FRESH Tuesday, July 18th, 2017
Bella Li’s Argosy offers readers a book of real adventure: the adventure of form, and a challenge to our sense of what shapes a narrative. This work is fundamentally hybrid: amid short texts and textual sequences that may be termed prose poems, or micro-essays, or short short fictions, Li intersperses works of collage and photography.
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Monday, April 24th, 2017
Star Struck by David McCooey
UWAP Poetry, 2016
At first, David McCooey’s Star Struck appears to be a collection comprising four sections, each self-contained and corralled from the others. These sections range from a series of lyric poems meditating on a ‘cardiac event’, to poems investigating light and dark, a sequence of eighteen ‘pastorals’ on pop stardom (and fandom) and, finally, two longer narrative poems. A quotation at the beginning of the pastoral sequence seems to hint at the collection’s attitude. From William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, it reads: ‘Probably the cases I take are the surprising rather than the normal ones, and once started on an example I follow it without regard to the unity of the book.’
This cavalier disregard for the ‘unity’ of the book suggests a lack of concern with overall coher-ence between the poems in a single volume. And yet, there are decidedly consistent threads throughout Star Struck, both thematically (time, light, memory, the knife-edge of comedy and tragedy, how ‘voice’ is inhabited), and also in terms of tone. A mood of what might be called premature elegy suffuses McCooey’s poems throughout this collection. His speakers frequently find themselves alienated, unable to return to old selves, and unsure of what to make of the world they presently live in. They recall the past with nostalgia and sometimes grief (and irony – the atmosphere rarely threatens to become moribund), and view the present with an un-settled detachment.
McCooey’s reader senses that they are encountering a self irrevocably divided from its former incarnation. This is reflected in the use of second person in many of the poems – it would seem that the ‘you’ being addressed is not a different subject, but a past version of the self, an idea McCooey references directly in ‘Second-Person’, where:
you enter the realm
of the second-person singular,
a new you
to ghost the old,
the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life
The first section of Star Struck, ‘Documents’, presents the most literal rendering of this divided state. The speaker finds themselves in the midst and the aftermath of a ‘cardiac event’, and while at times they are able to find amusement in their distress (‘“I’m just labile,” you say, // and the doctor is satisfied. / You are speaking his language’) (‘Speaking the Language’), they nevertheless cannot help but reveal the terror that characterises this period of ill-health, with its moments of crisis and long periods of inertia, when the nervous system becomes ‘a shivering horse within you’ (‘One Way or Another’).
Throughout this sequence the speaker records with a meticulous eye and ear the physical envi-ronments, interpersonal interactions and thoughts that accompany illness and convalescence – at times, going so far as to arranging them into list form. A sense of the uncanny quickly emerges. It’s there in the ‘staring students’ who are ‘graduates / from The Village of the Damned’ (‘Music for Hospitals’); in the ambulances which are strangely unhurried, ‘state-ly’, rather than ‘rushed’ (‘One Way or Another’); and in the speaker’s sense that:
it is not Death in
his outdated apparel at your
doorstep, only your boss, doing
the right thing.
(‘Not to Disturb’)
For this speaker, death is omnipresent. As a result, the most blameless and familiar things now appear morbid; during the boss’s visit, even the biscuits are deathly ‘pale’, and the speaker refus-es to eat them.
Of course there is also a deadpan comedy in this that spikes even the most poignant poems. For example, the speaker mentions his wife ‘graphically’ describing the ‘harrowing scenes’ of the ICU (‘Intensive Care (ii)’) ‘so that you were both / gifted with that / pointless knowledge’. This reads as a dry call-back to a more sombre moment in an earlier poem, ‘The Point’, when the speaker’s wife jabs him in the chest during an argument:
There is a finger pressed
against your breastbone,
and left there, long after
the point has been made.
McCooey’s speaker even finds gruesome humour in a male nurse, ‘excellent at taking blood’, who brags about his prowess as a hunter, showing off photos of himself ‘dressed in fatigues / with Apocalypse Now face paint’, the ‘pretty’ corpse of an animal sprawled across his four-wheel drive (‘The Hunter’).
The tone and preoccupations of ‘Documents’ herald what awaits in Star Struck’s subsequent sections. A reader has already become accustomed to McCooey’s fascination with light and darkness prior to arriving at the second section, ‘Available Light’, which announces this as its theme; after all, ‘Documents’ has given us the droll observation that ‘Hospital light, like any other / light, is rarely “lemon coloured.”’ (‘Cardiac Ward Poetics’), and presented the sun as it ‘performs its drawn-out / power down’ (‘Invisible Cities’).
Yet there is a particularly spectral quality to the types of light listed in ‘Available Light’:
the science-fiction lighting
of deserted 7-Elevens;
the out-dated starlight;
a nightwalker passes
the TV-blue of windows;
a phosphorescent Frisbee
muses on the porch;
The vistas presented in this section are often deserted, with any signs of life – lights, music, va-cant chairs on a patio, figures or cars viewed from a distance – more a reminder of the speaker’s sense of isolation than a comforting indication that others, and the potential for connection, ex-ists. Like ‘The Dolls’ House’ with its mise-en-scène of family members attending to their (dull, gendered) tasks in frozen solitude, the speaker’s world has become distant and static, the ob-served details of domestic and suburban life as strange as the descriptive titles of ‘Early Photo-graphs’ which comprise the section’s first poem: ‘Untitled (two women posed with a chair). / Use of ether for anaesthesia. / Valley of the shadow of death.’
The poems in ‘Available Light’ also remind the reader that it is almost impossible to consider changes in light (and the capture of light through the photographic image) without also consider-ing time; the two move in tandem. Even darkness itself, the speaker of this section’s final poem (‘Darkness Speaks’), acknowledges this:
you will wake up for good,
and there I will be, at last.
Revisiting an earlier poem provides an opportunity to meditate on the interplay of time and light. ‘“Whaling Station” Redux’, presents a speaker who is forced to reconsider their earlier poetic rendering of a memory when ‘My late father’s legacy of 35mm slides, / newly digitised, undoes my poem, with three shots —’. The violence of the word ‘shots’ here seems particularly appro-priate, given the vast yet blasé violence of the images considered. The light stored in these imag-es, which becomes absent, ‘pure black’, at the whale’s centre, creates an occasion both for the speaker to reassess what he saw at the age of five (the images perhaps ‘darker’, literally and fig-uratively, than the memory) and to prevent his six-year-old son from seeing the same thing and this darkness therefore being handed on to the next generation. The poem’s conclusion, where the father flicks to a photograph of an Uncle ‘standing before the Arc de Triomphe’, is not an arbitrary choice of image; the Arc itself is of course another monument to the violent ‘industry of men’, even if it makes for a less confronting sight than the steaming carcass of a whale.
Tuesday, April 18th, 2017
As the Verb Tenses by Lynley Edmeades
Otago University Press, 2016
As the Verb Tenses is a rare debut collection of poems that dazzles and delights with a profane, childlike wisdom. Acts of movement and play energise an accomplished performance held together by rare precision and a gentle power. Its author is the poet Lynley Edmeades who was born in Putaruru, a small town that is the home of the renowned Blue Spring and the source of much of the bottled water in New Zealand. Edmeades has travelled, read and published in New Zealand, the US, Ireland and Europe.
One of the great virtues of As the Verb Tenses is that it is not ostentatious; it remains poised in conversation and occasion. The verse is tensed between abstraction and feeling as it observes supposedly banal things: this kitchen pot and orange, and this clear spot on the counter. This everyday quality is some feat given the web of influences on Edmeades: avant-garde modernism, minimalism, and poststructuralism.
Edmeades completed an MA at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University in Belfast, and is currently undertaking a doctorate in sound in avant-garde poetics at the University of Otago. As the Verb Tenses bears the dynamics of modern Irish, as well as contemporary Asia-Pacific poetry; it plays with words between sounds, geographies, feelings. Edmeades achieves much in the calm irony of poems such as ‘Between Speech and Sound’, which invites us to feel ‘the usual shortcoming / of abstractions’.
This is a collection that refuses to choose between Baudelaire and Marx, and it is all the better for it. Judging from the epigraphs that open the book, Edmeades has structured the collection with at least two experiences of active tension. They are characterised by a mode of nonknowledge that opens us to a simultaneously sensuous and critical modernity. The first experience is that of the child who – as in Cage’s description of a trip to New Zealand that never eventuates – is characterised by a disappointed belief in the discourse of adults. The second experience is one of adult bookishness clashing with an unrecognised reality; or foolishness that makes unliveable promises to children. To open this experience, Edmeades provides an epigraph from one of the pithy sentences in Foucault’s The Order of Things: ‘Don Quixote reads the world in order to prove his books’.
Throughout the collection, Edmeades plays with Foucault’s critique of discourse to continually return to a heterotopic limit: ‘It’s difficult to keep the order alive’. A powerful new dimension is added to Foucaultian modernity through poems such as ‘Towards Whatever it is that Keeps Things Apart’:
This world, with its children and adults,
some ready for it, and some not.
In undertaking her poetic critique of everyday life, Edmeades makes full use of the geography of New Zealand, Belfast, Europe and Russia. Two poems called ‘The Order of Things’ almost but not quite bookend the collection. They plunge us into a kind of coming of age, post-colonial moment in the movement between country and city, from the family farm in New Zealand to the open air of the urban park:
When it was time for me to learn how to drive
I asked how I’d know which gear came next
It’s difficult to keep the order alive
When I get confused with the three, four, five.
Red tulips drooping in the park.
Remarkable how quickly things change:
The collection continues to dazzle as it moves between London, New Zealand, Belfast, a Siberian lake, and back to the metropolis. The peculiarity of post-colonial experience is evoked in poems such as ‘Second Hand’, or ‘East Belfast’, where ‘Birds sit in trees older than me’. Other poems return more directly to the quixotic theme of the epigraph: living ‘By the Book’, for example, just leads to ‘increased lack of intimacy’ in a poem about relationships. Poems such as ‘Cregagh Road’, ‘Inis Mór’, ‘As if’, ‘Orange Order’ and sketch Northern Ireland from the perspective of an outsider, a post-colonial child who finds wisdom in disorder.
In As the Verb Tenses, Edmeades guides the reader with an expert sense of rhythm and structure through the idiosyncratic itineraries of everyday globalisation. The poetry enchants, capturing the familiar childhood estrangement felt when we are playing with words to apprehend the world. This profanation of verbs is at its best when it approaches, as Walter Pater put it, the condition of music. Make like a verb and read this book.
Tuesday, April 18th, 2017
Dig: Australian Rock and Pop Music 1960-85 by David Nichols
Verse Chorus Press, 2016
Isn’t it time we invented a new handle for this ‘rock and pop’ stuff? ‘Rop’, for instance? Alternatively, ‘pock’ surely says ‘acne moonscape’: good for sounds designed to lure teens with condom-snapping haste. Regardless, I must say the droll and often delightfully irritated David Nichols brings a savoury palate to this tasting of Australian sounds. As a historian drawn to such antipodean delights as the subjects of his books, The Go-Betweens (2003) and The Bogan Delusion (2011), Nichols floats well above the bilge water line.
The foreword to Dig comes courtesy of Dave Graney, who notes that Nichols: ‘has experienced the limitations and constraints of the scene on the island and has continued to chase down rumours and will-o’-the-wisp reputations that occasionally spawn mad fevers in the compound.’ It is certainly true that, as this convict nation continues in its convulsive incarcerations, breakouts and last stands, songwriters and performers are the foot soldiers of escape. And with its bristling index and in-text scattering of old posters, cartoons and ads in black and white, Dig has a cannae-tie-kangaroo-down unpredictability. Nichols makes it clear in his introduction that he is not interested in cramming together all the old hack stories about rock stars acting up, or sniggering at historical ‘fashion crimes’. Rather he has rummaged through a range of evidence and conducted many interviews with musos and rock scribblers (including myself, disclaimer here) and others to plant his feet on the territory.
There are entire chapters dedicated to The Bee Gees, The Missing Links, The Easybeats, the strange story of the more obscure Pip Proud, AC/DC, Dragon, The Reels, The Triffids and The Moodists. Daddy Cool and Skyhooks are thrown into the washer together, where Bongo Star’s glitter irretrievably crunches up Ross Wilson’s foxtail. Other chapters explore the changing socio-musical decades. Along the way such interferons as architect Robin Boyd with his ‘Austerica’ (Australia / America) theory, the pianist, composer and free music explorer Percy Grainger and Richard Neville’s Oz Magazine-fueled rambunctiousness shoot through the text. Nichols dips into 1971 Daily Planet magazine to credit columnist Lobby Loyd with this ‘lobbying’: ‘Australian rock is probably the most advanced in the music world because this country has never known success, that perverter of truth and destroyer of progress.’ The crash-and-bash talent, unnerving persistence and musical nous are wonderful to breathe in.
The early-seeding festival scene is explored as a powerful multiplier of rock power. Nichols claims that South Australia’s three-day Myponga Festival in January 1971 only drew ‘an estimated 5,500’; recently, however, Bob Byrne wrote in the Adelaide Advertiser that he attended, and that Myponga, which starred Black Sabbath with many top Australian bands, had at least 15,000 paying customers and another 5,000-plus jumping the fence. Dig reports ‘heavy rain and icy winds no doubt made the experience unpleasant even before the Draft Resister’s Union tried to break down the fence, distributed pamphlets condemning the festival as a money-making concern, and at one point marched onto the stage chanting ‘out, pigs’ and ‘free concert’.’ The highly varied reportage on Myponga is challenging, and Nichols’s account funny, however I feel that his overall picture of Myponga is inaccurate. In the Australian rock festival scene, Myponga has always been quite celebrated as: one of the most impressive early Australian festival line-ups, with much of the weather hot, if dusty; and the birthplace of Daddy Cool’s enormous live success.
More commonly, Nichols has a solid grip on the ever-transforming and widening scene. Chapter Six, ‘Falling off the Edge of the World: The Easybeats,’ makes fascinating reading about the guys who in many ways wrote the bible on ‘How to Succeed in Show Business While Really Trying’, tripping over great cement clumps of failure en route, include Harry Vanda, Stevie Wright and George Young. ‘By 1969,’ writes Nichols, ‘Vanda and Young – at this point jointly the Brian Wilson of the group – were holed up in a flat on Moscow Road that had previously been a jingle studio for pirate radio … Somehow, the last proper Easybeats album, Friends, was made up almost completely of Vanda and Young demos, sung mainly by Young, including ‘St Louis’.’ Nichols quotes Vanda’s admission that, ‘I wouldn’t know what bloody St Louis was like,’ revealing that Friends was just an album to appease the contract while providing a taster of Flash and the Pan hits to come.
Another definitive moment in this sprawling history is when the talented Brian Peacock, known for the arty, rather baroque Procession – whose biggest hit ‘Anthem’, was completely a cappella – underwent a dark night of the soul. By this stage in the very early 70s, Peacock was staying at the Warwick Hotel in New York and road managing the American tour of the much more commercial New Seekers, when he discovered that their record company Warner Bros was owned by the Kinney Corporation, ‘basically car park operators … a heavily mobbed-up, mafia-riddled company.’ His resultant spiritual seizure ‘wasn’t drug-induced,’ says Peacock, ‘just a total paranoia that I was doing exactly the wrong thing, and the whole music industry was doomed and riddled with corruption.’ He told his business partners not to worry, he’d found someone else to take over, and as Peacock sensibly walked out, someone much more equipped to deal with King Kong – Glenn Wheatley – walked in.
There are also spiritual experiences in Dig of a purely musical nature. For instance, MacKenzie Theory (1971-4) were a highly skilled, electric ‘head’ band on the Mushroom label, improvising wordlessly on guitar, viola, bass and drums. Their American-born founding bass player Mike Leadabrand describes one show they played as ‘probably the most memorable event’ of his life. ‘It was as though the music came to us from somewhere else, and we were along for the ride as much as the audience,’ said Leadabrand. ‘When it was over, everyone knew that something had happened that we had no way to talk about.’ The Theory were supporting a popular Brisbane band that night, but that band announced they could no longer go on. Neither Leadabrand nor Nichols spells it out, but the implication is the headliners felt unable to follow the otherworldly experience their support act had conjured up. ‘Nobody complained or wondered why,’ said Leadabrand, about the headliners’ desertion. ‘This happened about three times in my three years with (MacKenzie Theory), and those times formed the person I would be to this day.’
Nichols isn’t always as sympathetic towards his subjects. After following the meanderings of Cold Chisel with attention in Dig, Nichols lets fly at their solo-going singer Jimmy Barnes for ‘the teeth-gnashingly ghastly’ single ‘Working Class Man,’ which, Nichols writes, is ‘written and produced by Journey’s Jonathan Cain, channeling a foetid, parallel universe Bruce Springsteen.’ Whether or not you agree with him, Nichols’s viewpoints are always individual, dodging the paralysing sameness often at work in long form rock-writing styles.
Monday, April 10th, 2017
Opera by Stuart Cook
Five Islands Press, 2016
In the poems of Opera, Stuart Cooke attempts to take the writing of place into new territory, and in doing so, accomplishes something remarkable. This collection is both substantial and complex, enhancing our understanding of what a poetics of landscape can encompass and the capacity of language to articulate it.
Cooke has long been uneasy with the label of ecopoet, as he mentioned in a 2014 interview for Peril Magazine. While his previous collection, Edge Music (2011), focused on writing from the geographical and historical edges of landscapes, Opera pushes beyond an attempt to speak ecologically. Cooke is one of many innovative Australian poets (Louise Crisp, Peter Minter, Michael Farrell, Martin Harrison, Bonny Cassidy) who have been attempting to find new ways of speaking about landscape that acknowledge the multiple histories landscapes can possess: environmental, cultural and colonised. Cooke creates a new vision of how to speak about the temporal, geographic, ecological and cultural histories of land and, in the process, expands our lexicon with which to express them.
The cover image grants the reader an excellent entry point from which to understand the key themes of Opera. The artwork by John Wolseley is a detail from a larger watercolour of the spore-bearing bodies of Cytarria in Tasmania and Patagonia and their Northofagus hosts. These plants symbolise the ancient biological connection between South America and Tasmania and, as such, perfectly represent the scope and objectives of this collection. In these poems, Cooke is viewing Australia and South America as landforms once connected as Gondwanaland – ancient landscapes whose shared geological, biological and genetic heritage is still expressed today. Rather than focusing on regional specifics or local endemism as means of expressing place in a particular space and time, Cooke adopts a macro-perspective, writing from an understanding of place that spans millennia.
But these bald mountains remain the wisest:
their acrid soils skid through seasons, shirking
the heavy texts of jungles, of cumbersome timber,
of carbon’s tiresome routines.
They lie across the azure like gods
of the stone they cradle,
they lap it up like great tongues
that descend into a single throat,
to the mad populous of the rapids,
the willows and the bamboos draping, the swirling
pollen in aphotic bivouacs, the flames of sun
in leaves, where all sound’s reduced
to a pure molten sign (‘Valle de Hurtado’)
These poems explore the myriad connections that link the continental fragments of Gondwanaland. Cooke’s overarching perspective sees not just trans-Pacific ecological associations but also political, cultural and linguistic linkages that have, over time, evolved in ways akin to biological speciation. All of the poems in the collection are creative responses to particular regions, but the geographic specifics are not necessarily mentioned in the poems. If the reader is keen to know which landscape inspired a particular poem they must consult the endnotes. I found this to be a cunning strategy, since by not making the poems’ geographic locations explicit, my sense of the multiple levels of connectivity and relationship existing between the various regions was constantly reinforced.
Cooke’s perspective acknowledges regional differences and environmental complexity while also honouring the languages that articulate their ecological individuality. Observed from this macro-level perspective, the linkages and connections Cooke explores in his poetry speak to the existence of a human commons spanning time, politics and cultures. This elucidation of what is shared rather than what differentiates is politically meaningful, since to confront global environmental crises such as climate change will necessitate the adoption of an integrated global vision. He writes:
as if f
alling spirits weren’t caught by anyone but picked
up from the plain by hard white hands it’s
hard to talk about the dry, about what
what should or shouldn’t be […]
Now (here comes the rain)
with a capacity for change only time will tell la
vida derecha echa la echaste (trust) live
the drought, eat bad rhyme. Shout: Give back the land!
My hair’s too thin to mimic a downpour (‘Sonnet to rain [Son al silencio]’)
In addition to geological and biological connections, Cooke recognises a commonality of histories, in terms of the colonisation and repression of indigenous peoples and the need for acknowledgement of these histories in poetry that speaks of place. The colonisation of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and the Mapuche communities of Patagonia share many parallels. Cooke is one of many contemporary poets exploring the potential of poetry to articulate visions of the landscape that are not regurgitations of the colonial perspective, but instead embrace the vast spectrum of human and non-human cultures. As he explains in a recent article in Landscapes, Cooke’s poems embody the recognition that any trans-cultural poetic vision taking an anti-colonialist stance must attempt to eschew Western visions of categorisation and subjugation and strive for multi-vocal expressions of a complex location. Using both his significant experience with indigenous communities and extensive reading of indigenous poets both in Australia and South America, he writes from a place that values indigenous perspectives, allowing this way of seeing to sit alongside an ecological understanding of place in his work. Cooke’s poems reflect the profound understanding that for Aboriginal people language arises out of and in response to Country and, as a natural consequence, language is an inseparable component of Country.
Cooke’s work becomes truly innovative when it recognises and explores the intersection between landscape, ecology and language. Cooke forges an entirely new syntax in his attempt to pull together and collate diverse material and experience from geographically and biologically varied locations. While creating his version of a transcultural poetics, in several sections Cooke frees the words or symbols from the need for communicating meaning, and instead invites them to act on the page and to provide texture in a sonic or graphic sense, which Peter Minter has written about this in his 2012 article, ‘Writing Country: Composition, Law and Indigenous Ecopoetics’. The poems ‘Biophilia’ and ‘Lurujarri’ both contain numerous examples of this. This is language as ecology and ecology as language. Cooke experiments with Jill Magi’s premise that, much as life evolves from non-living matter, so too can linguistic communication evolve from non-semantic sounds. For Cooke, language is a living system and such words and symbols can carry far more than their semantic value. ‘Lurujarri’ is a long poem in nine parts in which Cooke documents his experience of Country in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. It is figurative, lyrical and experimental, with Cooke expanding the boundaries of language to represent a visceral experience of place. The physical, visual and aural landscapes are all rendered into text:
References to grammar and syntax proliferate in ways that speak to Cooke’s thinking about language as ecologically fertile. The profusion of grammatical terminology, alongside and combined with landscape imagery, brings to mind the role of sexual reproduction in genetic diversity and evolution. This reinforces what I perceive as Cooke’s thinking about language as part of Country as it seems to function ecologically in the poems, much like energy flowing through living systems. Lines of Spanish erupt in poems sporadically throughout the collection, reinforcing the idea of multi-layered connections between Australia and South America. While I spent some time checking my Spanish translations, I found it well worth the effort, particularly as it sparked thinking about the role of translation in linguistic connection and the writing of place. (Is literal translation important to the poems or is it more significant in its symbolic representation of another layer of cultural synthesis between these two continents?)
Monday, April 3rd, 2017
Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong
Pitt Street Poetry, 2016
In his short story ‘A Little Ramble’, champion of the anti-heroic Robert Walser says, ‘We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much’. In her third collection, Painting Red Orchids, Singaporean Australian Eileen Chong testifies to ordinary experience as the sensory and emotional kaleidoscope of the individual. These are the lyrical portraits of a perpetual itinerant, her introverted recordings of private joys, loneliness and fascination with solitary journeying through a rich inner world. Sensorial and intellectual curiosity abound in her peripatetic wanderings any place and any time: Sydney’s Chinatown, Parramatta, the seaside, the Australian goldfields, Tang dynasty China, a friend’s kitchen.
The eponymous ‘Painting Red Orchids’ opens the collection and is one of its highlights. Chong explores the Qing artist Huang Shen’s painting, ‘Red Orchids’, which in traditional ink wash painting style captures the life and energy of the subject rather than its literal likeness. Chong cleverly plays on this aesthetic tradition by textually re-enacting Huang Shen’s process of creation, and in so doing, the life and becoming of the red orchids:
One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water—rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal—red orchids bloom on white.
Similar to the closely related forms of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting where text and image share similar techniques and appear together in dialogue, here poetry converges thematically with visual art. But Chong takes this further, occupying the position of Huang Shen with first-person narration, examining the provenance of the materials she / ‘he’ paints with:
…This one, an eyelash
from a leopard. The inkstone was my father’s: slate
quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather
drowned himself one spring night. I scoop well-water
The unrushed pace of these lines show the narrator, with Buddhistic mindfulness, recounting the life of each material that makes the painting and constitutes its life and energy. These items are material testaments to the trauma of past lives. These lines, some of the most accomplished in Chong’s collection, provide a kind of technical and thematic sleight of hand. Upon closer reading, the ekphrastic poem reveals its true complexity: a tapestried introduction for the mental and emotional landscape of the collection, a deft expression of art’s many lives. Chong’s art soars when she draws on classical Chinese motifs and inhabits myths (‘Magnolia’; ‘Seven in the Bamboo’). Through the high drama of history and legend, played out in anachronistic time and embodied by contemporary selves, Chong skilfully enacts the indelible mark of heritage on the imagination.
Conversely, a kind of self-conscious, ‘East-meets-West’ cultural exchange that the poet attempts, often through food imagery, is less successful. Awkward and clichéd, the narrator in ‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta’ ponders:
… How did we find each other
in this faceless city, on this wide continent,
coming as we did from worlds so far apart?
… We share hot tea, spinach
with three kinds of egg, and learn a new rhythm.
Similarly in ‘Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)’, the narrator conflates food appreciation with cultural connection:
I still remember the look on your face when you ate
your first little dragon dumpling. Sudden understanding.
From ‘A Winter’s Night’:
This, here, made from my hands,
his memories—we consume spoon after spoon
of history and desire and laugh about the future.
Chong’s strong craft and technique are at these points stifled by the clumsy and superficial treatment of multiculturalism, particularly in her depiction of exoticised cuisine and food rituals as sensual cross-cultural exchanges – usually within the bounds of a romantic relationship. This is accompanied often by the overuse of the contrived word ‘lover’ in such contexts: ‘My lover takes me to his favourite Chinese/restaurant’ or ‘My lover holds my hand and walks me through/an unfamiliar cityscape.’ (‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta’); ‘I am on the telephone/with my lover’ (‘Resonance’).
Nevertheless, it is with touching everydayness that Chong expresses the emotional state of an itinerant; her naturally rhythmic, prose-like descriptions intimate and immortalise the ephemeral, contingent and elusive. Flights of fancy, memory, nostalgia, dreams and desire are familiar secrets for both poet and reader. In ‘Taboo’, the seemingly blameless narrator offers a heartbreaking, imploring defence to an unknown crime,
I swear I didn’t.
I never could.
How much do I want?
All the years, and none.
Sounding the death knell of a doomed relationship, these simple, sparse lines display an aching silence, conveying the unspeakable pain of love’s ending as it occurs. Prefiguring the death of a love that will never be, Chong is a clairvoyant of loss, imbuing her lines with pre-emptive, nihilistic disavowal.
What I think is the compelling soul of these poems – more than their subject matter (food, love, solitude, travel or dreams), or their technical artistry – is their unmaskable shadow of trauma, and the past lives that occasioned this work. For example, Chong writes, ‘On good days / there is chocolate. There is always a cup of tea. I don’t/think about pain, or loss, or the past, although they are there’ (‘Seven in the Bamboo’). She hints at the toil of survival with a poignantly innocuous line, ‘The trick / is to keep swimming, to keep taking in air’ (‘Trick’). Upon reading these poems, one after another, their accumulative effect is one of oblique sadness amidst joyful discovery, a sense of a rebirth destined to be haunted by the weight of past lives. It is an evocation as powerful and moving as any great literature I know. A self-described ‘poet of small things’, Chong’s intimate poems of minute complexities see so much in the ordinary and inspire a gladness of solitude.
Monday, April 3rd, 2017
Universal Mother by Elif Sezen
Glora SMH, 2016
There is something delicious about a collection that doesn’t open itself up to the reader on a first or even second reading and yet compels them to come back to it, something delightful about lines that lodge themselves in your brain and demand a third, fourth, fifth reading to reunite them with the poems they come from.
The great Mughal poet Mirza Ghalib said that poetry was not merely the construction of pretty rhymes and images but mani afirni, the manufacturing of multiple, shifting meaning. In Elif Sezen’s work, Ghalib’s ideal comes to life. Universal Mother is rich with references whose intertextual mix of classical mysticism, mythology, ecology, biology, and pop culture makes it a thoroughly modern collection. Sezen’s knack for traversing centuries in the space of a few lines situates her as a truly transcultural writer.
There is an ethereal quality to Sezen’s work, a certain sense of longing and searching that carries echoes of Rilke and the best of Yeats’s poetry. Sezen’s discussion of ‘absence’ in ‘Two Ghazals’ in particular brings Rilke’s obsession with the concept to mind; while in ‘The Universal Garden’ Sezen writes: ‘A rose is the most silent thing ever / it blinks with a secret innocence’ (3), recalling Rilke’s epitaph ‘Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy / of being No-one’s sleep under so many / lids.’ Her fluent use of mystic tropes can also be traced to the Sufi tradition (Rilke found his rose here as well).
There is a sense of slow but inexorable movement in Universal Mother, like that of the heavens. Whether multi-part meditations or three-line lyrics like ‘Our Absences Merge’, Sezen’s poems take their time to unfurl.
I created a memory of you:
you are nurturing yourself
while I nurture me
Sezen routinely addresses a ‘you’ but it is evident that this is not the reader. There are several presences in this book. Some poems seem to address the speaker’s mother, but others seem to invoke the ‘Universal Mother’ of the title. Sezen creates the impression of a child talking to a wise and benevolent mother, seeking guidance and reassurance, but also showing her mother the world anew the way that children often do. She reinvents the familiar, reconstructs memories, rebuilds histories, all in a conversational tone that sometimes belies the complexity of what she is saying.
When you hit the floor, concrete turns into
a flower-bed, as if your recently deceased
mother is hugging you, she whispers:
You must go back now my dear.
Although universal themes such as the bond between mother and daughter might lend themselves to the obvious, Sezen’s poetry is anything but. The dream sequence in ‘Three types of gravity,’ about jumping off a tall building only to realise death is not what the narrator wants after all, speaks of the way grief makes people act against themselves. It also casts the mother as the daughter’s guide and protector even from beyond the grave – a kind of present absence that Sezen returns to in the last lines of ‘The dead woman’:
Put her between the sayable and the unsayable
so she keeps you alive.
The poems demonstrate a mix of spiritualities – references to kundalini energy, Buddhism, and of course Sufi mysticism all sit comfortably side by side – as well as a range of images and registers. Over and again Sezen blends her evidently expansive knowledge of poetic tradition with the everyday in her own idiosyncratic way. For example, she has an odd fondness for amplification using adverbs – ‘definitely’ is one of her favourites – and it stands out, turning up in the middle of an otherwise lyrical line. In ‘She meditates’ she writes: ‘there were children shouting and playing / in the park, and I definitely had to transform into / something else’. Earlier, in ‘Two ghazals,’ she writes:
I saw the girl
behind the window
as if someone else’s
Who was she?
I definitely had to write this down
Although the use of the word seems odd, it creates an immediate and conversational tone that sits well with the mysticism of the collection. In ‘Invitation’ we see Sezen once again connecting the lofty with the quotidian when she says ‘There’s really nothing to fear / and what’s more I cut my hair’.
‘Guests’ indulges in another kind of blending. It begins with an epigraph taken from one of Coleman Bark’s most famous ‘translations’ of Rumi’s work: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field / I’ll meet you there.’ Sezen moves the setting to a house and shifts the tone from mystical to playful, saying:
When I enter the house with no tenants
please come in, before I change my mind
Sezen’s brief, unexpected addition of scientific taxonomy to her stock metaphor has an expansive effect on the poem. She writes:
And make love as two guests, and touch
the furniture with illuminated neurons
with awakened cells
of our second-skin
feel how matter resists impermanence
There is a spark of joy that runs through this poem, a rush and excitement that makes it stand out from the others in the collection. Emotions fly fast and free here. But this freedom is fleeting; the ending reins it in with:
When I enter the outside
please come out
before I change my mind
The change in lineation gives the end an ominous feeling, as if something else looms beyond the little slice of joy in the poem.
That sense of something greater on the horizon pervades the whole collection, beginning with ‘Looking for the blue’. Universal Mother could be read as speaking of the environment, of our abandonment of it, of nature and the earth as the wronged mother from whom we have become estranged. The imagery of the heavens – the stars, the moon, the sky, the Milky Way – all conjure an awareness of the connectedness between our actions and the urgency of climate change. I do not know if this is intentional – perhaps the age of global warming and impending disaster makes such a reading inevitable – but it only adds to the complexity of this already multi-layered collection of poetry.
Tuesday, March 28th, 2017
The Best Australian Poems 2016
Sarah Holland-Batt, ed.
Black Inc., 2016
In her introduction to this anthology, editor Sarah Holland-Batt claims for the work ‘a colloquialism, contrarianism and playfulness that separates it from its counterparts in the northern hemisphere’. Being hitherto more familiar with that northern hemisphere, this reviewer’s critical interest was immediately aroused.
The nearest equivalent publication in the UK and Ireland is the annual Forward Book of Poetry. It differs in that it features the winning, shortlisted and highly commended poems for the Forward Prizes for Poetry, as selected by a team of judges. On glancing through both anthologies as a casual browser might (in some utopian international bookshop), it is true that several pages of the BAP make a deliberately playful pitch for attention. But playfulness can run deep, and is sometimes appreciated only when a reader tunes into the particular colloquialism and contrarianism that surely characterises vigorous poetry in many parts of the world. For readers less familiar with those particularities, something may well ‘suffer a bit / in the translation’, to use a phrase that Holland-Batt quotes from a poem by Michael Dransfield.
For example, I smiled at Laurie Duggan’s mention of ‘daylight saving’ (‘A Northern Winter’), not a phrase likely to be recognised in England, where the poem is set. In his poem ‘Hossegor’, Jaya Savige highlights a cultural gulf to extended, comic effect:
Surfing probably didn't occur to the Vikings
but then you never know—maybe one of Asgeir's men
found himself oaring his chieftain's faering
for this Biscay shore, just as a set wave jacked—
the kind that narrows the eyes of the guns
who yearly light up the Quicksilver Pro
A significant number of poems in both the BAP and Forward anthologies are set outside their nominal territories – a natural consequence, perhaps, of the diversity of contributors. Even so, a relative newcomer to the Australian poetry scene might expect the Australian landscape itself to loom larger. (There is relatively little of the British landscape in the Forward, too; what does this suggest – that an urban sensibility holds sway? At a time when the natural world is under the most savage of political threats, one might perhaps expect more active concern.) Phillip Hall’s ‘Royalty’ stands out in this respect, a poem the very texture of which captures the feel of the bush, providing too a vivid depiction of family ritual. And Michael Brennan’s ‘There and Then’, with its casual prose rhythms, is a strong rural vignette, intensely attuned to the physical attributes of the scene.
Both anthologies include a sprinkling of prose poems, but even more noticeable is the number of long poems. In the past two years Geoff Page, as editor of the BAP, sought poems of preferably one or two pages. This year, Holland-Batt has included some that run to six, as has the Forward. This seems fine in principle, but not all the long pieces would seem to justify their space. Page’s selections were also structured thematically; here there is no such ‘support’ for poems; they live (or die) with neighbours either side but with purely random correspondence. The logic behind Holland-Batt’s selection, however, is persuasive, and her introduction is an eloquent, stimulating discussion of poetry’s importance. She states that the poet ‘often registers the uneasy vibrations of a culture before the repercussions are felt by the body politic’, and that an effective poem ‘detonates in the instant of its reading’; that power may be somewhat ephemeral, but she makes a claim for durability, too. Few would argue with her assertion that poetry gets beyond the ‘truthiness’ of political discourse (or even the post-truthiness). But do the selected poems live up to the claim? Will these poems last ‘for millennia’?
The only plausible way of answering that is to identify poems that one already senses a wish to return to, poems that offer immediate rewards that are balanced by a further level of intrigue – a difficulty that is justified (as opposed to an incoherence posing as faux complexity), or as Holland-Batt puts it, ‘[language] whose subtleties and nuances are worth puzzling over’. (She describes her own considerable re-readings in order to make a case for a particular poem’s worthiness of our puzzlement, but such extensive re-reading is unlikely to be replicated by most readers of the anthology.)
Some poems win immediate attention through their arresting openings, Tim Thorne’s ‘Jakhan Pollyeva’ being a strong example:
Putin's speechwriter in a leopard print dress
with plunging neckline performs her latest poems
before chatting up the President of Kyrgyzstan.
Shari Kocher’s ‘Foxstruck’, with its long opening sentence, is similarly compelling, and Petra White’s poem ‘On This’ begins ‘Coming at you like a wave’, the whole poem energised by that that initial thrust, and continuing to surprise. Some, of course, put much store in their titles: ‘Blow Job (kama sutra)’ by Bronwyn Lea is unlikely to be skipped but also genuinely amusing, not least in its rhymes.
Other poems achieve their ends via much quieter beginnings. Debbie Lim’s previously unpublished ‘A House in Switzerland’ – going beyond Australian borders for a specific purpose, the termination of life – builds into a poem of considerable impact. As Holland-Batt points out, there is a strong, dark current in much of the work, balancing the playfulness, from the unflinching gaze of Robyn Rowland’s ‘Night Watch’, to poems that are explicitly political, such as Ali Cobby Eckerman’s powerful ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ and Lisa Jacobson’s ‘The Jews of Hamburg Speak Out’, one of a number of poems drawn from Writing to the Wire (UWAP, 2016). Also notable is Fay Zwicky’s ‘Boat Song’, a haunting poem that is, remarkably, both political and playful, as well as exhibiting a strong allegiance to form, which is yet another defining quality of many poems in the anthology (as is true too of the Forward). The beautifully controlled simplicity of Zwicky’s concluding lines are particularly striking:
We bring photos and candles and
Mountains of flowers upon flowers upon
Flowers upon flowers.
Poems by Judith Beveridge, David Malouf and others use stanzaic structures that incorporate energetic, conversational rhythms. Chris Wallace-Crabbe is almost alone in using consistent rhyme: his poem, ‘Altogether Elsewhere’, has a natural eloquence that thrives on intuitive patterning; some poems that make a big show of their looser fluidity seem by contrast rather forced. Holland-Batt points to the famed Australian ‘sprawl’, which at its best is highly engaging, but when it veers into ‘slack’, poetic power is inevitably reduced. Some poems here have unfortunate repetitions (unlike Zwicky’s highly charged example above), as if they have not been sufficiently revised. Some lack vigour, letting phrases pile up rather aimlessly, a lack of verbs not helping. Few of the unpunctuated poems entirely convince, rhythmically; they haven’t always replaced punctuation with effective spatial alternatives in the way, for instance, that Pam Brown has in ‘Rooibos’, which works as an effective musical score. There is nothing that looks less fresh than the echoes of yesteryear’s avant garde; and the haphazard use of such attention-seeking elements seems particularly bizarre. To take a fitting line from Verity Laughton’s ‘Kangarilla, Summer 2016’: ‘Chaos once cast charm. It doesn’t now.’
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
The Blue Decodes by Cassie Lewis
Grand Parade Poets, 2016
After spending my teenage years with only Dorothy Porter for Australian poetry company, I discovered HEAT magazine in the orderly periodical shelves of the University of Queensland’s Social Sciences and Humanities Library. I was supposed to be learning how to write essays for EN152, instead I was learning how Australians wrote poetry. Until then I had thought it was only Brits, Yanks and James Gleeson who wrote poetry, but it turned out people from this country, only a decade or so older than myself, were writing poems about things I recognised in language that was familiar. Chief among the poets who dazzled me on those distracted days was Cassie Lewis, a precociously talented young Melbournian riding high at the turn of the millennium. As well as publishing regularly in key magazines, her work was collected in the era’s two important anthologies of Australian poetry: Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx and Ron Pretty’s New Music. Still only in her mid-twenties, Lewis was the fourth youngest poet in Pretty’s book and perhaps (not all birthdates are listed) the youngest in Brennan’s and Minter’s. She was one of only a dozen poets who appeared in both.
Since then her peers – poets like Kate Lilley, Michael Farrell, Michael Brennan and Kate Fagan – have gone on to form part of the core of an established generation of Australian poetry while Lewis has only published intermittently. Her first chapbook, Song for the Quartet, was published in 1997. It was followed in 2002 by High Country in one of Little Esther’s pocket editions, then Bridges in 2006; and then nothing. In her biography there are possible clues to this relative silence. In 2000, Lewis left Melbourne for the United States. Landing in San Francisco, she founded Poetry Espresso, an early online poetry collective and tiny press in 2001, before settling in upstate New York in 2004, where she now works as a nurse at the University of Rochester Medical Centre. It seemed Lewis had joined the ranks of other anthologised poets from the turn of the millennium, including Jemal Sharah and Ted Nielsen (New Music) and Adrian Wiggins and Sue Bower (Calyx) who no longer publish. In fact, Lewis was omitted from Contemporary Australian Poetry, the new Puncher & Wattmann anthology edited by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave, while both Nielsen and Wiggins made the cut. Lewis was also one of the troika of young poets to whom John Forbes’ ‘Lessons for Young Poets’ is dedicated. The other two, Kieran Carroll (now a playwright) and Ramona Barry (an important figure in arts and crafts), have long since given up poetry and so, it seemed, had Lewis. So last year, when Grand Parade Poets editor Alan Wearne told me he was publishing Lewis’s The Blue Decodes, it was as unexpected as the postman turning up with hand written, postage stamped letter.
Based on the poems in The Blue Decodes, Lewis is an artist who values silence as much as noise. The book’s ninety pages, which include a number of poems published in her chapbooks, represent well over two decades’ worth of work which provides an interesting purchase on the question of why write poetry in the first place, particularly if it seems like an adjunct to an already full life? We can surmise that Lewis’s nursing career, her role as a mother and wife, the pileup of life’s prosaic diktats and sundry other factors combine to annihilate the time needed to write. Despite this, though, Lewis has not abandoned, or even forgotten poetry. That she has continued to write and seek publication suggests a need to write. This compulsion, combined with poems that are often short or fragmentary, lends the collection a sense of urgency. These poems simply have to be written.
There are multiple descriptions of her writing process in The Blue Decodes but one formulation appears twice. (Is there a better way of economising writing time?) Firstly, in ‘from Postcard Poems’:
I stay up late hungry and dreaming aloud,
to type is to construct little shanties
for the night. Something blue and clouded
stirs in the screen before me,
I know! It is the sky in Arizona
that I have not seen.
Line breaks removed and tweaked slightly, the formulation’s second appearance comes a little over a dozen pages later, in ‘Bridges’, the long sequence that closes the book:
I hum softly to myself, I stay up late hungry and dreaming aloud. To type is to construct little shanties for the night. Something blue, immaculate comes at me through the screen. It’s the sky in Arizona.
In this formulation writing equates to building homes or, put slightly differently, of finding a place in the world. This idea crops up again and again in The Blue Decodes, at times amplified by the expatriate’s perennial dislocation. There is a sense, in the poems, that poetry provides, for the poet, access to a schema for living that is otherwise inaccessible. Home isn’t simply physical or geographic, it is a source of belonging and a refuge, a way of understanding the world and existing in time. The advice poem ‘The Way to Keep Going’ highlights the dislocation upon which this need to write poetry, as a way of existing in the world, is predicated. It begins:
Be hospitable to strangers.
Sometimes you may want to give away everything you have.
It is advisable to hold your own vision
at some distance.
Failure is relative to your
standard of shelter.
Nothing ultimately matters
but the smallest things register.
Failure’s relativity to material circumstances could be a wry dig at the class with more dollars than sense, or Lewis could be arguing for the importance of another form of shelter, one that we can find in ‘the smallest things’, and which helps guard against the grim realisation that ‘Nothing ultimately matters’. This type of shelter is a knowledge that can inoculate, or at least provide temporary consolation, against nihilism. This is important if hope is, as it often seems in Lewis’s work, either past or illusory: ‘My life is like a map / where hope has been’, she writes (‘Vanguard’).
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
Watching the World: Impressions of Canberra
by Jenn Webb and Paul Hetherington
Blemish Books, 2015
What is it about Canberra that invites so many definitions? Comparing where we live with where we don’t is an Australian fixation, but there’s a specific energy to the way that people with a connection to Canberra go about this – they will start deriding or defending the place minutes after you’re introduced.
At least, this is my own tendency as someone born and raised in Australia’s ‘big country town’ capital. Like a family member, Canberra is mine to love, mine to hate, and mine to define. It was with this prickly attitude that I opened Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb’s Watching the World: Impressions of Canberra – the end result of a collaborative poetic / photographic project that began as part of an exhibition commemorating Canberra’s 2013 centenary.
The book is divided into three sections: ‘Where we live’, ‘Memory places’ and ‘Paddocks and perambulations’, with each Hetherington poem facing a ‘companion’ photograph by Webb. The collaborators describe how they used a call-and-answer process to create these parings: ‘Jen took photographs, which Paul then used as springboards into poems. Paul’s poems led, in turn, to Jen taking new photographs or editing existing ones.’ And while Hetherington is no stranger to ekphrasis, he explains in an interview with Verity La that ‘I did not wish my poems to be ekphrastic or descriptive works; I wanted them to be companion pieces; pieces that spoke to what Jen had seen and made; and which saw and were made differently, but in strongly connected ways.’
Introducing the book, Webb and Hetherington highlight their desire to step outside well-worn, tourist-friendly impressions of Canberra and ‘record ordinary parts of town, the places where people live and work and shop’. But while the result is nothing like a tourist guidebook, the commemorative origin of Watching the World means its depictions of the city are often admiring, at times even ode-like.
This celebratory quality, along with the book’s clearly delineated subject, puts Watching the World at a slight remove from Hetherington’s latest collection, Burnt Umber, and his 2013 work, Six Different Windows. They are broader in scope and often grapple with more intricate themes. By contrast, Watching the World is a moment of rest during which Hetherington has focused on succinct poems that condense around a single idea. ‘Summer’ shows this emphasis on straightforwardness and short, declarative lines:
Long grass burns
with late autumn light
as if so much waste
of the passing year
is suddenly consumed
in softest fire
Hetherington tends towards iambic metre in many of his lines, but is careful to interrupt the pattern before it becomes overpowering. In ‘Balloon’ this steady tempo suggests the progress of Canberra’s early morning beacons:
Memories march like bayonets;
your sense of yourself is a shred of words;
and too much thought is never enough
to take you where a shady green
fell on your body like darkening joy –
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Canberra to hear that the majority of these poems have a pastoral element. But before looking at Hetherington’s language more closely, it’s important to acknowledge the role of Webb’s photographs. Rather than offering a single answer to each poem, they act more as counterpoints, suggesting multiple interpretations of Hetherington’s lines. Human subjects are very few, with Canberra’s planned and unplanned landscapes the dominant theme.
Her work represents both instantly recognisable Canberran images – Telstra Tower, Parliament House and Anzac Parade’s memorials – and less obvious but just as representative subjects like a yellow lawn seen through a bus shelter window, walkers braving a sudden downpour, or dark clouds hovering above an uninhabited car park. In the companion poem to the latter image, ‘Airport’, Hetherington captures one of those moments when Canberra’s sky-scape dwarfs everything beneath it:
until all’s misshapen –
a protean weighing
of cloud-form and distance.
In his blurb for Watching the World, Peter Rose uses the word ‘Protean’ to describe contemporary Australian poetry. But if we are writing and reading Australian poetry in a period marked by change and difference, it’s also worth noting the consistency in Hetherington’s writing here. There could have been a temptation to use this collaboration as a reason to experiment with aspects of form, language or perspective. Instead, perhaps because these poems were first written for an audience that might not regularly encounter poetry, Hetherington has distilled each line, zeroing in on lucidity and approachability.
What’s particularly fascinating is the further consistency between Hetherington’s approach and that of a number of other writers in his poetic community. Profiling Hetherington after his 2014 residency in Rome (during which he finalised Burnt Umber), the Canberra Times describes Canberra as ‘a town fairly creaking with published poets’. With so many working writers in a population of just under 400,000, it’s hardly surprising to find resonances between the language of poets like Geoff Page, Alan Gould and John Foulcher, all of whom share Hetherington’s skill in ensuring clarity.
Of course, drawing boundaries like this to describe a ‘Canberra school’ is fraught. Any similarities we can find among Canberra’s more well-known poets leaves a community of unpublished and emerging writers out of the definition, not to mention those writing in nearby communities that don’t technically sit within the ACT. If there are legitimate through-lines to be found, these poets’ literary connections to one another are probably much less significant than the influence of Canberra’s singular, famously deliberate design.
Alan Gould is acknowledged for the idea behind ‘Waltz’, the poem that begins Watching the World. ‘Waltz’ addresses Canberra’s status as a place conceived on paper. It introduces the city’s ‘straight-drawn streets, / curves, crescents and rounding circles’ along with the houses that line them:
street by street they seem to waltz –
stammering into blazing statements
like an algebraic magic
written on the pastured earth
in irreducible expressions.
This question of the ‘pastured earth’ is one that many poets familiar with the Canberra region, most obviously Judith Wright, have spent years chronicling and questioning. But where a poet like Wright poses large, often troubling questions about anthropocentric impact on this environment, here Hetherington is writing from a more contented standpoint. In ‘Eucalypts’ we feel the warmth of ‘extravagant, broken sunshine’; in ‘Stepping’, rain takes on an almost sensual quality as it ‘flicks leaves / like agile fingers’; and ‘Bird’ shows us ‘ribbed and green-lit shade’.
That said, there are moments when Hetherington ‘dreams a past / into the paddocks’ textures’ (‘Notion’) and Canberra’s pre-colonial history comes into focus. This theme is strongest in the poem that matches Webb’s wide shot of Parliament House (‘The House’):
A building that stands
for squatting and settling;
erasure of stories;
for naming again
what had been named –
that snakes in courses
of knowledge and lore
Canberrans go to great lengths to remind other Australians that although the city is the seat of Parliament, this doesn’t make politics central to their lives. As Les Murray has it in ‘The Canberra Remnant’, residents are occupied with other things, ‘safe from the Government of the Day’. Hetherington navigates this paradox by giving politics a peripheral seat, his poems more often returning to larger questions: Where are the fault lines between Canberra’s landscapes and its residents? When do these landscapes lose out? And where is Canberra’s Indigenous history in its comfortably urbanised present?
Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
haiturograms by Dave Drayton
SOd Press, 2016
Dave Drayton’s Haiturograms is a brief but confounding volume, available as a free PDF download and print-to-order book from Sydney-based SOd press. Like Drayton’s other work, HaiturogramS is driven by formal constraint and innovation within that constraint.
One of its most immediately apparent features is Drayton’s explicitly concrete treatment of pagination and typography, in tandem with combinations of letters that often don’t elicit a morpheme and, more rarely yet, produce coherent words or phrases. Such prominent attention to form over meaning suggests a highly procedural poetics, a poetics of applied machination. That appearance gives rise to recollection of the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets, or even perhaps uncreative writing like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, and their playful (to some, infuriating) confrontations with convention. The anagram-like appearance of some sequences at the margins of Haiturograms and the repetition of certain sounds within the body of the poems particularly brings to mind the Oulipoean poetics of writers like Christian Bök.
Like much of Bök’s work, Drayton’s haiturograms are dominated by extreme disruption of syntax and grammar. Despite this, his ongoing distressing of the formal environment throws up flashes of lyric intensity, like ‘one sobs, main echo stabs one’ in ‘iii.’ (No titles are provided so I’m following the numbers, though there’s also an argument to be made that what I’m referring to here as a distinct poem is actually just the fourth part of one continuous work). Particularly notable in what for the most part reads like a free flow of games, fragments and pointedly playful not-narratives, is the sometimes startling impact the introduction of an ‘I’ can have, for example in ‘v.’:
STIDEON we, this tide on a street
SONEIDT I, when I do stare, stew
DOTSINE this one I’d test raw
TONESID the idiots enter as white dots in Easter
ASTRE I don’t set one’s id
The (false) sense of a narrative purpose is tangible as soon as that lone pronoun appears; not only in the context of verbs like ‘I stew’, lending personality to the subject, but also tangentially, with the implication that ‘the idiots’ who enter have been designated such by that same (judgmental, scathing) subject. This is a powerful demonstration of how the need for a sense of human identity with which to relate, can influence our ability to make sense of – or engage with – a work of art.
The combination of lyric effect and formal phenomena in Haiturograms leaves the reader in a confounding place, particularly in the broader context of constraint-driven experiments like those mentioned above. Indeed, is this work procedural? If so, what is the procedure? As mentioned, at times there appear to be multiple variations of anagrams present, but without clear consistency. At other points, aesthetically pleasing lines emerge, but with a prevalence so rare as to constitute failure if they are the procedure’s purpose.
To interrogate these poems further, I decided to go outside the text. Not far outside, but to other work of Drayton’s: the poem ‘Rough’. Again there is a procedural nature to the work, one both more immediately inviting to the act of decoding – given the greater prevalence of whole words and phrases – but also more confounding for those phrases’ failure to consistently produce complete, sensible sentences. But is meaning-making a fair criterion? After all, grammar and sentence structure are hardly things we expect of poems. But are these even poems? Why doesn’t Drayton use titles? Or are titles to be found in some of the combinations of letters in the margin?
Such questions naturally arise, but they do little to help with analysing whether these poems work. Are they good poems, on their own terms? If they are procedural or uncreative, do we need to read them if we’ve already read Goldsmith? Uncreative writing seems a celebration of the process of writing itself; is writing with no need of a product or purpose. Goldsmith’s wilful manual duplication of a newspaper, for example, intentionally traps the writing. Process as nothing more (or less) than that process. But is that what Drayton is doing here? And if so, why read it?
These haiturograms can be ‘read’ entirely visually, yet are so difficult to make intelligible at a glance as to effectively function as unread(able) visual works, being / appearing rather than meaning. They can also be sounded out, read for what remnants of meaning they contain. As noted, Drayton’s uncollected work like ‘Rough’ is even more susceptible to the latter approach, given the prevalence of whole words and phrases. Yet even there the poem again slips away, the ‘lines’ never quite matching up. It’s curious too that ‘Rough’ is published in Plumwood Mountain, a journal of ecopoetics. Is this to say it is an ecopoem? And if so, is this also true of the haiturograms? Clearly that answer depends on a definition of ecopoetics. One interpretation of the term might be that it’s poetry (or art more broadly) which engages with or is ‘about’ one or more ecologies; how meaning, or at least aesthetic apprehension, is made of or with (or against, or by) ecologies. Given we are all the product of and inhabitants within one or more ecologies, the formally disruptive character of these poems argues for the notion that they are all informed by ecopoetics; we all of us are subjects to and observers of the formal conventions of writing, and therefore our ability to describe and apprehend in writing, to aestheticise and perceive our environments, is shaped by those conventions. In a further, meta-system sense, the distortions of grammar, syntax and word relation in Haiturograms act not unlike a reordering of an ecological set of relations, or its dissolution. What remains is the matter, the physical meat of the language and the opportunity to rewire those relations.
Asking questions like ‘why these letters?’, ‘is this a title?’, ‘what the fuck am I supposed to make of these clusters of letters that appear to hold significance for someone?’, draws attention to the materiality of language, to the experience of letters and writing as a place we inhabit. This may well be the most purely ecopoetic of ecopoetics, highlighting how writing more than any other art form can engage with and expose the nature of its own ecology; an ecopoetics about the ecology of writing itself. Drayton’s marks on the page only create meaning within a habitat, a culture. Their disruption, fragmentation, stammering start and restart of shards of that culture say multitudes about the condition of that ecology and of ourselves.
The term haiturogram, as far as I can tell, is Drayton’s neologism that appears to contextualise and contrast itself with heterograms – a form in which no letter appears more than once. By contrast, haiturograms appear to be ruled by slow change (evolution perhaps) within a semi-limited set: each opening line contains a base selection of letters, most of which are retained in each iteration within the individual poem, with enough substituted out and in to eventually achieve transformation. For example, the first five lines of the opening page:
i. ion stars
ii. a this on
iii. chase to sea
iv. tackier rack
v. type on rot
i. instore death
ii. one acts
iii. tradies once
iv. is thank cue
v. is acute
vi. deaf stove
vii. hour set
i. at silent
ii. our teeth
iii. what elk is
iv. say no to us
v. we this tide
Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003 by Alan Loney
UWAP Poetry, 2016
The publication of these notebooks completes the series that begins with Sidetracks – Notebooks 1976-1991 (Auckland University Press, 1998) and ends with Crankhandle – Notebooks November 2010-June 2012 (Cordite Books, 2015), the latter winning the Victoria Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry 2016. Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003 is divided into seven sections of between two months and two years. Three threads dominate my reading of Alan Loney’s notebooks of the period: use of the fragment; the self and its relationship with writing; and observations of the world and what impact they have.
Loney’s work celebrates the fragment. This postmodern trope has been a constant of his writing career and is perhaps even more noticeable in this volume than others. The brevity of many of the entries here, some lineated and others in prose, speaks of the unfinished. He also makes new use of the sequence, another favoured structure.
From the first page the writing evokes a sense of dislocation. This is balanced by the links between the fragments of poetry, of thought and discussion, which speak in diverse ways as the strophes of the whole. The fragments are enough to signify that they go together to make up something; though, at first, we’re not sure what. As well as the idea of the book, which endures throughout Loney’s writing, aging is an important preoccupation here. One section of prose breaks off: ‘I have made no provision whatever for my later life’, and is followed by:
but the woman there tells me I have
no accent, and nor does she, a
Melburnian who lived in Europe
a few years. That’s it then –
unidentifiable by sound
(October 1998-May 1999)
Whilst Loney expresses an avowed discomfort at new places, there is a desire for a new start (December 2002-July 2003), and Melbourne seems to represent this.
What appeals most about the arrangement of pieces in Melbourne Journal is the way they speak to each other; the way Loney, a master of juxtaposition, uses the sequence to create novel connections. In Sidetracks – Notebooks 1976-1991, he breaks the word ‘juxta-position’ across stanzas to emphasise particularity in a memorable way. He continues such inclinations in the latest collection, on a more structural level. For example, one eccentric description of three people exchanging a roll of bank notes is counterpointed with ‘what a supremely oral culture we are’ (October 1998-May 1999), as if to comment on the story-making qualities of the scenario described and the poet’s own ‘telling’ of it—but with a dash of irony since the characters weren’t reported as speaking.
The book’s movement from prose to poetry is often a happy one, in terms of achieving diversity in narrative voice. Sequences such as the following throw wide open the process of narrative formation in the mind of the reader:
I am living, house-minding for a few days, in a dwelling owned by a successful
middle-class family, in which there is not one thing, no picture, no piece of furniture,
plate, glass, cup or vase that I would choose for my own use
a swarm of tiny flies in the evening sunlight: they move at such speed it’s a wonder
they are not in continual collision with each other
Michelle Anderson: “the type in this book’s too big for words”
his walk is a bit lanky, loose about the shoulders, with a perceptible sway or swing
about it. She is upright, brisk and business-like, a crisp quick body alongside his
(Melbourne May-December 2001)
Here, the strophes of the poem are constantly in collision with one another. Why do they occupy the same page? The comment about the flies might reflect on the house where Loney was house-sitting, or the flies in some way mirror the disconnections of modern life. Does the third fragment comment on the first in some way? Does the fourth contextualise the others? Is the man described a new character, or the author disguised? Perhaps the fragmented sequence reflects thinking processes. Much of Loney’s writing emphasises the idiolect, a form of speech specific to each voice; it may be evoked by any stream-of-consciousness writing or work which allows the disjunctions of thinking to exist on the page.
Monday, March 6th, 2017
Deluxe Paperweight by Holly Isemonger
premium pastoral poetry by Jessica Cham
Holly Isemonger’s Deluxe Paperweight is a mixed bag. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it does make it difficult to write a concise review – one that provides the reader with an objective overview of the book’s contents, while simultaneously sprinkling throughout an appropriate serve of salty criticisms or sweet praises, depending on the reviewer’s palate; these remarks being, in the end, entirely personal judgements. What I ultimately want to convey to you is that the poems collected here are not all good and not all bad, but demonstrate genuine promise and wit, and that the mixed-bagginess mentioned above is probably intentional, though this doesn’t automatically excuse said mixed-bagginess. Saying that much is easy; what’s difficult is to explain why Deluxe Paperweight works, and why it doesn’t.
First, the chapbook is oddly structured. There are six sections and six distinctly different kinds of poems. Beginning with a series of ‘Reviews’ of films by Lars von Trier, Isemonger then turns to more conventional poetic forms with three ‘sad witch psalms ;(’, followed by a series of rearranged poems called ‘Hip Shifts’. Next is ‘Free Online Translation Service’, in which the author copy-pastes a paragraph through an online translator multiple times in order to jumble up the syntax until, in the final iteration, the passage is unintelligible (or at least I assume this is the case, since I can’t know for certain – it could be that Isemonger has manipulated the paragraph herself so that it appears to have been translated and poorly retranslated again and again). The longest section consists of three ‘Failed screenplays’, and the final piece, titled ‘Five Obstructions’ after the von Trier documentary of the same name, is a poem comprised entirely of questions. Intercut between these six poetic works are three comic-book-inspired pieces of visual art, made up of screenshots from various films, television programs, and paintings.
The first recurring technique that links these disparate works together appears to be ekphrasis: a rather unfortunate word for a rather nifty literary device. Film acts as a central motif throughout Isemonger’s poetry, though she is ultimately more concerned with the viewer’s private experience than with the filmmaker’s art. The poems in Deluxe Paperweight observe people who are themselves observing (and who are, in some cases, aware they are being observed). Thus, Isemonger remarks in her ‘review’ of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves that she ‘wouldn’t watch beyond the following frame if it weren’t for the handsome man’, and describes in ‘Hip Shifts’ trolling ‘the gallery for art that resembled life’. The prose poem ‘Free Online Translation Service’ begins with a description of a character recalling her experience watching an unnamed film:
If you ask her about the favourite part of her trip she will put her hand on her chin and look up, close her eyes and think of a film she watched at home in bed with an old boyfriend; a man ate canned pineapple, he ran around and around in circles to sweat out his tears, so he would stop being sad. (6)
The images Isemonger describes are provided without narrative context: the emphasis is on the recollection of the visual stimuli. This is perhaps why the three artworks in Deluxe Paperweight focus predominantly on images of different optical forms, from extreme close-ups of eyeballs, to a pair of binoculars, the lens of a camera, and the view through a peephole.
Reading Isemonger’s poetry, I am reminded of the feminist notion of the male gaze: indeed, several of her images are taken from John Berger’s BBC series Ways of Seeing (1972), which criticises the predominance of the male perspective in traditional Western cultural aesthetics. There appears to be a tension within the poems between Isemonger’s struggle to interrupt the hegemony of the male gaze and the need to incorporate its products into her work (all the images are taken from films by male directors or paintings by male artists). To subvert this, Isemonger turns to self-reflection; the mirror – recalling the vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries – becomes an important symbol of the feminine subject’s fragmentation via her re-presentation in male-oriented media. In ‘Failed Screenplay (Rom Com)’, a ‘version’ of the poet addresses this problem directly:
I cannot write the screenplay (looks up and locks eyes with herself in the mirror) and I’ll tell you why! (in the voice of Werner Herzog)
Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity – a fiendish stupidity (swivels in chair to address the camera) sometimes I write about me (gestures toward the mirror) sometimes I write about versions of me (yells) HOLLY!
Isemonger flits between flippancy and earnestness in her approach to this theme. There’s a double duality to her work, both in its tone and in its effort to balance literary art against so-called ‘low’ art, such as genre cinema, selfies, and Internet emojis; an idea that seems to be expressed in the chapbook’s humorous title: Deluxe Paperweight.
The tone in Jessica Cham’s premium pastoral poetry – a short work by another new poet – is similarly difficult to parse. Like Isemonger, Cham’s poetry is juxtaposed against images, though here they appear to be the author’s original photographs. The poem is written seemingly as part of an email to independent filmmaker, musician, and actor Vincent Gallo. Cham’s language is often playful, incorporating puns (‘oh de toilette’ (1)), surreal imagery (‘a tremendous exhale that swells / to the size of a balloon’ (2)), and jokes: ‘the only way you can move forward huh huh huh / is to recollect the sum total / of hugh grants acting range’ (3)). As the poem concludes, Cham becomes more direct—the underlying sensibilities of the poem seem to burst out into the open all of a sudden:
Ok so if u remove the fragmented syntax from
choreographed dance what is a difference
Between ur dance and an act of inexplicable dance
I don’t get it and i fuckin hate ur practise
The work didn’t make sense and i hate her
personally like am i meant to feel sympathy for her
Cham shares Isemonger’s ekphrastic response to cinema, though it’s unclear whether Cham is addressing Gallo’s ‘work’ or someone else’s. Regardless, the sense of outrage remains largely the same either way – it reads like the secret argument you might have with yourself after visiting a bad art exhibit. There’s also the possibility that the above lines are intended as a kind of auto-criticism; Cham may be pre-empting the responses to her own work making it (like Deluxe Paperweight) all the more challenging to review. And both Isemonger and Cham use their self-awareness as a technique for satirising the dominance of the male gaze: ‘i have been tested installed and serviced for maximum performance and u should mount me on the wall to mark market economic value’.
Isemonger goes a step further, however, in her investigation of the transformative relationship between language and digital technology. This is where the chapbook shows the most promise but also ends up being the most disappointing. Isemonger’s experiments with language do not ultimately amount to much. ‘Hip Shifts’, where the poet rearranges three apparently unconnected stanzas of poetry, is reminiscent of the ‘Kenosha Kid’ passage of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), though Isemonger doesn’t advance Thomas Pynchon’s linguistic experiment in any significant way. ‘Free Online Translation Service’ is much of the same. The use of an online translator to jumble up the sentence structure is reminiscent of the formal experiments of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets such as Charles Bernstein, but Isemonger’s poem doesn’t appear to add much to this aging tradition. You get the sense that something is trying to be worked out here; what that is exactly is difficult to locate. The final result is to make the poem more cryptic, though not necessarily more meaningful or interesting: ‘Eyes do not love, an old friend in bed at home, feeling stalls, or sweat, tears, pineapple round’.
Still, Deluxe Paperweight is worth a look. Holly Isemonger is a promising new talent and it will be interesting to see her art develop from here. Though this chapbook doesn’t achieve the full potential of its ideas, Isemonger manages to showcase a surprisingly broad range for such a short collection. But this is not quite a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none situation; Deluxe Paperweight is a challenging though flawed introduction to a new artist, whose future projects will likely overshadow this one.