Tag Archives: Kristen Lang

Journal Blitz 10

‘Blitz’ is a misnomer. My progress through my backlog of subscribed journals has been at anything but lightning speed. One of the journals has gone into a troubling hiatus, which has had the silver lining of reducing my pile of obligation, but I’ve filled the gap with a couple of one-off purchases, so the pile continues to grow at least as fast as I can read. The reading itself, of course, is largely a pleasure.


Jacinta Le Plastrier (editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 2: tribute, observations (2021)

For this issue of APJ, Jacinta Le Plastrier commissioned 29 poets and poetry-connected people to choose a poem by another poet and write a response to it and to the collection it appeared in. It’s a terrific idea. Much as I love Francis Webb’s description of a poem as ‘a meeting place of silences’, I’m delighted by this project’s invitation to read poems in the company of other thoughtful and engaged readers.

The resulting collection of poems and ‘commentaries’ lives up to the hope. Jan Colville’s poem ‘Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium’, for example, was chosen and commented on by Kristen Lang, whose book Earth Dwellers I loved. The poem is a response to a collection of herbs made by Emily Dickinson when she was a girl. It begins:

words slip off the page 
paste_ more than a century old 
_____ barely there_  cracked with age
_ and still
_____ here is the light through the forest
_____ her young hands 
_____ choosing stems, bare feet 
_____________________ in the dirt

Kristen Lang’s commentary sheds light and warmth even from her first words:

It is difficult to force a gap between the name ‘Emily Dickinson’ and the word ‘poet’. [This poem] not only prises the two apart but embeds there the warmth of an absorbed and absorbing child. There’s a contagious tenderness in this poem …

After a few more words that (for me) open the poem right up, she describes the book it came in – Journey (Walleah Press 2019). I immediately put Jan Colville and that book on my To Be Read list.

The rest of the poems vary richly in form, tone and content. There are poems by award winners and by people you’ve never heard of; poems by people whose work I love and have blogged about and people whose work is thrillingly new to me.

The commentaries are just as varied – including close, but not too close, readings like Kristen Lang’s; intensely personal prose poems; scholarly abstraction; and general advocacy for particular kinds of poetry.

There’s a translation from Bahasa Indonesia: ‘Termination Letter’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao, whose commentary on translation as creative collaboration is fascinating.

There’s a bilingual poem, ‘BIGGER THAN SCHOOL STUFF’ by Arrente poet Declan Furber Gillick, accompanied by the poet’s note on the incomplete poem as ‘a glimpse into the process of language revival’, and then a commentary from Jeanine Leane, who edited the anthology in which it appeared, Guwayu – For All Times (Magabala Books 2020).

As a lively, challenging and enjoyable introduction to the thriving, multifaceted contemporary Australian poetry scene, this would be hard to beat.

And then there are items that aren’t part of the main project, including an essay on poetry and science by Alicia Sometimes, tributes to Melbourne poet Ania Walwicz who died in 2020, and a blurb on Poetry Sydney, an independent literary organisation founded in 2019.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 240: Activism (Spring 2020), with links to the articles at overland.org.au

Here’s Adrian Burragubba on the alliance between Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous environmental activists in the context of the Stop Adani campaign:

Wangan Jagalingou’s case overlaps with the fact that large numbers of Australians oppose the Adani mine, and want it stopped.

The positive is that many people also support First Nations rights, and are joining forces with us. They know that by standing with us they can help protect the Galilee Basin, the natural springs, the Carmichael River. We welcome them. The negative is that support for our rights is not extended unconditionally and may therefore evaporate when the common goal is no longer an issue …

This is dangerous ground.

We call upon people to stand with us, but it’ll be our walk, our path, and it’ll be under our circumstances. 

That’s from his essay ‘When I speak I speak for the land‘ in this issue of Overland. It’s one of a stunning line-up of First Nations voices from the Activism @ the Margins Conference held in February 2020 at RMIT in Melbourne. Others range from Warlpiri story-teller Wanta Jampijinpa (‘Say sorry to the land‘) and longtime activist Puralina Meenamatta Jim Everett (‘An open letter to the next generation‘), to historian Victoria Grieve-Williams (‘Oodgeroo: Breaking the iron cycle of settler colonialism‘) and Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, whose ‘An Epistemic museum for modernity‘ calls for the thinkers and writers who legitimised white supremacy and slavery to be ‘identified, tracked down and held to account’. Taken together, the articles amount to an impressionistic history of Australian Indigenous activism from the 1960s Referendum campaign and the Gurindji walk off from Wave Hill to Blak Lives Matter and Indigenous hip-hop.

As always this Overland has rich selections of short fiction and poetry, edited by Claire Corbett and Toby Fitch respectively.

The poetry section includes stellar poets Omar Sakr, Samuel Wagan Watson, Ouyang Yu and Pam Brown. Jessica L Wilkinson has a beautiful historical poem, ‘Loïe Fuller entertains M. and Mme Curie at Boulevard Kellerman‘, and Zenobia Frost’s prose poem ‘sandwiches‘ is a powerful narrative of the loss of a parent.

Of the four sort fiction pieces, ‘Here comes the flood‘ by Perth writer Belinda Hermawan stands out for me. It’s a complex impressionistic tale of growing up with anti-Asian racism in Australia.


Vern Field (editor) Island 158 (2019)

As with the only other issue of Island that I’ve read, this issue is lavishly presented, with glorious full-page colour illustrations throughout. In fact, there’s hardly a page that doesn’t have some kind of image or colour effect behind the type, which is not always an advantage when a reader with deteriorating rods and cones is reading in artificial light.

This issue has a focus on the climate emergency, which is definitely a Good Thing, though maybe because I’ve been reading and brooding an awful lot about that subject I found more joy in the non-themed parts of the journal’s mix of creative nonfiction, essays, poetry, short fiction, excerpts from novels, and visual art.

Carmel Bird’s ‘Dr Power’s Prescription for the Fabrication of a Tasmanian Imagination’ is a nice piece of promotion for a work in progress, in which she discusses Colin Johnson’s largely forgotten historical novel Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World and its importance in the history of Australian, particularly Tasmanian, literature.

Angela Rockel’s ‘Rogue Intensities’ is an excerpt from a forthcoming work that gives us three months out of five years of ‘sensations and thoughts arising from a life in place’. Its combination of personal observation and scientific information about the flora and fauna of her place is full of charm, though I don’t know how I’d go with a whole book.

Dominic Amerena’s story ‘Just Maybe’ has just two full stops. The first comes at the end of a four-page sentence that loops back and forward in time telling a slightly creepy story of seduction from the seducer’s point of view. Then there are two words and the story is over. It’s like watching a juggler on a high wire: will he lose control and have innumerable clauses come clattering to earth?

I read Ken Bolton’s long poem ‘Letter to John Forbes’ with undiluted pleasure. Writing 20 years after Forbes’s death, Bolton identifies himself as a fan, and as a fellow poet. In semi-formal seven-line stanzas and a disarmingly informal tone, he brings the departed Forbes up to date on developments among their community of poets and in the world in general – our recent run of prime ministers, the careers of Forbes’s poetic friends and enemies, speculating on how Forbes would have responded. You probably need to know a bit about all that history to enjoy the poem, but it’s full of life and wit. Here’s a taste:

__________________________________ Our foreign ministers
___you'd have cherished – Downer & his air of stammer, of blithering,
Julie Bishop's show-pony, best-girl competence
 _ _(the earrings & tailored clothes), Bob Carr – how he rose 
___ to the occasion – & Rudd, after years of talking down to us, 
was about to, patiently, talk down to the United Nations. Look at me, Ma! 
They must've objected, or seen it coming.

Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers

Kristen Lang, Earth Dwellers (Giramondo 2021)

I started reading Earth Dwellers when coming up for air during the horror stories of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. and then again during those in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. Each of those books included its own relief from the horrors – one by cool-headed analytic journalism, the other by an intriguing structure and a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for digression – but I can’t begin to tell you what a relief Kristen Lang’s poetry was, what balm for the soul, right from the dedication:

For the wombats and the slime moulds ...

And for all who work to protect the entanglement, the networks of lives, billions of years in the making, by which the earth is more than stone.

These poems take us away from the troubled world of humans harming humans to intense, specific, tactile engagement with the non-human world. They take us to the tops of mountains, in Kristen Lang’s home state Tasmania and in the Himalayas; they take us on bush walks and visits to the ocean; to caves and the stars. They deal with the sublime and the intimate, sometimes in the same brief poem. They grieve and rage for the damage being inflicted on the planet by human activity, but always with a deep love and respect for this world. In these poems, the non-human world isn’t there as a metaphor or a mood indicator: there’s a consistently humble attempt to be present, to be aware of being part of it all: ‘We were never alone’ is how she puts it in ‘Wading with horseshoe crabs’.

As usual, I want to talk about just one poem. I’m picking ‘A small child finds a ladybird’:

(page 62)

This poem must surely strike a chord with anyone who has spent attentive time with a small child. Certainly I’ve been privy to many moments like this one, and felt a similar appreciative, possibly envious, awe at the intensity of a child’s gaze.

‘A small child finds a ladybird’ may be the only poem in this collection that focuses on a human character. Other poems have people in them, but they are companions to the speaker, neither addressed nor looked at directly, experiencing, observing, and being part of the natural world along with her. Here, it’s as if the poem’s speaker takes a step back, to observe the person experiencing, observing and being part of something.

The title of the poem sets up a strong mental image. A web image search on “small child ladybug” (‘-bug’ rather than ‘-bird’ in deference to US cultural dominance) gets you a cartload of cuteness, much of it cloying. That might be attractive to some readers but, for me and probably you, it establishes a central challenge for the poem: how to put words to that image that don’t regurgitate the pre-digested cutesyness. You might say that that’s a version of the central challenge for any poem, something to do with T S Eliot’s ‘tradition and the individual talent’, and I wouldn’t argue. This one meets the challenge like this in its opening lines:

Her squat-bodied
walk
crumbles under her –

Three things snag my attention: the words ‘squat-bodied’ and ‘crumbles’, and the way ‘walk’ has a line to itself. each of these things is sightly jarring, but if you hover over them you discover how well they communicate: the shape of a toddler, the kind of attention a toddler brings to the act of walking, and what happens when that attention goes elsewhere. It’s the walk that crumbles, not the child herself. This poem observes the child with the same precision that other poems in the book observe a platypus or floating filaments of gum blossom. If the reader wants to go down the cuteness path, the poem won’t stop them, but nor does it require them to go there.

In the next nine lines, the child is absorbed in the ladybird. She doesn’t simply have it on her fingertip. She is ‘all’ there with it. She hasn’t just stumbled when she sees the insect, she has taken on its qualities: the fall is red/ and black-spotted’. The way ‘fall’ has a line to itself, and gets extra emphasis from its rhyme with ‘all’ in line 4, prepares us for that interesting word ‘crux’ – as in crucial. This crumbled walk, this fall, hasn’t been an accident: it’s as if the rest of the day has been moving towards this crucial moment, and will emanate from it. ‘Bug-eyed’ takes on a richer meaning in this context: not just wide-eyed, but with eyes filled with the fascinating bug.

And then there’s ‘We’ – the poem’s speaker and us, the readers. We’re behind her, at a distance from the ladybird. And the last three lines are the second reason I wanted to write about this poem: it’s a kind of ars poetica. The wish expressed here, to have

________ even
half
of her gaze

is what Kristen Lang’s poems in general strive for. I know that as a reader I sometimes (often?) miss the metaphorical dimensions of poetry. So when someone writes that the world is grey in the moonlight, I take them at their word and have to be told if they’re talking about a terrible betrayal. But I don’t think I’m missing that kind of thing in these poems. In these poems, a mountain is a mountain, an iceberg an iceberg, a ladybird a ladybird. And there’s something profound in that


Earth Dwellers is the fifth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021. I’m grateful to Giramondo for my copy.