Looking Gift Horses in the Mouth

Morgan Parker, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (Switchback Books 2015)
Mindy Nettifee, Sleepyhead Assassins (Moon Tide Press 2006)
Mindy Nettifee, Rise of the Trust Fall (Write Bloody Publishing 2010)

These three books don’t have a lot in common besides being written by young US women and having been given to me as gifts. They do have a lot going for them, but I’m not their ideal reviewer: my experience of reading each of them wasn’t a million miles away from how I felt recently when I was almost completely unamused by a French rom com in a theatre full of laughing people. Horses for courses.

The equivalents of the laughing cinema-goers were the books’ extravagant blurb-writers.

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Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night was a gift from a Book Group member who had just spent a couple of weeks in Brooklyn. On its back cover Eileen Myles (on whom the formidable poet character in Transparent is based) says of Morgan Parker’s poems, in part:

They make me high and think like this: Her mind and her thoughts can go anywhere in a poem. She pulls us up short, and when she says ‘the sky the sky’ I feel that expanse … I start taking notes: She is making a map of what human can be … she’s raucous and engaged … indeterminate, visceral … collisions … these are full adventures in scale. There are piles of masterpieces here.

Um, you might be less enthusiastic than Eileen Myles if you’ve never watched an episode of Real Housewives of Anywhere or followed a Miss Black America competition with or without hipster irony, and aren’t titillated by titles like ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity’ or ‘On Children, How I Hate Them and Want to Corrupt Them, How You Know I Hate Them, and What That Could Mean’. But the book is alive and vigorous and smart, with plenty of sharp observations about sexism and racism (Morgan Parker is African American). It’s coolly literate, with reference points including Gwendolyn Brooks, Bill Murray, Roy Lichtenstein, Jay Z, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. My impression is that the poems are meant for performance rather than for the page.

I went searching for some lines to give you a taste, and wanted do do it with no expletives or references to drugs or alcohol. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was interesting to notice how hard it was, and then I gave up. The shortest poem in the book, with its echo of Nina Simone, hints at an urge to break out of the dominant mode:

Young, Sassy and Black
I use these words
to distract you.

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The two Mindy Nettifee books were given to me by a niece who loved them (though evidently not enough to keep them). Sleepyhead Assassins features some of the most extreme blurbs you’re likely ever to encounter, presumably written by Nettifee’s friends before Donald Trump gave hyperbole a really bad name. Amélie Frank, for example, writes:

She’s poetry’s fierce guardian angel and every poseur’s worst nightmare. She’s goddess energy built for speed. […] Reading her work will give your soul a jump start that will smart for weeks. Prepare to have your molecules rearranged.

I don’t suppose any book could deliver on that promise, so it’s no disgrace that this one doesn’t. These poems are definitely meant for the stage rather than the page: they bristle with bravado and bravura, with striking similes and clever turns of phrase, evoking a clicking audience rather than a solitary reflective reader. The poems that most appeal to me are a little more reflective, especially the ones about Nettifee’s father, who we learn had a tragic life. In ‘The Time Machine Paradox’ she imagines travelling back in time to visit his mother:

i want to give her black stockings and rust red lipstick.
i want to loose her curls and numb her better judgment.
i want to say, Audrey, and show her how it could sound.

maybe, if she could have lived her life, just for a night,
i wouldn’t be here. my father wouldn’t suffer.
none of us would feel this way. instead i would be

just a possibility, a ghost, gathered with other ghosts
at the Armageddon lemonade stand.
i’d be the one that remembered the sugar.

That doesn’t rearranges my molecules, but it does linger after I turn the page.

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Rise of the Trust Fall comes with more sober but no less Trumpian recommendations. The LA litzine Poetic Diversity says simply:

Mindy Nettifee is destined to be the next Dorothy Parker.

Of course it’s no shame not to be Dorothy Parker. Hardly anybody ever has been. Mindy Nettifee isn’t, and I don’t think she aspires to be: too loquacious, too earnest beneath the veneer of cool, and no rhymes; nothing anything like Parker’s sublime ‘Resumé’ (do look it up).

The poetry in this book is boldly self-revealing: alcohol, recreational and prescription drugs, plenty of sex, nightmares, pop music, childhood memories, heartbreak, bodily functions, all are there along with an occasional touch of epigram (‘Every woman’s closet is a museum of her insecurities’). It’s unfailingly sharp and inventive, sometimes shocking: sure to be a hit at a Spoken Word event. For me though, reading it was more like reading a screenplay than seeing a movie.

There are moments where the words connect. For example, in ‘The Connection between God and Nature Beats Me over the Head with its Earthy Mallet’ (what is it with these long titles?) the city-dweller misses the stars. She chooses the city:

It’s a choice that makes itself for me
every time I am rescued by the warm clotted glow of art galleries;
by the imitation of Django Reinhardt that is really not that bad,
strumming rakishly out of the mood lit punk bar;
by the David Bowie juke-boxing the punchy patrons
at the cheaper bar down the street.

In the absence of starlight
you start looking for the shine in everything.

I can easily imagine Morgan Parker and Mindy Nettifee being sensational presence at Spoken Word events, each in her own way. On the page they’re both a bit too shouty and/or sweary for me. 

Ken Bolton’s London Journal London Poem

Ken Bolton, London Journal London Poem (Vagabond  Press 2015)

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There are just two poems in this book. In the first, ‘London Postcard – A Quiet Morning at the Wapping Project’, which is 24 lines long, the speaker describes the image of a woman on a postcard advertising what may be a film, and ruminates:

The fictive life of the tourist‘? Or would
I feel this way about this image
anywhere?

The words in purple are in italics in the book – it’s the best equivalent I can figure out in WordPress. The italics seem to signify that the phrase is a quote, but quote or not, it’s a nice way of naming a habit of mind common among tourists – a tendency to make up stories about things you see while passing through, or to see patterns in them. A couple of lines later the speaker rephrases that idea:

I attend to her in the idle moment.

The second poem, ‘London Journal’, begins with a reference to the first poem:

I have an intuition, that maybe that
particular poem – very short –
could serve to hang this – or anyway ‘a’ –
longer poem from. And this is by way
of being that long poem.

I’ll rush in where a proper critic might fear to tread, and say that this longer poem (more than 200 five-line stanzas) enacts touristic fictivity (if that’s a word): it attends to many details in a time that, however busy, could be described as an extended idle moment, a time spent being a tourist.

The speaker and his partner Cath are visiting her son Gabe and his partner Stacey in London, with excursions to Berlin and Barcelona. Tourist destinations  – the Brandenburg Gate, for example, or the Miro Museum – are mentioned, but so are tiny particuliarities of the travelling life: an odd show on television (Pointless as it happens); the book you’re reading; a quest for a strange place someone has told you about, and the anticlimax when you finally find it (a ‘fanatics’ ping-pong club’ in East Berlin); street signs and advertisements that are unsettlingly unfamiliar; evidence of poverty and the problematic status of immigrants; restaurants and bars; encounters with locals; information about the work life of one’s host (in this case, Gabe); lots of people-watching: pieces of a giant puzzle that are fun to play with but are unlikely ever to form a unified image. There are poetry readings, and an occasional moment when Bolton’s colonial status is made clear to him – maybe. The travellers go to museums and art galleries. It doesn’t take a lot of Web research to find out that Bolton is an art historian, but one doesn’t feel obliged to understand all his ruminations on the art he sees – enough for me at least to enjoy the way his experience as tourist connects with his abiding interests.

There’s a scattering of photographs, some of them blurry, as if to emphasise that this is a journal. And a scattering  of lines refer to the process of writing the poem, wondering if it will come together – yes, it’s also a poem.

Scanning for something to quote to give you a taste, I keep coming back to this at Canary Wharf:

of power and judgement. Shopping, food, all take place
underground: no-one seen outside. At lunchtime
vast crowds are disgorged below, moving at speed

to their destinations – all very much suited (men and women),
largely under 35, dressed in black for the most part: very
Brave New World, and much whiter than the general population
(only 45% of London identify as white anglosaxon).
We go with Gabe to a Jamie’s Italian. Good food.

Very noisy. In the toilets I come across a middle-aged,
middle-management type, seemingly doing an Al Jolson
‘Mammy’ impersonation, to the hand-dryer – down on one knee,
both hands smacking his chest, then flung out – Drying
his shirt front
, he tells me. I think for a moment

of joining him – ‘Mammy, how I loves ya, how I loves ya!’
etcetera. I nod encouragement.

In an excellent review in Cordite Poetry Review, Cameron Lowe suggests that ‘London Journal’ is a parody of a travel poem. He may be right, but ‘parody’ suggests a kind of formal imitation and/or mockery. There’s plenty of self consciousness about form and plenty of humour – like the photograph described as ‘Stacey with the author’, which appears to include only a solitary young woman, until you see half an arm almost lost in the page’s gutter. But I had no sense of a ‘proper’ travel poem that this was referring to. It’s just good fun, and interesting, in its own right.

In his elegant speech at the launch of Puncher & Wattman’s Contemporary Australian Poetry, David Malouf observed that while the poetry scene in Australia is extraordinarily vibrant in terms of the amount and quality of poetry being published, at the same time what he calls common readers have been turning away from poetry as if it is a foreign land, possibly because poetry has been turning away from them.

I think of myself as a common reader. And I want to say to other common readers: you can pick up this book without fear of being snubbed or made to feel somehow lacking. Cameron Lowe put it very well:

The poems here – as in Bolton’s other work – appear to imply that the process of writing poetry is an everyday activity (even while on holiday).

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites at the Book Group & November Verse 14

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)

burial-rites.jpg Before the meeting: This book is based on the real story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, an event that happened in 1830. My knowledge of Iceland, which comes mainly from photographs of stark, beautiful, treeless landscapes and Grímur Hákonarson’s movie Rams, led me to expect that any novel set there would be grim. So a novel culminating an execution could only be more so.

Grim or not, I loved it. I’ve raved about it to people met in the park, and barely restrained myself from reading bits aloud to the Emerging Artist (now known as the Heart Lady, but that’s another story).

At the beginning Agnes, convicted of brutally murdering her employer, is being transferred from one place of imprisonment to another. She is filthy, malodorous and barely able to speak. (Interestingly, her condition at the beginning of the novel bears a striking resemblance to that of the women towards the end of Charlottte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I imagine was being written at the same time as this.) While awaiting execution, she is sent as a cost-saving measure to live with the family of a local official who lives near the planned place of execution.

The main narrative follows Agnes’ developing relationships with members of the host family: father, mother and two young adult daughters. At first the family are convincingly and reasonably horrified that they will have to share their house with this monster, though right from their first encounter the mother of the household is even more horrified at the way Agnes has been treated. A young trainee clergyman is assigned to attend to Agnes’ spiritual needs. Against the advice and instructions of his superiors, he refrains from preaching sternly at her and instead encourages her to talk to him. Because of the size of their dwelling and the bitter Icelandic winter, the family hear much of what passes between them, and we learn her story along with them. As you’d expect from the set-up, in the process they come to see her not as a monster but as a fellow human – more a servant than a prisoner.

All of that is beautifully done, though the story Agnes tells, a story of love betrayed, is less compelling than the circumstances of its telling. And then there is the narration told direct to the reader from Agnes’ point of view. This is where we learn Agnes’ inner story – the erotic experiences that she can’t speak of, and her emotional life. In these sections Hannah Kent’s writing, never less than elegant elsewhere, is rich and poetic without being hi-falultin, so that I for one was completely drawn in. I don’t remember ever being so caught up by a deft use of similes. Here’s a passage from fairly early on, when Agnes has begun to work again,  trusted to use a scythe:

I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

It’s a good feeling, not quite being in control. Of being gently swung back and forth, until I forget what it is to be still. Like being with Natan in the first months when my heartbeat shuddered through me and I could have died, I was so happy to be desired.

The book’s power has something to do with the strong sense of a particular time and place. The world-building, to borrow a term from SF/F discourse, is extraordinarily convincing. In her acknowledgements, Hannah Kent says she set out to write a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. She has succeeded in spades.

The meeting: As it was the last meeting of the year, we ate at the new (to most of us) Tramsheds in Glebe, and gave each other gift-wrapped books from our shelves. As always in restaurants, the background noise was a dampener in general conversation. But we all enjoyed the book. Someone compared it unfavourably to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, saying that at times Burial Rites broke free of its early 19th Century Icelandic setting and resorted to tropes from 20th century romance fiction. Specifically, if I understood him correctly, Agnes’s internalised sense of the master–servant relationship vanished too easily and was replaced by an anachronistic expectation of romantic love and fidelity. In general we could see what he meant. Likewise, we all agreed when someone said that it was obvious what was going to happen from the very beginning: the family would soften towards Agnes, and her story as it emerged would reveal either innocence or major extenuating circumstances. Neither of these criticisms dampened the general enthusiasm for the book.

There were some mostly audible, goosebump-inducing readings of passages our Post-it warrior had marked.

Then we cheerfully turned away from the spartan, claustrophobic and bitterly cold world of the novel and enjoyed a meat-heavy meal in a flash new restaurant whose menu names the farms that provide the animals they serve up to their customers.

The verse, my last for this November: 

November Verse 14: The Book Group Chooses What to Read Next
Ben stands and says he must be going:
‘Shall we decide the next book now?’
‘No time for all the to and fro-ing
before you leave,’ says Ian. That’s how
just seven of us made the vital
choice of our next book group title.
Not Watson’s Bush, that’s far too long,
not more Houellebecq, that’s just wrong.
No to Solnits, Coetzee, Gorton.
Steve says, ‘How about Don Juan?
I mean Quixote. That’s a yarn
I’d like to read.’ That one caught on.
And after complex back and forth
we lit on Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth.

AWW2016Burial Rites is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Vaughan & Guerra’s Y: The Last Man Books 3–5 and my November Verse 13

Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man Book 3 (2004, 2005, this edition 2010)
—, Y: The Last Man Book 4 (2005, 2006, this edition 2010)
—, Y: The Last Man Book 5 (2006–2008, this edition 2011)

Previously in Y: Yorick, a 23 year old New Yorker escape artist, and Ampersand, a trainee-companion monkey, are the only two male mammals on earth to have survived a mysterious plague. They have teamed up with the woman known only as 355, who is a member of the Culper Ring, a mysterious organisation, and Dr Alison Mann, who has ben experimenting with clone technology and so has a good chance of ensuring a future for humankind. Dr Mann’s New York lab is blown up by Israeli operatives, and the three of them travel across the US to her West Coast lab where her back-up data is safe, encountering an assortment of female post-apocalyptic enemies and allies: the Israelis, a Russian operative, survivalists, escaped convicts making a new life, an astronaut, paranoid cowgirls. Yorick’s sister, Hero, has meanwhile joined a group of neo-Amazons who are fanatically and violently determined to erase all vestiges of the patriarchy. And Yorick has a personal mission, to meet up with his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australian when the plague hit and has since been out of contact.

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The adventure continues in Book 3 with plenty of violence, and a modicum of sex. It turns out that the Australian navy had women active in submarines where the US did not. As a result a fully armed and dangerous Collins Class sub intercepts the ship taking our little band across the Pacific. Australia also comes to the fore as we get some of Beth’s story. There’s some deeply worrisome representations of Warlpiri culture (though you have to give Bruce Vaughan credit for actually naming a people rather than giving us generic mystical ‘Aborigines’ like the ones in Werner Herzog’s Green Ant Dreaming).

Goran Sudžuka joins Pia Guerra in the pencilling, and to my untrained eye the seams are invisible.

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In Book 4, Yorick, Dr Mann and agent 335 reach Australia, which isn’t a happy place, though there’s plenty of amusing US attempts at Australian slang, and some cheerful sex and one bit of comic full frontal male nudity (poor Yorick is drawn looking all heroic on the covers, but doesn’t fare so well in the actual stories).

We also get the back stories of a number of characters, and lectures on the status of women that in any other context might be tediously didactic, but here have a certain charm. For example, there’s a key plot point when two capuchin monkeys escape from their cages in an airport. This is how we see it:

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And the readers respond by secretly cheering for the ‘gendercide’ that is to come. Similar moments, such as a short debate about whether the mistreatment of women in the Catholic Church was perpetrated solely by men, or whether women might have been pretty bad as well, turn out to be important to the plot.

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Then in Book 5 it all comes together – or apart, depending on your point of view. Yorick finds Beth and their reunion turns out pretty much as the discerning reader might have expected. There’s another romance that also turns out pretty much as expected, though in a way that surprised and, yes, shocked me. In fact, the working out of all the plot strands is almost at the level of Shakespearean comedy. Of the many hypotheses that have been floated about the cause of the catastrophe, the one that is finally given may not be realistic but it fits the world of the story better than any other: at least grounds have been laid for it.

It all ends happily for the human race, though almost literally up in the air for Yorick himself.

One more note: It seems to me that a successful comic series has to have a certain amount of sex and violence. Y does that. It also manages to be witty, literate and occasionally instructive. Yorick and his sister Hero were named after Shakespearean characters by their nerdy parents. When it seems one woman is going to have to spend time in hospital, Yorick draws up a reading list for her – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale  is at the top of the list. It’s similarly refreshing that one of the characters becomes President in the final pages but not, it turns out, of the USA: in this comic, other countries exist.

And let me burst into verse, for the second last time this November. Extra points for readers who spot the Bill Haley reference.

November Verse 13: On Reading Y: The Last Man
Alas poor Yorick, last man standing!
Two male mammals left alive
on earth, just him and Ampersand, an
ape, his kind-of pet. These five
thick comic books by Vaughan and Guerra,
amuse and tease, prompt pity, terror.
A single man left on the ground,
three billion women all around.
But here’s no superhero fiction,
no Bacchanal or things more blue,
no Warhol shooter’s dream come true,
no earnest SF clone prediction,
just good fun: the men are dead,
that’s sad, but what a watershed!

November Verse 12

When you’re casting about for a subject suitable for rhyme and a deadline has just whizzed past, there’s always the TV news.

November Verse 12: 
Pauline took some journos diving
with senators and camera crews.
She said the Reef will soon be thriving:
so much for the lying views
of scientists and their self-serving
leftwing UN undeserving
dupes; if you dive deep enough
you’ll see that coral’s much more tough
than warmists claim. And here’s the kicker:
the ABC led with this story
and called it news, dragged out a hoary
beige-clad chap to contradict her.
A joke? But headlining this prank
makes other ‘sceptics’ seem less rank. 

Antigone Kefala’s Fragments, and my Verse 11

Antigone Kefala, Fragments (Giramondo 2016)

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The final issue of Ivor Indyk’s literary journal Heat, published an astonishing 6 years ago, included an interview of Antigone Kefala by Amanda Simons. The conversation ranges widely, from Kefala’s ‘scribbling’ in her childhood home in Romania before World War 2, over the role her mother played in her creative life, to the critical isolation that comes from being classified as an ‘ethnic’ writer. She says this about poetry:

It is a medium that has its own directions. It comes when it wants to come, doesn’t come when it doesn’t want to come. You can never force it, you have to wait for it.

Fragments is a collection of 61 poems that feel absolutely unforced in that way, almost as if each poem catches an unbidden thought, or dream, or observation, or burst of emotion, and finds a precise form of words for it. If they are fragments of some greater unity, the book is not concerned to find that unity, or to explain contexts, but invites us to focus on each fragment in its own right. Take the first poem:

The Voice
At the sound
I turned
my veins full of ice
that travelled
at high speed
releasing fire.

This return
the past attacking
unexpectedly
in the familiar streets.

The speaker hears a voice from her past. Perhaps it’s associated with a terrible memory, or it might remind her of the voice of a loved one who has died. The poem isn’t interested in the specifics, nor in what happened next. Did the speaker approach the owner of the voice, did she go about her day as if nothing had happened or was she shaken to the core? The poem doesn’t go anywhere near these questions. It focuses tightly on the moment of hearing, and renders it with wonderful precision and complexity: there are the explicit images of ice and fire, and possibly an implied reference to the kinds of warfare that turns city streets into war zones. It’s not ‘difficult’ poetry, but it rewards you for time spent in its company.

The poems, only a handful of them much longer than the first, are divided into five sections. Here’s my guess at their organising principles:

  1. a thematic introduction: poems of memory and loss, dream renderings, observations of social life, dark love poems
  2. evocations of places, mainly Australian, including a scene from the movie Wake in Fright
  3. poems of grief, loss and impending loss
  4. dreams and visions, surrealism and metaphysics
  5. social poems – quick character sketches, satirical jabs, laments, a little politics.

In the Heat interview, Antigone Kefala observes that ‘we ethnics are constantly being compared to other ethnics, but not to Australian writers’, and asks if her interviewer has ever seen a comparison between her work and that of Les Murray. Well, perhaps with that quote working at the back of my mind, I found myself making just such a comparison. Here’s her poem ‘Weapons’ – I hope it’s OK to quote it in full:

Weapons
Ruins
corpses in the sun
men moving cautiously
in the abandoned streets
close to the scarred walls.
Men on top of houses, hills,
coming from dark undergrounds,
men holding on, hugging
these metal erections
firing them
a spray of semen
rushing with velocity
to breed another race of killers.

The evocation of the battle-zone is followed by what at first looks like crude, even trite feminist anti-war rhetoric – the gun as phallic symbol – which becomes almost shockingly explicit with the ‘spray of semen’, and then is brought home in the powerful last line: this isn’t just emotive rhetoric, there’s ta strong idea here.

The poem reminded me of Les Murray’s ‘I wrote a Little Haiku‘, which similarly compares bullets to semen. In Murray’s poem, the molten bullets drip from a burning farm rail, and he sees the drip as ‘the size of wasted semen / it had annulled before’. It’s the visual image that counts: one’s response is to admire the poet’s mental agility in seeing such a comparison: the notion that the bullets had ‘annulled’ real semen when they were fired in the past – that is, they had killed young men and so prevented them from fathering children – is almost a melancholy afterthought. In Kefala, the visual image matters, but the force of the poem is in its idea. We’re not invited to admire her cleverness, so much as to dwell on what she has unearthed.

Oddly, the comparisons that came to mind most strongly as I read this book are with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both of whom have grappled with ageing in their recent work – Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’ for example, or Cohen’s heartbreaking ‘I’m Leaving the Table’. Kefala too brings a ruthless eye to the experience of ageing, and at the same time, like those two writers (in other ways very different from her), conveys a deep joy in living and creating. I love the bitter-sweet final lines of the book’s last poem, ‘Metro Cellist’:

we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

AWW2016Fragments is the thirteenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my free copy.
—–
As my regular readers will know, I have a self-imposed task of writing fourteen 14-line verses each November and putting them up on my blog. I was going to let this post go by to avoid putting any of my verse on the same page as Antigone Kefala’s infinitely superior work, but then I read her saying in the Heat interview that she could not write a sonnet: ‘You know how writers do exercises in terms of poetic forms; I have never been able to do that.’ Perhaps one day I’ll outgrow my attachment to the form of the Onegin stanza, but for now, here’s one more, an attempt to explain the joys of this attachment:

November Verse 11: 
A turn of phrase, a half idea:
that’s enough for my first lines.
The path ahead is far from clear
but through mind’s muddle somehow shines
an argument. Then, as I’m seeking
rhymes and scans, the sense starts leaking
into somewhere unforeseen
and who knows what line eight will mean?
Six lines to go, and now I’m counting.
So much that I wish I’d said,
not on the page, still in my head!
Its all a mess. The panic’s mounting.
With luck I end my little song
as if I meant it all along.

November Verse 10

This 14-liner may be over-compressed. You probably need to know that I spent my childhood in Innisfail in North Queensland, in an area that was settled in the 1870s after ‘punitive expeditions’ ‘dispersed’ the Mamu people who had lived there for tens of thousands of years.

November Verse 10: Mentioning the war
You said, ‘There’s no one on the planet
whose childhood was not touched by war
and if tomorrow we should ban it
we’d still need centuries or more
to rid our minds of its infection:
domestic violence, grief, abjection,
powerlessness, hate and dread.
Our silence gels it all,’ you said.
‘Not so,’ I thought. ‘For generations
my farming forebears bore no arms.
My early life knew no alarms,
the War had been in distant nations.’ 
Yet no one spoke, no one could face
the way we came to own that place. 

November Verse 9

November Verse 9: Breakfast
While monks on waking go to chapel,
my morning rite is to make juice
from beetroot, carrot, ginger, apple,
celery each day to unloose
what needs unloosing, supplemented –
so ailments may be circumvented –
by multi-probiotic pills
and others for existing ills.
And then, before a cup of java,
there’s sometimes muesli, mostly toast
that’s spread with jam, and, not to boast,
the jam’s from cumquat and guava
grown on our trees and made by me.
This is our daily Glory Be!

November Verse 8

November Verse 8: Haircut 
They meant it nicely: ‘It’s so fluffy!’
‘Einstein!’ ‘Kramer!’ ‘Snow on top!’
Skype’s corner pic made me look scruffy.
Time at last to go the chop.
Up Enmore Road to Con the barber,
best haircut this side of the Harbour:
‘Good morning, sir. What’s it for you?’
‘Short.’ ‘Short on top?’ ‘Yes, number two.’
So clippers, scissors, cut-throat razor
go to work and soon I’m shorn –
ears, nostrils, eyebrows smooth as lawn.
My head’s now ordered but, rash gazer,
wipe your eye, this state won’t last
the summer out. Hair grows too fast.

Southerly 76/1 & November Verse 7

Elizabeth McMahon, (nominally) David Brooks and (actually) Hannah Fink (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 1 2016: Words and Music

s761.jpgSoutherly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney. It generally includes a number of articles of interest to the semi-mythical ‘general reader’ as well as refereed papers meant mainly for academics. This music-themed issue is happily skewed toward those of us who identify with the semi-mythical.

The guest editor, arts writer Hannah Fink, has prevailed on a number of music professionals to write about their art and craft, and their relaxed and illuminating essays form the heart of the journal. Lyricist Hilary Bell’s ‘My Life in Lyrics’ starts out as a charming showbiz memoir and develops into a lucid communications of lessons she has learned about writing lyrics for musical theatre, winning points from me by referring to Stephen Sondheim’s magisterial Finishing the HatComposer Phillip Johnston’s ‘Wordless! Music for Comics and Graphic Novels Turns Time Into Space (and back again)’ may go into too much detail about the creation of a collaborative work with comix artist Art Spiegelman but I for one certainly hope to see the work some day. Jazz player and radio program host Dick Hughes, in ‘Jazz at the Pearly Gates’, imagines a number of brilliant jazz performances that might have happened, and allows us painless enjoyment of his great erudition.

Among the other non-fiction, there’s much to enjoy. David Brooks in ‘Herd Music’ speculates that music may have its deep origins in sounds like those a flock of grazing sheep might make. Joseph Toltz gives us a glimpse of compassionate research with Jewsih Holocaust survivors, in a number of anecdotes about the first music a number of people remember hearing after liberation.

There are short stories. Gareth Hipwell’s ‘Whatever Was Eating Whatever It Is That’s Eating The Trees’ is a brief celebration of a the way a man of an older generation has with the language. Colin Varney, whom I think of as a writer for children, definitely has mature readers in mind in ‘Zigazig-uh’, in which the narrator is a love song keeping a slightly snarky eye on the effect it has on a select group of humans.

And there’s poetry by Jill Jones (‘The Glass’), Matthew Wallman (two poems from ‘Inland Sea Poems’, a sequence about explorer Charles Sturt), Partrick Jones (‘Buladelah-Boomerang Point holiday song cycle’, whose odd typography has the welcome effect of slows one’s reading right down), Luke Fischer (the ekphrastic ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’), and a wealth of others.

I usually skip reviews of books I haven’t read, but those of Toby Fitch’s The Blooming Notions of Other & Beau and Chris Edwards’s’s Sonata , books of deliberate mistranslation from French and German respectively, inspired me for today’s November verse: a ‘translation’ of a stanza chosen at random from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is in Russian, which I can’t read even though I’ve happily been attempting to write Onegin stanzas for years now. It turns out to be harder and more fun than I expected. Here is what I’ve managed, a nonsensical shadow of the achievement of those books and others like them:

November Verse 7: Worse than Google Translate
Go near me, freshen my loo, charm me.
Soak crusty gore, use a cigar.
Speak sharply, mutiny, rush army.
Nah! Ptoo! Play on your guitar.
You Lib boy – yes, no! – you prop-odour,
Squeeze on, stretch it, you true goader.
See nigh a blush – cute? Nay, bizarre.
Eschew the prozac. No lay star
Brought cake to puke-home-selling – eye it!
Chill as I darn your pulley, boy;
let it upskill your foxy toy.
Do line your socket, pests will try it.
Tada! Shoe, mat and solo way
You spell. Be small VE, not Che.

For anyone interested and/or capable of reading Russian, here’s the original, Book 7, Stanza 1 (and you can click here for more):

Гоними вешними лучами,
С окрестных гор уже снега
Сбежали мутными русьями
На потоплённые луга.
Улыбкой ясною природа
Сквозь сон встречает утро года;
Синея блещут небеса.
Ещё прозрачные, леса
Как будто пухом зеленеют.
Пчела за данью полевой
Летит из кельи восковой.
Долины сохнут и пестреют;
Стада шумят, и соловей
Уж пел в безмолвии ночей.