If you’re in Sydney this coming Sunday – 27 November – you might like to drop in on this exhibition opening and book launch at the Shop Gallery in Glebe at 2 pm. The book is Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes, poems in English and Esperanto by Kit Kelen (about whom I have blogged a couple of times).
I have the honour of being the English-language launcher, and will do my best to say something coherent. A different Jonathan wll do the honours in Esperanto. I’m pretty sure there will be music and nibbles.
The book, which I’m loving, is available for purchase at Booktopia.
The Flying Island Pocket Poets series originated as a simultaneous entity in Markwell, NSW and Macao, China, through the work of Professor Christopher (Kit) Kelen. Running since 2010 (in association with the Macao-based community publisher, ASM), Flying Islands has published more than eighty volumes, with authors from all over the world, but more from Australia and China than from anywhere else.
We can subscribe from within Australia for $120 to receive a year’s publications (details here). From the beginning of the series, the RRP for individual copies has been kept to A$10. But that’s not all. To quote the website again:
These books that magically appear out of pockets are part of a gift and exchange art-economy. They are our currency!
Those aren’t just empty words. It was through versions of the gift and exchange art-economy that I found out about the Pocket Poets series, and came to possess, and read, two of these niftily designed books.
At a poetry reading in Sydney a couple of years ago, Richard James Allen read his poem ‘It’s Saturday night in almost any city in the world and’, and offered a prize for whoever could guess the city in which he wrote it. The audience called out the names of almost every city in the world, but I was the one who finally shouted, ‘Florence!’ and won the prize, Fixing the Broken Nightingale, which did seem to magically appear out of a pocket.
There’s a rich variety of poems in the book, ranging from straightforward love poems to poems that turn back on themselves like Escher drawings. There’s whimsy and melancholy, moments of ontological despair and intimations of mortality. The most striking poem is ’13 Acts of Unfulfilled Love’, which has some extraordinarily explicit sexual images, to arrive at this, in ‘ACT TWELVE‘:
These are my real thoughts,
not my dirty thoughts.
______________________ ____________This is my real love,
_________________________ ____________not my dirty love.
I am trying to live a real life,
not a dirty life.
_________________________And I'd like you there with me,
_____________________________in this soiled, holy world.
When I bought a copy of Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother at its launch in Sydney, neither of us had correct money. This little book materialised as if by magic to be my change.
It’s very different from Book of Mother and from other books of Kelen’s that I’ve read (blog posts here, here, here and here). As the title suggests, it’s a kind of sampling of his work, rather than a collection organised around a central subject or theme. A first Pocket Kit was published in 2011.
This is mostly a cheerful book. There are poems celebrating elements of Australian culture, like ‘Blokes’ (‘They know it’s bad luck to speak / when gesturing would do the trick’) and ‘shed’ (‘the peasant is the king here / where monarchs tinker with old crowns / no need for revolution’). The same ironic celebratory tone comes to bear on Macau where Kelen was a professor when this book was published, on his Hungarian heritage, on the prospect of having children, on the yellow umbrellas of Hong Kong in 2014.
My favourite in the book is ‘to tend’. If I remember correctly, Kelen like me had a Catholic childhood. This poem delicately addresses the question of what to do about the gap created when you stop believing. It starts:
to tend the gods as given, as found
new habits of homage are required
in word untamed, in sight unframed
paths to follow are so chosen,
by you, for you, willing, blind
go to the makers
not to the mockers
take the trouble to tell them apart
go to the makers
never the mockers
tend to the habits of homage
Even though Kelen can begin a poem called ‘ancestor worship’ with ‘people smelt bad in the old times / they had bad teeth, they were stupid’ and can continue in that vein for 20 lines, he is certainly one of the makers, not one of the mockers.
As I think about this book of poetry, the word ‘immersive’ comes to mind.
‘Hardanger’ in the subtitle is not an uncompromisingly hostile state of mind but a place, the Hardanger Fjord in Norway, where Kit Kelen evidently spent some time and, it seems, let the place generate poems in him.
These lines appear on the book’s title page:
the forest is the poor man's coat
keeps off the worst wind's bite
step in – let other worlds elapse
follow the trail of light
They offer an explanation and an invitation. The first line explains the title in what sounds like a folk saying, which in another context could be a lament for the poor man’s exposure to the elements, but here asserts that forest provides protection. We are invited to step into the book, as into a forest, for an alternative to whatever other worlds we inhabit. The book is offered to us as respite. That’s where my sense of immersion comes in: poem after poem offer glimpses of restorative calm, mostly in the Norwegian landscape. It’s the closest thing I’ve found in a book to walking in the bush.
Not that it’s all cosy, and far from humourless. As in ‘sweet’ (page 100):
and you'll draw mosquitoes
from the thinnest air
There are poems about death as well as poems describing the view of the fjord from a mountain top; poems of autumn and winter as well as summer; a lot of rain. The poet spends time in the small town of Ålvik, visits museums in larger centres, and riffs on the gravestones in a local cemetery. There’s often a sense of language not being quite up to capturing the experience of being in nature: sentences trail off, though we usually more or less know how they would have ended; or they miss their opening words. It often feels easy, throwaway, as if the poem just happened, the thought or feeling or spectacle effortlessly caught on the wing. But, of course, that’s the apparent ease of a virtuoso.
Though these are overwhelmingly poems that respond to a place, I found myself brooding on the small section of ekphrastic poems – that is, poems responding to paintings. They raise the interesting question: can you really appreciate such a poem if you haven’t seen the painting it refers to? Like the poems of place, there are three elements present when you read the poem: the words on the page, you the reader, the place or work or even referred to – and the ghost of the poet who put the words together. With poems of place, at least the ones in this book, you don’t need to have been there to appreciate the poem. (Just like you don’t need to have been in love to enjoy Robert Burns’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’.). Take the poem ‘the fjord like laid paper’, whose title doubles as its first line, which begins:
the fjord like laid paper
a ship rules a line
the only thing straight
in all the world turning
If you’ve stood and looked out at the fjord on such a calm day, you will read that differently from someone – like me – who has never been to Norway. For me, it primarily conjures up an image; for you, perhaps, the main thing is the simile/metaphor. Either way, the effect of the poem is to bring a vivid image of the fjord to mind, and I don’t feel any need to fly to Norway in order to understand the poem. (I do feel an impulse to go and see the places for myself, but that’s a different matter.)
When the subject s a painting, though, it’s a bit different. Take ‘Cowshed Courting’ (page 148), which refers to a 1904 painting by Nikolai Astrup that hangs in the Bergen Museum:
If you read this without seeing the painting, you’re left pretty much groping in the dark. I’m grateful that Kelen has named the painting in his title rather than calling the poem something like ‘After Astrup’, and I’m grateful for the internet, because it was no trouble at all to find an image of the painting online.
The opening lines have typical Kit-Kelen syntax:
fin de siècle light they caught then
we still breathe – it's unnatural
A conventional phrasing might be, ‘They caught a fin de siècle light then, which we still breathe, even though it’s unnatural.’ But the syntax serves a purpose: it reflects the process of seeing the painting. You begin with a general impression to do with the quality of the light, which makes you realise that this painting belongs to a particular era (fin de siècle, the end of the 19th century); next you have a sense of the painters of that time – no more specific than ‘they’, because after all this isn’t an art history essay; but having seen it as belonging to its own time, you realise that this painterly light still feels to us as familiar as the air we breathe – familiar but all the same artificial / ‘unnatural’.
The artifice has a purpose, as the viewer’s eye finds the figures on the left, and the brightest spot of colour in the image:
the colour's captured
a passion in the cowshed
rose cheeks and have you in my arms
deep pockets of brandy for inspiration
From the woman’s cheeks, the eyes travel over the figures. The poet projects himself into the image, identifying with the male figure and reading the bottles in his pocket as ‘inspiration’. (A different viewer might see those bottles in a less benign light, but that’s not this poem, or at least not foregrounded here.)
Then we’re taken on a tour:
never mind the pong
someone's peeping from the loft
A vague look to the right of the courting couple – yes, we notice that there are steaming heaps of cow poo all over the floor of the shed. Then we travel clockwise up to the top of the frame, and oh, there’s a creepy voyeur – a peeping tom – unnoticed until now. If the poem was a sonnet, this would be the volta, the turn. A poet less sure of his effects might have inserted a line space here, to mark the discord. But we move on without comment:
no glass but spring shines through the window
past which dung's piled – verdure and ordure
Only now do we come to the geometric focus of the painting, the window through which we can see a dung heap and beyond it some vague greenery. This is the source of that light we first noticed, and there’s an ambivalence to it: dung and greenery, ponginess and light. The assonance (if that’s the word) of ‘verdure and ordure’ reminds us that these things are intimately connected.
Our eyes travel down to rest on the middle of the image – the row of cows’ rear ends, and the unswept floor.
hear it ringing from the rear of each
and the floor steams unswept
Astrup doesn’t show the cows decorating the floor (surely ‘ringing’ is the politest term ever used for the sound of cows shitting), but Kelen gives us an aural equivalent what he shows, just as the earlier ‘pong’ has given us an olfactory one.
In the last line, our eyes travel back to the figures:
days are barefoot now
There’s a sense of completion as the poem finishes its circuit of the painting, from the woman’s cheek to her feet. With characteristic apparent ease, it has introduced a number of pairings: the pong and the ringing; the passion and the peeping; the verdure and ordure; the man fortified with brandy and the woman barefoot and vulnerable; then and now. That last pairing has a lovely complexity to it: in the opening lines, ‘then’ is the time of Astrup and ‘still’ is our time; ‘now’ in the emphatic position as the poem’s last word may refer to the changing seasons implied by the mention of spring in line 9, or it may again be contrasting the time of the painting with modern times when courting doesn’t have to happen in secret in cowsheds, but the whole day – the world outside the window – can be barefoot, open to intimacy.
The poem has made me look closely at the painting, and I may well read it differently from Kelen. In fact, by naming the peeper and then moving on quickly, the poem almost invites an argument. But in Kelen’s reading, or at least in my reading of Kelen’s reading, the painting, and so the poem, celebrate the way love can thrive in unlikely circumstances, and not be tarnished by prurient attention to it. The peeping tom is noticed and then ignored. The dung helps the greenery to grow. The poem gives shelter from ‘winter’s worst bite’. I don’t know that I could have understood any of that from the poem without reading it with the image open beside it.
Having written all that, I really should show you the image as well:
Dementia is becoming a major theme of story-telling in the 21st century. I can think of four excellent movies without even trying, the most recent being Everybody’s Oma, which I’ve seen at the Sydney Film Festival since reading Book of Mother. In poetry, Hawaiian poet Susan M Schultz’s Dementia Blog (2008), among other things, vividly evokes the social life of a dementia ward.
The Book of Mother is a substantial addition to this writing. The back cover blurb describes it well – it reads, in part:
This book is an intimate encounter with dementia as lived experience. Words are an important way into the world and when we begin to lose them we find ourselves with fewer tools and fewer familiar signs to go by. Phrases lost and tip-of-the-tongue half-forgettings – loose threads like these belong to the everyday business of knowing who we are. They are also the nuts and bolts of Kit Kelen’s poetry. A long play record of memory and its tricks, one comes to and from Book of Mother with always some questions about who is talking to whom, about when we are where, about whether we wake or dream.
There are a number of poems about lost keys – emblematic of dementia’s multitude of minor frustrations, for both sufferer and carers/relatives – whose titles are almost enough: ‘the keys are gone again’, ‘no one else has put them anywhere mum’, ‘you have hidden them’.
At least three poems had me in tears. ‘everything will be taken from us’ is a lament that speaks to the grief that accompanies the gradual loss of a loved one to dementia. ‘she’, the longest poem in the book, celebrates the poet’s mother as an individual and as an archetype of all mothers. It begins:
who had supernatural powers
who knew what Christmas wanted
what naughtiness was and was not
she who said wait till your father gets home
she who was a step before
could spell every word there was
and we could add things up together
‘vale mum’, the final poem, is an elegy that includes this wonderful image:
like lost at the Easter show
and a voice comes over the air
says this is how it is from now
your mother – all mother – is gone
For me, the power of the book comes from the cumulative effect of poems where the language feels as if it’s falling apart, in counterpoint to a number of poems in which a very young person’s language is coming together. That is, along with poems that document his mother’s decline, Kelen gives us poems about his own dawning grasp of the world through language as a small child closely connected to his mother. That may sound like an imposed schematic, but it reads as organic: being confronted with the present situation, the mind naturally goes to the past. As a reader, I found the transition between the two kinds of poem disorientating in a way that adds charge to both.
I love this book. If I was to recommend a single poem, it would be ‘everything will be taken from us’. Sadly, it’s too long for me to quote here with a good conscience, and I can’t find it online, but if you happen on the book in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, turn to page 75, and read this one, aloud if possible. It won’t take long, and it may inspire you to buy the whole book.
Meanwhile, here’s ‘in a waiting room’, a short poem that may give you a sense of the book’s shape-shiftiness:
This poem may take a little puzzling before it yields itself to the reader, but it’s not at heart a puzzle to be solved.
The title and first four lines are clear enough.
to make you happy
for your own good
because we love you
because I can't explain
We are in a waiting room, where someone is responding to a question, something like, ‘Why have you brought me here?’ Read in the context of this book, the lines could be spoken by the carer for a person with dementia or to a child. That is, it could be a poem about the poet’s mother, or one about a childhood memory. Or, perhaps more interestingly, it could be both. Either way, the lines give four different answers to the same question – the questioner, whether it’s a child who is unsatisfied with each successive answer, or the adult with dementia who doesn’t remember the previous answer, keeps on asking.
The next line maintains the ambiguity:
won't remember your hand was held
Anyone who has lived with or cared for someone with dementia will recognise the experience this neatly evokes. No matter how many visitors they’ve had, no matter how much hand-holding, they will still say none ever comes to see them, no one ever holds their hand. But equally the owner of the hand could be a child – in this book, the poet himself in memory – whose adult memory doesn’t include a hand being held. The omission of a pronoun at the start of the line is worth noting. Even though syntactically the line can’t be read other than, ‘[You] won’t remember’, by not giving us the ‘You’, the poem increases the shifting-sands feel.
Though I generally treasure clarity in writing, and see ambiguity as something to be avoided, it’s the double possibilities in these lines that I love. It could be either thing, which means that the two things are similar, which – in this context – suggests that when you relate to a person with dementia, your own hold on reality can begin to shift, or memories may surface of times when you were similarly dependent, confused or failing to understand. The poem takes the reader gently into that border state.
Then, there’s this:
in yellow light
smoke clouds them
or at cards
After a moment’s pause (or, to be truthful, a couple of days), I read this as a description of the waiting room. Perhaps it’s wallpaper, or a painting – of dinosaurs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, playing cards? A google of “dinosaurs playing poker” comes up with plenty of images. It’s not hard to imagine one in a doctor’s waiting room. To repeat myself, though, the pleasure here isn’t in having solved a puzzle or deciphered a cryptic set of words to settle on a clear meaning. It’s in the state of mind before the image is understood. I suppose it’s analogous to the couple of minutes when you savour a weird dream before understanding that it’s just a rehash of something banal that happened the day before. More to the point, it’s like when you have a memory in the form of a striking image, and it takes a while to make sense of it by remembering its context.
here elephants trumpet about
giraffe pokes in a head
The weirdness continues. Perhaps it’s another painting on the wall. This could be a waiting room for either a child or a person with dementia. If a child, these are the details of the waiting room that stand out as interesting, and return as memories when you’re an adult poet. If a person with dementia, they are the disturbing and disorientating features of the environment.
stood by the fire
The first two lines here give the reason the person (whose hand may or not have been held) is in the waiting room. They have stood too close to a fire. Then the phrase ‘too close’ does double work, introducing the third line: he stood too close to the fire, and he was also too close to his own beginning, that is to say, too young. And with that line, the poem’s main ambiguity is resolved. This is a childhood memory.
peg in the board where everyone fits
that was my Day at the Zoo
Oh, the elephants and giraffe weren’t in a painting after all. They were part of a board game, Day at the Zoo. This last couplet has an air of finality, like the ending of a child’s composition. Almost smugly, the mystery of the images is cleared up. The memory is reclaimed in full. The ‘your’ becomes ‘my’. Read in the context of the whole book, there’s also a sense of relief: in this case, the weirdness, the things that aren’t understood, have been resolved.
Then you turn to the next poem, ‘forget a thing and it’s gone’, and we’re back to dealing with dementia.
In an earlier version of this blog, I tried to capture things that happened with language with Mollie, who was living with us and with dementia. This extraordinary book does that with wonderful compassion and love, as well as wit, precision and, I guess the word is delight.
Shuggie Bain is the story of a boy who grows up in poverty in Glasgow, the youngest of three children. His mother, Agnes, is an alcoholic who is brutally treated by her husband, Shuggie’s father, and then abandoned by him. Once a stunning beauty, she struggles to maintain appearances as she descends into increasingly desperate poverty, alienated from other women and sexually exploited, often violently, by men. From an early age, Shuggie takes on the burden of looking after her, protecting her and trying to make things better. The downward trend is reversed at times when Agnes joins AA, finds part-time employment and has a relationship with a decent man, but there is never any doubt about how her story will end, or that she will take Shuggie down with her. Through it all, Shuggie is singled out by adults and other children as different, not a proper boy – it’s a story of growing up gay.
The Wikipedia entry on Douglas Stuart gives an account of his childhood that could easily be a plot summary of the book. It’s surely no coincidence that ‘Shuggie’ rhymes with ‘Dougie’ (though maybe not in Australian pronunciation, if ‘Shug’ is short for ‘sugar’ as in The Color Purple), and the opening line of the acknowledgements refers to the author’s mother ‘and her struggle’. So the book presents itself as a fictionalised version of the author’s own childhood. As such it’s a valiant work of imagination, wrangling terrible experience into words. I admire it, I read it compulsively, I must have been moved by the horror because when I reached the book’s one moment of genuine tenderness I felt an extraordinary sense of a weight lifting from my mind, even though I knew it was only temporary. But …
… if I hadn’t been reading it for the book group, I would have stopped at page 37, where Agnes is beaten and raped by Big Shug. Really, do I need any more images of that sort lodged in my brain? I did read on, encouraged by the fact that the book won the Booker Prize in 2020, and I’m glad I did, but I found the insistence on the misery of Agnes and every other character in the book disturbing. I can explain what I mean by way of a tiny moment fairly early on. Agnes has regained consciousness after a night of drunkenness, destruction and violence:
Agnes wrapped her lips around the cold metal tap and gulped the fluoride-heavy water, panting and gasping like a thirsty dog.
She has been beaten up, raped, and shunned. She has done appalling things in her drunken state. Now, the tone of this sentence implies, she has reached such a state of degradation that she drinks directly from a tap, and not only that, but the water has been fluoridated! Where I come from, you don’t have to be subhuman to drink fluoridated water from a cold tap. It feels as if the narrator, if not the book itself, has lost perspective, and I lose faith. It could be that this sentence is a momentary false note. After all, as Randall Jarrell said, a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it. But my uneasy sense that perhaps this was a work of Misery Porn persisted for the rest of the book, even while I engaged intensely with the characters.
Between reading the book and the Book Group meeting: I took the book, and my unease about it, seriously enough to do some counterpoint reading – that is, to read writing that deals with similar material from different points of view. Interestingly enough, the other reading led me to a better appreciation of Shuggie Bain.
1. Jimmy Barnes’s memoir Working Class Boy (link to my blog post here). The early chapters tell of a childhood in a family and community in Glasgow, where alcohol-fuelled violence is as prevalent as in Shuggie’s. Young Jimmy could easily have been one of the boys who terrorised young Shuggie.
They are different kinds of book, of course. Jimmy Barnes can expect his readers to know him as a rock star, and to read the memoir as his back story. As he tells it, the young Jimmy was able to escape from the violence at home, and he went pretty wild on drugs and alcohol himself. Writing as a grandfather, he repents the errors of his youth and writes with generosity and forgiveness of his parents.
The narrator of Shuggy Bain doesn’t have that kind of safe distance from the events he describes. The novel has a visceral immediacy. The account of Agnes’s degradation is told from a point of view not far removed from Shuggie’s own, so the reader is aligned with the helpless child bystander. If the narrator has any distance at all, I imagine it’s that of an adult Shuggie who has escaped Glasgow, and looks back in horror at what he witnessed and endured.
2. Wendy McCarthy on the ABC’s Conversations podcast describes her own response when she saw her father lying drunk in the gutter.
This boy said to me, ‘You know your father’s a drunk,’ and I said, ‘Yep,’ and just kept walking. I learnt something then: I’m not going to carry his shame.
(The link is here. The quote is at 14 minutes and 20 seconds.)
Wendy McCarthy was already at high school when that happened, and had had time to build her inner resources. Shuggie Bain is a novel about a child who didn’t have that chance, and who was caught in the vortex of his mother’s shame.
3. Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother(blog post to come). On the face of it, this poetry collection has nothing in common with Shuggie Bain. Mostly, it plunges the reader into the experience of living with the poet’s mother’s dementia. The son/poet-narrator is an adult, but the poetry captures a kind of mental vertigo that has a lot in common with the way Shuggie is drawn into his mother’s struggles. Comparing the books, I realised Shuggie isn’t just a dreadfully abused child, but he’s also a person of extraordinary heroism. When everyone else abandons Agnes or – in the case of Shuggie’s siblings – escapes her destructive gravitational pull, Shuggie stays, loving her and trying to make things better for her, until the bitter end.
After the meeting: We met in person, all but three who were respectively on the road with a theatrical production, visiting New York for major family event, and home with non-Covid sick children. As usual we ate well and eclectically. Among other things we discussed the role of table tennis for one of us in the process of retiring from regular work; the joy for another at having no income to declare as he too is in the process of hanging up his tools; and our shared relief at having a government that isn’t just about slogans, announcements and cruelty.
The Chooser kicked off conversation about the book by saying that if he’s known what it was about he wouldn’t have picked it, but he’d trusted his wife’s recommendation. I think we were unanimously glad he had, as the book provoked animated, and at times intensely personal conversation.
Many, if not most, had had to overcome initial reluctance that ranged from my own borderline prissiness to not wanting to dredge up memories of a major alcohol-related disruption in his own life.
A number of the chaps said they’d had to take breaks from reading it – one said a dull work on (I think) the energy grid was a perfect palate cleanser. One of the night’s three absentees texted that it was like Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life ‘but without the gratuitous violence etc.’ Another absentee sent us a long text part way through the evening, and encapsulated the general sentiment in his summing up: ‘In the end it was really good but hard going. I’m glad it’s over but glad I finished.’
A number of things were identified as having won us over. We agreed that it’s beautifully written – one man said he kept stopping to reread sentences for the sheer pleasure. It feels real – you believe that the author has experienced something close to Shuggie’s life. The narrative has a strong forward drive: as readers we share Shuggie’s hope that Agnes will snap out of the downward spiral, or at least we want it desperately even though we know it’s futile – and we keep turning the pages. The moments of lightness, tenderness and spirited resistance (there are more than the one I remembered) are beacons in the gloom. And we feel strongly for all the characters: Shuggie’s older brother Leekie won more than one heart, and (for me at least) Eugene, the one man who genuinely loves Agnes, tore my heart out when he became the unintentional agent of her destruction.
It’s a terrific book. Next meeting’s Chooser has been urged to choose something cheerful.
Cate Blanchett picks up a Southerly in Michael Farrell’s ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’ (see previous blog post) and I am reminded that all three 2017 Southerlys are on my To Be Read pile. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because the third of these just arrived last week. Still, it’s a backlog.
Nº 1 of 2017 has a terrific piece by Debra Adelaide, ‘Re-reading Thea Astley’s Drylands‘. Originally delivered as a lecture in the Sydney Ideas: Reading Australian Literature series, it has all the liveliness of the spoken voice as it celebrates Adelaide’s readerly relationship with Astley and in particular her final novel:
From its beautiful original cover to its unpunctuated ending, I have been in love with this novel since it first appeared. And as in a love relationship I am aware of its flaws, and I forgive them.
I hope one day I’ll be able to communicate as eloquently as Debra Adelaide when I passionately love a writer, flaws and all. Thea Astley emerges from this essay as no less ill-tempered and unfair, with a writing style no less over-complex than as other critics’ have described her, but here they are cause for celebration rather than reproach (and for the record this tone chimes well with my own sense of her from the one occasion I met her and the two books I’ve read, including A Kindness Cup).
Poet Sarah Day’s prose essay ‘A Significant Backwater’ is a welcome contribution to the growing body of non-Indigenous writing that explores connections that familiar places have to previously hidden-in-plain-sight history of the dispossession of Aboriginal people. (Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point is a brilliant book-length example of the genre.) Day’s subject is the area just out of Hobart known in her childhood as Old Beach Road, and now, having been handed back to Aboriginal people in 1995, called piyura kitina. The essay juxtaposes affectionate childhood memories with the narration of a dark history, and as a bonus describes two watercolours from the early years of settlement, one by little-known artist Margaret Sarah Cleburne, the other thought to be by T G Gregson.
Southerly generally has at least one item that stimulates my argumentative juices. In this one it’s Jonathan Bollen’s ‘Revisiting and Re-imagining The One Day of the Year‘. Bollen quotes the late great Raymond Williams, ‘there is no constant relation between text and performance in drama’, and discusses the way Alan Seymour tinkered over the decades with his 1960 play about intergenerational conflict over Anzac Day. He mines photos from the first production and a video of Seymour directing it for what they can tell us. This is all fascinating.
Then, as the essay moves into the re-imagining promised in its title, its focus narrows to the character of Jan, the girlfriend of Hughie, the young man who challenges the older generation’s celebration of the One Day. Jan has been pretty well universally disliked by reviewers: ‘crudely drawn’, ‘a little snob who goes intellectually slumming’, ‘insufferable’, ‘a pseudo-sophisticate’ are some of the terms Bollen quotes. Evidence is building that there’s a problem with sexism – not deliberate and explicit, but the ingrained kind that led to Seymour’s inability to write a rounded, interesting female character. Surely this is where some re-imagining is needed. But, true to our times, Bollen sees the issue as one of gender rather than sexism. What if the problems could be solved, he asks, ‘by cross-casting a male actor to play Jan and queering his relationship with Hughie?’
Would Jan, the character, remain female within the world of the play? Could she become a male character so that Hughie becomes gay? Or a male character transitioning in gender to become Jan?
I guess it’s an intriguing proposition, and it might well ‘provide the motivation for a company in Australia to stage a fresh production’ as Bollen hopes. But if you see sexism as the issue, then Bollen comes close to proposing that sexism can be fixed by getting rid of the woman, or at least of those who were born female. I don’t know what to say to that beyond Yikes!
Of the other prose pieces, Honni van Rijswijk’s ‘The Pointy Finger of God’ and Craig Billingham’s ‘Breathless’ are stories made me want more from their authors, though I was left uncomprehending by both their endings.
More than 20 poets get a guernsey. ‘Quiet Times’ by S K Kelen offers a grim summary of our species:
The human mission
kill all life on earth no one
nothing to stop them.
Others that speak to me are New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ (a tribute to the poet’s mother, employed as a maid in Government House), Christopher Kelen’s ‘Tang Gals’, Joel Deane’s ‘A wasp is in the ward’ and Brenda Saunders’ ‘Sclerophyll’ (a succinct bushfire poem).
There are scholarly essays on P L Travers, George Johnston writing as Shane Martin, Gwen Harwood and Peter Carey, plus a ‘creative non-fiction’ piece about H G Wells.
Australian Poetry Journal is the nearest thing we have to a community newsletter for Australian poets and poetry-readers. It is delivered twice a year to paid-up members of Australian Poetry Ltd. My copy tends to wait until I’ve got a book on the go that’s too bulky to read while walking. Thanks to a couple of hefty books, I’ve recently caught up on two issues, as well as last year’s anthology (also covered by the cost of membership). In case you’re interested, the joys of these journals aren’t restricted to members: anyone can buy copies, and the entire contents of issue 5:2 are up online. I’ve included links.
Issue 5:2 leads with a wonderful profile (here) by Dan Disney, Un Gyung Yi and Daye Jeon of some contemporary Korean poets, including octogenarian Ko Un, whom Allen Ginsberg called ‘a demon-driven Bodhisattva’. In other articles, Nicolette Stasko farewells JS Harry, who died last year, quoting generously from her work (here); there’s a knowledgable article about Stuart Cooke (here) and a number of reviews, including a piece on US poet and activist Denise Levertov by Felicity Plunkett (here); Adrian Caesar tells the story of David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann (here).
I can’t resist mentioning that Adrian Caesar, who is enthusiastic about most of P&W’s publications, has misgivings about some of the criticism they publish. After quoting a paragraph of dense academic writing from a recent book, he lets fly:
In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony … and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory.
Then there are the poems, roughly 50 of them. I turned down the corners of too many pages to talk about all the poems I responded to, so I’ll just list some of the raisins from the pudding.
Susan Hawthorne interrogates a photograph of her grandmother in ‘unknowing‘. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women‘ explores the difficulty of the ‘inconstant narrative of bewilderment’ created by, well, is it dementia or just habitual white-lying? Ivy Alvarez, in ‘N‘ riffs on ‘n’ words chosen as if at random from the dictionary:
noctambulist: _______I once walked out a sleeping house _______to see the moon _______trees tethered their shadows _______and I was the only one that moved
He does it again in issue 6:1, which has a focus on women poets and their concerns: a lively article by Carol Jenkins brings an epidemiological approach to gender and age distribution in Australian poetry anthologies; Heather Taylor Johnson profiles Susan Hawthorne, poet–founder of feminist Spinifex Press; Tegan Schetrumpf argues that writing groups offer an alternative to the patriarchal lone-genius-poet paradigm. Off-theme, but who would complain, is a fine tribute by Helen Nickas to Dmitris Tsaloumis, Greek Australian poet who died in February aged 94; and reviews of work by πO and Lesbia Harford, among others.
And there are another 50 or so poems. I got tears in my eyes (though I defy anyone to guess at which poem), I smiled, I gasped, I felt moments of my own experience vibrate into new life.
‘Old haunts’, a haibun by Sam Wagan Watson, evokes childhood terrors at the sounds of the night. J. Richard Quigley’s ‘Fondue’ utters the thought one dare not speak when offered that cheesy dish. Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘They Say’ makes poetry that transcends its ‘kids say the darnedest things’ source material. Rod Usher has serious fun with Italian verbs in ‘The imperfect’. My own peculiar edginess about kitchen knives is echoed uncannily in Claire Rosslyn Wilson’s ‘Cooking for Two’, and the precise language of ‘Stories from the kampong’, Mindy Gill’s narrative about a chicken-coop-raiding python, captured my own childhood memory of a similar incident (a significant difference being that, though we talked about the possibility, we didn’t eat the snake or the chickens it had eaten). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘Early onset’ touches on the pain of having someone close affected by dementia.The first poem of Brendan Doyle’s that I read began, from memory, ‘Sittin on the gasbox, / waitin for me dad’; in ‘The Wooden Gate’ here, his father ‘dead these sixteen years’ pays a reproachful visit in a dream. ‘Hearts and Minds’ by Stephen Edgar, master of rhyme, bounces beautifully off an artwork currently being created by the Emerging Artist. Dick Alderson’s ‘nail holes’ reminds me of my youthful fascination with the way holes in an iron shed ‘throw circles / on the floor / like soft pennies’.
There’s history: Virginia Jealous visits Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s war diaries in ‘Weary’s Birds’; and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Ode to Ambergris’ does what it says on the lid, with lovely light musicality. There are elegiac moments, as in Pam Schindler’s ‘Like someone who is leaving’. In the twelve delicate short lines of ‘Jumhoori’, Hessom Razavi describes a cat and laments the state of his native Iran.
Paradoxically, given that I get no sense at all that these poems are competing with each other, there is a prize for the best poem published in the journal each year.This issue includes 2015’s winner, Andy Kissane’s ‘Alone Again’, reprinted here with commentary from Andy.
I expect if you were asked to make a list of stand-out poems from these journals your list would be different from mine, but I’m pretty confident you’d find something here to nourish you and give you pleasure.
Kit Kelen mostly lives in Macau, but there’s a patch of bush in New South Wales where he has spent a lot of time over the last quarter century. The 150 pages of Scavenger’s Season are filled with poetry of that place – as the title page says, they are ‘poems at Markwell, via Bulahdelah to mark the quarter century’. We’re invited to immerse ourselves in the poetry as Kelen immerses himself in his bit of bush.
Drought, rain, fire, the sounds of the bush at night, bush regeneration, the passing of the seasons, white and black cockatoos, wild and domestic animals, pastoral lyric, blokes and sheds, and through it all the experience of being humble with the bush. I just loved this book. I’ve read most of it a number of times. Some of the poetry is difficult to decipher, and I just plain gave up on two long poems, but mostly the difficulty is of a kind that offers new rewards every time you go back to the poem.
Kelen’s relationship with his patch of land is a kind of groping opposite to the colonising farmer attitude so elegantly articulated in David Campbell’s ‘Cocky’s Calendar’: ‘The hawk, the hill, the loping hare, / The blue tree and the blue air, / O all the coloured world I see / And walk upon are made by me.’ The ‘me’ who makes that world does it as farmer, but also as poet. Kelen echoes this idea uneasily in ‘minor manifesto’:
one should acknowledge mastery
among sunfall and foliage
loathed and admired
is it not I who make
the landscape looking?
But there’s no hint of Campbell’s triumphalism. It’s a question, and the next lines suggest that the answer is complex:
I am the field here
cattle numb in
rain is waiting
for thirst to be spoke
taps on my shoulder home
That might be hard to follow if you haven’t acclimatised to Kelen’s language (more about that later), but I read it as continuing the acknowledgement of ‘mastery’, but modifying it – he doesn’t just make the field for cattle to be numb in (I don’t think he likes cows much), he is the field; and in the last three lines the ‘mastery’ becomes very tenuous – thirst may give rain meaning, and rain when it comes may serve the speaker’s purpose, but rain exists independently of how we need it, understand it or welcome it.
These line’s from the title poem, ‘Scavenger Season’, are more characteristic of Kelen’s attitude:
it’s true that I make no use of the land
that the land has no use for me
if each has a voice and neither has spoken
then there might be a treaty yet
‘little manifesto’ , which I quoted from above, is one of a dozen long poems in the book – it runs to eight pages. In a moment that’s characteristic of the book’s understated humour, the poem ‘manifesto’, not a little one this time, consists of just four lines:
from my door
everywhere leads me
every way home
nowhere but the way
I want to say a little bit about the language of the poems.
From my brief time as a 19 year old schoolteacher, I remember only one piece of student writing. It’s a sentence in an essay written by a boy in Year 8, describing his arrival home from school: ‘Dog barking and jumping and licking my face.’ I knew that this was not a proper sentence, and it was my job to correct it. I did so, but with a heavy heart because I knew that pushing the sentence into a ‘proper’ shape (‘The dog barked and jumped up and licked my face’) would rob it of vitality and only theoretically make it clearer. My student had recently arrived from somewhere in China, so I guessed that his syntax wasn’t so much mistaken as transplanted. And technically incorrect as his sentence may have been, I remember it 50 years later.
Towards the end of my second reading of in Scavenger’s Season I realised that something similar was happening. The opening lines of the first poem, ‘think of this’, are as good an example as any:
think of this
a string of pearls
trail of droppings
as you’re disposed
or as light catches
The paraphrasable meaning is clear enough, but something odd is going on. It’s as if some words have been erased: ‘Think of this [as] a string of pearls [or as a] trail of droppings, as you’re disposed [to] or as [the] light catches [them.]’ Almost every poem in this book asks for that kind of work from the reader.
Filling in the elisions isn’t always as simple in those five lines. The very next lines are pretty opaque:
think this where you’ve always been
and this advice could not have sought you
these your ageless friends among
But mostly the words cohere in response to slow, open-minded and open-hearted reading. It’s not unpleasant: it’s a little like reading in a language one learned long ago and has a rusty hold of – there’s a deep pleasure in feeling meaning emerge. I think that Kelen, who has taught at the University of Macau for 14 years, is doing what my Year 8 student did: writing English that is influenced by Chinese syntax. The result is richly memorable.
So there you have it: a book that invites you to join the poet in an immersive experience of the Australian bush, flavoured by a deep familiarity with Chinese culture and language.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publishers. I’ve read and re-read, used and abused it so much I may have to buy a fresh one with my own money!
I hope I don’t sound too surprised when I say that this issue of Australian Poetry Ltd’s twice-yearly journal is excellent. Any surprise isn’t at the excellence, but at other factors. Most of the poems are remarkably accessible, for instance. And it was a pleasure to meet in its pages quite a few people whose work I know reasonably well. Andy Kissane takes on school bullying in ‘Southerly’: ‘
I know from talking to Joshua that Fridays
at lunchtime are the worst. He won’t tell me what happens, he simply stares at his shoes.
joanne burns confronts a spider in ‘watch tower a reconnaissance’:
of cool voltaren no living creature has been
harmed in the writing of this poem except
perhaps the poet
Brendan Ryan ventures far from his native Victorian dairy farm in ‘Cows in India’; B W Shearer, whom I know from my time in children’s literature, pays homage to a rainbow lorikeet in ‘A crowned queen’. I warmed to poems by Ron Pretty, Andrew Lansdown, Carol Jenkins, Liz Dolan, Rachael Mead, and they weren’t the only ones.
Besides the poetry there are a number of interesting articles. Dan Disney and Kit Kelen call on poets to resist destructive politics, specifically regarding asylum seekers, to rouse themselves and readers ‘from a collectively accepted nightmare’, and they give robust examples, from John Mateer and Vicki Viidikas to Bertolt Brecht, of poets who have done so. Oscar Schwartz induces us to think about computer generated poetry in ‘A Turing Test for Poetry’, timely perhaps because of the movie The Imitation Game, and – to me – almost totally unconvincing. Simon Patton gives an insightful account of a translator–poet relationship in ‘Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and transmission’. Vivian Gerrand interviews Claire Gaskin, who has interesting things to say about many things, in particular her writing process, and her belief that to be a decent writer you need to read three books a week (which makes me well on the way). Sarah Day profiles the all but forgotten Tasmanian poet Helen Power.
The journal is a perk of membership of Australian Poetry Ltd, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.
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.
A terrific movie about the journalists who broke the big story about Harvey Weinstein. It couldn't have been made without the success of Spotlight, but it's a very different movie. In particular I love the way it made us see the places and communities in which it happened, mainly many faces and localities of New York City.
A special digital issue of Sydney literary journal Southerly, available as a free download. (Click on image to the left for Southerly's website.) The cover illustration is from aseries ofphotographs with the title 'Matchbox Sonnets' – implicitly inviting us to count the matches.
Douglas Henshall is back as the endlessly watchable, melancholy Jimmy Perez in stunningly beautiful Shetland – pity about the murders. This season begins with the burial of Jimmy's mother, at which he recites a Maya Angelou poem. Of the two Ann Cleeves characters getting a big run on TV, the man, Jimmy, is deeply embedded in relationships while the wom […]