Tag Archives: poetry

Subbed In’s first books

Aisyah Shah Idil, The Naming (Subbed In 2017)
Emily Crocker, Girls and Buoyant (Subbed In 2017)

Subbed In, described on its website as ‘a DIY literary organisation based in sydney’, organises poetry readings and other events, often in the East Sydney dress shop Funky Bruiser. Its directors, Dan Hogan, Stacey Teague and Rory Green, aim ‘to provide grassroots support for new and underrepresented voices as well as helping emerging writers to achieve publication or performance’.

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In September they launched three chapbooks – the two I’m blogging about here and Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher, of which I haven’t bought a copy and haven’t read (sorry Allison!). I’m not sure what ‘DIY’ means in this context. Perhaps it’s just a way of proclaiming a hipster ethos. It certainly doesn’t mean slipshod or amateurish. These books are beautifully designed inside and out, and lovely to hold in the hand. The Subbed In logo manages to make an ibis perched on a garbage bin look elegant. (There is at least one typo – see below – but not as many as turn up in non-DIY poetry books.)

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The Naming has an epigraph from the Qur’an – ‘And He taught Adam the names of all things’ – and its poems are rich with reference to Islamic practice, Malaysian folklore, and Arabic and Malay language. They are also rich with feeling and playfulness.

For example, ‘Malay Sketches’ consists of three one-page versions of the same poem. In the first, headed ‘Jiwa’, all the words have been blacked out as if redacted; in the second, ‘Malay’, about a quarter of the words are visible; in the third, ‘English’, nothing has been redacted.

At first, you might tentatively think the subject is censorship – that some things are not allowed to be said in Malaysia. But no. Of the first line, the English has ‘Bobbing heads circle platters of rice’, and only the Malay for heads (‘kepala’) and rice (‘nasi’) remain unredacted; later, only curry (‘kari’) survives from ‘Fingers covered in curry point to the sink’. Surely there’s nothing censorable in this, or in the sweet picture of family domestic life that follows. I read it as enacting the loss of language by a second generation migrant: the poem was composed in English, and the speaker’s attempt to translate into Malay was thwarted by her lack of knowledge. I’m pretty sure the details will yield nuances to readers fluent in both languages: for example, the last line in English, ‘We figure God has seen us in less’ becomes (I think) ‘God has seen us’ in the Malay .

Which raises the question of the completely redacted ‘Jiwa’ version. I guessed that this was a more local language, completely lost to the speaker. But a web search made that seem unlikely. ‘Jiwa’ means ‘a living soul’. Perhaps, then, the blacking out of this section is enacting the impossibility of speaking directly what is in one’s heart.

Then I found the place where the poem was first published, on the Language on the Move website (you can see the whole three-part poem at the link), and there the first version is headed ‘Jawi’ rather than ‘Jiwa’. A Wikipedia describes Jawi as ‘an Arabic alphabet for writing the Malay language … and several other languages in Southeast Asia’, it seems likely that ‘Jiwa’ is a typo, and that the blacking out signifies the speaker’s inability to read the Jawi alphabet.

For once, I’m not just irritated by a typo. This one took me into a deeper reading of the poem: it is about the loss of language, but the metaphorical force of the Jawi/Jiwa typo brings home what a terrible loss that is.

Not all the poems ask for so much research. It helps to know that ‘Pontianak’, about the grief and rage of women, is named for a female vampiric ghost in Malaysian folklore. ‘Laylatul-Qadr’ is named for one of the last days of Ramadan, called the Day of Power in English, but the poem, which celebrates the birth of a baby and laments the murders of Muslims and Muslim defenders, all in the context of Ramadan, works well without that knowledge. ‘Instances of Allahu Akbar’ expects you to recognise ‘Allahu Akbar’ as a common exclamation among Muslims asserting the greatness of God, and possibly offers a corrective to the assumption that it is exclusively or even primarily a war-cry. The first ‘instance’:

My mother, after
a long period of somnolence,
where getting up is only possible
through divine assistance.

And the last one:

a newborn sleeps.

The title of girs&buoyantGirls and Buoyant says a lot. There are no boys in this book, and the girls are doing OK.

The opening line of ‘Smashed’ evokes the milieu of these poems, and the intelligence in them:

Avocado, I didn’t want to settle down anyway.

This is a voice from the generation that’s forever being reprimanded by millionaires and (mainly) conservative politicians. It’s speaking to people who recognise the reference to smashed avocado and it’s speaking with good humour, irony and its own confident point of view: slightly grungy, vegetarian, inner-city inflected.

There are so many lines I’d like to quote. From ‘Aoraki’:

I realise I’m waiting for a way to see the earth
not as a tourist.

From ‘Guyra’, a visiting-the-family-on-the-farm poem:

_________________________________I’m here
for both of us to see what I am made of

or:

My brother loves good men.
Wins meat-raffles like a vegan.

From ‘Uproot’:

_________________________________ Time does not pass
with the quiet awe of a monk. It bustles by,
blows us down, and grumbles when we don’t keep up.

It’s the love poems that hit home most for me. Like ‘Plate’, which begins:

‘Ceremony’ has a dirty taste
but for the way we eat.
The ritual of back and forth
of olives off your pizza.
The potatoes off my plate
when you give me too many
with all intention of
eating them yourself.

Or ‘Covers’, which my partner had to explain to me was about a partner with period pain rather than suicidal depression; or ‘Illawarra’ (roadside scenery seen when driving with a lover); or (spoiler alert, I guess), the ending of ‘Gaps’ , the last poem in the book:

You make me conscious of the void
and how blessedly we inhabit it.

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The Naming and Girls and Buoyant are the twelfth and thirteenth books I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Nicola Knox’s Green Light Running

Nicola Knox, Green Light Running (self published 2012)

glr.jpgThis is not one of those self-published books with a chip on its shoulder about the publishing industry.  It’s much more modest than that – so modest that I can’t find any information about where to buy a copy. Mine was a gift from the author, an honour to which I owe a number of Nicola Knox’s poems having appeared in The School Magazine when I was editor. My impression is that she only ever intended a small, intimate circulation. (Maybe I’m projecting: my own three self-published books of verse are glorified end-of-year greeting cards – though of course I’m delighted whenever someone buys one from Lulu.)

The book is a witness to the value of creativity, of making in response to experience. Where one person might take out a sketch book and pencil or paints, another will reach for pen and notepaper. Poems here have been inspired by travel, by family life, by childhood reminiscence, by works of art, by ancient and modern history. They are the fruits of life lived with an active mind, a mind that it’s a pleasure to spend time with.

Just to give you a taste, here’s a poem that speaks softly but carries a big stick to one of the big issues facing us at the present moment:

Refugee Boat

The heart of Pharaoh
was dry and shrivelled
as an old walnut.

But his daughter
dove gentle
beautiful and kind
was loved as her father
was feared.

On a morning
splashing with court ladies
in the Nile, she did not hide
her pity for the plump infant
found in a coracle
rocking gently
among river reeds.

So the princess
and the alien child
gazed upon each other
and from that moment
all things changed.

A second volume of Nicola Knox’s poetry, Verandah Man, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2016, and is available from the Ginninderra website.

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Green Light Running is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2: Skin (2016)

apj71The cover of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal features a brilliantly eye-grabbing Destiny Deacon photograph, Escape from the Whacking Spoon (2007). As the first issue covered by the new policy of having different guest editors for each issue, this one is edited by two leading Aboriginal poets, which ensures that it follows through on the cover’s promise.

There are three sections:

  • Skin 1: 34 poems by 25 Indigenous writers
  • Skin 2: 16 poems by 13 non-Indigenous writers
  • Transforming My Country (edited by Toby Fitch): 12 poems responding to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’,

The selection is very rich, for many of the individual poems and for the extraordinarily valuable dialogue created by placing them between one set of covers. I dog-eared the pages with these poems from the first two sections in my copy (your mileage will very – I recommend you get hold of your own copy via Australian Poetry Pty Ltd’s web site):

  • Claire G Coleman, ‘Strawberry Juice’: starting from the image of spots of strawberry juice staining her writing paper, the poet plays with the notion that directions for colonial killings and records of them were written on paper. Ink stains, like blood stains, can’t be removed, and the lines that bring it home:
    _
    __Notice how paper covers rock
    __Covers
    __My country, my people are one
    __Notice how easily paper tears
    _
  • Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, ‘Love comes in many colours’ The poet greets her granddaughter:
    _
    Her blonde hair cool against my black skin her whiteness grabs my heart a new day dawning for this land Australia as we dance to the sounds of the oldest culture in the world. Love comes in many colours.
    _
  • Kate Adler, ‘Sorry’. A non-Indigenous person at a Sorry Camp:
    _
     __Hard to witness wounds like these
    __but love is deeper than skin.

The third section includes work by some heavy hitters of Australian poetry, including brilliant poems by the editors of this issue, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. Eileen Chong (‘My music is wrong – nothing / has been written down right’) and Hani Abdile (‘Opal-hearted country / I’m now one of your unwanted beings / I’ve come to love you sunburnt’) write from immigrant and refugee perspectives. The poem is deconstructed, thesaurised and anagrammatised. Toby Fitch’s introduction describes Lisa Gorton’s conceptually and concretely thrilling poem as an ‘almost-epic’ that ‘explores in microscopic detail the history of the grounds of Royal Park, Melbourne’. I’ll end with some lines from each of the Indigenous takes on the Mackellar poem:

Alison Whittaker (‘A love like Dorothea’s’):

I’m sorry, sweet Mackellar, that it famished all your cows,
y’paddock’s yellow-thirsty-sudden-green; no telling how.
That the gold-hush-rainy-drum hard to your violence and your plow.

Natalie Harkin (‘Heart’s Core Lament’, which is hard to represent accurately here, as it depends on justifying the text on the page, and includes quotes from colonisers’ texts in the margin, but here goes):

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Ellen van Neerven (‘My Country’):

my country
is between two rivers

two ribs
two hip bones

Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘Transforming My Country’, which plays with Mackellar’s words to produce radically different meanings):

Who pays back to Earth?

Not she and soft-hearted love
What a hush of her heart, and her
I have her share, her jewel
Though not her land
Your love of my land is tragic

——-

(I won’t repeat my own favourite anecdote about ‘My Country’ and Dame Mary Gilmore, If you’re interested you can read it here.)

 

 

Jenny Blackford’s Loyalty of Chickens

Jenny Blackford, The Loyalty of Chickens (Pitt Street Poets 2017)

chickensLike Jenny Blackford’s earlier book, The Duties of a Cat, this is beautifully presented collection of poetry. This one’s bigger – there are more pages and more poems, and it has a broader scope of subject matter and tone.

As in the earlier book, there are sweet celebrations of pet cats (‘All that he asked / was total control’) and a range of animals wild and domestic, including the chickens, which, according to the title poem,

show no loyalty. It seems that any girl
who’ll delve a scoop of free-range mix
is She Who Brings the Grain,
or close enough for these
red-feathered hens
to worship her.

Jenny Blackford’s biography mentions that her work is published regularly in The School Magazine. One of the attractive features of this book is the way poems that are eminently suitable for children are mixed in with poems of mature sensibility, with no sense of incongruity. The lovely imagistic ‘sweeping’ (‘the wind is sweeping / the tide out to sea’), is followed by ‘South Steyne’, which recalls childhood events from an amused adult perspective (‘The South Steyne ferry was heaven / for me, though doubtless hell for parents’), and then by ‘Some slight redemption’, a meditation on Coventry Cathedral as a monument ‘not to war / nor even peace / but to forgiveness’.

It seems inevitable that any collection of poems by a person of a certain age that touches on domestic life will at some point touch on dementia. This collection manages to subject with tenderness and humour in ‘Dipping into that Lake’: ‘There are fairies at the bottom of Mum’s garden now / and butterflies, and owls.’

The poet lets slip at one point that she graduated in Classics from Cambridge, and classical references are scattered through the book, but the erudition is lightly worn. A personal favourite of mine (for reasons that you can easily guess) happens to be an example of this. There’s the whole poem:

Earth-shaker, bed-shaker

According to inscriptions
in a lost Poseidon temple
soon to be discovered
somewhere in southern Greece
Poseidon Earth-shaker is patron
and protector of snoring men.
Without his godly nasal power,
so many men of twenty, forty, sixty
would be discovered (in soft morning silence)
smothered by bed-pillows,
domestic earthquakes
permanently stilled.

The temple vaults hold tributes
from his snoring worshippers:
gilt effigies of elephants,
yellowed tusks of snorting walruses,
and woolly mammoths’ freeze-dried trunks
as fat as anacondas,
all given to the god
by grateful bed-shakers.

I would happily have the poem end there but of course it goes on:

In Aphrodite’s nearby temple of love,
ears of silver, gold and clay
are mounted on the walls
or heaped in shelly stacks,
donated by the snoring men’s
sleep-deprived bedfellows.
May the merciful goddess
muffle our night-time senses
forever and ever. Amen

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The Loyalty of Chickens is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a gift from Pitt Street Poets and the author, whose work I first met, and published, when I was editor of The School Magazine.

Alan Wearne’s Things Are Real

Alan Wearne, These Things Are Real (Giramondo 2017)

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Despite the increasing frequency of narrative poems, the work of Alan Wearne is unmatched. Nobody has even begun to approach the complexity of his portraits of life in post-war Australia.

That’s Martin Duwell in 2013 reviewing Alan Wearne’s Prepare the Cabin for Landing. He could have been introducing the five narrative poems that make up the first 70 pages of These Things Are Real. The book’s title doesn’t so much make a claim of non-fiction status for these narratives, as insist that the kinds of stories they tell, stories that don’t make the headlines, and that are unlikely to make it into the history books or best-selling novels, are nevertheless poignantly human.

A widow renews her friendship with a friend from her youth, but they drift apart after some years when she rejects the overtures of her friend’s husband, all in Menzies-voting suburbia. A Ceb (which, as the poem had to spell out for me, is argot for a member of the Church of England Boys Society) tells the story of his multiple coming-out. A young woman, single mother, has a relationship with a musician who turns out to be abusive. A school teacher, a ‘happy-go-usey’ drug addict, struggles with his moral compromises and worse, including an involvement with squalid and murderous criminality. A ‘recently retired femocrat’ recalls the contradictions of her middle-class radical youth.

These are five complex yarns, told in irregular verse that occasionally breaks out into rhyme. There’s a strong sense of an idiosyncratic speaking voice, rough around the edges and often assuming shared knowledge that isn’t always there (not necessarily a problem when Google is at hand). The narratives don’t offer easy resolutions to the uneases and tensions they raise. In fact, mostly they don’t offer resolutions at all. Maybe that’s another meaning of the book’s title – in the real world things stay complex and unresolved.

Just a taste of how the language works, from ‘Anger Management: a South Coast Tale”

His screaming’s recommenced. The kids are home.
And you are bruised, walking-into-a-door bruised,
like you’ve seen enough before except
now it’s his, his bruise and possible fracture.
You saw the good man (if nobody else did)
the one who rolled you your White Ox,
the one who actually wrote songs,
the man you were loving who disguised
so much (no doubt from himself).
Well, it is all out now with a sort of noise
that’s heading to your kid’s guts
to stay for decades. But it’s when
he starts up, ‘Don’t you get it, I love kids,
I love them!’ you grab yours and lock away
the three of you, three hearts deranged
with thumping, with him outside the toilet
howling, whilst you phone your girlfriends.

The remaining 50 pages of poems are grouped under the general heading, ‘The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre’. They range from throwaway couplets (an unkind ‘Elegiac Proposal’ for Cardinal George Pell, a note on being a runner up to Lily Brett in the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize, a gleeful skewering of an error in something written by Les Murray), through several songs of praise to AFL personalities and others who remain mysteries to me, to longer rhyming poems about Australian politics, religion and, in particular, poetry: ‘For Chris Wallace-Crabbe at Eighty’, ‘The Ballad of 68 or I Was Dransfield’s Dealer’ and ‘Ode for Johanna Featherstone & Fiona Wright’.

My copy of These Things Are Real was a gift from Giramondo Publishing.

Shevaun Cooley’s Homing

Shevaun Cooley, Homing (Giramondo 2017)

homing.jpg‘Shevaun Cooley,’ says the back cover blurb of Homing, ‘was born and raised in the south-west of Western Australia, but has been drawn ceaselessly to the landscapes of North Wales.’ The two main sections of the book have titles made up of geographic coordinates: 34º24’13.6″S 115º11’43.9″E and 52º45’34.4″N 4º47’11.6″W, with three unlocalised ghazals in between. A quick web search confirms that the two locations are at the south west corner of Western Australia and in North Wales respectively. The poems themselves have a strong sense of place. In particular, there are a number of lovingly observed mountains and mountain-climbing experiences.

My favourite line (from ‘word only becomes at last the word’ in the first section):

The mountain is a cresting wave distracted from its motion.

A number of the poems sent me looking at maps and other reference books. Of these, the one that I found most rewarding was ‘I was no tree walking’, both because it sent me off to discover David Nash’s extraordinary piece of art, Wooden Boulder (do click on the link) and because when I came back to the poem it was much richer than when read in ignorance.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The ghazals served as an excellent appetiser for the multifaceted discussion of that Persian form in the current Southerly (about which I intend to post soon). Birds and animals flit charmingly through the poems, especially the ones in Welsh settings. Perhaps because, all going well, I’m to become a grandfather at the year’s end, the single that I warmed to most is this:

like an old tree lightened of the snow’s weight

Think of the tree,
who, quiet, might

wait for the starlings
or the last of the red

squirrels, for something
to remind it of how to bear.

Who might not
mind, as much as we

believe, the borers
and scrapings,

the lover’s knife, or
a woodpecker,

the weight of snow
on its leaf-empty branches.

As children we’d
take lightly

the stairs to a
grandfather

we thought asleep
and wake him with

a brass bell, while he hid
fully clothed beneath

the quilt, and carried
laughing the weight

of our small bodies
piled over his.

A note up the back informs us that all the poems take their titles from lines by the Welsh poet R S Thomas. This mild piece of intertextuality was a distraction for this reader, but your mileage may vary – the poems generally hold their own in spite of it.

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Homing is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s Shevaun Cooley’s first book, and I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Anne Carson’s Float

Anne Carson, Float (Jonathan Cape 2016)

9781101946848.jpgSince I’ve read Float, the 2016 Australian Poetry Anthology has arrived in my letterbox. The opening of Julie Chevalier’s delightful ‘waiting with dignity’ on page 31 seemed tailor-made as an introduction to this blog post:

into one hostage story anne carson crams
a python named robert, zombie slaves,
chinese tourists in greece, putin,
extract of puffer fish, the urge to piss,
the british museum, how boring torture can be
& lapsang oolong falling off the counter.
what an exciting life anne carson must lead

I haven’t read the story the poem refers to yet (Sister Google found it for me here), but having read the 22 chapbooks in Float I’m not surprised that Anne Carson can cover such varied terrain in a short story.

Float is a clear plastic box that opens to the left. When you pick it up with your right hand, 22 saddle-stitched books plus a couple of loose pages cascade to the floor. As you scrabble them up, you wonder if they need to be in any particular order (mostly they don’t). Later you may discover that you missed one or two booklets and a sheet that bears the title page and the slogan: ‘Reading can be freefall.’ Boom tish!

It may sound like a gimmick. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, neater and kinder, to print the 22 pieces conventionally, between one set of covers? Maybe, but this presentation is peculiarly appropriate to Anne Carson’s multi-faceted work. She is a poet, a classicist, a translator, and a script-writer. The chapbooks include essays, performance pieces, the text of lectures, original poems, poems translated from French, and so on. One of the shortest booklets, a single spread titled ‘Performance Notes’, explains the occasions for which a number of others were written: a lecture accompanied by dance and music; various pieces composed for Laurie Anderson, including a poem for Lou Reed’s 70th birthday and another for a quiet occasion after his death; words to accompany or be incorporated into a range of artworks.

Because of the presentation as separate chapbooks, the reader comes fresh to each piece, or small subset of pieces, as a separate work. There’s no temptation to look for an over-arching narrative or other clear coherence. They are all produced by the same mind, but it’s a mind that can focus sharply and interestingly in a striking range of modes and on a vast range of subjects.

Your mileage will almost certainly vary, but the books that most appealed to me are ‘Contempts’, ‘Pronoun Envy’, ‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’, and ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’, though I did also like ‘How to Like “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” by Gertrude Stein’, a plausible reading of a poem that at first blush looks pretty much like gibberish, and ‘The Designate Mourner by Wally Shawn’, a poem about going to the last night of a play by a friend.

I suspect I enjoyed ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’ because it made me feel smart. It consists of a series of short, numbered paragraphs – the first three are:

9.4. __They put stones in the eye sockets. Upper-class people put precious stones
16.2__Prior to the movement and following the movement, stillness.
8.0. __Not sleeping made the Cycladic people gradually more and more brittle. Their legs broke off.

You don’t rally need to be a genius to figure out that you should find 1.0 and read in numerical order rather than in order of appearance all the way to, as it happens 16.3.3, but I was very pleased with myself that I did figure it out, and discover that a weird, dreamlike story emerges, all the more dream like for the work one has to do to find each step of the way.

‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’ is more serious, a prose poem in which struggling to understand some of Hegel’s thinking offers some relief from the ‘icy horror’ of bereavement by way of a moment standing in snow in a fir wood.

‘Pronoun Envy’ is a poem that looks back in playful anger to November 1971 when a Harvard Linguistics Professor disparaged feminist objections to the pronoun ‘he’ being used to refer to both genders:

_______ ____________As if all
the creatures in the world
were either zippers

or olives,
except
way back in the Indus Valley
in 5000 BC we decided
to call them zippers

and non-zippers.

By 1971
the non-zippers
were getting restless.

‘Contempts’, subtitled ‘A Study of Profit and Nonprofit in Homer, Moravia and Godard’, is one of the larger booklets, a witty and instructive essay that runs to a little more than eight pages. It starts with an incident in 2007 when an unknown man punched an artist and called him a sell-out, and goes on to consider the difficulty of identifying the dividing line for an artist between selling out and making a living, by way of a fascinating discussion of the Odyssey, Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (Contempt) and Jean Luc Godard’s movie Le mépris (also Contempt in English), which was based on Moravia’s novel. I learned an awful lot about the Odyssey from these pages, especially Odysseus’ manipulation of the aristocratic gift economy as the motive for his prolonged travels (who knew?), but the real kick was in the discussion of Brigitte Bardot in the Godard movie (young readers may need to be told that Brigitte Bardot was famous as a sex symbol way back, long before she was famous as an animal liberation spokesperson). Here’s an excerpt:

There are, I think, three places in the movie where Bardot puts on a bathrobe. In each case as a single action she shrugs it on, flings the belt around her waist, draws it tight with both hands and leaves the scene. It’s stupendous. She wraps herself and goes. She wins. Every time she does this, she wins the movie. Are you an innately unbounded thing? the movie asks Bardot and instead of answering she wraps herself in boundlessness and exits.

I you want to know what that has to do with Homer, I encourage you to seek out the essay, or indeed the whole collection. I am now determined to seek out Le mépris and watch it again.

David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice

David Musgrave, Anatomy of Voice (Gloria SMH Press 2016)

1478186754915.jpgThis book of poetry invites readers to immerse themselves in its complex playfulness. As well as the poems, beautifully laid out on the page, there are gorgeous images culled from sixteenth and seventeenth century emblem books (with notes giving the French, German and Latin verses they originally accompanied), an occasional burst of morse code (and inside front and back covers filled with tiny dots and dashes), footnotes that serve not so much to clarify as to enact the poetry’s theme, an ingenious use of showthrough (something you just can’t do in an e-book), and more. And it’s a book that grieves for a lost friend. In some ways I’m a privileged reader because I knew the man who is grieved for, though not as well as David Musgrave, so I read the book very personally.

It consists of six main parts, four ‘partitions’ of poetry, an afterword, and eleven pages of notes.

Given that so much contemporary poetry is compressed and elliptical, it’s often a good idea to start with the notes. Here, the afterword should definitely be read first: in it David Musgrave explains that the book is a personal tribute to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who taught in the English Department at Sydney University from the 1950s to the 1980s, and was a significant mentor of Musgrave as scholar and poet.* The afterword explains the book’s genesis:

The decision to start writing about Bill’s voice arose from a number of auditory hallucinations I experienced some months after his death. From there the interrogation of that experience led inevitably to the anatomisation of the idea of what a voice is, as well as, of course, a desire to memorialise the man who had given me so much.

The First Partition is a sequence of 24 poems, each of three four-line stanzas. This is the ‘anatomisation’. It begins with an auditory hallucination:

Somewhere–––––a voice
near my mind——-not in it
but part of it——apart
and tethered by memory

and continues as a sustained, fascinating, quotable, and at times moving meditation on voice – as container of meaning, as non-human sound, as remembered part of someone who has died, and much more.

The second Partition, consisting of ten short poems accompanied by images culled from emblem books, is gorgeous to look at and hold. The poems, apart from the first, don’t easily yield their paraphrasable meanings, if such meanings exist – the verses that accompanied emblems were traditionally enigmatic. But I spent a lot of time with them, reading, in the notes, the verses that originally accompanied the emblems, and trying to figure out what is going on. Some typical lines:

Maenads, dandies, their unedited fiends
danced and tended faded anathemas.
The deadened ides of dire mendacity.

The lines do relate to the accompanying image of dancing monkeys. They are almost anagrams of each other, and are full of echoes and rhymes. Maybe their tantalising almost-coherence mimics a hallucinated voice.

But moving on: the third Partition is a kind of biography of Bill Maidment in fourteen poems, for which a prose biography in the afterword provides a useful map. In what at first reads as a humorous gimmick, there are footnotes in which Maidment, and sometimes his widow, comment on the poems (a note explains that these footnotes are quotes from articles or letters). Some of the notes expand on the narrative, others comment on the poem, as the afterword tells us the living Maidment often did on Musgrave’s poetry. It’s a very beautiful sequence, and the cumulative effect of the footnotes is to enact the central motif of the book – they are the voice of a loved one speaking to the living from beyond the grave. Still clever-dicky and comical, but also hitting a deep chord of sorrow. And that’s true of a lot of this section: I laughed out loud at times, and at others found myself brooding on all the people I have loved who have died, trying to remember their voices.

The fourth Partition consists of a single short poem addressed to the departed. I love how these lines evoke the meaning of the hallucinated voice:

————————–that which calls

across heavens, from room to room,
joining us through air, through love

and dividing us from silence
this gift of next-to-nothing

that we carry in our mind’s heart

In a brilliant review in the most recent Southerly, Michael Sharkey spells out the book’s ‘bravura display of easy erudition’, and its relationship to Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy among other works. He describes it as ground-breaking in scope, and says he knows nothing like it in Australian poetry. I can add my less learned praise to his, and say that it’s been a while since a book of poetry has grabbed me and held me so deeply and, for all its grief, so joyfully.


* A personal note: I was lucky enough to be lectured by Bill Maidment in the early 1970s, and was enough under his spell that someone once called me a Maidmentian: I think he was referring to my inability to think one coherent thought at a time. Sometimes, when I’m trying to articulate a difficult thought, I hear myself adopting one of Bill’s mannerisms, muttering the sound that Musgrave describes as the phoneme ‘ze’.

Cavafy for the first time

C P Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Chatto & Windus 1990)

0701136626.jpg Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.

Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.

You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.

And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.

There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with dear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.

The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.

Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.

You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:

On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.

Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.

It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.

Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.

Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:

  • MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
  • Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
  • MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.

Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.

 

Kathryn Lomer’s Night Writing

Kathryn Lomer, Night Writing (University of Queensland Press 2014)

nw.jpgKathryn Lomer has been to places I’ve been, loved music I’ve loved, had experiences similar to mine, learned things I’ve learned, and uses words about them that opens doors for me. A rural Catholic childhood, science and maths, bushwalking, parenthood, sex, the ups and downs of relationships, camping holidays, birds, cattle, several kinds of loss, several kinds of revival, surgery, music, visual art and sculpture, the quality of daylight, Brisbane and Melbourne art galleries, North Queensland tourist spots: she makes warm, intelligent, accessible poetry from all these.

An attractive feature of her work is the way it’s grounded in science and physical experience, while open to kinds of feeling generally associated with religion or fantasy. This stanza from ‘Measure’, for example:

I used to make shell necklaces on Hawley Beach,
my mother saying fairies made the shell holes
to help little children do just that.
I tell my son sea urchins
drill a hole to get at food inside.
Truth is also extraordinary

And how about this bit of taxonomical music from ‘Spyhopping’, which is addressed to humpback whales:

Your name is a parsing of the past:
animalia chordata vertebrata mammalia
cetacea mysticeti balaenopteridae
megaptera novaeangliae
;
a prayer said in Latin
that you survive.

The book is in five sections. There’s a lot to say about all of them, but I’ll start with the fourth, ‘Eclipse plumage’, which reads pretty much as a narrative. The title poem gives the set-up:

I read in my bird book of females’
changed feathers after breeding:
eclipse plumage.
They become undistinguished.
Here, my colour has come back.
It’s all the walking, I say.
The fresh air. The land.
Silly, I know, but I grin
all the way to the river.

In the next poem, ‘Paddock bull’, the bull is not distracted by cows lowing in the next paddock, ‘though I detect a little bit of pink interest’. And from there on, a narrative can be pieced together: ‘Here’ in the lines above is an artists’ and writers’ retreat at Bundanon in New South Wales, and the returning colour is the stirrings of desire, in abeyance since she became a mother, presumably some years before; a painter of birds reciprocates, they vacillate (‘we’ve said the timing isn’t right, / but all day we will wonder / What if it is?‘), go for it (as conveyed in ‘Lovers below Brasso tin’ which mainly describes the drypoint by Arthur Boyd for which it is named, in which ‘lovers are suspended in lust’), and in a final two poems ‘Men without sorrows’ and ‘Contentment’ say goodbye.

Nine of the ten poems in the section contribute at least indirectly to this narrative – which raises questions about the other poem, a double sestina at the beginning of the section, ‘The fencer and his mate’. (A sestina has six 6-line stanzas, each stanza having the same six end-words, but in a changing order, followed by a 3-line stanza using all six ‘end-words’. ‘The fencer and his mate’ does it twice, with two sets of end-words.) It’s a stunning poem in its own right. As if the complex recurrent rhymes aren’t enough, a number of other words and motifs recur, and the poem’s technical whizzery functions as a kind of homage to the fencers’ skill with their axes and saws. Nothing in it relates obviously to the main narrative of the section, but then near the end of ‘Contentment’, there’s this:

Across the Shoalhaven, a dead tree is chain-sawed for firewood,
next winter’s warmth to be stored

as comforting in its woodpile pattern
as the promise of love

That stands by itself, but it also sends us back to the final lines of that first poem, which on first reading struck an odd note by speaking of ‘love’ between the fencer and his mate (rhyme words are straight, earn, axe, true, sleep and new):

and moist and ready. To tell it straight, what they can earn
is each other’s love, that feeling like an axe, something fine and true,
like a sound sleep, two lives made new.

We’re left with the hovering notion of ‘two lives made new’ in a passing holiday affair.

Once I’ve committed myself to reading for narrative, it’s hard not to read the final section, ‘Holy Days’, as telling what happens next. There’s a rough equivalent to the earlier poem’s new plumage in ‘Shy’, which speaks of the ‘platypus of the bedroom’:

it comes in only at night,
wraps itself around my waist and thighs,
strokes my breast and buttocks,
nuzzles, sometimes settles on my belly.
Gone is the begetting,
the wearing, the faring well.
Here in the dark,
all is fine.

There’s a man who spends time with the poet and the son who was noticeably absent from the ‘Eclipse Plumage’ section. This man seems to be a keeper, and when the two of them go on a North Queensland holiday in the sequence ‘Holy Days’ (roughly a quarter of the section) there’s no need for a Boyd print to convey their physical joy in each other. Then in a couple of lines that must bring joy to the heart of anyone raised as a Catholic:

Yes, it’s an indulgence.
As a child, and in my church,
the word meant punishment was cancelled,
everything forgiven.
They’ve skipped purgatory
and sent me straight to heaven.

aww2017.jpgNight Writing is the second book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.