FRESH Monday, February 11th, 2019
Phillip Hall’s Fume is rare for the raw, fresh force and integrity of experience that lies behind the poems. Fume was largely written during a period of five years (2011 – 2015) that Hall and his wife Jillian spent in Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Hall worked as a sport and camp teacher in a role focused on activities for local Indigenous kids.
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Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems
by Cary Hamlyn
Garron Publishing, 2018
The Quality of Light and Other Poems
by Jill Jones
Garron Publishing, 2018
Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems, by Cary Hamlyn, and The Quality of Light and Other Poems, by Jill Jones, are two of five South Australian poetry chapbooks published by Garron Publishing in the spring of 2017.
In Jill Jones’s collection, The Quality of Light and Other Poems, ageing, mortality and memory are intensely private experiences that expand like ‘the nerve system of creeks leading into / the Torrens, or the oily wash / of Sydney Harbour’ to planetary dimensions, enfolding animals, city roads, streets, flowers, plants, bees, the skies and the galaxy into the rich particulars of its vast realm. Jones’s superb collection reinvigorates poetry as a quality of illumination amidst all kinds of opacity, sparking affective and rhythmic conversations between literature, politics, ecology and cosmology. Her poetry engages and enacts what T S Eliot called the ‘auditory imagination’, ‘the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and f eeling’. Deftly elliptical, suggestively insistent, and exuberantly introspective, The Quality of Light articulates the pleasurably enigmatic rhythms, tones and cadence of urban and modern existence.
An exemplar of poetry as practice, her collection recalibrates and proliferates our ways of seeing. Jones’ poems strike me as intensely democratic in effect and highly controlled in technique in its complex conjuration of spontaneous images as though independent of the poet, who becomes, in the process, one of the poem’s readers, acted upon and actively engaged in the practice of interpretation. In the opening poem, ‘The Quality of Light’, she writes: ‘the atmosphere, the clouds / I can see, any day I look up, are / there, and changing there / with or without me. With or / without me writing as though / they are there for me. / But I’m not there, in the letters / though I may scribe them’. She continues, ‘Luminosity perhaps is a dream, / like travel, building, or words. It all / comes and goes, it is / as if it’s happening…’ With characteristic elusiveness, Jones’s opening poem announces and enacts the collection’s process of seeing and interpreting images, memories and ideas in their slippery (re)creation, emphasising writing as inherently a form of active (readerly) participation.
There is so much here to explore. In the poem, ‘Wrack’, varied repetition and compressed, internal rhymes, which at times recall the characteristic style of American poet Kay Ryan, playfully perform and aggressively capture the ensnaring opacity of discourse: ‘it’s all brooding wrack or media flack, the rain / that never rains will rain and no attempt at / political hack will stop the weathering of weather / the tide comes, it’s not going back’.
Her writing communicates a profound ambivalence, expressing any emotion, state of being, sense of beauty, wonderment and imagination with measured equivocality. In this sense, Jones’s poems are imbued with emotional naturalism; her elliptical language but clear tone dexterously capture and engage but do not resolve or reframe life’s hard won and hard-battled ambiguities and complexities. The poem ‘Swoop’ sketches the spontaneous, raucous discordance and harmony of urban life without judgment: ‘leaves break in your hand, wing swoop / syncopates / blues of the galaxy / huge chords rush outside, rain, trucks / hard dreams / three stars in a pool / the grass shivers’.
One of the most mesmerising pieces in her collection, I think, is the poem, ‘Bitumen Time’. It evokes the familiar, yet profound, intangible exhilaration and melancholy of the journey home at night time. The run-on rhythm of dependent clauses is painfully staggered by pensive, insistent commas to create a sense of digressive relevance, a sense of the universal pull of ‘birds’, ‘bitumen thing’, ‘times, places’, ‘sounds that curve’, ‘roses…stripped/of winter colour’. With language and tone that blend enigmatic existential wonderment, the vagaries of memory and the crucial clarity of feeling, Jones asks: ‘[W]ho am I among/scent of this night flowering in dead arms of winter’? The poet’s language and pacing exert the central pull of the poem as though coming from forces beyond its control, what we cannot see but sense and experience as the subjective, invisible violence of humanity, of time, of systemic opacity, of collective, cumulative destruction, ‘…as though history ramps into/the moon’s famous indifference, the sky’s / night version of real things that hold into/strange corners, so help me, help me, / it’s transparent, but so alien, all these stories’.
Similarly, ‘The Vertigo Blues’ enacts a certain belligerence of fact, a fatalism that embraces both tragedy and beauty: ‘What makes it so / difficult is also what keeps me here, still. There are / silhouettes above my heart, a brace of baggy riffs / two-timing below.’
An intensity of tone at the heart of each masterfully crafted poem – ear, substance, subject matter, images and music deliberately, cautiously, vigorously consorting with each other –illuminates and intricately unravels our blinkered order of things. This, for me, is the pleasure of reading Jones’s beacon of a collection again and again.
Cary Hamlyn’s second collection, Ultrasound in B-Flat and Other Poems, sketches everyday sightings, objects and experiences; to name a few, the eponymous ultrasound, a lovers’ quarrel, a Burmese train journey, Siamese fighting fish, a dying pelican, sunflowers, night.
The stand-out piece in the collection for me was ‘Rozelle Boarding House for Sailors’, which cleverly engages the conspiratorial atmosphere and architecture of the haunted boarding house to convey the sense of the resurrection, renovation and reclamation of histories through storytelling: ‘In each single room their lives unwind, / each a story spun within a story – / as if every old tragedy or joy / were reinvented by the next man,/their thousand lost ships/still silently listing under our beds.’ The story of masculinity here is a poignant and complex one; the voiceless anonymity of the lives of the drowned sailors distances and abets their poetic (re-)construction, thus carrying with it an expressively equivocal force.
Perhaps less successfully, Hamlyn’s other poems at different points explore the theme of violent or predatory masculinity. A poem about a Lothario, drably titled ‘Preying in the ‘90s’, describes the said predator with unwieldy lines like ‘scoring women on a bell-curve / of ‘hotness’ and potential sizzle – / the Big Bang had nothing on him.’ Like some others in the collection (‘Post-Skirmish’, ‘Arguing with an Ex-Lover’, ‘On Meeting an Old Flame’), the title also seems unnecessarily prescriptive and adds further perfunctory framing to the poem’s meaning.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Interval by Judith Bishop
Interval is the fourth book for Judith Bishop and her first with University of Queensland Press. The book is divided into four sections. The first begins with an epigraph from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard that ‘childhood is certainly greater than reality.’ It’s an apposite riff that informs the sentiment of the poems that follow it, in which speaker mothers talk to their children. These poems have a lyric modality, they feel intimate even confessional, while a tensioning quality of abstraction prevents slippage into pure nostalgia.
The first poem ‘Letter to My Daughters’ is organised around the refrain “bring me back to change the script’: a mother addresses her children about the failings of her parenting – (mild ones it must be said) such as restrictions on jumping in puddles, refusing the request for one last story – and asks ‘bring me back to change the script.’ ‘Give me time and I will stay with you / until our eyes have shut’, the speaker says, the irony of course being that time is so often the enemy of ideal parenting. Against the mildness of the complaint and the retroactive idealism of the improving parent, the shut eyes don’t just imply the bliss of mother and daughters falling asleep together, a kind of revelling in Blakean innocence, but also the threat and inevitability of mortality.
Reading the early poems in Interval, it is impossible to tell whether the swelling undertone of tragedy is due to the regrets of the parent, or potentially the loss of a child. Bishop’s lines resist such easy identification of event to emotion and are all the tauter because of it. When reading lyrical poetry, there is always the temptation to conflate the poet with speaker, a temptation whose satisfaction is deferred, not least by the speaker’s battle with time, which we also see in ‘Poem for a Little Girl’, elegantly comprised of six three-line strophes, the last three of which are (movingly) as follows:
But how her hands urged her to hold! Her legs, to run!
Language flew into her ear and she could speak!
Sun and wind were her friends. So you held her in her sleep.
And you held her small body when she stumbled into night:
for days the black river went plunging into night.
But in the place you’ve come to there is only care.
She has woke, your love, in the house of your heart.
Oh, now she is laughing, saying Look! Ma! Pa!
I’m a bird – I’m sunlight – I am everywhere you are.
There’s a powerful current of tragedy at work here, but it remains protean, despite the intimate clarity of the utterance. This creates an emotional shimmer that is consonant with flickering hopes of transcendence. The notion of tragedy is thematically supported by the following two poems which invoke Greek mythology, ‘The Blind Minotaur’ (via Picasso’s painting) and ‘Reading Myths the Greek’, a digest poem, playful, that finishes:
We’ll send the golden apple back
before there’s damage done.
The gods can find
another game to play.
A brace of poems that reflect upon conception and birth are followed by ‘Snow,’ in which Bishop works cleverly through a series of riffed juxtapositions: cold and hot, snow and Icarus, death and life, black and white, word and life. It’s a movement away from the lyrical intimacy of the earlier poems towards a more intellectually abstracted universalising stance.
This abstraction persists in the following poem, ‘Openings’ which is a powerful meditation on emerging into the world, running out of a Roethke epigraph, ‘I could say hello to things.’
Here Bishop confronts the mortifying thought that the price of entry into life is death:
Loveliness and horror pass through
the open gate.
Appear in the field,
and the widening ripples
begin, startled dancers
and audience beyond, all place in the brain
where the judgments
rise and shout.
How do you open
the gate to a birth?
How do you
open the door on a death?
Open, knowing what must
dart out like a cat;
how the rush will numb the fingers
to any further action
and the mind
be transfixed before the scene.
The superb poise Bishop shows in her balancing of affect and abstraction, and the creation of an incantatory container for these sentiments that is organised around the repetition of ‘open’ is one of the highlights of the book. Primed by the mythology of the preceding poems, it’s almost as if Bishop is exploring birth and motherhood by the positing of an alternative Pandora: the box must be opened, even if there are terrible consequences because the only other option is not to live at all. This is in the second section of this 5-sectioned poem, and in following the poem, it becomes clear in section IV, a vignette of a young neighbour’s suicide how precarious this situation is.
The second section of the book begins with an epigraph from Dickens; ‘we had everything before us, we had nothing before us’. In this shorter section Bishop experiments with form such as in the prose poem ‘Fairytale’. It’s a less intimate and ultimately less powerful section. ‘Best of Times’ for instance starts powerfully in the present before veering into ekphrasis that dilutes the force of the poem’s opening statement, ‘Too much beauty is disturbing.’ The strongest poem here is ‘Miniatures’, four pithy yet elegant quatrains such as
Laid are the eggs, and the traps, and the plans.
One is closed, until broken by urgency and life.
One is open – and then –
One is closure, with haunted dreams of opening
These are beautiful lines that shape the space of meaning without filling it in. Bishop’s great strength in Interval is as an explorer of uncharted interiorities where emotion and intellect entwine. The final two poems of this section ‘Rising Tides’ and ‘The New Maps Keep a Weather Eye,’ veer towards the eco-poetic by way of the cartographical and lack the same urgency even as they evince it.
Ecological perspectives continue into the third section. ‘The View From 10,000 metres’ plays with the estrangement of looking at the earth from a plane, while ‘Tunings’ juxtaposes the idea of a wind-driven leaf with the advent of self-driving cars. Meanwhile ‘The Ambun Stone’ is an intriguing if overly anthropomorphic address to a fossilised echidna foetus. The poems here feel lack the same collective impetus as section one. They feel more like clustered occasionals. They all have their merits, but they do detract somewhat from the consonance of the collection, evidence of the difficult balance of how to organise disparate poetic intentions in the one volume. Indeed the title Interval itself suggests a book perhaps composed from different times and mindsets.
Section IV returns to some of the collection’s earlier strengths. It’s highlights include ‘The Wild Has No Words,’ a musing on our inescapable animality, how wildness sings its songs in us, and drives us to action despite this lack of words. Again, Bishop confronts mortality, the poem finishing with:
… that I’ve kept my ears uncovered, but have asked
for ropes to bind me, sailing by
what seems the one thing inescapably
pure: a song of minds gone
naked, a hymn
to human consonance
– knowing, songs unheeded,
your rocky mouth
closes on the singers for all time.
There is more to say and much to admire in this strong collection whose intellectual integrity is marked by the way its thoughts are constantly butting up against the unknowable. This primary sense of accomplishment, however, might have been further enhanced if there had been a greater correspondence or a clearer logic of division between the volume’s sections.
Thursday, August 30th, 2018
Tilt by Kate Lilley
Vagabond Press, 2018
click here for what we do by Pam Brown
Vagabond Press, 2018
In 1915, H G Wells published Boon, a satirical novel that featured long passages pastiching the literary style of his erstwhile friend, Henry James. It kicked off an epistolary barney over what art should be about. ‘It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,’ James wrote in one of the letters. I’m no Jamesian (and it’s not in my stars) but what he seems to be saying is that one of art’s functions is to give structure and meaning to existence by elevating moments, objects and sentiments, however vague or fleeting, out of the formless flux of stimuli that is our world. This curation process is how art helps shape our sense both of ourselves, our communities and cultures and our past.
I came across James’s letter chasing down the epigraph of the third section of Kate Lilley’s Tilt. It seems an apt way to consider, at least partially, Lilley’s latest work as well as Pam Brown’s new collection, click here for what we do. The epigraph begins: ‘I hold that interest may be, must be, exquisitely made and created, and that if we don’t make it, we who undertake to, nobody and nothing will make it for us.’ Brown and Lilley are both poets invested in making interest and exploring how it is made. This is particularly explicit in a number of Lilley’s poems that funcion through the accretion of unadorned detail and, in doing so, interrogate that act of depiction itself. This Jamesian notion of art is also a useful way to read the confessional vignettes that powerfully level serious allegations against Dorothy Hewett, her mother, and rape allegations at several countercultural figures, as well as the alternative history of Oxford Street the title poem recounts.
It’s also a helpful framework for understanding Brown’s work, which continues to mine the quotidian. This is a mode she has described, in 2002’s Text Thing, as:
(writing a poem) -
(‘The ing thing’)
In determining which moments from life’s shambling contingency make the cut, Brown is, in James’s terms, making importance. It is a democratising poetics, privileging the mundane and the minor. The poems are a kind of poetic mindfulness enacting the benefits and pleasures of living in the present.
Tilt is only the third book in a career that began in the early eighties. ‘Academia buried her talents under bushels of work for more than a decade,’ wrote John Tranter in an introduction to Lilley’s work when her first collection, Versary, was published at the beginning of the aughts. But while readers waited ten years between her first collection and 2012’s Ladylike, a mere six years have elapsed since her last book. In some ways Lilley is picking up from where she left of. Like her earlier collections, Tilt is as concerned with how poems say things as what they say. This isn’t to discount the content, but to stress how important form is in her work. What is unique, though, is the way formally experimental or innovative poems sit snugly alongside more conventional lyrics and, in this case, confessional poems.
It is the confessional poems, which comprise most of the book’s first section, that have propelled the book into the nation’s newspapers. Predictably, the allegations contained in them have attracted far more attention than the poems themselves. This is a terrible shame. Not because Bob Ellis and Martin Sharp, or even Hewett, should be spared sanction and opprobrium, but because the poems are amongst the book’s best, revealing yet another facet of Lilley’s skill as a poet. Take ‘Conversation Pit 1971’, which recounts a conversation with her mother, Dorothy Hewett:
Are you having sexual intercourse?
She wanted to know what was going on
in the sports shed at South Perth Primary
Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap
Lilley was ten, turning eleven, in 1971, but set aside, for a moment, the allegation these stanzas levy about Hewett’s appalling parenting and listen to their music: the decasyllabic staccato of the third line; the alliteration of ’s’, ‘th’ and ‘p’ in the fourth; and the balanced bookends of the fifth line. Other poems are less showy but no less virtuosic. ‘Chattel’ is driven by tone:
He appears in the doorway
his white yfronts bulging
A teenage girl is a come-on
I get it
Face to face on the living room floor
so long as you’re enjoying it
I’ve read his feature articles
it doesn’t help
I’m told I’m very good at this
Tuesday, August 7th, 2018
The Alarming Conservatory by Corey Wakeling
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
The Sydney launch of Corey Wakeling’s second collection of poetry The Alarming Conservatory at Frontyard Projects in Marrickville upended the traditional build up of acts that most expect from a poetry launch, with poets reading in an order drawn from a hat. The environment is amicable and warm, with young children running and playing and affectionately stealing attention from the readers by unwittingly performing alongside of them.
When Wakeling reads (third out of the six readers, the launch speech by Astrid Lorange is fifth), he commences with a long absurdist style poem Alfresco dining area dining alfresco; it’s a long poem, performed at high speed with no pause, and featuring preposition-propelled lines such as:
the hegimonicon of the alfresco dining area reasserts itself by collapsing its
loft and filling in its basement, by plastinating the crowds, by patenting the
perimeter of the area, by force
the plastinated crowd, by vaporising the excess, by a trigonometric archive of the
final limits of the alfresco dining area, by the universal preservation of the
trigonometric archive of the final limits.
Actions are always being done to the alfresco dining area: it is given an eviction notice, a loft, and a basement, punished by patrons levitating, swimming and dining at competing restaurant, confused by patrons licensing their own restaurants. It finally comes full circle by, itself, dining alfresco. It’s fitting, here, too, to note that Wakeling has a doctorate in English and Theatre Studies. An exploitation of the performative nature of language is never far from the work, nor is a constant reconfiguring of language, objects, place and structures (linguistic, familial, political, social). It reminds me of how in Beckett’s theatre, the subject of Wakeling’s thesis, objects often become the focus when dialogue stops, and how frequently en scène there is a negotiation of subject-object.
Talking to a friend from Perth, she provides another context for this poem: In 2017, local counsellors tried to reinstate previously banned alfresco dining areas in the CBD, and put these spaces ‘on trial’. The term ‘alfresco dining area’ and a debate around their existence taking momentary prominence in local politics.
This situation strikes as ripe as a premise for a Wakeling poem, that often twists found fragments and occurrences to a logical-illogical end and interlays reference and place, as in ‘Pupils of the Goat’:
Albany, you might say is heaven
Kalamunda calls itself hell.
They honeymoon in the shadows and the ferns.
Darling Ranges make a really arbitrary purgatory
Referencing Dante’s Inferno and Beatrice, chalk circles, hip hop, Katherine Prichard, and Datsuns, these poems are phenomenal in that that gather so much phenomena.
There is a tangible joy at an excess of language and its resituating; for all the startling incomprehensibility that arises, the collected work is also grounded in the everyday and the current environment: Take the opening epithet for example: ‘He took you for a bubble gum America/ But now he finds that you speak kangaroo English’, a line attributed to a barista at the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin, or in the poem ‘Ecstasy’, that shifts common salutation:
Language is poetry is to be expected
-- where could they possibly have
Come from otherwise?
Is find, I should add, and sends her
There is never simply one thing going on. There is much to work under and through, themes expand and contract, taking on new meanings and contexts at each shift. They are poems that you can spend time with, deducing reference and connection, or read rapidly, startled by the strange juxtapositions and metaphors, perhaps intended to jolt one out of complacency.
The concept or noun ‘Australia’ also undergoes shifts of form. Aus is referred to as a ‘secret car park’, a goat, and, in ‘Available for Public Events’, is turned into stationery: ‘Poor Australia, he has no recognised partner or legal aid. / But he must be assured, we’ve rolodexed him.’
Having grown up in Australia, the title of the volume The Alarming Conservatory evokes several allusions. It brings to mind a Howard era ‘be alert but not alarmed’ mentality; the conservatory aspect could refer to a humid greenhouse, school, or alternatively, to a place that breeds conservatives. The title Alarming Conservatory could function simply as a moniker for colonial Australia.
Themes of an Australian tepid comfort are a recurrence, as in the poem ‘Ward’, that crawls through the Yu Yangs and abounds in lines that mention couches:
The couches intrigue by a slow invitation which becomes entrapment (…) the constant reminder / of Albert Namatjira, who is the only immediate rescue / here and now from the couches. / The saluting couches./ (…) Like a couch, the advantage is earned by those / who sit with you to console and comfort themselves.
The meaning, punning, and resulting associations in this volume are never settled, and frequently when I’m reading I’m saying ‘What what what?’ in my head, or out loud, trying to find level ground that is always escaping. But the poems are deeply funny and revelatory of current economic farcicalities and social perspectives. For example, in ´Being Paid to Live the Dunes’ that begins, ‘you are ready for the end of the world because / you are paid for it, and the apartment is good.’ This continues in ´Sydney sydney’, that speaks excessively and appropriately of landowners and in ‘The Person is Real’ that closes with the line: ‘Good bargain of education, you bought us up – yes, bought! – so well.’
Dissonance and decline emerge as other themes, two poems, in fact, are elegies (‘Elegy Written in a Dead Metropolitan Library’ and ‘Elegy for Epithalamium’). The poems capture a shifting world, and can be read more widely to comment on virtuality, mediatised environments, and family.
The ‘Afterword’, too, is worthy of note. Shifting form, it presents a lucid eight-page poem-essay that is vividly transporting and recounts in a measured, gentle and suspended tone the poet’s childhood in Western Australia. Cars trips to Fremantle, garage sales, adventure stories, comics, fiscal difficulties. It provides a commentary of the social climate: ‘I grew to dislike the perpetually bold sky of Western Australia (…) the weather to me mirrored a self-satisfied, recreational population’ and of the situation of childhood where a lucid narrative is easier to obtain.
Reading the afterword following the intricately layered, complex and at times close to indecipherable poetics, is somewhat similar to having the answers and the clues to the previous day’s cryptic crossword side-by-side and working backwards to fill the grid in.
Frequently in these poems, the economic climate, neo-liberal free market, and housing market are all thrown together; The Alarming Conservatory is the site of the fall-out. It is recommended reading, and provides a counter narrative if you’re reading closely.
Tuesday, August 7th, 2018
Hush: A Fugue by Dominique Hecq
UWA Publishing, 2017
To some readers, like me, Dominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue may be daunting at first appearance. This starts with the cover, which has the sort of self-assured, intellectual air I find a little intimidating. A wary look inside reveals unstable text formatting – blocks of dense prose broken by verse, haiku, couplets, one-liners. And whether you do your page-flicking right or left-handed, you surely cannot avoid noticing a list of references at the back, containing some imposing names: Barthes, Freud, the dreaded Derrida, Lacan. Hesitating on ‘Heaney, S.’, and ‘Rimbaud, A.’, I found myself hoping for reassurance. Some readers will undoubtedly have put the book down by this point, but others love a challenge and they will certainly find Hecq’s book stimulating. It is rich and satisfying on many levels, whether or not you enjoy Derrida’s games.
As a story, read in a simple readerly way, Hecq’s poetic narrative is moving and beautiful. A child dies and the voice of the poet is the voice of its mother, travelling through the surreal world of grief. Motifs of affluent, inner-city life appear throughout, but become strangely unfettered; splashes of colourful hedonism in an otherwise colourless, mist-like free-fall through pallor and darkness:
I read to the child and helped him draw his own story of loss [. . .]. I cooked.
There were pancakes and French toast and brioche. Lemon pudding and orange cake and rhubarb pie and apple crumble. Poppyseed cake. [. . .]
I longed for food. [. . .] I felt so greedy. [. . .] I would not eat. There was no room for me. I rose and fell. Flailed around me in a sea of black. Lack. Living and wanting to die. I fell into the waterfall of my mind.
Hecq’s juxtaposition of an external life of food, music and flowers against an inner world marred by lack, opens a tense space. It is a space weighted in one direction by absence (of the child and of language/meaning) and in the other, by the continuance of life; life which must be negotiated and travelled. To heed the call of life, meaning is needed, but normal language fails. Hush’s complex formal structure flows, like Orpheus’s music, into the void it leaves:
Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice.
Hush is both poetry and prose; and in its poetry it pushes the written language away from denotative meaning, into sound and back again. Form changes and responds to content, even becoming content itself. And Hecq’s writing is double-layered: she writes her protagonist writing; the grieving mother’s struggle to understand what she experiences through the construction of language. This strategy enables Hecq to reveal the spaces before and after an act of writing, and the other ‘languages’ that inhabit these spaces – music, song, performance, the words of other tongues. Actions, impressions and sensations whirl chaotically, or coalesce on the body of the narrator.
Let us start with the language of Orpheus:
Chalk, rice, zinc
. . .
In music, ‘fugue’ denotes a short phrase that hangs and is taken up successively by one part after another, like the above lines. As the phrase is repeated and embroidered, it attains the texture of a song. Hush is a fugue in this sense. It is scattered with lines that echo, repeat, and drift quietly like a refrain, the sort that gets stuck in your mind yet returns reassuringly, rather than annoyingly. Hecq’s style is at times reminiscent of T S Eliot, in the way she sets stubborn gleanings from commonplace life into her poetry, like in the lines above. In doing so she elevates them from the ordinary, revealing them as wondrous and gem-like.
Music is an important motif in Hush and it would be accurate, I think, to surmise that Hecq’s intention is (after Barthes) to allow her writing to ‘sing’ by freeing its spoken qualities from a weight of written meaning. She allows the sounds, rhythm and allusive qualities of words to ‘speak’. Hence her use of repetitions like refrains, and also her liberation of the sounds of French, the ‘mother tongue’, to which she returns, seeking a means of expression and understanding:
Une mise en abîme to write of desire, of water and fire.
Music is allowed to express itself without the intercession of words and their symbolic meanings; as a complete signifying system in its own right. By contrast:
I tried writing. Words came in bursts and spurts. Made no sense.
But Hecq demonstrates that writing and its failure can be overcome by using language in ways more akin to music. She uses structural motifs throughout the text: akin to epigraphs, haiku-like tercets or couplets separate passages. These also evoke ‘fugue’ in another sense: that of a vagueness or loss of identity that sometimes arises in response to trauma. In Hecq’s hands, these passages seem like instances of clarity, setting a tone for what is to come, yet they are deceptive:
Dark then light
Uno makes rainbows
doubling the sky
Fugue, in the psychological sense, often involves wandering. And here lies the heart of Hush: A Fugue. Hecq charts the impact of trauma, the shattering and slow reassembly of self as a person drifts through a netherworld that is neither Hades nor sunlit. Like music, action itself provides another language that expresses, reflects, and perhaps draws both reader and protagonist towards understanding:
The fear was so strong I bolted for the door and into the street. I ran to the park as fast as thoughts ran through my mind. I ran oblivious to the traffic. Oblivious to time. Oblivious of the cold. I ran to the pond. And stood. When the shadows merged with the waters in the cold, when the wind moaned in the branches of the gum trees, when the last rays of sunshine gilded with mystery the white snowdrops and camellias, I turned back home.
Wandering through a seemingly ‘nonsensical’ yet concrete world in a state of fugue, Hecq’s protagonist finds a kind of meaning that nudges her back, inexorably, towards the written word. Words offer reassurance, even if their meaning is obscure:
… I needed to write for the sheer satisfaction of keeping fear at bay, of experiencing the vanity of meaning, even if words did not make sense.
Thursday, July 26th, 2018
João by John Mateer
Giramondo Publishing, 2018
Of the 62 sonnets that make up John Mateer’s João, 58 are given to ‘Twelve Years of Travel’ and only four to the second and final section, ‘Memories of Cape Town’. This weighting emphasises travel not so much as the mode of exception but as regular or even habituated experience, while suggesting only a marginal place for the ‘home’ of Mateer’s South African origins.
The book’s title suggests trajectories that are personal and cultural. The name acknowledges Mateer’s and João’s matrilinear Portuguese ancestry, and João’s diverse cultural origins. João is the name of a line of Portuguese kings and gestures to European colonialism. It is also the most common boy’s name in Portugal and implies João’s non-identity in a world where travel means vertigo and cultural displacement.
Moving his persona through a series of places and relationships, Mateer affords João few moments of positive connection. Via his travels and an insecure cultural identity João is the ‘Lost Boy’, the ‘young lost poet’, ‘the Foreigner’, ‘the Foreigner!’ He has little interest in his world of literary conferences and festivals, friendships evoke uncomfortable pasts, he enjoys at best tenuous relations with his long list of girlfriends. Where intimacy is concerned, it ends often enough in that staple of travel, separation. In his relationship with Anna, for example, João is the ‘lost and nameless’ ingénue to ‘the more worldly Anna’, ‘who almost loved him’. Love is a near-thing but a matter of loss.
Irony and meiosis, however, inflect the poems’ sense of distance:
They dropped João outside a typical saloon bar
for him to find working there the young
Brazilian girl, the student who’d offered him a bed. As always
João was thoroughly charmed, even with knowing he must wait till
she finished work.
The indefinite article and affected syntax (‘for him to find working there’) suggest a chance event, casting João as naïve (or, alternately, calm and unassuming when love seems a sure thing). There’s further irony at a ‘BDSM dungeon’ in Melbourne: ‘Not that, really, / João and his beloved were ever there. Not that her lily-bright flesh / marks up easily, bruises photogenic’, the anaphora highlighting a comic denial. Sonnet 49 tells of a becak driver who wears a Superman T-shirt, and who, in João’s eyes, has a ‘superhuman simplicity’; everything proceeds casually enough until the last lines:
But, in a confusion,
João had watched this old becak driver, his near complicity,
not being shocked, on witnessing an accident, one man
knocked down in the street: how he’d just pedalled past deadpan
The scene exposes João for his dutifully middle class view that the appropriate response in an accident is to assist. Warmer regard for the becak driver gives way to the bathos of a world traveller’s cultural shortcomings and we read on across a shifting affect, with the feeling that João’s next moment of cultural misperception is imminent.
Much of the distance João feels in his perpetual travels is transferred to the reader via this irony and via Mateer’s use of allusion. In his reference to a friend, Josef, who teaches ‘in a morgue’ and keeps ‘Marx’s Collected Works in the library as a memento mori’, Mateer’s appropriation of Marx as a lament for contemporary culture seems clear enough and integral to a poem loosely about societal failings. In other situations allusion seems vague, and for the reader, open; inferential. In Sonnet 44, for example, João and his girlfriend are found by a colleague, ‘mid-argument’ in a park. In the last line João ‘sadly […] remember[s] a statue’s lifted foot, that art.’ The statue remains nameless, the adverb an apparent indictment of João’s caricaturing of a partner who dramatically ‘stamps one’s foot’ or ‘puts one’s foot down’. Significance can seem at once incidental and staged; cultural references are often only, potentially metaphors.
Mateer’s grammar can be similarly obscure: ‘With his new flatmate, João, I should say ‘landlady’, an old famous punk rocker, he might learn more about life.’ And what seem important biographical details are often omitted. João’s ‘beloved’ in Munich faces ‘her own exile’, ‘her own tragedy’, none of whose details are given. As for João’s situation and his corresponding exile and tragedy, these, likewise, are never directly explicated.
In a shifting context that dramatises João’s lack of belonging, travel has a range of implications. If travel conventionally suggests the search for something different in a world of increasing sameness – ‘the body of legends […] lacking in one’s vicinity’ (Certeau) – or release from life’s routines; if it promises the kind of movement that wards off a stasis associable with death; or if it brings us, as it does Barthes at the beginning of the memorable Empire of Signs, the joy of the foreign and of language returned to its sensory substructures, then none of the above resound in João. Travel, rather, becomes an act of perpetual endurance. João finds his middle-class literary milieu tiresome: there is the ‘bespectacled lady […] who had once translated Sophia de Mello, really knowing only Spanish’; João is ‘appalled’ at the fame Rushdie wins by a ‘sporting quip and […] repartee.’ There is ‘vomiting as critique!’ in the millionaire’s garden as the writers ‘go through the motions of being gracious’. João’s world is inauthentic, ‘made-up’, ‘a movie’, ‘cinematic’, ‘a dream’. When Sonnet 20 asks, ‘What João were you doing there’, it feels like a question the reader has been asking throughout. Travel, largely, recedes to the human and psychological dramas it proposes.
Domestic or familial images are scarce and often only further remind João of his detachment from home. To his aunt in Cape Town, he has ‘returned from the Void’. While the boatmen of Capri are ‘stout, sweating […] indifferent to the tourists’, João, on learning that the women following the Flautist in Apollinaire’s ‘The Flute-Player’ ‘were probably whores’, remains ‘the Foreigner, worried they may have been overheard’. These kinds of hyperbolic and comic depictions of the well-travelled and polyglot, but unworldly, João are broken up to the benefit of the collection with moments of more forthright emotion. An example is when João spends a night in Chateau Rouge with a group of Senegalese and leaves ‘the dinner, yearning for Africa, unconfused’. Or, in Mateer’s homage to his friend Goran: ‘Goran, gentle, his speech the kind of warm quiet / that seems an uninterrupted silence, an endless, emancipated poem’. Irony aside, the sudden affect surprises, creating a tonal complexity that needs careful attention.
Monday, July 16th, 2018
The Honeymoon Stage by Oscar Schwartz
Giramondo Publishing, 2017
Confession: I should not have read Michael Farrell’s launch speech for Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage before attempting this review. I had a large attack of Bloom’s anxiety of influence, but I simply couldn’t help myself because I truly appreciate Farrell’s wit and (worldly) wisdom. And now the damage is done. I read the speech and now I’m starting to fear I might be involved in this after all: colluding with, if not an active participant in this – Schwartz’s – whole transcendent digital Otherness that I was previously going to perhaps pooh-pooh just a little in this review. Now I only want to state wholeheartedly that both I and all the online avatars within – without? – thoroughly enjoyed reading The Honeymoon Stage. Meanwhile, I’m left to wonder what there is left to say about the entire identity crisis of this collection, let alone the process of creating a type of posthuman internet-based poetics.
Schwartz, seemingly only too aware of his own process, poetics and dare I even say poesis, states in his notes for The Honeymoon Stage, ‘To write many of the poems in this book I invented alternate personas who lived on the internet, made friends, got into arguments. The poems are thus spoken by and convey the actions of persons living parallel lives to mine. This doesn’t make the book less sincere, but just shows the sincerity can be an act of creation rather than confession. This is an idea that we’re becoming more familiar with – as we increasingly use our devices to communicate – but is also rarely celebrated or encouraged as a poetic act.’ Whilst I perhaps found myself more caught up in the construction of identity than the poems themselves, I do think the ‘poetic act’ is worth celebrating. This collection is brave, witty, intelligent and a beacon of post-post-modernity while also being curiously relevant, heartfelt and human. There’s an innocence here, somehow still accessible through all the manifold hurdles of clubbing in Melbourne, in-laws and late night (most of these poems evoke the wee hours) adventures in sci-fi. I had a genuine LOL moment in my own dimly lit house in the wee hours while the four-year-old slept beside me as I read such lines as, ‘will game of thrones be all I have left?’ Astute and hilarious. Perhaps even haunting. The only real glitch I felt came from the sense that in order to truly read these poems I should be squinting my eyes, scrolling down the screen with a bile-yellow night light filtering out those no-sleep blue lights, yet instead I was rubbing the rough edges of paper between my fingers, dog-earing the ones I might quote later. These poems felt a bit beyond paper.
The collection begins with an intriguing epigraph, ‘The I, You and We in this collection do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless and invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.’ The ‘I, You and We’ are ostensibly section titles of the collection, but the pronouns (including the ubiquitous lowercase ‘i’ utilised throughout) can also be thought of as somewhat interchangeable reference points, little dots in the map to keep the reader grounded, here on Earth, or at least here in a body, in what might otherwise seem to be a sea of virtual (popular culture) stars. I felt at times like I was partaking in, as the persona of the penultimate untitled poem of the ‘part two: you’ section states,
… a text for which I felt a
detached, objective pleasure yet whose provenance
was, by definition, unknowable.
In this collection, we navigate the rough waters of being everybody else all at once via the mediums of keyboards and Kanye. The personas adopted are most obviously the voices of now, of the Facebook-hacking Twitter-dissecting fake news zeitgeist of it all, yet they are also somehow raw and true and even, dare I say it, more real for being a conceit. These ‘friends’ aren’t beautiful Americans living next door to each other in an apartment building (or maybe they are sometimes but that’s beside the point), they are instead a beautiful sequence of codes residing inside a parallel universe and even though we might not understand a thing about that, maybe it’s ok to just celebrate the simple beauty of lines such as these ones lifted from ‘how to write an e book of poetry’:
For a brief time become part of the consciousness of
some superior life form
observe that all previous intelligent data on earth has
been accumulated by this super intelligent life force
view your e book of poetry again amidst the troves
of intelligent data
be there when the super intelligent life form
disintegrates for a reason beyond your comprehension
become diffuse consciousness in the universe
become reduced entirely to hydrogen atoms floating
billions of light years away from each other
spend many eternities doing unknown things
start vibrating rapidly
become infinitely fast and infinitely hot
end in a way that is, by definition, unknowable
‘how to write an e book of poetry’ is one of the finest poems in this collection, alongside the aforementioned untitled, longer poem that begins the second section. In these longer, more expansive poems, Schwartz’s many and varied personas can quest outwards into the more free-wheeling realms they appear to be more comfortable in. The typical philosophies: who are we anyway and what in all virtual hells are we doing here, seem both central and irrelevant to this quest. The idea that may flit across the reader’s mind of all these collaborating internet-based Others as being transcendent, a type of new god, is not really necessary. Perhaps we are discovering who we are from interaction with these liminal spaces where the Other resides. Perhaps we aren’t. Perhaps that question is, by now, entirely passé. As the (other)worldly wise sage Michael Farrell states in the launch speech, ‘the posthuman might already be here.’
Monday, July 16th, 2018
Zanzibar Light by Philip Mead
Vagabond Press, 2018
‘Words have a universe of qualities other than those of descriptive relation: Hardness, Density, Sound-Shape, Vector-Force, & Degrees of Transparency/Opacity.’ – Clark Coolidge
For experimental poet and jazz drummer Clark Coolidge, words are never impressions. They are sonic inscriptions, vectors, movable actualities. They alter by degrees in the company of others and in time. I started with Coolidge for many reasons; first among them, his stellar understanding of improvisation.
Philip Mead’s new book Zanzibar Light is at home with the idea that words themselves are a kind of improvised approximation. They are musically dense, historically freighted, intense in their vocalised intimacy, and humming with Coolidge’s ‘universe of qualities’ – to which I would add light and lightness. The poems in this collection fizz with erudition that is worn lightly: ‘sections of the national lake appear / in your arrangements, but there’s no myth anywhere I can see, / only material.’
By opening his book with the short lyric ‘Cumquat may’, Mead riffs on the importance of punning as a key and serious improvisational vehicle carrying these poems. I think the pun almost works as a leitmotif for Zanzibar Light. Puns embody a splendid insistence on every word being unoriginal – but since there is ‘no such thing as repetition’ in a post-Steinian poetic, every pun ghosts a kind of ur-originality. Light is, of course, another of the book’s signatures – punning on itself, a leitmotif bundled into a knowing title, a leading statement. The book’s many extemporisations on light are open-ended, numerous in effect and resonance as much as presence. They are, after Coolidge, ‘other than descriptive’, and never about a dogged conversation between words and things. ‘Sideways platinum cornettes of light’, ‘whirring light’, ‘tiny lights / from the other side’, ‘Lightly institutionalised behaviours’ – Mead improvises upon light at the level of grammar, sound, perceptual field and emotional texture. Or as he writes in a poem beginning ‘happy days, bold geraniums’:
Nothing we want any more is credited, what with
the damp, zinc-matte, blue-white of dawn, the words going back and
then forth boundlessly, it’s like a thick network of reference, or washed away
Zanzibar Light is the composition of a dedicated and careful listener. Good listeners make the best improvisers. Mead hears the ideational history behind many of his lines, washing about ‘like a thick network of reference’. Punning on his own distinguished contributions to contemporary innovative poetics in Australia, he ventriloquises a library or two – ‘the words going back and / then forth boundlessly’ – aware he’s coming to readers from the other side of ‘time and language’, making it new, repetition and difference, and the status of concepts as objects. ‘Any idea how many layers you might be dealing with?’, quips a poem beginning with the nifty axiom ‘cones and bollards have been the ruin of our youth’.
These are not inventions that lionise the poetic image, or the transcendent experiential moment, or the artifice of narrative completion. Nor do they reify language as it constitutes and transforms reality. At all points, however, they pun upon these critical histories and their non-stop repurposing as commodities in a system of literary and cultural capital, even while keeping their work alive – un-relegated and human – in a babble of voices moving through. ‘A chorus / of manouevres charges past at a furious pace, you’d hope everything / stays open for another hour at least, before being relegated / to sayings?’. Ideas are cared for by the people who make and use them, ‘lovely and runaway’ like a garden.
This book is full of people: children, partners, friends, characters, authors, internet memes. It’s wildly social, operatically un-isolated. A poem might deliberate for an instant upon an ecology or habitat – a ‘rocky inter-tidal zone’ or ‘a paddock with thin mist and occasional crows’ – but these are populated spaces, thresholds to communities. Mead’s reflections on place are always mediated by a political awareness of human territorialising, and the labours of language in surveilling or indexing ‘landscapes’ and their aesthetic functions. In the poem ‘Greetings from the heart of the country’, Mead enters the technologies that settle, generate and police something he calls ‘our vantage point’ – a collective imaginary, perhaps, or ‘a record of our national selves’, in which “weather” is partially a synecdoche for country and nation:
Now a computer-generated coastline swims into view, nautilus-wise
from our vantage point among the weather satellites
that’s real world data, including the little spikes of order
scrolling across the screen; our pilot has frank, grey eyes.
Such poems gently perform a reckoning of decades in which Australian culture has been repositioned, slowly at times, within a globally interlinked economy. Zanzibar Light swings across half a century and acknowledges local, communal and cultural gains and damages along the way, including the social and post-colonial fallout of severely stratified wealth: ‘way below the slipstream of contemporary social life those subsist / who can’t accept any of the messages, who can only shake’. The book never loses sight of what Mead calls ‘Things / in their everyday zones’, including hubs of power that shape real lives. ‘No doubt the open country of daily life has a lot to offer’ he observes, ‘but it’s hard to cross, troublematic.’ Satire is applied with a light brush: ‘The world is a weird village / of established goals’.
I briefly want to note three more formal improvisations. I love the contents listing of this book and it deserves a slow read. Comprising mostly first lines, it prefigures their later appearance in poems, stitching them into a kind of self-sampling prologue and echoing the book’s indexical logic. This creates a happy polyphony, a foundational chaos of part and whole. Secondly, it would be remiss not to mention sonnets. Mead finds more to do with sonnets than we might imagine possible, moving deftly from unbroken 14-line lozenges to sonnets in stanzas and couplets, or 28-line poems that double a sonnet’s stakes and turns (lines ‘return’ and ‘overturn’ in ‘Roadside Grass’). The book flicks from one sonnet to another, sometimes punctuating first and last lines so they feel like syntactical run-ons from previous poems or conceptual bridges to the next, and elsewhere keeping poems discrete. There is nothing formulaic about the ways Mead’s sonnets interact. Sections one and two read like radical estrangements of the fifteenth century ‘sonnet corona’, further ad-libbing on light and its ‘circles of story’.
Thirdly, the opening and closing poems condense the sonnet’s lyrical impulses into paired 10-line blazons – in the fashion that John Tranter understands John Ashbery’s use of the term: an ‘emblem / of the work itself, a tiny mirror for the plot’. Vital tropes enter and depart like theme tunes in both lyrics, one addressed to Mead’s partner and one to a fellow poet, Gig Ryan. Together, the most private and public of relationships hold up this suspended net of poems, through which light and water pass easily as a lifetime of conversations.
Philip Mead makes a brilliant return to poetry publishing with Zanzibar Light. I recommend the book as the feat of a principled innovator who has spent years listening closely to ‘the source code whose portability is illumined’ in the act of writing with, and for, others.
p.43, ‘sundown’: ‘sections of the national lake appear […]’
p.17, ‘Sideways’: ‘Sideways platinum cornettes of light’
p.66, ‘Monaro’: ‘whirring light’
p.26, ‘absorbs’: ‘tiny lights / from the other side’
p.32, ‘that all’: ‘Lightly institutionalised behaviours’
p.36, ‘happy days’: ‘happy days, bold geraniums’ and ‘Nothing we want any more […]’
p.63, ‘Lawyers, Mystics’: ‘time and language’
p.60, ‘cones’: ‘Any idea how many layers […]’ and ‘cones and bollards have been […]’
p.71, ‘Those were’: ‘A chorus / of manouevres charges past […]’
p.17, ‘Sideways’: ‘lovely and runaway’
p.70, ‘It could’: ‘rocky inter-tidal zone’
p.49, ‘Greetings from’: ‘a paddock with thin mist […]’
p.25, ‘crool forchin’: ‘a record of our national selves’
p.49, ‘Greetings from’: ‘Now a computer-generated coastline […]’
p.26, ‘absorbs’: ‘way below the slipstream […]’
p.15, ‘Really’: ‘Things / in their everyday zones’
p.68, ‘Now’: ‘No doubt the open country […]’
p.46, ‘Nothing Grows’: ‘The world is a weird village […]’
p.44, ‘Roadside Grass’: ‘return’ and ‘overturn’
p.35, ‘there was’: ‘the source code whose portability […]’
Thursday, July 5th, 2018
Captive and Temporal by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng
Vagabond Press, 2017
It’s with an almost exquisite eccentricity that Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng’s Captive and Temporal unfurls, immersing the reader in a discursive cartography over composite planes of memory, history, heritage, culture and dreams in surreal and interpenetrative riddles, dedications and elegies. With one eye open to the telescope, the other open to the periphery, Nguyễn’s distinctive poetry charts unexpected co-ordinates in a constellated pitch somewhere between historical materialism and an intuitive, sensuous phenomenology. It opens:
NOVEMBER, END OF A STREET, MELBOURNE
Islands forming clouds and miniscule breaking eddies, washed in first
lights, an avenue of trees, full and abundant
a jaywalker among volumes and cubes.
A lot of the titles of the poems in the collection read almost as titles to artworks. They are gnomic run-ups to an image/performance/installation. Rather than labelling a poem, here they launch the reader into them. The above poem rolls poetically enough from its blunt title, into a dreamy evocation of energy as a water-like flux, anticipating the end of something – Spring? Maybe said street? – or is it a beginning? Light is new, the trees are healthy, established, ordered. Then: ‘a jaywalker’, among adjective-less forms and geometries. This is weird, and an opening example of the idiosyncrasies in Nguyễn’s poetry.
Nguyễn’s bio mentions he migrated to Australia from Vietnam under the Colombo Plan Scholarship in 1974. In Vietnam, a pedestrian getting across the road according to their own judgement and wits is just the way it is; in Australia, it’s a legal transgression, albeit a minor one. With this, the ‘jaywalker’ becomes a rapid signifier of a sense of estrangement and association, a foreigner among foreign forms whose transplanted customs and culture make an enigma of arrival (to hijack a De Chirico painting title). The place of arrival is a mutable site, in this case itself the result of an invasion/incursion and an imposition of foreign orders and laws. Site and person meet as a consequence of war and violence centuries apart.
why the other side?
you can’t answer, you simply look
books of histories
diaries of survivors
memoirs of retired generals, men of
Living, lived and petrified records of victors and their disposable subjects then become fetishised in a vitrine or bookcase:
stacked up nicely in a full frame
behind impossible glass
The skittered use of parataxis and enjambment throughout the poems communicates these unpredictable transversals and polyvalences. Peculiar words jolt as pivot or checkpoints. At these points, the schema of the collection surge and cascade in, out and through and, at any moment, Nguyễn’s seemingly disconnected elements and symbols are presented less as disparate layered things than as squashed together between the slides and slotted under the gaze of a microscope.
The lines are immediately imagistic, cinematic even, then the real poetry starts to take hold as recurring motifs and themes are repeated and re-inflected through inventive metaphor, each time angling us into a new perspective where these folds and creases become another avenue of scrutiny.
In ‘Autumn Writing’, Nguyễn crafts a stunning meta-poem. It also serves as a nexus for several strands of ideation. He attempts to test the medium while remaining faithful to its traditions in the promise of uncovering verity.
Can one simply write about a fire
to warm up a morning, that perfect vault of sky?
From this poem, autumn, fire, skull, high grass, even cattle are cast repeatedly into the rest of the collection. And when you come across them, a new interpretation colours the preceding one. The fire in the opening line here, surrounded by the words ‘autumn’ and ‘warm’ can be read as a pastoral ritual: burning-off time. The bucolic sense of chilled air with a scent of wood smoke has a cosiness to it. Writing as a leisure pursuit where there’s time for philosophising. Then ‘grey coarse ash / falling from the rough skin’. Something’s happened. Fallen red, orange leaves and autumn’s ablaze? But the colour has gone. Seeing ‘seneca’ above ‘white noises of rotor blades / to the sea and wagner’ a few pages on (‘APRIL’) throws me back to take a pile of burning leaves as the stoic self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức. The Vietnam War? Napalm? The poet’s been attacked? He’s in a war zone? Poetry is getting serious as the disquiet of the unconscious memory and present poke about. A head enters:
simple, concrete, a head
of a person, an animal
in the neck-high grass
but it’s not so simple; even something concrete ain’t so concrete enough to hold down. The high grass conceals something, it drowns the body, which is choking as a figure ‘takes aim … Now, the heart of a cross (+) / A sound, terse, metallic’. High noon for subject and object. Things intersect.
But this is not a poem, this is
an alphabet F
Like a bullet nudged into a cartridge: F!
F? Faust? Or Fate?
It’s all only matter, perhaps. Words, letters are expendable in the pursuit of resolution. They furnish the confluence of events that cause both private and public attritions. (I read the above passage in my head as a kind of Taxi Driver soliloquy). Each letter may be no more useful than a wasted bullet after an elusive target, or a reckless spray in fear or last-defense, or anger. Joy? Each poem is no more than a jot in the body count ‘wincing from thousands / heading a scurry / to the footnotes’ (‘APRIL’).
The use of a polyseme; ‘FIRE!’, is another example of how Nguyễn sets a point that launches new lines of interpretation. Is it a warning? An order? A noun? Verb? An element? A transcendental gift? The high grass is not solely incidental as setting for a shoot-out. Nor is it just an ominous presence as flammable environment. Nguyễn brilliantly flattens the field of vision. In the last stanza of ‘AUTUMN WRITING’, the phrase ‘out of the clearing of the wood’ hints at a threshold, but again, it’s not as metaphorical stage set. Two pages later, there appear ‘bites / Neanderthal, but ewes [& carcass] and crows heralding / daybreaks’ (‘QUAGMIRE’), adding a few scattered Paleolithic references – the crossroads of our genealogy. This is where the changing climate saw the Neanderthal need to leave the forests to survive and, ‘like a toddler, before yet / another fall’ (‘AUTUMN WRITING’), take to the plains where Homo sapiens was better suited.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
The Facts by Therese Lloyd
Victoria University Press, 2018
Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press, 2018
Midway through Helen Heath’s Are Friends Electric? I find:
The large electric that is you
is like the help that is you and
the mouth and the associated
These lines have come from feeding the collection into an online text randomiser. What sounds and looks like decisions made by a person is the work of a consciousless algorithm capable of capturing a question that charges the whole book: What does it mean to be ‘you’?
There are many resemblances between Heath’s collection and Therese Lloyd’s The Facts. Both were written during doctoral candidature at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. Both are answering with poetry philosophical questions regarding what it is, feels and means to be human.
Split in two, Heath’s collection speculates about the effect of rapid technological change on humanity: the first section is a succession of testaments spanning from 370 BCE to 2018, polyvocal as the internet itself; the second, an imagined first-person narrative, sci-fi in verse akin to Fleur Adcock’s disturbing sequence, ‘Gas’, and, more recently, Bonny Cassidy’s Final Theory.
Beginning with Socrates’s famous dismissal of writing is wise. Those who rely on the written word will be ‘tiresome company – a reality show having / the show of wisdom without the reality’. Prescient curmudgeon that he seemed to be, Socrates’ worries, Heath proves in this collection, were unfounded. This opening tempers the anxiety that rises (for me, at least) in the face of certain futuristic scenarios; if writing didn’t obliterate our memories, imaginations and selves, then AI may not destroy us either. It is Heath’s own inquisitive, intelligent humanity that energises her poems; the voices of people who have fallen in love with inanimate feats of engineering glow with uncanny familiarity:
I can feel her right
now. What we have
is real and if it’s only real
to me and it’s only real to her
then that’s fine.
In the unusual and the extreme, Heath finds not freaks but relations. The Victorian spiritualist attempting to commune with the dead, the robotics engineer creating a third animatronic son, and Heath herself tracing her genetic code back to 1500 — each is simply testing the limits of human life with the available technology.
In the second section, ‘Reprogramming the Human Heart’, Heath gives us the voice of a grieving woman who refuses to accept death as an inevitability. Profound loss is made meaningful with lyricism:
. . . this black night, into which
I must send you out in the longboat
of your body, seems endless.
If the body is a vessel, then where is the loved self? Following John Locke’s theory of the self depending upon memory, the narrator of this sequence collects ‘enough to build him’ – a digital version of Pygmalion, sculpting Twitter feeds instead of clay into not the ideal but the pre-existent.
An intricate thought experiment, this section considers not only the logical possibility of such a recreation, but the emotional and ethical consequences. In tandem with the robotic reanimation of her deceased husband, the narrator undergoes IVF treatment to conceive his child. This juxtaposition of science that in the last two decades has become conventional with that which still seems hopelessly futuristic is brilliantly perturbing.
As in her debut collection Graft, which was the first non-non-fiction work to be shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book prize, Heath has shown how lightly and easily poetry can wear serious research.
If Heath’s collection casts an electric brightness over what it means to be human, Lloyd’s is feeling about in the shadows of the self. The epigraph to the first section, titled ‘Time’, invokes Anne Carson: ‘It grows dark as I write now, the clocks have been changed, night/ comes earlier—gathering like a garment.’ The atmosphere does grow dark as Lloyd writes. The opening poem, [to begin], centred on the page, symmetrical as a Rorschach inkblot, signals the psychologically testing quality of the collection. Intended to resemble a moth, the poem adopts the perspective of a trapped specimen, while simultaneously examining it:
the hot glass ceiling
reflected only her
This double view, from within and outside at once, is maintained to agonising effect throughout the collection. Lloyd’s gaze isn’t just calm and resolute but at times hilariously dry. On the farcical hypocrisy that tends to characterise weddings, Lloyd recalls a meeting between her, her ex-husband and their wedding celebrant, at which the celebrant said in:
a quivery, timid voice
that she was in fact, divorced—
like a chauffeur owning up to a DIC charge.
I was more offended by her sandals.
‘[I]n fact’ is apposite. This collection consists of facts that might be described as confessions due to their personal nature. ‘Confession’ comes from confiteri meaning ‘to acknowledge’, which is to notice and to name. Lloyd does this exceptionally well (to borrow from Plath). There is an art to such revelation; it is not mere exposure of detail but an excavation of the self that requires sharp intertextual instruments. As well as frequently referencing Carson, Lloyd looks to Edward Hopper. In ‘On metaphysical insight’, she writes, ‘The red line of the shop lino blows itself out in a frowning bowl of fruit’, painting herself as she examines Hopper’s ‘Automat’. ‘. . . Hopper liked to think his / paintings weren’t desolate. ‘I’m trying to paint myself,’ he said.’ If the poem is desolate, it is only wryly so. The title’s faux-aggrandisement provides exactly the perspicacity it parodies.
‘What is eros anyway apart from sore backwards?’ Is Lloyd’s understated version of Carson’s conceptual triangle, which defines desire as consisting in equal parts of itself, lack, and the desiring of lack. As she navigates her own experiences of these, Lloyd reads Carson:
something is filling up in her
blocking in the surface of the triangle
that she’d sooner not have.
It is ambiguous which surface is being referred to: ‘lack’, ‘desire’ or ‘desiring lack’? Lloyd makes the art of lacking look not easy or glamorous, but human – specifically feminine – pulsing with blood and wonder.
In the second section, ‘Desire’, there is a sequence, which particularly hurt to read. This may sound insufficiently academic, but it seems fitting for pain to be mentioned without a footnote in regard to a book whose words are so bodily. ‘What is to be celebrated here? My meat? My fur? I expand outward, and in a fantastic trick of perspective my internals shrink, my vitals no longer vital,’ Lloyd writes with abstruse clarity of pregnancy. A poem later, ‘Imogen’, could be narrated by mother or miscarried baby.
Signs of miracles
are important to the faithless
stigmata, a vial of moving blood,
saints. My little saint suffered
via her lungs
found it hard to say the word imagine.
Mother, baby, saint and miracle are stirred together in this profound description of lack and desire. In the following poem, Lloyd writes, ‘What do we do when we serve? / Offer little things / as stand-ins for ourselves’, suggesting how oneself can be lacking, either eroded or unavailable.
Just as convincing as her depiction of this lack is Lloyd’s account of a self brimming over. In the title poem, about a noxious relationship, the self is inflated with infatuation. ‘Boundlessness streamed from me like the forever movement / of air. I could feel people breathing me in.’
Earlier in the poem, Lloyd refers to the poet’s medium as air: ‘I breathe and live, nothing more or less’, the words a source of survival. Indeed, this is a work to be inhaled.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Tightrope by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Auckland University Press, 2017
I like the way a backyard door opens ‘parting sooty / veils of flies,’ in the first poem of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Tightrope. Outside are Max V, Lima and Ono (‘knotted fur, nettling bones / fat eyes, fat hunger’), and they have found a dead dog on the road
sniffed out its decayed meat
dragged it home
and in pecking order
began to eat
Uncle puts on his overalls, they are navy blue: ‘Don’t worry I take it. / Good, bury it deep, we think.’ I like these vivid words, the dance of the lines and the way Uncle comes through.
Marsh rhymes often, and keeps things fresh with pararhyme – e.g. the move from ‘said’ to ‘red,’ to ‘road,’ in ‘Apostles’ – and slant rhyme – ‘bed’ chimes with ‘world’ in ‘Tightrope Tantrum,’ ‘north’ with ‘taut.’ But what I particularly enjoy is the intelligence and poise of her cadences:
heavy and sweet
clings to the bone
These lines open a poem entitled ‘Kwitea Street in the ‘80s.’
Another poem is called ‘The Path,’ which is ala in Samoan. We learn that ‘The ala /is a bridge/ a road’, the ala is ‘a dog walking,’ it
is a tuna flying
through the sea’s
salt and spit
is a tongue
These are exciting and evocative lines. But the poem turns into something of a list from here, and the punning at midpoint (‘is a root / a route / a vein’) adds to the sense that things are getting a bit arbitrary.
A sense of insubstantiality affects many of the poems in Tightrope. At times that is because the topic is too occasional (e.g. ‘Nadadola Road,’ a light-hearted poem centred on the poet’s embarrassed failure to tell off a Fijian taxi driver for texting while driving), or the dance too automatic (e.g. ‘Led by Line,’ which is entirely composed of plays on the word ‘line’). In the case of ‘Dinner with the King,’ it feels like the occasion is standing in for the poem. The language dwells nicely on the ‘Cool sliced cubes of fish’ the poet and her interlocutor (Samoa’s most recent head of state, the royal Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi) share, its ‘flesh speckled with salt.’ But the idea that that fish is
Raw as Nelson’s hunger for independence
As bitter lemon sweet as Tamasese’s peaceful
Call for freedom
feels forced, and so too the idea that the ‘Crab soup broth / Coriander, lemon grass’ the two are sipping is ‘Clear as the conversation between us.’ The imagining in these lines is all just a bit flat, and the prosaic rhythms and word choices in the lines that follow reflect that:
I spoke of e-books and twitterature
Self-publication, facebook and literature
Of Al’s Prime Ministerial Award
Of Lani’s storming of Amazon.com
Another place where we belong
Gathering kindle, setting fire with words
Setting fire to worlds.
To this sort of perfunctory style, I would compare the lovely lines to ‘Dr Ngahuia,’ which at one point turn from the doctor to invoke
Te Arikinui Dame Te Ātairangikaahu
hawk of the morning sky
the longest glide
over Taupiri mountain
an unmarked grave framed
by Tyrian purple roses
and also the way Marsh circles around the difficult and intriguing task of performing for Queen Elizabeth as Commonwealth Poet in 2016. The poem she delivered in Westminster Cathedral is set here alongside a series of elegies to ‘Queens I have met’ including Dr Nghauia Te Awekotuku, QEII herself, Oprah and Alice Walker. This juxtaposition hits just the right estranging note: after all, the Queen is pop culture. On the other hand, popular (and at times even academic!) culture has a sort of royalty to celebrate as well.
Marsh’s Westminster performance is further described in a poem that bounces from the appropriate nursery rhyme – ’Pussy cat, pussy cat, / Where have you been? / I’ve been to London to visit the Queen’ – into the kind of self-fashioning and strut which hip hop has brought along with pararhyme and half-rhyme to the fore:
My Niu Ziland drawl
My siva Samoa hands
My blood red lips
My Va philosophising
My poetic brown hips
Then standing before Her Majesty
And the Duke of Edinburgh
I centred Polynesian navigation
Making sure to be poetically thorough
In proposing a timeline
Inverting West is Best
Instead drawing a circle
Encompassing all the rest.
For me, the best poem in Tightrope is ‘Essential Oils for the Dying.’ The poem is an elegy for Teresia Teaiwa, poet and former director of Va’aomanū Pasifika, the Pacific Studies unit at the University of Wellington. Marsh dedicates the book to Teaiwa, describing her in that dedication as ‘Teresia Teaiwa / shooting black star / (1968-2017).’
‘Essential Oils’ again has some lovely cadences, and a real tenderness in its opening offerings of cardamom and ginger, its concluding balm that ‘for the rest of us’ there will be
cypress for sorrow
chamomile for resentment, tension
and bitter-sweet melissa
to press against the loss.
In 2010, Teaiwa and Marsh co-edited a special issue of The Contemporary Pacific, an issue dedicated to the critical and creative work of the great Samoan poet, novelist and essayist, Albert Wendt, a contemporary writer who should be far more widely read in this country.
One of Wendt’s most celebrated works is his 1977 novel Pouliuli. The word means ‘utter darkness’ in Samoan. Wendt and the novel play a central role in Tightrope too, via what Marsh describes as her ‘black out poems.’ Marsh has taken Wendt’s story of a Samoan chief’s self-revulsion and descent into (an initially) simulated madness and she has quite literally blacked out all but a few of the novel’s words with thick texta. A full 20 of the 98 pages of Tightrope are given over to full page reproductions of the resultant work. Tom Philips’s A Humument is an obvious generic predecessor. But the effect in Marsh’s case is overwhelmingly of black texta hues, with small patches of grainy white around the few words that remain. Those words leap in strange directions: ‘burning’ ‘hands’ ‘Draw’ ‘no visible marks’ ‘as if’ ‘whole mean-’ ‘ing’ ‘was reflected there’ (page 83 of Pouliuli). Interspersed through Marsh’s book, these blacked out pages provide important (because intriguing, vanishing) subtext to the surrounding poems, giving a sense of curious and undisclosed purpose to Marsh’s book as a whole. I like the effect very much. The following – page 104 of Pouliuli – appears between some lines on Philippe Petit’s tightrope walking (‘Le Coup’), and a fine poem on gafatele, a word left unglossed. All the rest of the page is black:
‘the dark ground’
‘bone by bone’
Thursday, June 14th, 2018
False Claims of Colonial Thieves
by Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella
Magabala Books, 2017
False Claims of Colonial Thieves weaves together two disparate voices, Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella, in a demanding collection that reaffirms the troubling environmental era we are living through. Structurally, the book shifts between traditionally oppositional views – an Aboriginal woman and a white man. Neither dominates the narrative: instead, we witness their shared commitment to challenge the environmental direction Australia is spiralling towards. Their concerns take the form of protest. In ‘Dream mine time animals’ Papertalk- Green writes:
Contemporary mechanical mine dream time animals
Hills broken into millions of pieces
Deep cuts into the flesh of earth
Gapping wounds with polluted waterholes
In ‘Histories,’ Kinsella illustrates the devastation of mining with equal ferocity, writing:
To make it no more
Then bullion – the veins
Of the earth
And the killer
Chases a kid
To his death.
And the earth
Cries out of the dry
These similarities suggest how their collaboration has evolved through a mutual desire to nurture our country in a time where neo-liberal mining agendas supersede social, moral and environmental consequences. But while these relationships are crucial, they exist within a history of uneven power dynamics where white Australians – however well meaning – have often spoken on our behalf. With this firmly in my consciousness, it was impossible to approach False Claims of Colonial Thieves without some hesitation. Was Kinsella aware of his privilege and the responsibilities that go with it? And had he considered the benefits of proximity that blackness might bring to his career? These concerns may seem harsh, but they are present in the minds of black Australian poets and authors.
This years Judith Wright Poetry Prize winner, Evelyn Araluen, commented on the ABC radio program AWAYE! that the [Australia’s] poetry scene initially felt like an encouraging space for black people, ‘but the more I learnt, the more I realised it was usually just about containment, possession and appropriation.’ Given the extraordinary rise and dominance of black writers – Araluen took out both first and third prize, Alexis Wright won the Stella Prize and Tony Birch received the Patrick White Award amongst a growing list of achievements by others – her words seemed to reveal the ironies of success. For a long time, Aboriginal writers have been creating some of the most exceptional work in the country, yet our identities and stories are often contained and controlled elsewhere. And, as the growing appetite for our culture rises, it has attracted some white writers who have benefited from the new black wave far greater then we have.
Given these complexities, it felt reasonable to consider Kinsella’s voice more closely, analysing the role of a white ally instead of asking people in his position to simply listen and learn? A cover quote by Bruce Pascoe alleviated my concerns, stating that the book ‘takes no prisoners, but goes into the heart of Australia’s darkness.’ As I delved into the collection, his reflections accurately described the catastrophic atmosphere the reader is thrown into. The words of both authors reveal the destructive consequences of colonisation or, more specifically, the environmental chaos mining has caused. Poems like ‘The Salt Chronicles’ demonstrate that, despite my questions regarding their pairing, Kinsella expresses a deep longing to repair the damage done to Western Australia.
Beyond the elements that unify the writers, one of the most compelling aspects of the collection is the assured way that both reflect on their stark differences. Kinsella doesn’t hide his positionality and the structural advantages he gains as mining destroys the land. In ‘Grandmothers’ he writes
My grandmother was a mining town child –
worked for decades in Karatha and Kal -
so it’s not as if I come to the mines
In contrast, Papertalk-Green writes:
My grandmother washed
White town fella’s clothes
To feed her kids and survive
I don think mining would have
Meant much to her
These sharp distinctions ensure that the complexity of race and Australia’s cultural landscape isn’t erased. Although both are fighting for environmental justice, their connection is never constructed simplistically, and with the kind of reconciliation approach that so often becomes tokenistic gestures of unity. Instead, some of the most powerful moments are the reflections of how difficult it is for black and white Australia to unify and address ongoing injustices. In ‘I won’t Pretend,’ Papertalk-Green draws out these frictions writing:
I won’t pretend it’s easy
Living in an intercultural space
Cultural clashes and tensions
Bounce and collide
And sometimes explode
These moments leave the reader wondering how the two worked together, and what the experience would have felt like for them, responding and playing off each others work as the collection developed. These intercultural differences are articulated in one the most effecting poems, ‘Shopping Centre Car park,’ and response. Set in a Woolworths (Woollies) car park in Northam – a familiar town I have visited frequently on trips back to York where my mother’s family of Ballardong Noongar descent live – I recognised the tensions immediately, familiar with the irritable looks white people often gave mob that congregate in the air-conditioned supermarket in waves of extreme heat. Kinsella writes about this racism with a sense of disgrace and apology:
I think over this town and it’s foul history and I think over this town and the friend
I have made and I say to myself Brother if you ever read this
Know I admire you
But in Papertalk-Green’s response, there is no need to apologise to mob getting pushed around … instead, she shows them getting on with it:
Centre manager pushed them out
But they refused to retreat to wollies car park
With their get of yamajiland Pauline H banner
A major strength of the collection is its opportunity to see the colonised and colonisers’ voices in parallel, fighting for the same cause in different ways, both determined to see justice, yet never shying away from the enormous gulf that exists between them.