Book Reviews


Review Short: Jill Jones’s Brink

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

It’s a neat twenty-five years since Jill Jones’s first book, The Mask and the Jagged Star, was published and in that time she has built for herself a reputation as a serious and ambitious poet whose work demands, and generally rewards, close reading. She is certainly not a poet of easy gestures or flashy effects.

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Review Short: Susan Fealy’s Flute of Milk

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.
Nothing lives
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.

Review Short: Brook Emery’s Have Been and Are

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.

Deconstructing Decolonisation: Victor Questel’s Collected Poems

Monday, May 15th, 2017

A review essay

mas’ man
push on
pan man,
a man
attuned, trapped

caught (like me)
subtle inden-
in his
spider web

ing from flambeau-
flying Pan Am

massing cultural
missions (17)1

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.2 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.3) 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:

EX         IT
MAS      MAN
PAN      MAN
A           MAN
AT         TUNED

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:

So come
quick cattle
train, lick
the long:
rails: choo-
choo chattanoo-
ga pick
the long 
trail to town. (33)
Rise rise
man, Solo-
man Wise
man, rise
rise rise
leh we
dem, mock 
dem, stop
dem (43)4

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’.)5

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
flounder upon

for the way lost
is the way

and revolution 
is a scandal 
of poverty 
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.6

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 ¾7 – 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.

Pages: 1 2 3

Review Short: Nikos Nomikos’s Noted Transparencies

Friday, May 12th, 2017

Noted Transparencies by Nikos Nomikos
Trans. George Mouratidis
Owl Publishing, 2016

These events told by, the pen of my life, are personal transparencies
that note, the deep voice of the heart, as the years roll by, beneath the 
light of divine economy.

Honest and intimate, transparency is the term and practice giving Nikos Nomikos’s Noted Transparency (or Σημειωμένες Διαφάνειες, pronounced ‘Simiomenes Diafaneies’) its immediate impact. Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1934, Nomikos has published nine poetry collections, with Noted Transparencies the later work of a mature artist. The maturity invoked creates a sense of life lived, of a past haunting a present. The collection contains 30 poetic vignettes, all, with one exception, revealed and written ‘in the mute hours’ of a single night. Out of these night surges the remembrance of a formative childhood moment on the edge of the Nile. Published bilingually by Owl Publishing, its original Greek has been placed parallel to its translated English, marking the first time Nomikos’s work has been available in English, while emphasising that what is being read is a mediated reconstruction of Nomikos’s vision. It has been collaboratively translated by George Mouratidis to convey storytelling over the rhythm.

It moves between dualisms, revealing them to be encompassing each other in paradox: youth and age, liminality and transcendence, memory and reality, creation and destruction, a lifetime held within a single night. The simplicity of Nomikos’s language opens up to a religious enrichment and complex worldly knowledge. Mysticism is contained within the corporeal world. Absence becomes a presence, nostalgia for an imagined past a pleasurable punishment. The ‘rosy coloured springtime’ carries ‘the winter of Persephone’: life and its end mutually constituting forces, not discrete entities.

Nomikos’s work is one of return: to childhood, to that moment on the Nile, to faraway times, teachers, possibilities and homelands he has never experienced, and ultimately to God. Nomikos belongs to two prominent writing traditions: Alexandrian-Greek poetry, and ‘first-generation’ Greek-Australian migrant writing. The experience of migration and diaspora is integral to his ultimate concept of return, written as a fragmentary and self-alienating process that needs to be addressed and reconciled.

In any case, no matter whom I asked, nobody knew to tell me, why
they invited us, to this different land.

One process Nomikos offers for reconciliation is through religion. Figures, practices and symbols from Greek Orthodoxy suture the fragments. Central to Nomikos’s vision is the figure of a ‘towering lord-like man, with a parchment spread across his chest.’ Although this figure makes him feel like an ‘ant,’ bringing with him the unknown sublime and ungraspable ‘old, happy world to which (Nomikos) once belonged,’ this figure is not intrinsically negative. This ambivalent figure promises finitude, connection, reassurance and an end to material desire. In this vision, all are moving towards an apocalypse. But even this apocalypse becomes a potential point of return and shared connection between humankind.
While faith is integral to Nomikos’s experience of the world, he acknowledges that the self shifts with time, the world, and chance:

It might have been different, my days’
journey, and subsequently my life might also have been, at
a different course, but due to the war of
1940, and its tragic events, I had put to great trouble
my personal lifeguard, bless him.

Here, religion, myth, and memory create and centre a very personal world, inventing and interpreting both the past and present. While some use these narratives to console and protect, others, as shown in one of his more striking fragments, use them to excuse and conceal:

With the unjustifiable War, for commonplace morality, against
the former Paradise, of Mesopotamia, Iraq,
I felt the same pain, which blackens the hearts of
people, as they run to hide, from the salvational
bombings, and of course in the name of God, as
the great criminals usually tell us.

One way of overcoming selfish inhumanity is offered through self-renunciation. Quoting Nikos Karouzos, another Greek poet Nomikos chanced to meet, ‘I have nothing and I am free,’ Nomikos’s highlights his practice of worldly asceticism, which permeates the pieces. Contemplating ‘at which height is a human being able to / reach his stature, amidst the blows lovingly proffered to him by his good / fortune,’ perhaps Nomikos speculates that it is only with self-imposed limitations on the self that ‘self’ can truly be revealed and given the space to roam free in ‘the decency of spiritual light.’ This is encapsulated in the physicality of his study-room: ‘three by three, / but with vast ascetic dimensions, / full of fires and passions.’

Protagoras’s ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ a humanist standpoint of individual, not absolute truth, is the second tenet of Nomikos’s poetry and worldview. Nomikos is respectful of the ‘permanent binoculars’ (29) through which life is viewed, ‘everywhere and always, within the boundaries of my own/world.’ This leads to accountability and the ethical ability to read the self. The wisdom and classically refined lines of Nomikos make for a beautiful reading experience. Efforts such as these of Owl Press should be made to retain Nomikos’s original Greek, but it would be a welcome joy to see more of this poet’s experiential work become available to a wider audience through translation.

Review Short: Jen Webb’s Sentences from the Archive

Friday, May 12th, 2017

Sentences from the Archive by Jen Webb
Recent Work Press, 2016

In 2011, Ginninderra Press released The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems, edited by Canberra writer Michael Byrne. While many of the country’s most accomplished poets were represented there, the book’s reception was somewhat muted. Indeed, prose poetry invites a certain amount of suspicion. While we’re happy to concede that many devices and techniques which would have been definitional of poetry a couple of centuries ago no longer do so, we’re reluctant to jettison lineation.

Yet it could be argued that prose poetry is poetry in its purest form. When lineation becomes optional, we’re left with writing that stands tenuously on the poetic impulse for its existence. Prose poetry skirts the pyrotechnics of poetic technique and device to nakedly rely on the essential quality of poetry – succinct, resonant language.

Jen Webb’s small volume, Sentences from the Archive shows the sorts of things well-executed prose poems can and should do. Webb’s prose poems feel like they’re written in one long line, the rhythm lilting like everyday speech, then catching in the throat when the implications of an observation reveal themselves to their creator. They exploit colloquial language, but disarm the reader with a sudden, heightened image, then casually change tack and tread softly into metaphysics. Above all, their appearance of conversation is deceptive – while they appear to address us ‘off the cuff’, they are carefully crafted and attenuated.

Take, for instance, the fourth section, Des que le soleil:

Your ridiculous hair, my spray-on dress, my blood, your sunsets. You, who can’t distinguish green from blue; you, who calls orange red: you have claimed this hour. When the sun begins its fall you open the windows, belt out the aria from The Pearl Fishers, and the sun crash-lands behind the Brindabellas, and you sing on. The evening rises to meet us, and I have almost forgiven you. Three streets over there’s a siren calling off-key, B flat to your C, and if memory could speak it would say lock it in, Eddie, lock it in

The language here is conversational, the tone casual, the affection between speaker and her subject (presumably an ex-lover) is palpable, but the whole domestic recollection is underlined by an almost belligerent rhythm and a series of beautifully realised images that lend the poem a sense of something fraught – the juxtaposition of the image of the calamitous ending of the day (the sun ‘crash-lands’ after its fall towards darkness) with the seemingly unrelated assessment that ‘I have almost [but not quite] forgiven you’. The tenuous nature of a relationship that appears to be dying with the day. This is further reinforced by the two songs that weave through the poem’s later stages – the lover’s ‘belt[ed] out’ aria from The Pearl Fishers and the tortured ‘off-key’ song of the siren in the distance, knitting the soul and the world together. There’s nothing sentimental about this, but the sense of sadness is deeply moving.

The apostrophe of the poem’s opening, emphasised by the repeated ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘my’, hints at both a sense of frailty and a kind of growing resentment. While the lovers initially seem quite exquisitely balanced, ‘you’ tends to dominate at the poem progresses, the semi-colons holding this balance until the more determinate colon takes over and the narrator realises ‘you [not me, not us] have claimed this hour’, even in the space of her own memory.

Borrowed from a TV quiz show, Webb’s last line is haunting. In lesser hands it could trivialise, but it doesn’t. It reiterates the domestic nature of the scene and with a wry smile locks a seemingly mundane observation into the treasures of memory. It’s clear-eyed but affecting; it resonates without a hint of self-pity.

There are many such satisfying pieces in Sentences from the Archives – I think of ‘In the eye of the storm’, the series ‘Waiting for the bus’ and the final ‘Da capo’. The latter’s final image to both poem and book is a sensuous and evocative summation of the tone and subject matter of the entire volume: ‘You pass out drinks and comfort the cat, and calm comes in with the evening light, and the sun sets, perfectly, and night curls itself around the house.’ As with the previously discussed poem, the particular and wider worlds blend seamlessly in the image.

If I have a reservation about the book, it’s an unease at some of the endings of these poems. Too often, Webb displays a tendency to go one sentence too far, either diluting a resonant ending or ‘spelling out’ the point of the poem a little too explicitly. In ‘Tarte au citron’ for example, she concludes, ‘Never go back, they say. I never have’. The final sentence, it seems to me, is implicit in the penultimate one, and doesn’t need to be articulated. Similarly, in concluding the eighth and final section of ‘Waiting for the bus’, Webb writes, ‘Sure your lover will be temporarily bereft, but someone else will chair the meeting, play the ball. It will all go on, while you will not, while you drift like smoke into history.’ The final sentence, for this reader, forces a kind of wider significance on the poem, and the image that threads it isn’t particularly striking or original.

But this is a small reservation. In all, Sentences from the Archives is a delight. For both aficionados of the prose poem and lovers of poetry in general, it provides many moments of pleasure and insight. I look forward to Webb’s further excursions into prose poetry.

Chloe Wilson Reviews David McCooey

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Star Struck by David McCooey
UWAP Poetry, 2016

At first, David McCooey’s Star Struck appears to be a collection comprising four sections, each self-contained and corralled from the others. These sections range from a series of lyric poems meditating on a ‘cardiac event’, to poems investigating light and dark, a sequence of eighteen ‘pastorals’ on pop stardom (and fandom) and, finally, two longer narrative poems. A quotation at the beginning of the pastoral sequence seems to hint at the collection’s attitude. From William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, it reads: ‘Probably the cases I take are the surprising rather than the normal ones, and once started on an example I follow it without regard to the unity of the book.’

This cavalier disregard for the ‘unity’ of the book suggests a lack of concern with overall coher-ence between the poems in a single volume. And yet, there are decidedly consistent threads throughout Star Struck, both thematically (time, light, memory, the knife-edge of comedy and tragedy, how ‘voice’ is inhabited), and also in terms of tone. A mood of what might be called premature elegy suffuses McCooey’s poems throughout this collection. His speakers frequently find themselves alienated, unable to return to old selves, and unsure of what to make of the world they presently live in. They recall the past with nostalgia and sometimes grief (and irony – the atmosphere rarely threatens to become moribund), and view the present with an un-settled detachment.

McCooey’s reader senses that they are encountering a self irrevocably divided from its former incarnation. This is reflected in the use of second person in many of the poems – it would seem that the ‘you’ being addressed is not a different subject, but a past version of the self, an idea McCooey references directly in ‘Second-Person’, where:

you enter the realm
of the second-person singular,

a new you
to ghost the old,

the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life

The first section of Star Struck, ‘Documents’, presents the most literal rendering of this divided state. The speaker finds themselves in the midst and the aftermath of a ‘cardiac event’, and while at times they are able to find amusement in their distress (‘“I’m just labile,” you say, // and the doctor is satisfied. / You are speaking his language’) (‘Speaking the Language’), they nevertheless cannot help but reveal the terror that characterises this period of ill-health, with its moments of crisis and long periods of inertia, when the nervous system becomes ‘a shivering horse within you’ (‘One Way or Another’).

Throughout this sequence the speaker records with a meticulous eye and ear the physical envi-ronments, interpersonal interactions and thoughts that accompany illness and convalescence – at times, going so far as to arranging them into list form. A sense of the uncanny quickly emerges. It’s there in the ‘staring students’ who are ‘graduates / from The Village of the Damned’ (‘Music for Hospitals’); in the ambulances which are strangely unhurried, ‘state-ly’, rather than ‘rushed’ (‘One Way or Another’); and in the speaker’s sense that:

       it is not Death in
his outdated apparel at your 

doorstep, only your boss, doing
the right thing.

(‘Not to Disturb’)

For this speaker, death is omnipresent. As a result, the most blameless and familiar things now appear morbid; during the boss’s visit, even the biscuits are deathly ‘pale’, and the speaker refus-es to eat them.

Of course there is also a deadpan comedy in this that spikes even the most poignant poems. For example, the speaker mentions his wife ‘graphically’ describing the ‘harrowing scenes’ of the ICU (‘Intensive Care (ii)’) ‘so that you were both / gifted with that / pointless knowledge’. This reads as a dry call-back to a more sombre moment in an earlier poem, ‘The Point’, when the speaker’s wife jabs him in the chest during an argument:

There is a finger pressed
against your breastbone,
and left there, long after
the point has been made.

McCooey’s speaker even finds gruesome humour in a male nurse, ‘excellent at taking blood’, who brags about his prowess as a hunter, showing off photos of himself ‘dressed in fatigues / with Apocalypse Now face paint’, the ‘pretty’ corpse of an animal sprawled across his four-wheel drive (‘The Hunter’).

The tone and preoccupations of ‘Documents’ herald what awaits in Star Struck’s subsequent sections. A reader has already become accustomed to McCooey’s fascination with light and darkness prior to arriving at the second section, ‘Available Light’, which announces this as its theme; after all, ‘Documents’ has given us the droll observation that ‘Hospital light, like any other / light, is rarely “lemon coloured.”’ (‘Cardiac Ward Poetics’), and presented the sun as it ‘performs its drawn-out / power down’ (‘Invisible Cities’).

Yet there is a particularly spectral quality to the types of light listed in ‘Available Light’:

the science-fiction lighting
of deserted 7-Elevens;

the out-dated starlight;

a nightwalker passes 
the TV-blue of windows;
a phosphorescent Frisbee 
muses on the porch;

The vistas presented in this section are often deserted, with any signs of life – lights, music, va-cant chairs on a patio, figures or cars viewed from a distance – more a reminder of the speaker’s sense of isolation than a comforting indication that others, and the potential for connection, ex-ists. Like ‘The Dolls’ House’ with its mise-en-scène of family members attending to their (dull, gendered) tasks in frozen solitude, the speaker’s world has become distant and static, the ob-served details of domestic and suburban life as strange as the descriptive titles of ‘Early Photo-graphs’ which comprise the section’s first poem: ‘Untitled (two women posed with a chair). / Use of ether for anaesthesia. / Valley of the shadow of death.’

The poems in ‘Available Light’ also remind the reader that it is almost impossible to consider changes in light (and the capture of light through the photographic image) without also consider-ing time; the two move in tandem. Even darkness itself, the speaker of this section’s final poem (‘Darkness Speaks’), acknowledges this:

                                            One day
you will wake up for good,
and there I will be, at last.

Revisiting an earlier poem provides an opportunity to meditate on the interplay of time and light. ‘“Whaling Station” Redux’, presents a speaker who is forced to reconsider their earlier poetic rendering of a memory when ‘My late father’s legacy of 35mm slides, / newly digitised, undoes my poem, with three shots —’. The violence of the word ‘shots’ here seems particularly appro-priate, given the vast yet blasé violence of the images considered. The light stored in these imag-es, which becomes absent, ‘pure black’, at the whale’s centre, creates an occasion both for the speaker to reassess what he saw at the age of five (the images perhaps ‘darker’, literally and fig-uratively, than the memory) and to prevent his six-year-old son from seeing the same thing and this darkness therefore being handed on to the next generation. The poem’s conclusion, where the father flicks to a photograph of an Uncle ‘standing before the Arc de Triomphe’, is not an arbitrary choice of image; the Arc itself is of course another monument to the violent ‘industry of men’, even if it makes for a less confronting sight than the steaming carcass of a whale.

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Review Short: Lynley Edmeades’s As the Verb Tenses

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

As the Verb Tenses by Lynley Edmeades
Otago University Press, 2016

As the Verb Tenses is a rare debut collection of poems that dazzles and delights with a profane, childlike wisdom. Acts of movement and play energise an accomplished performance held together by rare precision and a gentle power. Its author is the poet Lynley Edmeades who was born in Putaruru, a small town that is the home of the renowned Blue Spring and the source of much of the bottled water in New Zealand. Edmeades has travelled, read and published in New Zealand, the US, Ireland and Europe.

One of the great virtues of As the Verb Tenses is that it is not ostentatious; it remains poised in conversation and occasion. The verse is tensed between abstraction and feeling as it observes supposedly banal things: this kitchen pot and orange, and this clear spot on the counter. This everyday quality is some feat given the web of influences on Edmeades: avant-garde modernism, minimalism, and poststructuralism.

Edmeades completed an MA at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University in Belfast, and is currently undertaking a doctorate in sound in avant-garde poetics at the University of Otago. As the Verb Tenses bears the dynamics of modern Irish, as well as contemporary Asia-Pacific poetry; it plays with words between sounds, geographies, feelings. Edmeades achieves much in the calm irony of poems such as ‘Between Speech and Sound’, which invites us to feel ‘the usual shortcoming / of abstractions’.

This is a collection that refuses to choose between Baudelaire and Marx, and it is all the better for it. Judging from the epigraphs that open the book, Edmeades has structured the collection with at least two experiences of active tension. They are characterised by a mode of nonknowledge that opens us to a simultaneously sensuous and critical modernity. The first experience is that of the child who – as in Cage’s description of a trip to New Zealand that never eventuates – is characterised by a disappointed belief in the discourse of adults. The second experience is one of adult bookishness clashing with an unrecognised reality; or foolishness that makes unliveable promises to children. To open this experience, Edmeades provides an epigraph from one of the pithy sentences in Foucault’s The Order of Things: ‘Don Quixote reads the world in order to prove his books’.

Throughout the collection, Edmeades plays with Foucault’s critique of discourse to continually return to a heterotopic limit: ‘It’s difficult to keep the order alive’. A powerful new dimension is added to Foucaultian modernity through poems such as ‘Towards Whatever it is that Keeps Things Apart’:

This world, with its children and adults,
some ready for it, and some not.

In undertaking her poetic critique of everyday life, Edmeades makes full use of the geography of New Zealand, Belfast, Europe and Russia. Two poems called ‘The Order of Things’ almost but not quite bookend the collection. They plunge us into a kind of coming of age, post-colonial moment in the movement between country and city, from the family farm in New Zealand to the open air of the urban park:

When it was time for me to learn how to drive
I asked how I’d know which gear came next
It’s difficult to keep the order alive
When I get confused with the three, four, five. 


Red tulips drooping in the park.
Remarkable how quickly things change:
It’s tomorrow.
            It’s today.

The collection continues to dazzle as it moves between London, New Zealand, Belfast, a Siberian lake, and back to the metropolis. The peculiarity of post-colonial experience is evoked in poems such as ‘Second Hand’, or ‘East Belfast’, where ‘Birds sit in trees older than me’. Other poems return more directly to the quixotic theme of the epigraph: living ‘By the Book’, for example, just leads to ‘increased lack of intimacy’ in a poem about relationships. Poems such as ‘Cregagh Road’, ‘Inis Mór’, ‘As if’, ‘Orange Order’ and sketch Northern Ireland from the perspective of an outsider, a post-colonial child who finds wisdom in disorder.

In As the Verb Tenses, Edmeades guides the reader with an expert sense of rhythm and structure through the idiosyncratic itineraries of everyday globalisation. The poetry enchants, capturing the familiar childhood estrangement felt when we are playing with words to apprehend the world. This profanation of verbs is at its best when it approaches, as Walter Pater put it, the condition of music. Make like a verb and read this book.

Jen Jewel Brown Reviews Dig: Australian Rock and Pop Music 1960-85

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Dig: Australian Rock and Pop Music 1960-85 by David Nichols
Verse Chorus Press, 2016

Isn’t it time we invented a new handle for this ‘rock and pop’ stuff? ‘Rop’, for instance? Alternatively, ‘pock’ surely says ‘acne moonscape’: good for sounds designed to lure teens with condom-snapping haste. Regardless, I must say the droll and often delightfully irritated David Nichols brings a savoury palate to this tasting of Australian sounds. As a historian drawn to such antipodean delights as the subjects of his books, The Go-Betweens (2003) and The Bogan Delusion (2011), Nichols floats well above the bilge water line.

The foreword to Dig comes courtesy of Dave Graney, who notes that Nichols: ‘has experienced the limitations and constraints of the scene on the island and has continued to chase down rumours and will-o’-the-wisp reputations that occasionally spawn mad fevers in the compound.’ It is certainly true that, as this convict nation continues in its convulsive incarcerations, breakouts and last stands, songwriters and performers are the foot soldiers of escape. And with its bristling index and in-text scattering of old posters, cartoons and ads in black and white, Dig has a cannae-tie-kangaroo-down unpredictability. Nichols makes it clear in his introduction that he is not interested in cramming together all the old hack stories about rock stars acting up, or sniggering at historical ‘fashion crimes’. Rather he has rummaged through a range of evidence and conducted many interviews with musos and rock scribblers (including myself, disclaimer here) and others to plant his feet on the territory.

There are entire chapters dedicated to The Bee Gees, The Missing Links, The Easybeats, the strange story of the more obscure Pip Proud, AC/DC, Dragon, The Reels, The Triffids and The Moodists. Daddy Cool and Skyhooks are thrown into the washer together, where Bongo Star’s glitter irretrievably crunches up Ross Wilson’s foxtail. Other chapters explore the changing socio-musical decades. Along the way such interferons as architect Robin Boyd with his ‘Austerica’ (Australia / America) theory, the pianist, composer and free music explorer Percy Grainger and Richard Neville’s Oz Magazine-fueled rambunctiousness shoot through the text. Nichols dips into 1971 Daily Planet magazine to credit columnist Lobby Loyd with this ‘lobbying’: ‘Australian rock is probably the most advanced in the music world because this country has never known success, that perverter of truth and destroyer of progress.’ The crash-and-bash talent, unnerving persistence and musical nous are wonderful to breathe in.

The early-seeding festival scene is explored as a powerful multiplier of rock power. Nichols claims that South Australia’s three-day Myponga Festival in January 1971 only drew ‘an estimated 5,500’; recently, however, Bob Byrne wrote in the Adelaide Advertiser that he attended, and that Myponga, which starred Black Sabbath with many top Australian bands, had at least 15,000 paying customers and another 5,000-plus jumping the fence. Dig reports ‘heavy rain and icy winds no doubt made the experience unpleasant even before the Draft Resister’s Union tried to break down the fence, distributed pamphlets condemning the festival as a money-making concern, and at one point marched onto the stage chanting ‘out, pigs’ and ‘free concert’.’ The highly varied reportage on Myponga is challenging, and Nichols’s account funny, however I feel that his overall picture of Myponga is inaccurate. In the Australian rock festival scene, Myponga has always been quite celebrated as: one of the most impressive early Australian festival line-ups, with much of the weather hot, if dusty; and the birthplace of Daddy Cool’s enormous live success.

More commonly, Nichols has a solid grip on the ever-transforming and widening scene. Chapter Six, ‘Falling off the Edge of the World: The Easybeats,’ makes fascinating reading about the guys who in many ways wrote the bible on ‘How to Succeed in Show Business While Really Trying’, tripping over great cement clumps of failure en route, include Harry Vanda, Stevie Wright and George Young. ‘By 1969,’ writes Nichols, ‘Vanda and Young – at this point jointly the Brian Wilson of the group – were holed up in a flat on Moscow Road that had previously been a jingle studio for pirate radio … Somehow, the last proper Easybeats album, Friends, was made up almost completely of Vanda and Young demos, sung mainly by Young, including ‘St Louis’.’ Nichols quotes Vanda’s admission that, ‘I wouldn’t know what bloody St Louis was like,’ revealing that Friends was just an album to appease the contract while providing a taster of Flash and the Pan hits to come.

Another definitive moment in this sprawling history is when the talented Brian Peacock, known for the arty, rather baroque Procession – whose biggest hit ‘Anthem’, was completely a cappella – underwent a dark night of the soul. By this stage in the very early 70s, Peacock was staying at the Warwick Hotel in New York and road managing the American tour of the much more commercial New Seekers, when he discovered that their record company Warner Bros was owned by the Kinney Corporation, ‘basically car park operators … a heavily mobbed-up, mafia-riddled company.’ His resultant spiritual seizure ‘wasn’t drug-induced,’ says Peacock, ‘just a total paranoia that I was doing exactly the wrong thing, and the whole music industry was doomed and riddled with corruption.’ He told his business partners not to worry, he’d found someone else to take over, and as Peacock sensibly walked out, someone much more equipped to deal with King Kong – Glenn Wheatley – walked in.

There are also spiritual experiences in Dig of a purely musical nature. For instance, MacKenzie Theory (1971-4) were a highly skilled, electric ‘head’ band on the Mushroom label, improvising wordlessly on guitar, viola, bass and drums. Their American-born founding bass player Mike Leadabrand describes one show they played as ‘probably the most memorable event’ of his life. ‘It was as though the music came to us from somewhere else, and we were along for the ride as much as the audience,’ said Leadabrand. ‘When it was over, everyone knew that something had happened that we had no way to talk about.’ The Theory were supporting a popular Brisbane band that night, but that band announced they could no longer go on. Neither Leadabrand nor Nichols spells it out, but the implication is the headliners felt unable to follow the otherworldly experience their support act had conjured up. ‘Nobody complained or wondered why,’ said Leadabrand, about the headliners’ desertion. ‘This happened about three times in my three years with (MacKenzie Theory), and those times formed the person I would be to this day.’

Nichols isn’t always as sympathetic towards his subjects. After following the meanderings of Cold Chisel with attention in Dig, Nichols lets fly at their solo-going singer Jimmy Barnes for ‘the teeth-gnashingly ghastly’ single ‘Working Class Man,’ which, Nichols writes, is ‘written and produced by Journey’s Jonathan Cain, channeling a foetid, parallel universe Bruce Springsteen.’ Whether or not you agree with him, Nichols’s viewpoints are always individual, dodging the paralysing sameness often at work in long form rock-writing styles.

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Rachael Mead Reviews Stuart Cooke

Monday, April 10th, 2017

Opera by Stuart Cook
Five Islands Press, 2016

In the poems of Opera, Stuart Cooke attempts to take the writing of place into new territory, and in doing so, accomplishes something remarkable. This collection is both substantial and complex, enhancing our understanding of what a poetics of landscape can encompass and the capacity of language to articulate it.

Cooke has long been uneasy with the label of ecopoet, as he mentioned in a 2014 interview for Peril Magazine. While his previous collection, Edge Music (2011), focused on writing from the geographical and historical edges of landscapes, Opera pushes beyond an attempt to speak ecologically. Cooke is one of many innovative Australian poets (Louise Crisp, Peter Minter, Michael Farrell, Martin Harrison, Bonny Cassidy) who have been attempting to find new ways of speaking about landscape that acknowledge the multiple histories landscapes can possess: environmental, cultural and colonised. Cooke creates a new vision of how to speak about the temporal, geographic, ecological and cultural histories of land and, in the process, expands our lexicon with which to express them.

The cover image grants the reader an excellent entry point from which to understand the key themes of Opera. The artwork by John Wolseley is a detail from a larger watercolour of the spore-bearing bodies of Cytarria in Tasmania and Patagonia and their Northofagus hosts. These plants symbolise the ancient biological connection between South America and Tasmania and, as such, perfectly represent the scope and objectives of this collection. In these poems, Cooke is viewing Australia and South America as landforms once connected as Gondwanaland – ancient landscapes whose shared geological, biological and genetic heritage is still expressed today. Rather than focusing on regional specifics or local endemism as means of expressing place in a particular space and time, Cooke adopts a macro-perspective, writing from an understanding of place that spans millennia.

But these bald mountains remain the wisest:
their acrid soils skid through seasons, shirking
the heavy texts of jungles, of cumbersome timber,
of carbon’s tiresome routines. 
They lie across the azure like gods
of the stone they cradle,
they lap it up like great tongues
that descend into a single throat,
to the mad populous of the rapids,
the willows and the bamboos draping, the swirling
pollen in aphotic bivouacs, the flames of sun
in leaves, where all sound’s reduced
to a pure molten sign (‘Valle de Hurtado’)

These poems explore the myriad connections that link the continental fragments of Gondwanaland. Cooke’s overarching perspective sees not just trans-Pacific ecological associations but also political, cultural and linguistic linkages that have, over time, evolved in ways akin to biological speciation. All of the poems in the collection are creative responses to particular regions, but the geographic specifics are not necessarily mentioned in the poems. If the reader is keen to know which landscape inspired a particular poem they must consult the endnotes. I found this to be a cunning strategy, since by not making the poems’ geographic locations explicit, my sense of the multiple levels of connectivity and relationship existing between the various regions was constantly reinforced.

Cooke’s perspective acknowledges regional differences and environmental complexity while also honouring the languages that articulate their ecological individuality. Observed from this macro-level perspective, the linkages and connections Cooke explores in his poetry speak to the existence of a human commons spanning time, politics and cultures. This elucidation of what is shared rather than what differentiates is politically meaningful, since to confront global environmental crises such as climate change will necessitate the adoption of an integrated global vision. He writes:

                                                                  as if f
alling spirits weren’t caught by anyone but picked

up from the plain by hard white hands it’s

hard to talk about the dry, about what
what should or shouldn’t be […]

                         Now (here comes the rain)

with a capacity for change only time will tell la
vida derecha echa la echaste (trust) live

the drought, eat bad rhyme. Shout: Give back the land!
My hair’s too thin to mimic a downpour (‘Sonnet to rain [Son al silencio]’)

In addition to geological and biological connections, Cooke recognises a commonality of histories, in terms of the colonisation and repression of indigenous peoples and the need for acknowledgement of these histories in poetry that speaks of place. The colonisation of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and the Mapuche communities of Patagonia share many parallels. Cooke is one of many contemporary poets exploring the potential of poetry to articulate visions of the landscape that are not regurgitations of the colonial perspective, but instead embrace the vast spectrum of human and non-human cultures. As he explains in a recent article in Landscapes, Cooke’s poems embody the recognition that any trans-cultural poetic vision taking an anti-colonialist stance must attempt to eschew Western visions of categorisation and subjugation and strive for multi-vocal expressions of a complex location. Using both his significant experience with indigenous communities and extensive reading of indigenous poets both in Australia and South America, he writes from a place that values indigenous perspectives, allowing this way of seeing to sit alongside an ecological understanding of place in his work. Cooke’s poems reflect the profound understanding that for Aboriginal people language arises out of and in response to Country and, as a natural consequence, language is an inseparable component of Country.

Cooke’s work becomes truly innovative when it recognises and explores the intersection between landscape, ecology and language. Cooke forges an entirely new syntax in his attempt to pull together and collate diverse material and experience from geographically and biologically varied locations. While creating his version of a transcultural poetics, in several sections Cooke frees the words or symbols from the need for communicating meaning, and instead invites them to act on the page and to provide texture in a sonic or graphic sense, which Peter Minter has written about this in his 2012 article, ‘Writing Country: Composition, Law and Indigenous Ecopoetics’. The poems ‘Biophilia’ and ‘Lurujarri’ both contain numerous examples of this. This is language as ecology and ecology as language. Cooke experiments with Jill Magi’s premise that, much as life evolves from non-living matter, so too can linguistic communication evolve from non-semantic sounds. For Cooke, language is a living system and such words and symbols can carry far more than their semantic value. ‘Lurujarri’ is a long poem in nine parts in which Cooke documents his experience of Country in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. It is figurative, lyrical and experimental, with Cooke expanding the boundaries of language to represent a visceral experience of place. The physical, visual and aural landscapes are all rendered into text:


References to grammar and syntax proliferate in ways that speak to Cooke’s thinking about language as ecologically fertile. The profusion of grammatical terminology, alongside and combined with landscape imagery, brings to mind the role of sexual reproduction in genetic diversity and evolution. This reinforces what I perceive as Cooke’s thinking about language as part of Country as it seems to function ecologically in the poems, much like energy flowing through living systems. Lines of Spanish erupt in poems sporadically throughout the collection, reinforcing the idea of multi-layered connections between Australia and South America. While I spent some time checking my Spanish translations, I found it well worth the effort, particularly as it sparked thinking about the role of translation in linguistic connection and the writing of place. (Is literal translation important to the poems or is it more significant in its symbolic representation of another layer of cultural synthesis between these two continents?)

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Review Short: Eileen Chong’s Painting Red Orchids

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong
Pitt Street Poetry, 2016

In his short story ‘A Little Ramble’, champion of the anti-heroic Robert Walser says, ‘We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much’. In her third collection, Painting Red Orchids, Singaporean Australian Eileen Chong testifies to ordinary experience as the sensory and emotional kaleidoscope of the individual. These are the lyrical portraits of a perpetual itinerant, her introverted recordings of private joys, loneliness and fascination with solitary journeying through a rich inner world. Sensorial and intellectual curiosity abound in her peripatetic wanderings any place and any time: Sydney’s Chinatown, Parramatta, the seaside, the Australian goldfields, Tang dynasty China, a friend’s kitchen.

The eponymous ‘Painting Red Orchids’ opens the collection and is one of its highlights. Chong explores the Qing artist Huang Shen’s painting, ‘Red Orchids’, which in traditional ink wash painting style captures the life and energy of the subject rather than its literal likeness. Chong cleverly plays on this aesthetic tradition by textually re-enacting Huang Shen’s process of creation, and in so doing, the life and becoming of the red orchids:

One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water—rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal—red orchids bloom on white.

Similar to the closely related forms of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting where text and image share similar techniques and appear together in dialogue, here poetry converges thematically with visual art. But Chong takes this further, occupying the position of Huang Shen with first-person narration, examining the provenance of the materials she / ‘he’ paints with:

…This one, an eyelash
from a leopard. The inkstone was my father’s: slate

quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather
drowned himself one spring night. I scoop well-water

The unrushed pace of these lines show the narrator, with Buddhistic mindfulness, recounting the life of each material that makes the painting and constitutes its life and energy. These items are material testaments to the trauma of past lives. These lines, some of the most accomplished in Chong’s collection, provide a kind of technical and thematic sleight of hand. Upon closer reading, the ekphrastic poem reveals its true complexity: a tapestried introduction for the mental and emotional landscape of the collection, a deft expression of art’s many lives. Chong’s art soars when she draws on classical Chinese motifs and inhabits myths (‘Magnolia’; ‘Seven in the Bamboo’). Through the high drama of history and legend, played out in anachronistic time and embodied by contemporary selves, Chong skilfully enacts the indelible mark of heritage on the imagination.

Conversely, a kind of self-conscious, ‘East-meets-West’ cultural exchange that the poet attempts, often through food imagery, is less successful. Awkward and clichéd, the narrator in ‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta’ ponders:

… How did we find each other
in this faceless city, on this wide continent,
coming as we did from worlds so far apart?


… We share hot tea, spinach
with three kinds of egg, and learn a new rhythm.

Similarly in ‘Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)’, the narrator conflates food appreciation with cultural connection:

I still remember the look on your face when you ate 
your first little dragon dumpling. Sudden understanding.

From ‘A Winter’s Night’:

This, here, made from my hands,
his memories—we consume spoon after spoon
of history and desire and laugh about the future.

Chong’s strong craft and technique are at these points stifled by the clumsy and superficial treatment of multiculturalism, particularly in her depiction of exoticised cuisine and food rituals as sensual cross-cultural exchanges – usually within the bounds of a romantic relationship. This is accompanied often by the overuse of the contrived word ‘lover’ in such contexts: ‘My lover takes me to his favourite Chinese/restaurant’ or ‘My lover holds my hand and walks me through/an unfamiliar cityscape.’ (‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta’); ‘I am on the telephone/with my lover’ (‘Resonance’).

Nevertheless, it is with touching everydayness that Chong expresses the emotional state of an itinerant; her naturally rhythmic, prose-like descriptions intimate and immortalise the ephemeral, contingent and elusive. Flights of fancy, memory, nostalgia, dreams and desire are familiar secrets for both poet and reader. In ‘Taboo’, the seemingly blameless narrator offers a heartbreaking, imploring defence to an unknown crime,

I swear I didn’t.
I never could.

How much do I want? 
All the years, and none.

Sounding the death knell of a doomed relationship, these simple, sparse lines display an aching silence, conveying the unspeakable pain of love’s ending as it occurs. Prefiguring the death of a love that will never be, Chong is a clairvoyant of loss, imbuing her lines with pre-emptive, nihilistic disavowal.

What I think is the compelling soul of these poems – more than their subject matter (food, love, solitude, travel or dreams), or their technical artistry – is their unmaskable shadow of trauma, and the past lives that occasioned this work. For example, Chong writes, ‘On good days / there is chocolate. There is always a cup of tea. I don’t/think about pain, or loss, or the past, although they are there’ (‘Seven in the Bamboo’). She hints at the toil of survival with a poignantly innocuous line, ‘The trick / is to keep swimming, to keep taking in air’ (‘Trick’). Upon reading these poems, one after another, their accumulative effect is one of oblique sadness amidst joyful discovery, a sense of a rebirth destined to be haunted by the weight of past lives. It is an evocation as powerful and moving as any great literature I know. A self-described ‘poet of small things’, Chong’s intimate poems of minute complexities see so much in the ordinary and inspire a gladness of solitude.

Review Short: Elif Sezen’s Universal Mother

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Universal Mother by Elif Sezen
Glora SMH, 2016

There is something delicious about a collection that doesn’t open itself up to the reader on a first or even second reading and yet compels them to come back to it, something delightful about lines that lodge themselves in your brain and demand a third, fourth, fifth reading to reunite them with the poems they come from.

The great Mughal poet Mirza Ghalib said that poetry was not merely the construction of pretty rhymes and images but mani afirni, the manufacturing of multiple, shifting meaning. In Elif Sezen’s work, Ghalib’s ideal comes to life. Universal Mother is rich with references whose intertextual mix of classical mysticism, mythology, ecology, biology, and pop culture makes it a thoroughly modern collection. Sezen’s knack for traversing centuries in the space of a few lines situates her as a truly transcultural writer.

There is an ethereal quality to Sezen’s work, a certain sense of longing and searching that carries echoes of Rilke and the best of Yeats’s poetry. Sezen’s discussion of ‘absence’ in ‘Two Ghazals’ in particular brings Rilke’s obsession with the concept to mind; while in ‘The Universal Garden’ Sezen writes: ‘A rose is the most silent thing ever / it blinks with a secret innocence’ (3), recalling Rilke’s epitaph ‘Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy / of being No-one’s sleep under so many / lids.’ Her fluent use of mystic tropes can also be traced to the Sufi tradition (Rilke found his rose here as well).

There is a sense of slow but inexorable movement in Universal Mother, like that of the heavens. Whether multi-part meditations or three-line lyrics like ‘Our Absences Merge’, Sezen’s poems take their time to unfurl.

I created a memory of you:
you are nurturing yourself
while I nurture me

Sezen routinely addresses a ‘you’ but it is evident that this is not the reader. There are several presences in this book. Some poems seem to address the speaker’s mother, but others seem to invoke the ‘Universal Mother’ of the title. Sezen creates the impression of a child talking to a wise and benevolent mother, seeking guidance and reassurance, but also showing her mother the world anew the way that children often do. She reinvents the familiar, reconstructs memories, rebuilds histories, all in a conversational tone that sometimes belies the complexity of what she is saying.

When you hit the floor, concrete turns into
a flower-bed, as if your recently deceased
mother is hugging you, she whispers:
You must go back now my dear.

Although universal themes such as the bond between mother and daughter might lend themselves to the obvious, Sezen’s poetry is anything but. The dream sequence in ‘Three types of gravity,’ about jumping off a tall building only to realise death is not what the narrator wants after all, speaks of the way grief makes people act against themselves. It also casts the mother as the daughter’s guide and protector even from beyond the grave – a kind of present absence that Sezen returns to in the last lines of ‘The dead woman’:

Put her between the sayable and the unsayable
so she keeps you alive.

The poems demonstrate a mix of spiritualities – references to kundalini energy, Buddhism, and of course Sufi mysticism all sit comfortably side by side – as well as a range of images and registers. Over and again Sezen blends her evidently expansive knowledge of poetic tradition with the everyday in her own idiosyncratic way. For example, she has an odd fondness for amplification using adverbs – ‘definitely’ is one of her favourites – and it stands out, turning up in the middle of an otherwise lyrical line. In ‘She meditates’ she writes: ‘there were children shouting and playing / in the park, and I definitely had to transform into / something else’. Earlier, in ‘Two ghazals,’ she writes:

I saw the girl
behind the window
her hands
as if someone else’s
Who was she?
I definitely had to write this down

Although the use of the word seems odd, it creates an immediate and conversational tone that sits well with the mysticism of the collection. In ‘Invitation’ we see Sezen once again connecting the lofty with the quotidian when she says ‘There’s really nothing to fear / and what’s more I cut my hair’.

‘Guests’ indulges in another kind of blending. It begins with an epigraph taken from one of Coleman Bark’s most famous ‘translations’ of Rumi’s work: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field / I’ll meet you there.’ Sezen moves the setting to a house and shifts the tone from mystical to playful, saying:

When I enter the house with no tenants
please come in, before I change my mind

Sezen’s brief, unexpected addition of scientific taxonomy to her stock metaphor has an expansive effect on the poem. She writes:

And make love as two guests, and touch
the furniture with illuminated neurons
with awakened cells
of our second-skin
feel how matter resists impermanence

There is a spark of joy that runs through this poem, a rush and excitement that makes it stand out from the others in the collection. Emotions fly fast and free here. But this freedom is fleeting; the ending reins it in with:

When I enter the outside
please come out
before I change my mind

The change in lineation gives the end an ominous feeling, as if something else looms beyond the little slice of joy in the poem.

That sense of something greater on the horizon pervades the whole collection, beginning with ‘Looking for the blue’. Universal Mother could be read as speaking of the environment, of our abandonment of it, of nature and the earth as the wronged mother from whom we have become estranged. The imagery of the heavens – the stars, the moon, the sky, the Milky Way – all conjure an awareness of the connectedness between our actions and the urgency of climate change. I do not know if this is intentional – perhaps the age of global warming and impending disaster makes such a reading inevitable – but it only adds to the complexity of this already multi-layered collection of poetry.

Paul Munden Reviews The Best Australian Poems 2016

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

The Best Australian Poems 2016
Sarah Holland-Batt, ed.
Black Inc., 2016

In her introduction to this anthology, editor Sarah Holland-Batt claims for the work ‘a colloquialism, contrarianism and playfulness that separates it from its counterparts in the northern hemisphere’. Being hitherto more familiar with that northern hemisphere, this reviewer’s critical interest was immediately aroused.

The nearest equivalent publication in the UK and Ireland is the annual Forward Book of Poetry. It differs in that it features the winning, shortlisted and highly commended poems for the Forward Prizes for Poetry, as selected by a team of judges. On glancing through both anthologies as a casual browser might (in some utopian international bookshop), it is true that several pages of the BAP make a deliberately playful pitch for attention. But playfulness can run deep, and is sometimes appreciated only when a reader tunes into the particular colloquialism and contrarianism that surely characterises vigorous poetry in many parts of the world. For readers less familiar with those particularities, something may well ‘suffer a bit / in the translation’, to use a phrase that Holland-Batt quotes from a poem by Michael Dransfield.

For example, I smiled at Laurie Duggan’s mention of ‘daylight saving’ (‘A Northern Winter’), not a phrase likely to be recognised in England, where the poem is set. In his poem ‘Hossegor’, Jaya Savige highlights a cultural gulf to extended, comic effect:

Surfing probably didn't occur to the Vikings
   but then you never know—maybe one of Asgeir's men
      found himself oaring his chieftain's faering

for this Biscay shore, just as a set wave jacked—
   the kind that narrows the eyes of the guns
      who yearly light up the Quicksilver Pro

A significant number of poems in both the BAP and Forward anthologies are set outside their nominal territories – a natural consequence, perhaps, of the diversity of contributors. Even so, a relative newcomer to the Australian poetry scene might expect the Australian landscape itself to loom larger. (There is relatively little of the British landscape in the Forward, too; what does this suggest – that an urban sensibility holds sway? At a time when the natural world is under the most savage of political threats, one might perhaps expect more active concern.) Phillip Hall’s ‘Royalty’ stands out in this respect, a poem the very texture of which captures the feel of the bush, providing too a vivid depiction of family ritual. And Michael Brennan’s ‘There and Then’, with its casual prose rhythms, is a strong rural vignette, intensely attuned to the physical attributes of the scene.

Both anthologies include a sprinkling of prose poems, but even more noticeable is the number of long poems. In the past two years Geoff Page, as editor of the BAP, sought poems of preferably one or two pages. This year, Holland-Batt has included some that run to six, as has the Forward. This seems fine in principle, but not all the long pieces would seem to justify their space. Page’s selections were also structured thematically; here there is no such ‘support’ for poems; they live (or die) with neighbours either side but with purely random correspondence. The logic behind Holland-Batt’s selection, however, is persuasive, and her introduction is an eloquent, stimulating discussion of poetry’s importance. She states that the poet ‘often registers the uneasy vibrations of a culture before the repercussions are felt by the body politic’, and that an effective poem ‘detonates in the instant of its reading’; that power may be somewhat ephemeral, but she makes a claim for durability, too. Few would argue with her assertion that poetry gets beyond the ‘truthiness’ of political discourse (or even the post-truthiness). But do the selected poems live up to the claim? Will these poems last ‘for millennia’?

The only plausible way of answering that is to identify poems that one already senses a wish to return to, poems that offer immediate rewards that are balanced by a further level of intrigue – a difficulty that is justified (as opposed to an incoherence posing as faux complexity), or as Holland-Batt puts it, ‘[language] whose subtleties and nuances are worth puzzling over’. (She describes her own considerable re-readings in order to make a case for a particular poem’s worthiness of our puzzlement, but such extensive re-reading is unlikely to be replicated by most readers of the anthology.)

Some poems win immediate attention through their arresting openings, Tim Thorne’s ‘Jakhan Pollyeva’ being a strong example:

Putin's speechwriter in a leopard print dress
with plunging neckline performs her latest poems
before chatting up the President of Kyrgyzstan.

Shari Kocher’s ‘Foxstruck’, with its long opening sentence, is similarly compelling, and Petra White’s poem ‘On This’ begins ‘Coming at you like a wave’, the whole poem energised by that that initial thrust, and continuing to surprise. Some, of course, put much store in their titles: ‘Blow Job (kama sutra)’ by Bronwyn Lea is unlikely to be skipped but also genuinely amusing, not least in its rhymes.

Other poems achieve their ends via much quieter beginnings. Debbie Lim’s previously unpublished ‘A House in Switzerland’ – going beyond Australian borders for a specific purpose, the termination of life – builds into a poem of considerable impact. As Holland-Batt points out, there is a strong, dark current in much of the work, balancing the playfulness, from the unflinching gaze of Robyn Rowland’s ‘Night Watch’, to poems that are explicitly political, such as Ali Cobby Eckerman’s powerful ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ and Lisa Jacobson’s ‘The Jews of Hamburg Speak Out’, one of a number of poems drawn from Writing to the Wire (UWAP, 2016). Also notable is Fay Zwicky’s ‘Boat Song’, a haunting poem that is, remarkably, both political and playful, as well as exhibiting a strong allegiance to form, which is yet another defining quality of many poems in the anthology (as is true too of the Forward). The beautifully controlled simplicity of Zwicky’s concluding lines are particularly striking:

We bring photos and candles and
Mountains of flowers upon flowers upon
Flowers upon flowers.

Poems by Judith Beveridge, David Malouf and others use stanzaic structures that incorporate energetic, conversational rhythms. Chris Wallace-Crabbe is almost alone in using consistent rhyme: his poem, ‘Altogether Elsewhere’, has a natural eloquence that thrives on intuitive patterning; some poems that make a big show of their looser fluidity seem by contrast rather forced. Holland-Batt points to the famed Australian ‘sprawl’, which at its best is highly engaging, but when it veers into ‘slack’, poetic power is inevitably reduced. Some poems here have unfortunate repetitions (unlike Zwicky’s highly charged example above), as if they have not been sufficiently revised. Some lack vigour, letting phrases pile up rather aimlessly, a lack of verbs not helping. Few of the unpunctuated poems entirely convince, rhythmically; they haven’t always replaced punctuation with effective spatial alternatives in the way, for instance, that Pam Brown has in ‘Rooibos’, which works as an effective musical score. There is nothing that looks less fresh than the echoes of yesteryear’s avant garde; and the haphazard use of such attention-seeking elements seems particularly bizarre. To take a fitting line from Verity Laughton’s ‘Kangarilla, Summer 2016’: ‘Chaos once cast charm. It doesn’t now.’

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