FRESH Tuesday, May 23rd, 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.
Continue reading →
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
The Blue Decodes by Cassie Lewis
Grand Parade Poets, 2016
After spending my teenage years with only Dorothy Porter for Australian poetry company, I discovered HEAT magazine in the orderly periodical shelves of the University of Queensland’s Social Sciences and Humanities Library. I was supposed to be learning how to write essays for EN152, instead I was learning how Australians wrote poetry. Until then I had thought it was only Brits, Yanks and James Gleeson who wrote poetry, but it turned out people from this country, only a decade or so older than myself, were writing poems about things I recognised in language that was familiar. Chief among the poets who dazzled me on those distracted days was Cassie Lewis, a precociously talented young Melbournian riding high at the turn of the millennium. As well as publishing regularly in key magazines, her work was collected in the era’s two important anthologies of Australian poetry: Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx and Ron Pretty’s New Music. Still only in her mid-twenties, Lewis was the fourth youngest poet in Pretty’s book and perhaps (not all birthdates are listed) the youngest in Brennan’s and Minter’s. She was one of only a dozen poets who appeared in both.
Since then her peers – poets like Kate Lilley, Michael Farrell, Michael Brennan and Kate Fagan – have gone on to form part of the core of an established generation of Australian poetry while Lewis has only published intermittently. Her first chapbook, Song for the Quartet, was published in 1997. It was followed in 2002 by High Country in one of Little Esther’s pocket editions, then Bridges in 2006; and then nothing. In her biography there are possible clues to this relative silence. In 2000, Lewis left Melbourne for the United States. Landing in San Francisco, she founded Poetry Espresso, an early online poetry collective and tiny press in 2001, before settling in upstate New York in 2004, where she now works as a nurse at the University of Rochester Medical Centre. It seemed Lewis had joined the ranks of other anthologised poets from the turn of the millennium, including Jemal Sharah and Ted Nielsen (New Music) and Adrian Wiggins and Sue Bower (Calyx) who no longer publish. In fact, Lewis was omitted from Contemporary Australian Poetry, the new Puncher & Wattmann anthology edited by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave, while both Nielsen and Wiggins made the cut. Lewis was also one of the troika of young poets to whom John Forbes’ ‘Lessons for Young Poets’ is dedicated. The other two, Kieran Carroll (now a playwright) and Ramona Barry (an important figure in arts and crafts), have long since given up poetry and so, it seemed, had Lewis. So last year, when Grand Parade Poets editor Alan Wearne told me he was publishing Lewis’s The Blue Decodes, it was as unexpected as the postman turning up with hand written, postage stamped letter.
Based on the poems in The Blue Decodes, Lewis is an artist who values silence as much as noise. The book’s ninety pages, which include a number of poems published in her chapbooks, represent well over two decades’ worth of work which provides an interesting purchase on the question of why write poetry in the first place, particularly if it seems like an adjunct to an already full life? We can surmise that Lewis’s nursing career, her role as a mother and wife, the pileup of life’s prosaic diktats and sundry other factors combine to annihilate the time needed to write. Despite this, though, Lewis has not abandoned, or even forgotten poetry. That she has continued to write and seek publication suggests a need to write. This compulsion, combined with poems that are often short or fragmentary, lends the collection a sense of urgency. These poems simply have to be written.
There are multiple descriptions of her writing process in The Blue Decodes but one formulation appears twice. (Is there a better way of economising writing time?) Firstly, in ‘from Postcard Poems’:
I stay up late hungry and dreaming aloud,
to type is to construct little shanties
for the night. Something blue and clouded
stirs in the screen before me,
I know! It is the sky in Arizona
that I have not seen.
Line breaks removed and tweaked slightly, the formulation’s second appearance comes a little over a dozen pages later, in ‘Bridges’, the long sequence that closes the book:
I hum softly to myself, I stay up late hungry and dreaming aloud. To type is to construct little shanties for the night. Something blue, immaculate comes at me through the screen. It’s the sky in Arizona.
In this formulation writing equates to building homes or, put slightly differently, of finding a place in the world. This idea crops up again and again in The Blue Decodes, at times amplified by the expatriate’s perennial dislocation. There is a sense, in the poems, that poetry provides, for the poet, access to a schema for living that is otherwise inaccessible. Home isn’t simply physical or geographic, it is a source of belonging and a refuge, a way of understanding the world and existing in time. The advice poem ‘The Way to Keep Going’ highlights the dislocation upon which this need to write poetry, as a way of existing in the world, is predicated. It begins:
Be hospitable to strangers.
Sometimes you may want to give away everything you have.
It is advisable to hold your own vision
at some distance.
Failure is relative to your
standard of shelter.
Nothing ultimately matters
but the smallest things register.
Failure’s relativity to material circumstances could be a wry dig at the class with more dollars than sense, or Lewis could be arguing for the importance of another form of shelter, one that we can find in ‘the smallest things’, and which helps guard against the grim realisation that ‘Nothing ultimately matters’. This type of shelter is a knowledge that can inoculate, or at least provide temporary consolation, against nihilism. This is important if hope is, as it often seems in Lewis’s work, either past or illusory: ‘My life is like a map / where hope has been’, she writes (‘Vanguard’).
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
Watching the World: Impressions of Canberra
by Jenn Webb and Paul Hetherington
Blemish Books, 2015
What is it about Canberra that invites so many definitions? Comparing where we live with where we don’t is an Australian fixation, but there’s a specific energy to the way that people with a connection to Canberra go about this – they will start deriding or defending the place minutes after you’re introduced.
At least, this is my own tendency as someone born and raised in Australia’s ‘big country town’ capital. Like a family member, Canberra is mine to love, mine to hate, and mine to define. It was with this prickly attitude that I opened Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb’s Watching the World: Impressions of Canberra – the end result of a collaborative poetic / photographic project that began as part of an exhibition commemorating Canberra’s 2013 centenary.
The book is divided into three sections: ‘Where we live’, ‘Memory places’ and ‘Paddocks and perambulations’, with each Hetherington poem facing a ‘companion’ photograph by Webb. The collaborators describe how they used a call-and-answer process to create these parings: ‘Jen took photographs, which Paul then used as springboards into poems. Paul’s poems led, in turn, to Jen taking new photographs or editing existing ones.’ And while Hetherington is no stranger to ekphrasis, he explains in an interview with Verity La that ‘I did not wish my poems to be ekphrastic or descriptive works; I wanted them to be companion pieces; pieces that spoke to what Jen had seen and made; and which saw and were made differently, but in strongly connected ways.’
Introducing the book, Webb and Hetherington highlight their desire to step outside well-worn, tourist-friendly impressions of Canberra and ‘record ordinary parts of town, the places where people live and work and shop’. But while the result is nothing like a tourist guidebook, the commemorative origin of Watching the World means its depictions of the city are often admiring, at times even ode-like.
This celebratory quality, along with the book’s clearly delineated subject, puts Watching the World at a slight remove from Hetherington’s latest collection, Burnt Umber, and his 2013 work, Six Different Windows. They are broader in scope and often grapple with more intricate themes. By contrast, Watching the World is a moment of rest during which Hetherington has focused on succinct poems that condense around a single idea. ‘Summer’ shows this emphasis on straightforwardness and short, declarative lines:
Long grass burns
with late autumn light
as if so much waste
of the passing year
is suddenly consumed
in softest fire
Hetherington tends towards iambic metre in many of his lines, but is careful to interrupt the pattern before it becomes overpowering. In ‘Balloon’ this steady tempo suggests the progress of Canberra’s early morning beacons:
Memories march like bayonets;
your sense of yourself is a shred of words;
and too much thought is never enough
to take you where a shady green
fell on your body like darkening joy –
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Canberra to hear that the majority of these poems have a pastoral element. But before looking at Hetherington’s language more closely, it’s important to acknowledge the role of Webb’s photographs. Rather than offering a single answer to each poem, they act more as counterpoints, suggesting multiple interpretations of Hetherington’s lines. Human subjects are very few, with Canberra’s planned and unplanned landscapes the dominant theme.
Her work represents both instantly recognisable Canberran images – Telstra Tower, Parliament House and Anzac Parade’s memorials – and less obvious but just as representative subjects like a yellow lawn seen through a bus shelter window, walkers braving a sudden downpour, or dark clouds hovering above an uninhabited car park. In the companion poem to the latter image, ‘Airport’, Hetherington captures one of those moments when Canberra’s sky-scape dwarfs everything beneath it:
until all’s misshapen –
a protean weighing
of cloud-form and distance.
In his blurb for Watching the World, Peter Rose uses the word ‘Protean’ to describe contemporary Australian poetry. But if we are writing and reading Australian poetry in a period marked by change and difference, it’s also worth noting the consistency in Hetherington’s writing here. There could have been a temptation to use this collaboration as a reason to experiment with aspects of form, language or perspective. Instead, perhaps because these poems were first written for an audience that might not regularly encounter poetry, Hetherington has distilled each line, zeroing in on lucidity and approachability.
What’s particularly fascinating is the further consistency between Hetherington’s approach and that of a number of other writers in his poetic community. Profiling Hetherington after his 2014 residency in Rome (during which he finalised Burnt Umber), the Canberra Times describes Canberra as ‘a town fairly creaking with published poets’. With so many working writers in a population of just under 400,000, it’s hardly surprising to find resonances between the language of poets like Geoff Page, Alan Gould and John Foulcher, all of whom share Hetherington’s skill in ensuring clarity.
Of course, drawing boundaries like this to describe a ‘Canberra school’ is fraught. Any similarities we can find among Canberra’s more well-known poets leaves a community of unpublished and emerging writers out of the definition, not to mention those writing in nearby communities that don’t technically sit within the ACT. If there are legitimate through-lines to be found, these poets’ literary connections to one another are probably much less significant than the influence of Canberra’s singular, famously deliberate design.
Alan Gould is acknowledged for the idea behind ‘Waltz’, the poem that begins Watching the World. ‘Waltz’ addresses Canberra’s status as a place conceived on paper. It introduces the city’s ‘straight-drawn streets, / curves, crescents and rounding circles’ along with the houses that line them:
street by street they seem to waltz –
stammering into blazing statements
like an algebraic magic
written on the pastured earth
in irreducible expressions.
This question of the ‘pastured earth’ is one that many poets familiar with the Canberra region, most obviously Judith Wright, have spent years chronicling and questioning. But where a poet like Wright poses large, often troubling questions about anthropocentric impact on this environment, here Hetherington is writing from a more contented standpoint. In ‘Eucalypts’ we feel the warmth of ‘extravagant, broken sunshine’; in ‘Stepping’, rain takes on an almost sensual quality as it ‘flicks leaves / like agile fingers’; and ‘Bird’ shows us ‘ribbed and green-lit shade’.
That said, there are moments when Hetherington ‘dreams a past / into the paddocks’ textures’ (‘Notion’) and Canberra’s pre-colonial history comes into focus. This theme is strongest in the poem that matches Webb’s wide shot of Parliament House (‘The House’):
A building that stands
for squatting and settling;
erasure of stories;
for naming again
what had been named –
that snakes in courses
of knowledge and lore
Canberrans go to great lengths to remind other Australians that although the city is the seat of Parliament, this doesn’t make politics central to their lives. As Les Murray has it in ‘The Canberra Remnant’, residents are occupied with other things, ‘safe from the Government of the Day’. Hetherington navigates this paradox by giving politics a peripheral seat, his poems more often returning to larger questions: Where are the fault lines between Canberra’s landscapes and its residents? When do these landscapes lose out? And where is Canberra’s Indigenous history in its comfortably urbanised present?
Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
haiturograms by Dave Drayton
SOd Press, 2016
Dave Drayton’s Haiturograms is a brief but confounding volume, available as a free PDF download and print-to-order book from Sydney-based SOd press. Like Drayton’s other work, HaiturogramS is driven by formal constraint and innovation within that constraint.
One of its most immediately apparent features is Drayton’s explicitly concrete treatment of pagination and typography, in tandem with combinations of letters that often don’t elicit a morpheme and, more rarely yet, produce coherent words or phrases. Such prominent attention to form over meaning suggests a highly procedural poetics, a poetics of applied machination. That appearance gives rise to recollection of the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets, or even perhaps uncreative writing like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, and their playful (to some, infuriating) confrontations with convention. The anagram-like appearance of some sequences at the margins of Haiturograms and the repetition of certain sounds within the body of the poems particularly brings to mind the Oulipoean poetics of writers like Christian Bök.
Like much of Bök’s work, Drayton’s haiturograms are dominated by extreme disruption of syntax and grammar. Despite this, his ongoing distressing of the formal environment throws up flashes of lyric intensity, like ‘one sobs, main echo stabs one’ in ‘iii.’ (No titles are provided so I’m following the numbers, though there’s also an argument to be made that what I’m referring to here as a distinct poem is actually just the fourth part of one continuous work). Particularly notable in what for the most part reads like a free flow of games, fragments and pointedly playful not-narratives, is the sometimes startling impact the introduction of an ‘I’ can have, for example in ‘v.’:
STIDEON we, this tide on a street
SONEIDT I, when I do stare, stew
DOTSINE this one I’d test raw
TONESID the idiots enter as white dots in Easter
ASTRE I don’t set one’s id
The (false) sense of a narrative purpose is tangible as soon as that lone pronoun appears; not only in the context of verbs like ‘I stew’, lending personality to the subject, but also tangentially, with the implication that ‘the idiots’ who enter have been designated such by that same (judgmental, scathing) subject. This is a powerful demonstration of how the need for a sense of human identity with which to relate, can influence our ability to make sense of – or engage with – a work of art.
The combination of lyric effect and formal phenomena in Haiturograms leaves the reader in a confounding place, particularly in the broader context of constraint-driven experiments like those mentioned above. Indeed, is this work procedural? If so, what is the procedure? As mentioned, at times there appear to be multiple variations of anagrams present, but without clear consistency. At other points, aesthetically pleasing lines emerge, but with a prevalence so rare as to constitute failure if they are the procedure’s purpose.
To interrogate these poems further, I decided to go outside the text. Not far outside, but to other work of Drayton’s: the poem ‘Rough’. Again there is a procedural nature to the work, one both more immediately inviting to the act of decoding – given the greater prevalence of whole words and phrases – but also more confounding for those phrases’ failure to consistently produce complete, sensible sentences. But is meaning-making a fair criterion? After all, grammar and sentence structure are hardly things we expect of poems. But are these even poems? Why doesn’t Drayton use titles? Or are titles to be found in some of the combinations of letters in the margin?
Such questions naturally arise, but they do little to help with analysing whether these poems work. Are they good poems, on their own terms? If they are procedural or uncreative, do we need to read them if we’ve already read Goldsmith? Uncreative writing seems a celebration of the process of writing itself; is writing with no need of a product or purpose. Goldsmith’s wilful manual duplication of a newspaper, for example, intentionally traps the writing. Process as nothing more (or less) than that process. But is that what Drayton is doing here? And if so, why read it?
These haiturograms can be ‘read’ entirely visually, yet are so difficult to make intelligible at a glance as to effectively function as unread(able) visual works, being / appearing rather than meaning. They can also be sounded out, read for what remnants of meaning they contain. As noted, Drayton’s uncollected work like ‘Rough’ is even more susceptible to the latter approach, given the prevalence of whole words and phrases. Yet even there the poem again slips away, the ‘lines’ never quite matching up. It’s curious too that ‘Rough’ is published in Plumwood Mountain, a journal of ecopoetics. Is this to say it is an ecopoem? And if so, is this also true of the haiturograms? Clearly that answer depends on a definition of ecopoetics. One interpretation of the term might be that it’s poetry (or art more broadly) which engages with or is ‘about’ one or more ecologies; how meaning, or at least aesthetic apprehension, is made of or with (or against, or by) ecologies. Given we are all the product of and inhabitants within one or more ecologies, the formally disruptive character of these poems argues for the notion that they are all informed by ecopoetics; we all of us are subjects to and observers of the formal conventions of writing, and therefore our ability to describe and apprehend in writing, to aestheticise and perceive our environments, is shaped by those conventions. In a further, meta-system sense, the distortions of grammar, syntax and word relation in Haiturograms act not unlike a reordering of an ecological set of relations, or its dissolution. What remains is the matter, the physical meat of the language and the opportunity to rewire those relations.
Asking questions like ‘why these letters?’, ‘is this a title?’, ‘what the fuck am I supposed to make of these clusters of letters that appear to hold significance for someone?’, draws attention to the materiality of language, to the experience of letters and writing as a place we inhabit. This may well be the most purely ecopoetic of ecopoetics, highlighting how writing more than any other art form can engage with and expose the nature of its own ecology; an ecopoetics about the ecology of writing itself. Drayton’s marks on the page only create meaning within a habitat, a culture. Their disruption, fragmentation, stammering start and restart of shards of that culture say multitudes about the condition of that ecology and of ourselves.
The term haiturogram, as far as I can tell, is Drayton’s neologism that appears to contextualise and contrast itself with heterograms – a form in which no letter appears more than once. By contrast, haiturograms appear to be ruled by slow change (evolution perhaps) within a semi-limited set: each opening line contains a base selection of letters, most of which are retained in each iteration within the individual poem, with enough substituted out and in to eventually achieve transformation. For example, the first five lines of the opening page:
i. ion stars
ii. a this on
iii. chase to sea
iv. tackier rack
v. type on rot
i. instore death
ii. one acts
iii. tradies once
iv. is thank cue
v. is acute
vi. deaf stove
vii. hour set
i. at silent
ii. our teeth
iii. what elk is
iv. say no to us
v. we this tide
Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003 by Alan Loney
UWAP Poetry, 2016
The publication of these notebooks completes the series that begins with Sidetracks – Notebooks 1976-1991 (Auckland University Press, 1998) and ends with Crankhandle – Notebooks November 2010-June 2012 (Cordite Books, 2015), the latter winning the Victoria Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry 2016. Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003 is divided into seven sections of between two months and two years. Three threads dominate my reading of Alan Loney’s notebooks of the period: use of the fragment; the self and its relationship with writing; and observations of the world and what impact they have.
Loney’s work celebrates the fragment. This postmodern trope has been a constant of his writing career and is perhaps even more noticeable in this volume than others. The brevity of many of the entries here, some lineated and others in prose, speaks of the unfinished. He also makes new use of the sequence, another favoured structure.
From the first page the writing evokes a sense of dislocation. This is balanced by the links between the fragments of poetry, of thought and discussion, which speak in diverse ways as the strophes of the whole. The fragments are enough to signify that they go together to make up something; though, at first, we’re not sure what. As well as the idea of the book, which endures throughout Loney’s writing, aging is an important preoccupation here. One section of prose breaks off: ‘I have made no provision whatever for my later life’, and is followed by:
but the woman there tells me I have
no accent, and nor does she, a
Melburnian who lived in Europe
a few years. That’s it then –
unidentifiable by sound
(October 1998-May 1999)
Whilst Loney expresses an avowed discomfort at new places, there is a desire for a new start (December 2002-July 2003), and Melbourne seems to represent this.
What appeals most about the arrangement of pieces in Melbourne Journal is the way they speak to each other; the way Loney, a master of juxtaposition, uses the sequence to create novel connections. In Sidetracks – Notebooks 1976-1991, he breaks the word ‘juxta-position’ across stanzas to emphasise particularity in a memorable way. He continues such inclinations in the latest collection, on a more structural level. For example, one eccentric description of three people exchanging a roll of bank notes is counterpointed with ‘what a supremely oral culture we are’ (October 1998-May 1999), as if to comment on the story-making qualities of the scenario described and the poet’s own ‘telling’ of it—but with a dash of irony since the characters weren’t reported as speaking.
The book’s movement from prose to poetry is often a happy one, in terms of achieving diversity in narrative voice. Sequences such as the following throw wide open the process of narrative formation in the mind of the reader:
I am living, house-minding for a few days, in a dwelling owned by a successful
middle-class family, in which there is not one thing, no picture, no piece of furniture,
plate, glass, cup or vase that I would choose for my own use
a swarm of tiny flies in the evening sunlight: they move at such speed it’s a wonder
they are not in continual collision with each other
Michelle Anderson: “the type in this book’s too big for words”
his walk is a bit lanky, loose about the shoulders, with a perceptible sway or swing
about it. She is upright, brisk and business-like, a crisp quick body alongside his
(Melbourne May-December 2001)
Here, the strophes of the poem are constantly in collision with one another. Why do they occupy the same page? The comment about the flies might reflect on the house where Loney was house-sitting, or the flies in some way mirror the disconnections of modern life. Does the third fragment comment on the first in some way? Does the fourth contextualise the others? Is the man described a new character, or the author disguised? Perhaps the fragmented sequence reflects thinking processes. Much of Loney’s writing emphasises the idiolect, a form of speech specific to each voice; it may be evoked by any stream-of-consciousness writing or work which allows the disjunctions of thinking to exist on the page.
Monday, March 6th, 2017
Deluxe Paperweight by Holly Isemonger
premium pastoral poetry by Jessica Cham
Holly Isemonger’s Deluxe Paperweight is a mixed bag. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it does make it difficult to write a concise review – one that provides the reader with an objective overview of the book’s contents, while simultaneously sprinkling throughout an appropriate serve of salty criticisms or sweet praises, depending on the reviewer’s palate; these remarks being, in the end, entirely personal judgements. What I ultimately want to convey to you is that the poems collected here are not all good and not all bad, but demonstrate genuine promise and wit, and that the mixed-bagginess mentioned above is probably intentional, though this doesn’t automatically excuse said mixed-bagginess. Saying that much is easy; what’s difficult is to explain why Deluxe Paperweight works, and why it doesn’t.
First, the chapbook is oddly structured. There are six sections and six distinctly different kinds of poems. Beginning with a series of ‘Reviews’ of films by Lars von Trier, Isemonger then turns to more conventional poetic forms with three ‘sad witch psalms ;(’, followed by a series of rearranged poems called ‘Hip Shifts’. Next is ‘Free Online Translation Service’, in which the author copy-pastes a paragraph through an online translator multiple times in order to jumble up the syntax until, in the final iteration, the passage is unintelligible (or at least I assume this is the case, since I can’t know for certain – it could be that Isemonger has manipulated the paragraph herself so that it appears to have been translated and poorly retranslated again and again). The longest section consists of three ‘Failed screenplays’, and the final piece, titled ‘Five Obstructions’ after the von Trier documentary of the same name, is a poem comprised entirely of questions. Intercut between these six poetic works are three comic-book-inspired pieces of visual art, made up of screenshots from various films, television programs, and paintings.
The first recurring technique that links these disparate works together appears to be ekphrasis: a rather unfortunate word for a rather nifty literary device. Film acts as a central motif throughout Isemonger’s poetry, though she is ultimately more concerned with the viewer’s private experience than with the filmmaker’s art. The poems in Deluxe Paperweight observe people who are themselves observing (and who are, in some cases, aware they are being observed). Thus, Isemonger remarks in her ‘review’ of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves that she ‘wouldn’t watch beyond the following frame if it weren’t for the handsome man’, and describes in ‘Hip Shifts’ trolling ‘the gallery for art that resembled life’. The prose poem ‘Free Online Translation Service’ begins with a description of a character recalling her experience watching an unnamed film:
If you ask her about the favourite part of her trip she will put her hand on her chin and look up, close her eyes and think of a film she watched at home in bed with an old boyfriend; a man ate canned pineapple, he ran around and around in circles to sweat out his tears, so he would stop being sad. (6)
The images Isemonger describes are provided without narrative context: the emphasis is on the recollection of the visual stimuli. This is perhaps why the three artworks in Deluxe Paperweight focus predominantly on images of different optical forms, from extreme close-ups of eyeballs, to a pair of binoculars, the lens of a camera, and the view through a peephole.
Reading Isemonger’s poetry, I am reminded of the feminist notion of the male gaze: indeed, several of her images are taken from John Berger’s BBC series Ways of Seeing (1972), which criticises the predominance of the male perspective in traditional Western cultural aesthetics. There appears to be a tension within the poems between Isemonger’s struggle to interrupt the hegemony of the male gaze and the need to incorporate its products into her work (all the images are taken from films by male directors or paintings by male artists). To subvert this, Isemonger turns to self-reflection; the mirror – recalling the vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries – becomes an important symbol of the feminine subject’s fragmentation via her re-presentation in male-oriented media. In ‘Failed Screenplay (Rom Com)’, a ‘version’ of the poet addresses this problem directly:
I cannot write the screenplay (looks up and locks eyes with herself in the mirror) and I’ll tell you why! (in the voice of Werner Herzog)
Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity – a fiendish stupidity (swivels in chair to address the camera) sometimes I write about me (gestures toward the mirror) sometimes I write about versions of me (yells) HOLLY!
Isemonger flits between flippancy and earnestness in her approach to this theme. There’s a double duality to her work, both in its tone and in its effort to balance literary art against so-called ‘low’ art, such as genre cinema, selfies, and Internet emojis; an idea that seems to be expressed in the chapbook’s humorous title: Deluxe Paperweight.
The tone in Jessica Cham’s premium pastoral poetry – a short work by another new poet – is similarly difficult to parse. Like Isemonger, Cham’s poetry is juxtaposed against images, though here they appear to be the author’s original photographs. The poem is written seemingly as part of an email to independent filmmaker, musician, and actor Vincent Gallo. Cham’s language is often playful, incorporating puns (‘oh de toilette’ (1)), surreal imagery (‘a tremendous exhale that swells / to the size of a balloon’ (2)), and jokes: ‘the only way you can move forward huh huh huh / is to recollect the sum total / of hugh grants acting range’ (3)). As the poem concludes, Cham becomes more direct—the underlying sensibilities of the poem seem to burst out into the open all of a sudden:
Ok so if u remove the fragmented syntax from
choreographed dance what is a difference
Between ur dance and an act of inexplicable dance
I don’t get it and i fuckin hate ur practise
The work didn’t make sense and i hate her
personally like am i meant to feel sympathy for her
Cham shares Isemonger’s ekphrastic response to cinema, though it’s unclear whether Cham is addressing Gallo’s ‘work’ or someone else’s. Regardless, the sense of outrage remains largely the same either way – it reads like the secret argument you might have with yourself after visiting a bad art exhibit. There’s also the possibility that the above lines are intended as a kind of auto-criticism; Cham may be pre-empting the responses to her own work making it (like Deluxe Paperweight) all the more challenging to review. And both Isemonger and Cham use their self-awareness as a technique for satirising the dominance of the male gaze: ‘i have been tested installed and serviced for maximum performance and u should mount me on the wall to mark market economic value’.
Isemonger goes a step further, however, in her investigation of the transformative relationship between language and digital technology. This is where the chapbook shows the most promise but also ends up being the most disappointing. Isemonger’s experiments with language do not ultimately amount to much. ‘Hip Shifts’, where the poet rearranges three apparently unconnected stanzas of poetry, is reminiscent of the ‘Kenosha Kid’ passage of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), though Isemonger doesn’t advance Thomas Pynchon’s linguistic experiment in any significant way. ‘Free Online Translation Service’ is much of the same. The use of an online translator to jumble up the sentence structure is reminiscent of the formal experiments of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets such as Charles Bernstein, but Isemonger’s poem doesn’t appear to add much to this aging tradition. You get the sense that something is trying to be worked out here; what that is exactly is difficult to locate. The final result is to make the poem more cryptic, though not necessarily more meaningful or interesting: ‘Eyes do not love, an old friend in bed at home, feeling stalls, or sweat, tears, pineapple round’.
Still, Deluxe Paperweight is worth a look. Holly Isemonger is a promising new talent and it will be interesting to see her art develop from here. Though this chapbook doesn’t achieve the full potential of its ideas, Isemonger manages to showcase a surprisingly broad range for such a short collection. But this is not quite a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none situation; Deluxe Paperweight is a challenging though flawed introduction to a new artist, whose future projects will likely overshadow this one.
Monday, March 6th, 2017
Headwaters by Anthony Lawrence
Pitt Street Publishing, 2015
Headwaters is Anthony Lawrence’s fifteenth collection and his first with Pitt Street Poetry, whose website memorably suggests the humble reader should ‘Find yourself a shot glass, take a seat, and take a shot.’ This is the first time I’ve seen a publisher suggest their books be read thus, though in their defence, they do so in relation to lines from Lawrence’s ‘Wax Cathedral’. Ah well, when in Rome … a thimble of Lagavulin scotch as required and I’m finally ready to review. Non-drinkers may read on as they are.
Headwaters offers no great divergence from the impressive Signal Flare (Puncher & Wattman, 2013) or many prior works of note. It is recognisably ‘Lawrencian’: corporeal, tactile, connubial, self-reflexive, tenebrous, ecological, elegiac, transcendent, each flexing its own brand of toughness. ‘Connective Tissue’, which won the 2015 Newcastle Poetry Prize, is an early standout and the longest inclusion. Its six pages range from sickness to amazement at the body, seascapes and memory of country rugby games with ‘tough farm boys who made up / for a lack of finesse / with raw courage’. All are bound by the connective tissue which links poet and lover, honeyeater and flower, old man and young, walker and bird-printed sand. The opening poem of Headwaters, ‘My Darling Turns to Poetry at Night’, seems almost a prelude or epilogue to the subject matter of ‘Connective Tissue’, notably where ‘Her dreams have night vision, and in her sight / Our bodies leave a ghostprint where we’ve laid’, the double entendre of the last word a sly flicker of humour in the villanelle’s greater dance of abstraction and soft, imprinted skin.
‘The Deep’ is the poem I return to most. I’m typically (notoriously?) drawn to the marine, but in this case it is more the delicate, gradual rendering that makes this naked dive something more extraordinary:
we slipped away
without a word or gesture for goodbye
a dying sun like coals inside a fire opal
past fish like flying crystal
from a breaking chandelier, our rings
throwing sparks, our optical colour-wheels
depleted as we neared fatal levels
in our oxygen, to surface under a sky
blowing over like ash, like a signatory
on love’s testament and will
made permanent and formal
where acceptance moves apace
with a migrant shelving of the sea.
The rest of the poem is just as spellbinding, peering through ‘photic and abyssal zones’ where a world-record-holding free diver haemorrhaged to death, a marker buoy ‘tending / to the rise and fall of its reflection / like a woman with her face in her hands’. Lawrence’s detailed, absorptive luminosity is reminiscent of Martin Harrison, a master of generous lyrical concentration. Both poets, of course, share modern American tastes, though to refine this further does neither justice other than to note that Headwaters takes its epigraph ‘With no less purpose than the swifts / that scrawl my name across the sky’ from New York poet and musician Michael Donaghy.
The final sequence ‘Bloodlines’ sees the poet return to his country roots with its mixture of modern pastoral (‘the quad bike has replaced the night horse’) and Ted Hughes-esque visceral starkness. The starkness of ‘In Extremis’ is of a different order. Explorer poems are often considered out of vogue, consigned to the mid-century (white) Australian search for national identity in Rosemary Dobson’s ‘The Ship of Ice’, Douglas Stewart’s ‘Worseley Enchanted’, Francis Webb’s ‘Leichhardt in Theatre’ and Eyre All Alone’, with subsequent Indigenous retorts, for example in Jack Davis’ ‘The Black Tracker’. Lawrence’s ‘In Extremis’ resurrects the explorer poem with its depiction of a starving Sir Douglas Mawson in Antarctica:
In the late night flare and burn of the Aurora Australis
he finds the arc of a distress signal. In displacements of ice
breaking bone and rifle shots.
Standing where he’d once seen a leopard seal
tease a wounded penguin like a torn sleeve of muscle
from between the blue taproots of floebergs
he stares from the frayed portal in his balaclava
as if into the patronymic origins of his name. Maw.
The minke whale’s baleen like fly-streamers over a door.
The orca’s serated, invitational grin.
This is grand poetry without the pomposity, replaced instead by semi-survival and brute mammalian reality. I loathe ‘clean sheet’ reviews, but my harsher critical faculties can only peck at the edges here of the collection as a whole (does pseudo-ephedrine deserve a whole poem in ‘Medicine’?). The poems, as they should, correspond with one another. ‘Ghazal’, for example, serves as one geographic counterpoint to Mawson’s Antarctic solitude, the poet of his younger days alone in the red dust of Broken Hill, written into the present through the ancient Arabic form. Shifting sands, indeed.
Headwaters once again proves that Anthony Lawrence’s claim for a permanent place in Australian poetry stopped being a claim long ago. There’s little need to claim what you already are. Gravely, graciously, he’s just getting on with it.
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
Carrying the World by Maxine Beneba Clarke
At the launch of Carrying the World, Maxine Beneba Clarke shared the mic with spoken word performers who were part of her decade long journey in poetry. The poignancy of Clarke’s gesture demonstrates how embedded she is in a literary community that erases the distinction between ‘high art’ (page) poetry and the spoken word.
In her poem ‘show us where you’re publishing’ she boldly declares:
and if so inclined
could mic some words across
and blow your fucking mind
Our review of Carrying the World is also a review of our journey into poetry, and our alienation from it. Both of our formal literary educations from high school to university, from the 1990s onwards, entailed a favouring of the Western English canon. While one of us studied Indigenous Australian playwright and poet’s Jack Davis’s play, No Sugar, none of his poems were offered by the curriculum. We struggled with our prescribed poetry and literary texts and missed the opportunity of reading and studying great Aboriginal Australian poets like Oodgeroo Noonuccal / Kath Walker, Lisa Bellear, Lionel Fogarty and Ali Cobby Eckermann. Also absent were non-Anglo poets like Pi O, Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey, Ouyang Yu and Merlinda Bobis. Our experiences of poetry were dull and un-relatable. In contrast, Clarke’s poetry aches and roars of experiences that we can relate to as cis-gendered-identifying women of mixed race Ballardong Noongar and Peranakan-Chinese Malaysian descent.
Carrying the World traverses the autobiographical to the fictional, and ‘Demerara Sugar’ anticipates Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race. Funded by the Hazel Rowley Fellowship, Clarke and her children traveled to England on a research trip tracing her family’s history and her diasporic Jamaican-Guyanese identity.
this niece of mine a-coming say
she going voyage west africa
some writer say she trace
our lineage /
Clarke’s clever use of patois in conversation effectively conveys intimate moments that
provides insight into her relationships with relatives and the uncovering of family secrets.
she going old country
what / she gon feed the chain
back through the black
The title poem ‘Carrying the World’ is fictional, historical and mythical; it’s a poem you would expect or imagine a black writer and activist to write. At the same time, it also highlights what it feels like to ‘carry the world’, being weighed down by the heavy social justice work that black women must do. Work that is hard, and rarely acknowledged:
the rocking chair strains
under weight of it all
the ole woman’s frail
but she’s carrying the world
In comparison to black male historical figures, women who have participated in this fight remain under-appreciated and anonymous:
y’all don’t know her name
so let’s call her Black History
The pressure that this responsibility places on black women writers like Clarke is further demonstrated in ‘what are you going to say’, where she directly confronts the expectation that she must respond to the shooting in the shopping mall in Nairobi.
people / they have been writing to me
what are you/ what
are you going to say/ about
what just happened
about the westgate mall siege
like they think I am
By the end she realises that ‘the only weapon I have at my immediate disposal is a pen’ resolving to take up the fight. But in the act of writing Clarke acknowledges the exhaustion that comes with ‘carrying the world’.
but just maybe / I don’t
want or have to be the one
to write it
However, with her growing reputation, she unintentionally falls into being ‘the voice’ for a community, a positioning she questions.
maybe they need a poem
to make sense of it all
In ‘skin’ she conveys the trauma of racism with an honest simplicity that reading it felt like the words reached out and slapped you.
i try to claw my way
out of this skin
but pull and scratch and bruise
seems i’m locked tight in
In short sharp sequences we witness the abject conditioning her body endures in a white settler nation. The nightmarish image is a shocking reminder of the experiences people of colour have come to live with. For this woman writer of Afro-Caribbean descent, race has a strong and powerful presence throughout her collection. Often it is Clarke’s depictions of racial injustice that are the most gruesome but leaves a powerful impact. For example, in ‘mali’ she describes the fear she carries for her unborn son, an emotion that eludes the baby’s father.
your dada said
chill out / these are different times
you’re behaving like it’s 1965
but when I looked in his eyes
all I could see were whites
The poet Lia Incognita wrote in the Overland article ‘Four perspectives on race & racism in Australian poetry’ that writers of colour are ‘largely ignored by publishers, critics, prize judges, anthology editors, curriculum writers.’ Carrying the World begins to redress this imbalance and for readers like us, it is thrilling to read someone who speaks a truth that is often silenced.
The collection also reveals how challenging her journey has been towards mainstream success. In ‘the end of the affair’ she expresses the struggle of pursuing a passion where race and gender discrimination lurk in the background.
between me and you
it was wild while it lasted
but poetry/ he got all single white male
for the last part there on me
Carrying the World encapsulates the extraordinary journey of a single black mother, poet and author within an industry dominated by white men and women. From writing and performing poetry at the margins to her recent win at the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for poetry, Clarke’s work is breaking down preconceptions and prejudices in white publishing circles. However, what is equally important as her accolades is that her popularity and force is creating new spaces for other vital voices to emerge:
we want poetry back / we
are the children you
left / wailing / without a backward glance
oh / but when you cut down word
the roots undergrounded / and grew
Monday, February 20th, 2017
either, Orpheus by Dan Disney
UWA Publishing, 2016
Is the contemporary world really as confused and as doomed as it seems? In his latest book of poetry, either, Orpheus, Dan Disney tends towards the affirmative with his ‘elegiac anthroposcenes’ – assaulting scenes of twenty-first century demise – but he does not attempt to grapple with the problem alone. Instead he enlists the help of a stunning amount of other writers and thinkers.
Kierkegaard and Rilke are the two major influences in this work, though they are far from the only ones. In every poem Disney pits different writers and their thoughts against each other; this creates a kind of poetic conversation, reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s early work in which he argues against himself using different pseudonyms. Sometimes an entire poem of Disney’s is dedicated to one poet, and other times a single poem is set up as a debate between various writers (interesting is Disney’s use of ‘vs.’ as opposed to ‘&’). What is the reason for all this, though?
Disney is intent on finding what he calls a ‘humanising mode’ of poetry that allows us to ‘peer across openings between appearances’ and, like Rilke, mobilise current global anxieties which other forms of writing can tend to shackle or conceal. And it seems that poetry is the only way to do this properly, as it appears to be the only way Disney can form his so-called ‘sound shapes’ that assemble everything from Marxian theories, Cultural Studies commentaries, and the self-proclamations of numerous creative producers of text and art into something that seems total and all-encompassing. By gathering the thoughts and ideas of so many writers, and synthesising these different viewpoints in such an explosive way, Disney erases the boundaries of time and space, as well as the pretense that any of us write or read or think in a vacuum. Disney knows whose ideas he is gathering as his ‘language-pollen’, and he is not trying to hide what he is attempting to do with this work: that is, something different from Kierkegaard’s either/or (a regretful atheist’s desire to divide himself into his ethical and aesthetic parts in an effort to find God) and Sonnets to Orpheus (poems bridging a silence that gives us glimpse into an empty, but responsive, unknown); instead Disney gives us his self-proclaimed ‘godless both/and’. This is the way through for Disney.
The theme of modernity and, more specifically, the constant nature of the modern world is apparent in these poems, largely due to how deliberately Disney grounds his poems in contemporary surrounds and situations. From the very first page we readers are plunged into the mysterious ether that is our century: post-industrial, post-modern, post-fact, post-meaning:
In a grey city filled with office buildings that scraped the underfloor of the clouds, in a grey city of factories run by well-greased machines that never slept in too late (and after all, who could sleep with the to-and-fro, all the shuffling hours of the day), in that city of shuddering systems at work, no-one noticed it at first
It seems to me that Disney sees modernity as a force, in and of itself. Technology and late-stage capitalism seep through the edges of this book; this is the Anthropocene circling around the self-destruct button. Disney seems to be attempting to coalesce the voices of many into a single theory, a single way through the labyrinth that looms all around us as a collective humanity.
Disney focuses on the individual becoming in tune with the universal, in a Kierkegaardian way, but it is never quite spelled out for us as simply as that. Disney isn’t asking to play preacher, if anything he’s simply a master craftsman, handing us a mirror which only reflects our own reactions back to us. Or maybe a better analogy would be that Disney has created a machine of sorts in this book, a kind of computer. The reader approaches either, Orpheus with their conceptions of the world and their unspoken anxieties regarding the present and future, and then these data points are thrown about and combined and examined until, at the end, the reader is left feeling tested and hopefully sharpened by the range of voices present in the pages. Maybe Disney has succeeded at creating a version of what Levertov calls the ‘meta-machine’, using an ‘extra-linguistic silence’ and the repetition of the ‘villanelle’ style to allow us to internalise the external while simultaneously bringing the internal to light.
A villanelle is a kind of fixed verse form, popular for pastoral poems during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The villanelle’s most defining feature – and the one that Disney uses the most in his modernised version of the form – is repetition. His poems obsess over certain lines and ideas. For example, the first three stanzas of a poem dedicated to Ted Hughes:
I spent the first years of my life in a valley
sitting in woods muttering the occult business of little folktales;
madness sometimes works
amid the machines kept running elegiacally by large sets of hands
sweeping populations of crow from each momentary wholeness
I spent the first years of my life in a valley.
enchanted by the noise of complex human emotion: it was
big trouble in tweed jackets, the very wide landscapes of modern man
and this is why madness sometimes works
This form lends itself well to a work of this magnitude and type. Traditional, and yet made modern due to the content of the poems themselves and by Disney’s different ways of inverting the villanelle into something more like concrete poetry, the sense of encapsulating and ‘bringing together’ of history and several viewpoints at once could perhaps only be properly communicated through such a form. Without looping and re-interpreting of the same idea, and without the necessary spaces between lines that the villanelle enforces, Disney’s poems may not have been so good as they are.
In the book’s epilogue Disney calls his poems ‘sound-swarms’, which is a good way to describe how it feels to read this book. It can be assaulting, and the spaces between the sounds and rhythms with which he fills the pages are noticeable. The spaces between the swarms are important to understand and contemplate, like in this poem that plays Alain Badiou against Samuel Beckett:
or does truth exist as a charm (L. carmen: song), epic
amid overgrown nakedness, geraniums, countless procedural fingerings
we know not where to begin, nor how
to announce disappointment in the rhetorical equipment of the gods,
a church of hats lurching through muddy breeze
where truth exists as a charm (L. carmen: song), and rats
gallop unsurveyed by mystics, alienating
in near-beastless gardens, opening ground in the name of tragedy/completion
we know not where to begin, nor when
to take the pulse of that society of old friends
in a matrix of poses declaring taste, flash of themselves in front of closed
truth exists as a charm (L. carmen: song), an incarnation
Monday, February 20th, 2017
The Asylum Poems by Lisa Jacobson
Recent Work Press / IPSI, 2016
Counsel for the Defence by Judy Johnson
Recent Work Press / IPSI, 2016
Lisa Jacobson is a Melbourne poet and social worker. In the chapbook The Asylum Poems, she attempts to empathetically inhabit the experiences of an Iraqi family fleeing persecution. Her images are often beautiful, like ‘uncle-blood falling in rays’ and ‘families scatter like music’. The prettiness of the language is a curious choice, though, given the raw horror of the subject matter. Closely observed grotesque details, like the father yelling ‘Towels! ’ as he carries his bleeding brother over the threshold of their Iraqi home, are among the sequence’s most satisfying moments.
The chapbook is bookended by a pair of poems in which Jews in historical exodus proclaim their understanding of the plight of contemporary asylum seekers. ‘To all those who seek asylum, do not think / we have forgotten you’, say the Jews in 1939 aboard a ship fleeing Germany. ‘We’, presumably, is a pronoun encompassing not only all living Jews, united by the shared burden of historical persecution, but all Jewish ancestors who suffered exile and racist inhumanity in history’s long and shameful dossier. The Asylum Poems dilate on the experience of a family who flee Iraq, brave the perilous boat journey, and arrive on Christmas Island. There are moments when the unbearable situation the family is fleeing is poignantly fictionalised. However, the book’s opening and closing poems situate these culturally particular experiences within the grandly compassionate and apparently uncomplicated total understanding of the narrator, who invokes her inheritance of the historical suffering of the Jews as evidence of shared experience: ‘We too were thin with hope’; ‘we were concave with sorrow like you’; ‘May we console you, as we were consoled, in the desert of our own exile’. I cannot quite dispel the smell of irony that hangs on these poems’ premises. No matter how the Jews of the SS St Louis and the Old Testament might sympathise with other situations of exodus, the Israeli government has little sympathy for the plight of other Middle Eastern peoples fleeing oppression, and an asylum seeker family wouldn’t think of showing up on Israel’s doorstep.
When expressions of compassion are aggrandised in this way, they become abstracted, thin, too pure. To me, they lack the textures of a genuine human-to-human exchange, where our own concerns, cultural lenses, to-do lists, and judgements are always interrupting. I think I would prefer to read poems where Lisa Jacobson the social worker sits with Ali the Iraqi asylum seeker, and to hear them talking, and to read the movements of their minds, known and imagined, and, crucially, to see some self-conscious intimation that there are pockets and crevasses of Ali’s experience that we (the ‘we’ of white, privileged, middle-class Australian poets sheltered from racism and persecution) can never understand.
The ‘Dark Convict’ poems in Judy Johnson’s Counsel for the Defence constitute another imaginative occupancy of the mind of an ‘other.’ In this case, Johnson writes the trauma of her ancestor, John Martin, who was one of eleven African American ex-slaves who were First Fleet convicts. The various hells of Newgate prison, typhus, bushfire, and the cat’o’nine tails are rendered with highly musical language, the images lush with dread and sometimes vomitously affecting. Listen to this:
Flares galloped the trees with a million dirty hooves
gorged on the leaves then shit black ash on my head burped up
orange flares. (‘John Martin’s Fifty Acres’)
The flogger clears the gore with his fingertips to make
sure the next lash will let those knots dig in.
We are bound
says they for His Merciful Majesty’s African
plantations. The blacks among us should feel nostalgic
elation says they. Our long-lost dead might dig up their
own bones they had buried for safekeeping til we came
home. Those withered sticks then rise up and dance under the
pus-clot of all negro moons. And yes! Won’t we all dance
and swoon right along says they?
Black humour often rescues the poems from melodrama, which they risk but are never defeated by. The fucked power structures of the colonial project are also beautifully rendered in their cruel absurdity, layering the implicit compassion of the collection with textures of cynicism and exasperation. I also find that a certain self-consciousness about the process of fictionalisation fends off my discomfort around ideas of who can write the other. For example, in ‘Caught Black Handed’, the authenticity of apparently verbatim court documents is disrupted by lines like:
The clothes packed in their open-and-shut case of guilt I
show fast-and-loose to this court hoping their plain-as-day
material witness makes a fine noose.’
The poems wear their constructedness with some obviousness. These moments announce the attempt to imagine radically other experiences as just that – an attempt.
Johnson’s chapbook also includes five poems about flowers, a formal experiment of constraint (each line has nine syllables) that the occasional confusion of tones rendered less compelling for me than the ‘Dark Convict’ set. Still, the marvellous torque and thoughtfulness of Johnson’s project speaks of a mature poet at the height of her powers.
Tuesday, February 14th, 2017
Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry
Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson, eds.
Hunter Publishers, 2016
Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetrypresents a compelling cross-section of feminist voices, experiences and engagements in Australia, picking up from where Kate Jenning’s 1975 feminist anthology Mother, I’m Rooted: An Anthology of Australian Women Poets left off. Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson have collated new voices and criticisms, rich in their variety, yet presenting a thematically harmonious, unified front.
There is much of value in collections like these. Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry sets up a layered answer to the question, ‘What is feminist poetry?’ There is no demand for urgent action, but rather a subtle, cresting sense of activism. Family, death, art, cyborgs and ancient history are all raised for comment, with a recurring central focus on the importance of individual voices.
The collection draws from the works of women (and a few men as well) located all over Australia, feeding into a central idea paraphrased from Rachel Blau DuPlessis by Ann Vickery: ‘a constellation of strategies’ rather than one homogenised approach towards feminist voices among hegemonic identities. There is a reassuring note of solidarity throughout the collection, but a simultaneous celebration of diversity in style, tone, theme and foci. This collection shares voices in collaborations, dedications, and solo strikes; there is no ‘one feminist voice’, but Cassidy and Wilkinson in the introduction recognise a shared sense of responsibility in the present. Diverse subject matter and direct styles abound.
In generating the collection, Cassidy and Wilkinson stipulated that none of the poems contained within could be previously published; motivated by a goal that ‘we would come face to face with “processes of consciousness and of writing” that reflect how people are using the page in Australia’ (Jennings, ‘Introduction’). These are on-going works, reacting to twenty-first century needs. In this sense, despite the editors’ professed desire not to document an écriture féminine, this is a necessary consequence of completing such a work (‘Walking through glass’, xiv-xv). There are risks of essentialism when compiling a collection like this. Hélène Cixous’ model of écriture féminine has attracted criticism for being excessively utopian and ahistorical. Pam Morris identifies some of these major criticisms, particularly concerns of biologism or essentialism in Cixous’ demand that a woman ‘write herself’ through returning to the libidinal drives of the body. This need for spontaneity can be seen as affirmation of stereotypically ‘feminine’ emotionalism and irrationality.
However, Cassidy and Wilkinson have offered much to counter this restrictive interpretation: there is no strict uniformity of style, tone or agenda; female and male voices are commingled; and the ‘selves’ within these poems are often layered presences, rather than immediately personal or self-referential. The voices within the collection are varied, alternately outpouring and remote, demanding and forgiving, but always resolute, and frequently with a note of rebuke. Poems are written by individuals, in collaboration, and in dedication. There is no one ‘feminist voice’ within the collection.
The structural and thematic implications of excessive quotation in Gabrielle Higgins’s ‘She will be praised’ dominate the poem. ‘Judith’, a Hebrew name which translates to ‘she will be praised’, completely frames the poem, broken into fragmentary quotations by three other poets: Judith Rodriguez, Judith Wright and Judith Beveridge. Higgins’s style borders on referential iconography, weighed against the irony of the final lines ‘(to the) subtlest form trying / each thought like a key’. In order to be recognised, subtlety is not necessarily going to get results. It is vital to breathe life into names. The speaker of ‘Visions’ by Ali Jane Smith, also early in the collection, shares a similar anxiety, as she is ignored by a procession of male icons – David Attenborough, Tony Robinson, Monty Don, Brian Cox – only to be finally addressed:
On an almost empty bus, the one
I’ve been waiting for, Professor Mary Beard.
Waist-length grey hair, long legs
the voice of a practical neighbour.
On her blog she has written ‘one should only
very tentatively pontificate
about places one visits, but doesn’t really understand.’
How to arrive at understanding?
First press the buzzer and alight.
Mary asks ‘What happened to that pencil?’
Smith’s speaker struggles to balance meaning-making while contending with a barrage of domestic chores and images, never quite reached by the suggestions of the male figures. Professor Beard’s representation pushes agency back into the speaker’s hands via directives and questions, but the work is still hers alone.
Traditionally ‘organic’ visions of femininity are teased in Meredi Ortega’s ‘Cyborg me’:
first thing I’d hack would be my womb
hack it right out like the tin woodman with his enchanted axe
put a music box in there, have it play Greensleeves.
Irreverent yet flippantly scathing, Ortega playfully undoes the pinions of biological characterisation:
my forehead’s going to be an LED scrolling message
sometimes it will say FUCK OFF, unprovoked
other times it will say USE YOUR INITIATIVE.
Ortega’s spilling over of agency outside of traditional body confines runs up against the agony of bodily ownership, soaked in imagery of abuse and wearing thin against external intrusions in ‘Unbecoming’ by Jo Langdon. All throughout the collection, Cassidy and Wilkinson have presented a range of ‘bodies’ to voice their grievances, circulating the recurring need for stronger feelings of autonomy, freedom, and safety. Elif Sezen’s ‘Immunosuppression’ embraces medical terminology to address this lingering gap between on-going national and international issues of lack of agency:
… I smile.
‘Your healthy self must visit all wounded parts
and dark places of your past’
‘send her to all places: embrace those selves’
The long-awaited secret is reflected
through the soul’s prism
the illusory corpses
of those women
There is no end.
This idea that ‘there is no end’ is a recurring undercurrent to the collection. These are not ‘all’ Australian feminist voices, nor are these all of the possible angles in need of critique. Cassidy and Wilkinson succeed in taking a living tissue sample, but no one poet is offering answers to all of the concerns within.
Monday, February 13th, 2017
Knocks by Emily Stewart
Vagabond Press, 2016
In her 2004 essay ‘Avant-Garde Community and the Individual Talent’, Marjorie Perloff highlights the disjunction between notions of the avant-garde and its reality, specifically the problematic association of the avant-gardist as having to belong to a particular band or movement. Perloff writes:
The dialectic between individual artist and avant-garde groups is seminal to twentieth-century art-making. But not every “movement” is an avant-garde and not every avant-garde poet or artist is associated with a movement.
Emily Stewart’s Knocks operates somewhere in between these two ideas. Certainly, Stewart is part of a new wave of avant-garde poetry in Australia, and collaborative prowess is surely at the collection’s centre; but it is difficult to attach Stewart to just one particular community. Knocks pays homage to a variety of twentieth century movements: there are traces of the Oulipo, The New York School, and a certain wave of Australian poets of the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s that includes Pam Brown, Gig Ryan, Ken Bolton and John Forbes. However, to place Stewart as generationally aligned with just one would be a stretch, as the poems in Knocks are too various and unruly for that. But if there is one alliance that crystallises in Knocks, it is an alliance with women.
Amelia Dale writes, ‘to read Stewart is to be in the company of women’. Like Dale, Pam Brown’s launch speech cited the influence on Stewart of Arielle Greenberg’s gurlesque – a mode that celebrates, in Greenberg’s words, ‘visceral experiences of gender; these poems are non-linear but highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful’. More locally, Knocks might be read as elaborating on Melinda Bufton’s performance of the gurlesque in her debut collection Girlery (2014). In a review for Cordite Poetry Review, Emily Bitto reads the collection’s title, Girlery, as a verb, ‘something close to a feminine form of tomfoolery. One imagines a stern injunction to “cease this girlery at once!”’ Girlery then, might be considered as a feminine report of ratbaggery, a gurlish nerve that is traceable throughout Knocks.
By way of example, ‘Mobile Service’ encourages us, with obvious hints of irony and moxie, to ‘dust down a book of microwave recipes and Instagram it, with / kisses’. Elsewhere, ‘MIAuk – Baddygirl 2 MIA PARTYSQUAD BEYONCE FLAWLESS REMIX’ indulges fanfare for the gurlish heroine, the Queen B of pop. The poem presents as selected YouTube comments taken from an MIA remix of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless.’ Stewart’s poem is a tongue-in-cheek remix of the digital commentary by one female pop star on another female pop star’s anthem for female sexuality and pride. For those who don’t know (but honestly, how could you not?), ‘Flawless’ moves around the refrain:
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
Say I, look so good tonight
To add another layer to this lineage, the original ’Flawless’ contains a sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ So by this stage that’s remix x remix x remix x remix or, remix to the power of four (cheeky, to say the least). This is not to say that Stewart’s remix is a dilution, rather, in embracing this consistent deferral it has the opposite effect: the poem’s cognisance saves it from the risk of appearing too popish; Stewart’s art of remixing is both sharp and cutting. Moves like this one might be seen as an extension of Jacques Derrida – an ode to ‘différance’. The intertextual references in Knocks embrace the various trajectories of meaning; to be involved in the communicative matrix and to destabilise meaning is a thrill for Stewart, a thrill that is transferred to her reader, too.
One might also note this drive in the collection’s second section, consisting of some of the work’s most intriguing poems. It is composed of six erasures constructed from the writing of Lydia Davis, Virginia Woolf, Helen Garner, Dianne Ackerman, Susan Sontag and Clarice Lispector. Most obviously, these erasures continue the book’s dedication, its homage to and collaboration with female poets, not only because of the source material’s authors, but also taking into consideration the history of Erasure as a form rooted in feminism. Travis Macdonald argues that our earliest encounter with erasure comes from Sappho’s fragments, ‘authored by the elements themselves … via the remnants of weathered stone carvings and papyrus scrolls; artifacts dutifully discovered, reassembled and retranslated by the scholars of every successive generation’. Like Sappho’s fragments, Knocks is direct and erotic, an agent for female desire. ‘Animal hands’ declares, ‘All I want is your mouth on my neck’, and later in ‘Baby’, ‘If what you’re imagining is sex, place me / in the whip hot tundra where we can fuck / and burn for it’.
Monday, February 13th, 2017
Kyoto Sakura Tanka by Andrew Lansdown
Rhiza Press, 2016
Through a series of visual and textual explorations, Andrew Lansdown’s Kyoto Sakura Tanka creates a striking depiction of the bicameral, separating his collection into kami no ku (the poet sees) and ashimo no ku (the poet wonders). The fundamental basis of Lansdown’s series is rooted in the Japanese tanka, or traditional waka: a five-line piece of poetry divided into mortas, or syllable counts, of 5/7/5/7/7. Yet, in this series, Lansdown once again takes up the themes of nature, transience and master Bashō’s doctrine of fueki ryūkō – ‘permanence and change’ – only to position himself against his chosen poetic tradition.
Lansdown’s self-assigned task in this collection is twofold: he is disruptive to form and yet desires to remain meaningful. Notwithstanding bold innovation, Lansdown’s tanka captures the precision of haiku in its brevity while simultaneously preoccupied with fresh visions of the Imagist tradition as a means of cognitive exploration. Each poem takes the reader on a poetic detour of Kyoto, which furnishes new significance for this microcosm of Japanese culture and tradition. Of course, small details and Lansdown’s exquisite precision of language are not definitive, yet they are specific enough to keep abreast of fueki ryūkō as a necessary innovation to the waning presence of the tanka in contemporary poetics.
Take for instance, Lansdown’s ‘Volcanoes’:
There are volcanoes
among the mighty bamboos,
with water in their craters
where once other bamboos stood.
This perception of the ‘bamboos’ awakens us to a dual significance in what remains once the bamboo undergoes metamorphosis. In the heavily codified realm of traditional Japanese poetry, waka’s select poetic words allude to a multitude of connotations and prescribed associations. Within ‘Volcanoes’, ‘bamboos’ embody the perpetual vitality of nature itself or are presented as ‘extinct volcanoes’; nothing more than an awareness of the impermanence and delicate im / perfection of things, characterised in the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. This idea is also demonstrated in Lansdown’s ‘Off-Pivot’:
an off-pivoted bamboo tube
lifting with the load of water,
falling with the load of itself.
The ‘shishi-odoshi’ is an imperfect metaphor for the realisation that things are lost to us even as they are found, characterising the traditional subject of seasonal change and awakening thoughts of the transience in and of nature. This motion of ‘lifting’ and ‘falling’ is similarly presented as involutional, the motion from past to present, present to past, which thus allows the past of the classical tanka form and Lansdown’s contemporary poetry to embrace and inform each other in the dynamic immediacy of present vision. This is literally and figuratively realised in the accompanying photography. In this way, Lansdown’s poems offer an aesthetic ideal that uses the uncompromising touch of mortality in ‘Volcanoes’ to focus the mind; and, in ‘Off-Pivot’, to provoke a sharp, intuitive discovery in order to get the essence of life and fueki ryūkō, infused with tradition and abruptly disturbed by ‘the haunting hollow bamboo sounds punctuating the temple garden’ (‘Shish-odoshi Hauntings’).
Of the haiku, Lansdown adopts hyperbole and repetition as a kind of foil to the elegant poeticism of the tanka, and a contrast to the worldly realism of ‘vulgar’ rhetoric, only to then re-poeticise them. Set within the language of common speech and his perceptions, Lansdown utilises the poetic diction incorporated in the haiku to entice the reader to review the everyday life of contemporary Japan through aestheticized eyes, thereby authorising new subject matter as worthy of the grand tanka tradition:
Sakura, Susan …
as with the cherry petals,
so also her cheeks –
a pink flush in the whiteness
and my regard as witness.
The consonance of ‘cherry’, ‘cheeks’, ‘whiteness’ and ‘witness’ is used here to emphasise the ephemeral beauty caught fleeting in the sakura blossom and Lansdown’s wife, Susan, to whom the text is dedicated. Normally, of course, this sort of cloying reiteration would be very obvious. It stands out here, however, as an evident anomaly within the minimal scope of 31 syllables, where its imagist inclination depends on verbal economy, the reverential ‘pink flush in the whiteness’ resonating with ‘regard as witness’. Lansdown employs the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word, but hypostasises love and consciousness as qualities of nature itself. Through the alliteration of ‘Sakura, Susan’ he reveals that both figures are invested in an immense environment, not distinct from it, but, as determined in the adjoining poem, in a mutual, inexplicable process of eternal blending and appreciation of natural beauty:
She’s beyond white
in purity, so she’s quite
beyond seeing –
the Kyoto bride trailing
confetti through the cherries.
The result is a vision of human presence framed against an interfusional setting, that is, nature is not presented as an otherness distinct from Susan, but as a shifting perceptual field that is so ‘beyond white in purity’, that it is ‘quite beyond seeing’. This quiet process, whereby humankind and nature appear perfectly continuous and productive of each other, displaces consciousness into all things – human and inhuman – in such a way that cognitive and emotional qualities ordinarily belonging to the human are seen to anticipate an amorphous and embracive environmental unity of seeing and feeling. In unifying nature and the human, the marriage Lansdown celebrates is rooted in the Japanese concept of ‘furyu’, which literally means ‘in the way of the wind and stream’; Sakura and Susan presented as within a liminal zone, which the reader, as ‘Witness’, must occupy to realise Lansdown’s vision of the ‘Bride’.