FRESH Monday, April 8th, 2019
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.
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Tuesday, February 5th, 2019
Seas and Trees
by Vahni Capildeo
Recent Work Press, 2018
by Jennifer Harrison
Recent Work Press, 2018
Numbers 8 and 10 in the IPSI (International Poetry Studies Institute) limited-edition chapbook series, Vahni Capildeo’s Sea and Trees and Jennifer Harrison’s Air Variations comprise crystalline, eidetic poems that attest to language’s capacity to renew and reinvigorate.
Trinidadian-British poet Capildeo’s Sea and Trees celebrates language itself – in its mutability and its material suggestiveness; its relationship to the world. Indeed, the natural world is signalled as a concern of both collections, by way of their titles, yet both demonstrate an extensive and transitory scope, along with a tendency to play.
In addition to each author’s prize-winning works in poetry, Capildeo has worked as a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, and Australian poet Harrison is a neuropsychiatrist. These biographical details feel germane in how they resonate with the sense of the two poets’ interest and fluency in realms of language broad and specialised.
In Capildeo’s ‘From Journal of Ordinary Days’, we read:
Sometimes I dream in a language that is mine only by scratches,
but I can get the tune of it, a whole conversation
between strangers friendly to each other, dawdling behind me
somewhere outdoors, a sandy cone of syllables
rising and falling, whole sentences
coming smattering to the surface from an occluded source.
Images such as Capildeo’s ‘sandy cone of syllables’ give language a concrete, textured presence (even, as here, in its obliqueness), in ways observed across the collection. Indeed, the poems often focus acutely on sensory perception. In the first section of the sequence ‘After a Hymn to Aphrodite’ (‘I. That Voice Revises Several Languages’), Capildeo writes:
[ … ] Don’t
we think of light and warmth together, cold
rock carries no weight, no, interstellar space
cannot impress us – to my knowledge. And
if we put our skates on? Though unplanned,
each ecstasy’s, each hesitation’s, trace
does cut some ice, in sharpened progress curved
again by lines on whiteness.
Here the attention to language concerns the colloquial, with the idiomatic ‘put our skates on’ – move, hurry – set in the poem’s vivid, tangible space, where actions are in negotiation with atmosphere.
There is also an acute interest in the intricacies of language – its composition and junctures – in ‘Vowel Poem: Albedo’, which begins:
Will you tell me a word
so beautiful that mourning
yields up its you to life
an o towards an r,
or is a vowel’s ghost
so powerful that mourning
invests with amethyst
the lily fields of dawn?
The poems are often comical, wry. The next section of ‘After a Hymn to Aphrodite’ (‘II. Put the Girls in Florals’) opens:
are showing off their reproductive organs
mostly like a froth and creamy dazzle
all over themselves, unstoppable
The poem itself dazzles with its effervescent, playful portrait of the trees ‘displaying airy brilliance sheer of fruit’; there is ‘something dancing: / a heart’ (these latter lines are also indicative of the poems’ playful reworking of the kinds of abstractions that abound in clichéd expression).
‘For Adjectives are one Road Cut into the Precipice Bordering Perfection’ offers a close reading of colour, association and translation:
I saw a sky the colour only of bluebells
the clear blue loved, reserved, only for bluebells
for imaginary equatorial cumulonimbus bluebells
– little like the actual absent weak-stemmed lilac flowers –
If you see,
we have that reading in common,
bleu celeste celestial blue
There is also a clear sense of dialogue with discourses on poetry – its dictums and tendencies. ‘Salthill Blue for Mr Laughlin’ opens:
Thinking unlike a poet,
quit making it new
or dragging netted memories
for the breathless why
Veering by Pound’s often-cited maxim, and rejecting affinities for nostalgia and earnest or precious breathlessness in verse, Capildeo offers less of an ‘ars poetica’ than the poem might initially motion as it shifts back to a sequence of concrete images:
this milky blue is also
taffeta, a sheen
of pouring fabric
beyond a purchaser’s means.
The sea creeps up on walking,
on the unsinkable sun,
shoes unburying seaweed,
sandworms burrowing down.
A similar sense of vim threads through Harrison’s poems, which, like Capildeo’s, are strikingly polished and musical in their composition. Air Variations opens with
‘I Topiary’, where a quiet energy hums through an associatively expansive garden space:
he cuts the hedge into a flat top
the bay tree and olives into disco balls
clipping and trimming paring and shaving
he spends all day on his version of a city
a border collie lies nearby ticdreaming
and outside in the street a neon blue ford
In the same poem, a succession of silhouettes produce a striking alchemy:
shadow and cone oblong circle and cube
emerge into clipped form distempered
the lavender now a hard blue spoon
Harrison’s poems are consistently rich in their immediate and emotional atmospheres, as we see too in ‘VII Scrap Yard’, with its ‘swash of autumn pear leaves meant to yellow / fall without attention’. The poem closes:
yes this is another kind of swimming
out here alone beyond the lovely reef
and did you not expect it to be cold
even though that shard of memory came
so suddenly from nowhere like a psalm
of the past piercing the heart of breath?
A strong sense of place often figures, along with the presence of interlocutors – both human and cultural. In ‘II My Cousin Rachel: The Movie’, Harrison writes:
Afterwards none of us liked the film we
Said all words felt sharp a little unsafe
we embraced lightly the night’s aftershine
thimbling from a thin quarter moon gloom
emptying us home through manicured streets
sleeping birds empty shops in pirouette
This careful pacing and filmic sequencing of detail and view – achieved through the poems’ artful structuring and lineation – extends across the collection. In ‘XII Emily Dickinson: The Movie’:
squares of sunlight appeared appositely
in windows and phantoms slipped in and out
of the fascicles my favourite part
was how she sewed her pages together
a large blunt needle pushed pulled through paper
as though paper was the skin of herself
At each turn these collections are ultimately joyful, even as they elicit various moods. Capildeo’s, for instance, opens with a sense of menace: ‘The trees had evolved to eat other trees. / That this happened at the end of a garden. / This was first noticed in a small tree’s wincing’ (1). The chapbooks provide compelling and rewarding samples of the poets’ work. Poems in Seas and Trees appear in Capildeo’s collection Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018) – true to IPSI’s intention that the chapbooks offer more than might appear from any one poet in a single journal issue, ahead of publication in book form.
IPSI’s slim, smartly produced volumes showcase two invigorating voices, inviting further or renewed engagement with Capildeo, Harrison and each poet’s luminous, vitalising music.
Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
Species of Spaces by Ken Bolton
Shearsman Books, 2018
Ken Bolton’s thinking is never too relaxed, but moves restlessly and anxiously, across people, cultural references and disparate locations even as he writes, or so it appears. And the resultant poems also seem to be unfiltered by any desire on the poet’s part to be ‘poetic’. But perhaps this is illusory. The poems are, after all, carefully considered and crafted, occupying the page determinedly even though the poet writes as if the events and thoughts he references are taking place in an ongoing, urgent present, via a stream of consciousness, and that the last thing on his mind is making ‘poetry’. Indeed, Bolton records something that looks like immediate, unfiltered thought and his compelling purpose is to register rather than editorialise.
The poems are laconic, sometimes funny and disarmingly casual in their address, coupled with seeming randomness in both diction and punctuation. He appears to avoid any striving towards the considered, drafted poem and instead follows impulsive thought as an end in itself. We are provided then with access to the joys, anxieties and emotional complications present in a life recorded in real time and space. However, we would be wrong to consider the work to be confessional in any sense, nor is it ever reliable autobiography as such. Bolton is not interested in either but rather in wider philosophical questions about the nature of perception and what impact cognition has on emotion and happiness. Further, the poet himself is the investigated subject and the focus of an ongoing, self-scrutinising, scientific experiment in poetry that is essentially about thought.
The first poem in the book opens with an account of an ‘Ongoing Moment’, and demonstrates Bolton’s capacity to register his own shifting thoughts via a disparate narrative that has the poet and his partner, the author, Cath Kennealy, at an airport where they are soon to ‘fly out / a few hours late’ on some trip or other. The situation is described as ‘– anxiously perilous –’ but it is also charged with possibility and as a consequence the poet feels:
less pissed off
& separated –
because we booked our flights
I don't know
where Cath is sitting
or what she's doing –
well, reading probably ...
(‘In Three Parts: A Report on the Ongoing Moment.’ 9)
This is remarkably ordinary and prosaic, even dismissive. However, it is also extraordinary in its insistence on the recording of the banal vicissitudes of a lived moment. And there is a febrile urgency here that is compelling in a poem that provides an eye onto the realm of the poet’s ‘live’ thinking and writing (as illusory as that might be) and these are inseparable. Here, the ‘place’ in the poem, in this case the airport, becomes an anchor of sorts. This is critical, not because the poet is bent on ‘location’ for its own sake or because he want to ‘document’ as such, but because each space or person mentioned (or indeed any wider cultural reference that pops into his head) is ultimately and sadly fugitive. There is a deep apprehension of inevitable and painful loss even within the lived ‘present’. The mind traveling as it does, erratically, uncontrolled, with ‘a mind of its own’ as it were, inhabits a deeply anxious space (one of the ‘species’ of spaces in the book’s title) where in any poem, the wider world can and does intrude: Miles Davis might wander through, or Stendahl, Cath (Kennealy), Pam (Brown), or indeed any of the poet’s friends and fellow poets, past and present as well as abstracted, wider philosophical concerns, or whatever. And while these thoughts might well be triggered by a particular place, in this case an airport (there is also in this and other poems: ‘Leigh Street’, ‘on the train back to Sydney’, ‘Gilbert Place’, ‘Melbourne’, the ‘South Coast’ and so on, names that are all familiar enough), the poet remains alienated. ‘Place’ becomes ‘no-place’ and in Bolton’s mind anyway, out of time.
For this reason, the airport, along with the delayed flight experienced in ‘A Report on the Ongoing Moment’ provide the perfect metaphor to represent the poet’s dislocation from his own life and that of his friends, because forced to exist in a no-place, the airport, even temporarily, the poet finds himself unattached, a notion that is both exhilarating (because it allows space for the mind to wander associatively) and anxiety provoking (because Bolton is subject to the vagaries of forces beyond his control). It is this that becomes the subject of the poem as he riffs about: meeting friends, working with a friend on a catalogue, describing book launches that made everybody ‘too nervous to relate much’ and thinking about poets like John Tranter who goes off for a drink ‘while the computer composes poems for him …’ and Pam Brown whose work: changed then, too / & continued to change, /And then there’s mine / – my abiding problem. / When does this plane land? This is marvellous in its accumulation of apparently disassociated thought so exhilaratingly and urgently expressed.
While on one hand this poem and more in Species of Spaces, celebrates the mind’s wanderings as a kind of freedom, there remains a palpable anxiety and underlying sadness to do with the notion of impermanence that haunts many poems otherwise witty, even rakish and certainly perverse. And as Bolton reminds us, the world moves and everything that we know (and love) shifts too. So, by implication, despite an apparent surface banality and ease in the poems, time and death remain ever present for Bolton, investigated in poetry that concentrates on the spaces occupied by a shifting, lonely mind at work: ‘Too many /… of the people I know about, / care about / are dying / a / feeling / more than a thought’ (‘Spot Check’ 61)
Bolton travels as the ‘hero’ in his own poems, wandering like a flaneur, with apparent casualness. And if he needs to be funny at times, that is belied by the utter seriousness of the ultimate mission, an attempt to understand or at the very least register the unalterable motion of ‘thought’, as mercurial as that is: A guy, / unintentionally debonair, / using a long, furled, / pink umbrella / like a walking stick / flamboyant / but not consciously so, / lost in thought. / As who isn’t? –Thought’ / Each with / our own. (‘Gilbert Place–Cafe Boulevard’ 78)
Evidenced here in this ‘quest’ towards understanding (that’s what it is, as old fashioned as that may sound) there is a lyric heart at the core of the seemingly random, even sometimes chaotic life lived, or anyway surveyed in the poems. Further, there is a yearning for ‘fixedness’, predictability and contentment.
Act as if
the world exists, the Surrealists
said. It, certainly, won't act
as if you did &
me, I'm barely here.
Tho happy at this moment.
(‘Two Melbourne Poems, June 2012’ 95)
‘at this moment’ suggests that there may well be other moments, perhaps many moments, or even ‘usually’, when the poet finds happiness more elusive.
Bolton’s testing, roaming lines attempt to address, even within their shape and arrangement, the impossibility of pinning the sometimes banal mind-scape he inhabits, where accidental meetings in thought are always possible, where love is given and taken, where poems begin and end, where people are described as going to events or not, where friendships always matter and from where the mind is free to wander albeit through uncertain terrain. Thought itself wanders, sometimes anxiously, from place to place, person to person, idea to idea. And this is what Bolton captures best, in verse that is itself a vivid representation of the very mind shifts that go on relentlessly and for most of us, unconsciously.
...with Kurt, whom I've never
been closer to, & Dennis
& Laurie (whom
I finally got to
(‘In Three Parts: A Report on the Ongoing Moment’ 9)
That Bolton replicates a mind shifting through mental and physical ‘spaces’ of various kinds in his poetry is his particular achievement. In this, he proclaims the extraordinariness of the ordinary, with the proviso that we must understand an essential paradox: that is, to travel (in thought or bodily) is only possible if there is also a notion of fixedness and stasis. The poet to be free (and this seems to be what the poet desires) must first locate a space to travel from, to move away from. The obsessive quest to locate a place that the mind occupies in stillness and quiet is ultimately doomed. This dilemma is at the heart of the poet’s fundamental anxiety. Bolton’s poems are like the notes pinned to the door when you go out. Are you telling others where you are, or yourself?
Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
Archipelago by Adam Aitken
Vagabond Press, 2017
Present by Elizabeth Allen
Vagabond Press, 2017
In a judicious review of two ‘lucid and intelligent books’ on the job of the literary critic* and of a new edition of Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, Edward Mendelsohn argued against the essential nostalgia of criticism in favour of a version of Kant’s ‘universal subjective’: finding ways to cross ‘the disputed border between popular and elite culture … without pretending it doesn’t exist’. One of the recurring negotiations for the critic – and, I would argue, for the poet – is the difficult business of intimacy: how to inscribe the subjective as both ‘confessional’ (and ‘lyrical’) as well as observational, satirical, evaluative.
These two very different collections from Vagabond Press offer tangential, engaging and verbally sinuous takes on this interplay. Adam Aitken’s Archipelago dramatises consciousness as a scattering of (dead?) islands – the cover image shows famous graves marked by numbers (to which you need a key) in the underground city of the Cimetière Montmartre. The poems are ‘postcards’ of places in France (from Paris to Avignon), French art, writing and history; freewheeling thinking and memories, cultural commentary. The gods invoked and played with in Archipelago include Henri Rousseau, René Char, Gustave Flaubert, Arthur Rimbaud and Ezra Pound (that troubadour riff ). Aitken’s perspective is ‘cool’, ironic at a playful, postmodern distance. Elizabeth Allen’s Present, with its cover hommage to Frida Kahlo’s What I Saw in the Water suggests a more ‘felt’ concern with habitation, process, subjectivity. Allen’s poems focus on personal relationships, the dimensions and language of experience and affect. They present themselves as epistolary and confessional – like carefully sculpted journal entries. I am tempted to suggest the volumes embody the differences between the modernisms of Joyce and Lawrence, between observing and feeling, negotiating ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ in overlapping ways.
Consider Aitken’s ‘Lyric’ for example: ‘First there is the picking of a rose / then the theory of what it means; / … / First death, then empathy. / … / There are the interiors, / then the interiors of the interiors / and what comes between us / is precisely the subject of the poem / … / padded with medieval tapestries, / perhaps the mineralised torso of a God, / or even a country that can’t address us / as [it] lacks a studio or [eyrie]’. Pervading Aitken’s poetry is a sense of something almost confrontationally personal, kept at arm’s length by constant thinking, observing, wordplay, juxtaposition of contrarieties (for example, ‘death, then empathy’, above).
Liz Allen’s poems are often almost heartbreaking, with their crystal craziness and their just-so-ordinary, almost casual vernacular. The fine ‘Absence’ sequence apostrophises the concept in five definitional movements which are wry, but testify to intense sadness as well as defensive indifference. The first poem’s ‘frangipani tree / outside the window / that I will never see again’ suggests a sense of family and childhood connectedness that the poet has lost, irretrievably. Like Robert Adamson’s ‘Things Keep Going Out of My Life’, the poem elegises loss through images of house and garden. The second poem points to a sense of distances in a relationship: shoes abandoned on a floor image a transitoriness of connection, a hankering / keening. The third poem gestures towards ‘a deficiency / that does not have a name’ yet it is evident and seems to taunt the poet. The fourth poem asserts ‘the mind’s need / to slip away for a while’ and is a measure of our tenuous connection to the reality of our lives. The final poem’s ‘absence’, ‘failure to attend or appear when expected’, is deemed ‘unauthorised’ and ‘will result in a failing grade’, dramatizing the failure of relationship. Though these poems look crisply formal, their power is in the emotional force of the language.
Aitken’s fifth collection of poems begins and ends (if we take the final poem ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’ as a kind of postscript) with Paris and the Seine – as place, river, ethos and motif, framing a sense of location and identity ‘thrumming with submarine frequencies’. The opening poem ‘Tributaries of the Seine’ has the ‘hypothermic’ poet ‘obsessed’ with measurement and origin, wondering if we are products of geography ‘in the gust of a mistral’s ancient grammar’ or dredged from the ‘mudflats of someone’s youth’. As well, there’s an awareness of the minute ‘vestiges of our heritage … drunk on a minor fifth … in time’s self-immolating hangover’: so the poem opens the collection on an allusive, dense, agnostic note, playfully destabilising the poet / reader’s consciousness and suggesting he/we are subject to subtle local influences which shape our macro-awareness. A bird bath’s ‘blue meniscus fluttering’ suggests that relationships and identity, including parents and their foods and failings shape us and embody limitations that the subject/individual is left to deal with.
In ‘The Foreign Legionnaire’, near the end, the Seine is ‘a limpid green gutter / in which the stars will shine … an absinthe grin’ which allowed poets to ‘[wring] eloquence by the neck … when poems were babies / born in clouds of spoor.’
Geography is an opportunity for Aitken to muse on the associative capacities of centrifugal imagery, so every attempt to explain personality, motive or art in terms of origin, influence or accidental connection, is equally specious. As ‘Nostalgia’, the second poem in the collection implies, acknowledged memories don’t fit the bureaucracy’s determinants: ‘it’s dream-French, not real’. The poet is a ‘drunken swift / nest[ing] in old bell towers’. Identity and history are less a matter of colonialist capitalism or geomorphic shift but more a function of a ‘galaxy map of his head’.
Early on, in the first of Allen’s three epistolary dramatic monologues, the ‘I’ affects diffidence, self-deprecation in the face of poignant moments: ‘I’m sort of on the run but I am not sure what from … I bought a box of Toblerone, telling myself it would be an excellent example of a triangular prism to teach three-dimensional shapes to the kids … before I remembered I am not a teacher anymore.’ The triangular prism becomes a motif for the repeated misprision in self-analysis and relationships: ‘You can only look from one vantage point after all.’ The poem links this to being ‘seated in a theatre in such a way that you get a glimpse of what is happening in the wings.’ But Allen’s ‘I’ wonders if changing perspectives is about advantage or vulnerability, giving us a palpable sense of moments passing.
In ‘Avignon-Paris TGV, Winter 2012’ Aitken writes, ‘Plain speaking is in again. / They say poets can’t do it / but I can, and I will say / that all or part of you (Old Londoner, old plain-speaker) / is all of this, the very scene itself.’ Of course, it’s more complicated than that: the poem positions ‘him’ on the train and conjures images of autumn ‘burning off / when chaff vapourises into rain’ against a ‘palette-key for provincial sunflowers, / lavender and geranium scents.’ It’s a fragmentation of bi-cultural awareness, charged with significance and memory (ghosts of Wordsworth and Coleridge haunting the conversation). Aitken calls it ‘remnant optimism’: ‘a gift / compressed to / miniature, sleight-of-hand, / synecdoche’. His poetry pulls us towards intimacy while remaining grounded in so-called ‘objective reality’. And synecdoche is right, too, as a descriptor of Aitken’s poetry: dazzling – so many parts standing for many more wholes. The poems move constantly from micro to macro; the minute as lens to the world and back again. So the train’s high-speed ‘passing’ and ‘leaving’ embodies separation – cleaving, in both antithetical senses: a ‘French railway after-effect / that radiates the idea of you’.
We see Aitken’s idiosyncratic wit at its most roccoco in ‘Junier’s Cart’, apostrophising the famous Rousseau painting and its apparently unexciting neighbourliness (‘nor lion’s dream of Arabs, / No nude lady of the desert / dreaming of a lion.’) Wondering if ‘it’s a joke on Paris … the irony of a flat tableaux’ [sic]) Aitken sees Rousseau the artist (as we see Aitken the poet) as a ‘malingering taxidermist / who practised on living humans and called it art’: ‘Your eyes in sideways glance / at yourself, the viewer and the viewed’. And then there’s an Australian gaze: ‘others saw it, Nolan’s constable / on a camel’. Aitken is taken by the playful and ambiguous constructedness of the painting – how art and poetry reframe in order to ‘pose’ and ‘arrest’. Later, in ‘Dreaming Rousseau at the Pont Du Gard’, poet and painter are ‘surveying time’s mess’.
Conversely, beneath the pointedly sarcastic surface of Allen’s trenchant ‘eHarmony Quick Questions’ shudders an existential angst, cleverly caught by her juggling of different verbal registers: ‘How important is chemistry to you? / Hyoscine hydrobromide is thought to prevent motion sickness by stopping the messages sent from the vestibular system from reaching an area of the brain called the vomiting centre.’ There is a kind of bipolar fluctuation between intense embrace and almost nihilism running through the poems. The sensuality of ‘Orange Delicious’ when memory of roadside fruit ‘small / and ugly / but so delicious’ leads to a teasing awareness of ‘something / sweeter / more right, more real / just out of reach’. Or, more darkly, in the post-Plath ‘Thirty Minute Meal’ where the family ‘cake’ is metaphorised as a recipe after which ‘[you] put the kids to bed / then put your head in the oven.’ Elsewhere playfully morbid, Allen imagines ‘Emilia Fox slicing me open, / taking out my lungs, weighing my heart’ or herself as a psychiatric ‘Outpatient’: ‘here I’m not mad enough / whereas everywhere else I’m too mad / … / I’ve decided / everyone can come dressed as their favourite / unhelpful thinking style. / … catastrophising, overgeneralisation, / crystal balling’.
Tuesday, December 4th, 2018
Burning Between by Kait Fenwick
Slow Loris, 2018
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a surge in material on gender and sexuality being produced by a profusion of switched-on contemporary thinkers. In Australia, Puncher & Wattmann published the anthology Out of the Box – Contemporary Gay & Lesbian Poets almost a decade ago. Currently you’ll find queer poets (many of them students of writing and literature) swarming around venues like Sydney’s Subbed In, Freda’s and Sappho’s. Literary magazines have published dedicated lgbtqi issues and Melbourne-based Archer magazine declares itself ‘The world’s most inclusive magazine about sexuality, gender and identity’. In 2018 the organisation Australian Poetry hosted lgbtqi Big Bent Readings at the Sydney and Melbourne writer’s festivals. In Cordite Poetry Review, the most recent issue was themed TRANSQUEER.
There’s so much happening around the topic of gender that this review might seem like it’s coming a bit late to the party. But gender concerns have been around for many, many years even though they might seem recently new and insurgent. I was an active participant in the liberationist politics of an earlier generation. We were reading mostly the French and North Americans: Monique Wittig, Michel Foucault, Jill Johnston, Shulamith Firestone, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Rita Mae Brown, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Kate Millet, and, later, Luce Irigaray, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler and others. Michael Hurley’s comprehensive book, A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Writing in Australia (1996) documented the many activist poets and writers of those times.
In 2016, the Oz elder of homosexuality, Dennis Altman wrote in Meanjin:
we saw ourselves as radically changing society and have had to adjust to a world that is changing faster and in directions we could never have imagined. Questions around gender and sexuality remain as charged as they were in the 1970s [& early 80s] but they take different forms, so that [some] of us who came of age in the countercultural liberation movements [might] be disoriented by what seems a strange mix of conservatism and radicalism, [like, say,] the desire for lavish weddings coexisting with a growing awareness and acceptance of transgender that challenges all our assumptions about sex in its biological and social meanings.
I don’t mind a challenge. One such challenge is to think these issues through while also being conscious of not commodifying identity. That’s not so easy.
As far as the demographic goes, non-binary people are in a non-conforming minority and so do live in the margins of expected gender norms. I’m probably over-simplifying this, but perhaps (optimistically), commodification and in-your-face branding can be a method of challenging restrictive social codes. I’m not sure. But I do know that poets, too, are often categorised as a minority (or at least as ‘weird’ or ‘difficult’) in relation to normative mainstream literature. So that’s doubling the trouble. Why not ‘unlearn’ repression and make some great poetry?
I first noticed Newcastle poet Kait Fenwick’s work in 2016, when it appeared in Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, edited by Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson. The poem called ‘Hidden Nature’ was fresh, funny, perhaps a little brash and definitely, like snapchat – which the poem mentions – it’s a fast look at an off-centre but everyday life in Newcastle, New South Wales. The poet is working at a small art gallery that from 1861 until 1982 was the local police confinement cells. It is now called The Lock-Up:
I'm working up a sweat, arranging white spikes across the exercise yard
This show is all about new phases and experimental visions
and here I am
Snap-chatting photos of an installation
that looks like genitals to my mates for a cheap laugh
But you know,
according to the artist it's visceral
This art wank is all about shameless self-promotion
I'm in the thick of it
Given that Fenwick has named the artist earlier in the poem, relating their critical experience of the installation does seem audacious. In October 2018, the Newcastle Herald declared the city a ‘poetry hotspot’ of events and publishing. The first four titles in Puncher & Wattmann’s new Slow Loris Chapbooks imprint, including Kait Fenwick’s Burning Between, were launched from the hotspot a few days later.
For Fenwick, Burning Between is positioned ‘in the margins’, which she announces with a quote from standup comedian Hannah Gadsby (whose material resists commodification by declaring an anathema to the glitter and glam of gay rainbow culture):
Do you understand what self-deprecation means? When it exists from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.
Fenwick’s poem lists their reasons for resisting a film of Gadsby’s show, Nanette. It’s a short list of repressed feelings and other rationale – ‘knowing it [the film] would touch you in ways that you didn’t want to be touched’, ‘Calling it experiencing having your heart caressed / while being simultaneously kicked in the guts’, ‘Call it unlearning’.
Fenwick’s poems are super-current and clearly zoned-in on situation. The first occurs on a local bus. On a laptop the poet scrolls to a film clip of another lesbian comedian – North American Lea Delaria (whose web site, by the way, warns ‘Enter at your own risk’). Lea Delaria, in character as Big Boo on the TV series Orange Is The New Black, is taking all her clothes off. She drops her pants and declares ‘”Fat is not ugly”/ “Look at me”’, at which moment the poet slams the laptop closed. This swift reaction ends the scene and the poem, leaving the reader to impute the speaker’s feeling – embarrassment, mild horror, shock? Such private intensity on a public bus makes a cogent starting point for the book.
Tuesday, December 4th, 2018
The Landing by Paul Croucher
Transit Lounge, 2017
While Paul Croucher has previously published A History of Buddhism in Australia 1848-1988, this is his first poetry collection. Embedded within the poet’s attention to nature is a Buddhist understanding of suffering as a necessary part of existence and at times his spiritual beliefs are expressed explicitly. In ‘Theravadin’ the speaker asks his ‘Ajahn’ (teacher) why he has been reincarnated and is told: ‘Not enough suffering / the first time’. The notion of ‘samsara’ – the cycle of birth and death to which non-enlightened beings are subjected – is reiterated in ‘After All’, a poem in which a courtesan states, ‘there’s / no future, / but there’s / no / end to it’. At first the courtesan’s attitude seems almost despondent, but this is undermined by the speaker’s description of an idyllic landscape:
In the sutra
end to it,
Croucher’s tight enjambment – the poem consists of a single sentence spaced over eight couplets and a monostich – necessitates a pause after every couple of words. The pacing reinforces the Buddhist mindfulness and mystical themes of the book. That is, the poet’s spiritually informed comprehension of impermanence is both thematically and formally visible.
‘On a Bus Somewhere to the West of Minneapolis’, one of several poems which make reference to Croucher’s poetic influences, begins with the lines, ‘with a cask of wine / and a lover of Lorine / Niedecker’. At his best, Croucher, like Niedecker, demonstrates imagistic precision while maintaining a personal tone. Both poets are also very much concerned with the natural world and rural life, or at least the non-urban aspects of suburban life. For example, the opening couplets of ‘A Solitary Garden in the Seventies’:
in the winter sun.
The sounds of trucks
in the breeze.
Meghan O’Rourke and A E Stallings, in a 2004 review of Niedecker’s Collected Works, identify some of its main features, three of which show revealing relationships with Croucher’s poetics. These are ‘a chariness with syllables … the ‘I’ of the poet condensed out of existence … and a refusal to sentimentalize’, all of which are displayed in one of Niedecker’s untitled poems:
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in
Niedecker, like Croucher, writes with a certain laconicism. In Niedecker’s words, ‘certain words of a sentence – prepositions, connectives, pronouns – belong up toward full consciousness, while strange and unused words appear only in [one’s] subconscious.’ In other words, her ‘chariness with syllables’ results from a prioritising of words she deems as expressive of something subliminal – ‘laurel in muskeg / Linnaeus’ twinflower’, or ‘mud squash / willow leaves’ (‘Wintergreen Ridge’) – over words whose principal function is grammatical. This is not to say that her poems are ungrammatical, rather there is a hierarchy with regards to the types of words she is likely to edit out.
Whereas Niedecker’s poems are syntactically economical, Croucher’s ‘chariness’ manifests in heavily enjambed verse with very few words per line. Moreover, his poems do not always conform to the rules of grammar and tend to be fairly quotidian – no precedence is given to unusual words. Croucher’s ungrammaticality is a technique which seems to evoke both stillness and a spiritual incompleteness – a sense that everything is temporary and therefore trivial. ‘Zen Keys’, for example, is a poem that consists of only two dependent clauses:
how Thich Nhat
Hanh lost his
Frank, who had
In contrast to Niedecker, Croucher’s ‘I’ is not ‘condensed out of existence’ per se, rather the significance of ‘I’ is undermined by the spiritual tone of the book. For example, ‘A Proceeding’ from the ‘Arboreal’ sequence, is ostensibly about a mundane situation. On the surface, it deals with the speaker’s future lack of comfort, but there is also an implied reverence for nature:
A spring wind’s
was to shade
At times The Landing shows comparatively less of a ‘refusal to sentimentalize’:
a water buffalo
with a dozen
His focus on nature and the absence of a verb gives the poem a haiku-like quality, a sense of stillness suggestive of transcendence. However, the way in which the presence of the speaker is implied is a little self-conscious. That is, the image of the water buffalo is intellectualised, albeit very slightly, by the inclusion of the initial four words, ‘The ordinary / things, like’, whose gratuity, although slight, make the poem sound, if not faintly sentimental, at least un-Niedeckeresque.
Perhaps the most Niedeckeresque feature of Croucher’s poetics is his application of rhyme. Just as Niedecker frequently uses one-off occurrences of rhyme in her short poems – ‘My friend tree / I sawed you down / but I must attend / an older friend / the sun’ – Croucher, in the second section of his extended poem ‘The High Country’, rhymes only the first two lines of the first tercet:
As the embers
and the ambers
of the morning
with an acid
of a sudden
Once again Croucher’s heavily enjambed free verse requests a certain mindfulness of the reader. The poet’s newfound ‘immanence’ is something that he supposes is possessed by cattlemen because of the time they spend with animals in nature. The speaker’s epiphany, therefore, is based on a projection of his own philosophical beliefs and is perhaps a romanticisation of non-urban life. Whether or not the speaker’s epiphany is nothing but a temporary delusion is perhaps irrelevant. When the speaker in ‘Libre’, on the other hand, supposes that plants are sentient this seems somewhat incongruous with the animistic voice of the book:
across the field
where they will land.
The presence of the poet, despite the absence of the first-person pronoun, is perhaps too forceful. His anthropomorphisation of peach blossoms does not enhance the spiritual or immaterial qualities of nature, rather it does the opposite, it invalidates them. The romanticised ending jeopardises the impact of the first two couplets, which by themselves have the potential to be autotelic and reminiscent of William Carlos Williams.
Williams’ ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ happens to be the namesake of Croucher’s recently-closed bookshop in Brunswick, Victoria and The Landing, although at times less linguistically precise, is recurrently redolent of his work – ‘Rust / in a basin / left out / in / the rain’ (‘Rust’). Moreover, Williams’ famous tenet ‘no ideas but in things’ is quoted in ‘The High Country’. Following his epiphanic encounter with immanence, the speaker goes on to admit that writing about spiritual occurrences is a form of unnecessary intellectualisation. He defines his cattlemen-like capability as something
in which there’s
no cosmic feud.
The ‘no’ anaphora combined with end-stops stand out against the other severely enjambed lines and this technique develops into something of a motif:
(‘A Dream of the View From the Monastery On Khao Laem Dam’)
(‘A Drink With Eric’)
The occurrence of profound gratitude, according to the speaker in ‘The High Country’, is a non-cerebral experience analogous to Williams’ theory of poetics, which Croucher interprets from a Buddhist perspective to imply that what exists only in one’s head is meaningless:
in the clear
it’s one that’s closer
to having no ideas
but in things.
Just being here.
in the flow
Thursday, November 1st, 2018
Days and Works by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Ahsahta Press, 2017
The title of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s new book is a reversal of Hesiod’s Works and Days, which introduced the character of Pandora to the world. At the front of the book, before even the title page, is the statement ‘We are living in late catapultism’. The paraphrasing of Frederic Jameson immediately locates DuPlessis’ work as a postmodern artefact. It’s a fun bit of word play, and I hope to find out more about catapultism and the role it plays in the book. On the opposing page, another introductory fragment refers to uncanniness and then breaks the word ‘uncanni-/ness’ as if to emphasise its meaninglessness (especially since canny and uncanny are one of those strange pairings that can have the same meaning). Except for more of the uncanny, only ephemera can answer uncanniness, the text suggests – an overtly postmodern perspective (which celebrates the fragment rather than decrying, as did the Romantics, its implied loss). The text further sets up its preoccupations with the use of epigrams from Gertrude Stein and DuPlessis herself. They refer to the problem of how to speak when so much needs to be said – which is such a problem that the newspaper seems the best form – and of what can be real within so much diversity. These multiple references, in common with many other works from writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot and Leslie Scalapino, suggest the collage as vehicle.
Days and Works responds to these concerns in various forms, using prose and lineated sections, mostly without titles, in one long work. It was written during a single month when DuPlessis was resident in the Artist Program of the Djerassi Foundation in California. Newspaper clippings pop up with regularity, alongside concerns about the form of the book. The text begins with the topic of the origin of life, with a newspaper snippet about neutrinos and beside it, in lineated form, DuPlessis’s own response about ‘5 kinds of sex’, ending in some nonsense words. One creature’s excreta is another’s nutrition, and all is an ‘attempt at / sustained / resonance.’ The first full-page lineated poem begins with the line, ‘Swamp walk by the ocean’, suggesting an earlier point of evolution as well as its ongoing sense. Ending with the lovely, Joycean hybrid ‘Pentacoast’, it asserts an ecological rather than religious explanation for existence.
Blau DuPlessis follows this with a justification for writing bound up with desire and the philosophy of language use, outlined in ways reminiscent of a number of writers from Beckett onwards. This problem ends with her question: ‘How can so many things occupy the same space?’, which, I suppose, prompts further questions around how and when things do occupy the same space. I seem to remember distant philosophical arguments that part of what defines objects is their mutual exclusivity in terms of space, yet dual occupation is not only possible but has been observed scientifically as a living paradox. A poem about a dream concerns a walk on Rangitoto just off the coast of Auckland. It ends with the intriguing line ‘I was walking into time’. It is resonant for me having recently visited the island, where the evidence of frozen lava fields suggests that the past is indeed extraordinarily present.
The voice of the text comments self-consciously: ‘It named erasure and coping and performed that.’ It asks, ‘Is this a scrapbook?’, confirming collage as vehicle, with an attendant sense of incompleteness and contingency. Unfortunately, some of the prose doesn’t attempt to weed out cliché, as if that is another found element. It would be difficult to describe much of the prose as prose poetry, since it generally lacks use of poetic idiom. Some of the interjections are worrying, such as ‘And it takes so long even to write bad poems’, as if the text has given up on that enterprise; or, ‘why did he think she was producing gibberish / when she was only working a level of language’, which sounds like an excuse for writing ineffectively. Days and Works certainly doesn’t have the poetic drive of, say, Claudia Rankine’s recent works, despite some similarities in the fusion of poetry and nonfiction, and I suspect it doesn’t want to have. It raises the question, can a text (which is advertised as poetry – the publisher refers to the book as ‘a mini-encyclopedic poem on an intimate scale’) be unpoetic or pragmatic and get away with it?
But that doesn’t mean the text is without charm, aesthetic phrases or poetic ideas, such as ‘I’ve got to get out of this year.’ Statements like ‘So what if I am having an aesthetic crisis’ are not accompanied by any kind of poetic dramatisation or depiction of such a crisis. But they give a relaxed and easy tone and the feeling that one is reading a kind of diary as much as a scrapbook. And I’m very happy reading diaries by poets. They are often poetic. For now, I’ll put aside thinking about labels which assert whether the text is itself ‘poetry’. Phrases like ‘biscuit conditional’ and ‘sidereal time’, and paragrams like ‘googol’ keep me interested at the level of the poetic. The prose beginning, ‘The page was shadowed by stars’ offers rather more than most. It is oddly confessional, but of the mind and its philosophical questioning, rather than embodied experience. The book is often comprised of philosophical musing, sometimes with arguments trailing away, and not really engaging as arguments, for example, in the reference to children dying from gun violence. In fact, the prose asks a great many questions. It would be more original if now and again there was also an attempt to answer some of them. Perhaps the text asserts that the questions are not answerable, but the trope becomes somewhat monotonous.
The publisher blurb asserts this is a political book. (The book came with no press release, but the website outlines its strategies.) Despite a number of allusions to what might be termed political issues, I didn’t really feel this was the case. At least not until the two newspaper excerpts concerning police brutality. (The story of water contamination highlighted on p. 53 also gets across a powerful message.) The reproductions of clippings about this issue seemed to constitute a protest, in the same way that videoing acts of police violence does, and acts as a moral statement even where the video is technically illegal: it champions the moral duty of citizens to sometimes defy such a law.
Method is important to DuPlessis. One of the lineated poems offers an explanation for method when it declares:
I want to know which is margin, which is text,
which is writing, which is gloss
and I won’t
Thursday, November 1st, 2018
Subtraction by Fiona Hile
Vagabond Press, 2018
Aqua Spinach by Luke Beesley
Two very recent books by two mid-career Melbourne poets offer distinct intellectual gymnasiums in which to lift and push and run and sweat. I may not have been able to master these books, but they knocked the breath out of me.
Fiona Hile’s second collection, Subtraction is not poetry for the uninitiated. It is sophisticated and, honestly, inscrutable. In an interview with Sandra D’Urso, Hile saysid she sometimes makesde poems by stripping down chapters of a novel-in-progress. And, indeed, the poems do read as something like the opposite of story. Could it be this process of radical redaction (subtraction) to which the title, at least partially, refers?
It could be said tThe poems reject narrative and lyric conventions: the conventions of establishing context, positioning speakers or agents, and crystallising experiences. However, they feel instead as if they are generated in a world quite apart from such considerations. And I must talk about the ‘feel’ of these poems, because, at least at first, I was slipping off their surface like a novice climber on a slick slope. I admit, I did at some early point think: I don’t think I can review this book – not because I didn’t like it, but because I couldn’t understand it. However, unwilling to abort the mission, and more and more disinvested in the notion of expertise and mastery besides, I kept on. Those readers who managed higher than a B in their post-grad continental philosophy coursework may have an easier or more satisfying time intuiting the poems’ implicit philosophical preoccupations, but I must meet them on the level of affect and feeling.
And how do these poems feel? They are gloomy. They vibrate with dissatisfaction. They joke. They bite. They are baroque and insatiable. They torrent. They hold themselves in utter balance.
I want to say something about how the lines work. Staying mostly faithful to the syntax of the sentence, the poems pile vivid arrows of declarations and questions and conjoined imageries upon each other, and they all point in different directions. The poem ‘Aubade’ features a ‘bedside colander’, a ‘hatful of hollows’, ‘Two handfuls of sunrise’, ‘a fake hostage video’, screams, love, money, and choice – and that’s only the first quintet.
At times the poems display something like a warped Whitmanian impulse to radical inclusion: quadruple-visioned, and buzzing with the tension of opposites. The poem ‘Song for an Indifferent Italian,’ ends thus: ‘A wall of windows irrigated / by flights of sluggish moths, whirring in the chest of the / Moreton Bay Fig. An electrified bolt splitting the carapace, / plastic flowers strewing the dashboard, longish knuckles / ructioning the parquetry, the top half of a terrace / with its affordable glimpse of the harbour, her collection of nice / looking but impractically small suitcases’. At times the poems display something like a warped Whitmanian impulse to radical inclusion: quadruple-visioned, and buzzing with the tension of opposites.
How are these poems made, then? Why these choices? Why this particular almost-overflow of taut, utterly specific, yet seemingly unanchored private thought-cogs? What does this machine do?! The poems are embedded with clues as to how to read them. One poem asks, as I do:
What is Form and Why is this happening?
The later lines suggest a slant answer: ‘the poem is a container for the formless horror of your eyes as emotion … representation of the poem as a container for the formless.’ However, these lines are not fair or typical examples of Hile’s brilliant wordplay. Better to cite a line like: ‘The curlicue scent has not the mother in it.’ Just, wow. Or her reappropriation of sistine as a verb, as in: ‘I thought I saw you sistine through / the overstimulated waters of our local / swimming pool.’ See what I mean about her being funny? She is funny.
One penetrable theme of Subtraction is a continuum between love, domesticity, womanhood, and compromise. ‘My Views’ is one of the poems that announces itself as an intensive emotional self-portrait, and could be read in light of female experiences of domestic self-erasure. The poem ends with a quotation from Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: ‘Something frightening lurks in the song of birds’. What Adorno goes on to say, which Hile does not quote, is:The rest of the quotation reads, ‘… precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed.’ Women’s submission to the definitions of the male imagination, ideas of shape-shifting and being constrained, and the questioning of one’s own existence (‘Did you ever have a name? / It’s lost … You were designed to reflect’) preoccupy the collection’s later poems.
So, this is how I have steeped my brain in this collection. I now sense that these poems are not only inscrutable – not merely inscrutable – to the reader, but also to themselves. By which I mean, these are poems both somehow engorged and starving, starving for answers, and yet replete with their own restlessness, their own unanswerability. This is an amazing book.
Luke Beesley’s third collection Aqua Spinach is similarly restless, and similarly challenging. Although the character and feeling of Beesley’s work is distinct from Hile’s, both of these difficult, anti-lyric collections challenge the reader to disrupt her mind’s habitual grasping for logic, narrative, and cohesion. Further, both books are self-consciously intertextual. The poets employ allusion and use opaque strategies of collage as engines of composition. Hile’s influences and allusions may be more seamlessly folded into the fabric of the poems. However, she, too is liable to name-drop. Euclid, Jean Racine, and Kierkegaard (referred to, with causal intimacy, as K.) appear alongside Dolly Parton and Mr Softy, the American ice cream truck mascot. Both books claim access to and make use of the consolations and repulsions of both high and low culture.
Thursday, November 1st, 2018
Pokūahangatus by Tayi Tibble
Victoria University Press, 2018
Against the Whiteness of settler-colonial Aotearoa history, Tayi Tibble brings from margin to centre, her Indigenous experience as a Te Whānau ā Apanui / Ngāti Porou woman. Pokūahangatus is her debut poetry collection, which explores the violence of settler-colonialism against the imagery of pop culture, Māori activism and the strength and sensuality of Brown women. As Tongan, Palangi (Palagi) and Samoan poet Karlo Mila wrote in her PhD thesis, ‘Polycultural Capital and the Pasifika Second Generation: Negotiating Identities in Diasporic Spaces’, Tibble’s poetry reveals how ‘culture, ethnicity and identity signal the complexities of lived experience[s]’ for Indigenous and Pasifika folk. Pokūahangatus chronicles the struggles of being Māori and woman in a colonised land. By sharing this lived experience, Tibble aims to write beyond and despite marginalising stereotypes that deeply affect herself and her communities. Her work reveals authentic and creative representations of what it means to be a strong young Māori woman.
As a mixed Tongan-Australian woman from Mount Druitt, Western Sydney, born the same year as Tibble (1995), I resonate deeply with her poetry. Pokūahangatus is a fictional, hybridised Māori word paying tribute to Pocahontas of the Powhatan tribe. The title itself is poetry allowing for broader discussions of cross-Indigenous solidarity. A chance to understand each other. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the opening poem, ‘Pokūahangatus: An Essay about Indigenous Hair Dos and Don’ts’ begins with oral storytelling:
[G]reat-grandmother on her bed, cutting the thick peppery plait falling down her back with a blunt pair of orange-handled scissors. Remember the resistance. Imagine if the ropes of Māui had snapped and the world had been plunged back into the womb of darkness.
By speaking the whakapapa – the genealogy of Māori ancestry – as the opening for her collection, Tibble reshapes and reclaims her colonised land.
It is then that the Māori women flood in and rightly take up space. The poem, ‘In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women’, outlines the intimate domestic experiences of young Indigenous women who wear ‘printed mini dresses’, buy ‘vodka and dirty magazines’, who get their hair fixed straight at ‘Lambton Quay’ and ‘[t]hink about drowning themselves in the bathtub’ only to ‘[r]esurface with clean skin’ then ‘rinse and repeat.’ Tibble’s poetry shows the complex lives of Māori women who struggle with and resist the tools of colonial power such as fashion, print culture and alcohol. Their rising up with clean skin is an act of constant resistance, an act of sovereignty. It is the intricate politics woven into Tibble’s collection, which gives her writing strength and purpose.
But what does it mean to grow up Indigenous in the twenty-first century? For Tibble, growing up Māori in this day and age means navigating difficult family relations, understanding the allure of sex and dating, and feeling the whakamā – the shame and the aroha – the love. Her poem ‘Scabbing’ encapsulates all these experiences with phresh images, vernacular and tone. The narrator remembers regretting breaking up with her twelvie ex-boyfriend who, ‘makes $50 scabbing schoolkids for a dollar’ and to ‘make matters worse he’s a proper rugby player now’. The shame involved of having broken up with a Brown man, a ‘true hustler’, leads the narrator to lament about the life they could’ve had together as she beats out all the Bogan beauty queens of the Greater Wellington Region to become a proper ‘Kiwi socialite’. The love involved within Indigenous domesticity becomes paramount, where the narrator fantasises of being a Brown man’s housewife and fucking together until they both die. Even in all its irony, there is something powerful and sovereign in two Brown people hustling together until death.
However, while it may be overlooked because it centers on the pop culture franchise Twilight, the most significant poem in the collection is ‘Vampires versus Werewolves’. I was around fourteen when the first Twilight film hit cinemas. Well, hit my TV on a burnt CD my aunty had bought back from Tonga’s illegal DVD shop. I remember staying up until 3am playing the movie on repeat and murmuring along with a grainy Edward Cullen, ‘And so the lion fell in love with the lamb’. Then, I’d stand in the shower and scrub my brown skin with ALDI soap and wear long sleeved skivvys to hide from the sun so that I could look as White as Bella Swan. White enough so that someone like Edward could love me. Growing up, my nickname was Fie Palangi, which means Wanting to be White. I remember stomping around my kui fefine’s house in Mounty County, beating the soles of my Chucks on her freshly mopped wooden floorboards proclaiming to my hundred aunties and uncles who were over for a feed, ‘I’ll never ever marry a crazy coconut!’ All my fam laughed it up at me. Then, I ran to hide in the darkest part of my grandmother’s lounge room and under a statue of White Jesus I began to recite the entire dialogue of Twilight from memory.
What Tibble is actually writing about in ‘Vampires versus Werewolves’ is the experience of wanting to be White coupled with the experience of coming to critical consciousness as an Indigenous woman. The poem is complex because it is in the form of dialogue, which is shown by an italicised secondary voice who, from the left margin, repeatedly asks: ‘Could you be more specific? ’ This forces the narrator to continuously build on Twilight as a metonym for White supremacy on the right margin. Tibble writes, ‘Brown reminds me of leaves and sausage roll wrappers in the gutters’; an image of self-hatred. Later, she writes, ‘All you want is that pale sparkling on the television’, building on images where her self-hatred originated from. By using the phenomenon of Twilight, Tibble reveals how our White supremacist society leads many young marginalised people of colour to obsessively destroy themselves to Whiteness. As young Brown women, there is nothing we wanted more than to leave the gutter and become White; hoping that one of our own ‘wolf pack’ boys would take us home to their parents instead of the palangi girls, while we pinned Edward Cullen to our bedroom walls. Same sis. Same.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
SkinNotes by Kristen Lang
Walleah Press, 2017
Kristen Lang’s SkinNotes articulates an intense poetry and poetics of the body through a holistic series of lifelines in which skin, bone and organs are not so much dissected as regarded, reassembled and given human or other animate agency. Lang’s deft, original and at times startling use of metonymy places bodily parts and other material of daily life into alignments which convey an expansive range of meaning, dimension and depth.
The collection encompasses multitudes in both its scope and strata, with each skilfully edited section notable for a standout poem at its outset. ‘Glass’ is one of these, remarkable for the nuanced and multi-layered interplay between visible surfaces and what lies beneath:
The stained fringes of the shore
remember the water.
And the skins of the stones
sketch their memories of the waves.
What is glass but sand, broken down and recomposed into the possible illusion of a level plane? Its transparency is both deceptive and a means by which a more complete perception of whatever it covers may be obtained. Just as stones contain water, so their own intrinsic elements are held in by a surface that despite its visibility remains imperceptible. These reanimated self-objects resist isolation or definition other than by shifting their constituent parts. This is reaffirmed by the luminous presence of ‘The horse’ that presages the third section of the book. By this point, Lang has already proposed that ‘none of us / are angels’, and this Rilkean thought expands through the equine incarnation and immanence. ‘How the angels are not ourselves’, she muses. Nevertheless, there are angels we fabricate: ‘We dress them’, possibly to cover their stark and frightening essence. Her eloquent rejoinder continues:
Much, though, is familiar. Are they here? The presence
or absence of angels – how their songs
dissipate in the slanting gaze of our search and we cannot
guess what we would know of them.
The uncertain searching conveyed through the ‘slanting’ elision implies the same estrangement Rilke knew, that ‘we are not really at home in the interpreted world.’ Lang also concedes, despite ‘the familiar’ presences, this is mediated territory for human beings. Unlike us, the horse simply exists without apprehension of the terror that derives from the beauty each single angel encapsulates, even when its form seems to be within unsteady reach.
The animal world features in several, often shorter poems here, allowing for more condensed imagery when the discursive voice makes way for the emergence of ideas without reflective commentary. An example of this can be seen in ‘Dog quantum’, which begins with a simple physical sensation followed by creaturely emergence:
Swelling in our hands,
her horse chest, bear paws,
the loose giggle of her skin
This composes a gestalt of the immanent being, through connections that commence with the most palpable of feelings, moving seamlessly into ascription and metaphor that come off as effortless, despite the leftfield ‘loose giggle’ collocation. Another poem describes the recovery of a bird: ‘We follow the tide of its lungs, / the slow opening of its beak.’ The interplay between inside and outside space elaborates an instinct elaborated throughout the book, as the section ‘Blood harmonies’ ends with a poem for a young child, where
The birds of his heart
flutter into my arms, swoop
through my chest
Like the one recovered, whose ‘feathers hum with flight lines’, this literal embodiment moves in projective beauty and delight. The trope resurfaces, becalmed, in the wonderful and deceptively simple ‘Candlelight’:
the frayed flight-lines of the self,
somewhere in the body’s cells, are as real
as the flame you have painted by,
as the stone.
The exact corporeal location may be uncertain or unspecified, but is also entirely perceptible and solid as its components coalesce into concise and incontestable articulation.
Contact in more overtly self-contained contexts consists of interlaced elements that at times elude comprehension, if not apprehension: ‘The touch / we cannot choose to extinguish’ in the opening poem, in one example, leading in to the initial section where the creation of new life and the changes that occur in the body involved predominate. A longer poem, central to the tropes Lang follows, ‘The small house of her body’, is structured like the book in four parts, expressing the pain of an unnamed trauma, that hints at either abortion or violent parturition (‘the torn haze of what she had done’), and in ‘Lake’ – as a coda – ‘she is torn by the ripples.’ Around the repeated rupture and aftershock the encircling stones are ‘dark as eyes.’ These simple seeming lines convey the concept of deep song and unfathomable nature of duende: love and almost inexpressible loss, lines that can be strummed like Lorca’s best when stripped down, as
skin folds the shadows of her bones,
lays them on the bed in the slip
of the hour. Her lungs grip.
The poet returns through assonance and music to stark physiological consciousness, night and a phoneme removed from sleep. ‘Lake’ is one of several poems here related to the oneiric capacity for ‘crumbling’, a word used more than once throughout the book, as well as heightened sensory reception in its stages or absence. In ‘The slight translucence of the sleepless’, for instance, tiredness assumes the simile: ‘like moonlight / on the inside of her skin.’ Once again the reader is returned to the inside, complicit and becalmed at the source of things.
One characteristic of complex and original works is their confidence to operate outside established genre. SkinNotes contains Confessional and Imagist overtones without being dependent on either sensibility, creating enough space to manoeuvre and draw breath. Lang’s liberal use of personal pronouns and dedications punctuates a controlled discursive stream, with moments of spellbinding clarity and quietude that stop the reader short in sheer admiration. ‘Do play on’, she urges the body: a source of such splendour with its finely tuned and calibrated organs. As methodology, statement of intent or an invitation to start reading again, this underlines and understates a resonant tour-de-force.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
The Hijab Files by Maryam Azam
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
The third section of Maryam Azam’s The Hijab Files is called ‘The Piercing of this Place’. It captures moments of perforation of this world by jinn, prayer, memory, death, and other unnamed, unnameable, astounding things.
Jinns make their homes where humans don’t.
My older cousins told me this when they
said they’d passed a jinn on a dirt road in the bush”
‘Jinns on Mt Kosciuszko’
our memory electrified except we had forgotten
to go to class and felt the piercing of this place
the way that entering into prayer pierces a place.
‘We Meet (Again)’
She held the bird and it was stone heavy
as if to make the absence of soul clear
through an exaggerated presence of body.
The wondrousness of death chilled her.’
As a whole, what The Hijab Files does, is show that the piercing of this place is not only the piercing of the mundane by the transcendental; it is equally the piercing of the transcendental by the mundane. In contrast to ‘The Piercing of This Place’, the first two sections of the collection, entitled ‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’ and ‘Wallah Bros’, describe elasticity and porosity in the profound. And, let’s be clear, profundity is not often thought of in those terms.
In ‘Naseeb’, a poem in the ‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’ section, such profound topics as destiny and a potential arrangement of marriage for the young woman narrator are discussed. Meanwhile, the party of four sits ‘with our legs / crossed on the sofa eating / biryani from plastic plates. In ‘Shane No. 2’, from the section ‘Wallah Bros’, the sacredness of marriage competes with the very mundane needs of the human body:
Shane is shovelling the rice
into his mouth and I can see
that being my husband
requires a lot of energy.
This realistic seamless coexistence of regular and religious experiences is comforting to read. In a Liminal interview with Robert Wood, Azam has said that The Hijab Files is ‘a snapshot in the life and times of a young woman in Western Sydney’. The richness of detail of both extraordinary and ordinary happenings described in the collection is one aspect of the mechanism of Azam’s de-Orientalising impulse. The young Western Sydney women/narrators of the collection are people with their own concerns and considerations. This stands in opposition to often one-dimensional representations of veiled Muslim women in poems by some white Australian poets. For instance, compare with these references to purdah and niqab in much older poems by Philip Salom or Dorothy Porter.
The women of The Hijab Files have ‘bad scarf days’ (‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, p. 16) and deal with ‘fickle hearts’ (‘Facebook Relationship Status: Single’, p. 26). They pray, and they forget to pray. They have ‘stagnant Sundays’ (‘Layla and Majnun’, p. 30) and think about how weird their pets are. They go to school, and talk to their friends and parents, they go swimming and parasailing and snorkelling. But, as Azam says, ‘[t]o be a practicing Muslim is to bring your beliefs and religious practices to every aspect of life’. In the collection, things that happen are often conceived of as both religious and not, like the following, when the potential intervention of jinns comes into question:
In a dirt clearing surrounded by rocks
are scattered two dozen chillies,
plump and fresh as if they’d been picked
off the plant a minute ago.
The Woolworths down in Jindabyne
doesn’t sell chillies
‘Jinns on Mt Kosciuszko’
And with these complex representations, The Hijab Files allows young Muslims in Australia to enter a narrative usually reserved for white, secular, ‘regular’ folk: sometimes things are ordinary, sometimes they are profound. The stunning accomplishment of The Hijab Files, however, is the grace and eloquence with which Azam relates these sometimes-mundane, sometimes-profound, always-relatable happenings.
Azam’s style is often direct, uncompromising. The poems written in this way feel easier to process because of this quality.
The sick bay seemed an odd place
to use for prayer,
the smell of disinfectant
hinting at the volume and variety
of bodily excretions.
‘Praying at School 1’
Circumstances and action are immediate, description is minimal, but alive. Azam writes with an awareness of the sensory. However, there is an array of beautiful, surprising metaphors among which the following stood out and have remained memorable for me:
Far more frightening
than death the abyss
is death not the abyss
The broken gas cannister of sleep
slowly clears from my head.
I felt the world fold up around me
like a cardboard box.
she has not taken a breath
outside this prism of protection
since her father taught it to her
‘Duas Like Spells’
These beautiful lines, which often appear as a kind of gift / trip-wire within poems, are like the moments of profound clarity which pepper the life and times of the young Western Sydney women of The Hijab Files.
Apparent, of course, is that the collection is a text that cares deeply for its audience. It is a multilingual text. As a person of Indian origin with proximity (though not fluency) to multilingual thinking, speaking, and writing, I am very happy to see that non-English words and phrases are left unitalicised, often untranslated. This is a credit to Azam – and also to Giramondo – in normalising linguistic diversity. I do not know Giramondo’s house style, so this may be their standard, but it is certainly not the standard elsewhere. I, and other multilingual, migrant, culturally and linguistically diverse writers and editors welcome this intervention. As a non-Muslim, there is much of The Hijab Files that passes me by – language, custom, emotion. As a person of Indian origin, there are obvious moments where I am invited in – language, custom, emotion. But, Azam, in carefully selecting and ‘writing for an audience much like who [she] was in high school’, has not severely distanced other demographics whose own experiences may not align so closely with the young women in The Hijab Files. The poems are moving, there is joy and humour and gravity to them that is not unique to Azam’s specific slice of the Australian demographic pie. And, it’s a common truth that poems are not written to reach every reader with the same degree of clarity. These poems show there is much to be gained by centring young Muslim Australians.
Azam’s debut collection identifies and describes a flexibility and porousness in objects often thought of as stable and rigid. Cloth, faith, identity, reality become elastic. It conceives of worldly life as capable of sustaining simultaneity of perception, and as movement between piercing moments of profundity and mundanity.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems
by Cary Hamlyn
Garron Publishing, 2018
The Quality of Light and Other Poems
by Jill Jones
Garron Publishing, 2018
Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems, by Cary Hamlyn, and The Quality of Light and Other Poems, by Jill Jones, are two of five South Australian poetry chapbooks published by Garron Publishing in the spring of 2017.
In Jill Jones’s collection, The Quality of Light and Other Poems, ageing, mortality and memory are intensely private experiences that expand like ‘the nerve system of creeks leading into / the Torrens, or the oily wash / of Sydney Harbour’ to planetary dimensions, enfolding animals, city roads, streets, flowers, plants, bees, the skies and the galaxy into the rich particulars of its vast realm. Jones’s superb collection reinvigorates poetry as a quality of illumination amidst all kinds of opacity, sparking affective and rhythmic conversations between literature, politics, ecology and cosmology. Her poetry engages and enacts what T S Eliot called the ‘auditory imagination’, ‘the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and f eeling’. Deftly elliptical, suggestively insistent, and exuberantly introspective, The Quality of Light articulates the pleasurably enigmatic rhythms, tones and cadence of urban and modern existence.
An exemplar of poetry as practice, her collection recalibrates and proliferates our ways of seeing. Jones’ poems strike me as intensely democratic in effect and highly controlled in technique in its complex conjuration of spontaneous images as though independent of the poet, who becomes, in the process, one of the poem’s readers, acted upon and actively engaged in the practice of interpretation. In the opening poem, ‘The Quality of Light’, she writes: ‘the atmosphere, the clouds / I can see, any day I look up, are / there, and changing there / with or without me. With or / without me writing as though / they are there for me. / But I’m not there, in the letters / though I may scribe them’. She continues, ‘Luminosity perhaps is a dream, / like travel, building, or words. It all / comes and goes, it is / as if it’s happening…’ With characteristic elusiveness, Jones’s opening poem announces and enacts the collection’s process of seeing and interpreting images, memories and ideas in their slippery (re)creation, emphasising writing as inherently a form of active (readerly) participation.
There is so much here to explore. In the poem, ‘Wrack’, varied repetition and compressed, internal rhymes, which at times recall the characteristic style of American poet Kay Ryan, playfully perform and aggressively capture the ensnaring opacity of discourse: ‘it’s all brooding wrack or media flack, the rain / that never rains will rain and no attempt at / political hack will stop the weathering of weather / the tide comes, it’s not going back’.
Her writing communicates a profound ambivalence, expressing any emotion, state of being, sense of beauty, wonderment and imagination with measured equivocality. In this sense, Jones’s poems are imbued with emotional naturalism; her elliptical language but clear tone dexterously capture and engage but do not resolve or reframe life’s hard won and hard-battled ambiguities and complexities. The poem ‘Swoop’ sketches the spontaneous, raucous discordance and harmony of urban life without judgment: ‘leaves break in your hand, wing swoop / syncopates / blues of the galaxy / huge chords rush outside, rain, trucks / hard dreams / three stars in a pool / the grass shivers’.
One of the most mesmerising pieces in her collection, I think, is the poem, ‘Bitumen Time’. It evokes the familiar, yet profound, intangible exhilaration and melancholy of the journey home at night time. The run-on rhythm of dependent clauses is painfully staggered by pensive, insistent commas to create a sense of digressive relevance, a sense of the universal pull of ‘birds’, ‘bitumen thing’, ‘times, places’, ‘sounds that curve’, ‘roses…stripped/of winter colour’. With language and tone that blend enigmatic existential wonderment, the vagaries of memory and the crucial clarity of feeling, Jones asks: ‘[W]ho am I among/scent of this night flowering in dead arms of winter’? The poet’s language and pacing exert the central pull of the poem as though coming from forces beyond its control, what we cannot see but sense and experience as the subjective, invisible violence of humanity, of time, of systemic opacity, of collective, cumulative destruction, ‘…as though history ramps into/the moon’s famous indifference, the sky’s / night version of real things that hold into/strange corners, so help me, help me, / it’s transparent, but so alien, all these stories’.
Similarly, ‘The Vertigo Blues’ enacts a certain belligerence of fact, a fatalism that embraces both tragedy and beauty: ‘What makes it so / difficult is also what keeps me here, still. There are / silhouettes above my heart, a brace of baggy riffs / two-timing below.’
An intensity of tone at the heart of each masterfully crafted poem – ear, substance, subject matter, images and music deliberately, cautiously, vigorously consorting with each other –illuminates and intricately unravels our blinkered order of things. This, for me, is the pleasure of reading Jones’s beacon of a collection again and again.
Cary Hamlyn’s second collection, Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems, sketches everyday sightings, objects and experiences; to name a few, the eponymous ultrasound, a lovers’ quarrel, a Burmese train journey, Siamese fighting fish, a dying pelican, sunflowers, night.
The stand-out piece in the collection for me was ‘Rozelle Boarding House for Sailors’, which cleverly engages the conspiratorial atmosphere and architecture of the haunted boarding house to convey the sense of the resurrection, renovation and reclamation of histories through storytelling: ‘In each single room their lives unwind, / each a story spun within a story – / as if every old tragedy or joy / were reinvented by the next man,/their thousand lost ships/still silently listing under our beds.’ The story of masculinity here is a poignant and complex one; the voiceless anonymity of the lives of the drowned sailors distances and abets their poetic (re-)construction, thus carrying with it an expressively equivocal force.
Perhaps less successfully, Hamlyn’s other poems at different points explore the theme of violent or predatory masculinity. A poem about a Lothario, drably titled ‘Preying in the ‘90s’, describes the said predator with unwieldy lines like ‘scoring women on a bell-curve / of ‘hotness’ and potential sizzle – / the Big Bang had nothing on him.’ Like some others in the collection (‘Post-Skirmish’, ‘Arguing with an Ex-Lover’, ‘On Meeting an Old Flame’), the title also seems unnecessarily prescriptive and adds further perfunctory framing to the poem’s meaning.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Interval by Judith Bishop
Interval is the fourth book for Judith Bishop and her first with University of Queensland Press. The book is divided into four sections. The first begins with an epigraph from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard that ‘childhood is certainly greater than reality.’ It’s an apposite riff that informs the sentiment of the poems that follow it, in which speaker mothers talk to their children. These poems have a lyric modality, they feel intimate even confessional, while a tensioning quality of abstraction prevents slippage into pure nostalgia.
The first poem ‘Letter to My Daughters’ is organised around the refrain “bring me back to change the script’: a mother addresses her children about the failings of her parenting – (mild ones it must be said) such as restrictions on jumping in puddles, refusing the request for one last story – and asks ‘bring me back to change the script.’ ‘Give me time and I will stay with you / until our eyes have shut’, the speaker says, the irony of course being that time is so often the enemy of ideal parenting. Against the mildness of the complaint and the retroactive idealism of the improving parent, the shut eyes don’t just imply the bliss of mother and daughters falling asleep together, a kind of revelling in Blakean innocence, but also the threat and inevitability of mortality.
Reading the early poems in Interval, it is impossible to tell whether the swelling undertone of tragedy is due to the regrets of the parent, or potentially the loss of a child. Bishop’s lines resist such easy identification of event to emotion and are all the tauter because of it. When reading lyrical poetry, there is always the temptation to conflate the poet with speaker, a temptation whose satisfaction is deferred, not least by the speaker’s battle with time, which we also see in ‘Poem for a Little Girl’, elegantly comprised of six three-line strophes, the last three of which are (movingly) as follows:
But how her hands urged her to hold! Her legs, to run!
Language flew into her ear and she could speak!
Sun and wind were her friends. So you held her in her sleep.
And you held her small body when she stumbled into night:
for days the black river went plunging into night.
But in the place you’ve come to there is only care.
She has woke, your love, in the house of your heart.
Oh, now she is laughing, saying Look! Ma! Pa!
I’m a bird – I’m sunlight – I am everywhere you are.
There’s a powerful current of tragedy at work here, but it remains protean, despite the intimate clarity of the utterance. This creates an emotional shimmer that is consonant with flickering hopes of transcendence. The notion of tragedy is thematically supported by the following two poems which invoke Greek mythology, ‘The Blind Minotaur’ (via Picasso’s painting) and ‘Reading Myths the Greek’, a digest poem, playful, that finishes:
We’ll send the golden apple back
before there’s damage done.
The gods can find
another game to play.
A brace of poems that reflect upon conception and birth are followed by ‘Snow,’ in which Bishop works cleverly through a series of riffed juxtapositions: cold and hot, snow and Icarus, death and life, black and white, word and life. It’s a movement away from the lyrical intimacy of the earlier poems towards a more intellectually abstracted universalising stance.
This abstraction persists in the following poem, ‘Openings’ which is a powerful meditation on emerging into the world, running out of a Roethke epigraph, ‘I could say hello to things.’
Here Bishop confronts the mortifying thought that the price of entry into life is death:
Loveliness and horror pass through
the open gate.
Appear in the field,
and the widening ripples
begin, startled dancers
and audience beyond, all place in the brain
where the judgments
rise and shout.
How do you open
the gate to a birth?
How do you
open the door on a death?
Open, knowing what must
dart out like a cat;
how the rush will numb the fingers
to any further action
and the mind
be transfixed before the scene.
The superb poise Bishop shows in her balancing of affect and abstraction, and the creation of an incantatory container for these sentiments that is organised around the repetition of ‘open’ is one of the highlights of the book. Primed by the mythology of the preceding poems, it’s almost as if Bishop is exploring birth and motherhood by the positing of an alternative Pandora: the box must be opened, even if there are terrible consequences because the only other option is not to live at all. This is in the second section of this 5-sectioned poem, and in following the poem, it becomes clear in section IV, a vignette of a young neighbour’s suicide how precarious this situation is.
The second section of the book begins with an epigraph from Dickens; ‘we had everything before us, we had nothing before us’. In this shorter section Bishop experiments with form such as in the prose poem ‘Fairytale’. It’s a less intimate and ultimately less powerful section. ‘Best of Times’ for instance starts powerfully in the present before veering into ekphrasis that dilutes the force of the poem’s opening statement, ‘Too much beauty is disturbing.’ The strongest poem here is ‘Miniatures’, four pithy yet elegant quatrains such as
Laid are the eggs, and the traps, and the plans.
One is closed, until broken by urgency and life.
One is open – and then –
One is closure, with haunted dreams of opening
These are beautiful lines that shape the space of meaning without filling it in. Bishop’s great strength in Interval is as an explorer of uncharted interiorities where emotion and intellect entwine. The final two poems of this section ‘Rising Tides’ and ‘The New Maps Keep a Weather Eye,’ veer towards the eco-poetic by way of the cartographical and lack the same urgency even as they evince it.
Ecological perspectives continue into the third section. ‘The View From 10,000 metres’ plays with the estrangement of looking at the earth from a plane, while ‘Tunings’ juxtaposes the idea of a wind-driven leaf with the advent of self-driving cars. Meanwhile ‘The Ambun Stone’ is an intriguing if overly anthropomorphic address to a fossilised echidna foetus. The poems here feel lack the same collective impetus as section one. They feel more like clustered occasionals. They all have their merits, but they do detract somewhat from the consonance of the collection, evidence of the difficult balance of how to organise disparate poetic intentions in the one volume. Indeed the title Interval itself suggests a book perhaps composed from different times and mindsets.
Section IV returns to some of the collection’s earlier strengths. It’s highlights include ‘The Wild Has No Words,’ a musing on our inescapable animality, how wildness sings its songs in us, and drives us to action despite this lack of words. Again, Bishop confronts mortality, the poem finishing with:
… that I’ve kept my ears uncovered, but have asked
for ropes to bind me, sailing by
what seems the one thing inescapably
pure: a song of minds gone
naked, a hymn
to human consonance
– knowing, songs unheeded,
your rocky mouth
closes on the singers for all time.
There is more to say and much to admire in this strong collection whose intellectual integrity is marked by the way its thoughts are constantly butting up against the unknowable. This primary sense of accomplishment, however, might have been further enhanced if there had been a greater correspondence or a clearer logic of division between the volume’s sections.