In 2017, Eileen Chong’s third book of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. At the awards ceremony, a senior poet told her that many of her poems were like recipes, and if she collected them into a book she might have some success with it. She writes about this comment, and her reaction to it, in the first essay of The Uncommon Feast. ‘I am speechless,’ she says. ‘I feel put in my place, and ashamed.’
Happily, the shame didn’t last. The Uncommon Feast is a beautiful, generous, delightful response to that comment. It contains poems that are like recipes, as well as actual recipes. And it is much richer and more rewarding to culinary and non-culinary readers alike than anything her fellow poet presumably had in mind.
As Judith Beveridge says in her Introduction, the poems are at the heart of the book, but the prose essays and recipes, and the line drawings by Chong’s husband Colin Cassidy, are what transform it from a slim vol of poetry to a feast of a book. ‘The Common Table’, a short essay first published in Meanjin, which includes the account of the awards evening, also gives us the wonderful (food-related) moment when Chong’s mother understood that she was a writer; and ‘Eating and Telling: A Personal Food History’, is a quick autobiography told in terms of food – the school canteens (Singapore’s version so much more interesting than North Queensland’s), family meals, dining with partners, the bliss of cooking and eating with her husband. If we needed instructions on how to read Chong’s food poems, they are there:
Food, for me, is representative of family, culture, nourishment and love. I’ve learned how to cook from my grandmother, my mother, my friends’ mothers, and my partners over the years. The dishes I prepare are a palimpsest of experiences and cultures, new and old.
I’m surrounded by people who say they don’t get poetry – they feel intimidated by it, or see it as lost up its own wazoo. If any one book could convert them to poetry lovers, this would be it. There are many wonderful moments. For example, ‘Chinese Ginseng’ is a very fine poem in which the poet’s mother offers ginseng as a traditional cure for what the daughter knows to be irremediable. It ends:
--------------------------------------There is no point in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear: ------polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen – I can ------almost taste
her soup, sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica ------and lilybulb, but above all, the unmistakeable bitter-sweetness of ------Chinese ginseng.
Such a great moment! Ginseng may not be a cure for the physical ailment, but it becomes a sacrament of the mother’s love. Facing the poem is Colin Cassidy’s drawing of a ginseng root, inscribed with the words ‘panacea, tonic, necessity’ Then you turn the page to a recipe for Chinese Ginseng Chicken Soup, and you’re invited to join the moment with your own soup-making, soup drinking body.
The book is full of segues, and juxtapositions like that. I laughed out loud a number of times for sheer joy.
The first thing Mary Oliver said to me, it must have been in the mid 1990s, was this:
You do not have to be good.
That’s the opening of ‘Wild Geese’, from her book Dream Work (1985). Having completely grabbed my attention, she went on:
You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
They are words I wish every Irish-style Catholic of my generation, and possibly of all generations, could have heard in their childhood. There’s even more to the poem. You can watch her read the whole thing on YouTube.
When I heard last Friday that she had died, aged 83, I made a little pilgrimage to Gleebooks and bought Twelve Moons, one of four books by her on the shelves, of which one (Blue Horses) I already own, another (Devotions) was too huge for the moment, and the third (Dog Songs) probably too tummy-scratching.
Twelve Moons was Mary Oliver’s fourth book of poetry, first published half a decade before she won the Pulitzer (and before ‘Wild Geese’ was published). It’s a terrific book. Reading it now, I’m interested in how it fits with theNew York Times headline of 22 January, ‘Mary Oliver, 83, Prize-Winning Poet of the Natural World, Is Dead.’ In what way, I found myself asking, was she a poet of the natural world? (I don’t disagree with the description. After the lines quoted above, ‘Wild Geese’ goes on to talk about flocks of wild geese with their harsh cries.)
There’s a lot of the ‘natural world’ in this book: twelve very different moon poems; deer, horses, sharks; rain, snow, sunshine; crows, owls, bears and trees; mussels, snakes, turtles and stones. But they’re not generally ‘nature poems’ in any easy, Fotherington-Thomas way (‘Hullo clouds, hullo sky!’). At times, they seem to emerge from sustained, quiet observation of the living environment; at others, from a sharp moment of empathy (as in ‘The Black Snake’, where the speaker picks up a dead snake from the road and puts it back in the bushes). And though I’d say Mary Oliver is a life-affirming poet, there’s a lot of death: as an osteopath once said to me, ‘The body naturally seeks equilibrium, which is part of the healing process, but of course there’s also equilibrium in death.’ There’s that, and also the notion of life as precious but brief.
As is my custom, let me look fairly closely at a single poem. ‘Last Days’, on page 51, is not necessarily my favourite in the book, but it’s short enough to show you in a single jpeg, it does interesting things with ‘the natural world’, and – happily, given my love of the form – it’s a sonnet. Here it is:
This is more enigmatic than most of Mary Oliver’s poems. In fact, it’s a teaser poem – not naming its subject until its last word, but describing its effects as if they originate elsewhere, and also throwing in a good dose of misdirection.
The misdirection begins with the title, an apparent reference to the End Times, when life as we know it finishes in the twinkling of an eye. The first words, echoing W B Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming‘ – ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ – lead us further down that path. Perhaps one expects a poem about environmental disaster.
But the tone is too jaunty for that: ‘things are starting to / spin, snap, fly off’ doesn’t exactly feel like doomsday! The enjambments in those first lines, snapping phrases in two, capture the feel of all that disruption, but in an almost comical way, and it’s hard to see ‘the blue sleeve of the long / afternoon’ as a place of dread.
Then comes the sound. By the time the oh and ooh whistle from the grass’s mouth, the puzzle is only nominally still in place: wind is clearly involved. So when things ‘turn soft / boil back into substance and hue’, we know what is going on. Serendipitously, as I type this the gum trees and jacaranda outside my windows are boiling away, so what the eye sees is mainly colour and movement, no detail, just ‘substance and hue’.
Broadening out from ‘things’, the poem now speaks of ‘everything’: as in the Sleeping Beauty story, everything shakes off the enchantment that has made it inanimate.
Everything whispers, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’. Where the early enjambments mimic the snapping-off effects of the wind, here the lack of punctuation evokes the way everything is in motion. Then the final exhilarated cry of ‘Now!’ Who hasn’t stood in a strong wind and felt that exhilaration? And the wind is named at last as the great sayer of ‘Now!’.
So the poem isn’t about the end of the world after all. It’s just the wind, and not necessarily even a dangerous wind.
But what to make of that whisper, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’? The poem rushed us past it, even though on my first reading it was the word ‘oblivion’ that snagged my attention. What does it mean here? Why ‘too’ – who else loves oblivion?
In most contexts I would take ‘oblivion’ to mean something like death, or at least the death of the mind – so a word that chimes nicely with the End Times expectations generated by the title. But the immediate context suggests a completely different meaning: ‘oblivion’ is the state of forgetting, of having one’s attention fully in the present moment, the Now.
And why ‘too’? One possibility that suggests itself is that it’s the poem’s speaker who loves oblivion; that she isn’t just recording what she sees, though nor simply projecting her mental state onto it, but in describing the weather she is also describing the effect it has on her emotional state. And so back to the poem’s title. It’s not Last Days as in End Times, so much as the end of something, no longer stuck, enchanted, brooding over the past, but shaken into the present moment, where there is a possibility of new beginnings.
Please excuse me for hammering away at this small poem, but it’s helped me to articulate how I understand Mary Oliver to be a ‘poet of the natural world’: she’s not a meticulous describer of natural phenomena, but she writes out of her relationship to them. It’s a two-way relationship.
I mainly read this issue of The Australian Poetry Journal on my computer screen. It sat on my desktop to be dipped every now and then, a bit like Twitter only more than 280 characters, more nuanced, less infested with outrage and snark, and more nourishing. Here are some of the bits I enjoyed a comment on the front cover and then some snippets from poems that struck me (though not the only ones that did).
The cover illustration, a photo taken by artist Albert Tucker of artist Joy Hester watching art patron John Reed milking a cow at the artist’s colony Heide in 1942, is rich with metaphorical implications in reference to the journal’s theme of work. It reminds me of Jerome K Jerome’s famous quip about liking work: ‘It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours.’
From Jill Jones, ‘This Could Take a While’:
How do you get through days
that have already curved too far?
From Andy Kissane, ‘The Study Before the Major Work’:
I finish one sketch and start another, in love with the repetition that is the texture of my life, waking each morning to currawong calls, raising the blinds to the shifting architecture of light, dressing in loose clothes, keen to dwell in the lilting halls of wonder.
From Geoff Page, ‘In medias res’:
I should perhaps have warned you all my death will be in medias res: a carload of musicians
driving up from Sydney and being switched to voicemail
From Judith Beveridge, ‘The Pest Inspector’:
He gave good advice: ‘Always listen at night, and if you hear a sound as though you’ve left a record on after all the songs have played, the ticking of a needle as it tracks in a groove; if you hear what you take to be the scratching of a mouse, the contractions of a cooling tin roof, or click beetles snapping their thoraxes and abdomens to flip themselves right way up – take note, they could turn out to be the mandible-crafted ticks of termites eating along the grain of your floorboards.’
The whole of Cameron Lowe’s ‘Botanic / Beginning with four words from a poem by Joseph Massey’, which maybe I love because there was a giant fig behind my childhood home in North Queensland:
There’s little to say. The fig –
giant – leans across the
bridge, reaches up into
itself, names fading
from the love heart
scored in its trunk.
Cameron Lowe’s poem is part of ‘New Shoots: Garden of Poems’, a special feature that takes up nearly half of the journal’s pages. In 2017, under the auspices of Red Room Poetry, Australian Poetry Inc and the Melbourne Writers Festival, Tamryn Bennett commissioned ten poets to create a new suite of poems each, inspired by plants and histories they encountered in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. The poems they produced have had other outings – at the Festival, as a poetry trail at the Gardens, and in an online recording accompanied by interviews (here). They make a brilliant feature here: first the poems, then nine pages of ‘Reflections’ by the poets, which mostly allow for a much deeper reading experience. Just for one example, Bruce Pascoe’s powerful poem, ‘Kuller Kullup’, about the 19th century Wurundjeri elder of that name, becomes even richer when read in the light of his reflection, which begins:
It is very hard for Aboriginal people to get through a day without being reminded of loss, sometimes accompanied by a profound sadness, sometimes by mere elevated irony. When I was walking around the gardens with the other poets dread was dragging at my heels, feeling for my throat. The talk of last and natural and heritage was clutching at me with scrabbling fingers.
There’s much more, in the ‘New Shoots’ section and in the journal as a whole. Copies are available for sale from Australian Poetry Inc.
Eileen Chong, Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018)
Rainforest is Eileen Chong’s fifth book of poems in five years. I’ve blogged about three others here, here, and here and I’m still a complete fan.
The book’s title is explained in a note: the Chinese character on the cover, which is the third character of Eileen’s Chinese name (the Lin of Zhang Yi Lin) ‘refers to a constant, nourishing rain’, but the radicals that comprise it are yu, meaning ‘rain’, and mù, the radical for ‘wood’. So though the word doesn’t translate as ‘rainforest’, the note explains, ‘the rainforest is embedded within the word itself’. The poem plays on the contrasting connotations of this and those of her western name, Eileen/Helen:
My namesake, so greatly desired men set fire to a thousand ships – the light they must have given off, each sail a blackened flame sooting
the sky. I prefer the rain, a cloud cradling drops that fall at an angle over a forest waiting to receive.
It goes on to offer a kind of poetic manifesto in the form of a playful take on nominative determinism – the idea that unconscious processes mould our lives to fit our names: we can choose, it says, how to read our names. What an advantage it is if your name can be represented in pictograms!
So ‘Rainforest’ invites us to expect something like a self-titled album. And the book is intensely personal, though generous to the reader, inviting us in to play, to commiserate, to share joy and occasionally, as in the title poem, to learn.
There are four roughly equal sections, ‘East’, ‘South’, ‘West’ and ‘North’. It’s not that there’s a narrative, but the book has a dramatic shape, and it works so well that I had to stop reading on the first two pages of ‘North’ to weep tears of relief.
‘East’ comprises poems of Chong’s Singaporean Chinese heritage, childhood family, and identity: poems feature food, history, places, connections with other Chinese expatriates. ‘South’ is a collection of Australian poems: places again, artworks, relationship to First Peoples, and especially the five-part ‘Country’, a response to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, where Chong stretches beyond her generally joyful tone to include some ugly manifestations of racism, though I don’t think we’re meant to take the bleakness of the final lines, whose context is a ‘coastal walk’, as her last word on her adopted home:
_______________You hear about walkers who stray and die of thirst or exposure.
Always bring water. Leave enough time for the return journey. Watch the sun's path. You're on your own. This country cares for no one.
However ironic, these lines certainly lay the ground for the third section, ‘West’. Geographically, they are mostly if not entirely set in Europe. Thematically they deal with trauma, painful memories, and darkness.
It takes a while to realise what’s happening, because the images and language lose none of Chong’s clarity and grace. From the first poem in the section, ‘Measure’:
Words: fallen soldiers on a page. They come and they go. Memory
as surprising as a laden donkey picking its way towards the church
at the top of a hill. On this island even the cats sleep with one eye open.
Or this, from ‘Tide’:
That morning in spring I'd thought I was at peace. To think of you and walk past without pain. This evening the moon rose above the treeline. I stepped into the garden – sharp, clean air. Autumn.
The same moon, but changed.
As the section progresses, the poems become more graphic: violence in an intimate relationship, miscarriage and childlessness are evoked in unsparingly explicit language. Really, don’t read ‘Sandpaper’ if you’re feeling fragile.
The geographical reference of the final section, ‘North’, is Scotland. Thematically, it opens with a deft piece of misdirection, ‘Warhol: Notebooks’, a wonderfully sensuous account of a Warhol pencil drawing of a ‘man undressed, lying on his back’, the soles of whose feet form
________________________a wrinkled cave of skin, akin to a woman's soft receiving
It turns out that unthreatening erotic allure of this announces the theme of beautifully. After the ordeals of ‘West’, the poet finds happiness and intimacy with a man rom Scotland. The poems are full of the joy of that relationship. While it would be a mistake to take every poem in the book as strictly autobiographical, one can’t help but be very glad for Eileen Chong, particularly in the half-dozen love poems that start with the section’s title poem, whose final lines are where I started crying:
True north: I sought you in the darkest of nights. Drop anchor. Deep harbour.
There’s a lot more to this book than I’ve been able to say. Kim Cheng Boey has a beautiful and enlightening review in the Sydney Review of Books. He may not be as keen on the third and fourth sections as I am, but if if I haven’t persuaded you to have a look at Rainforest, perhaps he will.
Speaking a couple of years ago at a seminar on Poetry and the Sacred at the Catholic University, David Malouf offered a definition of prayer as paying close attention. If one accepts that definition, then An Open Book is full of prayer: attention to the environment, to relationships, to small children playing, to tiny moments, to his own fleeting thoughts and feelings. There’s also close attention to language, in particular the kind of attention that translation demands.
This means that for the reader the book offers many things that make you go hmmm, or ah, and sometimes oof!
The title, An Open Book, could look like a publisher’s little joke: that is, it’s a kind of label – ‘This is a book.’ But there’s more to it: it makes you think the sentence, ‘My life is an open book,’ and the book does follow the trajectory of a life’. It pretty much begins with a series entitled ‘Kinderszenen’, German for ‘Scenes from childhood’, and ends with a number of poems about old age and the anticipation of death. It follows in the poet’s footsteps from the Brisbane of his childhood, to London, the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany, Myrtle Street in Chippendale, and back to Brisbane.
One of the childhood poems, ‘The Open Book’, suggests pretty strongly that while the book may be in some way autobiographical, it’s not offering us a writer stripped bare:
My mother could read me, or so she claimed, like a book. Fair warning! But I too was a reader and knew that books
like houses have their secrets. Under the words even of plain speakers, echo and pre-echo.
There’s plenty of echo and pre-echo under the mostly plain words of these poems.
I mostly want to talk about translation, but first, just because I love them, I have to quote these lines from one of the ‘death’ poems, ‘Before or After’:
At something more than fourscore, till the big
surprise kicks in and leaves me breathless, most surprises, though not unwelcome,
are small. It is the small, the muted inconsequential, at this point that comes closest to real.
About translation. Malouf’s first collection, Bicycle and other poems (UQP 1970) included a number of translations. I can’t quote from memory, but I remember the pleasure I found in the freshness of his versions of Horace: one of them mentions the early light glinting off milk churns put out beside a country road, and to me it felt that rural Queensland was being linked to classical Rome; and his translation of ‘carpe diem’ is a small miracle:
Today's a rose. Let it blaze in your lapel.
There’s a Horace translation in this book, and a Dante, and the one I want to talk about, ‘La Belle Hélène’, after ‘Sonnet pour Hélène’ by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. This is not exactly an obscure poem: I found a website that gives the original French and at least ten translations (here, if you’re interested).
A basic question about any translation is: why? Why this poem? Why include it in a collection of your own poems? Is it a technical exercise? is the translated poem one you love and simply want your readers to know about? Or does it provide a medium for you to express something of your own?
The first thing to say is that ‘La Belle Hélène’ is actually a translation – in contrast to W B Yeats’s also-lovely ‘When You Are Old‘, which takes the original poem as a starting point for a slightly different argument addressed to his own love.
Look at the first lines.
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle, Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant, Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant : Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.
Very close literal translation):
When you will be well old, in the evening, by the candle, Sitting near the fire, dividing and spinning You will say, singing my verses, being filled with wonder: Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful
Long years from now, in the fireside hush of midnight, as you muse by candlelight, you'll pause at your needle -work and say, 'Years back, when I was a girl, an impossible sweet sixteen, Ronsard, the poet
you know, once sang my praises, called me 'belle'.
Malouf doesn’t stay close to the words of the original, or use full rhymes, but nor does he hijack the poem for his own purposes. There is evidence everywhere that he has paid close, loving, deeply respectful attention to the original. All the elements are there: the projection well into the future, the fire, the candle, the work, the rhyme scheme (though modernised away from full rhymes). Instead of singing the poet’s verses, the future person drops his name, a rough equivalent in these days when no one sits around a fire singing poetry. Malouf moves the hour of the imagined future scene from the evening to midnight, and introduces the idea of a hush, but the effect is to intensify what’s in the original rather than change it. Interestingly, he does specify the girl’s age, ‘sweet sixteen’, which has a decidedly 20th century feel, and can be seen as part of the project of rescuing the poem from a museum existence.
But she’s not just ‘sweet sixteen’, she’s ‘an impossible sweet sixteen’. And that sounds a note not in the original: one feels that Ronsard is about the same age as the woman he addresses, but this ‘impossible’ comes from a much older person. It seems to be asking how anyone could ever be that young?
And it turns out that the poet as an older person has been subtly woven into the texture of the poem. Where Ronsard’s speaker refers to his future self abstractly as a boneless ghost (fantôme sans os), Malouf’s is more specifically imagined – ‘innocuous’ and ‘esteemed’. It’s slight, but enough to be the difference between a young person and an old one imagining themselves as no longer alive. So the ground has been prepared for when he calls her ‘child’ in the second last line. And that word does a lot of work.
Ronsard’s original is unambiguously a poem of seduction. Malouf’s is something else. Ronsard says the older woman will be ‘regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain‘ (‘regretting my love and your proud disdain’). There is no reference to Malouf’s speaker’s love:
You'll regret at last what youth and youthful pride disdained.
Ronsard’s final injunction – ‘n’attendez à demain; /Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie‘ (‘don’t wait until tomorrow; / Gather today the roses of life’) – is a lover pressing his case. In Malouf’s version, having diverged incrementally from the original, it becomes something else, a warning from age to youth:
child, relent, choose life! Today is a rose that withers. Pluck it now, and boldly. Beware tomorrow.
Only the single word, ‘relent’, carries a hint that seduction might be on the agenda. Which would be just a bit creepy. But having now read the poem a number of times, I find that element recedes into the shadows, and the poem becomes an impassioned, generous, considered cry to the young not to waste their youth.
tl;dr: I love this book. Judith Beveridge writes a great self-introduction, and she is the queen of similes.
The six-page Author’s Note at the start of Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is a class act. She begins by talking about her ‘pathological shyness’ as a child, adolescent and adult, seeing in it a partial explanation for why nature features ‘as an abiding source of connection’ in her poems, and for her turning to literature and the written word as a source of intense pleasure and a means of communication.
She goes on to describe the kind of poet she is – mainly lyrical, she says, rather than having ‘an over-heated experimental or exploratory approach’, deriving ‘idiosyncrasies of rhythm, music, voice, sensual knowledge, syntactical deportment, emotion and ideas’ from the body. She also acknowledges that she is a dramatic poet, particularly in two long sequences centred on the life of Siddhatta Gotama the Buddha (not included in this selection but promised as two thirds of a future book), and ‘Driftground’, about a group of fishermen, which account for 27 marvellous pages here.
She discusses influences and aspirations, and generally provides an excellent orientation to the 103 poems that follow. One sentence stood out for me:
It’s the challenge of trying to write a good poem rather than feeling that I have something unique to say that motivates me.
That sentence prepares one for the way her poetry is marvellously open to its subjects. She never comes wielding an agenda, but pays attention with tremendous humility, often to breathtaking effect.
I loved reading Sun Music, and came away resolved to keep my eyes and ears more open to the world, especially but not only to the birds and animals in my life.
When I wrote a blog post about Beveridge’s book Wolf Notes seven years ago I quoted lines about the moon from a number of poems. Looking back, I realise I was trying to communicate my awe at her use of similes. That awe deepened as I read this volume. Some random examples: ‘an egret posed like a too-slim / model in the glossy light’ (‘Sun Music’), or ‘On the headland motels light up / like bright perfume bottles’ (‘Resort Town’), or ‘bluebottles are cast up in clusters / of varicose knots’ (‘Spittle Beach’), or (from ‘Lighthouse Beach’):
stands still as an altarpiece, then for a moment,
sea-misted, it looks like a whale’s spout
about to give way to wind and waves.
Occasionally there’s some showing off – as in ‘The Harbour’, where everything in the poet mentions is seen as something to do with food or its preparation or consumption (the Opera House like an ‘arrangement of prim serviettes’). But it almost always feels as if Beveridge’s similes arise from the quality of attention she has paid to the thing she sees (or hears) – as if it gives her words to describe it, words that she then passes on to us.
I generally try to single out just one poem I connect with when I blog abut a book of poetry. There are so many to choose from here, but I’ve settled on ‘Panegyric for Toads’, one of the thirty-three new poems on the final section – because I’ve been thinking about my North Queensland childhood recently, and this poem restored memory of the ubiquitous cane toads, and captures something of the secret affection I had for them as a child. Here’s the poem (click to enlarge):
The beginning – ‘These slumlords of burrows and tree-hollows / are on the move’ – evokes an image of toads – squat and repugnant as cartoon slum landlords, then after the line break they are ‘on the move’. This is not a panegyric to a single toad, and not to toads in general, but to a particular set of toads, dozens of them, part of the pestilential spread of their species across vast tracts of Australia. The general point isn’t laboured, it may not even be intended, but it’s strongly there, and the poem goes back to beautifully concise description of their appearance and sound.
The rest of the poem moves back and forth between general cultural and scientific knowledge about toads and precise, felt observation. There’s the folklore, the glaze of poison (we had a dog that tried to eat a toad and got very sick), the mating . All pretty yuck, really. But
__________look at those copper-red eyes leasing
fire to the damp core of evening; listen to their calls
in the reeds like the low-plucked strings of ouds;
and how, sometimes, as if led by an unseen conductor,
sensing peril, their singing instantaneously stops.
Well, yes, one has to concede, there is that. But then she goes for the most grotesque aspect of these creatures, their mating (here’s a link to a video in case you need to refresh your memory). There’s a marvellous reversal of the expected order here: there is description of the grotesquerie, the female
with a group of males, an iron-lock embrace
they won’t break for days, risk drowning for sex.
But that comes after the process has been described as ‘like a congregational / laying on of hands’, whose purpose is to heal their warts. And it comes after the poem’s genuinely shocking moment:
Some say toads are always belching, breaking
wind, eating each other’s shed skin. I’d happily
kiss a toad on her sullen, troglodyte mouth
It’s hard to know what to make of that, apart from to be revolted. The fairytale reference suggests that some transformation might result: it could be that the poet would happily kiss the toad to spare her from the ordeal of the mating scrum, but I don’t think that’s it. Maybe there is a transformation here, though: the poet has seen past the belching, farting, dead-skin eating, sullen wartiness to what is wonderful about these creatures and her response to them has been transformed into something like love. Certainly, coming where they do in the poem, the lines about indissoluble scrumming and risking drowning for sex are celebratory more than anything.
The last three lines, after evoking the beauty of frogs, end with an assertion of fellow-feeling. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as agile, smooth-skinned frogs, but really, warts and all, we’re like toads.
The poem was included in Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2016 edited by Sarah Holland-Batt. A reviewer in in The Australian (link here, not behind pay wall) wrote:
Judith Beveridge’s A Panegyric for Toads is a breathtaking piece that conflates the behaviour of toads with our reckless treatment of the environment.
I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I just don’t see it. I don’t think the toads here represent anything. Sometimes a toad is just a toad.
Do Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.
[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.
In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.
The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.
One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:
The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.
As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.
The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.
Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.
These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:
It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and
when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort
This must be one of the most publicised books of poetry ever to appear in Australia. Kate Lilley and her sister Rozanna Lilley made headlines in June by talking to the press about how, when they were young teenagers, they were sexually exploited by much older men – writers, poets, artists, etc in the orbit of the girls’ playwright mother Dorothy Hewett, and how this happened with their mother’s apparent endorsement. The articles under the clickbait headlines generally mentioned Tilt and Rozanna’s book of memoir essays and poems, Do Oysters Get Bored? As Rozanna said in an interview on the ABC’s Hub on Books, the Lilley sisters didn’t set out to make scandalous revelations or impugn their mother’s reputation, but to tell their own stories, and perhaps reconsider their experiences and their parents’ milieu in the light of the #MeToo movement. You can hear that interview at this link:
I don’t expect I’ll damage the sales of Tilt if I say readers will scan its pages in vain for prurient thrills. Poems related to Lilley’s early life make up about a third of the book, in a section entitled ‘Tilt’, and based on my limited acquaintance with her work I’d say they are uncharacteristically personal. Poems in the second section, ‘Harm’s Way’, range widely in subject matter, including Australia’s offshore detention of people seeking asylum, a scandal involving a judge in Arkansas, and a Texas psychiatric institution. These poems often feel as if they have been constructed from words and phrases found in other sources – newspaper articles, court documents, institutional records, perhaps. The third section, ‘Realia‘, is an expanded version of the Vagabond Rare Object chapbook (the link is to my blogpost): the expansion consists largely of seven pages of prose about Greta Garbo, which – for prosaic readers like me – allows for a vastly richer reading of the poems that follow, mainly ‘GG’ which comprises a list of objects from the catalogue for the auction of Greta Garbo’s estate.
But back to the direct, personal poems in ‘Tilt’. The great children’s writer Katharine Paterson said somewhere that her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins started out from the question, ‘What became of the children of the Hippies?’ These ten poems address a similar question: ‘What of the children of sexual libertarians?’ They are not a diatribe, nor do they ask for a response of moral outrage. They are complex, poised, sometimes angry, clear-eyed accounts of troubling moments in a young life. One poem that keeps coming back to me is ‘Conversation Pit 1971’:
This little poem is worth sitting with for a while. The title and the first couplet conjure up a period domestic milieu – according to Wikipedia conversation pits were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s in Europe and North America, and I guess we’d add in some parts of Australia. In the second couplet Mum’s blunt, explicit question disrupts any expectation of wholesome conversation. It’s the kind of incident that could be part of a hilarity-filled session of reminiscences among the grown children. The lines giving the speaker’s reply,
Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap
would fit nicely in such a session.
Then what wasn’t revealed in the conversation pit: that the speaker also experimented with girl-girl kissing.
We thought we were so ingenious
I was 11 she was 12
Even though we’ve been told that the mother’s question relates to primary schoolchildren’s activities, it comes as a further shock that the girl being questioned was so very young. Then the poem moves on from outrageous family anecdote mode:
The question changed everything
what had seemed forward was now backward
There’s something almost clinical in this. We’re not being asked to condemn the mother, or to pity the daughter – it’s just one of the infinite variety of ways ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but that line, ‘what had seemed forward was now backward’ identifies this particular way with extraordinary simplicity and precision. And then a terrible ache is evoked in the final couplet:
I needed to speed up
at least get my period
Probably everyone has a story to tell about unhelpful parental intervention or non-intervention in their adolescence. Lilley’s poems have an extra dimension from the fact that her mother was Dorothy Hewett, whose poems, plays and prose often dealt with her own sexuality, and her father was Merv Lilley, author of the book Gatton Man, in which he argued that his father was a serial murderer. There are explicit references to the parents’ works: ‘Turn Around Is Fair Play’ amounts to a gloss on a moment in one of Dorothy’s plays, probably The Legend of Tatty Hollow; and ‘Her Bush Ballad (Bourke St Elegy)’ alludes to the subject matter of Gatton Man. But even without such references, this double handful of poems must change the way we read Hewett’s work. Elsewhere, Kate Lilley has described her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. These poems expose some of the darker implications of that description, while never letting go of an enduring sense of connection, of complex loyalty. A line from ‘Memorandum’, the final poem in the section:
I’ll never get over (not) having you as my mother
[Added later: For a very fine, beautifully articulated discussion of the book and its place in the general ‘conversation’, I recommend Ali Jane Smith’s ‘A Book Is a Good Place to Think’ in the Sydney Review of Books.]
__________________________I plough my furrow
heavily and fruitfully and my seldom rage
is that of the earth like an earthquake, sudden
and efficiently gutting.
(‘The Year of the Ox’, page 205)
That’s one of Jennifer Maiden’s many self-descriptions in this book. It leaves out a lot, of course – the wit, the polemic eccentricity, the sensuousness, the drama, the scarily eclectic erudition and much more – but it does capture her commitment to the work of poetry and her occasional bursts of rage at, well, anything from genocidal war to ‘ethical security’ in her fellow left-wingers or sister feminists.
This is Maiden’s third Selected Poems. The 1990 Penguin Selected drew on just four books. Bloodaxe’s Intimate Geography was a kind of introduction to British readers covering 1990 to 2010. This selection covers Maiden’s whole poetic career, and is appropriately hefty.
I’ve read the book a little at a time over several months. As the poems are printed in approximate order of publication, you get to see Maiden’s subjects and poetic forms develop over the years, a little like a stop-motion movie. Her daughter, Katharine, for example, first appears in ‘The Winter Baby’ on page 61:
She feeds as firmly
as the heart mills blood,
her needs as fair as Milton’s God
and her eyes like night on water.
The ‘whimsical huge pleasure’ of Maiden’s maternal love gives rise from the beginning to complex, wide-ranging poetry. Incidentally, one of the pleasures of this book is that when a poem refers to one that Maiden wrote decades earlier, it’s often possible to flip back to the earlier poem: ‘Night on Water’, more than a hundred pages and nearly a decade later, refers to the ‘The Winter Baby’. The appearance of the Winter Baby ushers in Maiden’s characteristic use of dialogue. In ‘Chakola’ (page 71) Maiden and her now three-year-old daughter visit an old school in the Monaro (emphasis from the original publication, not reproduced in this book):
She says ‘You used to teach here.’ I say ‘No:
your great grandfather did, and your father
played here.’ But you say ‘You mean
grandfather.’ And yes, that’s where the sense
of self slips up of course – in history.
Maybe we’re all an ‘I’ as we confront
the past, the broken ford, the Numeralla
gleaming with sunlit absence.
(I initially read the third line as the little girl correcting the speaker, but on typing it out realised that it’s actually the person the poem is addressed to who corrects her, a more interesting progression, of a kind that isn’t unusual in Maiden’s work.)
Maiden’s engagement with politics and especially violence is there from the start: among the very early poems are ‘Princip in the City’, about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, and ‘The Problem of Evil’ a long narrative set in an unnamed war that reads as the US-Vietnam war. Her acute observaations of political figures as seen on TV, from George W Bush’s mouth (‘George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin’) to Julia Gillard’s eyes (‘Poor Petal’), begin on page 73 (about 1990) with ‘Mandela in New York’:
_____the first loss is not time or health,
so much as forever the freedom
to escape to the purposeless self,
He walks slowly, precisely, and smiles.
And it’s fun to see Maiden’s signature ‘So-and-so woke up’ poems coming into being. In a long prose passage (on pages 153 to 159) ‘George Jeffreys: Introduction’, first published in Friendly Fire, 2005):
The part of my brain that provides new things was often inaccessible about September 11. Then driving along the Monaro and watching the tumbling circus of clouds one day, I thought: what are George and Clare thinking? George and Clare are characters from my second novel, Play with Knives, and my later notoriously unpublished novel Complicity, or The Blood Judge. George Jeffreys is a Probation Officer turned Human Rights investigator … Clare is his former Probation client and sometime lover … who as a nine-year-old child murdered her three younger siblings. The two could clearly do New York and in the process, with the freedom of fiction, the horror-inhibited portions of my mind might speak.
And so George Jeffreys and Clare Collins wake up from wherever fictional characters go when their novel s are finished, and usher in the George and Clare poems, thirty of them so far, come into being, as George and Clare visit horrors, from Manus Island to the pirate coast of Somalia, talking non-stop to each other and personages as disparate as Donald Trump and Confucius.
There’s much more. The book is full of joys, even as it confronts many of the terrible elements of our world.
I don’t usually comment on book design and production, but it’s probably important to do so here. My impression is that Quemar Press operates on a shoestring. But I wish they had employed a professional book designer, and a professional proofreader. The margins of this books are painfully narrow – top, bottom, left and right. And there are no blank pages. It feels as if as the poems have crammed into the available space, an impression that is reinforced when occasionally the final line of a poem drifts to the top of the next page, where it sits a lonely widow above the title of the following poem. This isn’t just an aesthetic matter: I found it physically hard to read more than a couple of pages at a time. If you’re new to Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, you might find one of the smaller volumes more reader friendly.
But the mild pain was worth it for the intense pleasure to be found on almost every page.
Mohammad Ali Maleki (translator Mansour Shoshtari), Truth in the Cage (Verity La Press 2018)
It can’t be right that my birthday hurts me;
I feel such regret for having been born.
(‘An Unforeseen Life’)
In 2001, when the Norwegian ship Tampa was turned away from Australian mainland with its burden of desperate people seeking asylum, Prime Minister John Winston Howard made sure that nothing reached the Australian population that would foreground their humanity: no photographs of their faces, no TV, radio or newspaper articles telling their personal stories, or quoting their own words.
Seventeen years later, Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull maintain the same depersonalising policy regarding the men, women and children refugees and seekers of asylum now detained on Manus Island and Nauru, some of them for just over five years. The cost of a visa to Nauru is prohibitive; doctors and others speak about what they witness there under threat of imprisonment; Peter Dutton recently said that ‘the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion’, and he seems to insist that no such act be allowed within his department, even to people who have died.
The detainees are not voiceless or faceless, but they are systematically denied a platform from which their faces can be seen and their voices heard. Word has managed to get out. Notably, Behrouz Boochani co-directed the documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time with Dutch film director Arash Kamali Sarvestani, and his book No Friend but the Mountains is to be launched next month. There have been other newspaper articles by him and other detainees, and there are a number of detainee Twitter accounts. Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts project garnered a collection of short messages from people on both islands, published in the Guardian in late 2016.
Now Verity La, a tiny, no-way-for-profit online literary magazine, has added to the voices we can hear with this chapbook containing eight poems by Mohammad Ali Maleki, translated from Farsi by another detainee, Mansour Shoshtari. All profits from sales of the book go to the poet.
As you would expect, the poems are grim: ‘The Migrant Child’ is for Aylan Kurdi, the child whose body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach; ‘Brother’ is for Hamed Shamshiripour, one of the men who has died on Manus Island on Peter Dutton’s watch; and generally the poems reflect the desolation and despair of the experience of indefinite detention.
So, OK, this isn’t a cheerful read. But it seems to me that as well as going on protest marches, lobbying our MPs, and voting in elections, it’s important to take every opportunity that arises to listen to the voices of people with the lived experience. From ‘Where Is My Name’:
All people are known by name;
I’ve never met a human without one
Yet they stole mine and gave me
a meaningless nickname instead.
I’m fed up wth repeating this false name!
Take it away and return my identity.
That is the only thing I have left in this land.
That is my parents’ only mark here.
The book can be bought direct from Verity La. It costs $10 plus nominal postage.
This is a wonderful show featuring an African immigrant family in London in the 1980s, tucked away on ABC Comedy. It takes a while to recognise Idris Elba as the genial father. Sadly it looks as if there are only 7 episodes. We started watching it after seeing If Beale Street Could Talk at the movies – it's an excellent pairing.
The same slow pace as Moonlight, the same lingering on beautiful black faces and bodies, plus a reverential treatment of a James Baldwin novel make this a striking film. I wasn't completely pulled into the mood, and found myself thinking about the movie rather than being immersed, but it's pretty bloody great.