Adam Aitken, November Already (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 86, 2013)
Martin Harrison, Living Things: Five Poems (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 87, 2013)
David Malouf, Sky News (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 88, 2013)
Robert Adamson, Empty Your Eyes (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 89, 2013)
I bought this quartet of chapbooks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where all four poets read brilliantly. At $15 each, this is poetry at just over a dollar a page, which isn’t a lot of bang for your buck if you measure it by the yard, but – speaking as someone who has ploughed through a number of Collected volumes in the hope of getting a feel for their authors’ work – I’d say these tiny, beautifully presented books are great value for money. The poems have room to breathe. [The list above is in order of publication, my random comments below are in order of my reading.]
It’s common wisdom that learning poetry by heart is a good thing, because – besides being able to surprise and delight your friends – it’s a way of making the poetry your own, inscribing it on yourself (as Dan Beachy-Quick said memorably, here). Reading David Malouf’s Sky News, I realised that, memorised or not, I haven’t really read a poem until I’ve heard it in my own voice, at least internally. I’ve loved hearing David read his poetry ever since he made sunlight glint off milk churns and today blaze from a lapel in his 70s imitations of Horace. But there’s a different pleasure in taking the poems into oneself.
The poems in Sky News are like piano pieces: there’s a right hand with lots of trills and arpeggios, images and alliterative wordplay, and a slower, deeper, meditative left hand. As I got to know each poem, I found myself looking for my own balance between the two, between being charmed by the right hand, as in this evocation of a quiet night in ‘At Clerici’:
Crickets strike up
a riff on the razzle-dazzle
of starlight, then stop.
and being moved by the left hand, which doesn’t lend itself to quotation because it’s often there by implication or comes into the foreground only in the final moments of a poem.
In ‘A Parting Word’, a rendering of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Der Scheidende’, Malouf the translator engages in a similar balancing act. I can’t read German, but compared to what looks like a close translation of the original, it’s evident that Malouf’s poem is a lot livelier: ‘Estorben ist in meiner Brust /
Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust’ (‘It has died in me, as it must, / Every idle, earthly lust’) becomes the playfully alliterative ‘All’s dashed in me, all’s dished and done’, and this playfulness keeps up all the way to the final lines, where ‘Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt’ (‘The shadow prince in the Underworld’) becomes
in rank of the resident zombies. Top
dog in this dog-house, Hades.
In Heine’s poem, the speaker moves from a cheerless contemplation of his approaching death to a grim acknowledgement that the most vulgar of the living are better off than the noblest dead, so in the end by implication what does art matter? In Malouf’s, the mood is less gloomy – it’s still a poem about age and mortality, but the scales tip towards a celebration of life – it’s not that art is futile, but life is the thing.
The current submission guidelines for Going Down Swinging warn prospective contributors not to send ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’. Luckily for Robert Adamson and his readers this prohibition doesn’t prevail everywhere. Henry Thoreau said an abode without birds was like meat without seasoning – Adamson without birds is unimaginable. From traffic casualties in the prose poem / flash fiction ‘A Proper Burial’ to birds that ‘call and call the light’ in ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, there are plenty of birds in Empty Your Eyes. Poets are here in plenty too: Adamson’s compadres like Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster, but also an assortment of Catholic convert poets – James McAuley, Pierre Reverdy and Francis Thompson (the only poet my mother ever quoted – ‘I fled him down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; … and under running laughter’). Adamson’s poetry is steeped in the Hawkesbury River, in the world of poetry and poets, and increasingly in a kind of questing mysticism:
------------------I read 'The Hound of Heaven' by a river in new South Wales: There was a black chuckle before the 'running laughter' – Attention shifts, revelation grips.
Perhaps even more than Adamson’s, Adam Aitken’s cool, postmodern, intercultural poems abound in allusions – not in an arrogant bugger-off-if-you-haven’t-read-Rimbaud way, but more in a let’s-have-some-dislocating-and-provocative-fun way. I went googling quite a bit as I read November Already: John Clare (hardly an esoteric reference, but I hadn’t read anything by him), Rimbaud (I couldn’t find the arachnid referred to in ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’, so I don’t know what I’m missing, but enjoyed the poem anyhow), Ezra Pound (who wrote a travel diary, A Walking Tour in Southern France), Raymond Roussel (I found a note on Adam’s blog that helped hugely in reading the poem ‘Rousselesque’).
There’s a lot of France in these poems: Paris and the tiny village of Mareuil, the Resistance and the Revolution, Roman relics and Australian expats. From what I’ve read of Aitken’s work, I have a sense that he generally writes as if he’s not quite at home, always with a dislocated, interrogative feel. So when a poem about a deserted railway line is entitled ‘On the Chemin du Fer’, it doesn’t read as a mistyping of chemin de fer, but as a marker of the speaker’s outsider status. In the poem, this outsider is on a disused length of railway surrounded by blossoming almond trees, ‘tougher, more industrial’ than cherry blossom, and in these beautifully evoked surroundings, before evoking the Terror by a mention of Saint-Just, asks:
Was that old man "Europe"
so often so hard, so cruel
a one-stop shop
for the soul?
Likewise, I think of Aitken as an urban poet, so when he misspells ‘chicken coop’, it doesn’t read as a mistake, deliberate or otherwise, but as the equivalent of a visitor from the city wearing shiny shoes in a cow paddock, adding to the edgy feel of the poem.
Martin Harrison’s poems, by contrast, feel completely at home in their mostly Australian landscapes. This may be especially true of the first poem in Living Things: Five Poems, ‘Wallabies’, a long, breathless (and sparsely punctuated) celebration of western New South Wales landscapes:
nothing is dead here the spaces between them are inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering in high irrigated air-blue reaches she-oaks aspirant with their million fingers and amber seed-flowers spotted gums mottled as grandmothers but with contrasts of grey brown white and silver as if dressed for a ball
He does more than describe natural phenomena, of course. A recurring theme here is ‘how events change time’s flow beneath perception’: a ‘small thump from somewhere’ (‘White-Tailed Deer’), thrips that are ‘quite possibly meaningless, quite possibly / microbes of non-significance’ (‘Cloud’), a frog you can hear ‘miles away, / long before you thought you could’ (‘The Frog’). Even the eponymous wallabies would be easy to miss if you didn’t read carefully. Some lines from ‘Blue Wren Poem’ suggest something of what’s going on:
____-_____________________Such detail can be lost – bobbins, birds, refuge, storm – when innocence starts holding out against the tide, when radiance blurs the future.
Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press says this series will come to an end at 100 titles. That means there are 11 to go, and the distinctive design, with pasted-on cover art by Kay Orchison, will sadly be no more.
I think what moves me more than anything – in reading your lyrically expressed reviews – is something akin to tenderness – certainly generosity and admiration – and (not here) but the fact that any incomprehension you sheet to your own lack of broader knowledge – even when I am continually impressed by the breadth and depth of your references! I have finished reading the 2012 Summer edition of the Asian Literary Review. Stunning!
Thanks, Jim, for the much appreciated validation. That post in particular felt like a garbled and inconsequential ramble – I’m glad it doesn’t read that way to you.
Thank you so much for reviewing these books. You are too generous Jonathan! I can’t spell very well in French. I am exposed and shamed! But there is another deliberate meaning in my title ‘Chemin du Fer – which stands for ‘Way of the Iron’, or ‘Pathway of the Iron’ rather than the literal meaning of railway (chemin de fer). I checked this with some local French poets who did discuss whether it should be du or de. they said either would be OK. Rimbaud’s spider appears in Rêve Pour L’Hiver (Dream for Winter October, 1870):
Puis tu te sentiras la joue égratinée…
Un petit baiser, comme une folle araignée
Te courra par le cou…
Then you’ll feel a tickle on your cheek…
A little kiss like a crazed spider
Fleeing down your neck…
(translated by Wyatt Mason)
Sorry to be a pain but could you correct the misspelled ‘Thankyou’ in my reply to your lovely post?
Thanks again for your write up. I wonder if my work has now become unreadable for most poetry readers due to its referentiality. Obscurity is not what I want really, especially in my ‘French Poems’. But thankyou for going and looking up some references and letting that be an important (and hopefully fruitful) part of your reviewing method.
Websites: adamaitken.wordpress.com adamaitken.blogspot.com
Hi Adam. Your first comment proves me right, that there’s more to ‘chemin du fer’ than a compulsive blue pencil wielder can see – I hope I’m recovering from my compulsion, but it’s still strong enough to have blinkered me from getting that further meaning. Thanks for the Rimbaud reference. I don’t find your work unreadable because too referential – far from it. I wonder if the average 19th century English reader recognised the classical references in poetry or if they were intimidated into pretending – as opposed to now, when no two people could reasonably be expected to have identical cultural knowledge, so there’s no shame, and also there’s Google.