Tag Archives: poetry

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 blac(k)ness, ‘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.

Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics

Natalie Harkin, Archival-Poetics (Vagabond Press 2019)

This is an extraordinary book. To quote from the eloquent and accurate cover blurb:

Archival-Poetics is an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt … Family records at the heart of this work highlight policy measures targeting Aboriginal girls from removal into indentured domestic labour

I like that word ’embodied’. There have been many books that are based on archival research, and more than a few that describe the process of archival research, including research into the history of the stolen generations and stolen wages. This book – actually three very slim books in a slipcase – takes the reader into the experience. The titles of the three books – ‘Colonial Archive’, Haunting’ and ‘Blood Memory’ – indicate the process of increasing immersion into the poet’s family history: first there are narratives to be read and decoded, then as the imagination engages further it is as if those young women are returning like ghosts from the past, and finally, a realisation that there is a deeper richer connection, a sense of belonging.

Archival-Poetics is categorised as poetry, and has deservedly won or been shortlisted for a number of poetry prizes. But, like African-American Claudia Rankine’s Pulitzer-winning Citizen, it pushes well past the generally understood boundaries of that category. There’s a lot of straightforward prose. Natalie Harkin writes of ‘an unassuming warehouse holding the State’s Aboriginal Records archives’ – the State, in this case, being South Australia, in Kaurna country. She reflects on the nature of memory, official records and oral history. There are excerpts from government documents, Aboriginal people’s personal letters, newspapers and women’s magazines. There are brilliantly apposite quotes from other Aboriginal artists (Julie Gough, Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee). French theory is invoked – and for what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve read a Jacques Derrida quote that makes me want to read its source. And there are images of artworks, including the three cover photographs of a basket woven from torn up photocopies of letters from the archives.

A lot of the poetry lies in the juxtaposition of these elements. For example, page 28 of the second book, gives two would-be amusing anecdotes from The Australian Woman’s Mirror in the 1920s: vile, condescending references to Aboriginal girl servants. At the top of page 29, there’s a brief quote from the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association from the same time beginning ‘… girls of tender age and years are torn away from their parents’, and beneath that, this poem, as if a song is wrung from the archive reader’s heart:

APRON SORROW
apron-folds and pockets --- keep secrets
--pinned--- tucked-- hidden
------they whisper into linen-shadows-- that flicker-float with the sun 
------------– hung -
--------- limp on the breeze they sway
------------------------------------- a rhythmic sorrow.

There are ‘odes’ – rhyming poems, but laid out without line breaks, so that the reader is invited to slow down and unearth the verse form, in a process analogous to the way a researcher has to unearth information from impersonal bureaucratic language. Three austerely modern sonnets in ‘Hauntings’ tell three girls’ stories.

A series of prose poems, ‘Memory Lessons’, form a kind of philosophical backbone, with almost Proustian reflections on the nature of memory. The third book ends with a letter that begins, ‘Dear Nana’.

I hope that gives you some idea of this book. It contains hard truths about Australia’s history, and the conveys pain of unearthing them in their particularity. The form isn’t always easy for people not at ease with contemporary poetics, but it’s not difficult for its own cryptic-crossword-like sake. And it’s physically gorgeous – hats off to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Books for a brilliant design.

Archival-Poetics is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mary Oliver’s House of Light

Mary Oliver, House of Light (Beacon Press 1990)

When Covid-19 was just a cloud on the northern horizon, I borrowed this book from a street library. Poems by Mary Oliver, I thought, are just the thing for the times that in store: she consistently holds out to her reader reminders of what it means to be alive and human on this planet.

Within days most street libraries had closed down.

So, what was this book that I may have risked lives to acquire?

For a start there’s a lot of death in it. Mary Oliver seems to have spent a lot of time outdoors, watching plants, birds and animals, though ‘watching’ might be too mild a word: the poems bear witness to a deep attention, contemplation, absorption.

The first poem in the collection, ‘Some Questions You Might Ask’, is a kind of manifesto: ‘Is the soul solid, like iron?’ it asks; then, ‘Who has it, and who doesn’t?’ and after considering the moose, the swan, the black bear and other animals, the poem ends:

What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about the roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

These lines dance on the edge of naffness. But they manage not to fall: they convey a strong sense of the speaker seeing these things, at least in her mind’ eye, with great clarity, and her pseudo-theological question, ‘Do animals have souls?’ comes to read as code for a joyful embrace of what she sees. That embrace is there in all these poems. Sometimes it has to be fought for, as in ‘Singapore’, which begins the image of a woman washing something in a toilet bowl at an airport:

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor

You can read that whole poem at this link to see for yourself where she goes from there. I think she pulls it off. At this link, you’ll find a vehemently opposite view.

You could think of Mary Oliver as a 20th century (and almost two decades into the 21st) devotional poet. That opening poem about souls certainly reminds me of primary classroom lessons from the nuns, and, for instance, ‘That Summer Day’ opens with a question straight out of the catechism I studied in primary school: ‘Who made the world?’ But there’s a difference. The poem doesn’t answer the question. It leaves it as an expression of awe, leaving hints of a creator God there in a take-it-or-leave-it way. The central lines of this poem are:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
But I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass

The poem is reaching for a way to express feelings that used to be attached to religious piety, but to free them from religious connotations. I think of Richard Dawkins writing about wonder without resiling even slightly from his militant atheism. Mary Oliver is similarly reclaiming wonder, though the line, ‘I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,’ carefully formulated to allow that she may know about ‘prayer’ as opposed to ‘a prayer’, indicates that she’s not oppositional, just going a different way. That poem ends:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your wild and  precious life?

It’s an exhortation, not to be virtuous (the first poem of hers I read begins ‘You do not have to be good’), but to notice what it is to be alive.

I want to talk about death, though. Not just because of Covid-19, which I think of as a curtain-raiser for the hugely destructive climate-change crisis, but because it’s an insistent theme of these poems. The nature that they so closely and lovingly observe involves ruthless killing, but the death of the speaker, or death in general, is often evoked. Here is ‘The Terns’ (click or the image to enlarge, of read the poem at this link):

In the first 18 lines, the speaker is doing her usual thing, noticing the life in the wetlands near her home. The lines are filled with a birdwatcher’s delight. Then the lines

This is a poem
about death

come as a surprising twist. At first they seem to reach back and highlight the ‘little silver fish’, whose violent death has gone almost unnoticed. But that’s not where the poem goes:

about the heart blanching
in its folds of shadows because it knows
someday it will be
the fish and the wave
and no longer itself

I don’t think she’s offering the image of the terns vanishing under the water and then coming back as an almost mediaeval allegory for death and resurrection, though you might read it that way. As I see it, with these lines, the speaker’s mood intrudes into the poem. She’s not happy, and death is on her mind. It’s her heart that she imagines blanching, and she’s the one who knows she’ll be re-absorbed into the natural world, that her consciousness will cease to be.

But then:

this is a poem about loving
the world and everything in it

We might have expected ‘This is a poem about living’, but this small surprise carries the weight of the poem. It’s not offering a vision of life after death; the terns’ diving and rising don’t symbolise death and resurrection after all. The notion of being re-absorbed into the natural world can have in it a deep joy – it’s like that Sweet Honey in the Rock song, ‘Breaths‘ (If you don’t know it, click on the link). Re-absorption isn’t about being eaten by worms in the grave, or scattered as ashes, or even planted under a tree. In death, what remains of us will continue to be part of this dynamic universe.

To love ‘the world and everything in it’, including oneself, is a completely appropriate response to such thoughts. It’s a long way from, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil will I fear.’ I just read on Wikipedia that Mary Oliver dealt with a lot of abuse in her childhood. I think that’s what saves her poems from being glibly Life Affirming. There’s always a sense, as in this poem, that the affirmation is not so much made as won in the face of mostly unnamed contrary forces.

Jennifer Maiden's Espionage Act

Jennifer Maide, The Espionage Act (Quemar Press 2020)

In May 2019 Julian Assange was indicted on 17 counts of violating the USA’s Espionage Act. It’s the kind of event we’re used to reading about in journalistic language: what and why and when and how and where and who, though not necessarily in that order. You can click here to see how the New York Times reported it.

Jennifer Maiden’s books for the last decade or more have dealt with that kind of incident, but done it obliquely, in imagined scenes that usually begin with the ‘waking up’ of a historical or fictional character who is somehow connected with the news item. As Assange was taken from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he was clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State: in the first poem in this book, ‘Resistance’, Vidal wakes up beside Assange in a London Magistrate’s Court. He does it again, in prison, in four more poems, in one of which they are joined by a newly awake Emma Goldman – who, we are told by Vidal, was sentenced under the same act in 1917 – and in another by Diana Spencer.

These are political poems, but no one would call Maiden ‘our protest poet’ as a recent headline did, reductively, the late Bruce Dawe. Her imaginary dialogues have a clear point of view, but they are exploratory rather than declamatory. In ‘Resistance’, for instance, Vidal’s ruminations are a means to inform the reader (or remind her, if she’s better informed than I am) that the magistrate presiding in Assange’s hearing ‘was the one who had / stopped a private prosecution of Tony Blair for war crimes’, and to remind us (or inform, etc.) of the circumstances of Assange’s removal from the Ecuadorean embassy. But Vidal does exist as a fictional creation, anxious to know if Assange liked his book, vain about his own quotability, dropping the occasional name from high society. Lady Diana wears the dress she was buried in to remind us ‘of the easiness with which one ignores murder,’ but flairs the dress out, ‘actress-fashion’. In these poems, it’s as if Maiden puts two or more characters in dialogue to see what she thinks about something, but they are invariably more than just mouthpieces for ideas.

There are two other sets of dialogues in this book. In five poems, Maiden’s longstanding characters George and Clare converse, have sex, look after their toddler son, Corbyn. George chats on the phone to Donald Trump and a friend in the CIA. Three poems feature an Australian critic, who chats with Jackson Pollock and Brett Whiteley (in front of Blue Poles in Canberra), with Dorothy Wordsworth (and quotes to her the passage from her diaries that her brother drew on for his famous poem about daffodils), and with Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who doesn’t like the term ‘magic realism’).

There are other poems – one responds to a comment, reproduced on the back cover, that Maiden should be considered for the Nobel Prize; three feature her recent creation, a cute little marsupial named Brookings (after the Brookings Institution); one features Alan Turing; several ‘Diary Poems’, ruminate on the Federal Police raid on the ABC, on Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison, on the Australian ‘poetry wars’, on the writing and reception of other poems in the book.

If there’s an overall subject, it’s the way reactionary politics infiltrates and influences the general culture, belittles creativity and promotes art that serves its purposes. And what it means to struggle against that influence.

It needs someone more learned than I am to talk about the formal qualities of the poems. I’ll just mention one thing. Have a look at the opening lines of the title poem, ‘The Espionage Act’:

Emma Goldman woke up uneasily in Belmarsh Prison Hospital.
She recognised the sharp shape of a reading Gore Vidal,
who was watching over Julian Assange, curled foetal
in a prison sheet not blanket, not at all
well, she thought, but fragile as an angel.
Death had made her even more maternal
and she had always been motherly, since a girl.
Vidal gave her his usual tough smile:
'I've really been expecting you for a while'

You could read this as prose that’s been interrupted by an occasional line break, but if you did you’d be missing a lot. You might not notice, but this is rhyming verse. All 56 lines of this poem end in ‘l’. Sometimes there’s a full rhyme like ‘smile’ and while’, or later ‘fall’, all’ and ‘recall’. Once you notice it, the effect is hypnotic, but if even without your noticing it the lines have a wonderful musicality that pushes the narrative forward.

I’ve been reading and rereading this book for a while now. I’ve been learning about history (I think of Muriel Rukeyser’s repeated line, ‘Pay attention to what they tell you to forget’), making connections between things I’ve known and kept in silos in my mind, and questioning received versions of things, all with Jennifer Maiden’s insistent music in my ears.

A sampler of the poems from this book are online at the Quemar website, at this link, including ‘Resistance’, ‘Except’, ‘Brookings Gets A Helmet’, ‘George Jeffreys: 25: George Jeffreys Woke Up on Abu Musa Island’, ‘The Espionage Act’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Fear’, ‘Clare’s Dream’, ‘Brookings Tries Out Ubiquity’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Alan Turing’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Poetry Wars’, ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ and ‘Maximum Security’.

The Espionage Act is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Vale Bruce Dawe

Bruce Dawe died on Wednesday, aged 90. He was one of Australia’s most loved poets, and one of the most accessible. During the Vietnam War, his poems ‘Weapons Training’ and ‘Homecoming’ made a big impression on me.

This is one of his poems from the 1990s that strikes a chord with me as one of the privileged ones who has water to wash my hands, a home to stay in, and a faltering NBN to keep me in touch with friends.

You and Sarajevo
for Gloria

Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,
with the dog at your feet, his head resting
on a shoe, and the clock's ticking
like water dripping in a sink
– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,
given the inherent cruelty of the world
where beautiful things and people
are blasted apart all the day long,
I would never want to come back, knowing
I could never be this lucky twice ...

Added later: Sue at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has blogged at more length about Bruce Dawe, and there’s a write-up in the Sydney Morning Herald at this link.

Clive James’s Gate of Lilacs

Clive James, Gate of Lilacs: A Verse Commentary on Proust (Picador 2016)

The late Clive James took fifteen years to read À la recherche du temps perdu, teaching himself French as he went. Later, he read Scott Moncrieff’s translation, Remembrance of Things Past, ‘in order to see where I had been’. Though I’m just six months into Proust’s massive work, and just approaching the halfway mark. Unlike James, I’m not reading it ‘French dictionary in hand’, so I have even more reason to read something in order to see where I’ve been.

About half of this slim volume (48 pages) is devoted to the poem Gate of Lilacs. and almost as much again is given over to James’s explanation of the poem’s genesis, its form and notes on Proust and some of the poem’s more obscure references. The supplementary material doesn’t feel like scholarly apparatus or, even worse, study notes. It’s as if the publisher asked Clive for extra material to fill the book out to a decent size and Clive obliged with his usual combination of wit and extraordinary erudition. So we are treated to a brief treatise on the development of free verse in English, some splendid titbits of gossip about Proust the man, notes on Albert Speer, on the shameful relationship between the non-Jewish intelligentsia of Paris and the Nazi Occupation, on a range of artists, writers and performers, and enough suggested reading on a range of topics to keep a mere mortal busy for a year.

The poem itself is in lucid, elegant blank verse. I don’t know what a reader who hadn’t read any Proust would make of it, but it worked for me as a companion to my reading. As I’ve been reading Proust, it turns out that I’ve seized on comments made by friends who have read at least some of À la recherche. One said it was a LGBTQ+ epic; another reminded me of the description of Proust in The Hare with Amber Eyes as always the last to leave a social gathering. James’s poem corrected my misreading of moments because my French wasn’t up to it. It filled me in on the gossip about the connection between the fiction and Proust’s own life. It gave me flash-forwards to sensationalist moments that I haven’t reached yet. It reassured me that if I can’t see a structure I’m in good company. It sent me to the internet to look at images of the woman that Oriane de Guermantes was based on (and she’s every bit as impressive in her photos as Proust says she is).

Most interestingly, it explained why anyone would take seriously the extraordinary section I’m reading at present – the second part of the third novel, Le Coté de Guermantes – in describes in detail and analyses at great length the manners and mores of the very upper reaches of the French aristocracy, in particular the salons hosted by the women of that class. I’m engrossed by this description, but hadn’t realised until I read James that something serious is happening: Proust is recording a historical moment, the dying moment of those salons, which were to be completely replaced in the culture of France by friendships and connections among the creatives themselves, and any patronage was to come from the bourgeoisie, from business, from capitalism.

In James’s poem, Proust’s loving description of the death of the salon is linked to his chronic illness and sense of his own impending death. And James, in both poem and appendages, is explicit that he is writing under the shadow of his own death sentence. Always, he gestures away from himself, with shows of wit and erudition, with charm and careful exposition, but there’s a persistent undercurrent of grief at leaving all this that he loves.

I can see why this was on the remainder tables. It’s definitely for a niche within a niche market. But I loved it and will definitely read it again in six months or so when I’ve finished reading Proust for the first and probably only time.

Clive James’s River in the Sky

Clive James, The River in the Sky (Picador 2018)

This book-length poem is part of the extraordinary wealth of writing published by Clive James between discovering he was terminally ill early in the decade just finished and his death in November last year.*

Though awareness of his impending, even imminent mortality is there in all the bits of this huge output that I’ve read, The River in the Sky sets out to tackle it head on, beginning:

All is not lost, despite the quietness
that comes like nightfall now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing my eyes a task

The ancient Egyptians prepared for a journey after death, equipped by their mourning survivors with food and drink and other necessities. But, James says, ‘now we know This is no journey.’ He imagines the room where he lives in his final illness as a tomb lovingly prepared by his wife and daughters, and this poem as the equivalent of a Pharaoh’s journey to the sky. This journey moves in a different different: rather then onwards beyond death, it wanders back over the poet’s life.

That is to say, this is not a systematic autobiography, or a summing up, but it flits from one memory, or dream-like mix-up of memories, to another:

In sunken cities of the memory
Mud-brick, dissolved in time,
Leaves nothing but the carved, cut stones
And scraps of the ceramics.
Time, it is thereby proven, is the sea
Whose artefacts are joined by separateness.

The death of his father in war when James was very young features large. There’s an extended sequence in which he visits Sydney’s Luna Park and various functionaries turn into school teachers and others from his young life. He speaks passionately and appreciatively to his wife and daughters, tells of the death of friends, and recalls moments from his life as a writer and TV personality, as well as bits from movies, music, the history of art, and lovingly realised memories of his native Sydney. The blank verse of the opening pages gives way to less stately verse, but the poetry never loses its sense of decorum.

This is a river song,
Linking the vivid foci
Where once my mind was formed
That now must fall apart:
A global network blasted
To ruins by the pressure
Of its lust to grow, which prove now
At long last, after all this time,
To be its urge to die.

All the same I was reminded of something a much loved relative of mine said when his death was imminent. His wife told him that he should curb his irritability and stop yelling at his five children because he wouldn’t want to burden them with guilt and resentment in their final memories of him. He may well have followed her advice, but his immediate response was, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ So Clive James, who once presented himself on TV as a balding, overweight would-be Lothario, and was always ready to show off his formidable cultural knowledge and opinionatedness, seems to ask, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ In the shadow of death, he doesn’t take on a bogus solemnity. He name-drops shamelessly, humble-brags, and is slightly sleazy, but then surprises with a wonderful phrase. For example:

On the flight from Singapore
Straight down to Perth
When Elle Macpherson
Crossed the aisle to sit beside me
The impact of her beauty
Was exactly like
A mugging from a naiad.
Fame has its privileges
And most of those are drawbacks
But now and the you get to breathe
The aura of the angel –
Occasionally you're dazzled by
The rising of the sun
In the sulphur crest of the white cockatoo.

(To be clear, it’s not the mugging from a naiad that surprises me.)

It’s a lovely, gracious, sometimes silly, often erudite, in parts passionate, always lucid poem. There’s a Japanese tradition of ‘death poems’ – poems that monks write in the hope that they will die with the brush still in their hands. This isn’t exactly a death poem in that sense, but it’s in the same paddock. Reading it so soon after the poet’s actual death, it’s impossible not to be moved by its vitality, and – odd word to come to mind – it’s cheerfulness.


* According to Wikipedia (as at 31 December 2019), between June 2012 and his death in November 2019, he published: a weekly column for the Guardian, ‘Reports of my Death …’ (until June 2017); five collections of essays, including Play All (my blogpost here) and Poetry Notes 2006–2014 (my blogpost here); two book-length poems, of which The River in the Sky is one; four poetry collections, including the mammoth Collected Poems 1958–2015; his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (my blog posts here, here and here); and seven poems that haven’t been collected. He also continued ‘augmenting’ his website, https://www.clivejames.com

Emma Lew’s Crow College

Emma Lew, Crow College: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2019)

This book’s cover image, from a painting by Maryanne Coutts, hints at a dark, elusive narrative. A woman whose face is turned away from us engages in an activity that is far from clear and possibly dangerous. It could be a moment from a dream. Many of Emma Lew’s poems have a similar sense of being spoken from the midst of a dark, elusive narrative. The ‘I’ is invariably hard to pin down: you may (as I, naively, did) start out thinking the poems feature Lew speaking in her own voice but you soon realise you’re wrong. In fact, most of the time it’s hard to have any sense of Emma Lew’s engagement except as a crafter of highly-charged enigmas. In his review of this book, Martin Duwell writes that he once surmised that Lew’s characteristic poem

was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been.

Australian Poetry Review at this link

He has discarded that hypothesis, but it does a nice job of evoking both the drama and the disorientation one experiences reading many of the poems in this book.

Evidently the Giramondo team felt that readers might need a little help with that disorientation, because whereas most books of poetry have minimal guidance in how to read them, this one includes an introduction by poet Bella Li. I generally avoid introductions, but I read this one hoping it would help me blog coherently. I also read a number of reviews, including the excellent one by Martin Duwell quoted above and one by Ross Gibson – author of the brilliant books Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and 26 Views of the Starburst World [links to my blog posts] – in Sydney Review of Books [here’s a link].

Everything I read about the poetry is interesting (though Ross Gibson’s prose at times went off into academic incomprehensibility). What I realised is not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the poems, but that I didn’t get how to enjoy them.

My copy of the book is an ARC (advanced reading copy) which comes with a request not to quote from it, but I can’t bear to end without giving my readers at least a small taste. This is the start of the relatively straightforward ‘Kanipshins’, whose title the internet says is a Yiddish word meaning fits or temper tantrums (for some reason WordPress is being difficult with line breaks; please overlook the weird line spacing here):

In consideration for my mother

the yacht got free of its moorings.

'Just bring him home:

I'll decide who's handsome.'

We tried to quarrel quietly in the bathroom.

She had kept certain phrases for this moment

but ended up expressing desperation

through the elaborateness

of her hairdo, and drama,

the way she salted her food.

See what I mean? There’s a slantwise portrait of a mother daughter relationship there: the daughter brings a boyfriend/suitor home for the mother to evaluate; the young people find a little privacy in the bathroom; the mother communicates in non-verbal ways. But what is the broader picture presumably alluded to in the first two lines? should we care what the young people are quarrelling about? Is it the mother who is desperate, and why? These are questions that have no answers. The poem continues (I think) with the mother hectoring the daughter to marry the young man, but just as you think you’re following the story, it goes somewhere quite unexpected and enigmatic:

The drug companies did the serenading,

but how the girdle must have hurt!

And there are a couple more twists before the end, including the wonderfull but elusive line ‘holding lilies, almost apoplectic’. Could be a narrative – a dramatic monologue or the abstract of a short film or play – but without establishing shots or guideposts. So it offers some of the pleasures of story while refusing others. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see that it’s very good.

Crow College is the thirty-eighth and last book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is an ARC from Giramondo Publishing.

Hope and the Climate Emergency

There was an Extinction Rebellion event at Bondi Beach this morning. A couple of hundred of us sat in the shape of the XR logo, representing the planet and an hourglass. There were brief speeches, a drone photo, and some magnificent dancing by members of the Tango Rebellion. The handful of police didn’t have to do anything but stand and watch.

One of the speakers read what she called a faux elegy for the planet – faux because we intend to take action to at least minimise the results of the climate emergency. On the way home in the train, one of my companions expostulated that it’s not the planet that’s in danger of dying out, it’s us or at least life as we know it. The planet will survive just fine. But we all agreed there is such a thing as climate grief that needs to be faced.

I found myself thinking of A D Hope’s poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother’, the first poem in his A Late Picking (1975) that, according to my pencilled notes on the contents page, was written in 1958, presumably with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in mind. I don’t expect many of my readers to know the poem, so here it is in full, the anger and, yes, grief beneath the irony as alive as ever:

On an Early Photograph of My Mother

Who would believe it to see her now, the mother
Of so many daughters and sons – and one of them I –
Dear busy old body, bustling around the sky
That this was indeed my darling, and no other?

Who would suppose to view her then, the tender
Bloom and dazzle of wildfire, and the stance
Of unripe grace, the naked eloquent glance,
Time could so tame or age despoil her splendour?

Or who imagine the imperceptible stages
From her madcap Then to this staid respectable Now?
One picture the Family Album does not show.
See where she ripped it angrily from the pages!

That is just the picture I should give most to recover,
When she changed to a molten mass and began to shrink
To a great smooth stone, and the stone began to think,
And she raged at her ruin and knew that her youth was over.

Did you destroy it, my darling, that face of granite
Cracked and scarred by your volcanic heart?
Did you take one look and tear it across and apart,
The barren body, the gaunt, unlovable planet?

You could not foresee this lovely old age beginning,
The ripeness, the breeding beauty. How could you know
Yourself with your lap full of flowers, soft-shouldered with snow,
Royally wearing your waters, your children pinning

Cities of lights at your breast, to show how clever they are?
Take comfort, my darling, and trundle your bulk through the sky:
Your cleverest children—and one of them is not I—
Are finding the trick that will turn you back to a star.

Cunning and cautious, but much less cautious than cunning,
They split small pieces of rock, a cup or two from your seas.
'Helping Mother!' they say, 'and busy as bees.
The noise we can make is tremendous; the flash is stunning.'

'We can do better,' they say. 'A surprise for Mother;
She will be pleased when we show her what we can do.'
How long will it take? Just another invention or two
And someone will press a button. You need not bother;

You will blaze out with the nimbus of youth, the limber
Liquid gait and the incandescent air;
You will forget the middle-aged ruin you were;
Good luck to you, darling! I shall not be there to remember.

Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets

Keri Glastonbury, Newcastle Sonnets (Giramondo 2018)

Keri Glastonbury was interviewed by Jim Kellar in the Newcastle Herald in August. There’s much talk in the interview (you can read it all here) about the Newcastle-ness of the book – the local sights, snippets of lore, the city’s history and its present. Then, as if Keri Glastonbury is worried by the non-academic tenor of the conversation, she warns, ‘I don’t want people to think it’s accessible.’ Readers, she says, ‘will be confronted with experimental poetics.’

So there you go.

I assume that most of my regular readers are, like me, not up to speed with experimental poetics. (I’m one of the few non-academics and non-poets who writes in public about contemporary Australian poetry: I’ve never been terribly afraid of looking stupid in public, and I’m deeply grateful for the tolerance and good humour of poets who have responded to my blog posts in the comments section or in person.) If you’re fully poetry-phobic, this isn’t a book for you. But if you enjoy the outsider’s pleasure of being largely mystified and then having moments of clarity and even delight, you might want to give it a go.

The poems, as it suggests on the lid, almost all refer to Newcastle (that’s upon-Hunter not upon-Tyne), to the life of an academic working at Newcastle University who is a member of the LGBQTI+ community. There’s a wealth of academic reference/injokes, gossip from the poetry world, Newcastle detail that will be obscure probably even to some Novocastrians, snippets of pop culture from the last 30 or so years, internet memes and moments (I’m guessing) from the poet’s personal life – none of it spelled out or explained, much of it in unexpected juxtapositions. I doubt if any individual – except perhaps Glastonbury herself – could read the whole thing and get all the allusions. So if one feels like an outsider, it’s not because there’s a clique of insiders somewhere but because any reader is, as it were, eavesdropping.

Here are the first eight lines of a three-sonnet poem from early in the book, ‘What Would I Say’:

Dispersing a lyric via leaf blower
& other 80s cult songs like '88 Lines About 44 Women'
– what if John Forbes had lived
to live tweet during Q&A?
It's all lost generation stuff & the malls
were unindicted co-conspirators. Who knew?
Meaghan Morris/Maitland.
Joanie loves Chachi vs Date Academics in AU.

Here’s my take these lines. Your mileage will vary:

  • Line 1: We don’t know who’s doing the ‘dispersing’. Perhaps the noise of a leaf blower disrupts the concentration needed to create or respond to a lyric – lyrical words or sentiments are like so many dead leaves to be blown away by the unremitting noise of our lives these days. (A bit like many of Donald Trump’s chats to journalists – ‘dispersing information via helicopter blades’)
  • Line 2: The ampersand throws back to the first line, suggesting that it stands for a particular kind of 80s cult song. So the song named in this line (and others like it) do that kind of dispersing. I didn’t listen to much pop music in the 80s, but I looked this up and found that it’s a jolly list of women, two lines each, probably women that the writer/singer is claiming to have had sex with. Not very lyrical, or perhaps romance on an industrial scale?
  • Lines 3 and 4: These references aren’t obscure to me, but they may be to some readers. John Forbes was about my age, a witty, some would say smart-arse, poet who died young, who appears to be remembered with affection in contemporary Australian poetry; Q&A is an irritating current affairs TV show that runs tweets across the bottom of the screen. Forbes live-tweeting is a terrific notion. The dash at the start of line 3 implies some connection with what has gone before – Forbes was writing in the 80s (and the 70s and the 90s), so perhaps he is offered as contrast to the leaf blower songs.
  • Line 5: ‘Lost generation’ usually refers to people born during World War One, but if ‘It’ at the start of the line refers back to the previous four lines – which is what the syntax suggests – maybe there’s a hint of another lost generation who came of age in the 80s (would that be Gen X? (Forbes was a Boomer) …
  • Line 5 and 6: … and somehow without anyone being aware of it the existence of shopping malls was partly responsible.
  • Line 7: I once shared a flat with Meaghan Morris, which is probably beside the point. She is a Cultural Studies scholar who hails from Maitland – ah, the Newcastle connection! Maybe she has written about the effects of malls on the 80s generation (she’s certainly written abut Centrepoint Tower, and motel signs). Maybe this line is answering the question from previous line – ‘Who knew?’
  • Line 8: Joanie Loves Chachi was a US sitcom in the early 1980s (I looked it up), a pretty unsuccessful spin-off from Happy Days (I don’t know why it wasn’t printed in italics as the names of books are later i the same poem). Date Academics sounds like a dating app, and at first I thought AU referred to the internet domain code for Australia, but if this is about the 80s, then AU is more likely to be Adelaide University and Date Academics may be a pre-internet means of hooking up. So maybe the line evokes a moment when an academic living in Adelaide had to make a choice between watching junk on TV and looking for love, again in a fairly non-romantic way.

I didn’t mean to spend so long on those lines, but I guess that gives some idea of the work I have to do to engage with these poems. Not only the work of figuring out the references (6 diverse named cultural references in 8 lines), but also trying to grasp how, or even if, the lines , images and references relate to each other. My hypothesis that the 80s are the common thread falls by the wayside in the following lines with references to books published in the 70s and the 2000s, to ‘blended learning’, surely a more recent jargon term among educators, to Sandilands (I’m assuming it’s Kyle the radio broadcaster, who’s surely a phenomenon of the 90s and later), and so on. I fall back on reading line by line, and not worrying too much about the poem as a whole. Maybe the poem, and these poems in general, work, not so much by yoking things together by violence (as Someone said of John Donne and Co) as by piling up bits of stuff from all over the place, and any apparent logical flow is a red herring.

I know this reads as if I’m complaining, and I would be, but the language feels very alive in every moment, and from the myriad details emerges a cumulative picture of a life, a sensibility, a place, a community. Occasionally there’s a brilliant image, like this from ‘City of Moi-Meme‘:

From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi

or this from’Everybody Loves (Raymond Terrace)’:

____that James Turrell moment,
where I realise that we've been sitting in the dark
staring at a hole in the wall, productively.

Or this, from ‘Two Dog Nights’, my favourite lines from the book:

The Islington figs release the bats & the sky
blacks out like an erasure poem.

My favourite single word: ‘anthroposcenester’ from ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ (Though I would have spelled it ‘anthropocenester’.)

If you want to read a review by someone who isn’t parading their own obtuseness, I recommend ‘Anne Buchanan-Stuart reviews Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury‘ in Plumwood Mountain.

Newcastle Sonnets is the thirty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone..