Tag Archives: Sarah Day

Sarah Day’s Towards Light

Sarah Day, Towards Light and other poems (Puncher & Wattman 2018)

There are probably a hundred reasons why so few non-poets (I am one!) read poetry. One of them is the general belief that poetry is difficult, and that contemporary poetry is more difficult than most. And if you have stumbled across a poetry reading at a literary festival where someone stands up front to cool applause and reads, for example, the proofing marks on a business document galley, you may well decide that contemporary poetry is not only difficult but pointless.

If you’ve been avoiding poetry for reasons like this, and yet have a niggling worry that you might be missing something, then maybe you could try reading Sarah Day. The poems in this book are eminently accessible, and they attend to things worth attending to.

Many of the poems read as the equivalent of a visual artist’s pencil drawings of beautiful things and places – a Lisbon tiled wall depicting St Anthony preaching to the fishes, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitane, many moments in Tasmanian landscape, an amateur-built rocking horse, a caravan park campground, a ‘fugitive budgie / in a democracy, or an empathy / of sparrows’, a cow looking out from a concrete stall in Galicia. In poem after poem, there is a sense of close, acute, patient attention. There are some narrative poems, especially dealing with childhood memories, though ‘Overcoat’ makes a rich narrative from an elderly couple observed leaving a cafe. The book ends with a powerful sequence, ‘The Grammar of Undoing’, about the poet’s mother’s Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

I usually pick a single poem to talk about in some detail when I blog about poetry books, and I generally go for one that fits on a single page. The poem in this book that keeps demanding my attention is a little longer than that. It’s ‘Lens’:

We were on the bridge
gazing into the marsh creek
whose waters, filtered by sedge
and ribbon grass and samphire,
threw light on the motion of worms
and the whims of small clams.
Somewhere in the landscape,
a harrier circled, a crane stooped,
each intent on its own business.
A short eel hovered in the current,
swallows dipped under the bridge
and back. Then from upstream
a bow-wave, pushed by a long gaze
that seemed to take us in:
two humans on a bridge.
Liquid, it looped, fur swaying
through figures of eight
ruddered by a long tail with
a white tip like a ring-tailed possum.
It snatched up a crab in small front paws
and with one motion was a creature
of the land whose supple, lean length
bent into a pot-hook
like a bandicoot but its feet
were half wading bird, half rodent.
The cracking of carapace and legs
revealed strong teeth. A comb
or two with the thin clawed toes
and the slate fur stood up softly
in air, mottled with auburn.
The water rat vanished as we blinked.
Since then, nothing much has changed;
the day's news, like any other's,
is filled with grief and fear and fury.
The water rat has not appeared again
under the wooden bridge
but the landscape is altered
beneath that cool, brackish lens.

See what I mean about close, acute, patient attention? The poet’s gaze, perhaps. The scene is created so deftly in the opening lines – and the words used to convey the transparency of the creek (‘the waters … threw light on the movement of worms’) introduce the book’s pervasive motif of light as something almost magical. Certainly there’s restrained wonder at being able to see such detail on the creekbed. Three kinds of bird, an eel: I don’t know about you, but by the time we reach ‘Then from upstream / a bow-wave’ I’m pretty well identified as one of the ‘We’ who are standing together in companionable silence on the bridge pausing, I imagine, in the middle of a bush walk.

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I noticed the repetition of gazing: ‘We’ are gazing into the creek, and the bow-wave is pushed by a ‘long gaze’. The landscape looks back, and for a moment the poem too turns back on the viewer. I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that at this moment, the poet (and her companion) become as much part of the scene as the harrier or the swallows: worms, clams, birds, eel, and ‘two humans on a bridge’.

Having made its entrance, the poem’s hero occupies the next fifteen lines of wonderfully engrossed description. Engrossed, but not all romantic-lyrical: the animal is like a bandicoot or a ring-tailed possum, and even more prosaically a pothook. Like the harrier and the crane it’s intent on its own business, which is cracking open and devouring a crab, doing a bit of grooming and then clearing out. Only when it has vanished can it be named, because up until then it was all colour and movement – and long gaze.

The last seven lines echo two much-quoted lines about poetry: William Carlos Williams’s famous one-liner lines, ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,’ and W H Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. The water rat held the poet’s attention for a moment. That’s all. The actual news – of looming environmental catastrophe, perhaps – is no less horrible. But … but what?

I find the last two lines enigmatic. We’re back with the transparency of the creek, now a ‘cool, brackish lens’ – the notion of the water throwing light has condensed into the single word that gives the poem its title. Is it that this moment with the creek and the water-rat has provided a way of looking at the broader landscape, the domain of ‘the news’? The landscape is altered, perhaps, in the sense that the speaker has been reminded that there are other ways of looking at the world than through the lens of ‘the news’, as in newspapers and social media. (I speak as someone who stopped looking at Twitter, hopefully for good, 10 days ago.) Once you’ve seen a water rat, really seen it, can you keep on being obsessed with the doings of Fraser Anning or Donald Trump, or the self-nicknaming Prime Minister of Australia? Maybe there’s also a faint echo here of another famous line, this one from Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘: ‘You must change your life.’

Towards Light is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Southerly 77/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 1 2017: Questionable Characters

southerly177.jpg

Cate Blanchett picks up a Southerly in Michael Farrell’s ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’ (see previous blog post)  and I am reminded that all three 2017 Southerlys are on my To Be Read pile. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because the third of these just arrived last week. Still, it’s a backlog.

Nº 1 of 2017 has a terrific piece by Debra Adelaide, ‘Re-reading Thea Astley’s Drylands‘. Originally delivered as a lecture in the Sydney Ideas: Reading Australian Literature series, it has all the liveliness of the spoken voice as it celebrates Adelaide’s readerly relationship with Astley and in particular her final novel:

From its beautiful original cover to its unpunctuated ending, I have been in love with this novel since it first appeared. And as in a love relationship I am aware of its flaws, and I forgive them.

I hope one day I’ll be able to communicate as eloquently as Debra Adelaide when I passionately love a writer, flaws and all. Thea Astley emerges from this essay as no less ill-tempered and unfair, with a writing style no less over-complex than as other critics’ have described her, but here they are cause for celebration rather than reproach (and for the record this tone chimes well with my own sense of her from the one occasion I met her and the two books I’ve read, including A Kindness Cup).

Poet Sarah Day’s prose essay ‘A Significant Backwater’ is a welcome contribution to the growing body of non-Indigenous writing that explores connections that familiar places have to previously hidden-in-plain-sight history of the dispossession of Aboriginal people. (Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point is a brilliant book-length example of the genre.) Day’s subject is the area just out of Hobart known in her childhood as Old Beach Road, and now, having been handed back to Aboriginal people in 1995, called piyura kitina. The essay juxtaposes affectionate childhood memories with the narration of a dark history, and as a bonus describes two watercolours from the early years of settlement, one by little-known artist Margaret Sarah Cleburne, the other thought to be by T G Gregson.

Southerly generally has at least one item that stimulates my argumentative juices. In this one it’s Jonathan Bollen’s ‘Revisiting and Re-imagining The One Day of the Year‘. Bollen quotes the late great Raymond Williams, ‘there is no constant relation between text and performance in drama’, and discusses the way Alan Seymour tinkered over the decades with his 1960 play about intergenerational conflict over Anzac Day. He mines photos from the first production and a video of Seymour directing it for what they can tell us. This is all fascinating.

Then, as the essay moves into the re-imagining promised in its title, its focus narrows to the character of Jan, the girlfriend of Hughie, the young man who challenges the older generation’s celebration of the One Day. Jan has been pretty well universally disliked by reviewers: ‘crudely drawn’, ‘a little snob who goes intellectually slumming’, ‘insufferable’, ‘a pseudo-sophisticate’ are some of the terms Bollen quotes. Evidence is building that there’s a problem with sexism – not deliberate and explicit, but the ingrained kind that led to Seymour’s inability to write a rounded, interesting female character. Surely this is where some re-imagining is needed. But, true to our times, Bollen sees the issue as one of gender rather than sexism. What if the problems could be solved, he asks, ‘by cross-casting a male actor to play Jan and queering his relationship with Hughie?’

Would Jan, the character, remain female within the world of the play? Could she become a male character so that Hughie becomes gay? Or a male character transitioning in gender to become Jan?

I guess it’s an intriguing proposition, and it might well ‘provide the motivation for a company in Australia to stage a fresh production’ as Bollen hopes. But if you see sexism as the issue, then Bollen comes close to proposing that sexism can be fixed by getting rid of the woman, or at least of those who were born female. I don’t know what to say to that beyond Yikes!

Of the other prose pieces, Honni van Rijswijk’s ‘The Pointy Finger of God’ and Craig Billingham’s ‘Breathless’ are stories made me want more from their authors, though I was left uncomprehending by both their endings.

More than 20 poets get a guernsey. ‘Quiet Times’ by S K Kelen offers a grim summary of our species:

The human mission
kill all life on earth no one
nothing to stop them.

Others that speak to me are New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ (a tribute to the poet’s mother, employed as a maid in Government House), Christopher Kelen’s ‘Tang Gals’, Joel Deane’s ‘A wasp is in the ward’ and Brenda Saunders’ ‘Sclerophyll’ (a succinct bushfire poem).

There are scholarly essays on P L Travers, George Johnston writing as Shane Martin, Gwen Harwood and Peter Carey, plus a ‘creative non-fiction’ piece about H G Wells.

Australian Poetry Journal 6:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2 (2016)

APJ62.jpgThis is Michael Sharkey’s sixth and final issue as editor of Australian Poetry Journal. I’m missing him already.

The whole journal – a wonderful variety of poems, four articles, two reviews and a handful of photographs – is a pleasure.

It feels almost mean to single any poems out, but I will. In Jane Williams’s ‘Show and Tell’ a sea eagle’s appearance quells a group of tourists’ ‘compulsion to frame / the endless, abridged version of us’. Carol Jenkins’s seven-poem sequence ‘A History of Zero’ revels in the metaphorical possibilities of  paradox that the invention of the zero – of nothing – had vast consequences. Les Murray’s ‘The Scores’ is a characteristically abrasive account of Australian social history, beginning with 2001, then skipping ahead 20 years in each of the remaining five stanzas. Ron Pretty’s ‘Parks & Wildlife’ is a country pub conversation full of sly puns and genial observation. There are a couple of villanelles (and who doesn’t love a villanelle) of which Sarah Day’s ‘Sea Ice’ is seriously splendid. Jules Leigh Koch’s ‘Monastery’ describes a monastery somewhere in Asia, the kitchen full of backpackers about to head off to distant places,

while outside a monk walks along
The Path
chanting a mantra
journeying from one end if his world
to the other

As in previous issues, there are articles on small-scale publishers of poetry and translation, two each.

The presses are Ralph Wessman’s Walleah Press (article by Chris Ringrose) and Kent MacCarter’s Cordite Books (article by Greg McLaren). Reading about these enterprises, I’m impressed all over again by the generosity of spirit and financial daring of these cultural stalwarts. The big surprise for me is Ralph Wessman’s reply when asked how many copies he prints for the first run of a volume of poetry. ‘As few as necessary,’ he says, andgoes on to say that that usually  means 150 copies. That’s not much bigger than my self-published glorified Christmas cards!

The essays on translation are both excellent introductions to the poets being translated: Carol Hayes on the contemporary Japanese poets Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata and Takako Arai, and Zeina Issa on on the Kurdish poet Khalid Kaki. They both quote generously from the translated poet and give fascinating insights into the specifics of translation from Japanese and Arabic respectively.

The next issue will be edited by fabulous  Aboriginal poets Aly Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. That makes the missing of Michael Sharkey a lot easier to bear.

Membership of Australian Poetry Ltd gets you a subscription to the journal, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

Australian Poetry Journal 4:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2 (2014)

I hope I don’t sound too surprised when I say that this issue of Australian Poetry Ltd’s twice-yearly journal is excellent. Any surprise isn’t at the excellence, but at other factors. Most of the poems are remarkably accessible, for instance. And it was a pleasure to meet in its pages quite a few people whose work I know reasonably well. Andy Kissane takes on school bullying in ‘Southerly’: ‘

I know from talking to Joshua that Fridays
at lunchtime are the worst. He won’t tell me what happens, he simply stares at his shoes.

joanne burns confronts a spider in ‘watch tower a reconnaissance’:

of cool voltaren no living creature has been
harmed in the writing of this poem except
perhaps the poet

Brendan Ryan ventures far from his native Victorian dairy farm in ‘Cows in India’;  B W Shearer, whom I know from my time in children’s literature, pays homage to a rainbow lorikeet in ‘A crowned queen’. I warmed to poems by Ron Pretty, Andrew Lansdown, Carol Jenkins, Liz Dolan, Rachael Mead, and they weren’t the only ones.

Besides the poetry there are a number of interesting articles. Dan Disney and Kit Kelen call on poets to resist destructive politics, specifically regarding asylum seekers, to rouse themselves and readers ‘from a collectively accepted nightmare’, and they give robust examples, from John Mateer and Vicki Viidikas to Bertolt Brecht, of poets who have done so. Oscar Schwartz induces us to think about computer generated poetry in ‘A Turing Test for Poetry’, timely perhaps because of the movie The Imitation Game, and – to me – almost totally unconvincing. Simon Patton gives an insightful account of a translator–poet relationship in ‘Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and transmission’. Vivian Gerrand interviews Claire Gaskin, who has interesting things to say about many things, in particular her writing process, and her belief that to be a decent writer you need to read three books a week (which makes me well on the way). Sarah Day profiles the all but forgotten Tasmanian poet Helen Power.

The journal is a perk of membership of Australian Poetry Ltd, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

Adamson’s best of 2009

Robert Adamson, The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc 2009)

This is an excellent anthology. In fact, in the context of previous years’ round-ups, both from Black Inc and UQP, it’s a strong contender for Best of the Best. It includes a wonderful range of poetic styles and modes and subjects – incomprehensible post-modern stuff, impassioned story-telling, linguistic virtuosity, delicate lyric. There’s Clive James‘s assured iambic pentameter, Pam Brown‘s asthmatically short lines, Ali Cobby Eckermann‘s lines you might need to know didgeridoo breathing to recite adequately. In the introduction, Robert Adamson talks about his solution to the difficulty of reducing his short list to fit the space available – he persuaded Black Inc to give him more space. I’m glad he did, and that he kept commentary, analysis and explanation to a bare minimum. He does offer this gem of commentary:

People ask me, why are so many bird poems being written and published? I have a theory: we miss having poets among us who can imagine that a soul can ‘clap its hands and sing, and louder sing’, that we need to acknowledge visitations by intense psychological presences, and that birds are the closes things we have, more or less, to angels.

Perhaps that’s mainly a clue as to how to read his own poems, but it’s an interesting general thought as well.

I’m not going to try to name the poems I liked best.  My copy has far too many page-corners turned down for that.

As I was reading this anthology, my Art-Student Companion, as part of her preparation for an assignment on Australian Federation, was reading The Sentimental Nation by John Hirst, and kept regaling me with interesting bits about the major role poetry played – poetry, he says, is ‘the best guide to the ideas and ideals that inspired the movement’ for Federation, and again: ‘The nation was born in a festival of poetry.’ Well, even though poetry festivals rarely make the news pages these days, to judge by this book poems are still looking for words for what inspires and ails us as a nation and a species. But now, instead of writing bush ballads or ponderous and forgettable sonnets, they tell about Iraq, global warming, the ills of capitalism, but they tell it slant. There are any number of examples, but I’ll just mention Luke Davies’ ‘Maldon, 991 AD’ which ends:

oooooooooooo I felt an outsider
to laughter. Out there the Vikings sang,
that was more like it, something eerie
to get spooked about, distracted by:
and the world so tenderly
unveiling its final unveiling.

I was also struck by the sense of community among the poets, particularly as shown in the number of poems honouring those who have died: Dorothy Porter (‘Word‘ by Martin Harrison), but also John Forbes (‘Letter to John Forbes‘ by Laurie Duggan, Jan McKemmish (Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow‘), Francis Webb (‘Reading Francis Webb‘, by Philip Salom [the link is to a PDF]) and Bruce Beaver (a couple of mentions, but mainly Peter Rose’s beautiful imitation, ‘Morbid Transfers‘).

Buying this book in March felt a little bit silly, like buying hot cross buns in July, but it turns out it’s not a seasonal thing at all. It’s an anthology that I’m sure I’ll go back to.

Footnote: One of my wise younger relatives recently chided me for reading while walking: ‘It’s as bad as walking around with those things in your ears, Jonathan,’ she said (by which you can she’s not so very young). ‘You have to let the world in.’ She may be right in general. But sometimes reading while walking is a way of letting in both world and poetry. The other morning I was throwing the ball for Nessie at the bottom of the hill and noticed that the longish grass was pearled with dew so that previous walkers both human and canine had left tracks of darker green, and the rosellas wouldn’t shut about something. I realised it must have rained quietly in the night. The next words I read were these, from Sarah Day’s ‘A Dry Winter: Some Observations About Rain‘:

… an elemental transition from dry to damp.
Listen, you can hardly hear its outward breath

on the tin roof. In the morning,
grass and earth are wet and everything

but the mercuric globe in the nasturtium leaf
is translucent.

I don’t know anything about nasturtiums, but the rest could have been a condensation from my surroundings. (The whole poem is lovely, by the way.)

Added later: Tara Mokhtari on the Overland blog has a completely different view. She does identify herself as a ‘shunned poet’.