Tag Archives: poetry

Colleen Z Burke’s Home Brewed and Lethal

Colleen Burke, Home Brewed and Lethal: New and selected poems (Cochon Publishing 1997)

hbl.jpgThis is the seventh of eleven published books of poetry by Colleen Z Burke (her writing name acquired the ‘Z’not long after it was published). It includes a generous selection from the earlier books including one that I’ve blogged about (here), plus 25 new poems.

Many of the earlier poems are also included in Burke’s memoir, The Waves Turn. One of the later ones – the prose poem ‘A doll on a stick’ – is a tightened and tidied version of a passage from the memoir, leading me to conclude that the memoir, published this year, was written in the mid 1970s was reworked and integrated into the memoir, which Colleen started in the late 1990s*. Most of the poetry in this book makes no bones about its autobiographical nature: memories of a Catholic girlhood, reconnection with an Irish heritage, defiant feminist rage, marital woes, then – taking up where the memoir ends – the joys and burdens of motherhood, the flavours of inner-city living, environmental and Aboriginal politics and history and, like a punch in the guts, half a dozen poems written in the heat of bereavement:

What fools are we
to think that we can plan
and plot and shape our lives
and choose to go or stay. To
love or not. What fools indeed.
When death is on our shoulder
day and night waiting ..

The book, and life, continues after the death of Burke’s husband, and many of the poems gain added resonance from being read as part of an overarching narrative. For example, one of the new poems, ‘Back to life’, ostensibly about the refreshing effect of the bush, has these lines:

I breathe
back to life.

Another of the new poems, ‘Between the lines’, comes close to describing what is perhaps the strongest feature of Burke’s poetry. Addressing the leftist poet Len Fox, who died in 2004 and was in his early 90s  when this books was published, she says of his poems:

____________when I thought
I had them sussed – they bent
twisted or even
smiled between
the lines
Yet basically
it’s the lack of bullshit
I liked the most about
your poems

I think it’s fair to say that Colleen Z Burke’s poetry aspires to, and generally reaches, a bullshit-free zone. No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures, but straight talk that nevertheless bends and twists and even smiles between the lines.

  • Amended after a conversation with the author

AWW2016Home Brewed and Lethal is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Colleen Z Burke’s Waves Turn

Colleen Z Burke, The Waves Turn: A memoir (Feakle Press 2016; for availability see here)

waves turn.JPG

Colleen Z Burke is a Sydney poet whose work, as David Brooks says in his introduction to her Home Brewed and Lethal (1997), ‘has not received the attention and awards it’s deserved’. She is a poet of place, particularly inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains; a poet of domestic life, feminist and fiercely maternal; a historical poet, exploring the stories of working class Australians  and her Irish heritage. I’ve blogged about a couple of her books (here and here) and our paths have crossed in a number of contexts. The word that comes to mind is ‘staunch’. The Waves Turn tells the story of her first three decades.

Colleen was born in the early 1940s into a tight working-class Irish Catholic community in Bondi, not a hundred miles or many years from the world of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. She was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, whose treatment of their young charges in Colleen’s day would not have helped the cause of their founder Mary MacKillop’s canonisation half a century later. Leaving school at 15 to help with the family finances, she landed a public service job, but was already snatching moments to write poems and read widely. With a friend she dared to venture into Sydney’s bohemian milieu, but remained enough her mother’s daughter not to plunge into their pre-feminist sex and drugs lifestyle. From there it was small dramatic step into the thriving folk music scene, where she was courted by singer Declan Affley, whom she eventually married, and began to discover her deep connections to Ireland.

Declan’s personality dominates the second two thirds of the memoir, as they negotiate their relationship, travel together to North Queensland, to Melbourne and to Ireland and England, struggling to earn enough money to live on (mostly it’s Colleen who earns while Declan’s work as a musician is paid pathetically), joining causes, and making music. In an extraordinary range of contexts, almost in the shadows, Colleen finds a place for her typewriter and works away at her poetry. This was before the days of creative writing courses, and it was a lonely enterprise, requiring a heroic determination to hold to her own course against all expectations – from bohemians and folkies as much as from Catholics – that she would make a man the centre of her life.

In 1975, which is as far as the book takes us, Colleen was in her early 30s. She had finally gained a university degree, the first in her family to do so. Her mother had died, her first book, Go Down Singing, had been published in the feminist Khasmik Poets Series, and half a dozen of her poems were included in Kate Jennings’s landmark anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted. We know from occasional mentions that she will have children, and from her poetry that Declan will die young and unexpectedly, that there will be more hardship, so it feels as if the book just stops rather than coming to an end point. The final sentence reads:

And as waves turn I’m unsure what the future holds but look forward with anticipation.

Where some memoirs read like novels that claim to be factual, The Waves Turn is more like a careful accumulation of facts in which a story can be discerned. The image of an archaeological dig comes to mind: Colleen Z Burke has delved patiently into the layers of memory, brushed the dirt from the innumerable artefacts she found there, labelled them and arranged them chronologically. Sometimes, in talking about the folk scene for example, memory has almost certainly been helped by festival programs or similar documentation.

There were places where I found the accumulation of detail fascinating, such as the points of similarity between Colleen’s childhood and my North Queensland Catholic childhood half a decade later: the same bottles of milk curdling in the sun at school (why?), the same ‘worms’ made by Vegemite in biscuits with holes (which I read just the other day will soon cease to exist), the same songs of Irish nostalgia. In my 20s, I followed in some of Colleen’s paths: to the edges of the Push and the folk music scene, to protest against the US and Australian war in Vietnam, to the ferment of women’s liberation, to the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University (though in that case I was there half a decade before her) … the list goes on. There’s pleasure in recognising the names of people, streets and buildings, in being reminded of forgotten rituals (Oh, that’s right, on Friday nights people would ask, ‘Where’s the party?’). I don’t know how it would be for someone who hadn’t been there. They might do a lot of head-scratching (as with the passing reference to some Catholics not buying Sanitarium breakfast cereals) and skipping (as with the list of performers at numerous folk-music events).

An edition of the book that included footnotes on all the musicians and big personalities mentioned would be spectacular. I recognised only a handful, but if the ones I didn’t recognise were as interesting as that handful, each list of names in this book is a flag pointing to a trove of stories.

We do get the stories of Colleen and Declan, or rather many of their stories.

For example, Declan Affley is perhaps the only good thing in Tony Richardson’s 1970 movie Ned Kelly. (In a nostalgic moment, I recently downloaded ‘The Wild Colonial Boy‘ from the soundtrack – Mick Jagger reduces it to passionless rinkydink, but Affley’s tin whistle fights to give the song heart, and wins.) The book takes us behind the scenes, not to juicy celebrity gossip, but to how the film gave economic relief to Affley and Colleen, and how, having the rarity of a decent amount of money, they splurged on luxuries.

More than fifty poems are scattered through the book, many of them dealing with events or places that have just been described in prose. So, not just in general but very specifically, the memoir gives a valuable insight into the relationship of the poetry to the life, into things that can only be said in poetry. For example, towards the end of the book, Colleen is employed on a survey to assess the health and welfare needs of people in the suburb of Glebe. In prose:

The health/welfare survey had its limitations, all surveys do, but talking to people in the open-ended section, I gleaned interesting information about their lives. The diverse community included students, transients, pensioners, professionals and more affluent residents in wealthier parts of Glebe Point. We interviewed people from the Glebe Estate in houses owned by the Catholic Church. The Glebe Estate wasn’t bought by the Federal Labor government’s Department of Urban and Regional Affairs, under the radical leadership of Tom Uren, until late 1974.

And so on. In typing that out, I’m reminded of something that nagged at me, though it might be of no significance to most readers. Feakle Press clearly operates on a shoestring, with little money for professional copy-editing, and my blue-pencil finger twitches to fact-check and clarify. In this paragraph, for example: the Glebe Estate was owned by the Anglicans, not the Catholics; will readers from elsewhere understand the reference to Glebe Point (perhaps ‘more affluent residents who lived close to the water at Glebe Point’ would cover it)? is the government purchase relevant, or a distracting complication? But these editorial questions are beside the point here. Colleen then gives us her poem, ‘The questionnaire’, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing in full:

The questionnaire

walking through Glebe
these summery days
of nearly autumn
of nearly autumnI move
through street shadows
of paperthin _ March trees
________to arrive
_____________ anywhere.
Knock on doors
by young people
as spring to answer
____________ _anything.
But older rustier men
__mostly nod their heads
like old clocks
__listening somewhere else
and pensioners
___________warm as sunlight
___________caught in old brick walls
look at my papers
____________ my well-chosen words
then shut their doors kindly.
And clutching empty questions
I run home
through thin pools
of March trees
__________ singing

And we’re there.

AWW2016The Waves Turn is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Australian Poetry Journal 5.2 and 6.1

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2015)
———,  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1 (2016)

Australian Poetry Journal is the nearest thing we have to a community newsletter for Australian poets and poetry-readers. It is delivered twice a year to paid-up  members of Australian Poetry Ltd. My copy tends to wait until I’ve got a book on the go that’s too bulky to read while walking. Thanks to a couple of hefty books, I’ve recently caught up on two issues, as well as last year’s anthology (also covered by the cost of membership). In case you’re interested, the joys of these journals aren’t restricted to members: anyone can buy copies, and the entire contents of issue 5:2 are up online. I’ve included links.

APJ-5-2.jpg Issue 5:2 leads with a wonderful profile (here) by Dan Disney, Un Gyung Yi and Daye Jeon of some contemporary Korean poets, including octogenarian Ko Un, whom Allen Ginsberg called ‘a demon-driven Bodhisattva’. In other articles, Nicolette Stasko farewells JS Harry, who died last year, quoting generously from her work (here); there’s a knowledgable article about Stuart Cooke (here) and a number of reviews, including a piece on US poet and activist Denise Levertov by Felicity Plunkett (here); Adrian Caesar tells the story of David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann (here).

I can’t resist mentioning that Adrian Caesar, who is enthusiastic about most of P&W’s publications, has misgivings about some of the criticism they publish. After quoting a paragraph of dense academic writing from a recent book, he lets fly:

In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony … and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory.

Shades of the Dunciad Minor.

Then there are the poems, roughly 50 of them. I turned down the corners of too many pages to talk about all the poems I responded to, so I’ll just list some of the raisins from the pudding.

Susan Hawthorne interrogates a photograph of her grandmother in ‘unknowing‘. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women‘ explores the difficulty of the ‘inconstant narrative of bewilderment’ created by, well, is it dementia or just habitual white-lying? Ivy Alvarez, in ‘N‘ riffs on ‘n’ words chosen as if at random from the dictionary:

_______I once walked out a sleeping house
_______to see the moon
_______trees tethered their shadows
_______and I was the only one that moved

Kit Kelen’s ‘In my incunabula‘ reminisces about technologies past, beginning:

TV was eternity.
There was always the promise of snow

Tom Morton’s ‘November‘ is a very Sydney poem, sweet to read on a cold July day:

The days get longer, a sudden heatwave
And the outrageous heavy sweetness
Of the jacarandas on the river path
Jiggles the deadlocks on
Whole rooms of me
I’ve not been in, this long winter

Jordie Albiston rings in the 2015 New Year in ‘strontium‘. Vanessa Proctor celebrates  a plant in ‘Bathroom Orchid‘. Ron Heard tackles birdsong in ‘currawongs‘. John Stokes offers an oblique love lyric in ‘She feels him at a seaside motel‘ (‘The curves of his buttock / and the moon / are the same’). There’s Andy Kissane, Eileen Chong, Ron Pretty … Michael Sharkey has put together a feast that has something for everyone.

APJ-6-1.jpgHe does it again in issue 6:1, which has a focus on women poets and their concerns: a lively article by Carol Jenkins brings an epidemiological approach to gender and age distribution in Australian poetry anthologies; Heather Taylor Johnson profiles Susan Hawthorne, poet–founder of feminist Spinifex Press; Tegan Schetrumpf argues that writing groups offer an alternative to the patriarchal lone-genius-poet paradigm. Off-theme, but who would complain, is a fine tribute by Helen Nickas to Dmitris Tsaloumis, Greek Australian poet who died in February aged 94; and reviews of work by πO and Lesbia Harford, among others.

And there are another 50 or so poems. I got tears in my eyes (though I defy anyone to guess at which poem), I smiled, I gasped, I felt moments of my own experience vibrate into new life.

‘Old haunts’, a haibun by Sam Wagan Watson, evokes childhood terrors at the sounds of the night. J. Richard Quigley’s ‘Fondue’ utters the thought one dare not speak when offered that cheesy dish. Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘They Say’ makes poetry that transcends its ‘kids say the darnedest things’ source material. Rod Usher has serious fun with Italian verbs in ‘The imperfect’. My own peculiar edginess about kitchen knives is echoed uncannily in Claire Rosslyn Wilson’s ‘Cooking for Two’, and the precise language of ‘Stories from the kampong’, Mindy Gill’s narrative about a chicken-coop-raiding python, captured my own childhood memory of a similar incident (a significant difference being that, though we talked about the possibility, we didn’t eat the snake or the chickens it had eaten). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘Early onset’ touches on the pain of having someone close affected by dementia.The first poem of Brendan Doyle’s that I read began, from memory, ‘Sittin on the gasbox, / waitin for me dad’; in ‘The Wooden Gate’ here, his father ‘dead these sixteen years’ pays a reproachful visit in a dream. ‘Hearts and Minds’ by Stephen Edgar, master of rhyme, bounces beautifully off an artwork currently being created by the Emerging Artist. Dick Alderson’s ‘nail holes’ reminds me of my youthful fascination with the way holes in an iron shed ‘throw circles / on the floor / like soft pennies’.

There’s history: Virginia Jealous visits Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s war diaries in ‘Weary’s Birds’; and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Ode to Ambergris’ does what it says on the lid, with lovely light musicality. There are elegiac moments, as in Pam Schindler’s ‘Like someone who is leaving’. In the twelve delicate short lines of ‘Jumhoori’, Hessom Razavi describes a cat and laments the state of his native Iran.

Paradoxically, given that I get no sense at all that these poems are competing with each other, there is a prize fort he best poem published in the journal each year.This issue includes 2015’s winner, Andy Kissane’s ‘Alone Again’, reprinted here with commentary from Andy.

I expect if you were asked to make a list of stand-out poems from these journals  your list would be different from mine, but I’m pretty confident you’d find something here to nourish you and give you pleasure.

A D Hope’s Dunciad Minor

A D Hope, Dunciad Minor: An heroick poem (Melbourne University Press 1970)

dunciad.jpgThis book is an oddity which had its origins in a private joke between A D Hope and his friend and fellow literary critic A A Phillips. In 1950, Phillips gave a radio talk in which he attacked Alexander Pope, a poet much admired by Hope. The attack was exaggerated and at least partly tongue in cheek, but it got Hope’s dander up, and he wrote a Pope-like mock-heroic satire in which the goddess of dullness elevates Phillips to be king of dunces. He sent the poem to Phillips and that would have been the end of it, except that photocopies circulated in Australian literary circles, and the work acquired a kind of underground classic status. Twenty years later, Hope decided to re-establish authorly control and agreed to have it published in a lavish edition by Melbourne University Press. He used the occasion expand the poem and broaden the target of its satire by adding two sections.

At the time it was written, Dunciad Minor, a long poem in rhyming couplets, bristling with references to Ancient Greek mythologies and 18th century English literature, was already an anachronism. Even the sections added in 1970, which referred mainly to literary criticism written between 1930 and 1950, were out of time: who now has heard of Blackmur, or Henn, or Christopher Caudwell? And now, though maybe it’s a case of Too Late Too Soon, the whole thing is like a piece of rusty artillery from an almost forgotten war, covered in weeds and forgotten in a cow paddock. And insofar as we remember the war, most people nowadays would think of Hope as having been on the wrong side. (For instance, Pope and his friends in heavcen look at a piece of 20th century poetry::

Verse without number, statement void of sense,
Flat verbiage and verbal flatulence,
Called Four Quartets, it kept no time or tune.
Pope thought it a political lampoon
Writ by some parson much bemused in beer)

But I did remember the poem, and reread it today on a bus ride, and enjoyed it. A long work in rhyming couplets runs the risk of monotony. This one avoids that thanks to a) Hope’s technical virtuosity and b) the joyful malice of his satire. It speaks volumes that it was probably Phillips, whom it maligns mercilessly, who put copies into circulation.

On the back endpapers I found two little poems in my own handwriting. Perhaps I’m only blogging about this book so I can share them:

Alec Derwent Hope
should have his mouth washed out with soap
for writing nothing Striner
than the Dunciad Minor.


A poet named Alec D Hope
was in love with another called Pope
When Phillips on air
to Pope was unfair
Hope took six books to call him a dope.

But let Hope have the last word. In his 1970 Preface he suggests that the poem is ‘the protest of a poet against the arrogance of the professor who shares his body’. The two sections added in 1970, in which critics of many stripes compete for who can produce the most stultifying machine, take that protest to extremes. Here’s one little bit, featuring US poet and critic Allen Tate:

His poems are golden but his prose is lead;
In Labyrinthine coils it crowds and squirms
With knotted syntax and entangled terms,
Strangles each poem, as the serpents once
Laocoön and his unhappy sons,
Enfolds and squeezes, crushes and extracts
Small crumbs of meaning and vast files of facts;
The poet crumbles and the reader nods
Yet on and on and on and on he plods
The tulips streaks are numbered, all admit,
But is the poem illumined? Not a whit;
For all his purpose is to demonstrate
The sensibilities of Allen Tate.

I can’t help but wonder what Hope would have done with the academic prose of these days of Theory.

Poetry May 2016

Robert Adamson (guest editor), Poetry, May 2016 (Poetry Foundation, Chicago)

This special Australian Poets edition of Poetry magazine was launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year by the regular editor Don Share. Guest editor Robert Adamson spoke and a number of the featured poets, including several who were coopted from the audience, read to us. Who could resist buying a copy?

The magazine contains 28 poems by 20 poets, along with 18 beautiful photo portraits by Juno Gemes and two survey essays by Jaya Savige and Bronwyn Lea, plus a charming note on Robert Adamson by US poet Devan Johnston.

Where the articles, particularly Bronwyn Lea’s ‘Australian Poetry Now‘, struggle with the impossible task of giving the readership, presumably mainly from the US, an overview of the state of Australian poetry, the selection does something different: it’s personal, making no claims to be representative or definitive. It includes a wonderful variety in forms and concerns: narrative, lyric, prose poems, formal experimentation. The landscape and geography are well represented. There are cultural references – both to settler and Aboriginal motifs – that will set non-Australians frantically googling, but at last as much Biblical and classical reference.

It’s hard to generalise about a collection like this, and equally hard to single out individual poems. But here goes with a few:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann has two strong, plain-speaking poems, ‘Black Deaths in Custody‘ and ‘Thunder raining poison‘, the latter an incantatory response to a work of art about the effects of atomic tests on traditional lands at Maralinga.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s prose poems ‘Booranga Wire Songs‘ and ‘A one ended boomerang‘ really sing.
  • The first poem in magazine, Bonny Cassidy’s ‘Axe Derby‘, which plays tantalisingly on the image of a woodchopping competition
  • Anthony Lawrence’s ‘My darling turns to poetry at night‘ is a richly complex villanelle, whose title doesn’t mean what you expect.
  • Jaya Savige has fun with mangoes and anagrams in ‘Magnifera‘.

(The whole magazine is up on the Poetry Foundation’s website, so you can read it all on screen. All the links are to that website.)

Australian Poetry Anthology 4

Sarah Holland-Batt and Brook Emery (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Nº 4 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2015)


Paradoxically, the thing I like best about this anthology is the absence of stars. Think of three famous Australian poets, and I’ll bet you none of them is here. The starlessness isn’t a sign of mediocrity: many of these poems have been published in reputable places, and quite a few have been on shortlists or won awards. But there’s a sense of the book as a conversation rather than, say, a competition or a performance, or even a showcase. Poems bounce off each other, or not, tackling similar themes or taking similar forms, but each doing something different, individual.

Australian Poetry Ltd was formed four or five years ago, as an amalgamation of the Poets’ Unions in a number of states. It describes itself as ‘the national body for poetry in Australia, with a charter to promote and support Australian poets and poetry locally, regionally, nationally and internationally’. Among other ways of filling this charter, the underfunded, understaffed organisation produces a twice yearly journal which includes articles as well as poetry, and an annual members’ anthology, of which this is the fourth. Almost every page has pleasures to offer.

There’s the pleasure of meeting someone familiar. John Upton ‘ Unawares’ is a kind of aftershock to the poems of loss in Embracing the Razor:

Pulling an old dictionary from the shelf
I open it, see her signaure, and myself
back twenty years momentarily: intense
surprise, like pausing suddenly on stairs
to stop a fall.

There’s serendipity. Our cumquats were ripening as I read Pamela Schindler’s ‘Cumquats, Hobart’:

These little orange globes –
lanterns that floated
in the tree at dusk

There’s plenty of topical poetry. Jillian Kellie’s ‘the bus to baghdad 1966’ is a then-and-now poem – the bus trip of the title in which her family travelled with a Canadian journalist, alternating with grim dispatches from the present – that leaves you feeling you’ve learned something about Iraq:

held up for hours at the syrian border
a problem with canada’s passport and visa
dad speaks in arabic to chain-smoking soldiers
extolling the honour of his new journo friend
i owe you a scotch when we get to baghdad
i don’t drink my dad says

Unconfirmed video and pictures of the photojournalist’s heartbreaking final moments emerged this morning via Twitter accounts claiming to be associated with the Islamic State

There’s plenty of narrative, some explicit, some implied as in Cary Hamlin’s ‘Scraping the Night’, whose opening lines evoke a romantic assignation in a car:

Moonlight leers through the car window
etching the valley of your cheek
in razor-sharp shadow

fingering the crescents of your eyes
fondly and crooning its siren song

And there’s lots of fine descriptive writing. I love Anne Elvey’s observation of pelicans in ‘This flesh that you know is all that you have’:

————–Their synchronous glide was broken

by one pair of wings, and then another, that worked
the air, not quite in time, and over again they wheeled.

Brett Dionysius’ ‘Brigalow: an extinct pastoral’ is a powerful evocation of a landscape being ravaged post World War Two, recalling newsreel footage that was meant to celebrate progress but even then struck a chill into young hearts like mine and, I assume, Brett’s:

—————-They strung a necklace of iron pearls
between two dozers; manacled violence, like nineteenth
century convicts kept under guard. The machines clawed
through six million acres, rubbing against bark, leaving
a scent trail of oil & diesel, as though they were some
type of ancient megafauna revisited; extinct, buttery-
furred thylacoleo, carnivorous in their vast appetite.

I can’t tell if any Indigenous poets get a guernsey, but a number of poets who I assume are white reflect on Aboriginal matters. Jill Gientzotis, for example, in ‘Each Morning, Every Day’, draws on her experience living and working in remote communities:

Anangu knew we were coming for a long, long time.
Whitefellas, ghost people. They knew we were coming.

We were coming. Our horses and cattle churned up the land,
water got sick, the animals fled. They heard about our killing.

You get the idea: there’s so much to enjoy. The anthology will probably be read mainly by Australian Poetry members – those who didn’t make it as much as those who did. But I think there’s a much wider pool of readers who would enjoy it. You can buy a copy from Aust Poetry Inc.

Eileen Chong’s Painting Red Orchids

Eileen Chong, Painting Red Orchids (Pitt Street Poetry 2016)

I’m an increasingly unabashed Eileen Chong fan, and I love Painting Red Orchids.

As in her previous books, these poems refer back to the poet’s childhood in Singapore, to the China of her forebears, and also to her present home in Australia; much food is prepared and eaten; there is conversation with other poets living and dead, Chinese and Western; and there are travel poems, this time to suburban Sydney and rural Australia as well as Singapore and Hong Kong.

All of this is given us with generosity and lucidity, and an occasional revelatory jolt. The restraint of classic Chinese poetry is never far away, and a number of poems are explicitly dedicated to great poets of the past.

There are love poems – heartbreak as well as new love. Someone (it might have been Margaret Mahy or Diana Wynn Jones) said that food is the sex of children’s literature. Food doesn’t quite equal sex in Eileen Chong’s poetry, but it comes close and may be even better, more intimate, as in ‘Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)’, which describes the making of these dumplings and then the look on her lover’s face when he tastes them, and even more so in ‘A Winter’s Night’, in which the speaker, presumed to be of Chinese heritage, prepares Scotch broth for her Scottish-born partner:

This, here, made from my hands,
his memories – we consume spoon after spoon
of history and desire and laugh about the future.

A strand of deep melancholy runs through the book: there’s dementia, death, a relationship break-up, and this (I need to quote the whole poem):

And if he had lived – grown
to fruition in my mother’s womb,
pressing against her bladder
so she would have needed to have emptied
it every hour – I would have been the middle
child. I would have had an older brother
and a younger; I, the singular female.
Instead, there are just the two of us,
brother and sister, circling like moons,
gripped by the gravity of disappointment.

My father would come home and pretend
he’d brought us a puppy. Once, the bag
even barked: but it was only a toy dog.
My mother named this dead brother.
She imagines he might have lived if she
had done this, or had not done that. If
he had lived, I might not have left home
so soon in search of my own arc and orbit.
If my own two had lived, what then? But the dead
remain dead, and I am the last child to arrive.

I love the way this edges up on its real subject. Not that the impact of the speaker’s mother’s miscarriage on their family – the siblings’ enduring sense of someone missing, the mother’s what-ifs, possibly the speaker’s leaving – wasn’t real. And the three lines  about her father’s teasing with pretend dog-gifts could have expanded into poem in its own right. But ‘If my own two had lived’ turns the poem inside out, and we realise that its emotional charge comes from the speaker’s own loss: she can speak of her mother’s bladder and mental processes, not from the perspective of her remembered childhood, but from her own experience as a woman; the barking of the toy dog is freighted with deep grief; the image of circling without a centre is conjured up by the much later loss. The final line, which at first reading I took to answer the question whether the lost brother was older or younger, does do that, but also laments the speaker’s childlessness – not just the last child in that family, but the last in the family line. So much is conveyed, so little said out loud. I think of James McAuley’s ‘Pietà, ‘I cannot tell, / I cannot understand / A thing so dark and deep, / So physical a loss’.

Eileen is currently blogging on the Southerly site. Her interview with herself at that link is well worth reading. Here’s an excerpt:

Do you consider yourself an Australian poet?
This is a question about hybridity. Am I a Singaporean poet? An Asian-Australian poet? An Australian poet? An interesting woman poet? A Chinese poet? A confessional poet? A food poet? I think I might be all of the above, sometimes all at the same time.

AWW2016Painting Red Orchids is the fifth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Pam Brown’s Missing Up

Pam Brown, Missing Up (Vagabond Press 2016)

Francis Webb once said that a poem was a meeting place of silences, or words to that effect. I don’t know if Webb would have taken to Pam Brown’s work (or vice versa), but the poems in Missing Up reminded me of his observation. It’s not that she writes things that ‘oft were thought but ne’er so well expressed’ (to invoke another unlikely poet), but I find in her poetry a kind of mental activity, the kind that generally precedes speech or even coherent thought, that is distractible, non-linear, associative, interspersed with snatches of other people’s words. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of activity that fills a lot of my silences. Pam Brown wrangles it into words.

Rather than try to say more about the book as a whole, let me have a go at a single poem. Here’s ‘Flat white’, which is far from being typical of the longer, non-linear, obliquely and sometimes grimly personal poems in this book, but which I’ve chosen partly because it’s the shortest in the book, and because I wanted to figure out what its title pun is doing:

Flat white
how to hold a genre
__who likes
& how to
___handle filth___und drang
_(ring the bells here)
a few innocent new myths
to resacralize
______the apostasy
of the bourgeoisie
the who?
they’re the ones
with unhappy consciousness
who are seeking
a brains & sex harmony motor
to spruce up
the non-lived
flat white life
natural surroundings

First off, you can’t read this poem as you would a passage of prose, and that’s not just because of the line breaks. Like Pam Brown’s poetry in general, it asks for a different kind of attention: not requiring that it yield its meaning at a glance, but settling in, tolerating ambiguity and ok that some meanings and references may take a while to become clear, may even remain permanently inaccessible. I think I’m right in saying that if you feel like an outsider as you read this poem for the first time, then that’s not a bug but a feature: we’re not being addressed, lectured at or wooed; we’re eavesdropping – eavesdropping by invitation, if that’s a thing.

**** The next few paragraphs show me struggling to explicate the poem. I had fun and learned from the process, but you may find it a bit boring. ****

In the absence of conventional punctuation, some parsing is called for. Here’s how I read it – your mileage may vary.

The poem is in two parts, of 12 and 10 lines respectively. The first part ruminates on a project. ‘How to’ doesn’t introduce a set of instructions, but poses a question or challenge: how is one ‘to hold a genre & … handle filth … or … invent a few innocent new myths’. The reason for wanting to do these things is ‘to resacralize [sic the US spelling] the apostasy of the bourgeoisie’. The second part then offers a definition of the ‘bourgeoisie’, and in doing so indicates why the activities contemplated in the first half are called for.

So far, so straightforward. To complicate things, it’s as if a second voice heckles the first: when Voice A mentions genres, Voice B mutters in the reader’s ear, ‘Who likes genres?’; when Voice A mentions filth, Voice B adds a sarcastic, or perhaps clarifying, ‘und drang’; Voice B is surely mocking when she says, ‘Ring the bells!’; and then her question ‘The who?’ is the poem’s turning point. And I guess you could read the rest of the poem as integrating the two voices – the one who names the project and the one who derides it.

But grasping the structure doesn’t make the poem transparent. ‘How to hold a genre’ for a start: Harvard University’s Poetry Classroom lists 35 genres, from allegory to verse epistle – what does it mean to hold one of them? It’s probably not ‘hold’ as in ‘hold the mayo’ (though on first reading one may stay open to that possibility), but as in ‘grasp’. I provisionally take the phrase to mean to write a poem that follows clear conventions. As Brown’s work rarely fits into any established genre, perhaps here the poem’s speaker is wondering how she would go about doing this thing that she has no actual desire to do (hence Voice B’s interjection), or maybe she’s contemplating establishing a genre of her own, of holding her own poetry to some established form (in which case Voice B is questioning the worth of the project).

Then ‘hold a genre’ is paraphrased as ‘handle filth’: the meaning of ‘filth’ isn’t clear, and the interjected ‘und drang’ is funny, but hard to pin to a meaning. (I know I miss a lot of Brown’s poetic references, but I do know that Sturm und Drang was a highly charged German artistic movement, in which Beethoven was a major figure.) The line expresses emotional recoil from the idea of working in genres – the speaker likens it to handling poo. A quick internet search refined my understanding of Sturm und Drang: it translates literally as storm and yearning, which gives the joke an interesting twist: yes, to attempt that kind of poetry may be like handling filth, but that doesn’t stop the poet from yearning for it to achieve some higher end. (Alternatively, ‘handle filth’ may not be meant to paraphrase ‘hold a genre’ at all, but add to it, so the challenge is to hold to conventions while handling messy (filthy) and emotionally charged realities. Both readings can work, possibly at the same time.)

In the next lines the project becomes more ambitious. Voice B’s sarcastic injunction to ring bells and the deprecating irony of ‘few’ and ‘innocent’ (can myths ever be innocent) modify but don’t erase the ambition of ‘to devise … myths’. And ‘to resacralize / the apostasy / of the bourgeoisie’ sounds like a big deal. I’m inclined to take this phrase seriously, either as an aspiration or as a sorrowful recognition that something is needed, even though impossible. ‘The apostasy of the bourgeoisie’ is probably a reference that I don’t recognise – Google didn’t help me with it. The bourgeoisie have lost their sense of the sacred, perhaps of meaning, or not so much lost it as turned away from it: their sustaining myths are either dead or toxic/desacralised. It’s worth noticing, though, that the speaker isn’t contemplating reviving those myths, but devising new ones, not to reverse the apostasy of the bourgeoisie, but to (re)sacralise it. Whatever that means.

But bourgeoisie is such a nineteenth-century, Marxy term. Fair enough that the voice from the peanut gallery challenges it: ‘the who?’

The remaining nine lines answer the question in a single, only slightly obscure sentence: ‘they’re the ones / with unhappy consciousness / who are seeking / a brains & sex harmony motor / to spruce up / the non-lived / flat white life in natural surroundings.’

There is probably someone on the planet who doesn’t know that a flat white is a kind of coffee (cappuccino senza schiuma is how you order an approximation in Rome), that the cool people drink in some parts of the world. The phrase ‘the non-lived / flat white life’ is what drew me to the poem in the first place. Barry Oakley described marijuana as the new sacrament of rebellious middle class youth in the 1970s. This poem suggests that the flat white is currently the desacralised sacrament of certain alienated or spiritually lost middle class people. (When one of my sons was a teenager, he quipped that when God was giving out senses of humour, a certain adult thought he meant coffee and asked for a flat white. There’s a similar play of ideas here.) These are not the bourgeois who were shocked by Baudelaire; these are, more or less, Pam Brown’s people. (I don’t drink coffee, but the poem is pointing at me.) There’s discord between what they are seeking – ‘a brains & sex harmony motor’ – and what this poem has been contemplating – ‘to resacralize / the apostasy’. They want a mechanical solution; the poem is groping towards something more demanding. Their ‘surroundings’ are ‘natural’ only ironically, like Patrick White’s carefully natural gum trees in Barrenugli. No room for poetry to play a central role there: the poem ventures to consider the possibility, but recognises that the odds are against it.

The poem does all this while managing to feel tossed off (the technical term for which I believe is sprezzatura).

**** End of potentially boring explication *****

The Vagabond Press website has a very nice blurb on this book which describes the poems as ‘offbeat, fragmentary yet often discursive’, and includes this:

For Pam writing poetry is a habit, a disorganised ritual. Her poetic inventories begin in everyday bricolage. Real things interrupt the poems the same way thoughts and phrases do. You know – the fridge over there, the bus stop, surf music on a radio, a raisin squashed against a floor tile – always backgrounding a connection to the ‘social’ as the poems make political and personal associative links.

AWW2016Missing Up is the third book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Martin Harrison’s Happiness

Martin Harrison, Happiness (UWA Publishing 2015)

1742586864.jpgI’d pretty much finished writing this blog post when I discovered the special issue of Plumwood Mountain, an ‘Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’, dedicated to the memory of Martin Harrison who died in 2014 while Happiness was being prepared for the press. I won’t be offended if you click over to that and don’t bother with the rest of my post. But here it is anyhow:

An email is doing the rounds with the subject line ‘Poetry Experiment’. It asks you to do two things: 1) send a poem – any poem – to the first on a list of two people; and 2) alter the email by moving the second person on that list to the top and adding yourself in second place, then Bcc the altered email to 20 friends. If everyone follows instructions, 400 poems will soon arrive in your inbox.

I did as instructed, and received 4 poems: four famous lines from William Blake, a prose quote from Mahatma Gandhi, Emily Dickinson’s ‘He ate and drank the precious words‘, and a Leunig verse. The person at the top of my list sent me copies of the poems she received. There were five from my friends: some lines from Auden, Shakespeare, and Rumi, and whole poems by Judith Wright and (again) Emily Dickinson.

Tentative conclusions: the vast majority of people don’t take to poetry, or at least to a combination of chain letters and poetry; people are generally more willing to share poetry than to ask other people to do so; and we’re more likely to share favourite lines than whole poems.

Which brings me to Happiness. There are any number of excerpts that would do perfectly for the poetry experiment. For example, this lovely evocation of a landscape in ‘Summer Rain Front, North Coast’:

the mountain mirrored in the instant’s stillness
of the calm sea flooding into the bay
the mountain photoing its image on the waters
over the grounds where dolphins track    and then its scarves
hanging high in the air like drifted parachutes
white against blue

But probably none of its poems is chain-letter material in its entirety – they’re too long, and mostly proceed like conversation rather than performance. That is, the pleasure of reading them doesn’t come so much from brilliant turns of phrase or striking metaphors as from the sense that one is being invited to join the poet in his experience of the world, his loving embrace of it, including that part of it he addresses as ‘you’, which at least sometimes is his lover Nizat Bouheni, to whom the book is dedicated, and who died in 2010. There are love poems, poems filled with meticulous, immersive observations of nature, forty-five pages of elegies. There are a couple of awkward but trenchant poems on the politics of climate change, and an ‘experimental’ poem that an author’s note (kindly) informs us is ‘made up of responses to a randomly sorted set of instructions repeated four times’. And there’s one satirical description of some US Americans abroad.

One of my favourite moments in the book, which is in some ways representative, is in ‘Wallabies’. After three pages of  two-line stanzas evoking the sights and sounds of a particular Australian landscape with something approaching ecstatic fervour (the absence of punctuation may make this hard to decipher at first, but patience pays off):

nothing is dead here the spaces between them are
inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks

slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down
in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge

around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches

and much more, there’s this:

that twenty mile shadow across the claypan’s a fence

which as dusk comes is a lightning-quick snake
momentarily distracting the way they appear

as if from nowhere like sentinels weathered stone
camping in that stubble sunset-toned no like mushrooms

wallabies two of them and then three over there then more
pale half-red underfur letting them melt into late light

alert as the slanting hour’s alert to earth cool as wine
then the shriek as they scatter

I love how the poem enacts the way you often become aware of the presence of wallabies in a landscape rather than see them arrive: they’ve been in the poem for three lines before they are named. They may be the subject of the poem, but they are part of a much bigger field. Harrison’s poetry often seeks out and celebrates the tiny or the evanescent – a blue wren nesting under the eaves on a sweltering day, a moment in a changing skyscape, a half-heard sound in the upstate New York woods. These lines from ‘A Music’, which is the second part of ‘Two for You’, an elegy for Nizar Bouhemi, could be describing much of Harrison’s poetry:

________The singleness
of each event in

its own swerve and
sharpness, drawing

attention and attentiveness
making it seem as if anyone

could just see it, grasp it,
wait to understand

what no one understands

Martin Harrison’s death of a heart attack in 2014 makes this book’s attention to the fleeting and its grappling with the realities of death incredibly poignant



3tlIt’s all very well reading stuff online, but for my money you can’t beat the feel of a dead-tree book in your hand. Likewise, I enjoy putting my verses up on the blog, but it’s not the same as having them in an actual book. So in December last year, for the third time I collected verses written during the previous 12 months and got a book together thanks to lulu.com, again with a cover by the Emerging Artist, this time one of her fabulous ceramics. It’s now available from Lulu and Amazon.

Apart from pure vanity, my main motive for this and previous self-publishing ventures is to make a small gift to give friends the end of the year. If you’re a friend who hasn’t got a copy, then it’s an oversight on my part. Tell me in the comments or by email and I’ll send you one.