FRESH Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
The chapbook is the ideal public presentation of poetry for the times in which we live. It is even more portable than the conventionally slim collection; its humbler production values permit poets to get their work ‘out there’, thereby meeting the democratic criterion of accessibility for both poet and reader, and it is conducive to the rigours of thematic focus that a small body of work encourages. Long may it flourish.
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Wednesday, September 13th, 2017
Fire Work: Last Poems by Aileen Kelly
Gloria SMH, 2016
This is the last collection by a major Australian poet, and it is a firework in the tightness and effervescence of its poems. Like Aileen Kelly’s previous book, The Passion Paintings: Poems 1983-2006, it concentrates the work of many years. Unlike that book, however, this one was assembled and edited after its author’s death in 2011: firstly by her husband, Paul Grundy, and then by Catherine Bateson and Joanne Lee Dow. At that stage, the text was finalised by Dow and editor, critic and anthologist, John Leonard, who had been Kelly’s mentor for some years and whose press had published her previous book.
Fire Work is also the title of an enigmatic three-part poem about halfway through the collection. There, the fire only appears directly in the second and third parts; the quiet, first section is concerned instead with enclosure and a sense of pressure:
There was a wall around
the vulnerable loves.
Windows, and they looked.
Doors, they went and came
and went. All correct.
The closed space quivers
shocked by the loss of sound.
The windows lapse their hold on light.
This first stanza, like many in Kelly’s poems, leaves open exactly what has happened, preferring to give an impression than to limit it by naming a cause. The poem as a whole, like many in the collection, holds silence and its rupture in tension against each other. Its second section brings words out of the silence, where ‘splinters of darkness might make a blaze upon the hill’. This fire, which becomes the one behind a grate in a fireplace, is both domestic and wild. It might be ‘Blake’s tiger’ or ‘morning day long watched for at barred windows’ or ‘the flare beyond surrendering branches / that must be next to burn’. In its final part, the poem turns to a grimmer kind of firework, in the practicality of letting an animal, even one on which one’s livelihood depends, walk in front ‘in landmine country’. The poem is a miniature of the collection as a whole: in the subtle balances which it works between contrasting elements, in the astute and unexpected selection of details, and not least in the ambiguity of the chosen elements themselves. The comforting is also potentially unstable or destructive.
These poems show an acute awareness of death and dying. Though these are, of course, staples of lyric and elegy, Kelly had an unfailing sense of how to make these old themes new. Her instinct for the concrete and specific is on show in, for instance, ‘Sunday afternoon’, on the weekly ritual of visiting a friend in a hospital (‘Save your jokes all week / for this performance’) or ‘Emeritus’. She sketches the title character of the latter in two uneven stanzas. The first catalogues the marks of surgery on his body:
The long cobbled seam of your heart scar
folds out under the twisted eye of sleep
into the brutal Y of a postmortem …
And yet in the second stanza:
still you carry your laptop
through the transit lounges of the dizzy globe
showing the way to mitigate disasters.
It is this combination of fragility with resilience, unavoidably temporary, which is perhaps most characteristic of Kelly’s collection. In ‘Contract’ the title refers to both book and mafia contract. The unnamed character has had, it seems, a stroke and is aware of her approaching death, still writing, but as if with a contract on her life. The description of her work in this stage as a return to writing on a typewriter, when ‘second thoughts were heavy effort’ is beautifully evocative and prepares the poem for its powerful final stanza:
But now again each touch
seems on the record,
flavoured Send or Print.
The trivial over coffee might become
the last thing she said.
The surge of making
heavies along her fingers.
It is the surge and the heaviness together that make these poems what they are: deliberate but never lapidary, produced by the surge and the heaviness.
Thursday, August 10th, 2017
Blindness and Rage by Brian Castro
Giramondo Publishing, 2017
Blindness and Rage is the latest addition to an oeuvre that has established Brian Castro as a prodigy of hybridity. Castro’s heritage (Portuguese, Chinese, and English) is as uniquely mixed as the generic categories of his work, such as the blend of fiction and autobiography that won him such acclaim in Shanghai Dancing (2003). Blindness and Rage, at once ‘a phantasmagoria’ and ‘a novel in thirty-four cantos’, reprises some familiar themes in Castro’s signature style: a cosmopolitanism that shuttles restlessly between Adelaide, Paris, and Chongqing; the ludic propensities of an inveterate paronomasiac who wears his learning on his sleeve; a fascination with the vocational archetypes of the writer and the architect.
Blindness and Rage tracks the fortunes of Adelaide town-planner, Lucien Gracq, who moves to Paris after being diagnosed with cancer to dedicate his remaining days (53 on the doctor’s count) to completing an epic poem, Paidia, inspired by Roger Caillois’s 1961 sociological study Man, Play, and Games. Once in Paris, Gracq makes the acquaintance of the members of Le club des fugitifs, an all-male literary coterie that devotes itself to the anonymous publication of works by the terminally-ill. Epicures of self-erasure, the Fugitives raise the Barthesian thesis about the ‘death of the author’ to the level of a civic-minded mantra:
A named author dead or alive limits with fame
the cancerous spread of signification;
dead or alive, the named are pilferers
of status, guardians of unequal truths,
wrecking the liberty of recomposition. (107)
So says Georges Crêpe, frontman of the Fugitives, who are clearly modeled on Oulipo, the group of postwar French writers and mathematicians who set out to enlarge the prospects of ‘potential literature’ by tightening its compositional constraints. The other side of this ‘liberty of recomposition’, then, is ‘a ligature strangulation of meaning’ (142) so that what the Fugitives practice is, one might say, a kind of verbal chemotherapy. A not dissimilar point is made rather sharply by Catherine Bourgeois, Gracq’s concert-pianist neighbor who has her own ambivalent relation to the group:
They all suffer from vowel cancer—
it’s a male reflex
to constrict language;
something to do with the
castration complex. (142)
‘Vowel cancer’ is an uncharitable moniker for the lipograms with which Georges Perec (perhaps the most well-known member of Oulipo) is most readily associated, though it is the letter O rather than the E programmatically omitted in Perec’s A Void (1969) that gets disowned (in theory) by one of the Fugitives as a ‘damp squib/ defusing the presence of the I’ (92). This anxiety about the O’s dissipation of the potency of the I is a graphic joke about the ‘castration complex’ in which the author’s very name is made complicit. Indeed, playing with names has become customary in Castro’s bag of tricks; not only is Crêpe an anagram of Perec (as a number of readers have pointed out), but Catherine’s initials (with ‘the slot above her letterbox/ listed “Bourgeois, C.”’) continue the pattern of mirrored identities in Street to Street (2013), where the fictional Brendan Costa haunts and is haunted by the work of the Australian poet Christopher Brennan.
For all its immersion in the heady atmosphere of what we might call (very roughly) postmodern poetics, Blindness and Rage recalls an earlier moment in twentieth-century verse experimentation: high modernism. While Kafka has exerted a consistent influence on Castro’s work, the decision to structure his novel in ‘cantos’ inevitably calls up the ghost of Ezra Pound, a fellow observer of ‘Cathay’ whose obsession with paideuma (an ethnological term denoting ‘the tangle or complex of inrooted ideas of any period’ of culture) is at the very least etymologically entwined in Gracq’s pursuit of paidia (the Greek word for unstructured or spontaneous play).
With its lyricism peppered heavily with a magisterial garrulousness, Blindness and Rage in tone and texture most closely resembles some of the more personable moments in the work of the late Poundian, Geoffrey Hill. Like Hill in The Triumph of Love (1999), Castro sometimes deploys puns that just about stave off the literalist banality of the ‘dad joke’ through the charm of the poet’s contingent relationship to his own erudition:
[I]n Australia we play possum.
Possum; because I am able
to be a surrogate for myself;
call it a mortuary aesthetic. (202)
This slapdash appropriation of Latinate prestige savours of an Antipodean egalitarianism that finds another outlet in the figure of The Dogman, a former high-rise construction worker who, after an accidental brush with an electric cable, now sells puppies and The Big Issue in an Adelaide mall. At one point he asks Gracq rather disarmingly: ‘what is this thing/ called deconstruction?’ (156)
As an embodiment of the hybridity feverishly imagined in various guises throughout the story, The Dogman is a totemic figure for the eclecticism of Castro’s enterprise in Blindness and Rage. A mixture of earthiness and ethereality, he conducts the novel’s energies away from the indulgent self-mortifications of European decadence towards an equanimity that is equal parts Eastern mysticism, Southern pragmatism, and animal indifferentism. After such exhaustive and (at times) exhausting cleverness, this equanimity is the closest that Blindness and Rage comes to a genuine touch of transcendence.
Tuesday, July 18th, 2017
Argosy by Bella Li
Vagabond Press, 2017
Bella Li’s Argosy offers readers a book of real adventure: the adventure of form, and a challenge to our sense of what shapes a narrative. This work is fundamentally hybrid: amid short texts and textual sequences that may be termed prose poems, or micro-essays, or short short fictions, Li intersperses works of collage and photography. These visual elements of the work are not supplemental or separate, but are themselves linked to its central narratives. The whole book takes its cues from the collage novels of Max Ernst; his Une semaine de bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage and The Hundred Headless Woman provide the titles for the two sequences presented in Li’s work. At the same time that she draws upon Ernst, however, Li offers significant reconfiguration of surrealistic working methods. Where Ernst accompanied his collage images with captions – producing a text that bears a relation to the contemporary graphic novel – Li offers discrete segments of pure visual narrative, followed by sections of the work in which only text appears. The full-colour reproduction of this work makes for a lush object, which reminds us how central the ability to dwell with pictorial work has been in the history of reading. The interplay between the visual and verbal work provides a dimensionality that would be difficult to achieve through text alone, allowing critique to emerge in the friction between the two. These are works that are informed by postcolonial and feminist thought: they do not provide disquisition upon these topics, but offer instead an imaginative inhabitation of these ways of seeing the world.
In the seven-part sequence, ‘Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de disparations,’ Li generates visual collages from illustrations in old atlases, themselves supplementary texts attached to journals of discovery. The Journal of François de Galaup de La Pérouse is the central text that governs this sequence, and the seabound explorations he led no doubt provide the title Argosy: an argosy is a particular type of ship, a merchant vessel originating in Ragusa or Venice. At the same time, though etymologically unrelated, the title puts the reader in mind of the Argo and its Argonauts. As such, the ancient, mythical quest of the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece is merged with the merchant state of Venice at the European hub of the Silk Road, and then to the latter stages of the age of exploration in which the South Pacific represented a last frontier for those seeking to chart the world’s landmasses.
Li composes three sequences of collage before presenting the reader with the first textual sequence. In these collages, the interplay between human and nonhuman is central. Boats are rendered strange as they carry enormous cargoes of shells: here an inverted gastropod shell stands on its tip, replacing the mast of the ship; there an oared boat is propelled forward by wind in the wing-like sails of oversized, splayed mussel shells. Hovering over one open boat is the grass-thatched roof of a Pacific island fala, while on the stern of another, gigantic flora blooms. The strange birds of strange lands are rendered stranger, as they too are made enormous when compared to the tiny bodies of the explorers and the European houses in which they normally dwell. Such play with gigantism can be seen in the way the unknown – exoticised in the huge, near-naked bodies of men bearing weapons, their heads replaced with seashells and flora, given scale by the trees and clothed men who sit at their feet – loomed large in the minds of explorers such as La Pérouse, and continues to loom large today. Think of the latest iteration of King Kong, its weirdly unlocatable South Pacific site filled with a myriad of strange gigantic creatures: Western culture has not moved beyond this form of exoticisation.
Against these images that, by their embodiment of the strange, answer back to the explorers who recorded them, Li writes two sequences of prose. These works are understated and restrained, occupying the gaze of the explorer who is concerned with cataloguing what he sees. This creation of binaries is evident in the opening text:
This day we sail, dividing the waters from the heavens. I am
my own guide, the steerage, the hull. This day by sea, by the
sea we lie. Sharp peaks divided, three by two by three. Our
man at the helm, broad-shouldered and in love, saying: This
but not this. This, but not this.
You ford the stream. You move.
The self that is its own guide, its own hull, is set against everything that is not the self in this sequence. Division is the fundamental action of the newcomer as he encounters the new: we don’t need to know what is being catalogued in the words, ‘This, but not this’. It is the world in its entirety.
The second half of the book takes the reader to a compendium of stories and images that investigate women. ‘The Hundred Headless Woman’ is reinvented many times, as Li moves through historical, literary and cinematic sources; at the same time she uses her own photography and collage to comment on contemporary visions of femininity. In ‘Eve & Co’ she presents photographs of often run-down urban environments, with the juxtaposition of (headless) illustrations drawn from sewing-packet instructions for women’s clothing. The scale and placement of these women within the city-scapes is both a contrast – their brightly coloured, immaculately illustrated stylish clothes are at odds with the unglamorous environments in which they stand – and a comment on the perceived requirements of womanhood – whether lived headlessly or not. Meanwhile, the final photographic sequence of the book, ‘La ténébreuse’ shows a long-haired woman whose hair, in each configuration, is the centrepiece of the image. Whether she has her back turned or is seen side-on in various settings, her hair replaces her face. This facelessness is a form of anonymity that speaks both to the exceptional women of the text in this sequence, and the many more women who have not risen above their historical anonymity.
Exceptional and anonymous women are brought together in the figure of the famously anonymous Elena Ferrante, subject of the short third part of this sequence. Ferrante’s voice is rendered fragmentary: ‘For instance, in Ischia,’ the poem opens. The voice is by turns in pursuit – ‘Hunting the particularity, the moment, seen so closely from afar. Down the lanes, always in the company of a shadow, a woman, a cleaver’ – and in flight, ‘My sister—a girl then—clear, cleaving to the shadows, and once. Once we ran from house to house in the dark, calling names, falling and our knees grazed.’ The brief text captures the sense of impending violence that is sustained throughout Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
Tuesday, July 18th, 2017
Vice Versa: New and Selected Poems by Arjun von Caemmerer
Collective Effort, 2016
Tasmanian poet Arjun von Caemmerer’s Vice Versa: New and Selected Poems (Collective Effort, 2016) is a chronological selection from an oeuvre that spans publications from Two’s Kisses (1992) to Recombinants (2015). At its best, it’s idiosyncratic and intriguing, characterised by its playfulness, wit, concrete effects, typography, and variety of forms.
Vice Versa’s earliest selections are primarily concrete poems. The poem ‘i-saw’ is an early keystone (and instruction) for the puzzles and riddles that follow: it requires a deliberate reading and re-reading to deliver its simple message, ‘the more you look the more you see’:
The poem ‘Schrödinger’s Schizophrenia’ is a clever play on the physicist’s famous thought experiment, through a visual arrangement of the word ‘bifurcation’, and the isolation of its parts:
William Carlos Williams famously described poems as machines made of words, and these poems are small, finely-made devices that do a single thing well. At times, the poems resist decryption, but their clevernesses is worth the endeavour: for example, in the somewhat inscrutable poem ‘(J)ousting the Woman of Letters’, responding (as a note tells us) to the Demidenko controversy, we find the understated epigraph ‘(re Frau D.)’.
The book’s centrepiece is 2010’s Lingua Franka: A Concrete Poetry Homage to Frank Zappa, the 56 pages of which are reproduced in colour on glossy paper. The poems are inventive and various in their forms and ruses. The concrete poem ‘FZ 52’ uses the page to mirror the recurring numbers in Zappa’s birth and death dates: 21/12/1940 and 04/12/1993. Another concrete poem, ‘King Klang’ is an arrangement of the titles of songs recorded by Zappa with colour references in them (starting with ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Merely a Blues in A’), each in the relevant colour. Other poems in the sequence take the form of haikai, anagrams, mirrorings and blank pages. In other poems, the effect is typographic: ‘What Goes Around…’ yields a clockwise reading of ‘karma’ and ‘fate?’:
The Lingua Franka poems, and the book’s concrete poems, are among the most interesting and satisfying. They present von Caemmerer’s work at its most idiosyncratic. The satisfaction they offer is in the process of deciphering, as opposed to the ordinary satisfactions of lyric poetry, such as the memorable line, or apt metaphor.
Vice Versa multiplies its explorations of form. ‘a dransfield diction’, a cento comprising 24 pages of short poems, is composed from the index of first lines of Michael Dransfield’s Collected Poems, while ‘Cross-Stitch’ fuses the cento and acrostic, appropriating phrases from the index of first lines of Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems, and presenting them as acrostics dedicated to Dickinson and her parents. There are also spoonerisms, with specific concrete arrangements, a litany of medical collective nouns (‘A Drift of Sleep Physicians / A Stream of Urologists / A Clot of Vascular Surgeons’), musical clerihews, a sestina, and a parody of Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle (‘Bold girls, near spent, flushed unwhite / Split the colours of the spectrum / Rouge, rouge with the ardour of their fight.’) Notable among the other explorations of form are the 108 three-line zappai that make up ‘momentoes’ [sic], describing a morning yoga class, and the 20 lipograms of ‘Recombinants’, based on the names of arthropods (mostly insects) featured in The Green Brain, a cycle by Australian pianist and composer Michael Kieran Harvey.
The book’s least satisfying poems are the limericks from A Bunch of Fives (2009) and Geographical Tongue: Odes to Postcodes (2010). The latter is a set of over 130 limericks that take their cue from an alphabetical listing of Australian suburbs, from Abba River to Aranbanga, and a number of other locations. It’s an admirable and obsessive project, but it proves the limerick is essentially a dessert poem, that is, something sugary and intense that’s preferably served in small portions. A smaller, stricter selection would’ve shown the best of them to advantage:
A barista who came from Vittoria
In coffee found endless euphoria.
A small splash of cream
Quite muddied her dream
Leaving swirls of phantasmagoria.
Elsewhere, the limericks suffer from slightness, imprecise rhymes or aberrations in rhythm:
A manufacturer from Ansons Bay
Employed his own offspring at unfair pay.
So great their annoys
They bore no girls or boys:
His genes were thus rationed away.
Von Caemmerer’s Vice Versa is engaging and inventive, particularly the concrete poems, which show his work at its most distinctive. Despite weaknesses, the book is evidence of a sustained creative engagement with the serious possibilities of playfulness, form and constraint.
Monday, June 26th, 2017
The Garden of Earth by Homer Rieth
Black Pepper Publishing, 2016
You could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Australia’ was simply this place, rather than an imagined community. It is of course not only a phantasm or a figment that is whole, but also real and divisible. In poetics, it is not a stretch to suggest that there is a heuristic, ascendant, paradigmatic separation between those in a transnational sphere sipping turmeric lattes and those authentic patriots tilling the soil. This fault line, which is, of course, anachronistic and dialectical, exists in the selected texts and influences as well as the paratextual selling points that tell us something is ‘traditional’ or ‘experimental’, ‘Romantic or ‘modern’, ‘country’ or ‘city’; in what claim ‘this is Australian’.
Homer Rieth’s The Garden of Earth is packaged as an Australian epic, and yet, it might be better to suggest that it is a located and regional long poem that is speaking to nation and nature. This is not the same ‘Australia’ as Pi O’s beloved Fitzroy in his 24 Hours, nor is it similar to the Wheatlands of John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy. It takes as its own location the whole of the Murray-Darling, building from Rieth’s home in Minyip in the Wimmera region in regional Victoria on the East Coast, where he has lived for several years.
And yet, one cannot help but notice that The Garden of Earth, like respective works by O and Kinsella, is a poetic idea of ‘Australia’ that takes as its root and routes a direction from ‘the West’, a Greco-Romanic understanding of where epic comes from. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given all these authors have European heritage, but it is striking given the demographic realities of a decolonising Australia, which brings with it Indigenous and CALD spectres, materials and discourses. There are, of course, epic traditions in each and we do not have to rely only on Odyssey and Iliad like good colonial boys might, but could suggest the Ramayana, Martin Fierro, Omeros or any other such non-Western undertaking. What though can we learn from Rieth’s vision about the epic in the here and now? And how might this presentist perspective be projectively useful?
Rieth’s book is a big one. Coming in at 584 pages, it must approximate some 15 thousand lines – bigger than Milton’s Paradise Lost, bigger than Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa, bigger than Berndt’s Three Faces of Love. But then again, the Murray-Darling is a big river, placing fifteenth in length worldwide, between the Niger and Tocantins. Rieth’s work in the basic proportions would seem appropriate.
Although the epigraph of the work is taken from a translation of Hafiz, The Garden of Eden emerges from a transatlantic milieu. The preponderance for rhyme and the long sentence lends a Whitmanian cadence – expansive, regular, encompassing – which is buttressed by the familiar expression ‘I sing’ (on page 58 particularly). There are also references to Walt’s contemporaries Longfellow and Kendall. The work is not ‘difficult’ then in terms of message, pagination, rhythm, line-break, form or style. This project does not come after Charles Olson (Maximus poems) or Basil Bunting (Briggflatts) let alone Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Drafts) or The Grand Piano. While Ezra Pound is referenced (11) and Robert Lowell is quoted (488), it is not a stretch to say it pre-Modernist, hence the signposts of the late nineteenth century.
At the level of content The Garden of Eden is firmly focused on nature with occasional painterly references (Delacroix, Leonardo, Lorenzo Lippi) and some more popular culture (beer, cricket, footy in Canto 7; and ‘Barbeque Shapes’ (25) [one of my favourite flavours]). These references often come from a different location and generation to mine (I only know ‘California poppy’ because that is what my grandfather put in his hair) but that does not mean they are inaccessible. What does distinguish the work is that the land is often idyllic, pure, silent, often Romantically so, suggesting a lack of eco-critical co-ordinates and some sediment of the idea of terra nullius, which is confirmed by the lack of Indigenous references, the absence of living characters and the anachronistic (mis)spelling of Arrente as Arunta (56). This is a work of landscape with landscape punctuated by high culture from Europe or poetic expression that pre-dates federation on this continent. There are unnamed interlocutors, whom Rieth quotes, but not characters; and, given the evenness of tone this implies a work that is not ‘polyphonic’ (in Bahktin’s sense) or ‘dramatic’ (in Hegel’s). The world is brought into the subject, the speaking ‘I’ of a poet and then sent back out whole and resolute. This central I expresses itself in a high voice (see the use of ‘O’ to begin sentences and to pre-figure ownership for example in ‘O my Murray, /my Campapse, /my Ovens, /my Goulbourn, my Murrumbidgee’, (11); ‘O tamed continent’ (109); ‘O keep me safe’ (249)). This is a work of grand liberalism that is curious and idiosyncratic.
Rieth is a starting point as good as any, from which we can suggest that Australia is continental, that it can become a republic with several countries, countries that are demarcated by cultural and geographic realities and ideas that are nevertheless a utopian kind of treaty. The Murray-Darling is not a singular place. It is a part of a regionalism that is not simply somewhere away from the urban or buffeted by the suburban, but has as much to do with the mind in the sky as boots on the ground. Rieth begins to show us the poetic way with rhythm, scale and possibility. If The Garden of Earth is firmly located in a traditional and Romantic context, it might nevertheless show us what might yet be Australia’s poetic tomorrow if we labour to read it slant.
Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórques & Alí Calderón
Translated by Mario Licón Cabrera
Vagabond Press, 2017
This year, Vagabond Press launched its Americas Poetry Series. The first volume in the series, translated and introduced by Peter Boyle, includes an eclectic selection of poems by Argentine poet Olga Orozco and Uruguayan poets Marosa Di Giorgio and Jorge Palma (Di Giorgio’s work is particularly exquisite; Vagabond has also published her last book separately, Jasmine for Clementina Médici). This second volume in the series, Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón, focuses on contemporary Mexican poetry. It is translated by Sydney-based, Mexican-born Mario Licón Cabrera, a seasoned poet and translator. Licón Cabrera translates into both English and Spanish. He has translated important Australian poets into Spanish, such as Dorothy Porter, Peter Boyle and Michelle Cahill. Yuxtas (Back and Forth) , published in 2009, is his fourth collection of poetry, bilingual and self-translated. In 2007 he received a Developing Writers’ Grant from the Australia Council, and in 2015 he won the Trilce Award for Poetry. Licón Cabrera’s work on Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón is a delight to read.
A translation has a dual nature, as product and process, verb and noun. The process always entails a balancing act between two cultures, which to a greater or lesser degree becomes apparent in the final text. That final text, again (perhaps evoking a Borgesian garden of forking paths), is two things at once: a variation, a transmutation of a preceding work, a text analogous to the original; and a new work in its own right. Thus, the process of translation is simultaneously a creative as much as an interpretative act.
This dual nature of translation becomes more pronounced when we talk about poetry, in particular the process of poetic translation. To translate a poem is to write it anew. A word can be worth a thousand pictures. This is the essence of polysemy, inherent to language itself, and one of the pylons of poetry. This is also what makes it devilishly difficult to translate poetry. Every act of communication entails losses and sacrifices, and translation is not the exception. But in poetry, polysemy is accentuated in a way it usually isn’t in everyday language, which makes those losses and sacrifices of translation much more dire. And so, halfway through the balancing act of cultural mediation between two linguistic and cultural codes, the translator of poetry is thrown that charged ball of polysemy. And they’d better not drop it!
Poetic translation may be devilishly difficult, but not impossible. In his famous essay ‘Translation: Literature and Letters’, Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz argues that the translator’s process, when it comes to poetry, follows a very similar path to the poet’s, but in the opposite direction. According to Paz, the translator:
is not constructing an unalterable text from mobile characters; in-stead, he is dismantling the elements of the text, freeing the signs into cir-culation, then returning them to language … The second phase of the translator’s activity is parallel to the poet’s, with this essential difference: as he writes, the poet does not know where his poem will lead him; as he translates, the translator knows that his completed effort must reproduce the poem he has before him.
This is what makes translating poetry doubly difficult: the poet writes with a compass, the translator writes with a map. The poet condenses meaning into text with the overwhelming freedom of their language, without a precise route to follow in that creative process. The translator must then follow that path trodden by the poet but with new hurdles, with rivers that have changed their course, shifting forests, collapsed bridges and newly built ones. The poem must be reproduced in a different linguistic world, bound by new semantic, metric, syntactic and phonetic conventions. This is partly the reason why most translators of poetry tend to be poets themselves.
Thus, the titanic task of translating poetry, which Licón Cabrera brings about with elegance and remarkable subtlety in Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón. The majority of the anthology is dedicated to poems by Mijail Lamas. Born in Sinaloa, a neighbouring state to Licón Cabrera’s own Chihuahua, Lamas is a well-known literary critic, poet and translator (he translates from Portuguese into Spanish, most notably the works of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Portuguese poets Mário de Sá-Carneiro, José Régio, Cesário Verde, and Portugal’s greatest classical poet, Luís Vaz de Camões). The subject of his poems in this anthology focuses on an exaltation of the mundane – a pen, dust, a childhood street, the scorching, ever-present heat of his native Sinaloa, which:
ideas turn dry your gaze
wets the van’s
interior the seat’s vinyl melts
Lamas’s imagery evokes the works of Juan José Saer, one of the titans of twentieth century Argentine literature. Saer is famous for his profoundly lyrical prose, which in the most Shklovskian sense has an unusual talent for defamiliarising the ordinary. Something similar happens with Lamas’s imagery. A good example of this appears in the following lines in the sequence ‘What Used to Be a Desert’:
You drop the pen you’d grabbed to write
that which you’re not able to fix,
in silence you turn off one by one the house’s lights
yet the unrest doesn’t stop completely.
We see a similar approach in another sequence ‘The Charred Shadow’:
I ran away from the sun until I found
a place where in a bad mood and for a low price
they offered me
a table to write on, a cup of coffee and
a bubble of air conditioner.
There is a strong longing and melancholy associated with that sublime approach to the everyday, a constant rumination on the evanescence of memory. The poems in the sequence ‘Part of You Returns Without Permission’ and ‘Like Something Extinguished by Fire’, play with these ideas:
I remember my first childhood home
and the second
and the third. They all are one,
Mario Bojórquez’s work runs along very different lines. Like Lamas, Bajórquez is from Sinaloa. He has received numerous prizes and recognitions, including Mexico’s most prestigious prize for poetry, the Premio Bellas Artes de Poesía Aguascalientes. Much of the imagery in Bojórquez’s poetry comes from myth. ‘The Cyclads’, for example, references the Greek archipelago in the Aegean Sea, which includes the island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis:
We sail the waters of an uncertain twilight
the keel brakes the sharp waves
Under the ocean’s surface
some fingers sink in a different naked time.
His poetry is emotive, in a very visceral way. Such is the case with ‘Hymen’, reminiscent in its primitive allure of the opening bars to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The poem incorporates the famous exclamation of Carl Orff’s ‘Veni, veni, venias’ from Carmina Burana: ‘Hyrca, hyrce, nazazaz / trillirivos!’ ‘Sibila’ is a powerful blank verse septet that references the ancient Greek oracles, the sybils. The selection of Bojórquez’s poetry includes a collection of ‘shadows’, a sequence with strong Jungian undertones that touches on different aspects of the shadow archetype. There is also a sequence on deserts, which evokes different facets of solitude and loneliness: ‘Desert Birth’, ‘Desert Sun’, ‘Desert Room’, ‘Desert Exile’, ‘Desert Shadow’, ‘Desert World’:
The breath of dawn
ascends over the dunes
The morning light shows
the ever quiet shadow of the path
Silence grows in an endless symphony
Plants and rocks
beat a restless
Only men are amazed by their own bodies.
Interestingly, the desert sequence also includes ‘Dispatch for Czeslaw Milosz’, an homage to the Polish Nobel Laureate, poet and polymath, whose works often incorporated the desert motif.
Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
How to Proceed by Andrew Sant
Puncher & Wattmann, 2016
How to Proceed is a quandary understood simply by the implication that to proceed is a question, cognisant of the necessity of an answer but ‘more reality without one’ (‘On Consuming Durables’). Utilising a form that shakes off uniformity, categorisation and constraint, Andrew Sant’s collection of prose essays, quite the divergence from his ‘stock-in-trade’ poems, envisions ‘ever-expanding terminals to itself’ (‘On Airports’) and consistently toys with the ideological complexities ‘On Discovering How to Proceed’. Peripatetically tracing literary excursions on the fringes of the personal and, contrarily to the preceding statement, the knowledge that ‘taking flight doesn’t involve some kind of personal commitment’ (‘On Airports’, p. 30), Sant’s essays deploy and redeploy ‘miniature windows […] into other worlds’ (‘On Only Children’) and endeavours to ‘make a statement without implication – state a fact of life’ (if such a thing is possible).
The text is made up of sixteen essays, all adopting varied and general concerns, tracing a literary pilgrimage of ordinary experiences in mundane settings, from personal anecdotes of a bridge tower conductor in ‘On Employment’, to the dilemmas of commitment in ‘On Marriage’ and terminating in ‘On Curiosity’. The establishing essay, ‘On Consuming Durables’, sets the disruptive and staggered pace for the collection, the multitasking fluidity of writing moving haphazardly from a BBC report on the proposal to ‘restrict the number of charity shops in any one high street’, mediating on the author’s personal exploits as a ‘user of charity/opportunity shops’ and a rendering of his experience with a ‘famous English actress’, who he theorises has ‘dressed down [… to] gain the personal freedom that comes with anonymity’. These diverging frames of reference shift from one sequence to another in centrifugal and centripetal fashion, as Sant describes in ‘On Time’, ‘more like an ocean than a rapid. Both’. The ‘On’ beginning every new essay signals the collection’s pliability, a tapestry of polymorphic prose that is insistent on ‘entering into and being involved in a rich social situation’, such as the wider world view addressed in ‘On Only Children’:
Eventually, I would have occasion to visit for some months a country where selfish, only children, a few of them, are born to rule: China. One child. It’s a policy I’m qualified to comment upon. Think of it: millions of people, a generation, with a higher-degree than normal of self absorption, all reaching maturity and need to co-operate in society.
‘On Discovering How to Proceed’, through Charles Lamb’s Essays on Elia and Mark Twain’s writing, ‘the reader never knows which part of life and attendant thought [Sant’s] going to parachute into next. It’s disorientating and delightful’. The debt owed to these two authors in the above quote from Twain, serves to determine that to make ‘accurate progress toward our destination’, the journey is ‘clearly as important, no, more than important than the prospective arrival at a destination’. To further quote Lamb, ‘you may derive your own thoughts from others; your way of thinking, the mould in which your thoughts are cast, must be your own’.
Indeed, How to Proceed is significant for its deft exchange and transformation. In ‘On Walking’, Sant remembers that, ‘as a family, we were walkers – especially on holiday’, however, as the ‘present supplants the past’, the memories associated with these events (‘what kind of leather my father wore out or what child-size boots were compulsory for me’) would ‘never make any purposeful entry into the present again’. This jettison, ruthless fragmentation is a warning to the ‘somehow contemporaneous – ‘eternally present’ as T S Eliot said’ (‘On Time’). The revival encountered later in the narrative, ‘revisit[ed] via the poetry of William Wordsworth’ and then grafted onto the clear views at the summit of Green Gable, are prophetic of the subsequent chapter, ‘all time, past, present and future’ is ‘consistently beyond comprehension’, but it is time’s suppleness, its revived eternal state, that encourages the readers’ projection and identification (‘On Time’). Sant’s ‘On Walking’ and ‘On Time’ muse that history, subjective and objective, is susceptible to the ‘ritual of transience’ (‘On Being Transported’) and through perspective,
the mind imperceptibly retunes itself, pleasurably perceives, via the optic nerves, intentness on fellow human faces […] and, with luck, no significant hazard or challenge in sight, ideas may declare themselves, freely transformative – or else, as if locating a familiar rhythm, memories may emerge of early excursions, and of other dimly remembered experiences, long held in store, now finding their way into the open, released into the abundant yet partial light of the present’ (‘On Walking’).
In ‘On Self Knowledge’, it is curious to recognise that change can be ‘subterranean, faster flowing’ than the reader can possibly conceive. The miniature worlds collated within this collection are sentiments reconciled by those of us who pick up this text and ‘satisfy our curiosity [on How to Proceed] not by endeavouring to solve significant mysteries’ but ‘mostly by seeking experiences: eyes, nose, tongue, fingertips, greedy for immediacies (‘On Curiosity’). In charting the mundane through this hyper-charged sensitivity, Sant’s essays invite varied interpretation and, seeing as ‘there’s a lot of territory to cover’, a declination to the subjective and singular outlook (‘On Consuming Durables’). The collection is an evocative and pleasurable verbal excursion, more concerned with ‘how to proceed in a really testing circumstance’ than an indication that we are ‘making accurate progress’ (‘On Discovering How to Proceed’).
Tuesday, May 30th, 2017
The New Adventures of Nafanua, Samoan Goddess of War
by Tusiata Avia
Recent Work Press, 2016
Samoan-New Zealand poet and performer Tusiata Avia explores the intricate fate history and myth have sent her way in The New Adventures of Nafanua, Samoan Goddess of War. This slim volume is divided into two parts: the Nafanua poems, followed by lyrics gathered under the subtitle ‘How I Came into this World’.
Tusiata Avia’s imaginary is rooted in an ambivalent cultural matrix made of multilayered psychohistorical, sociocultural and mythical patterns. It is imbued with multiple connotations: it reflects New Zealand’s complex history and a woman’s passionate engagement with it; it also rejects Cartesian intellectualised thought in an effort to move into a different mode of feeling, seeing, knowing, and making. If New Zealand emerges as a magnetic locus for the imagination, the poetic topos is really a site without any actual locality; it appears at diverse geographical locations as the poet roams from one imaginative space to another. Here, the body is the point of destination and departure of quests. Here, poetry is analogous to swimming under water. It is diving, moving, taking, and giving. It is pulling toward and pulling back. It is pushing forward and pushing away. It is, briefly, coming up for air. Consider this excerpt from ‘Nafanua dreams of water’:
Under the water and it is submerge or drown.
Once or twice she cuts through the pool like a champion
there is no way of knowing what kind of performance she will give
or who is adding up the totals
the difference between the mantle of talent and the core of exhaustion.
The juxtaposition of moods in this poem suggests the destructive yet liberating force of the imagination. As elsewhere in this work, anxiety and fear often coexist with desire, suggesting the close relationship that exists between Eros and Thanatos, the intertwining of which is at the heart of experience and creativity.
The blurring of boundaries between the physical and mythical worlds is analogous to the border crossings between the conscious and unconscious forces that constitute the signifying processes in any production of meaning. The poetic voice gives articulation to this dynamic activity, where the speaking persona is constantly confronted by some unknown other. As a result, the protagonist appears to be in a constant state of becoming, indeed demands to be in a constant state of becoming. Perhaps this is because Tusiata Avia operates within the framework of a peripheral tradition. Perhaps this is because she uses an assertive stratagem in the form of a desiring body rather than a defensive one. Whatever the reason, what strikes me here is a refusal to ‘territorialise’ the body in its diverse manifestations – geopolitical, cultural, historical, colonial, amorous, and purely sexual and reproductive.
The first poem stages an encounter between Nafanua and Calamity Jane. It focuses on the painful history of their native societies and on their shared experience of exclusion, highlighting the dominant themes of the work. In particular, it dwells on the tension between exclusion and aggression while clearly advocating an ethos of compassion. It is a fragmentary text where the reader travels in all directions at once, realising that unspeakable truths lurk in the silences, the gaps between words, the blanks between stanzas. It is full of the whispers of ghosts. Yet it speaks of a refusal to succumb to repression and oppression.
As I suggest above, ‘Nafanua dreams of water’ works as an allegorical reflection on the plight of the performance poet. It breathes a corporeal contour into the craft that wavers between the materiality of the female body and the imaginary. It gestures towards the transformation resulting from a text’s being written, performed and visited upon an audience as though keeping in check jouissance.
The identification between Avia and her mythical avatar is more firmly asserted in the next three poems, ‘Nafanua talks about her friends in Philly’, ‘Nafanua talks about going to Washington DC’ and ‘Nafanua goes to Nashville’. In the latter:
Nafanua sits like the single white resident
in a tiny settlement called French Lick.
Zero point zero percent Hawa’ian and other Pacific Islanders
are stuffing the holes in their houses to the sounds of ghosts
and their quiet piroguing down the Tennessee River.
Violence lurks under the surface of these poems and occasionally tears through the page as it does here in a carnival of images and echoes.
This proto-critique of postcolonialism is brought into relief in the next poem, a villanelle titled ‘Nafanua becomes creole’, where the colonial legacy is envisioned as dismembering. Here, the dispossessed are reduced to body parts, to racist taxonomies, to degradable materials and to both degraded and degrading metaphor: Nafanua is reduced to her belly with skin ‘as dark as an octoroon’ while her lover is ‘the colour of a brown paper bag’. In the end:
Nafanua with a body soft as pig
Nafanua with a belly like a salt trout
runs in shining streaks down the open mouth
of the brackish Pontchartrain.
‘Nafanua talks about going to Washington DC’, ‘Nafanua sleeps rough in Central Park’ and ‘Nafanua speaks to her beloved in Palestine’ are acerbic pieces that resonate with prophetic intimations of impending catastrophes, as does the poignant piece from part two, titled ‘The opposite of déjà vu’, with its ‘armageddonish’ sky, ‘a stage for the second coming’.
Of the more personal poems from part two, ‘We, the afflicted’ is unforgettable. It tackles the theme of maternal ambivalence with astonishing honesty and clarity, linking pain with glee in the event of a mother’s separation from her child. In this section, poems focus on other people’s bodies, including the failing body of the author’s father, and revisit the themes explored in part one from a more subjective standpoint. Here is an alternative expression of trauma on individuals who, while not directly affected by it are, as in part one, nonetheless haunted by it. Here, memory is about resonances and unprocessed experiences stored in the psyche and deposited in layers of flesh.
Tuesday, May 30th, 2017
The Herring Lass by Michelle Cahill
Arc Publications, 2016
Michelle Cahill is well-known to contemporary Australian readers as a poet, editor and fiction writer. She is the winner of the 2017 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (one of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards), the Val Vallis Award, and the Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted for other major prizes. The Herring Lass is Cahill’s fourth collection of poetry, and her first with a UK-based publisher. The transition from an Australian publisher (Cahill’s third, Vishvarupa, was published by Five Islands Press) to a British publisher (Arc) should bring Cahill’s work to greater prominence within the global Anglophone reading community. The front cover of The Herring Lass reproduces Winslow Homer’s The Fisher Girl (1894), introducing the themes of female strength, endurance and watchfulness, and creating unity with the collection’s title and title-poem. The back cover features praise quotes from Sarah Holland-Batt and John Kinsella, emphasising Cahill’s status as one of Australia’s leading poets. Indeed, Cahill is widely published and anthologised.
The poems in The Herring Lass are preceded by a quotation from a poem by Robin Robertson, which reads: ‘I hold you fast, until you are flesh again, / seal-herder, seer, sea-guardian: / you who can only tell the truth, / show me how to find a fresh wind / and a safe harbour’. The epigraph introduces some of the major tropes of the collection: the sea, transformation, truth-telling, discovery, safety and home. Cahill was born in Kenya; she has Goan Indian ancestry, has lived in the UK and Australia, and travelled widely. Unsurprisingly, her poetry is transnational and addresses issues such as diaspora, boundary crossings, belonging, and loss; the book is dedicated to fellow poet Lyn Hatherly, who passed away in 2016.
The Herring Lass contains fifty-three poems, of which just six are longer than thirty lines. Thirty of the poems have twenty lines or less; Cahill clearly favours condensed lyric poems. Eight of the fifty-three poems experiment with structure; however, Cahill usually employs traditional structures and forms, including a sonnet sequence, and often uses tercets and quatrains. Cahill does not use rhyme-schemes, and deploys rhyme subtly and sparingly. The poems often contain traditional poetic techniques, especially similes, alliteration, metaphors and enjambment. Cahill creates a variety of speakers and often inhabits the voices of others; the first person voice is used carefully and infrequently. The poems utilise an impressive range of locations on four continents: Australia, Africa, Asia and Europe. A number of elements and themes appear repeatedly, including aspects of nature like trees, wind, oceans and rivers. The poems feature a variety of birds and animals, including a thylacine, dingo, bear, and wallaby. Pervasive themes include grief, loss, power, distance, home, language, identity, migrants and refugees. The thematic and geographical range of The Herring Lass is impressive and inspiring.
The poem ‘Her Dream’ is an excellent example of Cahill’s ability to inhabit the voices of others; it is written from the perspective of Sarah Milligan, who was the housekeeper for David Scott Mitchell, the founder of the Mitchell Library. The speaker declares:
In the dream, I become an illiterate moth or a wingless
louse, pulverizing monographs to velvet dust, chewing
the starch that fixes leaf by leaf to the bondage of light.
Here Cahill ventriloquises the voice of a woman from another time, who in turn dreams of taking on a non-human identity. Such irony, complexity and dexterity is typical of Cahill’s work.
In ‘Twofold Bay, 1930’, which describes the capture of a whale, Cahill includes both settler/invader and Indigenous history in a precise, visceral and sympathetic narrative. The speaker declares ‘museums are white man’s allegory but dreams of killer / and Koori whalers rewrite the past in undercurrents’, and a few lines later, ‘… I can taste the words whiten / into thin milk of settler culture, bloodlines turnstiled’. Thus Cahill combines history, culture, storytelling, hunting and nature, demonstrating her ability to powerfully blend the local and the global, the specific and the universal, the constructed and the natural. Cahill’s capacity for creating dense, specific and concise poems, while simultaneously addressing issues that transcend time and space, and thus attain universal relevance, is most impressive here.
Cahill’s adeptness at inhabiting other voices is demonstrated in the last stanza of ‘Pirogue’ when the speaker proclaims:
… I am one of Senghor’s thin-legged,
migrant sons, too proud to beg for breadfruit;
hungry for Spain. Listen, today we threw
a decomposing body overboard – and prayed.
The African migrant speaker insists on being heard, and thus the poet likewise demands that her readers pay attention and refuse to ignore the horrific realities of migrant and refugee experiences.
The Herring Lass also contains poems focusing on the personal and questions of belonging and memory, often using metaphors, similes and experiences drawn from travel. In ‘Hemisphere’, the speaker admits, ‘I might question my life in quatrains, the past ferries me back / to home in another hemisphere, to asphyxiating bushfires’. And, in ‘Postcard from Childhood’, Cahill reminds her readers that ‘Nothing shelters us from memory, its tender waves, / nocturnal voices like postcards from childhood’. Likewise, in ‘Mumbai by Night’, the speaker claims ‘… Time is a fixed currency without counterfeit, / so brief it leaves me cheating myself with words’. Close attention to the relationship between language, thought and communication also threads its way through these poems.
While this is an impressive collection, certainly one of the best produced by an Australian poet in recent years, it is not quite flawless. On a number of occasions, Cahill ends lines with weak words, particularly prepositions and articles. Placing specific nouns, verbs or adjectives at the end of such lines would have created stronger line breaks and more impact; however, this is a minor quibble and probably reveals more about my poetics than it does about Cahill’s poetry. The Herring Lass provides abundant evidence that Cahill is one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets; moreover, Cahill must now rank in the top-tier of Anglophone poets worldwide, and her reputation should continue to rise.
Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017
Flute of Milk by Susan Fealy
UWAP Poetry, 2017
Award-winning Melbourne poet Susan Fealy’s first full-length collection is an engrossing and richly resonant volume, one that – like all good artworks – reveals greater connective complexity with each subsequent encounter. The work is divided into two parts, with section one’s epigraph drawing the first sixteen poems into a meaning formation that takes off from a Louise Glück work. In the selected Glück couplet, God addresses humans on the making of a life, referring to the ‘bed of earth’ and ‘blanket of blue air’ that are meant to sustain us. Fealy’s first section proceeds to explore this earth / sky schema, in poems that travel through such ‘earth’-associated ideas as materiality, body, and the present, as well as through notions relating to ephemerality, thought / imagination, and the past (‘sky’). The lengthier part two approaches similar territory from a different angle, using an excerpt from Robert Haas’ ‘A Story About the Body’ to foreshadow a heavier emphasis on events relating to the life cycle. Circulating thematically through both sections are questions regarding the relationship between mind and body, or, put another way, between intellect and creativity, an issue that comes to a head in the striking, quite personal concluding poem. ‘Writing with the Left Hand’ makes use of Hélène Cixous’ theory of writing through the body to suggest that perhaps the soma is the more trustworthy aspect of the human, and that it should somehow be liberated (‘cut off’) from cerebral limitations. But prior to this a wealth of figurative detail portrays life as far more fluid than binary, so that, on balance, this final piece offers no resolutory conclusion.
The continuity of life’s components seems, in fact, to be one of the collection’s driving concerns. The title poem, appearing early in the volume, depicts ‘the past, present and future’ as ‘a long flute of milk,’ and this image of liquid flowing is applicable to Flute of Milk as a whole. Throughout, a series of continuities are brought into view, one of the more overt being Fealy’s openness to other discursive forms. As the endnotes and individual poem’s epigraphs tell us, many pieces converse with and respond to external sources, these sources coming from a range of genres. Fiction, non-fiction, other poetry, visual and tactile arts all inform Fealy’s process, so that, overall, something of an intermingling of aesthetic forces is at work. Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid, for example, is a particularly vivid early resource that sets up ongoing reverberation, and writers such as Banville, Dickinson, Kafka and Baudelaire appear as important interlocutors. As might be anticipated in a work that can be read as exploring what makes up a life, motifs of love and loss figure strongly, but the role of the aesthetic itself is also a significant theme, often overlapping with other motifs. Specific references to aesthetic matters include the nature of poetry (‘It’s a place / to leave your fingers / and your lips’), a body preserved in Pompeii (‘the pain of stone clings to you’), a pinned moth in a museum (‘Do you remember / tapping at the window, frantic as a tiny bell?’), and a widower forging porcelain bowls (‘Their stillness is an argument / for eternity’).
Reading these poems and following their inter-threading elements, one becomes keenly aware that a great deal of material is being covered, both conceptually and sensorily. In such a situation one might rightfully consider how – and, indeed, if – the poet manages to create for the reader a reassurance that creative chaos is not a constant threat. For me, Flute of Milk is a profuse yet judicious collection for two main reasons. Firstly, and in relationship with Fealy’s intertextual method, a painterly approach is taken to the abundant, cycling imagery. From the first poem, a palette of visceral colours is established as the key aesthetic system organising this writing / reading experience. Reds (blood, roses), blues (sky, eyes), greens, pinks, gold, silver – such affective hues flow through almost every page and every image, with the repetition of colours having the effect of dispersing yet containing the multivariant meanings. This colour palette is variegated but also tethered, since limit colours are perceptible in the regular appearance of white (light) and black (shadow, darkness). These taut lines from ‘Film’ illustrate one impact of these boundaries:
Black slate is spilt
In filmic light:
The floor’s too deep,
The light too shallow.
Outside its apparition.
The fluctuation of colour is an apparition, we might surmise, a continuum that is rich but also delimited by the powers of darkness and light. Despite its profusion of colour, then, a consciousness of containment infuses the volume.
The second technique that affords aesthetic assurance is Fealy’s handling of language. It is a measure of Fealy’s skill that the acute visual impact of her poetry is achieved by way of linguistic exactitude. The diction is finely crafted and feels (despite the occasional off note) precise, so that while tonality varies greatly across the poetry, there is, altogether, a sense that a singular voice underpins the work. This has the result of peeling back meaning to its most distilled, which is to say there is a force of quietness about Flute of Milk. The poem ‘In Lieu of a Statue,’ addressing the loss of a mother, exemplifies this exactitude:
The grass is blue with frost –
sharp as the small bones of feet.
The lilacs rattle:
How long since the moon-
lugged lake swallowed her?
Its water swims my bones.
The lilacs rattle like shrapnel.
This linguistic deftness continues across several poetic designs – free verse, sonnet, prose poem, villanelle. And in the deployment of each of these designs, Fealy’s adroit touch also seems to have let form evolve in correspondence with content, rather than impose it. In a poem responding to Brett Whiteley’s Still Life with Cornflowers, Fealy acknowledges her commitment to this kind of methodology: ‘The silence of the jar / must be the centre / which grows the painting.’
Although most of the poems in Flute of Milk have been published elsewhere, it has, from all accounts, taken Fealy quite some years to compile this collection. In an age when speed and instantaneity have become standard, we can only be thankful that she has persevered in her endeavor. Her sharply drawn and intensive poetic landscape offers a level of engagement with language and ideas that is highly gratifying.
Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017
Have Been and Are by Brook Emery
Gloria SMH, 2016
Brook Emery’s new collection, Have Been and Are, continues in the vein of what might be called philosophical-demotic established in previous volumes such as Uncommon Light and Collusion. I don’t think that anyone else in the cohort of contemporary Australian poetry does this quite as well as he does. One might look to a poet of the recent past like Bruce Beaver as a model (or rival) for these sophisticated but always humble meditations, and there are occasions when Emery sounds very like Beaver, but Beaver’s poetry has a suppressed and often irrational anger not far below the surface, something that I cannot detect at all in Emery’s poems. And then, moving back, there is John Blight, whose sea sonnets – though hardly poems of process – often bump up against similar questions. And Blight was an early admirer of Beaver, and one of his poems was called (quoting a critic) ‘His Best Poems Are About the Sea’ which reminds us that one of the poems in Have Been and Are says, ‘I’m always writing about the sea, about change, / about power …’, so perhaps there is a small local tradition here.
Though many of these poems address a subject, you feel that Emery is more comfortable with those that are based on some kind of progress through the world, where the movement of the body is reflected in the movement of the mind as it hunts themes along sidetracks. Indeed his poetry has the capacity to reanimate dead metaphors like ‘sidetracked’, ‘off the track’, ‘catching my drift’ and ‘lost in thought’. The fine first poem belongs to this category: an early morning walk immediately begins to wonder about poetry and language (‘that word “dappled”, that won’t do’), about what kind of poem it is (‘it wants to take you by the hand and say / “Come, come with me into this environment, // this moment and these meanderings”’) and about its connections to the world of poetry, referencing Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison and having a kind of admiring tussle with Hopkins. In fact Have Been and Are works this contextual approach consistently by using quotations from a range of writers as titles.
But the walk of this first poem takes place between the sea on one side and the trees and cottages of the coastal inhabitants on the other. And we are reminded that the sea is always there – ‘the endless, pulsing, / not to be assumed, reassuring sea’ – even when the poet’s mind is on other things. This sea stands for many things in Emery’s work and those poems in which he swims in the sea have a special resonance. It is, among other things, a huge body of ever-changing patterns whose determining and generative drives lie deep within it and far back in time:
This morning the rain-splashed, glass-grey dimpling
of the sea is unvaried, seems unvaried,
though gutters, sandbanks and channels, the ebbing tide
all leave hints of movement, change, unmeasured depth.
I see little more than surface …
All this manages to be both classical Greek and Buddhist at the same time – it’s a ‘changing world … which doesn’t change’ – but it defines what a poet must do: be aware of the processes of endless change, symbolised by the sea; know that such continual changes are products of profound forces; and focus on responding to the challenge of rendering the present verbally. Sometimes the poems do it as a self-confessed exercise so that ‘Only keep still …’ and ‘Echo, Repetition, Statement …’ each have plans:
… To sit in one spot, perhaps on a balcony
looking through rainforest to the sea, from sunrise
to sunset and record everything I see. All that is not me …
The ‘me’ – ‘the unconvincing fiction of myself’ – is also, of course, subject to change and this explains why there are a number of poems in the book (as there were in Emery’s earlier books) where the current self investigates a younger self: it’s the changes that register.
And just as inevitably as this poetry raises the issues of the surface and the depths, so it also has to deal with ethical issues as well as worry about where such issues fit into the broader philosophical scheme of things embodied in the symbol of the ever present sea. In Have Been and Are, ethical issues run the gamut from minor and intrusive niggles – nothing more than part of the experience of moving through the world thinking – to things that require full-intensity expression. At one extreme there is ‘World Without Hope’ detailing the experience of being asked to ‘save the wetland, tree frog, crocodile, / to cure cancer, heart disease, diabetes, liver failure, / free prisoners of conscience …’ by ‘peddlers / of worthiness’ at a local shopping mall. All are causes the poet is happy to endorse despite looking askance at the way the causes are framed, inevitably, in cliché: ‘Of their own accord / my eyes begin to roll and I hear an unintended / sniffing sound whenever someone says “affirmation” / “journey”, “empowerment”, “closure” or “community” …’
At the other extreme is ‘The Brown Current’, an attempt to deal with human cruelty at the macro level. Or perhaps it is an attempt to keep human cruelty (or stupidity: an earlier poem says ‘we must be stupid … the alternative / is too ghastly to acknowledge’) out of a poem which wants to be another poem about moving through the world and observing. Whatever the plan, it is a poem made up of segments of the kind of poem Emery writes brilliantly. Observations of the sea mingle with meditations about mind and random allusions to childhood, current events, etc. These are interspersed with small prose sections making up a kind of anthology of cruelty: beginning with the Athenian massacre at Melos, working through Genghis Khan up to the Rwandan massacre and the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a brave experiment and, while it isn’t as successful as other poems in the book, you can see the importance – in content and structure – of the issues this poem is dealing with.
Monday, May 15th, 2017
A review essay
caught (like me)
ing from flambeau-
flying Pan Am
For those unfamiliar with the Caribbean context, a pan man is a pan (‘steel drum’) player, and a mas’ man’ is a participant in the masquerade. They are key figures in the annual Trinidad Carnival: a festival which creolised the quasi-pagan, pre-Lenten festivities of the white plantation class in the slave era and Canboulay (French Trinidadian Creole for ‘cannes brulées’, or burnt cane), a celebration at least as old as emancipation (1834), in which those who had been enslaved re-enacted the rounding up of slaves that occurred when sugar cane illicitly had been burnt. Canboulay parodied and inverted this display of plantation power, celebrating freedom and continuities in African ritual expression. Once a hero of Carnival’s anarchic anticolonial spirit, in the post-independence era – Trinidad and Tobago decolonised in 1962, this poem appeared in 1972 – the pan man has become a jet-setting cultural ambassador for a nation finding its feet as a notional free-agent in the word-economy. (The same theme would be fleshed out in narrative form by Earl Lovelace in the tremendous The Dragon Can’t Dance a decade later.) These opening lines signal that this is a poem concerned, at least in part, with the commercialisation of culture.
Each line of ‘Pan Drama’ is between one and five syllables long, and these are clustered into groups of six or seven. (As the poem continues, the groups contract to three or four lines.) From the third line there are four consecutive lines of two syllables. The enjambment of the poem’s first word into two mono-syllabic lines prepares the rhythmic and semantic logic of these bi-syllabic lines by asserting the dominance of line over word and the independence of the phoneme. It also works to distribute energy between syllables in a way that undermines the expectation that we should observe stress as per everyday speech (that is, if one’s inner ear presumes a certain kind of accentual delivery; something that would not necessarily occur to some of the poet’s compatriots). One might therefore read the opening as a series of two-beat utterances:
It could almost be delivered in the rhythm of the heart. This is not sustained, but the propulsion it creates persists for a few lines, affecting the way we negotiate the relationship between line and syntax throughout.
While it would be a stretch to claim that the rhythm is a direct mimesis of pan music, it seems likely that the augmentation of rhythmic effect through conspicuous segmentation connects form to content, much in the way that similar techniques do in the following passages:
trail to town. (33)
Again phonemes hang semi-autonomously at the end of short lines, and there’s the suggestion of rhythmic mimesis; they do not directly imitate the rhythms of, respectively, the train blues and reggae, and yet the short line and conspicuous enjambment allows the poet quickly to establish a rhythmic propulsion that alludes to these musical genres. (An example of direct rhythmic mimesis is Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Reggae Sounds’.)
These latter excerpts come from a very famous collection: Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s Rights of Passage, first published in 1968 by Oxford University Press. The first excerpt is from a poem in a collection known by very few: Victor Questel and Anson Gonzales’s Score, self-published by the authors in Port-of-Spain four years later. Brathwaite’s collection, the first instalment of his ‘New World’ trilogy The Arrivants, riffs on various musical forms produced by the African diaspora in the New World. As well as those mentioned already, there are work songs, delta blues, rock n’ roll, calypso, and various forms of jazz, which are arranged into a rough chronology that charts the dispersion and creolization of African culture in the Americas. One could probably slip Questel’s pan poem into Brathwaite’s collection and few first-time readers would spot the anomaly. The elements that might stand out are those parenthetical asides, which signal a clear divide between the poet and the musician. In Brathwaite’s collection there is no such separation of the poet’s voice and that of his personae.
If Questel’s asides suggest an individuated poetic voice whose language, and being, is separate from the folk, proletarian, and lumpenproletarian characters he, at turns, describes, ventriloquises and addresses, we are, perhaps, more in the milieu associated with Brathwaite’s poetic antithesis, Derek Walcott. Take the following from another early Questel poem, ‘Tom’:
I have no grief
for words to
for the way lost
is the way
is a scandal
sandalled to the
dust of processions. (32)
The segmentation again recalls Brathwaite’s early poetics, but the lofty note struck by personification, verbal metonym, and unblinking lyric fatalism is Walcott through and through. As Gordon Rohlehr notes frequently in his expansive commentary on Questel’s collected poems, this is a poetics that moves between, and at times attempts to synthesise, the two most celebrated poles of post-independence Caribbean poetics. This polarity was regularly observed at the time, and its impact on poets in the ’60s and ’70s would come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I start by emphasising Questel’s relation to Brathwaite vs. Walcott not to suggest that his corpus is epiphenomenal to or symptomatic of that headline aesthetic battle, but to point to the fact that he developed his poetic style at a time when an independent field of aesthetic position-taking had established itself in the region. It is probably the first moment in the history of the English-medium Caribbean poetry (at least in its written modes) at which an emerging poet could orient her or his aesthetic program primarily with reference to local authorships. This would not have been true even seven years earlier, when the late-colonial / early-post-colonial notion of ‘Commonwealth literature’ was still a dominant parameter for reception and interpretation.
The field of Caribbean poetry was a lot more varied and complex than Brathwaite vs. Walcott in 1972, but it is striking that their influence can so readily be observed on the surface of Questel’s work. This is not true for the generation just ahead of him – the likes of Wayne Brown, Mervyn Morris and Dennis Scott – who established their formal agendas before the polarisation had become so distinct, especially after the Brathwaite-edited anthology Savacou ¾ – and it would not be true of the generation just after him, which included several ground-breaking female poets like Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior and Velma Pollard (all of whom, it should be said, were older than Questel, but who each published their first volumes later than him). It is both a testament to the times and the nature of Questel’s quest – it seems greatness was on his agenda – that the anxiety of influence is there for all to see. He editorialised in Brathwaite’s favour in the journal Tapia, and wrote one of the first doctorates dedicated to Walcott’s work at the University of the West Indies (UWI) at St Augustine.