Tag Archives: Martin Duwell

Summer reads 5: Claire Potter’s Acanthus

Claire Potter, Acanthus: New Poems (Giramondo 2022)

Anyone looking for a clear, accessible introduction to contemporary Australian poetry would have trouble finding better than Martin Duwell’s website Australian Poetry Review. Every month, he publishes an informed, thoughtful and helpful review of a recent poetry collection.

I went to his review Claire Potter’s Acanthus because I was despairing of my ability to write coherently about this book, even though I enjoyed it immensely. Reassuringly, his post begins by describing these poems as ‘simultaneously fascinating and challenging’. He quotes from the Author’s Note that accompanied his review copy (and which undoubtedly accompanied mine, but was lost when I packed for my summer away from home):

Many of the poems traverse the clarity of a dream-like state: diverting from an imaginary centre and meandering across strange ground. As with all poetry, fragments matter; figures and objects – as if on the level of the bee – are significant; unintelligible feelings turn into a blueprint language that errs and wanders in order to find a resting place. Nothing in the collection was fixed beforehand, you could say the writing took place in order to think a way through, think about certain things or events that at the time didn’t have any formal presence in my mind . . .

Duwell describes this as ‘a fascinating attempt to make sense of – or to make a whole out of – very disparate poems some of which are extremely strong’. He then goes on to his own fascinating discussion of the poems, with plenty of examples. For a general introduction to the riches of this collection, I recommend his essay.

Having talked about the poetry as challenging, which could be code for ‘unreadable’ but isn’t, it’s even more desirable than usual that I talk about one poem in detail. One that that grabbed and held my attention is ‘The Hidden Side to Love’ (page 25). It was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Meanjin, and you can read it without my commentary at this link. Here goes:

The Hidden Side to Love

All summer, the bees worked 
between bells of laburnum

sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender
-– they saw a task and rose to it

There’s nothing problematic or ‘challenging’ in this economical evocation of a garden scene. There’s a strong sense of place in many of the poems in this book. Claire Potter is from Western Australia and currently lives in London, and though this garden could be in Australia, the setting feels very English. I’m pretty ignorant about plants, and had to search images of laburnum and foxglove. ‘Bells’ and ‘sockets’ capture their appearance nicely. But why ‘blades’ of lavender, which I think of as puffy rather than sharp or straight-edged like a blade, even a blade of grass? It’s an unsettling note: I don’t think it leads anywhere, but it keeps the reader slightly on the alert.

I busy myself with the washing 
untwisting funnels of sock, boughs of jumper

rosettes of flannel

After the brief description of the bees in the garden, comes this sweet, straightforward metaphor. Bees rise to their task with the flowers; the poet/mother rises to hers in the house. ‘Bells’, ‘sockets’ and ‘blades’ had enough of a suggestion of domesticity to lay groundwork for this leap; now ‘funnels’ suggests a similarity of shape to the sockets of foxglove, and ‘the ‘boughs’ and ‘rosettes’ bring garden images into the house. This comparison of animal and human labour has a long tradition – I think of the famous poem found in the margin of a medieval manuscript (‘I and Pangur Ban, my cat – / ‘Tis a like task we are at’).

In spare moments I put words in the freezer 
reheat coffee, fill inkwells

I stir out hot dinners

Ah, it’s not just the housework. The bee-like work also includes words, ink, quiet time with a second cup of coffee. The transition isn’t clearcut, but almost dreamlike: one minute you’re putting, say, leftovers in the freezer, then you look down and they’ve turned into words. Putting words in the freezer could be a metaphor for taking the volatile medium of speech and freezing it into words on the page. Writing poetry is part of the work being compared to bees’ labour.

But the housework reasserts itself – dinners have to be cooked, and stirred, and by implication put on the table for someone to eat.

Passing along the hall sheaved in light
I imagine a nectarous meadow

I think of waxen wings brought thudding 
to the ground

I look down at my dress and see spikes of burdock 
thistles in plaits hanging to the ground

In the context of the quote from the Author’s Note above, you could say that the simple metaphor of the first six lines is an ‘imaginary centre’. Now the poem moves to a ‘dream-like state’: first ‘I imagine’, and ‘I think of’, then ‘I see’. In the course of these next six lines the poet has come to experience herself as a bee – a giant bee wearing a dress, but still in some dreamy way a bee. All isn’t rosy: bees can be ‘brought thudding / to the ground’. The poet-bee has burdock thistles clinging to her (I had to look them up: they’re spiky). If you had to imagine what the pollen that sticks to a bee’s legs would look like if magnified a thousand times, you could do worse than picturing a head of thistle. As far as I know, however, burdock thistles aren’t a danger to actual bees, but the poem is meandering (as per the Author’s Note), and this giant bee is encumbered by them. Or – if we tie this image back to what we know about actual bees – the stuff sticking to the poet-bee’s dress is somehow part of a greater purpose.

The import of the image of woman with thistles trailing from her dress as she walks down a brightly lit hallway is resolved in the next lines, but before it’s resolved the image has stood in surreal splendour..

Crayons, soldiers, ropes of daisy 
the couch, the doorknob, the stairs –

They all gather to me

So yes, these objects that demand the poet’s attention – children’s toys and other detritus, fixtures and places that need cleaning – cling to her, like pollen perhaps, or like something that will send her thudding to the ground. They are he real-world equivalents of the burdock thistles.

Until I stand and rub my hind legs emphatically 
until I disengage everything

to its proper place 

She’s a bee. She rubs her legs together, disengages the pollen and deposits it in the hive where it belongs. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’

and emerge like a queen

This isn’t a biology lesson. A worker bees can’t become a queen. But a poet-bee can. There’s a sweet mock-heroic tone here: once you’ve got all the cleaning done and everything is in its place, you can have a moment of regal satisfaction. Roseanne Barr used to refer to her sitcom character as a domestic goddess. My first boss, the managing editor of a small publishing company, used to describe herself as managing a household as well as a company. These are achievements not to be dismissed or belittled. What in my younger days we used to call shit-work can actually be a source of great satisfaction, the achievement of beauty and order in one’s environment.

made anew from decades of trying

To hark back again to the Author’s Note, the poem has erred and wandered until it came to a resting place – and then it wobbles. The last line doesn’t negate the triumphant transformation into queenship, but it does apply the brakes a little. This cheerful point of view didn’t come automatically: it took years to arrive at.

But what’s love got to do with it? I think of Kahlil Gibran’s phrase, ‘Work is love made visible.’ (Link to his poem ‘On Work’ here.) The tone of this poem is long way from Gibran’s. For a start, this work is visible only to the person doing it. Other people are implied: someone wore the clothes she sorts, eats the food she prepares, plays with the toys she puts away. These others – presumably a partner and children – aren’t visible to the reader when the work is being done, and by implication the work is invisible to them, hidden. The old feminist slogan, ‘A woman’s work is never done, or honoured or paid for,’ comes to mind. The poem manages to hold Gibran’s epigram and the feminist slogan in place at the same time, neither negating the other.

There’s so much more in this book. But that’s what I’ve got capacity for today.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Acanthus

Alan Wearne’s Things Are Real

Alan Wearne, These Things Are Real (Giramondo 2017)

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Despite the increasing frequency of narrative poems, the work of Alan Wearne is unmatched. Nobody has even begun to approach the complexity of his portraits of life in post-war Australia.

That’s Martin Duwell in 2013 reviewing Alan Wearne’s Prepare the Cabin for Landing. He could have been introducing the five narrative poems that make up the first 70 pages of These Things Are Real. The book’s title doesn’t so much make a claim of non-fiction status for these narratives, as insist that the kinds of stories they tell, stories that don’t make the headlines, and that are unlikely to make it into the history books or best-selling novels, are nevertheless poignantly human.

A widow renews her friendship with a friend from her youth, but they drift apart after some years when she rejects the overtures of her friend’s husband, all in Menzies-voting suburbia. A Ceb (which, as the poem had to spell out for me, is argot for a member of the Church of England Boys Society) tells the story of his multiple coming-out. A young woman, single mother, has a relationship with a musician who turns out to be abusive. A school teacher, a ‘happy-go-usey’ drug addict, struggles with his moral compromises and worse, including an involvement with squalid and murderous criminality. A ‘recently retired femocrat’ recalls the contradictions of her middle-class radical youth.

These are five complex yarns, told in irregular verse that occasionally breaks out into rhyme. There’s a strong sense of an idiosyncratic speaking voice, rough around the edges and often assuming shared knowledge that isn’t always there (not necessarily a problem when Google is at hand). The narratives don’t offer easy resolutions to the uneases and tensions they raise. In fact, mostly they don’t offer resolutions at all. Maybe that’s another meaning of the book’s title – in the real world things stay complex and unresolved.

Just a taste of how the language works, from ‘Anger Management: a South Coast Tale”

His screaming’s recommenced. The kids are home.
And you are bruised, walking-into-a-door bruised,
like you’ve seen enough before except
now it’s his, his bruise and possible fracture.
You saw the good man (if nobody else did)
the one who rolled you your White Ox,
the one who actually wrote songs,
the man you were loving who disguised
so much (no doubt from himself).
Well, it is all out now with a sort of noise
that’s heading to your kid’s guts
to stay for decades. But it’s when
he starts up, ‘Don’t you get it, I love kids,
I love them!’ you grab yours and lock away
the three of you, three hearts deranged
with thumping, with him outside the toilet
howling, whilst you phone your girlfriends.

The remaining 50 pages of poems are grouped under the general heading, ‘The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre’. They range from throwaway couplets (an unkind ‘Elegiac Proposal’ for Cardinal George Pell, a note on being a runner up to Lily Brett in the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize, a gleeful skewering of an error in something written by Les Murray), through several songs of praise to AFL personalities and others who remain mysteries to me, to longer rhyming poems about Australian politics, religion and, in particular, poetry: ‘For Chris Wallace-Crabbe at Eighty’, ‘The Ballad of 68 or I Was Dransfield’s Dealer’ and ‘Ode for Johanna Featherstone & Fiona Wright’.

My copy of These Things Are Real was a gift from Giramondo Publishing.

Australian Poetry Journal, recent issues

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 1 (2015)
Bronwyn Lea (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2013)

apj51

Australian Poetry Journal is a twice yearly publication of Australian Poetry Ltd, which describes itself, surely with a wistful edge, as the peak industry body for poetry in Australia. You don’t have to be a poet to join APL (the poetry industry includes readers), and membership fees cover a subscription to the journal.

This issue is attractively democratic. Award winners with many books on their CVs rub shoulders with people who have had poems published in newspapers and journals. I wouldn’t dream of singling any poems out as ‘the best’ but I do need to give you a taste of some. This is from Judith Beveridge’s ‘Clouds’:

Let blue skies stop their rhetorical grandstanding.
We know they’re filled with the breath of men cocked
and fettled by greed. One by one I call the clouds in.
A cloud for each child hungry, ragged, naked. A cloud

for all exiles whose voices can’t find a single raindrop,
whose eyes are stones that out-weather the past.
A cloud for those in war-ravaged places where shadows
terrorise doorways, and the old live between rubble
and crumbled bread.

Jeff Rich’s ‘Not getting things done’ deals with those to-do lists where some items just got moved from list to list, or projects dreamed of but never begun. The final lines bring it all home beautifully:

Whole careers, projects without plans.
Journeys of recovery and feats of weakness

Pile like chaos in the attic
Awaiting defeat

By distraction and habit and boredom and chance
Four deadly horsemen more real than the rest.

Fay Zwicky’s ‘Boat Song’ responds to the callous feral poetry of a Tony Abbott slogan with child-like rhyming that is anything but infantile. I’ll resist the pull to quote the whole thing:

Remote ideologies send bonnie boats
Like broken-winged birds to our merciful votes.

And we turned them away, yes we turned them away
As we went out to play
In our dead-hearted country, the bounteous place
Where neighbourly love puts a smile on each face.

Apart from the poetry, there are interviews – Paul Magee interviews Samuel Wagan Watson and Josh Mei-Ling Dubrau interviews Julie Chevalier; a personal introduction to Greek poet Tasos Leivaditis by his translator N N Trakakis; a review by Tim Thorne of eleven titles from Ginninderra Press – which expresses gratitude for the publisher’s ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ policy while being unsparing of the blooms that aren’t up to scratch; a history of another small publisher of poetry, Black Pepper Press, by Margaret Bradstock, who paints a fascinating picture of the critical reception of a number of their books; and three review articles that I found illuminating, especially Bonny Cassidy on Spatial Relations, a two-volume collection of John Kinsella’s prose.

Bonny Cassidy begins her review, ‘It must be said, straight up, that this two-volume publication … is unlikely to attract the recreational reader.’ (And she might have finished it by saying that a smaller, more selective publication may yet bring Kinsella’s prose to a wide and appreciative readership.) I could have said, straight, up that while Australian Poetry Journal might not attract too many recreational readers, any who wander into its pages are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

1apj31Having been pleasantly surprised by Volume 5 No 1, I realised Volume 3 No 1 had been wallflowering on my bookshelf for a year. It turns out to be another treasure trove. I’ll just mention two very funny poems by Anthony Lawrence –  ‘The Pelican’, in which the eponymous bird snatches a Jack Russell puppy, flies off with it

clearly visible through the lit
_____transparent pouch beneath its beak

and swallows it in full view of a horrified human crowd, and ‘Lepidoptera’, in which a gift of butterflies to the speaker’s sister meets with a dreadful fate, with an implied analogy to the frequent fate of poems.

There’s  a section on the poetry of the late Philip Hodgins – an introduction by Anthony Lawrence and then a selection of poems, mostly in some way to do with farming life, and death. A section titled ‘Criticism’ includes, among others, David McCooey on Jennifer Maiden; Martin Duwell – always worth reading – on a book about postwar US poetry; and an essay by Stuart Cooke about stray animals in Central and South America, which I enjoyed but whose title suggests I missed the point: ‘A Poetics of Strays’.

joanne burns’s amphora

joanne burns, amphora (Giramondo 2011)

In the question time at a poetry session of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival a member of the audience complained that ‘most modern poetry’ is deliberately obscure, doesn’t use rhyme or rhythm, and is generally not reader-friendly. He might have had Joanne Burns in mind: apart from infrequent commas and an occasional dash or semicolon she mostly eschews punctuation, she rarely writes metric verse (presumably what the questioner meant by ‘rhythm’), she uses big words, makes frequent reference to other poets and (in this book at least) religious arcana, and she often wanders down trails of seemingly random association. But, you know, spend a bit of time with her poems and chances are you’ll come away feeling oddly refreshed.

For example, the third of amphora‘s seven sections, entitled ‘streamers’, is described in a subheading as ‘a series of koannes’. I imagine everyone knows what a koan is – or at least, like me, knows that ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ is one. Almost idly, I went to Google to check my initial assumption that ‘koanne’ was an alternative spelling. Apparently not, said Mr Google. Then I realised that the word was a playful invention, combining the poet’s first name with the zen challenge to the rational mind: so the reader is given fair warning to expect some kind of idiosyncratic almost-sense, not to struggle to make sense, but to let the non-sense play around in one’s brain. Some of them work brilliantly:

you miss the bus
before it arrives how easy
to change the lightbulb

(Incidentally, the lack of punctuation here doesn’t really cause difficulty; it just slows the reading down.)

I found the whole book engaging, but it was the second section, ‘soft hoods of saints’, that spoke to me: a Catholic child’s perspective on stories of the saints nostalgically recalled, overlaid with adult erudition, mashed up with high and low cultural references and approached with a wry, mostly affectionate, probing intelligence. From ‘haggle’:

saints show us who we aren’t. impossible to imitate. our prayers too fast. impatient. saints and their trust in their god. slow and endless. wearing belief like soft hoods. invisible protective. we can only gawk at their images, legenda. in the holy cards many saints are accompanied by floral arrangements. flowers. do saints have flaws. once they are officially saints surely all flaws must hit the floor to be swept away in the giant hagionic broom

This is fun, but something serious is happening as well.

My blog posts about the books I’ve read don’t pretend to be responsible reviews. If you want to read an excellent, exploratory discussion of amphora, I recommend Martin Duwell’s review posted on 1 June this year.