FRESH Thursday, June 14th, 2018
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.
Continue reading →
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).
Monday, March 26th, 2018
Cartoon Snow by Aidan Coleman
Garron Publishing, 2015
South Australian poet Aidan Coleman’s previous book of poetry, Asymmetry, was published in 2012. It charts Coleman’s traumatic experience of a stroke, and the resulting loss of symmetry in his body, life and writing. The book strings together revelations made startling through poetic bluntness, from the initial shock of incapacitation to the excruciation of gradual rehabilitation. However, physical damage was not Coleman’s main worry, but rather loss of language. He conveyed his anxiety in an interview: ‘a poem relies on metaphor … if you don’t get that real high … you’ll never write a poem’. Happily, these fears were alleviated with Asymmetry, which not only teems with astonishing and idiosyncratic figures of speech, but also operates as an entreaty for readers to think about illness anew.
Published three years later, Cartoon Snow demonstrates Coleman’s enduring acuity. The 17-poem chapbook is thematically lighter than Asymmetry, but it does not lack in an underlying philosophical enquiry. The cover features ‘The Spirit of The Time’, Charles Gibson’s 1910 whimsical illustration depicting a joyful child being pulled along on a sleigh by an equally joyful relative. Windows are coated with heavy snow but there is no indication of malcontent. Cartoon snow, evidently, appears different to factual snow. The sharper edges of reality are softened by the gentle pixellation of a romantic, pictorial focus rendering the subject innocuous. The cover is apt for a collection that asks questions about simulacra.
The book opens with the titular poem ‘Cartoon Snow’, where the speaker observes a freezer packed with ice that is difficult to dislodge. Coleman writes: ‘You realise the benefits of cartoon snow’, drawing the reader’s attention to the notion that literary illusion often softens the blow of existence, the freezer a signifier for life’s hardships. The poem instantiates this act of softening but also offers a reflexive vision on how these metaphors are produced. They are as ironic as they are romantic: ‘Sugar cubes of igloo bricks … / dazzling acres, you would dress for’. Such lines juxtapose a contradiction between what we know to be true, and what we wish to be true. It is unlikely you would actually have a desire to dress for the necessary realities of a very snowy day.
‘Cartoon Snow’ sets the tone for the upcoming pages, as we are pulled into a shared, tacit knowledge of how poetry works upon us. The paradox in romantic irony is at play as the poem drifts into the phantasmagoria of the ‘snowy night’ of Anglo-American poetic tradition. The drift brings to mind such antiques as Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and Emily Dickinson’s ‘Snow Flakes’, operating within a snow-globe of ethereal, exquisite phrases. The phrases engender marvel and lift us up above the mundane, yet they can also trap us in a frozen, false perception of safety. Coleman’s poem offers similar repose from the actualities beyond – such as a snowy night that is bitterly cold and painful to trudge through:
How gently it erases
fox-prints and sleigh-tracks,
the stamp of hoof
The speaker expresses dyadic desire: for poems to convey brilliant verisimilitude, but also for a heightened version of our world. We are in want of cartoon snow because such representations ease ‘the vexatious sharp edges of our pasts’. It offers a respite from relentless facts and rationalism. The speaker admits that it is tempting and pleasurable to ‘retire/once more to the puffing cottage, its windows a blazing/ marmalade’. The huskies inside are peaceful as they ‘settle for the uncluttered life’, an admission that brings the poem full circle in its contrast to the early image of the cluttered fridge. Poetic illusion is a kind of truth, Coleman seems to say, and it occupies the edges of the corporeal to ease our lives as we graze against them.
‘Sideshow’ is Coleman’s playful exploration of an Australian Christmas, in which he writes of a ‘Christmas down by the river’ where the carols are distinctly Australian, in a location that cannot achieve the illusion of a wintry and cosy European Christmas: ‘ice-cream van carols/pour into evening’. Such European notions are irrelevant in Australia’s heat and among its plethora of unique native animals. Coleman points out ‘kangaroos instead of reindeer’, and the unintended blasphemy of the nativity display where ‘an echidna, a wombat, and a platypus’ brings the baby Jesus his gifts. This deliberate hybridisation operates through comic images, but the evident delight in this feels radical. Coleman displays his uncanny wit in the last stanza, as a sudden vagary reveals his fondness for it all:
Is it the joy of their delirium
that makes it look so much like looting?
Anyway, we liked it .
Such examinations continue in ‘Barbarian Studies’, which takes the everyday scene of supervising a child and deploys it to break down the illusion of stereotypical masculinity. Here, masculinity is stripped from the male parent and comically endowed to his child. The parent imagines himself carrying out a more ‘manly’ activity elsewhere, which could be singing drunkenly like ‘a coachman circa 1840’, or in a Viking boat rowing hard. The poem surprises as it illuminates the title’s significance: when one thinks of barbarian, one usually thinks of someone who dominates through aggression. But is that not an apt description of many children loose in a playground? Certainly, they invade and conquer such areas. However, and this is the hinge on which the poem pivots, they still need their parents to propel them and assist their navigation. They may behave like Vikings, but as Coleman grudgingly remarks: ‘the Vikings … at least did their own rowing’.
The concluding poem ‘Diagram and Leaf’ is a fitting, meditative moment among the comical metaphors and metaphysical questions. It addresses more directly the longing for truth in the semblances of poetry. After the disruption of poetic liberties, Coleman reveals an admiration for the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ – as Coleridge famously called it in 1817 – employed by readers to truly appreciate the poem’s interpretation of the world. Coleman admits to ‘tricks on paper’, but such tricks and illusions are celebrated in ‘Diagram and Leaf’. The water ‘sparkles’ – it is not grey and dull, and we arrive at who we are by asking why we value this. What lies beneath ‘obsidian and mirror’ is not how we are, but how we long to be – the world remade through our submersions in poetry. Coleman has not lost his touch for singular metaphors. As he deconstructs the role of such metaphors in this exceptional chapbook, these poems invite us to question our perceptions of reality, heightening our understanding of what we often need the world to be, even if only as ‘tricks on paper’.
Monday, March 26th, 2018
In Some Ways Dingo by Melody Paloma
Rabbit Poetry, 2017
The cover of Melody Paloma’s first poetry collection, In Some Ways Dingo, is a work by the artist Emma Finneran called ‘Into Stella.’ It’s formed from acrylic, ink and pastel on cotton drop cloth. Finneran’s work is interested in the material possibilities of drop-cloths: cloths typically instrumentalised into catching ‘the excess paint from Mum’s feature wall’ (in Finneran’s words) and to be eventually ‘rendered forgotten, formless, shapeless, degraded – to be dropped.’ Finneran’s practice reanimates and repurposes drop sheets into paintings, embellishing aleatory markings. The green and purple brush stripe near the centre of the cover art of Paloma’s book, for instance, elaborates on accidental strokes to create a marking that gestures towards a street strip, evoking the way In Some Ways Dingo drives its reader across the page. This is a poetry collection that Sian Vate suggests doubles as a ‘road movie’ (Melbourne launch speech, 2017). In any case, this cover displays discarded detritus as productive of making, meaning and abstraction. Finneran’s practice is both procedural and unruly freeform. Thick with the textures and the robust practicalities of art making, Finneran’s work mirrors as much as it frames In Some Ways Dingo.
Paloma’s poetry picks up and repurposes found phrases from youtube videos, a NSW government website ‘Wild About Whales’, pop culture refuse, and roadside waste. There’s a ‘catalogue / for the front yard of that one house on the street’. The ‘catalogue … in part includes:’
bird of paradise
(‘Small acts of self-preservation,’)
Loni Jeffs notes how, in Paloma’s book, ‘[i]nteractions with people are sparse, but the objects that they leave behind are present ‘in piles.’ Paloma’s poetry involves piling objects upon the page, usually compartmentalised with line breaks, but sometimes with commas as well, as in the case of ‘gum wrappers, receipts, packs of Panadol / and once, a stuffed crocodile,’ (‘On reality tv,’). The poems ‘Itemise lives spilled out’, an itemisation that involves naming, gathering and ordering things, even annotating specific features of interest, with a spacing that suggests a ‘notes’ column next to the items catalogued:
bottle with a crook neck now toxic
(‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’)
Paloma’s use of poetic catalogue as a kind of documentation of detritus could be read through the non-fiction poetry framework of the Rabbit Poetry Journal’s Poets Series (this book is number 9). At the same time, though the poems incorporate lists within themselves, the poems are not themselves lists, or rather, in their reading, they rapidly move back and forth from being lists to being less list-like, suggesting by doing so the way narrative, description, lyric, road movie can be boiled down to an itemised catalogue for a ‘knick-knackatorium’ (‘A letter in three parts or more’).
Returning to Finneran’s drop-sheet: it is also a useful reference point for In Some Ways Dingo because of the way these poems persistently return to what falls downwards, what is buried, and what it might mean to fall into the ground, ‘swallowed by pavement’ (‘Sinkhole Poem’), ‘Edge sinks back into the / Ground’ (‘Periphery’). This book is animated by the injunction to: ‘remember all things come from the ground’ (‘Olympic Australis’).
The poem ‘Special Values and Characteristics’ reads, in part:
Significant geomorphical interest; with attributes not yet fully identified but
which may include important fossil or sub-surface features.
Specialised habitat for plants and animals.
A geological resource that may have mining potential.
These lines, along with the title of the poem ‘Special Values and Characteristics,’ are taken entire from the Lake Gairdner National Park Management Plan from the Adelaide Department for Environmental Language and Heritage (2004). The only alteration is the excision of bullet points. Repurposing the language of the state, forcing us to read a government document as poetry, Paloma’s poem displays, with the arresting force of an open -cut mine, the way culture, environment, country becomes reduced into points of profit potential. The poem does not end with the words of the state: rather, set apart from the rest of the poem in italics, the repurposed material potentially functions as a page-long epigraph to a poem that registers a space ‘where the ground closes in’.
Paloma’s powerful use of ‘Remaindered, devalued goods’ as fodder for ecological and political poetry could be situated within the avant-garde aesthetic category of the ‘stale’. In a review in Cordite Poetry Review of Emily Stewart’s recent book, Knocks. Paloma describes Stewart as part of a ‘new wave of avant-garde poetry in Australia’ but that Stewart’s poetic processes simultaneously resist being boxed into a singular movement or community. Just like Stewart’s work, Paloma’s work can also be cited as part of a ‘new wave’ of Australian poetry and resists easy categorisation. I’m also thinking here of Paloma’s gripping experimental performance at her Sydney launch of the long closing poem of the collection ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme,’ where she squatted, jumped, crunched and ran her way through the poem. I think here also of her durational performance piece hosted by SOd, ‘Some Days’ taking place over the course of this year, a long poem which is written or edited every day of 2018. At the time of this review’s writing it is divided into monthly segments, each radically different from the last. But this of course is entirely subject to change. In Some Ways Dingo embraces lexical shifts on the level of the line, through the poem, across the page, between poems. Language tugs in multiple directions, across different spaces/places, moving beyond, through, away and deep beneath.
Monday, March 19th, 2018
Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems 1980-2017
Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner, eds
re.press Publishing, 2017
To begin this review, I would like to make the most important of declarations and acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which this review was written; and would like to thank Narungga scholar, writer and poet Natalie Harkin for having assisted in the editorial process. I would also like to acknowledge and pay respects to Lionel Fogarty, the Yoogum language group from South Brisbane, and the Kidjela people of North Queensland, whose inestimable linguistic, cultural and spiritual legacy is clear in Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems 1980-2017.
The publication of this collection marks a retrospective moment for the Australian literary landscape. Lionel Fogarty, born in South Burnett in Southern Queensland, is a poet praised by John Kinsella as ‘the greatest living “Australian” poet’ (2013, 190). The controversial writer, Colin Johnston, also described Fogarty in 1990 as ‘Australia’s strongest poet of Aboriginality’ (26). (Colin Johnston is also known by the name of Mudrooroo, or Mudrooroo Narogin, an act that is seen by many as a misappropriation of the Nyoongar language.) I mention Johnston’s voice above many more fitting critics in this review to juxtapose Johnston’s and Fogarty’s fortunes in the last two decades as somewhat of a tragicomic mirror of the Australian literary landscape and our need to seek out an ‘authentic’ indigenous Australian voice. I write in heed of the deeply tenuous position Johnston occupies in Australian literature as explored by Anita Heiss in her book, Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003). Heiss posits that from the time of Johnson publishing of Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature in the early 1990s, ‘he was regarded as the authority on Aboriginal writing, and anything associated with it’ (4). When Johnston’s authority to speak on Indigenous Australian issues came under question in the years to come, the fallout regarding his lack of consultation and misappropriation caused an indelible impression upon our conception of indigeneity. Such debates over identity politics and cultural authenticity have changed how we read the work of Indigenous Australian writers – creating an obsessively objective distance that misleads us from the real conditions of writing, as well as obscuring the literary production of unabashedly indigenous voices. I would argue that this is certainly the case with regards to Lionel Fogarty, one of the most unrewarded and unrecognised figures in Australian and World Literature.
In Fogarty’s poem, ‘Finalist Unnamed’, a previously unpublished work included in this collection, he writes satirically of his omission from the ‘honour-roll’ of literary prizes: ‘My name is now the finalists unnamed? Ha’. The irony in these lines speaks to Fogarty’s imagined opposition to white Australian society, as well as his management of the distance between himself as an Indigenous Australian activist from the literary community. These seeming tensions reflect many of the frailties of the Australian literary landscape; the inability for indigeneity to be properly conceived of and read adequately in mainstream literary landscapes and markets, the literary-suicide of labelling oneself an ‘activist and poet’ to a wider Australian readership, and further, a lack of proper close engagement with Fogarty’s poems themselves. This review intends to grapple with these incongruities and signal, perhaps ambitiously, a trail that leads in to Fogarty’s nebulous, and yet, capacious collection.
The editors, Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner, have collated both published and previously unpublished poems. The latter have been edited and published with close involvement from Fogarty himself. In this manner, Fogarty’s involvement as a co-editor and poet answers Peter Minter’s call for ‘a renewed ethical and aesthetic architecture’ (2013, 157). The poems are ordered in distinct periods where Fogarty was said to be particularly prolific: 1980-1995, 2004-2012 and 2013-2017. While this periodisation of Fogarty’s works may run the risk of emphasising perpetually relevant concepts (such as deaths of Indigenous Australians while in police custody or political representation) within discrete periods of production (many of the themes, phrasings and poetic rhythms are returned to, after decades), this structure offers a chance of seeing Fogarty’s images and turns-of-phrase evolve. This is particularly true of the 1980-1995 poems, a period described as a ‘high point’ for Fogarty while working alongside one-time partner, co-editor and publisher, Cheryl Buchanan, of the Kooma Nation in South Queensland. Buchanan’s work as an editor and publisher is significant for this section. A leader in her own right, Buchanan almost single-handedly published Fogarty’s first volume of poetry, Kargun, in 1980, stating in the official launch of the Yoogum Yoogum collection in 1982, that no publisher wanted to touch such ‘heavy political material’ (n.p.). It was her belief in Fogarty’s revolutionary style of writing as speaking rather than writing that moulded these poems, laying the foundation for his future work. In the foreword to the Nguti collection published two years later (1984), Buchanan would state: ‘Lionel regards himself as “a speaker, not a writer”, and does not like to be categorised as a “poet”’ (n.p). This sense of frustration against the identity of a ‘writer’ pervades Fogarty’s earlier poems. That is not to say that Fogarty’s poems can be read as discrete, singular entities. For instance, the demands of activism that pervade his earlier work transform into renewed decolonial thinking in the areas of education, Trans-indigenous solidarity and the historicising of Indigenous Australian activism. In this way, Fogarty performs a metaphorical encircling of his own position, what the Martinican theorist Edouard Glissant described as a reconstituted echo or a spiral retelling’ (1997, 16) regarding his own returns to earlier works. Morrissey himself notes that in revising each of the poems into English for publication, ‘the selection process has been complicated by Fogarty’s habit of revising and recycling sections of poems’ (Morrissey 19). As readers, then, we are privy to the forming up of Fogarty’s oeuvre in real-time. Such a re-processing, a spiral retelling of language-events, makes this collection of poems doubly worthwhile.
A reader might perceive, for instance, that the metaphorical implication of ‘death’ in the early poems – for instance in ‘Do Yourself a Favour, Educate Your Mind’ – differs greatly to the later poem, ‘Signing My Death Lionel and Hell’ (another example might be his variance in using the word ‘academic’ as the collection draws on.) In the former, ‘death’ acts as a metaphorical removal of Anglicised Australian identity imposed upon Fogarty in his being brought up in Cherbourg Mission: ‘(I) wrote my death in/George the Third’. In the latter, Fogarty imagines himself as a dying lion, Lionel literally translated to ‘Lion and Hell’ in order to convey his cyclical rebirth in the natural world, dying as a physically embodied writer, but eternalising himself through the potentially infinite re-readings of his works:
With my thousand words the dead woods are white dreams.
Whistle the dead calls at morning night and depart away my spirit.
Starless days are able to shine death, as rouse is use for me to die
Listen it’s time for me as a writer to die.
Another way of perceiving the poems in the structure the editors have placed them is by transposing Fogarty’s poems alongside the political events that helped to shape them. For example, often the themes and motifs of his poems are direct references to news articles and current events, as a metaphorical (and at times literal) pastiche of contemporaneous jargon. This is evocatively evident in the composition of the unpublished poem, ‘Academic Great Boundaries’, which reflects on the water policy in the Murray Darling Basin and the dams that stop the water flow. In the poem itself, Fogarty metaphorically conjures up a dam wall through juxtaposing a self-authorising scientific vernacular divorced from feeling with his own intuitive writing:
Governments and nunnery highlands lie
49,000 bores lowering the table pastoral
Non-flowing rate of 3% per annum.
In contrast, Fogarty alludes to the lack of benefits locals receive from the dam itself, remembering the incongruity of earlier colonial excavation of the land that eliminated native Australian flora and fauna. He questions the reader:
Are departmental shrubs destroying the remade reports?
Is every central country plain without pains?
Eliminate all inappropriate species
The fallacy of the first dugouts
Sunk in marbled stone.
It is also worth recounting the poet’s formative experiences, as they are at times presented, disfigured, in Fogarty’s poetry. For example, it is impossible to read his works without knowing of his politics. After growing up in Cherbourg Mission and becoming involved with the Brisbane Chapter of the Australian Black Panther Party, Fogarty was charged and arrested for demanding money with menaces and was detained in an adult prison while still legally a juvenile. Despite being acquitted for a lack of evidence, the experience remained with Fogarty and was recorded in a provocative account of his arrest in the poem entitled, ‘Related: Charged’:
Welcome here, you son of a cunt,
This pig said to me.
Sign your death warrant, you son of a fucken moll.
released on bail
The crucially formative event of Fogarty’s adult activist life was the tragic death of his brother, Daniel Alfred Yock, a talented painter and dancer murdered under police custody in Redfern. This prompted some of Fogarty’s finest elegiac works, as well as some of his more charged political statements. Side by side, the 1995 poems ‘For Him I Died – Bupu Ngunda I love’ and ‘Murra Murra Gulandanilli- Waterhen’ can be read as a most profound expression of grief.
Sunday, March 4th, 2018
Lunar Inheritance by Lachlan Brown
Giramondo Publishing, 2017
‘Toward dusk,’ writes Brown in the book’s penultimate poem, ‘when the sky is passport blue, / you return via the National Performing Arts Centre, / its vast half-egg reflected in the stirring water.’ This poem, ‘Blank face double vision’, is reminiscent in certain ways of Lorca’s Poet in New York. Both Brown and Lorca use the phrase ‘blank face’ as well as the word ‘egg’. Also, both Brown’s poem and Lorca’s ‘After a Walk’ – like Lunar Inheritance and Poet in New York in general – evoke a sense of alienation within an anonymous, urbanised environment. Whereas Brown’s ‘half-egg’ is a realist description of the National Performing Arts Centre in Beijing, Lorca’s ‘egg’ is a surrealist image of anonymity: ‘With the amputated tree that doesn’t sing / and the child with the blank face of an egg.’ Lorca’s portrayal of a nature-less conurbation is, in many ways, somewhat more unsettling than Brown’s depiction of metropolitan China, but both books are similarly formed around a poet’s wanderings through foreign cityscapes.
Lunar Inheritance is a collection of 17 poems and comprises five sonnets interposed between 12 longer works. Each of the sonnets moulds itself to a Petrarchan rhyme scheme (abba, abba, cde, cde). In ‘Tell it like it is’ Brown takes on the voice of a Pauline-Hanson-type (‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped / by Asians’). The fact that this is the book’s ninth poem, third sonnet and, therefore, is positioned in the exact centre of the collection is, perhaps, a deliberate reference to the racist attitudes at the core of the Australian psyche:
[…] Fail rates
indicate that many international students just cheat,
and they’re taking places from my Sandra and your Jack.
Just think about it. If no one in Sydney ever assimilates,
what were the ANZACs even fighting for? So keep
up the pressure and we’ll soon take this country back.
The longer poems are composed in free verse and adhere to a precise stanzaic form of eight octets (except for the last poem, which is seven octets). Curiously, each octet is preceded by a noncapitalised, parenthetical line, which acts as a subtitle to the subsequent stanza:
Switch off face-recognition
when your mother cries out
after being abused in the street.
Just get to a stage where it’s all expected,
for example, at cocktail parties where
even the glasses adjectivise you, because
wealth’s a dog-whistling politician building
a platform on graduated levels of hatred.
The poet’s directive to ‘get to a stage where it’s all expected’ is reiterated through the collection. In ‘Artistic Licenses’ the poet attempts to discharge racist incidents from his mind, ‘your brother … / … is yelled at by a tradie mimicking ‘Gangnam Style’ / … a rival- / ry in your creative writing class ends with two guys / joking about Asians eating cats.’ Moreover, the title ‘Blank face double vision’ is redolent of a vacant expression, an apathetic or at least externally impassive attitude to the prejudice and antagonism that people of colour experience in Australia on a daily basis. The poet’s apathy, if it can be called that, is a survival device.
(where are you really from?)
Mechanically looping this question
through the speakers at Beijing Workers’
Stadium, the concrete reverberates like
holes in your starting line-up.
The bitter irony of the subtitle is promisingly engaging, but the following sentence is somewhat less compelling. Brown’s simile, ‘the concrete reverberates like / holes in your starting line-up’, suffers from its lack of imagism. Soundwaves bouncing off concrete are an invisible occurrence and, likewise, the effect that mediocre players have on the outcome of a sports game, although observable, is a protracted event lacking in pictorial value. Also, Brown’s combining of the literal meaning of ‘reverberate’, ‘to echo’, with the figurative meaning, ‘to have continuing and serious effects’, is, if not quite a pun, an example of wordplay comparable to the ball bounces like a bad check. This is not to say that every sentence of every poem has to be imagistic, or that every simile has to be as inventive as those of, for example, John Forbes (‘your profile / fills out like a bin-liner caught by the / wind’, ‘Colonial Aubade’), but the abstractness here is likely to leave the reader unengaged.
Elsewhere in Lunar Inheritance Brown’s similes are more imagistic and direct: ‘jackets with price tags that / flash like the white teeth of…sharks’, or, ‘sky as white as a Chinese model’s white skin’. Both similes – the former of which has consumerist, predatory and exploitative associations, and the latter of which indirectly calls attention to the popularity of skin whitening products in Asia – make use of the word ‘white’, a word that is imbued with not only the violence inflicted by white Australians on Indigenous peoples, but also the White Australia Policy and the laws that excluded people from Asia, particularly China, from migrating to Australia.
Much of Lunar Inheritance is back-dropped by urban Chinese settings seen from the perspective of an Australian with Chinese ancestry, a foreigner visiting his ‘grandmothercountry’ [sic]. When Brown writes about Beijing or Guangzhou, suburban Sydney and his family are always nearby:
caught by a workshop that is filled with clothes
and striped bags, and for less than a second this is
your grandmother’s brimming house in Ashfield
Similarly, in ‘Sanctioned Entry’, as the poet approaches Guangzhou:
seen from the air become Mahjong tiles
neatly stacked by your grandfather’s
imagined hands as he meets with the clan
on Dixon street, Sydney
Brown’s use of ‘imagined’ is an example of the type of word Richard Hugo in Triggering Town encourages poets to remove from their poems:
words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
The fact that poetry has the ability to traverse, from one word to the next, space and time, makes the inclusion of ‘imagined’ slightly superfluous to the poem.
Thursday, March 1st, 2018
Accidents of Composition by Merlinda Bobis
Spinifex Press, 2017
Marianne Moore called it ‘courageous attack’:
today, you span the far mountains
with an arm and say,
‘this I offer you —
all this blue sweat
So begins ‘driving to katoomba’, from the first poetry collection that Merlinda Bobis published in Australia, Summer was a fast train without terminals (Spinifex, 1998). The opening is typical of Bobis’s inimitable gusto and extravagance: the lines follow the gesture of the body that reaches for a view, simultaneously craving and offering the world while delighting in the knowledge that both impulses remain unfulfilled.
Sappho wrote, ‘I love extravagance,’ and she would have loved it here – the speaker and her fellow traveller entwined in mutual acts of impossible exchange under a high noon throb: one offers the scent of the Blue Mountains; the other, her recognition of love in the fertile yet futile gesture. Trips to the Blue Mountains often appear in Australian poetry; recently, in ‘blue mountains line’, Andy Jackson wrote ‘the carriage is the colour / of tendon and bone’. I notice a similarity in each poem’s approach to this iconic Australian landscape, in the way the body’s relation to this space is framed through cinematic motion. There is a shared sense of fleeting vision, of temporary impression, of passing through rather than staying put, of un-belonging to the land. The fellow traveller offers nothing concrete to the speaker, only the ether made by leaves waving in the air.
Accidents of Composition is Bobis’s sixth book of poetry. It sits alongside an impressive and multiform body of work that includes prize-winning fiction, drama, radio production and musical performance. After reading through the collection several times, I discovered a disarming afterward:
Let the poem speak for itself. No poet must explain. Do not betray the labour. Yet I choose to reveal the accidents, the gifts behind the book.
It began on the 18 October 2014 in a tourist bus across the desert, after visiting the Grand Canyon. As we sped along, behind the glass window was a black bird close to the eerie sun, like a white hole against storm grey sky. I took a picture: an accident of composition. A poem. (‘Because: An Afterward’)
It is a privilege to witness this accomplished writer illuminate her work with such naturalness, and it is precisely in this spirit that the poetry in Accidents of Composition proceeds. Bobis concatenates sets of impressions made at high speed; hidden meanings and relations reveal themselves under the speaker’s powers of observation. As a form of representation a poem can be so like a photograph, somehow indexical, tracing felicitous transits in time through an uncanny framing of things briefly seen and gone: ‘Recall is loss / turned inside out’ (‘A Little Scene’). An assemblage of images carefully brought together, the collection often resembles montage film. Accidents of Composition is full of jump cuts across the globe and its history: Spain in the sixteenth century, China and the Philippines in the twenty-first. One particularly cinematic passage presents a striking play on poetry’s ur-metaphor – movement – in which the speaker crosses three train lines over three poems: Legazpi to Manila, Wollongong to Sydney, and a slow train from Albuquerque to a destination undisclosed. What does it mean to cross a border, and what does it mean to never arrive?
for a train about to leave.
for that trip from home:
Legazpi to Manila.
I hear it now
four decades or so later.
Intransitive verb: without an object.
Present tense: it’s ongoing
like a train of thought
that never quite arrives, because the pink
is too pink, the red
too swirly when one remembers
(‘A Little Scene’)
Unsettled modes of habitation have recently emerged in Australian literature as the substantial ethical improvement upon the putative notions of belonging shaped by earlier national writing. The problem with creative visions that claim a ‘sacred’ relation between settler-colonial culture and the land – as the critic Julie Mullaney observes in her analysis of David Malouf – is that these invoke Indigenous Australian discourses of belonging to place, often while simultaneously erasing actual Aboriginal people from that textual landscape and ignoring the historical realities of settlement. The tradition of ‘white nativism’ or ‘white indigeneity’ traverses genre and medium in Australian cultural production – film, television, poetry, popular music, literary and popular fiction, and photography. Australian modernist photography reified the notion of the white native through figures such as the bronzed surfer and the athletic life-saver and these images still dominate the global branding of Australia. Born out of a quest for national identity that began in earnest in the 1930s, white nativist ‘home-grown’ tropes appear time and again in Australian literature. And though anti-colonial and postcolonial interventions have made some headway in contesting and destabilising this tradition, writers of all colours still come up against what Mark Davis describes as the ‘white logic of nation’.
Bobis’s writing materialises in the overlapping contexts of emerging unsettlement and the de-facto tradition of writers of colour reporting from the margins. Bobis begins her 2010 essay, ‘The Asian Conspiracy: Deploying Voice/Deploying Story’, with this directive:
Imagine Australia sharing ONE tongue. I do not mean language, but literally that little pink and perpetually moist animal in the mouth.
There’s that courageous attack. How would we hold this slippery thing, use it for what we want to say, pass it to our neighbour when it is time to listen? In the essay Bobis presents an account of her nineteen-year ‘problematic journey’ towards her place in Australian literature. This story, she stresses, is only one story among the narratives of storymaking of Australian writers from varied Asian backgrounds. In a discussion on Australian literature, these personal stories behind the publishing lines are as crucial as our literature works or the theoretical discourse about us. Our creative production is more than the ‘finished texts’, products to be unpacked or projects to be problematised. It is a story-in-progress. Just as in immigration, hardly any one of us can fly over the gate, straight into citizenship.
How does one acquire ‘citizenship’ of a nation’s literature? Bobis arrived in Australia in 1991 from the Philippines. She came with ten years of university teaching experience and, already a published author, brought an aesthetic sensibility that had developed in part through formal literary training and in part through formative years of immersion in the hybrid dynamic of cultures and languages of the Philippines. Long after her arrival in Australia, Bobis continues to write in all three of her languages: the Bikol of her home in Albay (at the foot of the active volcano Mt Magayon); the Tagalog of Manila, the metropolitan centre; and English, the imperial language of the American colonisers. As Bobis wrote and researched her creative doctorate during her first years in Wollongong, she continued to chant, to sing, and to dance – code-switching between languages and methods of expression.
Wednesday, February 21st, 2018
Lonnie’s Lament: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present by ken Bolton
Wakefield Publishing, 2017
Ken Bolton’s most recent collection expresses an intense sociability, co-mingling personal and communal memory to create poetry that draws on moments of apparent ordinariness, and ever so subtly transforms them into lines of understated enchantment. The poems are typically written for and about people close to and loved by the poet, reflecting a sense of togetherness tinged with an anxiety over the aspects of everyday life that separate as well as connect. Shifting between recognition and anonymity, conscious of finitude and erasure, they comprise a form of metis, or art of working things out that previous generations (indeed, ages) once had, and whose humour mass society seems to have lost.
Lonnie’s Lament opens with a long poem dedicated to the memory of Philip Whalen, referencing the San Francisco Renaissance and Zen Buddhist poet from ’67, crossing the dateline with its concomitant ambiguities regarding time and imagination. The poem creates and negotiates a thicket of names and years, working things out, with preoccupations and divagations cut short, looping back, seemingly in search of, yet evading an ending. As it circles with near repeats and recurrences, the poem creates an awareness regarding history and the ambiguity as to where it starts and who it includes: the folly of trying to pin down what demands to be lived: ‘Dreaming?) / My body turning, in some future’. Throughout the volume Bolton questions the dates he gives, just as he consistently reaffirms the names of his friends, bringing them closer, contrasting their reality and immanence with the unreliability of time. This process of questioning and reaffirming juxtaposes intimate and historical memories with dates and figures open to doubt: ‘A century / of interesting Times. More. Beginning when? / 1871? 1789?’ Revolutions consigned to the uncertainties of the disappeared past leave traces that are discernible in the seemingly unrelated present, through what Whalen’s contemporary, Charles Olson, referred to as a ‘syntax of apposition’. Bolton’s stream of thought continues with: ‘Anna, Lila // Sal // “Omaha” – the tugs – // now that name always makes me think / of the beach landing at Normandy.’ These cryptic yet clearly placed connections present space and time as the elusive elements that comprise the overall tapestry of interlinked lives, the cast of the overall shadow play.
The proverbial interesting times are not immediately apparent in some of the calmer stretches and sensibilities evident. For instance, in the poem ‘Train Tripping’: ‘thinking // of Pam & Jane & Cath & / Pam’s question – as to what Cath // does alone on Bruny & my / explanation: fishing and hiking around, // dinner with Lorraine & Ian / & friends up in town // & Pam and Jane’s life in Blackheath: / what they do’. This mustering comes without melodrama or self-importance: naming is creating, or more to the point reaffirming the existence of who and what one loves. The familiar comes with its attendant angst, and with his need to pull these human strands together, perhaps the poet is telling us that domesticity takes place just so slightly out of one’s comfort zone, or at least the immediately known environment. ‘I play some Dave Holland / move around the house / / doing things, picking up, / tidying, straightening – / / inside, outside – time / like an element around me’. Hints of the proverbial noonday demon are offset by a gentle irony, just outside recognisable surrounds, ‘including the street / where I almost fancy / I can see the restaurant / I ate in for years / where they threw me out once / asleep before / my raznichi’. Bolton adds with a touch of mischief : ‘I was aghast. / How could they?’
Further out, literally overseas, at apparently random meeting points, the sense of estrangement amplifies and demands more solidity in response from places experienced. Given that a cup of coffee can become ‘something different / in Adelaide: / the price of an air ticket. A / view of the blue thru pines’, the narrator of the travel sketches that fill out the middle of the book states: ‘I never go to Asia. / It is not a firm enough idea.’ Direct or disingenuous? Possibly both. Considering the extremes of terrestrial limitation gives rise to some semantic wordplay on furniture and geological fissures along with a gentle mockery of human delusion of control: ‘can large aesthetic / continental shelves co-exist, / in detente? They / can if I say so.’ Make things work or leave them to their own devices: the results are likely to be equally inconsequential. An essential and delightful part of this book is that it converses and jokes and refuses to take itself too seriously: its underlying melancholia is moderated if not by outright mirth then a tone midway between levity and the titular lament. As with Whalen, whose self-effacement and humour Bolton shares, this is poetry which can be found in everyday life, and literally everywhere.
Through these understated operations, Bolton recreates existence in the close company of friends, fellow poets and self-objects. Like Whalen, whose self-portraits ‘from another direction’, find elements of affinity here, Bolton puts forward a series of vignettes, not entirely settled and at times almost intentionally unsure and displaced, yet which indicate an essentially optimistic, nuanced and multi-faceted outlook on this uncertain age. Lonnie’s Lament decries enclosure and conformity, while celebrating the quiet joy of close and loving connections, adding another impressive and humanistic work to its maker’s extensive and generous oeuvre.
Wednesday, February 21st, 2018
Passage by Kate Middleton
Giramondo Publishing, 2017
In the prefatory poem titled ‘Lyric’, Kate Middleton writes of ‘Voices torn, / pieced, re-sewn’, a phrase that neatly captures the allusive texture and patchwork procedures of her third collection Passage. The volume is replete with centos and erasures, that is to say, modes of vicarious composition that sing ‘by song’s own mesh of I/ of we’. Its keynote is perhaps provided by that innocuous preposition ‘after’ which occurs in the subtitle to so many of the poems (‘Lyric’ is itself ‘after Dan Beachy-Quick’ and begins with a quotation from his 2008 essay collection, A Whaler’s Dictionary). For Middleton is above all a poet of second sight, of the revisionary afterimage; a connoisseur of the residual intimacies that survive in photographs and paintings, the recesses of the body, and the ruins of a landscape.
Like Middleton’s last effort Ephemeral Waters (2013), a book-length paean to the Colorado River, Passage is primarily concerned with questions of travel and proceeds by juxtaposing human scales of movement and growth with animal or ecological ones. In the title poem, bowhead whales from the Pacific and the Atlantic are imagined reuniting in the Northwest Passage, a fabled sea-route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago now being thawed out by global warming as well as the site of a fatal expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845. Middleton establishes an arresting parallelism between the ‘century-old grazes’ sustained by the whales at the hands of nineteenth-century whalers – ’the jade, the slate, the ivory/ sharps/ lodged in blubber’ – and the ‘starvation; hypothermia; lead/ poisoning;/ scurvy; dread consumption’ suffered by the explorers who ate food from lead-soldered cans and possibly each other in their last days. But the poem’s pathos derives less from the record of an historic failure than the lapsing of a legend of human hubris. It seems to ask delicately: what will become of stories like the Franklin expedition (or even the Titanic) once the polar ice caps have melted away?
Voyages have afterlives; as stories of survival, they themselves live on in strange and unexpected places, picking up what Middleton had called in an early poem a ‘mythological second-wind’ (‘What is in this bird?-’ from 2009’s Fire Season). ‘The Queen’s Ocean’ reminds us of the solace that the Journals of Captain James Cook provided Marie Antoinette as she awaited execution:
her imagination roved beyond
the cell, beyond the Conciergerie, tiptoed
slipshod up to the waves
she could not quite picture—at Calais,
at Le Havre, at Brest, at Point-de-Grave—
and finally beyond. (10)
The lines dramatise the appeal of travel writing for the sequestered monarch – an appeal that depends both on the romance of naming and an encounter with the unnameable (like ‘after,’ ‘beyond’ is another preposition that attains nominal force). In such poems, Middleton shows an instinct for the representative moment, the wider world-historical shift writ small, and just as ‘Passage’ deals with global warming without making heavy weather of it, ‘The Queen’s Ocean’ delivers an elegy to the Enlightenment in which the nominalization of the world through imperial voyages of discovery is counterpointed by the de-nominalisation of the ancien regime nobles (‘The Queen’ become ‘the Widow Capet’ become ‘Prisoner 250’).
Names, of course, proliferate throughout a volume in which Middleton summons up a whole host of tutelary spirits whose words she has fused into unforeseen eloquence: from contemporaries such as Luke Carman, Siri Hustvedt, and Eliot Weinberger, to golden oldies such as William Tyndale and Sir John Mandeville, to the lost-and-founds such as Isabelle Eberhardt (an early twentieth-century Swiss explorer and diarist who converted to Islam) and S P B Mais (once dubbed ‘the Modern Columbus’ by the BBC, though probably more accurately thought of as the Robert Macfarlane of the interwar period). Mais is the most conspicuous presence as Middleton ‘gleans’ (as she puts it in the helpful ‘Notes’ section) a series of erasure poems from his 1932 radio broadcasts titled This Unknown Island. Not much of the cosy self-recognition that Mais conjured up for his audience is left after Middleton’s alchemy of omission:
Think of home. The home of your ancestors. Of sun
and a child’s alphabet. A Lilliput of words and meadows.
Blast it with dynamite. (20)
When placed alongside the centos, certain patterns emerge: Middleton’s telegraphic compressions have a tendency to turn matter-of-fact indicatives or coaxing interrogatives into bracing imperatives; the physical strenuousness of Wanderlust often gets transmuted into the moral strenuousness of spiritual allegory. But these compositions retain the joy of chancing upon something half-invented and half-discovered that seems to have animated Mais’s travelogues in the first place (the England he sets out to find having already been prepared for him by Emily Brontë or Thomas Hardy or Arthurian legend).
On the whole, however, Passage is distinguished less by its continual textual gambits than by its absorbing appreciation for all that is singular. What Middleton has assembled here is nothing short of a cabinet of curiosities: a piece of gravel from Plovdiv, the oldest living land animal, the Chimera of Arezzo, a gynandromorph butterfly, the regenerative heart of a day-old mouse, the verb ‘guddle’. One comes away from this collection charmed and grateful to have been able to read and ‘reread the riotous colour of grace’.
Tuesday, February 6th, 2018
The Criminal Re-Register by Ross Gibson
UWA Publishing, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent. – Dragnet
This is a volume of (mainly) prose poems, derived by its compiler/adaptor/author Ross Gibson, from a large dossier of New South Wales Police records. If these can be described as ‘found’ poems (even if they have been edited) it would be as likely to refer to them as ‘accidental’. Certainly, these portraits and narratives may be challenging and at times infuriating, but when fully firing they are art, very entertaining and most instructive. Centred on criminals and missing persons, the cache Gibson has discovered seems to have been made for poets to find, they being much too important for writers of contemporary Australian prose fiction. One could of course imagine plenty of such material appearing in an historical Selected Documents anthology, in particular the prologue section ‘Notes for Detectives and Men in Plain Clothes.’
Why, though, poetry as the destination? Because so much of The Criminal Re-Register is propelled by language, a strange police dossier lingo from Sydney in 1957. Did the police involved realise they were concocting something fairly akin to poetry? I doubt it. Rather, it’s as if they had been instructed: ‘Whatever you do don’t write poetry …’ and little realising, they did it. Poetry for them may have had been connected with big rhetorical sweeps, and these were the domain of barristers, weren’t they?
Allied to the fodder for imagination, certain authors and their traditions came to mind reading the book: Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology of 1915, that wonderful sequence of brief monologues and a verse novel ahead of its time; the biographical portraits and the ‘Newsreel’ and ‘Camera Eye’ sections of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy; and Pi O’s epics, 24 Hours and Fitzroy the Biography, wherein he forges an incomparable bond between the documentary and the demotic. Though 1957 was too early to see much connection with television cop drama (that medium only arrived in late 1956), the stark style of the reports adapted by Gibson brings to mind the Los Angeles-based series, Dragnet. Quite often the folk Gibson portrays read like they are in some twenty-five minute Sydney-based episode in miniature.
Are these found / accidental / documentary poems to be judged by the rules of more conventional verse? When required, maybe; though for The Criminal Re-Register I’ll give an example as to where I stand vis-à-vis found poetry, giving my benchmark for such a genre. In the late 1970s I possessed a newspaper advertisement promoting an exclusive housing development out of Brisbane. This took the form of a letter from a very excited young property developer to his mate in wintry old Melbourne extolling Karana Downs, its country club and golf course. Far smoother than mere ocker it was more ‘young man in the know’ to fellow ‘young man in the know’, saying so much about those times, probably without being aware of it. I loved this piece of Australiana so much that I had to spread the word and would be found reading ‘Karana Downs’ aloud at dinners and parties. Soon folk were clamouring for it, near chanting for a recitation. That most were quite stoned doubtless added to the clamour. Was this ad a ‘found’ poem, was it indeed poetry? Well, it was a damn sight more performable than plenty of performance poetry I’d heard, and much more poetry than plenty of contemporary Australian verse I’d read. It had wit, it had vigour, it used the language imaginatively and it was a hit. Who cared about the ‘White Shoe’ values it expressed when the product and its promoter sounded great? Indeed, one wonders if its hyperbole was concocted by the agency to have some kind of laugh at the client’s expense … surely not!
Given the choice between a dull poem and a lively less-than-poem it’s obvious where I’m heading with The Criminal Re-Register. For one of the book’s delights, its major fuel, is that very formal, official cop-speak used in the reports, which hardly goes with the Police Force’s walloper reputation. Thus (and notice the amount of sheer observation and speculation):
Last seen at Central Railway Station carrying a green canvas sack cinched with red twine. Maybe at large in Bathurst or parts further west, or may have suffered a misadventure instigated by any one of the myriad reprobates he has antagonised in recent years.
Or try this:
Offender is of quiet disposition, sober habits, a dapper dresser and keeps no known criminal associates. A neophyte thief, perhaps in thrall to a newly risen mania that cannot be tempered by his will.
And once you are accustomed to such straight-faced seriousness, try imagining:
Fair go mate, just name us some myriad reprobates you’ve antagonized
Admit it, sonny, you’re nothing but a neophyte thief […] now tell us of your newly risen mania, we’ll understand.
And then there are those beautiful sentences telling enough with just so much being hinted at: ‘Ten minutes alone in a dim cell primes him ready to talk’; and ‘May have jumped a rattler to Casino’; and ‘Suffers from lumbago and irritable spirits.’ Or look at these from ‘Assorted Malefactor Quirks’ for which police should be on the lookout:
Skiting of unusual prowess: E.G. as a crooner, a songwriter, a fondler and copulatory, a horse or dog trainer, a floral arranger, a dancer, a bushman, a comforter of the sick, a hospital troubadour, a guardian angel to children.
Monday, January 29th, 2018
redactor by Eddie Paterson
Whitmore Press, 2017
As a physical object with an online extraction, Eddie Paterson’s new book of poems, redactor, presents the performance of mark-making in an ever expanding digital sphere. The juxtaposition between the white of the page and the black of the ink has long provided a site for textual collision, one that was used to great effect by the concrete poets and the French Symbolists. Out of the deep web’s detritus, Paterson’s collection discovers new poetic spaces of beauty in the banality of our metadata.
As feeds refresh and emails are automatically vetted for junk, redactor reclaims writing that would otherwise be lost, all the while preserving the decadent excess of digital information and communication, as the reader traverses the ‘aisleform’ of images that fit-out the collection’s mise-en-scène. Whilst found poetry and cut-ups, epistolary poems, and lyric monologues are all present in this collection, Paterson affirms a poetics of attention in the context of a superabundance of cultural production, naming his way through film titles, basketball players, critical theorists and fashion accessories. Paradoxically, the poetic practices of attention-grabbing and attention-holding are best exemplified by Paterson’s with-holding, embodied by the black mark: the redaction.
That the redactions are not random and that they are persistent throughout the collection remind us there is one actor performing. This redactor (or (red)actor) elicits a verfremdungseffekt by creating distance between the ‘i’ of the poem and the reader as the Brechtian directive suggests. By obscuring names and gendered pronouns, the Rimbaudian je est en autre is here remixed to establish a subject that, much like an online avatar, is capable of transcending the limits of the physical. This evasive performance of subjectivity negates the possibility for a reader to experience direct empathy or cathartic transference with the speaker and correspondingly the stage is cleared for the creation of an elaborate aesthetic through language.
In the same manner that Basquiat’s strikethroughs inevitably highlight the partially obscured text on his canvases, Paterson’s redactions demand the reader’s attention by their suggestion of silence in the steady flow of (non-acoustic) monologue. Formally, the monologues (and implied dialogues) in redactor are performed through statistics, articles, emails and instant messages. When Truman Capote slurred the work of Jack Kerouac as typing – not writing – few could have anticipated the personal computer (and by extension the smartphone / tablet) and the impact that these online typing machines would have not simply on creation, but on communication. Reading the physical copy of redactor as an anthology of calls and responses apprehended brings the audience into the immediate moment of poetry. The performance of creative writing in Paterson’s world becomes an instantaneous and embodied process of text communicated: generated as fast as the fingers move and read as quickly as the broadband connection allows.
Some wonderful blurring of the physical and digital occurs in redactor, particularly in the incantatory displacement of the poem ‘alert, but not afeared’. Beginning, ‘do not be alarmed. eddie the computer has taken on a life of its / own’, this poem equivocally warns a human about the improved capabilities of AI and / or assigns a subjectivity to ‘eddie the computer’, granting it its own non-gendered pronoun.
The aptly titled ‘rhetoric’ makes the case for reading the digital stage into this collection. The poem assumes the guise of an email / instant message that ends, ‘it’s about how it’s your birthday & i / really wanted to say happy birthday. happy birthday’. Informed by J L Austin’s theory of the performative speech act, this poem performs the birthday wish without the requirement of some other place or platform for the speaker to say happy birthday. Equally, ‘verfremdungseffekt’ is not just the title of a poem, but the actual enactment of what it purports.
This passage from ‘flow’ provides an insight into Paterson’s ironic displacement of the actor, as clothing is raised to the level of costume:
punk dressing went well though, as suspected, the
intellectual deliciousness of a person who identifies strongly
with the punk dressing up as a fake punk was lost to all.
Filmic titles used throughout the collection time-stamp the poems, but also suggest mise-en-abyme. In ‘just to the right of the heart of it’ the speaker’s re-watching of the film ‘Robocop’ is an important marker between the ‘hysterical garbage’ of a contemporary alien invasion film ‘battle: los angeles’ and the ‘white ribbon
xxxxxx films about nazi germany i generally don’t see’, both temporally and aesthetically. ‘Robocop’, as part-man/part-machine, suits the collection’s liminal treatment of the physical/digital by being neither dazzlingly post-modern nor pretentiously modernist. One can imagine the cyberpunk action hero redactor in its kitsch late-eighties resplendence tearing through a warehouse of digital correspondence brandishing a black marker.
The final poem in the collection, ‘love poem’, offers the best synecdoche for redactor. ‘love poem’ consolidates the collection’s aesthetic accretion of stuff, taking ownership for every aforementioned movie trilogy, serialised drama, basketball statistic, kitsch accessory and instruction manual. Heaping one reference upon another, Paterson shows how the accumulation of language can be purposed to build a wall for the actor to hide behind. As the poem continues one realises Paterson is not only assembling imagery, but also building toward a dramatic conclusion, eventually breaking this fourth wall with the poem’s final couplet:
have optimus prime wolf parade david hockney roman holiday
leave me with the park with the sun & that afternoon when
unexpectedly you moved away from kafka & toward me.
In a collection where ‘russel crowe’ (who ‘consistently brings us to tears’) and ‘hugo weaving’ (who stars in a poem ‘no one seems to get’) feature prominently, Eddie Paterson, emerges at the close of ‘love poem’ as an Australian leading man, capable of a deft and show-stopping performance.
Monday, January 29th, 2018
The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky
edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin
UWA Press, 2017
On 2 July, 2017, my father sends me an article about Jewish Australian poet Fay Zwicky’s passing in Perth. I am four months into my Masters in Brisbane, where I am writing a manuscript of poetry and a thesis about tensions between my Jewish identity, memory, mental illness and hybridity as mediated through cultural objects and poetry. Fay Zwicky is one of my contemporary case studies and as I read through the article, I discover that the day before she died at age 83, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky was published, spanning her life’s work.
After long silence my broken world sits sweet
with memory, its beauty dries my tongue
Including seventeen uncollected poems at the end of the collection, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky also contains her previous works Isaac Babel’s Fiddle (1975), Kaddish (1982), Ask Me (1990), The Gatekeeper’s Wife (1999) and Picnic (2006), in order of publication. An introduction from editors Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin gives insightful context to her works, as does Zwicky’s important essay ‘Border Crossings’ (2000). Both the introduction and ‘Border Crossings’ are pertinent additions to the collection as they discuss Zwicky’s cultural background and the Jewish rituals that inform her poetry.
The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky shows Zwicky’s style evolving from her earlier poems. However, there are still strong connections between these early and later poems; this is made particularly evident by the presence of Jewish motifs. Weaving together Jewish references through her witty, often-rebellious voice and her play on language, these can be traced back to Zwicky’s first collection Isaac Babel’s Fiddle. The title poem, ‘Isaac Babel’s Fiddle Reaches the Indian Ocean’ contains an extract from Babel’s short story Awakening and opens with Zwicky’s lines:
Just try and cast a piano
In the sea
Take it from me, you’ll
Never make it.
Her voice rises to the fore in Kaddish, which brought her international recognition, and continues powerfully throughout her later collections. Drawing on her training as a classical pianist, Zwicky’s poems have musicality, rhythm and revel in sound, giving voice to women and minorities previously silenced by history. In her series ‘Ark Voices’ from Kaddish, Zwicky speaks through Mrs Noah and animals such as the Hippo, Wolf, and Whale. Her uncollected poem ‘Domestic Architecture’ heralds back to this theme, also evident in the title poem from The Gatekeeper’s Wife:
Severed from my ancestors
I light a candle for you
Every night inside a clay house.
Memory is only half the story.
In ‘The Terracotta Army at Xi’an’ in Picnic, Zwicky lets the voiceless Emperor Qinshihuang, the spear bearer, the cook, the farrier, the archer and the potter speak through poetic monologues. Dougan and Dolin write in their introduction that Zwicky had a fear of being unable to speak and of losing her voice. In ‘Ask Me’, Zwicky explicitly references this anxiety of speechlessness as the speaker crosses China, America and Australia:
It’s the year of the Dragon.
Omens for the journey aren’t encouraging.
No language and I’m booked
on China airlines. In Hong Kong I dream
that I am born without a tongue
and wake up screaming…
—excerpt from ‘China Poems 1988’, part 1 ‘Roosters and Earthworms’
Of all Zwicky’s poems, her title poem from Kaddish best showcases the Jewish motifs displayed throughout this collection, and her reconfiguring and refreshing of language and ideas. ‘Kaddish’ is an elegy for Zwicky’s father and one of her most famous works, which took eighteen months to write. Drawing on Hebrew from the Jewish Mourner’s Prayer (the Kaddish), Zwicky also references the Passover song Had Gadya (One Little Goat) and turns the words upside down, making familiar melodies unfamiliar through metaphor. As I have recited the Passover songs every year since childhood, Zwicky’s inversion of Had Gadya is like a spot-the-difference game of rearranged fragments.
Zwicky credits the authors and influences that helped her find a voice in the 1970s: the Jewish American novelists Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, whose work gave her a community that she felt she lacked in the Australian context. She also discovered Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Kaddish’ seventeen years after it had been published, and this was the breakthrough that made her feel freer to finish writing her own ‘Kaddish’.
For Zwicky, poetry has always seemed to be ‘a source of hope, a means of speaking against an orthodoxy, be it religious, political, or social’. Featured at the end of the book, Zwicky’s new and uncollected poems continue in these modes. For example, in her poem ‘In Rehab’, Dr Kiberu asks ‘are you religious?’ and Zwicky writes ‘I could be but not so you’d notice’. This line intersects with Zwicky’s major themes of Jewish identity in her earlier collections and is one that resonates throughout The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky.
As a Jewish Australian woman writer, I am grateful that Zwicky has shown the possibilities of poetry for others to follow. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky is an extremely valuable addition to literature and a beacon for minority women’s voices to continue to break conventions, write and speak out.
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
The Quiet Blue World, and Other Poems by Rachael Mead
Garron Publishing, 2015
Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy
UWA Publishing, 2017
The chapbook is the ideal public presentation of poetry for the times in which we live. It is even more portable than the conventionally slim collection; its humbler production values permit poets to get their work ‘out there’, thereby meeting the democratic criterion of accessibility for both poet and reader, and it is conducive to the rigours of thematic focus that a small body of work encourages. Long may it flourish.
Garron Publishing’s cover design for Rachael Mead’s chapbook, The Quiet Blue World, and Other Poems, misleads – it invites the reader to anticipate a fairy tale, when the poetry is hard-edged and very much of this world. Mead observes that world closely and keenly, though not romantically. In our assault upon the very processes of natural renewal, a distinctly non-romantic mode of writing the natural world is called for, and for this Mead can serve as an exemplar. Not that she does not recognise beauty; she is as adept at depicting beauty at sea as she is on land. She writes, in the title poem, of:
… the bobbing disk of birds.
Then the pod of dolphins, gleaming like needles
sewing the swell with their swift running-stitch.
And finally the orca, hunting the peaks and ridges
of their world, parting from the faces of waves
which open to them like the throats of seabirds
taking fish in one clean swallow.
This could easily slip into lyrical sweetness, but Mead is at sea to dive – in a cage! – into Great White habitat, and in the following sections of the poem, when this actually takes place, the very drama of the event serves as an antidote to any temptation to a starry-eyed tone of telling.
My favourite poem is the one that follows the title sequence, a poem in three sections entitled ‘What the Fire Didn’t Touch’. In this poem Mead unsentimentally dissects the loss of the family home to bushfire, along with her emotional reaction to it. The writing is precise, its evocation vivid. In what I presume to be the generation of the poet’s parents, a mother’s world merged with the world of the home. I am reminded of Meyer and Schapiro’s notion of ‘femmage’, the woman’s art of the home-making collage, a quilt-patterned geography of meaning, one characterised by complexity and creative clutter. The home, then, is much more than a merely functional edifice, given its elaborate knit of emotional meanings. To fight for the home against the threat of fire was to fight death itself:
Mum, who was never late for a day in her life,
woke up early for her death and missed it.
With her nightie pulled up over her nose
and wielding water in Grandma’s preserving pan
she was focused on the flames
and didn’t notice her death slink away
through the charred hole in the laundry ceiling.
This opening passage seems capable of multiple interpretations, many of them probably more cogent than the one I have advanced, but at her best Mead is like this; descriptively strong and clear, emotionally and conceptually complex, even enigmatic. It makes for striking poetry.
But I want to return to the notion of femmage, that essentially feminine quilted pattern of creative meaning. I have introduced it in connection with a single stanza, focused on the author’s mother, in a single poem – but it seems to me that this notion powerfully informs Mead’s own praxis. The structure of the longer poems is that of collage – no great insight there, as that is a common mode of organising longer poems – but it may be that Mead has a front-of-brain awareness of why she does this, as the metaphoric field from which she draws relies heavily on those domestic crafts.
Yet in the final poem in her collection, ‘Behind Locked Doors’, an uneasy amble through a cemetery evokes disquiet over the reduction of lives to a few sparse lines. The poet of nature – the poet with a sense of the interconnectedness of all things – supplants the poet of femmage. She is looking, it seems, for more than the mere ‘pieces’ we use to weave stories. The pieces in themselves are unsatisfactory, the edges and lines arbitrary. They hide a more profound reality, and she gives voice to it in the lines with which she closes the poem and the collection:
… below the hard packed earth
the dead slowly get on with their dark work
of sifting themselves back
into the green world.
I read those lines and straightened my back – I’d just experienced one of those rare ‘I wish I’d written that’ moments. This is a fine small collection, then, one that does the chapbook format proud – tightly themed, resonant and democratically accessible.
Each of the volumes reviewed here demonstrate the extent to which the nature writing tradition can encompass a hard-edged non-lyricism. In Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms this is embodied in the enigma of the central motif of the snake. The intrigue begins with its title – no hyphen – thereby creating an ambiguity which is allowed to remain tantalisingly open. Not every poem features an encounter with, or a meditation on snakes, but one potentially lies in wait on every turn of the page.
In the case of snakes, the lyrical trend in nature writing has manifested in a tendency to depict them as misunderstood creatures, as forms of animal life to be primarily categorised by their remarkable beauty. The best-known exemplar of this is D H Lawrence’s much-read poem, ‘The Snake’. I, too, find snakes beautiful; so, on occasions, does Joy. But there is no escaping the fact that, exceptions notwithstanding, humankind has a visceral fear of snakes that kicks in sub-rationally, sending a wave of adrenaline coursing through one’s body. There are variations on this primal fear, with utter horror at the extreme end of the spectrum, and Joy is more inclined to explore these reactions than to sing of a lyrical beauty. The book is threaded with menace. Just when you thought it was safe to declare yourself at home in nature you are confronted by ‘the near silence/of an unseen snake in the grass’ (‘Spectacular Snakes’).
I suppose it’s okay to refer to Joy as a nature poet, for the snake is not the only form of more-than-human life within these pages, and the reader is always aware that this is poetry of the outdoors; poetry of wide views and skies. Joy is even explicit about it, telling us, in ‘Sensed through Opaque Windows’:
It’s hard to understand architecture
when my past is sea and desert.
But, just as with Mead, Joy’s poetry of nature is decidedly unromantic. That central motif of the snake ensures it so. It articulates the gulf between our fascination with nature and our inability, as a cultivated species, to be as one with it. The snake is there, over the next log perhaps, or in the empty wading pool with the author’s daughter (‘Wading Pool’), or in another young girl’s bedroom, drinking there from the saucer of milk (‘The Snake’s Ghost’). Nature, Tennyson told us, is ‘red in tooth and claw’. He should have added ‘fang’. And sometimes this brutality spills over into full-blown Gothic horror. In ‘Sea Krait, Broome’, we are given this:
After three days of seated travel
I lunge from the car, sprint the length
of jetty, deaf to the man screaming
warning. Only in mid-air do I look
down to the sea, the time it takes
Two yellow and black krait, vivid
bandwidth of danger, turning on
the turquoise surface, and all
I can do, is fall