November verse 14: Graduation

Here’s the last of this year’s November verses, uploaded 80 minutes before the midnight deadline:

November verse 14: Graduation
Today is preschool graduation, 
milestone for the almost-fives.
Oh, after long anticipation
3 pm at last arrives 
and soon the graduands are singing
(also jostling, waving, grinning).
One by one they shake the hand 
of Teacher looking mighty grand
and take from her a bag of goodies:
artwork they themselves have made, 
certificate (they've made the grade),
and popcorn. Then, unleash the foodies:
trays of watermelon, grapes and cake,
and cake, and cupcakes, and more cake.



November verse 13: Hearing aids

Today I parted with a lot of money. The least I can do is write a rhyme about the reason.

November verse 13: Today I got my hearing aids

They said that I was hard of hearing.
More like soft, the edges dull,
the high notes mostly disappearing,
sibilants all rendered null.
But soft or hard, that’s just pedantic:
friends were cross, sometimes frantic,
tired of shouting to be heard,
repeating every second word.
Today I got two electronic
gizmos, one in either ear,
enabling me at last to hear
what yesterday was ultrasonic.
People have stopped mumbling words
and all my streets are filled with birds.

November verse 12: On a dead goldfish

Not as morbid as you might think:

November verse 12: On a dead goldfish
For Euan
Today we found our last fish floating
lifeless, limp, no longer gold,
a death so tiny, not worth noting.
True though, They shall grow not old.
Flight path fuel dump? Change of season?
Too much sun? Who knows the reason?
This is not Menindee Lakes
where millions died and my heart quakes.
Today I felt a tiny tremor,
rumble from a distant storm,
an inkling that some day the worm
will try my bones, from skull to femur.
May mine be one tiny death,
leave undisturbed the wide world's breath.


Kit Kelen’s Bung Mazes

Kit Kelen, Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes (Australian Esperanto Association 2022)

It was my great pleasure to launch the English part of this bilingual book today. The Esperanto part was launched by Jonathan Cooper from the Australian Esperanto Associaton, in an afternoon that also featured Kit Kelen’s’s exhibition of palimpsest works on paper with the same title, plus music, at the Shop gallery in Glebe, all MCd by Richard James Allen. There was music, and a conversation between Kit and Magdalena Ball. Here’s a version of my launch speech.

Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes is not the first bilingual poetry book Kit Kelen has been involved in, not even the first bilingual book of his own poetry. But it marks his debut as translator of his own work, both from English into Esperanto and in the other direction as well.

Mostly, unless you’re appropriately bilingual, you can ignore the language that’s not your own when you read a bilingual book. This one isn’t like that. The Esperanto isn’t an added extra. To read the book thoughtfully is to engage with Esperanto, maybe learn a word or two, discover some of its history, and glean some understanding of its underlying philosophy.

It’s easy to see why Esperanto is a good fit for Kit’s poetry. Esperanto, as I understand it, is all about opening channels of communication where none might otherwise have existed. Kit’s work shows a deep commitment to being open to other cultures, other languages, and to other minds. for example, when he asked me to give this talk, he didn’t say, ‘I hope you like the book,’ but ‘I’m interested to hear what you think of it.’

The English versions of many of poems in this book predate Kit’s interest in Esperanto. They cover a wide range of subjects, from the plight of refugees and the climate emergency, to simple celebrations of the natural world and poems about poetry itself. But there’s no great discontinuity between them and the poems dealing explicitly with Esperanto.

One example of these older poems is ‘here’s the story to save the world’, which includes these lines:

what is it keeps us alive?
keep talking
I want to know how the story ends
keep talking
I’ll listen

You can draw a straight line from that to ‘Hitching my wagon to a green star’, a statement of allegiance to Esperanto, which has the lines, ‘we come here for a conversation / while we wait for states to wither away’.

There are poems about learning the language. ‘thank you poem for Trevor Steele’ is explicit:

these lines here are just to say –

thanks for the grammar
I know it must be very annoying –

all the stupid mistakes I make

but how can there be so many accusatives?

Or there’s this from ‘being a humble beginner’:

often I slip
sometimes I slip off the tongue together

This is the poem that most makes me wish I could read Esperanto. What’s the Esperanto equivalent of the mistake ‘slip off the tongue together’? ‘tute glitas de mia lango’ doesn’t tell me anything. It makes me wonder how many references there are that Esperantists get but just sail past me.

Beyond this interest in learning the language, the book engages with its underlying philosophy.  ‘being a humble beginner’ again:

but I’m here for the conversation
I believe that is an art
like leaving the world better than found –
another impossible thing

L L Zamenhof, the language’s creator, is quoted in one of the book’s two epigraphs:

Rompu, rompu la murojn inter la popoloj!

Translation hardly seems necessary, but Google translates it as:

Break, break the walls between the peoples!

‘Bialystok dreaming’ tells how Zamenhof first thought of inventing a neutral second language in Russia in the late 19th century. ‘Suprasegmentals’ makes fun of Chomsky’s declaration that Esperanto is not a language. ‘samideanoj!’ spells out the vision with characteristic Kelenian paradox. It begins:

today we are building a dead language
syllable by syllable, from scratch

it is a tiny country
all between
and never was at all

Esperanto, to paraphrase, has no currency except the people who speak it. Incidentally, this poem stands out for two reasons: the title, meaning ‘like-minded people’ isn’t translated, and the first one-word line  – ‘kamaradoj’ – doesn’t appear in the English. The book is aware of its dual readership.

The poems about Esperanto don’t pull back from its utopian aspirations. In fact they endorse them, but there’s a feeling of astonishment, perhaps even with an edge of amusement, at the vastness of those aspirations. The poems are completely serious, but not self-important.

The two poems that for me are the guts of the book, are ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’. The book has been described as ‘an abstract treatment of the situation of asylum seekers’. The poems celebrating our common humanity, and Esperanto as a way to sharing it, the poems about openness to the natural world and the value of conversation, create a version of the world in which the current treatment of asylum seekers is a cruel absurdity. In ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’, the point is made explicitly.

The title poem ‘Bung Mazes’, begins with a line from the public debate about asylum seekers, ‘everyone knows there is no queue’, and goes on in fifteen short poems to create a kind of maze of its own. I found it the most difficult poem in the book. Sentences don’t finish, images rub up against each other, it’s hard – even maybe impossible – to grasp how some lines hang together. For example:

where you see desert’s edge
a labyrinth in canvas shook

lent to, how it blows off
who’s after you? can it be imagined?

their weapons and the names they call
crime of a clock, dreamt that too

There’s the image of a refugee camp, and a general anxiety is evoked, but it’s hard to pin down a clear meaning. If there is a meaning there, it’s just beyond my grasp (whose weapons? what clock committed what crime? who dreamt what?)

Generally if a poem grabs me, but I don’t understand why, I’ll sit with it, and let it brew in my mind. Sometimes a meaning becomes apparent in the brewing process. In this case, it’s not a meaning, but the effect created by the poem’s elusiveness. In effect the poem, made up largely of unparsable moments like this, gives me a faint inkling of the emotional impact of being lost in the dangerous maze of asylum seeking.

 ‘Shelter’ includes lines that cry out to be quoted:

now they are changing all the world’s weather
island here, river there, tents blow away
tanks shift borders out of the way

big bird flies where it will, drops its droppings

fire now flood now famine war
we were forced to flee

then where to shelter?
in the cave in my head?
but you’ll never get in
there’s never been a queue

there’s a maze
of rules and rights
of yours, not mine
and my turn
never comes

and later:

for the sixty million wandering
this world is a maze gone bung

Sixty million is the UNHCR’s 2015 estimate of the number of people displaced worldwide by wars, conflict, and persecution.

So this is a book about intensely serious subjects.

My mind goes to something Kit wrote almost 10 years ago. Speaking of the problematic nature of writing in the pastoral mode as a settler Australian, he said: ‘The challenge is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’

This book is fun. Even at its most serious, it avoids ponderousness. It delights in paradox, puns and syntactical playfulness. It always treats the English language – I can’t speak of the Esperanto – as an endlessly enjoyable and challenging playground (‘bung mazes’ is an example; it rejects the obvious English for Rompitaj Labirintoj, that is to say, Broken Labyrinths, in favour of something much less respectful). The poems are full of music, as I hope the bits I’ve read demonstrate.

In this context, fun can be many things. Take the short poem ‘parable’ for example. I loved it at first reading because I felt it brought a much needed lightness of touch to the climate emergency, a step back from the details of rising temperatures, collapsing ice sheets, greenwashing by corporations and governments, and so on. I read it as a kind of wistful fantasy. Then, while I was preparing for this talk, I read it to a friend who’s a climate activist, and it made us both cry – I think because it manages to strike a note of forgiveness along with terrible grief. Here it is. I don’t expect it to make you or me cry today, but just listen to it:

parable

we came from the ice
and out of the trees
and wanted the whole world warmer

we lit fires
and at timber
we were the axe
we were the flame

as if winter were our own forever

we only wanted the whole world warmer

o fearful the dark
but we brought the firelight

the others we’ve eaten by now

we burnt till all of the forest was gone

we came to the clock
that’s where we are now

hard to hear anything
everyone’s in charge
we all follow orders

it’s hard to see how this will pan out
but I predict, in time to come
at the Court of All Spirits
our defence will simply be

we came from the dark
we came from the ice
we wanted the whole world warmer

[It didn’t make me cry when I read it out, and I don’t think anyone else shed a tear either.]

Anyhow:

It’s my honour and privilege to commend this book to you. Buy a copy, and, as the poem ‘keep this book’ says with only a hint of over-selling:

walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud
quote it at will

I declare Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes, the English half, launched.

And here’s a pic of me talking, with Kit’s art in the background and Kit wearing a hat in the corner

Photo by Penny Ryan

November Verse 11: In the sauna

Someone needs to write about the wonders of swimming-pool saunas in Sydney’s Inner West. While we’re waiting, here’s my 14 lines’ worth.

November verse 10: In the sauna

Some days we sit and sweat in silence.
Others, it’s as if the heat
dissolves some barrier, gives licence.
Chat can flow and minds can meet,
perhaps with bonhomie and bluster,
pre-cooked jokes, a rant or just a
monologue on weed or booze,
or mild debates about the news.
Tattooed gym-boy, taxi driver,
yia-yia, rap star, tattooed youth,
an old guy with a missing tooth:
all these bodies, like Godiva
almost naked, shoot the breeze,
and no one’s sent to Coventry.

November Verse 10: Pictures and words

Today’s stanza draws on a passage from Middlemarch in which Ladislaw, whose hair is ‘not immoderately long’, argues the superiority of poetry over painting. The first two lines are almost a direct quote.

November verse 10: Pictures and words
Language gives a fuller image,
all the better as it's vague.
Paintings flaunt their frozen plumage,
stare insistent from the frame
in finished, silent imperfection.
Neither love nor harsh rejection
crease a portrait's botox brow.
No worm forgives the painted plough.
Life as lived is full of noises
much diviner than what's seen
(or, on occasion, more obscene).
The air resounds with speaking voices:
one picture can delight your eyes,
a thousand words can make you wise.

A Launch

If you’re in Sydney this coming Sunday – 27 November – you might like to drop in on this exhibition opening and book launch at the Shop Gallery in Glebe at 2 pm. The book is Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes, poems in English and Esperanto by Kit Kelen (about whom I have blogged a couple of times).

I have the honour of being the English-language launcher, and will do my best to say something coherent. A different Jonathan wll do the honours in Esperanto. I’m pretty sure there will be music and nibbles.

The book, which I’m loving, is available for purchase at Booktopia.

November Verse 9: Shouting at my phone

I won’t name the podcast. I suppose if I had been listening with real interest I wouldn’t have got snagged on what is after all a common usage these days, but it was drilled into me in primary school that one lies down and lays the table, lay down and laid the table, and my mind evidently still replays the nuns’ rebukes from 1954.

November verse 9: Yelling at my phone
She said she just laid in the water. 
I shouted at my phone: Laid what?
The language changes and I ought to
take it in my strides – why not?
Give someone an intensive purpose.
Let him join an army corpus,
answer questions someone begs
and buy the dozens that are egg's.
Sneak peaks aren't fit to die on.
The world's just right for doggy-dogs
but still wrong for slow-boiling frogs.
The planet warms, we may be dying.
As we near that final night
at least let's try to spell it right. 

In case any of the references are obscure:

  • line 4: the correct idiom is ‘take it in my stride’
  • line 5: ‘to all intents and purposes’ means something; ‘to all intensive purposes’ doesn’t
  • line 6: ‘Corps’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘core’. And in my opinion ‘corp’, short for ‘corporation’, should be pronounced as written
  • line 7: ‘To beg the question’ does not mean the same as ‘to raise the question’. In classical logic, it happens when an argument’s premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it
  • line 8: Apostrophes aren’t necessary when an s is there to indicate more than one of something. (Apostrophes are probably necessary hardly anywhere, but that’s another argument)
  • line 9: It’s a sneak peek and a dog-eat-dog world
  • line 10: The analogy of a frog that won’t jump out of boiling water if it boils gradually may be instructive, but I’d like to know if there’s any evidence that frogs are that stupid

November Verse 8: Graupel

The weatherman on ABC News the other night spoke of graupel, a lovely word that was new to me. It almost does the impossible and rhymes with purple.

November verse 8: Graupel

The heavens opened, down came graupel,
baby hail. The storm soon passed
and downstairs' lawn shone green, white, purple –
jacaranda, ice and grass.
A rattling downpour, hints of thunder,
then this calm nine-minute wonder.
For a moment we knew grace,
La Niña showed her lovely face. 
Not so in Molong, Forbes, and Nowra.
There La Niña went to town
to rip and drench, to smash and drown,
then flashed her worst at poor Eugowra.
She's no god we must appease.
Code red: 1.5 degrees!

Added later: Photo taken from our kitchen window of our downstairs neighbours’ yard. The jacaranda blossoms don’t show up in this photo, but they were there.

Photo by Penny Ryan

November Verse 7: Demo

I was going to have a couple of days break from versifying, but yesterday morning demanded rhyme.

November verse 7: Demo

We met outside the bank this morning,
placards, microphone and drums,
to amplify the climate warning:
No more cash for coal, you bums. 
This movement’s male and white no longer:
cheerful, young, brown, female, stronger
than it’s ever been. Today,
though many heads were white and grey,
the ones from Asia and the oceans
led us, spoke of rising tides
and fossil-fuel based genocides,
derided short-term profit notions,
knew how to push the envelope
and temper urgency with hope.

The National Australia Bank, in spite of having a policy of not funding new fossil fuel ventures, is actually lending billions of dollars to Whitehaven Coal, which has no policy of cutting emissions and plans to mine vast amounts of coal for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are in trouble. The Move Beyond Coal movement has just finished an Australia-wide Week of Action targeting the NAB.