FRESH Thursday, March 25th, 2021
The blurb of Jennifer Mackenzie’s 2020 collection Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge) begins by introducing Indonesian writer and activist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in 2006.
Continue reading →
Thursday, December 19th, 2019
Yonder Blue Wild by S K Kelen
Flying Islands, 2017
Poor Man’s Coat by Kit Kelen
UWA Publishing, 2018
We came from the ice
and out of the trees
and wanted the whole world warmer. (Kit Kelen, ‘Parable’)
Award-winning author S K Kelen beautifully explores the theme of travel in his collection Yonder Blue Wild. For some, travel is a benefit awarded to them by virtue of their class; for some it is a tool to attain an idealised version of the life they want to lead. For others, travel is something they have no choice in. The connecting thread is indeed a kind of escapism, and an attempt to express, through movement from place to place, one’s own humanity. In that expression hides stories untold.
Kit Kelen’s collection Poor Man’s Coat complements the theme of his brother’s collection, as he looks at conversation and argument as expressions of personhood. The interesting parallels between the collections are their ability to pronounce these themes through mirror poems and window poems. Mirror poems function as poems that connect people with themselves by way of revealing the self to oneself – the key feature being revelation. Window poems are observational poems that provide the self with insight through observation.
The effect of reading the title, Yonder Blue Wild, contradicts the theme of the collection. Each noun, ‘yonder’, ‘blue’, ‘wild’ stands alone, only moving with when animated by the reader. They are like the state of a stagnant person suddenly moving after unexpected change, triggered by their lack of control. Change is an invisible signpost required to adapt in the world. We have no choice but to be alone in this world even though fighting it seems natural – drugs or alcohol or sex or the chaos of people. The theme of the collection is that travel is part of the human experience, but for me, a person whose stomach begins to turn at the thought of travel, reading this work automatically calls into question the idea of a collective existence. I find it difficult to ignore the idea of travel as an opportunity to temporarily glaze over being born into this world without choice.
What do we have if not our context? It’s a position from which our humanity can be found. In his poem, ‘Love In The Tropics’ S.K. Kelen gives context to his characters. It is precisely due to the contextualisation of their scenario that Frank and Kathy are understood in a complex fashion:
people on the trail, intent on experience...
Wait, Frank the American civil engineer
staying on the beach now six weeks tires
of his Australian girlfriend, Kathy, who
speaks of literary life in Sydney
boring Frank in the chai shop making
eyes at Yvette vivacious French hippy
Kathy might be jealous, she might not be
& life goes on.
‘Love In The Tropics’ sheds light on a reality that is too often ignored and or is too painful to acknowledge. Kelen speaks to a kind of exhaustion that takes place when a person doesn’t confront the state of their relationship. Such exhaustion eventuates into dysfunction. This is indeed the beauty of poetry: its commitment to the reality of the lives of people and its strength to hold two otherwise opposing things in equality. What is the root of Frank’s exhaustion? Is it his relationship with Kathy? Is it his insistence at ‘making eyes’ at Yvette? Similarly, with Kathy: is she jealous? Should she be?
If poetry guides us to take life as it is, then what happens when change doesn’t occur by virtue of our stubbornness? Will poetry be lost? I must make mention of John Keats’ poem ‘On the Sonnet’: ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chained’. He fears that if a change in form doesn’t occur, the beauty of poetry will be lost. He uses Andromeda, known for her beauty as well as getting chained up, as a simile for the ruins of poetry. Although Keats speaks about the consequence of adhering to the rules of a sonnet, he sticks to the rules. This draws a comparison to Kelen’s poem when he writes ‘& life goes on’, calling upon an objective truth about the world, a universal law, despite his contextualization of his characters’ conflict. Like Frank, many of us continue on our path:
Frank makes a joke ordering
banana cakes from the boy
Yvette smiles but Kathy
Shrugs it off as part of travelling,
Find a man on the beach.
Like Frank, we suffer through life in tiny ways as our pain nibbles at us. In S K Kelen’s poem ‘Tiger Show’, however, we see a different perspective on the notion of evolution. He stops his characters to ask: ‘What are you doing here, middle aged Australian / couple?’ A question as universal as love, a question that forces us to a stop: ‘Left the kids at home, let loose / seeing Bangkok’s dizzy lights / before it’s too late’. The difference here is evolution triggered by outside forces, of evolution starting to manifest outwardly.
Friday, November 15th, 2019
A Coat of Ashes by Jackson
Recent Work Press, 2019
One part is conceptualising and ordering the world and the other is accepting the world as it is. – Agnès Varda
Poetry tries to get at something elemental by coming out of a silence and returning us—restoring us—to that silence. It is one of the soul’s natural habitats. – Edward Hirsch
Jackson’s third book, A Coat of Ashes, published by Canberra’s Recent Work Press, is a contemplation about how the discourses of Daoism (or Taoism), physics and systems theory might be fused through the methodology of poetry. The collection springs from her acclaimed PhD project, which was awarded the Edith Cowan University Research Medal, the Arts and Humanities Research Medal, and the Magdalena Prize for Feminist Research. The accompanying prose component of her thesis offers a rich background of selected writers whose work is imbued by physics or Daoism, as well as her creative approaches to this book.
What compels a poet to unite and experiment with such varying discourses? It turns out Jackson was looking for answers about being and matter; what it is to be, what matter is and what actually matters. Her wager is that poetry, as mediator of spirituality and science, could provide deeper understanding about existing in a world of ecological and postcolonial turmoil. It seems to have paid off in this striking volume of work.
The language features and text structures of conventional scientific writing (impartial, technical, objective) and mystical writing (superlative, interpretive, repetitive), might seem incompatible to merge, and experimental poems like ‘Spangles’ and ‘That vast sea’, which incorporate and respond to cut up texts from science books and the Dao De Jing, do produce dissonant tones and styles. However, the organising element of poetry satisfies chance and we find it possible for facts, laws, theories and mysticism to blend and create new flows. Perhaps the relationship is not as troubled as we are led to believe. Philosophical Daoism, as Jackson says, ‘values silence, listening, humility, mindful presence and the shedding of ego and attachment’. This too, seems to be what Western science values; the self is suspended to allow for observation of the systems in which it operates and to which it belongs.
The poems in this book are deep, long breaths; an opportunity to stop and reflect or enter the room of a poet’s meditations. Despite the intermittent scientific insertions (quark, cambium) or Chinese fragments from Daoist texts (wu, dào kĕ dào fēi cháng dào), the plain and mostly quiet language of these works is gentle and subtle even when the content is grappling existential, environmental and social catastrophes.
In ‘One, two three’, Jackson applies the theory of a cartwheel to childlike nostalgia and a sense of forgiveness:
The child doesn’t know
momentum, centres, gravity.
She blames her mother’s
This poem also demonstrates Jackson’s excellent use of poetry to give and then take away, maximising space and silence:
Her father mows the grass
Space and silence are manipulated in the constraint-led ‘What is Tao?’ which employs a word-length stipulated erasure of Thomas Merton’s translation of the Zhuangzi, ‘Cutting Up an Ox’, where the motion of the space provides the rhythm of the meditation:
I feel slow down watch
hold back move
Readers can refer to ‘On looking at the Pointers’ to see what happens when science and Daoism meet, and to the list poem ‘The Sage and the Physicist’ to find out what each is not. The Is and the Not are used frequently in this collection, either through affirmatives and negatives (can/can’t, was/wasn’t) or the naming of them, as in ‘That’:
the What and Not I saw
Dreams abound and become another way of watching emotions and reactions, like the apocalyptic opener, ‘The silicon lip of the precipice’ or ‘The other way, the long way’, which challenges the narrator’s inflexibility and anxiety. The use of silence in the final line of ‘The fundamental forces dream’ gives the reader a waking sensation, where blinking eyes search for sense, returning to the title or to the following page for continuity:
is the fundamental force
from which all the others are derived,
And there are accordingly five
The one associated with Hunger is called
Objects and animals are instrumental to the noetic quality of this collection, either through narrative, symbol, personification, allegory or metaphor. These include birds, whales, plants, planes, trains, chairs, cars, acid, bass guitars, dolls and dress shoes. A couple of gems, first from ‘on the path’:
a tiny sock
on the path
and from ‘between’:
there arose a beautiful horse,
brown and white with white-fringed feet,
but it wasn’t possible to speak with her.
In some poems Jackson utilises a stream of consciousness or form of spaced-out, non-intentional writing. Language becomes tenuous or rambling or rhythmic or all of these things. See ‘lamps’ and its near-language-sense, such as ‘I’ve been curling to juice the drug dumps’, or ‘That girdle!’:
I at the surface don’t see the drip
I see the wave, not the jump
Ripples in the pooliverse
Someone says that there is no rock
and that there is no rock is the rock
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
CRAVE by Holly Friedlander Liddicoat
Rabbit Poets Series, 2018
First books are a big occasion for poets. Their publication makes something heretofore unofficial official while announcing the poet as one committed to ‘the art of language’, as Gig Ryan describes poetry. Their publication chronicles and makes tangible the labour of what is often a long time—of feeling out, of experimentation—for writers attempting to find a voice, a language, even as they’ll discover post-publication that finding voice and language is a forever concern. And so, kudos to Rabbit Poetry Journal and its Rabbit Poets Series imprint, which publishes slim first books, often strong selections of poetry by emerging poets who might not otherwise have had such an opportunity in the frankly saturated Australian poetry scene. I’m not saying there are too many poets—if only there was more poetic, lateral thinking in the public sphere—but in terms of a market, it’s a positive sign when first books in particular are given space and attention.
While we’re talking markets, of being subject to commerce, Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s debut collection CRAVE unabashedly quips, ‘sry if this poetry ruins yr party’ to Sydney’s Inner West as it flips the bird at real estate agents, SUVs and a plenitude of jerk-offs. The poems—‘too damn caffeinated / too damn beat’—self-consciously flaunt their own inability to avoid their complicity in the ever-gentrifying neoliberal capitalism of Sydney with an intoxicated (and intoxicating) nonchalance, if you can forgive the paradox. That kind of paradoxical tone in poetry is interesting to me because it allows poems to do multiple things at once, from critiquing the world around us to subverting and questioning the self that sees fit to write about the world with any authority. It can allow the poet, or the speaker(s) of a poem, to occupy a liminal, othered, space. The frenetic and nonchalant oscillations of Liddicoat’s poems operate in this way. They work to reflect, perhaps, how the contemporary moment is being felt by some: a hyper-simulated, anti-climate change, death-spiral parody of a paradigm, in which the sun is ‘unsetting’ (i.e. stuck) and, as with many bright people, not always welcome in gated communities: ‘the sun is invited to the stairs / but can’t afford admission.’
Poetry by paradox is actually just poetry representing the world. Alongside an intoxicated nonchalance, Liddicoat embodies another paradox: a gentle punk attitude. The poems aren’t simply bratty but self-aware—too metamodern, full of ‘informed naivety’, ‘pragmatic idealism’ (key aspects of post-postmodernism and/or the postdigital paradigm, according to cultural theorists like Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker) and self-care, to be simply punk. We can see this attitude in the shifts between poems. For instance, after ‘a woman works in a lick-her store’, a snarling list poem of all the kinds of patronising snippets of speech from male customers to a woman working in a grog shop, we encounter, in the poem ‘in erko + five floors up’, images of retreat, defeat—that sinking feeling brought on by despair and emotional trauma:
a fluke hits the bottom of the sea
envision throwing myself
from this balcony but landing
in a firefighter’s net
In the next poem, the plants come alive with empathy: ‘bottlebrushes fidget in the wind’ and ‘the palm fronds wave to me hello’, which also offers up a kind of cute, even zany, aesthetic (see literary theorist Sianne Ngai for how to read ‘our aesthetic categories’ today—the ‘cute’, the ‘zany’, and the ‘interesting’). There’s a hint of Pam Brown’s poetry in the way Liddicoat chronicles the urban via sketches of all the things that assemble in front of our eyes to create a place and culture (or lack thereof). There’s also a contrast between the two poets, in how their poems are formed. Jotting down the world, performing their own ‘zany’ labour (‘where r those poems now’), Liddicoat’s poems reach for their poem-ness—perhaps anxious to be poems—whereas Brown’s are more relaxed about their own incompleteness, relying more on accumulation, accretion, a surface tension between images and phrasings, and an ‘interesting’ aesthetic. For Brown’s work notes what’s of interest, no matter how uninteresting things might seem, or disinterested we as observers can become, in the face of the many things fighting for our radically altered attention spans in the postdigital age. Both poets, meanwhile, are interested in the ‘cuteness’ of the specific, pointing out what we might easily miss—what might seem too small or inconsequential—in the everyday. Of course, Brown has had years to hone her craft, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect that level from a first collection, and so perhaps Brown’s mastery of style is one direction toward Liddicoat’s poetry could develop.
While these poems travel—to Hamburg, Berlin, Bruges, Oslo, Malaysia, New York, Central Queensland, looking for life less insular yet finding similar ‘anxiety and weird vibes’—they are also keenly observational of the local, in this case Sydney’s Inner West. The poem ‘New Town’ outlays a series of Newtown cafe specifics:
the old chef sits tears basil leaves
(bonsoi) Mecca Alchemy
corrugated iron as windowpanes
steel and mint as smell as taste
bring us brunch in jars
and, later, typographically breaks up:
this place dis
int egrates when it rains
The end line here, with its rupture before the half-word ‘egrates’, allows for an echo of the pejorative ‘ingrates’, as if to sneakily taunt any surrounding scenester-capitalists; and if you’ve experienced walking down the ever-changing shopfronts of King Street when it’s busy and bucketing down, it might hit home how easily a community built on rising rents can feel like it’s falling apart.
Monday, October 7th, 2019
The Bruise of Knowing by Phyllis Perlstone
Puncher & Wattmann, 2019
The Bruise of Knowing is Phyllis Perlstone’s third collection of poetry from Puncher & Wattmann, and arguably her best to date. It tells the story of Sir John Monash, highlighting themes of ambition, power and warfare. A talented engineer and commander, Monash’s progress was conflicted by religious bigotry, the rise of feminism, and a growing awareness within himself of the devastation wrought by war. But this is not just history, although the Australia and Britain of Monash’s lifetime are vividly recreated. Perlstone selects revealing episodes of strength and weakness in her protagonist, interpreted through poetic devices that allow the reader to experience undercurrents well beyond the series of events. At the same time, this anecdote is counterpointed with several parenthetic poems drawing the writer-researcher into the framework and underlining current concerns with the encroachment of the built environment on the natural.
Part 1, shifting back and forth in time, deals mainly with the nineteenth century. The collection begins with the poem ‘Two Incidents as Engineer …’ in 1901. In this poem, the language is deliberately hard-edged and precise in its description:
the bridge twists
concrete bits break off
the water's splash, the crashing pieces
the slow time of gravity's next
is like glass
in an accident
the traction engine tips
The impact is heightened by concrete, enjambed lineation and broken syntax, brief lines directing emphasis to where the poet wants us to pause and absorb. In this poem, also, the reader is given early notice of Monash’s ‘greatest regret’ for the needless ‘loss of life’:
stilted, his mind's stall
word's remove him from the moment −
as if he could speak for the pall
of ends in the air, of being stopped
By contrast, in poems such as ‘In the new Barangaroo Reserve’, we are offered Perlstone’s perspective on the resultant feats of engineering:
As in Sydney now, walking in the city
that some dreamed we would
the heights and bridges built −
though sometimes we want to descend from these
sharp-cut graze of concrete
the intimacy of trees
She follows this with ‘Barangaroo’, where her evocation of the natural world is uplifting:
In this place that's retrieved today
this recreation of a ruined shore
buoys now sway
again, against the white trailed water
of a ferry's wake
Monash married Victoria Moss in 1891. Three months later, diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis, she was convalescing with her sister in Beechworth, Monash travelling back and forth by train from Melbourne. As Perlstone notes, ‘The Law and its outlaws / mixed in Beechworth’, none the least the infamous Ned Kelly. She describes the settling of power that happened here:
like Kelly's makeshift headgear −
dark imprisoning iron −
more than masking
armour − Nolan's later icon.
A disputed mythology has grown up, linking Monash to Ned Kelly, as in Peter FitzSimon’s 2014 biography of the bushranger. Perlstone has eschewed including any such incident but uses the iconography with metaphoric force. She introduces an attested meeting between Kelly and Monash’s father (in Jerilderie) and suggests Monash’s later interest in the Kelly Gang. In an ekphrastic poem ‘The Slip’, based on a well-known painting by Nolan, the horse’s fall from a ‘precipitous’ height is perhaps reminiscent of Monash’s own trajectory.
In this first section of the book, Perlstone begins to show the uneasy relationship existing between Monash and his wife Victoria (or Vic). This, she mostly develops through interpretation of photographs and artworks, with an impressive sensitivity to bodily language and gesture, as in the poem ‘1898’:
Vic's full skirt, jacket and jaunty hat
free-stand on her, almost
and match the double-breasted suit
The rift appears more strongly in ‘An Early Photo of Monash and Vic’:
looking in separate directions
they have the same
upholding of themselves for the camera
to be seen, yet between them
their expressions dilate with defiance,
expose opposite views
And what is inner with Vic is there
by her mouth
her dark hair and dark dress
the high collar around her neck
and head, prevent
or lean into
The continuing disintegration of their relationship is interwoven with related themes including the growing rise of feminism and husband’s and wife’s opposing responses to it:
He's avoided Vida Goldstein, feminist,
18 years old.
Monash announces she is "all too self-possessed and affected".
He should be "the master"
their future should be shaped
so he can succeed.
Once again, the poet’s voice interposes, interpreting and responding to emotional overtones, as in the visually evocative ‘Damp Window in the Rain’:
umbrellas passing under the fig tree leaves
hold the patterns like a slide-show
each walker giving way to another
on the wet black pavement
the tented colours screening shapes
traced like under-lit shadows
without the sun
Abstrusely a sight I turn to
reflecting on Vic
watching the hesitant configurations.
It was her time of not wanting a life rushed through
Hardly one to seize
Sunday, September 8th, 2019
Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Translated by Tiffany Tsao
Giramondo Publishing, 2019
Sergius and Bacchus were fourth century soldiers in the Roman imperial army and also devout Christians and lovers. They kept their religion and sexuality secret but once their Christianity was discovered they were to suffer terrible torture and eventual death as martyrs, hence their sainthood into the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church (centred at that time in Byzantium). Bacchus’s and Sergius’s sexualities remain contentious, particularly within the Church and at least as far as some church historians are concerned. However, as travel writer Will Harris points out, ‘parallels between their secrecy and that of so many queer communities across the globe has turned them into something of a symbol for queer visibility.’
This ‘visibility’ remains especially potent, indeed emblematic, for the Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu. ‘Sergius Seeks Bacchus’, his first book, is located firmly within an apprehension of sexual oppression. Many queer Indonesians (of whom Pasaribu is one) endure persecution or, at the very least, the fear of it at the hands of an increasingly fundamentalist, non-tolerant society, particularly in some regional areas across this huge island group. While homosexual acts between consenting adults are not illegal across the archipelago, there exists widespread harassment, prejudice and shaming especially in Aceh and West Java where the strict observance of Sharia law is more pronounced. Also, in other parts of Indonesia, where Sharia law is not practiced, there exists an implicit tension within society in relation to matters of sexual identification and gender mobility. And while much of the country moves inevitably towards more democratic, secular values, there is an opposite push to shift society in the direction of more conservative, Muslim orthodoxy. It is indeed a paradox worth noting that while democratic impulses remain strong, as millions of Indonesians continue to explore and experience western-style electoral democracy, prejudice towards homosexuality is also marked, as significant numbers move to defend what they see as threatened religious orthodoxy. My own partner’s family is representative of this development in thinking and observance. Nieces, aunts, cousins and sisters are more than ever drawn to wearing the hijab, as a sign of their own virtue and religiosity. That they feel this is necessary, particularly where the prospect of marriage is concerned, was certainly not the case even ten years ago. Their male counterparts are also drawn to stricter and more public observance. The increasing numbers of those attending religious service is evidence of a move towards conservatism in Jakarta – hitherto the centre of a more relaxed attitude towards Islam and its teachings.
Being both gay and Christian, Pasaribu faces difficulty on two distinct fronts within his own country. His response is a creative and rebellious one. In Sergius Seeks Bacchus, a book that appears to be mostly ‘biographical’, even ‘confessional’, he explores the confusion and complexity of his own identity, while expressing deeply felt individual protest and determined self-belief – a belief honed, as it appears, within very personal family difficulty, religious questioning and more broadly, social alienation.
In ‘Erratum’, the opening poem, he asks:
What was he thinking here, picking this body
and this family [?]
Pasaribu expresses a gay lament, via a second person narrative, that is unfortunately all too familiar to many individuals in Indonesia and elsewhere. In Indonesia especially, the experience of familial alienation is one that millions suffer, leading to the kinds of domestic scenarios as described in ‘Erratum’. In this poem Pasaribu writes within a kind of casual and conversational address that invites the reader to share intimate feelings including the stress of conflict. The very casualness of address is distinctive in the poems generally and encourages an immediate identification, if also at times representing an expressive awkwardness as the author attempts to marry poetry with narrative urgency or political statement.
In ‘Erratum’, we can certainly feel Pasaribu’s sense of dislocation when describing what happened:
not long after his first book came out,
[when] as his family sat cross-legged together and ate,
he told them it wouldn't end with any girl
and here as he stood by the side of the road
that night, all alone, cars passing him,
his father's words hounding him,
Don't ever come back, Banci,
and he wept under a streetlight ...
While this particular scene, or a version of it, is enacted over many households across the Indonesian archipelago, it appears here to be a painful and immediate memory for Pasaribu himself as he continues to negotiate the thickets of family rejection and intolerance, while attempting to live a creative life in the capital far removed from his family. That the poet asserts ‘biographical fact’ is of course an assumption on my part. However, the intensity and consistency of information provided across the poems would seem to support this view. While Pasaribu provides a ‘speaker’, my suspicion is that the speaker is a mask for the poet himself and that the resultant work is to a large degree ‘confessional’. The ‘mask’ also provides at least a little protection from potential difficulty, legal and social.
Wednesday, July 17th, 2019
The Gang of One: Selected Poems by Robert Harris
Grand Parade Poets, 2019
In ‘The Day’, Harris writes a stunning eschatology for Gough Whitlam. For Harris the dismissal was ‘the day of deceit’, ‘the day to lose heart’. As I write this review, I too am demoralized and anxious, despite the beta-blockers. In the crisis of another general election, the causes of a progressive and civil society have again been defeated. And in our election wash-up, the ALP seeks a new leader. Tanya Plibersek, our Kiwi-model hope, has already withdrawn her candidacy for the top job, citing family reasons (this does not appear to be an obstacle for her male colleagues). In this society, is any male (really) a ‘gang of one’? And while I hear the self-referential humor implied in the title, I also find myself butting up against its hyperbole: the allusion to romantic nonsense of one-off, singular (almost always male) creative genius. Will Connie Barber, Barbara Fisher and Grace Perry (amongst so many others) also be recognized/celebrated with the Selected/Collected milestone?
This being said, Harris is an incredible poet of place, of faith, of historical sequence; and many of his poems’ endings shimmer with all the ecstatic vibrancy of Hopkins (or Murray). I do not believe in miracles, I was grown in Baptist/Pentecostal faith traditions, but this book is miraculous – a triumph of its (crowd funded) gang of supporters. And I am so joyful that they have introduced me to this poet.
In writing place, and its settlement, Harris is capable of juxtaposing such lyrical imagism with strongly interrogative purpose. ‘The Dancer’ is a very fine example. Here the poem-sequence is centered less on narrative momentum, and more on an almost surrealist automatism and fizz of unforgettable imagery:
Miriam, in the hallway,
a girl wears a papier mâché mask
and tinsel stars down Brunswick Street
a bird a lumbering wagon of sky
- this ghost that can go with aphasiacs
without feeling panic
arise, like a kite
Trout leap out of the river, command the night.
But this is also a place ‘before Cook’ where: ‘You have guessed Cook is a cipher / (but of what forest, my dear little trees)’. Historical perspectives might be as beautiful as ‘trout become water’:
but what Cook carried, along with slaves
the seven sheep on eleven ships
conversations that of no volition rise like waves
: my hands on my lover’s body are forgiven
everything they have been and touched and turned to
that did not feel good or auspicious
This lyrically interrogative intent is continued in ‘Clear Days in Winter’, another beautiful poem of place that is also attuned to ecological concerns:
I often feel walking on the flats
that I’m in a face that is laughing,
especially when the south-westerlies
set the ghost gums shaking. They have come back
year by year, throwing their suckers forward,
moving up saplings, bridging the old torn diggings
with roots, ignoring the hectic counter-attacks
of isolated chainsaws, the spiteful weekend
initiallings done with axes. Lanes and streets
have crumbled before them like redoubts
until they camp equably on mounds.
Then they throw up white arms, they spend
their modest torsos on a place between the earth
and air, loyal to old, unrestricted alphabet,
although the lesser banished them, wrote
lonely on entire skies, brought calves, found gold
and apparitions to worship every moonrise.
There are so many major poems of place in this book, all hinting at mystery and the exquisiteness of ‘creation’ while also adjusted to postcolonial/ecological commitment. There is ‘Concerning Shearers Playing for the Bride’, which is also a poem of ekphrasis in response to Arthur Boyd; and the poems of North Queensland sugarcane country: the sequence ‘Cane Country’; and ‘Canefield Sunday, 1959’. These poems are fueled by a searching necessity for a Treaty with First Australians, for social justice, and by such dramatic and vivid descriptive language. This is a poet, with strong convictions, in love with the world in which he finds himself.
This ecstatic vision is most evident in the way Harris ends poems. In ‘The Call’, a poem evoking the ‘eye of summer’, he concludes:
Christ, called me through from the other side of lightening.
Now I would seek out a comelier praise;
then I felt like one in a room of crimes
as the blind rattles up, and the light crashes in.
While ‘The Snowy Mountains Highway’ finishes:
The vivid blue & heat, at times
so thick it curved and shook,
recalled Bertolucci’s camera.
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also
to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write.
A pair of shoelaces could be an event
if tools got me by, chains on
retreads and rising early, when
axe handles split, good hickory too,
how far then I drove in His paradigm,
early mornings on ochre roads
to see the light lift silver off slush.
These poem endings are unforgettable in the way they employ concrete imagery and sound to express such delight and wonder towards ‘God’ and the world ‘he’ has created. It is difficult not to be seduced by the simplicity and beauty of this language, but of course, this language also raises difficulties.
I still remember the first time I read Les Murray’s majestic ‘The Last Hellos’. I was a young adult (desperately) trying to maintain my faith, and this poem reduced me to tears. It is a beautiful hymn of love written for Murray’s father who had just died. In this delicate eulogy Murray addresses his father concluding (with a dramatic crash):
Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.
Like Murray, Harris seems to enjoy championing the unfashionable cause of God (though he is obviously more progressive in his politics); and in these convictions both leave me nostalgically longing, but also cold. In writing a poetics of faith Harris and Murray prioritize the role of individual submission to God, neither one examining their faith too closely, or asking difficult questions. In Harris this is especially problematic, because his progressive politics would seem to be so often in conflict with his obedience to God.
In ‘The Cloud Passes Over’ Harris writes a magnificent hymn of praise for rejuvenating rains. This is rain that breaks riverbanks as ‘water flows sideways / from faucets outdoors’:
the Lord God of waters
moves down the freshwater,
the estuary, rivers
veiled in darkness.
In silence He inspects
where the bank drops away,
examining every rotting trunk,
every hole where fish sleep.
He sets aside mullet and trout
for Koori people,
for dairymen mourning
under the quota system.
Leaving aside the issue of Harris’s non-inclusive language, in focusing only on God as the source of creation and renewal, this beautiful hymn of praise is not entirely honest. This ‘Lord of all / is at large throughout His creation’ as judgment and death also (flood). ‘He’ was never only about love and life – there were always strings attached.
Thursday, June 27th, 2019
Milk Teeth by Rae White
University of Queensland Press, 2018
Aril Wire by Anders Villani
Five Islands Press, 2018
Poetry debuts are not necessarily juvenilia. The vagaries of poetry publishing mean that by the time a poet’s first collection is published they often are, at least by some standards, emerging fully formed, able and ready to demonstrate their skill to a willing audience.
By the time a poet has amassed a book’s-worth of work and managed to secure a publisher, it’s a fair assumption that they have found their voice. This isn’t to say that their voice won’t develop and change as they continue to write, but that a debut poet is by no means an inexperienced or untested one.
The debut collections of Brisbane-based Rae White and Melbourne-based Anders Villani are the work of people with honed and confident voices. These are poets with extant careers whose books are a celebration of the culmination of their work to date.
White’s debut collection Milk Teeth was the winner of the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and published in 2018 by the University of Queensland Press. It was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2019, whose judges described it as ‘challeng(ing) pre-existing categories: gender, interior and exterior landscapes, the way we assume language is fixed.’ Milk Teeth is an energetic collection, equal parts experimental and traditional, in which formal and structural innovations lie comfortably alongside poignant and personal observations. White is equally at home disrupting an otherwise familiar scenario with fairy-tale elements as they are with anchoring the reality of unreal scenes with finely crafted detail.
‘Mother’s Milk’, the first poem in the collection, ably demonstrates White’s capacity as a lyric poet while also showcasing their taste for disruption. In this poem the ordinariness and intimacy of a mother showing her daughter’s partner a box of saved baby teeth is expanded upon and heightened into a visceral body-horror exploration of the desire to possess and encompass a lover:
feel it scrape & chafe
lodge in my throat.
That night, its crystal
White’s lyrical facility is also proven by ‘Skyward’, depicting an intimate encounter between partners. It zeroes in on the patterns of light cast onto one person’s bare belly through a canopy of leaves:
each teardrop spectre
Sitting alongside lyric qualities that demonstrate White’s facility with language and image are more experimental works that challenge both poetic convention and readers’ expectations. White has enlisted a number of other-than-poetic forms into their poetic service, including Twitter posts, programming code and bureaucratic language. These poems use their mimetic forms to highlight the social structures and frameworks that are used to declare, confirm or erase identity.
At times White’s counter-use of such languages and forms to convey political messages occasionally threatens to destabilise those forms to the point of neutralising their menace. The point of these exercises, however, is consistent and clear. One of the most powerful examples of this re-weaponised language is ‘Regarding your Suspension’, a parody of the implicit biases baked into bureaucratic processes. The poem simmers with weary but still-sharp sarcasm:
Your gender has been flagged
and suspended by our team, due to being
one or more of the following …’
In addition to these poems calling structural biases into question, other poems in Milk Teeth challenge another almost invisible preconception: that of the physical orientation of poems on the page. Many of the poems in Milk Teeth are set at 90 degrees to the usual orientation of a book, requiring the reader to turn the book sideways in order to read them.
While this design decision may simply be a result of White desiring a longer line for these poems, and while it may be connected to the common poetic experience of being published on a screen before ever being published on a page, it’s hard not to think of this particular challenge to convention as being of a piece with the challenges to bias and preconception that White puts forward in other aspects of their work.
White’s challenges to poetic structure and style are in keeping with the way their poems’ subject matter also challenges conservative views of gender. With poems like ‘Microaggressions’ and the award-winning ‘what even r u’, White centres the personal experience of insult and aggression, both passive and active, regularly experienced by non-binary people.
But while gender identity is at the fore of some poems, White also challenges the potential assumption that a non-binary activist poet can or should only write about their activism. This point is successfully made by poems like ‘Plants my exes gave me’ and ‘Enraptured’, which depict experiences like gardening and falling in love that are common to all humans. In doing so White validates and celebrates the continuum of gender with other modes of experience, and hopefully educates those who believe they can only experience non-binary life vicariously.
There’s an appealing messiness, a futz and clutter, a chaos to the world White writes. It’s a world of ‘Biscuit grit in / bed Enoki mushrooms / woven with pubic hair’. There’s tenderness here too, portrayed by a deft hand that pens memorable, shy and gentle love scenes that share space with the boldness and confidence of experimentation and political assertion. Milk Teeth is an eclectic mixtape of a book, a stellar debut exhibiting equal parts ‘fuck that noise’ and a visceral love of life.
Tuesday, June 4th, 2019
A little book of unspoken history by Elif Sezen
Puncher & Wattmann, 2018
Where do footsteps lead, these frustrated blind hunters
In these times many of us from all corners of the globe have more than one place we call home. Concepts of nationality, attachment to place, a sudden annunciation of enlightened belonging or steadfast refusal of it can be dissociative, painful and conversely full of artistic promise. The very notion of home may be welcome or fraught with regret. It may involve mixed emotions or at worst, trauma.
Elif Sezen, a Turkish-Australian multidisciplinary artist currently living in Melbourne, has developed a sophisticated methodology to work across media and to explore these themes. By foregrounding a personal inner life within the rigours of artistic and spiritual practice, she eschews narcissism through a focus on the transformative image. As a poet, translator, and as an artist Sezen has access to a world of imagery which appears to float in an imagined but deliberately structured dimension. Through deft selection, her practice of writing does not overwork its own tropes, which centre on childhood, trauma, displacement, the politics of migration and the metaphysical ambiguities integral to journeys real and imagined. Sezen’s images of trauma carry with them an apparent resonance, tantalisingly suggesting an overcoming, but also simultaneously suggesting the indelible trace of that trauma.
An example of this effect can be seen in the epigram ‘Slap of the morning’:
Slammed doors are still being heard
Who are they?
Coming after two poems focusing on childhood, ‘On the topic of first parents’ and ‘Childhood’, the poem resonates as a deep early memory suggesting violence with the sonorous slap and slammed, and fear through the final line Who are they?. The poem, employing Sezen’s regular trope, the door, appears to echo through space in a similar way to a masterly haiku.
Speaking generally of her artistic practice, Sezen has written: ‘I suggest the continual expansion of a poetic persona as a methodology of surrendering to the infinite’. Her poetry renounces the world’s ability to deliver infinity; instead its imagery emerges in devotional splendour or in political anger at the cruelties inflicted on refugees, especially those in long term detention.
When I first encountered Sezen’s work several years ago, I was attracted by what I saw as the European texture of the work, with its philosophical emphasis and often-romantic interiority. This connection has been astutely observed by Nadia Niaz, in a review in this publication of Sezen’s first English collection Universal Mother. Niaz focuses on the influence of Rilke (and importantly, his use of Sufi imagery), but also stresses Sezen’s access to diverse traditions, including Ottoman and Persian poetics, and to modern protagonists such as Forugh Farrokhzad. Several poems in A little book of unspoken history are dedicated to what can be seen as a constellation of artists, images of whom form something of an interior gallery, a feature many of us share, functioning as icons of our very existence. Sezen’s gallery includes Holderlin, Kahlo, Camille Claudel, and significantly in ‘Our celestial doorway’, a moving tribute to Farrokhzad:
Let’s meet up in your
in a city where women glow in green, head to toe
when we bend down from
the Khaju bridge, our reflections
on the water turn into non-poisonous ivies,
a city of secret sovereignty
where bombs won’t explode
A significant poem included in A little book of unspoken history is ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’. The open, sequenced structure of the poem allows the key state of the suffering of the body to move effortlessly through themes of spiritual renunciation, the trauma of non-belonging and the vicissitudes of migration doubly effected and politicised. In an artist talk at her recent exhibition The Second Homecoming at Counihan Gallery, Sezen mentioned how moving back and forth between Izmir and Melbourne had left her without a sense of home. In this poem, fatigue enforces a focus back upon the self. In 1. Awareness, Sezen writes:
Now that I am tired
I must open up inwardly, like a lotus blossom
yes, I must open my paper-like lids
towards the benign feature of absence
for I will encounter her, in the very bottom:
that archetypal mystic, resembling my mother
by her glance perforating the silvered smoke
my small self will pass away
because I am tired
because fatigue is a lovely trap made to
save my body from its old cage
I get rid of the worldly clock
losing beguiling sleep
This sequence leads to a surge of empathy, where like an ascetic removed from the fray, the poet releases the possibility of benevolent compassion:
become a voluntary mute
so I can speak for them
They surrender their souls
wrapped with flesh and blood and breath
back to where they came from
As the poem continues, it develops a floating sense, the pinning of an elusive image, the transformative power of angels, and the devastating liberation of surrendering to pain:
La Minor impatience
Do black humour
CRESCENDO the pain
Is so glorious here
Wednesday, May 15th, 2019
Vanishing Points by Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, 2017
Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, 2017
Michelle Leggott and Elizabeth Smither are both former Poet Laureates, with distinguished careers behind them. Night Horse won the poetry category of the 50th Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and Vanishing Points has already been received to great acclaim. Even though there are some major stylistic differences between these two books, there are many surprising coincidences.
Published by Auckland University Press, they offer intimate observations about family, bodily deterioration and death. As New Zealand poets, they belong to a relatively small community so it’s not entirely surprising that they both commemorate Jeny Curnow, the wife of poet Allen Curnow, who died in 2013. As a poet in her late seventies, Smither is concerned with the mortality of friends and family yet she takes obvious pleasure in everyday encounters. In ‘Tonia’s cemetery’ she visits her friend’s future resting place and remarks drily: ‘how well you had selected / your place, far better than your houses.’
Leggott’s gradual loss of sight is a central theme in her book, as it was for her fourth collection of poetry, As Far As I Can See (1999). The tone can be mournful, regretting the loss, but she also recognises that other senses are sharpened. There are scents of frangipani — whether real or imagined — karaka berries knobbly underfoot and the sound of Segways passing by. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is perceived in the moment or recalled from another time: ‘So it is still possible to step ashore on the islands of visions and say I remember. It was like this.’ And there’s a sense of wonder at certain moments of partial sight: ‘I saw my hand against a sunlit wall. Just for a moment.’ For Leggott, moving through interior spaces feels like a kind of swimming, with a choreography of its own: ‘Blind Swimming. Let your hands find each doorway, let your / fingers trail the edges of furniture, the tops of balustrades and / the walls of hallways with their punctuating spaces.’ For Leggott, swimming is a way to extend her reach.
The attention paid to non-human creatures is another common theme: Smither populates her book with birds, cats and horses. She writes of a kangaroo with a ‘look of deep retiring modesty / one in authority with the landscape.’ The horse of the title ‘moves in a trance / so compelling, so other-worldly/ it doesn’t see the car lights’ Leggott’s guide dog, Olive, is a constant companion in her prose poems — there’s even a photo of the two of them in the press release. Her canine companion is riffed on, transformed, becoming ‘the dog of tears’ who will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. Leggott also enjoys her presence when Olive is not working, shaking hands repeatedly: ‘I feel her toes flex and the nails close over the hand that is holding hers. I do this again and again, to feel her hand close on mine.’ This is as good as listening to her drinking from her water bowl, which reminds the poet of Gertrude Stein’s little dog and what listening to the rhythm of his drinking taught her about the differences between sentences and paragraphs: ‘That paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not.’ The dog takes part in a Modern Poetry class and her lapping is recorded and amplified for the purpose of close listening.
Smither and Leggott are very much concerned with family and questions of inheritance. Smither describes a drive past ‘my mother’s house’, of which the view is intimate yet distant: ‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see / the best of a friend, the best of a mother / competent and gracious in her solitude.’ She recognises the precious nature of this passing glimpse and its intimation that her mother ‘would soon walk into the last room / of her life and go to sleep in it.’ Smither’s mother re-appears during a stay in hospital: ‘I shall have my way with my daughter / I shall bring her out of this place / of bogus and fruitless whiteness / her wound will heal under my ministrations.’ The poet’s mother, with Marcel wave and gloves, is more real than the details of the room, suggesting that the desire for your mother persists even into later years.
Wednesday, May 15th, 2019
Hot Take by Liam Ferney
Hunter Publishers, 2018
In a review for Cordite, Stu Hatton commented that the reader will need to google the obscure references in Liam Ferney’s poetry in order to keep up. The epigraph of the poet’s fourth collection reminds us of this:
‘The purpose of this book is to convince you
(the reader) that something is terribly wrong’
This quote is lifted from Milton William Cooper’s book, Behold a Pale Horse. A quick google-search and Wiki-read revealed that Cooper was an American conspiracy theorist whose book ‘unfolds the truth about the assassination of John F Kennedy, the war on drugs, the Secret Government, and UFOs.’ Like a conspiracy theory, Hot Take attempts to expose the world’s hidden logic in all of its confronting glory.
Ferney’s second collection, Boom (Grand Parade Poets, 2013) was an explosion of language and imagery. In Boom, Ferney’s typically diffused subject matter often spilt over multiple pages, creating poems that are equally fantastic and exhausting to read. Ferney’s third collection, Content (Hunter Publishers, 2016) saw a refinement of this expansive style into a more self-assured and recognisable aesthetic. Ferney continues this trend in Hot Take, which offers a significant range of masterfully controlled poetic techniques.
In particular, Ferney dutifully exemplifies theories and practices developed by the New York School, then refined by their antipodean counterparts. He pays homage to O’Hara in the poem ‘Sardines’ by going on his nerve to produce a Ken Bolton-esque poem-in-progress that revels in its almost flippant existence: ‘this is a poem because it has words in it.’ Gig Ryan’s sardonic tone pervades the collection like ‘cigarette smoke and a hangover’s regrets’ (‘After the Rain’). The poem ‘Modern Love’ does more than use Forbes’ classic ‘Speed, a pastoral’ as a scaffold: it brings the Forbesian sense of devotion and craft into the Snapchat age: ‘It’s weeks since you’ve slept / & it’s not fun to stay up all night / tapping these iNotes of poetry / just thinking about is bad for you—’. ‘On the occasion of Buzz Aldrin shooting down a conspiracy theorist on Twitter’ is reminiscent of Benjamin Frater at his most absurd and dynamic. The ease with which Ferney uses sporting metaphors reminds me of Peter Rose’s prowess using cricket and footy imagery. This potentially reductive list of influences shows Ferney to be far more than an imaginative hack: his confidence in using an array of techniques confirms the poet as a diligent and devoted student of OzPo and its traditions.
A distinctive wit characterises each poem in Hot Take as irony dominates this collection. Only Ferney could write ‘[b]y the time you stop paying your HECS debt / you’ll understand no one cares about what you have to say’ or ‘PTSD was straightforward / when you could just belt your wife’ without it seeming crass. If you think Ferney is being genuine, then the joke’s on you: ‘Of course I’m obtuse. / Civilisation is all about / me not telling you what I really think.’ This humour, deftly laced with cynicism and mordancy, attacks our sensibilities ‘like a jihadi’s dull blade through / an aid worker’s pale neck’. This is seemingly the purpose of the collection: to zap the reader out of any complacency toward the world and its realities. Above all though, Hot Take is funny. Lines such as ‘PWN the n00b descending the staircase, / these Chads will know the beta’s far cry’ transcend literary theory and are simply hilarious.
Despite its range of techniques, Hot Take still maintains a unifying aesthetic. Politics, economics, sport, Brisbane, twitter, drugs, millennial slang and naff Australiana are all poured into these formal vessels to produce a distinctly Fernian effect. As a fellow sports-nut, I always enjoy it when Ferney uses sporting imagery to personify abstract ideas. Indeed, sport’s woefully ignorant attempt at being apolitical is exactly the type of flawed logic that Ferney’s poems target. Mixing sport and politics creates confronting and farcical lines like ‘graham richardson in dick togs / staggering through the last k of the city 2 surf’. Ferney’s poems themselves are like modern athletes: juiced-up and muscular.
Ferney’s editorial for Rabbit’s SPORT issue (2018) explores the relationship between sport, poetry, politics, and economics: ‘The jubilation, the actual physical sensation of snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat refuses commodification in the same way that a work of art can be bought or sold, but the way it moves you can’t.’ The deftness of the poem ‘63 no’ which deals with Phillip Hughes’ tragic death embodies this: ‘we struggle / with the ramifications / of a hook shot’. With Ferney, poetry, sport, economics, and politics are so tightly intertwined it’s impossible to separate them. This is typical of Ferney, always hyper-aware of the world’s logic and its structural interconnectedness.
Friday, April 26th, 2019
South of Words by Iris Fan Xing
Flying Island Books, 2018
Christopher (Kit) Kelen has described Iris Fan Xing’s South of Words as ‘not translation’. The intersection between English and Chinese Mandarin lies at its heart, reflecting Fan’s converging identities across settings and cultures. Her publisher, Kelen identifies that readers’ engagement with bilingual poetry can be limited by our evaluation of translated works predominantly by their faithfulness to the assumed ‘original’ product, often regarding translation itself as necessarily an act of ‘watering down’. Fan has previously subverted this notion in her debut collection, Lost in the Afternoon (2009), which was intended instead as a conversation between parallel texts, capable of greater richness and imaginative value in tandem than as a standalone works.
South of Words operates in a similar manner; as a non-Chinese speaker, I am acutely aware that my reading of the collection is incomplete. Nonetheless, it is this prospect of her multilingual poetry that allows Fan to represent cross-cultural identity on its own, authentic terms, while offering a uniquely nuanced experience to readers, particularly those belonging to the author’s diasporic communities. In the same way, South of Words does not convey Fan’s relationship to Australian and Chinese cultures as discrete influences, but rather in their cultural synthesis.
The most overt representation of this occurs in the titular poem, which lies at the centre of the collection as a division between the English and Chinese sections. In ‘south of words’, the languages weave in and out, with English words in black text and Mandarin in white, together on a hazy, grayscale photograph. As the poem progresses, its background fades closer to black until the English words are almost fully obscured and the Chinese characters are starkly clear. This transitive quality serves to exemplify the collection’s emphasis on journeys, tenuously mapped out with direct and indirect references alike:
the music will never be lost 又比如在黃昏的鄉間路上
透過飛馳的車窗 if you know how to listen
sit under a jacaranda 瞥見一匹桉樹下的馬
豐滿垂墜的腹部 when it’s blooming
let it play out loud 懷著一輪橘紅的太陽
The dialogic relationship between English and Mandarin is echoed with Fan’s thoughtful paralleling of physical locations – not by means of seamless, perfect comparisons, but through the sincerity and occasional disjointedness of personal perspective. This can be seen in ‘smog’, where Perth and Macao share common ground within their respective opposites:
don’t know why but parting
always reminds me of drifting clouds
maybe because I know that Xü Zhimo poem
embarrassingly well and you’ll agree with me
a seaside town like Macao presents
the best kind of summer cloud
generous in volume and almost tangible
the same kind in Perth in winter
Similarly, ‘after Hayashi Fumiko’ elicits an unsettled emotive response by drawing connections through—and in spite of—elements of disconnect:
living in a country
on the condition of a visa
is a visa is a visa
and our cat
lost one of her nine lives
to a passing car
but we know in Chinese
eight is the lucky number
In this sense, the bleeding of cultures into one other allows Fan to subvert the notion of a perfect metaphor in favour of a perfectly subjective metaphor. Memories are conveyed in their esoteric honesty – closer to the odd, internal logic of a child trying to rationalise the world, than the platitudes of an adult attempting to neaten it. Fan’s metaphors feel uniquely authentic in their refusal to be overwrought—or sanitised in a social vacuum—for the sake of universal relatability. The result, however, is relatable in its affective significance as a reader. Speaking a truth that is equally personalised by direct confession and subtle contextualisation of Eastern and Western influences, contemporary and mythological figures, and multilingualism, Fan produces work that is layered with interpretative nuances, but can still be appreciated at different levels of depth. This allows for a diversity in readership of Chinese and non-Chinese speakers alike, and both casual and academic readers of poetry, without alienating those who lack specific contextual knowledge and may simply enjoy the thoughtful intrigue of Fan’s language choices.
South of Words demonstrates the subjective merit of its intertexts in their capacity to enrich traditional modes of evocation. The relationship between experiential and referential elements allows for an undiluted representation of the self that is not confined to the East or West either in physical location, nor language, nor self-identity. This is also depicted frankly in ‘love it or…’:
love it or write it in your language
ignore grammar – tense and gendered nouns
mine for the sound of storm in clouds
for the image of a peninsula and its reflection
on the sea where evening tides
race like ten million octopuses
love it or reverse the mirror
a waratah is still a waratah
a frangipani a frangipani
but a word is not the same word
love it or live it
Not only does this poem portray an uninhibited self, but it intertwines the entities of place and person. ‘love it or…’ also emphasises the metapoetic urge to create one’s own rules and write in a manner of authenticity that is self-defined in expression. In ‘Canton holiday’, the wider implications of valuing subjectivity are also conveyed as a protest against detached, officialised views of history:
when representing history
you need to defamiliarise
does she mean we should see
through the eyes of that stray cat?
The poignant simplicity of these words is undercut by the power of their suggestion, simultaneous calling on the reader’s internal and societal awareness. South of Words ultimately feels like an exploratory journey of re-familiarising, where the self is as elusive and evolving as its physical settings, and histories are personalised within experience itself. In Fan’s poetics, while nothing is immune to change, nothing is quite devoid of familiarity either.
Monday, April 8th, 2019
New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham edited by Nathanael O’Reilly
UWA Publishing, 2017
Devotees of Australian literature are unlikely to possess more than a half-dozen single volumes by poets born before Federation, and their reading of such poets is generally limited to anthologies. The problem, I’d suggest, is one of availability more than desire. University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) is one publisher looking to redress this through an intermittent series of titles, which include Lesbia Harford’s Collected Poems (2014) and the Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson (2012), together with more recent classics, such as Francis Webb’s Collected Poems (2011) and the Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewitt (2010). UWAP’s latest volume is the elegantly produced New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham, edited and introduced by Australian-born, poet-scholar Nathanael O’Reilly, which republishes 100 poems from Wickham’s five collections together with another 150 previously uncollected poems.
The book’s short introduction provides a brief outline of Wickham’s biography. She was born Edith Alice Mary Harper in London in 1883, but lived in Australia for most of her childhood in Maryborough (Queensland), Brisbane and Sydney – taking her pseudonym from a Brisbane street. Wickham returned to London in 1904 to pursue a singing career and there she married a successful solicitor, Patrick Hepburn, who remained her husband for over 20 years. The marriage, which produced four sons, was unhappy, largely because Hepburn opposed Wickham’s artistic pursuits – in 1913 he had his wife institutionalised for three months. George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Katherine Mansfield, Laurence Durrell and DH Lawrence were among her circle of friends. Having struggled with depression for most of adult life, Wickham suicided at the age of sixty-three, leaving over a thousand poems, most of which remain unpublished.
Among the work collected by O’Reilly are free verse and strict forms, monologues, sonnets and verse in ballad-metre, short chiselled lyrics of regular rhyme and metre, imaginative narratives and dramatic monologues, and some mixing of distinctly different forms. A reader is often struck by a deliberate asperity. Wickham asks in ‘The Egoist’:
Shall I write pretty poetry –
Controlled by ordered sense in me –
With an old choice of figure and of word,
So call my soul a nesting bird?
The answer is a resounding no. Living in the age of aeroplanes, she reasons – in the line that resolves the poem and stretches to a comic twenty-one syllables – that she will write her ‘rhythms free’. The homely Georgian imagery of the opening stanza is not entirely rejected but the work is generally more direct than that of most of Wickham’s contemporaries – ‘Paradox’, for example, opens with the phrase: ‘My brain burns with hate of you’ – but it can occasionally be esoteric and obscure. It is an erudite poetry in a literary sense, steeped in the classical tradition, in Shakespeare and the Romantics. The content is often more radical than the forms, as she explores and interrogates gender roles, marriage and motherhood. Perhaps most modern of all, she celebrates the therapeutic power of poetry.
The strength of Wickham’s personality, and the power of the work is manifest in ‘Mare Bred from Pegasus’:
For God’s sake, stand off from me:
There’s a brood mare here going to kick like hell
With a mad up-rising energy;
And where the wreck will end who’ll tell?
She’ll splinter the stable door and eat a groom.
For God’s sake, give me room;
Give my will room.
The poem’s force comes not only from the equine imagery that Wickham often returns to but from a diction that is both rhetorical and colloquial. It is a charged language of strong verbs, spiked consonants and quick vowel sounds. The compound-adjective, ‘up-rising’, is particularly powerful, while the eating of the stable boy, or figuratively the husband, manages both to menace and charm. The repeated plea for ‘room’ is central to another of the book’s strongest poems, ‘Divorce’:
A voice from the dark is calling me.
In the close house I nurse a fire.
Out of the dark cold winds rush free
To the rock heights of my desire.
I smother in the house in the valley below,
Let me out to the night, let me go, let me go.
Night is presented here, and elsewhere, as synonymous with the feminine and the creative. While the concerns of this poem are personal the imagery is, characteristically, elemental. We see the subtleties that Wickham is capable of in the adjectives ‘close’ and ‘rock’ and the verb ‘nurse’, the interesting use that ‘smother’ is put to, and the beautifully measured refrain. In other poems, Wickham prefers the role of the passionate lover to the dutiful wife, as in the ambiguous three-line ‘Function’:
I do not grudge you to your wife:
but take a mistress
And I'll have her life.
While the poet-speaker is resigned to dissatisfaction with marriage and concedes acquiescence to be the easier path, she refuses to be silent. The shrew is a trope to which Wickham often returns and, as the poet delighted in flouting social conventions in her lifetime, so the poet-speaker embraces this role with gusto.
In the poem, ‘Meditation at Kew’, which may remind of Thomas More’s Utopia, Wickham reimagines marriage. Written in rhyming couplets but set out in quatrains, it begins:
Alas! for all the pretty women who marry dull men,
Go into the suburbs and never come out again …
Wickham goes on to lament the sufferings of such suburban women and, in contrast, presents a sort of Arcadia:
I would enclose a common in the sun,
And let the young wives out to laugh and run;
I would steal their dull clothes and go away,
And leave the pretty naked things to play.
The dullness of the clothes the speaker steals picks up on the poem’s earlier uses of the word, which include the ‘old dull’ gentle classes, who ‘must breed true’. The sun contrasts the sterile drabness of the earlier imagery, as the looser spirit of play contrasts the passivity and stasis implied by the poem’s opening. In Wickham’s ideal the women are to see all the men of the world before they make their choice of partner, and the resolution that follows fuses Wickham’s critique of patriarchy and the class system:
From the gay unions of choice
We’d have a race of splendid beauty and of thrilling voice.
The world whips frank, gay love with rods,
But frankly gaily shall we get the gods.
Though the wife-husband context suggests the primary meaning of ‘gay’ to be something like joyous or carefree, the term’s modern usage was becoming more common in Wickham’s lifetime, and this secondary meaning reinforces a subtext of lesbian desire.
Monday, April 8th, 2019
and my heart crumples like a coke can by Ali Whitelock
Wakefield Press, 2018
Despite the sorrow of its title, and my heart crumples like a coke can will have an utterly expansive effect on the reader’s beat-box. My little heart almost burst as I read through this collection for the first time. And then the second. Like some classic 90s rom-com – or was it drama? – that you watched and then re-watched every weekend on VCR as a teen, Ali Whitelock’s book seems to encourage a closeness, invites the reader to experience a genuine connection with the poet/protagonist and with their bevvy of sidekicks, both the heroes and the villains. I find myself genuinely touched by the liquid, visceral rawness, the careful simplicity and confessional glory of Whitelock’s poems.
Perhaps it has something to do with the seemingly breezy style; I picture Whitelock scribbling these poems in five minutes – maybe ten – on the underside of napkins in a crowded café somewhere on Glebe Point Road, the Bukowskian edginess of it all just floating off her fingers to bless everything it touches like butter grease. This, I thought as I read, is precisely the poetry I would like to write. This, I thought, is the poetry I should be writing. Why am I not writing this bloody poetry? I thought, these odes to the horrid heat and shopping centre scourge of of the suburbs, the aging body, vaginas, chicko rolls and the farts of the dying? I am awestruck when confronted with such passages as this one, from ‘what you must you do/ you must keep your mouth shut’:
if you want you can tape it shut
with the snoring tape – he keeps it on the side of his bed.
it rolls off onto the carpet
the cat hair sticks to it because
what you must understand
is how you feel is not how others
feel. The important
thing you must do is not say how you feel
if you say how you feel he will roll his eyes and sometimes
after the eye rolling
there will be a sigh and what that means is you must not say
that thing again. Eventually
you will get to know the things that make the eyes roll and
the chest sigh and you will stop saying
them. If you hold a hermit crab shell to your ear
you can hear a rushing
and this rushing is the sound
of everything and the sound of nothing
This excerpt – and I would have included the whole poem if there was room for it – reveals Whitelock’s singular flair. The emotive content is moving without falling into sentiment, the motif and metaphor clever without leaning towards the pretentious. Even the centred structure works to jolt the reader into the importance of the particulars. This familiarity – imperative yet as casual as a conversation with a bestie – is I believe, is the kind of tone we all aim for, while endlessly editing and re-editing that seemingly unavoidable bullshit out. Her no-holds-barred, uncensored honesty when it comes to the small things – snoring tape, choice of lipstick when you turn fifty, brand of cooking chocolate – and the terrifyingly large things – death, exile (both voluntary and forced), aging, the mid-life affair, the aftermath of the affair – is so powerful it is contagious. Here are a few lines from ‘your friend said it was a love poem’:
the therapist had seen it all before – a thousand
times apparently – in women my age with no children
go on then rub it in at least i’d had the presence
of mind to ask about diseases you said
you had none backed it up with a printout
of your latest blood results you kept in a folder
marked ‘bloods’ which I didn’t find strange.
This blunt conversational tone is echoed, with perhaps even more harrowing honesty, in this excerpt, from the stand-out poem, ‘water’s for fish’:
as cliché as it sounds i always
imagined i’d get the call in the middle
of the night the one that would announce
that you were dead or at the very least
be dying i’d be bleary eyed would thank
the caller and hang up grateful
that i am safe my seventeen thousand
kilometres away and geographically exempt
from delivering your eulogy from shaking
hands with those i have no wish to shake
These excerpts also highlight the less cohesive aspects of the collection, which are the slightly discombobulating lineation choices, and collisions of atypical sentence structures. Quite often, the poems appear as performance texts adjusted for the page; sometimes fully punctuated and precise, and sometimes – part emphasis, part rebellion, I’d imagine – utterly not. While Whitelock’s lineation most often works to build emphasis, at other times it can start to feel a little heavy-handed, especially when the powerful and poignant word choice is more than capable of speaking for itself and perhaps needs no further emphasis. That said, anyone who has read the Beats, perhaps especially Bukowski (who is clearly, wonderfully, a strong influence on the collection), will have little or no problem navigating the momentary bumps caused by unpunctuated sentence collisions. Certainly, when listening to these poems read aloud (in a smoking hot Scottish accent; Whitelock is an impressive reader), any thought about formatting fades away.
Monday, March 25th, 2019
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker
Magabala Books, 2018
My sister and I devoured Blakwork. She’s nine and I’m not sure if she understood most of what Alison Whittaker talks about in this collection, but it resonated with her. With both of us. Whether that was our shared identity as women, as Aboriginal women, or something more, I’m not entirely sure. In Blakwork, Whittaker combines her career as a lawyer and her craft as a poet to peel back colonialism until it’s left exposed, raw, bleeding in the hands of the very people whom it has subjugated. She examines Indigenous work and labour, a physical theme manifested in a collection that embodies that exact physicality through form, structure, and rhythm. From her commentary on the subjugation of black bodies to the way the poems sit on the page, the reader is constantly thinking and moving with the collection.
Jumping from poetry to prose to memoir, Blakwork comes together, eagles out, then comes together again. It makes you turn your head and the book, it has you reciting lines aloud to feel the way they hang in your mouth. The reader is constantly working for the words on the page, so it’s difficult to get comfortable when reading this collection—but that’s the point. Too long has the comfort of a colonial readership within been valued within the Australian literary scene. Like that shadowy place in The Lion King, Blakwork situates the reader in a place of unrest – a place that has been pushed to the outskirts of history, shrouded in darkness. From the first, titular poem in the collection, Whittaker outlines her poetic thesis through commentary on the physical oppression and indentured work of Aboriginal people and the emotional work colonial Australia still expects us to do, including being tasked with the responsibility of reaching reconciliation and with being an emotional leaning post for people seeking to alleviate their white guilt.
The theme of indentured service is particularly significant in ‘many girls white linen’, which co-won the 2016 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. This poem discusses the physical labour of Aboriginal women by reimagining the missing girls from Joan Lindsay’s novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The reference to Australia’s literary past, however, is a throwaway, almost as if the scripts were flipped and, in this alternate history, it is the white women, rather than their black counterparts, who are not deemed significant enough to be mentioned. A more explicit reference to Australia’s colonial literary culture is the poem, ‘a love like Dorothea’s’. From the rhythm of each line to the fresh twist on Dorothea Mackellar’s famous phrases, this poem speaks back to Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. While Mackellar wrote ‘I love a sunburnt country’, Whittaker hits back with ‘I loved a sunburnt country’ (my emphasis). This subtle but powerful shift from present to past tense echoes the trauma the land now known as Australia has endured, the trauma the First Peoples of this land continue to endure, including the loss of land, culture and connection:
I loved a sunburnt country—won’t it
please come back to me? Won’t it
show me why my spirit wanders
but is never free?
I will soothe its burns with lotion, I will peel off its dead skin.
If it can tell me
ever further from my kin.
In both ‘many girls white linen’ and ‘a love like Dorothea’s’, Whittaker rewrites a colonial history all Australians have grown up with and offers a counterview of which most people are ignorant. This strategy is seen in a series of poems scattered throughout the collection, each one constructed using forty-nine most common three-word phrases of well-known court cases. A lawyer by training, Whittaker uses the law as well as acknowledging its misuse and colonial nature. A poem about the Mado decision, ‘the skeleton of the common law’, is full of phrases referencing colonial structures and names. In particular, references to ‘the Crown’ are in almost every stanza, lingering, giving the poem a heavy weight. Similarly, ‘exhibit tab’ looks at the death of Ms Dhu in a detached, clinical way. The removed ways these poems consider the displacement and death of Indigenous people only serves to highlight the rigid, colonial nature of the Australian legal system and the historical way leading figures in this country have and continue to talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so that our voices are muffled or all-together obscured.
Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
third body by Marion May Campbell
Whitmore Press Poetry, 2018
Third body takes form on the cusp of metamorphoses between species, ecosystems, technologies, existential planes, and even between art and artist. ‘passing’, the title of its first section, becomes a motif of the entire collection – perhaps most significantly for its variety of meanings. Passing can indicate a liminal phase in journeys bound by space or time. Passing is a euphemism to tactfully describe the transition between life and death. Passing may also represent social transition, such as one’s perceived conformity—or lack thereof—to socially defined binaries like gender and sexuality.
I do not pass at all as
poet man or woman
myself to bits
as I pass
into this last
As a scholar of French Literature and avant-garde practices, Marion May Campbell deftly weaves principles of European postmodernism and academic theory into her work to produce an incisive post-structural commentary. The sensibilities of l’ecriture feminine, à la Hélène Cixous, are evident in the inspiration that Campbell draws from female literary figures such as Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson. These are uniquely synthesised with her own eco-poetics and perspectives of marginalisation and globalisation in current-day Australia. The beach serves as common backdrop to these considerations, as demonstrated in ‘semaphore’, where the paradox of human disconnect is conveyed through mismatched flag signals:
our prickliness our devastating need
to kill the other in each other
we resist yet long to merge
though this be murder of all desire
& know to trust these pulses
& yet are raw with the infinite unsaid
Le sujet en procès, the subject (or the self) in process, is also a key postmodern feature of third body, given its ironic self-awareness despite an inherent tenuity of ‘self’ as a concept. The collection presents a challenge for the reader to gain purchase on its subjects in a concrete sense. One moment, we are enveloped in the consciousness of a dog, and the next we may find ourselves as a cat, a painting, a map, or even amid a poem’s own inception on the page before us. This ephemerality, however, works to keep the reader keenly on their toes and open to endeavour of thought:
wounds & exalted jouissance
what kind of history
& what kind of witness
when I never coincides with me? (‘passing’)
Mise en abyme, an image mirrored continuously within itself, is another technique that Campbell employs, particularly in the ‘incipient foredune’ section. Ecology is a strong focus here, where each poem represents a different layer of the coastal vista characterised by uncertain vicissitudes but unwavering resilience, as fragile yet unforgiving. For example, ‘in the slack’ allows us to experience the environment in a tactile manner:
through which in dune &
shifting dune we stage
for our ductile selves to meet
beyond these skins
Alternatively, ‘progressive plants’ depicts a more narrative-focused view of the same landscape:
before the hoons
come with their pre-mixed cans
& campfire exploding bourbon bottles
we whisper our way forward
like what dune ecologists call
The final poem in this section, ‘U₂: romance of the sonic survey’, personifies both the setting and the poem itself to merge sensation and environmentalist commentary alike:
the poem shakes
the fault line runs
third body breaks
in a million mercurial
forget the lads
who toss a bourbon bottle
in the campfire
here come the real dune hoons
trailing their sonic sensors
through all the image-clusters
of our living
The impact of mise en abyme as a poetic function is something to the effect of a Matryoshka nesting doll brought to life, where each segment bears its own significance—its own story-within-a-story—to what lies at the eventual heart of a broader collective narrative. The ‘incipient foredune’ section also effectively highlights Campbell’s Rimbaudian influences, both in her symbolism and the synaesthesia of her language choices. The unpredictable sensory confusion of third body adds to the constant ‘shapeshifting’ nature of her subjects. Nothing in the collection is immune from sentience – that is, from becoming a third body. This idea is playfully demonstrated in the dreamlike dynamism of ‘if not in paint’, where subjects are not bound by the constraints of their original medium:
ashes in her voice
my mother speaks back
on the fourth page
from the long coast of illness
in my dreams
she tugs to the fifth
page the sky’s
willing the whole body
in like a calf at the teat
now she strokes
the keyboard of the palette
with a tenderness she can’t relay
if not in paint
Campbell’s use of colour keeps us suspended in the realm of visual art, only for this to be subverted at each turn with incongruous senses such as sound, movement, and texture. The sequential references to pages not only make the reader aware of themselves literally turning the pages of the poem, but also play into the notion of a self-aware subject progressively ‘painting’ their own narrative. Campbell’s ability to imbue fresh perspective and surrealist humour into once-static images is also evident in her ekphrastic piece, ‘Dorothea Tanning’s Guardian Angels’:
baroque & broken
fold on fold all
falls & shakes
struggling out from
underpaint of palest gold
her angels shriek some sort of
apical metamorphic need
bearing in beak the remnants of
their own demise
As a highly intertextual collection, Campbell provides a unique intersection of creative and academic concepts. Her work is not only referential of other poets and artists, but also incorporates Freudian psychodynamic theory, philosophical principles in its self-aware ineffability, and knowledge of native flora and fauna as sourced from the Ngaruk Willum people of Port Phillip Bay. Campbell demonstrates the strength of intertextuality in producing a highly-informed collection of transgressive poetry. She holds a mirror to the concept of milieu, not simply as defined by social context, but in its literal translation – a middle point.
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.