Tag Archives: poetry

Claudia Rankine’s Just Us

Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Penguin 2021)

This is a wonderful book.

Note to Australian (and possibly other non-US) readers: Don’t be put off by the book’s self-description as ‘an American conversation’. It is deeply, intimately USian, but Claudia Rankine’s mind is to be learned from and loved by anyone with a heartbeat. The book’s central question is how people can reach for each other in human ways given the horrors of racism that divide us – and racism isn’t a uniquely US phenomenon.

Note to white readers, especially white male readers: Though these essays are mostly about racism as enacted and mistaken for reality, don’t read them in the spirit of self-lacerating virtue or grudging worthiness. They are exhilarating, challenging, inviting, occasionally funny. Almost every essay is written as part of a conversation. People quoted in the essays (including white men and white women) are given right of reply, adding unexpected perspectives and enriching the conversation wonderfully.

The title is a pun. The first of the book’s two epigraphs is a line from Richard Prior’s stand-up comedy:

You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.

In its original context, which you can see on YouTube, the line could be paraphrased: you look for justice in the criminal justice system but all you find is the targeting of Black people. Rankine’s use implies an additional possible reading: If you want justice, you have to find a way to make us all part of one ‘us’.

The book’s 19 essays and two poems are mostly printed only on the right-hand page of each spread. The left-hand page is sometimes blank, but mostly carries ‘notes and sources’, or images, or fact-checks. When a piece of police brutality is discussed on the recto, the verso might show how it was captured on camera. A general assertion on the right is backed up by statistics on the left. And so on. It’s an inspired design concept.

The opening essay starts with the author preparing to teach a class on whiteness at Yale University. After discussing some of what she asks of her students, the essay takes an interesting turn:

I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself – a middle-aged black woman – walking up to strangers to do so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Indiana, did when his female colleague told him during a diversity training session that he benefited from ‘white male privilege’? He became angry and accused her of using a racialised slur against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave and a reprimand was placed in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, or Chelsea Handler and just forgot my camera crew? The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage.

(‘liminal spaces 1’, page 19)

So we follow her as she shies away from the challenge a number of times, before finally hitting paydirt. On the way, she slips in a quick introduction to Peggy McIntosh’s popularising of the term ‘white privilege’, noting in passing that she would have preferred ‘white living’ because ‘”privilege” suggested white dominance was tied to economics’. She seamlessly invokes other scholarly and non-scholarly writing (including some excruciating Twitter threads). We hardly notice that we’re being educated as the suspense builds, and as a white male reader I found I had a lot invested in the project as well.

That essay sets the tone. Rankine is after conversation, not confrontation. She aims not to provoke defensiveness or denial but to learn something.

The subject matter of the following essays include revelatory moments in ‘diversity training’ workshops, including the one referred to in the quote above; her marriage; a meditation on Woman with Arm Outstretched, an art photograph by Paul Graham; white supremacist assumptions in the education system, specifically at her daughter’s school; the way different white and black people remember a cross-burning incident in her college days; a dinner party where she gets to be the ‘angry Black woman’ for insisting on the primacy of racism as a factor in Trump’s election; how racism plays out against Latinx and Asian people; and a brilliant discussion prompted by the moment at an all-Black dinner party when a professor asks her what to tell her black female students who bleach their hair blond. The essay on hair has the distinction of being the only essay/conversation where the right-of-reply takes the wind out of Rankine’s sails, when one of the young women under discussion gets to speak.

This book is evidently the third in a trilogy of sorts. Where this book is mainly essays, the earlier two are a mix of poetry and videos, sharing the subtitle An American Lyric. I haven’t seen Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), but I was completely enthralled by Citizen (2014, my blog post here), so I came to Just Us with high expectations. I was not disappointed. The book opens the world up to great possibilities.

To give Rankine the last word, here’s part of the left-hand-page commentary on the final spread:

A friend finished reading the final pages of Just Us and said flatly, there’s no strategy here. No? I asked. Her impatience had to do with a desire for a certain type of action. How to tell her, response is my strategy. …
For some of us, and I include myself here, remaining in the quotidian of disturbance is our way of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows existing structures to stop replicating. Until then, to forfeit the ability to attempt again, to converse again, to speak with, to question, and to listen to, is to be complicit with the violence of an unchanging structure contending with the aliveness and constant movement of all of us.

And here are the final lines on the right-hand page:

What I know is that an inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other.

Tell me something, one thing, the thing, tell me that thing.

Pam Brown’s Stasis Shuffle

Pam Brown, Stasis Shuffle (Hunter Publishers 2021)

I had written quite a long draft about this book, and was despondent because it wasn’t going anywhere. Then I read this from one of its poems, ‘(all you can tweet)’:

life's more fun
---____---when you
---------don't know
what the hell
-you're doing

Sometimes it feels that way in Pam Brown’s poems – but not in a bad sense. I’m pretty sure she mostly has no idea where a poem is going to go when she starts it. But I took those lines as an instruction to myself: have fun with the poetry and stop wrestling with the task of describing it.

There’s a lot of fun to be had.

First, let me talk a little about the book’s naming conventions. The title of each of the book’s three sections, and every poem’s title is enclosed in brackets: so the first section title is ‘(one idea on each dragée)’, and I’ve already mentioned ‘(all you can tweet)’.

I don’t want to spoil your own fun in working these things out, but this is what I make of the brackets. I read them as signalling that there’s an arbitrariness to where one poem ends and the next begins. Not that they flow into one another so much as that each poem is made up of fragments which can take it on unexpected sidetracks, recursions, associative leaps, even just distractions, developing its field of meaning on the way. The book’s first poem, ‘(best before)’, describes itself as ‘slowly accreting’. It’s a process could go on indefinitely – but you have to stop sometime, imposing a metaphorical closing bracket.

The idea of a dragée is important. A note at the back of the book informs us that a dragée ‘is a bite-sized form of confectionery with a hard outer shell’ – often used for purposes other than consumption. The note mentions Mentos®. I went exploring and found that Mentos® dragées, which you and I would probably call lollies, sometimes come decorated with ’ementicons’. The accompanying slogan is ‘1 emoticon on each dragée’. (Click here for a short and mildly tedious video on the subject, and here for a slew of images). As I read it, PB has hijacked the phrase to describe her own poems, which are to be enjoyed like collections of small sweets, one more-or-less stand-alone chunk at a time, with a lone asterisk dividing the chunks from one another.

This isn’t a cheerful book. It starts out with a poem called ‘(best before)’ that is full of images of the end of usefulness, hospitalisation, the possible imminence of death, the absence of loved ones, a rodent, a general blanketing melancholia and lack of forward impetus. And it goes on from there.

But the gloom and melancholy don’t define it. At the launch of one of her books, Pam Brown’s reading was rendered almost inaudible by the football-watching cheers elsewhere in the launch venue. She commented that this was fitting for her poetry – it’s poetry that is full of distraction. It has mountain-goat agility, leaping from image to image, thought to thought, recollection to observation to self-questioning to mildly silly puns. To use a different image, it has bower-bird curiosity, picking up bright objects from the environment or from other people’s poetry and repurposing them.

It’s rich with references, some of which are partly explained in the notes up the back (like the Mentos®). Some of them can be googled, and I’ve learned about some odd corners of the universe by doing so. For example, ‘(best before)’ sent me off to discover the detail of the story of Robert Johnson at the crossroads). Others, if you don’t recognise them, you’ll just have to accept your non-knowingness. I’m a bit frustrated not to know who the title character from ‘(mme nhu)’ is, especially as she turns up in at least one other poem – I assume she’s not the first lady of Vietnam from the early 60s. But it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of ‘(dingaling byways)’ that I can’t find anything online about the film named in these lines:

the limited theatre of thunder
---------the worst super8 film

I want to give you some examples of the lines that made me keep reading, and then rereading.

In ‘(best before)’, just as the poem is under way, the the poet’s critic-on-the-shoulder breaks in to question if it’s getting anywhere, and that interruption generates a lovely epic metaphor, which is then shrugged off:


question is –

--is your slowly accreting poem
morphing into a larger cloud yet –

-a major poem
----ghosting in to sydney
--past the heads,
making its way to ashfield

--------darker & darker
birds swirling around in it -
---------rubbish & debris
full of menace & meaning?

(what to answer –
-----I wish?)


A rare moment of autobiography in ‘(weevils)’:

you guess
----your gripes
are class-riddled –
-------------the déclassé
---------your cultural pretension

in the army
----where you're mostly from
rank masked class

This, from ‘(best before)’, captures a lot of Inner-West Sydney experience. It strikes a special chord for me – the landing planes fly even lower over my flat:

across the wetland
-a shirry whine

-------------big plane
gearing up for take off

warm winter night
all wrong

----you're not there
& that can be
------sad--- kind of

the roar of landing
--sounds like both
a blanket
---------& a shroud

Here’s a nice example of the bower-bird impulse, some gossip from the stars, in ‘(dingaling byways)’:

---------gina lollobrigida
----==----kept her films
------------in the fridge

solomon & sheba
next to dog food
beat the devil
with wilting celery

I hope the melancholy has lifted in the years since these poems were written. Failing that, I hope that this indispensable poet can continue to beat the devil, even if she feels she’s doing it with wilting celery.

Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic

Ouyang Yu, Terminally Poetic (Ginninderra Press 2022)

Every now and then someone on my Twitter feed shares an angry response to a rejection letter from a literary magazine. These responses generally assert that the rejecting editor is too stupid, racist, sexist, transphobic or something of the sort to have recognised the brilliance of the rejected work. In my time as editor of a children’s literary magazine, such responses were rare, but they certainly never made us think we might have been mistaken.

Here’s one editor’s take on such responses:

Much of Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic could be read as making poetry out of that kind of letter. The persona in these poems rails against poets who are famous (Les Murray is singled out a couple of times), against the useless sadness of ancient Chinese poets, against editors who say they want to publish work that will sell, against editors who ask that a submission be accompanied by a stamped self-addressed envelope, against editors who are white or coloured, against the notion of revising poems, against literary prizes, against the dominance of white people in the Australian literary scene, against the intrinsic mediocrity of Australian poetry, against people who don’t pay him enough attention, against himself.

The poems were written over three decades. A couple of them self-identify as written in 2000; one calls for Australia to emulate the 2000 coup in Fiji; one (‘Temporarily Untitled’) starts with a bald account of a murder-suicide by a poet, who a little googling identifies as Chinese poet Gu Cheng in 1993, making it perhaps the earliest poem in the collection. It begins:

the news came that the poet died
he had killed his wife and hang himself on a tree outside the house

on an island not far from auckland
called something i can't remember at all

because it is difficult to pronounce

The offhand disrespect of these lines is all too typical of the book (the unconventional/incorrect ‘hang’ is less so). It may be a sign of youthful harshness, but as the poems are presented in alphabetical order of title – from ‘About poetry’ to ‘Written by one who doesn’t know how to write poetry’ – there’s no telling if there is any mellowing with age.

This is an unpleasant book. It means to be. It’s also an insider’s book. Even though the speaker of the poems positions himself as an outsider, his attention rarely moves out of the world of literature and publishing. It won the Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection in the 2021 Queensland Literary Awards. I couldn’t find the judges’ comments online, and I’m curious about their choice.

When I blog about poetry collections it’s my practice to single out one poem for a closer look. Here’s one of the few poems in this book that isn’t about the poetry world:

(Maybe this appeals to me because I cherish childhood memories of coming home from a movie and peeing in the yard in the moonlight with my father and brothers while my mother and sisters took turns at the toilet inside.)

The heart of the poem is the moment when the speaker is taken by surprise by the moonlight and the edible-looking streetlights. I know hardly anything about classical Chinese poetry, but I understand that there are many poems about the moon and moonlight, including the one at this link by the great Li Bai. I can’t help but read Ouyang Yu’s poem in the context of that tradition.

But before we get to the moonlight, there’s ‘a long dream of dreaming of toilets’ in ‘the unconscious hours of the night’. It’s not just sleep, but unconsciousness. It’s not just a dream, but a dream of dreaming. He’s deep in the dream, dead to the world as we say. The syntax of what follows is muddled: read literally, the speaker is ‘turned away by closed doors or crowds of pissers’ after he gets up to relieve himself. This captures so well the muddled state of waking from a deep dream, especially perhaps a dream of pissing, the way the dream pulls you back to itself.

In the two middle stanzas, the speaker goes to the real toilet, and he momentarily forgets bodily functions because the moonlight is there. And then there are the streetlights, like juicy oranges, and the stirrings of some unnamed, hunger-like desire. In these stanzas he comes fully awake to the world in the silence of the night.

In Li Bai’s poem the speaker looks down to see the moonlight like frost on the ground, looks up at the moon, looks down again. This poem has a similar movement: the speaker looks down, metaphorically, at his bodily need; looks up at the moonlight and the streetlights; then looks down again, to pee (this poem definitely assumes a male body). Then there’s a moment’s reflection. Li Bai thinks of his homeland, evoking the yearning of nostalgia. In Ouyang Yu’s poem, ‘shiveringly’ refers to the cool of the night, but it also suggests an emotional moment. The final line, banal and bathetic at first glance, is just surprising enough to give the reader pause: what does it mean to wonder about life without toilets? I take it to be an oblique way (a very oblique way) of giving thanks for a tiny moment of appreciation of the beauty of the world, perhaps even of transcendence.

I haven’t read any other of Ouyang Yu’s many books of poetry. I hope they are full of such moments.

I am grateful to Ouyang Yu and Ginninderra Press for my copy of Terminally Poetic.

Two Flying Island pocket poets

The Flying Islands Poetry Community has been publishing pocket-sized poetry books (14 x 11 cm) for more than 10 years. According to its website:

The Flying Island Pocket Poets series originated as a simultaneous entity in Markwell, NSW and Macao, China, through the work of Professor Christopher (Kit) Kelen. Running since 2010 (in association with the Macao-based community publisher, ASM), Flying Islands has published more than eighty volumes, with authors from all over the world, but more from Australia and China than from anywhere else.

We can subscribe from within Australia for $120 to receive a year’s publications (details here). From the beginning of the series, the RRP for individual copies has been kept to A$10. But that’s not all. To quote the website again:

These books that magically appear out of pockets are part of a gift and exchange art-economy. They are our currency! 

Those aren’t just empty words. It was through versions of the gift and exchange art-economy that I found out about the Pocket Poets series, and came to possess, and read, two of these niftily designed books.

Richard James Allen, Fixing the Broken Nightingale (Flying Island Books 2013)

At a poetry reading in Sydney a couple of years ago, Richard James Allen read his poem ‘It’s Saturday night in almost any city in the world and’, and offered a prize for whoever could guess the city in which he wrote it. The audience called out the names of almost every city in the world, but I was the one who finally shouted, ‘Florence!’ and won the prize, Fixing the Broken Nightingale, which did seem to magically appear out of a pocket.

There’s a rich variety of poems in the book, ranging from straightforward love poems to poems that turn back on themselves like Escher drawings. There’s whimsy and melancholy, moments of ontological despair and intimations of mortality. The most striking poem is ’13 Acts of Unfulfilled Love’, which has some extraordinarily explicit sexual images, to arrive at this, in ‘ACT TWELVE‘:

These are my real thoughts,
not my dirty thoughts.
______________________ ____________This is my real love,
_________________________ ____________not my dirty love.
I am trying to live a real life,
not a dirty life.
_________________________And I'd like you there with me,
_____________________________in this soiled, holy world.

Kit Kelen, A Pocket Kit 2 (Flying Island Books 2015)

When I bought a copy of Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother at its launch in Sydney, neither of us had correct money. This little book materialised as if by magic to be my change.

It’s very different from Book of Mother and from other books of Kelen’s that I’ve read (blog posts here, here, here and here). As the title suggests, it’s a kind of sampling of his work, rather than a collection organised around a central subject or theme. A first Pocket Kit was published in 2011.

This is mostly a cheerful book. There are poems celebrating elements of Australian culture, like ‘Blokes’ (‘They know it’s bad luck to speak / when gesturing would do the trick’) and ‘shed’ (‘the peasant is the king here / where monarchs tinker with old crowns / no need for revolution’). The same ironic celebratory tone comes to bear on Macau where Kelen was a professor when this book was published, on his Hungarian heritage, on the prospect of having children, on the yellow umbrellas of Hong Kong in 2014.

My favourite in the book is ‘to tend’. If I remember correctly, Kelen like me had a Catholic childhood. This poem delicately addresses the question of what to do about the gap created when you stop believing. It starts:

to tend the gods as given, as found
new habits of homage are required

in word untamed, in sight unframed
paths to follow are so chosen,
by you, for you, willing, blind

go to the makers
not to the mockers
take the trouble to tell them apart

And ends:

go to the makers
never the mockers

tend to the habits of homage
you've found

Even though Kelen can begin a poem called ‘ancestor worship’ with ‘people smelt bad in the old times / they had bad teeth, they were stupid’ and can continue in that vein for 20 lines, he is certainly one of the makers, not one of the mockers.

Les Murray’s Continuous Creation

Les Murray, Continuous Creation: Last Poems (Black Inc 2022)

This beautifully designed book is a fitting way to honour the 2019 passing of a poet who loomed large in the Australian cultural landscape. The cover photograph is an inspired choice. Les Murray, seen in profile and lit from behind as if about to disappear from view, is alert and seems to be preparing to stand up. We see him through glass, so that the bookshelves, family photographs and artworks in the room blend with the bright green reflections of the outside world. Scholarship, engagement with the non-human natural world, his particular breathiness are all suggested. The photograph was taken by Murdoch press journalist Amos Aikman, while the book is published by Black Inc: Murray’s affiliation with political reaction hasn’t stopped the left-of-centre literary establishment from honouring him with this publication.

The poems are preceded by a Note on the Text by Jamie Grant: some time before he died, Murray told Grant that he had about two thirds of a book ready to go. After his death (longer than it would have been in the absence of a pandemic), Grant visited Murray’s home to find a folder of poems that had been typed by Murray’s wife Valerie, and a box filled with a jumble of handwritten poems, some of them in many versions. The contents of that folder and box, with some judicious choosing among versions in the latter, have become the contents of this book.

I’ve loved some of Murray’s poems since first hearing him read them in (I think) the early 1970s – ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’, the one about blowing up trees as young men, or the one about eating curry somewhere in Britain. I’m also a bit of a hater, starting with the ‘humorous’ homophobic quatrain he regularly read along with the ‘Rainbow’. I found much to love and hate in this book as well, though ‘love’ and ‘hate’ may be too strong in both cases. There’s nothing as brilliant as his most brilliant poems, and nothing as terrible as his most anti-modern barbs.

There are aphorisms (including the title poem), odd moments of Australian history and autobiography, pronouncements on culture and politics, descriptions of natural phenomena and works of art – all conveyed with Murray’s characteristic love of wordplay, often with elements of puzzle, and his terrific ability to make us see things. ‘A Friendship’ stands out as a straightforwardly affectionate elegy for Bob Ellis.

Here’s ‘Dateline’, one of the poems from the jumble in the box. (As always, I’m assuming permission to show the poem here, even in this poor quality phone photo, and will happily remove it if the copyright owners ask me to):

The first three stanzas include examples of Murray’s gift for visual metaphor. At different stages and from different points of view, the floodwaters are like old-time washerwomen, like a mirror, like windribbed parchment. Reading these, we know that the poet has looked with fresh eyes, and invite us to do likewise.

The opening stanza is strongly visual: trees and shrubs are dumped in the creek and swirled around like laundry, letting wrack dribble downstream like dirty suds. But the words bring more than the visual. Washerwomen, especially ‘old-time’ washerwomen, belong in Dickens or Wind in the Willows (Toad disguising himself is probably the first time I heard the word). That and the verb ‘souse’ identify the poem as ‘literary’, in the English tradition. This is worth saying because Murray has been called ‘the last of the Jindyworobaks’, meaning that he sets out to write in continuity with First Nations song and story. The label is at best only partly correct. (Incidentally, I expect if he’d had a chance to revise the poem further, Murray might have changed the second line to ‘floodwaters are sousing trees and shrubs’ so that the ‘their’ in line 4 would work syntactically.)

Paradoxically perhaps, the second stanza brings us closer to the action by pulling back from description. Watching the floods, who could avoid remembering the drought? Then, another visual effect: the rain isn’t just ‘refilling the land’ (what a lovely phrase). It sits on the roads, reflecting the sky.

Human effort gets its pages turned

This is the poem’s key line. In the short term, it means that effort earlier put towards dealing with drought must now be directed towards flood mitigation, relief and recovery: the humans aren’t the ones who determine where their effort needs to go. Before any wider implication can be absorbed, the stanza moves on to the striking image of towns blanked (not blanketed) in water. I’m pretty sure ‘windribbed’ is one of Murray’s inventions – beautifully capturing a metaphorical link between agitated floodwaters and ribbed fabric, which is then further complicated by calling it parchment.

Murray’s fascination with linguistics now swings into action:

We are hearing Tornado and Tsunami

at home, words unknown in teapot times.
Downpour and Inferno are states
that people drive between

‘Teapot times’: in the olden days when people around here (‘at home’) drank tea rather than coffee, and brewed it in pots, before teabags became all but universal. Back then, people in Murray country didn’t use words like ‘tornado’ or ‘tsunami’; now they are part of the language, and have assumed enough presence to require initial capital letters. The language has changed. And so has the reality: ‘Downpour’ and ‘Inferno’ may not be new words in quite the same way, but they too have taken on initial caps – they have grown from occasional events to states.

I read the reference to senators as one of Murray’s kneejerks attacks on politicians: the floods mean people lose their whitegoods, and somehow, by Murray’s anti-politician logic, they cast aside their political representatives as well.

The next lines are the reason I chose this poem to talk about:

Global warming's chiller winters
rule both hemispheres. Arizona snow golf,
Siberian wheat, English vineyards
stricken by blizzard in their chardonnay.

I may be confusing Murray with Clive James here, but I’m pretty sure both of them have been climate change deniers. Murray has certainly echoed some right-wing talking points about environmental issues. It may be of course that the oxymoronic ‘global warming’s chiller winters’ is meant to sound a note of scepticism, but that’s not how I read it. By the logic of this poem, we move from a page being turned on human effort, to new language being needed for new circumstances, to the naming of a general cause. Climate change is real, it rules the planet. The floodwaters in Murray country are part of the same general phenomenon as weather events in the US, Asia and Europe. Human effort is getting its pages turned in a big way: humans may see themselves as dominating the planet, but ultimately we are not calling the shots.

It’s hard not to read the final word of this stanza as carrying the ‘anti-elitist’ tone of much right-wing rhetoric: you know, the inner city types who drink their lattes and sip their chardonnays. Is there a slight hint that the arrogant are getting their comeuppance in these events? If so, does the opening image of the floodwater as washerwomen take on a deeper resonance? Is global warming a case of abused and despised nature rising up against human entitlement and privilege? And where does that leave the poet, that he can say ‘their’ rather than ‘our’?

If that was the end of the poem, it would be a satisfyingly unsettling whole, implicating the poem’s speaker in the current global disaster, while holding up to the light one of the ways we avoid facing the reality.

I’m not convinced that the last six lines, which fall after the page is turned, are part of the same poem. But it certainly reads as if Jamie Grant and the editors thought so. In that case, the poem veers off in a new direction, justified perhaps by the title ‘Dateline’: this is the kind of piling together of disparate issues that happens in a news bulletin. Climate warming is the main story, but meanwhile class discrimination continues, in sports and the arts, something curious happens in the Sahara, and there’s a snippet of good news involving a baby (something cute to end the bulletin with), even if it is against the background of that AIDS epidemic. And if the last couplet isn’t an alternative, preferable version of the preceding one, which would have been my editorial guess, it reiterates the exotic and good news – this time perhaps, thanks to the repetition, conveying a glimmer of hope.

Kit Kelen’s Poor Man’s Coat

Kit Kelen, Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems (UWAP 2018)

As I think about this book of poetry, the word ‘immersive’ comes to mind.

‘Hardanger’ in the subtitle is not an uncompromisingly hostile state of mind but a place, the Hardanger Fjord in Norway, where Kit Kelen evidently spent some time and, it seems, let the place generate poems in him.

These lines appear on the book’s title page:

the forest is the poor man's coat
keeps off the worst wind's bite

step in – let other worlds elapse
follow the trail of light

They offer an explanation and an invitation. The first line explains the title in what sounds like a folk saying, which in another context could be a lament for the poor man’s exposure to the elements, but here asserts that forest provides protection. We are invited to step into the book, as into a forest, for an alternative to whatever other worlds we inhabit. The book is offered to us as respite. That’s where my sense of immersion comes in: poem after poem offer glimpses of restorative calm, mostly in the Norwegian landscape. It’s the closest thing I’ve found in a book to walking in the bush.

Not that it’s all cosy, and far from humourless. As in ‘sweet’ (page 100):

sit zazen
and you'll draw mosquitoes
from the thinnest air

There are poems about death as well as poems describing the view of the fjord from a mountain top; poems of autumn and winter as well as summer; a lot of rain. The poet spends time in the small town of Ålvik, visits museums in larger centres, and riffs on the gravestones in a local cemetery. There’s often a sense of language not being quite up to capturing the experience of being in nature: sentences trail off, though we usually more or less know how they would have ended; or they miss their opening words. It often feels easy, throwaway, as if the poem just happened, the thought or feeling or spectacle effortlessly caught on the wing. But, of course, that’s the apparent ease of a virtuoso.

Though these are overwhelmingly poems that respond to a place, I found myself brooding on the small section of ekphrastic poems – that is, poems responding to paintings. They raise the interesting question: can you really appreciate such a poem if you haven’t seen the painting it refers to? Like the poems of place, there are three elements present when you read the poem: the words on the page, you the reader, the place or work or even referred to – and the ghost of the poet who put the words together. With poems of place, at least the ones in this book, you don’t need to have been there to appreciate the poem. (Just like you don’t need to have been in love to enjoy Robert Burns’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’.). Take the poem ‘the fjord like laid paper’, whose title doubles as its first line, which begins:

the fjord like laid paper

a ship rules a line
the only thing straight
in all the world turning

If you’ve stood and looked out at the fjord on such a calm day, you will read that differently from someone – like me – who has never been to Norway. For me, it primarily conjures up an image; for you, perhaps, the main thing is the simile/metaphor. Either way, the effect of the poem is to bring a vivid image of the fjord to mind, and I don’t feel any need to fly to Norway in order to understand the poem. (I do feel an impulse to go and see the places for myself, but that’s a different matter.)

When the subject s a painting, though, it’s a bit different. Take ‘Cowshed Courting’ (page 148), which refers to a 1904 painting by Nikolai Astrup that hangs in the Bergen Museum:

If you read this without seeing the painting, you’re left pretty much groping in the dark. I’m grateful that Kelen has named the painting in his title rather than calling the poem something like ‘After Astrup’, and I’m grateful for the internet, because it was no trouble at all to find an image of the painting online.

The opening lines have typical Kit-Kelen syntax:

fin de siècle light they caught then
we still breathe – it's unnatural

A conventional phrasing might be, ‘They caught a fin de siècle light then, which we still breathe, even though it’s unnatural.’ But the syntax serves a purpose: it reflects the process of seeing the painting. You begin with a general impression to do with the quality of the light, which makes you realise that this painting belongs to a particular era (fin de siècle, the end of the 19th century); next you have a sense of the painters of that time – no more specific than ‘they’, because after all this isn’t an art history essay; but having seen it as belonging to its own time, you realise that this painterly light still feels to us as familiar as the air we breathe – familiar but all the same artificial / ‘unnatural’.

The artifice has a purpose, as the viewer’s eye finds the figures on the left, and the brightest spot of colour in the image:

the colour's captured
a passion in the cowshed
rose cheeks and have you in my arms
deep pockets of brandy for inspiration

From the woman’s cheeks, the eyes travel over the figures. The poet projects himself into the image, identifying with the male figure and reading the bottles in his pocket as ‘inspiration’. (A different viewer might see those bottles in a less benign light, but that’s not this poem, or at least not foregrounded here.)

Then we’re taken on a tour:

never mind the pong
someone's peeping from the loft

A vague look to the right of the courting couple – yes, we notice that there are steaming heaps of cow poo all over the floor of the shed. Then we travel clockwise up to the top of the frame, and oh, there’s a creepy voyeur – a peeping tom – unnoticed until now. If the poem was a sonnet, this would be the volta, the turn. A poet less sure of his effects might have inserted a line space here, to mark the discord. But we move on without comment:

no glass but spring shines through the window
past which dung's piled – verdure and ordure

Only now do we come to the geometric focus of the painting, the window through which we can see a dung heap and beyond it some vague greenery. This is the source of that light we first noticed, and there’s an ambivalence to it: dung and greenery, ponginess and light. The assonance (if that’s the word) of ‘verdure and ordure’ reminds us that these things are intimately connected.

Our eyes travel down to rest on the middle of the image – the row of cows’ rear ends, and the unswept floor.

hear it ringing from the rear of each
and the floor steams unswept

Astrup doesn’t show the cows decorating the floor (surely ‘ringing’ is the politest term ever used for the sound of cows shitting), but Kelen gives us an aural equivalent what he shows, just as the earlier ‘pong’ has given us an olfactory one.

In the last line, our eyes travel back to the figures:

days are barefoot now

There’s a sense of completion as the poem finishes its circuit of the painting, from the woman’s cheek to her feet. With characteristic apparent ease, it has introduced a number of pairings: the pong and the ringing; the passion and the peeping; the verdure and ordure; the man fortified with brandy and the woman barefoot and vulnerable; then and now. That last pairing has a lovely complexity to it: in the opening lines, ‘then’ is the time of Astrup and ‘still’ is our time; ‘now’ in the emphatic position as the poem’s last word may refer to the changing seasons implied by the mention of spring in line 9, or it may again be contrasting the time of the painting with modern times when courting doesn’t have to happen in secret in cowsheds, but the whole day – the world outside the window – can be barefoot, open to intimacy.

The poem has made me look closely at the painting, and I may well read it differently from Kelen. In fact, by naming the peeper and then moving on quickly, the poem almost invites an argument. But in Kelen’s reading, or at least in my reading of Kelen’s reading, the painting, and so the poem, celebrate the way love can thrive in unlikely circumstances, and not be tarnished by prurient attention to it. The peeping tom is noticed and then ignored. The dung helps the greenery to grow. The poem gives shelter from ‘winter’s worst bite’. I don’t know that I could have understood any of that from the poem without reading it with the image open beside it.

Having written all that, I really should show you the image as well:

Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother

Kit Kelen, Book of Mother (Puncher and Wattmann 2022)

Dementia is becoming a major theme of story-telling in the 21st century. I can think of four excellent movies without even trying, the most recent being Everybody’s Oma, which I’ve seen at the Sydney Film Festival since reading Book of Mother. In poetry, Hawaiian poet Susan M Schultz’s Dementia Blog (2008), among other things, vividly evokes the social life of a dementia ward.

The Book of Mother is a substantial addition to this writing. The back cover blurb describes it well – it reads, in part:

This book is an intimate encounter with dementia as lived experience. Words are an important way into the world and when we begin to lose them we find ourselves with fewer tools and fewer familiar signs to go by. Phrases lost and tip-of-the-tongue half-forgettings – loose threads like these belong to the everyday business of knowing who we are. They are also the nuts and bolts of Kit Kelen’s poetry. A long play record of memory and its tricks, one comes to and from Book of Mother with always some questions about who is talking to whom, about when we are where, about whether we wake or dream.

There are a number of poems about lost keys – emblematic of dementia’s multitude of minor frustrations, for both sufferer and carers/relatives – whose titles are almost enough: ‘the keys are gone again’, ‘no one else has put them anywhere mum’, ‘you have hidden them’.

At least three poems had me in tears. ‘everything will be taken from us’ is a lament that speaks to the grief that accompanies the gradual loss of a loved one to dementia. ‘she’, the longest poem in the book, celebrates the poet’s mother as an individual and as an archetype of all mothers. It begins:


who had supernatural powers
who knew what Christmas wanted
what naughtiness was and was not

she who said wait till your father gets home
she who was a step before
could spell every word there was
and we could add things up together

vale mum’, the final poem, is an elegy that includes this wonderful image:

like lost at the Easter show
and a voice comes over the air
says this is how it is from now
your mother – all mother – is gone

For me, the power of the book comes from the cumulative effect of poems where the language feels as if it’s falling apart, in counterpoint to a number of poems in which a very young person’s language is coming together. That is, along with poems that document his mother’s decline, Kelen gives us poems about his own dawning grasp of the world through language as a small child closely connected to his mother. That may sound like an imposed schematic, but it reads as organic: being confronted with the present situation, the mind naturally goes to the past. As a reader, I found the transition between the two kinds of poem disorientating in a way that adds charge to both.

I love this book. If I was to recommend a single poem, it would be ‘everything will be taken from us’. Sadly, it’s too long for me to quote here with a good conscience, and I can’t find it online, but if you happen on the book in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, turn to page 75, and read this one, aloud if possible. It won’t take long, and it may inspire you to buy the whole book.

Meanwhile, here’s ‘in a waiting room’, a short poem that may give you a sense of the book’s shape-shiftiness:

This poem may take a little puzzling before it yields itself to the reader, but it’s not at heart a puzzle to be solved.

The title and first four lines are clear enough.

to make you happy
for your own good
because we love you
because I can't explain

We are in a waiting room, where someone is responding to a question, something like, ‘Why have you brought me here?’ Read in the context of this book, the lines could be spoken by the carer for a person with dementia or to a child. That is, it could be a poem about the poet’s mother, or one about a childhood memory. Or, perhaps more interestingly, it could be both. Either way, the lines give four different answers to the same question – the questioner, whether it’s a child who is unsatisfied with each successive answer, or the adult with dementia who doesn’t remember the previous answer, keeps on asking.

The next line maintains the ambiguity:

won't remember your hand was held

Anyone who has lived with or cared for someone with dementia will recognise the experience this neatly evokes. No matter how many visitors they’ve had, no matter how much hand-holding, they will still say none ever comes to see them, no one ever holds their hand. But equally the owner of the hand could be a child – in this book, the poet himself in memory – whose adult memory doesn’t include a hand being held. The omission of a pronoun at the start of the line is worth noting. Even though syntactically the line can’t be read other than, ‘[You] won’t remember’, by not giving us the ‘You’, the poem increases the shifting-sands feel.

Though I generally treasure clarity in writing, and see ambiguity as something to be avoided, it’s the double possibilities in these lines that I love. It could be either thing, which means that the two things are similar, which – in this context – suggests that when you relate to a person with dementia, your own hold on reality can begin to shift, or memories may surface of times when you were similarly dependent, confused or failing to understand. The poem takes the reader gently into that border state.

Then, there’s this:

in yellow light
dinosaurs confer
smoke clouds them
or at cards

After a moment’s pause (or, to be truthful, a couple of days), I read this as a description of the waiting room. Perhaps it’s wallpaper, or a painting – of dinosaurs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, playing cards? A google of “dinosaurs playing poker” comes up with plenty of images. It’s not hard to imagine one in a doctor’s waiting room. To repeat myself, though, the pleasure here isn’t in having solved a puzzle or deciphered a cryptic set of words to settle on a clear meaning. It’s in the state of mind before the image is understood. I suppose it’s analogous to the couple of minutes when you savour a weird dream before understanding that it’s just a rehash of something banal that happened the day before. More to the point, it’s like when you have a memory in the form of a striking image, and it takes a while to make sense of it by remembering its context.

here elephants trumpet about
giraffe pokes in a head

The weirdness continues. Perhaps it’s another painting on the wall. This could be a waiting room for either a child or a person with dementia. If a child, these are the details of the waiting room that stand out as interesting, and return as memories when you’re an adult poet. If a person with dementia, they are the disturbing and disorientating features of the environment.

stood by the fire
too close
to beginning

The first two lines here give the reason the person (whose hand may or not have been held) is in the waiting room. They have stood too close to a fire. Then the phrase ‘too close’ does double work, introducing the third line: he stood too close to the fire, and he was also too close to his own beginning, that is to say, too young. And with that line, the poem’s main ambiguity is resolved. This is a childhood memory.

peg in the board where everyone fits
that was my Day at the Zoo

Oh, the elephants and giraffe weren’t in a painting after all. They were part of a board game, Day at the Zoo. This last couplet has an air of finality, like the ending of a child’s composition. Almost smugly, the mystery of the images is cleared up. The memory is reclaimed in full. The ‘your’ becomes ‘my’. Read in the context of the whole book, there’s also a sense of relief: in this case, the weirdness, the things that aren’t understood, have been resolved.

Then you turn to the next poem, ‘forget a thing and it’s gone’, and we’re back to dealing with dementia.

In an earlier version of this blog, I tried to capture things that happened with language with Mollie, who was living with us and with dementia. This extraordinary book does that with wonderful compassion and love, as well as wit, precision and, I guess the word is delight.

SWF 2022, my Sunday

I managed to squeeze in a second Writers’ Festival event. I console myself that I’ll be able to listen to podcasts from the Festival over the next year, but I’m still sorry to have seen so little of it in person. The place was buzzing today

In the session I attended, The Unacknowledged Legislators, we were read to by eight poets. (It being poetry, it wasn’t hard to get a good seat at such a late moment.) The title comes from Shelley’s much-quoted assertion, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Declan Fry, emcee, said some elegant things about how poetry is a place where we can be free, where we can put our minds to things that we can’t quite say, so, invoking the theme of this year’s festival, it can literally change minds.

Tony Birch kicked things off with a number of short poems from his recently published collection, Whisper Songs, giving us a gentle introduction.

Eunice Andrada read from her second collection, TAKE CARE (link is to my blog post, as are the ones that follow). She read a number of confronting poems in solidarity with Filipina and other brown women.

Sarah Holland-Batt, author of the wonderful Fishing for Lightning, read from her most recent book of poetry, The Jaguar, poems written in the weeks and months after her father died. On the face of it these breathtaking poems about being with a dying parent aren’t political, but they drew tremendous political force from today’s context: Assisted Dying legislation has just been passed in the NSW parliament, and the federal election has removed from office a shamefully negligent Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services.

Madison ‘Maddie’ Godfrey describes herself as an emotional feminist. I don’t understand what that term means. She prefaced one of her poems with a ‘trigger warning for menstruation, endometriosis and sexy stuff’.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of The Hate Race, read from her collection How Decent Folk Behave. It was round about here that the poetry got explicitly political, in the sense of naming names and taking positions. She commented after one poem that it was a joy to be able to read it with a name that had to be taken out of the printed version on legal advice.

Sara M. Saleh describes herself as a Bankstown Poetry Slam Slambassador. Among the poems she read was one – I didn’t write down its name – that started out sounding like a fairly literal protest at the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints and became a powerful, joyous assertion of humanity in the face of belittling treatment.

Omar Musa, whose debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, we read at my Book Group, has also performed at the Bankstown Poetry Slam. He performed ‘UnAustralia’ (I think that’s its name), a provocative and witty rant, then said, ‘I like to fuck around,’ and followed it with a rich, complex, passionate, compassionate poem about visiting the mosque in Christchurch where people were killed last year – you could hear a pin drop.

The last poet, Jazz Money, whose debut collection how to make a basket was published in 2021, told us she had changed her mind about what to read after she heard the others. After an excellent though mild-mannered poem about the endangered night parrot, she treated us to ‘Mardi Gras Rainbow Dreaming’, which is the stuff that slam poems are made of, and after hearing which the commercialisation of Sydney’s Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras will never feel bearable again.

And that was my Festival for this year. The Director, Michael Williams, has moved on to be editor of The Monthly. Who knows what next year will bring?

Michael Farrell’s Family Trees

Michael Farrell, Family Trees (Giramondo 2020)

I kept wanting someone to take me by the hand and show me how to read the poems in this book. If you feel the same, don’t get your hopes up for this blog post.

In the Author’s note that Giramondo Publishing included with my complimentary copy, Michael Farrell does offer some help. I couldn’t find the note online anywhere, and think it’s a shame that the publishers didn’t include it at the back of the book. I’m tempted to reproduce it in full here, but that would probably violate something. It begins:

Family Trees is a queer vision for the people: the people who read, go to movies, listen to pop music, watch bird shenanigans. The people who care about history, who need love, but always lose it.

I think queer has a specific cultural meaning here that is about more than sexuality, and the reading, movie-going and pop-music-listening he has in mind is more extensive than mine and without a huge overlap. All the same, these two sentences do name key elements of much of the poetry. There’s a kind of radical playfulness that has familiar cultural figures caught up in weird scenarios, as in ‘Adjectival Or The English Canon’, which tells the history of English poetry in 45 three-line stanzas in which each new poet kills off the preceding one, taking to an extreme the notion that each generation of poets has to get rid of the one before it. For example:

Bloody William Shakespeare got the whole world into verse
Eventually had his throat cut by Bloody Benjamin Jonson
Jonson then proclaimed Shakespeare's spirit'd entered him

William Blake stumbles off a cliff at a picnic with William Wordsworth: ‘While William got the credit some say Dorothy did it’.

Similarly, but less interestingly, ‘Family Trees’ mimics the begats from Genesis, but if there’s anything beyond a list of names, some of people, some of trees, it went right past me.

In many poems I can recognise that the poetry is playful, but just don’t get it (not well enough read or well enough versed in contemporary poetics, probably).

Sometimes I get it, and am impressed but unmoved, as in ‘Tempestina’, which takes the traditional form of the sestina but instead of using the same six rhyme words in the prescribed order, has each line opening with the same six phrases in that order. Verry interesting, as they used to say in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Sometimes, and this may be in most of the book, the poetry stays just a little out of reach of my understanding, but it’s enjoyable. I’m reminded of how much I enjoy my 18-month-old grandson’s jokes: I have no idea why he finds them so funny, but his enjoyment is infectious, and I don’t doubt that there’s a sharp and generous intelligence at work. This is most clearly true of the poems about the south coast of NSW, where the poet grew up. The Author’s note says they re-fabulate visits to the area. Here’s the start ‘Mysteries Of The South Coast’:

We all need a methodology to live by
To take just one example, Catholics are
rarely ashed on on the sports field, but
public life is another matter. Such
unfortunate exhibitions are not beyond
the conceptions of The Sorrowful
Cappuccino, known locally as the
Foamo (and by the next town's residents
as the Sad Flat White), either. Their own
eateries are nothing to skite about.

This makes me laugh. I read it as a mash-up of memories and current impressions of the kind one has revisiting childhood places. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics of a certain era would appear with a smudge of ash on their foreheads. Maybe there’s a reference to a remembered time when Catholic students would be advised not play football with the ash still in place, as that would provoke hostility from their Protestant opponents. This memory slides over a couple of words with strong religious connotations – conception as in the Immaculate Conception, Sorrowful as in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary (which of course echoes the poem’s title) – by way of the hinge word Cappuccino as in the Capuchin Order of monks, to arrive at a contemporary preoccupation with coffee, and the lovely term foamo. From there it’s no distance at all to the familiar trope of how terrible coffee and food is in country New South Wales (remember, Farrell is a Melburnian, and maybe that’s a methodology in itself).

From there the poem ranges over real and invented features of the locality: there’s a bull named Darth Vader, marsupial geese, houses that ‘have no reason to be there really / except that people live in them’, a Duchess who makes badminton rackets from leftover chicken coops, monks who live in wombat holes, a cushion that would rather be reading Ferrante … and I’m left in the dust, but enjoying the kaleidoscopic absurdity. There may be a serious point to all this play – there’s this at about the one-third point:

leaves. (So jammy!) What miracles we
live by and under on the south coast
made mundane by the poets, who must
beat it into our heads so our heads have
something to think with.

Although even the book’s most straightforward poems have an elusive quality to them, they’re not all surreal, intertextual game-playing. ‘Apple Tree’, for instance, which the Author’s note describes as a ‘homage to John Shaw Neilson’s iconic “The Orange Tree”‘, can be read without reference to that poem (though that poem is worth reading for its own sake – you can see it at this link). Let Michael Farrell have the last word here reading his poem:

Books read on the road

I recently went on a ten-day road trip to the Mungo National Park by way of a number of country towns. Knowing there’d be plenty of time to read, I packed poetry. The slim volumes didn’t take up much space, but they were guaranteed to provide plenty of nourishment.

Here are the three books I read, in order of publication. As you’ll see, they don’t have a lot in common.

Oscar Schwartz, The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo 2017)

In a talk in May 2015 at TEDxYouth@Sydney Oscar Schwartz asked, ‘Can a Computer write Poetry?’ It’s an interesting talk that makes me feel as if I belong to a past era.

I wonder if some of the poems in The Honeymoon Stage are computer generated, challenging readers to guess which are and which are not, as in the game Schwartz discusses in the talk, ‘Bot or Not’. Probably not: they mostly cohere, and have a discernible narrative or line of argument that doesn’t seem (yet) to be within the skill set of computer poem-generators.

Mostly the poems have a surrealist edge, as in ‘i sat on lungs’, in which the narrator realises that the chair he is sitting on is actually a pair of lungs, or ‘what side of the bed does your clone sleep on?’, whose title is almost enough. There are a couple of long poems. ‘how to write an ebook of poetry’ starts out as a deadpan account of the process, but takes a turn at about the two-thirds mark:


get buried


become diffuse among various organic materials
on earth

be there as a collection of diffuse organic materials
when humanity ends

The other long poem, ‘should i watch game of thrones?’ similarly starts with a list of reasonable pros and cons then goes off on fantasy tangents.

The poems are universally light, witty, even quirky, and largely – to my aged mind – inconsequential. The book was a pleasant travel read.

Gerald Murnane, Green Shadows and other poems (Giramondo 2019)

In 2018 the New York Times Magazine ran a headline about Gerald Murnane, ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?‘ He’s a giant of Australian letters – a giant who has been largely unknown to me. I may have attempted one of his novels, The Plains, and given up on it. Recently I read his Collected Short Fiction, which I loved.

Though Murnane began his writing career as a poet, as far as I know none of his early poems have been collected. All of those in Green Shadows, his first book of poetry and possibly his last book ever, were written in his late 70s.

The poems are shot through with a curmudgeonly iconoclasm. ‘Crap-books’, for example, begins:

Here's a list of some of the crap-
books that I forced myself to read
when I was still a nervous young chap
who supposed that every overseas

writer knew more than I. I'll start
with Anna Karenina – utterly unreadable.

In ‘Political Philosophy’, he puts the case against progressive activism. In ‘Non-travelling’, he disparages knowledge acquired by travel as:

bes with my a___skin++__g the countless trashy
recollections of barely known people and places

Along with the curmudgeonliness, though, there’s an unapologetic and unsparing self-portrait of a man who, if he had belonged to a later generation, might be telling the world about his diagnosis of autism. There are awkward encounters with women, childhood recollections, odes to Victorian districts, reflections on his earlier writings, especially his early plans as a poet, some short poems in Hungarian with English translations. He pays homage to Marcel Proust, Henry Handel Richardson, William Carlos Williams, Lesbia Harford and John Clare among others.

I confess that on first reading I didn’t engage much. The book felt like a doodling PS to a long career, a collection of extras for fans of the novels. But the poems grew on me in subsequent readings.

What prompted me to go back for subsequent readings was ‘A Cistercian life’, which sadly is too long to quote in full here. It begins with the young Murnane reading Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence, and being attracted to the austere contemplative life that book describes. It tells of Murnane’s later discovery that Merton was ‘full of himself’, hardly ever observing the Cistercian rule; and his further disillusion when his son, after spending a week at a Cistercian monastery, reports that the monks, ‘once famed for their silence’, pumped their guest for information about TV shows, no longer did manual labour, and went on annual holidays. The poem’s last three stanzas describe the spartan conditions of Murnane’s current life: no radio, TV, telephone, or computer, the bare minimum of furniture. The poem ends:

I've made no vow of silence but I haven't
spoken since yesterday when I called at the store.

I last took a holiday back in the nineteen-seventies,
for my young sons' sake. Through my only window I see
mostly wall, but the view from each end of my street
is of countryside, level and seemingly empty.

How you read a poem depends on what you bring to it, and I brought a lot to this one. I too was enchanted by Thomas Merton as a teenager, and briefly tried to do the contemplative thing. My mother’s beloved youngest sister joined the Carmelites, an order of nuns with similar rules to the Cistercians, and I treasure letters she wrote to me. One of my old Catholic teachers, a lovely man, now lives in a yurt in the middle of a cow paddock and sees as few people as possible, spending most of his time in silence. I don’t aspire to such a life, but I respect it as a spiritual discipline. With these lines, I saw Murnane’s portrayal of himself in a different light, not so much a contrarian curmudgeon as a self-deprecating man of discipline. The force of those final words was amplified by the circumstances I read them in: I was staying in the Shearers’ Quarters at Lake Mungo, where the landscape could hardly be more level or more seemingly empty, yet so rich with profound meaning.

Eunice Andrada, TAKE CARE: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

In my blog post about Eunice Andrada’s first book, Flood Damages (Giramondo 2018), I began, ‘There’s a lot of pain in these poems.’ I can say the same about the this book, which incidentally has been shortlisted for the 2022 Stella Prize and the Kenneth Slessor Prize in the 2022 Nsw Premier’s Literary Awards.

Central to the book is ‘Comfort Sequence’, in which there is little comfort. It begins with a prose poem that starts, ‘Another statue dedicated to ‘comfort women’ who were enslaved and raped in wartime has been removed in the Philippines.’ Much of the text on this page is obscured/replaced by white space in the shape of such a statue. The sequence sets out to counter that erasure, coming at it from many angles – dissection of pertinent language, conversations with a woman who was there, aphorisms, paraphrases of Filipino news sources – culminating in a horrific vision of rape culture:

A rapist teaches me how to drive.
A rapist decides what I do with my body
after rape. A rapist on trial doesn't believe
he's a rapist. A rapist doesn't like being called
a rapist. A rapist raping doesn't believe in rape,
its perversion of simpler ideas like cold seedless
grapes, eggs ripe for hatching, nape of beast
for slaughter. A rapist tells me to be careful
of what I say.

From one point of view, this sequence is balanced by ‘Vengeance Sequence’. Here’s one of its 15 short poems:

Filipino women stop working.
Empires shut down in a tantrum,
refusing to care for themselves.
We do not go back to work.

In Andrada’s poetry, rape is situated as intimately bound up with racism, militarism, nationalism, colonialism and other forms of exploitation. As this little poem exemplifies, resistance/vengeance can be cheerful, life-affirming and solidaristic.

The book’s title, TAKE CARE (the shouting capitals are part of it), refers to the Tagalog word ingat. In the poem, ‘Take Care’ (which doesn’t share the shouting capitals), the speaker wakes from night terrors in Jerusalem, and is befriended by some Filipina women the next day. They have dinner together, and the end of the evening sees ‘the night’s dispersal marked by chimes / of ingat’:

of machinery. They tell me to ingat
with the men, the checkpoints, the soldiers.

Take care, take care, take care.

In my temporary room, I let myself rest,
believing I could be safe.

Solidarity with other women, particularly Filipina women, is a place of possible safety. By implication, the book, calling out ingat / take care to its readers, is offering something of the kind in a world whose danger and injustice it does not shrink from.

Andrada is a fine performer of her own poetry. Giramondo has uploaded this video of her reading ‘Kundiman’, a very short poem that beautifully positions her writing in relation to the world of warfare and extraction:

I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for complimentary copies of all three books.