FRESH Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
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’.
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Thursday, June 14th, 2018
Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold by Andy Jackson
Hunter Publishers, 2017
Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold’s premise is unique: 54 poems for the 46 chromosomes in the human body. Each poem is distinctive in typography and voice, gleaned from a primary source interview of a public or private figure believed to have Marfan syndrome. Often very tall, slender and gifted, those with Marfan syndrome are aesthetically, artistically, intellectually, athletically extraordinary. As the collection’s poet, Andy Jackson puts it: ‘Marfan troubles the boundaries between “disability” and “extraordinary ability”’; much anguish is caused by this illness, and there is a sense of being ‘dumb with pain / suffused with light’, ‘when the genetic stars align’’.
Marfan emerges as a kind of magical affliction with a sense of tragic inevitability. It represents being touched by something great and terrible, evident from the selection of historical individuals represented in this volume: Akhenaten, Mary Queen of Scots, Abraham Lincoln, Osama Bin Laden. These figures appear in the volume along with lay people with Marfan, and in keeping with the musical theme, there is a prelude, interlude and postlude that operates as the book’s connective structure. Here is a chance for Marfan to justify its genetic mischief. And mischief it is, because Marfan can potentially devastate the body and cause premature death and great physical suffering in the process.
It is Jackson’s refusal of reductive sentimentality and cliché when representing his subjects that imbues the volume with power. The dialect in which the subjects speak, their rhetorical inclusions and exclusions, and the attendant typographical experiments all indicate the integrity and ingenuity of the project. Jackson’s curation of disparate voices creates sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant portraits of a broad historical and cultural spectrum of individuals, from pharaohs to teens on MSN. Each poem expresses pathos without pity, where unexpected humour collides with trauma such as in ‘Charlotte’:
(There) are always corridors, classrooms,
chewing gum, scissors, a hammer.
And at home, the classroom, MSN.
Go kill yourself, you lanky bitch …
Really, I’ll keep studying
footwear design. It’s so hard
when you’re tall,
to find fashionable shoes
A sense of ongoing off-stage dialogue between the poet, the subject and the reader develops, as in ‘Bradford,’ as Jackson includes non-verbal cues from the invisible narrator (interviewer / curator / God voice):
On the solo album cover you
thought would be your last
bare-chested pectus excavatum
your halo burns a hole in the sky
so, should we start now?
In another poem, ‘Krystal,’ a series of italicised interjections paint a picture of a very young subject who has had a series of open heart operations and the removal of glaucoma:
She holds five pink balloons, smiles for the camera …
I want to meet Elsa the Snow Queen and go on all the rides.
Her pale floral dress. Her thick glasses.
The date of birth (and for some subjects, the date of death), adds another element of graveness; with adult and infant subjects alike, lives are defined by multiple medical interventions and some are horribly truncated like ‘Micthell’:
Wedding night my temperature
Was a hundred and seven,
An axe stuck mid-arc in my chest ….
I’m on one end
of the see-saw, our baby girl in my lap
A smile on my face. Is it mine?
As this ‘disorder of the connective tissue’ itself asserts, ‘names are critical’. The naming of subjects, and the naming of the parts that hurt and might give out, humanise diagnostic criteria and reclaim subjectivity from surgeons’ reports. The naming of things as the practice of poetry: for Jackson, this is music that lives in us, that saves and elevates us. As in ‘Geoff,’ he skilfully delivers a sense of transcendence of visceral limitation with a sense of imminent physical consequence:
Guitar amniotic with sweat, drops
of blood, I feel the room tilt, pixelate
Tinnitus screams, my heart thumps
Pain’s shadow looming over my joints-
I’ve thrown myself around the stage
Like an evangelist for oblivion, again
But this is the last time I swear …
It is alchemy, this melding of words and worlds, this colliding of systems of language. Medical, vernacular, medico-vernacular, at times mundane and at others, celestial, its expert polyphony makes Music our Bodies Can’t Hold extraordinary. Each poem is a portal to a unique perspective, a soul spilling over with desires for their life, some furious, some shattered, some philosophical, but all touched by the same collective destiny.
Friday, June 1st, 2018
The Flaw in the Patten by Rachael Mead
UWAP Poetry, 2017
Wildlife of Berlin by Philip Nielsen
UWAP Poetry, 2017
Holding each of these books is a pleasure. Their two-tone covers have different but complementary botanical design motifs while the master design elements of the UWAP Poetry series, pushing on 23 titles, of which they are part gives them a uniform appearance. They are a credit to Terri-ann White and her team at UWAP in Perth. The miserably small print runs for volumes of poetry often lead to scrimping and saving on design and production, but here at least design costs have been defrayed over the entire series and it pays off in the look of the finished product.
Inside, the paper is cream matt with sufficient weight to limit show through, an important consideration for a poem set out upon a page. Again, each book has the same interior design. The font is specified as Lyon Text, one unknown to me but a serif font bearing a close resemblance to Times. It is elegant and does justice to both poets’ poems. It is interesting to see different uses of capitalisation in the titles of the poems in each book, suggesting that editorial style was sufficiently flexible to accommodate each poet’s personal preferences.
Both books also feature extensive notes on the poems, acknowledgements and a liberal use of epigraphs. There are also endorsements from other poets both within the books and on the covers.
Rachael Mead’s book, The Flaw in the Pattern, was first highly commended in UWAP’s 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It is easy to see why. There is a continuity to the sequences of poems within, surprising when the acknowledgements reveal how widely published the individual poems have been, not only within Australia but internationally.
The book opens with a sequence of seven poems, ostensibly each from a day on a trek though Tasmanian wilderness. As the poems progress the poetic voice grows more accustomed to the bush and natural environment (‘If I misspoke, if I held eye contact too long, these trees don’t care’ ‘On not being lost’ p.17). To me, some discords sounded in literary and artistic references almost forcing themselves into the poems. A reference to Emily Dickinson just works in an image of leeches as dashes she would covet (‘The wild grammar of leeches’ p.16) but a reference to being in a McCubbin painting in “On not being lost’ is an image too far for me. However, that is a rare misstep for Mead and a forgivable one in an otherwise flawless poem.
Then there are the poems like ‘The water tanks’ (p. 63) which have no such quibbles. Here, those iconic constants of rural Australia are transformed into saviours ‘still cool and full, standing guard/among the fresh acres of ash.’ ‘What the fire didn’t touch’ (p. 47) doesn’t mention the flames. Instead, it recounts the scenes after a domestic fire, the family home ‘a charred nest’, a childhood bedroom now ‘a post-apocalyptic theatre set’. Fire also features in the final poem in Mead’s book, the five-part ‘Smoke signalled death threats’ (p.87). This poem chronicles the stages of a bushfire from ‘the drone of fire bombers’ to the uncertain ‘survival plan burned out with the pump.’ The final part, ‘Next of kin’, also contains the superb opening lines: ‘Morning drags itself in like a wounded soldier/but I’m taking no prisoners today’ (p. 90).
Philip Neilsen’s Wildlife of Berlin is arranged in five sections, though this is not indicated on the contents page. The reason for the sections is theme. The first section deals, broadly, with love and death; the second contains poems that feature birds, though this is a far from adequate description of the beautiful poetry therein; the third section, often in first person, features character narratives with poignant humour or sharp irony as in ‘The University Makes a Poem (‘a student seen reading Proust on the quadrangle lawn/is hailed as a guru’ p. 58); section four contains elegant musings, some such as ‘Testimonial’ (‘You wrote today of loneliness. / But I did not like you then, / I would not like you now’ p. 73) revealing the poet’s darker side; while the last section almost wearily ponders youth, aging, climate change hope and regret. The poems traverse the world, but Queensland is a constant throughout, not merely as a lace but as a state of mind. Take ‘Guitar’(p.64), for instance, set on Kelvin Grove Road in Brisbane at the scene of a traffic accident witnessed by the first person narrator; ‘A man in shorts comes out of the nearest house’. What else would a man in Queensland wear?
Nielsen’s humour is apparent in ‘Messaging’ (p. 90) where in seven two line stanzas he flays those who ‘peck at their phones like birds’. Again drawing on digital technology for thematic material, he also flays an apparent rival poet in ‘My Enemy has asked to be Friended on Facebook’ (p. 96). This is a gleefully malicious poem: ‘your chagrin at being passed over, failing/to make a bigger splash in the shark pool of poetry –’. I laughed out loud at that frank image; it evoked so many memories of overblown egos waiting their turn to bore each other stupid in dank and chilly rooms.
Both of these books are fine contributions to Australia’s literary culture. I shall return to each with pleasure. What I particularly enjoyed was how contentedly Australian each is. Both show that the poets are worldly; Neilsen’s title references the German capital and other European locations feature in his poems while Mead has the Cook Islands and Antarctica as settings. Yet Australia is home. For Mead, it is the Western states: ‘The eastern states seem separate as islands.’ (‘Homecoming’ p.29). For Nielsen, it is Queensland’s beauty and ugliness that underpins his poetry: ‘By the mangroves/at the far side of the airport, a steel crane/like a stranded stegosaurus lifts its head’ (‘Sunset at Brisbane Airport, p. 70). Each book is dangerously familiar, and we could ignore their place poems for foreign places. However, I recommend them as guides to a current, vibrant Australian literary consciousness.
Friday, May 25th, 2018
History and the Poet by Robert Wood
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017
Although Robert Wood’s History and the Poet is described as essay, it defies being labelled as one genre. Perhaps like the definition of poetry itself, which shifts and changes between individuals and contexts, language and culture, so do Wood’s words. With sincerity and curiosity, Wood invites the reader into a personal journey, asking us at the start: What is Australia? What is poetry? and What is poetry in Australia? In search of answers, what follows is heartfelt discourse; meditations, manifestoes, letters, mythical stories and, at times, academic hyperbole that is steeped in the author’s philosophical, poetic and political relationship with the natural world and its languages.
Wood’s work is a terrific survey, a wordy appraisal of Australian poets past and present. It is refreshing to read a collection of essays from a practicing poet that celebrates his contemporaries like Omar Sakr, Clare Nasher and Michael Farrell. This inclusion of emerging poets – a category within which Wood places himself, ‘taking language from all over to make its nest’ – suggests that poets are investigating their histories, the derivations of languages, the richness of land in multi-dimensional ways. And yet, Wood calls poets to look further, deeper into their histories as denizens of this land.
The chapter titles are often ambiguous and the essays follow the patterns of someone thinking aloud rather than chronologically. Wood’s subjects include whiteness in the Australian poetry bureaucracy, the epic, poet laureates, crayfish, genius and money. All essays are written with care and honesty yet the shortness of each piece results in skin-deep research. By the book’s close one is left feeling a sparky, interesting conversation has been had rather than an intellectual and provocative reading experience. The audience of poets that thrive outside the academic arena may not venture further than the title History and The Poet, accompanied by an image of introspective suburban architecture. Meanwhile, poets in the academic space may find books such as Philip Mead’s superlative Networked Language cover much of the same territory as Wood but with finer articulation and razor-sharp perceptions. Still, Wood’s voice is earnest and energetic and anyone who cares about poetry will find something to appreciate.
Wood’s many questions, assertions and experiments with ideas are infectious. Fellow critics and essayists could be inspired by his attempt to reframe academic writing. For example, he intersperses satirical pieces that break up some of the critical posturing with ironic playfulness. Although the satire won’t bring about social change, it reminds us how comedy can expose our own foolishness and the limits of scholarly prose. In these sections, Wood includes an epistle, flashbacks to childhood reading lists and personal reflections on his own identity. In doing so, he gives the collection a warmth and friendliness that almost compensates for more abstruse expressions: ‘The fetish for the search of influence as answers. And hence originality as an anti-mimicry that privileges an ur rupture, fails as common sense Socratic imperative’.
When not being inscrutable, Wood’s writings are a courageous attempt to reframe how we read and write essays, they are attempts to create a new scholarship of poetics by addressing our history as Australians living on this continent, country or nation. Wood’s poetics are a poetics of the body, the bones and the cells as they connect to and flow on from the history in the earth – be it the earth of Tagore, Robbie Burns, or Wood’s own feet on Western Australian desert. At its best, his writing aims to be evocative and musical: ‘I know that my country home is Redgate. Here are the crayfish, abalone, herring; white belly frogs, black and red cockatoos, skinks; loam, limesetone, karri and cave.’
History and the Poet brings to our attention aspects of poetry or writing about poetry that may otherwise sit below the surface. In ‘New Mimicry’, Wood critiques the accent that many Australian poets use when they perform, noting that ‘today’s young Australian poets sound positively Yankee’ while his friend visiting from the US remarks that ‘They all sounded like they were from the Mid-West, that kind of newsreader voice, not as serious but still.’ Wood proffers we need to be active listeners on the lookout for imitation in all parts of poetry and in ourselves, too, if we are to make sense in and of the world. In ‘Reading Performance’, Wood attempts a discourse around performance poetry and questions why there are no critical reviews of readings, performances or talks. Working through various lenses (a sociologist, an economist, a poet) the piece ends with a surprise phrase, more disconcerting than illuminating: ‘That is why a reading is not best described in the metaphor of the market. It is all invisible hands in the poetry world and reading is simply a magic trick that pulls the rabbits from the hat that was never seen to begin with.’ This is a statement that snares the reader in a rhetorical trap, which seemingly fails to progress the questions at the core of this collection: What is poetry?
Wood encourages us to find poetry in the everyday, to inhabit poetry as a language of performance, to see poetry as ‘noticeable asides’. Throughout the book, one senses Wood is lost in wonder at the possibilities of what poetry is or what a poet can be. Potentially this is anything and everything, if we reframe how we think about language. There is always poetry in our daily lives and this, he asserts, is what poets can do: expose this everyday poetics and enable us to time-travel, to see the world anew without ever leaving the lounge.
Most meaningful in the collection is Wood’s call to all of us to learn Indigenous languages. ‘It isn’t just the cult of forgetfulness but dismissal of that which is actually difficult’, he writes, explaining why this learning hasn’t happened. Wood acknowledges there are difficulties to this engagement, such as the necessity of of cultural protocols and the ‘complicated and confusing legacy of new settlement governmentality’. This seems a rather polite way of acknowledging that the actual loss of Indigenous languages are rooted in colonisation and racist policies of assimilation. In the piece, ‘You Must Let Go of the Anger in May’, he asserts that ‘No poet working in Australia today has realised the potential of the available linguistic material’ in the country, which almost suggests Wood is that poet. However, it may be that the task is impossible for any singular poet, and that many poets whom Wood cites are exploring their own languages and linguistic heritage – Ali Cobby Eckermann and Jeanine Leane, for example. If one looks at the contemporary landscape of poets and poetry producers and publishers in Australia it seems that many are creating and promoting work that reflects the exciting multiplicity of voices and histories.
Friday, May 18th, 2018
The Agonist by Shastra Deo
Shastra Deo’s first volume of poetry, The Agonist contains many poems about corporeal life, and about the separation of bodies, problematising the connections between body and thought. The poems often turn the inside out, as it were, opening up a poetic anatomy of internal organs and interior life. They dwell periodically on in-between states – to some extent symbolised by skin, space and emptiness – and they persistently return to tropes of rupture and penetration. As they explore such territory, they tend to alienate usual notions of humanity, asking the reader to consider whether their mind/body assumptions hold true – and intimacy itself is sometimes viewed askance through such perspectives, as in the lines: ‘You may be forgiven/ for thinking that love/ is a butcher’s ritual’. For Deo, it is not so much that the human body has a life all of its own, but that the flesh ‘speaks’, as it were, of human experience and human circumstance in lateral ways.
To give a couple of early examples, the opening poem in the volume, ‘Five’, addresses ‘what lived in the space between/ our bodies, our words’ and the second poem, ‘Scorched Earth’, sets ‘The body/ and the space it occupies’ alight. Following Emily Dickinson’s examples in her poems ‘One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –’ (quoted by Deo as an epigraph to one of her sections) and ‘I dwell in Possibility –’, this poem imagines the body as a house. While Deo’s metaphorical and metaphysical concerns are generally very different from Dickinson’s – Deo’s is dominated by the evocation of certain kinds of burning – she is, like Dickinson, interested in notions of haunting and absence: ‘your heart is a house/ with the doors left open’, and there is a ‘stranger roaming the hallways’. Because the narratives in ‘Scorched Earth’ are not explicit enough to give the reader the full context for such expressions, it conveys a sense of scorching and damage, and of failed relationships, while challenging the reader to connect with its uncompromising tropes.
The book also explores the disjunctures of family life and, as mentioned above, various exigencies associated with intimate relationships. As it does so, it adopts what might be understood as a mythopoeic stance towards much of its subject matter, emphasising the strange and unknowable rather than the familiar, and creating various narratives with tropes of violence and loss at their heart. It is not that we cannot know the subjects of Deo’s poetry, but she continuously shifts the focus of her work away from the readily explicable.
This means that even the poem ‘Road Trip’, which starts with an apparently simple idea – ‘In the summer of 1995 my mother and I took/ a road trip’ – soon morphs into a kind of fable, in which the lives of the speaker and her mother, ‘bundled up / in garbage bags’ are thrown ‘into the river’. It is characteristic of Deo that these thrown bags are simultaneously the real thing and a metaphor for change and dislocation. It is also characteristic that the poem introduces a sense of uncertainty and occlusion: ‘I don’t remember the trip back, but I imagine / it must have been like the drive past the redgum wharf’. For Deo in this volume the known, the quotidian and the mysterious are usually entangled, and there is a persistent sense in her work that what is remembered is not the whole story.
Deo uses images drawn from mythology to achieve some of her effects, such as in the lines, ‘My lover, blinded by his tryst / with the sun, crafted cartographies / of the labyrinths in my brain’ and is preoccupied by ideas of divination and ritual. She is also interested in the Tarot, writing a sequence that briefly evokes Ovidian metamorphosis (‘I lived in the woods so long my ankles / tapered into hooves’) before rewriting the symbolism of The Hanged Man, The Priestess, The Emperor and Death. Deo’s alertness in crafting a contemporary and transformative version of these tropes prevents them from being a recycling of received notions and imagery. The Hanged Man, for instance, finds his ‘god in an oil spill, poised / to light a match’ and Death ‘escapes / our mythology’.
Further, the body and written and spoken language are intimately – indeed viscerally – connected in this volume. For instance, ‘Anatomy of Being’ opens with an account of what makes up the physical body, inflected by sometimes unexpected ideas – ‘organs, / constructed of cells and stored in the / dorsal and ventral cavities, lined with / epithelia and ebullience’. The enjambments of these lines are unusual, emphasising prosaic rhythms – suitable to a kind of catalogue – but what is most interesting about the work is its accumulations of abstractions, especially effective in: ‘Rumination held, always, in the / stomach, in its roils and rugae. The / trachea tight with every kept secret.’
There are four poems entitled ‘The Soldier’, depicting someone who remembers ‘the war through crosshairs’ and who was ‘awake when they sawed / through your humerous’. These are complemented by a series of found poems drawn from the index of titles and first lines from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. The found poems are quirky and sometimes poignant, but the poems about the soldier address troubling issues connected to the loss of human identity, the manner in which bodily life continues despite alienation and crisis, and the way memory becomes encoded in corporeality:
Your bones are the topography
of a hidden landscape; your pale blood
vessels run rivers beneath
your skin. Your muscles, your
tendons, your delicate joints
hum with memory.
Overall, this is a thought-provoking debut collection that is perhaps overly encumbered with notes at the end and is occasionally prosaic in its expression, but which addresses serious issues in imaginative and original ways. Deo’s gestures at other writer’s work – for example, she writes a response to Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ – do not always produce her strongest poetry, but, overall, her interest in intertextual gestures deepens this volume’s preoccupations. The Agonist is a book that risks considerably more than many contemporary volumes of poetry, and when these risks succeed Deo creates startling and inimitable poetry.
Friday, May 18th, 2018
The Water Bearer by Tracy Ryan
Fremantle Press, 2018
‘… the poem / will cover a multitude of signs.’ This line, appearing early in West Australian author Tracy Ryan’s ninth poetry collection, can be read as connecting directly to what’s been posited as the very purpose of poetry: to confound or thicken language, to free it from its mere communicative dimension, as Walter Benjamin might put it, and allow it to bump up against things-in-themselves. In fact, this line also bears witness to what the volume as a whole achieves. For the remarkable poetic field that is The Water Bearer sets in motion a multitude of signs and their constellations, but importantly, through the skill of a poet at the height of her powers, also leaves them covered. A line from a later poem (ostensibly about the function of windows) illustrates this achievement differently: ‘Hold threads under tension, a frame.’ With the multiple readings the collection provokes it becomes evident that the volume itself performs as a frame, holding together threads of signs, objects, meanings, but always ‘under tension’: the essential muteness of the outside – the overflow side of language, or what Rilke designated as ‘unsayable’ – feels ever pressing.
The word ‘overflow’ is entirely apposite here, for the volume’s metaphorical linchpin is water. Water, we might think, is a particularly pure element, and could be dealt with more plainly than the muddied subject of Ryan’s previous book, Hoard (the Irish boglands). But purity is not realisable, and Ryan’s rendering of water is a dexterously admixed one. Given her feminist poetics, an Irigarayan notion of fluidity could be expected to drive the work; indeed, many poems do depict the maternally figured intersection of herself and her son. But for this reviewer, some classical conceptual undertones are more perceptible: an Ovidean deployment of water as a symbol of perpetual metamorphosis, for example, and a Heraclitean vision of water as change and flux. Throughout these poems water fluctuates through a concatenation of material forms: snow, ice, storms, vapour, rivers, clouds, household water, swimming pool water, and more. Never a stable entity, neither is water independent: it coexists (as in Ovid) with its elemental counterparts – air, fire and earth – and is explicitly or implicitly manifest in portrayals of how the changing seasons impact both the human and non-human. This attention to the materiality of water and its position in nature fuels one of the work’s marked topical concerns: ecopolitics in the context of the anthropocene. The sequence ‘Self-Supply,’ chronicling some of Ryan’s vexed efforts to live responsibly ‘off’ the scheme water system, evidences, with compelling irony, her committed ecopoetics.
But to return to a larger current: there is a distinct, overarching metaphysical focus on the unrelentingly paradoxical nature of life – for which water acts as a trope. From this thematic superstructure several sub-themes flow, constituting numerous explorations of always/already and both/and situations. Much of the diverse subject matter arises from Ryan’s personal experience, and place is important (the poems’ settings are about equally distributed between the northern and southern hemispheres). But the presence of place is always unsettled / ing: the pressures of time and memory, the eternal return of both newness and loss, and the way travel invokes sensations of both here and there, all put any sense of locatedness under strain. The very first poem ‘Carousel,’ set in the ‘foreign city’ of Paris, establishes some of these motifs: ‘looking out / from my still point, dead as a cyclone’s eye,’ the poetic I/Ryan watches a child spin around her, ‘hurdy gurdy,’ on a roundabout:
… I am what I was
and he is what will be, launching eternally
into a churning future … .
A later poem, speaking of a particular ‘sensitive’ plant on Réunion Island, observes the ‘fragility of interface,’ and tells us ‘[e]verything shut will open again.’ In the Australian-situated ‘View from Below,’ whose form (a line by line accumulation of load) superbly matches its content (the damming of rivers), the I, who is ‘aware of the vast loss for every valley flooded,’ acknowledges ‘the arch or edge / we teeter on … .’ If paradoxes are circumstances that suspend us between many possibilities at once, these poems effect the oxymoronic: floating the I again and again between childhood memories and the present, between staying and going, between seasons and lands, between self and other; and on it goes, continuously.
We must, however, acknowledge one realm of possibility that the text seems to move toward foreclosing; in a telling gesture, this matter is brought to the fore at the end of the volume. Holy water – the form of water consecrated by the church – has already been splashed intermittently throughout (‘Christian,’ ‘pagan,’ ‘secular,’ ‘absolve’ ‘unchristened’ are but a few of the cognate allusions), but in the last pages the issue of organised religion is faced head on. These closing pieces (which include the titular poem) autobiographically explore some of Ryan’s early Catholic church experiences: being influenced by Thomas Merton to join (briefly) a convent, enduring the ‘upright coffin’ of the confessional, and being marked as a penitent on Ash Wednesday. Finally, though, in ‘Crossing Myself,’ Ryan announces that the ‘God-shaped’ stoup at the door of the church is wholly bereft of water: it is now a ‘cracked plastic shell, with nothing to offer.’ She emphasises:
Though it lodge in the brain and beg for
response, I repeat: it is empty – no drop will grace
my ingressions, transgressions … .
Such a vigorous declaration leaves the reader to consider whether this, indeed, represents the resolution of one significant paradox. Does this signify a true stoppage, for Ryan, of the powerful force flow deriving from her involvement with religion? Methinks the poet doth protest too much. The last poem is not the last: the vociferousness of this issue, as covered by the book’s signs, indicates its propensity to live on, for this writer, as a negative demand.
This review leaves much unsaid regarding how The Water Bearer augments Ryan’s already long list of fine accomplishments. Poem after poem here demonstrates beautifully honed linguistic arrangement, haunting affective intensity, and stunning formal control. It is for this unsaid, and much more, that the reader should turn to this volume, many times.
Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
Cones by Andrew Pascoe
Bulky News Press, 2017
Slender Volume by Chris Brown
Bulky News Press, 2017
The Manifolds by Marty Hiatt
Bulky News Press, 2017
Words and phrases in Andrew Pacoe’s cones, emerge and float through the page’s whitespace like ‘vacuum packed clenches / listing downstream’. It seems that if you were to unfold this book, so that all the pages were arranged on the same plane, phrases would flow from their current position and create new combinations. Thus the physical barrier of the book itself seemingly restrains this collection from achieving formal synergy. In this way, cones makes us aware of how the physicalness of the book itself artificially restrains it’s content. This tension between content and form is emblematic of cones’s greater consideration for how the artificial restricts the natural.
Language itself embodies this tension, as it simultaneously allows for and restrains expression. Exemplifying this is the table that floats halfway down page 10:
By enforcing artificial unity on the six words, the amount of syntactic permutations that the table is cable of producing is capped. However, without this artificial unity, the reader would likely only produce one, linear reading of the words. Thus, as a result of the table, the reader is forced to pause and consider multiple interpretations. Paradoxically then, it is constraint that produces this multiplicity.
This collection goes on to consider the limits of this relationship between restraint and multiplicity. Towards the end of the collection, Chinese, English and Arabic phrases disperse across the page like ‘various acacias, hurtling … // thru wormholes’. This explosion of language continues until it reaches a black line that extends across the top of the last four pages. These ‘strewn vapours’ are unable to permeate across this barrier and instead gather together like ‘springs buffering in space’. The result is a ‘p a rt ia l pressure loss’ as language’s expressiveness is normalised when pressed against this barrier. Reading this collection thus causes one to consider where other arbitrary barriers are and how they work to normalise the periphery.
The poems in Chris Brown’s Slender Volume employ dissonant phonics, conflicting semantics, and ‘extended [metaphors] covered in barnacles’ (‘Popular Classics’, John Forbes) to create a dynamic reading experience that demands both alacrity and intensity. However, these poems are not made up of disparate parts simply left for the reader to assemble. Rather, when reading this collection, one receives an awareness of things happening without being able to intellectually determine exactly what these things are. It is this Ashberian evasiveness of subject matter that unites the collection’s aesthetic disparity: movement and surface tension are the ‘point’ of the poems. The success of this collection is then that it maintains its fluidity whilst also achieving unity.
An awareness of temporality allows for this balance. The second poem ‘City circle delay’ exemplifies this. Here, the poem transcribes the poet’s subjectivity whilst trapped on a bus in a Sydney traffic jam. The forced physical sedentariness (‘Find a seat (perforce) and B R E A T H E’) causes the poet’s mind to wander as it firstly considers and then creates the surrounding cityscape: ‘Down Broadway shows / whole buildings in yellow flour’. In this state, thoughts simultaneously occur and disappear without any value judgement attached to them: ‘the beach a thought and traffic a thought …’. The denouement of this journey occurs when the:
‘…street splits cheek firm
against glass lies the looming self-important face of a city.’
The poet’s own reflection and a reflection of the city are unified in this syntactic amalgamation. In this way, considerations for how we read this text; how we move about a city; and how we consider our own thoughts all collapse into a ‘tree blossom drift’.
In Hiatt’s previous collection, Hardline, the poet arranges abstracted phrases sequentially. This forces the reader to make synaptic inference between each line. The sensation created is an ‘ongoing halting’ of phrases layered on top of one another. This causes meaning to ‘appear to be approaching.’ Although these phrases are arranged episodically, insistent refrains create a sense of volume like a ‘swarming springtime tombstone chitchat’. In his latest collection, The Manifolds, the poet interrogates and expands the possibilities of this poetic form, by allowing it to embody a book-length poem.
Kant describes synthesis as rationalising what is manifold into a single cognition. In mathematical terms, a manifold is a three-dimensional space that can be imagined as a flat surface. If something is ‘manifold’ it has many or varied parts, forms, and features. In this collection, Hiatt shows that Poetry is a mode of thought capable of combining and expressing this multifarious concept.
The centripetal force binding this kaleidoscopic form is the poet’s own subjectivity: this collection is ‘not interested in your narcism… only [its] own’. ‘Narcissism’ in this instance does more than signpost a wry self-awareness for how intensely solipsistic this poem is: it is emblematic of the contradictions and ironies that this ‘rotoscoped diagram’ of subjectivity reveals. For instance, the assertion that you are ‘more than just a cog in a wheel’ only leads to the circular realisation that ‘im a cog in a wheel that says its more than just a cog in a wheel.’ In this feedback loop of poetic consciousness, internal awareness and external reality layer on top of one another and form an irreconcilable dichotomy.
This dichotomy exemplifies cognitive dissonance. Investigating this dissonance moves the collection from being enigmatically confessional to politically sensitive. One option for reconciling the tension is to ‘force yourself’ into ‘going to many personal and business trainings’. Although this will please the ‘big beleaguered american arsehole’ it likely won’t align with an ‘innate sense of superiority’. However, the necessity of ‘tryna make up a living’ will force compliance with the ‘amazing enemy’. This in turn results in ‘buying your inability … so variously’ that you become ‘powerless’ and ‘wholly abstract’.
Black humour dignifies this typically millennial paranoia. Like finding ‘a flash of joy’ amongst ‘a slag heap’, this collection consoles those caught in this state with the empathetic assertion that there is no way to escape.
Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
Dark Matters by Susan Hawthorn
Spinifex Press, 2017
Where, as Jovette Marchessault asks, is the Tomb of the Unknown Lesbian?
Susan Hawthorn’s Dark Matters is a culmination of over thirty years’ lesbian feminist activism and fifteen years’ research focused on violence – specifically torture – against lesbians in a global context. Hawthorn’s embodied experience and creative-intellectual rigour bring politics and poetics, desires and denials, silences and protests, bodies and implements of torture, intimate meditations and research expeditions, productive rage, testimony, speculative fiction and ficto-criticism together in a single novel.
The novel is framed in ficto-critical terms as a creative writing research project called Diagonal Genealogies. It is a project that examines ‘the ways in which women passed down memorabilia through their families, particularly looking at women who do not have children.’ Desi, the writer-researcher, has inherited boxes of writings by her aunty Kate (Ekaterina). On the verge of ‘junking the lot’, Desi sits down to read what the boxes contain. In them she discovers writings that document, in fragments and with enormous gaps, the abduction and torture of Kate and the attempted assassination of Kate’s lover, Mercedes.
From the decayed fragments of Sappho (Psappha) to the works of HD, Monique Wittig, Anne Carson and Marion May Campbell, fragmentation has been developed as a deeply political and poetically significant way to write stories of how lesbians live and die. The importance of fragmentation for writing lesbian stories derives from diverse, but entangled, situations: 1) the under privileging and active silencing of lesbian stories, cultures, histories and identities; and, 2) the activist practice of turning sites of oppressive silence into zones of speech and creativity.
Denial of stories is an agile way to nullify histories and identities. Desi discovers that lesbian lives are not something that can just be researched, they must be investigated because the gaps in the official, and unofficial, archives are enormous. She puts it like this,
That’s the thing about lesbians, it’s a kind of detective story that unwinds in scraps but half of the pages are shredded and the rest are so destroyed as to be unreadable.
Drawing on this history of poetic fragmentation, Hawthorn produces a generically hybrid and polyvocal novel with interloping stories of missing girls, abducted and assassinated women, silenced mothers, institutionalised aunties, as well as the abandoned and profaned monsters and goddesses of ancient myth. In Dark Matters these fragmented narratives cross over and into each other’s stories; they begin to read as a live archive of lesbian histories. In this novel, Hawthorn shows that the stories of women who refuse to live by the confining codes of heteropatriarchy can be entered through the portal of countless names which are not often spoken of within the dominant cultural scene: Vera Rubin, Demeter and Persephone, Baubo, Ekhidna, Sappho, Hecate, dyke, Monique Wittig, HD, Virginia Woolf …
While fragmentation as a writing strategy has often been theorised in relation to the white space of the page that surrounds it, Hawthorn situates her fragments in relation to dark matter. It was the American astronomer Vera Rubin who proved, in Western techno-scientific terms, that dark matter constitutes most of the mass that exists in the visible universe. Furthermore, Rubin showed that dark matter binds visible matter. Hawthorn activates dark matter as a potent poetic trope in Dark Matters. It is a trope that allows Desi to think through the invisibilisation of lesbian lives and deaths in social, cultural and political domains. ‘Imperceptibility’, Desi writes, ‘is not a clue to non-existence, as Vera Rubin discovered.’
So much can be discovered in silences, deletions and detectable absences. Each fragment in Dark Matters maps into histories and imaginaries that are carved out of gendered and sexualised violence. Violence in Dark Matters is considered on physical, conceptual and representational levels. Hawthorn is acutely attuned to the way the animalisation (or dehumanisation) of lesbian lives, loves and acts work as a conceptual violence that paves the way for physical violence. When Kate is first locked in isolation she is hit by smells,
… the smell of animal urine mixed with fear
… the smell of an abattoir or of a place where animals are slaughtered.
I shake and I sprout feathers. I take off and soar: a wedge-tailed eagle. I leave this horror behind.
For her torturers, Kate-as-lesbian makes Kate an animal. But Kate finds life in animal identifications. Reflecting on Kate’s writings, Desi notes,
She describes a range of animals from a lesbian-centric point of view. She is creating a universe in which lesbian symbols lie at the centre.
In isolation and after torture sessions, Kate tells herself stories about animals. She recounts animal visions from myth, she dreams-up narratives of other women who gather around her, who become her animal familiars. Dropping in and out of sensibility, and to escape the reality of torture, Kate becomes a myriad of animals:
I’m a wolf, loping (louping) through the forest.
My arms are growing wings. Wings of heavy metal. Collapsing wings. Too heavy like the wings of the Hercules moth …
… colourful fish swim by like a pack of women. Others travel singly or in pairs. Their sides, rainbow-streaked. Parrot fish. I am floating free in this tropical water. I am swimming back forth and around, over the bommies. Mushroom and brain coral dot the shallow sea floor.
In Kate’s lesbian imaginary, there is hope in multiplicity, in mutability, in stories about bodies that come undone and become-other.
Nowhere in this novel does Hawthorn seek to resolve the political and literary erasure of lesbian lives and deaths, but every page of this novel works to make those erasures visible. It might only take hours to read Dark Matters, because it is so often paced like a thriller or detective novel. But it will take many more hours, weeks or months to reckon (really reckon) with the myriad intertextual citations Hawthorn includes; all of which offer storied paths that lead toward ever more stories that track through the hidden lives and deaths of lesbians.
This is a book of underworlds and infernos, places of execution, practices of erasure and sites of desire. It documents the practicalities of attempting to break lesbian cultures woman by woman, finger by finger and story by story. Against such violence Hawthorn offers poetry as activism, as remedy, as mode of repair.
Dark Matters is a meteoroid. When it hits, it will make a different world of you.
Friday, April 20th, 2018
New and Selected Poems 1991-2017 by Alison Croggon
Newport Street Books, 2017
Alison Croggon has worked across many forms in her career, and connections to several are represented in these pages – the nine-part poem ‘Specula’, for example, comes from a larger work of the same title which also involves an essay and a radio play. Her previously published poetry collections are likewise represented. But there is no distinction in this new collection between these various sources from which Croggon has drawn – a deliberate choice she carefully underlines in her author’s note to this selection. In the acknowledgements, her own titles are grouped with that of the numerous journals she has published in, and given no special attention. There is no distinction in the table of contents or in the book’s design which demonstrates each poem’s source – the only overt indication is the inclusion of titular poems from previous collections. Recognition of these moreover confirms that the new collection is not arranged chronologically, or by any other immediately comprehensible logic. Something larger is at play in the construction of the collection than the ‘historicisation’ of a writing career.
The previously unpublished works included with the selection are not all new – as her note describes, Croggon has included ‘all the poems I care to remember. I wrote the earliest poem in this book when I was eleven, the most recent this year. Some, including older works, haven’t been previously published; some have been published many times.’ At 314 pages, it is a vast collection. Accentuating this is the scope of the poetry, which shifts across forms, themes and foci with dexterity. There is for example a thread of violence, regularly connected to patriarchal structures of sex and gender, which builds gradually and comes to lie alongside the experience of motherhood in a beautiful but disconcerting and often confronting way. The poem ‘For Ben’, roughly halfway through the collection, offers an example:
Child, the world is swelling, light wavers
over your unblinking eyes, the ocean lifts you
on dark mouths towards the sudden dawn
when you’ll howl the sea out of your lungs
and harden the air.
To welcome you I have these eyes and fingers
to open their delight on your sundered skin.
They’ll fail, as all desire fails, breaking on the reef
of human weariness and gathering past
its violation to simplicity
Perhaps. Here is a cushion of my blood
This concern with structures of the feminine spans the collection, and shifts subtly from the gentle embodiment of poems like ‘Owl Songs’ or ‘Communion’ (‘My flesh is sad with itself, it walks in the garden / heavy and opaque, an insoluble riddle’), to the open feminist politics of ‘Songs of a Dictator’, especially ‘1. He woos his mistress’. Powerful female figures abound – Persephone, Medea, Yseult, Euterpe and Cassandra all feature.
But this is not the only, nor always the dominant theme. As Euterpe’s presence suggests, a sense of joy in art of all forms emerges regularly through a rich and challenging intertext—poems cite sources from Rilke to popular television. Nature is also an important force, and unflinching. In ‘Bird’:
The bird is
a deep and troublesome fidelity.
Even as maggots crawl through its braincase, it is still bird.
In the skirl of storm
it is bird, torn feathers, tiny bones,
breasting the weight of air.
It is possible to read the collection in terms of the thematic, stylistic and emotional connections which Croggon cites as having structured her ordering of the works. But in another way, I also found myself resisting anything so active in the reading. The impression of narrative logic which emerged at points felt like a false temptation. Instead, again and again, I found myself wanting to play passive witness to the text, to take it as an offering on its own terms – in Croggon’s words, as ‘a new body of work that, like memory itself, exists spatially rather than sequentially’. This is a collection which finds structure in speaking to the experience of a life in words.
In an interview for Cordite Poetry Review with Kate Middleton in 2001, when asked about the diversity of her artistic outputs, and whether she considered poetry as her primary form, Croggon agreed that: ‘Poetry’s the first thing I did, and I think psychically it’s just in the middle, and everything else is related to it, branches out from it.’ The scope of this collection, representing the majority of Croggon’s life and testifying to the significance of her poetic output, can be read to stand then as this ‘physic middle’ in textual form. Like memory, it is fluid, richly imagistic, and has an intense and at times unsettling capacity for contradiction – in ‘Notes’:
little delicate animal
your thin shoulders press against my belly
the bones of your face stand out like an adult’s
and your neck that white naked stem
is laid across my thigh
as if I could protect you
Moments when the poetry approaches the melodramatic seem to push towards the subconscious, playing on the notion of the hysterical to suggest the capacity within the psyche for panic or pain. In the poem ‘Mnemosyne’, for example:
she writhes into the mystery of her body
herself dissolves and remakes itself
will not be still won’t stop it’s eating her it’s closed her up she’s lost inside alone
she hurts there are no words there is no hand no tongue no god no hate no
love nothing to save her
a crush a must a burn afraid a breath a
The lyric voice varies in its rhythms and pace but is more consistent in its timbre: the ‘grain’ of the voice is recognisable, and the work carries always a power for moments of both strength and sympathy. Form, too, shifts in subtle ways: the minimalism of ‘Attempts at being’ sits beside the more expansive ‘Beginning again’, a work taken from the same collection, but shifted into new relation in the re-ordering. Similarly, the tense energy of ‘Aubade’, tightly constrained in two couplets, is followed by the slowly building, twelve-part release of ‘Divinations’. Even when visible and connected, the themes and images move in and out of focus. In all these ways, the collection reads as an intense exploration of self. But its cohesion, paradoxically, is a product of its fluidity – it works in recognition of a life’s inconsistencies, of the manner in which the self can change, as much as it offers an image of a complete and contained poetic ‘I’.
Wednesday, April 18th, 2018
Anatomy of a Metaphor by Peter Goldsworthy
Garron Press, 2017
The Quality of Light by Jill Jones
Garron Press, 2017
Thump by Heather Taylor Johnson
Garron Press, 2017
Garron Publishing was started in 2010 by Gary MacRae and Sharon Kernott as a means of self-publishing work, but has since expanded into a successful run of poetry chapbooks by established and emerging South Australian poets. This Southern-Land Poets series is a return to the original pamphlets traditionally sold in fifteenth century England by ‘chapmen’, and as such, their unassuming bindings do not necessarily connote the quality of their contents.
Anatomy of a Metaphor (and other poems) by Peter Goldsworthy is split into in three sections. The first, the ‘Anatomy of a Metaphor’ sequence, is a searing, seven-part poem focused on the human heart. It not only stretches the limits of a poet’s metaphorical ability, but also creates an intra-poetic dialogue between the ‘diastole’ and ‘systole’ beats. There is a hypnotic rhythm on a macro level, alternating between the relentless images of the systole and the distanced observations of the diastole. ‘2. Systole’ is a good example of Goldsworthy’s seemingly bottomless well of metaphors:
Red centre of a growing iron-red continent,
epicentre of small-magnitude non-stop body-quakes,
plum-coloured boab bulb with thick upspreading roots,
multi-tentacled squid-head squirting jets of red ink
Goldsworthy’s relentless litany is evocative but also thought provoking. Under Aristotelian thought, the Ancient Greeks gave the heart the prime place in human biology; it was the source of life but also the centre of all thoughts and feelings. Goldsworthy’s sequence provokes a realisation of the beauty of the heart and all that it does, and also how often we do not think about it. It beats along without us needing to.
But Goldsworthy is not only writing about the heart, he is also writing about metaphors themselves, so that the human anatomy that forms the subject matter of his metaphors is also, when viewed from the ‘diastole’, a commentary on the nature of metaphors themselves. ‘3. Diastole’ is a particularly arresting example:
in a society
that is only an arrest
away from anarchy
Goldsworthy employs the same general style of writing in the second section of the chapbook, but applied to other body parts. His eight-part poem titled ‘Hand’ is another example of his astounding ability to provoke self-reflection through imagery:
Hand is our far-flung frontier reaching across
the limits of words the border of our matter
our mariner our voyager our miniaturized self
crossing the outer silence the empty space
between the worlds
Thursday, April 12th, 2018
Poems of Olga Orozco, Marosa Di Giorgio & Jorge Palma
Edited and translated by Peter Boyle
Vagabond Publishing, 2017
In 2017, Vagabond Press launched its Americas Poetry Series. This is a brave and much needed venture, one that borders on the quixotic: an Australian editor offering publications from poets from the Americas to the Australian reading public, for the love of poetry and the art of translation. So far, the series has three excellent entries focused on the translation of Spanish language Latin American poets into English. Notably, all three books in the series consist of translations by translators who are themselves poets. They seize the creative potential of the translating act, producing poems that walk the fine-line between the languages and cultures of the original and the translated texts, while seeking to conserve the imagery, expression and rhythm of the poems. Given that many of the translations published so far stem from the baroque to the vanguardist schools of poetry, it is no small feat that the books present readable, engaging translations that retain the playfulness, the shock, the allure and ambience of the originals. Though this review concerns the first publication in the series, it must be noted that it has continued successfully, with the two latest publications being Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón, focusing on a selection of Mexican poetry (reviewed in these pages by Gabriel García Ochoa), and the haunting Jasmine for Clementina Médici by the Uruguayan Marosa di Giorgio, with a foreword by notable poet, translator and academic, Roberto Echevarren.
Poems of Olga Orozco, Marosa Di Giorgio & Jorge Palma is selected and translated by Peter Boyle and consists of a selection from these three poets from Argentina and Uruguay. Boyle is himself a distinguished Australian poet and translator, with a long-running relationship with Latin American poetry, having previously translated poems by the Cuban José Kozer and the Venezuelan Eugenio Montejo, amongst others. Adorned with a beautiful photograph of a Uruguayan cottage taken by fellow Australian poet Stuart Cooke, that, with its ochre and blue tones, accentuates the connections between these distant souths (Australia-South America) and offers a glimpse of idyll that connects with the romantic tendencies of some of the contents. Yet, acting as the proverbial calm before the storm, this idyll also presages the turbulence of the pages to come. That is because Boyle’s book provides an eccentric, alchemical, if not iconoclastic selection that chooses the path of discovery, adventure and mysticism. To aid the reader, Boyle provides an excellent introduction that serves to not only to introduce the poets, but also contextualises the work of the three poets by placing them in their respective poetic traditions. Boyle’s introduction also addresses the task of translation itself, presenting different difficulties in each of the three cases. However concerned Boyle may be about those things that are lost in translation (rhyme, sound play), his anthology presents a delightful set of translations that read well, and most importantly, represent three different twentieth century conceptions of the poetic in Latin America: those who took up the call of surrealism, represented by Olga Orozco; the neo-baroque and experimental, in Marosa di Giorgio; and the conversational, socially engaged poetry in the poems of Jorge Palma. These are three forking paths that lead into different traditions that are well worth exploring.
The book begins with a selection of poetry by Orozco (1920-1999), and whose poems are carefully chosen from a lifetime of poetic practice, including a poem dedicated to her dead brother Emilio, dating from 1946, to the poet’s last verses, published posthumously in 2009. Orozco’s ‘Cartomancy’ sets the tone for what is to come, with its dense and dreamlike images and allusions to the world of the magical. In Orozco’s poems, this is a world where both poet and the reader are subjected to the twists and turns of fate and are surrounded by its symbols, often as jarringly juxtaposed as the twists of fate itself. Orozco was involved in Argentina’s Tercera Vanguardia, a vanguardist movement that drank heavily from the well of surrealism, embracing its formal experimentation and tendency to the violent juxtaposition of incongruent imagery. Perhaps, however, the most marked influence from the surrealists in Latin America was its play with the unconscious and its trust in dream imagery. Orozco takes from these traditions and filters them through images, experiences and places from her own past. As a result, there is in Orozco’s poems a marked tendency towards the magical and the fantastic. According to Boyle, Orozco’s faith in the magical stems from her own childhood through the figure of her grandmother who inculcated her with a belief in the magical and in the talismanic, in symbols, herbs and indecipherable turns of phrase. Orozco’s poems embrace these elements and render them on the page in the service of exploring her own recurring themes. There is in all of her poetry a fascination with both the fantastic and the fatalistic that is coupled with an exploration of the poet’s interior worlds. These are worlds marked by nostalgia for long-gone people and places of the poet’s past: the Argentine Pampa where the childhood home once stood; death; the animal-world, and the spaces once inhabited. Notably, many of Orozco’s poems are dedicated to the dead, ‘For Emilio in his Heaven’, ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ and ‘Cantos a Berenice’ are dedicated to her dead younger brother, to Alejandra Pizarnik and to Orozco’s cat. Orozco’s recurrent themes lead the poet to her own images and symbols of the plains, the elements of nature, the seasons, dogs, talismans, stones and snouts that “steal your breath”. Orozco puts these images to use to create a multifaceted image of reality, characterised as a space ruled by fate; a space in which one must attempt to decipher the runes of chance. Orozco explores this dynamic in ‘Mutations of Reality’:
Like me a captive, with constellations and ants,
perhaps inside a glass ball where souls wander,
I’ve seen reality shrink and take the form of puny Jonah
inside the whale
or endlessly expand into that skin which, in a stream of
vapour, breathes out all the sky:
indissoluble stowaway groping through the bilge water of the
or all-encompassing beast at the moment of exploding
against the wire fence around limbo […]
Like me, protector of one of destiny’s indecipherable masks,
Reality dresses up as a witch and with a sigh transforms
dazzling birds to legions of rats,
or puts all of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s wine in a pot to
Thursday, April 5th, 2018
Glass by Rose Hunter
Five Islands Press, 2017
Glass is a collection of elegiac poems, a memoir of free verse about the poet’s travels through Mexico and her own debilitating ailment. The ‘you’ in book is addressed with a certain fondness (‘where are you / i feel of course now we would have the most wonderful conversation’) and an intimacy that suggests the poet is speaking to someone she was once romantically involved with:
thinking of things i had to
tell you and what would you say and how you would laugh
The first poem ‘mixquic’ is addressed to ‘sean’, whom the book is also, in part, dedicated to: ‘for sean, again / for mum and dad’. The ‘you’ in the poems, it might be assumed, is Sean.
There are many allusions to Sean’s death. Whereas in ‘yellow’ Hunter makes reference – although not necessarily literal – to ‘cancers’, in ‘el edén’ Sean’s passing is the result of an accident:
magic wand bridge one-eyed fence canyon plunge buggy
tiny flimsy that killed you
There is also a passage that expresses guilt about the death of an intimate partner – presumably Sean – from alcoholism:
then i will bathe you clothe you feed you wash the dishes
hide the bottles take out the empties
call the doctor tie you down. now i will reel you back
from your brink.
Sean is the addressee of most of the poems and in this sense the book reads like a letter to the departed. Glass, however, is by no means epistolary in form or style:
(i would not interrupt say less backstory say
cut to the chase say what is the point
of this story or i would but that
would be okay too)
Often Hunter’s verse is conversational, but certain passages are also lyrical, somewhat oneiric, and almost surrealist:
the dragon head on your chicken back
turkey feet and cowrie legs. wattle dewlap quill cuttle
ventricular, come i will dab you bib you
we will be like the children we never were. show me
your pony gait your ice cream cone fur and jester ears
Many of the poems, such as ‘bajío’, include uncredited epigraphs:
– the exhibition was about lost things
you see. leashes slack on the ground.
Perhaps the epigraphs are fragments of overheard conversation, or words written by Hunter herself as ‘quotations’ of divergent voices or viewpoints. The epigraph in ‘bajío’ seems to suggest the existence of an escaped dog and, like most of the epigraphs in Glass, has an equivocal connection to the poem itself, which begins:
if we take a lobster for a walk well
how to put that harness and can they even go on land
and for how long? would they break their feet?
This passage, which could be observed as somewhat of a departure from personal narrative voice that continues more or less throughout the collection, brings to mind Gérard de Nerval, the nineteenth-century French poet who is said to have taken a lobster on a blue ribbon for a walk through Paris. Also, it is reminiscent in certain ways of Gabriel García Márquez. Hunter normalises the lobster on a leash with her conversational tone (‘can they even go on land … ?’) in much the same way as Márquez uses fairly ordinary language to describe fantastic occurrences. Hunter’s lobster on a leash is by no means physically implausible or as irrefutably surrealist as, say, García Márquez’s story ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ in which an angel falls from the sky during a storm, but the two are comparable in their use of dry, pragmatic language that draws the reader into an imagined realm:
He argued that if wings were not the essential elements in determining the difference between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels.
In Hunter’s poem, however, the fantasy lasts for less than a stanza before she flips into stream of consciousness:
[…] i ate squid dashed against the rocks
with a specified promptness or precision or something
for it to taste a certain way or something.
i have eaten lobster only twice and still don’t know what it
Elsewhere in the book, Hunter’s recollections of Sean and Mexico are often nostalgic, but ‘bajío’ is decidedly unsentimental:
listen. if you are talking to a person
on the street one day and the next day they go out and die
like going for a hamburger or barbacoa [barbeque] like big deal they just go.
Hunter, particularly in the ‘brisbane’ chapter, also refers to her own encumbering illness: ‘we just don’t know why / i have dead legs’. At the same time, however, the speaker is incapable of forgetting Sean:
if i could go back to that day. i would do more
than take a picture of you
Hunter’s use of form – the indented lines, the large gaps within the lines, the relentless enjambment – is central to her stream of consciousness style. In ‘wickham terrace’, among other poems, the sentences are enjambed not only over lines and stanzas, but also over numbered sections:
[…] my father whistles through his teeth
lifts one foot, then the other touches his hand
to his mouth, his glance a thrown bus. time
is lost no matter how you lived it
The rarity of end-stopped lines and the way in which Hunter positions the sentences across the page accentuates the free associative design of her syntax. When end-stopped lines are included (‘did they not fight enough / did they not love enough’) they are all the more forceful. The fact that Hunter uses enjambment across numbered sections and their respective page breaks and the way she often begins poems with ‘and’ or ‘or’ contribute to the impression that even though there are 21 poems divided into three chapters (‘mexico city’, ‘jalisco’, and ‘brisbane’) Glass in many ways reads like one extended poem. The extent to which Glass is autobiographical is of course irrelevant, but the personal and somewhat regretful tone that pervades the collection make the poems nearly always compelling.
Thursday, April 5th, 2018
River’s Edge by Owen Bullock
Recent Work Press, 2016
Owen Bullock stated in his ‘The Breath of Haiku’ article in Aoeteroa that ‘the modern haiku can be about anything, not just nature’. Readers of his previous collection, Urban Haiku (Recent Work Press, 2015), will be well aware of this position. Preferring to focus on the human and blur the distinctions between haiku and senyrū, haiku of human nature as opposed to the world, Bullock’s latest collection, River’s Edge lends itself well to investigations of textual forms.
The individual lines featured on the back cover hint at what lurks beneath the surface of River’s Edge: a focussed recollection of the wisdom and experiences of a variety of people that brings together multiple viewpoints at once. Like a recipe followed by heart, unpretentious and yet demanding, each poem represents the attempt to preserve the moment – at a loss to see clearly beyond the titular river’s edge:
some of the waves
the others (55)
Above all, the collection’s appearance is deceptive – while the haiku are characteristically brief and simple, they are intricately crafted and mindful as memories resurface and are subsequently overtaken, as expressed by the overtaking waves of the poem above. Sometimes as unobtrusive as a passing phrase about cleaning the mantel within someone’s home, the text demonstrates the advantage of a form that omits so much and yet hints at what is left unsaid, as revealed within the establishing haiku:
her little vases
this is my devotion (3)
By no means the last poem about seemingly irrelevant moments that at times evade understanding, words are rendered particulate within these fragments, the lines unstable and language suggestive of the personal. From the first page, Bullock appeals to the reader to not simply be satisfied with aphoristic haiku, inviting them to peer beyond what is printed on the page and read between and across the lines. For example, consider the following poems:
New Year’s Eve
to New Year’s Day
the unlit candle
that don’t work
top his kitchen cupboards (38-39)
In these two instants, the reader gets the sense that each line could be interchanged, omitted or exchanged within the individual haiku and considered a stanza within a larger poem. The potential of the ‘unlit candle’ in the concluding line of the first haiku to also serve as the establishing line in the adjacent poem is refreshing and reveals the multiplicity at the centre of the text, the potential for a myriad of interpretations and perspectives. These meditations on memory celebrate dislocation and uncertainty. Despite the repetitions of ‘I’ and ‘my’, the collection seems to relinquish a sense of possession:
walking a road
I drive daily
nothing familiar (25)
In this instance, Bullock suggests an ever-evolving experience and perception, one that is simultaneously informed by the speaker and referential to the reader. The reader approaches the collection with their own experiences and memories, ‘walking a road / I drive daily’ and Bullock, considering these several perspectives, offers ambiguity, ‘nothing familiar’, leaving readers with the feeling that what they’ve just read might be their own recollection. Suggestions for co-creation are hinted at in the text’s lack of a context or titles, in what might be considered an attempt to disavow ownership of words or narrative. Consider the following, from the middle of the collection:
in that mass of cloud
a few of your cells (51)
Above all, these meditations on individual and collective memory centre on the creation of a nebulous and subjective experience for the potential reader. This is not to say that Bullock doesn’t make space to return to tradition, such as in the vertical poems that appear in the collection:
avoiding the bumps mascara in progress (57)
These poems serve similar objectives to the poems described above, but Bullock’s decision to write certain haiku vertically may be considered a return to traditional Japanese haiku structure. The decision represents a further challenge to readerly expectations. With no syntax and cut to infer tone or emphasis, the reader determines the rhythm. The implications of these unfolding observations are determined by and revealed according to decisions known only to each individual reader.
It is the collection’s unpredictability and capacity to ‘reanimate old meanings and words to reflect radically new contexts’ (‘The Breath of the Haiku’, 48) that makes River’s Edge worth reading more than once. Held in an opaque, regenerative temporality, the instants sustained within this simple paperback are brief, captivating and ever evolving:
each day that passes
for Caron (33).