Tag Archives: poetry

Jennifer Maiden's Espionage Act

Jennifer Maide, The Espionage Act (Quemar Press 2020)

In May 2019 Julian Assange was indicted on 17 counts of violating the USA’s Espionage Act. It’s the kind of event we’re used to reading about in journalistic language: what and why and when and how and where and who, though not necessarily in that order. You can click here to see how the New York Times reported that event.

Jennifer Maiden’s books for the last decade or more have dealt with that kind of incident, but done it obliquely, in imagined scenes that usually begin with the ‘waking up’ of a historical or fictional character who is somehow connected with the news item. As Assange was taken from the Uruguayan embassy in London, he was clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State: in the first poem in this book, ‘Resistance’, Vidal wakes up beside Assange in a London Magistrate’s Court. He does it again in four more poems, in one of which they are joined by a newly awake Emma Goldman – who, we are told by Vidal, was sentenced under the same act in 1917 – and in another by Princess Diana.

These are political poems, but no one would call Maiden ‘our protest poet’ as a recent headline did, reductively, the late Bruce Dawe. Her imaginary dialogues have a clear point of view, but they are exploratory rather than declamatory, In ‘Resistance’, for instance, Vidal’s ruminations are a means to inform the reader (or remind her, if she’s better informed than I am) that the magistrate presiding in Assange’s hearing ‘was the one who had / stopped a private prosecution of Tony Blair for war crimes’, and to remind us (or inform, etc.) of the circumstances of Assange’s removal from the Uruguayan embassy. But Vidal does exist as a fictional creation, anxious to know if Assange liked his book, vain about his own quotability, dropping the occasional name from high society. Diane Spencer wears the dress she was buried in to remind us ‘of the easiness with which one ignores murder,’ but flairs the dress out, ‘actress-fashion’. In her dialogues, it’s as if Maiden puts two or more characters in dialogue to see what she thinks about something, but they have to be more than just mouthpieces for ideas.

There are two other sets of dialogues in this book. In five poems, Maiden’s longstanding characters George and Clare converse, have sex, look after their toddler son Corbyn. George chats on the phone to Donald Trump and a friend in the CIA. Three poems feature an Australian critic, who chats with Jackson Pollock and Brett Whiteley (in front of Blue Poles in Canberra), with Dorothy Wordsworth (and quotes to her the passage from her diaries that her brother drew on for his famous poem), and with Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who doesn’t like the term ‘magic realism’).

There are other poems – one responds to a comment, reproduced on the back cover, that Maiden should be considered for the Nobel Prize; three feature her recent creation, a cute little marsupial named Brookings (after the Brookings Institution); one features Alan Turing; several ‘Diary Poems’, ruminate on the Federal Police raid on the ABC, on Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison, on the Australian ‘poetry wars’, on the writing and reception of other poems in the book.

If there’s an overall subject, it’s the way reactionary politics infiltrates and influences the general culture, belittles creativity and promotes art that serves its purposes. And what it means to struggle against that influence.

It needs someone more learned than I am to talk about the formal qualities of the poems. I’ll just mention one thing. Have a look at the opening lines of the title poem, ‘The Espionage Act’:

Emma Goldman woke up uneasily in Belmarsh Prison Hospital.
She recognised the sharp shape of a reading Gore Vidal,
who was watching over Julian Assange, curled foetal
in a prison sheet not blanket, not at all
well, she thought, but fragile as an angel.
Death had made her even more maternal
and she had always been motherly, since a girl.
Vidal gave her his usual tough smile:
'I've really been expecting you for a while'

You could read this as prose that’s been interrupted by an occasional line break, but if you did you’d be missing a lot. You might not notice, but this is rhyming verse. All 56 lines of this poem end in ‘l’. Sometimes there’s a full rhyme like ‘smile’ and while’, or later ‘fall’ all’ and ‘recall’. Once you notice it, the effect is hypnotic, but if even without your noticing it the lines have a wonderful musicality that pushes the narrative forward.

I’ve been reading and rereading this book for a while now. I’ve been learning about history (I think of Muriel Rukeyser’s repeated line, ‘Pay Attention to what they tell you to forget’), making connections between things I’ve known and kept in silos in my mind, and questioning received versions of things, all with Jennifer Maiden’s insistent music in my ears.

A sampler of the poems from this book, including ‘Resistance’, ‘Except’, ‘Brookings Gets A Helmet’, ‘George Jeffreys: 25:
George Jeffreys Woke Up on Abu Musa Island’, ‘The Espionage Act’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Fear’, ‘Clare’s Dream’, ‘Brookings Tries Out Ubiquity’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Alan Turing’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Poetry Wars’, ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ and ‘Maximum Security’, are online at the Quemar website, at this link.

The Espionage Act is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Vale Bruce Dawe

Bruce Dawe died on Wednesday, aged 90. He was one of Australia’s most loved poets, and one of the most accessible. During the Vietnam War, his poems ‘Weapons Training’ and ‘Homecoming’ made a big impression on me.

This is one of his poems from the 1990s that strikes a chord with me as one of the privileged ones who has water to wash my hands, a home to stay in, and a faltering NBN to keep me in touch with friends.

You and Sarajevo
for Gloria

Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,
with the dog at your feet, his head resting
on a shoe, and the clock's ticking
like water dripping in a sink
– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,
given the inherent cruelty of the world
where beautiful things and people
are blasted apart all the day long,
I would never want to come back, knowing
I could never be this lucky twice ...

Added later: Sue at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has blogged at more length about Bruce Dawe, and there’s a write-up in the Sydney Morning Herald at this link.

Clive James’s Gate of Lilacs

Clive James, Gate of Lilacs: A Verse Commentary on Proust (Picador 2016)

The late Clive James took fifteen years to read À la recherche du temps perdu, teaching himself French as he went. Later, he read Scott Moncrieff’s translation, Remembrance of Things Past, ‘in order to see where I had been’. Though I’m just six months into Proust’s massive work, and just approaching the halfway mark. Unlike James, I’m not reading it ‘French dictionary in hand’, so I have even more reason to read something in order to see where I’ve been.

About half of this slim volume (48 pages) is devoted to the poem Gate of Lilacs. and almost as much again is given over to James’s explanation of the poem’s genesis, its form and notes on Proust and some of the poem’s more obscure references. The supplementary material doesn’t feel like scholarly apparatus or, even worse, study notes. It’s as if the publisher asked Clive for extra material to fill the book out to a decent size and Clive obliged with his usual combination of wit and extraordinary erudition. So we are treated to a brief treatise on the development of free verse in English, some splendid titbits of gossip about Proust the man, notes on Albert Speer, on the shameful relationship between the non-Jewish intelligentsia of Paris and the Nazi Occupation, on a range of artists, writers and performers, and enough suggested reading on a range of topics to keep a mere mortal busy for a year.

The poem itself is in lucid, elegant blank verse. I don’t know what a reader who hadn’t read any Proust would make of it, but it worked for me as a companion to my reading. As I’ve been reading Proust, it turns out that I’ve seized on comments made by friends who have read at least some of À la recherche. One said it was a LGBTQ+ epic; another reminded me of the description of Proust in The Hare with Amber Eyes as always the last to leave a social gathering. James’s poem corrected my misreading of moments because my French wasn’t up to it. It filled me in on the gossip about the connection between the fiction and Proust’s own life. It gave me flash-forwards to sensationalist moments that I haven’t reached yet. It reassured me that if I can’t see a structure I’m in good company. It sent me to the internet to look at images of the woman that Oriane de Guermantes was based on (and she’s every bit as impressive in her photos as Proust says she is).

Most interestingly, it explained why anyone would take seriously the extraordinary section I’m reading at present – the second part of the third novel, Le Coté de Guermantes – in describes in detail and analyses at great length the manners and mores of the very upper reaches of the French aristocracy, in particular the salons hosted by the women of that class. I’m engrossed by this description, but hadn’t realised until I read James that something serious is happening: Proust is recording a historical moment, the dying moment of those salons, which were to be completely replaced in the culture of France by friendships and connections among the creatives themselves, and any patronage was to come from the bourgeoisie, from business, from capitalism.

In James’s poem, Proust’s loving description of the death of the salon is linked to his chronic illness and sense of his own impending death. And James, in both poem and appendages, is explicit that he is writing under the shadow of his own death sentence. Always, he gestures away from himself, with shows of wit and erudition, with charm and careful exposition, but there’s a persistent undercurrent of grief at leaving all this that he loves.

I can see why this was on the remainder tables. It’s definitely for a niche within a niche market. But I loved it and will definitely read it again in six months or so when I’ve finished reading Proust for the first and probably only time.

Clive James’s River in the Sky

Clive James, The River in the Sky (Picador 2018)

This book-length poem is part of the extraordinary wealth of writing published by Clive James between discovering he was terminally ill early in the decade just finished and his death in November last year.*

Though awareness of his impending, even imminent mortality is there in all the bits of this huge output that I’ve read, The River in the Sky sets out to tackle it head on, beginning:

All is not lost, despite the quietness
that comes like nightfall now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing my eyes a task

The ancient Egyptians prepared for a journey after death, equipped by their mourning survivors with food and drink and other necessities. But, James says, ‘now we know This is no journey.’ He imagines the room where he lives in his final illness as a tomb lovingly prepared by his wife and daughters, and this poem as the equivalent of a Pharaoh’s journey to the sky. This journey moves in a different different: rather then onwards beyond death, it wanders back over the poet’s life.

That is to say, this is not a systematic autobiography, or a summing up, but it flits from one memory, or dream-like mix-up of memories, to another:

In sunken cities of the memory
Mud-brick, dissolved in time,
Leaves nothing but the carved, cut stones
And scraps of the ceramics.
Time, it is thereby proven, is the sea
Whose artefacts are joined by separateness.

The death of his father in war when James was very young features large. There’s an extended sequence in which he visits Sydney’s Luna Park and various functionaries turn into school teachers and others from his young life. He speaks passionately and appreciatively to his wife and daughters, tells of the death of friends, and recalls moments from his life as a writer and TV personality, as well as bits from movies, music, the history of art, and lovingly realised memories of his native Sydney. The blank verse of the opening pages gives way to less stately verse, but the poetry never loses its sense of decorum.

This is a river song,
Linking the vivid foci
Where once my mind was formed
That now must fall apart:
A global network blasted
To ruins by the pressure
Of its lust to grow, which prove now
At long last, after all this time,
To be its urge to die.

All the same I was reminded of something a much loved relative of mine said when his death was imminent. His wife told him that he should curb his irritability and stop yelling at his five children because he wouldn’t want to burden them with guilt and resentment in their final memories of him. He may well have followed her advice, but his immediate response was, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ So Clive James, who once presented himself on TV as a balding, overweight would-be Lothario, and was always ready to show off his formidable cultural knowledge and opinionatedness, seems to ask, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ In the shadow of death, he doesn’t take on a bogus solemnity. He name-drops shamelessly, humble-brags, and is slightly sleazy, but then surprises with a wonderful phrase. For example:

On the flight from Singapore
Straight down to Perth
When Elle Macpherson
Crossed the aisle to sit beside me
The impact of her beauty
Was exactly like
A mugging from a naiad.
Fame has its privileges
And most of those are drawbacks
But now and the you get to breathe
The aura of the angel –
Occasionally you're dazzled by
The rising of the sun
In the sulphur crest of the white cockatoo.

(To be clear, it’s not the mugging from a naiad that surprises me.)

It’s a lovely, gracious, sometimes silly, often erudite, in parts passionate, always lucid poem. There’s a Japanese tradition of ‘death poems’ – poems that monks write in the hope that they will die with the brush still in their hands. This isn’t exactly a death poem in that sense, but it’s in the same paddock. Reading it so soon after the poet’s actual death, it’s impossible not to be moved by its vitality, and – odd word to come to mind – it’s cheerfulness.


* According to Wikipedia (as at 31 December 2019), between June 2012 and his death in November 2019, he published: a weekly column for the Guardian, ‘Reports of my Death …’ (until June 2017); five collections of essays, including Play All (my blogpost here) and Poetry Notes 2006–2014 (my blogpost here); two book-length poems, of which The River in the Sky is one; four poetry collections, including the mammoth Collected Poems 1958–2015; his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (my blog posts here, here and here); and seven poems that haven’t been collected. He also continued ‘augmenting’ his website, https://www.clivejames.com

Emma Lew’s Crow College

Emma Lew, Crow College: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2019)

This book’s cover image, from a painting by Maryanne Coutts, hints at a dark, elusive narrative. A woman whose face is turned away from us engages in an activity that is far from clear and possibly dangerous. It could be a moment from a dream. Many of Emma Lew’s poems have a similar sense of being spoken from the midst of a dark, elusive narrative. The ‘I’ is invariably hard to pin down: you may (as I, naively, did) start out thinking the poems feature Lew speaking in her own voice but you soon realise you’re wrong. In fact, most of the time it’s hard to have any sense of Emma Lew’s engagement except as a crafter of highly-charged enigmas. In his review of this book, Martin Duwell writes that he once surmised that Lew’s characteristic poem

was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been.

Australian Poetry Review at this link

He has discarded that hypothesis, but it does a nice job of evoking both the drama and the disorientation one experiences reading many of the poems in this book.

Evidently the Giramondo team felt that readers might need a little help with that disorientation, because whereas most books of poetry have minimal guidance in how to read them, this one includes an introduction by poet Bella Li. I generally avoid introductions, but I read this one hoping it would help me blog coherently. I also read a number of reviews, including the excellent one by Martin Duwell quoted above and one by Ross Gibson – author of the brilliant books Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and 26 Views of the Starburst World [links to my blog posts] – in Sydney Review of Books [here’s a link].

Everything I read about the poetry is interesting (though Ross Gibson’s prose at times went off into academic incomprehensibility). What I realised is not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the poems, but that I didn’t get how to enjoy them.

My copy of the book is an ARC (advanced reading copy) which comes with a request not to quote from it, but I can’t bear to end without giving my readers at least a small taste. This is the start of the relatively straightforward ‘Kanipshins’, whose title the internet says is a Yiddish word meaning fits or temper tantrums (for some reason WordPress is being difficult with line breaks; please overlook the weird line spacing here):

In consideration for my mother

the yacht got free of its moorings.

'Just bring him home:

I'll decide who's handsome.'

We tried to quarrel quietly in the bathroom.

She had kept certain phrases for this moment

but ended up expressing desperation

through the elaborateness

of her hairdo, and drama,

the way she salted her food.

See what I mean? There’s a slantwise portrait of a mother daughter relationship there: the daughter brings a boyfriend/suitor home for the mother to evaluate; the young people find a little privacy in the bathroom; the mother communicates in non-verbal ways. But what is the broader picture presumably alluded to in the first two lines? should we care what the young people are quarrelling about? Is it the mother who is desperate, and why? These are questions that have no answers. The poem continues (I think) with the mother hectoring the daughter to marry the young man, but just as you think you’re following the story, it goes somewhere quite unexpected and enigmatic:

The drug companies did the serenading,

but how the girdle must have hurt!

And there are a couple more twists before the end, including the wonderfull but elusive line ‘holding lilies, almost apoplectic’. Could be a narrative – a dramatic monologue or the abstract of a short film or play – but without establishing shots or guideposts. So it offers some of the pleasures of story while refusing others. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see that it’s very good.

Crow College is the thirty-eighth and last book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is an ARC from Giramondo Publishing.

Hope and the Climate Emergency

There was an Extinction Rebellion event at Bondi Beach this morning. A couple of hundred of us sat in the shape of the XR logo, representing the planet and an hourglass. There were brief speeches, a drone photo, and some magnificent dancing by members of the Tango Rebellion. The handful of police didn’t have to do anything but stand and watch.

One of the speakers read what she called a faux elegy for the planet – faux because we intend to take action to at least minimise the results of the climate emergency. On the way home in the train, one of my companions expostulated that it’s not the planet that’s in danger of dying out, it’s us or at least life as we know it. The planet will survive just fine. But we all agreed there is such a thing as climate grief that needs to be faced.

I found myself thinking of A D Hope’s poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother’, the first poem in his A Late Picking (1975) that, according to my pencilled notes on the contents page, was written in 1958, presumably with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in mind. I don’t expect many of my readers to know the poem, so here it is in full, the anger and, yes, grief beneath the irony as alive as ever:

On an Early Photograph of My Mother

Who would believe it to see her now, the mother
Of so many daughters and sons – and one of them I –
Dear busy old body, bustling around the sky
That this was indeed my darling, and no other?

Who would suppose to view her then, the tender
Bloom and dazzle of wildfire, and the stance
Of unripe grace, the naked eloquent glance,
Time could so tame or age despoil her splendour?

Or who imagine the imperceptible stages
From her madcap Then to this staid respectable Now?
One picture the Family Album does not show.
See where she ripped it angrily from the pages!

That is just the picture I should give most to recover,
When she changed to a molten mass and began to shrink
To a great smooth stone, and the stone began to think,
And she raged at her ruin and knew that her youth was over.

Did you destroy it, my darling, that face of granite
Cracked and scarred by your volcanic heart?
Did you take one look and tear it across and apart,
The barren body, the gaunt, unlovable planet?

You could not foresee this lovely old age beginning,
The ripeness, the breeding beauty. How could you know
Yourself with your lap full of flowers, soft-shouldered with snow,
Royally wearing your waters, your children pinning

Cities of lights at your breast, to show how clever they are?
Take comfort, my darling, and trundle your bulk through the sky:
Your cleverest children—and one of them is not I—
Are finding the trick that will turn you back to a star.

Cunning and cautious, but much less cautious than cunning,
They split small pieces of rock, a cup or two from your seas.
'Helping Mother!' they say, 'and busy as bees.
The noise we can make is tremendous; the flash is stunning.'

'We can do better,' they say. 'A surprise for Mother;
She will be pleased when we show her what we can do.'
How long will it take? Just another invention or two
And someone will press a button. You need not bother;

You will blaze out with the nimbus of youth, the limber
Liquid gait and the incandescent air;
You will forget the middle-aged ruin you were;
Good luck to you, darling! I shall not be there to remember.

Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets

Keri Glastonbury, Newcastle Sonnets (Giramondo 2018)

Keri Glastonbury was interviewed by Jim Kellar in the Newcastle Herald in August. There’s much talk in the interview (you can read it all here) about the Newcastle-ness of the book – the local sights, snippets of lore, the city’s history and its present. Then, as if Keri Glastonbury is worried by the non-academic tenor of the conversation, she warns, ‘I don’t want people to think it’s accessible.’ Readers, she says, ‘will be confronted with experimental poetics.’

So there you go.

I assume that most of my regular readers are, like me, not up to speed with experimental poetics. (I’m one of the few non-academics and non-poets who writes in public about contemporary Australian poetry: I’ve never been terribly afraid of looking stupid in public, and I’m deeply grateful for the tolerance and good humour of poets who have responded to my blog posts in the comments section or in person.) If you’re fully poetry-phobic, this isn’t a book for you. But if you enjoy the outsider’s pleasure of being largely mystified and then having moments of clarity and even delight, you might want to give it a go.

The poems, as it suggests on the lid, almost all refer to Newcastle (that’s upon-Hunter not upon-Tyne), to the life of an academic working at Newcastle University who is a member of the LGBQTI+ community. There’s a wealth of academic reference/injokes, gossip from the poetry world, Newcastle detail that will be obscure probably even to some Novocastrians, snippets of pop culture from the last 30 or so years, internet memes and moments (I’m guessing) from the poet’s personal life – none of it spelled out or explained, much of it in unexpected juxtapositions. I doubt if any individual – except perhaps Glastonbury herself – could read the whole thing and get all the allusions. So if one feels like an outsider, it’s not because there’s a clique of insiders somewhere but because any reader is, as it were, eavesdropping.

Here are the first eight lines of a three-sonnet poem from early in the book, ‘What Would I Say’:

Dispersing a lyric via leaf blower
& other 80s cult songs like '88 Lines About 44 Women'
– what if John Forbes had lived
to live tweet during Q&A?
It's all lost generation stuff & the malls
were unindicted co-conspirators. Who knew?
Meaghan Morris/Maitland.
Joanie loves Chachi vs Date Academics in AU.

Here’s my take these lines. Your mileage will vary:

  • Line 1: We don’t know who’s doing the ‘dispersing’. Perhaps the noise of a leaf blower disrupts the concentration needed to create or respond to a lyric – lyrical words or sentiments are like so many dead leaves to be blown away by the unremitting noise of our lives these days. (A bit like many of Donald Trump’s chats to journalists – ‘dispersing information via helicopter blades’)
  • Line 2: The ampersand throws back to the first line, suggesting that it stands for a particular kind of 80s cult song. So the song named in this line (and others like it) do that kind of dispersing. I didn’t listen to much pop music in the 80s, but I looked this up and found that it’s a jolly list of women, two lines each, probably women that the writer/singer is claiming to have had sex with. Not very lyrical, or perhaps romance on an industrial scale?
  • Lines 3 and 4: These references aren’t obscure to me, but they may be to some readers. John Forbes was about my age, a witty, some would say smart-arse, poet who died young, who appears to be remembered with affection in contemporary Australian poetry; Q&A is an irritating current affairs TV show that runs tweets across the bottom of the screen. Forbes live-tweeting is a terrific notion. The dash at the start of line 3 implies some connection with what has gone before – Forbes was writing in the 80s (and the 70s and the 90s), so perhaps he is offered as contrast to the leaf blower songs.
  • Line 5: ‘Lost generation’ usually refers to people born during World War One, but if ‘It’ at the start of the line refers back to the previous four lines – which is what the syntax suggests – maybe there’s a hint of another lost generation who came of age in the 80s (would that be Gen X? (Forbes was a Boomer) …
  • Line 5 and 6: … and somehow without anyone being aware of it the existence of shopping malls was partly responsible.
  • Line 7: I once shared a flat with Meaghan Morris, which is probably beside the point. She is a Cultural Studies scholar who hails from Maitland – ah, the Newcastle connection! Maybe she has written about the effects of malls on the 80s generation (she’s certainly written abut Centrepoint Tower, and motel signs). Maybe this line is answering the question from previous line – ‘Who knew?’
  • Line 8: Joanie Loves Chachi was a US sitcom in the early 1980s (I looked it up), a pretty unsuccessful spin-off from Happy Days (I don’t know why it wasn’t printed in italics as the names of books are later i the same poem). Date Academics sounds like a dating app, and at first I thought AU referred to the internet domain code for Australia, but if this is about the 80s, then AU is more likely to be Adelaide University and Date Academics may be a pre-internet means of hooking up. So maybe the line evokes a moment when an academic living in Adelaide had to make a choice between watching junk on TV and looking for love, again in a fairly non-romantic way.

I didn’t mean to spend so long on those lines, but I guess that gives some idea of the work I have to do to engage with these poems. Not only the work of figuring out the references (6 diverse named cultural references in 8 lines), but also trying to grasp how, or even if, the lines , images and references relate to each other. My hypothesis that the 80s are the common thread falls by the wayside in the following lines with references to books published in the 70s and the 2000s, to ‘blended learning’, surely a more recent jargon term among educators, to Sandilands (I’m assuming it’s Kyle the radio broadcaster, who’s surely a phenomenon of the 90s and later), and so on. I fall back on reading line by line, and not worrying too much about the poem as a whole. Maybe the poem, and these poems in general, work, not so much by yoking things together by violence (as Someone said of John Donne and Co) as by piling up bits of stuff from all over the place, and any apparent logical flow is a red herring.

I know this reads as if I’m complaining, and I would be, but the language feels very alive in every moment, and from the myriad details emerges a cumulative picture of a life, a sensibility, a place, a community. Occasionally there’s a brilliant image, like this from ‘City of Moi-Meme‘:

From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi

or this from’Everybody Loves (Raymond Terrace)’:

____that James Turrell moment,
where I realise that we've been sitting in the dark
staring at a hole in the wall, productively.

Or this, from ‘Two Dog Nights’, my favourite lines from the book:

The Islington figs release the bats & the sky
blacks out like an erasure poem.

My favourite single word: ‘anthroposcenester’ from ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ (Though I would have spelled it ‘anthropocenester’.)

If you want to read a review by someone who isn’t parading their own obtuseness, I recommend ‘Anne Buchanan-Stuart reviews Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury‘ in Plumwood Mountain.

Newcastle Sonnets is the thirty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone..

The 2019 Francis Webb Poetry Reading

For nine years now, Toby Davidson has been organising an annual celebration of Francis Webb’s poetry. Toby edited Webb’s Collected Poems (1911) – my blog post here. Though I’ve been enamoured of Webb’s poetry for 50 years now, this is the first time I’ve managed to attend the event (or the second, if the reading at the 1911 Sydney Writers’ Festival counts – my blog post here).

We met in a large room – the ‘Creator Room’ – at Chatswood Library, in the region where Webb spent his childhood. The library has inherited Webb’s collection of paintings – all or most of them bought with funds Webb received as a government grant, funds spent of art rather than, say, food – and his library of books. The paintings and some of his books were on display, along with other fascinating realia, including a photocopy of the handwritten draft of his final poem.

Toby Davidson was an unabashedly enthusiastic MC for an audience that was an interesting mixture of ancient fans (like me), current students (including some from Davidson’s classes) and satisfyingly motley others. The readers:

  • Robert Adamson, poet (blogged about by me here and here among other places): told us of his awe-struck meeting with Webb in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and read three poems – ‘End of the Picnic’ (an imagining of the arrival of Cook’s ship in 1770 as a spiritual disaster), ‘Morgan’s Country’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (probably my favourite Webb poem, read in a way that had tears on my cheeks). A hard act to follow, but followed it was.
  • Michael Griffith (author of God’s Fool, his 1991 biography of Webb): quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ as emblematic of key themes in Webb (and his own life), and read us two poems with props – the first part of ‘In Memoriam Antony Sandys, 1806–1883’ with the painting that the poem describes on an easel beside him; and ‘On first Hearing a Cuckoo’ preceded by part of Delius’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
  • Judith Crispin, poet and photographer, whose work, according to her web site, ‘includes themes of displacement and identity loss, a reflection of [her] own lost Aboriginal ancestry’: read the dingo’s second speech from ‘The Ghost of the Cock’, and commentred on the extraordinary way it embodied what webb could not have known, the polarity of moon and dingo in an Arnhem Land foundation story; and two other poems, ‘Episode’ and ‘Toward the Land of the Composer’.
  • Gareth Jenkins, poet, spoke among other things of the sonic, rhythmic quality of Webb’s work, his mastery of long lines, and read, beautifully, ‘The Yellowhammer’.
  • Richard Miller, self-described as a long-time Webb fan and former musician in, I think, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in a complete change of mood, delivered a brilliantly theatrical, over the top rendition of ‘Introduction in a Waxworks’ from ‘Leichhardt Pantomime’.
  • Two school students whose names I didn’t catch, one from each of the nearby schools that Webb attended: one read the eminently accessible ‘Australian Night’, which Toby Davidson told us Webb wrote between ages of 7 and 10; the other read ‘Compliments of the Audience’, a sardonic take on a poetry reading, thereby concluding the reading part os the afternoon.

Before we broke for an afternoon snack, we were treated to Oliver Miller’s short film Electric, based on Webb’s radio play of the same name about the first use of ECG on a human subject.

I had a great time. Some of the poems I could just about mouth the words as they were read. Others came from the bits of the work that I have pretty much skimmed. Every reader showed some new aspect of the poetry – and of themselves. Michael Griffiths told us that he had been discouraged from writing his PhD thesis on Webb because, the then Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University said, ‘He’s mad’. And he’s been dismissed by more than one cultural arbiter. But it was a joy to be in a room full of people who are touched, challenged and invigorated by his poetry.

joanne burns, apparently

joanne burns, apparently (Giramondo 2019)

apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.

People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.

First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).

Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.

Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.

Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:

do you feel like a
tangible sailor your
hair chocka with
permanent waves, or
an insect posing as
a water nymph in
search of a new nickname –

nothing beats finding a location
with the best overall view the day
before you are born     a twelve
month commitment is sought
for this role    you must have a
capacity to yearn –

I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.

‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.

The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.

In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).

In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.

The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.

Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.

apparently is the thirty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing.


* Having raise the possibility, I had to have a go:

Our smiling prime minister Morrison
let cameras film him at orison.
His 'How good's Australia'
snatched victory from failure
and now we're the ones he piles horrors on.

Colleen Z Burke’s Sculpting a Landscape

Colleen Z Burke, Sculpting a Landscape (Feakle Press 2019)

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.

Sculpting a Landscape is the thirty-first book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.