Tag Archives: poetry

Eileen Chong’s Thousand Crimson Blooms

Eileen Chong, A Thousand Crimson Blooms (UQP 2021)

Someone* said recently that the work of a poet isn’t just to write poetry. Poets also teach, mentor, encourage other poets, edit, proselytise for poetry … and the list went on. At the launch of A Thousand Crimson Blooms last month it was clear that by this criterion Eileen Chong is a real poet. I chatted with an emerging poet who has won prizes and attributes it to her inspiration and mentorship. Three other poets, all women of colour, read at the launch, and each testified to Eileen’s kindness, collegiality and solidarity.

The poems in A Thousand Crimson Blooms bear strong testimony to the poet as embedded in a community of poets and other artists. Many of the poems carry epigraphs, and we are given meticulous notes referring us to their sources – most of which are other poems, but at last one is a quote from a conversation with another poet. Sometimes the notes give us web addresses where we can see images of works that inspired a poem.

The sense of connectedness goes further. A central feature of this book, as in Eileen Chong’s previous collections, is the sense of living heritage, in birthplace (her own Singapore and her husband’s Scotland), in family (especially mother and grandmother), in food (maybe not as much as in earlier books, but this is still poetry that makes you hungry), in language (a number of poems make play with the components of Chinese ideograms), and always in poetic tradition.

This connectedness and rootedness provide a sustaining background in poetry that mostly deals with personal pain: bereavement, sexual abuse, illness and surgery, involuntary childlessness, the challenges of migration.

This is a terrific book. I learned a lot, I cried, I laughed, I was confronted. Only a couple of times I was mystified. More than a couple I was surprised by the twist of a last line. I was sent down interesting rabbit holes, and found myself reflecting deeply on my own life. Eileen Chong reads her own work beautifully: you can hear her, among other places, when/if the Sydney Writers’ Festival release a podcast of the session that included her – The Unacknowledged Legislators.

There are so many poems I’d like to spend time with here. There are powerful poems about loss that it would feel almost indecent to write about in this necessarily abbreviated way. There’s ‘Making Sense’, whose beginning sheds light on the poems in general:

I tell my students:
poetry is a way to make sense 
of what you fear. 

I sing to them of 
blackbirds. I read my poems 
aloud

There’s ‘Spring Festival’, which includes similarly suggestive lines:

My husband reminds me I write poems 
in threes: three lines, three pathways.
One for the old life, one for the new 

and one for the hours 
I do not notice as they pass.

There’s the ‘The Hymen Diaries’, each of whose four parts responds to a work of art (see mention of rabbit holes above). There’s ‘Child’, whose subtitle, After Andy Kissane’s ‘Joy and a Fibro Shack’, offers generous possibilities for a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of discussion – and many poems like that.

I’ve picked the title poem, ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’, mainly because before spending this time with it I didn’t understand how it hung together, starting with what feels like kindergarten innocence and ending with lacerating pain. You can see an earlier version of the poem with a slightly different title on the Peril magazine website (here). Here’s the poem as it appears in the book:

To start with the epigraph: I haven’t read the poem it comes from, ‘Don’t Trample This Flower’ by Bing Xin, but I have learned that Bing Xin was a prolific Chinese woman writer of the 20th century, many of whose works were written for young readers (Wikipedia entry here). These lines are a straightforward call to pay attention to something that is beautiful, easily overlooked and vulnerable.

There’s a smooth transition to the opening lines of the poem. Like the epigraph, they address children/little ones: having looked, now, let’s draw. We’re in a domestic or classroom setting; the voice is that of an adult – a teacher or parent? – addressing small children, possibly in a rural environment. The third line’s invocation of the daily cycle of time has a traditional Chinese feel. It reminds me of the ancient poem, ‘The Peasant’s Song’, that begins, ‘Sun up, work / sundown, rest.’ (That’s Ezra Pound’s translation, in his Canto XLIV.) It’s a benign opening, and my fridge door is covered with just the kind of artworks that the little ones might create. (I should mention to anyone who’s just visiting the blog that I have a three-year-old granddaughter who loves to put pencil/crayon/brush to paper.)

The next three lines could be summarised as detailing the process of drawing the dog and rooster, and the children’s focused, unblinking attention to the task. But the language alerts us that something may be slightly off. ‘Let’s shape their bodies with our hands’ may be just an odd way of describing the movement of hands holding pencils, but it feels a little more dominating. Maybe we’ve moved on from drawing to shaping in clay. The second line takes us a step further with the hint of violence in ‘gouge’. The adult speaker has taken us quite a way from paying close attention to something vulnerable to something on the edge of cruelty, even if it is only cruelty to the paper. In the third line, as I read it, the ‘little ones’ speak. The ‘lidless eyes’ suggests a kind of forced, sustained attention that is far from the relaxed, open regard of the epigraph. That there are a hundred eyes suggests that the context has moved from the intimate to the institutional. I have to admit that on first reading I resisted this darkening mood, but once seen I can’t unsee it, and it refers to a common phenomenon. The late artist Kim Gamble, for example, used to lament the way education put a damper on creativity: that children who draw and paint beautifully in Year 1 of school are generally creating cliché images with no spark of originality by the time they are in Year 3.

I’m generally sceptical of poets who talk about the crucial importance of punctuation and spacing, but I think it’s interesting that where the Peril version has a simple paragraph space before the next stanza, this version has an asterisk. The poet wants to be clear that there’s a substantial break. The stanzas change here too, from three-liners to four-liners, but it’s the asterisk that signals a gear-change to the reader.

Sure enough, there’s now a radical change in tone. The benign teacher/parent has been superseded by a harsh authoritarian voice. If the earlier stanzas were in a small, friendly kindergarten classroom, this is now a disciplined, bullying high-school class, perhaps a laboratory, where there is no room for emotion or vulnerability. Science experiments using test tubes and bunsen burners become metaphors, or maybe metonyms, for the harm done to people in such an impersonal environment. (I don’t think there’s an implication that science is necessarily that way, but the reference to glass and fire do conjure up a chemistry lab in my mind.)

The final stanza follows another leap – in time, in setting, in scale. The speakers are the bullied ones, and the 50 people of the second stanza have grown to be a thousand. Blue-and-white vases are traditional Chinese creations, vulnerable like the flower of the epigraph, emblematic of a long history of artisanal skill and creativity (of the kind that produces gasps on Antiques Roadshow). We have been prepared for their appearance by the echo of traditional Chinese poetry in the first stanza. They are broken, with violence that parallels the breaking of the benign teacher-child relationship of the earlier stanzas. ‘They’ is undefined. If I stick with the classroom reading, they are a particular kind of educator, and in making us do the kind of ‘creativity’ that the curriculum requires, they not only take us away from our innate creative impulses, they make us tread all over them.

The second last line takes us back to the flower of the epigraph, only now the flower is not ‘by your feet’, but part of oneself. It is our blood, our suffering, that now produces the flower, that becomes the subject of art. Creativity and pain are now closely linked.

The final line takes a step back. I can best say how I read it by attempting a paraphrase: In our present wounded condition, any attempt to make art must find a deep connection to tradition or some other form of community, if it is to have any vitality. Of course, it doesn’t refer only to the making of art: I think of the importance that First Nations elders place on connection to culture as a means to youth suicide prevention.

Now that I’ve understood how the poem coheres, it hasn’t quite finished with me (and perhaps never will have). The reading that I’ve sketched so far is loosely tethered to my own life experience. But that reading can expand. The poem could be read as a meditation on part of Bing Xin’s life story: I only know the Wikipedia version, and haven’t read any of her poetry, but she was denounced during the Cultural Revolution, a time when blue-and-white vases were quite literally being smashed.

The poem can be read as a response to a work of art: it was initially written on commission as a response to The Masks of Me, a mixed media installation by Vipoo Srivilasa consisting of ‘a group of small masks that celebrate cultural differences and diversity’. You can see the artwork and the artist’s statement on the Peril magazine site, at this link. Actually, I can’t see this reading at all.

Since it has given its title to this book, the poem can be read as referring to the collection of poems. Many of these poems are indeed filled with pain, unflinchingly named, but what makes them readable – more than just readable, deeply satisfying – is their rootedness. This poem itself is an example of that. The classical references, the restrained language, the way the images are allowed to do their own work on the reader, the formal neatness: all these are a kind of rootedness that let the poem flower.


* Sorry, I don’t remember who said it. I think it was on Al Filreis’s PoemTalk podcast.


A Thousand Crimson Blooms is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers

Kristen Lang, Earth Dwellers (Giramondo 2021)

I started reading Earth Dwellers when coming up for air during the horror stories of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. and then again during those in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. Each of those books included its own relief from the horrors – one by cool-headed analytic journalism, the other by an intriguing structure and a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for digression – but I can’t begin to tell you what a relief Kristen Lang’s poetry was, what balm for the soul, right from the dedication:

For the wombats and the slime moulds ...

And for all who work to protect the entanglement, the networks of lives, billions of years in the making, by which the earth is more than stone.

These poems take us away from the troubled world of humans harming humans to intense, specific, tactile engagement with the non-human world. They take us to the tops of mountains, in Kristen Lang’s home state Tasmania and in the Himalayas; they take us on bush walks and visits to the ocean; to caves and the stars. They deal with the sublime and the intimate, sometimes in the same brief poem. They grieve and rage for the damage being inflicted on the planet by human activity, but always with a deep love and respect for this world. In these poems, the non-human world isn’t there as a metaphor or a mood indicator: there’s a consistently humble attempt to be present, to be aware of being part of it all: ‘We were never alone’ is how she puts it in ‘Wading with horseshoe crabs’.

As usual, I want to talk about just one poem. I’m picking ‘A small child finds a ladybird’:

(page 62)

This poem must surely strike a chord with anyone who has spent attentive time with a small child. Certainly I’ve been privy to many moments like this one, and felt a similar appreciative, possibly envious, awe at the intensity of a child’s gaze.

‘A small child finds a ladybird’ may be the only poem in this collection that focuses on a human character. Other poems have people in them, but they are companions to the speaker, neither addressed nor looked at directly, experiencing, observing, and being part of the natural world along with her. Here, it’s as if the poem’s speaker takes a step back, to observe the person experiencing, observing and being part of something.

The title of the poem sets up a strong mental image. A web image search on “small child ladybug” (‘-bug’ rather than ‘-bird’ in deference to US cultural dominance) gets you a cartload of cuteness, much of it cloying. That might be attractive to some readers but, for me and probably you, it establishes a central challenge for the poem: how to put words to that image that don’t regurgitate the pre-digested cutesyness. You might say that that’s a version of the central challenge for any poem, something to do with T S Eliot’s ‘tradition and the individual talent’, and I wouldn’t argue. This one meets the challenge like this in its opening lines:

Her squat-bodied
walk
crumbles under her –

Three things snag my attention: the words ‘squat-bodied’ and ‘crumbles’, and the way ‘walk’ has a line to itself. each of these things is sightly jarring, but if you hover over them you discover how well they communicate: the shape of a toddler, the kind of attention a toddler brings to the act of walking, and what happens when that attention goes elsewhere. It’s the walk that crumbles, not the child herself. This poem observes the child with the same precision that other poems in the book observe a platypus or floating filaments of gum blossom. If the reader wants to go down the cuteness path, the poem won’t stop them, but nor does it require them to go there.

In the next nine lines, the child is absorbed in the ladybird. She doesn’t simply have it on her fingertip. She is ‘all’ there with it. She hasn’t just stumbled when she sees the insect, she has taken on its qualities: the fall is red/ and black-spotted’. The way ‘fall’ has a line to itself, and gets extra emphasis from its rhyme with ‘all’ in line 4, prepares us for that interesting word ‘crux’ – as in crucial. This crumbled walk, this fall, hasn’t been an accident: it’s as if the rest of the day has been moving towards this crucial moment, and will emanate from it. ‘Bug-eyed’ takes on a richer meaning in this context: not just wide-eyed, but with eyes filled with the fascinating bug.

And then there’s ‘We’ – the poem’s speaker and us, the readers. We’re behind her, at a distance from the ladybird. And the last three lines are the second reason I wanted to write about this poem: it’s a kind of ars poetica. The wish expressed here, to have

________ even
half
of her gaze

is what Kristen Lang’s poems in general strive for. I know that as a reader I sometimes (often?) miss the metaphorical dimensions of poetry. So when someone writes that the world is grey in the moonlight, I take them at their word and have to be told if they’re talking about a terrible betrayal. But I don’t think I’m missing that kind of thing in these poems. In these poems, a mountain is a mountain, an iceberg an iceberg, a ladybird a ladybird. And there’s something profound in that


Earth Dwellers is the fifth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021. I’m grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Jennifer Maiden’s Biological Necessity

Jennifer Maiden, Biological Necessity (Quemar Press 2021)

For some time now, Jennifer Maiden has produced new poetry collections almost as regularly as the earth revolves around the sun. Giramondo published five books between 2010 and 2017, handsomely designed by Harry Williamson. Since then Quemar Press, the publishing company created and run by Maiden’s daughter Katharine Margot Toohey, has published a collection of her poetry at the beginning of each year (as well as Selected Poems 2017–2018, a number of novels and two other slim non-poetry books authored or co-authored by Maiden). Biological Necessity is the fourth new collection.

I look forward to each new book in much the way I’ve looked forward to each new season of, say, Call My Agent.

I want to know what happens next in a number of continuing narratives. Maiden’s fictional characters George Jeffreys and Clare Collins continue to turn up in international hotspots – in Biological Necessity, they spend time in Covid quarantine at Darling Harbour, and they talk to Donald Trump by Skype on 2020 election night (in a poem published before the votes were counted). Her versions of real people living and dead continue to chat with each other, at least one person in each chat having just woken up as if a switch has turned them on in the poet’s inner mind – here Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambivalence about Hillary Clinton reaches a kind of peak in her 17th poem; and Gore Vidal continues to hover around Julian Assange. Maiden’s incarnation of the Carina Galaxy as a sixties bombshell, last seen several books ago, makes a repeat appearance.

Surrounding the narratives, a sprawling, multi-faceted conversation has continued over the years, a conversation largely about politics and abuses of power. There are Diary Poems, which usually include ‘Uses of … ‘ in the title: in this book, poems meditate on the uses of biological necessity (Aneurin Bevan said that socialism was a biological necessity), indigo (the colour), Sacha Baron Cohen (for his performance in The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Finnegans Wake. In them, and in Maiden’s poems generally, there’s a quality of heightened chattiness: a subject is announced in the opening lines, and is reflected on; then, sometimes as if distracted by a random association, the poem veers off, and perhaps veers off again, always to interesting places, sometimes to recondite ones such as, in this book, Bolivian elections or Andean mountain cats; those different veerings crisscross one another, and – to mix my metaphors – weave something new. I love this process; it’s like listening to someone’s mind doing the basic work of thinking, meditatively and associatively.

The poems/conversation/meditations generally deal with topics more usually found in op-ed journalism: Julian Assange, Ghislaine Maxwell, Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, Syria, Covid–19, the CIA, right-wing cultural machinations. But it wouldn’t do them justice to read them as op-eds cut up to look like verse, with an occasional rhyme for good measure. We don’t read them so much to find out what Jennifer Maiden thinks, or to learn about the world (though they often send me searching the web), or to debate a position, but rather to enjoy the carefully-crafted illusion that we are listening to the poet in the act of thinking.

Usually when I write about a book of poetry I focus on a single poem. So hard to choose! ‘After the Volcano’, which revolves around a poem by Martin Johnston that Jennifer Maiden read at a zoom event, which I attended, marking the 30th anniversary of Martin’s death? One of the excellent Covid poems? ‘The Watchchain’, on a family story of a watchchain made from a dead woman’s hair? I ended up choosing ‘A somewhat consistent rule’, because it’s one of the shortest in the book, and can be captured in a single scan. (If you can’t read it easily here, you can find it on page 39 of the pdf sampler from this book on the Quemar website.)

Text can be seen at page 39 of https://quemarpress.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/1/4/86149566/biological_necessity_jennifer_maiden_sampler_28_2_21.pdf

We know from the prose introduction – unusually long and informative for a Jennifer Maiden poem – that this is one of her poems inspired by the travails of Julian Assange, of which the short lyric ‘My Heart Has an Embassy‘ is perhaps the best known. The quote is from Clive Stafford Smith’s official witness statement at the Assange hearing in September 2020, which is available as a PDF at this link (see paragraph 86). It not only announces the poem’s context, but also identifies the ‘rule’ of the title: it could almost stand alone as a found poem. In reading this poem, it’s important to note that the statement was read aloud in court.

I don’t know how this poem would work for a reader unfamiliar with Jennifer Maiden’s work. I read it as part of a web of poems that relate to each other in form and content. The first line places it in a long series of Maiden’s poems that open with someone waking up, all the way back to when it was always George Jeffreys waking up to see George W Bush on television obsessing about Iraq. Specifically, it’s at least the fifth poem, and not the last, in which Gore Vidal wakes up. He is Maiden’s main conduit for engaging with Assange (along with Diana Spencer and Emma Goldman in previous poems). He’s not a completely arbitrary choice: Assange was clutching a book by Vidal when he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, which led to Vidal feeling ‘quite possessive of his reader’ (‘Resistance’, The Espionage Act, page 6).

The next two lines mark a departure in the ‘woke up’ poems. Vidal doesn’t simply snap awake as in these poems previously, but the waking process continues for the whole poem: ‘the world returned to him in bits’, and the lines that follow show us the bits. (As my regular readers know, I’m currently reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and am reminded that Proust’s narrator takes several pages to describe such a bit-by-bit waking up.) Not yet fully awake, Vidal finds a focus in the words of Stafford Smith about the boy

who was no doubt concerned, civic-souled and mild:
not dangerous enough to live, poor child.

It’s worth noticing the deliberate use of rhyme. In ‘mild’ / ‘child’, and later in ‘scorn’ / ‘porn’, ‘joy’ / ‘boy’, and ‘awkwardly, he’ / ‘mystery’, there’s a whiff of, say, Alexander Pope’s classic rhyming couplets:

Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib'd, their present state

Maiden’s couplets don’t aspire to that magisterial authority. They don’t scan beautifully like Pope’s, but the rhyme does suggest a connection to that tradition, in which the poet casts a withering eye on hypocrisy and pretension.

The next three lines, in a characteristic Maiden move, invoke insider gossip about public events. I assume that Jennifer Maiden, who lives in Western Sydney, doesn’t have much access to US intelligence agents, so what Vidal remembers hearing is probably as much an invention as the awakening Vidal himself. But it’s plausible, and here the ‘TV’ / ‘conveniently’ rhyme adds a hint of dark comedy.

Vidal’s focus on ‘the words of Stafford Smith’ ends with the chilling general implication that being seen as harmless, far from meaning one will be ignored, might actually be a threat.

Then the poem veers. In nine or ten lines, Vidal pictures, one of the postage-stamp images that he wakes to, the magistrate hearing Assange’s case.

a magistrate showing her luxuries of scorn
at the defence, like something out of porn
he would still quite like to write.

In real life this is Vanessa Baraitser. I found this description by John Pilger:

Her face was a progression of sneers and imperious indifference; she addressed Julian with an arrogance that reminded me of a magistrate presiding over apartheid South Africa’s Race Classification Board …

When [Julian Assange] spoke truth and when his barrister spoke, Baraitser contrived boredom; when the prosecuting barrister spoke, she was attentive. She had nothing to do; it was demonstrably preordained. In the table in front of us were a handful of American officials, whose directions to the prosecutor were carried by his junior; back and forth this young woman went, delivering instructions.

The judge watched this outrage without a comment.

(At https://wikispooks.com/wiki/Vanessa_Baraitser)

‘Luxuries of scorn’ isn’t too bad a summing-up. ‘Porn’ in the next line isn’t an arbitrary rhyme: it’s Gore Vidal who is seeing these things, and though I don’t know if he write any porn, he was interested in sexuality as much as in politics.

I found the photo of Baraitser poised at an exhibition with a champagne glass as described in the next lines. It’s here if you’re interested, but it doesn’t add a lot. The word image is strong enough. The next lines do a lot of work:

________________________ virginal with joy:
a living dual passport, with the innocence of a boy
trusting that power is too dangerous to die

‘Virginal with joy’ contrasts with Vidal’s associating the magistrate’s manner with porn. The use of passport as a metaphor for two-facedness reminds even those of us who haven’t followed Assange’s trials closely that passports and citizenship have been an issue. The phrase ‘too dangerous to die’ echoes ‘not dangerous enough to live’ from earlier in the poem. The magistrate has dual identities, on the one hand an innocent viewer of art ‘poised at an exhibition’ and on the other an agent of oppression (hinting at one of Maiden’s themes that reactionary forces manipulate art and literature for political ends); innocence and trust are attributed to her, but rendered nastily ironic by the phrase ‘of a boy’, recalling the boy who was killed by forces that the magistrate is at least indirectly abetting.

The next lines – ‘She had rescinded permission …’ – refer to her action that’s on the public record, but the poem is doing more than simply stating the facts. The scare quotes around ‘control’, taken together with ‘remote, are a nod and a wink towards the deadly drones that are the background to the hearing and to the poem. without any big display, the found language of the court is being harnessed to remind us that the courtroom procedures are intimately connected to murder by drone in Afghanistan.

I had trouble parsing the final five lines:

____________________________________ But
as Stafford Smith said, 'somewhat consistent rule', 
from nowhere the slowly-integrating Vidal
had arrived in the public gallery, unreal
as justice, and innocently, awkwardly, he
returned her gaze: a somewhat final mystery.

Once I realised that ‘as Stafford Smith said’ means not, ‘in agreement with Stafford Smith,’ but, ‘at the moment when Stafford Smith was saying,’ the penny dropped. Stafford Smith’s witness statement isn’t a document being recalled here, but the spoken background to the poem’s action. At the beginning, when Gore Vidal ‘was focused by the words of Stafford Smith’, he was waking up, bit by bit, to the sound of Stafford Smith’ evidence, and hearing the story of the boy killed by drones is what makes him fully present ‘from nowhere’. The poem’s action is the imaginary Gore Vidal’s coming to full wakefulness.

‘Unreal as justice’: yes, the poem is saying, this Gore Vidal is imaginary, coming ‘from nowhere’, but so is any justice that Assange will receive in this court. Innocence and awkwardness aren’t words that have often been applied to Gore Vidal, one of last century’s most wickedly sophisticated writers, but even he must experience that first moment of wakefulness as an awkward freshness. His sharp intelligence meets the gaze of the morally compromised magistrate. Vidal becomes fully present, the poem’s perspective on this judge in this trial solidifies, becomes ‘somewhat final’. As for ‘mystery’, it’s a satisfying rhyme for ‘awkwardly, he’, and reminds us that Gore Vidal, like the other people who wake up in Maiden’s poems, isn’t simply a mouthpiece for the poet’s views: there’s a mysterious process by which these imagined figures come from somewhere (‘from nowhere’, perhaps) to help her, and us, think. Not What Would Jesus Do? but what Would Gore Vidal Think?


Biological Necessity is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

A New Year’s sighting of the Marrickville Mattress Poet

I’m not the only one who keeps a weather eye out for new works by ‘C.L’, who turns discarded mattresses around Marrickville into ephemeral works of literary art. Here’s my latest sighting. After a brief foray into politics, she (I think the poet is a woman) is back to more existential subject matter. The calligraphy is less precise than usual – perhaps 2020 has taken its toll.

[Added a bit later: I keep thinking I can’t be the only one uploading images of C.L’s work. A moment with DuckDuckGo led me to the Nothing Really Mattress site, which showcases street mattress art from around the world. One of C.L’s distinctive works, perhaps from a happier time – ‘People fell in love on me’ – appears at this link.]

Elza De Locre rediscovered

Elza De Locre, How May I Endure: Selected Poems, edited by John Arnold (Fanfrolico Two 2019)

This elegantly produced, limited-edition poetry book is a work of cultural retrieval and a labour of love.

Elza De Locre was the intimate partner of Jack Lindsay in the 1930s, when Lindsay was running the Fanfrolico Press in London along with P R Stephenson.

Whereas Jack’s father, Norman Lindsay, is still a household name in Australia, thanks mostly perhaps to The Magic Pudding, Jack himself, P R Stephenson and Fanfrolico Press, let alone Jack’s work as a Marxist literary critic after he broke from his father, would elicit blank stares in a pub trivia quiz. Even more so Jack’s tragic lover Elza, who even in her lifetime was better known for her bewitching beauty (she was the subject of Edith Young’s 1931 novel, Lisa) than for her poetry.

John Arnold is a distinguished Australian Literature scholar – he co-edited the four-volume Bibliography of Australian Literature (2001–2008), which has been described as ‘an essential reference work for the reading, study and collecting of Australian literature’. Among his more personal scholarly publications is The Fanfrolico Press: Satyrs, Fauns and Fine Books (2008). Now retired from his position of Head the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University, he has compiled this selection of Elza De Locre’s poems, and published it over his own imprint, Fanfrolico Two.

His introduction begins:

Elza De Locre is a now a forgotten minor figure of 1920s literary and artistic London. Her life started badly in 1897 and ended even more so in 1952. It was one of mystery, oppression and fighting mental demons, relieved only with occasional periods of freedom and beauty. Her story deserves to be told and this selection of her poetry has been compiled as a tribute to her.

The introduction gives a fascinating glimpse of the writerly life in 1920s bohemian England. Drawing on many sources, especially Jack Lindsay’s memoir Fanfrolico and After, it pieces together an outline of Elza’s life. Born illegitimate as Elsie May Hall in Bristol, by the time she met Jack Lindsay in 1926, she had lived through very hard times, married, had a daughter, found work where she could, including sex work, and gone by a number of names – Arnold lists nine. With Jack she found a turbulent but committed relationship, which didn’t stop her from becoming increasingly mentally troubled through the 1930s. In late 1941 when Jack was called up to the army, she couldn’t manage on her own and voluntarily went into a ‘mental home’. She then lived in a series of hospitals until her death eleven years later – Jack paid her expenses, but his own financial resources were limited.

Elza’s two books of poetry, a short story and ‘Time Please!, a light-hearted novel’ (co-authored with Jack) were published in the early years of her relationship with Jack.

Arnold quotes Jack as saying of her poems that many were ‘direct transcriptions of dreams, written down in the early morning’, and that their world ‘is one of elemental change and dissolution, with her lonely spirit pursued and tormented, finding release only in momentary identifications with the bright life of nature’. Ominously, Arnold says that some of the poems are ‘of genuine quality’,

So I approached the poems themselves as to a museum exhibit: of historical interest at best. And then was shocked by the intensity and rawness of many of them. I was expecting fairies and satyrs and classical references, and I got those, but I wasn’t expecting:

And always I would lose my way 
And stumble over rotting minds, 
Tree-roots in the darkness, thorns anywhere
And mangroves thrusting their fingers
Into my wounds

There are poems about life and death, about erotic annihilation, poems of ecstasy and terror and despair. There are some amazing poems about, of all things, the moon:

Her naked body lying on the waters
Shakes my five senses.

Jack Lindsay’s description of these poems as transcriptions of dreams rings completely true, and she had extraordinary and often terrible dream.

Here’s the shortest poem in the book:

THE LAST REFUGE
Twice in this life have I been dead;
But the mortal gods have bewitched me.
I have crawled back like a wretched slave.
Pelted with clods back to my body.
The third time I think I'll get away.

See what I mean? That looks very simple on first blush, but something in it niggles at you. The first line is startling enough, but enigmatic. Maybe it’s literal: two heart failures. Maybe it’s semi-literal: two suicide attempts. Maybe it’s completely metaphorical: two moments of existential nothingness. Maybe the speaker isn’t human, but a mythological character. The poem works for any one of these readings, for a kind of mental miasma containing all of them, or a reading that leaves the question hanging.

Then ‘the mortal gods’ can carry at least two meanings: the gods of death (we can assume the poet is influenced by the Lindsays’ brand of neo-paganism), or mere humans who take on themselves the godlike ability to bring someone back from the dead. Whether it’s human intervention or dumb luck, the effect is bewitchment – not so much a miraculous (Christian) resurrection as some kind of (pagan) magic.

She has crawled back ‘like a slave’. She has been deprived of agency and comes back from the dead against her own will.

The blunt physicality of ‘Pelted with clods back to my body’ is what makes the poem leap from the page; but that last word comes as a surprise. The being that is being pelted is not physical at all. It’s the soul – or disembodied mind, or whatever – being driven back to its bodily existence.

The last line here is a powerful, matter-of-fact embodiment of suicidal ideation. I’m not a fan of suicide poems, and I won’t be turning to this one in moments of depression. But this is a living voice speaking to us very directly, brought back from literary oblivion.


How May I Endure was printed in a limited edition. I am grateful to John Arnold and Fanfrolico Two (scholartis @ gmail.com) for my copy, which is number 61 of the 150 numbered paperback copies. There may be some copies left for sale.

Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine

Bonny Cassidy, Chatelaine (Giramondo 2017)


Note: This blog post is not a review of Chatelaine, a book of poems by Bonny Cassidy, a well-regarded poet who leads the Creative Writing Program at RMIT. I’ve written it because of a self-imposed requirement to blog about every book I read. I don’t mean my ruminations to disparage the poetry, and certainly don’t want to discourage anyone else from reading it and enjoying it.


I once did a short course in signed English. Soon after I graduated, a visitor to my workplace showed us a hand-written note, ‘I’m deaf. May I use your photocopier.’ I greeted her confidently with the sign for hello – and was then at a complete loss as she started to chat with great animation while photocopying. I appreciated the eloquence of her signing and her facial expressiveness, and tried to look intelligent, even laughing at an anecdote about – possibly – a mouse. But my pulse raced, I broke out in a sweat, and I failed to understand anything she said, apart from hello and thank you.

My experience reading the poems in Chatelaine was something like that. The analogy isn’t quite accurate, though. If my Auslan had been up to it the deaf woman and I could have had a conversation, whereas I’m pretty sure that these poems are doing something other than invite the reader to a conversation. Here’s a for-instance:

Sink
this warning 
to our gully 
where the emus ram 
walls of uncoupled think. 
Under the easy homes and dread 
stem, drag the noisy secret 
the marble halls.

This reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsense, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’, except that it doesn’t cohere grammatically either.

I needed help. The author’s note that came with my complimentary copy shed some light on what the poems are not doing:

The deceptive narrative of lyric poetry, for me, is reminiscent of mythic narratives of Australian settlement and also myths of femininity. I think this meeting point has something to say about what we believe to be credible, the blur between myth and events

That’s enticing. I like the idea of poetry that does away with deceptive and oppressive narratives. Or at least I thought I did.

The back cover blurb says of the book:

Its voices stalk across time and space inhabiting the genres of riddle, fragment, confession, lyric and ekphrasis, and returning to images of metamorphosis and position.

Again, that sounds exciting, but it didn’t help me read a single poem. Even a couple of poems that the Acknowledgements identify as ekphrastic (that is, responses to other works of art) remain stubbornly enigmatic – and perhaps would have even if the artworks they refer to had been identified.

I found a review by Anne Buchanan-Stewart in Plumwood Mountain (link here). It begins:

Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine is visceral, layered and driven by word constructs in an innovative lexicon of erotic topoi, ready to be open to contemporary interpretative potential – previously unworked.

I found myself echoing Prufrock: ‘I have heard the academic poets singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.’ But I did try to read the whole article. It included this:

– We usually want to understand, interpret, ascribe meaning to a poem and we usually want the words to tell us something, but perhaps it could be different.

– How?

– There is another way to get to the ‘it’ of the poem – through an encounter.  An encounter with the language ‘it’ self and its materiality. We can consciously put aside our search for meaning.

But if language doesn’t have meaning, I almost wept, is it still language? I went back to the book and read on, not trying to ‘understand, interpret, ascribe meaning’ but to ‘encounter’ the poems.

To cut a very long story short, I failed. I really did spend time with these poems. I had glimmerings of something, but I failed to encounter anything in them.

Not every book is meant for every reader. This one, beautifully designed by Harry Williamson for Giramondo, isn’t for me. There’s a sweet quote from ‘Ask’ by the Smiths as an epigraph, which I take as a reproach:

Nature is a language, can't you read?

The Marrickville Mattress Minimalist Poet strikes again

I’ve occasionally blogged about poetic gems that turn up on discarded mattresses around Marrickville (here’s a link). I’m not the only one – here’s a link to a post by someone called Therese Trouserzoff.

I can report a new sighting on the Enmore edge of Marrickville, this one signed like two of my previous specimens: ‘C.L’. The poet has moved from lyric celebration of life and art to political satire:

The poem is referring to New South Wales Liberal Party Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s revelations at the Independent Commission Against Corruption that she had been in ‘a close personal relationship’ with a corrupt politician, and had remained close to him after she sacked him from her cabinet. Here’s a link in case you live somewhere completely different.

You might see it as adding to the chorus of prurient outrage, an innerspring vox-pop rubbing salt into the wounds of Gladys’s humiliation. This is the inner west, where Liberal Party supporters aren’t exactly thick on the ground, so you could read it as endorsing the ALP’s opportunistic calls for Gladys’s immediate resignation. But remember, this two-word poem is published on a discarded mattress, as far from a high horse as you can get. In my reading, it offers a finger-wagging sympathy: not, ‘Poor Gladys, you were deceived by a rotter,’ or, ‘Evil Gladys, you turned a blind eye on corruption,’ but, ‘Naughty Gladys, fancy a serious girl like you getting up to something like that!’

We’ll see how it plays out at ICAC over the next couple of days or more. It may be the end of the Berejiklian premiership. And that may be a just and appropriate outcome. But C.L has captured a moment in the saga, and drawn readers’ attention to something so easily lost in this age of political polarisation: our shared human fallibility.

Does anyone know more about C.L? Is there a gallery of their work somewhere? I’d love to know.

Denise O’Hagan’s Beating Heart

Denise O’Hagan, The Beating Heart (Ginninderra Press 2020)

The last line of Andrew Huntley’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ comes to mind as I gather my thoughts about The Beating Heart’: ‘Poem can be way to make a friend.’ (You can read Andrew’s poem in full at this link.)

Anne Casey’s introduction to this slim volume speaks of the poet’s ‘keen powers of observation’, of ‘an elegant interplay of evocative forays between [the poet’s] internal and external worlds’, of conjured enchantment. All this is true, but my overwhelming response to these poems wasn’t to be enchanted or impressed, but something much closer to home: it was the pleasure of meeting someone new. There’s art here, and technique, but it’s art that conceals art and feels like a natural voice speaking directly, warmly and openly.

The back cover tells us:

Born and raised in Rome, Denise O’Hagan lived in London before emigrating to Sydney, where she lives with her husband and sons. She has a background in commercial book publishing, [and] works as an editor with independent authors.

Many of the poems put flesh on the bones on that biographical note. To an extent, in fact, the book could be subtitled ‘Scenes from an Autobiography’: family holiday visit to Switzerland in ‘And the nuns wore lipstick’; a child’s perspective on the Brigate Rosse‘s kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978 in ‘Fifty-five days’; Proustian, unbidden memories in ‘A stain in the shape of Italy’:

That these milestones of our lives
(Laboriously recounted, photographed,
Or documented in countless other forms)
Are glued together by such details
We scarcely realise until later
When they emerge with doubled force
From the backrooms of our memory 

There’s adolescent anguish (‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’), young adulthood in London (‘Bedsitter’, ‘Lost in Transition’ – the titles tell you a lot), a wonderful series of poems about early motherhood and her son’s hospitalisation for a rare condition, the death of parents, and then – a progression I recognise from my own experience – the discovery of a grandparent’s story. ‘The quiet assimilators’ canvasses the ambivalence of an assimilated immigrant. There’s even a poem about being an editor, which I love:

For we editors are tailors
(Seamstresses of old
Working in the back rooms of history
Heads bowed, diligently, invisibly),
We cut and paste and nip and tuck,
Sewing it all together
Until the point is clear

There’s much more than these autobiographical glimpses, but they lay a solid ground so the reader can recognise the voice in the other poems.

Rather than discuss one of the poems in detail, which is my usual practice, I’ve been prompted to write one of my own in response. I started with the quote from Andrew Huntley above and then went where the lines took me. I can justify the opening words of Dante’s Inferno because Denise quotes them in an epigraph to one of her poems, but the rest – sadly – couldn’t be further from Denise O’Hagan’s loose, informal, uncontrived openness.


Responding to Denise O'Hagan's The Beating Heart
'A poem can be way to making
friend,' my friend wrote years ago,
not something only for painstaking
exegesis, judgement – no, 
instead an open invitation:
read, let's have a conversation –
silences, yours and mine,
word by word, line by line,
meet, we listen to each other.
When lost nel mezzo del cammin
di nostra vita, each has seen
a thing or two. Dear sister, brother,
semblable or not, you write, I read,
together smile, together bleed.

The Beating Heart is the 15th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from the author.

Robert Alter’s Psalms

Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, a translation with commentary, (W. W. Norton & Company 2009)

I hadn’t read the Psalms, or any book from the Bible, since my seven years in a Catholic religious order in the 60s and early 70s. I used to love belting them out in the chapel several times a day, especially the complaining bits, the bloodthirsty bits and the bits that celebrate the natural world. They were choral spoken-word poetry of my late teenage years, a place where I could put words to feelings I hardly knew I had.

When this book turned up on offer at our Book-swapping Club, I liked the idea of revisiting that experience.

Alas, Robert Alter didn’t do his translating with me in mind. His version is concerned with precision of meaning, and not at all interested in rendering the poetry, the music of the language. These Psalms were barely recognisable.

A recent YouTube experience illustrates what I mean about Alter’s translation. Sister Nicole Trahan, talking on camera about racism in the US Catholic Church (link here), starts brilliantly with Psalm 55 verses 13–15:

If an enemy had reviled me,
    that I could bear.
If my foe had viewed me with contempt,
    from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
    my comrade and friend,
you whose company I enjoyed
    at whose side I walked in the house of God.

Here’s how Robert Alter translates those verses:

No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
            no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.
But you, a man to my measure,
            my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we shared good counsel
            in the house of our God in elation we walked.

They both are clearly translating the same text, yet the meaning of Sister Nicole’s version is clear, it has a musical flow and it packs an emotional punch, while Alter’s version is dry and needs a footnote to clarify its meaning:*

Were it a known enemy showing hostility, the speaker would have found a way to bear the insult, but it is his intimate friend who has turned against him.

I eventually realised that Alter is not even trying to render the Psalms into memorable (or prayable) English. This is a book for the scholars and exegetes, not for poetry readers or, I imagine, the devout. Neither a scholar nor an exegete, I gave up on it.

But my appetite for revisiting the Psalms had been whetted. I dug out my tattered, dusty copy of the Jerusalem Bible (1966), which employed a ‘team of collaborators in translation and literary revision’ that included J R R Tolkien, James McAuley and Robert Speight. From here on my quotes are from that version unless I say otherwise.

The first thing I want to say is that pundits who cherry-pick the Holy Qur’an for quotes advocating violence should read the Psalms and chill.

Again and again, especially in the early Psalms, the speaker calls on God to destroy his enemies, as if his God is not much more than a secret super-weapon. I guess that’s where a bit of historical imagination comes in handy: you can read this book as a record of the developing notion of what ‘God’ is. Early on, it’s as if every tribe has its own god or gods, and Yahweh is the one belonging to the Hebrews. Gradually, the emphasis changes from, ‘God, smite my enemies,’ to ‘God defend me,’ and ‘God, let my enemies come to see your greatness.’ Morality comes into it: “God, I will obey your law,’ ‘I beg your forgiveness for my wrongdoing.’ They never give up bathing a just person’s feet in the blood of the unjust (58:11), or celebrating the way God heaps up corpses (110:5) but there’s an increasingly clear assertion of an incllusive monotheism: other gods are just lumps of wood or metal, but Yahweh is the creator of the universe. There’s history, wisdom, complaint, repentance, celebration: it’s a rich collection.

The Psalms are full of quotations: ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,’ ‘A mighty fortress is my God.’ So there’s a lot that’s reassuringly familiar in them. But reading all 150 from start to finish, whether in Alter’s dryness version, the Jerusalem Bible’s lyricism, or the King James sonority, confronted me not only with their violent us-and-them-ism, but also with the absence of any sense of God in my own mind.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people of faith, and when I participate in religious observances I usually find a pragmatic way of paying more than lip service. I can be grateful for my blessings, repent my failings, commit to the things that matter, wonder at the splendours of the universe, acknowledge precarity and interdependence, make acts of faith, hope and love. I can rejoice in the story of the escape from Egypt, love the story of heroic, imperfect, pious King David and lament the destruction of the temple. I can do all that without a need for a supreme being. I can take part in a Mass or a Seder or a sundown prayer without feeling any need to assert my non-belief. But reading the Psalms, I find it hard to get past my outsider status.

My custom with books of poetry is to talk about one poem in some detail. I’m picking number 137, because Boney M:

The song, which I can listen to on hard rotation, was written by T. Mcnaughton, George Reyam, Frank Farian and Brent Dowe, and draws on Psalm 137 verses 1–4 and Psalm 19 verse 14. It absolutely captures the power of the first four verses of this Psalm. Spoiler alert: the Psalm has 9 verses and takes some dark turns after verse 4.

PSALM 137 **
Ballad of the exiles

Beside the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept 
at the memory of Zion,
leaving our harps
hanging on the poplars there.

For we had been asked
to sing to our captors,
to entertain those who had carried us off:
‘Sing,’ they said,
‘some hymns of Zion.’

How could we sing
one of Yahweh’s hymns
in a pagan country?

The heading, ‘Ballad of the exiles’ is a little gloss by the translators. In the first half of the 6th century BCE a large number of people were taken captive from Judaea and taken to Babylon, for an exile that lasted half a century. This was a key event in the history of the Jewish people, and played an important part in the development of Judaism. This Psalm is framed as a song from that time. Its pining for home has struck a chord in the hearts of exiled people for millennia. It makes one think of African-heritage people enslaved in the USA being expected to entertain their oppressors. Or, since I’ve recently read Grace Karsken’s The Colony, ceremony and payback conducted by Eora people in what is now Sydney’s Hyde Park being treated as entertainment by the early colonisers. And it’s open to rich metaphorical reading about commodification of culture: how can I make authentic art for a marketplace?

Jerusalem, if I forget you,
may my right hand wither!

May I never speak again,
if I forget you!
If I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys!

Moving beyond the verses used in the Rastafarian song, these lines are framed as a kind of self-curse, but behind the curse there’s a feeling that if the speaker were to lose all connection to their home, their spiritual and cultural base, they would lose their ability to function in some crucial way. This is something like what many First Nations people say about the importance of country: on country you can feel a wholeness, a peace, a strength that you can’t feel anywhere else. So far, this is a powerfully resonant song/poem about the pain of exile

Yahweh, remember
what the Sons of Edom did
on the day of Jerusalem,
how they said,
‘Down with her!
Raze her to the ground!’

Then, a sudden change of tone. The captors have asked for an entertaining bit of exotica. Here is the song of Zion that the singer can actually sing. As I write this it occurs to me that to imagine it being sung in response to the captors’ command, but in a language the captors don’t understand, so there’s an element of subversive joy in this as well as heartfelt cry to Yahweh. The singer recalls the harm that has been done to their people, and then ups the ante:

Destructive Daughter of Babel,
a blessing on the man who treats you
as you have treated us,
a blessing on him who takes and dashes
your babies against the rock!

This is directly addressed to the captors. This may once have been meant literally, and if so it’s just monstrous: other people’s violence is wicked, but baby-murder is fine if I or my allies do it. And when I started writing about this Psalm that’s how I read it. But you know, now I think it’s funny: ‘You want me to sing you one of my cute songs. OK, here’s one about the temple and a little baby.’ Then a cheerful tune is struck up. Maybe the Babylonians recognise the word for blessing that occurs twice towards the end. At the last line the performers and Hebrew listeners smile broadly, and their Babylonian listeners follow their cue and also smile broadly.

There’s no way the end of this poem can be read as a pious, morally improving text. Alter’s note says it’s morally unjustifiable, but we should take the terrible circumstances into account. Maybe, though, if you assume that the Psalmist had a sense of humour, the moral unjustifiability is the whole point: this is deliberately outrageous, wicked humour. In the unlikely, er, inconceivable, event that I had to give a sermon based on it, I’d talk about how when we say we want to hear the voices of oppressed people, we need to be prepared to hear things we really don’t like.

I’m not saying that all the psalms can be read as edgy comedy. Sadly, far from it. But I happen to have lit on one that makes me, and possibly you, remember that these songs/poems/hymn were written by people with complex minds – some for liturgical purposes, some to teach history and morality, some to allow the expression of emotion, some as theatre.


* Not to flog a dead horse, but here are a couple of other translations of those same verses from the Bibles on my bookshelves, each with its own clarity, grace and power. First the King James Version:
For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him:
But it was thou, a man mine equal, and mine acquaintance.
We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.


The Jerusalem Bible:
Were it an enemy who insulted me,
   I could put up with that;
had a rival got the better of me,
   I could hide from him.
But you, a man of my own rank,
   a colleague and a friend,
to whom sweet conversation bound me
   in the house of God!

** If you’re really interested in comparative translations, here are two other translations. First the King James Version:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.


Robert Alter:
By Babylon’s streams
   there we sat, oh we wept,
      when we recalled Zion.
On the poplars there
   we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors had asked of us
   words of song,
and our plunderers – rejoicing:
   ‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’

How can we sing a song of the LORD
   on foreign soil?
Should I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
   if I do not recall you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my chief joy.

Recall, O LORD, the Edomites,
   on the day of Jerusalem, saying:
‘Raze it, raze it,
   to its foundation!’
Daughter of Babylon the Despoiler
   happy who pays you back in kind,
      for what you did to us.
Happy who seizes and smashes

   your infants against the rock.

Andrew Huntley’s Lyrical Ballast and From Tradition

Andrew Huntley, Lyrical Ballast, Ode and Divers Poem (Arts Society Publications 1971)
—–, From Tradition and away from Tradition (Extra Castra Publications 2014)

Andrew Huntley died in June this year. In lieu of attending his funeral I broke my personal ban on Amazon and bought a copy of From Tradition, which he self-published in 2014. I’m sorry it was too late for my purchase to boost his finances or his morale.

We were friends in the early 1970s when we were both in our 20s. He was witty, warm and exuberant, a recent convert to Catholicism of the pre-Vatican-Two variety, and a keen astrologer. We liked each other. And I loved his poetry.

Lyrical Ballast was one of three slender, stapled books of poetry published by the Sydney University Arts Society in 1970. (The other two were Martin Johnston’s shadowmass and Terry Larsen’s Tar Flowers.) It’s largely nonsense poetry, and though it mostly hasn’t aged well its general benign silliness is charming, and disarming.

Two poems in this collection still give me pleasure. ‘A Paean: Australia’s Praise in Honour of the Makers of Sweat Poesy’ offers a deeply ironic picture of an Australia where poets have ultra-celebrity status that still rings true:

'Sing Huzzah for the poet!'
Cries each Australian Son,
As a poet passes down the street
'Huzzah!' cries everyone.

‘An Essay on Criticism’ (which I’ve uploaded elsewhere in this blog – link here) was Andrew’s contribution to the website commemorating the 30th anniversary of Martin Johnston’s death (link here). It’s a tragicomic love story and a celebration of non-academic approaches to poetry, which begins:

Maisie were a critical
Severe she wore her bun
She lecturing on literature was grim.
Arnold he be engineer
He's reading just for fun –
Maisie meaning all the world to him.

And it ends:

A poem can be way to make a friend.

Between Lyrical Ballast and From Tradition, Andrew published three other books: Lalai – Dreamtime, the script for Mike Edols’s 1972 short film of that name, a poetic rendering of a story ‘recounted by Sam Woolagoodjah, Elder of the Worora people, north-west Australia’ (the description is form the AustLit website); Minor Pageant (Island Press 1977); and The Stone Serpent Dreaming (Hale and Iremonger 1983). And he had a number of poems published over the years, mainly in politically conservative journals such as Quadrant and in conservative Catholic publications.

From Tradition is a beautifully produced hardback, containing 33 short poems, mostly sonnets that adhere rigorously to the demanding Petrarchan rhyme scheme (in case you’re interested, that’s abba abab cde cde), and one longer poem in blank verse. Almost every short poem asserts a traditional-to-reactionary Catholic position – on sex, feminism, grief, the afterlife, writing back to Yeats, Pound, Emily Brontë, Phillip Adams. The long poem, ‘The Plough & the Cross’, is a narrative telling of the poet’s conversion to Catholicism. The exuberant silliness of Andrew’s early poetry has evaporated, and the tone is generally combative – the speaker in most of the poems is fighting against modernity and holding fast to his commitment to the One True Church, and to God the Creator and, especially, Judge.

While I admire Andrew’s technical skill and his erudition, and respect his embattled integrity, I found the book uncongenial. I think that’s how he meant someone like me to find it.

Every now and then, the poetry allows a glimpse of a suffering human being under the carapace of Faith. Here’s an example:

Chasing Tolkien
'And Rose drew him in, and set him
in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.'
The Return of the King, J R R Tolkien

My time seemed flowing there – re-burgeoning –
I never knew how strongly years might stay:
Once more the final pages, – I could say
With Samwise, well, I'm back. Yet in my spring
There was no loving Rosie – none to bring
Her promise that all years would glide away,
Bearing a couple on their wedding day
That death alone could part .... come anything!
My Middle-earth,  little but breaking's been,
And scattered flowerings of sadness sown;
With autumn silent now in loneliness:
Where haven has withdrawn from every scene,
And (on and on) mere roads to madness shown –
And time is past; and only God may bless.

As an evocation of misery finding comfort or hope in God, it’s a long way from George Herbert of Gerard Manly Hopkins, but it does pull at the heart.