As Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95. There are just six poems in the book, mostly in modes established in Maiden’s recent books:
Nº 15 of the George Jeffreys series, which finds George and Clare Collins in a purgatorial Western Suburbs Poker Machine Palace
Nº 10 of the Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt dialogues – this time with a little Lady Diana thrown in
A Lady Diana–Mother Teresa dialogue – this may be the second time they’ve appeared together in a Jennifer Maiden poem, the first time being shortly after they both died
a ‘Uses of’ diary poem, about cosiness and Sylvia Plath among other things
A Kevin Rudd–Dietrich Bonhoeffer dialogue
‘Maps in the Mind’, a lyric that invokes successive Australian governments’ treatment of asylum seekers a little in the manner of ‘My Heart Has an Embassy’, which referred to Julian Assange
As I was starting this blog post, my Feedly reader presented me with ‘The poetic spirit of Rare Objects’, an excellent review by Jessica L Wilkinson of the four Rare Objects launched in Melbourne last weekend. Having read that review, which originated on the Overland site, I find it hard to think of anything else I want to say, so I recommend that you click on the link. For those who don’t click, here’s her final sentence, which captures the mood of the book beautifully:
This collection is quietly yet resolutely political, and leaves us considering our own strengths and vulnerabilities, and who we may imagine clinging to for guidance through tough decisions.
I nearly forgot and perhaps I should have as it’s such a small book, but this is another title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.
John Tranter, Ten Sonnets (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 90, 2013)
Kate Lilley, Realia (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 91, 2013)
This series of elegant chapbooks finishes up this year at No 100, which means that John Tranter and Kate Lilley at 90 and 91 respectively are leading us into the straight – which may be the only straight thing about either of them (no reference to sexuality intended).
I went to the launch at Gleebooks on the weekend because I am generally baffled by the work of both these poets, and hoped for some guidance on how to read them, and I got it. John Frow, Eng Lit and Cultural Studies scholar, who did the honours, commented that in both books – and in The Tulip Beds by A J Carruthers, Rare Object No 92, which he was also launching – the poems were generated using a mechanism: in Tranter’s case the rhyming sonnet form and in Lilley’s a found-object framework.
Five of Tranter’s ten sonnets have an additional mechanical dimension: they list the five vowels and assign each of them to a colour. And other mechanical elements turn up in other poems: for instance ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by John Anderson’ was written, we’re told in a note, ‘while listening to a paper on his poetry given by Ella O’Keefe at the University of Auckland in March 2012’, and incorporates lines from Anderson and from Ms O’Keefe’s talk. (I hope she’s flattered by being incorporated into the sonnet rather than offended by the lack of attention.)
Speaking of notes, six of the books 16 pages are taken up with notes, which quote liberally from Wikipedia. It’s hard to tell for the most part whether these notes are meant to inform the reader, to mock the reader for wanting information, to slip an extended prose poem or two under the radar or simply to get the book’s pages up to a multiple of eight. One note explains what ‘Scuba’ is an acronym for, but is no help in explicating the couplet in which it appears:
U, olive green of underwater hair –
Scuba, the acronym, in a crowded room.
Another manages to compare Tranter’s work to Shakespeare’s, if only on the matter of complexity. On the other hand, a good half of the very long note on ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by Bunting’ is a lucid explication of a poem that at first I found impenetrable, which begins:
Boasts time mocks cumber Rome.
Roasts thyme scents set on ledge.
Interestingly enough, the note explains, that first line (from Basil Bunting’s ‘At Briggflatts Meeting House’) can be decoded into standard English. So can the second, but the rationale for its existence is that it echoes the first – it’s not clear if its sense matters at all.
Following John Tranter’s lead, I’ll now quote Wikipedia and tell you that the great modernist American poet William Carlos Williams ‘summarised his poetic method in the phrase “No ideas but in things”‘. It’s tempting to say of the poems in Realia, ‘no ideas, just things’. The longest poem in the book. ‘GG’, is mainly a list of items from the estate of Greta Garbo sold at auction last December, presented without commentary:
Greta Garbo flatware
Greta Garbo cordial glasses
Greta Garbo Sherbet stemware
Greta Garbo Swedish butter press __Viking mould imprints 14 5/8″ x 4 1/4″
and so on.
Of course, the art is in the selection. I looked up the actual 302 page catalogue, and the poem got even funnier. You can almost hear Kate Lilley saying, like Anna Russell, ‘I’m not making this up!’ The weirdness of starting each item with ‘Greta Garbo’ is not her invention. I didn’t check that everything in the poem is genuinely from the catalogue, but I did search for the line that most aroused my suspicions
Greta Garbo Stim-U-Lax Jnr Hand-Held
and there it was, hidden in plain sight:
Some liberty taken as befits a poet, but an honest steal.
Neither of these books appealed to me much on first contact, but when I came to write about them, even so spottily, I warmed to them both. My own fiddling with sonnets has taught me that there’s a lot of mechanics in poetic form, and it’s interesting to put the mechanism front and centre and see what you get. And listing found verbal objects without comment or interpretation can create interestingly comic or disturbing effects.
The Vagabond Press facebook page predicts another five titles by the end of the year, by Emma Lew, Bella Li, Emma Jones, Ania Walwicz and Jennifer Maiden. To be launched in Melbourne.
Adam Aitken, November Already (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 86, 2013) Martin Harrison, Living Things: Five Poems (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 87, 2013) David Malouf, Sky News (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 88, 2013) Robert Adamson, Empty Your Eyes (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 89, 2013)
I bought this quartet of chapbooks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where all four poets read brilliantly. At $15 each, this is poetry at just over a dollar a page, which isn’t a lot of bang for your buck if you measure it by the yard, but – speaking as someone who has ploughed through a number of Collected volumes in the hope of getting a feel for their authors’ work – I’d say these tiny, beautifully presented books are great value for money. The poems have room to breathe. [The list above is in order of publication, my random comments below are in order of my reading.]
It’s common wisdom that learning poetry by heart is a good thing, because – besides being able to surprise and delight your friends – it’s a way of making the poetry your own, inscribing it on yourself (as Dan Beachy-Quick said memorably, here). Reading David Malouf’s Sky News, I realised that, memorised or not, I haven’t really read a poem until I’ve heard it in my own voice, at least internally. I’ve loved hearing David read his poetry ever since he made sunlight glint off milk churns and today blaze from a lapel in his 70s imitations of Horace. But there’s a different pleasure in taking the poems into oneself.
The poems in Sky News are like piano pieces: there’s a right hand with lots of trills and arpeggios, images and alliterative wordplay, and a slower, deeper, meditative left hand. As I got to know each poem, I found myself looking for my own balance between the two, between being charmed by the right hand, as in this evocation of a quiet night in ‘At Clerici’:
Crickets strike up a riff on the razzle-dazzle of starlight, then stop.
and being moved by the left hand, which doesn’t lend itself to quotation because it’s often there by implication or comes into the foreground only in the final moments of a poem.
In ‘A Parting Word’, a rendering of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Der Scheidende’, Malouf the translator engages in a similar balancing act. I can’t read German, but compared to what looks like a close translation of the original, it’s evident that Malouf’s poem is a lot livelier: ‘Estorben ist in meiner Brust / Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust’ (‘It has died in me, as it must, / Every idle, earthly lust’) becomes the playfully alliterative ‘All’s dashed in me, all’s dished and done’, and this playfulness keeps up all the way to the final lines, where ‘Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt’ (‘The shadow prince in the Underworld’) becomes
__________________First in rank of the resident zombies. Top dog in this dog-house, Hades.
In Heine’s poem, the speaker moves from a cheerless contemplation of his approaching death to a grim acknowledgement that the most vulgar of the living are better off than the noblest dead, so in the end by implication what does art matter? In Malouf’s, the mood is less gloomy – it’s still a poem about age and mortality, but the scales tip towards a celebration of life – it’s not that art is futile, but life is the thing.
The current submission guidelines for Going Down Swinging warn prospective contributors not to send ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’. Luckily for Robert Adamson and his readers this prohibition doesn’t prevail everywhere. Henry Thoreau said an abode without birds was like meat without seasoning – Adamson without birds is unimaginable. From traffic casualties in the prose poem / flash fiction ‘A Proper Burial’ to birds that ‘call and call the light’ in ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, there are plenty of birds in Empty Your Eyes. Poets are here in plenty too: Adamson’s compadres like Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster, but also an assortment of Catholic convert poets – James McAuley, Pierre Reverdy and Francis Thompson (the only poet my mother ever quoted – ‘I fled him down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; … and under running laughter’). Adamson’s poetry is steeped in the Hawkesbury River, in the world of poetry and poets, and increasingly in a kind of questing mysticism:
'The Hound of Heaven'
by a river in new South Wales:
There was a black chuckle
before the 'running laughter' –
Attention shifts, revelation grips.
Perhaps even more than Adamson’s, Adam Aitken’s cool, postmodern, intercultural poems abound in allusions – not in an arrogant bugger-off-if-you-haven’t-read-Rimbaud way, but more in a let’s-have-some-dislocating-and-provocative-fun way. I went googling quite a bit as I read November Already: John Clare (hardly an esoteric reference, but I hadn’t read anything by him), Rimbaud (I couldn’t find the arachnid referred to in ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’, so I don’t know what I’m missing, but enjoyed the poem anyhow), Ezra Pound (who wrote a travel diary, A Walking Tour in Southern France), Raymond Roussel (I found a note on Adam’s blog that helped hugely in reading the poem ‘Rousselesque’).
There’s a lot of France in these poems: Paris and the tiny village of Mareuil, the Resistance and the Revolution, Roman relics and Australian expats. From what I’ve read of Aitken’s work, I have a sense that he generally writes as if he’s not quite at home, always with a dislocated, interrogative feel. So when a poem about a deserted railway line is entitled ‘On the Chemin du Fer’, it doesn’t read as a mistyping of chemin de fer, but as a marker of the speaker’s outsider status. In the poem, this outsider is on a disused length of railway surrounded by blossoming almond trees, ‘tougher, more industrial’ than cherry blossom, and in these beautifully evoked surroundings, before evoking the Terror by a mention of Saint-Just, asks:
Was that old man "Europe" so often so hard, so cruel a one-stop shop for the soul?
Likewise, I think of Aitken as an urban poet, so when he misspells ‘chicken coop’, it doesn’t read as a mistake, deliberate or otherwise, but as the equivalent of a visitor from the city wearing shiny shoes in a cow paddock, adding to the edgy feel of the poem.
Martin Harrison’s poems, by contrast, feel completely at home in their mostly Australian landscapes. This may be especially true of the first poem in Living Things: Five Poems, ‘Wallabies’, a long, breathless (and sparsely punctuated) celebration of western New South Wales landscapes:
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 she-oaks aspirant
with their million fingers and amber seed-flowers
spotted gums mottled as grandmothers but with contrasts
of grey brown white and silver as if dressed for a ball
He does more than describe natural phenomena, of course. A recurring theme here is ‘how events change time’s flow beneath perception’: a ‘small thump from somewhere’ (‘White-Tailed Deer’), thrips that are ‘quite possibly meaningless, quite possibly / microbes of non-significance’ (‘Cloud’), a frog you can hear ‘miles away, / long before you thought you could’ (‘The Frog’). Even the eponymous wallabies would be easy to miss if you didn’t read carefully. Some lines from ‘Blue Wren Poem’ suggest something of what’s going on:
detail can be lost – bobbins, birds, refuge, storm –
when innocence starts holding out against the tide,
when radiance blurs the future.
Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press says this series will come to an end at 100 titles. That means there are 11 to go, and the distinctive design, with pasted-on cover art by Kay Orchison, will sadly be no more.
Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kami (Rare Object No 54, Vagabond Press 2010)
——-, Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012)
Like other Rare Objects chapbooks, Kami is beautifully crafted. A hundred copies were printed, signed by the author, with a small, square, torn-edge print of an Australian desert landscape glued to the cover. I mean no criticism when I say it reminds me of a tasteful bijou hotel, each guest/poem with a room/page to itself. Ali Cobby Eckermann is a Yankunytjatjara woman, and the guests, it turns out, aren’t as genteel as that analogy might suggest. They don’t trash the rooms or anything of that sort, but they raise their voices any way they want. There’s throwaway surrealist satire (‘Pauline Hanson’, about a giant carrot), poignant domestic vignettes that shed light on the stolen generations (‘Comical’ and ‘Sink’), astringent comment on the intersection of sexism and racism (‘Intervention Allies‘), a sweet-sad love song (‘Kami‘ – at the link it’s the first of five ‘Yankunytjatjara Love Poems’), C&W dramatic monologue (‘I Tell Ya True‘ – click to hear Joe Dolce sing his own musical version), and so on. It’s a wonderfully diverse set of poems.
If any one poem out has special resonance for me it’s ‘Wild Flowers‘. It reminds me of Douglas Stewart’s ‘Glencoe‘, one of the few poems I remember from school days. I’ve thought a lot about ‘Glencoe’ over the years: it’s fascinating that an Australian nationalistic poet wrote this lament for the victims of a massacre that took place centuries ago on the other side of the planet (‘Terrible things were done / long, long ago’), as if that’s as close as he could get to acknowledging the terrible reality of our own colonising history, but was impelled to make at least that much. Cobby Eckermann’s poem includes similar imagery of children’s bones, but she can name the event as very much of this place and not safely consigned to the past. An additional, idiosyncratic resonance – you’ll have to take my word for his – comes from the way the poem’s opening lines almost be describing a moment from our short movie, Scar:
Mallets pound fence posts
in tune with the rifles
to mask massacre sites
There’s a massacre in Ruby Moonlight too, though most of the book is about what happens next for the sole survivor. Subtitled ‘a novel of the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880’, the book is a lot slimmer than you’d expect of a novel, just 80 pages all up, and you’ll look in vain for the lecture that subtitle might suggest. This is spare, restrained story-telling. If it wasn’t for the power generated by the flash of imagery, it would feel like notes for a novel rather than the thing itself. It’s a story of ill-starred love. A young Aboriginal woman survives the murder of her community and after wandering for some time with just nature and an ancestor spirit for company, she finds companionship and intimacy with an isolated Irish fur trapper. Their idyll, forbidden by both their cultures, can’t last. You might think you know this story before you open the book. You don’t.
In an interview with Michael Brennan on the Poetry International Website, Ali Cobby Eckermann has some very interesting things to say about her work, including this:
I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people. Most Australians have never met an Aboriginal person outside school, sport or work. I want to highlight the benefits that Aboriginal people can provide through friendship and equality, and highlight the dangers of racism and judgmentalism. I have been happy with the heartfelt responses from festival audiences, and the new friendships shown to me and my family.
MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: I think it is impossible to be an Aboriginal writer, and be free from a political view. I always use cultural ethics in my writings. Some of my poetry has a unique style, due to my life between my adopted German Lutheran family and my traditional Yankunytjatjara family, who have also adopted the Lutheran religion. I hope my sense of truth becomes my literary tradition!
I bought these three books last weekend at the Gleebooks launch of half a dozen chapbooks from Vagabond Press. A chapbook is a small collection of poetry – usually cheaply produced and inexpensive to buy. The Rare Object series, now numbering more than 80, small (16 pages), saddlestitched and without ISBNs, with a print run of 100 copies each, are at the deluxe end of the chap spectrum: they have swanky, translucent fly leaves, and a small printed image glued on the front cover, and each numbered copy is signed by the author.
At the launch there was some uneasy joking about the presence of non-poets. Like sceptics at a seance or woman reporters in a male football team’s change room, we were kind of welcome but unsettling. (Although I’ve had a handful poems published, as a reader I’m definitely a non-poet.) Pam Brown’s launching remarks, an edited version of which is up at the Rochford Street Review site, had none of that uneasiness. She was generous and straightforward, made all six books sound desirable, and modelled in an unfussy way the kind of work needed to read these compressed, allusive and/or oblique contemporary poems. (Besides the books by Kit Kelen and Adrian Wiggins, the others being launched were by Niobe Syme, S. K. (Steve) Kelen, James Stuart and Nicolette Stasko.)
Kit Kelen’s book is a set of poems written while home on sabbatical in country New South Wales. For a prosaic reader like me, it helps to know that before you start, and to know that he mainly lives in Macau, and is a painter as well as a poet. You may also need to be warned that you’re entering a punctuation free zone, so a little extra decoding work will be needed. Given all that, the poems speak very directly, with a sweet sense of place, and a whiff of Chinese or Japanese sensibility. From ‘Iona’:
mosquito the size of a small bus
comes and passes and is gone
Kelen has made some interesting remarks about how these poems relate to the pastoral tradition and to the problematic nature of non-Indigenous land ownership in Australia. ‘The challenge,’ he says, ‘is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’ The elegance, humour and directness of the poems mean the problematic elements slide into the reader’s mind without a bump.
Chooks is Adrian Wiggins’s second book of poetry – it’s 18 years since the first. I understand the title to be presenting these poems as a yard full of chooks, each going in its own direction, scratching, pecking, clucking, fussing over chickens, and generally filling the yard with life. I can’t say I follow them all, or even most of them. For example, ‘The Astronaut’s Lovesong‘, which mixes cosmic imagery with images of bondage, might have been impenetrable to me without Pam Brown’s gloss: ‘Yes, it’s about the wildly jealous astronaut Lisa Nowack who tried to kidnap a female airforce captain who was involved with an astronaut on whom Lisa had a big crush.’ I suspect there’s a lot of play with poetic conventions and politics in the book, some of which I get: I find the idea of John Forbes cosplay (in ‘New Season’) irresistibly funny, but there are almost certainly people who would be driven to Google by both ‘John Forbes’ and ‘cosplay’. One person’s esoterica are another person’s commonplaces, and if the prose meaning eludes me I still enjoy the ride – in some ways it’s like being a child reader again.
For the fun of it, I scribbled all over the first poem in the book, ‘Galah’ (a photocopy – I wouldn’t dream of defacing this beautiful rare object), just to have a visual take on where the poem took me. It’s not a particularly obscure poem, but it does fly off in many directions:
It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the poem that my inner proofreader didn’t spot the misspelling of ‘plane’, deliberate or otherwise, until I was quite a way into the annotating.
For me (Mr Prosaic Reader), apart from ‘Galah’ the prize fowl is ‘Macquarie River swimming’, a sharply rendered piece of nostalgia for youthful days when the poet and his friends, swinging on ‘a straggly rope tied to a river-gum’,
with an imitation aerialist’s flip, a shout,
and fell through the day, new bullets
through old rifling, laughing from the noon’s
blue meridian to a cold, dark hole midstream.
J S Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein (2007) featured the adventures of Peter Henry Lepus, a rabbit who goes to Iraq and other places and knocks around with philosophers. I was intrigued by this odd character, and tantalised by the few poems about him I’d read. I thought Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow from 2000, not much bigger than the Rare Objects (though big enough for an ISBN) – might be a way to ease myself into his world. Alas, there was no easing to be had, no Origin Story, just a rabbit who has been provoked into trying to think. He’s a strange creation, and the poems are strange too, peppered with erratic spacing and capitalisation and font changes. But definitely alive, and wide ranging. Peter tries without much success to understand the poetry scene. He encounters a literary critic in a poem that might be more fun for readers who know or are willing to find out who Altieri is. In ‘They‘, Peter tries to explain to ‘the flowerbed rabbit / who lives deep in dark leaves’ what humans (‘they’) mean by the ‘pronoun called I’. In ‘A Sunlit Morning, Labor Day, Late Twentieth Century’, he sees and does not understand the death of a magpie friend. He’s clearly a device for looking freshly at the world, for exploring philosophical questions and any number of things, but he is also a character in his own right. His meeting with the cat Chairman Miaow (a different Chinese whiff from Kit Kelen’s) in “Moonlight Becomes You?” may be an enigmatic meditation on art, but it’s also a scary confrontation with a predator. After his conversation with the flowerbed rabbit about the pronoun called I, he realises he has lost an opportunity to
follow the white
bobs of her tail
into the scarlet flowers.
I guess I’ve now got Not Finding Wittgenstein on my To Be Read list.
This is wonderful. Leah Purcell, wrote it, directed it and is on screen for almost every minute of it. It's moved a long way from Henry Lawson's short story that inspired it, but includes a sweet homage to his mother Louisa Lawson.
Not a great film, but a pleasant enough time in the picture theatre. The story itself, of a bizarre deceptive strategy that was crucial to the Allies' success in the war against Nazism, is fascinating.
I saw the film based o the stage show based on this book some years ago. Blog post here, I'm now reading the book as counterpoint / reinforcement to Shuggie Bain. They have a lot in common besides being set in Glasgow, but I expect the differences to be instructive.
The first season ended in the harsh repression at the end of the Dublin Easter Uprising. This one takes up the story half a decade later with the continuing resistance and the outlawed republican government i hiding. Netflix original series set in Ireland gives us significant historical stories. In Australia they give us Byron Baes.