Tag Archives: poetry

Kit Kelen’s Scavenger’s Season

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Scavenger’s Season; Fragments of an almanac  (Puncher and Wattmann 2014)

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Kit Kelen mostly lives in Macau, but there’s a patch of bush in New South Wales where he has spent a lot of time over the last quarter century. The 150 pages of Scavenger’s Season are filled with poetry of that place – as the title page says, they are ‘poems at Markwell, via Bulahdelah to mark the quarter century’. We’re invited to immerse ourselves in the poetry as Kelen immerses himself in his bit of bush.

Drought, rain, fire, the sounds of the bush at night, bush regeneration, the passing of the seasons, white and black cockatoos, wild and domestic animals, pastoral lyric, blokes and sheds, and through it all the experience of being humble with the bush. I just loved this book. I’ve read most of it a number of times. Some of the poetry is difficult to decipher, and I just plain gave up on two long poems, but mostly the difficulty is of a kind that offers new rewards every time you go back to the poem.

Kelen’s relationship with his patch of land is a kind of groping opposite to the colonising farmer attitude so elegantly articulated in David Campbell’s ‘Cocky’s Calendar': ‘The hawk, the hill, the loping hare, / The blue tree and the blue air, / O all the coloured world I see / And walk upon are made by me.’ The ‘me’ who makes that world does it as farmer, but also as poet. Kelen echoes this idea  uneasily in ‘minor manifesto':

one should acknowledge mastery

among sunfall and foliage
loathed and admired
is it not I who make
the landscape looking?

But there’s no hint of Campbell’s triumphalism. It’s a question, and the next lines suggest that the answer is complex:

I am the field here
cattle numb in
rain is waiting
for thirst to be spoke
taps on my shoulder home

That might be hard to follow if you haven’t acclimatised to Kelen’s language (more about that later), but I read it as continuing the acknowledgement of ‘mastery’, but modifying it – he doesn’t just make the field for cattle to be numb in (I don’t think he likes cows much), he is the field; and in the last three lines the ‘mastery’ becomes very tenuous – thirst may give rain meaning, and rain when it comes may serve the speaker’s purpose, but rain exists independently of how we need it, understand it or welcome it.

These line’s from the title poem, ‘Scavenger Season’, are more characteristic of Kelen’s attitude:

it’s true that I make no use of the land
that the land has no use for me

if each has a voice and neither has spoken
then there might be a treaty yet

‘little manifesto’ , which I quoted from above, is one of a dozen long poems in the book – it runs to eight pages. In a moment that’s characteristic of the book’s understated humour, the poem ‘manifesto’, not a little one this time, consists of just four lines:

from my door

everywhere leads me
every way home
nowhere but the way

I want to say a little bit about the language of the poems.

From my brief time as a 19 year old schoolteacher, I  remember only one piece of student writing. It’s a sentence in an essay written by a boy in Year 8, describing his arrival home from school: ‘Dog barking and jumping and licking my face.’ I knew that this was not a proper sentence, and it was my job to correct it. I did so, but with a heavy heart because I knew that pushing the sentence into a ‘proper’ shape (‘The dog barked and jumped up and licked my face’) would rob it of vitality and only theoretically make it clearer. My student had recently arrived from somewhere in China, so I guessed that his syntax wasn’t so much mistaken as transplanted. And technically incorrect as his sentence may have been, I remember it 50 years later.

Towards the end of my second reading of in Scavenger’s Season I realised that something similar was happening. The opening lines of the first poem, ‘think of this’, are as good an example as any:

think of this
a string of pearls
trail of droppings
as you’re disposed
or as light catches

The paraphrasable meaning is clear enough, but something odd is going on. It’s as if some words have been erased: ‘Think of this [as] a string of pearls [or as a] trail of droppings, as you’re disposed  [to] or as [the] light catches [them.]’ Almost every poem in this book asks for that kind of work from the reader.

Filling in the elisions isn’t always as simple in those five lines. The very next lines are pretty opaque:

think this where you’ve always been
and this advice could not have sought you
these your ageless friends among

But mostly the words cohere in response to slow, open-minded and open-hearted reading. It’s not unpleasant: it’s a little like reading in a language one learned long ago and has a rusty hold of – there’s a deep pleasure in feeling meaning emerge. I think that Kelen, who has taught at the University of Macau for 14 years, is doing what my Year 8 student did: writing English that is influenced by Chinese syntax. The result is richly memorable.

So there you have it: a book that invites you to join the poet in an immersive experience of the Australian bush, flavoured by a deep familiarity with Chinese culture and language.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publishers. I’ve read and re-read, used and abused it so much I may have to buy a fresh one with my own money!

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press 2014)

In the current instalment of his regular ‘Critic Watch’ feature in Sydney Review of Books, the formidable Ben Hetherington reflects on the state of poetry criticism in Australia. The article, ‘The Poet Tasters‘, is well worth reading, but I mention it here as an occasion to protest my ignorance. Hetherington says that all the reviewers he discusses seem to have taken ‘the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’”.’ Well, they have left me in their dust: I hadn’t read Heaney, or Larkin, or Ted Hughes-for-adults, before I started blogging, and I barely know how to pronounce L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (though I do know the meaning of ‘poetaster’, which Hetherington had to google).

1555976905One feature of my ignorance is that, deep in my heart, I want poetry to be about something. It’s no disparagement of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that it definitely satisfies that desire: in a word, it’s about racism.  It gets right inside that word and lights it up, makes it ultra-visible, ultra-clear, from death-by-a-thousand-cuts micro-aggressions to brutal murder.

In short pieces – prose poems / flash fictions / case studies – she gives us moments among friends or strangers when racism intrudes, the kind of thing a recent Beyond Blue anti-racism ad called ‘casual racism'; Claudia Rankine is much more incisive with her language than that. These moments are of a kind with the ‘joke’ made by the white MC at last year’s US National Book Awards. Claudia Rankine isn’t interested in stirring up a twitter-storm like the one that followed that remark: she wants something deeper than our outrage or our guilt, she’s trying to understand and invites us to join her.

A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’. By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest, and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.

That mightn’t look like poetry to you, but, what can I say: don’t let category problems put you off. If poetry is about language at its most intense then this book is the thing.

There’s a brilliant essay on Serena Williams’s moments of rage and exuberance on the tennis court, and a number of pieces about well publicised moments of brutal racism and sometimes violent reactions to it. Some of the latter are labelled as scripts ‘for Situation video[s] created in collaboration with John Lucas’. At least some of these videos are on line and well worth seeking out, but the scripts stand alone as prose poems. The one on Zinedine Zidane’s tragic moment at the 2006 World Cup works well on the page: much of it consists of quotations and here the sources are given as they aren’t in the video; and the pages’ illustrations do at least some of the work of the video. But even on a tiny browser window, the video packs an enormous wallop as Rankine reads the poem while those moments on the football field play out in stop motion over 6 minutes. Here’s a link: ‘October 10, 2006 / World Cup‘. As a public service, here are links to two more: ‘February 26, 2112 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin‘, ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘.

The book makes up for being typeset in an unpleasant sans-serif font on shiny paper by being illustrated by a number of brilliant and brilliantly apposite artworks. It has reached a much wider audience than usual for poetry, with more than 40 000 copies sold (though it’s not so easy to get in Australia – Gleebooks ordered my copy in from the US).  It’s in the list of finalists for two of the US National Book Critics Circle Awards – poetry and criticism – the first book to have managed this. There’s coverage of its success on Harriet the Blog.

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 Vick 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.

joanne burns’s brush

joanne burns, brush (Giramondo 2014)

brush In a recent blog post my friend Will tells of a friend’s advice on how to visit a gallery:

Don’t try to see everything … When you walk into a room, scan the walls quickly, and then decide which painting you’d like to spend time really looking at. You’ll come away with a richer experience, and you’ll probably discover more.

That sounds like a good strategy for blogging about a book of poetry.

So, to start with a quick scan, joanne burns (this is how her name seems always to be written) is one of the stand-out Australian poets of the 1968 generation. Her poetry is generally witty, minimally punctuated, and not always immediately accessible. brush (again, my shift key isn’t broken) is in six sections:

  • bluff: where there is much play with the language of the share market
  • in the mood: prose poems, all interesting, with no common thread I could discern
  • brush – day poems: I understand these to refer to Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, and they have elements of what Wikipedia calls O’Hara’s ‘characteristically breezy tone’ and ‘spontaneous reactions to things happening in the moment’
  • road: 21 poems, again with no common thread as far as I can tell – maybe they’re the non–prose poems that don’t fit into the other sections
  • delivery: poems related to a Bondi childhood
  • wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward), which could be subtitled ‘night poems': poems with the feel of dreams or half-waking insomniac reveries.

Choosing just one poem to spend time with ain’t easy. I did a quick scan of poems I’d snapped with my phone on first reading (it’s a friend’s book, and phone-snapping was a non-damaging equivalent of turning down page corners), and settled on one that was outside of my comfort zone – that is to say, no obvious argument or narrative. Here’s a pic of it, and you can read it online at Best American Poets (not a misprint – they had a series featuring modern Australian poets).

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I have no idea what initially drew me to ‘sesame': perhaps it was a tantalising sense of a coherent argument just beyond my grasp; perhaps the play of images struck a chord in me; perhaps it just liked the sounds it made. It doesn’t really matter. I’ve now spent quite a lot of time with it.

Spending time with the poem wasn’t a matter of trying to decipher a ‘meaning’ as if it was a cryptic crossword. I did work out where sentences began and ended; and incidentally noted that the obvious punctuation – the extra spaces on lines 4, 12 and 18, the comma and the semicolon – are not indications of the poem’s turning points, but highlight the enjambed orphans that precede them. I learned the poem by heart. I recited it to the dog, to a paddock full of cattle, to the long-suffering Art Student, to the dark room when I woke in the night (though the effort of recall tends to send me back to sleep wink quick). I wrote it out from memory (and every mistake was a discovery). I went away and read other poems in the book and other books, and came back to it. I wrote a number of drafts of this blog post that went into great and (for any reasonable reader) tedious detail. Basically, I let the poem wash over me again and again. I’m pleased and relieved to report that I didn’t get bored. Here’s a bit of what I found.

First, the unconventional punctuation doesn’t create any real ambiguity. The poem just takes a little longer to decipher than it would with normal marks: the reader has to slow down, to pay attention, even on first reading.  (It does allow for some playfulness: the line break after ‘plate’, for example, conjures up a surreal image of a speedboat zooming over a dinner plate, which evaporates as soon as you realise that ‘plate’ belongs with ‘glass’, and we’re talking about the view.)

Then there’s the amount of patterning in the poem’s apparently casual language. There’s line-end rhyme (‘fast’/’last’), and buried partial rhymes that put stress at the start of lines (‘glass’/’reverse'; ‘access’/’emptiness'; ‘vanishes’/’crevices’). Definite articles – ‘the flowers’, ‘the cactus’, ‘the plate / glass’, ‘the wallet’, ‘the wall’ – communicate a sense of a particular room, a particular life. There are many times: the recent past of the cactus flowers; the distant past that the wallet comes from; the childhood past of touching the wall (of the rock pool at Bondi?); a generalised present (‘everything so fast’); the future (‘will not / help’).

Most interestingly, amid the apparent impulsive hopping from one subject to another, there is something very like a question raised and answer proposed. First a series of on/off moments: cactuses bloom, speedboats come and go, we wake and sleep. Then the longer term: the emblematic wallet is forgotten, goes mouldy, becomes inaccessible. In both these ways, we lose our grasp on things. The problem crystallises at the midpoint when ‘a thought vanishes [‘wink quick’?] into the air’s [wallet-like?] crevices’.

And now, the dominant sense of sight yields to the sense of touch. If you don’t remember how to open the wallet, your fingertips can find a way; when the salt water stung your eyes you groped your way to the pool’s edge. A beachcomber’s manual is close to a contradiction in terms. The next lines move further, leaving not just sight but also speech:

__________[maybe] the best thing
to do between the tick and the tock
is to hold your breath

The ‘tick and the tock’ harks back to the on/off motif, and also possibly takes us back to the room with the cactus and the plate glass, which also evidently has a big clock. The air’s crevices have become veins, as in veins of ore, which yield a patient map: not on/off, not corroded by time, and quite different from an external manual. The thought that vanished into the air returns in a new, useful form, in response to a silent, groping approach. (The stinging salt water also suggests tears, and the air’s veins suggest blood – so perhaps as well as silence and groping the approach involves suffering.)

The poem reaches a climax with the word ‘open’ in the second last line, which arrives with even more force if you have the poem’s enigmatic title in mind. Only at this point does the title settle into place, assuming the reader knows the Ali Baba story (and just in case you don’t: that’s the story from The Arabian Nights where a treasure cave opens in response to the magic phrase, ‘Open sesame’). In effect the title announces that the poem is about opening up some metaphorical cave of riches.  The last sentence might mean ‘you’ll only need the one magic word, not a whole vocabulary’ or ‘contrary to the story, you won’t need words at all – the secret to getting access to these treasures is silence.’ I prefer the latter reading.

So what’s the poem about? Jeez, I dunno, he said, meaning it in the nicest possible way. The Art Student thought it was about dementia. I think the first half is about memory, and perhaps about the mythical process we’ve been told to call ‘age related cognitive decline’. But the whole strikes home for me as a meditation on creativity, on thinking of any sort, on how wisdom grows from concrete experience, perhaps from facing pain rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. What I’m left with, though, isn’t the ‘meaning’ so much as the beautiful, intricate, apparently casual but actually carefully structured play of mind.

Peter Kirkpatrick launched the book at Gleebooks. His illuminating launch speech is online at the Rochford Street Review site.

aww-badge-2015This is the first book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015. I plan to read and blog about ten this year.

Jennifer Maiden’s Drones and Phantoms

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

D&P cover pic

With each new book Jennifer Maiden continues a long-running conversation, or rather several conversations. Here’s a list of those that either continue or begin in Drones and Phantoms:

  • Clare Collins and George Jeffreys appear in 3 poems, bringing their total to more than 16 (not counting the novels where they first appeared). All a new reader needs to know is that the white-haired Clare was a child-murderer and George, her former parole office, is now her part-time lover. You don’t need to know about their past encounters with a Somali pirate or a Beijing dissident to enjoy the poems in this book, which find George in Iceland and Clare hiding in a tree on Manus Island. The pair’s adventures don’t constitute a single narrative: they turn up in hot spots on the slimmest of pretexts and, while the characters are much more than cardboard cut-outs, their conversations with each other and the figures they meet are also a vehicle for what Gig Ryan has called Jennifer Maiden’s ‘dialogic enquiries’.

Maiden’s dialogic enquiries also include a string of public figures, most of them in conversation with resurrected/awakened figures for whom they have expressed admiration in real life, and many of them addressing the complex relationship between the living characters’ actions and their proclaimed ideals:

  • Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt are up to their tenth conversation, full of consolation, admonition and – could it be? – flirtation
  • Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria costar in four brief poems, at the end of which VR appears to give up on TA (which is perhaps the poet relinquishing her attempt to enter Tony Abbott’s mind sympathetically)
  • Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen get on very well
  • Kevin Rudd seeks reassurance from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who observes silently in one poem and soothes indirectly in another (‘Numbers / you know are always deadly’)
  • Nelson Mandela is reluctantly drawn into conversation with Barack Obama about drones, justice and reconciliation
  • Mother Teresa and Lady Diana (who died on the same day) renew their acquaintance
  • Julia Gillard tells an unnamed disk jockey that riding in his Rolls Royce Phantom convertible would make her hair uncontrollable (the reference is to an interview with Kyle Sandilands). I think it’s fair to say that Jennifer Maiden is not a fan of Julia Gillard, whose previous relationship with Nye Bevan seems to have come to an end..

These dialogue poems are a means for the poet to offer reflections on current events, on the nature of power and violence, and state sanctioned evil. (It’s a measure of their success that when I watched our elected leaders struggling to find words in the wake of the Martin Place siege this week, I wanted instead to eavesdrop on George and Clare, or perhaps Mike Baird and Winston Churchill.) But – call me shallow – the poems are also good, eccentric fun. While Tony Abbott is working as a volunteer bushfire fighter, Queen Victoria fans herself with a copy of his book The Minimal Monarchy. Tanya confides to Jane:

Jane, sometimes the need for tact
disconcerts me so much that I grin
like a guilty schoolgirl, then try to make
it seem deliberately charming.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand

seemed much larger than Hillary’s now, had
stilled and covered it like the pod
around a seed.

There are other dialogues:

  • LM Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables, wakes up in the modern museum version of Green Gables and alarms a tourist
  • There are real, remembered conversations that Jennifer Maiden has had with Judith Wright and with her daughter Katharine; and an imaginary chat with Frank O’Hara, a poet whose work she has never read.

The conversation in this book isn’t limited to the imaginary or remembered dialogues. In a number of essay poems (some of which Maiden labels ‘Diary Poems’ in ironic response to a critic who dismissed some of her earlier poems as diary excerpts), the conversational tone is marked, and occasionally the reader is addressed directly, as in this, from ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Silence':

I often value my lack of audience (except
for you, of course) in that one
can speak freely in a poem because
no one will read it, which is like
being silent, but with almost none
of the corollary frustration.

Closely related to this pervasive use of dialogue is another kind of interactivity. Maiden increasingly flies in the face of the truism that no good can come from a writer responding to critics or dissing editors. There’s the mild amusement in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara’ at a reviewer who ‘said I’d learned a lot from Frank O’Hara’ and then ‘professed shock that I had never read O’Hara’, and in the opening of ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Judith Wright':

After a couple of reviewers who decided
I was not Judith Wright’s successor, I
began to recall my encounters
with Judith herself

But there’s less amusement, something closer to rancour, when she tells of a row with an editor (in ‘The Sweet Sheep Gone’), when she refers in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ to feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’ and ‘a hostile magazine site’ ‘now given / to ethical self-security’, when she gets stuck into ‘The Director of a Writers’ Society [who] tweets / flatly that my book is not her “thing” / because it is too political with only / a “niche” of poetry’ (in ‘In Proportion’ ). I find it hard to know what to make of these responses to critics, especially because, as a bit of a fan, I often recognise the reviews and have read the relevant comments threads. It is interesting, though, that she speaks back from within the poems – resulting in a kind of vertiginous cross-referencing within her body of work.

You probably have to be interested in the political news to enjoy this poetry. Or maybe not. I’m at home with references to Forbes and Hope, Christmas Island, Fukushima, Run-Over-the-Bastards Askin, Santamaria. But there are a lot of references that I don’t get. I generally enjoy the play of language and mind enough anyway, but when I decide to let Google be my friend, the results invariably enrich the reading experience: I had to reread Hopkins’s ‘Elected Silence’, find out who Frieda Hughes is, and learn about the killing and ‘autopsy’ of the giraffe Marius in Denmark, among, come to think of it, many other things.

There’s more, lots more. But that’s enough for one blog post.

awwbadge_2014Drones and Phantoms, is tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge, and with it I have met the quota I accepted at the beginning of the year. I am very grateful to Giramondo for sending me a complimentary copy.

Brendan Ryan’s Travelling through the Family

Brendan Ryan, Travelling through the Family (Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets 2012)

My father was a sugar farmer in North Queensland, who ran a small herd of cattle and never swore in front of us kids, if you don’t count an occasional ‘bloody’ in all male company. He used to tell a joke about a farmer from the back blocks who was taken to the big city (which we understood to be Brisbane) to speak at a conference about his use of organic fertiliser His talk went down well, and afterwards, one of the city folk approached the outreach officer who had brought him. ‘That was very interesting,’ he said, ‘but couldn’t you have told him to say “cow dung” or “manure” instead of “cow poo”?’ The officer replied, ‘If you only knew how hard it was to clean up his language to say “poo”.’

That might give you some idea of the pleasure I found in Brendan Ryan’s poem ‘Cowshit’, which includes these lines:

Smell of country air, of cowshit in the grass,
in the dairy, on farmers’ arms, on jeans, shirts,
leather aprons, cowshit dripping off the rails,
squeegeed down drains, piped into paddocks.
One farmer’s waste becomes a supermarket essential.
It’s cowshit economics. The word that dare not
be admitted determines class, roughness, is
the perfume in a dairy farmer’s bedroom.

The poem goes on, and includes such fine turns of phrase as ‘the soft explosion beneath my feet’, ‘little green haloes are spread across the paddocks’, and:

Cows on the road always leave a Hansel and Gretel trail,
a splattering that reflects the meditative sway of their walk.

Anyone who has worked closely with cattle would have to be touched.

Likewise, anyone from a big Irish Catholic country family would resonate with the way ‘Walking through Family’ ventiloquises the mother keeping the children on track, culminating in the line ‘AnnetteTheresaMichaelBrendanKathrynDennisDavidPhilipKieranRebecca‘. I was the middle child of five, and more than once my mother called me MichaelEddieElizabethMaryAnnJohnny.

Brendan Ryan’s poetry is deeply rooted in place, specifically in what this book calls blister country, in western Victoria. The three books of his that I’ve read return again and again to his early life on a dairy farm, to what it means to live away from it as an adult, or to revisiting it, even if only to drive through. It’s a rich vein that yields poetry about natural and human landscapes, about cattle and working with cattle, about living in a big Catholic family in a rural community, about masculinity as a son, a brother and a father, about memory and meaning, the powerful interplay of place and identity. In ‘Self-portrait':

These paddocks have made me,
shaped the way I look at mud around gateways.
[…]
I watch myself walk ahead
into paddocks and more poems.
[…]
__________Sisyphus had nothing on this –
pulled to the farm I grew up on
walking through paddocks I can’t live with.

This book is in four sections. ‘Blister Country’ sets the scene with a series of poems about that landscape – it’s a landscape full of figures seen in close-up: kangaroo hunters, abattoir workers, dairy farmers, the ghosts of Aboriginal people and the squatters who slaughtered them, fire fighters, holiday-makers, cattle, and the now urbanised poet, his daughters, and his insistent memories. ‘Cowshit’ is in this section.

‘Travelling through the Family’ and ‘True Confessions’ get more personal – portraits of family members and unsparing accounts of relationships in the former, and in the latter an ‘I’ who is much more in the foreground. ‘Walking through Family’ is in the former, ‘Self-portrait’ in the latter.

‘Driving’ comprises dozen or so glimpses of the world as seen from a moving car, including the world inside the car – the driver’s reflections on where he has been, where he is going. I read most of this book when I was in New York City, for a couple of weeks, and finished reading it back in the familiar surrounds of Marrickville. Marrickville isn’t exactly dairy country, but still derived serendipitous pleasure from the second last poem of the book, the sixth of a series of ‘Driving Sonnets’, which ends:

______________________________Here,
my worth is judged when I open the pub door.
The town generations escaped from, in dreams return to.
Just in from New York, I cannot compare its avenues
to this wide main street that knows too much about me.

It’s not ‘I love a sunburned country’. It’s not patriotism. It’s not nostalgia. It’s not Judith Wright’s ‘my day’s circle’, ‘my blood’s country’, or if it is it’s much more specific, and not at all romanticised. I’ve pretty much lived in cities since I was sent to boarding school at 13: Brendan Ryan’s poetry doesn’t so much make me pine for the country of my childhood as regret that my relationship with it was terminated so abruptly.

Leith Morton’s translations of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki

Leith Morton (selector and translator), Poems of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Asia_Pacific_Series_Japan1Indonesian writer and translator Maggie Tiojakin said recently on the ABC’s Books and Arts Daily that in translating Kipling’s Just So Stories she had to negotiate between wanting people to understand Kipling’s playful language or just enjoy the sound of it. Having opted for understanding, she worried that she had ruined Kipling’s work.

People enjoyed her Elephant’s Child anyhow, so all was well, but a similar dilemma faces any translator where the sound and look of the words matters. This includes most poetry, particularly when translated into European languages from languages like Chinese and Japanese that are written in characters: a simple word-by-word transition just doesn’t do it. The difficulty – and the joy of the challenge – are charmingly illustrated by the web page Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku (Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary); likewise by Robert Okaji’s annotated translations from Chinese (thanks for the tip, Will).

Inevitably then, in a book like this one, presenting three Japanese poets in translation, there’s a sense that one is reading the poems at one remove: they really are at one remove. The translator, Leith Morton, discusses some of the challenges in his preface, at one point expressing the hope that ‘the many textual pleasures … available to [a] Japanese audience can be gestured towards in translation’. He succeeds admirably, but it’s still frustrating to read gestures towards other people’s pleasures. But then when I came back to the book a couple of weeks after my first reading, its pleasures had miraculously become much more immediate.

The first of these three poets, Masayo Koike, is the youngest and possibly the most accessible to readers who, like me, have slender acquaintance with Japanese literary forms. There are wonderful haiku-like moments, like this in ‘The Ashtray and the Girl':

The end of summer
In the middle of the road
Lying on its back a Brown Baker cicada

A number of her poems are remarkable for their ease with bodily functions: ‘A Short Poem about Daybreak’ begins:

America, in a toilet in Santa Fe
Daybreak
I was urinating softly for a long long time
In the whole world
I felt as if there was only this sound and myself

In ‘Bathhouse’ the speaker looks at other women’s bodies, ‘Naked backs, hips and backsides / Private parts / … The many hollows of the female body / Water gathering there / Dripping down’ ; ‘Penis from Heaven’ (a title that must put Leith Morton in line for some kind of award!) recalls an intimate, sexual moment from a film with no hint of prurience or transgression.

The second poet, Shuntarō Tanikawa, is, according to Leith Morton’s preface, generally acknowledged to be the most famous poet in Japan today. Urination features in his section of the book as well, most notably in ‘Peeing’, which I read as a cheerful anti-war poem. There are a number of fine poems about poetry and writing. Possibly because I read the book while my mother-in-law was dying, his poem that most struck me was ‘My Father’s Death’. This is in a number of parts, the first of which might almost have been called ‘The Day Father Died’ in homage to Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ – it is preoccupied with minutiae, except for the stark description of the dead body:

his mouth with the false teeth removed was open and his face had turned into a Noh mask of an old man, he was already dead. His face was cold but his hands and feet were still warm.

If you get a chance read this whole poem – it moves on to concentrated meditation, to the speech Tanukawa gave at his father’s funeral, to a beautifully captured moment of memory and realisation a month later.

Rin Ishigaki (1920–2004) doesn’t have any piddling, but she does have a bathhouse poem, ‘At the Bathhouse’. Perhaps as she was of an earlier generation than Koike, she takes the bodies of the women for granted and takes as her starting point the one yen pieces that women receive as change when they enter the bath – a humble coins that

Soak to their fill in hot water
And are splashed with soap.

The heart of this poem, and possibly of Ishigaki’s section of the book, is in the later lines:

What a blessing to be of no value
In monetary terms.

That is to say, many of the poems are about humility – about poverty, deprivation and economic oppression, but also about humility, and a kind of surprised appreciation of small unvalued things. The point where I fell in thrall to Ishigaki was in the poem ‘Sadness’. Here’s the whole poem (note – I’m 67):

I am 65.
Recently I fell over and broke my right wrist.
They told me at the hospital that
After it heals it will not be the same as it was before.
I rubbed my arm crying.
‘Mother
Father
I’m sorry’
Both of them
Died some time ago and are no longer here
This body I received from them.Even now I am still a child.
Not an old woman.

This is the third book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series. The others (which I blogged about here and here) were translated from Chinese.

Bankstown Poetry Slam presents The Last Conversation

Ahmad Al Rady (editor), The Last Conversation (BYDS 2013)

1lcThe Bankstown Poetry Slam, which happens on the last Tuesday of every month, is one of the most exciting events on Sydney’s cultural calendar.

Last month nearly 400 people gathered in the Bankstown Arts Centre to hear more than 20 poets with varying degrees of virtuosity perform their own work – to hear, applaud and at least pretend to judge them as they at least pretended to compete with each other. There was also cake, strawberries and watermelon, all for a gold coin donation at the door.

My own experience of spoken word and poetry slams is extremely limited, but Wikipedia and YouTube inform me that many features of the BPS are standard to slam culture. There are procedural elements such as a loosely enforced time limit (two minutes this time because there were so many poets), judges chosen at random from the audience, a ‘sacrificial poet’ to kick things off without being part of the competition. And the range of subject matter is described well in Wikipedia’s entry on spoken word:

The spoken word and its most popular offshoot, slam poetry, evolved into the present-day soap-box for people, especially younger ones, to express their views, emotions, life experiences or information to audiences. The views of spoken-word artists encompass frank commentary on religion, politics, sex and gender, often taboo subjects in society.

Likewise the preponderance of non-white performers and the notion that spoken word and slam performance styles are generally influenced by hip hop. (I have listened to Muriel Rukeyser on a podcast since the slam, and it seemed to me that her powerful words would benefit immensely from a slam-style rather than in the measured manner available to her.)

Yes, poet after poet declaimed passionately, like prophets calling us to reject consumerism, psalmists crying out from the midst of suffering or yearning, orators decrying oppression in many forms. One man’s poem was short enough to allow him time for a brief introduction; he said he was honoured to follow those who came before and to precede those who came after, because ‘we are giving you our hearts’. He was right: there was plenty of witty wordplay, social observation, and even some elegant story telling, but again and again a shy young person would approach the microphone and be transformed into an eloquent, spellbinding exposed heart.

[Added later: Click here for a YouTube of Yasmine Lewis, who won the slam]

The air was thick with generosity. When anyone dried up and had to search for their next line – in memory or on a scrap of paper – the crowd applauded. When a judge gave anyone less than 9 out of a possible 10, she was booed. There was no party line: one person urged us to turn to God, another described religion as a stain on humanity, a woman in a hijab was followed by a man advocating for marriage equality, and all were equally met with finger-clicks (the convention for expressing approval of a good line) and cheers. The emcees, co-founders of the event Ahmad Al Rady and Sara Mansour, were unfailingly appreciative and kept the mood buoyant.

The slam happens under the auspices of Bankstown Youth Development Service, whose Director, Tim Carroll, was dragooned into speaking. Since this slam started nearly two years ago, he reminded us, there has been some terrible stuff in the media about Islam and Muslims. What a different picture was created by this event, he said, in which the Muslim presence was so pronounced. And what a shame some of those columnists weren’t there to see it.

The Last Conversation was published last December as a way of capturing something of the slam’s first exhilarating year. I blogged about its launch. As I’ve just read it cover to cover for the first time, I find myself thinking of it as a record of poetry – a book that hasn’t really been read until it’s been read aloud, with full attention to rhyme and assonance, and a hip-hop-like exaggeration of rhythmic effects. And maybe that’s true of any book of poetry.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s 19 Varieties of Gazelle

Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle (Greenwillow Books 2002)

119vgNaomi Shihab Nye put this book together soon after the destruction of the World Trade Centre in September 2001.  That is to say, most of the poems had previously been published, but the rise in anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiment in her native USA called out for a book celebrating her Palestinian heritage and offering a perspective on conflict in south-west Asia (I’m learning to stop calling it the ‘Middle East’) rooted in that heritage.  She says in the introduction that her Palestinian grandmother who had died eight years earlier

swarmed into my consciousness, poking my sleep, saying, ‘It’s your job. Speak for me too. Say how much I hate it. Say this is not who we are.’

‘If grandmothers and children were in charge of the world,’ she writes, ‘there would never be any wars.’

The current news from Gaza, Iraq,  Syria, Nigeria and the sometimes vicious responses it elicits make this quiet Palestinian–American poet’s voice even more timely.From ‘Jerusalem':

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

As with a lot of poems celebrating heritage, there is a lot of food and drink in these pages, olives, falafels, oranges and endless cups of coffee and tea, embodying the great Arab tradition of hospitality. From ‘The Tray':

Even on a sorrowing day
the little white cups without handle
would appear
filled with steaming hot tea
in a circle on the tray,
and whatever we were able
to say or not say,
the tray would be passed

There are poems about violence and war, grieving for the killed and bereaved and yearning for peace rather than dwelling on the horrors. ‘All Things Not Considered’, for example, lists some appalling casualties of conflict – what would be called collateral damage in more abstract discourse – but it ends:

The curl of a baby’s graceful ear.

The calm of a bucket
waiting for water.

Orchards of old Arab men
who knew each tree.

Jewish and Arab women
standing silently together.

Generations of black.

Are people the only holy land?

For me, the poems work as a reminder of the humanity of people involved in the conflicts reported in the headlines. And while they may have an intention of that kind in the background, they are much more particular than that. Many of the poems are filled with affection for the poet’s father and for her uncles, grandmother and people she meets on visits to Arab country.

You can read more about Naomi Shihab Nye on the Poetry Foundation web site.

Marrickville’s phantom mattress poet(s), Part 2

It’s 20 months since I posted about Marrickville’s mattress poetry. This morning wandering through the back lanes on my way home from the library, I saw not one but two more examples, these ones initialled by the poet, and I read them as a sequence:

Mattress sprung

Mattress roses

The sequence was made doubly poignant by the meaty smell that filled the lane as I took this photo – a man was hefting carcases from a refrigerated truck with ‘Lamb from the Wiradjuri Country’ emblazoned on its side.