Tag Archives: poetry

Summer reads 6: Jane Gibian’s Beneath the Tree Line

Jane Gibian, Beneath the Tree Line: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

When Jane Gibian read her poem ‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event in 2017, she told us that it was made up of subject lines from freecycle emails. I was a frequent freecycler at the time and was delighted that she had found poetry there – the title of the poem being just one of the poem’s evocative lines.

‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ turns up in this book without a note on its sources, and it still works, evoking a wonderful variety of life, and detritus. You can read a version with some extraneous scanner-generated characters at this link. It’s in a section of the book devoted mainly to similar found poems – including ‘Seventeen titles on the New Books shelf: June–July 2019’ whose title a) tells the reader what to expect and b) reminds us that Jane Gibian works as a librarian. At first glance you’d think this playful section, mucking around with lists of found language, was in a different world from the rest of the book, which, as an Author’s Note (online at the Giramondo website, here) puts it elegantly, is ‘preoccupied with the natural world and our place in its increasingly precarious situation’. The note continues:

My thoughts and writing practice seem to be most active in places of wildness, preferably wilderness. Many of these poems engage directly with the natural environment through a range of approaches: human engagement – both fascination and despair – and the natural world itself, disinterested and unforgiving of us, one animal in a complex living web.

That’s far cry from, say, this from ‘Leftovers’:

RE-OFFER: Disposable diapers
for small cat/dog

Yet among the many things I love and respond to in this collection, there are a lot of lists: from signs of the changing seasons in ‘Each turn’, to observations while travelling and learning the language in Vietnam, to vestigial organs in the human body in ‘Vestigial’. One of the most powerful poems in the book, ‘Waiting’ (which you can read on the Cordite Poetry Review website), does the crucial work of helping the reader grasp the reality of the climate emergency largely by means of a list: parked cars, ‘a mizzle of rain’, newscasts, coral, a factoid about Mars, St Andrew’s Cross spiders, an approaching train. Of course, it’s much more than that, and when I came to the final lines (if that’s the right word for a prose poem) I had to go for a little walk:

in the five previous known extinctions of all life / coral was the first to die / your eyes meet again in the rear-vision mirror

The US poet William Carlos Williams had a famous slogan summarising the principles underlying Imagism: ‘No ideas but in things.’ Jane Gibian isn’t an imagist, and her poetry doesn’t avoid explicit statement of ideas. Maybe it’s more like: sometimes (often?), rather than spelling out your ideas you can give readers an image and let them have their own ideas.

‘Arid zone’ on page 74–75 is a terrific example of this kind of thing:

This isn’t a poem that demands close reading to be appreciated, but it’s worth pausing over.

It’s as much a list as ‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ – leftovers from a sustained drought, maybe.

My Latin teacher in secondary school might have called it a congeries, a heaping up, of sights seen from a car travelling across drought-stricken country. Strictly speaking, they’re not haiku or senryu, but they owe a lot to those forms (which are similar in number of syllables etc, but the senryu is more likely to include something about human foibles). The words in capitals at the start of each group of lines look as if they are subtitles, but they’re not. They are road signs, seen from the car just as the other images are, and listed with them more or less arbitrarily.

It’s worth noticing the way the poem sits on the page. The plentiful white space reinforces the sense that the poet is covering great distances, most of it in silence.

arid zone


CREST
desiccated leather sacks 
punctuating the desert highway 
once were cattle, 
whitened bones worn through 
the taut hides

Not just one corpse, and not the corpses of natural desert dwellers. This is country that usually sustains grazing cattle. We are witnessing the aridity of drought.

Notice how the line breaks work: twice in these five lines, you think you’ve come to end of a sentence, but it continues over the line – the leather sacks … once were cattle, and the bones have worn through … the taut hides. This slight syntactical ambiguity slows you down, as if your gaze has to linger on the passing sight a moment longer.

DIP
Careful Driving Techniques Are Advisable 
informs a buckled sign 
on the unsealed road;
we skipped the National Road Transport
Hall of Fame

This is the senryu-ish section. That is, it deals with human foibles rather than, like the haiku, with observations of nature and the seasons. Officialdom is helpless to deal with this natural disaster: it offers inane advice, allows signs and roads to deteriorate, and promotes a self-congratulatory view of the past.

FLOODWAY
whistling kites float above us 
and beside 130 km/hour traffic, 
a motionless eagle stands stern-eyed 
with a roadkill meal

This is the only road sign that relates to what follows it – and it does it with extreme irony.

You notice the counterpoints in these lines: movement in the first two lines vs motionlessness in the next two; floating kites vs speeding traffic; the whistling of the kites vs the implied roar of the traffic; our implied eyes seeing the kites vs the stern eyes of the eagle (watching us?); the traffic vs the roadkill; the eagle vs the unknown species of roadkill. I love the finality of the word ‘meal’. I’d be astonished if Jane Gibian had George Herbert in mind when she wrote this, but to my ear it has the same satisfying note of completion as the last line of his marvellous poem Love (III): ‘So I did sit and eat.’

GRID
an incongruous cow
lolls hotly in the scarce shade 
of a spindly leaved shrub

Why ‘incongruous’? It stands out as the only adjective in the poem that implies a judgement. It certainly slows the reader down because its meaning isn’t clear. I suppose a cow lolling in the shade of a tree is a normal sight in a green pasture, and even more normal if it’s part of a herd. A solitary cow in country that is scattered with corpses of cattle is incongruous because alive even more than because it’s alone.

The adjectives and adverbs – ‘incongruous’, ‘hotly’, ‘scarce’, ‘spindly leaved’ – are doing a lot of work in these three lines. Remove any one of them and the image changes substantially. That is also so if the shrub is ‘spindly’ rather than ‘spindly leaved’.

ROAD NARROWS
butterfly wing-dust
stuck to the windscreen

We’ve arrived, with the familiar image of a dirty windscreen after a long road trip. After all the looking (and in the case of the museum, not-looking) of the previous sections, our attention is drawn much closer to home. The car travellers aren’t uninvolved observers: we have been doing our share of damage, and our vision is partly obscured by the damage we’ve done. It’s not flies or beetles or cabbage moths (of which we saw a lot on our recent road trip), but butterflies. It would be pushing things to see butterflies here in their mediaeval status as symbols of the soul – it’s not that kind of poem. But butterflies are beautiful, fragile creatures, reduced to wing-dust that we must look through to see in front of us. At least, that’s where my mind goes: an idea that – for me – is in these things, is that there’s no such thing as an innocent observer.

I need to say that I’ve barely touched on one aspect of this book. You can see Jane Gibian’s poems on line at PoemHunter, Jacket2 and Cordite Poetry Review, among other places.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Beneath the Tree Line.

Summer reads 5: Claire Potter’s Acanthus

Claire Potter, Acanthus: New Poems (Giramondo 2022)

Anyone looking for a clear, accessible introduction to contemporary Australian poetry would have trouble finding better than Martin Duwell’s website Australian Poetry Review. Every month, he publishes an informed, thoughtful and helpful review of a recent poetry collection.

I went to his review Claire Potter’s Acanthus because I was despairing of my ability to write coherently about this book, even though I enjoyed it immensely. Reassuringly, his post begins by describing these poems as ‘simultaneously fascinating and challenging’. He quotes from the Author’s Note that accompanied his review copy (and which undoubtedly accompanied mine, but was lost when I packed for my summer away from home):

Many of the poems traverse the clarity of a dream-like state: diverting from an imaginary centre and meandering across strange ground. As with all poetry, fragments matter; figures and objects – as if on the level of the bee – are significant; unintelligible feelings turn into a blueprint language that errs and wanders in order to find a resting place. Nothing in the collection was fixed beforehand, you could say the writing took place in order to think a way through, think about certain things or events that at the time didn’t have any formal presence in my mind . . .

Duwell describes this as ‘a fascinating attempt to make sense of – or to make a whole out of – very disparate poems some of which are extremely strong’. He then goes on to his own fascinating discussion of the poems, with plenty of examples. For a general introduction to the riches of this collection, I recommend his essay.

Having talked about the poetry as challenging, which could be code for ‘unreadable’ but isn’t, it’s even more desirable than usual that I talk about one poem in detail. One that that grabbed and held my attention is ‘The Hidden Side to Love’ (page 25). It was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Meanjin, and you can read it without my commentary at this link. Here goes:

The Hidden Side to Love

All summer, the bees worked 
between bells of laburnum

sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender
-– they saw a task and rose to it

There’s nothing problematic or ‘challenging’ in this economical evocation of a garden scene. There’s a strong sense of place in many of the poems in this book. Claire Potter is from Western Australia and currently lives in London, and though this garden could be in Australia, the setting feels very English. I’m pretty ignorant about plants, and had to search images of laburnum and foxglove. ‘Bells’ and ‘sockets’ capture their appearance nicely. But why ‘blades’ of lavender, which I think of as puffy rather than sharp or straight-edged like a blade, even a blade of grass? It’s an unsettling note: I don’t think it leads anywhere, but it keeps the reader slightly on the alert.

I busy myself with the washing 
untwisting funnels of sock, boughs of jumper

rosettes of flannel

After the brief description of the bees in the garden, comes this sweet, straightforward metaphor. Bees rise to their task with the flowers; the poet/mother rises to hers in the house. ‘Bells’, ‘sockets’ and ‘blades’ had enough of a suggestion of domesticity to lay groundwork for this leap; now ‘funnels’ suggests a similarity of shape to the sockets of foxglove, and ‘the ‘boughs’ and ‘rosettes’ bring garden images into the house. This comparison of animal and human labour has a long tradition – I think of the famous poem found in the margin of a medieval manuscript (‘I and Pangur Ban, my cat – / ‘Tis a like task we are at’).

In spare moments I put words in the freezer 
reheat coffee, fill inkwells

I stir out hot dinners

Ah, it’s not just the housework. The bee-like work also includes words, ink, quiet time with a second cup of coffee. The transition isn’t clearcut, but almost dreamlike: one minute you’re putting, say, leftovers in the freezer, then you look down and they’ve turned into words. Putting words in the freezer could be a metaphor for taking the volatile medium of speech and freezing it into words on the page. Writing poetry is part of the work being compared to bees’ labour.

But the housework reasserts itself – dinners have to be cooked, and stirred, and by implication put on the table for someone to eat.

Passing along the hall sheaved in light
I imagine a nectarous meadow

I think of waxen wings brought thudding 
to the ground

I look down at my dress and see spikes of burdock 
thistles in plaits hanging to the ground

In the context of the quote from the Author’s Note above, you could say that the simple metaphor of the first six lines is an ‘imaginary centre’. Now the poem moves to a ‘dream-like state’: first ‘I imagine’, and ‘I think of’, then ‘I see’. In the course of these next six lines the poet has come to experience herself as a bee – a giant bee wearing a dress, but still in some dreamy way a bee. All isn’t rosy: bees can be ‘brought thudding / to the ground’. The poet-bee has burdock thistles clinging to her (I had to look them up: they’re spiky). If you had to imagine what the pollen that sticks to a bee’s legs would look like if magnified a thousand times, you could do worse than picturing a head of thistle. As far as I know, however, burdock thistles aren’t a danger to actual bees, but the poem is meandering (as per the Author’s Note), and this giant bee is encumbered by them. Or – if we tie this image back to what we know about actual bees – the stuff sticking to the poet-bee’s dress is somehow part of a greater purpose.

The import of the image of woman with thistles trailing from her dress as she walks down a brightly lit hallway is resolved in the next lines, but before it’s resolved the image has stood in surreal splendour..

Crayons, soldiers, ropes of daisy 
the couch, the doorknob, the stairs –

They all gather to me

So yes, these objects that demand the poet’s attention – children’s toys and other detritus, fixtures and places that need cleaning – cling to her, like pollen perhaps, or like something that will send her thudding to the ground. They are he real-world equivalents of the burdock thistles.

Until I stand and rub my hind legs emphatically 
until I disengage everything

to its proper place 

She’s a bee. She rubs her legs together, disengages the pollen and deposits it in the hive where it belongs. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’

and emerge like a queen

This isn’t a biology lesson. A worker bees can’t become a queen. But a poet-bee can. There’s a sweet mock-heroic tone here: once you’ve got all the cleaning done and everything is in its place, you can have a moment of regal satisfaction. Roseanne Barr used to refer to her sitcom character as a domestic goddess. My first boss, the managing editor of a small publishing company, used to describe herself as managing a household as well as a company. These are achievements not to be dismissed or belittled. What in my younger days we used to call shit-work can actually be a source of great satisfaction, the achievement of beauty and order in one’s environment.

made anew from decades of trying

To hark back again to the Author’s Note, the poem has erred and wandered until it came to a resting place – and then it wobbles. The last line doesn’t negate the triumphant transformation into queenship, but it does apply the brakes a little. This cheerful point of view didn’t come automatically: it took years to arrive at.

But what’s love got to do with it? I think of Kahlil Gibran’s phrase, ‘Work is love made visible.’ (Link to his poem ‘On Work’ here.) The tone of this poem is long way from Gibran’s. For a start, this work is visible only to the person doing it. Other people are implied: someone wore the clothes she sorts, eats the food she prepares, plays with the toys she puts away. These others – presumably a partner and children – aren’t visible to the reader when the work is being done, and by implication the work is invisible to them, hidden. The old feminist slogan, ‘A woman’s work is never done, or honoured or paid for,’ comes to mind. The poem manages to hold Gibran’s epigram and the feminist slogan in place at the same time, neither negating the other.

There’s so much more in this book. But that’s what I’ve got capacity for today.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Acanthus

Summer reads 4: Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied

Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press 2017)

In the 1990s when Javier Zamora was nine years old, he made his way unaccompanied from El Salvador, evading US border protection, to meet up with his parents who had fled to the US to escape political persecution. He is co-founder of Undocupoets, a group that lobbied to increase opportunity for undocumented writers in the US.

This is his first published book. It’s a collection of poems that revolve around of his harrowing solo journey, including its before and after, not as a linear narrative but mostly in the way memories arise piecemeal: a moment of terror in the desert; recollections of his beloved abuela (grandmother), who he’s unlikely ever to see again; fragments first person narratives from his mother, his father and others; an address to the then newly elected President Trump; moments of longing for his home in El Salvador … I’m not trying to be a smart-arse, but the book is a poetic documentation of the process of becoming what is known in the USA as an undocumented person. In the present time of the poems, he still lives with the possibility of la Migra bursting into his life.

That little boy was unaccompanied when he made his way to the US, but the poetry is alive with relationships. That is, he never lost the sense that there were people who cared about him deeply – the terror was that he might never see them again.

The author photo on the back cover shows a smiling young man, apparently relaxed and confident: Look, he could be saying, I have come through. One poem in the collection, ‘Exiliados’, has that feeling. It appears toward the end of the book, and gathers tremendous emotional force from all that has gone before:

Exiliados
for Monica Sok

The title and dedication do a lot of work. Like most of the Spanish words that pepper the poems, ‘Exiliados’ is easily understood by the non-Spanish speaker. Zamora does us the courtesy of not providing a glossary, leaving us to deal with it if we don’t know his mother language – his own linguistic upheaval is central to the story, and any difficulty we have can only help grasp it. The dedication is to a person whose name comes from a non-English speaking culture. You don’t need to know any more about Monica Sok to get the poem completely, but as it happens she is a Cambodian-American poet whose book A Nail the Evening Hangs On was published in 2020 by the same company that published Unaccompanied. Before we reach the first line, we know that the poem is addressed from one exile to another – exiles at least in the sense that they come from elsewhere and don’t belong to the mainstream white culture.

We didn't hold typhoons or tropics in our hands.
xxxI didn't reach across the table on our first date
xxxxxxat Cornelia Street Café.

Neither the tropics of El Salvador nor the typhoons of Cambodia are present at this meeting. Both people have left their homes behind. Other poems in the book name places in El Salvador, and when one of those places is unfamiliar to me I feel that that is no surprise to the poet. Here by contrast, when he names the Cornelia Street Cafe, it feels like a name-drop. And sure enough, the cafe has its own Wikipedia entry informing us that it has been voted one of the best places to listen to jazz music. Sadly, and perhaps fittingly in the context of so much pecariousness, the cafe closed down in 2018, after this book was published. But the point here is to establish that the meeting is happening in hip Manhattan.

It’s a date, but the speaker is tentative. His hands, like the hands of the other person, can’t bring his past life to the table. Nor can they reach out to make contact.

xxxxxat Cornelia Street Café. In my humid pockets,

my fists were old tennis balls thrown to the stray dog
xxxof love bouncing toward the Hudson down
xxxxxxto South Ferry.

More New York place names, references to humdrum Manhattan life where people throw dogs to balls and no one lives in fear of armed men in white vans. It’s romcom territory. His fists are sweating in his pockets at the prospect of love, but he’s too much the stray dog to be sure of his welcome.

xxxxxxto South Ferry. We didn't hold hands in that cold

October wind, but the waves witnessed our promise 
xxxto return to my cratered-deforested homeland,
xxxxxxand you to your parents', sometime in the future.

Two exiles, two New York poets, they speak of their homelands and the promise to return.

Then, us in the subway at 2 a.m. Oh the things I dreamed:
xxxa kiss to the back of your neck, collarbone, belly button, there
xxxxxxto kneel and bow my head, then return to the mole

next to your lips and taste your latitude together.
xxxInstead, I went home, you touched my cheek, 
xxxxxxit was enough.

What was a meeting of minds is now embodied, a moment of desire. (I don’t understand ‘latitude’, but I don’t care!) We don’t know if this was the first date that led to an intimate relationship, or if this touch on the cheek is as far as the romantic possibilities of the relationship have gone. Unlike a romcom, the poem isn’t concerned about that. Like many other poems in this collection, it focuses tightly on the moment.

In the first lines, hands were busy doing nothing – not holding places or origin, not reaching out, staying in pockets like old tennis balls that love might find, definitely not holding each other as their owners walked in the cold October wind. Now at last, the woman’s hand has made contact, and ‘it was enough’.

xxxxxxit was enough. I stood, remembering what it's like

to stand on desert dirt wishing stars would fall 
xxxas rain, on that huge dark country ahead of me.

‘The Future is dark,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1915 after a bout of depression, ‘which is the best way the future can be, I think.’ That’s how I read the ‘huge dark country’ here. When the nine-year-old arrived in the USA, and the future could have held anything. Now a young woman touches a young man’s cheek at 2 o’clock in the morning after they’ve talked for hours, and he feels the same sense of a vast unknown ahead, full of promise and possible danger.

This is a book that puts flesh on the bones of the continuing US headlines about the Mexican border, and especially the stories of unaccompanied children caged under President Trump. I don’t know if there has been anything quite like it about asylum seekers in Australia.

Summer reads 3: Tracy Ryan’s Rose Interior

Tracy Ryan, Rose Interior: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

There’s a lot to love in this book from Western Australian poet and novelist Tracy Ryan.

A note on the Giramondo website describes it well:

The poems in Rose Interior move between the inside and outside of everything they touch, from the domestic scene, both cosy and claustrophobic, to the social and ecological settings we must all answer for. Poems from Ireland, Switzerland and Australia consider life at home in the personal sense: through the body, childhood memories and family houses, ‘a room within a dream’. Wherever home lies, it’s always on borrowed time.

It’s the domesticity that most appeals to me – that and the occasional poems about ageing. In particular, as a recent adopter of hearing aids I love ‘Soft of Hearing’, which begin with this brilliant description of what has also been my experience:

The hard edges went
longer ago than you know
as if the crusts of syllables
were trimmed off for your ageing

ears to swallow only
what's soft.

And it only gets better from there.

There are profound poems about bereavement. There’s ‘Ghost Story’, which I take to be about age related cognitive decline:

Sometimes I catch the other me,
elves to shoemaker, who's already
filled the pot with water as I just
turned to do

And I could go on picking out lines to quote. The book is divided into three sections, the third of which is eighteen poems on aspects of the Covid pandemic. With a light enough touch, they bring profound thoughtfulness to home education, zoom backgrounds, bread-making, and other standard Covid themes. To pick one beautifully accessible poem, here’s ‘Post Storm, Still Pandemic’:

In the book, this poem follows ‘Storm in Pandemic’, whose title is a good description of its content. When you read it in that context, this poem’s title is likewise a good summary of the content: the storm is past, but there’s still a pandemic.

Post Storm, Still Pandemic
Afraid to look outside in case it shatters 
illusions we've come through this. Blinks, 
but power stayed on, the roof has held.
Out there is turmoil, noise, last bluster, yet 
worst has passed. 

It’s probably worth mentioning at the start the apparently effortless way (definitely effortless for the reader) that the poem works with a basic line of five beats, not quite iambic pentameter, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, keeping a conversational tone and drawing no attention to its technique.

The first line captures that moment when a severe storm is over, but you can’t quite believe it. The line break after ‘shatters’ creates a fine moment of ambiguity. The reader wonders: In case what shatters? then the new line reveals that the verb is transitive, and non-literal – only illusions are shattered, not windows or indeed the whole world. Then the common phrase ‘we emerge, blinking, into the light’ is evoked by the single word ‘Blinks’, and one by one the elements of normal life are found to be in working order.You almost don’t notice the book’s central motifs of inside and outside, of home being ‘on borrowed time’.

worst has passed. At night, so blurred, 
I couldn't tell wind from rain, bad 
synaesthesia, all colours tossed together 
to make dark. Night was a tunnel, only one 
way through.

I like the way this description of the disturbed night manages to include in just four lines the slightly esoteric notion of synaesthesia (something perceived by one sense being experienced as another), a little colour theory, and the image of time as a tunnel. The density of tropes is a kind of analogue for the eventfulness of the night.

way through. City still stricken, our guilt.
How can we rest and write while others dread?
They tussle with neighbours who haven't 
cleared away or tied things down: Your fence 
is in my pool. Here with gaping space 
between us, it's more like this, direct 
interface: is there a tree on the house, how 
did small ones fare in burrow or nest, what 
in the world is left? 

A change of perspective. The poem’s speaker lives in the country – Tracy Ryan’s bio tells us that she grew up in the outer suburbs of Perth and now lives in the wheatbelt. Here she counts her blessings, but not without first acknowledging a pang of something like survivor guilt. City – and suburb – dwellers are so much worse off, at the mercy of improvident neighbours in a severe storm. (I relate to this as a couple of years ago a tree that fell from my yard narrowly missed a neighbour’s rotary clothes line.) In the country, such relatively petty inter-human quarrels aren’t a thing. One’s response is more direct to the thing itself: damage to property, and – another broadening of perspective – concern for the other animals and the environment in general. (Tracy Ryan and her husband John Kinsella have a blog called Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist: I love the way, here and elsewhere in the book, the poet’s principled positions – in this case caring for non-human animals – appear with no hint of moralism or proselytising.)

in the world is left? On Reunion Island, back 
with the 1918 flu, they say, after the first ravages 
a cyclone came and washed it all away, 
common disaster chasing off a worse. 

The perspective broadens again, in space to the far side of the Indian Ocean, and in time to the last great pandemic. This is the first time the Covid-19 pandemic has appeared in this poem, however obliquely. Given the drama of the storm we have forgotten it for a moment.

common disaster chasing off a worse. I hover 
here on the far side of the same ocean,  
wish for truth in it, the notion of harsh  
weather as unexpected cleansing.

And we’re back to the first person singular, in this place, facing – by wishing not to face – the difficulties and dangers of the present. The notion of harsh weather as unexpected cleansing (such a resonant phrase) isn’t always mistaken, but it may have been in Réunion in 1919, and certainly would have been in Western Australia in 2021. The poem knows this, acknowledges that it’s a false hope even while acknowledging its appeal. My mind leaps to the way some of us thought the Covid pandemic itself, harsh as it was, might provide an unexpected opportunity for states and corporations to put aside short-sighted self-interest and rise to the challenge of the climate emergency – another disaster chasing off a worse. But nah!

There are many poems in this book that I hope to read over and again.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Rose Interior.

Summer reads 2: The Gleaner Song Lin

Song Lin, The Gleaner Song, translated by Dong Li (Giramondo 2021)

Song Lin (宋琳) was a campus poet in Beijing in the 1980s, and was active in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, for which he was imprisoned for a year. On his release he married a French woman, and in 1991 went to live in Paris. After spending time in France, Singapore and Argentina, he returned to China in 2003, and now lives in Yunnan province. He has published many books of poetry and prose, including two bilingual French-Chinese volumes, and currently edits the poetry journal Jintian (Today), which ran for nine issues in the late 1970s before being censored, and was revived in 1999.

The Gleaner Song had its beginnings when Song Lin was on a long walk in the countryside of upstate New York with the young Chinese-born poet-translator Dong Li. Describing that walk in his introduction, Dong Li writes:

I saw his eyes light up as a deer leapt from the wild into a wide-open field. As the evening hues shifted farther into the forest, his line of sight followed the deer until it vanished into the night. We talked about the deer, and later he asked me to translate a poem that he had written to record the occasion.

That translation was to become the final poem in this book. It’s preceded by poems spanning four decades and as many continents, incorporating classic Chinese forms and elements of western modernism. Mostly I found it a difficult book, but in interesting ways.

To talk about the difficulty, and why it’s worth dealing with, I want to have a closer look at one poem, ‘Notes from South Xinjiang’. You can read the whole poem, without my commentary, on the Cordite Poetry Review website, where it was published in February 2022.

The rest of this blog post gets a bit detailed. A short version: the poem is a number of brief observations and reflections during a visit to South Xinjiang, the southern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, much of which is taken up by the Taklamakan Desert, and most of whose population are Uyghur. It is a prose poem made up of 23 short numbered paragraphs. On a first reading, probably in bed at night, I enjoyed the sense of a mind at play in a new place, but I knew there was a lot I hadn’t understood. Here is what I found when I reread the poem with the internet open beside me:

Notes from South Xinjiang

1. The reckless god reads the braille of the desert.

The poem announces at the start that its subject is a desert. The gist of this first paragraph is clear enough: the shapes made by the wind on desert sands can look like braille, but it would be reckless to read a meaning into them – which by implication is what the poet, godlike, may be about to attempt. But is ‘the reckless god’ someone from ancient Chinese tradition, and would I read the poem differently if I knew? That question remains unanswered.

2. One night in Kupa, I received a telegram from Mars: there were traces of water.

I looked up ‘Kupa’ and found a river in Croatia. But there is a town called Kuqa (or Kuche) on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, so I’m pretty sure that’s where the poet was. Wikipedia gives a long list of variants but ‘Kupa’ is not one of them. Who can blame a copy editor for not picking up what is almost certainly a transcription error, but mistakes like this add a layer of difficulty for the uninformed reader. So the poet is on the edge of the desert which he imagines as Mars-like. There may even be a suggestion that Mars has water where this desert does not. Certainly in photographs it looks vast and dry.

3. Dead rivers look like twisted mummies in the gallery of the sky.

I parse this to mean the dead rivers as seen from the sky – that is, in the gallery of images held in the sky rather than a gallery of images of the sky, which was my first reading. A map of the region shows a network of rivers, with a note to say they are ‘usually’ dry.

Why mummies? It’s not an obvious visual likeness, but it turns out that 4000-year-old mummies have been found in this area. This is the poem’s first oblique reference to the region’s ancient history

4. Language, dust of dust, flies on the long, long road.

I don’t know if the ambiguity of ‘flies’ – is language as insignificant as insects or does it fly away? – is something that happened in the translation, but either way it works well: human activity, especially language, is dwarfed by the desert. This paragraph introduces human activity more explicitly, and specifically the idea of the road, which is taken up the next five paragraphs.

5. An oar stands before the boat-shaped coffin. Sailors of the desert sea, tell me, what kind of sail do you dream of?
6. Business caravans head east, and west. The sun bakes eyebrows, beards, and crusty flatbreads.
7. Go. Once you lie down, you run the risk of being air-dried.
8. From one invisible border to another, I count those disappeared countries.
9. A silkworm once dreamed of Rome; or rather, Rome once dreamed of a silkworm.

These six paragraphs reflect on past human travel in the desert. Paragraph 5: the mummies from 4000 years ago had boat-shaped coffins. Paragraphs 6 and 7 refer to conditions endured by caravans of any era. Paragraph 8: perhaps the poet knows what those disappeared countries are, where those borders were – I don’t, but neither of us needs to know that for the line to work. Paragraph 9 is a lovely evocation of the history of the Silk Roads which passed through this region, skirting the desert (according to this map).

10. Breeze in the dense forest, homonym of silk and porcelain.

This paragraph is an example of what must be a nightmare for translators. It makes no sense as a stand-alone sentence in English. Really, all one can take from it is that some words in a Chinese language sound the same as others. Maybe in the original it’s an elegant pun, or a cute but inconsequential observation. As I can’t read or speak Chinese, I have no way of knowing, and I can’t see how a translator could do other than what Dong Li has done here: translation is impossible. (In other poems, Dong Li explains linguistic play in a footnote, but that’s a bit like explaining the mechanics of a joke – it still doesn’t make you laugh.)

From here on the poem bristles with specific historical and cultural references. It’s as if the poet is wandering abut the region, making random, elegant notes about things he sees. He also, incidentally, challenges the ignorant reader to do a bit of work. Or from another perspective, he points to a number of doors that open on vistas of new knowledge.

11. The Han princess Liu Xijun – Sappho of Wusun country – was married to a vast and endless homesickness.

Song Lin gives his western readers a small hand by comparing Liu Xijun to Sappho, the earliest woman poet in the western tradition. Liu Xijun wrote one of the earliest poems in Chinese written by a woman. Wusun country, as far as I can tell, was a little to the north of South Xinjiang, but near enough. Liu Xijun’s poem includes the lines, ‘Living here, I long for my land, and my heart aches / Wishing I could be a yellow swan, and return to my old home.’

Having paid homage to traditional Han culture, the poem now moves on to religion:

12. Under the statue of Kumarajiva, I thought: perhaps his intelligible translation saved Buddhism.
13. On their pilgrimage to Chang'an, the three Buddhist masters walked in the opposite direction to the three wise men.

Kumarajiva’s statue is in Kuqa. He was a Buddhist monk of the 4th and 5th centuries of the current era, who translated many Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. His translations are still in use today.

Chang’an is the ancient name for Xi’an: I don’t know the story of the three Buddhist masters who – I’m guessing – travelled through South Xinjiang. The reference to the three wise men is another example of Song Lin’s cross-cultural awareness. I read him as suggesting an equivalence between the foundation of Christianity and the bringing of Buddhism to China.

14. If Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty knew that the Ferghana horse was a horse with a disease, would the history of Ferghana be re-written?

At about 100 CE, China imported huge numbers of horses from Ferghana in central Asia, roughly contemporary Uzbekistan, coerced by an army sent there by Emperor Wu. The horses remained popular for the next thousand years. They were said to sweat blood, which – according to Wikipedia – modern authorities believe was caused by the activity of parasites.

15. The donors depicted on the murals have thin eyebrows.
16. Stupa - navigation system of the desert.
17. What a pity! Gan Ying saw the sea but did not know which one he saw.

Paragraphs 15 and 16 are mercifully straightforward, though I don’t know if thin eyebrows have particular meaning in Chinese iconography.

Gan Yin was a diplomat who travelled west in 97 CE in search of Rome, but only got as far the ‘the western sea’, which – according to Wikipedia – could have been the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf.

18. Petals of the mandala – one five-baht coin after another.
19. The auricle of the crescent rises on the ruins where Xuanzang preached.

Paragraph 18 doesn’t need any extra research.

Xuanzang was a key Buddhist teacher of the 7th century CE. The ancient novel that was the basis of television’s Monkey Magic was a fictionalised version of his journeys. He visited Kuche (now Kuqa) in 630 CE. The crescent of Islam, compared here to an ear, has risen where once actual ears heard him preach.

20. In the dark labyrinth of the karez, flowing water looks for bright vineyards.

This is a beautifully concise evocation of the Turfan Karez System, which consists of 5000 kilometres of wells and underwater channels around Turpan, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. It’s tentatively listed as a World Heritage site.

21. Migration – from Sanskrit to Charian, Uighur to Chinese; over battlefields and millennia of forgetting, Maitrisimit flies into my vision like a phoenix.

Oh dear, I couldn’t find ‘Charian’ online, but Tocharian languages were spoken in South Xinjiang from 400 to 1200 CE. The paragraph should begin ‘Migration – from Sanskrrit to Tocharian’. (Does this mean no one actually managed to read the poem thoroughly when the book was in production?) So the migration described follows the flow of languages that have succeeded each other over the millennia.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Maitrisimit’, full name ‘Maitrisimit nom bitig’ is an Old Uyghur translation of the Tocharian text of a Buddhist drama, which itself (departing from Wikipedia here) is probably from a Sanskrit original. The way the text survives the extinction of language after language is captured in the image of the phoenix (not necessarily a reference to western mythologies, as China too has a phoenix).

This is the poem’s first mention of the Uyghurs, and possibly suggests – ‘Uighur to Chinese’ – that their culture is in the process of being wiped out. Given the necessarily oblique way Chinese poetry has addressed political matters over the last half century, it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see this as a disguised protest.

22. Another Uighur muqam: alas the musailaisi wine, the ice-cold beauty, come quickly and rub out my burning desire for you!

The poet has visited the statue of Kumarajiva, some murals, a statue of a Ferghana horse, and so on. Now he relaxes at a musical performance, a Uyghur muqam, drinking musailaisi, traditional Uyghur wine. I’m pretty sure his address to the wine echoes centuries of conventional drinking songs and poems. If there is a protest at the treatment of the Uyghurs, it is thoroughly disguised, but still visible to reader who want to see it.

23. In Kashgar, Shen Wei said to me: there are people wherever poplars grow.

As you’d expect, Kashgar is another city in South Xinjiang. Shin Wei is a poet, younger than Song Lin, who lives in South Xinjiang. So the poem ends on a note of collegiality among poets (an almost Jennifer-Maidenish note). I have no idea what Shen Wei’s remark means. In English the sound play between ‘people’ and ‘poplars’ creates a kind of resonance, and the original Chinese may have a similar play, but that’s a guess.

In the end, I have to resign myself to the reality that not everything in a poem can be translated, and be grateful for as much as does make it across the barriers of language and culture.


I am grateful to the Giiramondo Publishing Company for my copy of The Gleaner Song.

This is Happiness, Niall Williams and the Book Group

Niall Williams, This Is Happiness (Bloomsbury 2019)

Before the meeting: When we discussed Niall Williams’s History of the Rain in October, a number of people had also read his next book, This Is Happiness. December’s chooser, impressed by their enthusiasm, decided we should all read it.

The book’s first sentence, ‘It had stopped raining’, which sits on a page by itself, is pretty much identical with the final sentence of the earlier book, and the tiny, backward village of Faha in West Ireland is again the setting, but the bulk of the narrative takes place in an earlier period, and there is no obvious reference to the characters or events of History of the Rain. It’s the story of the coming of electricity to the village; a coming of age story of young Noe, who has taken leave of the seminary and is telling the story as an old man in the USA; and a big romantic story of love lost and found by Christy, an older man who befriend Noe.

Page 75* must be one of the book’s few pages that doesn’t mention the absence of rain. It happens in the thick of one of the book’s comic set pieces. It’s not the set piece when the lights go down and the cinema comes alive with amorous grapplings, or the one where Noe goes to the communion rail at Sunday Mass in order to get a good look at the woman Christy left at the altar, or the spectacular one where he is knocked unconscious by a falling electricity pole. On page 75 Noe and Christy are on the first of a number of epic pub crawls.

These pub crawls are as much about music as about alcohol, music performed by men who are shy and nondescript until they start playing, and then are brilliant conduits of a great folk tradition. On this first adventure, when the evening is well under way, Christy startles Noe and everyone else in Craven’s pub by starting to sing:

Not only was Christy singing, he was singing with screwed-up eyes and fists by his side a ballad about love. He was singing it full-throated and full-hearted and before he had reached the second verse it was clear even to Roo the dog that a passionate truth was present in that place. It wasn’t only that this didn’t happen in Craven’s, it was that there was something raw in it, something deeply felt, that was, even to those who had descended blinking into the umbrae and penumbrae of numberless bottles of stout, immediately apparent and made those who first looked now look away.

(page 73)

Christy has come to Faha as a worker in the great electricity project. This episode is our first inkling of his profoundly romantic reason for signing up for the work. Not so obviously, it prepares us for the major role music is to play in Noe’s story. Page 75 itself is a beautiful piece of misdirection. After Christy has sung, Noe writes:

I did the only thing I could do. I went to the counter and got two bottles of stout.

Those bottles are followed by another two, and then another. Greavy the guard arrives and declares that it’s Closing Time (as Noe says, this is one more way in which Faha lags behind the times), but the two of them are incapable of moving. Alcohol-based humour usually leaves me cold, but Niall Williams’s version made me laugh out loud. I suppose the whole book could be read as an extended Irish joke: the villagers have an almost superstitious awe of the one telephone in town, and the coming of electricity has almost cosmic significance for them. If you read the whole book like that, the stereotypical Irish drunkenness in this passage is representative (including the sly invocation of Waiting for Godot):

Getting up proved aspirational. There was the idea of it, quite clear. Unmistakably clear now. There were hands placed on knees for push-off. There was a Right now. There was another when that failed to produce action. A Right so following. And still nothing. Between thought and verb a vacancy, not intended, but not grievous, just gently perplexed, and in that perplex the realisation that Craven’s was not in fact such a bad place at all, was downright comfortable in fact, in fact there were few places on this earth as agreeable. True? Too true. A person could stay here, could stay right here and be quite happy now, quite, for a very long time. What’s your rush? There’s no rush. All the problems of the world could be settled right here.
Right.
Will we go so?

I don’t want to minimise the book’s humour. Far from it. But there’s a seriousness to it that page 75 gives no clue of. Christy’s romance is genuinely touching. The villagers’ resistance to the coming of electricity is more than comic: and these villagers are described as custodians of their land, defending an ancient culture under siege by capitalism – without being at all heavy handed, the narrative reminds us that the Irish were the first people to be colonised by the English. The dramatic decline in the Catholic Church’s power since the 1950s is deftly evoked both in Noe’s commentary and in his own story: his turning away from his priestly vocation is a tiny reflection of the ending of Church-domination in Ireland at large.

After the meeting: There were seven of us. Covid–19 and other coronaviruses kept some away, while one or two had better things to do – and one sent video of spectacular drone art over Sydney Harbour.

This was our end-of-year meeting so we had other business besides the book, but it generated quite a bit of discussion. The discussion was unusual in that quite a few of us read out favourite passages. Indeed, two of the absentees sent lists of quotes – it’s that kind of book. One interesting insight was that the narrative as we receive it is created by an old man looking back on a key moment in his youth, making a story out of it, and casting a benevolent glow over the community in which that moment happened.

Other business, besides of course the plentiful food including a splendid pavlova, included a Kris–Kringle book exchange with the usual mixture of cautious delight and polite almost-hidden dismay, and a poetry reading. We were each supposed to bring a poem, and most did, even one of the absentees.

Poems were a nonsense poem by CJ Dennis (‘Triantiwontigongolope’), a poem about climate change (that was me – Kit Kelen’s ‘Parable’), a Thomas Hardy (‘Heredity’), a Robert Frost (‘A Time to Talk’), a poem from Claudia Rankine’s Just Us (‘sound and fury’), and two poems of Australian patriotism that couldn’t have been more different (Sara Mansour’s ‘My Australia‘ – link to her performing it on YouTube – and a poem whose name and creator I don’t remember celebrating the lump in the throat brought on by, for example, Anzac Day). This little reading, including by two people who said they felt awkward reading poetry aloud, left us reeling.

And that was a wrap for the Book Group for 2022.

* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.

Kit Kelen’s Bung Mazes

Kit Kelen, Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes (Australian Esperanto Association 2022)

It was my great pleasure to launch the English part of this bilingual book today. The Esperanto part was launched by Jonathan Cooper from the Australian Esperanto Associaton, in an afternoon that also featured Kit Kelen’s’s exhibition of palimpsest works on paper with the same title, plus music, at the Shop gallery in Glebe, all MCd by Richard James Allen. There was music, and a conversation between Kit and Magdalena Ball. Here’s a version of my launch speech.

Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes is not the first bilingual poetry book Kit Kelen has been involved in, not even the first bilingual book of his own poetry. But it marks his debut as translator of his own work, both from English into Esperanto and in the other direction as well.

Mostly, unless you’re appropriately bilingual, you can ignore the language that’s not your own when you read a bilingual book. This one isn’t like that. The Esperanto isn’t an added extra. To read the book thoughtfully is to engage with Esperanto, maybe learn a word or two, discover some of its history, and glean some understanding of its underlying philosophy.

It’s easy to see why Esperanto is a good fit for Kit’s poetry. Esperanto, as I understand it, is all about opening channels of communication where none might otherwise have existed. Kit’s work shows a deep commitment to being open to other cultures, other languages, and to other minds. for example, when he asked me to give this talk, he didn’t say, ‘I hope you like the book,’ but ‘I’m interested to hear what you think of it.’

The English versions of many of poems in this book predate Kit’s interest in Esperanto. They cover a wide range of subjects, from the plight of refugees and the climate emergency, to simple celebrations of the natural world and poems about poetry itself. But there’s no great discontinuity between them and the poems dealing explicitly with Esperanto.

One example of these older poems is ‘here’s the story to save the world’, which includes these lines:

what is it keeps us alive?
keep talking
I want to know how the story ends
keep talking
I’ll listen

You can draw a straight line from that to ‘Hitching my wagon to a green star’, a statement of allegiance to Esperanto, which has the lines, ‘we come here for a conversation / while we wait for states to wither away’.

There are poems about learning the language. ‘thank you poem for Trevor Steele’ is explicit:

these lines here are just to say –

thanks for the grammar
I know it must be very annoying –

all the stupid mistakes I make

but how can there be so many accusatives?

Or there’s this from ‘being a humble beginner’:

often I slip
sometimes I slip off the tongue together

This is the poem that most makes me wish I could read Esperanto. What’s the Esperanto equivalent of the mistake ‘slip off the tongue together’? ‘tute glitas de mia lango’ doesn’t tell me anything. It makes me wonder how many references there are that Esperantists get but just sail past me.

Beyond this interest in learning the language, the book engages with its underlying philosophy.  ‘being a humble beginner’ again:

but I’m here for the conversation
I believe that is an art
like leaving the world better than found –
another impossible thing

L L Zamenhof, the language’s creator, is quoted in one of the book’s two epigraphs:

Rompu, rompu la murojn inter la popoloj!

Translation hardly seems necessary, but Google translates it as:

Break, break the walls between the peoples!

‘Bialystok dreaming’ tells how Zamenhof first thought of inventing a neutral second language in Russia in the late 19th century. ‘Suprasegmentals’ makes fun of Chomsky’s declaration that Esperanto is not a language. ‘samideanoj!’ spells out the vision with characteristic Kelenian paradox. It begins:

today we are building a dead language
syllable by syllable, from scratch

it is a tiny country
all between
and never was at all

Esperanto, to paraphrase, has no currency except the people who speak it. Incidentally, this poem stands out for two reasons: the title, meaning ‘like-minded people’ isn’t translated, and the first one-word line  – ‘kamaradoj’ – doesn’t appear in the English. The book is aware of its dual readership.

The poems about Esperanto don’t pull back from its utopian aspirations. In fact they endorse them, but there’s a feeling of astonishment, perhaps even with an edge of amusement, at the vastness of those aspirations. The poems are completely serious, but not self-important.

The two poems that for me are the guts of the book, are ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’. The book has been described as ‘an abstract treatment of the situation of asylum seekers’. The poems celebrating our common humanity, and Esperanto as a way to sharing it, the poems about openness to the natural world and the value of conversation, create a version of the world in which the current treatment of asylum seekers is a cruel absurdity. In ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’, the point is made explicitly.

The title poem ‘Bung Mazes’, begins with a line from the public debate about asylum seekers, ‘everyone knows there is no queue’, and goes on in fifteen short poems to create a kind of maze of its own. I found it the most difficult poem in the book. Sentences don’t finish, images rub up against each other, it’s hard – even maybe impossible – to grasp how some lines hang together. For example:

where you see desert’s edge
a labyrinth in canvas shook

lent to, how it blows off
who’s after you? can it be imagined?

their weapons and the names they call
crime of a clock, dreamt that too

There’s the image of a refugee camp, and a general anxiety is evoked, but it’s hard to pin down a clear meaning. If there is a meaning there, it’s just beyond my grasp (whose weapons? what clock committed what crime? who dreamt what?)

Generally if a poem grabs me, but I don’t understand why, I’ll sit with it, and let it brew in my mind. Sometimes a meaning becomes apparent in the brewing process. In this case, it’s not a meaning, but the effect created by the poem’s elusiveness. In effect the poem, made up largely of unparsable moments like this, gives me a faint inkling of the emotional impact of being lost in the dangerous maze of asylum seeking.

 ‘Shelter’ includes lines that cry out to be quoted:

now they are changing all the world’s weather
island here, river there, tents blow away
tanks shift borders out of the way

big bird flies where it will, drops its droppings

fire now flood now famine war
we were forced to flee

then where to shelter?
in the cave in my head?
but you’ll never get in
there’s never been a queue

there’s a maze
of rules and rights
of yours, not mine
and my turn
never comes

and later:

for the sixty million wandering
this world is a maze gone bung

Sixty million is the UNHCR’s 2015 estimate of the number of people displaced worldwide by wars, conflict, and persecution.

So this is a book about intensely serious subjects.

My mind goes to something Kit wrote almost 10 years ago. Speaking of the problematic nature of writing in the pastoral mode as a settler Australian, he said: ‘The challenge is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’

This book is fun. Even at its most serious, it avoids ponderousness. It delights in paradox, puns and syntactical playfulness. It always treats the English language – I can’t speak of the Esperanto – as an endlessly enjoyable and challenging playground (‘bung mazes’ is an example; it rejects the obvious English for Rompitaj Labirintoj, that is to say, Broken Labyrinths, in favour of something much less respectful). The poems are full of music, as I hope the bits I’ve read demonstrate.

In this context, fun can be many things. Take the short poem ‘parable’ for example. I loved it at first reading because I felt it brought a much needed lightness of touch to the climate emergency, a step back from the details of rising temperatures, collapsing ice sheets, greenwashing by corporations and governments, and so on. I read it as a kind of wistful fantasy. Then, while I was preparing for this talk, I read it to a friend who’s a climate activist, and it made us both cry – I think because it manages to strike a note of forgiveness along with terrible grief. Here it is. I don’t expect it to make you or me cry today, but just listen to it:

parable

we came from the ice
and out of the trees
and wanted the whole world warmer

we lit fires
and at timber
we were the axe
we were the flame

as if winter were our own forever

we only wanted the whole world warmer

o fearful the dark
but we brought the firelight

the others we’ve eaten by now

we burnt till all of the forest was gone

we came to the clock
that’s where we are now

hard to hear anything
everyone’s in charge
we all follow orders

it’s hard to see how this will pan out
but I predict, in time to come
at the Court of All Spirits
our defence will simply be

we came from the dark
we came from the ice
we wanted the whole world warmer

[It didn’t make me cry when I read it out, and I don’t think anyone else shed a tear either.]

Anyhow:

It’s my honour and privilege to commend this book to you. Buy a copy, and, as the poem ‘keep this book’ says with only a hint of over-selling:

walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud
quote it at will

I declare Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes, the English half, launched.

And here’s a pic of me talking, with Kit’s art in the background and Kit wearing a hat in the corner

Photo by Penny Ryan

A Launch

If you’re in Sydney this coming Sunday – 27 November – you might like to drop in on this exhibition opening and book launch at the Shop Gallery in Glebe at 2 pm. The book is Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes, poems in English and Esperanto by Kit Kelen (about whom I have blogged a couple of times).

I have the honour of being the English-language launcher, and will do my best to say something coherent. A different Jonathan wll do the honours in Esperanto. I’m pretty sure there will be music and nibbles.

The book, which I’m loving, is available for purchase at Booktopia.

Stephen Edgar’s Strangest Place

Stephen Edgar, The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems (Black Pepper 2020)

This is a daunting book. It opens with 76 pages of new poems in a section titled ‘Background Noise’, enough for a respectable book on its own. But Stephen Edgar has had poetry published since 1976, so it was time for a retrospective, and more than 200 pages follow, a selection from his ten previous books. It’s a lot to take in if, like me, you’re new to his work.

Here’s part of what Clive James had to say about him:

Stephen Edgar stands out among recent Australian poets for the perfection of his craft, a limitless wealth of cultural reference, and an unmatched ability to make science a living subject for lyrical verse … The quickest way of summing up my appreciation of his mastery would be to say that if he were a jazz musician, he would be the kind who, when playing after hours, leads all the others to pack up their instruments and listen. 

From clivejames.com

James doesn’t mention Edgar’s commitment to rhyme (a commitment James shared). A typical poem in this book has a complex rhyme scheme with a strict metric count, a form that as far as I know is often invented by Edgar for the occasion. The poems adhere to these forms rigorously, rarely even using a half-rhyme or adding an extra syllable. This extraordinary, and deeply unfashionable formal constraint is a wonder to behold. James’s comparison to a jazz musician seems at first blush paradoxical or even perverse, but it makes sense if you think of the poem’s form as the basic melody, the regular rhythm, around which the syntax, ideas and images play wildly.

For me, it’s not jazz that comes to mind, but sculpture. Thoughts or observations on things mundane or evanescent, tiny or immense, uncanny or terrifying are worked into solid, well-defined shapes. There’s no chance that the reader will mistake the result for simple expression of emotion or anything other than an artifice, one charged with the tension between the fixed form and the mercurial play of mind. The range of subjects includes a Sydney summer day that ends with a Southerly Buster (‘Coming Up for Air’); a group of naked children walking on Hampstead Heath (‘Hampstead Incident’); a performer who builds a structure of feathers (‘Feather Weight’); a slo-mo film of mating finches (‘Song and Dance’); a woman plagued by voices (‘Voices Off’); the death of our planet (‘Shadow Line’); a glimpsed insect (‘Dragonfly’).

If the poems are sculptures, they are both sculptured shapes on the page, and sculptures in sound: these poems cry out to be read aloud.

After I’d written this far I read Martin Duwell’s excellent review of The Strangest Place at this link. Rather than write more about the poetry in general, I recommend that review.

To pick one poem, here’s ‘Out of This World’ (pages 50-51). You can click on the image to open it in a new tab at a more readable size:

See what I mean about strict formal qualities? Each of these stanzas has eight lines. Most of the lines are iambic pentameters (that is, they have five two-syllable feet each); the lines that differ – the first, sixth and eighth line of each stanza – have three, two and four feet respectively. The rhyme scheme is abcadbcd; it may help understand the play of rhyme if it’s written abca-dbcd.

Each of the first three stanzas is a step in an argument: a) a prediction and a proposal; b) detail on the prediction; c) detail on the proposal. The fourth stanza ricochets unexpectedly, and the fifth arrives at an unexpected resolution.

So, the great man predicts,
The ruined body and robotic voice:
A thousand years, at most, till humankind
Exhausts the planet which it now afflicts
With the works that cry our claim to fame.
We'll have no choice,
He says, but to abandon it and find
Another one – and do the same?

The first two lines are mildly riddling: ‘the great man’ is of course Stephen Hawking. Shortly before he died in 2018, he predicted that our universe would eventually fade to darkness as the stars run out of energy, and he proposed that scientists might be able to find alternate universes. This stanza manages to evoke Hawking’s physical presence, put a version of his prediction and proposal into smooth verse (see above for what Clive James said about Edgar and science), and then challenge the proposal with a question that throws forward to the second stanza. It’s worth noting that, at least according to the report I linked to above, Hawking was talking about the end of the universe, whereas Edgar scales it back to the more imminent end of the planet, thereby introducing a moral element – the end of the planet is caused by the ‘works’ of humankind, whereas the end of the universe is due to inexorable processes. I guess that’s what my mother used to call poetic licence.

Which future will it be?
The nightmare we've been dreaming since the War,
The sunburst in which history will combust,
The twisted shadows of our artistry
Awash with ash? Or the Earth skinned
As landscapes pour
Their sunburnt pastures, continents of dust,
Abroad to feed the scouring wind?

The opening question may seem to be posing a choice, but it’s not so. This is not a poem for activists, nor is it an update of Robert Frost’s ‘Fire and Ice‘. The poem assumes that the prediction is correct, and catastrophe is assured; neither resistance nor preference comes into the question. There are two scenarios, nuclear holocaust and climate disaster, both of which have become more compelling in the actual world since the poem was published. Just as with Hawking in the first stanza, they are evoked by striking images rather than simply named. The effect is partly to draw attention to the poem as artifice, but also to invite an imaginative engagement with the predicted catastrophe(s).

What desperate voyagers,
Suspended generations, will pursue
Light's white retreating speed, and drift away,
The keepers of a purpose that refers,
Who knows, to nothing, while this sphere's
Now curdled blue,
Revolving slowly through its long decay,
Dwindles far off and disappears?

This stanza, step three, spells out Hawking’s proposal, again taking a familiar concept – this time a science fiction trope – and working it into the fore-ordained stanza shape. ‘Suspended generations’ neatly evokes those stories of spaceships full of people in suspended animation; ‘curdled blue’ draws great power from the way it evokes popular lyricism about earth as a beautiful blue planet. Unlike Hawking, the poem is pessimistic about the fate of the ‘voyagers’ – their purpose may lead to nothing. For all the strength of these images, and those of the preceding stanza, the poem is still fairly cerebral. And then, whiplash:

My mother's final day.
I sit with her in the grey sterile tide
Of afternoon. Her shrivelled body strains
Its sour breath. Her mouth gapes to convey
Its dry mute aria. Over her
The minutes slide
With useless protocol. Nothing remains
For them to do now but recur,

The focus shifts abruptly from the global to the intimate. The general ‘we’ in the first stanzas shrinks to ‘I’ and ‘her’. Where the strict adherence to form had a distancing effect in the previous stanzas, here not so much. There the effect is a kind of classicism – ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ Here, powerful emotion is recollected, if not in tranquillity, then some time after the event. ‘Her mouth gapes to convey / Its dry mute aria’ brings the terrible scene vividly alive.

Much of the power of poetry can lie in what isn’t said. In this case, the gap between the third and fourth stanzas cries out for attention. I can’t be the only one who, having just read an evocation of the end of the Earth, comes to the line ‘My mother’s final day’ and thinks of Mother Earth. Probably more idiosyncratically, I thought of A D Hope’s 1958 poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother‘, in which the mother is Earth, and the vaporising effect of nuclear war is imagined. I’m not saying that Edgar had Hope’s poem in mind, but in my admittedly patchy knowledge of Australian poetry, Hope is the poet Edgar most resembles, mainly for his adherence to rhyming forms, but also for his interest in matters scientific and his occasional venture into the erotic (Hope’s ventures there were more than occasional).

Back to the poem. It resists the gravitational pull of the mother / Earth metaphor. Instead, her ‘withdrawing mind’ is likened to the desperate voyagers of the third stanza, and to the possible nothing at the end of their voyage:

While her withdrawing mind,
Drifting, I fancy, like that future host
Beyond the reach of this blue globe, before
Day's end will leave the daylight dream behind,
Borne on the solar wind that sweeps
The icy coast
Of Pluto, pure dark energy once more
Bound for the interstellar deeps.

The two parts of the poem are brought together, and though it might be tempting to see one of them as a metaphor for the other, it’s not that simple. Abstract emotion about the end of the world and immediate personal grief each has its own powerful validity, and they illuminate each other. Climate grief becomes intensely personal; personal loss becomes cosmic. Much of the stanza refers equally to the dying woman and the survivors of earth’s destruction: ‘daylight’s dream’ means both an individual life (Isn’t there a mystical tradition somewhere that says our life is but a dream, and reality lies elsewhere? If not, there’s certainly a children’s song) and the aeons in the human race has lived by the light and energy of the sun. ‘The icy coast / Of Pluto’ refers to both the planet, beyond which the survivors must go, and the underworld of the ancient Romans beyond the shores (coast at a stretch) of Acheron. ‘I fancy’ in the second line, while working nicely into the alliteration that is so striking in this stanza, declares that the poem is an artifice, but that in no way detracts from the pathos of the final lines.

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.