Tag Archives: Kathryn Lomer

Kathryn Lomer’s Night Writing

Kathryn Lomer, Night Writing (University of Queensland Press 2014)

nw.jpgKathryn Lomer has been to places I’ve been, loved music I’ve loved, had experiences similar to mine, learned things I’ve learned, and uses words about them that opens doors for me. A rural Catholic childhood, science and maths, bushwalking, parenthood, sex, the ups and downs of relationships, camping holidays, birds, cattle, several kinds of loss, several kinds of revival, surgery, music, visual art and sculpture, the quality of daylight, Brisbane and Melbourne art galleries, North Queensland tourist spots: she makes warm, intelligent, accessible poetry from all these.

An attractive feature of her work is the way it’s grounded in science and physical experience, while open to kinds of feeling generally associated with religion or fantasy. This stanza from ‘Measure’, for example:

I used to make shell necklaces on Hawley Beach,
my mother saying fairies made the shell holes
to help little children do just that.
I tell my son sea urchins
drill a hole to get at food inside.
Truth is also extraordinary

And how about this bit of taxonomical music from ‘Spyhopping’, which is addressed to humpback whales:

Your name is a parsing of the past:
animalia chordata vertebrata mammalia
cetacea mysticeti balaenopteridae
megaptera novaeangliae
;
a prayer said in Latin
that you survive.

The book is in five sections. There’s a lot to say about all of them, but I’ll start with the fourth, ‘Eclipse plumage’, which reads pretty much as a narrative. The title poem gives the set-up:

I read in my bird book of females’
changed feathers after breeding:
eclipse plumage.
They become undistinguished.
Here, my colour has come back.
It’s all the walking, I say.
The fresh air. The land.
Silly, I know, but I grin
all the way to the river.

In the next poem, ‘Paddock bull’, the bull is not distracted by cows lowing in the next paddock, ‘though I detect a little bit of pink interest’. And from there on, a narrative can be pieced together: ‘Here’ in the lines above is an artists’ and writers’ retreat at Bundanon in New South Wales, and the returning colour is the stirrings of desire, in abeyance since she became a mother, presumably some years before; a painter of birds reciprocates, they vacillate (‘we’ve said the timing isn’t right, / but all day we will wonder / What if it is?‘), go for it (as conveyed in ‘Lovers below Brasso tin’ which mainly describes the drypoint by Arthur Boyd for which it is named, in which ‘lovers are suspended in lust’), and in a final two poems ‘Men without sorrows’ and ‘Contentment’ say goodbye.

Nine of the ten poems in the section contribute at least indirectly to this narrative – which raises questions about the other poem, a double sestina at the beginning of the section, ‘The fencer and his mate’. (A sestina has six 6-line stanzas, each stanza having the same six end-words, but in a changing order, followed by a 3-line stanza using all six ‘end-words’. ‘The fencer and his mate’ does it twice, with two sets of end-words.) It’s a stunning poem in its own right. As if the complex recurrent rhymes aren’t enough, a number of other words and motifs recur, and the poem’s technical whizzery functions as a kind of homage to the fencers’ skill with their axes and saws. Nothing in it relates obviously to the main narrative of the section, but then near the end of ‘Contentment’, there’s this:

Across the Shoalhaven, a dead tree is chain-sawed for firewood,
next winter’s warmth to be stored

as comforting in its woodpile pattern
as the promise of love

That stands by itself, but it also sends us back to the final lines of that first poem, which on first reading struck an odd note by speaking of ‘love’ between the fencer and his mate (rhyme words are straight, earn, axe, true, sleep and new):

and moist and ready. To tell it straight, what they can earn
is each other’s love, that feeling like an axe, something fine and true,
like a sound sleep, two lives made new.

We’re left with the hovering notion of ‘two lives made new’ in a passing holiday affair.

Once I’ve committed myself to reading for narrative, it’s hard not to read the final section, ‘Holy Days’, as telling what happens next. There’s a rough equivalent to the earlier poem’s new plumage in ‘Shy’, which speaks of the ‘platypus of the bedroom’:

it comes in only at night,
wraps itself around my waist and thighs,
strokes my breast and buttocks,
nuzzles, sometimes settles on my belly.
Gone is the begetting,
the wearing, the faring well.
Here in the dark,
all is fine.

There’s a man who spends time with the poet and the son who was noticeably absent from the ‘Eclipse Plumage’ section. This man seems to be a keeper, and when the two of them go on a North Queensland holiday in the sequence ‘Holy Days’ (roughly a quarter of the section) there’s no need for a Boyd print to convey their physical joy in each other. Then in a couple of lines that must bring joy to the heart of anyone raised as a Catholic:

Yes, it’s an indulgence.
As a child, and in my church,
the word meant punishment was cancelled,
everything forgiven.
They’ve skipped purgatory
and sent me straight to heaven.

aww2017.jpgNight Writing is the second book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer

1nwAlain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.

Now You Shall Know the Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology

Dennis Haskell and Jean Kent (editors), Now You Shall Know: Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2013 (Hunter Writers Centre, October 2013)

1nysk The Newcastle Poetry Prize is described on its website as ‘the richest and most prestigious stand-alone poetry competition’ in Australia. It has existed for more than three decades under one name or another, and for some years now the Hunter Writers Centre has published an anthology comprising the winner and a selection of other entries. This year’s anthology, named for Jennifer Compton’s winning poem, contains 27 poems and runs to 140 pages, so it’s distinguished from other annual anthologies by including mainly longer poems.

The book is a feast, and even though it owes its existence to a poetry competition it’s a beautiful demonstration of the silliness of pitting poems and poets against each other so that one must emerge as The Best. Not that I challenge the judges’ decisions: all the prize winners and commended poems deserve to win. But so do almost all the others.

Among many pleasures, there’s a strong element of place in the collection. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Now You Shall Know’ kicks things off with a brilliant evocation of the non-place of a passenger plane in mid-flight. Of the two other prize winners, Karina Quinn’s ‘Always Going Home (a domestic cycle)’ has a section named ‘A nowhere place’, which refers to a very specific not-quite-room in the family home, and among other things the poem is about the power exerted on the speaker by the place that is home; and Mark Tredinnick is in full Blue-Mountains-bardic flight in ‘Two or Three Days with Claude Debussy in Late October’. In Kathryn Lomer’s ‘Vapour Trails over Sassafras’ the speaker visits the Tasmanian landscape of her childhood. The dialogue in Ron Pretty’s ‘Picnicking on the Safety Ramp’ creates a gloriously recognisable rural masculinity; Christopher Kelen’s ‘The Shed’ is a location where a similar masculinity finds solitude; the title of Rachael Mead’s ‘Lake Eyre Cycle’ doesn’t mislead.

Two pieces resonated strongly for me as a north Queenslander.  B R Dionysius’ ‘Unicorns Cross Here’  is a sonnet sequence that tours the north, beginning with the giant statue of James Cook in Cairns and visiting the Daintree and the Atherton Tableland. Here are the opening lines of the third sonnet, describing the environment of my childhood:

Through the silk thin mist, sugarcane fields stand as Roman armies
At the end of empire. Forlorn, thirsty, they occupy the flat ground,
Blades held stiff as they form up, row upon green row in perfect
Drilled unison. A thousand years of domesticating iron has tamed
the wilderness. Axes bite deeper than words, saw teeth whisper in
Death’s white noise. On the hills behind them, the rainforest seethes
In undisciplined chaos; disordered ranks thrown back in confusion.

Where Dionysius is a visitor to cane country, the speaker in Victoria McGrath’s ‘Cane Smoking’  comes from there:

I was cradled deep within the blackened root of something
rank and rich in déjà vu, and my curves and crannies,
like so many cinerary urns, claimed without question
the confetti-ash that drifted inevitably to earth.

Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s ‘Wishful Thinking’ isn’t particularly a place poem, unless you count a certain kind of Catholic childhood as a place. From its first lines

You grew up learning not to say
things you were told you should not think

you know exactly where you are. The poem does what I would have thought impossible – it deals with child sexual abuse and keeps its head, even managing moments of playful wit:

it was never the cat that got your tongue,
it was the catechism.

There’s much more, as they say in the ads. Andy Jackson’s ‘Marfan Lives’, Ian Crittenden’s ‘The Red Soil Elegies’, … Really, it’s a wonderful collection.

Erotica: the morning after

Having done a “before” post, I now feel obliged to do an “after”.

As it turned out we were all white, middle-aged, heterosexual and in long-term relationships. No one had much interest in discussing Anaïs Nin – most hadn’t been interested enough in Delta of Venus to read the whole thing, though one chap had read a second, similar collection of her dollar-a-page pieces, and another had read some of her diaries. Someone went to the trouble of saying he found some of it offensive. We decided she belonged to another era, and moved on. (Is there something of hers that you, dear reader, would recommend?)

It turned out that if I am timidly vanilla in my taste for erotica I was in a room of similarly minded souls. I did read the Kathryn Lomer poem, and people liked it. One of our number had assiduously ransacked his memory, the web (by googling “erotic poetry”) and the bookshelves at an auction down the road, and shared some gems he’s found. He read us a steamy encounter between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy in Pride and Promiscuity : The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen – we agreed that that’s probably a perfect read-aloud book for consenting adults. He played recordings of two marvellous poems, one from ancient Egypt and another incorporating a Native American story about a winged penis. He read, with some apologies, Charles Bukowski’s “Like a Flower in the Rain” (warning, that link includes anatomically correct four-letter words), in which one can only marvel at how one word can transform a poem. Someone mentioned the bath scene in The Reader. We talked a little about the early scenes in Silk.

We kept asking each other what makes something erotic rather than pornographic. Clearly our collective taste veered to the non-pornographic end of erotica. We agreed we like our erotica with a bit of wit, a lack of emphasis on the plumbing (though no aversion to it being named), a context, and a sense of minds being engaged.

Next meeting, Anna Karenina.

Erotica

Anaïs Nin, A Spy in the House of Love (©1954, Penguin 2001)
—-, Delta of Venus (©1969, Penguin 1978)
Alessandro Baricco, Silk (translated by Guido Waldman, The Harvill Press 1997)

Tonight at my book group (this is the all male one) we turn our collective attention to erotica. (Welcome everyone who found this entry via a google search.) A number of us had heard of Anaïs Nin, so we decided to go with a couple of her books, though there was an invitation to bring along a passage to read aloud from anywhere else. I’m posting this before the meeting.

810Of A Spy in the House of Love, the less said by me the better: not so much erotica as neurotica. The long, ecstatic paragraph near the start that ended ‘but only that one ritual, a joyous, joyous, joyous impaling of woman on a man’s sensual mast’ had me thinking that if that was erotica I’d happily do without it. Thankfully there were no recurrences.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but I can’t say I warmed to Delta of Venus, either, 0140184708which had lots of impaling. The most interesting thing about the book is probably the introductory pages, excerpts from Anaïs Nin’s 1940 diaries describing the way she and a swathe of her literary friends churned out erotica for a mysterious ‘Collector’ for a dollar a page.

Back in 1970 or so, there was a lot of anti-censorship activity in Sydney, including the publication of pornographic editions of student newspapers and “Porn Fests”, at which distinguished academics and undistinguished enthusiasts read rude bits from Henry Miller, Sam Shepard, John Wilmot second earl of Rochester, the Marquis de Sade and so on to crowded lecture theatres. It was all in a good cause – blows struck in the struggle for free speech – and some of it was funny, but overall it was squirm-making. Delta of Venus seems to me to belong in that context: it does contain some characters and narrative, but the ‘dirty bits’ are its raison d’être. Already dated in 1976 when Anaïs Nin decided to publish it, it reads as totally quaint now, quaint and vicious in its playing with paedophilia, incest, rape and so on. However, I did read it from cover to cover, so it clearly has titillation value. What I’ve realised is that if writing is to work as erotica for me, it needs to arise from a complex, recognisably human reality. Maybe we should have agreed to read Anaïs Nin’s diaries, where presumably she talks about more than who is doing what to whom with what.

1860462588I went to the theatre on Sunday with another group member, who was similarly unenthused by the Anaïs Nin books. Someone had recommended Silk to him, and he lent it to me with his recommendation. It’s a very short book, something of a fable about love and passion. Most of it is taken up with a slow-building sexual charge. Then there are a couple of explicit, erotic pages – which work because they’ve had 80 pages of build-up. Then the tale ends with a bitter-sweet twist that makes one want to re-read the erotic pages again …

At the moment I’m tossing up what read-aloud to take tonight: A D Hope’s ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Dream’ perhaps, or Kathryn Lomer’s ‘Tentative love poem’, which begins:

Snow comes late; only the air
between our mouths is warm,
a microclimate in which whispered words
are storms building. Our skins catch

what little light is cast – mine reflects,
yours absorbs.