deflects readerly expectations about how a text should be organised. Constitution begins with the title and ends with the publication details, as if an afterthought or final secret, on the final page.
Footnotes, for instance, don’t lead anywhere, tables of data are empty of information besides Turnbull-speak, and the words of the text are organised linearly. But they are more than linear – they are absolutely linear: headings, subheadings, references, the table of contents, copyright information all slot directly into an unrelenting string of Turnbull-speak. ‘Chapter VIII’ begins:
Chapter VIII—Because It’s Not as Interesting as the Gossip
128. But the fact is22
There’s as enormous amount of common ground about what the shape is going to be:
Beyond its textual organisation, however, this poem is hard to read because the content is so self-similar you feel that you might start anywhere, rearrange, chop and change the text without effectively altering it at all.
Constitution is often laugh-out-loud funny – Turnbull fails standards of etiquette and conversation again and again: ‘Thank you. Great to be with you. Well that’s not right, actually’ (‘Chapter I Part III 24. (ii)’). Or: ‘From the first day: / (i) of the election, once we got into office, I said: “You have to be.” And so they were’ (from ‘Chapter I Part III 44.-44. (i)’).
The comedy of the poem is an unstable thing. Dale says, ‘It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his’ (Messenger). Turnbull himself is not particularly funny; his speech is deadening and bland. His government is not funny. In only the last weeks it has overseen and overlooked incredible violence towards asylum seekers, humiliation and dehumanisation of Australia’s queer community. But the emptiness, blandness, visible irritation, condescension and contempt Turnbull expresses towards his interviewers – and towards the citizens of Australia – when taken out of context and scrubbed of specific political reference, the words are so revolting and shocking that they become ridiculous and induce laughter. That these pages and pages of words fail so thoroughly to communicate anything concrete at all is hysterical. Who could say all this and yet so little? Hahaha! A J Carruthers has written of experimental poetry in Australia that its essential purpose is political – it seeks to ‘decolonise, question and critique nation and culture’. The poem is funny; its source material is not.
Monday, January 8th, 2018
Goodbye, Cruel by Melinda Smith
Pitt Street Poetry, 2017
Members Only by Melinda Smith and Caren Florance
Recent Work Press, 2017
Seeking to cast light on Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel alongside her collaborative work with Caren Florance titled Members Only is like approaching a hive of fully-formed poems. Your step halts in awe of the air abuzz, as your gaze zooms into vivid sharpness. Though thematically and stylistically distinct, these two collection burst with ideas, energies, shapes and reconfigurations of lexicons. They are laden with ripe, yet sharp, shape-changing artefacts.
As the pause in the title foreshadows, Goodbye, Cruel asks the reader to fill in the gaps across its poetic and thematic spectrums. It is in five parts, each one particular in focus and tone, yet also bound by a shared elegiac strand that combines landscape markers of geographical location with myth, intertextual references and enactments of crisis. It is a late modern elegy belonging to a hybrid genre that combines life writing, an Australian version of pastoral, with elements of allegory and tragedy. The collection tackles various topics and processes of disruption, interruption, redress and reparation where loss is finally transfigured through the creative act of writing. An exception to that transfiguration is in the second section and title sequence where, as they should, words fail to convey the despair at the heart of the ellipsis: ‘Goodbye, Cruel …’
The first section of the book, ‘Tiny Carnivals’ takes its title from one poem, ‘Leaves from the Lovers’ Almanac’:
here I am
to a tiny carnival
The theme of impossible or broken relationships is announced in the first poem, ‘A never-to-be-repeated-spectacle,’ a bittersweet piece that sets the tone for a kaleidoscope of experimental poems, some prompted by an image, scene, phrase or even graffiti – one is generated through a phone’s predictive text. These are playful, fun and inventive poems despite their elegiac undertow. As if to warn the reader of what is to come, this undertow grows in strength with the unfolding of ‘Tiny Carnivals.’
Suicide is the topic of the next section. To die by one’s own hand remains a taboo in societies where life is supposed to be a gift. It is therefore a fraught issue; a topic shrouded in silence. This is ironic as there are now websites listing ways of ‘doing it’ against graphs highlighting success rates in colour for the browser’s convenience. So, anecdotally, when it was confirmed that French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had indeed committed suicide by jumping off his third floor apartment, I could not help but silently praise his research skills. Yes, the most effective way to go. Head first, preferably. For those who think about it, the question of ‘how’ is paramount. For those who remain, it is the question of ‘why’ that matters. For them, there is often no answer, no closure, no comfort but the painful passing of time. The poems in the second section, ‘Goodbye, Cruel’, tackle these questions.
Smith approaches her topic obliquely through an ‘I’ with multiple voices and personae as well as an eye with multiple perspectives. With their common references to houses and rooms and paddocks and daily routines, the poems might set up a frame of domesticity or a shelter against various scenarios of loss and death; but there are no fixed frames here, only points of departure in the representation of a dynamic process pitting life against death, with lingering grief and incomprehension. The very ambiguity of the title of the last poem, ‘Contemplating the gap’, confirms the indeterminacy at the heart of this section.
To decide to end one’s life is an irrevocable decision. ‘A willed departure on foot’, a poem appropriately set on the way to the sacred Mount Kailah in Tibet, dramatises the irrevocability of this decision. It works by accretion and repetition, embodying the death drive, as it were:
Prayer flags on the bridge
stirring, all blowing only one way
the way you are going
treading rocks, ice, moss, grass.
Sun splitting the cloud
scraping its blade over the stones, their foreheads
flaring to yellow, to bright lichen-red.
In this tender yet brutal allegory, the protagonist is an anorexic relentlessly pursuing her goal step after step until:
There is the wind, no longer thin,
rocks, ice, moss, grass.
Here, each poem tells a micro-story that resonates with Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, either directly (‘We that were human once’ and ‘The Undiscovered Country’) or indirectly. There is, for example, the memorable story of the father who drowns so that his family can live off his life insurance for a while; the story of a child whose mother, like Sylvia Plath, gassed herself after performing her duties. There is the moving testimony of a lifeline attendant, the stuttering of a ghost, the ‘buzzing on the wrong side of the pane,’ the silent cry. Three pieces provide an overarching frame, thereby destabilising any certainties the reader might have entertained as to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of suicide. ‘The other manual’, with its ironic take on the websites invoked above, offers a contrast to ‘#otd’, a cento of obituaries, while ‘Incomplete’ considers apparent recklessness from two perspectives at once. The latter opens with an epigraph from Janet Frame’s poem ‘The suicides’, first published in The Pocket Mirror (1967): ‘they died because words they had spoken / returned always homeless to them.’ Smith then explores the desire of one who failed to die by hanging, building towards a statement about the impotence of language in the face of suicidal despair, repeating Frame’s words in bold. Pieced together by the reader, these words are now addressed to the protagonist’s relatives. For all its clarity of description, this poem is deeply fissured by the double vision of a narrator burdened or blessed with an intimate knowledge of her subject matter. Here, as elsewhere, wry wit undercuts despair.
The third section of Smith’s book, ‘Safina,’ provides relief from the emotionally demanding ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ via two tales of ill-fated love with reference to the tenth century poetess Rabi’a Balkhi’s true life story and Zuleika’s destiny as related in the Bible and evoked by Dante’s eight circles of hell. Bridging East and West in a meditation on death, Smith uses her characteristic sense of humour to give two women a voice across time.
The most distinctive feature of section four, ‘Riverine’, is its poetics of location. The speaking subject is situated both in an anaesthetised present and also the wilderness places of childhood memory. This liminal space constitutes the narrator’s home ground in imagination and memory. Here location markers are specific, as though charting an effort of subjective relocation which also forms the matter and structures the patterns of ‘Endtime.’ Again, the realism in these poems hides its own duplicities, for the landscape in the first, and cityscape in the second also shadow the psychic territory of grief, anguish, desire.
The ‘I’ in this collection travels in time and space, providing in ‘Somewhere in particular’ both a ‘Satellite View’ and a ‘Street View.’ As mentioned at the outset, Smith’s autobiographical ‘I’ is above all a shape-changer, and the last poem, ‘the bone tree,’ celebrates a kind of homecoming in a different dimension of subjective reality:
in the bare blue air of my dream
there is a bone tree growing
it may not know where I have been
but it knows where I am going
Members Only silences the autobiographical ‘I’ often muted or ghosted in Goodbye, Cruel. The first person is clearly excluded here, because it speaks the language of power granted by a long tradition of white male fantasising, all the better to query authority. The book grew out of a cross-disciplinary collaborative project undertaken at Old Parliament House in Canberra with artist Caren Florance, who is, among other things, publications designer at Recent Work Press. The collaboration yielded a text installation titled ‘Be Spoken To’, a print-performed letterpress artists’ book as well as original poems and cut-ups poems in response to the historic building’s furnishings.
Tuesday, December 5th, 2017
Girls and Buoyant by Emily Crocker
Subbed in, 2017
Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher
Subbed in, 2017
The Naming by Aisyah Shah Idil
Subbed in, 2017
I am always struck by the immense variability of human experience; the little and big differences that amount to the conditions of our individual and collective identities. The task of poetry is to write this nebulous, subjective humanity, while also probing the inefficiencies of the language we have to create and understand something so frustratingly out of grasp. How to apply an ostensibly tangible tool to an intangible quality? For instance, if we write emotion, or an emotion, as a word, it becomes incased in the materiality of language, becomes material itself, and is removed from the intangibilities of its initial feeling. Feeling is of course still there, but its nuance is limited to the shape and familiarity of the word, to the different ways we know the word in our different real world encounters.
As poets, we can attempt to challenge this materiality to better align the word with the unspoken aspects of human experience: we can disjunct, blot, disperse, misspell, reduce to phoneme and sound, scribble in illegible handwriting, feed poetry through a computer, or create a language. But our language, along with the words, letters and sounds that feed it, remain tied to the world we experience, for it is through these objects that we can know and create the world. Poetry uses these tools, cognisant and embracing of their limitations, to examine our identity and place within the world.
Three new chapbooks published by the independent literary organisation, Subbed in, provide acute examples of newish, young poets trying to come to grips with this task of poetry in a time when language has become a noticeably loaded vessel of opinion and feeling. The Naming by Aisyah Shah Idil, Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher and Girls and Buoyant by Emily Crocker, all present a poetics of identity through the scope of the modern world they have evolved and exist within. Idil can hear an ‘adhan blaring / in a full train carriage, / a work meeting, an elevator’ whilst searching for a mobile phone, and Crocker complains about EFTPOS minimums. Gallagher, presumably responding to an internet meme or video, writes, ‘right now / i am a dog wearing sunglasses,’ capturing ideally the weightless aspect of being one can suffer when head deep in a social media sinkhole. Indeed, when so much communication occurs via the type of an email, instant message, Facebook update, Instagram hashtag or Tweet, what then happens to our language and our ability to decipher its meanings? At times, I cannot help but feel that the act of literary interpretation and analysis is today at an all-time premium. Who hasn’t slaved over the meaning of a message; been infuriated by a troll; laughed at a well-worded meme; wondered at the legitimacy of a Facebook update? As Gallagher writes in ‘something that resembles everything’: ‘let’s invent new languages out of old worlds, / freely broadcast its cacophony.’ Even the chapbook form appears to encapsulate digitally limited forms of expression – where 140 characters can make a president – that nonetheless carry almost infinite meanings and permutations in the action of expression itself. I can consume a chapbook the same way I would a text message; in an inhalation, followed by a retrospective curiosity of what its phrasing actually meant.
Yet, in particular, all three books examine concepts of femininity, shaped by the experiences the poets allow to peep through their poetry. How they write their femininity is unique to the style and personal history / moment / identity of each poet. They write it bodily, emotionally, via social media, dualistically, intellectually, through other people, about other people, against and with masculinity, in relation/distance to motherhood, about themselves, ideal and not – ‘she imagines something graceful / lying dormant under her skin’ (Gallagher, ‘Promise’). On one hand, Idil, writing so often of her mother and family, muses in ‘Flagbearer’: ‘I will be your woman/bearer // wombs moulded by // the pomegranate heads of babies’; while, on the other, Crocker, who is fascinated by the raw shape of things, describes her ‘lumpy forehead. The slots / between my lanky toes / seized by chunky joints’ (‘Gaps’). The female body is a subject, divested of the object words we use to describe. As Crocker wryly writes in ‘Fruit,’ ‘The quack mistook you for a boy,’ and it is through such misapprehensions that the poets can come to know their own characters, personalities, biology, whatever aspect gives them identity. Crocker continues later in the same poem, ‘That night, / my skull on your breastbone, our uteruses lay / back to back in begrudged silence at the / suggestion they should be in time now,’ and lays claim to her individuality, particularly within an implied sisterhood.
Thursday, November 30th, 2017
Reading for a Quiet Morning by Petra White
GloriaSMH Press, 2017
Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball
Ginninderra Press, 2017
Approaching new work from such sharp, prolific and often dazzling poets as Magdalena Ball and Petra White is arguably no job for a quiet morning. Both White’s Reading for a Quiet Morning and Ball’s Unmaking Atoms demand (and duly reward) close attention. The perusal of such multi-layered, expansive texts is more suited, perhaps, to the intensity of early evenings, the drawn-out moments of twilight. For there is strident and persistent music erupting from both of these collections; sometimes it might seem serene, but more often the tune that floods out of the text feels more like an intense, liturgical dirge.
White’s mini-epic poem, ‘How the Temple Was Built’, which comprises the first half of her collection, reveals an authoritative voice delivering what feels like a Ted Hughes-inspired sermon on a new Ezekiel myth. The lens here, however, is distinctly female, the account feminist, and the protagonist, Ezekiel, the love-tortured, wife-haunted prophet who, like the bones he sees revivified, seems eternally ‘bruised with an ache / made not by the world.’ The imagery is often stark, always sublime and sometimes completely unexpected, bombarding the reader with free-flowing, often paradoxical image associations as we explore the ‘shimmery darkness’ residing inside a far too secular God. And all the while, humanity is being examined in turn by this same God: ‘What is a human. / Absorbed in their own existence / as the bees that bristle the air.’
In this study of prophetic vision and new mythology, the process of creation is a mess:
He made, oh what order did he make it in?
Time, space, darkness, light, air, water, earth.
Kicked off by sudden expansion
of something out of nothing.
A whole second he devoted to galaxies,
gleaning himself into the rip of black holes.
Planets cascaded like ash from his sleeve.
It quickly went out of control.
Everything started creating itself.
And the creator, insecure: ‘I barely recognise / the people I made. Am I God?’
Esther, the fictitious wife of Ezekiel (not to be confused with the Esther of the Old Testament), is arguably the most fascinating character in this plethora of biblical curios. Reinvented after revealing ‘the white wings of her death’, Esther becomes an angelic or goddess-like figure. ‘Bright light … bleeds and cries into the corners of the weak woman, the love machine, / she who falters,’ as Esther is metamorphosed from mourned wife into a type of foil to God, or at least the one who ‘lingers in the dark leftovers of Paradise’, berating the questioning, self-pitying, remorseful creator: ‘You fool, the world is / sweet birdsong and gross battle.’ The tone throughout is playful yet the subject matter is anything but. And the mythology surrounding Esther is both poignant and haunting:
She shivers in her wings. She is like a human
with no human part. Human enough to feel
all the grief, the waiting. Having to be somebody
in the face of nothing.
Indeed, this entire mini-epic is haunted. Ezekiel is haunted by God, yet also by the wifely expression of Esther; God is haunted by the goddess face of Esther; and Esther is haunted by the ghost of own self – the ‘mortal immortal’.
On facing what could be yet another reimagined quasi-biblical Miltonesque epic poem, the potential reader might well balk, but any speculative reservations are soon overcome by the sheer authority and gravity of White’s voice, by the elegiac music of the driving rhythms, by the authenticity of the characterisations (and, yes, this is a poem that concerns itself strongly with characterisation) and the potency of the imagery.
Faced with the difficult task of following this leviathan, the second section of Reading for a Quiet Morning, ‘Landscapes’, and the untitled third section of the collection, feel a little less cohesive and more bowerbird-like in terms of thematic layering and context. There is, again, plenty of myth to be had here, and not a little reimagining of it. We see a pining Jocasta naming herself, ‘A thing that was happened to’; the Sphinx’ the fantastical female executioner of Anne Boleyn; and inspired versions of Rilke’s old favourites. And yet there are simple, domestic relationship concerns here and social occasions ranging from weddings to funerals. In ‘The voice of Doom’, however, the fierce and recurrent concern of this collection is unearthed: ‘Love / that is made of words, / will be made of words that can be eaten,’ and we witness the vast aching void of word-eating especially in the elegiac ‘Filial’:
I unpick the stitches
of love from my coat and try to separate it
from the facts.
She survived her life but she was wrong,
call that a fact that crawls like an ant
away from the poem.
In ‘Filial’, a staggering sense of loss is consumed by the intensity of the imagery, or is perhaps subsumed in the fierce and wretched voice of longing for else or other. Yet the quest to move past it all, and an appreciation for those that can, is even more palpable in ‘The Seeming’, one of the collection’s shortest yet strongest poems:
she travels through the day half-mad,
one foot in front of the other.
People are marvellous,
those who go about their business.
This poem concludes: ‘Something makes them surge.’ That same ‘Something’ makes this entire collection surge; these poems are lit up and muse-inspired, mini Ezekiels all in the face of baffling Gods.
Magdelena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms grapples with a similar staggering sense of personal loss, mapping out the profundity of grief-altered states of being. This collection reveals a quirky (dare it be said) science-based spirituality, and enquires into what it means to be, and to continue to simply be, in the midst of trauma. The poem, ‘Beginner’s Mind’, succinctly dissects the struggle to continue:
If I weren’t here, sitting stock still
counting intake and outtake of breath
with each bony click
that says “still alive”
but not quite living
I could be on my way somewhere
this even respiration turned ragged gasp
running, like Buddha himself
into glory, like you did
lips parted in ultimate freedom
leaving me with all this
all this breath.
The poems of Unmaking Atoms, while on the surface exploring a penchant for the endless bifurcations of astrophysics, Buddhist spirituality and contemporary psychology, more aptly grapple with what it is to be human in a world dealing with its own extinctions and loss of foreseeable futures. In this collection, grief, both horribly personal yet also global, is coupled with a sense of wonder at the endless continuation that occurs in the aftermath of devastation. Divided into seven sections, these ambitious poems tackle everything from mirror neurons to hieroglyphics, leaving space in between for meetings with both private ghosts and a haunted ecology.
There is much to love in this collection that, though lengthy, never feels overwrought. The Australian bushland settings of some poems feel familiar and almost comfortable, from forest scenes such as in ‘Mirror Neurons’, where we feel the ‘eucalyptus crunch / choir of bats, owls, wuk-wuk’, to the beloved ‘Redhead Beach’, where we can bask in well-loved landscapes:
the water hitting the shore
in patterns fully familiar
the rocky outcrops
Other poems such as ‘Absences’ take us into dreamscapes as far away as the afterlife:
I’m not really there
but your ghost bleeds
through the rooms
trailing my lacuna with milky
vapour, like ghosts do,
all ectoplasm and wind
your body given up to longing
ten thousand miles
away across time
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
Collected Poems by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Giramondo Publishing, 2016
It can be daunting to survey a poet’s life work: there is the temptation to ‘make sense’ of the work as one coherent picture – to see it steadily developing in one trajectory, or honing one aesthetic (with deviations from this measured and marked) – or else as containing discreet phases which have beginnings and ends. While this impulse can be insightful in the right instance, it can also gloss over a diversity of approaches, corralling aberrant poems into categorical coves. In reviewing the Collected Poems of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, I have let myself see patterns across time when they occur, without being constrained by expectation – although the array of aesthetics in Mehrotra’s poetry encourages the desire to look for patterns.
This collection presents a substantial body of work by one of India’s most renowned contemporary poets. It includes selections from Mehrotra’s four original poetry collections –Nine Enclosures (1976), Distance in Statute Miles (1982), Middle Earth (1984) and The Transfiguring Places (1998) – along with uncollected poems, a significant number of new ones, and Mehrotra’s translations of old and new Indian verse. The translations make up a quarter of the book, and include ancient Prakrit love poetry; the songs of the fifteenth century iconoclastic Bhakti poet, Kabir; and work by modern and contemporary Indian poets Nirala, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Pavankumar Jain, and Mangalesh Dabral. The range of the book’s content reflects Mehrotra’s compulsion to dive into anything that interests him – from surrealism and Beat poetry to mystic songs.
The book opens with an author’s note:
Just as some children when they grow up want to become snake charmers or railway engine drivers, I wanted at seventeen when I started writing to become a book. Not any book but a volume in, say, the Arden Shakespeare, or one in the uniform edition in the works of Walter Scott. The latter held particular appeal because it covered from end to end an entire shelf of my uncle’s library, the books standing to attention like a platoon of soldiers in green jackets with gold buttons.
This arresting image offers a twist on the adolescent fantasy of ‘being a writer.’ Mehrotra’s desire to be bookish (a metamorphosis that is both quotidian and fantastic) foreshadows the interactions between self and things in the poems that follow. Such respect for objects – whether book, potato, cell phone, bra, ant, wash basin, the list goes on – is evident across Mehrotra’s poetry. Surrealism is a useful context in which to read the progression of Mehrotra’s work. As he notes, ‘For me who started writing in the 1960s, the discovery of surrealism helped resolve the awful contradictions between the world I wanted to write about, the world of dentists and chemist shops, and the language, English, I wanted to write in.’ Surrealism allowed Mehrotra to accommodate his own reality – in Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh in the north of India – to English literary language, with its dominant (realist) representational uses, and its associations with British and American landscapes and subjects.
The other context useful for tracking Mehrotra’s trajectory is his keen interest in modern American poetry: ‘the American speech I now heard (in the Penguin Modern Poets 5, published in 1963) seemed closer to our everyday English in Allahabad than anything I’d read before.’ The implication is that both uses of English were fresh, and therefore suited to each other. The influence of modern American poetry is evident from the earliest work presented in the Collected Poems. ‘Ballad of the Black Feringhee’ (in ‘Uncollected Poems 1972-1974’) begins with an epigraph by the American Objectivist poet Carl Rakosi:
I would rather sing folk songs against injustice
and sound like ash cans in the early morning
or bark like a wolf
from the open doorway of a red-hot freight
than sit like Chopin on my exquisite ass.
Rakosi’s voice is direct, fierce, and anti-pretention: qualities that appealed to the young Mehrotra. In poems such as ‘On the Death of a Sunday Painter,’ Mehrotra admonishes through satire genteel artists who don’t get their hands dirty, and who remain aloof from their subjects. This is an affectation that Mehrotra is fond of, and that’s also conveyed in the striking cover image of the grey-haired poet inhaling a lit cigarette (the ash at the tip out of focus, the cigarette’s ring of fire burning towards him) while staring directly at the camera lens. The poet’s eyes are clear and hard, suggesting an appraising relationship with the world.
‘Ballad of the Black Feringhee’ is an Indian version of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’ (1956). While both poems feature a rambling narrator, Ginsberg’s poem is characterised by its political overtones and anger, in contrast to the quiet melancholy of the former. Feringee is a derogatory term for an outsider in India, particularly one with white skin. A black feringee suggests the archaic use of the term, to mean someone of Indian-Portuguese parentage. The poem is playful in the early and middle sections before melancholy creeps in. The ending combines these moods:
India your police stations are little Siberias
India when they come for me I’ll put on a clean shirt
India there’s no need to hide your large teeth
India what a big nose you have
India remember the pile of ash on Mandelstam’s left shoulder
India don’t destroy yourself in slow motion.
The introduction of fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood) into the end of this poem about India, inspired by an iconic poem about America, shows the heterogeneity of Mehrotra’s imagination. In these early poems we see the shaping of a voice through the interplay of an American idiom, surrealism, and a visual, object-oriented aesthetic, all carried by a measured yet informal diction. This poetic rucksack (travel is an ever-present theme in the Collected Poems, as I explore below) is capacious enough to hold poetic monologues (‘Songs of the Ganga’, ‘Remarks of an Early Biographer’), tender poems about family (‘Continuities’, Genealogies’, ‘Canticle for my Son’), domestic poems, poems about street life, the occasional villanelle or ballad, and lists.
In the beginning sections of the book, including uncollected work as well as Nine Enclosures and Distance in Statute Miles, startling surrealist images present themselves casually. For instance, ‘I / must … / straighten my eye with a hammer’ in ‘Between Bricks, Madness’, which sees the world of labour as strange and dreamlike:
[…] when a naked man
a flat-eyed goat on his back
dances upon the steps of sunset
Such lines evoke the great surrealist painters. In ‘Songs of the Ganga,’ the poet tells us, ‘From the leopard [I learn] / how to cover the sun / With spots’. This poem is an interesting case of surrealism working in tandem with Hindu mythology, where the river Ganga (Anglicised as Ganges) is routinely personified as a goddess. The poem begins:
I am Ganga
I am the plains
I am the foothills
I carry the wishes of my streams
To the sea
I am both man and woman
To me the poem critiques western art categories, challenging them to accommodate religious mythology. This poem is representative not only of the surrealist monologue in Mehrotra’s work, but also of the list poem, which can be explained by his way of being in the world: in the Collected we encounter the poet as botanist, taxonomer, geographer, cartographer, mythographer, naming and numbering the things in his environment. We’re shown the poet in action in this mode in ‘Classification,’ which begins with plants – ‘Are trees vertebrate? Spikenards are’ – before moving on to bones.
Thursday, November 9th, 2017
Rallying by Quinn Eades
UWA Publishing, 2017
Les Belles Lettres by Gabrielle Everall
General Chaos Publishing / Girls on Key, 2017
St Ignatius of Loyola is supposed to have said: ‘Give me a boy until the age of seven, and I will own the man’. Well, the Baptists had me for a lot longer than my first seven years, and subsequently, I have lived a most conventional life. My politics might be progressive but my instincts are terribly conservative. These two books are indispensable because, in bearing witness to the scarring caused by homophobia, inequality and unsafe socialisation, they disrupt prejudice, including my own, and celebrate plurality. Eades and Everall are not just great poets. They are buoys of hope.
In his recent launch speech for Alan Wearne’s These Things Are Real, at Melbourne’s Collected Works Bookshop, Philip Salom praised Wearne for having the courage to go out into the world, thus rejecting contemporary poetry’s obsession with the self. Now, Wearne writes unforgettable dramatic monologues, creating actors that fizz with all the messiness and glory of life, but he is not a psychologist or confessor, and one could argue that all his creations are in fact versions of himself. Ultimately, what we are all left with is our own way of being in this thorny world. This is perhaps what the Melbourne singer-songwriter and poet, Brendan Bonsack, had in mind recently when he posted on Facebook about writing the ‘I’ in poetry. In his post, Bonsack included this gem by the indomitable Ania Walwicz: ‘I want to be a camera. I want to catch my life. And keep it’. Both Quinn Eades and Gabrielle Everall accept this challenge by Walwicz, and while they have very different approaches to writing ‘the self’, their poetry shines with all the dramatic tensions and juxtapositions of Wearne.
Eades employs little of Everall’s dazzling and far-ranging techniques of imagery and historical allusion, but the way in which he centres his highly fraught and revealing recounts in such direct and plain language are remarkable. In ‘Echo’ Eades writes:
Repetition. When I take away punctuation I move to repetition.
What is missing when I write my child
hood what I leave out is
what should come what I leave
out is what should come out from
this pen this pen writes what is missing
when I write my child
hood without punctuation I resort
to repetition which is also reiteration this
happened stop repeating yourself is what
I think because what is repetition but an echo why
do you ache towards echo
There is desperation in these lines; a searching and precise awkwardness captured in those skilfully managed line divisions. The obliterated punctuation markers signal such vulnerability to the damaging and often-repeated injustices inflicted on a child unable to conform to expectations. This is poetry as a bullied kid’s angst. And while the adult ‘Quinn’ might know that it is worth hanging in there to the end, these poems often spin on the edge of self-harm and excruciating pain. Eades tells us elsewhere that in this ‘ache towards echo’ he learnt to ‘carry himself like a wound’: ‘I learnt loneliness better than I knew my own skin. I wanted to sleep, and sleep, and sleep. Everything I was, was emptiness and sleep’. Later he reads Sylvia Plath who writes: ‘the blood jet is poetry’ and knows that he must offer this correction:
blood doesn’t jet
it leaves traces
on brick, on iron, on wood
it pushes up
through the bandage weave
it holds the wound
it congeals and remembers
night alley the thunk of
the body against surfaces
that do not give
But self-harming is only part of the story. Eades adopts the name of ‘Quinn’, after giving birth to children, after the hysterectomy, ‘after she couldn’t stay at one end of the gender binary anymore’. Eades tells us:
In the beginning it feels important for all of them to call her
by her next chosen name, but she doesn’t insist. She waits. She
writes. She slides. She pauses the hunt for the next name. She takes
them all. She is
n. She takes them all and holds them inside her skin. She is all
names, for herself: she is no one named.
body under blanket
gaps in gums
the mattress is
off the floor
writing is written
baths are taken
It is this calling, this naming, that changes she to he.
Because Quinn is the name that is next, that is last.
Thursday, November 9th, 2017
Fragile World / Εύθραυστος Κόσμος by Dina Amantides
Owl Publishing, 2017
Desire by Erma Vassiliou
Owl Publishing, 2017
the pleasure of exile / η ηδονή της εξορίας by George Vassilacopoulos
Owl Publishing, 2017
thinking process by Anna Couani
Owl Publishing, 2017
Parables by Zeny Giles
Owl Publishing, 2017
Tightrope Walking / Ακροβασίες by Dimitris Troaditis
Owl Publishing, 2017
Owl Publishing is an independent press founded in June 1992 by Helen Nickas, a former lecturer in Greek Studies at La Trobe University. Owl’s overarching purpose is to publish a selection of literary works by Greek-Australians in pursuit of more diverse Australian literature, and it is run as a not-for-profit undertaking. In Nickas’s belief, Greek-Australians have a dual vision of the world, and their writing contributes something important to the Australian literary environment. Indeed, in the past quarter-century, Owl Publishing and the writers it has championed have explored many aspects of the modern Greek diaspora.
In 2014, Owl launched a series of chapbooks to showcase the diverse range of poetry being produced by both emerging and established Greek-Australian poets. The chapbook series’ editorial board consists of Peter Lyssiotis, Helen Nickas, and N N Trakakis, and each of the nine works published so far is by a different Greek-Australian poet, each at different career stages. This month I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the most recent six chapbooks in the series. Like other works published by Owl, some of the chapbooks are published in bilingual form, while others are in English only, depending on the poet’s own history and artistic choices. Below I will focus on each of the six chapbooks, but the overriding purpose of this series is important to understand, as each individual book hangs together in a kind tangled orrery of modern Greek-Australian poetry. In my view they form more than the sum of their parts as a constellation that depicts the modern Greek-Australian experience, and which also gives a view into the wider Australian experience.
Fragile World is a collection of epigrams by Dina Amantides. A distillation of her skills as a poet of minimalism, her epigrams unfold in no particular order and reel off one after another with breathless abandon. These poems tackle large concepts with as few words as possible, showcasing the unique ability of well-written poetry to communicate much with little.
Each poem was translated into English by Amantides’s husband, Kyriakos Amantides, which adds another level to reading this chapbook. Each epigram figures, then, as a letter between a married couple, rendering the act of translation even more intimate. Amantides’s epigrams are also engagements with mythology. Throughout her poems we see grand concepts personified, as the ancients did: Fury, Life, Death, Memory, Greece, the World, or God. As Amantides writes in ‘My Greece’:
I carry the whole
of Greece in my heart.
To the point I will suffocate
by her weight.
To personify Greece is not to simply identify with a physical landmass. Like many of the poets featured by Owl, Amantides’s identity and writing is rooted in Greek tradition, in ancient myths and classical dramas. Indeed, so much of Western writing is based upon techniques and structures first established by the Greek civilisation. When Amantides feels Greece’s ‘weight’, she is feeling the entirety of Greece’s culture and its tumultuous history, and even further, Greece’s immense influence in the Western world. As a Greek-Australian writer, this can be a suffocating reality, and it is one that Amantides strives well to overcome and build upon.
Erma Vassiliou has been a prolific writer in the Greek publishing world for a long time, having published much of her work under her own imprint, Aphrodite Editions. It is a pleasure to be able to read some of her best works in English for the first time in Desire. Vassiliou’s unique voice manifests in each of her poems, many of them registering a natural speaking cadence through punctuation and line breaks. Her subjects are often personal, drawing from Vassiliou’s life experiences and inner dialogues. In ‘Retro’, the reader is drawn into a delicate and personal letter to someone dearly loved:
and here you are. with your moment of grace
sitting next to me, tired and thirsty
with your suit that needs ironing
it needs handcuffs to stay,
without a movement in my presence.
The longing that Vassiliou manages to convey in only a few lines is stunning and the imagery is lasting: a ‘moment of grace’ that needs ‘handcuffs to stay / without a movement’. As Helen Nickas writes in her introduction to this chapbook, Vassiliou is a flamboyant writer. Her poems vary in topics and themes, drawing heavily on the mythical and the religious – an interesting combination of paganism and orthodoxy that is distinctly Greek.
What George Vassilacopoulos attempts in the pleasure of exile is ambitious to say the least, as is the task attempted by his assistant translators (Toula Vassilacopoulos and Peter Lyssiotis). They each collaborate and negotiate the potency of silence, the force that creates gaps but also adds weight to the words that remain in the poem. However, Vassilacopoulos’ pursuit of space, the intervals between complex and difficult concepts, comes through clearly in this collection. Both the poet and his translators are to be commended for what they have achieved. One of my favourite poems of the entire series appears in this particular chapbook, untitled as all of Vassilacopoulos’ poems are. The poem begins:
your kisses –
my caresses –
This is typical of Vassilacopoulos’s style: the gaps in the poem immediately raise questions. Does the speaker say that the kisses sacked the temples and the caresses abandoned the psalms? Or is the speaker saying that the kisses are like sacked temples, the caresses like abandoned psalms? Either interpretation completely changes the reading of the poem, and it seems likely Vassilacopoulous is activating the ambivalence of language and syntax to create a valency in the reader – is the love shared between the speaker and his lover something to be admired, or is it something that is destructive?
Anna Couani is a writer, artist, and teacher. In thinking process, the poet centres on the process of making art, producing an insider’s ekphrasis as a poet uniquely placed to write about the experience of art-making. How a work of art changes as it grows speaks not only of the artist, but also of the aleatory nature of art itself:
iris petals took on the colour
of the ivory paper
the colour of condensed milk
but demanded to be white
with bamboo pen
on khadi paper
it wasn’t meant to be a painting
Like Couani, Zeny Giles writes from experience – in this case casting the imagination to the past to focus on growing up as a first-generation Greek Australian. Giles also examines the lived experiences of her parents’ generation, the first major wave of migrants from Greece to Australia. In fact, Giles was one of the first women of Greek descent to write about the Greek-Australian migrant experience; her first novel Between Two Worlds was published in 1981. In Parables, Giles showcases her personal experiences in verse, weaving abstract ideas with threads of reality. Many of Giles’s poems focus on the tangible: yarn, clothes, sheets. The poems deftly avoid sentimentality while remaining focussed on love and its mirror, loss. Far from being religious stories, Giles’s parables involve secular objects and invoke unpretentious narrative truths:
We are left
listening to your beloved Bach
and reading over and over your story.
Tuesday, October 10th, 2017
A Transpacific Poetics
Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu, eds.
Litmus Press, 2017
Lisa Samuels’s introductory essay, ‘What Do We Mean When We Say Transpacific’, begins with a quotation from Pam Brown that is particularly well-chosen for this volume. Brown claims that the ‘authentic’ pertains to someone who isn’t manipulated or being alienated from their context. There’s a good deal in this book about alienation relating to identity and culture; many of the authors have had to fight to preserve authenticity. Samuels proceeds to discuss use of the word ‘transpacific’. She describes the way use of the name was influenced by seeing trucks in Oceania with that label, a word that denotes interactions, adding that ‘trans’ alone indicates the transitive and ‘internal difference’. She stresses that her contributors’ cultural understandings also rely on the fact that Oceania is a positive place.
Likewise, the ocean has location, but it cannot be grasped, it’s too big. Further, ‘the ocean is one example of the challenge of perceiving what exceeds single identity’ – a wonderful metaphor for the cultural diversity that this book represents. The ocean is one massive being, but rather than seeing its symbol as marginalising everything else, Samuels prefers to ponder what she calls ‘distributed centrality’. She’s a writer who likes to generate her own terminology. Invariably, her terms offer new ways of thinking.
A more familiar idea is that the ocean connects us. We are also connected by the internet, but Samuels describes the danger of likening the internet to the ocean, since the internet is English-dominated. Alternatively, she wonders what happens when the universal digitas – which she defines as ‘digital performativity with constitutive perfusing by the techne and humans involved’ – is imagined at the same time as multi-lingual, multi-local, even ‘multi-here’ variations. With this guiding thought in mind, the editors sought out writing which inhabited ‘at least two zones’ of Pacific life. Rather than being exclusionary, she wants this anthology of ‘inclusions and lacunae’ to foster other such collections.
Among other new terms, Samuels favours ‘transhuman’ over ‘post-human’, since the former seems to render the human obsolete at a lexical level, whereas ‘transhuman’ emphasises ‘the interfacing body’ and connects and ‘holds open what it means to be human’. The experiments with genre in the anthology are examples of ‘empowered re-mapping’, indicative of a cross-pollination of cultures.
Colonisation and later related manifestations brought by tourism are anterior to such desirable fusion. Extracts from Jai Arun Ravine’s ‘The Romance of Siam’ are laugh-out-loud funny, rhythmic and demotic, yet retain the undertone of concern about cultural appropriation. They employ a disingenuous technique which captures a state of mind, though it might seem at first glance to be a vernacular which is insufficiently stylised: ‘I, I have never owned the place of my, um, mother’s birth. I, I visited there once, twice and I, I want to apply for the, uh, Fulbright, too’. Later, the voice of the poem describes having pretended not to know English and suppressing everything ‘non-Thai’ just to get some sense of belonging. Ultimately, this voice feels that everything it owns is owned by a white person.
‘The Romance of the Siamese Dream’, is a short play in three acts, with overture and finale. Yul Brynner is on stage for the 4,634th performance of The King and I. But he’s dreaming. A rice cooker named Tiger appears on stage, and wants him to put his head inside. In the second act, Tiger is replaced by Anna, who is keen to teach Yul to act. She also fantasises about leaving Britain for America from the same port as the Titanic – this detail reflects a note informing the reader that the actress who played Anna falsified her past, pretending she was of English extraction. In the interest of surprise, I’ll leave the summary there, but Ravine’s work is an alarming and attractive piece of writing, which emphasises the preoccupation of the first.
By contrast, Ravine’s, ‘Under Erasure’ is a series of diary entries from Doi Saket, Bangkok and Chiang Mai during the period of a residency to make a film titled ‘TOM / TRANS / THAI’. This work seems much less engaged with its environment than one might expect, but at the same time that’s part of its point – it wants to remain detached, even if the writing runs the risk of failing to resonate. On one level, I feel that the writing needs to take courage and go deeper into its subject matter by using more detail, especially of gender-related issues – the author identifies as transgender and uses the plural personal pronoun – but part of its quite deliberate stance lies in a resistance to any expectation to foreground reflections in gender. Effectively, then, the series of diary entries embodies an important concern.
As with Ravine’s work, Don Mee Choi’s series of short prose pieces, ‘Freely Frayed’, makes its points with deft and inventive uses of language. Its first concern is the influence of American culture in Korea. ‘Hanky Yankee, are you frayed?’ it demands, and it goes on to prove itself as:
… a mimicker of mimetic words in particular. Doubled consonants or certain parts of speech that are repeated on certain occasions, which can be said to be nobody’s business, but they are since everything in English is everybody’s business. Farfar swiftswift zealzeal … In my world of nobody’s business I twirl about frantically frequently farfar to the point of failure feigning englishenglish.
The doubled words are used as a motif to open subsequent paragraphs. The author is revealed as a translator, with translation described as ‘a process of endless displacement’. Inevitably, the ‘displaced poetic identity’ of a translation in progress – of the poet Kim Hyesoon’s work – must ‘failfail’.
I confess that despite having written haiku for nearly twenty years, I am new to the form of Hay(na)ku, discussed by originator Eileen Tabios in her essay, ‘The History of Hay(na)ku’. It’s an intriguing, short form comprised of three lines of one, two and three words. Tabios claims it retains the ‘charge’ of haiku whilst including paradox evocative of Filipino culture. For me, it looks to have something in common with the cinquain as well as the haiku, with the same attendant difficulty of overcoming such arbitrary limitations. Tabios describes the origin of the name as she negotiated the reference to haiku and historical cultural implications for Filipino writers. She humbly suggests that other poets have been more successful with the form than she has herself, an idea which she accepts with the statement that any poetry ‘ultimately transcends the poet’s autobiography’.
As suggested, Samuels’s idea of ‘empowered re-mapping’ finds significant expression in many of the works. Melanie Rands fuses found text and vernacular lyric – ‘he said tell your fulla’s fulla / to talk to my fulla’ – with text and image, experimental typography, photocopied notes and drawings in a sequence which narrates passage to New Zealand on the steamer Matua (‘South of the Line [“Aloha Activities”]’). This embodied uses of page space is especially compelling:
Much more densely, Ya-Wen Ho’s text builds up markers of identity – ‘a zinester; a fosterer of cats; a lover of sunny days’ – by repeating and adding to them over five pages before the first descriptors are printed over and effectively erased (‘This List is Written by a List-maker’). Initially, the new additions continue, but then whole phrases are blocked out before a final reiteration of the whole of the text with a few omissions. The sequence conveys a reiteration of story and language and a contrasting fading away, perhaps of memory, or relevance.