New Poems by Kevin Hart
Giramondo, 2008 (85 pages)
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
New Poems by Kevin Hart
Giramondo, 2008 (85 pages)
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
by Ken Bolton
REVIEWED BY RAE DEE JONES
For thirty years Ken Bolton has shown tenacious dedication to his chosen art. Apart from producing a series of volumes of poetry of unusual consistency, he also edited the magazine Magic Sam. When I read this recent volume after browsing through some of his earlier poetry I was struck by the remarkable invisible evolution in tone and content.
Take the typical first poem from his first volume, Blonde & French (Island Press, 1978):
Living brilliantly: outside –
the green/ so blue, & the green
is so bright & the wall it is clinging to
is totally in shadow but only just
because the 3 small horizontal lines /of
louvres/ have caught the midday sun,
though they jut out only a little, & shine
a brilliant white a painterly tour de force like
3 single white strokes of a loaded brush ….
Already there is the precision and ‘objectivity’ of language, while the verse is permeated with flat, po-faced irony. The poem hints at humour, but is too severe to allow it through. The images are light and deft while the tone advises the reader that there is much to be taken seriously. Even when describing desire:
I want an insanity
to enclose me :a quote/ from Robbe-Grillet’s
The House of Assignation: Lady Eva “he will
be driven mad if she continues to give in
to his phantasies” I want that – that particular
The quote from Robbe –Grillet effectively distances the reader, and perhaps the author, from comic (or romantic, or lustful) intensity.
Now read forward thirty two years to Circus, where we find a single long poem constructed seamlessly as a novel, with themes and characters acting independently of the person (but not the manner) of the author. While the blurb acknowledges his debt to Robbe-Grillet, the imagery is much less detached. A major link throughout the poem is the search by the Assistant Foreman of a small and rather seedy travelling circus for the forever missing last tent peg. There is always this missing peg! In the last verse, he succeeds. While the search goes on, there is a lot of character development and action, much of it hilarious. My favourite character is the thoughtful elephant, who is introduced while searching for a hypodermic in his body while contemplating the possibility of having AIDS:
He hums the great Dion di Mucci tune.
Thinks of Christopher Brennan, a man killed by a tram on his way home.
Rummages in his straw.
He raises his foot,
Looks for the syringe,
But cannot find it.
The singing elephant is a wonderful comic creation who ambles about, glumly addressing the big questions of …:
When I read that doggone letter, I
Sat right down and cried: She said now daddy I hate to leave you,
But I’m in love with another guy –
Da-doot-doot doot,da doot-doot doot!
The elephant is a wonderful comic creation, who reminds me more of the cockroach Archie in the Don Marquis classic Archie and Mehitabel than Robbe-Grillet. Sexual activity is presented differently:
In the dancer’s caravan Regina Xo is naked astride a man. It is Giorgio Verzotti,
Should this be happening?! Moments later Olivia comes in.
Giorgio! She is glad to see him and soon is in the same position. See, she laughs,
Mine are much bigger than Regina’s. Regina smiles – she is making a pot of tea.
The humour is robust throughout, especially in the scenes where the strong man, Ulysse, dives into a water tank from great height:
He lived for danger, Andrea told Gina and Tomaz.
That modified tank, … Giorgio began. His dream
Was to dive in and disappear. It needed an awful lot of plumbing.
– Secret passages, side tanks …
Once he dived and much of the water had leaked away,
It took a long time to come out.
We thought the trick had worked
And he would ride up on his motorbike, smiling.
He was concussed. Julie Lautone looked in
And he was floating about on top.
Children were impressed.
Man of strength- Man of wonder.
Two characters are watching daytime television (which the elephant is also observing through a window, between their heads), a movie which could afford a wonderful opportunity for serious and slightly portentious observation. An old movie, featuring Gilbert Roland, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, about a circus. The conversation is as follows:
“One of Beckett’s favourite actors,” Attila remarks.
“Brecht, I think,” says Tomaz.
It is too stupid and they turn it off. Gina reads the men their star signs.
The elephant looks at a mouse near the caravan’s tyre.
But he does not really see it. He is thinking about Peter Lorre’s lines in Casablanca–
“Rick, Rick, you’ve got to save me!”
Then he laughs …
Ken Bolton’s poetry has evolved to the point where he has written a fine verse novel with strong absurdist elements and tight control over character, dialogue and timing. There are not many books of poetry that I could imagine being turned into a film. This is one. And it is definitely poetry.
New and Rediscovered
by Vicki Viidikas
REVIEWED BY MARTIN EDMOND
That Incorrigible Weapon: Vicki Viidikas, New and Rediscovered
A few years ago a friend who lives in Queensland asked me if I would mind having a look around the second hand bookshops in Sydney for the only one of Vicki Viidikas’ four books he didn’t own a copy of: Knabel, her third, published by Wild & Woolley in 1978. One very hot January day I stopped in at Gould’s in King Street, Newtown and spent an irritable half hour or so looking through the poetry section for a book I felt sure was there but could not find; I remember the black dust from the street that coats all the books on the lower shelves sticking to my sweating hands like a contagion. Some weeks later, on a whim, I called in again and this time found a copy in a matter of minutes.
When I took it to the desk to pay Bob Gould, sitting up on his high seat, began to reminisce. Such a fine writer, he said. So sad. Do you know, she came in here just a few weeks before she died, to sell some books? She was getting rid of her library in stages in order to finance her drug addiction … as he spoke, incongruously, he began taking rolls of banknotes from his pockets, presumably the day’s takings, and handing them up to a young acolyte standing at his shoulder. It seemed an apt illustration of the relationship between writers, books and money.
At this point I had not read any of Viidikas’ work and didn’t really look at Knabel either; just parcelled it up and sent it off to Rockhampton. I was however aware of a flavour, indeed an aura, around her memory—several older writers I knew, my Queensland friend among them, sometimes spoke of her, always with an oddly wistful tone in their voice. It wasn’t like they were recalling a companion or lover of their youth; rather it was if something unique and irreplaceable had gone out of the world when Viidikas died, aged fifty, in 1998. Now, a dozen or so years later, we have a selection of her work edited by Barry Scott and published in a handsome edition by Transit Lounge. And so it is possible to approach the question of what kind of writer she was.
The selection is substantial and includes material from all her books as well as about twenty previously uncollected pieces. It consists of poetry and prose and is ordered roughly chronologically (some pieces are clearly out of sequence), without making any particular distinction between her two main modes of writing: that is, free form poems and prose pieces which are usually short, even compressed, and at times resemble prose poems. There are also eight colour plates of naïve drawings and excerpts from two longer works: an unpublished novel called Kali and the Dung Beetle and a sequence entitled Prisoner Poems. The selection works well and the book can be read, as I read it, straight through from start to finish as if it were a kind of autobiography.
A peculiar sort of autobiography, however. Viidikas is not primarily interested in herself as much as in things seen and done; she is neither analytical or theoretical and nor is she disposed towards the drawing of conclusions—or, god forbid, morals. She instead sends despatches from the frontiers of experience, with the emphasis always upon the nature of the experience rather than the nature of the self who experiences. That is to say, she is an instinctive writer who is driven to write down things that happened to her, or that she made happen, as they happened. Many of the short prose pieces, for instance, are really character sketches of people she has known and some among them are unforgettable: individuals you will not meet anywhere else in Australian writing though you might still come across them in the street.
The poems, which seem rather more extempore, like the prose usually bear a strong trace of their occasion and those occasions are frequently, though not always, traumatic. The focus upon experience rather than self makes of these apparently confessional pieces something more like reportage; yet it is reportage that does not deny the full participation of the self: an analogy might perhaps be found in the work of Herbert Huncke, who also put himself in the way of extreme situations and then wrote up the results. Like Huncke, Viidikas casts a cold eye on life, on death and the complications that ensue in the passage from one to the other; and if the lack of self pity, even of self regard, is both bracing and disconcerting, it has also the paradoxical effect of making us feel we know what it was like to be her without a concomitant sense of knowing what it would have been like to know her.
This entails, I think, another paradox: the self that negotiates these experiences, this brave, reckless, honest, insouciant, hyper-aware voyager, discloses herself primarily as wound or, less surely, scar. Self as wound is not the intent of the writer but a consequence of her writing; and because she is not analytical, the effect is of a vulnerability that is pure, intense and unannealed. Therefore it is not a surprise to find her, in the latter stages of the book, describing the country of addiction from the point of view of an insider, a long-term resident, and ultimately someone who will find it impossible to leave. There are many kinds of addict and many reasons why people become addicted; one, certainly, is that heroin is a great salve of mental pain.
Viidikas seems gradually have fallen silent; her last book, India Ink, came out in 1984, fourteen years before her death, and she did not publish much in magazines in those later years either. However, it would be a mistake to let that encroaching silence shadow the earlier work: she is one of those rare writers whose every utterance is worthy of attention; or, to put it another way, she did not write unless she had something to say. Her major themes—they way or ways in which men and women relate, especially sexually; the nature of religious or other kinds of rhapsodic experience; the exotic as it appears to the committed traveller—do not date and hence her dispatches from the frontiers she explored or transgressed remain vivid and contemporary.
Her longish story of an affair with a young Cretan man, for instance, told with unflinching honesty, could stand as a paradigm of all such encounters and includes, at its climax, a haunting insight into the effect the violence of men has upon the affections of women. Similarly, her hair-raising account of a night out in the environs of Bangkok, trying to buy marijuana, is a narrative which could easily have ended in a murder—her own—and thus gives insight into encounters that may not have finished so well. Her Indian experiences, which were extensive, have a dynamic that oscillates between revelation and disenchantment and I wondered if the unpublished Kali and the Dung Beetle, which must on the evidence of the extract given here shed more light on this aspect of her consciousness, will ever come out in full.
Of course certain kinds of religious experience do also bring the pilgrim to a place of silence, a nirvana that might bear some superficial resemblance to the muted trance of the addict; in both states the fealty to experience that leaves such a strong trace through Viidikas’ writing is replaced by something that may not require a witness or indeed witnessing. Even as skilled and committed writer as Viidikas might long for a cessation of the effort of composition as well as an end to the necessity of wrenching from the world material that may then be composed. The last poem in the book, Lust, written just two months before her death, is a kind of renunciation of the sexual adventuring anatomised in the rest of the book; when she writes Who will bring back the beauty / the ecstasy, the mystery / of creation? you know that she (the last spinster) no longer considers that a task she can fulfil.
I did wonder what the books were that Vicki Viidikas sold to Gould’s around the time of the composition of Lust; but, having told me the bare bones of the anecdote, the bookseller would not say any more. He took my dollars, handed them up to the young fellow at his elbow and turned his mind to other things. Kerry Lewes, in the introduction to this selection, does list some favourite writers, mostly European: Akhmatova, Djuna Barnes, Baudelaire, Beckett, Cavafy, Cendrars, Éluard, Grass, Herbert, Holub, Popa, Prévert . . . but not Rilke and not Rimbaud either. Nevertheless Viidikas’ densely compacted, highly allusive, linguistically inventive prose poems do sometimes recall Illuminations; as her courage, her despair and her silence echo the doomed Rimbaldian trajectory.
Letter to an Unknown Prisoner, a late piece (1990), begins: Today was almost impossible to begin, with no sleep, all night tossing like bunkers on a great ship, far out on the Arabian Ocean . . . ; and ends: Freedom, to unlock denial; freedom, that incorrigible weapon. A weapon that she seems to have used, both in writing and in life, in every possible manner she could devise; and then with great generosity reported openly, skilfully, truthfully and beautifully upon the results.
translations by Sudeep Sen
Yeti Books, Kerala, 2009, 152 pages, Price Rs.399/599 (pb/hb)
Mulfran Press, Wales, 2010, 152 pages, Price £11.95/14.95 (pb/hb)
Reviewed by NABINA DAS
That Sudeep Sen’s strikingly diverse book of translated poetry is titled ARIA, brings to mind the significance of the music analogy. Just as the different movements in an opera would hold together a singular musical piece for a sublime impression, so do the selections from various language and literary traditions in this book create an array of poetics. From Jibanananda Das of Bengal to Hebrew poet Avraham BenYitshak and the Persian poetess Shirin Razavian – with the expected names like Tagore – Sen’s collection is as rich and nuanced as the collographs and art plates displayed throughout the book.
What makes Sen choose poetry the way he has, for translation, especially in the geographical arrangement? He answers that, saying it was merely the way he went about courting work in various workshops. Looking at the South Asia section, one finds India repeated twice, with Bangladesh sandwiched in between. The next major section is East and West Asian, Middle Eastern, European and South American Poetry. Workshop opportunities apart, the sheer spread makes one wonder if representation weighed heavy on the poet’s mind to organize the book as a smorgasbord. Then notwithstanding the arrangement, one concludes that the samples he presents are each unique in their thematique and yet connected to the overture the book aims at.
It strikes the reader that Sen spans his translating skills not merely across geographical space, but across different times. In this time-space confluence his chosen themes are turmoil, sexuality, desire, politics and poetry itself. Quotes from Wislawa Szymborska, Mark Strand, Gulzar and Kaifi Azmi on the title page and the dedication page illustrate this cosmogony of Sen’s shimmering translation of poetry. On one level we can argue that the book could have done well to include the source texts beside them, not an altogether unexplored idea. Then, about the superior quality of the work presented, there is no doubt.
Sen’s growing up as a tri-lingual has played a significant role in his act of conscious “literary translation” even before this book was conceived, as also his association with other poet-translators he met in various poetic settings. It is interesting to note Sen’s account about the process of this project, at once a daunting and marvellous one. Obviously, the mathematical mapping of the rhyme scheme and prosody, to whatever extent it is employed, is not apparent to us as we read his work. Despite the fact that the methodology he talks about is a rigorous one, especially if the poet has gone to the length of trying to produce an end-rhyme matching that in the source language, the result is of high poetic elation.
In this context, I would like to cite my favourite “Banalata Sen”, an iconic poem by Jibanananda Das, that Sen re-etches in our memory. It is not too tough even for those outside of contemporary Bengali literature to see and hear the end lines of the three stanzas as they occur in the original. The tone is sombre-blithe and true to the original, and Sen let’s his lines flow like the speaker’s long, weary and expectant trudge. What perhaps cannot be achieved in the translated lines is the surprise that Jibanananda had thrown in his readers’ way in Bengali:
… Gently, raising
her eyes like a bird’s nest, she whispered:…
We have a word as close to the original in “nest” (Bengali: neeR; meaning: home, abode), unless a compound creation like ‘birdhome’ would be the eccentric preference for the original “paakhir neeR”.
I keenly read the Urdu poems in this collection, for the language fascinates me and provokes me to write my own poems in English with the sounds that create imageries of their own. Kaifi Azmi’s “One Kiss” is where the excellence shines forth in each couplet. The clever end-assertion of “glow-and-glitter” in the first couplet and “collect-and hover” in the third is evocative. And the end rhymes “crime/smile” in the last couplet complete the musicality for which Azmi was well-known.
In Gulzar’s short poems Sen shows us the modern voice of the romantic lover that Gulzar nurtures carefully, his tongue-in-cheek humor lacing a last line or a couplet ending a quatrain.
Taking cue from the Urdu poetry, it is indeed a treat to the senses to read the nature poems of Abraham Ben Yitshak:
Lights: dreaming, pale,
fall at my feet
Splashing soft, weary shadows,
Tracing my path.
(Autumn in the Boulevard)
and the crispness of winter:
in the distant
where the sun’s birth
melts the snow’s solid
I shut my eyes,
within me whispers –
Sen’s poems here give us the elemental, the objective and the form-specific footprints of Yitshak’s Hebrew verses that we have no knowledge about, but see in the effective arrangement of the dimeter or trimeter lines.
Yitshak fulfils the need for lyricism in his poetics as much as Rabindranth Tagore does. Yet Tagore appears after Jibanananda Das in a curve that represents the contemporary Bengali literary scene, the sweep of the two names constituting a poetic psyche which Sen recognizes well. In this book, Sen has selected the lighter verses of the master poet, the nonsense rhymes. I see much usefulness in Sen’s using first lines of each poem as the title, for all the four translated ones are originally untitled poems. Nonsense verses, sparkling with wisdom nonetheless. As Motilal Nandi, dying of boredom in school, tears off pages from the textbook, dispersing them in the Ganga:
float away like words-conjoined
To proceed further with lessons –
these are his tactics.
(‘In school, yawns’)
This translation resonates, given Tagore’s nonsense verse aimed not merely at gibberish with its underlying tone of “tactics” and philosophy.
Tactics, and poetic craft are evidenced in the translation of Sergio Claudio F. Lima that begins with three epigraphs. The poem itself is written in eighteen sections marked by Roman numerals, each a single line, hence eighteen lines. A list poem in appearance and didactic in tone for some of its lines, it may seem to have been an easy candidate for translation. Quite the contrary, for each line is condensed statement. Especially for sections V, VI, XIV, XV, and XVI, the relation of a word to the next one is a complex semantic one. For example:
V. The act of acting: “Only the one who knows this, the
one who does not know, does not do.” – (REX)
VI. The sense is the tension (in tension), one which
forms, broadening …
(The Body [of a Woman] Signifies)
This is redolent of the 20th century American Objectivists’ tradition. Craft transports beautifully again in a poem by Bangladesh’s Aminur Rahman. The piece written in four column-stanzas could be read column wise or cross-column, even laterally within the last column. The last line (word) of each column-stanza visually appears like descending steps, creating a destabilizing effect that captures the source poem’s despair and irony. (Hai hai) Reminiscent of the experimental nature of Language poetry in English, I read these poems (by Raman and Lima) as an inherent challenge to the art of translation. Sen’s patient ear and expertise with forms bring about the resolution.
There are many favorites of mine in this book, Mandakranta Sen, Mangesh Dabral and Zoran Anchevski being a few. All of these make one realize that translation has, for each of these poet’s works, been a separate sword to sharpen, a distinctive overture to compose. In that the collection is a beacon for future works of such nature, creating truly what is a world vision of poetic languages. The last two poems are original English compositions of Sen, a veritable feast of poetics and lush musical assonance.
NABINA DAS is the author of Footprints in the Bajra, a novel (Cedar Books, India). Her poetry, short stories and essays have won prizes and have been published in a variety of literary journals and anthologies in North America, Asia and Australia. A bilingual with a Linguistics Masters, Nabina writes in three languages and is currently pursuing an MFA from Rutgers University (Camden).
by David Musgrave
Reviewed by KYLIE ROSE
There are a whole host of haunting pains that torment us for reasons we do not understand and that arrive from we know not where—pains without return address.
It’s a Friday night; my daughter and I are taking turns reading aloud from David Musgrave’s Phantom Limb (foregoing Friday-night-murder-night on the ABC). For over an hour, we’ve been circling its rhymes in pencil, finding familiar surnames, drifting into discussion of our family’s history of amputations and water-deaths. We steer a diffuse, yet steady course in Musgrave’s wake, returning to the title poem, over and over. If I’m honest, Phantom Limb is paining me, and I know not why.
I have a feeling there’s something I’m missing.
Systems, order and logic underpin Musgrave’s body of work. His is an exquisitely constructed and formulated world, where painful emotional states are discharged by creating movement in the reader’s imagination through language and form. Phantom Limb reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s description of formalism being “like asbestos gloves”, allowing the “handling of materials [that can’t be picked] up barehanded”
I’m also reminded of symmetry. In The Brain that Changes Itself, I’ve not long read the chapter on pain, specifically the phantom pains delivered by phantom limbs. I’m carrying an image of my childhood hero, Lord Nelson, who was haunted by the presence of the arm he lost in battle. Nelson concluded the presence of his “phantom limb … was ‘direct evidence for the existence of the soul’ his reasoning that if an arm can exist after being removed, so then might the whole person exist after the annihilation of the body” (Doidge, p180.) Somewhere in my mind, these books are fusing.
I’m at a loss to explain exactly why I feel this sense of symmetry, and its relevance, or why I feel so uneasily at home inside Phantom Limb. Perhaps it has to do with the themes of loss and inversion—the real/invisible; the visible/unreal—where I’m limping, trying to make sense of a fluid resonance that defies tangible borders and rational explanation. I’m immersed in Musgrave’s uncompromisingly real limbo, communing with a host of his, and my “sensory ghosts”, memories and memories’ memories; a watery dreamscape where phantoms and legends converge in incessantly questioning waves.
In “Death by Water 1: Hippasos,” the poem’s geometry and trajectory eloquently configure the fate of the mathematician, Hippasos (reputed discloser of surds and irrational numbers).
to his end —
the perfect beauty
of a theorem and, hidden
within, the outrage of its inexpressible truth.
Disagreeing, the retribution they delivered was swift:
between his knowing and their need
for knowledge, he described
‘Two’ and ‘arc’ (letters away from Greek arche, or the ageless, the eternal) become the terms anchoring and prescribing the poem’s structure, linking all characters and realities in life, death, and the inevitable path of passionate pursuit. Hippasos’ past expresses itself to our present. It lends shape to an inaccessible realm, and returns us through the vehicle of form, to its point of origin, transfigured. The echoes of estranged languages, disciplines and eras are contained, stabilised and bridged within the poem’s triangulation. Beginning and end unite enemies, and resurrect the death-splash of one devoted to proving the irrational truth.
Everything in Phantom Limb feels measured, methodical and precise. Placement is critical within and between poems. Binaries are held in delicate and tense interface. Even when conventions are flouted, they are done so with utmost calculation.
Geometry is at the core of this collection, not only locating the roots of Musgrave’s poetic lineage, but plotting a framework for exploring the way we are generally held in relation to others, and specifically to the cast of fathers (absent, oppressive, lost), forebears, friends, lovers and enemies. In “Death By Water 2,” begins in the present with the speaker, following his line back seven generations, where intimate biographies bob and blur, seeping to the conclusion:
That’s what happens with death by water:
fiction flows into fact and fact into fiction
and rising up in a flood of words
the past spreads out beyond the present
carrying into life its drifting dead.
Phantom Limb expresses and expands the subtleties of interaction and relationship, honing the ‘human geometries’ defined in the opening poem, “Open Water.” How, why and to whom we are connected are overarching concerns.
In the title poem, we are introduced to one such relational puzzle.
My enemy reminds me of my father
Present in this linear equation are in fact the three points of an archetypal, yet mysterious, love triangle. The meter and consonance set in motion from the outset, create a desire to solve (and resolve) this problem.
“Who is the enemy?” my daughter asks.
I follow the iambic footprints, trying to discover the elusive feet that pose them.
He is a length of mind
which has no end. He harvests anger
and his name is myth.
I’m wary of speculation. There appears a literal answer to this riddle, and yet a deeper legend returns, arriving — as does the pain in a phantom limb — from an unknown source, accessed in dream. Congruent with the poem’s speaker, I fall asleep at this point, Phantom Limb beside me. And when I wake, a searing memory of Plath and her Daddy return as if from dream, along with a quote of Susan Stewart’s:
Poetic making is an anthropomorphic project; the poet undertakes the task of recognition in time – the unending tragic Orphic task of drawing the figure of the other – the figure of the beloved who reciprocally can recognise one’s own figure – out of the darkness. The poet’s tragedy is the fading of the referent in time, in the impermanence of what is grasped…(p2)
like a tingling nose before the lie
…an itch where nothing itched before,
A phantom absence: the limb I never knew I had, excised.
I didn’t expect to find Sylvia’s ‘ich, ich, ich’ so itchingly, hauntingly close to Musgrave’s assonant ‘I’, reanimating a classical paradigm. What did I expect?
I don’t know.
And that is what I am in love with in Musgrave’s work — the invitation to risk and curiosity. What do I know? Nowhere near as much as Musgrave, and that’s why Phantom Limb simultaneously terrifies and excites me. Momentarily I’m paralysed, awed, imagining my mind as some form of prosthesis for his formidable muses—an inadequate, stump-mind limping to allow the full intellectual flexion between painfully dislocated realities.
My daughter rescues me, cantering through “Young Montaigne Goes Riding,” and I’m captivated anew by ‘que scais-je’? We follow the sustained metrical clop through twenty three sestets adhering to an unconventional abcbca scheme, precociously, inventively coupling words—‘mine/ Saturnine, Aristotle/ battle, excrement/contentment’—echoing the pairing of this prodigious mind and its ‘jouncing nate’. Musgrave’s jaunty and crude, yet erudite Montaigne refines and deepens his physical and philosophical seat, as he and his flight animal traverse the ‘oblique paths’ of thought and discourse discovering, as do we, a steadiness and balance in mutable terrains. Mercurial Montaigne and steed, poem and reader align within the strictures of form discovering liberty within constraint and arriving at the possibility one may ‘revolve within’.
Revolution is a key theme. Within “A Glass of Water” the world of opposites elegantly reverse and wed. What the ‘mirror harbours … the harbour mirrors’. Polarities tumble in the half glass of water, stationed on the unstable railing ‘in the failing/ afternoon light’. All angles, all eventualities exist
down inside the glass, and the newly weds,
seen from outside
joining hand to hand for the wedding reel,
glide under its meniscus, head over heels.
Water is Musgrave’s primary element, and it is little wonder. He returns to what is no longer, unravelling, and restlessly, relentlessly pursues reflection — kindred to his imagined Odysseus, seeking solace and release in the ‘ever-many, the sun-deceiving/ faithful, all-embracing sea’. It is the measure (‘beat up, beat down, iambic swell’) of his investigation of those shifting human states of which he is a meticulously observant part; the perfect element through which to navigate his exacting exploration, as it manifests in liquid, solid and gas.
Water mirrors our habitation of different tenses and states, changing phase, speed and direction, expressing itself in myriad bodies and coursing through this collection, tethering disparate histories, identities and ideas. Inevitably, water begs return, and likewise, Musgrave’s poems bespeak a need for resolution, even if the wholeness sought remains elusive, waded only in dream-swell, as in ‘Bodies of Water’.
I’ve seen how, like a dream
that keeps returning
we move from state to state,
water flowing through us,
we through water,
a consciousness, a breath.
As a child, I fell in love with a number of waterborne heroes — from Jason and the Argonauts to Nelson. In hindsight, I was drawn into their worlds because they so generously mapped the vast and inexplicable terrains of humanity I was barely conscious of, yet so compelled to explore. I loved what I did not know but felt, unfathomably, to be true. Maybe I understand a little better now the symmetry I feel between Musgrave and Nelson’s phantoms and I am haunted, happily, by the uncomfortably consoling echo of ‘Rain’s closing lines.
And when it rains
the earth still aches:
it is never enough,
still it is never enough.
Open, resting on my bed between my sleeping daughter and myself, Phantom Limb leaves me with an uneasy realisation I’m missing much, yet a tingling sense that reconnection to a mysterious, vast absence is possible. I will return, over and over, to Musgrave’s poems, even though I feel it will be never enough, never enough, to fully appreciate the true depth of their intricacy, beauty and wisdom.
Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Melbourne: Scribe 2010. 179
Rich, Adrienne: The Making Of A Poem; A Norton Anthology, Eds. Strand & Boland. 287
Susan Stewart, Poetry and the fate of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 2
KYLIE ROSE lives in Maitland with her four children. Her work has been recognized in the Newcastle Poetry Prize and the Roland Robinson Award. She won the Lake Macquarie Literary Award, and has received fellowships from Varuna, The Writers’ House.
A Slant of Light
by Paul Kane
Reviewed by Michelle Cahill
Paul Kane’s collection of Australian poems, A Slant of Light concerns itself with motion and matter, the visible spectrums. In this slim, modest volume, poems from Work Life, and the earlier Drowned Lands, as well as new poems are luminously arranged by dialectic turns. There are so many influences and traditions underpinning this work, yet it speaks to a reader with simplicity and clarity, so that one comes not merely to enjoy, but to value its irony and its philosophical refinement.
The physical and metaphysical properties of light and its objects thematically link these verses. At least two themes familiar to readers of Emily Dickinson are inferred by the book’s title: the circularity of truth and the disquiet of death, of loss and mourning. It is the “internal difference/Where the meanings are” which forms disturbing tensions that lie beneath the surface of poems about landscape, travel, friendship, family and loss.
“South Yarra,” the book’s opening poem, distinguishes light from shadow, reality from dream, as it describes the passing of time in the speaker’s study. Like doubt, the light takes no form of its own, other than objects it falls upon. The speaker’s book is illuminated, “the cyclamen luxuriates,” a blank wall is “blinding.” Materiality is evident in the careful choice of diction; the optic process of “accommodation” renders possible the gaze, but also there is a syllogistic inference being made about the waking experience and the dream, both of which in their shared similarity lay claim to reality. The apparent simplicity of the poem belies its lyric ability to unravel complexity.
Kane’s choice of “Plastic explosive on Toorak Road’ to follow the opening poem reinforces to the reader that his concerns are with quantities that can be measured. Here the charge that alters matter is scandalous but the object is simulacra: the scene, depicting a mannequin being dismantled in a Toorak shop and voyeuristically watched by a young man, evokes an unexpected emotion in the saleswoman:
She begins dismembering:
first an arm, then another, lies on the ground.
With a tenderness that perplexes her, she holds
a head in her lap. She could almost cry.
Intimacy, vulnerability and cruelty are eclipsed by an intentional ambiguity in the scene. The poem is subtle yet deeply disturbing, giving force to feelings beyond the armoury of appearance, hinting too, at dissatisfaction with the simulated world. That the speaker is somehow complicit in this, yet twice distanced, watching the watcher, deepens this fissure.
Kane’s poetics test the tensions between abstract and real matter, between external and eternal, and what that word might mean. His interest in landscape, place, in the physical nature of appearance situates a modernist aporia, “an alien shore,” an impasse in which truth and knowledge may be questioned rationally, or empirically, or with transcendental idealism rather than through deconstruction or mystic leaps. A poem like “In the Penal Colony” outlines the constructions of normative ethics, which oversimplify our existential restrictions
We are everywhere in chains, long before
this bondage confirms it
An unsentimental taking of terms, which extend beyond colonial or philosophical demarcations, is used to define entrapments “ beyond mere justice or injustice.” There is hardness and tenderness entwined, as “we tend to these machines lovingly.” Here, as elsewhere, salient use is made of the third person plural pronoun to imply a shared consciousness, in which nations and stories might converse. Kane’s unadorned style is beautifully wrought as a masculine music relying on assonance, puns, repetitions and a matter-of-fact tone:
The writs, by all rights, are the very terms
we endure with our bodies, upon our bodies.
We will be free one day, when we are as nothing.
If a Platonic or pre-Platonic ideal is imaginatively tested in this poem, other poems are more skeptical of knowledge. “Black Window” adopts the more Kantian perspective that only through appearances can we know ourselves:
we half-believe and half ignore.
Turn again says the room, but this time
vanish into what you are doing
that you may be seen for what you do
So the disparate elements of reality remain unreconciled, hope appearing like a sign, “a narrow band of light” in the existential darkness. Kane executes his prose poems very beautifully; one can observe traces of Romantic introspection in the movement as description leads to meditation and colloquy. But he makes this unique, tempering it with a critique of the light to which he alludes:
Were it not for all our cruelty,
we might live in grace, as hatred is darkness,
and darkness the absence of light.
We cannot get behind this world, only
deeper into it, until at last inside out its strangeness
is revealed and every prospect, every certainty
we thought we knew, turns foreign to us,
and fresh, like that band of light and those
This, from “Hard Light in the Goldfields,” seems to convey recognition that self, object and phenomenon are entwined. Despite the poem’s intellectual discipline one is aware of intuition, the poetic ego being subordinate to that incident between inner and outer worlds, which drives the poem towards passion.
Correspondences are drawn between aesthetics and ethics, that “grace” which eludes us. I read this as a secular slant, traces of which are found in many other poems. One delightful verse, “An Invitation,” evokes a hierarchy in terms of situation and conduct, from the low lying lands of Talbot to Mt Glasgow where the future “presides,” and where the reader is invited to join for coffee and lemon cake. The harshness of rural life, of drought, solitude, and desperation provides metaphysical reflections, which are eloquently voiced, rather than being maverick in language or compacted in craft. The wilderness is stark in “Kakadu Memory,” where ekphrasis establishes an anti-pastoral space from an abstract landscape:
The bleakness has yielded up desert colours
and the emptiness fills with bird song.
Nostalgia is replaced with despair; even the grasses “desperate…/ for moisture and forgiveness.” Menace is frequently hinted at; and in a poem like “On the Volcano” the biological order is metonymic of social hierarchies, and their implications of power:
I wouldn’t want to be a rodent on this
mountain, or anything low on the food chain.
We live among elements, any one of which
could take us in a moment.
Here, as in Emily Dickinson’s poems, ambivalence, the distinct angle between verbal style and subject creates strong psychological realities. A resisted threat is suggested. Such tonal manipulations are the hallmark of Kane’s poetics. A metaphysician who entertains ethics, and who at times employs theological tropes, his wit is a sign of his attachment to the world.
Transition, the relativity of time, the diurnal cycle, the Augustinian circle, the wave properties of light, are the physical principles on which Kane bases his eulogies. There’s a distillation informed by Emerson’s understanding that
The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the object it classifies.
The eulogies leave vivid and unassuming images of a person’s life. Some, like “Third Parent” and “Dear Margie” praise close relatives and friends, while others like “Dawn At Timor” are addressed to poet friends. Jahan Ramazani has described the transhistorical and transcultural sources of elegy, a genre steeped in formality, ritual and convention, pastoral and Puritan. Ardent yet plainly poised in their contemplation, Kane’s elegies insert a cross-cultural episteme into a national context. Movement bids the poet to “alien shores,” to “foreign seas,” where the perspectives he encounters are both a “common ground,’ and then, in mourning, “all the circumference/ of a life without the centre.” These perspectives, which intersect the local with the timeless, are relevant not merely for Australian readers but for a ‘transnationalist’ poetics, dare I mention that dangerously porous term.
And yet, the diasporic identity seems essential for the particular, inventive space of a poet who probes the disparities between reality and abstractions. For the diasporic or expatriate writer the absence of home or place may exert equal if not greater force on the imagination than home or place itself. Such liberal perspectives in Australian literature are valuable for their alterity and their cultural difference. They shed light on the way in which we see ourselves, re-classifying our literary identity.
Not strictly a modernist, not merely a Romantic, nor a transcendentalist, Kane’s work eludes easy classification. His poetics remind me of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, grounded as they are in historical and philosophical awareness, ironic and polished in their forms, yet without the scaffolding of craft or the density of thought. Pleasing for their clarity, eloquence, and fine modulations of tone these poems are gentle in their ethical suggestions. They bring to our Australian landscapes new and vital physical and metaphysical reflections.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson, “The Transcendentalist.” Bode, Carl & Cowley, Malcolm, Eds. NY: Penguin, 1979. 92-93
Kane, Paul. Drowned Lands University of South Carolina, 2000
Kane, Paul. Work Life. NY: Turtle Point Press, 2007
Ramazani, Jahan. “Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Poetry Of Mourning.” The Oxford Handbook Of The Elegy Ed Karen
Weisman. NY: OUP 2010. 601-619
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry and fiction, which has appeared in Blast, World Literature Today and Transnational Literature. She graduated in Medicine and in the Humanities, and she is an editor for Mascara Literary Review.
Iran: My Grandfather
by Ali Alizadeh
Transit Lounge, 2010
Reviewed by ANGELA MEYER
Iran’s fascinating, in parts beautiful and in parts horrific history is worthy of account: the contextual conflict; religion versus progress; and all the complex in-betweens. So many good intentions, misinterpretations, capitulations, and fluctuations has this country endured. Its citizens have swayed with vicissitudes, standing up and being beaten down, feeling that one thing is right until it goes too far, feeling that the other thing is not right at all. And then big, shadowy players like England, Germany, and the US have entered with their devastating and oft confusing (for the citizens, for the reader) interferences.
Ali Alizadeh’s Iran: My Grandfather, is the history of Iran through the lens of the author’s grandfather Salman Fuladvand. From Salman’s birth in the democratic Iran of 1905, through to his death as a disenchanted man attempting to find peace as a Sufi poet in the ‘70s, Salman witnessed the rise and fall of revolution, injustice; and knew that terror, in the form of the reactionary rise of Islamic fundamentalism, would become worse after his death. Having never been a Muslim, by the time he died, Salman had stopped believing in progress.
Alizadeh begins the book with a moving but not entirely necessary explanation of his reasons for writing the book. All his points are valid: ‘I have read many accounts of what went wrong in Iran, the trouble with Islam, and the like, and yet I am left bored, unsatisfied and disembodied’ (p. 5), but the main, novelistic narrative of the book speaks for itself. The (albeit justified) forthright anger of this front section might alienate some readers – the kind of readers who, perhaps, should be reading this book, the better to understand Iran’s rich history and the bold, destructive interference of Western powers.
The end of this chapter explains why Alizadeh has chosen his grandfather as the lens, and it becomes more evident, throughout the book – as his grandfather’s life was absorbing, privileged and vital, spanning many eras. He writes: ‘His life is not a crystal ball but a mirror. I’d like to see myself, and also you, reader – you and humans like us, in the mirror’ (p. 7). The book is not just a history, it’s an exploration of belief and error, of passion and disappointment, of individual and collective fate – fate sometimes autonomous, and on many occasions forced into shape by some external force.
The main, effective body of the book is written as historical fiction – the author’s grandfather’s life-story is intertwined with the life of the country. The book is never dull or dreary, but passionate (without being as forceful as the prologue.) It’s absorbing and informative simultaneously.
When the Qajar monarch was deposed in 1925 and Reza Khan took over as Shah, Alizadeh’s grandfather, Salman, became a policeman and was required to undertake military training. His pregnant wife, Tahereh, disagreed with the new Shah’s plans for modernising Iran. On p. 35, they argue over baby names. Tahereh wants an Iranian Muslim name, but Salman says: ‘Stop being so melodramatic, sweetheart. I think we should choose original Persian names. Names that Iranians used before the damn Arabs and their Islam invaded us.’ This micro-conflict is representative of the simmering differences throughout the population through many tyrannical, or short-lived, well-meaning, rulers over the following decades. One of the Shah’s impositions in 1935 was the banning of the veil for women, which Salman agreed with – his mother was a feminist and he himself believed women should be emancipated. But an incident is depicted which is very strong in the way it portrays the confusion of the clash between forced ‘freedom’, and choice: A woman refuses to remove her veil and Salman, as is his duty, must remove it by force.
‘He hears the woman whimper as he grimaces and, without looking directly at her, first tears off her face mask and then the long black fabric of her chador. She shrieks as though he were raping or stabbing her. Startled by her reaction, Salman lets go of her. She falls to her knees and starts beating herself over the head.’ (pp. 62–63).
Such a scene is frightening and difficult for the reader. Salman is our hero, and yet, we feel much empathy for the woman, who cannot contemplate Salman’s reasons for baring her – she cannot comprehend the law. This scene is also an emotional precursor, in microcosm, to later violent uprisings against secular laws and secular rule, or any kind of rule or aid that is not Islamic. But of course – there are reactions and then there are outrageous and terrible and fanatical reactions. And Alizadeh lets the reader make up their own mind, or allows them to contemplate the complexity of the chain (and loop) of actions and reactions in Iran’s history.
The ‘Great’ Reza Shah’s ideas and his hunger for power became larger, and as is always the case in these situations, opinion against power was quashed. Salman, in the 1940s back in his hometown as Police Chief, was certainly beginning to question the leader he once looked up to. A Prince being held in the jail of his district is killed without a trial, and Salman asks his Sergeant: ‘Do you think [Reza Shah] is steering the country in an ethically and politically viable direction … Or do you think, as I do, that his modernism is giving way to totalitarianism?’ (p. 80). Indeed the Shah and Nazi Germany were in cahoots, and Salman lost an eye standing up to a German scholar whom he suspected of using construction funds to buy Iranian archaeological treasures for museums in Europe.
After the Shah finally stepped down and Iran was taken for the Allies, the new Shah proved his mettle by publicly doing justice to the ‘perpetrators’ of the last regime. In this, Salman was falsely accused of the murder of the Prince who had been in his custody. He was sent to Qasr Prison – where, over the ensuing chapters, he undergoes much change and resolves himself to accepting a kind of powerlessness, passing through madness, to a shaky kind of peace. The story follows the family’s destiny until Alizadeh himself left Iran with his family as a teenager. It describes the rich, first world Iran of the 1970s, the Islamic uprising, the US involvement in bringing the Ayatollah into power. It suggests why the Ayatollah was accepted as an alternative voice to the people – tired of their megalomaniac Shah and in the absence of leftist/intellectual voices, and it references the Iraq/Iran war, with its horrific death toll. When Salman’s voice has passed, Alizadeh himself becomes the ‘mirror’ for the reader.
The writing itself is absorbing and polished. The structure works, in particular the intertwining histories: the microcosm of a grandfather’s life and the macro narrative of the country. The narrative is also peppered with aptly cryptic translations of Sufi poetry – which is something Salman was comforted by in prison. The complexity, the abstraction – these are things Salman can understand, not reason nor faith. ‘The rose that does not assume the heart’s colour/Shall be mired in the mud of its quintessence’ (p. 165).
One comes away with a feeling of heaviness, sadness and a sense of hope – for the understanding of people, for a diminishing role of greed, for countries of such rich and scarred history to one day be ruled as independently and fairly as possible, and for more books like this to be published and widely read.
by Mani Rao
Chameleon Press, 2010
Reviewed by AMOS TOH
Mani Rao has donned many hats – TV executive, visiting fellow, scholar, critic and performer – but she is perhaps most at home as a poet. Tellingly, her poetry has spanned over more than a decade, leaving a “ghostly trail of a narrative thread about the dynamics of a relationship and a corollary questioning of the self” in its wake (Cyril Wong, QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004). Like her past collections, Ghostmasters evidences an effortless kineticism and a tactile grasp of the language. However, there is also a sense that her restless journeying through love and loss, death and desire has come to fruition.
While Rao’s latest poems retain the freshness and immediacy of her penultimate collection, Echolocation (Hong Kong: Chameleon Press 2003), it also finds deeper satisfaction in the processes of questioning and undermining. Rao’s candid and sometimes acidulous perspective tugs insistently at the pretence of reality so that it tears away to illuminate a world of isolation and oblivion. Her hard-earned revelations enable the poet to shed past obsessions – the oft-romanticised “lovers of the moment” in “Choose”, “the hourglass of my body” and the “fat satin of gluttony” in “Grand Finale” – so that she may come to peace with “the memory of that knowledge by / which we continue to regard as true what we have known to be true” (“q”).
Rao burrows deep into the cacophony of human desire and activity to reveal their transience and therein their futility. She observes, with startling clarity, how want leaves us wanting:
If everything is impermanent why do you want it
Death and its associations of finality and salvation are similarly probed. The uneasy decorum and “polite timing” of a passing succumbs to the hunger of the living in “Shorts”; however “well-dressed” and “neatly folded”, death still marches to its pointless, facetious conclusion when “the family finds out who gets what / you are finally understood”. Immediately, the next poem “Duet” speaks of an apparently different subject matter but reaches starkly similar conclusions, finding little solace in the musings of wary lovers desperate to feel alive:
Next time check with me first
Drop in any time even if you are not around
You too phone when you have nothing to say
Each utterance struggles to come to terms with the suffocating stasis of a relationship that carries on in spite of itself and a future gone cold.
These are poems that provide neither sentimental consolations nor easy answers, probing the vagaries of love and loss with an unflinching eye to reveal our deepest natures and most intractable fears. Rao’s reflections become intensely personal in “Choose”, where a moment of whimsy while cleaning her ancestors’ graves leads the poet to contemplate the power to bring someone back to life. How quickly she discards her list of nominees – family, lovers, children – is reminiscent of American poet Louise Glück’s customary candour and dark wit:
Father of sacrifice needs no help to draw my pity
Nevertheless, even as life falls away in “lumps and gravy” at the hands of a tyrant (“Pol Pot”) or crumbles to leave “one ragged wing banging in the wind” (“Shorts”), the poet finds something redeeming in the rediscovery of “the opening softening wood of my body”, as well as its retelling. Human emotions and experiences, already in themselves figments of language, are recast as new verbs, directions and destinations:
Pain is a Verb
Death is Not
Wrong is a Place
Love has No Opposite
Perfection is a Being
Rao refutes the absolutist perception that “love”, “pain” or a “wrong” can be ascribed boundaries of meaning or any particular ideal. To be sure, this does not mean her poems endorse “the pit of relativity…comparing this truth with that” (“Writing to Stop”). Instead, they reflect that there is nothing so virtuous or grand that cannot be flipped onto its back to reveal its hypocrisy:
That I think it is not to be feared does not mean I don’t fear it. I used
to be someone. I placed so much value on it I acted humble,
prefacing the admission of my fortune with ‘undeserved’. How
low an opinion I had of myself that I became satisfied.
The poet is now content with merely being, seeking solace in knowing “she is mere / Reflection” that “Stays with the metaphor / Some respectful distance from the sun.” (“Haul”). Writing may provide catharsis, yet that is no certainty in a topsy-turvy world where “language is language and gives away no clues” about its destinations (“Writing to Stop”). However, little does this faze the poet who is no longer afraid to linger on the threshold between desire and the desired, between the dying and the dead. Fittingly, she asks, “If we don’t stop writing love poems, how can we be loved?”, as if defying the irony. This is a poetry that reminds us to stop arranging our lives as a means to an end so that we may start living. It is little wonder then that Rao dedicates Ghostmasters neither to us nor our existence, but appeals instead to our sense of “presence”.
When I’m trapping on the Foggy, / fifteen miles off Catherine Hill Bay, / the world is good” (“Trapping on the Foggy”, lines 1-3) writes Anthony Lawrence in his faux-simplistic manner. In his earlier collections, Lawrence often explores traditionally masculine activities, carried out by men in the company of men, like the drinking and pool-playing at the Anna Bay Tavern in “Lines for David Reiter”, or in solitude, fishing and remembering. The solitary moments are often filled with the urgency of being-in-the-world: the voice plays with these masculine scenes; its subtlety and sensuality is neither obviously male nor female, but both. The themes are human above all, and the voice encompasses many unexpected nuances. In a sense, this renders the voice ‘genderless’, a quality that allows for a more honest probing of the self and the landscape, an honesty that in later collections has seen Lawrence explore trauma and grief by mapping the emotional landscape with sincerity and integrity.
In “Trapping on the Foggy”, we see the narrator reconciling his Other self, his place in the world, and his childhood. This poem is an excellent example of the deceptive simplicity at play in Lawrence’s work, where fishing is never merely fishing. Indeed, the small slice of universe the persona inhabits in this moment is soon encroached upon by the surrounding world; its wickedness enters already in the next stanza on a local as well as international level: “In the morning paper, a murder / in Leichhardt; someone’s fist / photographed under rubble in Mexico” (lines 4-6). Even though the natural environment offers some consolation when the “wind makes calm / the most violent of days” (lines 7-8), this is not where Lawrence leaves us. Rather than pursuing the redeeming features of beautiful and uncorrupted Nature, he turns to the image of the tankers that come and go, which place us so visibly in the vicinity of Newcastle, Australia’s biggest coal port—few are the children who have not counted ships on its horizon. It also places us in the larger context of post-industrialisation, and the contemporary pastoral. These lines echo Charles Wright’s “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night”, where the oil rigs off Long Beach are “like floating lanterns out in the smog-dark Pacific” (line 3), man-made intrusions in the pristine environment (albeit one where the native flora has already been tampered with: the stars are in the eucalyptus, a species introduced to California for its fast growth and commercial value).
Wright’s oil rigs are mirrored in the “mythic history of Western civilization, / Pinpricked and clued through the zodiac” (lines 14-15). Similarly, in Lawrence’s “The Barn, the Moon”, his persona turns upward and struggles to name what he sees, hinting at a conflict between two worlds. The cosmos invites a reading of the microcosm as the idea of the very large leads to the focus on the minute, on ‘you’—the real pinprick in the universe:
Tonight I saw two planets
aligned over the blunt rocket head
of the Point Moree lighthouse.
Guessing their names,
their position in the sky,
I thought of you.
Wright’s (anti-)epiphany—“I have spent my life knowing nothing” (line 18)—comes explicitly from within, an acknowledgement of his existential condition. Lawrence’s epiphanies tend to come from elsewhere; in “Trapping on the Foggy”, as the persona falls into daydream, out of the depths of his subconscious emerges the memory of a shark:
It’s mostly routine, but once
a bronze whaler followed a trap
to the surface – it came out of the water
and laid its great head over the stern,
snapping in the air, tipping the runabout’s
nose to the sky. I looked into its eyes
and knew it wanted me. (lines 14-19)
The fisherman and Lawrence the poet are inextricably linked, the act of fishing a recurrent trope standing for the poetic act. Recurrent, too, are the hints of an underlying threat: the sharks; the sun, which is “a red balloon dragged under by the run of a surface predator” (“Carnarvon” (x) Collecting Live Bait at Dusk Under the One Mile Jetty, lines 16-17); and the funnel-web spiders “at the bottom / of swimming pools, sipping like deadly / pearls their bubbles of oxygen” (“Black Yolk and Poison”, lines 3-5).
Above all, Lawrence’s relationship with the sea is one marked by sensuality and intimacy:
And with every trap, I release myself
slowly, descending through miles
of green, sun-shafted water, down
through the bubbles, in touch with everything.
(“Trapping on the Foggy”, lines 23-26)
The sensuous moment exemplifies this physical knowledge that one gains knowing the world through the senses, through the body. Many poems touch on this affinity and relationship with the sea, and the sexual undertones are sometimes more explicit. The legs of the redbacks in “Black Yolk and Poison” are “like fingers touching fishing line, / translating vibration into hunger, / hunger into death” (Lines 10-12), hinting at the most human of needs. In “Shearwaters,” the qualities of the sea are hard to separate from those of a woman:
an incoming tide of shapes
that merge to seed a furrow
where the sea’s dark pelt and raining wind combine –
Can the scent and texture of our skin be changed
by such encounters? (Lines 7-9 & 25-26)
The process of creating a poem has a prominent role in Lawrence’s work, as theme and as subject matter. It is as if the poetry cannot be escaped, as if, whether he’s holding a pen or a fishing rod, Lawrence is always writing. This sensation is accompanied by a certain weight. His worlds become one when the lure hits the water, because it must sink into other depths; however, the fishing trope can conjure up an artifice. The idea of being constantly conscious of the meaning of an experience, of its immediacy and pertinence, is exhausting, and potentially means that all moments are tampered with, created, man-made. There are certainly occasions when an indulgence in stylistics and the poems’ self-referentiality dominate:
A pair of sooty oystercatchers are probing
an oyster-blistered mantle of exposed reef
with their red beakspikes. I’ve found it’s
often best to wait a few days before turning
such things into poetry, but the accurate
wading and stabbing of the birds demands
(“Sooty Oystercatchers, Venus Tusk Fish”, lines 1-7)
Here, a chasm is revealed—the writer cannot fully inhabit the moment: he is changing it through the interpretation he is making (and, notably, its opposite is also true: “I move and I am changed, then changed again / by the telling of it” (“Shearwaters”, lines 34-35)).
In “The Barn, the Moon”, Lawrence offers memorable images and another glimpse of his aesthetics: for Lawrence, poetry is part of the natural order, and the only way to make sense of our place within it:
Some things emerge
from the day’s ordered scene
to arrest our inner attention,
and we respond to them,
using words or actions
until they pass, or remain
to build a small fire in our sides:
sunset through a pane of dimpled glass,
and the table is gold.
I respond with a shock of emotion
these words make visible. (lines 1-11)
Not until the words are written, and the images are translated, do their true significance and effect become real. The reflexive element notwithstanding, Lawrence gives equal attention to his narrative selves and the craft, like in “Trapping on the Foggy”, where he skilfully navigates the gaps and achieves a precarious balance through a Wordsworthian return to lost time: “I’m a child again,” he writes, “staring into tidal pools, my hands bent / and pale in clear water, counting bright shells” (lines 37-39). Memory is critical to Lawrence: indeed, to “move beyond the place / where memory harvests meaning” (“Shearwaters”, lines 35-36) is to allow the past a vivid presence.
Clearly, Lawrence is not, as his imagery might suggest, merely a landscape or nature poet. His real exploration is of the inner landscape and the processes at play in being a man and in being a poet. Unlike Murray or Kinsella, Lawrence does not evince a political agenda; nor does he aim to define the Australian landscape and its people. Lawrence makes no grand statements; his is a much more personal, private, and autobiographical poetry. His kinship with the sea resembles Robert Adamson’s affinity with the Hawkesbury, a nourishing and absolutely essential relationship that sees Lawrence, with playful awareness, “finger[ing] the handline like a downcast kite, / translating each bite into possibilities” (“Trapping on the Foggy”, lines 29-30).
The simultaneous presence and absence in Lawrence work—his tacking between inner and outer landscapes—allows for a poetry that speaks eloquently of love and loss; these deeper resonances become more pronounced in his later collections. The mantra that is “The Syllables in Your Name” is whispered in a faraway place, further underscoring the separation. “Infidelity and the Punishments Available” evokes distances growing larger by each stanza. In his lyrical poems Lawrence steers us into another type of unchartered waters: those of the strong psychological states into which he invites his audience. With honesty and openness he speaks of alienation, love, and madness, and again of the role of writing; art, for Lawrence, has become an instrument with which he navigates inner selves and landscapes. In these poems, too, the sea tropes have a prominent place: in “Tidal Dreaming” the narrator ponders having left his “body’s sleeping anchorage” (line 9) and the two characters are in “the wide bays of each other’s arms” (line 10). When Lawrence moves from the narrative into the more lyrical voice, and blurs the line between wake and sleep in this poem, the sensuality of the voice is poignant:
No need to question how far we travel
when behind our eyes time and distance
disengage their symbols to flicker and collapse
like glass in the skylight of a kaleidoscope.
When I lean forward to kiss you, pine needles
fall from my hair. (Lines 14-19)
This is a beautiful, loving, and most intimate moment to which we are privy. Lawrence’s lyrical poems are secretive, opening doors to rooms that not everyone can enter, and where the masculine imagery all but disappears. In these rooms, “rainbows hang in a bloom of spray” (“Just Below the Falls”, line 24) and a narrator divulges a truth in which we may all share: “I’ve been trying for years / to heal the private wounds of my life” (“The Aerialist”, lines 52-53).
In newer poems, like “Scars and their Origins”, there is also a noticeable shift in how Lawrence approaches both the moment and the writing of it:
I learned how to listen and when to distance
myself from the moment, and where I once
went to school on the immediate
and the external, now all I have to do
is remember how you wept and turned away
from the open lesions of my anger.
The distance from the moment allows for a different vision, and a space for healing. When Lawrence describes trauma, he takes a more direct approach to his craft and the snare of memory and guilt. His voice is unswerving, and the metaphors less engineered. This is certainly true in “Just Below the Falls”, which suggests a fall in mood and the crucial role of writing to existence and survival:
It’s been coming on for days, entering my speech
and sleep, bringing news from the other side.
This is how it is, where the sandstone ledge
I’m standing on is breaking away, and the whipbird’s
ricochet is lost to water’s thunder.
Something will happen if I stand here long enough –
a poem will come or the ledge give way,
though I’m through with falling back on the notion
of the suffering artist – we all have our demons
to contend with in our time.
Lawrence’s seductive entanglement of the subject and the poem is an invitation to a most intimate moment: the imagery and sensory connection leaves the subject vulnerable, to his predicament and to his audience. This is a careful balancing act, and one at which Lawrence excels. It is a large task, bridging the gaps between inner and outer landscapes, the craft and the image, and the past and the present, but one to which Lawrence is committed. A painful and arduous act, remembrance is ultimately a saving performance—one that keeps us from falling “captive to the constant / awful noise of reclusiveness” (“In the Shadows of a Rockspill”, lines 14-15).
Lawrence, A. “Black Yolk and Poison”, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Lawrence, A. “Carnarvon” (x) Collecting Live Bait at Dusk Under the One Mile Jetty, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Lawrence, A. “Lines for David Reiter”, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Lawrence, A. “Sooty Oystercatchers, Venus Tusk Fish”, in The Darkwood Aquarium, 1993: Ringwood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
Lawrence, A. “The Barn, the Moon”, in Cold Wires of Rain, 1995: Ringwood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
Lawrence, A. “The Queensland Lungfish”, in Cold Wires of Rain, 1995: Ringwood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
Lawrence, A. “Trapping on the Foggy”, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Wright, C. “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night,” in Chickamauga, 1995: New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
by Robert Adamson
Reviewed by FIONA SCOTNEY
In many ways the collection Net Needle is a logical continuation of Adamson’s recurring themes of love, loss, birds and the Hawkesbury region. It is very Adamson. It has the traits readers have perhaps come to expect and admire from his last few collections. It is dedicated to his partner Juno, his ‘heart’s needle, soul’s compass’, it opens with a poem about birds and the title comes from a poem about fishermen. What could be more Adamson? Yet there is nothing staid about this collection. He returns to familiar subjects and makes us look again and in doing so we gain a new understanding and a new level of appreciation. This is Adamson doing what Adamson does best.
This poetic craft is most evident when reading ‘Net Makers’, a poem which balances the delicacy of memory and weaving with the immediacy of tobacco stained fingers and fish guts. The poem contrasts the hardness of the men with the softness of their bent bodies and practiced movements. There is a sense of boyhood wonderment and admiration in their craft of mending and at the same time their ability to ‘cut the heart clean/ from a fish with a swipe of a fillet knife.’ The weaving of the nets in the poem is mundane, pragmatic and performative,
They stitched their lives into my days,
Blue Point fishermen, with a smoke
stuck to their bottom lips, bodies bent
forward, inspecting a haul-net’s wing
draped from a clothes line. Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone
net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell. Their fingers,
browned by clusters of freckles
and tobacco tar, slippery with speed –
We are invited into an intimate space of memory, reflection and repetition as ‘they wove everything they knew/ into the mesh, along with the love they had,// or had lost, or maybe not needed.’ This is men’s work located in a domestic sphere; the backyard by the clothes line of Adamson’s childhood home. In the poem there are the subtle tones of the tortoise shell needles, freckles and tobacco tar set against the action of stitching, inspecting, draping, darting and mending.
As in The Goldfinches of Baghdad and other collections, Adamson has drawn on Mallarme’s idea of a book as a ‘living composition’, where each page becomes a stanza in the poem of the whole book. In this collection there is a four part structure which brings cohesion. The poems are grouped by observation, recollection, homage and finally death and transformation. Part one is characterised by observation, by poems that turn our attention to the otherwise unseen miracles in the mundane, as in ‘Net Makers’ and ‘Via Negativa, The Divine Dark’:
On the table a cicada, flecked with flour,
opening its dry cellophane wings.
The cat flies across polished space illuminated by the
Kitchen’s energy-saving light bulb,
A Philips “Genie.”
Here the divine dark is lit by stars and an eco-light blub. The via negativa, a way of describing God by negation, takes form in the tree-ferns, mist and banana trees, as well as breezes, watermarks and stars. It is not Wordsworth’s pantheism, but rather Spinoza’s recognition that all things are God.
Morning turns its back on the sun;
gradually, night arrives. In the skylight,
stars appear through the smokescreen from burn-off,
Stars are clustered tress, hung in the night sky.
Here and in other poems in part one of this collection, observation mingles with metaphor and personification to create interesting juxtapositions. In ‘Garden Poem’ for Juno where Adamson writes, ‘At midday/ the weather, with bushfire breath, walks about// talking to itself’ and ‘a breeze clatters in the green bamboo and shakes// its lank hair.’ These simple yet beautiful lines when considered become profound and masterful. In the first example he combines the observation of midday with the metaphor of ‘bushfire breath’, with personification the weather which ‘walks about// talking to itself’. Such lines show the complexity of Adamson’s craft.
Part two of Net Needle is comprised of redrafted poems from Shark-net Seahorses of Balmoral: A Harbor Memoir (2012), a collaboration with artist Peter Kingston which produced a hand printed limited edition artist book,. These poems are based on recollection and tell stories about Sydney, the harbor and the rivers. They are not simply nostalgic reminiscing, but rather poetry as memoir, as Adamson looks back over moments of his life that span his childhood to his time spent in Long Bay prison. In this section a focus on narrative tends to replace the more image-driven poetry of the first part of the collection. I wonder if this is in response to the collaborative process of creating the artist book, which responds to Adamson and Kingston’s shared memories of Sydney, albeit at opposite sides of the harbor, Kingston at Vaucluse in the east and Adamson at Neutral Bay in the north. Both were born in 1943 and the art book chronicles some of the history of the area, as well as Adamson’s personal history.
Sometimes there is an emotional distance in these poems, as in ‘The Long Bay Debating Society’ which begins with the dispassionate line, ‘I spent my twenty-first in Long Bay Penitentiary.’ The poem recalls the pacing in the prison yard through the day and his reading of novels and poetry at night. It records Adamson’s early ambition to be a poet,
Sometimes an education officer
Would turn up and ask
What are you going to do with your future?
I’d tell him I wanted to be a poet
He would shake his head
And comment that I was being insolent
After weeks I convinced him
We wanted to start a debating team
The poem takes an unexpected turn from Adamson reading and wanting to be a poet, to convincing the officer about his desire to start a debating team. As it moves from the general to the specific, the poem shifts to the subject of the poem, the debating society. ‘It took a month to convince the Governor/ Finally the authorities agreed/ We could form a debating society’. This new freedom is still bound by the control of the authorities, as the ‘crims’ read and research in the prison library and organise an outside team to debate with, they are undermined by the Governor’s choice of topic, ‘(it was the summer of 1964) our topic/ “Is the Sydney Opera House Really Necessary?”’
Other memories are captured with a mix of facts and observations, as in ‘The Green Flash’ where Adamson recalls walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with his mother, and going to the ‘Pylon Lookout’, ‘There was the café, where mum bought/ my first Devonshire tea.’ The South West Pylon lookout was open to the public at weekends from 1932 -1981. ‘This was the spot my father took/ my mother on their first date; he always/ knew how to impress people.’ The strength of these poems is in their ability to record personal and public history and memory with location.
Part three acts as homage to other writers, the poems reference or are dedicated to other poets and writers including early influences on his writing including Francis Webb, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his friend Michael Dransfield. These poems provide a reminder of the sociability of poetry. The act of naming other poets creates textual relationships, the names become tropes, poetic devices that can represent a mode, or style of working, or gesture to interpersonal connections or relationships. These poems also speak of the longevity of Adamson’s vocation as a poet. Since the publication of his first collection in 1970, Adamson has published over 20 books of poetry. He has devoted much of his life to poetry, not only as a poet, but also an editor, mentor and teacher.
Adamson is one of a number of Sydney and Melbourne poets who emerged in the late 1960s and have been seen as part of a loose school or generation of poets characterised by their explicit break with existing poetic practice, their adaptation of American models, and their shared opposition to the Vietnam War. John Tranter’s anthology, The New Australian Poetry (Makar, 1979), announced this new generation, the ‘generation of ‘68’, and presented the twenty-four poets included as representing a ‘commitment to the overhauling of poetic method and function’ and a ‘serious attempt to revitalise a moribund poetic culture.’ Adamson, like Dransfield, was included in the anthology and they are often referred to as key figures of the “generation of 68.”
Part four of the collection can be characterised by themes of death and transformation. ‘Death of a Goshawk’ is a haiku with an untraditional syllable count which reaches its dénouement in the last line facilitated by its title,
Hovering on sunlight and air –
A boy’s trigger finger.
Other poems about death include ‘A Proper Burial’ about the death of a pair of tawny frogmouths beside a highway, ‘The Whiting’ where the poet is visited by the shadow of a fish he has killed and ‘The Great Auk’ for Charles Buckmaster, a poem which references another ‘generation of ‘68’ poet and friend of Adamson’s who died aged 21 in 1972. Not quite elegy, this poem recalls fondly Buckmaster’s poetry magazine The Great Auk and his contribution to the Sydney and Melbourne poetry scenes.
Charles spoke of auk bones
discovered in Massachusetts, fragments put
together by the archaeologist of morning, kingfisher
of poets. Charles wrote for the lost forest
and opened new pages as he
walked the streets of Melbourne,
writing back the great auks, speaking branches
to sing from; as the growth rings
thickened our lives, he stretched himself imagining
pilchards in massive schools
turning oceans silver with auk food –
auks returning in poems, swimming from the heads
of poets, into the tides of our words.
The final poem in the collection is ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul’ for Juno. It is a redemptive poem, where the ‘you’ in the poem, presumably Juno, brings new knowledge and discoveries to the first person speaker, ‘Your breath blew a thicket of smoke from my eyes’, ‘You taught me how to weigh the harvest of light’, and ‘You brought along new light to live in’. The poem ends with a final transformation, ‘I preferred the cover of night, yet here, I stepped/ into the day by following your gaze.’
Net Needle sees Adamson return to recognisable themes and influences in a way that is at once familiar and rewarding. For this reason, it is also a wonderful introduction to his work for new readers.
FIONA SCOTNEY recently completed her PhD at the University of Queensland titled ‘The New Australian Poets: Networks and the Generation of 68’. She has previously been published in Cordite, The Australian Poetry Journal and Southerly.