Tag Archives: poetry

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..

The 2019 Francis Webb Poetry Reading

For nine years now, Toby Davidson has been organising an annual celebration of Francis Webb’s poetry. Toby edited Webb’s Collected Poems (1911) – my blog post here. Though I’ve been enamoured of Webb’s poetry for 50 years now, this is the first time I’ve managed to attend the event (or the second, if the reading at the 1911 Sydney Writers’ Festival counts – my blog post here).

We met in a large room – the ‘Creator Room’ – at Chatswood Library, in the region where Webb spent his childhood. The library has inherited Webb’s collection of paintings – all or most of them bought with funds Webb received as a government grant, funds spent of art rather than, say, food – and his library of books. The paintings and some of his books were on display, along with other fascinating realia, including a photocopy of the handwritten draft of his final poem.

Toby Davidson was an unabashedly enthusiastic MC for an audience that was an interesting mixture of ancient fans (like me), current students (including some from Davidson’s classes) and satisfyingly motley others. The readers:

  • Robert Adamson, poet (blogged about by me here and here among other places): told us of his awe-struck meeting with Webb in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and read three poems – ‘End of the Picnic’ (an imagining of the arrival of Cook’s ship in 1770 as a spiritual disaster), ‘Morgan’s Country’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (probably my favourite Webb poem, read in a way that had tears on my cheeks). A hard act to follow, but followed it was.
  • Michael Griffith (author of God’s Fool, his 1991 biography of Webb): quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ as emblematic of key themes in Webb (and his own life), and read us two poems with props – the first part of ‘In Memoriam Antony Sandys, 1806–1883’ with the painting that the poem describes on an easel beside him; and ‘On first Hearing a Cuckoo’ preceded by part of Delius’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
  • Judith Crispin, poet and photographer, whose work, according to her web site, ‘includes themes of displacement and identity loss, a reflection of [her] own lost Aboriginal ancestry’: read the dingo’s second speech from ‘The Ghost of the Cock’, and commentred on the extraordinary way it embodied what webb could not have known, the polarity of moon and dingo in an Arnhem Land foundation story; and two other poems, ‘Episode’ and ‘Toward the Land of the Composer’.
  • Gareth Jenkins, poet, spoke among other things of the sonic, rhythmic quality of Webb’s work, his mastery of long lines, and read, beautifully, ‘The Yellowhammer’.
  • Richard Miller, self-described as a long-time Webb fan and former musician in, I think, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in a complete change of mood, delivered a brilliantly theatrical, over the top rendition of ‘Introduction in a Waxworks’ from ‘Leichhardt Pantomime’.
  • Two school students whose names I didn’t catch, one from each of the nearby schools that Webb attended: one read the eminently accessible ‘Australian Night’, which Toby Davidson told us Webb wrote between ages of 7 and 10; the other read ‘Compliments of the Audience’, a sardonic take on a poetry reading, thereby concluding the reading part os the afternoon.

Before we broke for an afternoon snack, we were treated to Oliver Miller’s short film Electric, based on Webb’s radio play of the same name about the first use of ECG on a human subject.

I had a great time. Some of the poems I could just about mouth the words as they were read. Others came from the bits of the work that I have pretty much skimmed. Every reader showed some new aspect of the poetry – and of themselves. Michael Griffiths told us that he had been discouraged from writing his PhD thesis on Webb because, the then Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University said, ‘He’s mad’. And he’s been dismissed by more than one cultural arbiter. But it was a joy to be in a room full of people who are touched, challenged and invigorated by his poetry.

joanne burns, apparently

joanne burns, apparently (Giramondo 2019)

apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.

People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.

First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).

Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.

Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.

Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:

do you feel like a
tangible sailor your
hair chocka with
permanent waves, or
an insect posing as
a water nymph in
search of a new nickname –

nothing beats finding a location
with the best overall view the day
before you are born     a twelve
month commitment is sought
for this role    you must have a
capacity to yearn –

I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.

‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.

The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.

In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).

In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.

The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.

Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.

apparently is the thirty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing.


* Having raise the possibility, I had to have a go:

Our smiling prime minister Morrison
let cameras film him at orison.
His 'How good's Australia'
snatched victory from failure
and now we're the ones he piles horrors on.

Colleen Z Burke’s Sculpting a Landscape

Colleen Z Burke, Sculpting a Landscape (Feakle Press 2019)

This is Colleen Z Burke’s twelfth poetry collection, published like many of the others by her own Feakle Press. When I blogged about her 2013 collection, Splicing Air (blog post here), I wrote:

Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren … Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland.

The same is true of Sculpting a Landscape. Many of its short poems are like verbal snapshots of a moment observed around the inner city, or of a moment of insight, or something learned in travels or seen on the news, or something one of the grandchildren said. These poems create an impression of artlessness, as if they were jotted down in the moment.

That impression isn’t necessarily accurate – there’s often a subtle play of imagery, an unexpected word or a stinging implication. The title poem is a good example:

Sculpting a Landscape

In a small clearing
amidst a huddle
of skeletal
gumtrees
a rusted
burnt out ute
fuses into the
eroded earth
sculpting a
definitive
Aussie landscape.

At first this looks like a slightly sentimental, familiar image of rural Australia. I’m typing this beside a Carol Ruff painting of a red desert landscape that has a rusted vehicle as a detail among stunted vegetation and scattered rocks: the land has outlived and assimilated the incursion of settler technology. By contrast, if you sit with this poem for a little while, you realise that something different is happening here. It’s a small clearing, so the vehicle is a larger presence. The trees huddle, and are skeletal: to my mind, but the only gumtrees that look skeletal are dead ones. And the earth is eroded. This is not a cosy picture: ‘Aussie’, the affectionate diminutive for Australian settler culture, is definitively attached to an image of death and destruction.

Most of the ‘snapshot’ poems aren’t as harshly unsettling as this, but there is often something just a little off kilter: an ibis is seen ‘meandering’ across an empty street, ‘gum / trees lilt air’, coastal limestone is ‘spliced with / slivers of pink / and white’, mountain skies are tetchy, ‘raindrops / savour summer’s intensity’, trees ‘pierce / luminous / clouds’.

The conversations with grandchildren are less compelling than in previous books. Perhaps this is because the children are older. (I recently heard David Malouf say that three-year-olds are the most interesting people he knows, and Colleen Burke’s four grandsons, beautifully photographed by the poet at the front of the book, are substantially older than that.) But the opening to ‘Running free’ is irresistible:

I want to go to the cemetery
and dance on graves, said Emmett,
my eight year old grandson.

There are speeches put into the mouths of women in harsh situations: ‘My Country’s Embrace’ in memory of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tugan (1917–2003), ‘Agnes’s story, Malawi’, ‘One less mouth’, about a young woman in an unnamed third world country. There are poems about mistreatment of animals – the slow loris, the pangolin, a kangaroo in a Chinese zoo. Re-reading my earlier posts about Colleen Z Burke’s poetry, I see recurring descriptions like ‘straightforward’, ‘unadorned’, ‘No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures’. So yes, this is plain-speaking poetry, filled with a sense of place, that place being just up the road from where I live, and with a concern for the underprivileged.

Sculpting a Landscape is the thirty-first book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Journal Blitz

I just realised with something like horror that my To Be Read shelf contains at least a year’s worth of unread journals. So here goes with what I intend to be the first of several catch-up posts, each following a catch-up reading binge.

Gig Ryan (guest editor), Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 8, Issue 1 (2018)

In her Foreword to this issue of APJ, guest editor Gig Ryan, herself a formidable poet, writes:

No poems here can be straitjacketed entirely into any one category, as each poem, being its own summation, is also necessarily an experiment, an exploration, kicking towards the impossible.

The same is true of the journal as a whole. It’s not a directory, a survey or a sampler; there are no thematically labelled sections, or indicators of hierarchy. It reads like a mildly chaotic conversation among more than fifty word users, which the reader is invited to enter.

There are many excellent poems, some by poets I already know and love, some by people who are new to me. I’ll just mention one that has stuck with me: Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’, which is a response to Judith Beveridge’s sonnet, ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’. The latter poem looks at Quasimodo (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) from the point of view of an able-bodied person, the former from that of someone with a physical ‘deformity’. Jackson’s poem begins with the first word of the equivalent line in the Beveridge’s. It’s not a calling out, but a ‘departure’, and the effect is to open up a profound dialogue between the two points of view. Here are the first four lines of each:

From Judith Beveridge’s poem:

Crazed carillonneur, will you ever stop hauling
yourself into the cathedral’s dim vaults?
Will you ever stop imagining Esmeralda’s hands
running along the canted bones of your spine
(from 'Quasimodo's Lament', Meanjin 2017, on the web here)

From Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’:

Crazed? – only the mob in us deserves that word.
Your self, your body, calm and attentive at the rope,
will always draw out those strong and slanted notes
running across every imperfect surface.

There are half a dozen essays, including an interview by Matthew Hall with the editors of Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems1980–2017 (re.press 2017), which is surely of interest to anyone who cares about contemporary Aboriginal poetry. There’s also an essay by Duncan Hose on John Forbes, marking the 20th anniversary of his death, which includes some close reading; and a discussion of rhyme by Dennis Haskell.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 230 (Autumn 2018)

I read this Overland selectively, skipping articles that looked at first blush to be about where the universities are getting it wrong, or arguing that, say, the marriage equality Yes movement wasn’t radical enough. So who knows what I have missed?

Here are some wonderful things I didn’t miss:

In ‘On Jack Charles‘, Tony Birch writes that for Aboriginal people, ‘sovereignty – an imposed colonial concept – is a complex and contradictory notion’, and as a way to understanding what Aboriginal sovereignty might mean quotes Jack Charles as saying that ‘he could not walk by a person in need – any person in need – as an Aboriginal man claiming the right to Country’. It’s not often you stumble across such profundity.

I wouldn’t want to skip the regular columns by Alison Croggon (On seeing in this issue starts from her extreme myopia and goes to surprising places) and Giovanni Tiso (On writing while foreign: ‘the effortless travel of our writings across the global marketplace of late capitalism is the grotesque mirror image of the hardening of the boundaries between nations and people’).

Overland always includes the result of a literary competition. In this one, it’s the Nakata Brophy Prize for young Indigenous writers. The first prize, ‘haunted house‘ by Raelee Lancaster, counterposes two traditions (European an Indigenous) of ghost stories in a way that creates plummeting depths beneath an apparently simple surface.

There are other excellent poems, including Allotment #10, by Laurie Duggan, an addition to one of his long-running series.

Decades ago, a flatmate of mine had a poster on his wall that compared the situation of Aboriginal people living in remote communities with that of Palestinians. ‘So much like home‘ by Chris Graham spells out the parallels: things have not improved markedly for either group. ‘Israel,’ Graham writes, ‘ has built a blunt, overt system of apartheid; Australia has built a polite, covert system of apartheid.’

Of the four short stories, the two that most claimed my attention both dealt with the ethical questions that arise when you mistakenly give something you have no right to. Baggage claim by Paddy O’Reilly and Tea ceremony by Michelle Aung Thin both this murky area, the former with youthful corruptibility in its sights, the latter with something more nuanced but no less grim.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache & Christopher Cyrill (guest editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 2 2017: The Long Apprenticeship

Southerly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney, which means it’s formally tied to EngLit academia. Given that, and the title of this issue it’s no surprise that there are a number of essays and fictions here about the long haul of learning to write, or just the long haul of life:

  • Desmond O’Grady on Muriel Spark’s nurturing times in Tuscany as a young woman
  • Elizabeth Hanscombe on how her writing career has been spent exploring events from the past that ‘appear to have a beginning and an end’ (‘They do not’)
  • Carol Lefevre on the nature writer J A Baker and his influence on her own career, quoting Richard Jefferies somewhere on the way, ‘The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead’
  • James Bedford’s touching memoir of his father, with beautifully deployed family snapshots/

There are works from people at the start of their creative careers. The striking cover is a detail from My Contemporary Tribe, created by Phoebe Martyr when she was a high school student in 2016 (you can see the whole work here). There are three short stories by students at the Sydney Story Factory.

There’s a glorious wealth of poetry and short fiction, including some in translation. George Toseki’s ‘Finger Bun’, in which baklava is deployed to great effect as a peacemaker among factory workers from a range of ethnic backgrounds, gets my guernsey for the most fun. Invidious though it is, I’ll mention just one poem, joanne burns’s ‘lemon aid’ for the fabulous word comatoastie.

Of the reviews, I’d pick Lachlan Brown’s of Melanie Cheng, Australia Day (2017), which places the book in the context of ‘the contemporary succession of engaging and innovative collections of short stories by Australian writers from diverse backgrounds’.

The most challenging article for me is John Kinsella’s ‘Reading and (non) Compliance: Re-approaching the Text’, which – to attempt a crude summary – urges EngLit teachers to always incorporate creative writing into any teaching of poetry, by encouraging what he calls non-compliant reading. Not being part of the EngLit academy, I can’t tell whether his proposal is as radical as he appears to be claiming, or commonplace, or way out in the top paddock. One paragraph, though, came to me like a clarion call, an urgent challenge for me as a blogger about texts. I’ll give it the last word in this blog post:

A text is a living entity and should be teated as existing contingently and contiguously within and with a vulnerable ecology that is under threat, a biosphere that is collapsing due in no small part to human behaviours – especially corporate and state exploitations of the fragile, remaining ‘natural’ habitats. No text, whatever it is, can be read outside this context of damage.

Andy Kissane’s Tomb of the Unknown Artist

Andy Kissane, The Tomb of the Unknown Artist (Puncher & Wattmann 2019)

Here I go, blogging about a third book of poetry in a row. But, Dear Poetryphobe Reader, there’s nothing to fear. This one, like the last two I blogged about, is really good. Andy Kissane writes the kind of poetry that allows you to focus happily on the content and leave the poetic stuff to do its work while you’re distracted (like T S Eliot’s burglar tossing meat to the dog*). I think of him as a poet committed to bearing witness.

The book is in four unnamed sections, each with an epigraph suggesting its organising principle.

The first section’s epigraph is from Sharon Olds’s poem about her father’s death, ‘The Race’: ‘all night / I watched him breathe.’ The poems that follow deal with death and loss, and with being alive, though they’re not as abstract as that makes them sound. The poet contemplates his own death. He farewells his father:

------------------------- -----------Somewhere 
in my own marrow lies the moment
when you fathered me, that unacknowledged
gift.
('The Last Quarter')

He has a polite encounter with an old lover, and celebrates quiet moments of domesticity and parenthood. Among these poems, almost as if warning the reader not to read the others as directly autobiographical, there are two dramatic monologues, ‘Marriage Material’, spoken by a 19th century bride, and ‘Dressed’, spoken by a young woman of now (‘Desire is pure, as clear as water, and shame – / well, you just don’t feel any’).

The second section is heralded by a quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘One man will always be left alive to tell the story.’ Arendt was talking about the impossibility of ‘oblivion’: everything will be remembered by someone. As I read it, the central thread of this section is the idea of witness: to a concert or a movie, to plagiarism, to some of the great horrors of our time including Australia’s offshore prisons, and, closer to home, to a Sydney storm and schoolyard bullying (of which more later).

The third section is a sequence of ten poems set in the US–Vietnam War, all in the voice of an Australian (or possibly US) soldier, introduced by a quote from Tim O’Brien’s 1990 short fiction ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: ‘You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.’ The sequence doesn’t tell a single straightforward story, but a narrative shape emerges from individual scenes involving the narrator and his comrades Dave, Des, Johnno, and Boffa.

Des appears beside you, his thumb
hauling you in the direction of safety.
You hoist your pack & crabwalk
after him, before a monsoon
of mortar shells drop right there –
on the piece of dirt where you were
lying ...
(from 'The Firefight')

It’s in the lineage of The Red Badge of Courage, has all the power and none of the insidious cinematic glamour of many ‘anti-war’ movies. I read somewhere that these poems are part of a verse novel in progress. If so, I’m looking forward to the novel, but this sequence doesn’t leave me with any of the cheated feeling that comes from reading an excerpt. The final poem, the sonnet ‘Back Home’, rounds the sequence off, not with an ending, but as an agonised cry about the lack of comprehension from even sympathetic non-combatants. Perhaps because I went to court as a conscientious objector for the US–Vietnam War, I needed a long walk after reading these poems.

The final section, ushered in with a quote from Michelangelo – ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ – deals with visual art and sculpture, referring to work by Cressida Campbell, Grayson Perry (the title poem is a response to Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011), Degas (spoken in the collective voice of his nudes), Cézanne, Jan Senbergs, and Kissane himself imagined as a painter.

It’s not easy to choose just one poem to discuss from this marvellously varied collection, but my mind keeps going back to ‘Shooting Footage’, from Section 2. It’s longish, but it’s got a story (click on the image to see it in a separate tab, then you may have to click again to see it big):

The Acknowledgements section gives no extra information about this poem, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the incident it describes is a fiction or taken from life. It would be a mistake, either way, to just assume that the speaker is the poet. There’s plenty to make me think that it’s not so, although he may be the poet at one remove – working with images rather than words. (For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that he’s male, even though a woman filming in a school playground would generally arouse less suspicion than a man.) It’s a beautifully executed dramatic monologue.

We learn about the narrator through unobtrusive details. We’re not told how he knows Joshua, but he may have given a talk to his class, to be quizzed by him, and he may know him through his daughter who plays hopscotch in stanza 6. He rides on the same bus as the students at the end of the day, but he’s not a teacher.

Having introduced Joshua in cinematic close-up in the first stanza, the poem devotes three stanzas to his being bullied on the bus, showing not telling in best movie style: what his hair looks like, what his classmates say and do. The first authorial comment is almost admiring: ‘It is truly amazing / how far some boys can spit.’ The fourth stanza returns to close-up, this time showing Joshua’s pain, and with the narrator explicitly holding a camera. We don’t know if this is the first the narrator knows of the bullying or if he’s filming because he’s been told about it previously, but in this kind of economic story-telling such specifics don’t matter.

The fifth to seventh stanzas give us a naturalistic narrative: the practicalities (enough of them at least) of how the narrator gets to be in the schoolyard at lunchtime filming, and then the painful specifics of what he sees, with just the one moment of expressed emotion (‘My anger smoulders // like white-hot coals. I can barely contain it.’) Then there’s a curious departure from the narrator’s carefully established point of view in an echo of the earlier close-ups: ‘Joshua’s glasses fog up / so he can’t see.’

Without breaking the narrative surface, the first lines of the eighth stanza comes as a revelation: ‘”Let him eat bacon sandwiches,” / one of them says as they run off’. This isn’t just generalised nerd-persecution. Joshua’s name, his shiny black hair, the steam from the bathroom and the pulling down of his shorts make a pattern. It’s antisemitism. The scene of schoolyard cruelty resonates out into some of the darkest episodes of human history. But here the horror is near at hand, potentially within the narrator’s power to influence.

I film it all in one long take. It's the hardest
thing I've ever had to do, to film this and not
intervene.

The poem is still a narrative about schoolyard bullying. But it’s also a reflection on the role of art: in this case, to record, to show, to bear witness. It’s not that it would have been wrong to intervene, but it might not have been as effective.

The final triplet expresses a hope, in this context well founded, that the work of art, in this case the film, will make a decisive difference. Without making a big point of it, the very last line and a half execute a subtle shift:

----------                     --------And a silence I will end soon – 
walls of brick and barbed wire, tumbling, tumbling down.

These lines are no longer talking about film, but about speech, no longer about the schoolyard, but about prisons. I’m tempted to read them as a mini-manifesto: a promise to speak truth about hard things, things that authorities like the Principal deny, with the aim of human liberation.

In an inspired piece of ordering that’s typical of the book, ‘Shooting Footage’ is followed by ‘Beached Dreams’, about the treatment of people who come to Australia by boat seeking asylum.

[Added later: Andy Kissane has emailed me some background on ‘Shooting Footage, which I quote here with his permission:

Its genesis began in a US film, The Bully Project but I don’t think I watched the whole film, just a bit of it. The spitting comes from my own experience of catching the bus to  a Christian Brothers school in the 1970s, but the rest is made up. Joshua and the biblical reference at the end comes from a Liz Frencham song I like, ‘Jericho’, but it’s a love song and has nothing to do  with bullying really, just gave me the idea for the ending. So essentially it is all made up,  riffing off the above sources. I have read it aloud once at Albury and it was a very hard poem to read.]

Embarrassingly, the Biblical reference to Joshua and the walls of Jericho went right past me until I listened to Liz Frencham’s song on YouTube (here).]

This is the fourth book of Andy Kissane’s poetry I’ve read. My blog posts about the others are here (Every Night They Dance, Five Islands Press 2000), here (Out to Lunch, Puncher & Wattman 2009) and here (Radiance, Puncher & Wattmann 2014).

I am grateful to the poet and Puncher & Wattmann for my copy.


*The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice bit of meat for the house-dog. (TS Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933).

Tricia Dearborn’s Autobiochemistry

Tricia Dearborn, Autobiochemistry (UWA Publishing 2019)

The Emerging Artist warned me that I would lose readers if I blogged about two books of poetry in a row. So, dear Reader, please take that as a challenge and stick around. Also, tl;dr: I love this book. You might too. It’s very accessible, scientific and sexy.

Tricia Dearborn was brought up Catholic, has worked as a biochemist and as an editor, is a member of the GLBTQI community, has done psychotherapy, and has made poetry out of all that. This is her third book of poetry*. My blog posts about the first two are here (Frankenstein’s bathtub, Interactive Press 2001) and here (The ringing world, Puncher & Wattmann 2012). It’s been a long time between drinks, but worth the wait.

Autobiochemistry begins with ‘A chalk outline of the soul’ (online at the Rochford Street Review at this link – you need to scroll down). You don’t have to have had a Catholic education in a certain era to love this account of an early lesson in metaphysics and of the child-speaker’s attention quietly turning elsewhere. It had me, who belong squarely in that demographic, eating out of its hand. This quiet turning away from religious doctrine is a perfect introduction to the book: there’s no talk of souls (no auto-bio-metaphysics) in what follows, and though devotional images and a gruesome line from a hymn do turn up, they belong unequivocally to memories of childhood. Instead of religion, the poems have glorious, deliciously nerdy materiality.

The title section consists of 22 poems, each named for a chemical element, and all suffused with what you’d have to call love for the elements, their properties (‘Carbon’s multivalence, its / chemical conviviality’), their roles in human life, specifically the poet’s (‘Manganese’ – ‘tea is not high in essential nutrients / except for manganese, a “dietary mineral”’), and – sometimes – their potential for metaphor.

The title of the second section, ‘Covalent bonds’, invokes chemistry as a metaphor for relationships. The poems themselves don’t muck around with that kind of metaphor. They are variously erotic, intimate, passionate, neighbourly, elegiac.

Then there’s a suite of poems with a psychotherapy theme: ‘Elephant poems’, as in the elephant in the room. ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs’ includes eight short poems about Virginia Woolf, each with an epigraph from her letters or diaries. The fifth and final section, ‘The change: some notes from the field’, has nine poems with ‘Perimenopause’ in the title, my favourite being ‘Perimenopause as a chance to get a few things off my mother’s chest’.

I love this book. I love its love of the material world, its ease with bodies and bodily functions (though I would blush to read aloud some lines in the love poems). I love the way it explores the poet’s personal history with humour and seriousness and the opposite of narcissism. Most of all, I love its championing of connectedness.

Currently when I blog about a book of poetry, I try to write about just one poem in some detail. Here it has to be one from the title sequence. I’m drawn to ‘Manganese’, a fabulously multifaceted look at tea. But ‘Sodium’ has got my favourite line in the book. Here it is (you can click on the image to see it large):

There’s nothing obscure in this poem (or indeed in the whole book): no cryptic wordplay and no need for a search engine to decipher a reference. The first five triplets set the scene; the next six play; and the final three bring the poem home. It’s like a sonnet, though in place of 14 lines it has 14 triplets – 5, 6, 3.

As in the other element poems, the element is real, acknowledged in its own right with an elegant, matter-of-fact account of its properties. The poem can afford to be matter-of-fact because sodium is so wonderful. These lines take me back to the joys of high school chemistry: the word ‘tossed’ recalls for me the dramatic moment when asthmatic Brother Foley showed us the sodium–water reaction by doing just that – tossing a small chunk into a filled sink, from a safe distance.

Then the poem turns. It could have gone on to musings about table salt and blood pressure, or the difference between swimming in the ocean, creeks and backyard pools. A backyard pool does appear in ‘Chlorine’, but when the poet’s mind reacts with sodium, a metaphor results:

I wanted to be the pure metal
solely myself, self-sufficient
swaddled in the safety

of needing no one

But in taking the behaviour of sodium as a springboard to musing about the speaker’s personal history, the poem doesn’t turn away from science. Instead, it invokes neuroscience. A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another’. Like sodium, humans (the poem has moved unobtrusively from the singular ‘I wanted’ to the species-general ‘we see’) are in constant interaction with the environment. She doesn’t have to spell out that wanting to be self-sufficient is wanting a very limited existence, the equivalent of sodium being ‘stored under kerosene, under oil’.

Then, the killer lines:

I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate

but humans are never
found free in nature
it's how we're designed

I just love this. It’s not that it’s a new insight. I think of D W Winnicott’s much quoted ‘There’s no such thing as a baby, there’s only a baby and someone’. And Raimond Gaita riffing on the song ‘Falling in Love Again’, reading ‘I was made that way / Auf Liebe eingestellt’ to say that humans are configured for love. Or Forster’s ‘Only connect’. It’s not new to say that humans are made for connection, however unremitting the messages to the contrary from the neoliberal environment (and the currently dominant side of politics). But ‘I grew up in a house of liars’, which looks at first glance like a condemnation of the speaker’s early family, has a deep compassion just beneath the surface. They were liars, but they were the ones who suffered from the lie, and anyhow they can hardly be blamed for inventing it.

-------------------------------connection

as vital as oxygen
intermingled, impure
we shine

The poem has done a neat trick with its main metaphor/analogy, twisting it into its exact opposite. Sodium in air is still dull, but the analogous grey dullness is what makes humans shine. It wasn’t until I retyped those lines that I realised that ‘Sodium’ can be read as a response to ‘A chalk outline of the soul’: in Sister Pascal’s chalk drawing, God’s sanctifying grace removes all smutchy traces of sin to leave the individual soul pure and shining, here – and in the book in general – it is our smutchy impurity that shines.

Autobiochemistry is the twenty-second book  I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. My copy is inscribed to a friend who bought it at a launch, so I’ll have to return it to her. I plan to buy a copy for myself.


* She has also written at least one book of science experiments for children, which you can find if you know how to use Duck Duck Go (or search engines that abuse your privacy).