It’s been a while since I’ve posted about books I’ve encountered when wearing my Poppa hat. Here are some of the wonders I’ve encountered since last I blogged about them.
Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, Goodnight Moon (1947)
Anyone who has worked in children’s literature has heard of Goodnight Moon. It’s an absolute classic US picture book for young children, which I can now tick off my Shame List. The person who sold it to me said he’d had to hide his daughter’s copy because she demanded it so relentlessly. Yet he claimed to still like it. I don’t know what I was expecting – maybe something full of saccharine statements of maternal love – but actually it’s terrific. A tiny rabbit in a big bed says goodnight to all the wonderful things in the bedroom and outside the window.
If Goodnight Moon can be read as a text with a manipulative subtext (a reading encouraged by a page at the end of our copy that list dozen hints for how to get your child to sleep), On My Potty can’t be read any other way. No actual potty has yet appeared in Ruby’s life, so the book is a bot on the theoretical side, but there’s no doubt that it’s meant as a tool for toilet-training. It’s charming and silly as well. Whether it succeeds in its aims remains to be seen in our case.
I imagine all two-year-old people have enthusiasms. Ruby is loves kookaburras. Two of her recurring sentences are, ‘Kookaburra in tree’ (that one is sometimes a question, or perhaps a request) and, ‘Kookaburra fly away.’ The plot of Kookaburras Love to Laugh may be a little beyond her: there’s a serious kookaburra who leaves his family in search of more serious birds. He ends up with some garden flamingoes who are completely serious but utterly boring, and goes back home, converted to the enjoyment of laughter. So the plot is OK, especially given that his family also make adjustments to meet his needs, but the real appeal is page after page of kookaburras and the frequent need for kookaburra imitations from the reader.
The second in John Kalassen’s wonderful minimalist hat trilogy. In the first book, I Want My Hat Back (link is to my review), a bear goes on search of his hat and finally finds and deals with the thief. This one tells a similar story from the thief’s point of view. A small fish has stolen the hat of a very big fish and is confident of getting away with it. But the reader who notices small details such as the direction the big fish is looking or the angle of a bystander crab’s nippers knows that the confidence is misplaced. The humour is sly, and the images are brilliant.
This is the third in the series. Two tortoises find a hat in the desert. One hat, two tortoises. They decide that that won’t work so they walk away, but one of them looks back longingly and when the other goes to sleep he sneaks back towards the hat … Unlike the other two books this one doesn’t end with retribution, but with a splendid, richly satisfying imagined resolution to this specific sharing dilemma. (We are witnessing many sharing dilemmas in playgrounds.)
Ruby’s father and grandfather both love these hat books. I think Ruby quite likes them.
This book’s cover image, from a painting by Maryanne Coutts, hints at a dark, elusive narrative. A woman whose face is turned away from us engages in an activity that is far from clear and possibly dangerous. It could be a moment from a dream. Many of Emma Lew’s poems have a similar sense of being spoken from the midst of a dark, elusive narrative. The ‘I’ is invariably hard to pin down: you may (as I, naively, did) start out thinking the poems feature Lew speaking in her own voice but you soon realise you’re wrong. In fact, most of the time it’s hard to have any sense of Emma Lew’s engagement except as a crafter of highly-charged enigmas. In his review of this book, Martin Duwell writes that he once surmised that Lew’s characteristic poem
was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been.
He has discarded that hypothesis, but it does a nice job of evoking both the drama and the disorientation one experiences reading many of the poems in this book.
Evidently the Giramondo team felt that readers might need a little help with that disorientation, because whereas most books of poetry have minimal guidance in how to read them, this one includes an introduction by poet Bella Li. I generally avoid introductions, but I read this one hoping it would help me blog coherently. I also read a number of reviews, including the excellent one by Martin Duwell quoted above and one by Ross Gibson – author of the brilliant books Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and 26 Views of the Starburst World [links to my blog posts] – in Sydney Review of Books [here’s a link].
Everything I read about the poetry is interesting (though Ross Gibson’s prose at times went off into academic incomprehensibility). What I realised is not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the poems, but that I didn’t get how to enjoy them.
My copy of the book is an ARC (advanced reading copy) which comes with a request not to quote from it, but I can’t bear to end without giving my readers at least a small taste. This is the start of the relatively straightforward ‘Kanipshins’, whose title the internet says is a Yiddish word meaning fits or temper tantrums (for some reason WordPress is being difficult with line breaks; please overlook the weird line spacing here):
In consideration for my mother
the yacht got free of its moorings.
'Just bring him home:
I'll decide who's handsome.'
We tried to quarrel quietly in the bathroom.
She had kept certain phrases for this moment
but ended up expressing desperation
through the elaborateness
of her hairdo, and drama,
the way she salted her food.
See what I mean? There’s a slantwise portrait of a mother daughter relationship there: the daughter brings a boyfriend/suitor home for the mother to evaluate; the young people find a little privacy in the bathroom; the mother communicates in non-verbal ways. But what is the broader picture presumably alluded to in the first two lines? should we care what the young people are quarrelling about? Is it the mother who is desperate, and why? These are questions that have no answers. The poem continues (I think) with the mother hectoring the daughter to marry the young man, but just as you think you’re following the story, it goes somewhere quite unexpected and enigmatic:
The drug companies did the serenading,
but how the girdle must have hurt!
And there are a couple more twists before the end, including the wonderfull but elusive line ‘holding lilies, almost apoplectic’. Could be a narrative – a dramatic monologue or the abstract of a short film or play – but without establishing shots or guideposts. So it offers some of the pleasures of story while refusing others. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see that it’s very good.
This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.
I read a total of 38 books by Australian women writers, well over the goal of ten that I’d set for myself. They ranged from Alexis Wright’s 640 page many-voiced Tracker to picture books with fewer than 100 words, and included:
Ashley Kalagian Bunt, My Name is Revenge: A novella and collected essays (Spineless Wonders 2019)
On 17 December 1980, at 9.47 am, two men shot the Turkish consul-general to Sydney and his bodyguard near the consul’s home in Vaucluse. The assassins aimed, fired and vanished.
That’s the opening paragraph of the novella that gives this slim book its title. I had to check in Wikipedia: it turns out that that assassination is not something invented by Ashley Kalagian Blunt. Like the Armenian genocide that inspired it, it is simply not remembered by most of us. What follows that paragraph – a young man whose name, Vrezh, is Armenian for ‘revenge’ feels empowered by news of the assassination and gets involved in a further terrorist plot – is fiction, but fiction fuelled by the historical genocide, and the Turkish government’s century-long insistence that the genocide never happened.
It’s a daring choice in the current climate to write about terrorism from the point of view of a potential terrorist, who has an assassin – Soghomon Tehlirian – as a hero. It’s daring, and stunningly successful: we care about that young man and his family.
The three essays accompanying the novella address aspects of the issues it raises: ‘Writing Violence, Arousing Curiosity’ deals with the genesis of the novella itself; ‘The Crime of Crimes’ sketches the history of genocide, from well before the term was coined in the 20th century; ‘Life After Genocide’ focuses on Kalagian Blunt’s reconnection with her Armenian heritage as a young adult, and how survivors of the genocide have dealt with the history – in particular her great grandfather who as a child witnessed monstrous deeds. The grim subject matter is leavened by a selection of the author’s photographs of Armenian buildings, landscapes and people, including a stunning double spread featuring herself as a baby with her great-grandparents. It’s to the credit of Spineless Wonders that these black and white photos are reproduced with great clarity.
It’s November, and this month I tend to keep reviews to a minimum and write a stanza inspired by the book in question (I have to produce 14 14-line poems this month). But I need to say a little more before breaking into rhyme.
As a settler Australian and a gentile, I’ve felt an obligatory interest in the history of genocide. I have a number of fat books on my To Be Read shelf with titles like Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (that one’s by Ben Kiernan 2007). I haven’t even started reading any of them. My Name is Revenge got me through the opening gate, and I recommend it to anyone who feels a similar responsibility to be informed. (It has added several new books to my virtual TBR shelf, including the discouragingly titled Genocide: A World History (Norman M Naimark 2017). Actually, I recommend the book to anyone who appreciates fine writing that comes from a passionately felt source.
Now for my little verse, which opens with Exodus 15:3:
November Verse 4: Kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel, ass. That's God to Saul. Since, we've been buckling up for slaughter, sword to gas, musket, spear, scimitar, machete; harrying, dispersal, cleansing, deadly soft words for the blood-soaked facts: whole peoples falling to the axe. And what comes next? Post-devastation do gentlefolk take up the land, priests take survivors by the hand, declare it's all a fabrication? The story of the human race is sometimes awful hard to face.
This was read to us by the marvellous Lisa during Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library. It’s a sequel to Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear what Do You See?, or really a variation on it. This one isn’t an accumulation of creatures seen as in the original (and as in Mem Fox and Julie Vivas’s I went walking), but a chain, each seen creature becoming the seer in the next spread. These books make magic from extremely simple text and totally beguiling images.
Julia Donaldson, especially when teamed up with illustrator Axel Scheffler, has been one of the revelations brought to me by grandfatherhood. This is a simple story of a witch who loses parts of her equipment and each time she regains one she takes on an extra passenger as well. It’s genial and bounces along with wonderful rhymes.
I first heard this story as a joke. The wide mouthed frog wanders through his environment asking other animals what they eat. When you tell it as a joke, each time you speak one of the frog’s lines you stretch your mouth wide with two fingers. When he meets the crocodile, who says he eats wide-mouthed frogs, you purse your lips and say, ‘Ooooh.’ It works well as a picture book, too, though the punch line needs to expand: ‘You don’t see many of them around here.’ Also read to us by the fabulous Lisa.
A fabulous Alison Lester book. It belongs to the genre where a main character wanders about a farm greeting all the other animals, and does it very well. The images have interestingly textured backgrounds, which is something I haven’t seen in Alison Lester’s work before. As I’m reading so many books where farm animals are introduced to the young reader, I realise how different my granddaughter’s start to life is from mine – I spent my first 12 years living on a farm. I loved the exoticism of books where children lived in villages and could talk to someone in the house next door. She walks out the front door to cars, neighbours and the sounds of urban life – nature is at a premium, and books are a way of learning its importance.
Jan Mark (words) and Charlotte Voake (images), Fur (1986,Walker Books 2014)
The late Jan Mark wrote some superb books for young readers. This is a ‘first story’ that shows she could do it for the very young as well. A cat likes to sleep in ‘my’ hat. Behold, one day half a dozen kittens have joined her in the hat. It’s more than 30 years old now, though this is a new edition. Maybe the images of kittens and broad-brimmed straw hat come from a different era, but its appeal is still strong. I picked this up off the library shelf and it elicited several exclamations of ‘More!’
It was a joy to rediscover this on Ruby’s shelves – a library book I think. It was Pamela Allen’s first book, and is a kind of early version of the sublime Who Sank the Boat?, with added nakedness to compensate for the slightly less elegant narrative line. Mr Archimedes and his animal friends have their baths together and want to figure out who is responsible for the water spilling. It’s fun, and possibly lays the groundwork for later learning about displacement of liquids and the actual Archimedes’ Eureka moment
My Dog Bigsy and Mr Archimedes’ Bath are the thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth books I’ve read as part of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ll say it again: though Pamela Allen is a New Zealander and lives there now, she lived and worked for a long time in Australia, including when she created this book.
Keri Glastonbury was interviewed by Jim Kellar in the Newcastle Herald in August. There’s much talk in the interview (you can read it all here) about the Newcastle-ness of the book – the local sights, snippets of lore, the city’s history and its present. Then, as if Keri Glastonbury is worried by the non-academic tenor of the conversation, she warns, ‘I don’t want people to think it’s accessible.’ Readers, she says, ‘will be confronted with experimental poetics.’
So there you go.
I assume that most of my regular readers are, like me, not up to speed with experimental poetics. (I’m one of the few non-academics and non-poets who writes in public about contemporary Australian poetry: I’ve never been terribly afraid of looking stupid in public, and I’m deeply grateful for the tolerance and good humour of poets who have responded to my blog posts in the comments section or in person.) If you’re fully poetry-phobic, this isn’t a book for you. But if you enjoy the outsider’s pleasure of being largely mystified and then having moments of clarity and even delight, you might want to give it a go.
The poems, as it suggests on the lid, almost all refer to Newcastle (that’s upon-Hunter not upon-Tyne), to the life of an academic working at Newcastle University who is a member of the LGBQTI+ community. There’s a wealth of academic reference/injokes, gossip from the poetry world, Newcastle detail that will be obscure probably even to some Novocastrians, snippets of pop culture from the last 30 or so years, internet memes and moments (I’m guessing) from the poet’s personal life – none of it spelled out or explained, much of it in unexpected juxtapositions. I doubt if any individual – except perhaps Glastonbury herself – could read the whole thing and get all the allusions. So if one feels like an outsider, it’s not because there’s a clique of insiders somewhere but because any reader is, as it were, eavesdropping.
Here are the first eight lines of a three-sonnet poem from early in the book, ‘What Would I Say’:
Dispersing a lyric via leaf blower & other 80s cult songs like '88 Lines About 44 Women' – what if John Forbes had lived to live tweet during Q&A? It's all lost generation stuff & the malls were unindicted co-conspirators. Who knew? Meaghan Morris/Maitland. Joanie loves Chachi vs Date Academics in AU.
Here’s my take these lines. Your mileage will vary:
Line 1: We don’t know who’s doing the ‘dispersing’. Perhaps the noise of a leaf blower disrupts the concentration needed to create or respond to a lyric – lyrical words or sentiments are like so many dead leaves to be blown away by the unremitting noise of our lives these days. (A bit like many of Donald Trump’s chats to journalists – ‘dispersing information via helicopter blades’)
Line 2: The ampersand throws back to the first line, suggesting that it stands for a particular kind of 80s cult song. So the song named in this line (and others like it) do that kind of dispersing. I didn’t listen to much pop music in the 80s, but I looked this up and found that it’s a jolly list of women, two lines each, probably women that the writer/singer is claiming to have had sex with. Not very lyrical, or perhaps romance on an industrial scale?
Lines 3 and 4: These references aren’t obscure to me, but they may be to some readers. John Forbes was about my age, a witty, some would say smart-arse, poet who died young, who appears to be remembered with affection in contemporary Australian poetry; Q&A is an irritating current affairs TV show that runs tweets across the bottom of the screen. Forbes live-tweeting is a terrific notion. The dash at the start of line 3 implies some connection with what has gone before – Forbes was writing in the 80s (and the 70s and the 90s), so perhaps he is offered as contrast to the leaf blower songs.
Line 5: ‘Lost generation’ usually refers to people born during World War One, but if ‘It’ at the start of the line refers back to the previous four lines – which is what the syntax suggests – maybe there’s a hint of another lost generation who came of age in the 80s (would that be Gen X? (Forbes was a Boomer) …
Line 5 and 6: … and somehow without anyone being aware of it the existence of shopping malls was partly responsible.
Line 7: I once shared a flat with Meaghan Morris, which is probably beside the point. She is a Cultural Studies scholar who hails from Maitland – ah, the Newcastle connection! Maybe she has written about the effects of malls on the 80s generation (she’s certainly written abut Centrepoint Tower, and motel signs). Maybe this line is answering the question from previous line – ‘Who knew?’
Line 8: Joanie Loves Chachi was a US sitcom in the early 1980s (I looked it up), a pretty unsuccessful spin-off from Happy Days (I don’t know why it wasn’t printed in italics as the names of books are later i the same poem). Date Academics sounds like a dating app, and at first I thought AU referred to the internet domain code for Australia, but if this is about the 80s, then AU is more likely to be Adelaide University and Date Academics may be a pre-internet means of hooking up. So maybe the line evokes a moment when an academic living in Adelaide had to make a choice between watching junk on TV and looking for love, again in a fairly non-romantic way.
I didn’t mean to spend so long on those lines, but I guess that gives some idea of the work I have to do to engage with these poems. Not only the work of figuring out the references (6 diverse named cultural references in 8 lines), but also trying to grasp how, or even if, the lines , images and references relate to each other. My hypothesis that the 80s are the common thread falls by the wayside in the following lines with references to books published in the 70s and the 2000s, to ‘blended learning’, surely a more recent jargon term among educators, to Sandilands (I’m assuming it’s Kyle the radio broadcaster, who’s surely a phenomenon of the 90s and later), and so on. I fall back on reading line by line, and not worrying too much about the poem as a whole. Maybe the poem, and these poems in general, work, not so much by yoking things together by violence (as Someone said of John Donne and Co) as by piling up bits of stuff from all over the place, and any apparent logical flow is a red herring.
I know this reads as if I’m complaining, and I would be, but the language feels very alive in every moment, and from the myriad details emerges a cumulative picture of a life, a sensibility, a place, a community. Occasionally there’s a brilliant image, like this from ‘City of Moi-Meme‘:
From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi
or this from’Everybody Loves (Raymond Terrace)’:
____that James Turrell moment, where I realise that we've been sitting in the dark staring at a hole in the wall, productively.
Or this, from ‘Two Dog Nights’, my favourite lines from the book:
The Islington figs release the bats & the sky blacks out like an erasure poem.
My favourite single word: ‘anthroposcenester’ from ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ (Though I would have spelled it ‘anthropocenester’.)
Newcastle Sonnets is the thirty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone..
What a joy for Ruby to discover this book. It combines three of her major sources of delight: a kookaburra, a crocodile and the song ‘Row row row your boat’. The uncredited author has added verses to the song that introduce a koala, a platypus, a bandicoot and a kookaburra as well as the crocodile that was already there (‘If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream’).
I don’t care terribly for the illustrations, but they do a great job with the target audience.
We bought this from the shop at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, which is the setting for its story of a family of ducks. A song that Ruby requests interminably is ‘Five little ducks went out one day’. The Emerging Artist, in this context known as Nana, does some wonderfully dramatic quacks in that song, and this is a book that offers great scope for more – plus there’s a silly story about a little creature lost and then recovered, thanks to kindness and cooperation. Pamela Allen is fabulous.
This was read to us at Rhyme Time at the library – a total classic that takes us through a range of colours, each attached to an animal. It’s fascinating to read this after I Went Walking (Julie Vivas and Sue Williams 1996), which follows its format closely but does something quite different with the images and has a child observing the animals and in the end having what my mother would have called a love-up with them.
Macca is a sweet, kind, cute creature who meets a big, tough, bullying llama named Harmer, a very different creature from llama-llama-red-pyjama llama who all the same claims the affection, or at least the fascinated attention of our young reader. The bully gets his come-uppance, the skills of the smaller, more agile creature are established, and there is an implausibly sweet reconciliation at the end. As with ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’, Ruby likes this a lot more than I do.
Not really a Ruby Read, this one. The EA and I recently spent an interesting evening with a five-year-old boy while his mother was out. We listened to ‘Old Town Road‘ at least ten times and then on the way to sleep I read to him – his choice – an encyclopaedia entry about volcanoes, and this book. It’s the story of David Bowie’s life as a fable about a boy who felt he didn’t belong becoming very successful and widely loved through, in part, embracing his difference. (Also, I didn’t know what happened to his eye.) The round-faced images are slightly jarring, but it’s a lovely framing of Bowie’s story.
Alexander’s Outing is the thirty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Pamela Allen now lives in New Zealand, where she was born, but she lived and created books in Australia for many years. For a time she illustrated for that most Australian of institutions, the New South Wales Department of Education’s School Magazine.)
apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.
People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.
First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).
Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain byBaroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.
Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.
Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:
I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.
‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.
The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.
In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).
In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.
The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.
Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.
This is Colleen Z Burke’s twelfth poetry collection, published like many of the others by her own Feakle Press. When I blogged about her 2013 collection, Splicing Air (blog post here), I wrote:
Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren … 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.
The same is true of Sculpting a Landscape. Many of its short poems are like verbal snapshots of a moment observed around the inner city, or of a moment of insight, or something learned in travels or seen on the news, or something one of the grandchildren said. These poems create an impression of artlessness, as if they were jotted down in the moment.
That impression isn’t necessarily accurate – there’s often a subtle play of imagery, an unexpected word or a stinging implication. The title poem is a good example:
Sculpting a Landscape
In a small clearing amidst a huddle of skeletal gumtrees a rusted burnt out ute fuses into the eroded earth sculpting a definitive Aussie landscape.
At first this looks like a slightly sentimental, familiar image of rural Australia. I’m typing this beside a Carol Ruff painting of a red desert landscape that has a rusted vehicle as a detail among stunted vegetation and scattered rocks: the land has outlived and assimilated the incursion of settler technology. By contrast, if you sit with this poem for a little while, you realise that something different is happening here. It’s a small clearing, so the vehicle is a larger presence. The trees huddle, and are skeletal: to my mind, but the only gumtrees that look skeletal are dead ones. And the earth is eroded. This is not a cosy picture: ‘Aussie’, the affectionate diminutive for Australian settler culture, is definitively attached to an image of death and destruction.
Most of the ‘snapshot’ poems aren’t as harshly unsettling as this, but there is often something just a little off kilter: an ibis is seen ‘meandering’ across an empty street, ‘gum / trees lilt air’, coastal limestone is ‘spliced with / slivers of pink / and white’, mountain skies are tetchy, ‘raindrops / savour summer’s intensity’, trees ‘pierce / luminous / clouds’.
The conversations with grandchildren are less compelling than in previous books. Perhaps this is because the children are older. (I recently heard David Malouf say that three-year-olds are the most interesting people he knows, and Colleen Burke’s four grandsons, beautifully photographed by the poet at the front of the book, are substantially older than that.) But the opening to ‘Running free’ is irresistible:
I want to go to the cemetery and dance on graves, said Emmett, my eight year old grandson.
There are speeches put into the mouths of women in harsh situations: ‘My Country’s Embrace’ in memory of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tugan (1917–2003), ‘Agnes’s story, Malawi’, ‘One less mouth’, about a young woman in an unnamed third world country. There are poems about mistreatment of animals – the slow loris, the pangolin, a kangaroo in a Chinese zoo. Re-reading my earlier posts about Colleen Z Burke’s poetry, I see recurring descriptions like ‘straightforward’, ‘unadorned’, ‘No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures’. So yes, this is plain-speaking poetry, filled with a sense of place, that place being just up the road from where I live, and with a concern for the underprivileged.
This Quarterly Essay confirms me in my decision to delay reading each QE until the following issue has appeared. That way I get to read the correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind. With this issue, it has an extra advantage. Rebecca wrote Australia Fair in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, challenging Bill Shorten and his team – who she expected to win – to be bold enough to revivify Australian social democracy. The ALP lost, emphatically, and no one expects a Scott Morrison government to be interested in social democracy. So I read the essay shorn of its immediate persuasive goal, and it turns out to be a very interesting argument about where the majority of Australians stand on a number of key issues
Rebecca Huntley is a social and market researcher, involved, as she says, ‘in the “dark arts” of focus groups, polling, surveys, and strangers who ring you in the middle of dinner’. Her husband, when asked what his wife does for a living, replies, ‘She’s an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they are talking about.’ She’s been at it for many years, and can speak with some authority about general community attitudes on a number of topics.
She argues in this essay that the mainstream Australian population is much more progressive than our politicians. After some pages discussing the term ‘social democracy’, and research from many sources into community understandings of the role of government in a democracy, she comes to the conclusion that fairness – both for individuals and the collective – matters more to Australians than freedom (the reverse of what we generally believe to be the case in, say, the USA):
The point of democratic government is to do things for people, not to prevent government from doing things to people
She goes onto some detail on housing and homelessness; the environment and climate change (‘the defining issue for voters judging a prime minister’s leadership skills and character’); immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. On each of these subjects she demonstrates – though less clearly on the last mentioned than the others – that the majority of us, as in the case of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, want change for the better in ways that our political leaders simply don’t represent. And politicians are held in very low regard, seen as in thrall to their donors and not committed to the public good.
She pleads with Bill Shorten to step up boldly and restore a robust social democracy, wining back our respect for the parliament i the process. Who knows if he would have done it? On the strength of Anthony Albanese’s recent caving in on the Morrison government’s tax legislation, it seems unlikely. What emerges from the essay, then, is an optimistic view about the Australian population in general, and a deep pessimism about the current state of our democracy.
The correspondence is all dated post election. None of the correspondents takes a pot shot at the pollsters for getting it so wrong, but they all grapple with the paradox of a generally progressive population having voted in a nakedly reactionary government. They are all interesting. I’ll just mention James Walker’s final point. He cites Walter Lippmann (‘one of the pioneers of opinion research’) who warned that we should be wary of ‘the phantom public’. There is no single public out there, but any number of emergent entities, ‘continually evolving in response to political action and representation’. Walker goes on to quote one of Tony Abbott’s most striking pieces of feral poetry
Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: ‘Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.’ The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: ‘What should we do?’ But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing ‘public’ to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.
Rebecca Huntley’s response to corespondents is elegant, a little mea-culpa-ish but unbowed. ‘The conclusion to draw,’ she writes.
is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politicians has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show … The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom.
‘I remain,’ she concludes, ‘a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.’
Right out of my comfort zone: modern 'classical' music, involving unconventional instruments (including little red chair and children's spinning tops), and conventional instruments being used unconventionally (a cymbal scraped across the surface of a bass drum). Soprano Jessica Aszodi was amazing.