Tag Archives: Pam Brown

Southerly 73/2

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Teja B. Pribac (Guest Co-editor),  Southerly Vol 73 No 2 2013: Lyre/Liar

73-2-sI didn’t read enough of this Southerly to write a review. It says more about me than about the journal that I just couldn’t make myself read a collection that focuses on exploration of ‘emerging ethical implications of writing, with a particular emphasis on representations of nonhuman animals’. A quick skim seemed to show writer after writer identifying as vegan or animal liberationist in a way that felt just a little too correct-line for my taste. I may be wrong, and if I come back and find that I am, I’ll write a retraction, but I wasn’t deterred from my rash judgement by an extraordinary disclaimer from the Southerly editorial team, saying their views are not necessarily reflected by the ‘views expressed in this issue’.

I did read, though, an excellent review of Jordie Albiston’s The Book of Ethel by Mark O’Flynn (which articulates nicely some of what Albiston does with internal rhyme), some memorable poetry including ‘Mouse Plague’ by John Kinsella and ‘A Second Ago’ by Pam Brown, and an illuminating essay on lyric poetry in ‘post-theory’ times by Claire Nashar.

Pam Brown’s Home by Dark

Pam Brown, Home by Dark (Shearsman 2013)

1848612885The launch of this book last weekend (link is to a facebook photo gallery) was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub. Unusually for a literary event, the football played silently on a large colour TV screen throughout, and a warm buzz of conversation echoed from the bar in the next room. Later, I saw myself in one of the facebook photos with a hand cupped behind one ear and a pained expression on my face. The pained look was, of course, nothing to do with the poetry or the company but was the result of my straining against the combined effect of Pam Brown’s quiet delivery, my deafness and the ambient noise.

On the day, Pam commented that the setting was appropriate, given the digressions and distractions of the poetry. As I was reading the book during the week, an alternative metaphor, even a fullblown analogy, occurred to me. For quietness, there’s the poems’ elliptical, almost throwaway quality – no assertive rhyme schemes, often no clear prose syntax, mostly no through narrative line; for deafness, there’s my ignorance of contemporary poetry – of the twenty or so poets mentioned in the acknowledgements or in the poems themselves, the only one I can honestly say I’ve read is Keats*, and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry and Oulipo (also mentioned) are pretty much closed books to me; for noises off, there’s PB’s daunting reputation as a poet’s poet, possibly even an academic poets’ poet – she’s the kind of person whose cover blurbs speak of precarity and sprezzatura. I realised I was approaching the page with a painful intensity, a virtual hand cupped behind my inner ear.

Well, of course scowling and squinting and feeling stupid is no way to read poetry. So I stopped it – the scowling etc – and read on regardless, going with the flow. And had a much better time. Of course, there are some poems I just didn’t get. There are some I kind of got but didn’t care about. And then there’s a lot that’s funny, thoughtful, sad, memorable … revisitable. I even read bits out to the Art Student, self proclaimed hater of poetry, and she wanted to steal them.

I think what appeals to me most is the sense in a lot of this poetry that it more or less fell out of Pam Brown’s head straight onto the page. (I know that’s an illusion, because I accidentally found an earlier version of one poem online, and got to see some of the careful reworking that went into creating that casual, uncrafted feel.) A number of the poems read as observations made while travelling – whether around town or across the planet, they display the same apparent randomness, the same self-deprecating wit, the same eye for the telling detail, the same play of mind.

From ‘Worldless’:

at the bus stop
_____long haired boys –
regenerate fashion,
_____retro,
fashions
_____arrive & go by
_______really quickly –
I had to live through
_________the entire decades!

______(peeved)

From ‘Leaving the World’ (I had to look up Jean Tinguely, but I’m glad I did):

along the LA freeway
black derricks
trundle up and down
like
Jean Tinguely sculptures
only__ominous
& witless
in a waterless world

The line that the Art Student wants to steal, the opening of ‘Haywire Here’:

who prepared this future?

and later in the same poem some lines where I enjoyed making my own sense (that may be quite different from Pam Brown’s):

and the barmaid’s
__never heard of sarsaparilla

(worse for me
_______& you)

Sarsaparilla was the favourite softdrink of my childhood, but it can be hard to find these days, so a barmaid who has never heard of it is a young woman with no sense of history. Worse, for us literary types, she hasn’t heard of Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla, so we’re left feeling doubly invisible. Heh!

I recently came across a quote from 1935 letter by Wallace Stephens (of whose poetry I’ve read almost none and understood less): ‘As soon as people are perfectly sure of a poem they are just as likely as not to have no further interest in it; it loses whatever potency it had.’ And just before that, ‘As a rule, people very much prefer to take the solemn views of poetry.’ I think deciding not to scowl as I was reading this book was going against the preference for the solemn, and opening up to the potency of things I can’t be perfectly sure of.

awwbadge_2013 This is the fourth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

* I did recognise a couple of lines from Bob Dylan, though he wasn’t acknowledged.

Southerly 72/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 1 2012: Mid-century Women Writers

20121018-203833.jpgSpring is here – ‘a box where sweets compacted lie’ as George Herbert called it, in a phrase that could apply just as well to this issue of Southerly. (Or to put it prosaically, this post is an annotated list.)

There’s a new Jennifer Maiden poem, ‘George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys woke up in Beijing’. This series of poems has had to find a new focus now that George W Bush is no longer reliably on the television obsessing about Iraq as he was for the first poems. George and his kind of girlfriend Clare seem to be travelling the world, waking up in one troubled locale after another, having adventures involving guns, fires and pirate ships as well as discussing politics, morality, philosophy etc. It’s not a verse novel, or even a discontinuous narrative really, but it is never uninteresting. In this poem George and Clare meet with a recently released Chinese dissident in the Forbidden City where they are joined by Confucius and the Duke of Zhou.

There’s Fiona Morrison’s excellent essay, ‘Leaving the Party: Dorothy Hewett, literary politics and the long 1960s’. Like many Communists, Hewett stayed in the Party after the 1956 invasion of Hungary despite serious misgivings, then left when the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. In effect this essay traces the movement of her mind between those two events as revealed in her writing. Strikingly though, it doesn’t refer to either Hungary or Czechoslovakia, restricting itself to literary matters. Some of the essay’s specialist scholarly language took my fancy, and revived my love of double dactyls:

Higamun hogamun,
Fíona Morrison,
writing in Southerly,
gathers no moss:

says that our Dorothy
ex-Marxist-Leninist
wrote a sustained tropo-
logics of loss.

There’s Karen Lamb’s ‘“Yrs Patrick”: Thea Astley’s brush with timely advice on “the rackety career of novel writing”’, an inside look at the relationship between Astley and other writers, with a focus on a particularly unsparing letter from Patrick White. I once heard Astley quote a dollop of writerly advice she had received from White: ‘If you’re going to write about a shit, Thea, you have to make him a really big shit.’ This article is fascinating but doesn’t include anything quite that colourful. Karen Lamb is writing a biography of Astley. Reading her account of Astley’s approach to friendship, I wondered if biographers don’t run the risk of coming to dislike their subjects through knowing too much:

Karen Lamb
surely doesn’t mean to slam
Thea Astley
but she makes her seem ghastly.

I’ll refrain from doggerel for the rest of this post.

There’s the other piece I turned to the day the journal arrived in the mail, David Musgrave’s review of Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788. In a measured and judicious manner, Musgrave joins the line of anthologists, poets and publishers who give this anthology the thumbs down. (Incidentally, I note that neither David Brooks, Southerly‘s co-editor, nor Kate Lilley, its poetry editor, got a guernsey in the anthology, but that didn’t stop them from including an elegant narrative poem by Gray elsewhere in this issue.)

Of the theme essays on mid-century women writers other than the two I’ve already mentioned, Helen O’Reilly’s ‘“Dazzling” Dark – Lantana Lane (1959)’ and Susan Sheridan’s ‘“Cranford at Moreton Bay”: Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant‘ persuaded me to add the books they discuss to my To Be Read pile. I skimmed the essays on Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower, and a second one on Jessica Anderson, which are intended for specialist readers. I mean no irony when I say I was grateful to read this near the start of an essay: ‘In her well-known formulation of performativity, Judith Butler argues that repetition of a discourse actually produces the phenomena that it seeks to control.’ Such sentences serve as warnings: what follows is intended not just for readers who can understand the warning sentence, but readers to whom its contents are familiar.

Off theme, there’s Ed Scheer’s ‘“Non-places for non-people”: Social sculpture in Minto’, an account of a performance art event, Big Pinko, in which two artists painted a house pink. It sounds like an interesting project, but I found article a little disturbing in the way it talked about the people of Minto. Perhaps the Judith Butler formulation is relevant: the phrase ‘non-places for non-people’ is meant to encapsulate a criticism of the dysfunctional environment in this outer western suburb, but as it is repeated in this essay it comes to read like a dismissal of the people who live there. The essay has a lot in it that’s beautiful and evocative, but in this respect it makes me appreciate all over again Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s at Westside’s labours to foster writers in Western Sydney.

This issue has abundant rich poetry. I love B. R. Dionysius’ ‘Ghouls’, a set of five sonnets about the Brisbane floods.

The white festiva shunted like a tinny, half-tonne maggot into
O’Hanlon Street’s winter bulb cul-de-sac. The Bremer’s brown
Muzzle investigated the bottom stairs of a corner house, sniffing
For the scent of past flood levels left by more malicious beasts.

Of the other poems, I particular liked ‘Rose Bay Airport, 1944′ and ‘Standing Soldiers’ by Margaret Bradstock (both after Russell Drysdale wartime paintings), ‘Holiday snap’ by Andrew Taylor, ‘Hardware 1953′ by Geoff Page, and ‘The Roadside Bramble’ by Peter Minter.

Of the fifty pages of reviews, John Kinsella on David Brooks’s The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry andPam Brown on Kate Lilley’s Ladylike stood out for me, Kinsella for fascinating ruminations on the nature of literary hoaxes, and Brown for her usual generous intelligence.

Two Rare Objects and a Stray Dog

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade: A Sabbatical Set (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 79, 2012)
Adrian Wiggins, Chooks (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 81, 2012)
J S Harry, Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow (Vagabond Press, Stray Dog Editions No 3, 2000)

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’,

________________________let rip
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
disappearing
into the scarlet flowers.

I guess I’ve now got Not Finding Wittgenstein on my To Be Read list.

Pam Brown in the 70s: notes from a naïve reader

Pamela Brown, Selected Poems 1971–1982 (Women’s Redress Press, Wild & Woolley 1984)

Just call me angel of the morning angel
Just brush my teeth before you leave me baby

That’s a mondegreen, and if it doesn’t make you smile you don’t know the song ‘Angel of the Morning’. Retitled  ‘Radiopoem 1968′ and given a page to itself in a poetry book (as, for example, page 67 in this book), it’s still a mondegreen and still funny, but it has now become a poem, and so invites a different kind of attention. You might read it as a satiric jibe at pop romance, an oblique reflection on the nature of intimacy, an implied confession that the poet worries about her morning breath, a surrealist squib, but we read it differently here than if we had stumbled across it in, say, a ‘Kids say the darnedest things’ column in the Reader’s Digest.

In a lot of Pam Brown’s work, the poetry is in the selection, and there’s a mystery at work. Mondegreen as poem is one example. There are plenty of others. Take, one of many possibilities from the early parts of this book, this untitled poem:

HEY SHIT,
SHE SAID TO
NOBODY,
GRAVE DIGGERS
ARE CONCEPTUAL
ARTISTS.

Or ‘The Leaps’ on the next page:

MYOPIC POSSUMS
MYOPIC POSSUMS
MYOPIC POSSUMS
Coked off my stoop

A snatch of absurd conversation, some stoned nonsense … transformed into poetry pretty much by being excised from their original context and put on these pages. Not so much cut-up as cut and paste. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying they’re terrible poems. On the contrary. For some of them, though, it feels as if you had to be there. That is, to really understand a lot of the earlier poems you probably have to have been around, when Pam Brown was performing in cabaret, making movies, hanging out with a particular creative crowd. (I wasn’t.) Kate Jennings’s introduction tells us that this volume is, ‘a fever chart, an ecg of the times when the new feminism demolished the geography in our heads, blew up the bridges of retreat, and mined the way forward.’ If so, the instrument recording the chart is no mechanical transcriber. The poetry is in the selection, in choosing which fragments of  those times to record, which will retain their fragrance when replanted.

By the end of the decade, possibly because there’s less coke on the stoop, things are much more intelligible. There are some intensely personal pieces about / growing out of / feeding into relationships, but there are still those oddly banal moments, there for no obvious reason, but catching something, some whiff of the times, like the end of ‘Drought’:

so i drank
oomineral water
ooootried two
ooooooredhead
oooooooomatch tricks
solved them both

There’s much more to these poems than this, of course, but it’s a feature of PB’s work that has persisted over the decades. There’s an excellent conversation between her and John Kinsella in Jacket 22, where she talks very interestingly about her practice. This book is out of print (well, what do you expect, it’s poetry and published 26 years ago?), but her 2003 book Dear Deliria includes a handful of the same poems.

Dementia Blog: reading backwards

Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press 2008)

Pam Brown turned up in my comments section recently to recommend this book. How could I not seek it out?

Like Rocky & Gawenda, it started life as a blog. Unlike R&G, it has kept many blog trappings: date and time stamps, a note of the number of comments on each post (though not the comments themselves), and every so often a list of links (‘About me’, ‘View my complete profile’ and so on, but not any actual URLs). More consequentially, the entries appear in reverse chronological order, as in an archived blog. Unlike Michael Gawenda’s blog, the one that gave birth to this book is no longer on line – at least, my googling attempts came up with zip. The book is meant to stand in its own two covers.

And it does. In just over 50 ‘blog entries’, most of them roughly one and a half pages long,we move from January 2007, when the poet’s mother is living in a dementia facility, back to the beginning of August 2006, when the poet and her family visit the mother who is still living at home with the kind of difficulty and drama familiar to anyone who has a relative with Alzheimer’s or, as they say, a related disorder. So there’s a strong narrative backbone to the book. But this isn’t a novel disguised as a blog: within the blog entries, narrative does not rule. I suppose they count as prose poems, but however you classify them they make an excellent read. They reflect the multiple roles of the writer: daughter of a woman with deepening dementia; mother of two adopted children, five and seven years old and learning to read and write; creative writing teacher variously dismayed and stimulated by her students; citizen responding to the egregiousness of Bush & Rumsfeld; poet reflecting on poetics and the work of other poets, and also – of course – doing the thing that poets do with language and experience, which includes butting those different subjects up against each other, interweaving them, sometimes fusing, even confusing them, finding meaning and hints of meaning in them.

I probably would have found it unreadable as an actual blog, suffering as I do from Internet-related shrunken attention span (IRSAS – you saw the acronym here first). It invites focus, concentration, memory, deep engagement. But, speaking as one who generally finds prose poems alienating and  reads them as not much different from bad prose, I found it completely accessible, and engaging. As usual in contemporary poetry, there’s quite a lot of obscurity, but when the subject is dementia and the loss of coherence,  references I don’t understand – whether to US sports culture or political journalism, to poetic theory or to people in the poet’s life – I feel the momentary disorientation less as a problem than as another enactment of the theme.

The first/last couple of blog entries,  were printed in Jacket 35. They are the most vivid evocation of the social life of a dementia ward I’ve yet seen, but the book is much more various than they might lead you to believe. Perhaps I can quote a couple of paragraphs from one of the early entries towards the end of the book, posted at 6:27 am Saturday, August 05, 2006 (because my WordPress theme italicises indented quotes and ignores instructions to leave words upright, I’ve bolded the words that are in itals in the original):

–Eleanor called to say that Mom had been angry at Milt, but was amazingly lucid yesterday. She knows what’s going on in Russia. I wonder what is going on in Russia.

–Is there a Dementia for Dummies?

–How would it define words like knowledge, or like wisdom. Let alone safety and comfort. At the end, comfort is our wisdom. The philosophy of consolation. The minor fictions that give us another hour before worry’s onset, if we’re lucky.

Is that creature woman coming tomorrow? Martha, that is rude; you shouldn’t say that about people. Sara is coming tomorrow.

Sangha wonders what the words cease fire mean. We watch news of rockets and bombings, see bodies taken out of ruins. Rice says there is no civil war in Iraq; there are sectarian tensions. When the reporter mutters, she allows that some of the tensions are violent.

I have never said anything overly optimistic about the situation in Iraq, says Donald Rumsfeld. You’d have to look like the dickens.

I plan to reread this.

Out of the Box

Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (editors), Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010)

I approached this anthology with suspicion. Does it really make sense, I wondered, to read David Malouf’s or Pam Brown’s poetry in a context that draws attention to the poet’s sexuality? Wouldn’t it skew, and narrow, the reading? My suspicion wasn’t allayed by having recently read editor Michael Farrell’s ultra-skewing assertion in Jacket Magazine 39 that he has ‘always read Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man” as referring to the experience of gender transfer’. But … well, once again the Book Club has dragged me from the path of least resistance.

Of Michael Farrell’s introduction and its use and abuse of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I can reasonably say I didn’t find it congenial, and his readings of poems strayed too far into hip idiosyncrasy for my taste. Jill Jones, his co-editor, gives a nice potted history of identified gay and lesbian writing in Australia since the late 70s, and provides some useful orientation to the lesbian poems – I mean of course the poems written by identified lesbians, because as the book’s subtitle makes clear it’s the poets, not the poems, that have sexual identitites.

The poems are wonderfully diverse. They belong together not because of shared themes or concerns or formal qualities, but because their creators are contemporary (ie, alive?), Australian and gay or lesbian. A number of the poems are outed by the context – that is, poems I would elsewhere have read as heteroerotic I here read as homoerotic. That’s probably a good thing – my heteronormative mentality is being challenged. Others shrink: Pam Brown’s ’20th Century’ (‘And as we were the tootlers / we tootled along’) here tends to read as referring to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras rather than something more global. I don’t know that that’s so good. At times I caught myself approximating a Beavis and Butthead snigger: ‘Hur hur! He said fist!’ Definitely not cool, though I plead in mitigation that Michael Farrell’s introduction does something of the sort more than once, and a handful of poems seem to be intent on a kind of high-culture gay Beavis-and-Buttheadism.

A good bit of the time while reading these pages, I got to feel very straight – not necessarily in the sexual sense, but in the sense that I prefer my language syntactical, don’t warm to commas at the start of sentences or parentheses that don’t close, and hate it when I can’t tell whether something is a typo or deliberate wordplay (when Javant Biarujia’s ‘MappleTROPE’ gives us Mapplethorpe’s deathbed utterance as, ‘I just hope I live long / enough to see the frame’ – has he inserted that r into the last word as a piece of witty surrealism or is it just bad proofreading? I genuinely don’t know, and it bothers me).

There are wonderful poems by David Malouf (‘A History Lesson’), Dorothy Porter (‘The Ninth Hour’), Pam Brown (‘Peel Me A Zibibo’), Martin Harrison (‘About the Self’), Peter Rose (‘Plague’), Kerry Leves (‘the escape’ – I’ve known Kerry mainly as a children’s writer, and he is definitely not that here) and joanne burns (‘aerial photography’), among others. I was delighted to be introduced to Stephen J Williams (‘Museums of beautiful art’), Andy Quan (‘Oath’, possibly the single poem that touched me most directly) and Tricia Dearborn (‘Life on the Run’) among others.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk about a book of poetry without quoting any, but every poem I wanted to quote turns out to feel like an all or nothing proposition. I guess if you’re interested you’ll just have to find the book.

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’.

Recent journals (1) – Heat 21

Ivor Indyk (ed), Heat 21: Without a paddle (Giramondo December 2009)

Some of the reasons why you should subscribe to Heat, or at least read it:

1. Worthiness. Your money and attention help to sustain cosmopolitan Australian literary culture.

2. Self-protection. Extracts from works in progress allow you to prejudge the finished work. I’ve decided to avoid a significant number of award winning books on the basis of such advance warnings, and I’m likely to steer clear of one or two foreshadowed in this issue. The poetry provides a similar warning function: poetry is so much a matter of taste, and journals like Heat can play the crucial role of taster. And there are the critical pieces: on the strength of Kate Lilley’s detailed exposition of Susan Howe’s The Midnight, I won’t go looking for it any time soon (far too rich and recondite for my thin blood); Peter Craven’s critical review has put me right off Brian Matthews’s biography of Manning Clark. But it hasn’t enamoured me of Peter Craven: he’s bracingly forthright in his judgements, and even when he’s completely wrong-headed he provokes interesting conversations, but he comes across as too full of himself and too pugnacious for me to actively seek him out.

3. Titillation. Then there are the poems and extracts from works in progress that have the opposite effect. Poems from, among others, Pam Brown, Ken Bolton, Chris Price make me want more.

4. Education. In this issue, Josiane Behmoiras embeds an introduction to the work of Paul Virilio, a cutting edge French thinker, in an account of her recent trip to France (complete with implied travel advisories on the stench of urine by the Seine and problems with Australian Visa cards on the Metro); where her discussion of his work descends from glorious abstraction, it seems to be arrive at important conclusions about how we should live, very close to those of Bill McKibben’s much less abstruse Deep Economy.

The four-colour section in the middle introduces us to the  painter Jon Campbell, and offers us a hand in understanding why we should be interested in his work.

5. Base pleasure. Maybe this is only for people who are or have ever been editors, but Heat can be counted on for regular hits of the sour pleasure of Other People’s Gaffes. The best one in this issue occurs in a poem: ‘a woman rides a / pink vesper that you could / park anywhere’. I’m reasonably sure the poet had a chic little Vespa scooter in mind rather than an evening star blazing to the kerb in the sky.

6. More substantial pleasure. This is of course the real reason for reading Heat at all.

Here, Jena Woodhouse interviews Michael Hofmann, poet and translator, and though her introductory paragraphs use rude words like polytropic, once we get to Hofmann himself the prose becomes a joy to read.

Luke Carman’s three prose pieces gathered under the title ‘The Easy Interactions of an Elegant Young Man’ have a wonderful, disturbingly comic cumulative effect. Part way through the second I realised I saw him read similar work at the Sydney Writer’s Festival earlier this year, and described his reading as rapidfire and surreal. It works that way on the page as well.

And then there’s James Ley’s ‘A Degree of Insanity’, a straightforward, intelligent essay on Samuel Johnson that is splendid in itself, not least because it quotes generously from Johnson’s sonorous prose. Its appearance in this journal gives added pleasure, as it seems to send ricochets out, pinging off the rest of the content. Peter Craven, for example, drops a couple of Johnson’s famous quips into his argument for no apparent reason other than to establish his own gravitas. The notion, from Johnson’s Rasselas, that ‘all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity’ bounces prettily off the mild derangement of Luke Carman’s pieces and some of the poetry. The excitement surrounding literary journals in eighteenth century London sparks reflections about the role of their descendants in our time, Heat among them.

Next:  Overland issue 197.

The sixty-eighters’ young appreciators

Beautiful day in Sydney, what better to do than take the bus into town for a free event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘The Young Appreciators‘ was part of the fourth floor exhibition, avoiding myth & message: Australian artists and the Literary world (capitalisation not mine!), which seems to be mainly about artists and literary folk from the late 1960s and on – that is to say, not so much Sidney Nolan–Ern Malley as Tim Burns–John Forbes.

Today is the first time I’ve realised that there is a group of Australian poets known as the 68ers, or perhaps the 69ers: John Forbes, Robert Adamson and John Tranter (whom those in the know refer to by second name only), and quite a few others who are sometimes hard to see because of the long shadows cast by those three. The three speakers at today’s event are younger than the 68/9ers: the oldest admitted to 39, and I’d guess the other two were quite a bit younger. That is to say, none of them had been born in those days when I used to go  regularly to poetry readings to hear John Forbes, who I thought was a bit of a smart aleck and not as interesting as, say Martin Johnston (another 68/9er who doesn’t seem to cast such a long shadow).

Anyhow, it was fun. The first speaker spoke of Vicki Viidikas, beginning her talk by saying she hadn’t known much about her until after she’d accepted the invitation to talk. Since I’d heard the ABC radio programs that she based most of her talk on (with acknowledgement), I can’t say I was riveted. The second tackled John Forbes, mostly, as she said, in terms of marginalia and biography – mentions of herself she’d found in published Forbes letters, for example. It was in her talk that I became aware that those poets of my youth have since become the subject of academic attention. The third, the elegant poet Tim Wright, speaking softly and swiftly enough to be near to incomprehensible to me, talked about Pam Brown, visibly writhing with embarrassment at having the subject of his talk actually in the room.

I loved the moment during the brief question time when Kerry Leves, another of the apparently short-shadowed 68/9ers, admitted that when he’d seen a particular person’s work on a table in the exhibition, he’d said, ‘I don’t remember her!’ It’s a small world, the world of Australian poets and artists.

And I got a real hand in my understanding of Pam Brown’s poetry. I managed to hear Tim Wright say that her work was in many ways similar to Jennifer Maiden’s, but that whereas you tend to read one of Jennifer Maiden’s poems right through to the end, and when you do you feel you’ve learned something (a true statement), with Pam Brown’s work it’s not like that. You tend to stop and ponder a phrase, stare into space, let it sink in or just be distracted (he called her the master of the poetry of distraction, or something of the sort), then go back and read it again: it’s perfect for reading on public transport. I realised that my unexamined working assumption that reading is a linear process – you start at the beginning and go to the end and derive meaning on the way – has made quite a lot of poetry hard to enjoy. And I do read it while walking the dog — surely picking up a bag of dog poo or playing tug-of-war with a stick between lines should have put me in the perfect state of mind. I’ll try again, not so much harder, as with less resistance to the forces of distraction.