Colleen Z Burke, Splicing Air (Feakle Press, 2013)
More than 20 years ago in a pub in Glebe I heard Colleen Burke (I don’t think the Z had yet become part of her working title) read poems from which I still remember lines that move me, from what she presented as straightforward records of conversations with her children.
Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren, and the conversations still smuggle killer lines into the poetry. Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland. There are a number of pieces observing the social life of Newtown, past and present, and a handful of longer pieces. And some snapshots from New Zealand
Four of the longer pieces draw on the history of discovery and settlement of New South Wales: an narrative-essay on James and Elizabeth Cook, journal entries by the surgeon and an officer from the First Fleet, a biographical sketch of the early Australian poet Frank Macnamara. They lack obvious poetic embellishment, but in each of them the effect is unsettling and revelatory. There are straightforward accounts of the lives of two nineteenth-century women – ‘The publican’s daughter’ being the poet’s great grandmother, and ‘The fossil hunter – Mary Anning’ (which accounts for roughly a fifth of the book) an extraordinary Dorset woman who might easily have been lost to history because of her class and gender.
The sense of place is strong here as in all Colleen Z Burke’s work: I think of her as the poet of Newtown. Earlier books have included a number of pieces set in Camperdown Cemetery, and this book has two beauties set there too: ‘Kangaroo grasslands and my 20 month old grandson’ and the wicked ‘Another take on recycling’.
It’s November, so a sonnet is obligatory. This one draws on the last couple of times I laid eyes on the poet, and occasions when her work has featured large in the urban landscape, as illuminated posters that were part of the Sydney Festival some years ago, and more recently on the Newtown Art Seat. (there are six different links there, all to this site)
Sonnet 13: Colleen Z Burke
She reads to us beside a Whiteley –
her landscapes quiet, his lewd and loud.
I’ve seen her sunset words shine nightly,
tall amid a milling crowd.
Her tiny poems tread light, illumine;
‘the details of decay are human’
as she bids a friend farewell.
Human too what she can tell
of autumn air and Maralinga,
clouds, trees, coprolites, cats, birds,
muskets, trinkets, children’s words.
This poetry’s a pointing finger,
self-effacing, yet with grace
it helps to root us in this 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 A significant event in my mother-in-law’s pre-dementia life was a creative writing class taught by Colleen Burke.
I think this is the 11th book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.