Tag Archives: poetry

Elza De Locre rediscovered

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

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

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

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

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

His introduction begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the shortest poem in the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine

Bonny Cassidy, Chatelaine (Giramondo 2017)


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The back cover blurb says of the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

– How?

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

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

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

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

Nature is a language, can't you read?

The Marrickville Mattress Minimalist Poet strikes again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denise O’Hagan’s Beating Heart

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

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

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

The back cover tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Robert Alter’s Psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how Robert Alter translates those verses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PSALM 137 **
Ballad of the exiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

   your infants against the rock.

Andrew Huntley’s Lyrical Ballast and From Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it ends:

A poem can be way to make a friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ali Alizadeh’s Towards the End

Ali Alizadeh, Towards the End (Giramondo Poets 2020)

I’m a fan of Ali Alizadeh’s writing – poetry, criticism and fiction. (You can see the many blog posts where I’ve mentioned him at least briefly here.) One of the things I like and admire is his, well, grumpy refusal to conform to expectations. At one Sydney Writers’ Festival when an audience member asked, one immigrant person of colour to another, about the difficulty of writing when one is from a marginalised group, he memorably replied: ‘If someone came here from Mars and looked at us, they’d say, “You all look the same to me. Get over it.”’

The grumpiness is well to the fore in Towards the End, at least on first reading. The title doesn’t refer to any individual’s imminent death, but towards an end much bigger than that. The world is in terrible shape, and this poetry doesn’t hold out much hope for it to survive as we know it, or waste a lot of time dressing its despair and rage in pretty tropes and figures.

The book opens glumly enough with ‘The Singer’, in which the speaker, caught in time between his father ‘crying out the lyrics of an old Persian dirge’ and his son ‘singing Humpty Dumpty, a melody / he screams out in the absence / of my song’, doesn’t sing but writes as a way of enacting ‘the presence of unsung words’. This is followed by a number of similarly dejected poems – regretting the way his once-revolutionary grandparents had become banal and dull when he knew them (‘Saga’); expressing disillusionment with poetry (‘Destinal’ and ‘Merri Creek’) and academia (‘Fred’, ‘The Academy’ and ‘Fetish Commodity’). I don’t want to give the wrong impression: glum is not the same as lifeless of humourless. In ‘Fred’, for instance, a bureaucrat is speaking about ‘desirable outcomes’ etc when the speaker’s thoughts drift off to another bald man. If we’re expecting the remembered contrast to be something from the poet’s Iranian past – a contrast he has drawn in earlier poems – it’s a bit of a jolt instead to have an image from a disssolute youth in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley:

Fred, accountant by day, gothic masochist
in spiky dog collar and that
memorable leather underwear

The glumness takes on a broader scope with ‘Public Mourning’, where the speaker’s discontent with his academic employment (‘whoring my mind’) is juxtaposed with the news that a sheikh has drowned in a lake in Morocco (presumably Ahmed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2010). And from then on the book is mainly a multi-faceted conversation about what poetry can be in the age of late Capitalism, callous treatment of people seeking asylum, murderous family violence, commodification and worse of animals, consumerism, corporate activism and ‘the stinking, condemned / mausoleum of the American Dream’. Marx is quoted, and one poem (‘I ❤ (this) Life?’) reads as a quick rundown on parts of marxist economics. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin have an argument (in ‘The Point’). Tony Abbott makes a brief appearance, in ‘Election Announced’, as ‘the Aussie theocrat / retributivist in speedos’ and ‘the odious Monk’.

Towards the end, there’s a move towards hope that somehow we will rise collectively against this dehumanising and destructive state of things, in the long poem (notice the question mark) ‘Hope?’. This is how that poem ends:

An event
looms on the horizon
____of our very greatest

____expectation. Don't be afraid
________ comrade. The Revolution

________ never ended. Were
________ the governor of our prison

________ to huff, open
________ fire __  at us, would we

____________ not 
____________ come together

____________ again? I think

____________ we would. I think
____________ we will

____________ resume history.
____________ I think there's hope

Then, as a final moment of what might be nostalgia or maybe a gloriously defiant assertion against the odds, a new translation of the great left-wing anthem, ‘The Internationale’, all 12 verses.

It turns out, on second and subsequent readings, the poetry doesn’t seem so grumpy after all. It’s a mind at work, fighting for clarity and against demeaning structures of feeling, sometimes witty, often enraged, argumentative or didactic, but alive and refusing easy resolutions.

I’m grateful to the Giramondo Publishing Company for my copy of Towards the End.

Laurie Duggan’s Homer Street

Laurie Duggan, Homer Street (Giramondo Poets 2020)

Homer Street‘s back cover tells us that Laurie Duggan is ‘celebrated for his acute observations of everyday life and his minimalist style’. If you understand everyday life to include engagement with works of art and connections with other poets, that’s a pretty full description of the poems in this book. All it leaves out is the pleasure offered to the reader on every page.

Each of the book’s three sections is made up of short poems, one as short as three words counting the title. The first set of poems are based in England where the poet lived for many years, the second are back in Melbourne and then Sydney, where he now lives, and the third are poems in response to works of visual art and sculpture. They include verbal snapshots, haikus and haiku-like poems, puns, evocations of places and moments, poems that read like a visual artist’s notes for a painting – all of them, with one exception, remarkable for their brevity. (The exception is ‘Six notes for John Forbes’, almost expansive enough to be called a letter, affectionately addressed to Duggan’s poet friend, who died in 1998.)

Duggan has two long-running sequences of poems on the go, ‘Blue Hills’, named for the ABC radio serial that ran from 1949 to 1976, and ‘Allotments’, probably named for those individual vegetable patches in English towns. Both series, the Australian and the English, have been gathered into books: The Collected Blue Hills by Puncher & Wattmann in 2012, and Allotments by Fewer and Fewer Press in 2011. Those collections, it turns out, weren’t definitive: both series live on in Homer Street, ‘Allotments 101–125’ and ‘Blue Hills 76–110’. There is a third sequence of short poems, ‘Homer Street’ – named for the street in an inner western suburb of Sydney, presumably Duggan’s current address. And I guess the book’s third section, ‘Afterimages’, could be seen as a fourth sequence, though it doesn’t have the same strong sense of place(s) as the others

In writing about these poems I decided to take my cue from the blurb, and googled (actually duck-duck-goed) minimalism and poetry. What I found on a Pen and the Pad was to the point:

Minimalist poetry does not rely on story or narrative; it is as concise as possible and seeks to convey meaning while eliminating any unnecessary words. Minimalist poems do not seek to set scenes, introduce characters or provide descriptions of specific actions or events.

The site goes on to talk about typographic devices and other things that aren’t so relevant, and the examples that it gives make minimalism seem, if not dull, then certainly a bit clever-dicky highbrow and esoteric. By contrast, Duggan’s poetry generally has a genial, inclusive feel. Even when I had to look things up, it felt more of a pleasure than a chore. For example, here’s a complete poem:

Arcimboldo

She's apples

Incomprehensible until you remember/discover that Arcimboldo is the 16th century Italian painter who did portraits made up of fruit and vegetables, this isn’t profound, but it’s fun, and companionable: reading it, you feel that you could have been with Duggan in a museum when he muttered this as an aside in front of a painting.

The book’s title – Homer Street – is itself a kind of minimalist poem. It could be every poet’s address, just down the road from where the playwrights live, on Shakespeare Avenue. And it reflects ironically on Duggan’s poetry: The Odyssey it’s not, though maybe, just maybe, ‘Blue Hills’ and ‘Allotments’ can be seen as developing an epic quality as they accumulate over the decades. Many drops to turn a mill.

Usually when I blog about poetry books I spend time on a single poem. Many of these poems relate to places near where I live. In fact, yesterday I drove the length of Homer Street and admired the view Duggan evokes. But I’ll choose elsewhere. The first poem in the book, ‘A Preface’, is not only a good example of a Duggan poem, it also reflects on the kind of poetry he writes.

A Preface / Songs of myself / the Americans sing // no sense / of insignificance // 'you're not there' / said Basil / Brooklyn 1992 // he was right

I just love this. Perhaps unnecessarily, I’ll walk through my reading of it – though first I must mention how beautifully it sounds. There’s not a word or syllable out of place.

It’s certainly concise, and doesn’t waste any words giving context or explanation. Nine lines including the title. The first four lines, in two couplets, make a statement about American poetry; the next three lines quote an American on Duggan’s work; the last line is his response.

The title invites us to read the poem as an introduction to the book, an indication of what kind of poetry to expect.

The first line echoes the title of one of Walt Whitman’s best known poems. ‘Song of Myself’, Wikipedia tells us, ‘has been credited as “representing the core of Whitman’s poetic vision”.’ The opening couplet suggests that singing of oneself represents a core practice of ‘the Americans’, which in this context probably means specifically US poets, but perhaps something more general in US culture: the individual is paramount, and self-promotion is a necessary and pervasive virtue.

The beautiful double negative of the second couplet – ‘no sense / of insignificance’ – suggests a criticism. It’s one thing to be aware of one’s own significance. It’s quite another to have no sense of one’s own insignificance. This is wide open to interpretation. At least, that’s what I tell myself, but I can’t get past my own train of thought that it sets off: something in Australian culture, or at least the part of it where I live, tends to be self-effacing, self-mocking, self-deprecating. Last night on the TV news, for example, Mark Rapley, who had wrestled a great white shark to make it let go of his wife’s leg, made no claims to heroism: ‘When you see the mother of your child, and your support, everything that’s who you are, you just react.’ And there are hundreds of examples of firefighters who respond with similar ‘sense of insignificance’ when asked about heroic acts – not that their actions lack significance, but they deflect any attention to themselves. This quality could be called humility, or a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. It’s not always a positive thing – the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is another aspect of the same thing. But it’s real, and ‘sense /of insignificance’ is a terrific way of describing it.

I read that second couplet as saying that, for good or ill, ‘the Americans’ lack a quality that, by implication, perhaps the speaker-poet possesses.

We then switch to the quote from ‘Basil’. I don’t suppose it matters who Basil is, beyond what we know and can deduce from the poem: he’s a man from Brooklyn, probably a poet, and his line ‘you’re not there’ is quoted as a response to what has just been said about US poets, presumably including him: We may go on about ourselves, but you’re not there in your poems at all.

And Duggan agrees. Or at least, the speaker of the poem does. It’s worth noticing the exact words. Not ‘I agree’, but the impersonal ‘he was right’. Right here in this poem, Basil’s description is accurate. And the same is true for almost everything in this book (‘Six notes for John Forbes’ is again an exception). Flipping through the pages, I see place after place where something is seen or heard, and the position or movement of the observer is to be deduced by a kind of triangulation. In ‘Allotment 110’ a track ‘marked / by broken branches / traverses Redhill Wood / to the pheasant farm’; ‘Blue Hills 77’ has ‘at night the clatter of freight trucks / on the Bankstown line’. Nowhere in the sequence ‘Homer Street’ are we told that the speaker/poet lives there. It’s like a person with camera: we see what the camera sees, and can tell where the photographer/cinematographer is, but never see the actual person.

‘A Preface’ holds up this quality as distinctively un-American, perhaps hinting that it’s distinctively Australian.

So who is ‘Basil’? In the age of Google and Duck Duck Go such questions can be answered. Searching Basil, poet, Brooklyn gave me Basil King (link is to his Wikipedia page), painter and poet, whose ongoing project Learning To Draw/A History, sounds eerily similar to Duggan’s long-term sequences, though King’s work, I gather, is telling his life story, very much songs of himself. An article by Laurie Duggan is cited on King’s Wikipedia page, and on King’s own website I discovered that King did the cover image for Duggan’s Allotments, which he reviewed, describing the poems beautifully:

Portable.  Almost invisible.  They reflect, replay, compress and then call a reader back to think again.

(http://www.blog.basilking.net/new-laurie-duggan-chapbook-with-cover-by-baz-published/)

So Basil is a real person, a friend it would seem. The inclusion of the date clarifies that a real utterance is being remembered. ‘A Preface’ is, among other things, part of a friendship: two poets talking to each other about their work. If the line had gone, ‘said Basil King’, or even if there had been an explanatory note, the web-searching would have been marginally easier, but the tone of the poem would have changed: it would have become a learned allusion, or a bit of name-dropping, rather than a report on a conversation. And yet, for all that, Duggan isn’t there except as the recorder.


I first met Laurie Duggan’s poetry when I was a postgrad Eng Lit student at Sydney University in the early 1970s. His was an amiable, wry, self-deprecatory voice among the young poets who read to us in those heady days. I’ll spare you my own boomer recollections, but you might be interested to read Laurie’s, in his contribution to the webpage commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Martin Johnston, perhaps the most erudite of those young poets. Here’s a link to the webpage, and a link to Laurie’s contribution.

You might also be interested in my blog post about his New and Selected Poems 1971–1993 (at this link).


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my complimentary copy of Homer Street.

Ellen van Neerven’s Throat

Ellen van Neerven, Throat (UQP 2020)

This is Ellen van Neerven’s second book of poetry. It picks up the themes of the first book, Comfort Food (my post here), and expands and deepens them wonderfully (and sometimes alarmingly). van Neerven discussed the book with poet Tessa Rose at the virtual Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. The podcast, which you can access here, spurred me to buy a copy. And I’ve just listened to the inaugural episode of UQP’s podcast series, Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times, where van Neerven chats with Western Sydney poet Eunice Andrada (Soundcloud here). It feels as if they are everywhere. (Gender fluidity features in Throat, and I believe that ‘they’ is van Neerven’s preferred pronoun.)

In the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast, van Neerven reads the long poem ‘Chermy’ – about the Westfield shopping centre, Chermside – and describes its evolution as a social poem for and by her First Nations family in south-east Queensland (it’s on the Overland website, here). Another long poem, ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ is a similarly social poem about the poet’s identity as part of the Blak Queer community (you can read it on the SBS site, here). ‘Blak’, by the way, is a word coined by artist Destiny Deacon to signify urban First Nations people in Australia, a coining whose origins you can read about here. These two poems, appearing early in this book, provide a kind of backdrop for much of what follows. I love this from about the midpoint of ‘The Only Blak Queer’:

I hadn't yet been to Mardi Gras.

I saw the white gays and the white gaze I was used to and
then I saw Blak Queers everywhere and every conversation 
was an insight into a Blak Queer past, the street becoming a 
site of multi-time, the past-present beat, the future love, and 
forty years of Blak Queer pride spread into more than sixty 
thousand years of we-have-always-been-here.

My dance joined a big dance. I saw a Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta 
lesbian couple who had been marching since the beginning, 
who chanted, 'Stop Police Attacks! On Gays, Women and 
Blacks!' in 1978 and they told me off for knowing fuck-all.

Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am 
learning the words.

You don’t have to be Blak or Queer to feel the huge joy of finding a community and a history in those lines. And you don’t have to be a 78er to love the humility in the second paragraph and the pride in the last sentence.

The book’s five loose sections all revolve around the lived experience of being Aboriginal/Blak and queer. There are poems commenting on political news, from ‘The Last Apology’ which likens Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations as the apologies of a domestic abuser (‘You want to make up and make out / with the Aboriginal flag / I want you to promise /you won’t do it again’), to ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’, which begins: ‘We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist’, or ‘Engaged’, a wry take on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Some poems turn a challenging eye on white allies. ‘Expert’, for example, begins:

poor me
don't know how it happened
think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she's an expert
don't know how she got her expertise
think I'm the first one she's met

Some poems celebrate being part of the community of Aboriginal women and find strength there. There are poems of connection to Country, and poems of travel – solidarity found with Indigenous people elsewhere, and dread at returning to Australia. ‘Questions of Home’ ends:

I brace my self so much on arrival
I forget to breathe.

There are joyful poems about queer relationships. My favourite lines in the whole book (from ‘Pleasure Seeking’):

Tell her ...
go'n, tell her ...
you're not really dating
unless you're dating each other's ancestors

Like Comfort Food, this book features a number of poems responding to works by other artists and writers, including Destiny Deacon ( ‘Portrait of Destiny’), Kerry Reed-Gilbert (‘White Excellence’), Candy Royalle (‘Queens’), Michelle De Kretser (‘Questions of Travel’ and perhaps two other poems), Alice Walker (‘All that is loved (can be saved)’), an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery (‘Body Flow’). In a category of its own is ‘HOMOFOMO’, brief, bitterly hilarious descriptions of eight (imaginary?) queer-themed mainstream movies.

It’s a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice. I had to use a search engine occasionally, but each time it was rewarding. I laughed a number of times. There is at least one too-much-information moment, but I think my embarrassed averting of the gaze was exactly the response the poet would have expected of me.

There’s so much to respond to but as usual I’ll just pick one poem to talk about in detail. Here’s ‘Call a Spade a Spade’. It wasn’t my first choice, but it kept waving its arms in the air demanding my attention:

Call a Spade a Spade

a heart a heart
a diamond a diamond
a club a club
call in invasion not settlement
call it genocide not colonisation
call it theft not establishment
don't call January 26 Australia Day
don't shy away from telling the truth
do't say 'no worries' say 'I worry'
for the future of our country, our environment
if we fail to listen and to act
don't say 'we're full'
say 'we're open'
call yourself an ally
call yourself a mate

This is one of a number of poems in the book addressed to non-Indigenous/settler readers. At first glance it feels pretty prosaic, even preachy, more Facebook post or Twitter thread than poem (though of course the categories aren’t exclusive). But if you take it slowly, that is if you read it as a poem, it opens out like a fan.

The poem falls into five parts: 1) the title 2) three lines, syntactically dependent on the verb ‘call’ in the title, with the form ‘a x a x’; 2) three lines that repeat that verb, and go ‘ call it x not x’; 3) four sentences starting with ‘don’t’, two of one line each, one of three lines, and the fourth of two lines; 4) two lines, back to the word ‘call’, each with the shape ‘call yourself x’.

The title for a start: it means of course, ‘Speak plainly without euphemism or hi-falutinness’: don’t call a spade an agricultural implement. As the title of a poem by an Indigenous woman, it also evokes a term of racist abuse, and if that were the primary meaning it would be a directive to use racist language. Clearly, in this context, that’s not what the poem is about to do, but the ambiguity hangs about, subliminally posing a question about the effect of racist abuse, and unsettling the white liberal reader (which is the only kind of reader I can speak for).

The first three lines takes us to a third and mercifully harmless meaning of ‘spade’ by enumerating the card suits. But thanks to the charged ambiguity of the title, each of these suit names now resonates with a charge of its own: ‘heart’ – these are people; ‘diamond’ – wealth, greed and the profit motive are major forces in our society; ‘club’ – so is violence.

If you were reading the poem as an instructional text, the next three lines are the core: four examples of language that names the reality without pussyfooting around. The list could have included, say, ‘call it massacre not dispersal’, ‘call it Uluru not Ayer’s Rock’, ‘write Aboriginal not aboriginal’, a seemingly endless stream of injunctions.

The first of the next three lines – lines starting with ‘don’t’ – adds to the list, and locates the poem as part of the current long-running conversation about 26 January, a conversation that ranges from Stan Grant’s Australia Day and the Twitter hashtag #ChangetheDate, and so carries with it a whiff of acrimony, a suggestion perhaps that the poem so far is making demands in the spirit of what is being called ‘cancel culture’, what an open letter to Harpers Magazine signed by 150 luminaries called ‘the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides’: use the language that I am specifying here or … But then, in my reading, there’s a turn away from that tone: ‘don’t shy away from telling the truth’ could still mean ‘my truth’, but it would be a stretch. The remainder of this section moves further away with ‘don’t say”no worries” … don’t say “we’re full”‘. Although the language is still about what the speaker wants us to say or not say, these are no longer instructions on how to clean up our language. The first is an exhortation against complacency; the second quotes a battle of slogans about asylum seekers and gives it tremendous metaphorical power: ‘say “we’re open”‘ surely is an appeal to the reader to open himself up to possibility, to other people’s reality, specifically the reality of Indigenous lives.

And the final couplet brings it home: ‘call yourself an ally / call yourself a mate’. The speaker isn’t calling on us for compliance, but for active allyship (is that a word?), and then, and this is the thing that lodged in my brain and made me go back to the poem, to be a mate, with all the associations of that word. We started out with card games, we stopped off at the problematic national day and what Wikipedia says (here) may be white Australia’s national motto, and we end with mateship. This isn’t about getting the words right or conforming to the current demands of wokeness: it’s an appeal for decency and an implied offer of friendship. An ally can retain a sense of superiority; not a mate.

For me this poem is a lesson in the value of slow reading. Skimmed, there’s not a lot to it that you haven’t heard at a hundred demonstrations. Taken meditatively, it pierces the heart.

Added later: If you’re interested in a review from an Indigenous perspective, there’s ‘On the Power of Being Still’ by Wiradjuri woman Janine Leane in the Sydney Review of Books, link here.


Throat is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


This review is a late contribution to Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food

Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food (UQP 2016)

tl;dr: This is a terrific book. If you want a proper, thoughtful, well-informed review, you could read ‘Caitlin Mailing Reviews Ellen van Neerven’ in the Cordite Poetry Review, 22 August 2016, link here.

A poem by Ellen van Neerven made headlines late in 2017 when it appeared in the NSW Higher School Certificate exam. That it was there without the poet’s prior knowledge or consent isn’t what made the news – evidently that’s just standard practice. The headlines came from massive social-media trolling by students, all of it disgusting, much of it explicitly racist, and some of it threatening violence.

The poem was ‘Mango’, which appears on page 19 of Comfort Food. I’ve gotta say if that sweet reminiscence from when the writer was eight years old inspires you to make death threats, then you’re not a happy camper. I hope those adolescent cyber-haters have found a way past their exam-triggered, genocide-flavoured rage to seek out this book and sit with it a while.

What they would find is a generous, richly varied collection of short poems in which van Neerven wrangles into words some of what it means to be a particular First Nations person in Australia. van Neerven is a Yugambeh woman from south-east Queensland, living – according to my reading of the poems – in inner-city Melbourne, and that simple statement contains enough complexity for any number of poems.

The book is in six untitled sections of uneven length. Food is a strong motif, from chips to kangaroo tails in a wide range of situations, not all of them comforting or comfortable by a long shot (though the old use of ‘comfort’ to mean ‘strengthening’ is somewhere there). The poems do keep coming back to food, and the effect is to assert the poet’s survival and to remind the reader of what we have in common, even when hard matters of racism and genocide are being canvassed.

If you want a considered review of the whole book, I recommend Caitlin Mailing’s review in the Cordite Poetry Review (link here) or Kylie Thompson’s in Westerly (link here). When I started writing about it I couldn’t get past the first poem, ‘Whole Lot’, so I’m not going to even try.

‘Whole Lot’ is a response to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s monumental painting Big Yam Dreaming (there’s a photo, and the poem, at this link, but this is a painting that cries out to be seen in person, and the poem differs in minor but significant ways from the one in the book). The poem’s title is taken from the artist’s reply when asked what the painting was about: ‘Whole lot, that’s whole lot.’ (I’m grateful for a note at the back of the book, without which I might have been baffled at first reading of the poem and not returned to it.)

The poem captures an experience of standing in front of that painting, of letting it work on the viewer. Let me walk you through my reading of it, stanza by stanza. Feel free to skip my commentary and just read the poem itself. First, a hint for readers who are intimidated by poetry: think of the line-endings as full stops, or at least commas. Here goes:

Whole Lot

family, earth
dingo, eagle
fire, food
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

These opening lines reflects on what ‘Whole Lot’ means for the speaker. These are not the elements that Emily Kame Kngwarreye named in the rest of her reply I didn’t quote above – she spoke of her Dreaming, yams, lizards, emus. This is not an explication of the painting. It’s a response to it.

what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing 

At a literal level, the painting represents a yam’s complex root system, which gives rise to this fairly abstract reflection. I read ‘we’ here as referring to all of humanity. The book’s food theme is introduced. The second line of this couplet follows logically from the first because of the implied metaphor: our spirits are nourished by contact with our roots, and we make that contact by sharing. But then:

we start with black
let it get hold of you
look at the stars
or are you afraid to?

Here, ‘we’ are the people who are looking at the painting with the poem’s speaker. Our attention shifts to the painting’s black background, beyond the complex interconnection of yam roots, as a place to start seeing it, surrendering to it. But ‘we’ is also all humanity, and ‘black’ could be a reference to our African origins, or the darkness of the womb, or, as the next line narrows it down, the blackness of the night sky, so that the painting’s complex lines are now constellations. You almost don’t notice the shift from ‘we’ to ‘you’ in the second line. Maybe here the painting is speaking to the viewer, including me/us, the poem’s reader/s.

The fourth line evokes for me a whole tradition in European literature where the night sky, the space behind the stars, is the subject of existential dread: Blaise Pascal, grim 17th century Christian, wrote, ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraie / The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me’; Kenneth Slessor, in his poem ‘Stars’, spoke of ‘Infinity’s trap-door, eternal and merciless.’ But here, rather than a statement, it’s a question about fear, asked of ‘you’, and I don’t think it’s the same fear as Pascal and Slessor were taking about: it’s not so much fear of infinite emptiness and silence, of nothingness, as a fear of facing an underlying and possibly sustaining reality.

the day shows
country spread open
a map of all that was and will be
don’t forget it
I’m tracing it to remember
don’t be scared

Underground, the night sky, and now a map of the land in daylight. A painting like Big Yam Dreaming can sustain multiple readings. In this stanza the painting speaks to us, offering – I’ll use the word because it’s in the book’s title – comfort. It’s not comfort as a gentle soothing, but a promise of knowledge that will fortify, a solid sense of totality that you can hold in memory. The painting is not just a decorative object, but a source of strength.

In this stanza ‘I’ appears for the first time. There are no capital letters in the whole poem except for ‘Whole Lot’, ‘I’, and later ‘Mibunn’. It may be idiosyncratic of me but I think of John Henry Newman writing in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that there were ‘two luminous beings, myself and my Creator’. In this poem there are just three capitalised beings: the speaker, the painting and Mibunn. In this stanza, though, I’m not sure if ‘I’ is the painting or its viewer.

we are not here until we sit here
we sit in silence and we are open
there are different kinds of time
I hope you'll understand

What a brilliant description of sitting in front of a great work of art and letting it work on you.

sing it
I want this to be here
when I leave again
I’ve been leaving a lot of times
it doesn’t mean I want to
there is no easy way to cry
tell them I’ll be back soon
when I come back and sit here
I want to still see Mibunn
powering through the sky

On first reading I thought this was somehow about death and reincarnation. And you may read it like that. But my mind has settled on a reading at the level of a relationship with a painting. That shifty ‘I’ has settled on being the painting’s viewer. And there is no more ‘we’: the poem is now intensely personal, having left generalisations behind. After the stillness of the previous stanza, this one begins with elation – what comes next is to be sung. I will leave the painting reluctantly, as I have many times before, but it’s important to me that it’s still here, and I will return to it.

In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker’s Indigenous identity comes into play explicitly for the first time. I had to look up ‘Mibunn’: it’s the wedge tail eagle, a totem of the Yugambeh people, harking back to the eagle in the first stanza. Somehow, Big Yam Dreaming by a great Anmatyerre artist from the Northern Territory can speak to a Yugambeh poet from south-east Queensland through a painting in a gallery in Melbourne, remind her of deep cultural truths. As a settler Australian reader of the poem, I feel welcomed to read/listen without feeling that I’m eavesdropping.

let me tell you with my skin
under the earth we will find
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

Here it’s the poet speaking to her reader. I hear her as saying that her encounter with the painting has deepened her sense of connection to her Yugambeh cultural roots. ‘with my skin’ refers to her bla(c)kness, ‘under the earth’ to the subject of the painting, and the poem ends with a direct quote from the artist.

Enjoying a poem is one thing. Saying why is another thing altogether. This poem has pulled me in, and kept me there for any number of readings over the last weeks. Maybe it’s that it establishes such a solid ground of shared humanity at a deep level – a level I associate with religious intensity – before moving to specifically Indigenous experience, where I can’t follow, but it’s there for me to witness. That’s the best I can manage for now.


Comfort Food is the thirteenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


This review is a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.