Tag Archives: poetry

Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes

Martin Langford, Neat Snakes (Puncher & Wattmann 2018)

This is a book of aphorisms, hundreds of them, most less than two lines long, the longest edging up to 10 lines. A book to be dipped into, perhaps, rather than read in a sitting, and probably only for people who have a taste for that sort of thing.

Which I do. As a teenager I loved G K Chesterton’s one-liners – ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised’ was a favourite. Around about that age (I was a religious teenager) I encountered the wonderfully contradictory advice in Proverbs Chapter 26 verses 4 and 5:

4. Do not answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear you grow like him yourself.

5. Answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear he imagine himself wise.

(Jerusalem Bible translation)

More recently I used to enjoy the daily quotes on the government-issue desk calendar at work, especially after I learned (from Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, I think) that most of them became more interesting if you added ‘in bed’: ‘Forever is composed of nows in bed,’ for example.

Martin Langford’s aphorisms don’t share Chesterton’s (or Oscar Wilde’s) showy love of the unexpected; he doesn’t contradict himself as blatantly as the author of the Bible; and he doesn’t invite his readers to play innocently risqué games, though he may once have played the ‘in bed’ game himself, because on page 7 he demonstrates that the process doesn’t work in reverse:

The word and the body must search for each other in bed.

The general tone of these aphorisms is serious. Many of them fit Alexander Pope’s definition of true wit: ‘what oft was thought but n’er so well expressed’:

War will not go away if we promise not to think about it.
Banter is a way of exploring which claims will be allowed.
I am not bored by other people. But I am bored by the 
limited nature of our interactions.

There are some that hint at narratives, that could be lines from lost movies:

Together we domesticate the silence.

At least, I first read that as a line from a possible love story, but on reflection, it could be a general statement about the nature of communication. Maybe that’s part of the pleasure of the book – individual pieces change their nature when you come back to them a second or third time.

Some could serve as invitations to readers to write their own essays:

The weigher of hearts keeps a list of the things we have laughed at.

Some are just plain enigmatic:

In some prisons, there is an answer on every door.

Useful insights abound:

When people defend a narrative, they are usually
defending their role in it.
The journalists are reviled for telling the lies that
we pleaded for.
Few believers can articulate their beliefs.

There are succinct reflections on art, particularly narrative art, on death, on sex, on power and competition. Though most of the aphorisms are couched as generalisations, there is a vulnerable intelligence at work in this book. These aren’t words of wisdom dispensed from on high, but insights rooted in experience and thoughtful observation.

I am grateful to Puncher & Wattmann and Martin Langford for my copy of Neat Snakes.

Sarah Day’s Towards Light

Sarah Day, Towards Light and other poems (Puncher & Wattman 2018)

There are probably a hundred reasons why so few non-poets (I am one!) read poetry. One of them is the general belief that poetry is difficult, and that contemporary poetry is more difficult than most. And if you have stumbled across a poetry reading at a literary festival where someone stands up front to cool applause and reads, for example, the proofing marks on a business document galley, you may well decide that contemporary poetry is not only difficult but pointless.

If you’ve been avoiding poetry for reasons like this, and yet have a niggling worry that you might be missing something, then maybe you could try reading Sarah Day. The poems in this book are eminently accessible, and they attend to things worth attending to.

Many of the poems read as the equivalent of a visual artist’s pencil drawings of beautiful things and places – a Lisbon tiled wall depicting St Anthony preaching to the fishes, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitane, many moments in Tasmanian landscape, an amateur-built rocking horse, a caravan park campground, a ‘fugitive budgie / in a democracy, or an empathy / of sparrows’, a cow looking out from a concrete stall in Galicia. In poem after poem, there is a sense of close, acute, patient attention. There are some narrative poems, especially dealing with childhood memories, though ‘Overcoat’ makes a rich narrative from an elderly couple observed leaving a cafe. The book ends with a powerful sequence, ‘The Grammar of Undoing’, about the poet’s mother’s Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

I usually pick a single poem to talk about in some detail when I blog about poetry books, and I generally go for one that fits on a single page. The poem in this book that keeps demanding my attention is a little longer than that. It’s ‘Lens’:

We were on the bridge
gazing into the marsh creek
whose waters, filtered by sedge
and ribbon grass and samphire,
threw light on the motion of worms
and the whims of small clams.
Somewhere in the landscape,
a harrier circled, a crane stooped,
each intent on its own business.
A short eel hovered in the current,
swallows dipped under the bridge
and back. Then from upstream
a bow-wave, pushed by a long gaze
that seemed to take us in:
two humans on a bridge.
Liquid, it looped, fur swaying
through figures of eight
ruddered by a long tail with
a white tip like a ring-tailed possum.
It snatched up a crab in small front paws
and with one motion was a creature
of the land whose supple, lean length
bent into a pot-hook
like a bandicoot but its feet
were half wading bird, half rodent.
The cracking of carapace and legs
revealed strong teeth. A comb
or two with the thin clawed toes
and the slate fur stood up softly
in air, mottled with auburn.
The water rat vanished as we blinked.
Since then, nothing much has changed;
the day's news, like any other's,
is filled with grief and fear and fury.
The water rat has not appeared again
under the wooden bridge
but the landscape is altered
beneath that cool, brackish lens.

See what I mean about close, acute, patient attention? The poet’s gaze, perhaps. The scene is created so deftly in the opening lines – and the words used to convey the transparency of the creek (‘the waters … threw light on the movement of worms’) introduce the book’s pervasive motif of light as something almost magical. Certainly there’s restrained wonder at being able to see such detail on the creekbed. Three kinds of bird, an eel: I don’t know about you, but by the time we reach ‘Then from upstream / a bow-wave’ I’m pretty well identified as one of the ‘We’ who are standing together in companionable silence on the bridge pausing, I imagine, in the middle of a bush walk.

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I noticed the repetition of gazing: ‘We’ are gazing into the creek, and the bow-wave is pushed by a ‘long gaze’. The landscape looks back, and for a moment the poem too turns back on the viewer. I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that at this moment, the poet (and her companion) become as much part of the scene as the harrier or the swallows: worms, clams, birds, eel, and ‘two humans on a bridge’.

Having made its entrance, the poem’s hero occupies the next fifteen lines of wonderfully engrossed description. Engrossed, but not all romantic-lyrical: the animal is like a bandicoot or a ring-tailed possum, and even more prosaically a pothook. Like the harrier and the crane it’s intent on its own business, which is cracking open and devouring a crab, doing a bit of grooming and then clearing out. Only when it has vanished can it be named, because up until then it was all colour and movement – and long gaze.

The last seven lines echo two much-quoted lines about poetry: William Carlos Williams’s famous one-liner lines, ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,’ and W H Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. The water rat held the poet’s attention for a moment. That’s all. The actual news – of looming environmental catastrophe, perhaps – is no less horrible. But … but what?

I find the last two lines enigmatic. We’re back with the transparency of the creek, now a ‘cool, brackish lens’ – the notion of the water throwing light has condensed into the single word that gives the poem its title. Is it that this moment with the creek and the water-rat has provided a way of looking at the broader landscape, the domain of ‘the news’? The landscape is altered, perhaps, in the sense that the speaker has been reminded that there are other ways of looking at the world than through the lens of ‘the news’, as in newspapers and social media. (I speak as someone who stopped looking at Twitter, hopefully for good, 10 days ago.) Once you’ve seen a water rat, really seen it, can you keep on being obsessed with the doings of Fraser Anning or Donald Trump, or the self-nicknaming Prime Minister of Australia? Maybe there’s also a faint echo here of another famous line, this one from Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘: ‘You must change your life.’

Towards Light is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Elieen Chong’s Uncommon Feast

Eileen Chong, The Uncommon Feast: Essays, Poems and Recipes (Recent Work Press 2018)

In 2017, Eileen Chong’s third book of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. At the awards ceremony, a senior poet told her that many of her poems were like recipes, and if she collected them into a book she might have some success with it. She writes about this comment, and her reaction to it, in the first essay of The Uncommon Feast. ‘I am speechless,’ she says. ‘I feel put in my place, and ashamed.’

Happily, the shame didn’t last. The Uncommon Feast is a beautiful, generous, delightful response to that comment. It contains poems that are like recipes, as well as actual recipes. And it is much richer and more rewarding to culinary and non-culinary readers alike than anything her fellow poet presumably had in mind.

As Judith Beveridge says in her Introduction, the poems are at the heart of the book, but the prose essays and recipes, and the line drawings by Chong’s husband Colin Cassidy, are what transform it from a slim vol of poetry to a feast of a book. ‘The Common Table’, a short essay first published in Meanjin, which includes the account of the awards evening, also gives us the wonderful (food-related) moment when Chong’s mother understood that she was a writer; and ‘Eating and Telling: A Personal Food History’, is a quick autobiography told in terms of food – the school canteens (Singapore’s version so much more interesting than North Queensland’s), family meals, dining with partners, the bliss of cooking and eating with her husband. If we needed instructions on how to read Chong’s food poems, they are there:

Food, for me, is representative of family, culture, nourishment and love. I’ve learned how to cook from my grandmother, my mother, my friends’ mothers, and my partners over the years. The dishes I prepare are a palimpsest of experiences and cultures, new and old.

I’m surrounded by people who say they don’t get poetry – they feel intimidated by it, or see it as lost up its own wazoo. If any one book could convert them to poetry lovers, this would be it. There are many wonderful moments. For example, ‘Chinese Ginseng’ is a very fine poem in which the poet’s mother offers ginseng as a traditional cure for what the daughter knows to be irremediable. It ends:

--------------------------------------There is no point
in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear:
------polycystic ovaries,
endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen – I can
------almost taste

her soup, sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica
------and lilybulb,
but above all, the unmistakeable bitter-sweetness of
------Chinese ginseng.

Such a great moment! Ginseng may not be a cure for the physical ailment, but it becomes a sacrament of the mother’s love. Facing the poem is Colin Cassidy’s drawing of a ginseng root, inscribed with the words ‘panacea, tonic, necessity’ Then you turn the page to a recipe for Chinese Ginseng Chicken Soup, and you’re invited to join the moment with your own soup-making, soup drinking body.

The book is full of segues, and juxtapositions like that. I laughed out loud a number of times for sheer joy.

The Uncommon Feast is the third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mary Oliver’s Twelve Moons

Mary Oliver, Twelve Moons (Back Bay Books 1979)

The first thing Mary Oliver said to me, it must have been in the mid 1990s, was this:

You do not have to be good.

That’s the opening of ‘Wild Geese’, from her book Dream Work (1985). Having completely grabbed my attention, she went on:

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

They are words I wish every Irish-style Catholic of my generation, and possibly of all generations, could have heard in their childhood. There’s even more to the poem. You can watch her read the whole thing on YouTube.

When I heard last Friday that she had died, aged 83, I made a little pilgrimage to Gleebooks and bought Twelve Moons, one of four books by her on the shelves, of which one (Blue Horses) I already own, another (Devotions) was too huge for the moment, and the third (Dog Songs) probably too tummy-scratching.

Twelve Moons was Mary Oliver’s fourth book of poetry, first published half a decade before she won the Pulitzer (and before ‘Wild Geese’ was published). It’s a terrific book. Reading it now, I’m interested in how it fits with the New York Times headline of 22 January, ‘Mary Oliver, 83, Prize-Winning Poet of the Natural World, Is Dead.’ In what way, I found myself asking, was she a poet of the natural world? (I don’t disagree with the description. After the lines quoted above, ‘Wild Geese’ goes on to talk about flocks of wild geese with their harsh cries.)

There’s a lot of the ‘natural world’ in this book: twelve very different moon poems; deer, horses, sharks; rain, snow, sunshine; crows, owls, bears and trees; mussels, snakes, turtles and stones. But they’re not generally ‘nature poems’ in any easy, Fotherington-Thomas way (‘Hullo clouds, hullo sky!’). At times, they seem to emerge from sustained, quiet observation of the living environment; at others, from a sharp moment of empathy (as in ‘The Black Snake’, where the speaker picks up a dead snake from the road and puts it back in the bushes). And though I’d say Mary Oliver is a life-affirming poet, there’s a lot of death: as an osteopath once said to me, ‘The body naturally seeks equilibrium, which is part of the healing process, but of course there’s also equilibrium in death.’ There’s that, and also the notion of life as precious but brief.

As is my custom, let me look fairly closely at a single poem. ‘Last Days’, on page 51, is not necessarily my favourite in the book, but it’s short enough to show you in a single jpeg, it does interesting things with ‘the natural world’, and – happily, given my love of the form – it’s a sonnet. Here it is:

Things are    changing; things are starting to     spin, snap, fly off into    afternoon. Oh and ooh   come whistling out of the perished mouth   of the grass, as things   turn soft, boil back   into substance and hue. As everything,   forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:   I too love oblivion why not it is full   of second chances. Now,   hiss the bright curls of the leaves. Now!   booms the muscle of the wind.

This is more enigmatic than most of Mary Oliver’s poems. In fact, it’s a teaser poem – not naming its subject until its last word, but describing its effects as if they originate elsewhere, and also throwing in a good dose of misdirection.

The misdirection begins with the title, an apparent reference to the End Times, when life as we know it finishes in the twinkling of an eye. The first words, echoing W B Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming‘ – ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ – lead us further down that path. Perhaps one expects a poem about environmental disaster.

But the tone is too jaunty for that: ‘things are starting to / spin, snap, fly off’ doesn’t exactly feel like doomsday! The enjambments in those first lines, snapping phrases in two, capture the feel of all that disruption, but in an almost comical way, and it’s hard to see ‘the blue sleeve of the long / afternoon’ as a place of dread.

Then comes the sound. By the time the oh and ooh whistle from the grass’s mouth, the puzzle is only nominally still in place: wind is clearly involved. So when things ‘turn soft / boil back into substance and hue’, we know what is going on. Serendipitously, as I type this the gum trees and jacaranda outside my windows are boiling away, so what the eye sees is mainly colour and movement, no detail, just ‘substance and hue’.

Broadening out from ‘things’, the poem now speaks of ‘everything’: as in the Sleeping Beauty story, everything shakes off the enchantment that has made it inanimate.

Everything whispers, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’. Where the early enjambments mimic the snapping-off effects of the wind, here the lack of punctuation evokes the way everything is in motion. Then the final exhilarated cry of ‘Now!’ Who hasn’t stood in a strong wind and felt that exhilaration? And the wind is named at last as the great sayer of ‘Now!’.

So the poem isn’t about the end of the world after all. It’s just the wind, and not necessarily even a dangerous wind.

But what to make of that whisper, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’? The poem rushed us past it, even though on my first reading it was the word ‘oblivion’ that snagged my attention. What does it mean here? Why ‘too’ – who else loves oblivion?

In most contexts I would take ‘oblivion’ to mean something like death, or at least the death of the mind – so a word that chimes nicely with the End Times expectations generated by the title. But the immediate context suggests a completely different meaning: ‘oblivion’ is the state of forgetting, of having one’s attention fully in the present moment, the Now.

And why ‘too’? One possibility that suggests itself is that it’s the poem’s speaker who loves oblivion; that she isn’t just recording what she sees, though nor simply projecting her mental state onto it, but in describing the weather she is also describing the effect it has on her emotional state. And so back to the poem’s title. It’s not Last Days as in End Times, so much as the end of something, no longer stuck, enchanted, brooding over the past, but shaken into the present moment, where there is a possibility of new beginnings.

Please excuse me for hammering away at this small poem, but it’s helped me to articulate how I understand Mary Oliver to be a ‘poet of the natural world’: she’s not a meticulous describer of natural phenomena, but she writes out of her relationship to them. It’s a two-way relationship.

Australian Poetry Journal 7:2, Work

Cassandra Atherton and Benjamin Laird (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2: Work (2017)

cover image

I mainly read this issue of The Australian Poetry Journal on my computer screen. It sat on my desktop to be dipped every now and then, a bit like Twitter only more than 280 characters, more nuanced, less infested with outrage and snark, and more nourishing. Here are some of the bits I enjoyed a comment on the front cover and then some snippets from poems that struck me (though not the only ones that did).

The cover illustration, a photo taken by artist Albert Tucker of artist Joy Hester watching art patron John Reed milking a cow at the artist’s colony Heide in 1942, is rich with metaphorical implications in reference to the journal’s theme of work. It reminds me of Jerome K Jerome’s famous quip about liking work: ‘It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours.’

From Jill Jones, ‘This Could Take a While’: 

How do you get through days
that have already curved too far? 

From Andy Kissane, ‘The Study Before the Major Work’: 

I finish one sketch and start another, in love
with the repetition that is the texture of my life, 
waking each morning to currawong calls,
raising the blinds to the shifting architecture
of light, dressing in loose clothes, keen to dwell
in the lilting halls of wonder.

From Geoff Page, ‘In medias res’: 

I should perhaps have warned you all
my death will be in medias res:
a carload of musicians 

driving up from Sydney
and being switched to voicemail

From Judith Beveridge, ‘The Pest Inspector’: 

He gave good advice: ‘Always listen at night, 
and if you hear a sound as though you’ve left
a record on after all the songs have played,
the ticking of a needle as it tracks in a groove;
if you hear what you take to be the scratching
of a mouse, the contractions of a cooling
tin roof, or click beetles snapping their thoraxes
and abdomens to flip themselves right way up –
take note, they could turn out to be the mandible-crafted
ticks of termites eating along the grain
of your floorboards.’

The whole of Cameron Lowe’s ‘Botanic / Beginning with four words from a poem by Joseph Massey’, which maybe I love because there was a giant fig behind my childhood home in North Queensland: 

There’s little
to say
. The fig –

giant – leans
across the

bridge, reaches
up into 

itself, names
fading

from the love
heart

scored in its 
trunk. 

Cameron Lowe’s poem is part of ‘New Shoots: Garden of Poems’, a special feature that takes up nearly half of the journal’s pages. In 2017, under the auspices of Red Room Poetry, Australian Poetry Inc and the Melbourne Writers Festival, Tamryn Bennett commissioned ten poets to create a new suite of poems each, inspired by plants and histories they encountered in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. The poems they produced have had other outings – at the Festival, as a poetry trail at the Gardens, and in an online recording accompanied by interviews (here). They make a brilliant feature here: first the poems, then nine pages of ‘Reflections’ by the poets, which mostly allow for a much deeper reading experience. Just for one example, Bruce Pascoe’s powerful poem, ‘Kuller Kullup’, about the 19th century Wurundjeri elder of that name, becomes even richer when read in the light of his reflection, which begins:

  It is very hard for Aboriginal people to get through a day without being reminded of loss, sometimes accompanied by a profound sadness, sometimes by mere elevated irony. When I was walking around the gardens with the other poets dread was dragging at my heels, feeling for my throat. The talk of last and natural and heritage was clutching at me with scrabbling fingers.

There’s much more, in the ‘New Shoots’ section and in the journal as a whole. Copies are available for sale from Australian Poetry Inc.

Eileen Chong’s Rainforest

Eileen Chong, Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018)

Rainforest is Eileen Chong’s fifth book of poems in five years. I’ve blogged about three others here, here, and here and I’m still a complete fan.

The book’s title is explained in a note: the Chinese character on the cover, which is the third character of Eileen’s Chinese name (the Lin of Zhang Yi Lin) ‘refers to a constant, nourishing rain’, but the radicals that comprise it are yu, meaning ‘rain’, and mù, the radical for ‘wood’. So though the word doesn’t translate as ‘rainforest’, the note explains, ‘the rainforest is embedded within the word itself’. The poem plays on the contrasting connotations of this and those of her western name, Eileen/Helen:

My namesake, so greatly desired
men set fire to a thousand ships –
the light they must have given off,
each sail a blackened flame sooting

the sky. I prefer the rain, a cloud
cradling drops that fall at an angle
over a forest waiting to receive.

It goes on to offer a kind of poetic manifesto in the form of a playful take on nominative determinism – the idea that unconscious processes mould our lives to fit our names: we can choose, it says, how to read our names. What an advantage it is if your name can be represented in pictograms!

So ‘Rainforest’ invites us to expect something like a self-titled album. And the book is intensely personal, though generous to the reader, inviting us in to play, to commiserate, to share joy and occasionally, as in the title poem, to learn.

There are four roughly equal sections, ‘East’, ‘South’, ‘West’ and ‘North’. It’s not that there’s a narrative, but the book has a dramatic shape, and it works so well that I had to stop reading on the first two pages of ‘North’ to weep tears of relief.

‘East’ comprises poems of Chong’s Singaporean Chinese heritage, childhood family, and identity: poems feature food, history, places, connections with other Chinese expatriates. ‘South’ is a collection of Australian poems: places again, artworks, relationship to First Peoples, and especially the five-part ‘Country’, a response to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, where Chong stretches beyond her generally joyful tone to include some ugly manifestations of racism, though I don’t think we’re meant to take the bleakness of the final lines, whose context is a ‘coastal walk’, as her last word on her adopted home:

_______________You hear about walkers
who stray and die of thirst or exposure.

Always bring water. Leave enough time
for the return journey. Watch the sun's path.
You're on your own. This country cares for no one.

However ironic, these lines certainly lay the ground for the third section, ‘West’. Geographically, they are mostly if not entirely set in Europe. Thematically they deal with trauma, painful memories, and darkness.

It takes a while to realise what’s happening, because the images and language lose none of Chong’s clarity and grace. From the first poem in the section, ‘Measure’:

Words: fallen soldiers on a page.
They come and they go. Memory

as surprising as a laden donkey
picking its way towards the church

at the top of a hill. On this island
even the cats sleep with one eye open.

Or this, from ‘Tide’:

That morning in spring I'd thought
I was at peace. To think of you and walk
past without pain. This evening the moon
rose above the treeline. I stepped into
the garden – sharp, clean air. Autumn.

The same moon, but changed.

As the section progresses, the poems become more graphic: violence in an intimate relationship, miscarriage and childlessness are evoked in unsparingly explicit language. Really, don’t read ‘Sandpaper’ if you’re feeling fragile.

The geographical reference of the final section, ‘North’, is Scotland. Thematically, it opens with a deft piece of misdirection, ‘Warhol: Notebooks’, a wonderfully sensuous account of a Warhol pencil drawing of a ‘man undressed, lying on his back’, the soles of whose feet form

________________________a wrinkled cave
of skin, akin to a woman's soft receiving

It turns out that unthreatening erotic allure of this announces the theme of beautifully. After the ordeals of ‘West’, the poet finds happiness and intimacy with a man rom Scotland. The poems are full of the joy of that relationship. While it would be a mistake to take every poem in the book as strictly autobiographical, one can’t help but be very glad for Eileen Chong, particularly in the half-dozen love poems that start with the section’s title poem, whose final lines are where I started crying:

True north: I sought you 
in the darkest of nights.
Drop anchor. Deep harbour.

There’s a lot more to this book than I’ve been able to say. Kim Cheng Boey has a beautiful and enlightening review in the Sydney Review of Books. He may not be as keen on the third and fourth sections as I am, but if if I haven’t persuaded you to have a look at Rainforest, perhaps he will.

Rainforest is the twentieth and last book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

David Malouf’s An Open Book

David Malouf, An Open Book (UQP 2018)

Speaking a couple of years ago at a seminar on Poetry and the Sacred at the Catholic University, David Malouf offered a definition of prayer as paying close attention. If one accepts that definition, then An Open Book is full of prayer: attention to the environment, to relationships, to small children playing, to tiny moments, to his own fleeting thoughts and feelings. There’s also close attention to language, in particular the kind of attention that translation demands.

This means that for the reader the book offers many things that make you go hmmm, or ah, and sometimes oof! 

The title, An Open Book, could look like a publisher’s little joke: that is, it’s a kind of label – ‘This is a book.’ But there’s more to it: it makes you think  the sentence, ‘My life is an open book,’ and the book does follow the trajectory of a life’. It pretty much begins with a series entitled ‘Kinderszenen’, German for ‘Scenes from childhood’, and ends with a number of poems about old age and the anticipation of death. It follows in the poet’s footsteps from the Brisbane of his childhood, to London, the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany, Myrtle Street in Chippendale, and back to Brisbane.

One of the childhood poems, ‘The Open Book’, suggests pretty strongly that while the book may be in some way autobiographical, it’s not offering us a writer stripped bare:

My mother could read me, or so she claimed,
like a book.  Fair warning! But I
too was a reader and knew that books

like houses have their secrets. Under the words
even of plain speakers,
echo and pre-echo.

There’s plenty of echo and pre-echo under the mostly plain words of these poems.

I mostly want to talk about translation, but first, just because I love them, I have to quote these lines from one of the ‘death’ poems, ‘Before or After’:

At something more
than fourscore, till the big

surprise kicks in and leaves me
breathless, most
surprises, though not unwelcome,

are small. It is the small,
the muted inconsequential,
at this point that comes closest
to real.

About translation. Malouf’s first collection, Bicycle and other poems (UQP 1970) included a number of translations. I can’t quote from memory, but I remember the pleasure I found in the freshness of  his versions of Horace: one of them mentions the early light glinting off milk churns put out beside a country road, and to me it felt that rural Queensland was being linked to classical Rome; and his translation of ‘carpe diem’ is a small miracle: 

Today's a rose.
Let it blaze in your lapel.

There’s a Horace translation in this book, and a Dante, and the one I want to talk about, ‘La Belle Hélène’, after ‘Sonnet pour Hélène’ by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. This is not exactly an obscure poem: I found a website that gives the original French and at least ten translations (here, if you’re interested).

A basic question about any translation is: why? Why this poem? Why include it in a collection of your own poems? Is it a technical exercise? is the translated poem one you love and simply want your readers to know about? Or does it provide a medium for you to express something of your own?

The first thing to say is that ‘La Belle Hélène’ is actually a translation – in contrast to W B Yeats’s also-lovely ‘When You Are Old‘, which takes the original poem as a starting point for a slightly different argument addressed to his own love.

Look at the first lines.

The original:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.

Very close literal translation):

When you will be well old, in the evening, by the candle,
Sitting near the fire, dividing and spinning
You will say, singing my verses, being filled with wonder:
Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful

David Malouf:

Long years from now, in the fireside hush of midnight,
as you muse by candlelight, you'll pause at your needle
-work and say, 'Years back, when I was a girl,
an impossible sweet sixteen, Ronsard, the poet

you know, once sang my praises, called me 'belle'.

Malouf doesn’t stay close to the words of the original, or use full rhymes, but nor does he hijack the poem for his own purposes. There is evidence everywhere that he has paid close, loving, deeply respectful attention to the original. All the elements are there: the projection well into the future, the fire, the candle, the work, the rhyme scheme (though modernised away from full rhymes). Instead of singing the poet’s verses, the future person drops his name, a rough equivalent in these days when no one sits around a fire singing poetry. Malouf moves the hour of the imagined future scene from the evening to midnight, and introduces the idea of a hush, but the effect is to intensify what’s in the original rather than change it. Interestingly, he does specify the girl’s age, ‘sweet sixteen’, which has a decidedly 20th century feel, and can be seen as part of the project of rescuing the poem from a museum existence.

But she’s not just ‘sweet sixteen’, she’s ‘an impossible sweet sixteen’. And that sounds a note not in the original: one feels that Ronsard is about the same age as the woman he addresses, but this ‘impossible’ comes from a much older person. It seems to be asking how anyone could ever be that young?

And it turns out that the poet as an older person has been subtly woven into the texture of the poem. Where Ronsard’s speaker refers to his future self abstractly as a boneless ghost (fantôme sans os), Malouf’s is more specifically imagined – ‘innocuous’ and ‘esteemed’. It’s slight, but enough to be the difference between a young person and an old one imagining themselves as no longer alive. So the ground has been prepared for when he calls her ‘child’ in the second last line. And that word does a lot of work.

Ronsard’s original is unambiguously a poem of seduction. Malouf’s is something else. Ronsard says the older woman will be ‘regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain‘ (‘regretting my love and your proud disdain’). There is no reference to Malouf’s speaker’s love:

You'll regret at last what youth 
and youthful pride disdained.

Ronsard’s final injunction – ‘n’attendez à demain; /Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie‘ (‘don’t wait until tomorrow; / Gather today the roses of life’) – is a lover pressing his case. In Malouf’s version, having diverged incrementally from the original, it becomes something else, a warning from age to youth:

child, relent, choose life! Today is a rose
that withers. Pluck it now, and boldly. Beware tomorrow.

Only the single word, ‘relent’, carries a hint that seduction might be on the agenda. Which would be just a bit creepy. But having now read the poem a number of times, I find that element recedes into the shadows, and the poem becomes an impassioned, generous, considered cry to the young not to waste their youth.

Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music

Judith Beveridge, Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018)

sunmusic.jpgtl;dr: I love this book. Judith Beveridge writes a great self-introduction, and she is the queen of similes.

The six-page Author’s Note at the start of Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is a class act. She begins by talking about her ‘pathological shyness’ as a child, adolescent and adult, seeing in it a partial explanation for why nature features ‘as an abiding source of connection’ in her poems, and for her turning to literature and the written word as a source of intense pleasure and a means of communication.

She goes on to describe the kind of poet she is – mainly lyrical, she says, rather than having ‘an over-heated experimental or exploratory approach’, deriving ‘idiosyncrasies of rhythm, music, voice, sensual knowledge, syntactical deportment, emotion and ideas’ from the body. She also acknowledges that she is a dramatic poet, particularly in two long sequences centred on the life of Siddhatta Gotama the Buddha (not included in this selection but promised as two thirds of a future book), and ‘Driftground’, about a group of fishermen, which account for 27 marvellous pages here.

She discusses influences and aspirations, and generally provides an excellent orientation to the 103 poems that follow. One sentence stood out for me:

It’s the challenge of trying to write a good poem rather than feeling that I have something unique to say that motivates me.

That sentence prepares one for the way her poetry is marvellously open to its subjects. She never comes wielding an agenda, but pays attention with tremendous humility, often to breathtaking effect.

I loved reading Sun Music, and came away resolved to keep my eyes and ears more open to the world, especially but not only to the birds and animals in my life.

When I wrote a blog post about Beveridge’s book Wolf Notes seven years ago I quoted lines about the moon from a number of poems. Looking back, I realise I was trying to communicate my awe at her use of similes. That awe deepened as I read this volume. Some random examples: ‘an egret posed like a too-slim / model in the glossy light’ (‘Sun Music’), or ‘On the headland motels light up / like bright perfume bottles’ (‘Resort Town’), or ‘bluebottles are cast up in clusters / of varicose knots’ (‘Spittle Beach’), or (from ‘Lighthouse Beach’):

________________________________________a lighthouse
stands still as an altarpiece, then for a moment,
sea-misted, it looks like a whale’s spout
about to give way to wind and waves.

Occasionally there’s some showing off – as in ‘The Harbour’, where everything in the poet mentions is seen as something to do with food or its preparation or consumption (the Opera House like an ‘arrangement of prim serviettes’). But it almost always feels as if Beveridge’s similes arise from the quality of attention she has paid to the thing she sees (or hears) – as if it gives her words to describe it, words that she then passes on to us.

I generally try to single out just one poem I connect with when I blog abut a book of poetry. There are so many to choose from here, but I’ve settled on ‘Panegyric for Toads’, one of the thirty-three new poems on the final section – because I’ve been thinking about my North Queensland childhood recently, and this poem restored memory of the ubiquitous cane toads, and captures something of the secret affection I had for them as a child. Here’s the poem (click to enlarge):

Toads

The beginning – ‘These slumlords of burrows and tree-hollows / are on the move’ – evokes an image of toads – squat and repugnant as cartoon slum landlords, then after the line break they are ‘on the move’. This is not a panegyric to a single toad, and not to toads in general, but to a particular set of toads, dozens of them, part of the pestilential spread of their species across vast tracts of Australia. The general point isn’t laboured, it may not even be intended, but it’s strongly there, and the poem goes back to beautifully concise description of their appearance and sound.

The rest of the poem moves back and forth between general cultural and scientific knowledge about toads and precise, felt observation. There’s the folklore, the glaze of poison (we had a dog that tried to eat a toad and got very sick), the mating . All pretty yuck, really. But

__________look at those copper-red eyes leasing

fire to the damp core of evening; listen to their calls
in the reeds like the low-plucked strings of  ouds;
and how, sometimes, as if led by an unseen conductor,

sensing peril, their singing instantaneously stops.

Well, yes, one has to concede, there is that. But then she goes for the most grotesque aspect of these creatures, their mating (here’s a link  to a video in case you need to refresh your memory). There’s a marvellous reversal of the expected order here: there is description of the grotesquerie, the female

____________________scrumming indissolubly
with a group of males, an iron-lock embrace
they won’t break for days, risk drowning for sex.

But that comes after the process has been described as ‘like a congregational / laying on of hands’, whose purpose is to heal their warts. And it comes after the poem’s genuinely shocking moment:

Some say toads are always belching, breaking
wind, eating each other’s shed skin. I’d happily

kiss a toad on her sullen, troglodyte mouth

It’s hard to know what to make of that, apart from to be revolted. The fairytale reference suggests that some transformation might result: it could be that the poet would happily kiss the toad to spare her from the ordeal of the mating scrum, but I don’t think that’s it. Maybe there is a transformation here, though: the poet has seen past the belching, farting, dead-skin eating, sullen wartiness to what is wonderful about these creatures and her response to them has been transformed into something like love. Certainly, coming where they do in the poem, the lines about indissoluble scrumming and risking drowning for sex are celebratory more than anything.

The last three lines, after evoking the beauty of frogs, end with an assertion of fellow-feeling. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as agile, smooth-skinned frogs, but really, warts and all, we’re like toads.

The poem was included in Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2016 edited by Sarah Holland-Batt. A reviewer in  in The Australian (link here, not behind pay wall) wrote:

Judith Beveridge’s A Panegyric for Toads is a breathtaking piece that conflates the behaviour of toads with our reckless treatment of the environment.

I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I just don’t see it. I don’t think the toads here represent anything. Sometimes a toad is just a toad.

Sun Music is the seventeenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored?

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing 2018)

oysters.jpgDo Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.

When I read one of the essays, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, in a 2014 Southerly, I wrote this:

[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.

In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.

The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.

One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:

The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.

As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.

The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.

Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.

These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:

It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and

when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort

Do Oysters Get Bored? is the thirteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kate Lilley’s Tilt

Kate Lilley, Tilt (Vagabond Press 2018)

tilt.jpgThis must be one of the most publicised books of poetry ever to appear in Australia. Kate Lilley and her sister Rozanna Lilley made headlines in June by talking to the press about how, when they were young teenagers, they were sexually exploited  by much older men – writers, poets, artists, etc in the orbit of the girls’ playwright mother Dorothy Hewett, and how this happened with their mother’s apparent endorsement. The articles under the clickbait headlines generally mentioned Tilt and Rozanna’s book of memoir essays and poems, Do Oysters Get Bored? As Rozanna said in an interview on the ABC’s Hub on Books, the Lilley sisters didn’t set out to make scandalous revelations or impugn their mother’s reputation, but to tell their own stories, and perhaps reconsider their experiences and their parents’ milieu in the light of the #MeToo movement. You can hear that interview at this link:

I don’t expect I’ll damage the sales of Tilt if I say readers will scan its pages in vain for prurient thrills. Poems related to Lilley’s early life make up about a third of the book, in a section entitled ‘Tilt’, and based on my limited acquaintance with her work I’d say they are uncharacteristically personal. Poems in the second section, ‘Harm’s Way’, range widely in subject matter, including Australia’s offshore detention of people seeking asylum, a scandal involving a judge in Arkansas, and a Texas psychiatric institution. These poems often feel as if they have been constructed from words and phrases found in other sources – newspaper articles, court documents, institutional records, perhaps. The third section, ‘Realia‘, is an expanded version of the Vagabond Rare Object chapbook (the link is to my blogpost): the expansion consists largely of seven pages of prose about Greta Garbo, which – for prosaic readers like me – allows for a vastly richer reading of the poems that follow, mainly ‘GG’ which comprises a list of objects from the catalogue for the auction of Greta Garbo’s estate.

But back to the direct, personal poems in ‘Tilt’. The great children’s writer Katharine Paterson said somewhere that her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins started out from the question, ‘What became of the children of  the Hippies?’ These ten poems address a similar question: ‘What of the children of sexual libertarians?’ They are not a diatribe, nor do they ask for a response of moral outrage. They are complex, poised, sometimes angry, clear-eyed accounts of troubling moments in a young life. One poem that keeps coming back to me is ‘Conversation Pit 1971’:

conversationpit.jpg

This little poem is worth sitting with for a while. The title and the first couplet conjure up a period domestic milieu – according to Wikipedia conversation pits were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s in Europe and North America, and I guess we’d add in some parts of Australia. In the second couplet Mum’s blunt, explicit question disrupts any expectation of wholesome conversation. It’s the kind of incident that could be part of a hilarity-filled session of reminiscences among the grown children. The lines giving the speaker’s reply,

Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap

would fit nicely in such a session.

Then what wasn’t revealed in the conversation pit: that the speaker also experimented with girl-girl kissing.

We thought we were so ingenious
I was 11 she was 12

Even though we’ve been told that the mother’s question relates to primary schoolchildren’s activities, it comes as a further shock that the girl being questioned was so very young. Then the poem moves on from outrageous family anecdote mode:

The question changed everything
what had seemed forward was now backward

There’s something almost clinical in this. We’re not being asked to condemn the mother, or to pity the daughter – it’s just one of the infinite variety of ways ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but that line, ‘what had seemed forward was now backward’ identifies this particular way with extraordinary simplicity and precision. And then a terrible ache is evoked in the final couplet:

I needed to speed up
at least get my period

Probably everyone has a story to tell about unhelpful parental intervention or non-intervention in their adolescence. Lilley’s poems have an extra dimension from the fact that her mother was Dorothy Hewett, whose poems, plays and prose often dealt with her own sexuality, and her father was Merv Lilley, author of the book Gatton Man, in which he argued that his father was a serial murderer. There are explicit references to the parents’ works: ‘Turn Around Is Fair Play’ amounts to a gloss on a moment in one of Dorothy’s plays, probably The Legend of Tatty Hollow; and ‘Her Bush Ballad (Bourke St Elegy)’ alludes to the subject matter of Gatton Man. But even without such references, this double handful of poems must change the way we read Hewett’s work. Elsewhere, Kate Lilley has described her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. These poems expose some of the darker implications of that description, while never letting go of an enduring sense of connection, of complex loyalty. A line from ‘Memorandum’, the final poem in the section:

I’ll never get over (not) having you as my mother

[Added later: For a very fine, beautifully articulated discussion of the book and its place in the general ‘conversation’, I recommend Ali Jane Smith’s ‘A Book Is a Good Place to Think’ in the Sydney Review of Books.]

Tilt is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.