Tag Archives: poetry

Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past

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

1waiting_for_the_past

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.

IMG_1263

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)':

renovation

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.

Omar Musa’s Parang

Omar Musa, Parang (©2013, Penguin 2014)

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Omar Musa is a bit of a phenomenon: rapper, poetry slam champ  (see below), TEDxSydney talker, he has produced a number of CDs and featured in a number of YouTube videos. Parang, first published by Blast! Publishing, an entity so small I couldn’t find it on the www, includes some poems that here make the transition from the stage to the page, and others that are definitely starting life as page poems.

The range of subject matter is wide. Asylum seekers, violence against women, alienated suburban life, the possibility of humanity’s disappearance, street lie, all rendered with exuberant rhetorical flourish of a public performance. In ‘My Generation’, there’s even a homage to Allen Ginsberg:

My generation
was populated by boozehounds and pillheads
crude clowns and bedspreads
stained with the neon dreams of cocaine fiends.
I mean,
the diamond-flooded visions of sex kittens
who sweat bullets, glitter and Chanel.

The most interesting poems are in the first section, ‘Parang’. Mostly shorter and more contained, perhaps more carefully shaped, these engage with Musa’s Malaysian heritage. Where Seamus Heaney famously compared his pen to a gun and a spade, and chose the tool over the weapon, Omar Musa takes the parang, the distinctive Malay machete, which can be either, as an emblem of what he is attempting in his poetry:

Parang,
______guardian angel of gangsters and pirates,
______headhunters and thieves.
Parang,
______patron saint of mob rule and blood bath,
______of the man who runs amok through the village.
Parang,
______guiding spirit of the housebuilder, the tool carver,
______the opener of paths.

In ‘The Parang and the Keris’, he contrasts the parang to the keris, the wavy-bladed, highly wrought dagger of heroic tales:

This parang is not heaven forged,
______blade five-waved,
smelted from meteoric iron, divine.

But it is mine.

The poetry has the spirit of humble making that this image claims for it: a hard poem about his father, a celebration of his grandmother, a piece on the inevitable disappointment and also joy of discovering the real place behind family stories of heritage (‘A Homeland’). The poetry also has the edge of danger implied in the parang image, particularly in ‘FELDA’ and ‘sunyi’, both of which demonstrate that Musa’s rage for social justice and environmental is not limited to a western context.

Musa is an electrifying performer. You can see him here in top form with a fabulous audience at Bankstown Poetry Slam. It’s nine minutes or so, and well worth the time. In case you need some of the noise explained, at slam poetry the audience is encouraged to express enthusiasm by clicking fingers and stamping feet.

Martin Harrison’s Wild Bees

Martin Harrison, Wild Bees (UWAP 2008)

1wild_beesWhen 11 year old Luke Shambrook had been missing for four days over the Easter weekend, Acting Sergeant Brad Pascoe spotted him from his helicopter. ‘Out of the corner of my eye,’ he said, ‘I just caught a little flash of something. It wasn’t much but it was enough to make me get the guys to turn the aircraft around and go back and have a look.’

It’s not so obviously a matter of life and death, but compare that to the silvereye in Martin Harrison’s ‘A Word':

caught on the edge of vision,
forgotten in a glance
where nothing is anchored

The pages of this book are full of attention to tiny things and brief moments that are nevertheless enough to make the poet get us to turn around and go back and have a look. Something happens ‘out there, in dwindling light, / upon the edge, half-seen, a mere detail’ (from ‘Red Marine’). Something ‘catches my eye, half catches it, (tricking it, blinding it)’ (from ‘Winter Solstice’). In ‘Lizards':

_____________ This
moment, they’re not here,
or are merely playing
at being silhouettes, quite still.

In ‘Tasmanian Tiger':

ungraspable fineness of dark she-oak needles, ungraspable, I think, because so fine,
a thing merely visual, only meant in passing
to an observer perplexed by see-through shadowiness

Examples multiply.

The poetry does many different things with these ephemera and minutiae, usually at some length. Sometimes it’s like reading a gloriously fleshed-out haiku: ‘Watching Pelicans, Mallacoota’ spends the first 24 lines on a she-oak needle, and the remaining 19 on the pelicans of the title. More often, the poems are like essays, not always easy to follow, as the poet articulates thoughts or feelings that are as easy to miss as the objects or living things that give rise to them. One thing you don’t get is easy generalisations.

I saw Martin Harrison read a number of times. He was a witty, warm, impressive figure. He died in September 2014.  The November issue of Cordite Poetry Review published a piece by Adam Aitken, which included an interview, in which Harrison says, among many other interesting things:

I am trying to write poetry that lives in the same world as watching TV, listening to radio and watching movies. … I’m interested in the kind of detail that the camera can provide that the writer can be intimate with. If you take a room or a scene or a person there is something about the way those images cover the object, and something about the lingering attention you can give to what’s produced there. It defines a contemporary sensibility. I like that kind of attentiveness.

Wild Bees was published by the University of Western Australia Press.  I received a review copy from Giramondo Press.

John Upton’s Embracing the Razor

John Upton, Embracing the Razor (Puncher & Wattmann)

Embracing_The_RazorA long-ago episode of the TV soap Neighbours featured two much-loved little dogs, named something like Stella and Pooch. When one of the dogs escaped to the dangerous street, the distraught dog-minder ran out his front door and fell to his knees in his driveway. As the camera pulled back and up he put his hands to the side of his head and cried out in Brando-esque anguish, ‘Stellaaaa!’  (Just in case a reader needs it, here’s a link to the cinematic moment being parodied.)

John Upton wrote a more than 130 episodes of Neighbours between 1985 and 2006, and I like to think he was the one who poked that hole in the soap wall for a silly shining moment. He’s written a lot else, for television and the stage, but this is his first book of poetry.

The book is in four sections: ‘Grief’, a narrative sequence about death and bereavement, which the back cover tells us is on the death of Upton’s wife; ‘Embracing the Razor’, which is largely about the ills of old age – including various kinds of surgery, Alzheimer’s, bereavement; ‘Destinations’, fourteen poems of travel; and ‘Rhymes and Rhizomes’, a miscellany.

It’s the first section that has drawn me back for several readings. Even without the back cover note, it’s clear that these eleven poems are rooted in direct experience; and the discipline of decades of crafting story for TV means the character development and narrative elements are confidently, effortlessly there, allowing the poetry to do its work. A hospital car park as ‘a desert of panic nosed / into dutiful bays’. And how’s this for capturing the feel of visiting a hospital:

At the lift, two people. Polite smiles. ‘It takes a while,’
he says. I offer, ‘Yes.’ In this desperate place
somehow we need to touch.
‘It’s on the seventh,’ she adds, feeling foolish.
They don’t seem to be together.
We watch the numbered light ascending.
Like a saint, I think. I’m not religious.
‘The other one’s coming down,’ he mutters. Steel jaws
wide enough to gulp a bed and nurses
creep open horizontally. I press Intensive Care.
They don’t say anything.

The book is full of neat similes and deft observations of this sort, but, especially in the first sequence, they serve a deeper purpose – the poems tell of grief, but to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, they tell it slant, in verse that is marvellously disciplined, courteously aware of the reader. One poem begins, ‘Cat shit in the bath again,’  another deals with lost paperwork for the memorial garden. Even the moment of death is relayed, in ‘Morphine Around Midnight’ with extraordinary restraint:

I ask the nurse,
‘How long?’ ‘Not long.’
One hour, five minutes.

A decade ago, we thought my partner – now known in these pages as the Art Student – was dying of advanced pancreatic cancer. It turned out that she had had an extraordinarily improbable series of false positives, and abdominal surgery revealed perfectly healthy internal organs. But we had a couple of intense weeks facing the prospect of imminent death. The early part of this sequence comes the closest of anything I’ve read to capturing the feel of that experience. I’m sorry John Upton had to go ahead and write the rest, but I’m in awe that he did it so well.

My copy of Embracing the Razor is a kind gift from Puncher and Wattmann.

Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call

Melinda Smith, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt Street Poets 2014)

melinda-smithThe most striking feature of this poetry collection is its wild variation in tone.

Take the ten poems in the book’s first section, ‘Uploads’. First comes ‘Passengers are reminded‘ (this and other links are to the poems on the poet’s website, Melinda Smith’s Mull and Fiddle): the speaker, on the way to a funeral, is held up by a delayed train, and her emotional state is evoked obliquely but powerfully. This is followed by a number of direct evocations of grief and loss, though the milieu becomes more literary (one poem is an address to Janet Frame) and the verse more formal (a fine villanelle, ‘Roadside Memorials‘, a pantoum and two syllable-counting haiku). Then the subject switches to divorce, and  the the tone changes abruptly: ‘Decree Nisi’ is pure verbal display, comprising 30 anagrams of its title, and the section’s final poem, ‘bittertweet’, is a cleverly vindictive, multilayered tweet-joke. It feels as if a rug has been pulled out from under the reader. But each poem in the section works in its own right, so all is well.

In the second section, it feels as if war has broken out. There are a number of powerful poems about pregnancy, miscarriage, labour, birth, postnatal depression, motherhood. Take this, from ‘Woman’s Work':

A new body heaves from her into the light.
Exhaustion melts her. The women pass her the child;
the singers chant again:
Praise her, she has endured the great trial and renewed the life of the world.

Or take ‘Given‘, a response to Francis Webb’s great ‘Five Days Old’. Without detracting from Webb’s wonder as the miracle of a baby is given into his hands, it reminds us of the woman’s experience that has produced and sustains the miracle. ‘Untitled’, addressed to a baby lost at 11 weeks of pregnancy, tears at the heart.

Then – wham! – there are poems that mock or belittle those huge emotions. ‘A birth’, for example, ends, ‘Serenity explodes. I need a beer.’ And  the jaunty ‘Song of the anti-depressant’ in this context reads as an enactment of the great Australian embarrassment that compulsively attacks any show of emotion with a joke.

The mood swings continue in the remaining three sections: ‘News’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Weather’, though the self-deprecatory comic comes more to the fore so that heartfelt love lyrics, serious reflections or, say, ‘Laura to Petrarch’ (in which the beloved writes back – and comes close to calling Petrarch a stalker), are undermined by generally unfunny comic pieces about infidelity, the internet, the weather, and especially an ‘eat drink and be merry’ response to climate change that left a very sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

This book won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry last year, not one of the controversial winners. I bought my copy on the strength of the award, but while I’m confident it would be a pleasure to attend a poetry reading that included Melinda Smith, I won’t be rushing out to buy the next book given a gong by that set of judges.

aww-badge-2015

This is the fifth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

Kit Kelen’s Scavenger’s Season

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

scavengers_season

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.