Andrew Huntley died in June this year. In lieu of attending his funeral I broke my personal ban on Amazon and bought a copy of From Tradition, which he self-published in 2014. I’m sorry it was too late for my purchase to boost his finances or his morale.
We were friends in the early 1970s when we were both in our 20s. He was witty, warm and exuberant, a recent convert to Catholicism of the pre-Vatican-Two variety, and a keen astrologer. We liked each other. And I loved his poetry.
Lyrical Ballast was one of three slender, stapled books of poetry published by the Sydney University Arts Society in 1970. (The other two were Martin Johnston’s shadowmass and Terry Larsen’s Tar Flowers.) It’s largely nonsense poetry, and though it mostly hasn’t aged well its general benign silliness is charming, and disarming.
Two poems in this collection still give me pleasure. ‘A Paean: Australia’s Praise in Honour of the Makers of Sweat Poesy’ offers a deeply ironic picture of an Australia where poets have ultra-celebrity status that still rings true:
'Sing Huzzah for the poet!'
Cries each Australian Son,
As a poet passes down the street
'Huzzah!' cries everyone.
‘An Essay on Criticism’ (which I’ve uploaded elsewhere in this blog – link here) was Andrew’s contribution to the website commemorating the 30th anniversary of Martin Johnston’s death (link here). It’s a tragicomic love story and a celebration of non-academic approaches to poetry, which begins:
Maisie were a critical
Severe she wore her bun
She lecturing on literature was grim.
Arnold he be engineer
He's reading just for fun –
Maisie meaning all the world to him.
And it ends:
A poem can be way to make a friend.
Between Lyrical Ballast and From Tradition, Andrew published three other books: Lalai – Dreamtime, the script for Mike Edols’s 1972 short film of that name, a poetic rendering of a story ‘recounted by Sam Woolagoodjah, Elder of the Worora people, north-west Australia’ (the description is form the AustLit website); Minor Pageant (Island Press 1977); and The Stone Serpent Dreaming (Hale and Iremonger 1983). And he had a number of poems published over the years, mainly in politically conservative journals such as Quadrant and in conservative Catholic publications.
From Tradition is a beautifully produced hardback, containing 33 short poems, mostly sonnets that adhere rigorously to the demanding Petrarchan rhyme scheme (in case you’re interested, that’s abba abab cde cde), and one longer poem in blank verse. Almost every short poem asserts a traditional-to-reactionary Catholic position – on sex, feminism, grief, the afterlife, writing back to Yeats, Pound, Emily Brontë, Phillip Adams. The long poem, ‘The Plough & the Cross’, is a narrative telling of the poet’s conversion to Catholicism. The exuberant silliness of Andrew’s early poetry has evaporated, and the tone is generally combative – the speaker in most of the poems is fighting against modernity and holding fast to his commitment to the One True Church, and to God the Creator and, especially, Judge.
While I admire Andrew’s technical skill and his erudition, and respect his embattled integrity, I found the book uncongenial. I think that’s how he meant someone like me to find it.
Every now and then, the poetry allows a glimpse of a suffering human being under the carapace of Faith. Here’s an example:
Chasing Tolkien'And Rose drew him in, and set him
in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.'
The Return of the King, J R R Tolkien
My time seemed flowing there – re-burgeoning –
I never knew how strongly years might stay:
Once more the final pages, – I could say
With Samwise, well, I'm back. Yet in my spring
There was no loving Rosie – none to bring
Her promise that all years would glide away,
Bearing a couple on their wedding day
That death alone could part .... come anything!
My Middle-earth, little but breaking's been,
And scattered flowerings of sadness sown;
With autumn silent now in loneliness:
Where haven has withdrawn from every scene,
And (on and on) mere roads to madness shown –
And time is past; and only God may bless.
As an evocation of misery finding comfort or hope in God, it’s a long way from George Herbert of Gerard Manly Hopkins, but it does pull at the heart.
I’m a fan of Ali Alizadeh’s writing – poetry, criticism and fiction. (You can see the many blog posts where I’ve mentioned him at least briefly here.) One of the things I like and admire is his, well, grumpy refusal to conform to expectations. At one Sydney Writers’ Festival when an audience member asked, one immigrant person of colour to another, about the difficulty of writing when one is from a marginalised group, he memorably replied: ‘If someone came here from Mars and looked at us, they’d say, “You all look the same to me. Get over it.”’
The grumpiness is well to the fore in Towards the End, at least on first reading. The title doesn’t refer to any individual’s imminent death, but towards an end much bigger than that. The world is in terrible shape, and this poetry doesn’t hold out much hope for it to survive as we know it, or waste a lot of time dressing its despair and rage in pretty tropes and figures.
The book opens glumly enough with ‘The Singer’, in which the speaker, caught in time between his father ‘crying out the lyrics of an old Persian dirge’ and his son ‘singing Humpty Dumpty, a melody / he screams out in the absence / of my song’, doesn’t sing but writes as a way of enacting ‘the presence of unsung words’. This is followed by a number of similarly dejected poems – regretting the way his once-revolutionary grandparents had become banal and dull when he knew them (‘Saga’); expressing disillusionment with poetry (‘Destinal’ and ‘Merri Creek’) and academia (‘Fred’, ‘The Academy’ and ‘Fetish Commodity’). I don’t want to give the wrong impression: glum is not the same as lifeless of humourless. In ‘Fred’, for instance, a bureaucrat is speaking about ‘desirable outcomes’ etc when the speaker’s thoughts drift off to another bald man. If we’re expecting the remembered contrast to be something from the poet’s Iranian past – a contrast he has drawn in earlier poems – it’s a bit of a jolt instead to have an image from a disssolute youth in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley:
Fred, accountant by day, gothic masochist
in spiky dog collar and that
memorable leather underwear
The glumness takes on a broader scope with ‘Public Mourning’, where the speaker’s discontent with his academic employment (‘whoring my mind’) is juxtaposed with the news that a sheikh has drowned in a lake in Morocco (presumably Ahmed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2010). And from then on the book is mainly a multi-faceted conversation about what poetry can be in the age of late Capitalism, callous treatment of people seeking asylum, murderous family violence, commodification and worse of animals, consumerism, corporate activism and ‘the stinking, condemned / mausoleum of the American Dream’. Marx is quoted, and one poem (‘I ❤ (this) Life?’) reads as a quick rundown on parts of marxist economics. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin have an argument (in ‘The Point’). Tony Abbott makes a brief appearance, in ‘Election Announced’, as ‘the Aussie theocrat / retributivist in speedos’ and ‘the odious Monk’.
Towards the end, there’s a move towards hope that somehow we will rise collectively against this dehumanising and destructive state of things, in the long poem (notice the question mark) ‘Hope?’. This is how that poem ends:
looms on the horizon
____of our very greatest
____expectation. Don't be afraid
________ comrade. The Revolution
________ never ended. Were
________ the governor of our prison
________ to huff, open
________ fire __ at us, would we
____________ come together
____________ again? I think
____________ we would. I think
____________ we will
____________ resume history.
____________ I think there's hope
Then, as a final moment of what might be nostalgia or maybe a gloriously defiant assertion against the odds, a new translation of the great left-wing anthem, ‘The Internationale’, all 12 verses.
It turns out, on second and subsequent readings, the poetry doesn’t seem so grumpy after all. It’s a mind at work, fighting for clarity and against demeaning structures of feeling, sometimes witty, often enraged, argumentative or didactic, but alive and refusing easy resolutions.
I’m grateful to the Giramondo Publishing Company for my copy of Towards the End.
Homer Street‘s back cover tells us that Laurie Duggan is ‘celebrated for his acute observations of everyday life and his minimalist style’. If you understand everyday life to include engagement with works of art and connections with other poets, that’s a pretty full description of the poems in this book. All it leaves out is the pleasure offered to the reader on every page.
Each of the book’s three sections is made up of short poems, one as short as three words counting the title. The first set of poems are based in England where the poet lived for many years, the second are back in Melbourne and then Sydney, where he now lives, and the third are poems in response to works of visual art and sculpture. They include verbal snapshots, haikus and haiku-like poems, puns, evocations of places and moments, poems that read like a visual artist’s notes for a painting – all of them, with one exception, remarkable for their brevity. (The exception is ‘Six notes for John Forbes’, almost expansive enough to be called a letter, affectionately addressed to Duggan’s poet friend, who died in 1998.)
Duggan has two long-running sequences of poems on the go, ‘Blue Hills’, named for the ABC radio serial that ran from 1949 to 1976, and ‘Allotments’, probably named for those individual vegetable patches in English towns. Both series, the Australian and the English, have been gathered into books: The Collected Blue Hills by Puncher & Wattmann in 2012, and Allotments by Fewer and Fewer Press in 2011. Those collections, it turns out, weren’t definitive: both series live on in Homer Street, ‘Allotments 101–125’ and ‘Blue Hills 76–110’. There is a third sequence of short poems, ‘Homer Street’ – named for the street in an inner western suburb of Sydney, presumably Duggan’s current address. And I guess the book’s third section, ‘Afterimages’, could be seen as a fourth sequence, though it doesn’t have the same strong sense of place(s) as the others
In writing about these poems I decided to take my cue from the blurb, and googled (actually duck-duck-goed) minimalism and poetry. What I found on a Pen and the Pad was to the point:
Minimalist poetry does not rely on story or narrative; it is as concise as possible and seeks to convey meaning while eliminating any unnecessary words. Minimalist poems do not seek to set scenes, introduce characters or provide descriptions of specific actions or events.
The site goes on to talk about typographic devices and other things that aren’t so relevant, and the examples that it gives make minimalism seem, if not dull, then certainly a bit clever-dicky highbrow and esoteric. By contrast, Duggan’s poetry generally has a genial, inclusive feel. Even when I had to look things up, it felt more of a pleasure than a chore. For example, here’s a complete poem:
Incomprehensible until you remember/discover that Arcimboldo is the 16th century Italian painter who did portraits made up of fruit and vegetables, this isn’t profound, but it’s fun, and companionable: reading it, you feel that you could have been with Duggan in a museum when he muttered this as an aside in front of a painting.
The book’s title – Homer Street – is itself a kind of minimalist poem. It could be every poet’s address, just down the road from where the playwrights live, on Shakespeare Avenue. And it reflects ironically on Duggan’s poetry: The Odyssey it’s not, though maybe, just maybe, ‘Blue Hills’ and ‘Allotments’ can be seen as developing an epic quality as they accumulate over the decades. Many drops to turn a mill.
Usually when I blog about poetry books I spend time on a single poem. Many of these poems relate to places near where I live. In fact, yesterday I drove the length of Homer Street and admired the view Duggan evokes. But I’ll choose elsewhere. The first poem in the book, ‘A Preface’, is not only a good example of a Duggan poem, it also reflects on the kind of poetry he writes.
I just love this. Perhaps unnecessarily, I’ll walk through my reading of it – though first I must mention how beautifully it sounds. There’s not a word or syllable out of place.
It’s certainly concise, and doesn’t waste any words giving context or explanation. Nine lines including the title. The first four lines, in two couplets, make a statement about American poetry; the next three lines quote an American on Duggan’s work; the last line is his response.
The title invites us to read the poem as an introduction to the book, an indication of what kind of poetry to expect.
The first line echoes the title of one of Walt Whitman’s best known poems. ‘Song of Myself’, Wikipedia tells us, ‘has been credited as “representing the core of Whitman’s poetic vision”.’ The opening couplet suggests that singing of oneself represents a core practice of ‘the Americans’, which in this context probably means specifically US poets, but perhaps something more general in US culture: the individual is paramount, and self-promotion is a necessary and pervasive virtue.
The beautiful double negative of the second couplet – ‘no sense / of insignificance’ – suggests a criticism. It’s one thing to be aware of one’s own significance. It’s quite another to have no sense of one’s own insignificance. This is wide open to interpretation. At least, that’s what I tell myself, but I can’t get past my own train of thought that it sets off: something in Australian culture, or at least the part of it where I live, tends to be self-effacing, self-mocking, self-deprecating. Last night on the TV news, for example, Mark Rapley, who had wrestled a great white shark to make it let go of his wife’s leg, made no claims to heroism: ‘When you see the mother of your child, and your support, everything that’s who you are, you just react.’ And there are hundreds of examples of firefighters who respond with similar ‘sense of insignificance’ when asked about heroic acts – not that their actions lack significance, but they deflect any attention to themselves. This quality could be called humility, or a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. It’s not always a positive thing – the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is another aspect of the same thing. But it’s real, and ‘sense /of insignificance’ is a terrific way of describing it.
I read that second couplet as saying that, for good or ill, ‘the Americans’ lack a quality that, by implication, perhaps the speaker-poet possesses.
We then switch to the quote from ‘Basil’. I don’t suppose it matters who Basil is, beyond what we know and can deduce from the poem: he’s a man from Brooklyn, probably a poet, and his line ‘you’re not there’ is quoted as a response to what has just been said about US poets, presumably including him: We may go on about ourselves, but you’re not there in your poems at all.
And Duggan agrees. Or at least, the speaker of the poem does. It’s worth noticing the exact words. Not ‘I agree’, but the impersonal ‘he was right’. Right here in this poem, Basil’s description is accurate. And the same is true for almost everything in this book (‘Six notes for John Forbes’ is again an exception). Flipping through the pages, I see place after place where something is seen or heard, and the position or movement of the observer is to be deduced by a kind of triangulation. In ‘Allotment 110’ a track ‘marked / by broken branches / traverses Redhill Wood / to the pheasant farm’; ‘Blue Hills 77’ has ‘at night the clatter of freight trucks / on the Bankstown line’. Nowhere in the sequence ‘Homer Street’ are we told that the speaker/poet lives there. It’s like a person with camera: we see what the camera sees, and can tell where the photographer/cinematographer is, but never see the actual person.
‘A Preface’ holds up this quality as distinctively un-American, perhaps hinting that it’s distinctively Australian.
So who is ‘Basil’? In the age of Google and Duck Duck Go such questions can be answered. Searching Basil, poet, Brooklyn gave me Basil King (link is to his Wikipedia page), painter and poet, whose ongoing project Learning To Draw/A History, sounds eerily similar to Duggan’s long-term sequences, though King’s work, I gather, is telling his life story, very much songs of himself. An article by Laurie Duggan is cited on King’s Wikipedia page, and on King’s own website I discovered that King did the cover image for Duggan’s Allotments, which he reviewed, describing the poems beautifully:
Portable. Almost invisible. They reflect, replay, compress and then call a reader back to think again.
So Basil is a real person, a friend it would seem. The inclusion of the date clarifies that a real utterance is being remembered. ‘A Preface’ is, among other things, part of a friendship: two poets talking to each other about their work. If the line had gone, ‘said Basil King’, or even if there had been an explanatory note, the web-searching would have been marginally easier, but the tone of the poem would have changed: it would have become a learned allusion, or a bit of name-dropping, rather than a report on a conversation. And yet, for all that, Duggan isn’t there except as the recorder.
I first met Laurie Duggan’s poetry when I was a postgrad Eng Lit student at Sydney University in the early 1970s. His was an amiable, wry, self-deprecatory voice among the young poets who read to us in those heady days. I’ll spare you my own boomer recollections, but you might be interested to read Laurie’s, in his contribution to the webpage commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Martin Johnston, perhaps the most erudite of those young poets. Here’s a link to the webpage, and a link to Laurie’s contribution.
You might also be interested in my blog post about his New and Selected Poems 1971–1993 (at this link).
I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my complimentary copy of Homer Street.
This is Ellen van Neerven’s second book of poetry. It picks up the themes of the first book, Comfort Food (my post here), and expands and deepens them wonderfully (and sometimes alarmingly). van Neerven discussed the book with poet Tessa Rose at the virtual Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. The podcast, which you can access here, spurred me to buy a copy. And I’ve just listened to the inaugural episode of UQP’s podcast series, Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times, where van Neerven chats with Western Sydney poet Eunice Andrada (Soundcloud here). It feels as if they are everywhere. (Gender fluidity features in Throat, and I believe that ‘they’ is van Neerven’s preferred pronoun.)
In the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast, van Neerven reads the long poem ‘Chermy’ – about the Westfield shopping centre, Chermside – and describes its evolution as a social poem for and by her First Nations family in south-east Queensland (it’s on the Overland website, here). Another long poem, ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ is a similarly social poem about the poet’s identity as part of the Blak Queer community (you can read it on the SBS site, here). ‘Blak’, by the way, is a word coined by artist Destiny Deacon to signify urban First Nations people in Australia, a coining whose origins you can read about here. These two poems, appearing early in this book, provide a kind of backdrop for much of what follows. I love this from about the midpoint of ‘The Only Blak Queer’:
I hadn't yet been to Mardi Gras.
I saw the white gays and the white gaze I was used to and
then I saw Blak Queers everywhere and every conversation
was an insight into a Blak Queer past, the street becoming a
site of multi-time, the past-present beat, the future love, and
forty years of Blak Queer pride spread into more than sixty
thousand years of we-have-always-been-here.
My dance joined a big dance. I saw a Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta
lesbian couple who had been marching since the beginning,
who chanted, 'Stop Police Attacks! On Gays, Women and
Blacks!' in 1978 and they told me off for knowing fuck-all.
Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am
learning the words.
You don’t have to be Blak or Queer to feel the huge joy of finding a community and a history in those lines. And you don’t have to be a 78er to love the humility in the second paragraph and the pride in the last sentence.
The book’s five loose sections all revolve around the lived experience of being Aboriginal/Blak and queer. There are poems commenting on political news, from ‘The Last Apology’ which likens Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations as the apologies of a domestic abuser (‘You want to make up and make out / with the Aboriginal flag / I want you to promise /you won’t do it again’), to ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’, which begins: ‘We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist’, or ‘Engaged’, a wry take on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Some poems turn a challenging eye on white allies. ‘Expert’, for example, begins:
don't know how it happened
think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she's an expert
don't know how she got her expertise
think I'm the first one she's met
Some poems celebrate being part of the community of Aboriginal women and find strength there. There are poems of connection to Country, and poems of travel – solidarity found with Indigenous people elsewhere, and dread at returning to Australia. ‘Questions of Home’ ends:
I brace my self so much on arrival
I forget to breathe.
There are joyful poems about queer relationships. My favourite lines in the whole book (from ‘Pleasure Seeking’):
Tell her ...
go'n, tell her ...
you're not really dating
unless you're dating each other's ancestors
Like Comfort Food, this book features a number of poems responding to works by other artists and writers, including Destiny Deacon ( ‘Portrait of Destiny’), Kerry Reed-Gilbert (‘White Excellence’), Candy Royalle (‘Queens’), Michelle De Kretser (‘Questions of Travel’ and perhaps two other poems), Alice Walker (‘All that is loved (can be saved)’), an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery (‘Body Flow’). In a category of its own is ‘HOMOFOMO’, brief, bitterly hilarious descriptions of eight (imaginary?) queer-themed mainstream movies.
It’s a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice. I had to use a search engine occasionally, but each time it was rewarding. I laughed a number of times. There is at least one too-much-information moment, but I think my embarrassed averting of the gaze was exactly the response the poet would have expected of me.
There’s so much to respond to but as usual I’ll just pick one poem to talk about in detail. Here’s ‘Call a Spade a Spade’. It wasn’t my first choice, but it kept waving its arms in the air demanding my attention:
This is one of a number of poems in the book addressed to non-Indigenous/settler readers. At first glance it feels pretty prosaic, even preachy, more Facebook post or Twitter thread than poem (though of course the categories aren’t exclusive). But if you take it slowly, that is if you read it as a poem, it opens out like a fan.
The poem falls into five parts: 1) the title 2) three lines, syntactically dependent on the verb ‘call’ in the title, with the form ‘a x a x’; 2) three lines that repeat that verb, and go ‘ call it x not x’; 3) four sentences starting with ‘don’t’, two of one line each, one of three lines, and the fourth of two lines; 4) two lines, back to the word ‘call’, each with the shape ‘call yourself x’.
The title for a start: it means of course, ‘Speak plainly without euphemism or hi-falutinness’: don’t call a spade an agricultural implement. As the title of a poem by an Indigenous woman, it also evokes a term of racist abuse, and if that were the primary meaning it would be a directive to use racist language. Clearly, in this context, that’s not what the poem is about to do, but the ambiguity hangs about, subliminally posing a question about the effect of racist abuse, and unsettling the white liberal reader (which is the only kind of reader I can speak for).
The first three lines takes us to a third and mercifully harmless meaning of ‘spade’ by enumerating the card suits. But thanks to the charged ambiguity of the title, each of these suit names now resonates with a charge of its own: ‘heart’ – these are people; ‘diamond’ – wealth, greed and the profit motive are major forces in our society; ‘club’ – so is violence.
If you were reading the poem as an instructional text, the next three lines are the core: four examples of language that names the reality without pussyfooting around. The list could have included, say, ‘call it massacre not dispersal’, ‘call it Uluru not Ayer’s Rock’, ‘write Aboriginal not aboriginal’, a seemingly endless stream of injunctions.
The first of the next three lines – lines starting with ‘don’t’ – adds to the list, and locates the poem as part of the current long-running conversation about 26 January, a conversation that ranges from Stan Grant’s Australia Day and the Twitter hashtag #ChangetheDate, and so carries with it a whiff of acrimony, a suggestion perhaps that the poem so far is making demands in the spirit of what is being called ‘cancel culture’, what an open letter to Harpers Magazine signed by 150 luminaries called ‘the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides’: use the language that I am specifying here or … But then, in my reading, there’s a turn away from that tone: ‘don’t shy away from telling the truth’ could still mean ‘my truth’, but it would be a stretch. The remainder of this section moves further away with ‘don’t say”no worries” … don’t say “we’re full”‘. Although the language is still about what the speaker wants us to say or not say, these are no longer instructions on how to clean up our language. The first is an exhortation against complacency; the second quotes a battle of slogans about asylum seekers and gives it tremendous metaphorical power: ‘say “we’re open”‘ surely is an appeal to the reader to open himself up to possibility, to other people’s reality, specifically the reality of Indigenous lives.
And the final couplet brings it home: ‘call yourself an ally / call yourself a mate’. The speaker isn’t calling on us for compliance, but for active allyship (is that a word?), and then, and this is the thing that lodged in my brain and made me go back to the poem, to be a mate, with all the associations of that word. We started out with card games, we stopped off at the problematic national day and what Wikipedia says (here) may be white Australia’s national motto, and we end with mateship. This isn’t about getting the words right or conforming to the current demands of wokeness: it’s an appeal for decency and an implied offer of friendship. An ally can retain a sense of superiority; not a mate.
For me this poem is a lesson in the value of slow reading. Skimmed, there’s not a lot to it that you haven’t heard at a hundred demonstrations. Taken meditatively, it pierces the heart.
Added later: If you’re interested in a review from an Indigenous perspective, there’s ‘On the Power of Being Still’ by Wiradjuri woman Janine Leane in the Sydney Review of Books, link here.
tl;dr: This is a terrific book. If you want a proper, thoughtful, well-informed review, you could read ‘Caitlin Mailing Reviews Ellen van Neerven’ in the Cordite Poetry Review, 22 August 2016, link here.
A poem by Ellen van Neerven made headlines late in 2017 when it appeared in the NSW Higher School Certificate exam. That it was there without the poet’s prior knowledge or consent isn’t what made the news – evidently that’s just standard practice. The headlines came from massive social-media trolling by students, all of it disgusting, much of it explicitly racist, and some of it threatening violence.
The poem was ‘Mango’, which appears on page 19 of Comfort Food. I’ve gotta say if that sweet reminiscence from when the writer was eight years old inspires you to make death threats, then you’re not a happy camper. I hope those adolescent cyber-haters have found a way past their exam-triggered, genocide-flavoured rage to seek out this book and sit with it a while.
What they would find is a generous, richly varied collection of short poems in which van Neerven wrangles into words some of what it means to be a particular First Nations person in Australia. van Neerven is a Yugambeh woman from south-east Queensland, living – according to my reading of the poems – in inner-city Melbourne, and that simple statement contains enough complexity for any number of poems.
The book is in six untitled sections of uneven length. Food is a strong motif, from chips to kangaroo tails in a wide range of situations, not all of them comforting or comfortable by a long shot (though the old use of ‘comfort’ to mean ‘strengthening’ is somewhere there). The poems do keep coming back to food, and the effect is to assert the poet’s survival and to remind the reader of what we have in common, even when hard matters of racism and genocide are being canvassed.
If you want a considered review of the whole book, I recommend Caitlin Mailing’s review in the Cordite Poetry Review (link here) or Kylie Thompson’s in Westerly (link here). When I started writing about it I couldn’t get past the first poem, ‘Whole Lot’, so I’m not going to even try.
‘Whole Lot’ is a response to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s monumental painting Big Yam Dreaming (there’s a photo, and the poem, at this link, but this is a painting that cries out to be seen in person, and the poem differs in minor but significant ways from the one in the book). The poem’s title is taken from the artist’s reply when asked what the painting was about: ‘Whole lot, that’s whole lot.’ (I’m grateful for a note at the back of the book, without which I might have been baffled at first reading of the poem and not returned to it.)
The poem captures an experience of standing in front of that painting, of letting it work on the viewer. Let me walk you through my reading of it, stanza by stanza. Feel free to skip my commentary and just read the poem itself. First, a hint for readers who are intimidated by poetry: think of the line-endings as full stops, or at least commas. Here goes:
it’s all of those things
These opening lines reflects on what ‘Whole Lot’ means for the speaker. These are not the elements that Emily Kame Kngwarreye named in the rest of her reply I didn’t quote above – she spoke of her Dreaming, yams, lizards, emus. This is not an explication of the painting. It’s a response to it.
what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing
At a literal level, the painting represents a yam’s complex root system, which gives rise to this fairly abstract reflection. I read ‘we’ here as referring to all of humanity. The book’s food theme is introduced. The second line of this couplet follows logically from the first because of the implied metaphor: our spirits are nourished by contact with our roots, and we make that contact by sharing. But then:
we start with black
let it get hold of you
look at the stars
or are you afraid to?
Here, ‘we’ are the people who are looking at the painting with the poem’s speaker. Our attention shifts to the painting’s black background, beyond the complex interconnection of yam roots, as a place to start seeing it, surrendering to it. But ‘we’ is also all humanity, and ‘black’ could be a reference to our African origins, or the darkness of the womb, or, as the next line narrows it down, the blackness of the night sky, so that the painting’s complex lines are now constellations. You almost don’t notice the shift from ‘we’ to ‘you’ in the second line. Maybe here the painting is speaking to the viewer, including me/us, the poem’s reader/s.
The fourth line evokes for me a whole tradition in European literature where the night sky, the space behind the stars, is the subject of existential dread: Blaise Pascal, grim 17th century Christian, wrote, ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraie / The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me’; Kenneth Slessor, in his poem ‘Stars’, spoke of ‘Infinity’s trap-door, eternal and merciless.’ But here, rather than a statement, it’s a question about fear, asked of ‘you’, and I don’t think it’s the same fear as Pascal and Slessor were taking about: it’s not so much fear of infinite emptiness and silence, of nothingness, as a fear of facing an underlying and possibly sustaining reality.
the day shows
country spread open
a map of all that was and will be
don’t forget it
I’m tracing it to remember
don’t be scared
Underground, the night sky, and now a map of the land in daylight. A painting like Big Yam Dreaming can sustain multiple readings. In this stanza the painting speaks to us, offering – I’ll use the word because it’s in the book’s title – comfort. It’s not comfort as a gentle soothing, but a promise of knowledge that will fortify, a solid sense of totality that you can hold in memory. The painting is not just a decorative object, but a source of strength.
In this stanza ‘I’ appears for the first time. There are no capital letters in the whole poem except for ‘Whole Lot’, ‘I’, and later ‘Mibunn’. It may be idiosyncratic of me but I think of John Henry Newman writing in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that there were ‘two luminous beings, myself and my Creator’. In this poem there are just three capitalised beings: the speaker, the painting and Mibunn. In this stanza, though, I’m not sure if ‘I’ is the painting or its viewer.
we are not here until we sit here
we sit in silence and we are open
there are different kinds of time
I hope you'll understand
What a brilliant description of sitting in front of a great work of art and letting it work on you.
I want this to be here
when I leave again
I’ve been leaving a lot of times
it doesn’t mean I want to
there is no easy way to cry
tell them I’ll be back soon
when I come back and sit here
I want to still see Mibunn
powering through the sky
On first reading I thought this was somehow about death and reincarnation. And you may read it like that. But my mind has settled on a reading at the level of a relationship with a painting. That shifty ‘I’ has settled on being the painting’s viewer. And there is no more ‘we’: the poem is now intensely personal, having left generalisations behind. After the stillness of the previous stanza, this one begins with elation – what comes next is to be sung. I will leave the painting reluctantly, as I have many times before, but it’s important to me that it’s still here, and I will return to it.
In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker’s Indigenous identity comes into play explicitly for the first time. I had to look up ‘Mibunn’: it’s the wedge tail eagle, a totem of the Yugambeh people, harking back to the eagle in the first stanza. Somehow, Big Yam Dreaming by a great Anmatyerre artist from the Northern Territory can speak to a Yugambeh poet from south-east Queensland through a painting in a gallery in Melbourne, remind her of deep cultural truths. As a settler Australian reader of the poem, I feel welcomed to read/listen without feeling that I’m eavesdropping.
let me tell you with my skin
under the earth we will find
it’s all of those things
Here it’s the poet speaking to her reader. I hear her as saying that her encounter with the painting has deepened her sense of connection to her Yugambeh cultural roots. ‘with my skin’ refers to her blac(k)ness, ‘under the earth’ to the subject of the painting, and the poem ends with a direct quote from the artist.
Enjoying a poem is one thing. Saying why is another thing altogether. This poem has pulled me in, and kept me there for any number of readings over the last weeks. Maybe it’s that it establishes such a solid ground of shared humanity at a deep level – a level I associate with religious intensity – before moving to specifically Indigenous experience, where I can’t follow, but it’s there for me to witness. That’s the best I can manage for now.
This is an extraordinary book. To quote from the eloquent and accurate cover blurb:
Archival-Poetics is an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt … Family records at the heart of this work highlight policy measures targeting Aboriginal girls from removal into indentured domestic labour
I like that word ’embodied’. There have been many books that are based on archival research, and more than a few that describe the process of archival research, including research into the history of the stolen generations and stolen wages. This book – actually three very slim books in a slipcase – takes the reader into the experience. The titles of the three books – ‘Colonial Archive’, Haunting’ and ‘Blood Memory’ – indicate the process of increasing immersion into the poet’s family history: first there are narratives to be read and decoded, then as the imagination engages further it is as if those young women are returning like ghosts from the past, and finally, a realisation that there is a deeper richer connection, a sense of belonging.
Archival-Poetics is categorised as poetry, and has deservedly won or been shortlisted for a number of poetry prizes. But, like African-American Claudia Rankine’s Pulitzer-winning Citizen, it pushes well past the generally understood boundaries of that category. There’s a lot of straightforward prose. Natalie Harkin writes of ‘an unassuming warehouse holding the State’s Aboriginal Records archives’ – the State, in this case, being South Australia, in Kaurna country. She reflects on the nature of memory, official records and oral history. There are excerpts from government documents, Aboriginal people’s personal letters, newspapers and women’s magazines. There are brilliantly apposite quotes from other Aboriginal artists (Julie Gough, Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee). French theory is invoked – and for what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve read a Jacques Derrida quote that makes me want to read its source. And there are images of artworks, including the three cover photographs of a basket woven from torn up photocopies of letters from the archives.
A lot of the poetry lies in the juxtaposition of these elements. For example, page 28 of the second book, gives two would-be amusing anecdotes from The Australian Woman’s Mirror in the 1920s: vile, condescending references to Aboriginal girl servants. At the top of page 29, there’s a brief quote from the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association from the same time beginning ‘… girls of tender age and years are torn away from their parents’, and beneath that, this poem, as if a song is wrung from the archive reader’s heart:
APRON SORROWapron-folds and pockets --- keep secrets--pinned--- tucked-- hidden------they whisper into linen-shadows-- that flicker-float with the sun ------------– hung ---------- limp on the breeze they sway------------------------------------- a rhythmic sorrow.
There are ‘odes’ – rhyming poems, but laid out without line breaks, so that the reader is invited to slow down and unearth the verse form, in a process analogous to the way a researcher has to unearth information from impersonal bureaucratic language. Three austerely modern sonnets in ‘Hauntings’ tell three girls’ stories.
A series of prose poems, ‘Memory Lessons’, form a kind of philosophical backbone, with almost Proustian reflections on the nature of memory. The third book ends with a letter that begins, ‘Dear Nana’.
I hope that gives you some idea of this book. It contains hard truths about Australia’s history, and the conveys pain of unearthing them in their particularity. The form isn’t always easy for people not at ease with contemporary poetics, but it’s not difficult for its own cryptic-crossword-like sake. And it’s physically gorgeous – hats off to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Books for a brilliant design.
When Covid-19 was just a cloud on the northern horizon, I borrowed this book from a street library. Poems by Mary Oliver, I thought, are just the thing for the times that in store: she consistently holds out to her reader reminders of what it means to be alive and human on this planet.
Within days most street libraries had closed down.
So, what was this book that I may have risked lives to acquire?
For a start there’s a lot of death in it. Mary Oliver seems to have spent a lot of time outdoors, watching plants, birds and animals, though ‘watching’ might be too mild a word: the poems bear witness to a deep attention, contemplation, absorption.
The first poem in the collection, ‘Some Questions You Might Ask’, is a kind of manifesto: ‘Is the soul solid, like iron?’ it asks; then, ‘Who has it, and who doesn’t?’ and after considering the moose, the swan, the black bear and other animals, the poem ends:
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about the roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?
These lines dance on the edge of naffness. But they manage not to fall: they convey a strong sense of the speaker seeing these things, at least in her mind’ eye, with great clarity, and her pseudo-theological question, ‘Do animals have souls?’ comes to read as code for a joyful embrace of what she sees. That embrace is there in all these poems. Sometimes it has to be fought for, as in ‘Singapore’, which begins the image of a woman washing something in a toilet bowl at an airport:
Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor
You can read that whole poem at this link to see for yourself where she goes from there. I think she pulls it off. At this link, you’ll find a vehemently opposite view.
You could think of Mary Oliver as a 20th century (and almost two decades into the 21st) devotional poet. That opening poem about souls certainly reminds me of primary classroom lessons from the nuns, and, for instance, ‘That Summer Day’ opens with a question straight out of the catechism I studied in primary school: ‘Who made the world?’ But there’s a difference. The poem doesn’t answer the question. It leaves it as an expression of awe, leaving hints of a creator God there in a take-it-or-leave-it way. The central lines of this poem are:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
But I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
The poem is reaching for a way to express feelings that used to be attached to religious piety, but to free them from religious connotations. I think of Richard Dawkins writing about wonder without resiling even slightly from his militant atheism. Mary Oliver is similarly reclaiming wonder, though the line, ‘I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,’ carefully formulated to allow that she may know about ‘prayer’ as opposed to ‘a prayer’, indicates that she’s not oppositional, just going a different way. That poem ends:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your wild and precious life?
It’s an exhortation, not to be virtuous (the first poem of hers I read begins ‘You do not have to be good’), but to notice what it is to be alive.
I want to talk about death, though. Not just because of Covid-19, which I think of as a curtain-raiser for the hugely destructive climate-change crisis, but because it’s an insistent theme of these poems. The nature that they so closely and lovingly observe involves ruthless killing, but the death of the speaker, or death in general, is often evoked. Here is ‘The Terns’ (click or the image to enlarge, of read the poem at this link):
In the first 18 lines, the speaker is doing her usual thing, noticing the life in the wetlands near her home. The lines are filled with a birdwatcher’s delight. Then the lines
This is a poem
come as a surprising twist. At first they seem to reach back and highlight the ‘little silver fish’, whose violent death has gone almost unnoticed. But that’s not where the poem goes:
about the heart blanching
in its folds of shadows because it knows
someday it will be
the fish and the wave
and no longer itself
I don’t think she’s offering the image of the terns vanishing under the water and then coming back as an almost mediaeval allegory for death and resurrection, though you might read it that way. As I see it, with these lines, the speaker’s mood intrudes into the poem. She’s not happy, and death is on her mind. It’s her heart that she imagines blanching, and she’s the one who knows she’ll be re-absorbed into the natural world, that her consciousness will cease to be.
this is a poem about loving
the world and everything in it
We might have expected ‘This is a poem about living’, but this small surprise carries the weight of the poem. It’s not offering a vision of life after death; the terns’ diving and rising don’t symbolise death and resurrection after all. The notion of being re-absorbed into the natural world can have in it a deep joy – it’s like that Sweet Honey in the Rock song, ‘Breaths‘ (If you don’t know it, click on the link). Re-absorption isn’t about being eaten by worms in the grave, or scattered as ashes, or even planted under a tree. In death, what remains of us will continue to be part of this dynamic universe.
To love ‘the world and everything in it’, including oneself, is a completely appropriate response to such thoughts. It’s a long way from, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil will I fear.’ I just read on Wikipedia that Mary Oliver dealt with a lot of abuse in her childhood. I think that’s what saves her poems from being glibly Life Affirming. There’s always a sense, as in this poem, that the affirmation is not so much made as won in the face of mostly unnamed contrary forces.
In May 2019 Julian Assange was indicted on 17 counts of violating the USA’s Espionage Act. It’s the kind of event we’re used to reading about in journalistic language: what and why and when and how and where and who, though not necessarily in that order. You can click here to see how the New York Times reported it.
Jennifer Maiden’s books for the last decade or more have dealt with that kind of incident, but done it obliquely, in imagined scenes that usually begin with the ‘waking up’ of a historical or fictional character who is somehow connected with the news item. As Assange was taken from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he was clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State: in the first poem in this book, ‘Resistance’, Vidal wakes up beside Assange in a London Magistrate’s Court. He does it again, in prison, in four more poems, in one of which they are joined by a newly awake Emma Goldman – who, we are told by Vidal, was sentenced under the same act in 1917 – and in another by Diana Spencer.
These are political poems, but no one would call Maiden ‘our protest poet’ as a recent headline did, reductively, the late Bruce Dawe. Her imaginary dialogues have a clear point of view, but they are exploratory rather than declamatory. In ‘Resistance’, for instance, Vidal’s ruminations are a means to inform the reader (or remind her, if she’s better informed than I am) that the magistrate presiding in Assange’s hearing ‘was the one who had / stopped a private prosecution of Tony Blair for war crimes’, and to remind us (or inform, etc.) of the circumstances of Assange’s removal from the Ecuadorean embassy. But Vidal does exist as a fictional creation, anxious to know if Assange liked his book, vain about his own quotability, dropping the occasional name from high society. Lady Diana wears the dress she was buried in to remind us ‘of the easiness with which one ignores murder,’ but flairs the dress out, ‘actress-fashion’. In these poems, it’s as if Maiden puts two or more characters in dialogue to see what she thinks about something, but they are invariably more than just mouthpieces for ideas.
There are two other sets of dialogues in this book. In five poems, Maiden’s longstanding characters George and Clare converse, have sex, look after their toddler son, Corbyn. George chats on the phone to Donald Trump and a friend in the CIA. Three poems feature an Australian critic, who chats with Jackson Pollock and Brett Whiteley (in front of Blue Poles in Canberra), with Dorothy Wordsworth (and quotes to her the passage from her diaries that her brother drew on for his famous poem about daffodils), and with Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who doesn’t like the term ‘magic realism’).
There are other poems – one responds to a comment, reproduced on the back cover, that Maiden should be considered for the Nobel Prize; three feature her recent creation, a cute little marsupial named Brookings (after the Brookings Institution); one features Alan Turing; several ‘Diary Poems’, ruminate on the Federal Police raid on the ABC, on Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison, on the Australian ‘poetry wars’, on the writing and reception of other poems in the book.
If there’s an overall subject, it’s the way reactionary politics infiltrates and influences the general culture, belittles creativity and promotes art that serves its purposes. And what it means to struggle against that influence.
It needs someone more learned than I am to talk about the formal qualities of the poems. I’ll just mention one thing. Have a look at the opening lines of the title poem, ‘The Espionage Act’:
Emma Goldman woke up uneasily in Belmarsh Prison Hospital.
She recognised the sharp shape of a reading Gore Vidal,
who was watching over Julian Assange, curled foetal
in a prison sheet not blanket, not at all
well, she thought, but fragile as an angel.
Death had made her even more maternal
and she had always been motherly, since a girl.
Vidal gave her his usual tough smile:
'I've really been expecting you for a while'
You could read this as prose that’s been interrupted by an occasional line break, but if you did you’d be missing a lot. You might not notice, but this is rhyming verse. All 56 lines of this poem end in ‘l’. Sometimes there’s a full rhyme like ‘smile’ and while’, or later ‘fall’, all’ and ‘recall’. Once you notice it, the effect is hypnotic, but if even without your noticing it the lines have a wonderful musicality that pushes the narrative forward.
I’ve been reading and rereading this book for a while now. I’ve been learning about history (I think of Muriel Rukeyser’s repeated line, ‘Pay attention to what they tell you to forget’), making connections between things I’ve known and kept in silos in my mind, and questioning received versions of things, all with Jennifer Maiden’s insistent music in my ears.
A sampler of the poems from this book are online at the Quemar website, at this link, including ‘Resistance’, ‘Except’, ‘Brookings Gets A Helmet’, ‘George Jeffreys: 25: George Jeffreys Woke Up on Abu Musa Island’, ‘The Espionage Act’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Fear’, ‘Clare’s Dream’, ‘Brookings Tries Out Ubiquity’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Alan Turing’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Poetry Wars’, ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ and ‘Maximum Security’.
Bruce Dawe died on Wednesday, aged 90. He was one of Australia’s most loved poets, and one of the most accessible. During the Vietnam War, his poems ‘Weapons Training’ and ‘Homecoming’ made a big impression on me.
This is one of his poems from the 1990s that strikes a chord with me as one of the privileged ones who has water to wash my hands, a home to stay in, and a faltering NBN to keep me in touch with friends.
You and Sarajevofor Gloria
Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,
with the dog at your feet, his head resting
on a shoe, and the clock's ticking
like water dripping in a sink
– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,
given the inherent cruelty of the world
where beautiful things and people
are blasted apart all the day long,
I would never want to come back, knowing
I could never be this lucky twice ...
Added later: Sue at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has blogged at more length about Bruce Dawe, and there’s a write-up in the Sydney Morning Herald at this link.
The late Clive James took fifteen years to read À la recherche du temps perdu, teaching himself French as he went. Later, he read Scott Moncrieff’s translation, Remembrance of Things Past, ‘in order to see where I had been’. Though I’m just six months into Proust’s massive work, and just approaching the halfway mark. Unlike James, I’m not reading it ‘French dictionary in hand’, so I have even more reason to read something in order to see where I’ve been.
About half of this slim volume (48 pages) is devoted to the poem Gate of Lilacs. and almost as much again is given over to James’s explanation of the poem’s genesis, its form and notes on Proust and some of the poem’s more obscure references. The supplementary material doesn’t feel like scholarly apparatus or, even worse, study notes. It’s as if the publisher asked Clive for extra material to fill the book out to a decent size and Clive obliged with his usual combination of wit and extraordinary erudition. So we are treated to a brief treatise on the development of free verse in English, some splendid titbits of gossip about Proust the man, notes on Albert Speer, on the shameful relationship between the non-Jewish intelligentsia of Paris and the Nazi Occupation, on a range of artists, writers and performers, and enough suggested reading on a range of topics to keep a mere mortal busy for a year.
The poem itself is in lucid, elegant blank verse. I don’t know what a reader who hadn’t read any Proust would make of it, but it worked for me as a companion to my reading. As I’ve been reading Proust, it turns out that I’ve seized on comments made by friends who have read at least some of À la recherche. One said it was a LGBTQ+ epic; another reminded me of the description of Proust in The Hare with Amber Eyes as always the last to leave a social gathering. James’s poem corrected my misreading of moments because my French wasn’t up to it. It filled me in on the gossip about the connection between the fiction and Proust’s own life. It gave me flash-forwards to sensationalist moments that I haven’t reached yet. It reassured me that if I can’t see a structure I’m in good company. It sent me to the internet to look at images of the woman that Oriane de Guermantes was based on (and she’s every bit as impressive in her photos as Proust says she is).
Most interestingly, it explained why anyone would take seriously the extraordinary section I’m reading at present – the second part of the third novel, Le Coté de Guermantes – in describes in detail and analyses at great length the manners and mores of the very upper reaches of the French aristocracy, in particular the salons hosted by the women of that class. I’m engrossed by this description, but hadn’t realised until I read James that something serious is happening: Proust is recording a historical moment, the dying moment of those salons, which were to be completely replaced in the culture of France by friendships and connections among the creatives themselves, and any patronage was to come from the bourgeoisie, from business, from capitalism.
In James’s poem, Proust’s loving description of the death of the salon is linked to his chronic illness and sense of his own impending death. And James, in both poem and appendages, is explicit that he is writing under the shadow of his own death sentence. Always, he gestures away from himself, with shows of wit and erudition, with charm and careful exposition, but there’s a persistent undercurrent of grief at leaving all this that he loves.
I can see why this was on the remainder tables. It’s definitely for a niche within a niche market. But I loved it and will definitely read it again in six months or so when I’ve finished reading Proust for the first and probably only time.
This has been compared to Knives Out. I see why, but this is much more fun than that It's a locked room mystery and its elaborate twists aren't really surprising, but I loved every minute of it – helped perhaps by this being only the third time I've been to the movies in six months or so. Eight translators are locked in a high-security locatio […]
Eleven 90-minute episodes! I prefer this to the British version with its strange disjunct between English regional accents and Swedish settings. Krister Henrikkson as Kurt Wallander is more convincingly downbeat than Kenneth Branagh who can't help carrying some Royal Shakespeare Company glamour with him.
Back to the live theatre in a half-full theatre, a mostly masked audience – a handful of people refused for reasons or unreasons of their own. I've never read Virginia Woolf's essay, and this was a terrific way of encountering it. Anita Hegh's rendering of it was weird for about the first third – the music of the sentences rendered in a way no […]