Tag Archives: Martin Harrison

Martin Harrison’s Happiness

Martin Harrison, Happiness (UWA Publishing 2015)

1742586864.jpgI’d pretty much finished writing this blog post when I discovered the special issue of Plumwood Mountain, an ‘Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’, dedicated to the memory of Martin Harrison who died in 2014 while Happiness was being prepared for the press. I won’t be offended if you click over to that and don’t bother with the rest of my post. But here it is anyhow:

An email is doing the rounds with the subject line ‘Poetry Experiment’. It asks you to do two things: 1) send a poem – any poem – to the first on a list of two people; and 2) alter the email by moving the second person on that list to the top and adding yourself in second place, then Bcc the altered email to 20 friends. If everyone follows instructions, 400 poems will soon arrive in your inbox.

I did as instructed, and received 4 poems: four famous lines from William Blake, a prose quote from Mahatma Gandhi, Emily Dickinson’s ‘He ate and drank the precious words‘, and a Leunig verse. The person at the top of my list sent me copies of the poems she received. There were five from my friends: some lines from Auden, Shakespeare, and Rumi, and whole poems by Judith Wright and (again) Emily Dickinson.

Tentative conclusions: the vast majority of people don’t take to poetry, or at least to a combination of chain letters and poetry; people are generally more willing to share poetry than to ask other people to do so; and we’re more likely to share favourite lines than whole poems.

Which brings me to Happiness. There are any number of excerpts that would do perfectly for the poetry experiment. For example, this lovely evocation of a landscape in ‘Summer Rain Front, North Coast’:

the mountain mirrored in the instant’s stillness
of the calm sea flooding into the bay
the mountain photoing its image on the waters
over the grounds where dolphins track    and then its scarves
hanging high in the air like drifted parachutes
white against blue

But probably none of its poems is chain-letter material in its entirety – they’re too long, and mostly proceed like conversation rather than performance. That is, the pleasure of reading them doesn’t come so much from brilliant turns of phrase or striking metaphors as from the sense that one is being invited to join the poet in his experience of the world, his loving embrace of it, including that part of it he addresses as ‘you’, which at least sometimes is his lover Nizat Bouheni, to whom the book is dedicated, and who died in 2010. There are love poems, poems filled with meticulous, immersive observations of nature, forty-five pages of elegies. There are a couple of awkward but trenchant poems on the politics of climate change, and an ‘experimental’ poem that an author’s note (kindly) informs us is ‘made up of responses to a randomly sorted set of instructions repeated four times’. And there’s one satirical description of some US Americans abroad.

One of my favourite moments in the book, which is in some ways representative, is in ‘Wallabies’. After three pages of  two-line stanzas evoking the sights and sounds of a particular Australian landscape with something approaching ecstatic fervour (the absence of punctuation may make this hard to decipher at first, but patience pays off):

nothing is dead here the spaces between them are
inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks

slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down
in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge

around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches

and much more, there’s this:

that twenty mile shadow across the claypan’s a fence

which as dusk comes is a lightning-quick snake
momentarily distracting the way they appear

as if from nowhere like sentinels weathered stone
camping in that stubble sunset-toned no like mushrooms

wallabies two of them and then three over there then more
pale half-red underfur letting them melt into late light

alert as the slanting hour’s alert to earth cool as wine
then the shriek as they scatter

I love how the poem enacts the way you often become aware of the presence of wallabies in a landscape rather than see them arrive: they’ve been in the poem for three lines before they are named. They may be the subject of the poem, but they are part of a much bigger field. Harrison’s poetry often seeks out and celebrates the tiny or the evanescent – a blue wren nesting under the eaves on a sweltering day, a moment in a changing skyscape, a half-heard sound in the upstate New York woods. These lines from ‘A Music’, which is the second part of ‘Two for You’, an elegy for Nizar Bouhemi, could be describing much of Harrison’s poetry:

________The singleness
of each event in

its own swerve and
sharpness, drawing

attention and attentiveness
making it seem as if anyone

could just see it, grasp it,
wait to understand

what no one understands

Martin Harrison’s death of a heart attack in 2014 makes this book’s attention to the fleeting and its grappling with the realities of death incredibly poignant

 

Martin Harrison’s Wild Bees

Martin Harrison, Wild Bees (UWAP 2008)

1wild_beesWhen 11 year old Luke Shambrook had been missing for four days over the Easter weekend, Acting Sergeant Brad Pascoe spotted him from his helicopter. ‘Out of the corner of my eye,’ he said, ‘I just caught a little flash of something. It wasn’t much but it was enough to make me get the guys to turn the aircraft around and go back and have a look.’

It’s not so obviously a matter of life and death, but compare that to the silvereye in Martin Harrison’s ‘A Word’:

caught on the edge of vision,
forgotten in a glance
where nothing is anchored

The pages of this book are full of attention to tiny things and brief moments that are nevertheless enough to make the poet get us to turn around and go back and have a look. Something happens ‘out there, in dwindling light, / upon the edge, half-seen, a mere detail’ (from ‘Red Marine’). Something ‘catches my eye, half catches it, (tricking it, blinding it)’ (from ‘Winter Solstice’). In ‘Lizards’:

_____________ This
moment, they’re not here,
or are merely playing
at being silhouettes, quite still.

In ‘Tasmanian Tiger’:

ungraspable fineness of dark she-oak needles, ungraspable, I think, because so fine,
a thing merely visual, only meant in passing
to an observer perplexed by see-through shadowiness

Examples multiply.

The poetry does many different things with these ephemera and minutiae, usually at some length. Sometimes it’s like reading a gloriously fleshed-out haiku: ‘Watching Pelicans, Mallacoota’ spends the first 24 lines on a she-oak needle, and the remaining 19 on the pelicans of the title. More often, the poems are like essays, not always easy to follow, as the poet articulates thoughts or feelings that are as easy to miss as the objects or living things that give rise to them. One thing you don’t get is easy generalisations.

I saw Martin Harrison read a number of times. He was a witty, warm, impressive figure. He died in September 2014.  The November issue of Cordite Poetry Review published a piece by Adam Aitken, which included an interview, in which Harrison says, among many other interesting things:

I am trying to write poetry that lives in the same world as watching TV, listening to radio and watching movies. … I’m interested in the kind of detail that the camera can provide that the writer can be intimate with. If you take a room or a scene or a person there is something about the way those images cover the object, and something about the lingering attention you can give to what’s produced there. It defines a contemporary sensibility. I like that kind of attentiveness.

Wild Bees was published by the University of Western Australia Press.  I received a review copy from Giramondo Press.

Malouf Adamson Aitken Harrison: Rare Objects

Adam Aitken, November Already (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 86, 2013)
Martin Harrison, Living Things: Five Poems (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 87, 2013)
David Malouf, Sky News (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 88, 2013)
Robert Adamson, Empty Your Eyes (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 89, 2013)

I bought this quartet of chapbooks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where all four poets read brilliantly. At $15 each, this is poetry at just over a dollar a page, which isn’t a lot of bang for your buck if you measure it by the yard, but – speaking as someone who has ploughed through a number of Collected volumes in the hope of getting a feel for their authors’ work – I’d say these tiny, beautifully presented books are great value for money. The poems have room to breathe. [The list above is in order of publication, my random comments below are in order of my reading.]

1sn It’s common wisdom that learning poetry by heart is a good thing, because – besides being able to surprise and delight your friends – it’s a way of making the poetry your own, inscribing it on yourself (as Dan Beachy-Quick said memorably, here). Reading David Malouf’s Sky News, I realised that, memorised or not, I haven’t really read a poem until I’ve heard it in my own voice, at least internally. I’ve loved hearing David read his poetry ever since he made sunlight glint off milk churns and today blaze from a lapel in his 70s imitations of Horace. But there’s a different pleasure in taking the poems into oneself.

The poems in Sky News are like piano pieces: there’s a right hand with lots of trills and arpeggios, images and alliterative wordplay, and a slower, deeper, meditative left hand. As I got to know each poem, I found myself looking for my own balance between the two, between being charmed by the right hand, as in this evocation of a quiet night in ‘At Clerici’:

Crickets strike up
a riff on the razzle-dazzle
of starlight, then stop.

and being moved by the left hand, which doesn’t lend itself to quotation because it’s often there by implication or comes into the foreground only in the final moments of a poem.

In ‘A Parting Word’, a rendering of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Der Scheidende’, Malouf the translator engages in a similar balancing act. I can’t read German, but compared to what looks like a close translation of the original, it’s evident that Malouf’s poem is a lot livelier: ‘Estorben ist in meiner Brust /
Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust’ (‘It has died in me, as it must, / Every idle, earthly lust’) becomes the playfully alliterative ‘All’s dashed in me, all’s dished and done’, and this playfulness keeps up all the way to the final lines, where ‘Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt’ (‘The shadow prince in the Underworld’) becomes

__________________First
in rank of the resident zombies. Top
dog in this dog-house, Hades.

In Heine’s poem, the speaker moves from a cheerless contemplation of his approaching death to a grim acknowledgement that the most vulgar of the living are better off than the noblest dead, so in the end by implication what does art matter? In Malouf’s, the mood is less gloomy – it’s still a poem about age and mortality, but the scales tip towards a celebration of life – it’s not that art is futile, but life is the thing.

1eye The current submission guidelines for Going Down Swinging warn prospective contributors not to send ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’. Luckily for Robert Adamson and his readers this prohibition doesn’t prevail everywhere. Henry Thoreau said an abode without birds was like meat without seasoning – Adamson without birds is unimaginable. From traffic casualties in the prose poem / flash fiction ‘A Proper Burial’ to birds that ‘call and call the light’ in ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, there are plenty of birds in Empty Your Eyes. Poets are here in plenty too: Adamson’s compadres like Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster, but also an assortment of Catholic convert poets – James McAuley, Pierre Reverdy and Francis Thompson (the only poet my mother ever quoted – ‘I fled him down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; … and under running laughter’). Adamson’s poetry is steeped in the Hawkesbury River, in the world of poetry and poets, and increasingly in a kind of questing mysticism:

——————I read
‘The Hound of Heaven’
by a river in new South Wales:

There was a black chuckle
before the ‘running laughter’ –
Attention shifts, revelation grips.

1na Perhaps even more than Adamson’s, Adam Aitken’s cool, postmodern, intercultural poems abound in allusions – not in an arrogant bugger-off-if-you-haven’t-read-Rimbaud way, but more in a let’s-have-some-dislocating-and-provocative-fun way. I went googling quite a bit as I read November Already: John Clare (hardly an esoteric reference, but I hadn’t read anything by him), Rimbaud (I couldn’t find the arachnid referred to in ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’, so I don’t know what I’m missing, but enjoyed the poem anyhow), Ezra Pound (who wrote a travel diary, A Walking Tour in Southern France), Raymond Roussel (I found a note on Adam’s blog that helped hugely in reading the poem ‘Rousselesque’).

There’s a lot of France in these poems: Paris and the tiny village of Mareuil, the Resistance and the Revolution, Roman relics and Australian expats. From what I’ve read of Aitken’s work, I have a sense that he generally writes as if he’s not quite at home, always with a dislocated, interrogative feel. So when a poem about a deserted railway line is entitled ‘On the Chemin du Fer’, it doesn’t read as a mistyping of chemin de fer, but as a marker of the speaker’s outsider status. In the poem, this outsider is on a disused length of railway surrounded by blossoming almond trees, ‘tougher, more industrial’ than cherry blossom, and in these beautifully evoked surroundings, before evoking the Terror by a mention of Saint-Just, asks:

Was that old man “Europe”
so often so hard, so cruel
a one-stop shop
for the soul?

Likewise, I think of Aitken as an urban poet, so when he misspells ‘chicken coop’, it doesn’t read as a mistake, deliberate or otherwise, but as the equivalent of a visitor from the city wearing shiny shoes in a cow paddock, adding to the edgy feel of the poem.

1lt Martin Harrison’s poems, by contrast, feel completely at home in their mostly Australian landscapes. This may be especially true of the first poem in Living Things: Five Poems, ‘Wallabies’, a long, breathless (and sparsely punctuated) celebration of western New South Wales landscapes:

nothing is dead here the spaces between them are
inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks

slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down
in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge

around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches she-oaks aspirant

with their million fingers and amber seed-flowers
spotted gums mottled as grandmothers but with contrasts

of grey brown white and silver as if dressed for a ball

He does more than describe natural phenomena, of course. A recurring theme here is ‘how events change time’s flow beneath perception’: a ‘small thump from somewhere’ (‘White-Tailed Deer’), thrips that are ‘quite possibly meaningless, quite possibly / microbes of non-significance’ (‘Cloud’), a frog you can hear ‘miles away, / long before you thought you could’ (‘The Frog’). Even the eponymous wallabies would be easy to miss if you didn’t read carefully. Some lines from ‘Blue Wren Poem’ suggest something of what’s going on:

____-_____________________Such

detail can be lost – bobbins, birds, refuge, storm –
when innocence starts holding out against the tide,
when radiance blurs the future.

Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press says this series will come to an end at 100 titles. That means there are 11 to go, and the distinctive design, with pasted-on cover art by Kay Orchison, will sadly be no more.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going for days now, but my festival started yesterday, on a bleak, wet, grey Thursday.

I began with a 10 o’clock launch of four chapbooks in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series. Chapbooks are books of poetry so small they don’t even rate an ISBN. But where some chapbooks have a cheap and cheerful feel, the Rare Objects are beautifully crafted, a hundred numbered and signed copies of each title. The books being launched were by the stellar line-up of David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken.

Luke Davies gave one of the best launch speeches I’ve heard. He paid tribute to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press and to the four poets in warmly personal terms, as people and as creators. The mutual respect and affection among the five people on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous. Each of the four launchees read: Adam Aitken from November Already, Robert Adamson from Empty your Eyes, Martin Harrison from Living Things)and David Malouf from Sky News (which my deafness heard Luke Davies announce, improbably, as Sky Nudist, but that would be a different chapbook). We the audience were very restrained, applauding politely after each reader – my guess is that we were too busy processing the complex pleasures we were being given to be too demonstrative. It really was a brilliant reading: a stunning prose poem from Adamson, crisp imagery from Malouf, Aitken taking the New York School to a tiny French village (not really, but that’s a mangled form of his own joke), Harrison in fine rhapsodic form. I loved Martin Harrison’s account of the genesis of his ‘Wallabies’: witnessing two young Australians in full xenophobic flight in a Parisian Internet cafe (and he described them to us with great relish), he took notes intending to write a satirical poem, but realised when he sat to write that what he really wanted to do was to celebrate the part is Australia they came from.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I bought all four of the Rare Objects, found a spot out of the rain and sat and read, did email things on my iPad, and chatted. (One of the striking things about the SWF is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with complete strangers.) Then it was time for the 1 o’clock session:Harbour City Poets: Some People You May Know, my first event in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which I think of as the poets’ space at the Festival. Again it was a pleasure to be read to, this time by a quintet of poets – Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks. The poems were about people, real, and imagined. Margaret Bradstock’s pieces about colonial characters made me want more. And there was some witty and elegant light satire. It may be because someone had told me just before the session about the man being hacked to death in London, but I found myself thinking that light satire, especially when performed giving broad Austealian accents to its objects, is a dangerous mode in which the satirist can all too easily come off as smug, class-bound, narrow-minded, bien-pensant and otherwise unappealing.

I rushed home (bus–train–bus), walked and fed the dog and was back, just a few minutes late for Robert Green: On Creativity at 4 oclock. This session wasn’t on my schedule, but a friend had a ticket she couldn’t use, and the Festival program promised ‘exercises to help rid [me] of blocks and unleash thinking that is more fluid and creative’. Given that I’m feeling out of my depth with a writing project just now, it was a case of what the hell archie, and I’d taken the tickets off her hands. It was turned out to be pretty much a motivational talk. The ‘exercises’ were three broadbrush strategies: embrace the blank page; think like an outsider; subvert your patterns of thinking. I enjoyed the talk, not least for the wealth of anecdote and Robert Green’s manifest passion for his message that every human brain is capable of brilliance, that mastery is possible. I especially liked the first question and response at the end. In summary, a white-bearded man suggested that next time a journalist asks him if he can seriously believe the stuff he says, he should try thinking like a mushroom; this was evidently meant as a witticism, but Green was completely nonplussed; after a bit of back and forth in which the point of excuse tin remained obscure, he agreed that he would give it a try.

More bus, more train, dinner at a pub in Chippendale then to the Carriageworks for Stories Then & Now. I’m a big fan of William Yang’s slide-show story telling, especially his exploration of his Chinese and north Queensland heritages over the years. For this show, along with Annette Shum Wah, he has mentored six mainly younger Asian-heritage people to tell the stories of their families (‘then’) and their personal stories (‘now’). Each story-teller had two turns alone on stage with a microphone in front of hem and two screens showing a series of photographs behind them. Ien Ang, Jenevieve Chang, Michael C. S. Park, Sheila Pham, Paul van Reyk and Willa Zheng were each completely engaging, and the combined effect of heir six presentations was extraordinarily rich. The Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the American War in Vietnam, Indonesian independence, the White Australia Policy; a hilariously failed attempt at an arranged marriage, a weirdly romantic tale of serial fatherhood by sperm donation, a successful Internet match, intergenerational tension and conflict fled, faced and reconciled. We came out into the night exhilarated.

Robert Adamson on Francis Webb

Someone emailed me a link announcing that Robert Adamson, UTS Chair of Poetry, was giving a public lecture on Francis Webb on Thursday night. How could I not go? As far as I know, UTS – University of Technology Sydney, whose main tower is Sydney’s monument to stark practicality – doesn’t offer any poetry courses, and the prospect of Adamson, anything but stark or practical in his poetry or his person, lecturing on Webb, ditto with bells on, was irresistible.

It turned out to be a fairly intimate affair in a shiny new building across the street from the anti-poetic tower. I recognised a smattering of poets and other writers, scholars, editors and UTS lecturers. I sat at the front, and my neighbours turned out to include Juno Gemes, Adamson’s photographer wife who discreetly plied her trade, Toby Davidson, editor of the new, excellent Francis Webb: Collected Poems, and Michael Griffith, who wrote God’s Fool, the best and only booklength introduction to Webb’s life and work. I’m not suggesting it was a family affair. The room was full, but I don’t think many of us were there without a prior connection to Webb, Adamson or UTS’s Centre for New Writing.

Adamson, whose CAL-sponsored professorship is for three years, began with a disarming list of thankyous – including to poet Martin Harrison for explaining to him what a lecture was. I hope the lecture is somehow made available, as it was a very clear account of Webb’s life and work, informed by a deep engagement with the poetry and a brief but significant personal relationship with the man. He read a number of poems. I’d say he read them brilliantly but that would give the wrong impression: he read them slowly, almost stumblingly, as if he was discovering them as he read them, or even encountering the language itself for the first time, mispronouncing an occasional word (couch in couch grass to rhyme with crouch, impotent with the emphasis on the second syllable), so that the listener was drawn in as a collaborator rather than being cast as a recipient. I find it hard to imagine a better way of reading this poetry.

In the excellent Q&A, freed from his written text, Adamson loosened up and spoke more personally: of how Webb was crucial to his own development as a poet, of how James McCauley looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re on the right track with Webb – follow him instead of these Americans, of how he and his friends turned up like rockstar fans at Angus & Robertson’s bookshop the day the first Collected Poems was published, only to be told, ‘We publish it, but that doesn’t mean we have to have in here for sale.’ He gave a very funny, and accurate, account of A. D. Hope’s article on Webb: ‘Hope was a vitalist, and suspicious of Webb’s religious dimension, but he discusses the poem Canobolas, saying, “Look, he sees the mountain as a naked woman, so he must be all right, he’s one of us.”‘

SWF 2112: Poets, Harbour, pitches and more poets

This was my first day at Walsh Bay, and in striking contrast to recent weather, the sky was cloudless and there was no wind – perfect festival weather.

The tiny harbourside room generally reserved for poets at the Festival couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue for my first event of the day, Harbours and Rivers, with Robert Adamson, Neil Astley, Martin Harrison and Jennifer Maiden. I joined the uncharacteristically long queue with minutes to spare, and only when it became clear I wasn’t going to get in I realised I was in the wrong place: this time the tiny room had been given to young writers talking about the Second Novel Effect, and the poets had been given a much bigger and incidentally much darker space. I briskly walked the length of the Wharf and arrived part way through the introductions.

The poets, refusing as poets should to be pigeonholed, paid at best slant regard to their allocated topic. Jennifer Maiden read a long new poem, ‘The Uses of Powerlessness’, which she described as a diary poem but was actually pretty much a philippic on Julia Gillard, not in the ‘X woke up in X’ form, but a straightforward furious meditation. I wrote down one of many striking lines: ‘The Labor Party, like Gillard, is an obedience addict.’ Martin Harrison and Robert Adamson both spoke of the complex interplay between observation of the natural world and self-discovery. ‘All my harbours and rivers are internal,’ the latter said, somewhat disingenuously, ‘even though I live on a river.’ Among the poems he read was the sublime ‘Kingfisher’s Soul’, an intensely personal love poem that grows richer with each hearing. Neil Astley, advertised as editor of English publishing house Bloodaxe Books, turns out to be a poet as well. He was in Darwin for Cyclone Tracy, about which he read two striking poems followed by an excerpt from a novel that engages with an English countryside.

Jennifer Maiden, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Neil Astley not far from the Harbour

In short, it was very good. Afterwards I ventured to introduce myself to Jennifer Maiden, but I was probably working so hard at no being too fanboyish for the conversation to have made much sense.

After a brief interval I went to the Club Stage for So You Think You Can Write, my first time to this a regular Festival event in which random audience members get to pitch a project to a panel of publishers.

The specially decorative lights for the Club Stage area – each bulb has an open book for a shade.

I don’t know that anyone who was at all savvy about publishing would participate in this, unless for the sheer fun of it. And it was mostly fun. A 15 year old boy pitched a detective story set among the Egyptian pyramids. There was an earnest tract for children aiming to foster leadership skills and an understanding of democracy. One or two pitches were for books that could have been anything, so broad were the descriptions. One woman had already had an iBook version of her project downloaded thousands of times. The winner – of nothing apart from the glory – was a psychological detective story in which the character realises a day of her life has gone missing and then is shown photos of herself taken on the missing day. The thing that won the audience and panel’s approval was that the photos were improbably and bizarrely orgiastic, involving vegetables and cigars in unspecified lewd ways. It may not be Scandi-Crime, but this audience loved it. You read about it here first.

And then off to the poets’ lightfilled room. Gig Ryan and Kate Lilley, feminist-identifying experimental poets, drew an overflow crowd, including Adamson, Harrison and Astley from this morning, plus John Tranter, Ivor Indyk, Toby Fitch and many faces familiar from the Sappho open mike nights. Each of the poets introduced the other. They read from recently published books and, on being requested by an audience member to  compose a poem together on the spot, they parlayed the request down to each of them reading a poem by the other – with interesting results.

I confess that I went to this session expecting to suffer. I’ve read very little of either of them and my experience has been that if I don’t know a poet’s work I have trouble hearing it when read to me. (A possible contrary experience was hearing Jennifer Maiden this morning, but I am familiar with her voice and preoccupations, so had a head start.) Gig Ryan reads quickly, and her language is very compressed: I had difficulty distinguishing the words, let alone grasping the connections between them. Kate Lilley has a gratifyingly expressive delivery, and the woman beside me kindly allowed me to look over her shoulder and read along as the poems were read. But I was still pretty completely mystified. Both women talked about how people in their lives met their work with blank expressions, so I didn’t feel too stupid, or at least not alone in my stupidity.

One of Kate Lilley’s poems, ‘Maisily’, consists of a string of about a hundred adverbs. This was the first time she’d read it aloud and it was quite a feat – all those lys. It seemed like pointless nonsense to me. Then she explained that it was made up of all the adjectives used by Henry James in What Maisie Knew. That made it seem like hi-falutin pointless nonsense to me. Then I remembered that it was part of an elegiac sequence about the poet’s relationship with her mother, and it no longer seemed so pointless – maybe I was finding an emotional subtext because that’s the kind of reader I am, but I did find one, like a deeply submerged nostalgia for childhood when the adult world was as inscrutable as to little Maisie in James’s novel. I wonder how it wold go if read, not as a near tongue twister, but with the rhythm of a tolling bell.

As if the poets had read my thoughts, their conversation turned to the business of reading poetry aloud. Lilley said she knew and loved her poetry long before she heard her read, but when she did hear her read it was a revelation. Maybe my difficulty is as much to do with my increasing deafness as with unfamiliarity with the poetry.

So the poetry was difficult, but the session was excellent. Both were very funny about the business of being poets, and how they see each other’s poetry. Even when they drew our attention to the complete absence of critical articles on Gig Ryan’s work, even though she is generally acknowledged as an important Australian poet, and surmised that this absence may well be because she is a woman, somehow that seemed richly comic.

On the way home in the bus, I ran into an old friend who had been to a panel with Peter Hartcher, George Megalogenis and a third journalist talking about Australia’s parlous economic situation. I felt I had been very frivolous, but I was glad of it.

Out of the Box

Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (editors), Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010)

I approached this anthology with suspicion. Does it really make sense, I wondered, to read David Malouf’s or Pam Brown’s poetry in a context that draws attention to the poet’s sexuality? Wouldn’t it skew, and narrow, the reading? My suspicion wasn’t allayed by having recently read editor Michael Farrell’s ultra-skewing assertion in Jacket Magazine 39 that he has ‘always read Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man” as referring to the experience of gender transfer’. But … well, once again the Book Club has dragged me from the path of least resistance.

Of Michael Farrell’s introduction and its use and abuse of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I can reasonably say I didn’t find it congenial, and his readings of poems strayed too far into hip idiosyncrasy for my taste. Jill Jones, his co-editor, gives a nice potted history of identified gay and lesbian writing in Australia since the late 70s, and provides some useful orientation to the lesbian poems – I mean of course the poems written by identified lesbians, because as the book’s subtitle makes clear it’s the poets, not the poems, that have sexual identitites.

The poems are wonderfully diverse. They belong together not because of shared themes or concerns or formal qualities, but because their creators are contemporary (ie, alive?), Australian and gay or lesbian. A number of the poems are outed by the context – that is, poems I would elsewhere have read as heteroerotic I here read as homoerotic. That’s probably a good thing – my heteronormative mentality is being challenged. Others shrink: Pam Brown’s ’20th Century’ (‘And as we were the tootlers / we tootled along’) here tends to read as referring to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras rather than something more global. I don’t know that that’s so good. At times I caught myself approximating a Beavis and Butthead snigger: ‘Hur hur! He said fist!’ Definitely not cool, though I plead in mitigation that Michael Farrell’s introduction does something of the sort more than once, and a handful of poems seem to be intent on a kind of high-culture gay Beavis-and-Buttheadism.

A good bit of the time while reading these pages, I got to feel very straight – not necessarily in the sexual sense, but in the sense that I prefer my language syntactical, don’t warm to commas at the start of sentences or parentheses that don’t close, and hate it when I can’t tell whether something is a typo or deliberate wordplay (when Javant Biarujia’s ‘MappleTROPE’ gives us Mapplethorpe’s deathbed utterance as, ‘I just hope I live long / enough to see the frame’ – has he inserted that r into the last word as a piece of witty surrealism or is it just bad proofreading? I genuinely don’t know, and it bothers me).

There are wonderful poems by David Malouf (‘A History Lesson’), Dorothy Porter (‘The Ninth Hour’), Pam Brown (‘Peel Me A Zibibo’), Martin Harrison (‘About the Self’), Peter Rose (‘Plague’), Kerry Leves (‘the escape’ – I’ve known Kerry mainly as a children’s writer, and he is definitely not that here) and joanne burns (‘aerial photography’), among others. I was delighted to be introduced to Stephen J Williams (‘Museums of beautiful art’), Andy Quan (‘Oath’, possibly the single poem that touched me most directly) and Tricia Dearborn (‘Life on the Run’) among others.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk about a book of poetry without quoting any, but every poem I wanted to quote turns out to feel like an all or nothing proposition. I guess if you’re interested you’ll just have to find the book.