Tag Archives: Colleen Z Burke

AWW 2016 challenge completed

AWW2016 This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.

Poetry:

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Pam Brown
Missing Up

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

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Antigone Kefala
Fragments

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Novels:

seahearts

Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Short Fiction:

lp

Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Memoirs:

njb&w

Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

alli

Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

Essays:

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Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia

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Helen Garner Everywhere I Look

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.

Colleen Z Burke’s Home Brewed and Lethal

Colleen Burke, Home Brewed and Lethal: New and selected poems (Cochon Publishing 1997)

hbl.jpgThis is the seventh of eleven published books of poetry by Colleen Z Burke (her writing name acquired the ‘Z’not long after it was published). It includes a generous selection from the earlier books including one that I’ve blogged about (here), plus 25 new poems.

Many of the earlier poems are also included in Burke’s memoir, The Waves Turn. One of the later ones – the prose poem ‘A doll on a stick’ – is a tightened and tidied version of a passage from the memoir, leading me to conclude that the memoir, published this year, was written in the mid 1970s was reworked and integrated into the memoir, which Colleen started in the late 1990s*. Most of the poetry in this book makes no bones about its autobiographical nature: memories of a Catholic girlhood, reconnection with an Irish heritage, defiant feminist rage, marital woes, then – taking up where the memoir ends – the joys and burdens of motherhood, the flavours of inner-city living, environmental and Aboriginal politics and history and, like a punch in the guts, half a dozen poems written in the heat of bereavement:

What fools are we
to think that we can plan
and plot and shape our lives
and choose to go or stay. To
love or not. What fools indeed.
When death is on our shoulder
day and night waiting ..

The book, and life, continues after the death of Burke’s husband, and many of the poems gain added resonance from being read as part of an overarching narrative. For example, one of the new poems, ‘Back to life’, ostensibly about the refreshing effect of the bush, has these lines:

I breathe
again
slowly
back to life.

Another of the new poems, ‘Between the lines’, comes close to describing what is perhaps the strongest feature of Burke’s poetry. Addressing the leftist poet Len Fox, who died in 2004 and was in his early 90s  when this books was published, she says of his poems:

____________when I thought
I had them sussed – they bent
twisted or even
smiled between
the lines
[…]
Yet basically
it’s the lack of bullshit
I liked the most about
your poems

I think it’s fair to say that Colleen Z Burke’s poetry aspires to, and generally reaches, a bullshit-free zone. No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures, but straight talk that nevertheless bends and twists and even smiles between the lines.

  • Amended after a conversation with the author

AWW2016Home Brewed and Lethal is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Colleen Z Burke’s Waves Turn

Colleen Z Burke, The Waves Turn: A memoir (Feakle Press 2016; for availability see here)

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Colleen Z Burke is a Sydney poet whose work, as David Brooks says in his introduction to her Home Brewed and Lethal (1997), ‘has not received the attention and awards it’s deserved’. She is a poet of place, particularly inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains; a poet of domestic life, feminist and fiercely maternal; a historical poet, exploring the stories of working class Australians  and her Irish heritage. I’ve blogged about a couple of her books (here and here) and our paths have crossed in a number of contexts. The word that comes to mind is ‘staunch’. The Waves Turn tells the story of her first three decades.

Colleen was born in the early 1940s into a tight working-class Irish Catholic community in Bondi, not a hundred miles or many years from the world of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. She was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, whose treatment of their young charges in Colleen’s day would not have helped the cause of their founder Mary MacKillop’s canonisation half a century later. Leaving school at 15 to help with the family finances, she landed a public service job, but was already snatching moments to write poems and read widely. With a friend she dared to venture into Sydney’s bohemian milieu, but remained enough her mother’s daughter not to plunge into their pre-feminist sex and drugs lifestyle. From there it was small dramatic step into the thriving folk music scene, where she was courted by singer Declan Affley, whom she eventually married, and began to discover her deep connections to Ireland.

Declan’s personality dominates the second two thirds of the memoir, as they negotiate their relationship, travel together to North Queensland, to Melbourne and to Ireland and England, struggling to earn enough money to live on (mostly it’s Colleen who earns while Declan’s work as a musician is paid pathetically), joining causes, and making music. In an extraordinary range of contexts, almost in the shadows, Colleen finds a place for her typewriter and works away at her poetry. This was before the days of creative writing courses, and it was a lonely enterprise, requiring a heroic determination to hold to her own course against all expectations – from bohemians and folkies as much as from Catholics – that she would make a man the centre of her life.

In 1975, which is as far as the book takes us, Colleen was in her early 30s. She had finally gained a university degree, the first in her family to do so. Her mother had died, her first book, Go Down Singing, had been published in the feminist Khasmik Poets Series, and half a dozen of her poems were included in Kate Jennings’s landmark anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted. We know from occasional mentions that she will have children, and from her poetry that Declan will die young and unexpectedly, that there will be more hardship, so it feels as if the book just stops rather than coming to an end point. The final sentence reads:

And as waves turn I’m unsure what the future holds but look forward with anticipation.

Where some memoirs read like novels that claim to be factual, The Waves Turn is more like a careful accumulation of facts in which a story can be discerned. The image of an archaeological dig comes to mind: Colleen Z Burke has delved patiently into the layers of memory, brushed the dirt from the innumerable artefacts she found there, labelled them and arranged them chronologically. Sometimes, in talking about the folk scene for example, memory has almost certainly been helped by festival programs or similar documentation.

There were places where I found the accumulation of detail fascinating, such as the points of similarity between Colleen’s childhood and my North Queensland Catholic childhood half a decade later: the same bottles of milk curdling in the sun at school (why?), the same ‘worms’ made by Vegemite in biscuits with holes (which I read just the other day will soon cease to exist), the same songs of Irish nostalgia. In my 20s, I followed in some of Colleen’s paths: to the edges of the Push and the folk music scene, to protest against the US and Australian war in Vietnam, to the ferment of women’s liberation, to the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University (though in that case I was there half a decade before her) … the list goes on. There’s pleasure in recognising the names of people, streets and buildings, in being reminded of forgotten rituals (Oh, that’s right, on Friday nights people would ask, ‘Where’s the party?’). I don’t know how it would be for someone who hadn’t been there. They might do a lot of head-scratching (as with the passing reference to some Catholics not buying Sanitarium breakfast cereals) and skipping (as with the list of performers at numerous folk-music events).

An edition of the book that included footnotes on all the musicians and big personalities mentioned would be spectacular. I recognised only a handful, but if the ones I didn’t recognise were as interesting as that handful, each list of names in this book is a flag pointing to a trove of stories.

We do get the stories of Colleen and Declan, or rather many of their stories.

For example, Declan Affley is perhaps the only good thing in Tony Richardson’s 1970 movie Ned Kelly. (In a nostalgic moment, I recently downloaded ‘The Wild Colonial Boy‘ from the soundtrack – Mick Jagger reduces it to passionless rinkydink, but Affley’s tin whistle fights to give the song heart, and wins.) The book takes us behind the scenes, not to juicy celebrity gossip, but to how the film gave economic relief to Affley and Colleen, and how, having the rarity of a decent amount of money, they splurged on luxuries.

More than fifty poems are scattered through the book, many of them dealing with events or places that have just been described in prose. So, not just in general but very specifically, the memoir gives a valuable insight into the relationship of the poetry to the life, into things that can only be said in poetry. For example, towards the end of the book, Colleen is employed on a survey to assess the health and welfare needs of people in the suburb of Glebe. In prose:

The health/welfare survey had its limitations, all surveys do, but talking to people in the open-ended section, I gleaned interesting information about their lives. The diverse community included students, transients, pensioners, professionals and more affluent residents in wealthier parts of Glebe Point. We interviewed people from the Glebe Estate in houses owned by the Catholic Church. The Glebe Estate wasn’t bought by the Federal Labor government’s Department of Urban and Regional Affairs, under the radical leadership of Tom Uren, until late 1974.

And so on. In typing that out, I’m reminded of something that nagged at me, though it might be of no significance to most readers. Feakle Press clearly operates on a shoestring, with little money for professional copy-editing, and my blue-pencil finger twitches to fact-check and clarify. In this paragraph, for example: the Glebe Estate was owned by the Anglicans, not the Catholics; will readers from elsewhere understand the reference to Glebe Point (perhaps ‘more affluent residents who lived close to the water at Glebe Point’ would cover it)? is the government purchase relevant, or a distracting complication? But these editorial questions are beside the point here. Colleen then gives us her poem, ‘The questionnaire’, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing in full:

The questionnaire

walking through Glebe
these summery days
of nearly autumn
of nearly autumnI move
through street shadows
of paperthin _ March trees
________to arrive
_____________ anywhere.
Knock on doors
___________opened
by young people
____________eager
as spring to answer
____________ _anything.
But older rustier men
__mostly nod their heads
like old clocks
__listening somewhere else
and pensioners
___________warm as sunlight
___________caught in old brick walls
look at my papers
____________ my well-chosen words
then shut their doors kindly.
And clutching empty questions
I run home
through thin pools
of March trees
__________ singing

And we’re there.

AWW2016The Waves Turn is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Colleen Z Burke’s Splicing Air (and Sonnet 13)

Colleen Z Burke, Splicing Air (Feakle Press, 2013)

1saMore 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.

awwbadge_2013 I think this is the 11th book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

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 practicalies 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 with one 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.’

ii
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.

iii
‘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.