Colleen Burke’s Wildlife in Newtown

Colleen Burke, Wildlife in Newtown (Feakle Press,1994)

Poetry is good to travel with. Slim volumes are attractive when you’re packing light, and short poems are well suited to the short grabs of time for reading, in between gawking, eating, finding toilets, blogging and all that. Apart from such practicalities there’s this little syllogism: a) Whenever I travel I have intense dreams about home; b) poetry has been described as a waking dream; c) it makes sense to take poems about home when travelling. So of course I brought this book whose title promises poetry about places a couple of blocks from my home.

True to that promise, the book’s sense of place is very strong, in poems celebrating working class, culturally diverse Newtown, acknowledging its Dharug past and present, and repeatedly evoking Newtown houses, Camperdown Park and the historic cemetery adjoining it. The latter is the subject of elegant photographs scattered through the book, which I’m guessing were taken by the author. It’s evident that Colleen walked through that park on the way to and from work, that she often spent time in the cemetery. If that small part of the world were to be allocated a Poet Laureate, she’d be hard to beat.

The book has a number of interweaving strands: the walks home from work, often involving sunsets: relatively impersonal narratives about the history and make-up of the suburb; conversations with the poet’s children; the cemetery poems, some of which are about the history, some intensely personal; a very few strong poems that directly address the death of the poet’s partner. All the poems are short. If I was at home, I’d find the lovely line about Colleen Burke’s lyrics in Jennifer Maiden’s 1999 collection, Mines, but as I’m gallivanting in Turkey with fitful Internet access, I’ll just recommend that you look it up.

I hope Colleen won’t mind if I quote a poem that, while not necessarily my favourite, struck a chord because I was away from home – in Turkey, not India – when I read it.

And so I was there
for Kerry
‘And so I was there –
a recognition. My
heart full to bursting.
There’s something in the smell of
heat, dust, exhaust fumes,
oxen, tea, animal piss,
garam masala and ghee.
There’s something about women
in saris, beggars of all ages
and people living on the
cramped narrow streets –
an atmosphere of the
Arabian nights that
intoxicates and frees you –
like a window opening.’

I read your letter
in the crumbling
graveyard sheltered
from the August winds
by the empty sandstone
church. Spring
murmured in the winter
soil, a whisper of wattle
in the air. I was close
to you in the gnarled
shadows and slender vines
of sunlight. Close to
the bare bones bound
down by the long dark
roots of the Moreton
Bay fig tree.

‘In the small crowded
Kali temple people
sang, danced and gave
us flowers. Held our hands.
And so I was there’

Place calls out to place calls out to place.

Full disclosure: I published one or two of these poems in The School Magazine in my past life, and may have rejected one or two others; Colleen Burke taught a creative writing class to my mother-in-law, which was a significant event in her pre-dementia life; more than 20 years ago I heard Colleen read poems about her bereavement and her children that still move me, though I remember only a phrase or two.

2 responses to “Colleen Burke’s Wildlife in Newtown

  1. Hi Jonathan – it’s fine reprinting a poem from Wildlife in Newtown – glad the book was a good travelling companion.
    Just letting you know I’m doing an author talk – Better Read’s Talking Heads,Tuesday 25/3/’14 from 6.30-7.30 pm at Newtown Library, 8-10 Brown St., Newtown


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