This is Colleen Z Burke’s twelfth poetry collection, published like many of the others by her own Feakle Press. When I blogged about her 2013 collection, Splicing Air (blog post here), I wrote:
Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren … Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland.
The same is true of Sculpting a Landscape. Many of its short poems are like verbal snapshots of a moment observed around the inner city, or of a moment of insight, or something learned in travels or seen on the news, or something one of the grandchildren said. These poems create an impression of artlessness, as if they were jotted down in the moment.
That impression isn’t necessarily accurate – there’s often a subtle play of imagery, an unexpected word or a stinging implication. The title poem is a good example:
Sculpting a Landscape
In a small clearing amidst a huddle of skeletal gumtrees a rusted burnt out ute fuses into the eroded earth sculpting a definitive Aussie landscape.
At first this looks like a slightly sentimental, familiar image of rural Australia. I’m typing this beside a Carol Ruff painting of a red desert landscape that has a rusted vehicle as a detail among stunted vegetation and scattered rocks: the land has outlived and assimilated the incursion of settler technology. By contrast, if you sit with this poem for a little while, you realise that something different is happening here. It’s a small clearing, so the vehicle is a larger presence. The trees huddle, and are skeletal: to my mind, but the only gumtrees that look skeletal are dead ones. And the earth is eroded. This is not a cosy picture: ‘Aussie’, the affectionate diminutive for Australian settler culture, is definitively attached to an image of death and destruction.
Most of the ‘snapshot’ poems aren’t as harshly unsettling as this, but there is often something just a little off kilter: an ibis is seen ‘meandering’ across an empty street, ‘gum / trees lilt air’, coastal limestone is ‘spliced with / slivers of pink / and white’, mountain skies are tetchy, ‘raindrops / savour summer’s intensity’, trees ‘pierce / luminous / clouds’.
The conversations with grandchildren are less compelling than in previous books. Perhaps this is because the children are older. (I recently heard David Malouf say that three-year-olds are the most interesting people he knows, and Colleen Burke’s four grandsons, beautifully photographed by the poet at the front of the book, are substantially older than that.) But the opening to ‘Running free’ is irresistible:
I want to go to the cemetery and dance on graves, said Emmett, my eight year old grandson.
There are speeches put into the mouths of women in harsh situations: ‘My Country’s Embrace’ in memory of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tugan (1917–2003), ‘Agnes’s story, Malawi’, ‘One less mouth’, about a young woman in an unnamed third world country. There are poems about mistreatment of animals – the slow loris, the pangolin, a kangaroo in a Chinese zoo. Re-reading my earlier posts about Colleen Z Burke’s poetry, I see recurring descriptions like ‘straightforward’, ‘unadorned’, ‘No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures’. So yes, this is plain-speaking poetry, filled with a sense of place, that place being just up the road from where I live, and with a concern for the underprivileged.
I just realised with something like horror that my To Be Read shelf contains at least a year’s worth of unread journals. So here goes with what I intend to be the first of several catch-up posts, each following a catch-up reading binge.
In her Foreword to this issue of APJ, guest editor Gig Ryan, herself a formidable poet, writes:
No poems here can be straitjacketed entirely into any one category, as each poem, being its own summation, is also necessarily an experiment, an exploration, kicking towards the impossible.
The same is true of the journal as a whole. It’s not a directory, a survey or a sampler; there are no thematically labelled sections, or indicators of hierarchy. It reads like a mildly chaotic conversation among more than fifty word users, which the reader is invited to enter.
There are many excellent poems, some by poets I already know and love, some by people who are new to me. I’ll just mention one that has stuck with me: Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’, which is a response to Judith Beveridge’s sonnet, ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’. The latter poem looks at Quasimodo (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) from the point of view of an able-bodied person, the former from that of someone with a physical ‘deformity’. Jackson’s poem begins with the first word of the equivalent line in the Beveridge’s. It’s not a calling out, but a ‘departure’, and the effect is to open up a profound dialogue between the two points of view. Here are the first four lines of each:
From Judith Beveridge’s poem:
Crazed carillonneur, will you ever stop hauling yourself into the cathedral’s dim vaults? Will you ever stop imagining Esmeralda’s hands running along the canted bones of your spine (from 'Quasimodo's Lament', Meanjin 2017, on the web here)
From Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’:
Crazed? – only the mob in us deserves that word. Your self, your body, calm and attentive at the rope, will always draw out those strong and slanted notes running across every imperfect surface.
There are half a dozen essays, including an interview by Matthew Hall with the editors of Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems1980–2017 (re.press 2017), which is surely of interest to anyone who cares about contemporary Aboriginal poetry. There’s also an essay by Duncan Hose on John Forbes, marking the 20th anniversary of his death, which includes some close reading; and a discussion of rhyme by Dennis Haskell.
I read this Overland selectively, skipping articles that looked at first blush to be about where the universities are getting it wrong, or arguing that, say, the marriage equality Yes movement wasn’t radical enough. So who knows what I have missed?
Here are some wonderful things I didn’t miss:
In ‘On Jack Charles‘, Tony Birch writes that for Aboriginal people, ‘sovereignty – an imposed colonial concept – is a complex and contradictory notion’, and as a way to understanding what Aboriginal sovereignty might mean quotes Jack Charles as saying that ‘he could not walk by a person in need – any person in need – as an Aboriginal man claiming the right to Country’. It’s not often you stumble across such profundity.
I wouldn’t want to skip the regular columns by Alison Croggon (On seeing in this issue starts from her extreme myopia and goes to surprising places) and Giovanni Tiso (On writing while foreign: ‘the effortless travel of our writings across the global marketplace of late capitalism is the grotesque mirror image of the hardening of the boundaries between nations and people’).
Overland always includes the result of a literary competition. In this one, it’s the Nakata Brophy Prize for young Indigenous writers. The first prize, ‘haunted house‘ by Raelee Lancaster, counterposes two traditions (European an Indigenous) of ghost stories in a way that creates plummeting depths beneath an apparently simple surface.
There are other excellent poems, including Allotment #10, by Laurie Duggan, an addition to one of his long-running series.
Decades ago, a flatmate of mine had a poster on his wall that compared the situation of Aboriginal people living in remote communities with that of Palestinians. ‘So much like home‘ by Chris Graham spells out the parallels: things have not improved markedly for either group. ‘Israel,’ Graham writes, ‘ has built a blunt, overt system of apartheid; Australia has built a polite, covert system of apartheid.’
Of the four short stories, the two that most claimed my attention both dealt with the ethical questions that arise when you mistakenly give something you have no right to. Baggage claim by Paddy O’Reilly and Tea ceremony by Michelle Aung Thin both this murky area, the former with youthful corruptibility in its sights, the latter with something more nuanced but no less grim.
Southerly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney, which means it’s formally tied to EngLit academia. Given that, and the title of this issue it’s no surprise that there are a number of essays and fictions here about the long haul of learning to write, or just the long haul of life:
Desmond O’Grady on Muriel Spark’s nurturing times in Tuscany as a young woman
Elizabeth Hanscombe on how her writing career has been spent exploring events from the past that ‘appear to have a beginning and an end’ (‘They do not’)
Carol Lefevre on the nature writer J A Baker and his influence on her own career, quoting Richard Jefferies somewhere on the way, ‘The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead’
James Bedford’s touching memoir of his father, with beautifully deployed family snapshots/
There are works from people at the start of their creative careers. The striking cover is a detail from My Contemporary Tribe, created by Phoebe Martyr when she was a high school student in 2016 (you can see the whole work here). There are three short stories by students at the Sydney Story Factory.
There’s a glorious wealth of poetry and short fiction, including some in translation. George Toseki’s ‘Finger Bun’, in which baklava is deployed to great effect as a peacemaker among factory workers from a range of ethnic backgrounds, gets my guernsey for the most fun. Invidious though it is, I’ll mention just one poem, joanne burns’s ‘lemon aid’ for the fabulous word comatoastie.
Of the reviews, I’d pick Lachlan Brown’s of Melanie Cheng, Australia Day (2017), which places the book in the context of ‘the contemporary succession of engaging and innovative collections of short stories by Australian writers from diverse backgrounds’.
The most challenging article for me is John Kinsella’s ‘Reading and (non) Compliance: Re-approaching the Text’, which – to attempt a crude summary – urges EngLit teachers to always incorporate creative writing into any teaching of poetry, by encouraging what he calls non-compliant reading. Not being part of the EngLit academy, I can’t tell whether his proposal is as radical as he appears to be claiming, or commonplace, or way out in the top paddock. One paragraph, though, came to me like a clarion call, an urgent challenge for me as a blogger about texts. I’ll give it the last word in this blog post:
A text is a living entity and should be teated as existing contingently and contiguously within and with a vulnerable ecology that is under threat, a biosphere that is collapsing due in no small part to human behaviours – especially corporate and state exploitations of the fragile, remaining ‘natural’ habitats. No text, whatever it is, can be read outside this context of damage.
Here I go, blogging about a third book of poetry in a row. But, Dear Poetryphobe Reader, there’s nothing to fear. This one, like the last two I blogged about, is really good. Andy Kissane writes the kind of poetry that allows you to focus happily on the content and leave the poetic stuff to do its work while you’re distracted (like T S Eliot’s burglar tossing meat to the dog*). I think of him as a poet committed to bearing witness.
The book is in four unnamed sections, each with an epigraph suggesting its organising principle.
The first section’s epigraph is from Sharon Olds’s poem about her father’s death, ‘The Race’: ‘all night / I watched him breathe.’ The poems that follow deal with death and loss, and with being alive, though they’re not as abstract as that makes them sound. The poet contemplates his own death. He farewells his father:
------------------------- -----------Somewhere in my own marrow lies the moment when you fathered me, that unacknowledged gift. ('The Last Quarter')
He has a polite encounter with an old lover, and celebrates quiet moments of domesticity and parenthood. Among these poems, almost as if warning the reader not to read the others as directly autobiographical, there are two dramatic monologues, ‘Marriage Material’, spoken by a 19th century bride, and ‘Dressed’, spoken by a young woman of now (‘Desire is pure, as clear as water, and shame – / well, you just don’t feel any’).
The second section is heralded by a quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘One man will always be left alive to tell the story.’ Arendt was talking about the impossibility of ‘oblivion’: everything will be remembered by someone. As I read it, the central thread of this section is the idea of witness: to a concert or a movie, to plagiarism, to some of the great horrors of our time including Australia’s offshore prisons, and, closer to home, to a Sydney storm and schoolyard bullying (of which more later).
The third section is a sequence of ten poems set in the US–Vietnam War, all in the voice of an Australian (or possibly US) soldier, introduced by a quote from Tim O’Brien’s 1990 short fiction ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: ‘You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.’ The sequence doesn’t tell a single straightforward story, but a narrative shape emerges from individual scenes involving the narrator and his comrades Dave, Des, Johnno, and Boffa.
Des appears beside you, his thumb hauling you in the direction of safety. You hoist your pack & crabwalk after him, before a monsoon of mortar shells drop right there – on the piece of dirt where you were lying ... (from 'The Firefight')
It’s in the lineage of The Red Badge of Courage, has all the power and none of the insidious cinematic glamour of many ‘anti-war’ movies. I read somewhere that these poems are part of a verse novel in progress. If so, I’m looking forward to the novel, but this sequence doesn’t leave me with any of the cheated feeling that comes from reading an excerpt. The final poem, the sonnet ‘Back Home’, rounds the sequence off, not with an ending, but as an agonised cry about the lack of comprehension from even sympathetic non-combatants. Perhaps because I went to court as a conscientious objector for the US–Vietnam War, I needed a long walk after reading these poems.
The final section, ushered in with a quote from Michelangelo – ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ – deals with visual art and sculpture, referring to work by Cressida Campbell, Grayson Perry (the title poem is a response to Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011), Degas (spoken in the collective voice of his nudes), Cézanne, Jan Senbergs, and Kissane himself imagined as a painter.
It’s not easy to choose just one poem to discuss from this marvellously varied collection, but my mind keeps going back to ‘Shooting Footage’, from Section 2. It’s longish, but it’s got a story (click on the image to see it in a separate tab, then you may have to click again to see it big):
The Acknowledgements section gives no extra information about this poem, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the incident it describes is a fiction or taken from life. It would be a mistake, either way, to just assume that the speaker is the poet. There’s plenty to make me think that it’s not so, although he may be the poet at one remove – working with images rather than words. (For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that he’s male, even though a woman filming in a school playground would generally arouse less suspicion than a man.) It’s a beautifully executed dramatic monologue.
We learn about the narrator through unobtrusive details. We’re not told how he knows Joshua, but he may have given a talk to his class, to be quizzed by him, and he may know him through his daughter who plays hopscotch in stanza 6. He rides on the same bus as the students at the end of the day, but he’s not a teacher.
Having introduced Joshua in cinematic close-up in the first stanza, the poem devotes three stanzas to his being bullied on the bus, showing not telling in best movie style: what his hair looks like, what his classmates say and do. The first authorial comment is almost admiring: ‘It is truly amazing / how far some boys can spit.’ The fourth stanza returns to close-up, this time showing Joshua’s pain, and with the narrator explicitly holding a camera. We don’t know if this is the first the narrator knows of the bullying or if he’s filming because he’s been told about it previously, but in this kind of economic story-telling such specifics don’t matter.
The fifth to seventh stanzas give us a naturalistic narrative: the practicalities (enough of them at least) of how the narrator gets to be in the schoolyard at lunchtime filming, and then the painful specifics of what he sees, with just the one moment of expressed emotion (‘My anger smoulders // like white-hot coals. I can barely contain it.’) Then there’s a curious departure from the narrator’s carefully established point of view in an echo of the earlier close-ups: ‘Joshua’s glasses fog up / so he can’t see.’
Without breaking the narrative surface, the first lines of the eighth stanza comes as a revelation: ‘”Let him eat bacon sandwiches,” / one of them says as they run off’. This isn’t just generalised nerd-persecution. Joshua’s name, his shiny black hair, the steam from the bathroom and the pulling down of his shorts make a pattern. It’s antisemitism. The scene of schoolyard cruelty resonates out into some of the darkest episodes of human history. But here the horror is near at hand, potentially within the narrator’s power to influence.
I film it all in one long take. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do, to film this and not intervene.
The poem is still a narrative about schoolyard bullying. But it’s also a reflection on the role of art: in this case, to record, to show, to bear witness. It’s not that it would have been wrong to intervene, but it might not have been as effective.
The final triplet expresses a hope, in this context well founded, that the work of art, in this case the film, will make a decisive difference. Without making a big point of it, the very last line and a half execute a subtle shift:
---------- --------And a silence I will end soon – walls of brick and barbed wire, tumbling, tumbling down.
These lines are no longer talking about film, but about speech, no longer about the schoolyard, but about prisons. I’m tempted to read them as a mini-manifesto: a promise to speak truth about hard things, things that authorities like the Principal deny, with the aim of human liberation.
In an inspired piece of ordering that’s typical of the book, ‘Shooting Footage’ is followed by ‘Beached Dreams’, about the treatment of people who come to Australia by boat seeking asylum.
[Added later:Andy Kissane has emailed me some background on ‘Shooting Footage, which I quote here with his permission:
Its genesis began in a US film, The Bully Project but I don’t think I watched the whole film, just a bit of it. The spitting comes from my own experience of catching the bus to a Christian Brothers school in the 1970s, but the rest is made up. Joshua and the biblical reference at the end comes from a Liz Frencham song I like, ‘Jericho’, but it’s a love song and has nothing to do with bullying really, just gave me the idea for the ending. So essentially it is all made up, riffing off the above sources. I have read it aloud once at Albury and it was a very hard poem to read.]
Embarrassingly, the Biblical reference to Joshua and the walls of Jericho went right past me until I listened to Liz Frencham’s song on YouTube (here).]
This is the fourth book of Andy Kissane’s poetry I’ve read. My blog posts about the others are here (Every Night They Dance, Five Islands Press 2000), here (Out to Lunch, Puncher & Wattman 2009) and here (Radiance, Puncher & Wattmann 2014).
I am grateful to the poet and Puncher & Wattmann for my copy.
*The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice bit of meat for the house-dog. (TS Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933).
The Emerging Artist warned me that I would lose readers if I blogged about two books of poetry in a row. So, dear Reader, please take that as a challenge and stick around. Also, tl;dr: I love this book. You might too. It’s very accessible, scientific and sexy.
Tricia Dearborn was brought up Catholic, has worked as a biochemist and as an editor, is a member of the GLBTQI community, has done psychotherapy, and has made poetry out of all that. This is her third book of poetry*. My blog posts about the first two are here (Frankenstein’s bathtub, Interactive Press 2001) and here (The ringing world, Puncher & Wattmann 2012). It’s been a long time between drinks, but worth the wait.
Autobiochemistry begins with ‘A chalk outline of the soul’ (online at the Rochford Street Review at this link – you need to scroll down). You don’t have to have had a Catholic education in a certain era to love this account of an early lesson in metaphysics and of the child-speaker’s attention quietly turning elsewhere. It had me, who belong squarely in that demographic, eating out of its hand. This quiet turning away from religious doctrine is a perfect introduction to the book: there’s no talk of souls (no auto-bio-metaphysics) in what follows, and though devotional images and a gruesome line from a hymn do turn up, they belong unequivocally to memories of childhood. Instead of religion, the poems have glorious, deliciously nerdy materiality.
The title section consists of 22 poems, each named for a chemical element, and all suffused with what you’d have to call love for the elements, their properties (‘Carbon’s multivalence, its / chemical conviviality’), their roles in human life, specifically the poet’s (‘Manganese’ – ‘tea is not high in essential nutrients / except for manganese, a “dietary mineral”’), and – sometimes – their potential for metaphor.
The title of the second section, ‘Covalent bonds’, invokes chemistry as a metaphor for relationships. The poems themselves don’t muck around with that kind of metaphor. They are variously erotic, intimate, passionate, neighbourly, elegiac.
Then there’s a suite of poems with a psychotherapy theme: ‘Elephant poems’, as in the elephant in the room. ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs’ includes eight short poems about Virginia Woolf, each with an epigraph from her letters or diaries. The fifth and final section, ‘The change: some notes from the field’, has nine poems with ‘Perimenopause’ in the title, my favourite being ‘Perimenopause as a chance to get a few things off my mother’s chest’.
I love this book. I love its love of the material world, its ease with bodies and bodily functions (though I would blush to read aloud some lines in the love poems). I love the way it explores the poet’s personal history with humour and seriousness and the opposite of narcissism. Most of all, I love its championing of connectedness.
Currently when I blog about a book of poetry, I try to write about just one poem in some detail. Here it has to be one from the title sequence. I’m drawn to ‘Manganese’, a fabulously multifaceted look at tea. But ‘Sodium’ has got my favourite line in the book. Here it is (you can click on the image to see it large):
There’s nothing obscure in this poem (or indeed in the whole book): no cryptic wordplay and no need for a search engine to decipher a reference. The first five triplets set the scene; the next six play; and the final three bring the poem home. It’s like a sonnet, though in place of 14 lines it has 14 triplets – 5, 6, 3.
As in the other element poems, the element is real, acknowledged in its own right with an elegant, matter-of-fact account of its properties. The poem can afford to be matter-of-fact because sodium is so wonderful. These lines take me back to the joys of high school chemistry: the word ‘tossed’ recalls for me the dramatic moment when asthmatic Brother Foley showed us the sodium–water reaction by doing just that – tossing a small chunk into a filled sink, from a safe distance.
Then the poem turns. It could have gone on to musings about table salt and blood pressure, or the difference between swimming in the ocean, creeks and backyard pools. A backyard pool does appear in ‘Chlorine’, but when the poet’s mind reacts with sodium, a metaphor results:
I wanted to be the pure metal solely myself, self-sufficient swaddled in the safety
of needing no one
But in taking the behaviour of sodium as a springboard to musing about the speaker’s personal history, the poem doesn’t turn away from science. Instead, it invokes neuroscience. A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another’. Like sodium, humans (the poem has moved unobtrusively from the singular ‘I wanted’ to the species-general ‘we see’) are in constant interaction with the environment. She doesn’t have to spell out that wanting to be self-sufficient is wanting a very limited existence, the equivalent of sodium being ‘stored under kerosene, under oil’.
Then, the killer lines:
I grew up in a house of liars a houseful of people pretending to be separate
but humans are never found free in nature it's how we're designed
I just love this. It’s not that it’s a new insight. I think of D W Winnicott’s much quoted ‘There’s no such thing as a baby, there’s only a baby and someone’. And Raimond Gaita riffing on the song ‘Falling in Love Again’, reading ‘I was made that way / Auf Liebe eingestellt’ to say that humans are configured for love. Or Forster’s ‘Only connect’. It’s not new to say that humans are made for connection, however unremitting the messages to the contrary from the neoliberal environment (and the currently dominant side of politics). But ‘I grew up in a house of liars’, which looks at first glance like a condemnation of the speaker’s early family, has a deep compassion just beneath the surface. They were liars, but they were the ones who suffered from the lie, and anyhow they can hardly be blamed for inventing it.
as vital as oxygen intermingled, impure we shine
The poem has done a neat trick with its main metaphor/analogy, twisting it into its exact opposite. Sodium in air is still dull, but the analogous grey dullness is what makes humans shine. It wasn’t until I retyped those lines that I realised that ‘Sodium’ can be read as a response to ‘A chalk outline of the soul’: in Sister Pascal’s chalk drawing, God’s sanctifying grace removes all smutchy traces of sin to leave the individual soul pure and shining, here – and in the book in general – it is our smutchy impurity that shines.
Autobiochemistry is the twenty-first book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. My copy is inscribed to a friend who bought it at a launch, so I’ll have to return it to her. I plan to buy a copy for myself.
* She has also written at least one book of science experiments for children, which you can find if you know how to use Duck Duck Go (or search engines that abuse your privacy).
Richard James Allen is a mover and shaker in Australian poetry and beyond. He has been Artistic Director of the Poets Union Inc and director of the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival. He has edited – among other things – an anthology of Australian performance texts published by my old employer, Currency Press. He’s also a filmmaker, dancer and choreographer with the Physical TV Company. The short story of you and I is his tenth book of poetry, and my introduction to his work.
Within the first couple of pages of this book I had read a number of poems out to the Emerging Artist – something I rarely do. She didn’t tell me to go away, which, given her generally low tolerance of poetry, is high praise. One of the poems I read to her was ‘Closing time for Melancholy’. Here’s the whole thing:
Bring your adult ears and your childish hearts – life is short, desire is long, and what the universe wants the universe gets.
There’s a voice in these early poems that’s attractive, charming, even seductive, even while saying grim or gloomy things, the voice of a lively mind that is drawn to melancholy. Speaking of the word ‘melancholy’, the poem of that name says:
It must be that no other bloom creates the decadent, fin-de-siècle atmosphere I experience in my soul.
And while there’s a lot of melancholy in the book, there’s also metaphysics, love, lust, loss, illness, art, Buddhism, and pleasure for the reader on pretty much every page. Only when I’d read it all for the first time did it occur to me, what a smarter person might have been on the lookout for, given the book’s title, that there’s an overarching narrative. The speaker is in a despondent state, a ‘maelstrom of gravitational torpor’ (‘The Resurrection and the Life’). There’s a relationship, and there are some wonderful poems about the early stages of physical and emotional rapture – the title of one of them, ‘In the 24-hour glow’, is almost a poem in itself. It’s never spelled out, but it seems the relationship ends after only a short time – there are many poems in which the beloved ‘you’ is a ghost or a memory, and the second last poem, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’, actually an eighteen-page sequence, is about serious and possibly terminal illness – a note explains that the poem takes its title from an early 20th century nickname for pneumonia. The time line isn’t clear. Perhaps, reading for the narrative, you would take it that the relationship, the love story, is already in the past when the book begins.
But here’s the thing. Even though I’m usually happiest when there’s a narrative line for me to follow, in this case I’m glad I didn’t read looking for a narrative – that would have tied the poems down to a particular context rather than letting them resonate out to who-knows-where. Take the first lines of ‘The Wedding Dress’:
---------------------------Why am I so angry -------------------------------------at this wedding dress?
It floats through space like an abandoned satellite, gliding without sound or friction
Reading these lines, I took it that the poem was a response to an art work. More precisely, I thought of Rosemary Laing’s Bulletproof Glassseries of photographs which I had misremembered as featuring a wedding dress exactly as beautifully described here (but Laing’s flying dress is inhabited by a woman who has been shot, a whole other story). I’m pretty sure that the poem is a response – not to Rosemary Laing’s photo, but to an image like it. (You can read the whole poem here. It’s quite long.)
The opening question is asked eight times, each time followed by a number of lines groping for an answer: like the monolith in 2001, the dress ‘stands at the limits, the frontiers of our knowing’; it’s a memento, like ‘golden calves raised to the banality of our happiness’; it’s emblematic of the institution of marriage, which the speaker is at best ambivalent about, and of the deep human impulse that gives rise to the institution.
The fifth time the question is asked, the poem takes a personal turn: ‘I had been dreaming about you.’ If one was reading for the narrative, this is where one would start paying attention, but so much has already happened and the narrative is frustratingly elusive:
I had been dreaming about you. After a rocky start, I was happy to report that we had been beginning to get along again.
The next two ‘answers’ stay at the personal level. At the end of the sixth, the relationship between the memory/dream of past love and the image of the flying empty dress in the present can be condensed into two short lines:
I was drowning in love I am drowning in fury
The seventh answer actually answers the question:
And so now the dress remains. Not the memories of the lives lived in it. Not the excitement of the first fitting. Not the moment when all eyes were turned because they had to and then because they wanted to. Not those early hours when it was peeled off in tenderness to reveal, under its skin of beauty, the skin of love.
Now the dress remains, with only the air inside it. The same air I breathe.
It’s still a response to that image, but it has moved decisively from general connotations to intensely personal. The final time the question is asked, the reply is:
for the first time in a long time perhaps I am not
and the question is transformed (including a subtle move to less self-important lower case for the first person pronoun):
---------------------------Why am i so in love -------------------------------------with this wedding dress?
And the final lines move away from the wedding dress altogether – it has done its work – to address the remembered lover: ‘i started dreaming of you again tonight’. In the exultant final lines, he has found renewed joy in dreaming and remembering, and the poem takes up and transforms the opening image of floating through space:
--------the unspoken sharing of -----------------------our own private parallel universe
--------which i feel ----------------i am out there in
---------------orbiting ------------------------------------some blazing star --------with you
I read somewhere that ekphrastic is a wanky word. But I want to use it anyhow: an ekphrastic poem is one that relates to a work of art. And though the work of art this poem relates to may not actually exist, I read this as an ekphrastic poem: spending time with the opening image allows the speaker to move from grim anger at loss to joy in what he once had. (How’s that for a reductive paraphrase? Sorry, Richard.)
You might think from my description that this poem was a turning point in the overarching narrative. But I don’t think so. The poem works in its own terms, enacts its own drama in its own five pages. I don’t think there really is a narrative in the way a novel or a movie has a narrative, with clear structural beats. This is one moment in a long process of grieving, and the book contains many such moments. There’s a lot more besides, but that’s what struck me the hardest.
But then, I’m back to my first reading of the book as a whole: the ‘you’ of the title isn’t just one person, the one who has died and is being remembered and grieved for. It’s also, in other poems and sometimes in the same poem, the reader, which means potentially any other human being:
As much as we have to begin we have to end
As much as we are magic we are dust ('An Aria, before the Requiem')
Now I want to go on quoting. You can take it that that means I recommend the book.
My copy of The Short Story of You and I was a gift from the author.
Probably more than any other of Jennifer Maiden’s books, brookings: the noun revolves around a central concept. It’s not that every poem addresses the concept directly, or that there is an overarching narrative, but the notion of ‘brookings’ weaves its way through the book, becoming explicit every so often, taking on new metaphorical form and emotional resonance as it goes.
The simplest description of the concept is in the poem ‘Brookings in Fur’ (which you can read here – you’ll need to scroll down), brookings are defined as
things that trickle the Overton window to the Right by focusing on soft left topics
According to Wikipedia, the Overton window is ‘a term for the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse’: we’ve recently seen, for instance, that veganism is outside the Overton window in Australia, and offshore detention of people seeking asylum barely makes it into the frame. ‘Brookings’ are the right-wing tactic of espousing harmless, even positive policies around education, discrimination, environmental concerns and so on, in order to disguise or make more acceptable the underlying ruthless policies. However, defining the term doesn’t tell you much about the poetry. After all, a similar concept is captured in the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ – Maiden’s metaphors are a lot more interesting than that.
The term has at least three incarnations.
First, in ‘Concrete’, which is Jennifer Maiden’s sixteenth poem comprising a flirtatious-reproachful conversation between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, Eleanor appropriates the name of the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, giving it the new meaning. It’s a straightforward satirical jibe at Julia Gillard, who recently joined the institution. (I have no idea about the politics of the institution, but I do know that Maiden has been caustic about Gillard in earlier poems, and is again in this volume.)
Second (though preceding ‘Concrete’ in this book), in ‘Uses of brookings: the noun’, Maiden discovers rich metaphorical possibilities in the term. This poem draws brilliantly on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Maidenhood’ (you can read it here) for the image of a virgin ‘Standing with reluctant feet/ where the brook and river meet’. Longfellow’s maiden is facing the prospect of mature adult life with trepidation; Maiden with a capital M makes something different of the contrast between brook and river:
The river beyond soft brooking glints a deadly global thing.
This image of the soft brooking and the deadly global river recurs in a number of poems.
The third embodiment picks up on that ‘soft’. In ‘Brookings in Fur’ it’s a little creature:
soft little Brookings, a silk-nosed squeaker too gentle for words like Global, War or Money, who would not know the price of a gun.
The sweet creature embodies the appeal of brookings: we want to believe that those in power are benign.
The poems in this book engage with international politics, corruption and war: allegations about the White Helmets in Syria, Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard’s dubious practices, Tanya Plibersek’s apparent support for inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum, Israeli snipers’ use of butterfly bullets against Palestinian protestors, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (There was a time when you needed a working knowledge of Greek myth and the Bible to be able to read English poetry; with Jennifer Maiden, you need to be reasonably well-versed in current affairs. Readers outside Australia or even outside New South Wales may need to keep Google – or Duck Duck Go if they value their privacy – handy.)
It’s poetry that includes political commentary and analysis, but it would be a mistake to read it as if that’s all it was. One reviewer has sneered at Maiden’s version of the White Helmets as agents/brookings of Daesh, saying she has offered no evidence (here, and her poem in reply here – you’ll need to scroll down). I think that misses the point. Just as people who abhor Les Murray’s politics can enjoy his poems, people who disagree strongly with Maiden’s political positions (and probably everyone disagrees with some of them – I’m agnostic about the White Helmets, for instance) can still embrace her poetry. One of the things that attracts me to her writing, and has kept me coming back for more, is her commitment to engage with the world in a big way, to figure out what she thinks and to say it without prevarication, sermonising or mumblefucking, while striving for a deeply human perspective on her characters (including – unsuccessfully in my opinion – Donald Trump).
These prayer-like lines come as close as any to articulating the impulse behind much of Jennifer Maiden’s poetry:
Let her protect me, great Spirit of the Universe, my ancestral Durga, with her many limbs, from all that's born to narrow the vision to a bright domestic window. (from 'Brookings in Fur')
That is the temptation of ‘brookings’, and it’s a temptation that Maiden’s poetry invariably resists.
I usually single out one poem for more detailed discussion when writing about books of poetry. Here’s ‘Rope’. Click on the image to big it up, or click here and scroll down to read it in the Rochford Street Review:
If what follows is laborious. Forgive me. Actually reading the poem isn’t laborious at all.
The poem is in three parts. The first four lines set the tone: the speaker, who sees herself as harmless, has been threatened and promised much by a nameless ‘they’ – the fourth line seems to suggest that soon, with talk of Elbridge Colby, some of this will become clearer. The next eighteen lines deal with the speaker’s distressed ‘state’, the poem a rope that prevents her from plummeting into ‘blind depths / too lightless even for black’. After a four-line transition (‘We will move from my state’), there are nine lines about Elbridge Colby, which raise the spectre of nuclear war, and I guess we understand why she is so upset, and who the opening ‘they’ are. The final six lines come close to an expression of despair, though I read the final line, ‘We can talk about Elbridge Colby’, as an assertion of the power of poetry, in the spirit of T S Eliot’s ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’
‘Rope’ is not a typical Maiden poem. I’ll get to that, but first here are some ways it is characteristic.
First, it’s conversational. That’s in the tone, the unobtrusive use of rhyme, and especially in the use of enjambement – many lines end in a word that launches a sentence, creating a constance sense of forward momentum. The sense of a conversation is also there in the way this poem, like many, addresses the reader as a collaborator. The ‘you’ in the fifth line, ‘But I ask you to hold this rope’, seems to imply that the imagined reader in some way helps to preserve the poet from something like deep despair. So when you or I come to it as an actual reader, something uncanny happens – in reading this poem am I somehow holding the rope that saves the poet? If I have trouble with it – have to Google Joan Maas, say – is that my armpits feeling the weight>?
Second, there are a number of kinds of allusions:
allusions to poetry that the reader is expected to be familiar with – ‘this is not the end of Childe Roland‘ refers to Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘, and a quick web search reveals (or reminds if you’re better read than me) that at the end of that poem the knight arrives at his quest’s goal and sees there all the other knights who had gone on the same quest. Maiden has just listed ‘some faces of suicides’; this line is a way of saying they are not the subject of the poem.
allusions to public figures. Usually the poems just assume the reader knows who the public figures are – from Jared Kushner to Dodi, mentioned by Princess Diana. Here there’s no need for a web search, as Elbridge Colby’s identity is explained, but if you want to read his argument, you can click here.
allusions to past and present members of Maiden’s poet community. You probably don’t need to know who Grace and Joan Maas are in this poem. But since I’m writing about it: Joan Maas (also spelled Mas) was an Australian poet who died in 1974 – she was the Joan in Roland Robinson’s autobiography, Letter to Joan; Grace is Grace Perry, who has been mentioned in a number of earlier Maiden poems. In the conversational mode of these poems the reader is expected to remember when she was last mentioned.
allusions to Maiden’s other poems. That Joan Maas ‘thought writing was a brook / to refresh and for respite’ only takes on its full meaning in a context where (soft, sweet) ‘brook’ implies its opposite, the deadly global river: writing is dangerous.
But the poem is atypical. Maiden’s ‘signature’ poems in recent years have been in the form of dialogues, sometimes between fictional characters, especially her own creations George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, but often between public figures and re-awakened people from the past whom in the real world they profess to admire. These dialogues always have elements of dramatic action. In this book, for example, Tanya Plibersek pours tea for Jane Austen, Donald Trump and his mother chat in the Oval Office, and Kenneth Slessor and an unnamed Australian critic meet by moonlight in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. My sense is that this staging of dialogues, where underlying questions might be, ‘What would Jane say to Tanya about this?’ or ‘What would Donald Trump’s mother say to him and John Bolton?’ opens up possibilities for fresh and unexpected thinking. Maybe it’s possible to see Tony Abbott’s humanity if you imagine him chatting with Queen Victoria (that one’s not in this book).
There’s none of that here. This poem is shockingly direct. In it, in a way, Maiden shows her workings, the puppeteer comes out from behind her curtain. Rather than move directly to Elbridge Colby, or set him up for a chat with, say Mamie Eisenhower, here she starts from her own emotional response. The transition between the two main parts is telling:
We will move from my state, as I do in truth to survive, to the personal and worldy.
Many of her poems are about the worldy (an excellent word**, though it may be a typo, as the Rochford Street review has ‘worldly’), and many personalise the subjects they address (as for example, when George and Clare go to Syria). But these lines suggest that there’s some deep and dangerous emotion beneath or behind the political comment and analysis, emotion that cannot easily, or even safely, be addressed directly. And looking at the state of the world, don’t we all have emotions like that?
I am always gripped by a Maiden poem. Rope helps me to understand why.
* Many of Jennifer Maiden’s poems have titles indicating that they belong to one of her sequences or types of poems. For example, the full title of the first poem of the book is ‘DiaryPoem: Uses of brookings: the noun’, and the second’s is ‘Hillary and Eleanor: 16: Concrete’. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted the scaffolding when naming poems.
** I have been informed by the publisher that this isn’t a typo, but a deliberate revision of the Rochford Street Review version. The progression from ‘personal and worldy’ in these transitional lines to ‘personal and worldly’ at the end of the poem adds another level of subtle poignancy.
This is a book of aphorisms, hundreds of them, most less than two lines long, the longest edging up to 10 lines. A book to be dipped into, perhaps, rather than read in a sitting, and probably only for people who have a taste for that sort of thing.
Which I do. As a teenager I loved G K Chesterton’s one-liners – ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised’ was a favourite. Around about that age (I was a religious teenager) I encountered the wonderfully contradictory advice in Proverbs Chapter 26 verses 4 and 5:
4. Do not answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear you grow like him yourself.
5. Answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear he imagine himself wise.
(Jerusalem Bible translation)
More recently I used to enjoy the daily quotes on the government-issue desk calendar at work, especially after I learned (from Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, I think) that most of them became more interesting if you added ‘in bed’: ‘Forever is composed of nows in bed,’ for example.
Martin Langford’s aphorisms don’t share Chesterton’s (or Oscar Wilde’s) showy love of the unexpected; he doesn’t contradict himself as blatantly as the author of the Bible; and he doesn’t invite his readers to play innocently risqué games, though he may once have played the ‘in bed’ game himself, because on page 7 he demonstrates that the process doesn’t work in reverse:
The word and the body must search for each other in bed.
The general tone of these aphorisms is serious. Many of them fit Alexander Pope’s definition of true wit: ‘what oft was thought but n’er so well expressed’:
War will not go away if we promise not to think about it.
Banter is a way of exploring which claims will be allowed.
I am not bored by other people. But I am bored by the limited nature of our interactions.
There are some that hint at narratives, that could be lines from lost movies:
Together we domesticate the silence.
At least, I first read that as a line from a possible love story, but on reflection, it could be a general statement about the nature of communication. Maybe that’s part of the pleasure of the book – individual pieces change their nature when you come back to them a second or third time.
Some could serve as invitations to readers to write their own essays:
The weigher of hearts keeps a list of the things we have laughed at.
Some are just plain enigmatic:
In some prisons, there is an answer on every door.
Useful insights abound:
When people defend a narrative, they are usually defending their role in it.
The journalists are reviled for telling the lies that we pleaded for.
Few believers can articulate their beliefs.
There are succinct reflections on art, particularly narrative art, on death, on sex, on power and competition. Though most of the aphorisms are couched as generalisations, there is a vulnerable intelligence at work in this book. These aren’t words of wisdom dispensed from on high, but insights rooted in experience and thoughtful observation.
I am grateful to Puncher & Wattmann and Martin Langford for my copy of Neat Snakes.
There are probably a hundred reasons why so few non-poets (I am one!) read poetry. One of them is the general belief that poetry is difficult, and that contemporary poetry is more difficult than most. And if you have stumbled across a poetry reading at a literary festival where someone stands up front to cool applause and reads, for example, the proofing marks on a business document galley, you may well decide that contemporary poetry is not only difficult but pointless.
If you’ve been avoiding poetry for reasons like this, and yet have a niggling worry that you might be missing something, then maybe you could try reading Sarah Day. The poems in this book are eminently accessible, and they attend to things worth attending to.
Many of the poems read as the equivalent of a visual artist’s pencil drawings of beautiful things and places – a Lisbon tiled wall depicting St Anthony preaching to the fishes, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitane, many moments in Tasmanian landscape, an amateur-built rocking horse, a caravan park campground, a ‘fugitive budgie / in a democracy, or an empathy / of sparrows’, a cow looking out from a concrete stall in Galicia. In poem after poem, there is a sense of close, acute, patient attention. There are some narrative poems, especially dealing with childhood memories, though ‘Overcoat’ makes a rich narrative from an elderly couple observed leaving a cafe. The book ends with a powerful sequence, ‘The Grammar of Undoing’, about the poet’s mother’s Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
I usually pick a single poem to talk about in some detail when I blog about poetry books, and I generally go for one that fits on a single page. The poem in this book that keeps demanding my attention is a little longer than that. It’s ‘Lens’:
See what I mean about close, acute, patient attention? The poet’s gaze, perhaps. The scene is created so deftly in the opening lines – and the words used to convey the transparency of the creek (‘the waters … threw light on the movement of worms’) introduce the book’s pervasive motif of light as something almost magical. Certainly there’s restrained wonder at being able to see such detail on the creekbed. Three kinds of bird, an eel: I don’t know about you, but by the time we reach ‘Then from upstream / a bow-wave’ I’m pretty well identified as one of the ‘We’ who are standing together in companionable silence on the bridge pausing, I imagine, in the middle of a bush walk.
It wasn’t until I started writing this that I noticed the repetition of gazing: ‘We’ are gazing into the creek, and the bow-wave is pushed by a ‘long gaze’. The landscape looks back, and for a moment the poem too turns back on the viewer. I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that at this moment, the poet (and her companion) become as much part of the scene as the harrier or the swallows: worms, clams, birds, eel, and ‘two humans on a bridge’.
Having made its entrance, the poem’s hero occupies the next fifteen lines of wonderfully engrossed description. Engrossed, but not all romantic-lyrical: the animal is like a bandicoot or a ring-tailed possum, and even more prosaically a pothook. Like the harrier and the crane it’s intent on its own business, which is cracking open and devouring a crab, doing a bit of grooming and then clearing out. Only when it has vanished can it be named, because up until then it was all colour and movement – and long gaze.
The last seven lines echo two much-quoted lines about poetry: William Carlos Williams’s famous one-liner lines, ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,’ and W H Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. The water rat held the poet’s attention for a moment. That’s all. The actual news – of looming environmental catastrophe, perhaps – is no less horrible. But … but what?
I find the last two lines enigmatic. We’re back with the transparency of the creek, now a ‘cool, brackish lens’ – the notion of the water throwing light has condensed into the single word that gives the poem its title. Is it that this moment with the creek and the water-rat has provided a way of looking at the broader landscape, the domain of ‘the news’? The landscape is altered, perhaps, in the sense that the speaker has been reminded that there are other ways of looking at the world than through the lens of ‘the news’, as in newspapers and social media. (I speak as someone who stopped looking at Twitter, hopefully for good, 10 days ago.) Once you’ve seen a water rat, really seen it, can you keep on being obsessed with the doings of Fraser Anning or Donald Trump, or the self-nicknaming Prime Minister of Australia? Maybe there’s also a faint echo here of another famous line, this one from Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘: ‘You must change your life.’
In 2017, Eileen Chong’s third book of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. At the awards ceremony, a senior poet told her that many of her poems were like recipes, and if she collected them into a book she might have some success with it. She writes about this comment, and her reaction to it, in the first essay of The Uncommon Feast. ‘I am speechless,’ she says. ‘I feel put in my place, and ashamed.’
Happily, the shame didn’t last. The Uncommon Feast is a beautiful, generous, delightful response to that comment. It contains poems that are like recipes, as well as actual recipes. And it is much richer and more rewarding to culinary and non-culinary readers alike than anything her fellow poet presumably had in mind.
As Judith Beveridge says in her Introduction, the poems are at the heart of the book, but the prose essays and recipes, and the line drawings by Chong’s husband Colin Cassidy, are what transform it from a slim vol of poetry to a feast of a book. ‘The Common Table’, a short essay first published in Meanjin, which includes the account of the awards evening, also gives us the wonderful (food-related) moment when Chong’s mother understood that she was a writer; and ‘Eating and Telling: A Personal Food History’, is a quick autobiography told in terms of food – the school canteens (Singapore’s version so much more interesting than North Queensland’s), family meals, dining with partners, the bliss of cooking and eating with her husband. If we needed instructions on how to read Chong’s food poems, they are there:
Food, for me, is representative of family, culture, nourishment and love. I’ve learned how to cook from my grandmother, my mother, my friends’ mothers, and my partners over the years. The dishes I prepare are a palimpsest of experiences and cultures, new and old.
I’m surrounded by people who say they don’t get poetry – they feel intimidated by it, or see it as lost up its own wazoo. If any one book could convert them to poetry lovers, this would be it. There are many wonderful moments. For example, ‘Chinese Ginseng’ is a very fine poem in which the poet’s mother offers ginseng as a traditional cure for what the daughter knows to be irremediable. It ends:
--------------------------------------There is no point in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear: ------polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen – I can ------almost taste
her soup, sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica ------and lilybulb, but above all, the unmistakeable bitter-sweetness of ------Chinese ginseng.
Such a great moment! Ginseng may not be a cure for the physical ailment, but it becomes a sacrament of the mother’s love. Facing the poem is Colin Cassidy’s drawing of a ginseng root, inscribed with the words ‘panacea, tonic, necessity’ Then you turn the page to a recipe for Chinese Ginseng Chicken Soup, and you’re invited to join the moment with your own soup-making, soup drinking body.
The book is full of segues, and juxtapositions like that. I laughed out loud a number of times for sheer joy.
The first thing Mary Oliver said to me, it must have been in the mid 1990s, was this:
You do not have to be good.
That’s the opening of ‘Wild Geese’, from her book Dream Work (1985). Having completely grabbed my attention, she went on:
You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
They are words I wish every Irish-style Catholic of my generation, and possibly of all generations, could have heard in their childhood. There’s even more to the poem. You can watch her read the whole thing on YouTube.
When I heard last Friday that she had died, aged 83, I made a little pilgrimage to Gleebooks and bought Twelve Moons, one of four books by her on the shelves, of which one (Blue Horses) I already own, another (Devotions) was too huge for the moment, and the third (Dog Songs) probably too tummy-scratching.
Twelve Moons was Mary Oliver’s fourth book of poetry, first published half a decade before she won the Pulitzer (and before ‘Wild Geese’ was published). It’s a terrific book. Reading it now, I’m interested in how it fits with theNew York Times headline of 22 January, ‘Mary Oliver, 83, Prize-Winning Poet of the Natural World, Is Dead.’ In what way, I found myself asking, was she a poet of the natural world? (I don’t disagree with the description. After the lines quoted above, ‘Wild Geese’ goes on to talk about flocks of wild geese with their harsh cries.)
There’s a lot of the ‘natural world’ in this book: twelve very different moon poems; deer, horses, sharks; rain, snow, sunshine; crows, owls, bears and trees; mussels, snakes, turtles and stones. But they’re not generally ‘nature poems’ in any easy, Fotherington-Thomas way (‘Hullo clouds, hullo sky!’). At times, they seem to emerge from sustained, quiet observation of the living environment; at others, from a sharp moment of empathy (as in ‘The Black Snake’, where the speaker picks up a dead snake from the road and puts it back in the bushes). And though I’d say Mary Oliver is a life-affirming poet, there’s a lot of death: as an osteopath once said to me, ‘The body naturally seeks equilibrium, which is part of the healing process, but of course there’s also equilibrium in death.’ There’s that, and also the notion of life as precious but brief.
As is my custom, let me look fairly closely at a single poem. ‘Last Days’, on page 51, is not necessarily my favourite in the book, but it’s short enough to show you in a single jpeg, it does interesting things with ‘the natural world’, and – happily, given my love of the form – it’s a sonnet. Here it is:
This is more enigmatic than most of Mary Oliver’s poems. In fact, it’s a teaser poem – not naming its subject until its last word, but describing its effects as if they originate elsewhere, and also throwing in a good dose of misdirection.
The misdirection begins with the title, an apparent reference to the End Times, when life as we know it finishes in the twinkling of an eye. The first words, echoing W B Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming‘ – ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ – lead us further down that path. Perhaps one expects a poem about environmental disaster.
But the tone is too jaunty for that: ‘things are starting to / spin, snap, fly off’ doesn’t exactly feel like doomsday! The enjambments in those first lines, snapping phrases in two, capture the feel of all that disruption, but in an almost comical way, and it’s hard to see ‘the blue sleeve of the long / afternoon’ as a place of dread.
Then comes the sound. By the time the oh and ooh whistle from the grass’s mouth, the puzzle is only nominally still in place: wind is clearly involved. So when things ‘turn soft / boil back into substance and hue’, we know what is going on. Serendipitously, as I type this the gum trees and jacaranda outside my windows are boiling away, so what the eye sees is mainly colour and movement, no detail, just ‘substance and hue’.
Broadening out from ‘things’, the poem now speaks of ‘everything’: as in the Sleeping Beauty story, everything shakes off the enchantment that has made it inanimate.
Everything whispers, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’. Where the early enjambments mimic the snapping-off effects of the wind, here the lack of punctuation evokes the way everything is in motion. Then the final exhilarated cry of ‘Now!’ Who hasn’t stood in a strong wind and felt that exhilaration? And the wind is named at last as the great sayer of ‘Now!’.
So the poem isn’t about the end of the world after all. It’s just the wind, and not necessarily even a dangerous wind.
But what to make of that whisper, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’? The poem rushed us past it, even though on my first reading it was the word ‘oblivion’ that snagged my attention. What does it mean here? Why ‘too’ – who else loves oblivion?
In most contexts I would take ‘oblivion’ to mean something like death, or at least the death of the mind – so a word that chimes nicely with the End Times expectations generated by the title. But the immediate context suggests a completely different meaning: ‘oblivion’ is the state of forgetting, of having one’s attention fully in the present moment, the Now.
And why ‘too’? One possibility that suggests itself is that it’s the poem’s speaker who loves oblivion; that she isn’t just recording what she sees, though nor simply projecting her mental state onto it, but in describing the weather she is also describing the effect it has on her emotional state. And so back to the poem’s title. It’s not Last Days as in End Times, so much as the end of something, no longer stuck, enchanted, brooding over the past, but shaken into the present moment, where there is a possibility of new beginnings.
Please excuse me for hammering away at this small poem, but it’s helped me to articulate how I understand Mary Oliver to be a ‘poet of the natural world’: she’s not a meticulous describer of natural phenomena, but she writes out of her relationship to them. It’s a two-way relationship.
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