Tag Archives: poetry

November Rhyme #10

This weekend the United Nations Climate Summit begins in Paris. The huge march through the rues and boulevards that had been planned has been cancelled because of the risk of mass murder, but all over the rest of the world people will gather in a massive display of concern about climate change. The Sydney event starts at 1 o’clock, in the Domain.

The ‘People’s Climate March team’ emailed me suggesting I share a post of theirs on social media. The post was fine, but I realised that my real challenge is to say something from my own brain. So, at the risk of seeming to trivialise the issue, Sunday’s March is the subject of today’s little rhyme. It turns out that my own brain is full of fragments of other people’s wisdom.

Rhyme #10: Three days before the People’s Climate March
There’s no such thing as a human being,
there’s only humans and everything else:
stars that pull from beyond our seeing,
myriads living in our cells.
The human race has disunited,
Earth’s love for us gone unrequited,
who favour empire, comfort, gain,
and make the whole world our domain.
Saint Francis called the fire his brother,
water his sister. Was he wrong,
or was there muscle in his song?
This time we have is like no other:
last week is gone, next year’s too late,
what we do now decides our fate.

Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and Rhyme #5

On Saturday we drove to Bathurst to see an exhibition John McDonald had reviewed in the previous weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. The exhibition’s full name is guwiinyguliya yirgabiyi ngay yuwin.gu gulbalangidyal ngunhi (they made a solitude and called it peace) by Jonathan Jones, in collaboration with the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders, commissioned  as part of the Bathurst Bicentenary.

Musket_and_spearIt’s  not a vast exhibition, but its powerful. There are stunning video works – a giant screen on which the camera glides endlessly through beautiful bush, and a room with six portraits of Wiradyuri elders looking out at us from significant locations in the Bathurst area. The main room has a musket and a spear on the wall (though the image above, lifted from the BRAG website, is missing the musket’s lethal bayonet), and in front of them on the floor a circular arrangement of flint fragments and grevillea flowers: the catalogue explains that the stone is waste from a Wiradyuri and Aboriginal community stone-tool making workshop. In a second room an elegant shape on the floor, made up of mussel shells cast in bronze mixed with lead musket balls, points at a pile of dusty potatoes – again, the catalogue adds to what’s already a strong image by telling us that the Bathurst wars of the 1820s began when a Wiradyuri family was massacred over some potatoes. There’s a room with surveyors’ maps and traditional parrying shields around the wall, and another with the cadavers of six small trees painted gold. All of it is very beautiful, and all invites the viewer to find out more about the history of the Wiradyuri wars, and to meditate on that history.

If you’re interested you can download a PDF of the catalogue from the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery web site, but I recommend taking the trip to walk through the six small rooms of the exhibition in person. Apart from anything else, it’s a stunning example of work created by a very fine artist collaborating humbly with a community. In the catalogue, the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders say they have been working with Jonathan, ‘directing him, teaching him and supporting him’. The drive from Sydney isn’t so long. We stayed overnight because the weather was threatening, but we could have done it as a day trip.

There is one room we didn’t see. It features two possumskin cloaks, made by members of the local community and evoking a moment when Windradyne, the great warrior leader, presented a similar cloak to Governor Macquarie. It was our good fortune to visit the gallery while a weaving workshop was happening in that room, so we stayed out. (We did see the gorgeous cloaks in a room that isn’t part of the exhibition but which, on Saturday, was temporarily home to them and an array of objects woven by local people.) This was good fortune for two reasons: first because during our visit the gallery was filled with the sounds of Aboriginal people enjoying each other’s company, in effect proclaiming their resilience; and second because two elders generously absented themselves from the workshop to chat to us whitefellas about the cloaks and the woven objects, about the Wiradyuri dictionary app, about the uses of some woven objects (‘Good for carrying babies, but not much good for water. That’s why we have bottles for beer.’).

And it’s November, so here’s an attempt to say in verse what I can’t figure out how to say in prose:

Rhyme #5: An exhibition in Bathurst, November 2015
Steel v hardwood, stone and blossom,
mussel shells v musket balls,
prim English maps, cloaks of possum.
Unsmiling elders on the walls
Look out from Country. Devastation
here finds mute  commemoration.
The Romans made their solitudes
and called them peace. Such platitudes
prevail now too, the past obscuring.
But lively voices here resound,
Wiradyuri are still around. 
They greet us, chat with us, ensuring
that we whitefellas will own
that solitude, but not alone.

Rhyme #3

A rough tribute to the fabulous humans associated with Penzance Prince, winner of this year’s Melbourne Cup

#3: A hundred to one shot
Michelle Payne won one for the bookies,
said the chauvies could get stuffed
and spoke up for all women jockeys.
Latham et al huffed and puffed
and found her lacking in decorum.
Language Latham! Ipse lorem!
Like Cathy Freeman wrapped in flag
she’d won the race – not theirs to bag.
No one huffed at her big brother,
Down syndrome and cheerful as,
a strapper good enough for jazz.
Great to see them love each other:
horse, woman, man. The racing gods
gave each a win against the odds

November Sonnet No 1 for 2015

November in Sydney: Sculpture by the Sea; jacaranda, coral trees and bougainvillea in startling bloom; moustaches; exams; and here on Me Fail? I Fly! a sonnet challenge.

For the last few years I have set myself the task of writing 14 sonnets for the blog in November. It turns out that my favoured sonnet form isn’t actually a sonnet at all, but the Onegin stanza – the 14-line stanza used by Pushkin in his narrative poem Eugene Onegin and by Vikram Seth in The Golden Gate. It took me a couple of years to realise that I wasn’t even doing that form properly. Now I think I’ve got it. Here goes with my first poem for 2015.

Because this stanza was developed for narrative, and because I have unfinished business with Virgil’s great, weighty narrative, the Aeneid (I studied Book Two  in high school more than 50 years ago), I thought I’d see what happened if I tried pouring some of his lines into Pushkin’s nimble form. It was more fun than I expected. This covers Book 1, lines 1–11 (‘refugee’ is a precise translation; ‘detention’ less so):

Sonnet No 1: Aeneid 1:1–11
War and one man, that’s my story.
A refugee from Homer’s Troy
he started something, built Rome’s glory,
but on the way found little joy.
His boats were stopped, and cruel detention
held him. Courage and invention
won through: he built a dynasty,
brought culture and civility.

It’s here I seek for inspiration:
if we’re to make sense of this world,
what harm was done, what grief unfurled
that one of such sound reputation
was made to suffer, struggle so?
Was there some cosmic rage on show?

For anyone wanting to explore further, here is Dryden’s 1697 translation :

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?

And if you’re really serious, here’s Publius Vergilius Maro:

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnonis ob īram;
multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet urbem,
īnferretque deōs Latiō, genus unde Latīnum,
Albānīque patrēs, atque altae moenia Rōmae.
Mūsa, mihī causās memorā, quō nūmine laesō,
quidve dolēns, rēgīna deum tot volvere cāsūs
insignem pietāte virum, tot adīre labōrēs
impulerit. Tantaene animīs caelestibus īrae?

Added later: You notice interesting things when you translate something, even as roughly as this. I took out the references to supernatural beings – gods, the muse etc. But that, plus the largely ungendered nature of English, strips out a key bit of patterning. In Latin, nouns are generally either masculine, feminine or neuter. In these 11 lines, the man (virum), and his descendants (patres) are masculine, and almost everything else is either neuter (war, fate, godhead) or feminine (especially the goddess Juno, but also rage, cities and so on). The effect in the Latin is of a masculine figure in a feminine world, much of which is inexplicably hostile to him.

Australian Poetry Journal, recent issues

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 1 (2015)
Bronwyn Lea (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2013)


Australian Poetry Journal is a twice yearly publication of Australian Poetry Ltd, which describes itself, surely with a wistful edge, as the peak industry body for poetry in Australia. You don’t have to be a poet to join APL (the poetry industry includes readers), and membership fees cover a subscription to the journal.

This issue is attractively democratic. Award winners with many books on their CVs rub shoulders with people who have had poems published in newspapers and journals. I wouldn’t dream of singling any poems out as ‘the best’ but I do need to give you a taste of some. This is from Judith Beveridge’s ‘Clouds’:

Let blue skies stop their rhetorical grandstanding.
We know they’re filled with the breath of men cocked
and fettled by greed. One by one I call the clouds in.
A cloud for each child hungry, ragged, naked. A cloud

for all exiles whose voices can’t find a single raindrop,
whose eyes are stones that out-weather the past.
A cloud for those in war-ravaged places where shadows
terrorise doorways, and the old live between rubble
and crumbled bread.

Jeff Rich’s ‘Not getting things done’ deals with those to-do lists where some items just got moved from list to list, or projects dreamed of but never begun. The final lines bring it all home beautifully:

Whole careers, projects without plans.
Journeys of recovery and feats of weakness

Pile like chaos in the attic
Awaiting defeat

By distraction and habit and boredom and chance
Four deadly horsemen more real than the rest.

Fay Zwicky’s ‘Boat Song’ responds to the callous feral poetry of a Tony Abbott slogan with child-like rhyming that is anything but infantile. I’ll resist the pull to quote the whole thing:

Remote ideologies send bonnie boats
Like broken-winged birds to our merciful votes.

And we turned them away, yes we turned them away
As we went out to play
In our dead-hearted country, the bounteous place
Where neighbourly love puts a smile on each face.

Apart from the poetry, there are interviews – Paul Magee interviews Samuel Wagan Wartson and Josh Mei-Ling Dubrau interviews Julie Chevalier; a personal introduction to Greek poet Tasos Leivaditis by his translator N N Trakakis; a review by Tim Thorne of eleven titles from Ginninderra Press – which expresses gratitude for the publisher’s ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ policy while being unsparing of the blooms that aren’t up to scratch; a history of another small publisher of poetry, Black Pepper Press, by Margaret Bradstock, who paints a fascinating picture of the critical reception of a number of their books; and three review articles that I found illuminating, especially Bonny Cassidy on Spatial Relations, a two-volume collection of John Kinsella’s prose.

Bonny Cassidy begins her review, ‘It must be said, straight up, that this two-volume publication … is unlikely to attract the recreational reader.’ (And she might have finished it by saying that a smaller, more selective publication may yet bring Kinsella’s prose to a wide and appreciative readership.) I could have said, straight, up that while Australian Poetry Journal might not attract too many recreational readers, any who wander into its pages are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

1apj31Having been pleasantly surprised by Volume 5 No 1, I realised Volume 3 No 1 had been wallflowering on my bookshelf for a year. It turns out to be another treasure trove. I’ll just mention two very funny poems by Anthony Lawrence –  ‘The Pelican’, in which the eponymous bird snatches a Jack Russell puppy, flies off with it

clearly visible through the lit
_____transparent pouch beneath its beak

and swallows it in full view of a horrified human crowd, and ‘Lepidoptera’, in which a gift of butterflies to the speaker’s sister meets with a dreadful fate, with an implied analogy to the frequent fate of poems.

There’s  a section on the poetry of the late Philip Hodgins – an introduction by Anthony Lawrence and then a selection of poems, mostly in some way to do with farming life, and death. A section titled ‘Criticism’ includes, among others, David McCooey on Jennifer Maiden; Martin Duwell – always worth reading – on a book about postwar US poetry; and an essay by Stuart Cooke about stray animals in Central and South America, which I enjoyed but whose title suggests I missed the point: ‘A Poetics of Strays’.

Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing

Alice Walker, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: New Poems, with foreword and illustrations by Shiloh McCloud(New World Library 2013)

1htrfdIf I write
or two
to a line,
or at least
no more than four,
you will
that every word
has been
in my soul

and if I say
that are wise
you will
read them slowly
they sink in

and if I say
that are egocentric
or silly
or banal
or even callous
they may sound measured
and wise

if the book
is decorated
with drawings
of New Age
goddess figures

and editors
who pay
by the line
will give me
more money.

Actually this book isn’t as bad as that. It is, after all, by Alice Walker. ‘I will keep broken things‘ is one to remember, and ‘Sixty-five!’ is a great birthday poem. But I did feel that I was reading a devotional booklet for a New Age religion that I’m not a member of.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside My Mother (Giramondo 2015)


If you haven’t read anything by Ali Cobby Eckermann, you’re not keeping up. In the last five years or so, in three books of poetry, two verse novels and a memoir, she has made a huge contribution to our general understanding of what Australia is. She was taken from her Aboriginal family when she was a small child, and brought up by a white, German heritage family. Her writing is largely animated by the charge from her reunion as an adult with her mother and with  her Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha relatives and heritage.

The memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, tells her story and is on my reading list. The poetry in Inside My Mother touches on it in many ways – on her relationship with her mother, and the pain of her death soon after renewing contact; and also on her rediscovery of Aboriginal culture, as in the first poem in the book:

Bird Song
our birds fly
–––––on elongated wings
––––––––––they fly forever
–––––––––––––––they are our Spirit

–––––––––––––––our bird song
––––––––––is so ancient
–––––we gifted it
to the church

This kind of assertion of the power of Aboriginal culture is hard to pull off without coming across as defensive or preachy, but Cobby Eckermann manages it here, and throughout the book, with grace and a faint satirical edge.

The poetry here is wonderfully varied: love lyrics, fables, autobiographical narrative, polemic, surrealism and some silly humour.

As I’ve been ruminating about this book over the last couple of weeks, my mind keeps returning to ‘Hindmarsh Island’, not because it stands out as excellent, but because it cries out to be read alongside Les Murray’s ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ in his most recent book, Waiting for the Past.

Les Murray’s fine poem can be read online here. It celebrates the renewal of the mouth of the Murray River, in particular the prosperity and vitality that has come to Hindmarsh Island thanks to the bridge that has recently joined it to the mainland. It has Murray’s characteristic joy in linguistic display, the wonderful image of the bridge throwing houses onto the island, and the joyful underlying pun on ‘Murray mouth’.

Then along comes Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Hindmarsh Island’:

hindmarsh Island Cars drive over the babies!

And we realise that for all his emphasis on the importance of the past, Les Murray as a non-Indigenous poet can glide over some elements of our history. The Signal Point café is part of the thriving scene celebrated in ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’, but from an Aboriginal perspective, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting that the bridge was built over the prolonged protests of a group of women who asserted that it meant the destruction of a significant cultural site. It’s possible that Cobby Eckermann had read the Murray poem (which was first published in Quadrant in September 2010), but I doubt if it’s a deliberate response: this is just a different take on the same phenomenon, one that demonstrates how important Aboriginal voices are if our national conversation is to have integrity.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s previous books of poetry are Kami (a Vagabond Press Rare Objects chapbook, 2010) and little bit long time (Australian Poetry Centre’s New Poets Series, also 2010) and love dreaming and other poems (Vagabond 2012). Her two verse novels are His Father’s Eyes (OUP 2011) and Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012). Her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, was published by Ilura Press in 2013.


Inside My Mother is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy

Michael Farrell, Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo 2015)


‘Michael Farrell is the most adventurous and experimental of contemporary Australian poets,’ says the back cover of Cocky’s Joy. If that’s code for, ‘Only insiders – academics and other experimental poets – should read this book,’ it’s only partly right.

Farrell’s poetry, as well as being ‘experimental’, is also often sexy, silly, erudite,, teasingly cryptic, playful, challenging, passionate, and sometimes all of those things at once. It’s a poetry of ex-Catholic, Gay male, Melburnian postmodernism with a whiff of nostalgia for the bush. Apart from a handful of tediously schematic poems, it bristles with memorable phrases, weird surrealistic images, and intriguing wordplay.

The book’s title is rich with implication. ‘Cocky’s joy’ is Australian bush slang for golden syrup, a kind of refined molasses. In this context it invokes the classical idea of sweetness and light – delight and instruction – promising at least the sweetness, with a particular kind of Australianness. ‘Cocky’ taken alone hints at metaphors for the poet: as a farmer laying down furrows of verse, or a parrot sampling other texts. And the phrase’s punning potential suggests an interest in, ahem, male sexuality. All of those implied promises made by the title are kept. There are surreal, dreamlike excursions into Australiana, and much invocation of other writers (the titles tell part of the story: ‘The Influence of Lorca in the Outback’, ‘Bush Christie’ – as in Agatha). There’s quite a bit of reference to man parts, from the genteel ‘longing in the pants’ to much more explicit language.

There are wonderful moments, like this from ‘An Australian Comedy’:

_________________________You see the old
photographs in your lover’s face, and let go of the school
boy’s hand; you’re growing up again.

or this, uncharacteristically straightforward, from ‘Singing’:

You know one thing about a song from
The radio. You know something else when
It’s coming from your own throat – that’s
The note. A song doesn’t belong on a page
A song isn’t on it like paint.

In ‘Bush Christie’ (the title refers to Banjo Paterson’s ‘A Bush Christening‘ and to Agatha Christie), a clutch of Australian literary and historical figures from the 1800s and early 1900s assemble to hear Bennelong, playing detective, reveal the identity of a murderer. At least that’s the narrative framework. Really it’s pretty much a playground where fun can be had with the characters and with language for its own sake. If you expect straightforward narrative progression from these lines, for example,

Gilmore was preparing a jack’o lantern –
Something she’d picked up in Paraguay
She said. Probably a lie, and she had a
Strong pumpkin-cutting arm … She
Lit a candle and put it in Jack’s head.
Bennelong couldn’t eat her bread. Pat-
erson  [etc]

you’ll end up frustrated. But read them for the wordplay, and they become fun. You can’t be sure the pumpkin isn’t there mainly because it alliterates with ‘Paraguay’, and Mary Gilmore’s probable lie for the sake of the rhyme. Likewise, has ‘bread’ popped up just to rhyme with ‘said’ and ‘head’, or is there a bit of historical trivia there about Bennelong’s reaction to the colonisers’ food?  The poem is full of that kind of thing. It’s a bit like Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ with a high level of distractability.

The poem that I most respond to in the book is ‘Bringing the “A”‘, which (I think) refers to the origin of the letter A as a stylised drawing of an ox. In the poem, written language and grazing stock are not so much metaphors for each other as identified as the one thing, itself emblematic of a harsh colonising society:


‘The “A” roamed everywhere, making itself / Stand for everything’. So much meaning is folded into the poem’s final images: the possibility of settler culture having been somehow integrated into the landscape, but not without deforming it, and not without violence (the rust on rocks suggesting bloodshed).

In her blog, the deletions, Pam Brown quotes from Astrid Lorange’s launch speech for Cocky’s Joy:

As anyone who reads Michael will know, his poetry is … an enormously generous contribution to the diverse and intersecting communities of practice that coalesce around questions, propositions, readerships, textualities, affections, socialities, and so on. Michael’s work, which in its spirit and discipline is a constant and intense gift, is ever-labouring towards a poetry that might continue, despite it all, as a liveable form of loving.

I don’t know what most of that actually means, and I can say the same about quite a lot of the poetry. But I’m very grateful to Giramondo for sending me a review copy, and opening my mind to poetry which I might otherwise have avoided.

Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past

Les Murray, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc, 2015)


A new book by Les Murray is an event, and Waiting for the Past is as rich a mixture of pontification, playfulness, contrariness, enigma, earthiness,  erudition and verbal and visual delights as you could expect. The range of occasions that provide starting points for poems is huge: a flood, a moment on a ferry, children’s complaint about their father, two dogs jumping onto a tractor tray, the death of an octopus, the canonisation of Mary McKillop, his own rustic table manners. The poems themselves range from tiny squibs, through narrative, to combative meditations. Many, perhaps most, are concerned with the relationship between the past and the present – the remembered past, the historical past, and the deep, geological past. The book’s paradoxical title may refer to Murray’s championing of the rural past, but it also hints that almost anything in the present stirs up something from the past: if you let your mind rest you can just wait for the past to make itself felt.

I’m shy about blogging on Murray, partly because of the sheer brilliance of other people’s writing about him, of which ‘Widespeak’, Lisa Gorton’s review of Waiting for the Past in the Sydney Review of Books is a recent example. That essay has very interesting things to say about Murray’s use of sound and his relationship to other poets, but it’s especially brilliant in reading the poetry in the context of Anglo-Saxon riddle poems:

Until [a] riddle is solved, it could mean anything – everything. Only after it is solved does meaning settle into being in the words…
Murray’s descriptions have a riddle ancestry: they effect an estrangement that is perceptual. That is why, for all the force of the poet’s personality and reputation, Murray’s best poems are distinguished by the fact that reading them feels solitary: an encounter not with a personality but with language itself: its work of discovering the world through its patterns of sound. …
Most of Murray’s descriptions could start with that phrase from the riddle: ‘a weird thing I saw’.

There’s much more. If you’re interested in Murray’s poetry, you should read it all.

One thing about riddles that Lisa Gorton doesn’t say is that they are frustrating if you can’t solve them, and give great joy when you do. If you solve them after being frustrated, the joy is all the greater. I could give lots of small  examples from this book of such frustration and pleasure. Just one: ‘Grooming with Nail Scissors’ ends with a reference to toenail clippings as ‘grey beetle bix’. I puzzled over that last word. Google and a couple of dictionaries were no help. I decided it must be obscure Celtic lingo, and was about to move on when (I know, I’m slow!) I thought of Weet-Bix, and the words resolved into an image of little grey biscuits just the right size for a beetle’s breakfast. It’s a trivial example, maybe, but Lisa Gorton is right: the pleasure I got from it was all about me and the language.

‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ gave me similar pleasure. In it, the poet describes a road trip to the mouth of the Murray River. There are several lines describing a reviivified scene on Hindmarsh Island:

the barrages de richesse,
film culture, horseradish farms,
steamboats kneading heron-blue
lake, the river full again.

It’s a straightforward evocation of a thriving place. Then I realised that the scene was covered by the general phrase ‘the Murray mouth’. That would have no resonance in another poet’s work, but here I take delight in recognising a hidden punning reference to the man Murray’s own return from his much-publicised chronic depression, so that his mouth is ‘full again’. George Herbert comes to mind: ‘I once more smell the dew and rain / And relish versing.’

I Wrote a Little Haiku‘ breaks the rules of comedy and explains a riddle.


The little haiku ‘The Springfields’ appeared in Taller when Prone (2010), and at least one reviewer found it infuriating, saying it served ‘as a reminder that the urge to baffle, like the urge to shock, is usually best resisted’, so the present poem is responding to something real. In it Murray doesn’t merely explicate the earlier poem. He puts his mind to it in the way he puts his mind to any other subject when making poetry. The defensiveness of ‘Critics didn’t like it’ falls away, the riddling dimension of the ‘haiku’ is unravelled. If a reader in 2010 had googled ‘Springfield, Civil War’ they would have had a fair chance of solving the riddle. I wonder, though, how many would have got the richly poignant image of this poem’s last lines, which remind us to stay open to the possibility of deeper connotations in the riddles.

This whole line of thought makes me much less reluctant to spend time nutting out Murray’s frequent obscurities. I’m more open, too, to poems that seem to enact a kind of belligerent anti-modernism. I would love someone to walk me through ‘Persistence of the Reformation’, which begins with a description of  watered landscape, briefly laments the passing of old farming ways, then somehow finds itself giving a cryptic brief history of post-Reformation imperialism and sectarianism, before (I think) celebrating a non-denominational rural ethos:

belief may say Ask Mum
and unpreached help
has long been the message

Les Murray is appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on a panel with David Malouf and Ben Okri. Can one room contain all three? I’ll tell you in a couple of days.

Lucy Dougan’s Guardians

Lucy Dougan, The Guardians (Giramondo Poets 2015)

1DouganWhen I started blogging about my reading more than 10 years ago, I had a vague idea at the back of my mind that I would do it as an amateur. I could be subjective, ill-informed, cantankerous, idiosyncratic, sometimes enthusiastic, occasionally splenetic, but never claiming any kind of authority.

In that spirit, let me say I found The Guardians  almost completely uninteresting. I approached poem after poem with hope, and time after time was disappointed. I thought I’d find one poem I really liked and just blog about that, but no such poem arrived. I re-read the book, thinking perhaps it had been a matter of poor timing. Same thing.

In the current Sydney Review of Books Ivor Indyk editorialises about ‘difficult’ poetry. He attributes the perception of difficulty to a failure to recognise that poetry needs a ‘different method of reading’ from prose:

You should feel easy with the prospect of reading a poem many times, in the process of weighing its implications, in contrast to the largely single and forward-directed reading you give to a novel.

Paradoxically, I find The Guardians difficult because a ‘single and forward-directed reading’ of many of the poems seems to be more than enough, while others read to me as disparate jottings on a theme.

Maybe the problem is that the poems are so pared down, so restrained, that I lack the imagination to feel their substance or emotional impulse. Understatement taken to the point of inaudibility. A series of poems narrates an experience of breast cancer (‘The Guardians’, ‘Right Through Me’, ‘The Deer’, ‘Driving to the First’, ‘Eve’, ‘Here’, and ‘The Hammock’), a big subject if ever there was one, but they hardly touch the sides.

I did read one poem to the Art Student, who professes to hate poetry, and she loved it. The poem was ‘A Renovation (Girl’s Work)’:


It would be tedious for me to say what I dislike about it. Enough to say that the Art Student, perhaps of an age with Lucy Dougan’s mother, resonated with the final section, was touched by the praise of imperfection, and loved the lines:

for think of a time
when only this labour
covered the body.

I can’t quarrel with her about any of it.

If I have one comment on the book that’s verifiably about the poetry rather than me as its reader, it’s to do with the sense of place. A recurring theme is place as containing personal and ancestral history. Yet, place is so abstract in these poems that – apart from those poems where places, all but one of them European, are named –it’s not clear even what continent we are on. The first poem, ‘A Mask’, with its mention of ‘dimpled louvres’ and ‘a room beneath the house’, suggests Australian architecture, but then gives us a child’s imagining of rooms beneath rooms beneath rooms, each with an ancestral identity – that is to say, a child’s imagining that her family has been in this land from time immemorial. Fair enough that a child might imagine that, but neither this poem nor any of the others about revisiting childhood locations and memories acknowledges the key element of non-Indigenous Australian experience: that our forebears come from elsewhere. (I’m assuming here that these childhood memory poems do refer to Australian places – mostly on the basis of what little I know of the poet’s biography, but also from the mention of wallabies in one poem.)

Maybe that’s what was nagging at me as I tried and failed to relate. On a third reading, I was no longer just unengaged, but positively dismayed, by the lines in ‘A Bourne’ in which the speaker, visiting Chudalup (the one non-European place to be named), feels a patch of rock, ‘warm to its core’:

A whole unschooled knowledge of place streamed in
and the liquid vision of boatmen,
was mine in constellations.
Just in this moment the way the planet turned
moved through the axis of my bones

I’m writing this the day after going to a demo in Sydney about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia. With the speakers’ eloquent assertion of Aboriginal connection to the land fresh in my mind, this poem’s claim to ‘knowledge of place’, even if ‘unschooled’, and even though based in an experience once can sympathise with, reads as a Eurocentric denial of Indigenous knowledge and history.

I received a complimentary copy of The Guardians from Giramondo Publishing.

aww-badge-2015This is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.