There was an Extinction Rebellion event at Bondi Beach this morning. A couple of hundred of us sat in the shape of the XR logo, representing the planet and an hourglass. There were brief speeches, a drone photo, and some magnificent dancing by members of the Tango Rebellion. The handful of police didn’t have to do anything but stand and watch.
One of the speakers read what she called a faux elegy for the planet – faux because we intend to take action to at least minimise the results of the climate emergency. On the way home in the train, one of my companions expostulated that it’s not the planet that’s in danger of dying out, it’s us or at least life as we know it. The planet will survive just fine. But we all agreed there is such a thing as climate grief that needs to be faced.
I found myself thinking of A D Hope’s poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother’, the first poem in his A Late Picking (1975) that, according to my pencilled notes on the contents page, was written in 1958, presumably with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in mind. I don’t expect many of my readers to know the poem, so here it is in full, the anger and, yes, grief beneath the irony as alive as ever:
On an Early Photograph of My Mother
Who would believe it to see her now, the mother Of so many daughters and sons – and one of them I – Dear busy old body, bustling around the sky That this was indeed my darling, and no other?
Who would suppose to view her then, the tender Bloom and dazzle of wildfire, and the stance Of unripe grace, the naked eloquent glance, Time could so tame or age despoil her splendour?
Or who imagine the imperceptible stages From her madcap Then to this staid respectable Now? One picture the Family Album does not show. See where she ripped it angrily from the pages!
That is just the picture I should give most to recover, When she changed to a molten mass and began to shrink To a great smooth stone, and the stone began to think, And she raged at her ruin and knew that her youth was over.
Did you destroy it, my darling, that face of granite Cracked and scarred by your volcanic heart? Did you take one look and tear it across and apart, The barren body, the gaunt, unlovable planet?
You could not foresee this lovely old age beginning, The ripeness, the breeding beauty. How could you know Yourself with your lap full of flowers, soft-shouldered with snow, Royally wearing your waters, your children pinning
Cities of lights at your breast, to show how clever they are? Take comfort, my darling, and trundle your bulk through the sky: Your cleverest children—and one of them is not I— Are finding the trick that will turn you back to a star.
Cunning and cautious, but much less cautious than cunning, They split small pieces of rock, a cup or two from your seas. 'Helping Mother!' they say, 'and busy as bees. The noise we can make is tremendous; the flash is stunning.'
'We can do better,' they say. 'A surprise for Mother; She will be pleased when we show her what we can do.' How long will it take? Just another invention or two And someone will press a button. You need not bother;
You will blaze out with the nimbus of youth, the limber Liquid gait and the incandescent air; You will forget the middle-aged ruin you were; Good luck to you, darling! I shall not be there to remember.
Keri Glastonbury was interviewed by Jim Kellar in the Newcastle Herald in August. There’s much talk in the interview (you can read it all here) about the Newcastle-ness of the book – the local sights, snippets of lore, the city’s history and its present. Then, as if Keri Glastonbury is worried by the non-academic tenor of the conversation, she warns, ‘I don’t want people to think it’s accessible.’ Readers, she says, ‘will be confronted with experimental poetics.’
So there you go.
I assume that most of my regular readers are, like me, not up to speed with experimental poetics. (I’m one of the few non-academics and non-poets who writes in public about contemporary Australian poetry: I’ve never been terribly afraid of looking stupid in public, and I’m deeply grateful for the tolerance and good humour of poets who have responded to my blog posts in the comments section or in person.) If you’re fully poetry-phobic, this isn’t a book for you. But if you enjoy the outsider’s pleasure of being largely mystified and then having moments of clarity and even delight, you might want to give it a go.
The poems, as it suggests on the lid, almost all refer to Newcastle (that’s upon-Hunter not upon-Tyne), to the life of an academic working at Newcastle University who is a member of the LGBQTI+ community. There’s a wealth of academic reference/injokes, gossip from the poetry world, Newcastle detail that will be obscure probably even to some Novocastrians, snippets of pop culture from the last 30 or so years, internet memes and moments (I’m guessing) from the poet’s personal life – none of it spelled out or explained, much of it in unexpected juxtapositions. I doubt if any individual – except perhaps Glastonbury herself – could read the whole thing and get all the allusions. So if one feels like an outsider, it’s not because there’s a clique of insiders somewhere but because any reader is, as it were, eavesdropping.
Here are the first eight lines of a three-sonnet poem from early in the book, ‘What Would I Say’:
Dispersing a lyric via leaf blower & other 80s cult songs like '88 Lines About 44 Women' – what if John Forbes had lived to live tweet during Q&A? It's all lost generation stuff & the malls were unindicted co-conspirators. Who knew? Meaghan Morris/Maitland. Joanie loves Chachi vs Date Academics in AU.
Here’s my take these lines. Your mileage will vary:
Line 1: We don’t know who’s doing the ‘dispersing’. Perhaps the noise of a leaf blower disrupts the concentration needed to create or respond to a lyric – lyrical words or sentiments are like so many dead leaves to be blown away by the unremitting noise of our lives these days. (A bit like many of Donald Trump’s chats to journalists – ‘dispersing information via helicopter blades’)
Line 2: The ampersand throws back to the first line, suggesting that it stands for a particular kind of 80s cult song. So the song named in this line (and others like it) do that kind of dispersing. I didn’t listen to much pop music in the 80s, but I looked this up and found that it’s a jolly list of women, two lines each, probably women that the writer/singer is claiming to have had sex with. Not very lyrical, or perhaps romance on an industrial scale?
Lines 3 and 4: These references aren’t obscure to me, but they may be to some readers. John Forbes was about my age, a witty, some would say smart-arse, poet who died young, who appears to be remembered with affection in contemporary Australian poetry; Q&A is an irritating current affairs TV show that runs tweets across the bottom of the screen. Forbes live-tweeting is a terrific notion. The dash at the start of line 3 implies some connection with what has gone before – Forbes was writing in the 80s (and the 70s and the 90s), so perhaps he is offered as contrast to the leaf blower songs.
Line 5: ‘Lost generation’ usually refers to people born during World War One, but if ‘It’ at the start of the line refers back to the previous four lines – which is what the syntax suggests – maybe there’s a hint of another lost generation who came of age in the 80s (would that be Gen X? (Forbes was a Boomer) …
Line 5 and 6: … and somehow without anyone being aware of it the existence of shopping malls was partly responsible.
Line 7: I once shared a flat with Meaghan Morris, which is probably beside the point. She is a Cultural Studies scholar who hails from Maitland – ah, the Newcastle connection! Maybe she has written about the effects of malls on the 80s generation (she’s certainly written abut Centrepoint Tower, and motel signs). Maybe this line is answering the question from previous line – ‘Who knew?’
Line 8: Joanie Loves Chachi was a US sitcom in the early 1980s (I looked it up), a pretty unsuccessful spin-off from Happy Days (I don’t know why it wasn’t printed in italics as the names of books are later i the same poem). Date Academics sounds like a dating app, and at first I thought AU referred to the internet domain code for Australia, but if this is about the 80s, then AU is more likely to be Adelaide University and Date Academics may be a pre-internet means of hooking up. So maybe the line evokes a moment when an academic living in Adelaide had to make a choice between watching junk on TV and looking for love, again in a fairly non-romantic way.
I didn’t mean to spend so long on those lines, but I guess that gives some idea of the work I have to do to engage with these poems. Not only the work of figuring out the references (6 diverse named cultural references in 8 lines), but also trying to grasp how, or even if, the lines , images and references relate to each other. My hypothesis that the 80s are the common thread falls by the wayside in the following lines with references to books published in the 70s and the 2000s, to ‘blended learning’, surely a more recent jargon term among educators, to Sandilands (I’m assuming it’s Kyle the radio broadcaster, who’s surely a phenomenon of the 90s and later), and so on. I fall back on reading line by line, and not worrying too much about the poem as a whole. Maybe the poem, and these poems in general, work, not so much by yoking things together by violence (as Someone said of John Donne and Co) as by piling up bits of stuff from all over the place, and any apparent logical flow is a red herring.
I know this reads as if I’m complaining, and I would be, but the language feels very alive in every moment, and from the myriad details emerges a cumulative picture of a life, a sensibility, a place, a community. Occasionally there’s a brilliant image, like this from ‘City of Moi-Meme‘:
From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi
or this from’Everybody Loves (Raymond Terrace)’:
____that James Turrell moment, where I realise that we've been sitting in the dark staring at a hole in the wall, productively.
Or this, from ‘Two Dog Nights’, my favourite lines from the book:
The Islington figs release the bats & the sky blacks out like an erasure poem.
My favourite single word: ‘anthroposcenester’ from ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ (Though I would have spelled it ‘anthropocenester’.)
Newcastle Sonnets is the thirty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone..
For nine years now, Toby Davidson has been organising an annual celebration of Francis Webb’s poetry. Toby edited Webb’s Collected Poems (1911) – my blog post here. Though I’ve been enamoured of Webb’s poetry for 50 years now, this is the first time I’ve managed to attend the event (or the second, if the reading at the 1911 Sydney Writers’ Festival counts – my blog post here).
We met in a large room – the ‘Creator Room’ – at Chatswood Library, in the region where Webb spent his childhood. The library has inherited Webb’s collection of paintings – all or most of them bought with funds Webb received as a government grant, funds spent of art rather than, say, food – and his library of books. The paintings and some of his books were on display, along with other fascinating realia, including a photocopy of the handwritten draft of his final poem.
Toby Davidson was an unabashedly enthusiastic MC for an audience that was an interesting mixture of ancient fans (like me), current students (including some from Davidson’s classes) and satisfyingly motley others. The readers:
Robert Adamson, poet (blogged about by me here and here among other places): told us of his awe-struck meeting with Webb in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and read three poems – ‘End of the Picnic’ (an imagining of the arrival of Cook’s ship in 1770 as a spiritual disaster), ‘Morgan’s Country’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (probably my favourite Webb poem, read in a way that had tears on my cheeks). A hard act to follow, but followed it was.
Michael Griffith (author of God’s Fool, his 1991 biography of Webb): quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ as emblematic of key themes in Webb (and his own life), and read us two poems with props – the first part of ‘In Memoriam Antony Sandys, 1806–1883’ with the painting that the poem describes on an easel beside him; and ‘On first Hearing a Cuckoo’ preceded by part of Delius’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
Judith Crispin, poet and photographer, whose work, according to her web site, ‘includes themes of displacement and identity loss, a reflection of [her] own lost Aboriginal ancestry’: read the dingo’s second speech from ‘The Ghost of the Cock’, and commentred on the extraordinary way it embodied what webb could not have known, the polarity of moon and dingo in an Arnhem Land foundation story; and two other poems, ‘Episode’ and ‘Toward the Land of the Composer’.
Gareth Jenkins, poet, spoke among other things of the sonic, rhythmic quality of Webb’s work, his mastery of long lines, and read, beautifully, ‘The Yellowhammer’.
Richard Miller, self-described as a long-time Webb fan and former musician in, I think, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in a complete change of mood, delivered a brilliantly theatrical, over the top rendition of ‘Introduction in a Waxworks’ from ‘Leichhardt Pantomime’.
Two school students whose names I didn’t catch, one from each of the nearby schools that Webb attended: one read the eminently accessible ‘Australian Night’, which Toby Davidson told us Webb wrote between ages of 7 and 10; the other read ‘Compliments of the Audience’, a sardonic take on a poetry reading, thereby concluding the reading part os the afternoon.
Before we broke for an afternoon snack, we were treated to Oliver Miller’s short film Electric, based on Webb’s radio play of the same name about the first use of ECG on a human subject.
I had a great time. Some of the poems I could just about mouth the words as they were read. Others came from the bits of the work that I have pretty much skimmed. Every reader showed some new aspect of the poetry – and of themselves. Michael Griffiths told us that he had been discouraged from writing his PhD thesis on Webb because, the then Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University said, ‘He’s mad’. And he’s been dismissed by more than one cultural arbiter. But it was a joy to be in a room full of people who are touched, challenged and invigorated by his poetry.
apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.
People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.
First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).
Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain byBaroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.
Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.
Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:
I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.
‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.
The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.
In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).
In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.
The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.
Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.
This is Colleen Z Burke’s twelfth poetry collection, published like many of the others by her own Feakle Press. When I blogged about her 2013 collection, Splicing Air (blog post here), I wrote:
Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren … Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland.
The same is true of Sculpting a Landscape. Many of its short poems are like verbal snapshots of a moment observed around the inner city, or of a moment of insight, or something learned in travels or seen on the news, or something one of the grandchildren said. These poems create an impression of artlessness, as if they were jotted down in the moment.
That impression isn’t necessarily accurate – there’s often a subtle play of imagery, an unexpected word or a stinging implication. The title poem is a good example:
Sculpting a Landscape
In a small clearing amidst a huddle of skeletal gumtrees a rusted burnt out ute fuses into the eroded earth sculpting a definitive Aussie landscape.
At first this looks like a slightly sentimental, familiar image of rural Australia. I’m typing this beside a Carol Ruff painting of a red desert landscape that has a rusted vehicle as a detail among stunted vegetation and scattered rocks: the land has outlived and assimilated the incursion of settler technology. By contrast, if you sit with this poem for a little while, you realise that something different is happening here. It’s a small clearing, so the vehicle is a larger presence. The trees huddle, and are skeletal: to my mind, but the only gumtrees that look skeletal are dead ones. And the earth is eroded. This is not a cosy picture: ‘Aussie’, the affectionate diminutive for Australian settler culture, is definitively attached to an image of death and destruction.
Most of the ‘snapshot’ poems aren’t as harshly unsettling as this, but there is often something just a little off kilter: an ibis is seen ‘meandering’ across an empty street, ‘gum / trees lilt air’, coastal limestone is ‘spliced with / slivers of pink / and white’, mountain skies are tetchy, ‘raindrops / savour summer’s intensity’, trees ‘pierce / luminous / clouds’.
The conversations with grandchildren are less compelling than in previous books. Perhaps this is because the children are older. (I recently heard David Malouf say that three-year-olds are the most interesting people he knows, and Colleen Burke’s four grandsons, beautifully photographed by the poet at the front of the book, are substantially older than that.) But the opening to ‘Running free’ is irresistible:
I want to go to the cemetery and dance on graves, said Emmett, my eight year old grandson.
There are speeches put into the mouths of women in harsh situations: ‘My Country’s Embrace’ in memory of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tugan (1917–2003), ‘Agnes’s story, Malawi’, ‘One less mouth’, about a young woman in an unnamed third world country. There are poems about mistreatment of animals – the slow loris, the pangolin, a kangaroo in a Chinese zoo. Re-reading my earlier posts about Colleen Z Burke’s poetry, I see recurring descriptions like ‘straightforward’, ‘unadorned’, ‘No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures’. So yes, this is plain-speaking poetry, filled with a sense of place, that place being just up the road from where I live, and with a concern for the underprivileged.
I just realised with something like horror that my To Be Read shelf contains at least a year’s worth of unread journals. So here goes with what I intend to be the first of several catch-up posts, each following a catch-up reading binge.
In her Foreword to this issue of APJ, guest editor Gig Ryan, herself a formidable poet, writes:
No poems here can be straitjacketed entirely into any one category, as each poem, being its own summation, is also necessarily an experiment, an exploration, kicking towards the impossible.
The same is true of the journal as a whole. It’s not a directory, a survey or a sampler; there are no thematically labelled sections, or indicators of hierarchy. It reads like a mildly chaotic conversation among more than fifty word users, which the reader is invited to enter.
There are many excellent poems, some by poets I already know and love, some by people who are new to me. I’ll just mention one that has stuck with me: Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’, which is a response to Judith Beveridge’s sonnet, ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’. The latter poem looks at Quasimodo (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) from the point of view of an able-bodied person, the former from that of someone with a physical ‘deformity’. Jackson’s poem begins with the first word of the equivalent line in the Beveridge’s. It’s not a calling out, but a ‘departure’, and the effect is to open up a profound dialogue between the two points of view. Here are the first four lines of each:
From Judith Beveridge’s poem:
Crazed carillonneur, will you ever stop hauling yourself into the cathedral’s dim vaults? Will you ever stop imagining Esmeralda’s hands running along the canted bones of your spine (from 'Quasimodo's Lament', Meanjin 2017, on the web here)
From Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’:
Crazed? – only the mob in us deserves that word. Your self, your body, calm and attentive at the rope, will always draw out those strong and slanted notes running across every imperfect surface.
There are half a dozen essays, including an interview by Matthew Hall with the editors of Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems1980–2017 (re.press 2017), which is surely of interest to anyone who cares about contemporary Aboriginal poetry. There’s also an essay by Duncan Hose on John Forbes, marking the 20th anniversary of his death, which includes some close reading; and a discussion of rhyme by Dennis Haskell.
I read this Overland selectively, skipping articles that looked at first blush to be about where the universities are getting it wrong, or arguing that, say, the marriage equality Yes movement wasn’t radical enough. So who knows what I have missed?
Here are some wonderful things I didn’t miss:
In ‘On Jack Charles‘, Tony Birch writes that for Aboriginal people, ‘sovereignty – an imposed colonial concept – is a complex and contradictory notion’, and as a way to understanding what Aboriginal sovereignty might mean quotes Jack Charles as saying that ‘he could not walk by a person in need – any person in need – as an Aboriginal man claiming the right to Country’. It’s not often you stumble across such profundity.
I wouldn’t want to skip the regular columns by Alison Croggon (On seeing in this issue starts from her extreme myopia and goes to surprising places) and Giovanni Tiso (On writing while foreign: ‘the effortless travel of our writings across the global marketplace of late capitalism is the grotesque mirror image of the hardening of the boundaries between nations and people’).
Overland always includes the result of a literary competition. In this one, it’s the Nakata Brophy Prize for young Indigenous writers. The first prize, ‘haunted house‘ by Raelee Lancaster, counterposes two traditions (European an Indigenous) of ghost stories in a way that creates plummeting depths beneath an apparently simple surface.
There are other excellent poems, including Allotment #10, by Laurie Duggan, an addition to one of his long-running series.
Decades ago, a flatmate of mine had a poster on his wall that compared the situation of Aboriginal people living in remote communities with that of Palestinians. ‘So much like home‘ by Chris Graham spells out the parallels: things have not improved markedly for either group. ‘Israel,’ Graham writes, ‘ has built a blunt, overt system of apartheid; Australia has built a polite, covert system of apartheid.’
Of the four short stories, the two that most claimed my attention both dealt with the ethical questions that arise when you mistakenly give something you have no right to. Baggage claim by Paddy O’Reilly and Tea ceremony by Michelle Aung Thin both this murky area, the former with youthful corruptibility in its sights, the latter with something more nuanced but no less grim.
Southerly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney, which means it’s formally tied to EngLit academia. Given that, and the title of this issue it’s no surprise that there are a number of essays and fictions here about the long haul of learning to write, or just the long haul of life:
Desmond O’Grady on Muriel Spark’s nurturing times in Tuscany as a young woman
Elizabeth Hanscombe on how her writing career has been spent exploring events from the past that ‘appear to have a beginning and an end’ (‘They do not’)
Carol Lefevre on the nature writer J A Baker and his influence on her own career, quoting Richard Jefferies somewhere on the way, ‘The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead’
James Bedford’s touching memoir of his father, with beautifully deployed family snapshots/
There are works from people at the start of their creative careers. The striking cover is a detail from My Contemporary Tribe, created by Phoebe Martyr when she was a high school student in 2016 (you can see the whole work here). There are three short stories by students at the Sydney Story Factory.
There’s a glorious wealth of poetry and short fiction, including some in translation. George Toseki’s ‘Finger Bun’, in which baklava is deployed to great effect as a peacemaker among factory workers from a range of ethnic backgrounds, gets my guernsey for the most fun. Invidious though it is, I’ll mention just one poem, joanne burns’s ‘lemon aid’ for the fabulous word comatoastie.
Of the reviews, I’d pick Lachlan Brown’s of Melanie Cheng, Australia Day (2017), which places the book in the context of ‘the contemporary succession of engaging and innovative collections of short stories by Australian writers from diverse backgrounds’.
The most challenging article for me is John Kinsella’s ‘Reading and (non) Compliance: Re-approaching the Text’, which – to attempt a crude summary – urges EngLit teachers to always incorporate creative writing into any teaching of poetry, by encouraging what he calls non-compliant reading. Not being part of the EngLit academy, I can’t tell whether his proposal is as radical as he appears to be claiming, or commonplace, or way out in the top paddock. One paragraph, though, came to me like a clarion call, an urgent challenge for me as a blogger about texts. I’ll give it the last word in this blog post:
A text is a living entity and should be teated as existing contingently and contiguously within and with a vulnerable ecology that is under threat, a biosphere that is collapsing due in no small part to human behaviours – especially corporate and state exploitations of the fragile, remaining ‘natural’ habitats. No text, whatever it is, can be read outside this context of damage.
Here I go, blogging about a third book of poetry in a row. But, Dear Poetryphobe Reader, there’s nothing to fear. This one, like the last two I blogged about, is really good. Andy Kissane writes the kind of poetry that allows you to focus happily on the content and leave the poetic stuff to do its work while you’re distracted (like T S Eliot’s burglar tossing meat to the dog*). I think of him as a poet committed to bearing witness.
The book is in four unnamed sections, each with an epigraph suggesting its organising principle.
The first section’s epigraph is from Sharon Olds’s poem about her father’s death, ‘The Race’: ‘all night / I watched him breathe.’ The poems that follow deal with death and loss, and with being alive, though they’re not as abstract as that makes them sound. The poet contemplates his own death. He farewells his father:
------------------------- -----------Somewhere in my own marrow lies the moment when you fathered me, that unacknowledged gift. ('The Last Quarter')
He has a polite encounter with an old lover, and celebrates quiet moments of domesticity and parenthood. Among these poems, almost as if warning the reader not to read the others as directly autobiographical, there are two dramatic monologues, ‘Marriage Material’, spoken by a 19th century bride, and ‘Dressed’, spoken by a young woman of now (‘Desire is pure, as clear as water, and shame – / well, you just don’t feel any’).
The second section is heralded by a quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘One man will always be left alive to tell the story.’ Arendt was talking about the impossibility of ‘oblivion’: everything will be remembered by someone. As I read it, the central thread of this section is the idea of witness: to a concert or a movie, to plagiarism, to some of the great horrors of our time including Australia’s offshore prisons, and, closer to home, to a Sydney storm and schoolyard bullying (of which more later).
The third section is a sequence of ten poems set in the US–Vietnam War, all in the voice of an Australian (or possibly US) soldier, introduced by a quote from Tim O’Brien’s 1990 short fiction ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: ‘You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.’ The sequence doesn’t tell a single straightforward story, but a narrative shape emerges from individual scenes involving the narrator and his comrades Dave, Des, Johnno, and Boffa.
Des appears beside you, his thumb hauling you in the direction of safety. You hoist your pack & crabwalk after him, before a monsoon of mortar shells drop right there – on the piece of dirt where you were lying ... (from 'The Firefight')
It’s in the lineage of The Red Badge of Courage, has all the power and none of the insidious cinematic glamour of many ‘anti-war’ movies. I read somewhere that these poems are part of a verse novel in progress. If so, I’m looking forward to the novel, but this sequence doesn’t leave me with any of the cheated feeling that comes from reading an excerpt. The final poem, the sonnet ‘Back Home’, rounds the sequence off, not with an ending, but as an agonised cry about the lack of comprehension from even sympathetic non-combatants. Perhaps because I went to court as a conscientious objector for the US–Vietnam War, I needed a long walk after reading these poems.
The final section, ushered in with a quote from Michelangelo – ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ – deals with visual art and sculpture, referring to work by Cressida Campbell, Grayson Perry (the title poem is a response to Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011), Degas (spoken in the collective voice of his nudes), Cézanne, Jan Senbergs, and Kissane himself imagined as a painter.
It’s not easy to choose just one poem to discuss from this marvellously varied collection, but my mind keeps going back to ‘Shooting Footage’, from Section 2. It’s longish, but it’s got a story (click on the image to see it in a separate tab, then you may have to click again to see it big):
The Acknowledgements section gives no extra information about this poem, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the incident it describes is a fiction or taken from life. It would be a mistake, either way, to just assume that the speaker is the poet. There’s plenty to make me think that it’s not so, although he may be the poet at one remove – working with images rather than words. (For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that he’s male, even though a woman filming in a school playground would generally arouse less suspicion than a man.) It’s a beautifully executed dramatic monologue.
We learn about the narrator through unobtrusive details. We’re not told how he knows Joshua, but he may have given a talk to his class, to be quizzed by him, and he may know him through his daughter who plays hopscotch in stanza 6. He rides on the same bus as the students at the end of the day, but he’s not a teacher.
Having introduced Joshua in cinematic close-up in the first stanza, the poem devotes three stanzas to his being bullied on the bus, showing not telling in best movie style: what his hair looks like, what his classmates say and do. The first authorial comment is almost admiring: ‘It is truly amazing / how far some boys can spit.’ The fourth stanza returns to close-up, this time showing Joshua’s pain, and with the narrator explicitly holding a camera. We don’t know if this is the first the narrator knows of the bullying or if he’s filming because he’s been told about it previously, but in this kind of economic story-telling such specifics don’t matter.
The fifth to seventh stanzas give us a naturalistic narrative: the practicalities (enough of them at least) of how the narrator gets to be in the schoolyard at lunchtime filming, and then the painful specifics of what he sees, with just the one moment of expressed emotion (‘My anger smoulders // like white-hot coals. I can barely contain it.’) Then there’s a curious departure from the narrator’s carefully established point of view in an echo of the earlier close-ups: ‘Joshua’s glasses fog up / so he can’t see.’
Without breaking the narrative surface, the first lines of the eighth stanza comes as a revelation: ‘”Let him eat bacon sandwiches,” / one of them says as they run off’. This isn’t just generalised nerd-persecution. Joshua’s name, his shiny black hair, the steam from the bathroom and the pulling down of his shorts make a pattern. It’s antisemitism. The scene of schoolyard cruelty resonates out into some of the darkest episodes of human history. But here the horror is near at hand, potentially within the narrator’s power to influence.
I film it all in one long take. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do, to film this and not intervene.
The poem is still a narrative about schoolyard bullying. But it’s also a reflection on the role of art: in this case, to record, to show, to bear witness. It’s not that it would have been wrong to intervene, but it might not have been as effective.
The final triplet expresses a hope, in this context well founded, that the work of art, in this case the film, will make a decisive difference. Without making a big point of it, the very last line and a half execute a subtle shift:
---------- --------And a silence I will end soon – walls of brick and barbed wire, tumbling, tumbling down.
These lines are no longer talking about film, but about speech, no longer about the schoolyard, but about prisons. I’m tempted to read them as a mini-manifesto: a promise to speak truth about hard things, things that authorities like the Principal deny, with the aim of human liberation.
In an inspired piece of ordering that’s typical of the book, ‘Shooting Footage’ is followed by ‘Beached Dreams’, about the treatment of people who come to Australia by boat seeking asylum.
[Added later:Andy Kissane has emailed me some background on ‘Shooting Footage, which I quote here with his permission:
Its genesis began in a US film, The Bully Project but I don’t think I watched the whole film, just a bit of it. The spitting comes from my own experience of catching the bus to a Christian Brothers school in the 1970s, but the rest is made up. Joshua and the biblical reference at the end comes from a Liz Frencham song I like, ‘Jericho’, but it’s a love song and has nothing to do with bullying really, just gave me the idea for the ending. So essentially it is all made up, riffing off the above sources. I have read it aloud once at Albury and it was a very hard poem to read.]
Embarrassingly, the Biblical reference to Joshua and the walls of Jericho went right past me until I listened to Liz Frencham’s song on YouTube (here).]
This is the fourth book of Andy Kissane’s poetry I’ve read. My blog posts about the others are here (Every Night They Dance, Five Islands Press 2000), here (Out to Lunch, Puncher & Wattman 2009) and here (Radiance, Puncher & Wattmann 2014).
I am grateful to the poet and Puncher & Wattmann for my copy.
*The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice bit of meat for the house-dog. (TS Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933).
The Emerging Artist warned me that I would lose readers if I blogged about two books of poetry in a row. So, dear Reader, please take that as a challenge and stick around. Also, tl;dr: I love this book. You might too. It’s very accessible, scientific and sexy.
Tricia Dearborn was brought up Catholic, has worked as a biochemist and as an editor, is a member of the GLBTQI community, has done psychotherapy, and has made poetry out of all that. This is her third book of poetry*. My blog posts about the first two are here (Frankenstein’s bathtub, Interactive Press 2001) and here (The ringing world, Puncher & Wattmann 2012). It’s been a long time between drinks, but worth the wait.
Autobiochemistry begins with ‘A chalk outline of the soul’ (online at the Rochford Street Review at this link – you need to scroll down). You don’t have to have had a Catholic education in a certain era to love this account of an early lesson in metaphysics and of the child-speaker’s attention quietly turning elsewhere. It had me, who belong squarely in that demographic, eating out of its hand. This quiet turning away from religious doctrine is a perfect introduction to the book: there’s no talk of souls (no auto-bio-metaphysics) in what follows, and though devotional images and a gruesome line from a hymn do turn up, they belong unequivocally to memories of childhood. Instead of religion, the poems have glorious, deliciously nerdy materiality.
The title section consists of 22 poems, each named for a chemical element, and all suffused with what you’d have to call love for the elements, their properties (‘Carbon’s multivalence, its / chemical conviviality’), their roles in human life, specifically the poet’s (‘Manganese’ – ‘tea is not high in essential nutrients / except for manganese, a “dietary mineral”’), and – sometimes – their potential for metaphor.
The title of the second section, ‘Covalent bonds’, invokes chemistry as a metaphor for relationships. The poems themselves don’t muck around with that kind of metaphor. They are variously erotic, intimate, passionate, neighbourly, elegiac.
Then there’s a suite of poems with a psychotherapy theme: ‘Elephant poems’, as in the elephant in the room. ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs’ includes eight short poems about Virginia Woolf, each with an epigraph from her letters or diaries. The fifth and final section, ‘The change: some notes from the field’, has nine poems with ‘Perimenopause’ in the title, my favourite being ‘Perimenopause as a chance to get a few things off my mother’s chest’.
I love this book. I love its love of the material world, its ease with bodies and bodily functions (though I would blush to read aloud some lines in the love poems). I love the way it explores the poet’s personal history with humour and seriousness and the opposite of narcissism. Most of all, I love its championing of connectedness.
Currently when I blog about a book of poetry, I try to write about just one poem in some detail. Here it has to be one from the title sequence. I’m drawn to ‘Manganese’, a fabulously multifaceted look at tea. But ‘Sodium’ has got my favourite line in the book. Here it is (you can click on the image to see it large):
There’s nothing obscure in this poem (or indeed in the whole book): no cryptic wordplay and no need for a search engine to decipher a reference. The first five triplets set the scene; the next six play; and the final three bring the poem home. It’s like a sonnet, though in place of 14 lines it has 14 triplets – 5, 6, 3.
As in the other element poems, the element is real, acknowledged in its own right with an elegant, matter-of-fact account of its properties. The poem can afford to be matter-of-fact because sodium is so wonderful. These lines take me back to the joys of high school chemistry: the word ‘tossed’ recalls for me the dramatic moment when asthmatic Brother Foley showed us the sodium–water reaction by doing just that – tossing a small chunk into a filled sink, from a safe distance.
Then the poem turns. It could have gone on to musings about table salt and blood pressure, or the difference between swimming in the ocean, creeks and backyard pools. A backyard pool does appear in ‘Chlorine’, but when the poet’s mind reacts with sodium, a metaphor results:
I wanted to be the pure metal solely myself, self-sufficient swaddled in the safety
of needing no one
But in taking the behaviour of sodium as a springboard to musing about the speaker’s personal history, the poem doesn’t turn away from science. Instead, it invokes neuroscience. A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another’. Like sodium, humans (the poem has moved unobtrusively from the singular ‘I wanted’ to the species-general ‘we see’) are in constant interaction with the environment. She doesn’t have to spell out that wanting to be self-sufficient is wanting a very limited existence, the equivalent of sodium being ‘stored under kerosene, under oil’.
Then, the killer lines:
I grew up in a house of liars a houseful of people pretending to be separate
but humans are never found free in nature it's how we're designed
I just love this. It’s not that it’s a new insight. I think of D W Winnicott’s much quoted ‘There’s no such thing as a baby, there’s only a baby and someone’. And Raimond Gaita riffing on the song ‘Falling in Love Again’, reading ‘I was made that way / Auf Liebe eingestellt’ to say that humans are configured for love. Or Forster’s ‘Only connect’. It’s not new to say that humans are made for connection, however unremitting the messages to the contrary from the neoliberal environment (and the currently dominant side of politics). But ‘I grew up in a house of liars’, which looks at first glance like a condemnation of the speaker’s early family, has a deep compassion just beneath the surface. They were liars, but they were the ones who suffered from the lie, and anyhow they can hardly be blamed for inventing it.
as vital as oxygen intermingled, impure we shine
The poem has done a neat trick with its main metaphor/analogy, twisting it into its exact opposite. Sodium in air is still dull, but the analogous grey dullness is what makes humans shine. It wasn’t until I retyped those lines that I realised that ‘Sodium’ can be read as a response to ‘A chalk outline of the soul’: in Sister Pascal’s chalk drawing, God’s sanctifying grace removes all smutchy traces of sin to leave the individual soul pure and shining, here – and in the book in general – it is our smutchy impurity that shines.
Autobiochemistry is the twenty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. My copy is inscribed to a friend who bought it at a launch, so I’ll have to return it to her. I plan to buy a copy for myself.
* She has also written at least one book of science experiments for children, which you can find if you know how to use Duck Duck Go (or search engines that abuse your privacy).
Richard James Allen is a mover and shaker in Australian poetry and beyond. He has been Artistic Director of the Poets Union Inc and director of the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival. He has edited – among other things – an anthology of Australian performance texts published by my old employer, Currency Press. He’s also a filmmaker, dancer and choreographer with the Physical TV Company. The short story of you and I is his tenth book of poetry, and my introduction to his work.
Within the first couple of pages of this book I had read a number of poems out to the Emerging Artist – something I rarely do. She didn’t tell me to go away, which, given her generally low tolerance of poetry, is high praise. One of the poems I read to her was ‘Closing time for Melancholy’. Here’s the whole thing:
Bring your adult ears and your childish hearts – life is short, desire is long, and what the universe wants the universe gets.
There’s a voice in these early poems that’s attractive, charming, even seductive, even while saying grim or gloomy things, the voice of a lively mind that is drawn to melancholy. Speaking of the word ‘melancholy’, the poem of that name says:
It must be that no other bloom creates the decadent, fin-de-siècle atmosphere I experience in my soul.
And while there’s a lot of melancholy in the book, there’s also metaphysics, love, lust, loss, illness, art, Buddhism, and pleasure for the reader on pretty much every page. Only when I’d read it all for the first time did it occur to me, what a smarter person might have been on the lookout for, given the book’s title, that there’s an overarching narrative. The speaker is in a despondent state, a ‘maelstrom of gravitational torpor’ (‘The Resurrection and the Life’). There’s a relationship, and there are some wonderful poems about the early stages of physical and emotional rapture – the title of one of them, ‘In the 24-hour glow’, is almost a poem in itself. It’s never spelled out, but it seems the relationship ends after only a short time – there are many poems in which the beloved ‘you’ is a ghost or a memory, and the second last poem, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’, actually an eighteen-page sequence, is about serious and possibly terminal illness – a note explains that the poem takes its title from an early 20th century nickname for pneumonia. The time line isn’t clear. Perhaps, reading for the narrative, you would take it that the relationship, the love story, is already in the past when the book begins.
But here’s the thing. Even though I’m usually happiest when there’s a narrative line for me to follow, in this case I’m glad I didn’t read looking for a narrative – that would have tied the poems down to a particular context rather than letting them resonate out to who-knows-where. Take the first lines of ‘The Wedding Dress’:
---------------------------Why am I so angry -------------------------------------at this wedding dress?
It floats through space like an abandoned satellite, gliding without sound or friction
Reading these lines, I took it that the poem was a response to an art work. More precisely, I thought of Rosemary Laing’s Bulletproof Glassseries of photographs which I had misremembered as featuring a wedding dress exactly as beautifully described here (but Laing’s flying dress is inhabited by a woman who has been shot, a whole other story). I’m pretty sure that the poem is a response – not to Rosemary Laing’s photo, but to an image like it. (You can read the whole poem here. It’s quite long.)
The opening question is asked eight times, each time followed by a number of lines groping for an answer: like the monolith in 2001, the dress ‘stands at the limits, the frontiers of our knowing’; it’s a memento, like ‘golden calves raised to the banality of our happiness’; it’s emblematic of the institution of marriage, which the speaker is at best ambivalent about, and of the deep human impulse that gives rise to the institution.
The fifth time the question is asked, the poem takes a personal turn: ‘I had been dreaming about you.’ If one was reading for the narrative, this is where one would start paying attention, but so much has already happened and the narrative is frustratingly elusive:
I had been dreaming about you. After a rocky start, I was happy to report that we had been beginning to get along again.
The next two ‘answers’ stay at the personal level. At the end of the sixth, the relationship between the memory/dream of past love and the image of the flying empty dress in the present can be condensed into two short lines:
I was drowning in love I am drowning in fury
The seventh answer actually answers the question:
And so now the dress remains. Not the memories of the lives lived in it. Not the excitement of the first fitting. Not the moment when all eyes were turned because they had to and then because they wanted to. Not those early hours when it was peeled off in tenderness to reveal, under its skin of beauty, the skin of love.
Now the dress remains, with only the air inside it. The same air I breathe.
It’s still a response to that image, but it has moved decisively from general connotations to intensely personal. The final time the question is asked, the reply is:
for the first time in a long time perhaps I am not
and the question is transformed (including a subtle move to less self-important lower case for the first person pronoun):
---------------------------Why am i so in love -------------------------------------with this wedding dress?
And the final lines move away from the wedding dress altogether – it has done its work – to address the remembered lover: ‘i started dreaming of you again tonight’. In the exultant final lines, he has found renewed joy in dreaming and remembering, and the poem takes up and transforms the opening image of floating through space:
--------the unspoken sharing of -----------------------our own private parallel universe
--------which i feel ----------------i am out there in
---------------orbiting ------------------------------------some blazing star --------with you
I read somewhere that ekphrastic is a wanky word. But I want to use it anyhow: an ekphrastic poem is one that relates to a work of art. And though the work of art this poem relates to may not actually exist, I read this as an ekphrastic poem: spending time with the opening image allows the speaker to move from grim anger at loss to joy in what he once had. (How’s that for a reductive paraphrase? Sorry, Richard.)
You might think from my description that this poem was a turning point in the overarching narrative. But I don’t think so. The poem works in its own terms, enacts its own drama in its own five pages. I don’t think there really is a narrative in the way a novel or a movie has a narrative, with clear structural beats. This is one moment in a long process of grieving, and the book contains many such moments. There’s a lot more besides, but that’s what struck me the hardest.
But then, I’m back to my first reading of the book as a whole: the ‘you’ of the title isn’t just one person, the one who has died and is being remembered and grieved for. It’s also, in other poems and sometimes in the same poem, the reader, which means potentially any other human being:
As much as we have to begin we have to end
As much as we are magic we are dust ('An Aria, before the Requiem')
Now I want to go on quoting. You can take it that that means I recommend the book.
My copy of The Short Story of You and I was a gift from the author.
Probably more than any other of Jennifer Maiden’s books, brookings: the noun revolves around a central concept. It’s not that every poem addresses the concept directly, or that there is an overarching narrative, but the notion of ‘brookings’ weaves its way through the book, becoming explicit every so often, taking on new metaphorical form and emotional resonance as it goes.
The simplest description of the concept is in the poem ‘Brookings in Fur’ (which you can read here – you’ll need to scroll down), brookings are defined as
things that trickle the Overton window to the Right by focusing on soft left topics
According to Wikipedia, the Overton window is ‘a term for the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse’: we’ve recently seen, for instance, that veganism is outside the Overton window in Australia, and offshore detention of people seeking asylum barely makes it into the frame. ‘Brookings’ are the right-wing tactic of espousing harmless, even positive policies around education, discrimination, environmental concerns and so on, in order to disguise or make more acceptable the underlying ruthless policies. However, defining the term doesn’t tell you much about the poetry. After all, a similar concept is captured in the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ – Maiden’s metaphors are a lot more interesting than that.
The term has at least three incarnations.
First, in ‘Concrete’, which is Jennifer Maiden’s sixteenth poem comprising a flirtatious-reproachful conversation between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, Eleanor appropriates the name of the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, giving it the new meaning. It’s a straightforward satirical jibe at Julia Gillard, who recently joined the institution. (I have no idea about the politics of the institution, but I do know that Maiden has been caustic about Gillard in earlier poems, and is again in this volume.)
Second (though preceding ‘Concrete’ in this book), in ‘Uses of brookings: the noun’, Maiden discovers rich metaphorical possibilities in the term. This poem draws brilliantly on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Maidenhood’ (you can read it here) for the image of a virgin ‘Standing with reluctant feet/ where the brook and river meet’. Longfellow’s maiden is facing the prospect of mature adult life with trepidation; Maiden with a capital M makes something different of the contrast between brook and river:
The river beyond soft brooking glints a deadly global thing.
This image of the soft brooking and the deadly global river recurs in a number of poems.
The third embodiment picks up on that ‘soft’. In ‘Brookings in Fur’ it’s a little creature:
soft little Brookings, a silk-nosed squeaker too gentle for words like Global, War or Money, who would not know the price of a gun.
The sweet creature embodies the appeal of brookings: we want to believe that those in power are benign.
The poems in this book engage with international politics, corruption and war: allegations about the White Helmets in Syria, Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard’s dubious practices, Tanya Plibersek’s apparent support for inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum, Israeli snipers’ use of butterfly bullets against Palestinian protestors, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (There was a time when you needed a working knowledge of Greek myth and the Bible to be able to read English poetry; with Jennifer Maiden, you need to be reasonably well-versed in current affairs. Readers outside Australia or even outside New South Wales may need to keep Google – or Duck Duck Go if they value their privacy – handy.)
It’s poetry that includes political commentary and analysis, but it would be a mistake to read it as if that’s all it was. One reviewer has sneered at Maiden’s version of the White Helmets as agents/brookings of Daesh, saying she has offered no evidence (here, and her poem in reply here – you’ll need to scroll down). I think that misses the point. Just as people who abhor Les Murray’s politics can enjoy his poems, people who disagree strongly with Maiden’s political positions (and probably everyone disagrees with some of them – I’m agnostic about the White Helmets, for instance) can still embrace her poetry. One of the things that attracts me to her writing, and has kept me coming back for more, is her commitment to engage with the world in a big way, to figure out what she thinks and to say it without prevarication, sermonising or mumblefucking, while striving for a deeply human perspective on her characters (including – unsuccessfully in my opinion – Donald Trump).
These prayer-like lines come as close as any to articulating the impulse behind much of Jennifer Maiden’s poetry:
Let her protect me, great Spirit of the Universe, my ancestral Durga, with her many limbs, from all that's born to narrow the vision to a bright domestic window. (from 'Brookings in Fur')
That is the temptation of ‘brookings’, and it’s a temptation that Maiden’s poetry invariably resists.
I usually single out one poem for more detailed discussion when writing about books of poetry. Here’s ‘Rope’. Click on the image to big it up, or click here and scroll down to read it in the Rochford Street Review:
If what follows is laborious. Forgive me. Actually reading the poem isn’t laborious at all.
The poem is in three parts. The first four lines set the tone: the speaker, who sees herself as harmless, has been threatened and promised much by a nameless ‘they’ – the fourth line seems to suggest that soon, with talk of Elbridge Colby, some of this will become clearer. The next eighteen lines deal with the speaker’s distressed ‘state’, the poem a rope that prevents her from plummeting into ‘blind depths / too lightless even for black’. After a four-line transition (‘We will move from my state’), there are nine lines about Elbridge Colby, which raise the spectre of nuclear war, and I guess we understand why she is so upset, and who the opening ‘they’ are. The final six lines come close to an expression of despair, though I read the final line, ‘We can talk about Elbridge Colby’, as an assertion of the power of poetry, in the spirit of T S Eliot’s ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’
‘Rope’ is not a typical Maiden poem. I’ll get to that, but first here are some ways it is characteristic.
First, it’s conversational. That’s in the tone, the unobtrusive use of rhyme, and especially in the use of enjambement – many lines end in a word that launches a sentence, creating a constance sense of forward momentum. The sense of a conversation is also there in the way this poem, like many, addresses the reader as a collaborator. The ‘you’ in the fifth line, ‘But I ask you to hold this rope’, seems to imply that the imagined reader in some way helps to preserve the poet from something like deep despair. So when you or I come to it as an actual reader, something uncanny happens – in reading this poem am I somehow holding the rope that saves the poet? If I have trouble with it – have to Google Joan Maas, say – is that my armpits feeling the weight>?
Second, there are a number of kinds of allusions:
allusions to poetry that the reader is expected to be familiar with – ‘this is not the end of Childe Roland‘ refers to Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘, and a quick web search reveals (or reminds if you’re better read than me) that at the end of that poem the knight arrives at his quest’s goal and sees there all the other knights who had gone on the same quest. Maiden has just listed ‘some faces of suicides’; this line is a way of saying they are not the subject of the poem.
allusions to public figures. Usually the poems just assume the reader knows who the public figures are – from Jared Kushner to Dodi, mentioned by Princess Diana. Here there’s no need for a web search, as Elbridge Colby’s identity is explained, but if you want to read his argument, you can click here.
allusions to past and present members of Maiden’s poet community. You probably don’t need to know who Grace and Joan Maas are in this poem. But since I’m writing about it: Joan Maas (also spelled Mas) was an Australian poet who died in 1974 – she was the Joan in Roland Robinson’s autobiography, Letter to Joan; Grace is Grace Perry, who has been mentioned in a number of earlier Maiden poems. In the conversational mode of these poems the reader is expected to remember when she was last mentioned.
allusions to Maiden’s other poems. That Joan Maas ‘thought writing was a brook / to refresh and for respite’ only takes on its full meaning in a context where (soft, sweet) ‘brook’ implies its opposite, the deadly global river: writing is dangerous.
But the poem is atypical. Maiden’s ‘signature’ poems in recent years have been in the form of dialogues, sometimes between fictional characters, especially her own creations George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, but often between public figures and re-awakened people from the past whom in the real world they profess to admire. These dialogues always have elements of dramatic action. In this book, for example, Tanya Plibersek pours tea for Jane Austen, Donald Trump and his mother chat in the Oval Office, and Kenneth Slessor and an unnamed Australian critic meet by moonlight in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. My sense is that this staging of dialogues, where underlying questions might be, ‘What would Jane say to Tanya about this?’ or ‘What would Donald Trump’s mother say to him and John Bolton?’ opens up possibilities for fresh and unexpected thinking. Maybe it’s possible to see Tony Abbott’s humanity if you imagine him chatting with Queen Victoria (that one’s not in this book).
There’s none of that here. This poem is shockingly direct. In it, in a way, Maiden shows her workings, the puppeteer comes out from behind her curtain. Rather than move directly to Elbridge Colby, or set him up for a chat with, say Mamie Eisenhower, here she starts from her own emotional response. The transition between the two main parts is telling:
We will move from my state, as I do in truth to survive, to the personal and worldy.
Many of her poems are about the worldy (an excellent word**, though it may be a typo, as the Rochford Street review has ‘worldly’), and many personalise the subjects they address (as for example, when George and Clare go to Syria). But these lines suggest that there’s some deep and dangerous emotion beneath or behind the political comment and analysis, emotion that cannot easily, or even safely, be addressed directly. And looking at the state of the world, don’t we all have emotions like that?
I am always gripped by a Maiden poem. Rope helps me to understand why.
* Many of Jennifer Maiden’s poems have titles indicating that they belong to one of her sequences or types of poems. For example, the full title of the first poem of the book is ‘DiaryPoem: Uses of brookings: the noun’, and the second’s is ‘Hillary and Eleanor: 16: Concrete’. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted the scaffolding when naming poems.
** I have been informed by the publisher that this isn’t a typo, but a deliberate revision of the Rochford Street Review version. The progression from ‘personal and worldy’ in these transitional lines to ‘personal and worldly’ at the end of the poem adds another level of subtle poignancy.
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