Two Rare Objects and a Stray Dog

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade: A Sabbatical Set (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 79, 2012)
Adrian Wiggins, Chooks (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 81, 2012)
J S Harry, Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow (Vagabond Press, Stray Dog Editions No 3, 2000)

I bought these three books last weekend at the Gleebooks launch of half a dozen chapbooks from Vagabond Press. A chapbook is a small collection of poetry – usually cheaply produced and inexpensive to buy. The Rare Object series, now numbering more than 80, small (16 pages), saddlestitched and without ISBNs, with a print run of 100 copies each, are at the deluxe end of the chap spectrum: they have swanky, translucent fly leaves, and a small printed image glued on the front cover, and each numbered copy is signed by the author.

At the launch there was some uneasy joking about the presence of non-poets. Like sceptics at a seance or woman reporters in a male football team’s change room, we were kind of welcome but unsettling. (Although I’ve had a handful poems published, as a reader I’m definitely a non-poet.) Pam Brown’s launching remarks, an edited version of which is up at the Rochford Street Review site, had none of that uneasiness. She was generous and straightforward, made all six books sound desirable, and modelled in an unfussy way the kind of work needed to read these compressed, allusive and/or oblique contemporary poems. (Besides the books by Kit Kelen and Adrian Wiggins, the others being launched were by Niobe Syme, S. K. (Steve) Kelen, James Stuart and Nicolette Stasko.)

Kit Kelen’s book is a set of poems written while home on sabbatical in country New South Wales. For a prosaic reader like me, it helps to know that before you start, and to know that he mainly lives in Macau, and is a painter as well as a poet. You may also need to be warned that you’re entering a punctuation free zone, so a little extra decoding work will be needed. Given all that, the poems speak very directly, with a sweet sense of place, and a whiff of Chinese or Japanese sensibility. From ‘Iona’:

mosquito the size of a small bus
comes and passes and is gone

Kelen has made some interesting remarks about how these poems relate to the pastoral tradition and to the problematic nature of non-Indigenous land ownership in Australia. ‘The challenge,’ he says, ‘is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’ The elegance, humour and directness of the poems mean the problematic elements slide into the reader’s mind without a bump.

Chooks is Adrian Wiggins’s second book of poetry – it’s 18 years since the first. I understand the title to be presenting these poems as a yard full of chooks, each going in its own direction, scratching, pecking, clucking, fussing over chickens, and generally filling the yard with life. I can’t say I follow them all, or even most of them. For example, ‘The Astronaut’s Lovesong‘, which mixes cosmic imagery with images of bondage, might have been impenetrable to me without Pam Brown’s gloss: ‘Yes, it’s about the wildly jealous astronaut Lisa Nowack who tried to kidnap a female airforce captain who was involved with an astronaut on whom Lisa had a big crush.’ I suspect there’s a lot of play with poetic conventions and politics in the book, some of which I get: I find the idea of John Forbes cosplay (in ‘New Season’) irresistibly funny, but there are almost certainly people who would be driven to Google by both ‘John Forbes’ and ‘cosplay’. One person’s esoterica are another person’s commonplaces, and if the prose meaning eludes me I still enjoy the ride – in some ways it’s like being a child reader again.

For the fun of it, I scribbled all over the first poem in the book, ‘Galah’ (a photocopy – I wouldn’t dream of defacing this beautiful rare object), just to have a visual take on where the poem took me. It’s not a particularly obscure poem, but it does fly off in many directions:

It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the poem that my inner proofreader didn’t spot the misspelling of ‘plane’, deliberate or otherwise, until I was quite a way into the annotating.

For me (Mr Prosaic Reader), apart from ‘Galah’ the prize fowl is ‘Macquarie River swimming’, a sharply rendered piece of nostalgia for youthful days when the poet and his friends, swinging on ‘a straggly rope tied to a river-gum’,

________________________let rip
with an imitation aerialist’s flip, a shout,
and fell through the day, new bullets

through old rifling, laughing from the noon’s
blue meridian to a cold, dark hole midstream.

J S Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein (2007) featured the adventures of Peter Henry Lepus, a rabbit who goes to Iraq and other places and knocks around with philosophers. I was intrigued by this odd character, and tantalised by the few poems about him I’d read. I thought Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow from 2000, not much bigger than the Rare Objects (though big enough for an ISBN) – might be a way to ease myself into his world. Alas, there was no easing to be had, no Origin Story, just a rabbit who has been provoked into trying to think. He’s a strange creation, and the poems are strange too, peppered with erratic spacing and capitalisation and font changes. But definitely alive, and wide ranging. Peter tries without much success to understand the poetry scene. He encounters a literary critic in a poem that might be more fun for readers who know or are willing to find out who Altieri is. In ‘They‘, Peter tries to explain to ‘the flowerbed rabbit / who lives deep in dark leaves’ what humans (‘they’) mean by the ‘pronoun called I’. In ‘A Sunlit Morning, Labor Day, Late Twentieth Century’, he sees and does not understand the death of a magpie friend. He’s clearly a device for looking freshly at the world, for exploring philosophical questions and any number of things, but he is also a character in his own right. His meeting with the cat Chairman Miaow (a different Chinese whiff from Kit Kelen’s) in “Moonlight Becomes You?” may be an enigmatic meditation on art, but it’s also a scary confrontation with a predator. After his conversation with the flowerbed rabbit about the pronoun called I, he realises he has lost an opportunity to

follow the white
bobs of her tail
disappearing
into the scarlet flowers.

I guess I’ve now got Not Finding Wittgenstein on my To Be Read list.

One response to “Two Rare Objects and a Stray Dog

  1. I met Stephen (Istvan) KELEN at a Multicultural Writers event (Rudi KRAUSMANN/Adam AITKEN) at the Goethe Institut/e in Sydney – 1984, I think. I had purchased his book I Remember Hiroshima (H&I 1983). In 1991 I was for some weeks in Tokyo/Yokohama and in a freebie English-language newspaper came across the notice that Christopher (Kit) KELEN had been awarded a prize for a poem: “Evenings on the Uji River” (Ujigawa no Yugure). Hmm – a connection to Stephen I thought – and tucked that thought away. Some time later an Australian JET program friend in the city of Matsue where I was on exchange (noted for the British/Greek writer Lafcadio HEARN who lived there in 1890/1891) mentioned a mate of his – Kit KELEN. We were introduced over the telephone. We met up – by chance – in the summer of 1992 – on the Dozen clump of the Oki islands – a place of Emperor exile – in the Sea of Japan. And some months later I visited Kit and his artist wife in Kyoto – and then visited with him the amazingly scenic Ama-no-Hashi-Date (Bridge to Heaven) to Kyoto’s north – on my way back to Matsue. This week on Monday I did some relief teaching – reading War Poetry – from the Great War – my attempts to engage the Year 11 class (a sizeable percentage absent) had me ranging from the Sebastian FAULKS’ novel Birdsong – and the ABC TV presentation; the Aussie film “Beneath Hill 60” with/by Brendan COWELL – Ian SERRAILLIER’s The Silver Sword – (a visit to his widow in the year when George W and sleepover buddy John W were plotting their WMD attack on Iraq) – ANZAC Day – “shell-shock” and Agent Orange and “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome or Disorder. I am holding ‘a pocket Kit’ by Christopher KELEN – the poet-selected little book anthology “some of the essential poetical works of Christopher Kelen” (October 2011) – and looking at ‘eulogy’ – (from which this fragment about Kit’s father):
    eternal champion of the republic
    goes round the world with a ping pong bat
    then Pitt St, Borneo, Hiroshima
    a khaki decade, shrapnel stung
    and coming to rest with the fifties and mum