Tag Archives: poetry

Anne Carson’s Float

Anne Carson, Float (Jonathan Cape 2016)

9781101946848.jpgSince I’ve read Float, the 2016 Australian Poetry Anthology has arrived in my letterbox. The opening of Julie Chevalier’s delightful ‘waiting with dignity’ on page 31 seemed tailor-made as an introduction to this blog post:

into one hostage story anne carson crams
a python named robert, zombie slaves,
chinese tourists in greece, putin,
extract of puffer fish, the urge to piss,
the british museum, how boring torture can be
& lapsang oolong falling off the counter.
what an exciting life anne carson must lead

I haven’t read the story the poem refers to yet (Sister Google found it for me here), but having read the 22 chapbooks in Float I’m not surprised that Anne Carson can cover such varied terrain in a short story.

Float is a clear plastic box that opens to the left. When you pick it up with your right hand, 22 saddle-stitched books plus a couple of loose pages cascade to the floor. As you scrabble them up, you wonder if they need to be in any particular order (mostly they don’t). Later you may discover that you missed one or two booklets and a sheet that bears the title page and the slogan: ‘Reading can be freefall.’ Boom tish!

It may sound like a gimmick. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, neater and kinder, to print the 22 pieces conventionally, between one set of covers? Maybe, but this presentation is peculiarly appropriate to Anne Carson’s multi-faceted work. She is a poet, a classicist, a translator, and a script-writer. The chapbooks include essays, performance pieces, the text of lectures, original poems, poems translated from French, and so on. One of the shortest booklets, a single spread titled ‘Performance Notes’, explains the occasions for which a number of others were written: a lecture accompanied by dance and music; various pieces composed for Laurie Anderson, including a poem for Lou Reed’s 70th birthday and another for a quiet occasion after his death; words to accompany or be incorporated into a range of artworks.

Because of the presentation as separate chapbooks, the reader comes fresh to each piece, or small subset of pieces, as a separate work. There’s no temptation to look for an over-arching narrative or other clear coherence. They are all produced by the same mind, but it’s a mind that can focus sharply and interestingly in a striking range of modes and on a vast range of subjects.

Your mileage will almost certainly vary, but the books that most appealed to me are ‘Contempts’, ‘Pronoun Envy’, ‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’, and ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’, though I did also like ‘How to Like “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” by Gertrude Stein’, a plausible reading of a poem that at first blush looks pretty much like gibberish, and ‘The Designate Mourner by Wally Shawn’, a poem about going to the last night of a play by a friend.

I suspect I enjoyed ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’ because it made me feel smart. It consists of a series of short, numbered paragraphs – the first three are:

9.4. __They put stones in the eye sockets. Upper-class people put precious stones
16.2__Prior to the movement and following the movement, stillness.
8.0. __Not sleeping made the Cycladic people gradually more and more brittle. Their legs broke off.

You don’t rally need to be a genius to figure out that you should find 1.0 and read in numerical order rather than in order of appearance all the way to, as it happens 16.3.3, but I was very pleased with myself that I did figure it out, and discover that a weird, dreamlike story emerges, all the more dream like for the work one has to do to find each step of the way.

‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’ is more serious, a prose poem in which struggling to understand some of Hegel’s thinking offers some relief from the ‘icy horror’ of bereavement by way of a moment standing in snow in a fir wood.

‘Pronoun Envy’ is a poem that looks back in playful anger to November 1971 when a Harvard Linguistics Professor disparaged feminist objections to the pronoun ‘he’ being used to refer to both genders:

_______ ____________As if all
the creatures in the world
were either zippers

or olives,
except
way back in the Indus Valley
in 5000 BC we decided
to call them zippers

and non-zippers.

By 1971
the non-zippers
were getting restless.

‘Contempts’, subtitled ‘A Study of Profit and Nonprofit in Homer, Moravia and Godard’, is one of the larger booklets, a witty and instructive essay that runs to a little more than eight pages. It starts with an incident in 2007 when an unknown man punched an artist and called him a sell-out, and goes on to consider the difficulty of identifying the dividing line for an artist between selling out and making a living, by way of a fascinating discussion of the Odyssey, Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (Contempt) and Jean Luc Godard’s movie Le mépris (also Contempt in English), which was based on Moravia’s novel. I learned an awful lot about the Odyssey from these pages, especially Odysseus’ manipulation of the aristocratic gift economy as the motive for his prolonged travels (who knew?), but the real kick was in the discussion of Brigitte Bardot in the Godard movie (young readers may need to be told that Brigitte Bardot was famous as a sex symbol way back, long before she was famous as an animal liberation spokesperson). Here’s an excerpt:

There are, I think, three places in the movie where Bardot puts on a bathrobe. In each case as a single action she shrugs it on, flings the belt around her waist, draws it tight with both hands and leaves the scene. It’s stupendous. She wraps herself and goes. She wins. Every time she does this, she wins the movie. Are you an innately unbounded thing? the movie asks Bardot and instead of answering she wraps herself in boundlessness and exits.

I you want to know what that has to do with Homer, I encourage you to seek out the essay, or indeed the whole collection. I am now determined to seek out Le mépris and watch it again.

David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice

David Musgrave, Anatomy of Voice (Gloria SMH Press 2016)

1478186754915.jpgThis book of poetry invites readers to immerse themselves in its complex playfulness. As well as the poems, beautifully laid out on the page, there are gorgeous images culled from sixteenth and seventeenth century emblem books (with notes giving the French, German and Latin verses they originally accompanied), an occasional burst of morse code (and inside front and back covers filled with tiny dots and dashes), footnotes that serve not so much to clarify as to enact the poetry’s theme, an ingenious use of showthrough (something you just can’t do in an e-book), and more. And it’s a book that grieves for a lost friend. In some ways I’m a privileged reader because I knew the man who is grieved for, though not as well as David Musgrave, so I read the book very personally.

It consists of six main parts, four ‘partitions’ of poetry, an afterword, and eleven pages of notes.

Given that so much contemporary poetry is compressed and elliptical, it’s often a good idea to start with the notes. Here, the afterword should definitely be read first: in it David Musgrave explains that the book is a personal tribute to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who taught in the English Department at Sydney University from the 1950s to the 1980s, and was a significant mentor of Musgrave as scholar and poet.* The afterword explains the book’s genesis:

The decision to start writing about Bill’s voice arose from a number of auditory hallucinations I experienced some months after his death. From there the interrogation of that experience led inevitably to the anatomisation of the idea of what a voice is, as well as, of course, a desire to memorialise the man who had given me so much.

The First Partition is a sequence of 24 poems, each of three four-line stanzas. This is the ‘anatomisation’. It begins with an auditory hallucination:

Somewhere–––––a voice
near my mind——-not in it
but part of it——apart
and tethered by memory

and continues as a sustained, fascinating, quotable, and at times moving meditation on voice – as container of meaning, as non-human sound, as remembered part of someone who has died, and much more.

The second Partition, consisting of ten short poems accompanied by images culled from emblem books, is gorgeous to look at and hold. The poems, apart from the first, don’t easily yield their paraphrasable meanings, if such meanings exist – the verses that accompanied emblems were traditionally enigmatic. But I spent a lot of time with them, reading, in the notes, the verses that originally accompanied the emblems, and trying to figure out what is going on. Some typical lines:

Maenads, dandies, their unedited fiends
danced and tended faded anathemas.
The deadened ides of dire mendacity.

The lines do relate to the accompanying image of dancing monkeys. They are almost anagrams of each other, and are full of echoes and rhymes. Maybe their tantalising almost-coherence mimics a hallucinated voice.

But moving on: the third Partition is a kind of biography of Bill Maidment in fourteen poems, for which a prose biography in the afterword provides a useful map. In what at first reads as a humorous gimmick, there are footnotes in which Maidment, and sometimes his widow, comment on the poems (a note explains that these footnotes are quotes from articles or letters). Some of the notes expand on the narrative, others comment on the poem, as the afterword tells us the living Maidment often did on Musgrave’s poetry. It’s a very beautiful sequence, and the cumulative effect of the footnotes is to enact the central motif of the book – they are the voice of a loved one speaking to the living from beyond the grave. Still clever-dicky and comical, but also hitting a deep chord of sorrow. And that’s true of a lot of this section: I laughed out loud at times, and at others found myself brooding on all the people I have loved who have died, trying to remember their voices.

The fourth Partition consists of a single short poem addressed to the departed. I love how these lines evoke the meaning of the hallucinated voice:

————————–that which calls

across heavens, from room to room,
joining us through air, through love

and dividing us from silence
this gift of next-to-nothing

that we carry in our mind’s heart

In a brilliant review in the most recent Southerly, Michael Sharkey spells out the book’s ‘bravura display of easy erudition’, and its relationship to Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy among other works. He describes it as ground-breaking in scope, and says he knows nothing like it in Australian poetry. I can add my less learned praise to his, and say that it’s been a while since a book of poetry has grabbed me and held me so deeply and, for all its grief, so joyfully.


* A personal note: I was lucky enough to be lectured by Bill Maidment in the early 1970s, and was enough under his spell that someone once called me a Maidmentian: I think he was referring to my inability to think one coherent thought at a time. Sometimes, when I’m trying to articulate a difficult thought, I hear myself adopting one of Bill’s mannerisms, muttering the sound that Musgrave describes as the phoneme ‘ze’.

Cavafy for the first time

C P Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Chatto & Windus 1990)

0701136626.jpg Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.

Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.

You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.

And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.

There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with dear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.

The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.

Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.

You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:

On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.

Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.

It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.

Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.

Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:

  • MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
  • Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
  • MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.

Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.

 

Kathryn Lomer’s Night Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

as comforting in its woodpile pattern
as the promise of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (ebook, Quemar Press 2016)

metronome.jpg

Jennifer Maiden’s poetry inhabits the news cycle the way another poet’s might a particular landscape. Kevin Rudd’s pursed lips, George W Bush’s nose, Tanya Plibersek’s smile, Tony Abbott’s hurt look – all have been sharply observed and made meaningful in her poems. In The Metronome, Hillary Clinton’s ‘crazy campaign smile’ joins the list, along with

the movements of a little-marching-girl, the
drilled expansive gestures.

In many Maiden poems of the last half-dozen collections, someone – a historical or fictional personage – wakes up and engages with a contemporary political figure or another fictional character. Ten of the 15 poems in The Metronome are of this sort. I tend to read these poems naively. That is, I just enjoy the conversations: what do Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have to say to Hillary Clinton; what do Jeremy Corbyn and Constance Markiewicz discuss as they stride out on the moors; and who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen? In other poems too, whether they’re picking a fight with a critic (only one in this book, in ‘Jennifer Maiden Woke Up outside the Fourth Wall’), or reflecting on the uses of Rodin’s The Kiss or Catalonia (these two add to a substantial list of ‘uses of’ poems), the conversational mode draws one in: one reads for the argument (in this book, a recurring subject is economic austerity), the wit, the odd twists of mind and unexpected digressions. Sometimes, as in the adventures of Clare Collins and George Jeffreys, characters from her three Play with Knives novels, one reads for the story.

Like any good conversation, these poems tend to touch, glancingly or attentively, on a wide range of subjects. I found myself reading with my phone near at hand: I watched Vladimir Miller singing Veniamin Basner’s ‘Leningrad Metronome’ on YouTube (for the poem ‘Metronome’); I checked to see if Malcolm Turnbull’s middle name really is ‘Bligh’ and William Bligh really was a water-colourist (for ‘Temper’); I satisfied my curiosity about the unnamed critic; I read Wikipedia on Constance Markiewicz (for ‘The gazelle’), Dick Whittington (for ‘‘Turn Again, Whittington’’) and the brumby cull in the Australian Alps (for ‘George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo’). I found some lovely intertextual serendipity: Clare – in ‘Clare and Nauru’ – mentions that the Nauruan government invested a lot of money in a West End Musical about Leonardo Da Vinci. A little after reading that, I heard the This American Life episode ‘In the Middle of Nowhere‘ in which, at about the 15 minute mark, a couple of lines from that musical are sung. This American Life‘s description of the Nauru landscape echoes Clare’s:

She herself had wondered: was it flammable?
The wide stripped-bare belly of the island
with its lorn coral peaks clawing up
where the pasty soil had been? One
could not plant crops here now. The lagoon
of freshwater near here shone toxic. There
generations ago young saltwater fish
had been trapped by the tribal families,
and adapted to freshwater, kept to grow
for food, like the family pigs.

All that is pleasurable (not the devastation of Nauru, but the interplay of texts), and there’s pleasure in the way the words sit on the page. I notice, though, that when I try to read a passage to a long-suffering companion, I have trouble: I can see that the lines are musical but I can’t read them aloud musically. I mention this here, because in another piece of serendipity I read Clive James’s Poetry Notebooks in rough tandem with The Metronome. I doubt if these poems are to James’s taste. They certainly lack the thing he seems to prize above all else: rigorous adherence to an established metric form which plays against the rhythms of normal speech. But nor are they the formless self expression he despises.

I want to mention two things related to that. First, Maiden’s use of enjambment: often a line ends with the first word or two of a new phrase – three of the ten lines from ‘Clare and Nauru’ above, for example – or a line break falls after a preposition or between an adjective and the noun it refers to. Something in the poetry plays against the conversational rhythms after all. It’s nothing as orderly as James’s classical model, but it keeps the reader on her/his toes.

Second, she uses rhyme a lot, though not always obviously. I was shocked to realise, for example, that all but two of the 34 lines of ‘George Jeffreys 19’ rhyme with either ‘so’ or ‘cull’. Here’s the start:

George Jeffreys woke up depressed in Thredbo.
It was too early for autumn snow.
Clare was at a meeting to organise local
resistance to the planned brumby cull
of ninety per cent of the wild horses, no
great hope to prevent it, although
she would ghost herself trying. So,
he thought, the death aura of Thredbo
– there for years after decades ago
an avalanche caused by a kill
of non-native trees crushed all
asleep in a hillside building – now
would return like the hooves of dead foals
along an icy grassy overflow.

Maybe there’s even an iambic tetrameter lurking there. Whatever, I enjoy and am challenged by my first, naive read, and then find more on each further read. As I think I’ve said before, I’m a fan.

The Metronome was published by Quemar Press as an ebook (available on the Press’s website for $5) on the night of the US presidential election – quite a feat given that in its final poem, ‘George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke up in Washington’, Donald Trump’s ‘soft voice sounded infinitely defeated’ when he told George over the phone that he’d won the election. The publication in paper form by Giramondo is scheduled for February.

Quemar Press has reissued Maiden’s novel Play with Knives and published for the first time its sequel, Complicity, which has been around in manuscript for decades. Recently it has also published a third novel, George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker. All three novels are available for free from the press’s website.

aww2017.jpgEven though I started reading The Metronome last year, I think it’s legitimate to count it as the first book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s a great start to a year’s reading.

Australian Poetry Journal 6:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2 (2016)

APJ62.jpgThis is Michael Sharkey’s sixth and final issue as editor of Australian Poetry Journal. I’m missing him already.

The whole journal – a wonderful variety of poems, four articles, two reviews and a handful of photographs – is a pleasure.

It feels almost mean to single any poems out, but I will. In Jane Williams’s ‘Show and Tell’ a sea eagle’s appearance quells a group of tourists’ ‘compulsion to frame / the endless, abridged version of us’. Carol Jenkins’s seven-poem sequence ‘A History of Zero’ revels in the metaphorical possibilities of  paradox that the invention of the zero – of nothing – had vast consequences. Les Murray’s ‘The Scores’ is a characteristically abrasive account of Australian social history, beginning with 2001, then skipping ahead 20 years in each of the remaining five stanzas. Ron Pretty’s ‘Parks & Wildlife’ is a country pub conversation full of sly puns and genial observation. There are a couple of villanelles (and who doesn’t love a villanelle) of which Sarah Day’s ‘Sea Ice’ is seriously splendid. Jules Leigh Koch’s ‘Monastery’ describes a monastery somewhere in Asia, the kitchen full of backpackers about to head off to distant places,

while outside a monk walks along
The Path
chanting a mantra
journeying from one end if his world
to the other

As in previous issues, there are articles on small-scale publishers of poetry and translation, two each.

The presses are Ralph Wessman’s Walleah Press (article by Chris Ringrose) and Kent MacCarter’s Cordite Books (article by Greg McLaren). Reading about these enterprises, I’m impressed all over again by the generosity of spirit and financial daring of these cultural stalwarts. The big surprise for me is Ralph Wessman’s reply when asked how many copies he prints for the first run of a volume of poetry. ‘As few as necessary,’ he says, andgoes on to say that that usually  means 150 copies. That’s not much bigger than my self-published glorified Christmas cards!

The essays on translation are both excellent introductions to the poets being translated: Carol Hayes on the contemporary Japanese poets Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata and Takako Arai, and Zeina Issa on on the Kurdish poet Khalid Kaki. They both quote generously from the translated poet and give fascinating insights into the specifics of translation from Japanese and Arabic respectively.

The next issue will be edited by fabulous  Aboriginal poets Aly Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. That makes the missing of Michael Sharkey a lot easier to bear.

Membership of Australian Poetry Ltd gets you a subscription to the journal, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

Looking Gift Horses in the Mouth

Morgan Parker, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (Switchback Books 2015)
Mindy Nettifee, Sleepyhead Assassins (Moon Tide Press 2006)
Mindy Nettifee, Rise of the Trust Fall (Write Bloody Publishing 2010)

These three books don’t have a lot in common besides being written by young US women and having been given to me as gifts. They do have a lot going for them, but I’m not their ideal reviewer: my experience of reading each of them wasn’t a million miles away from how I felt recently when I was almost completely unamused by a French rom com in a theatre full of laughing people. Horses for courses.

The equivalents of the laughing cinema-goers were the books’ extravagant blurb-writers.

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Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night was a gift from a Book Group member who had just spent a couple of weeks in Brooklyn. On its back cover Eileen Myles (on whom the formidable poet character in Transparent is based) says of Morgan Parker’s poems, in part:

They make me high and think like this: Her mind and her thoughts can go anywhere in a poem. She pulls us up short, and when she says ‘the sky the sky’ I feel that expanse … I start taking notes: She is making a map of what human can be … she’s raucous and engaged … indeterminate, visceral … collisions … these are full adventures in scale. There are piles of masterpieces here.

Um, you might be less enthusiastic than Eileen Myles if you’ve never watched an episode of Real Housewives of Anywhere or followed a Miss Black America competition with or without hipster irony, and aren’t titillated by titles like ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity’ or ‘On Children, How I Hate Them and Want to Corrupt Them, How You Know I Hate Them, and What That Could Mean’. But the book is alive and vigorous and smart, with plenty of sharp observations about sexism and racism (Morgan Parker is African American). It’s coolly literate, with reference points including Gwendolyn Brooks, Bill Murray, Roy Lichtenstein, Jay Z, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. My impression is that the poems are meant for performance rather than for the page.

I went searching for some lines to give you a taste, and wanted do do it with no expletives or references to drugs or alcohol. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was interesting to notice how hard it was, and then I gave up. The shortest poem in the book, with its echo of Nina Simone, hints at an urge to break out of the dominant mode:

Young, Sassy and Black
I use these words
to distract you.

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The two Mindy Nettifee books were given to me by a niece who loved them (though evidently not enough to keep them). Sleepyhead Assassins features some of the most extreme blurbs you’re likely ever to encounter, presumably written by Nettifee’s friends before Donald Trump gave hyperbole a really bad name. Amélie Frank, for example, writes:

She’s poetry’s fierce guardian angel and every poseur’s worst nightmare. She’s goddess energy built for speed. […] Reading her work will give your soul a jump start that will smart for weeks. Prepare to have your molecules rearranged.

I don’t suppose any book could deliver on that promise, so it’s no disgrace that this one doesn’t. These poems are definitely meant for the stage rather than the page: they bristle with bravado and bravura, with striking similes and clever turns of phrase, evoking a clicking audience rather than a solitary reflective reader. The poems that most appeal to me are a little more reflective, especially the ones about Nettifee’s father, who we learn had a tragic life. In ‘The Time Machine Paradox’ she imagines travelling back in time to visit his mother:

i want to give her black stockings and rust red lipstick.
i want to loose her curls and numb her better judgment.
i want to say, Audrey, and show her how it could sound.

maybe, if she could have lived her life, just for a night,
i wouldn’t be here. my father wouldn’t suffer.
none of us would feel this way. instead i would be

just a possibility, a ghost, gathered with other ghosts
at the Armageddon lemonade stand.
i’d be the one that remembered the sugar.

That doesn’t rearranges my molecules, but it does linger after I turn the page.

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Rise of the Trust Fall comes with more sober but no less Trumpian recommendations. The LA litzine Poetic Diversity says simply:

Mindy Nettifee is destined to be the next Dorothy Parker.

Of course it’s no shame not to be Dorothy Parker. Hardly anybody ever has been. Mindy Nettifee isn’t, and I don’t think she aspires to be: too loquacious, too earnest beneath the veneer of cool, and no rhymes; nothing anything like Parker’s sublime ‘Resumé’ (do look it up).

The poetry in this book is boldly self-revealing: alcohol, recreational and prescription drugs, plenty of sex, nightmares, pop music, childhood memories, heartbreak, bodily functions, all are there along with an occasional touch of epigram (‘Every woman’s closet is a museum of her insecurities’). It’s unfailingly sharp and inventive, sometimes shocking: sure to be a hit at a Spoken Word event. For me though, reading it was more like reading a screenplay than seeing a movie.

There are moments where the words connect. For example, in ‘The Connection between God and Nature Beats Me over the Head with its Earthy Mallet’ (what is it with these long titles?) the city-dweller misses the stars. She chooses the city:

It’s a choice that makes itself for me
every time I am rescued by the warm clotted glow of art galleries;
by the imitation of Django Reinhardt that is really not that bad,
strumming rakishly out of the mood lit punk bar;
by the David Bowie juke-boxing the punchy patrons
at the cheaper bar down the street.

In the absence of starlight
you start looking for the shine in everything.

I can easily imagine Morgan Parker and Mindy Nettifee being sensational presence at Spoken Word events, each in her own way. On the page they’re both a bit too shouty and/or sweary for me. 

Antigone Kefala’s Fragments, and my Verse 11

Antigone Kefala, Fragments (Giramondo 2016)

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The final issue of Ivor Indyk’s literary journal Heat, published an astonishing 6 years ago, included an interview of Antigone Kefala by Amanda Simons. The conversation ranges widely, from Kefala’s ‘scribbling’ in her childhood home in Romania before World War 2, over the role her mother played in her creative life, to the critical isolation that comes from being classified as an ‘ethnic’ writer. She says this about poetry:

It is a medium that has its own directions. It comes when it wants to come, doesn’t come when it doesn’t want to come. You can never force it, you have to wait for it.

Fragments is a collection of 61 poems that feel absolutely unforced in that way, almost as if each poem catches an unbidden thought, or dream, or observation, or burst of emotion, and finds a precise form of words for it. If they are fragments of some greater unity, the book is not concerned to find that unity, or to explain contexts, but invites us to focus on each fragment in its own right. Take the first poem:

The Voice
At the sound
I turned
my veins full of ice
that travelled
at high speed
releasing fire.

This return
the past attacking
unexpectedly
in the familiar streets.

The speaker hears a voice from her past. Perhaps it’s associated with a terrible memory, or it might remind her of the voice of a loved one who has died. The poem isn’t interested in the specifics, nor in what happened next. Did the speaker approach the owner of the voice, did she go about her day as if nothing had happened or was she shaken to the core? The poem doesn’t go anywhere near these questions. It focuses tightly on the moment of hearing, and renders it with wonderful precision and complexity: there are the explicit images of ice and fire, and possibly an implied reference to the kinds of warfare that turns city streets into war zones. It’s not ‘difficult’ poetry, but it rewards you for time spent in its company.

The poems, only a handful of them much longer than the first, are divided into five sections. Here’s my guess at their organising principles:

  1. a thematic introduction: poems of memory and loss, dream renderings, observations of social life, dark love poems
  2. evocations of places, mainly Australian, including a scene from the movie Wake in Fright
  3. poems of grief, loss and impending loss
  4. dreams and visions, surrealism and metaphysics
  5. social poems – quick character sketches, satirical jabs, laments, a little politics.

In the Heat interview, Antigone Kefala observes that ‘we ethnics are constantly being compared to other ethnics, but not to Australian writers’, and asks if her interviewer has ever seen a comparison between her work and that of Les Murray. Well, perhaps with that quote working at the back of my mind, I found myself making just such a comparison. Here’s her poem ‘Weapons’ – I hope it’s OK to quote it in full:

Weapons
Ruins
corpses in the sun
men moving cautiously
in the abandoned streets
close to the scarred walls.
Men on top of houses, hills,
coming from dark undergrounds,
men holding on, hugging
these metal erections
firing them
a spray of semen
rushing with velocity
to breed another race of killers.

The evocation of the battle-zone is followed by what at first looks like crude, even trite feminist anti-war rhetoric – the gun as phallic symbol – which becomes almost shockingly explicit with the ‘spray of semen’, and then is brought home in the powerful last line: this isn’t just emotive rhetoric, there’s a strong idea here.

The poem reminded me of Les Murray’s ‘I wrote a Little Haiku‘, which similarly compares bullets to semen. In Murray’s poem, the molten bullets drip from a burning farm rail, and he sees the drip as ‘the size of wasted semen / it had annulled before’. It’s the visual image that counts: one’s response is to admire the poet’s mental agility in seeing such a comparison: the notion that the bullets had ‘annulled’ real semen when they were fired in the past – that is, they had killed young men and so prevented them from fathering children – is almost a melancholy afterthought. In Kefala, the visual image matters, but the force of the poem is in its idea. We’re not invited to admire her cleverness, so much as to dwell on what she has unearthed.

Oddly, the comparisons that came to mind most strongly as I read this book are with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both of whom have grappled with ageing in their recent work – Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’ for example, or Cohen’s heartbreaking ‘I’m Leaving the Table’. Kefala too brings a ruthless eye to the experience of ageing, and at the same time, like those two writers (in other ways very different from her), conveys a deep joy in living and creating. I love the bitter-sweet final lines of the book’s last poem, ‘Metro Cellist’:

we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

AWW2016Fragments is the thirteenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my free copy.
—–
As my regular readers will know, I have a self-imposed task of writing fourteen 14-line verses each November and putting them up on my blog. I was going to let this post go by to avoid putting any of my verse on the same page as Antigone Kefala’s infinitely superior work, but then I read her saying in the Heat interview that she could not write a sonnet: ‘You know how writers do exercises in terms of poetic forms; I have never been able to do that.’ Perhaps one day I’ll outgrow my attachment to the form of the Onegin stanza, but for now, here’s one more, an attempt to explain the joys of this attachment:

November Verse 11: 
A turn of phrase, a half idea:
that’s enough for my first lines.
The path ahead is far from clear
but through mind’s muddle somehow shines
an argument. Then, as I’m seeking
rhymes and scans, the sense starts leaking
into somewhere unforeseen
and who knows what line eight will mean?
Six lines to go, and now I’m counting.
So much that I wish I’d said,
not on the page, still in my head!
Its all a mess. The panic’s mounting.
With luck I end my little song
as if I meant it all along.

Colleen Z Burke’s Home Brewed and Lethal

Colleen Burke, Home Brewed and Lethal: New and selected poems (Cochon Publishing 1997)

hbl.jpgThis is the seventh of eleven published books of poetry by Colleen Z Burke (her writing name acquired the ‘Z’not long after it was published). It includes a generous selection from the earlier books including one that I’ve blogged about (here), plus 25 new poems.

Many of the earlier poems are also included in Burke’s memoir, The Waves Turn. One of the later ones – the prose poem ‘A doll on a stick’ – is a tightened and tidied version of a passage from the memoir, leading me to conclude that the memoir, published this year, was written in the mid 1970s was reworked and integrated into the memoir, which Colleen started in the late 1990s*. Most of the poetry in this book makes no bones about its autobiographical nature: memories of a Catholic girlhood, reconnection with an Irish heritage, defiant feminist rage, marital woes, then – taking up where the memoir ends – the joys and burdens of motherhood, the flavours of inner-city living, environmental and Aboriginal politics and history and, like a punch in the guts, half a dozen poems written in the heat of bereavement:

What fools are we
to think that we can plan
and plot and shape our lives
and choose to go or stay. To
love or not. What fools indeed.
When death is on our shoulder
day and night waiting ..

The book, and life, continues after the death of Burke’s husband, and many of the poems gain added resonance from being read as part of an overarching narrative. For example, one of the new poems, ‘Back to life’, ostensibly about the refreshing effect of the bush, has these lines:

I breathe
again
slowly
back to life.

Another of the new poems, ‘Between the lines’, comes close to describing what is perhaps the strongest feature of Burke’s poetry. Addressing the leftist poet Len Fox, who died in 2004 and was in his early 90s  when this books was published, she says of his poems:

____________when I thought
I had them sussed – they bent
twisted or even
smiled between
the lines
[…]
Yet basically
it’s the lack of bullshit
I liked the most about
your poems

I think it’s fair to say that Colleen Z Burke’s poetry aspires to, and generally reaches, a bullshit-free zone. No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures, but straight talk that nevertheless bends and twists and even smiles between the lines.

  • Amended after a conversation with the author

AWW2016Home Brewed and Lethal is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Colleen Z Burke’s Waves Turn

Colleen Z Burke, The Waves Turn: A memoir (Feakle Press 2016; for availability see here)

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Colleen Z Burke is a Sydney poet whose work, as David Brooks says in his introduction to her Home Brewed and Lethal (1997), ‘has not received the attention and awards it’s deserved’. She is a poet of place, particularly inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains; a poet of domestic life, feminist and fiercely maternal; a historical poet, exploring the stories of working class Australians  and her Irish heritage. I’ve blogged about a couple of her books (here and here) and our paths have crossed in a number of contexts. The word that comes to mind is ‘staunch’. The Waves Turn tells the story of her first three decades.

Colleen was born in the early 1940s into a tight working-class Irish Catholic community in Bondi, not a hundred miles or many years from the world of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. She was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, whose treatment of their young charges in Colleen’s day would not have helped the cause of their founder Mary MacKillop’s canonisation half a century later. Leaving school at 15 to help with the family finances, she landed a public service job, but was already snatching moments to write poems and read widely. With a friend she dared to venture into Sydney’s bohemian milieu, but remained enough her mother’s daughter not to plunge into their pre-feminist sex and drugs lifestyle. From there it was small dramatic step into the thriving folk music scene, where she was courted by singer Declan Affley, whom she eventually married, and began to discover her deep connections to Ireland.

Declan’s personality dominates the second two thirds of the memoir, as they negotiate their relationship, travel together to North Queensland, to Melbourne and to Ireland and England, struggling to earn enough money to live on (mostly it’s Colleen who earns while Declan’s work as a musician is paid pathetically), joining causes, and making music. In an extraordinary range of contexts, almost in the shadows, Colleen finds a place for her typewriter and works away at her poetry. This was before the days of creative writing courses, and it was a lonely enterprise, requiring a heroic determination to hold to her own course against all expectations – from bohemians and folkies as much as from Catholics – that she would make a man the centre of her life.

In 1975, which is as far as the book takes us, Colleen was in her early 30s. She had finally gained a university degree, the first in her family to do so. Her mother had died, her first book, Go Down Singing, had been published in the feminist Khasmik Poets Series, and half a dozen of her poems were included in Kate Jennings’s landmark anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted. We know from occasional mentions that she will have children, and from her poetry that Declan will die young and unexpectedly, that there will be more hardship, so it feels as if the book just stops rather than coming to an end point. The final sentence reads:

And as waves turn I’m unsure what the future holds but look forward with anticipation.

Where some memoirs read like novels that claim to be factual, The Waves Turn is more like a careful accumulation of facts in which a story can be discerned. The image of an archaeological dig comes to mind: Colleen Z Burke has delved patiently into the layers of memory, brushed the dirt from the innumerable artefacts she found there, labelled them and arranged them chronologically. Sometimes, in talking about the folk scene for example, memory has almost certainly been helped by festival programs or similar documentation.

There were places where I found the accumulation of detail fascinating, such as the points of similarity between Colleen’s childhood and my North Queensland Catholic childhood half a decade later: the same bottles of milk curdling in the sun at school (why?), the same ‘worms’ made by Vegemite in biscuits with holes (which I read just the other day will soon cease to exist), the same songs of Irish nostalgia. In my 20s, I followed in some of Colleen’s paths: to the edges of the Push and the folk music scene, to protest against the US and Australian war in Vietnam, to the ferment of women’s liberation, to the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University (though in that case I was there half a decade before her) … the list goes on. There’s pleasure in recognising the names of people, streets and buildings, in being reminded of forgotten rituals (Oh, that’s right, on Friday nights people would ask, ‘Where’s the party?’). I don’t know how it would be for someone who hadn’t been there. They might do a lot of head-scratching (as with the passing reference to some Catholics not buying Sanitarium breakfast cereals) and skipping (as with the list of performers at numerous folk-music events).

An edition of the book that included footnotes on all the musicians and big personalities mentioned would be spectacular. I recognised only a handful, but if the ones I didn’t recognise were as interesting as that handful, each list of names in this book is a flag pointing to a trove of stories.

We do get the stories of Colleen and Declan, or rather many of their stories.

For example, Declan Affley is perhaps the only good thing in Tony Richardson’s 1970 movie Ned Kelly. (In a nostalgic moment, I recently downloaded ‘The Wild Colonial Boy‘ from the soundtrack – Mick Jagger reduces it to passionless rinkydink, but Affley’s tin whistle fights to give the song heart, and wins.) The book takes us behind the scenes, not to juicy celebrity gossip, but to how the film gave economic relief to Affley and Colleen, and how, having the rarity of a decent amount of money, they splurged on luxuries.

More than fifty poems are scattered through the book, many of them dealing with events or places that have just been described in prose. So, not just in general but very specifically, the memoir gives a valuable insight into the relationship of the poetry to the life, into things that can only be said in poetry. For example, towards the end of the book, Colleen is employed on a survey to assess the health and welfare needs of people in the suburb of Glebe. In prose:

The health/welfare survey had its limitations, all surveys do, but talking to people in the open-ended section, I gleaned interesting information about their lives. The diverse community included students, transients, pensioners, professionals and more affluent residents in wealthier parts of Glebe Point. We interviewed people from the Glebe Estate in houses owned by the Catholic Church. The Glebe Estate wasn’t bought by the Federal Labor government’s Department of Urban and Regional Affairs, under the radical leadership of Tom Uren, until late 1974.

And so on. In typing that out, I’m reminded of something that nagged at me, though it might be of no significance to most readers. Feakle Press clearly operates on a shoestring, with little money for professional copy-editing, and my blue-pencil finger twitches to fact-check and clarify. In this paragraph, for example: the Glebe Estate was owned by the Anglicans, not the Catholics; will readers from elsewhere understand the reference to Glebe Point (perhaps ‘more affluent residents who lived close to the water at Glebe Point’ would cover it)? is the government purchase relevant, or a distracting complication? But these editorial questions are beside the point here. Colleen then gives us her poem, ‘The questionnaire’, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing in full:

The questionnaire

walking through Glebe
these summery days
of nearly autumn
of nearly autumnI move
through street shadows
of paperthin _ March trees
________to arrive
_____________ anywhere.
Knock on doors
___________opened
by young people
____________eager
as spring to answer
____________ _anything.
But older rustier men
__mostly nod their heads
like old clocks
__listening somewhere else
and pensioners
___________warm as sunlight
___________caught in old brick walls
look at my papers
____________ my well-chosen words
then shut their doors kindly.
And clutching empty questions
I run home
through thin pools
of March trees
__________ singing

And we’re there.

AWW2016The Waves Turn is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.