and then when the
by Dan Disney
John Leonard Press
Reviewed by Anna KERDIJK NICHOLSON
In the lead-up to the launch of his first full-length book, ‘and then when the’, Dan Disney wrote me a letter in his spidery, spontaneous hand from Korea, where he teaches. He wrote, looping words eating up the white photocopy paper, ’I have been looking forward to this book for … oh … 40 years’.
This is what I appreciate so much about poets. No matter what their achievements, the best of them remain humble, wait to be measured against the tide of words from the past and wait until what they have wrought is fine and then remain excited by publication, by reaching an audience through the page or through their voice. Such tiny fragments to shore up against our ruin, and yet poets continue, heroically, against the odds (Kindles; the murderousness of profit and loss for small presses; and that distinct sensation – in the face of MasterChef – of cultural irrelevance).
So what do we get for 40 years in the making? There are twenty poems in this collection, a mere 44 pages of poetry. So what is it about this collection which impresses as a taut and strong collection?
The tenor of the work can be found in its title. ‘And then when the’ is a prose phrase. Such a phrase is the part of language which is generally removed from poetry. Why? Because those monosyllables ‘and then when the’ are the tools of narrative. Yet this book references narrative a fortiori because it comprises so many journeys made by the persona —and by the poet — within Australia and overseas. The title, like much of the book’s content, speaks of what poetry is and what it is not.
there’s graveyard dirt on our soles, as if we live
in houses with covered mirrors, as if
each mid-morning there’s no right side to climb from our beds
so many muttering about silence,
spruiking the godhead
non-descript as our job descriptions and
making memos to the immemorial
so many thinking on time, on love and where that goes, on nothing,
some days hearts may shudder
as we stoop, moan, and blink
below an audience of stars arriving early
Much of the poems’ content (though not what I have just quoted) is celebratory of the intellectual. Here are references to Sartre, Latin riffs, artists and artworks, Wallace Stevens, philosophers, recent fiction, Plotinus, Mary Shelley, Horace and more. Cross-referencing like this allows us a hypertext into those other works. Referencing others’ work is the lifeblood of poets; nay, of artists. Quoting, re-imagining, ripping. It keeps us on our toes, pays homage, re-writes history as a living thing and incites to aspire to these reference points in our evolving culture.
However intellectual, this work is grounded in experience. Disney takes us on a Verlaine/Rimbaud roller-coaster of wildness, like a spare 21st century beat poetry, where persona/reader experience the journeys, the drugs, absinthe and a smattering of Burroughs. Like Burroughs, there is a restless intellect and a steely eye for the hilarious details of life presented as the surreal. Here we have the great melting clocks of Disney’s imagination on display.
A trapdoor has been opened in the head. Inside, historical figures are rowing, spectred
And quaffing logos at the feet of mountains. See here: among them Ern Malley’s shape,
toasting Plato and the Elysian mosquito swamps. In the next boat, glass to ear, Buddha …
(“… never come to thoughts. They come to us” [Martin Heidegger: Poetry, Language, Thought], 36)
Disney changes text. He leaves font alone but occasionally orients poems on the page so one reads the title horizontally, then to read the balance of the poem, one must rotate the book. The two poems which do this begin, respectively, ‘A trapdoor has been opened in the head’ and ‘take a gun’ and the poems start by the centre seam of the book. This is not concrete poetry, but poetry of architecture on the page and disorientation and subversion of the norms.
‘How to hunt March hare’ is a brio example of his style when he is being subversive and humorous:
Take a gun (unloaded) to the hole one moonless night. Call your closes taxidermist friends and tell them
to stay at home. Take a portable fence on which to sit …
Kick down the portable fence. Maintain focus. Take some speed. Take some mescaline. Quote Machiavelli
through a loudspeaker from the back of a military-green shrub. Shake your fists at a god and the stars …
(“How to hunt March hare”, 16)
The book, because of its size, is knowable; it can be contained within one’s attention. But it is worthy of the quote from Mallarmé: ‘all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book’ and much of it is here in this slim volume of modern Australian verse. Words work hard because the language is wrought and curated. It invites the magnifying glass.
Nonetheless it retains a casual tone because of the wittiness, the tall tales and the Australian-abroad perspective. This is a brain let loose on the world tour of the colonials of yore. From this perspective, we are provided an assessment of ourselves:
the shape of us? Always stricken, homeless amid monuments,
shambling slowly as though those who have travelled
such little distance
that everything seems ordinary.’
(“Still lifes [i.m. Gianluca Lena]”, 38)
Along the way we are shown some examples of our ‘metaphysical homesickness’ … that is, Disney tells us we have lost our understanding of our raison d’être. Whether you like the insight and conclusion or not, this is a summation of where Australians stand in the world, and what that means.
Thankfully, there are consolations. The first is humour. There is nothing which cannot, in this book, be cured by wit and laughter. It is one of the reasons it endears itself to me.
A thing eats a thing
and is eaten
by another thing.
not lasting long, is eaten
by a further thing
the further thing eaten by something again, eaten
by something else….
This thing is eaten by another thing called Craig
though perhaps never believing in the unstoppable nature of destiny
is also eaten.
(“Ecce Hombres”, 17)
It offers , nevertheless, at least one salvation. Disney quotes from Wallace Stevens’ Miscellaneous Notebooks: ‘reality is a cliché/ from which we escape by metaphor.’ Metaphor, then, has the capacity to transport us. It makes our world new again. Here is the exquisite ‘Swifts Creek’, from the strong sequence ‘Smalltown Etudes: Omeo Highway, Great Dividing Range’:
The creek bends over stone, a snake unskinning itself. Hats gather
at the servo and trucks slough past
unloading clear-fell at the mill. A bus draws in to school,
at its windows. Up the road, the cemetery
is carved with phonebook names.
(“Swifts Creek”, 11)
All, therefore, is far from lost. In fact it is richly moving, beautiful and ugly, very real, extremely surreal, and subject to the entropy which is part of our existence.
This is a sure-footed sampling of this strong new voice whose work is worthy of close attention and whose voice is engaging , engaged and filled with the power of all that it is to be a poet at this time, working out of this heritage.
Laksmi Pamuntjak, writer and poet, was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. Author of two collections of poetry, Ellipsis (2005, one of The Herald UK’s Books of the Year) and The Anagram (2007), a treatise on violence and the Iliad entitled Perang, Langit dan Dua Perempuan (War, Heaven and Two Women) (2006), short stories in The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art (2006) and four editions of the award-winning Jakarta Good Food Guide, she translated and edited Goenawan Mohamad’s Selected Poems and On God and Other Unfinished Things and wrote the preface to Not a Muse: International Anthology of Women’s Poetry (2008).
She publishes articles on politics, film, food, classical music and literature, and has participated in numerous international literary events and festivals including National Poetry Festival (Australia), Wordfest Festival (Canada), Struga International Poetry Festival (Macedonia), The Asia-Pacific International Writers’ Festival (Delhi, India) and Winternachten Festival (The Netherlands). Her poems and short stories have been published in numerous international journals, among others Poetry International (Holland), HEAT (Australia), Biblio (India), Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), Takahe (New Zealand), Drunken Boat (New York) and PEN America (New York). Co-founder of Aksara bookstore, she owns Pena Klasik publishing house and produces art performances for Komunitas Utan Kayu. In 2009, she was appointed jury member of the Prince Claus Awards based in Amsterdam. Her first novel, The Blue Widow, will be published next year. She now writes for The Jakarta Globe.
All he ever talks about is the light.
In giving me a book about a writer’s
retreat to the homes of Capadoccian
monks, I suppose he also expects me
to think about the light that shines on
certain stones on certain mornings.
Sure, I say, but the colour of white
is the night. It is not the sun that guides
you to white. It is moonlight on stone.
He considers this, then suggests that
I should pay more attention to Anatolian
mornings, for there is a tintinnabuli to
such brightenings, hazel and silver
birches edging forward,
water fowls moving stepwise.
When said writer dies not a month
since he gives me the book,
he quietly goes to pieces.
Then he sits down to an obituary
of the sort that would make the dead
writer and Narcissus himself blush.
While he weeps in his own Virgilian hell,
I keep coming back to the railway of light
that fell across my chest that afternoon;
each time his eyes rested on the two bells on
each end, those soft and yielding summits,
I wonder whether he was actually savouring
the peach pill-boxes of a building in the 6th,
the one that gave the Flatiron its shape
and charge. Or whether he was tonguing
in his mind’s eye the milky ovals next to the
Rapunzel tower. I wonder when he looked at me
whether it was my light that he saw,
or the light around me,
the one that had nothing to do with me.
Postscript 2: The Surrender of May Bartram
The matter is quite simple, John:
It’s just that whenever I see you,
something in me collapses, and I
prefer your reading between the lines.
And even when you hold me, knowing
something deep about what I need,
I still prefer what is inferred.
There is nothing new in this, of course;
Cyrano is a living testimony.
He and Roxane moon about eternity
but what they really desire is desire.
In this I am Cyrano.
But this is the real me, and
this is how I feel for you.
And to protect this feeling I collapse into
myself, and a little into something outside
of myself, so that you may find something
sweet and a little mysterious in the
searching, in the idea that there is
beauty in the out-of-scale. Something
sweet that is still somewhat me.
And even though I will never tell you this,
and even if my calves will strain and burn
through the silky black, I fully intend to
wear a garter belt when you are not around.
It’s just that I want to stay true to the gaze
that gives you wings, because May is so
long and so faraway and it’s not even me.
Krishna to Arjuna: On Bhisma’s Final Day
The other day I saw a man straggling across a plain; not once did he raise his eyes. He was walking as though in the gathering thunderstorm, under the sky turning mottled green, through the cracks in the undergrowth, he would find the tiny light in his mother’s womb.
A bird nosedived into a hole in the darkened earth, whose home whose hell I couldn’t tell, but there was something about the man that was deeply touched, as though through that one gesture a lifetime of trust had been reassembled, and he let the tip of the arrow drive itself in.
Dark Night Walking With McCahon
by Martin Edmond
Auckland University Press
Reviewed by MICHELLE DICINOSKI
On April 11, 1984, the major New Zealand artist Colin McCahon disappeared unaccountably in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. McCahon and his wife Anne were visiting Sydney as guests of the Sydney Biennale when McCahon, then aged 64, disappeared during a walk through the gardens. He was found five or six kilometres away, disoriented and suffering memory loss, in a routine patrol of Centennial Park in the early hours of April 12. He carried no identification with him, and could not say who he was. When he was taken to hospital, he was diagnosed as suffering cerebral atrophy, probably the result of his long-term alcoholism.
What happened to McCahon during those lost hours? Where did he go, whom might he have met along the way, and what did he see on this “dark night”? These are the questions that provoked Martin Edmond to write Dark Night: Walking With McCahon, a creative non-fiction account of Edmond’s attempt to imagine, through walking the same part of Sydney, McCahon’s lost hours. Edmond explains:
I thought and thought about it, and at some point conceived the idea of replicating that lost journey—not in search of authenticity, nor documentary truth, nor even simple verisimilitude, since all of these were by definition impossible. Rather I wondered if I could arbitrarily choose a route and along it find equivalents for the fourteen Stations of the Cross?
The Stations of the Cross is a representation, in fourteen parts or ‘stations,’ of Christ’s last hours, beginning with his being condemned to death, and concluding with his death and entombment. In churches, visual depictions of the Stations of the Cross become stations through which worshippers pass on a circuit of devotion. Edmond’s decision to try to encounter McCahon and map equivalents for the Stations of the Cross through this ‘arbitrary’ route is not itself an arbitrary choice: McCahon’s work engaged with matters of faith, though he himself was not religious—“not anything”, as he strikingly put it.
Dark Night is structured in four parts. The first, “Testimony,” describes how Edmond’s life has briefly connected with McCahon’s in a few instances. Most importantly, Edmond spent his childhood in a bedroom in which a McCahon painting hung on the wall. The painting fascinated Edmond even as a small child; his curiosity with the artist and his art has been lifelong. The second, and longest, section, “Psychogeography,” describes Edmond’s journey through what might have the route that McCahon took in his lost hours, a route which is structured around the Stations of the Cross and ends in Centennial Park. The third section, “Dark Night,” describes a night spent in Centennial Park itself, and the fourth, “Beatitude,” takes Edmond back to New Zealand in a kind of coda.
As perhaps may be evident from this structure, Dark Night is ambitious, but it also meanders, in the sense that it is willing to follow and linger along the routes of a curious mind, however non-linear those routes may be. Initially, it seems that Edmond is setting out in pursuit of something, though what it may be is unclear. What the book becomes, however, is something else. Edmond produces a kind of meticulous account of a small stretch of a city, a detailed and sharply observed portrait of Sydney a decade into the 21st century. It is a city of convenience stores and pubs, of homeless men sleeping in doorways, “each with his hands tucked between his thighs the way little children sometimes sleep,” of midnight parks in which the author claims to see the trees breathing.
As he walks, Edmond also muses on a remarkable range of topics: his own father’s alcoholism, methods of crucifixion, how Torahs are constructed, the sex trade at the Wall, the development of Christian Science. When we roam with Edmond, we roam not only across the physical spaces of Sydney, but also more extensively through Edmond’s mind and the connections that he makes across time and space, between an older and a newer Sydney, and between his own life and McCahon’s, between the city and its people. He wonders about meaning, and connection, and creativity, and about faith and its absence, and how they affect lives generally, and McCahon’s life and work in particular.
The structure of the book is shaped by its author’s range of interests, by his musings, and also, inevitably, by the impossibility of resolving his questions about McCahon. As Edmond himself remarks, quoting from a Pasternak poem: “To live a life is not to cross a field.” Edmond has worked as a cab driver, and his range of knowledge and his way of telling stories—picking up here and dropping off there—in some ways reflects the episodic nature of that work. But this is a book that is walking paced, and seen from the footpath rather than the street. Edmond is a flâneur, a stroller of the city, a walker who seeks to know the mind of another man by walking, and by spending a long night on a park bench.
One of the book’s greatest achievements is its depiction of Sydney now, in a now that has inevitably already passed. Edmond records highly specific details: how much change he has ($27.75) after paying his train fare ($3.80) to the city, the schooner he buys (Reschs, $5) at a pub (The East Sydney Hotel), and the discussion about the tenth Doctor Who, David Tennant, that takes place as he orders, the prints on the pub’s walls (Magritte, van Gogh, Cartier-Bresson). He describes churches, homeless shelters, excavation work, convict graffiti, contemporary graffiti, prostitutes, taxi drivers, revellers emerging from a gay club at dawn. His depiction of himself can be just as precise: he carries with him on one of his journeys “a thermos of black coffee laced with St Agnes brandy; a ham, cheese, and tomato sandwich; a banana; a tin or Café Cremes, ten small cigars of the vanilla-flavoured variety called Oriental”—along with warmer clothing and two different translations of St John of the Cross’s poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”
Dark Night is a serious book with extensive research behind it, as can be expected of a work that is, at least in part, a biography. Edmond has written across a range of genres, including screenplays and poetry, and his exacting care for language is quite delightful. His descriptions of places are particularly striking, as when he writes of visiting a friend in an art deco building, Mont Clair, on Liverpool Street in Darlinghurst in the 1990s:
the air inside Mont Clair was cool and smelled strange, like embalming fluid or formaldehyde; a wan yellow light fell across the dark varnished wood from deco lamps high up on the walls and the vacant concierge’s booth always felt inhabited by some phantom interlocutor. The lift clanked and sighed in protest as it hauled me upwards and my reflection in the mirrors with which it was lined always looked vaguely corrupt if not actually demonic. The other residents in the building were rarely seen and, when spotted, seemed pale and affrighted …
And so Edmond takes us there, through Sydney past and present, and all its ghosts, in search of another kind of ghost. It is what we can see—a remarkable city, a fascinated and fascinating writer—that makes the lasting impression. McCahon, the brilliant artist, is a fugitive here, as perhaps he was in life. But what Edmond finds in his pursuit makes for a memorable portrait of a city and a man —not the man who came to Sydney in 1984 and was lost, but the man who came a quarter of a century later and tried to understand.
MICHELLE DICINOSKI’s memoir Ghost Wife will be published by Black Inc. in 2013. Her poetry collection Electricity for Beginners was highly commended in the Anne Elder Award 2011, and she was awarded a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship (Poetry) in 2012-2013. She lives in Brisbane.
A music teacher currently calling Bondi home, Jessie Tu was born to Taiwanese mother and Chinese father. At the age of five, she immigrated to Australia- Melbourne, and then relocating to Sydney. She studied music at university having played the violin from the age of nine. She now teaches full time at the Rose Bay independent girls school Kambala and enjoys writing as a means of connecting with her community. Her poetry deals with her identity growing up as an immigrant and the comic trails and tribulations of being a ‘banana’ (white on the inside, yellow on the outside) and the shift from childhood to adulthood. She has recently received a 6 month residency as a Café Poet (a program funded by the government assisted Australian Poetry Organization) at her favourite café in Sydney – WellCo Café in Glebe. She has had her writing published in Peril Magazine and VibeWire. In December 2011, she participated in a National Young Playwrights’ Studio workshop where a selected few young Australians from across the nation came together with industry leaders to write, learn and create new works.
My mother’s heart is a small, good thing
My mother’s heart is a small, good thing.
It is lovely and unassuming like my stain glassed mosaic lamp
illuminating a room as an angel lights the sky.
It is calm like the winds on a gentle Sunday at 3.
It hums quietly to itself when no one is listening.
It never stirs at the absence of peace.
My mother’s heart is a small, good thing.
It sings at the sight of a neighbour’s garden
transforms her willowy features to delicate soft expressions.
Her heart is a keen student.
It swallows with the force of a sea cave, it
kills all light
Her horrendous freedom, uncaged-
Her fear is mightier than might
She hums to her own tuneful language,
Her solid stare, unpardonable-
She leaks through me like a bleeding creature
Her agility fails tonight,
And I have nothing but my intermediate embrace
To comfort and progress.
These walls tremor with their private language-
carves a sound sculpture of a musical elegy,
a requiem for my sleepless soul.
I bring myself to this curtailing ostinato,
breathes soaked as self-pitying woe.
The city abode confines me with
a strange solitude, yearning to disperse.
Feet crawl on broken pavements
obedient in structure and anatomy –
they pace with diligent trust in my heavy head, though-
they should beware
this head is too fruitful
for small talk
They settle with a blur,
accepting the inevitable-
tomorrow will rise like today,
a repetition of yesterday.
Mona Zahra Attamimi is an Indonesian-Arab. She lived as a child in Jakarta, Washington DC and Manila. She moved to Sydney at age ten with her family. She has studied Anthropology and Women’s Studies at ANU and ISS in Holland. Currently she is completing a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Sydney. She enjoys writing poetry and short stories. And through writing and reading, she is interested in exploring diverse experiences of cultural displacement and marginalisation. Her poems have appeared in Southerly and forthcoming in Meanjin. She is an editorial assistant for Mascara Literary Review
In my hard boots
I wandered into a field of thistles
crushing violet weeds,
bits of bricks and tiles,
broken glass from a house
I once knew. My mouth was wild,
foaming her name. I heard my child’s
moonless moaning and my house
bursting into a cake of flames.
After the rain, by the river-death,
I slept for a night in the shadow
of a broken boat. I piled humus
under my head and dreamt
of a throat
tangled in weed,
white as bone, my wife’s
goosefleshed thighs floating
in the swamp that sank
As I fold and unfold
a sleeping bag
by an alley and a railway track,
I brush away
the phantom of a man
drinking coffee and breaking bread
inside his daughter’s home.
Now, my hard boots hide
crack bush burrows,
barks, twigs and lie
about the state of my soles.
Do not say a prayer, shed a tear,
nor place a wreath on my grave,
but bury me instead under a mangosteen
tree once I’m stiff like lead.
Once I’m dead, drip mangosteen milk,
and wring the sweet white arils
till its juices soak
my funeral shroud. And when I die,
embalm my head and tuck
my teeth in black-purple rind,
let the mangosteen roots coffin
my bones, skin and spine.
When night comes, let me rustle the leaves
with my ghostly arms, and let me
scare the thieving monkey that climbs
on its fruit-bearing branch.
Once I’m freshly dead and buried under
the fallen fruits, let the soil and grass
pickle my heart and liver
in mangosteen’s heavenly pus.
Indran Amirthanayagam directs the Regional Office of Environment, Science, Technology and Health for South America, based in the United States Embassy, Lima. A member of the United States Foreign Service, he has served as Public Affairs Officer in Vancouver, Canada, Monterrey, Mexico, and in Chennai, India. He is a poet, essayist and blogger in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese (http://indranamirthanayagam.blogspot.com). He has published six collections of poetry, including The Elephants of Reckoning ((Hanging Loose Press, NY, 1993) which won the 1994 Paterson in the United States, and The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems (Hanging Loose Press, NY, 2008). A new collection of poems in Spanish, Sol Camuflado (Camouflaged Sun) has just been published in Peru ( Lustra Editores, Lima, May 2011).
Off the Field
In the end we have only ourselves to pick up from the grass,
the bed, the gymnasium floor. The dead will have their say
in dreams, and fond ones too, how the boy used to laugh
when chasing the ball on Duplication Road, or the girl back
in the village, shyly accept the glance of her neighbor’s son,
by the well, over a garden wall, the victims, the left behind
after the tsunami or the shelling without end, abroad,
processed, rebuilding their lives in the company of
Australians or Canadians, new people, while the distant war
on its nightly visit to parents, single or a pair, does not curse
the kid born away, who loves the latest fad on satellite radio
and the girl in his class who sports an infectious laugh.
Sharing the Load
There are friends who travel part of the way, then drop off
into the woods, I miss them in the darkness and thank them
here for their time–the one who sliced the last stanza off
a poem which later became another man’s favorite to speak
in the ear of love and feel its breath whistle by the lobe,
to eat and be eaten, write as Cyrano de Bergerac, thank you
for giving me the chance to serve. And the other who said
I have a secret country in my verses, that lends color
and light to my images, Alastair, let me write your name
although you said you cannot carry books any more,
that the local library must do. I understood. I have
moved a library through the Americas and the books
are dusty, creased and tired and many still unread,
time to house them with good air flow and a bookkeeper,
somebody else, a young man or woman, my own children,
if they wish to carry the load. There is gold in the paper
and lead, memories of a far-away life, with elephants
crossing at dusk, white ants hungry for pages.
Susan Hawthorne is the author of six collections of poetry, the latest of which is Cow (2011). Cow was written during a 2009 Asialink Literature Residency based at the University of Madras and funded by the Australia Council and Arts Queensland. Her previous book, Earth’s Breath (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. A chapbook of poems about war, Valence, will be published in late 2011. She is Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville. She has been studying Sanskrit at La Trobe University and ANU for five years.
Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta (Cloud Messenger) from approximately the 4th century CE is a poem of 111 stanzas. This poem is based on reading the first 20 stanzas of the poem in Sanskrit. Meghadūta is one of several lyric poems by Kālidāsa who wrote three plays as well as epic poems. He is one of the most important poets writing in Classical Sanskrit. Translating for Sanskrit provides many challenges, and in this version I take poetic licence in order to make the poem work in English. The Sanskrit metre in which it is written is mandākrānta, a slow elegiac metre.
Twenty stanzas of Meghadūta
a whole year passed and the Yakṣa pined
though he lived in pleasant surrounds
among Rāmagiri’s shady trees
and the holy waters of Sītā
yet still he ached
only himself to blame for Kubera’s curse
his mind bent by longing for her
love bangle slipped from his famished arm
with bittersweet pangs of love
he hungered on that lonely mountain top
on a windy day portending monsoon
he saw an elephant cloud rutting the cliff face
his yearning peaked as he stood
before this phantasm of elephant
dry-eyed tears welling inside
even the cheerful mind is ruffled
by the sight of a rough-skinned cloud
he wished his arms a necklace
as the month of Śrāvaṇa approached
the month of listening he prepared
to send news through the cloud ear
he made an offering of fresh kuṭaja flowers
spoke aloud his words filled with love
sustenance for his beloved
his mind bent by yearning
he clutches at cloud elements
vapour light water wind
mistakes cloud breath for vital breath
poor lovelorn Yakṣa can’t sense
the mirror from its reflection
Yakṣa speaks to the cloud saying
I know you are born into the world-wandering
shapeshifting clan related to thunder-bearing
Indra I call on you to help me most lofty one
my kin are far away and destiny tells me
to make a humble request though it be futile
rain-giver you are a refuge in sticky heat
Kubera has parted me from my beloved
and I beg that you travel to her in Alakā
with my message where you’ll find a palace
bathed in the light of a crescent moon on the head
of Śiva standing in the outer garden
ascend the path of the wind sky-fly
so the wives need no longer sigh
at their unravelled hair imploring
their well-travelled husbands to return
whereas I in thrall to Kubera
have neglected my beloved
without obstruction follow the jet stream
how you float unlike my beloved
her heart like a wilted flower
she needs the thread of hope
to buoy up her spirits in fruitless
counting of days and nights
as the wind drives you slowly slowly
the cātaka bird sings sweetly sweetly
skeins of cranes are in flight
cloud seeded they fly in formation
like a garland aloft pleasing to
the sky-turned eye
your sky companions the gander kings
have heard your thundering gait
they long for Lake Mānasa so high
they watch for mushrooming earth
and carry food strips of lotus root
as you fly together to Mount Kailāsa
lofty mountain embraced by cloud
rain tears and farewells marked
by Rāmagiri’s receding footprints
steaming tears stream down
the mountain’s face a knot
of loss born of long separation
oh cloud listen to me
let your ears be drunk
on sound listen follow
the path laid down
drink from bubbling streams
rest when exhausted
beneath you bewildered
women watch the crowd
of elephant clouds a shiver
of north wind carries off
the mountain tusk
beware the quarter elephants
face-to-face a sliver of Indra’s
bow rises from the anthill
a kaleidoscope of colours
in crystalline refraction
your indigo body glittering
like a glamour of peacocks
fruits of harvest grown
on moisture from you
fertile as the wombs
of women sweet sacred
smell of turned earth
climb the brow to the cloud-road
ride the spine of Āmrakūṭa
the ground awash with
your downpour extinguishing
wildfire such kindness is
returned providing refuge
for high flying friends
cloud braid lies along Āmrakūṭa’s
spine fringed with mango orbs
the mountain a curve of breast
its dark nipple in the middle
a coupling of gods looks
at the pale vastness of earth
the young wives of forest nomads
frolic in thick mountain arbours
you sprint the rim of mountain
streams riven by strewn boulders
like the cross-hatched pattern
decorating the body of an elephant
you whose rain is shed drink
the must-infused water of wild
jambū trees obstruct your way
the wind cannot lift a solid mass
a void is light fullness is gravity
Kenneth Steven’s tenth collection of poems is appearing in the summer of 2012. He’s from Highland Scotland and much of his work is inspired by the wildscape of the north and west of the country. He’s also a widely published writer of prose for adults and youngsters alike, and he translates the work of many Norwegian authors.
A Green Woodpecker
The day is like dead wood –
No colours, only shades of grey,
The gentle breath of my steps
Leaves a ghost story written in the grass.
A stillness like that when snow falls
Except there is no snow, and none all winter –
Only the river in its silvering among the trees
Whispers the same old journey to the sea;
Only the moon, low above the hills,
Frail as a ball of cobwebs.
On moss feet, I go into the wood
And a great door closes behind me:
Little quiverings of things
Quick among twigs;
Two deer, their eyes listening,
Flow into nowhere in a single blink.
I look up, into a pool of light
And hold my breath:
Swans stretching north
Swimming the open sky –
The silence so huge
I hear their wings.
And I think,
As I begin to go back home;
I came here searching one bird
And found all this instead:
How like my life.
light swivels on the night edge:
the full moon’s eerie beam
wobbles like a child’s balloon, huge, and breaks
upwards at last, into the clearing dark
otter trundles over wetscapes, crying
as points of milk-white stars shine clear;
he curls into himself in seaweed
through the swell and ebb of tide until
the oystercatchers drip their calls across the sky
and orange gold the dark melts into day –
then he’s off, a scamper on the sea edge
scenting, searching, circling –
flowing into river edges, a thousand streams
sewn inside the silk of him, for ever
From the incoming tide
I rescue a stone—
deep olive green
tinged with yellow buff.
Its colours bring echoes
of old growth forest, as though lifted
from leaf-litter, moss and fungi
but stranded here
among the pastel shells,
the bleached and silvered grit,
it’s a misfit
dumped on a tidal surge.
I roll it in my palm, turn
and stroke it with my thumb,
rub away each grain of sand
and hold it till it warms.
In waves of harassment, the hostile
natives dive and shriek—
From the fig’s leafy head,
crouched in defiance— a red-eyed
intruder, huge and pale, keeps
them at bay with great snaps
of its bill and raucous cries.
When we’re talking of birds
it’s a summer migrant with many names—
stormbird or fig-hawk, rainbird or hornbill;
a channel-billed cuckoo, flown south
to breed and find hosts for its eggs.
As I watch it struggle against the flock,
I think of its journey
across the ocean, grey wings beating,
hour upon hour—
driven by instinct and drawn
to our plenty,
each year they find nurture
despite the clamour.
Across theTimor Sea, the boats
Some we hear about, some we don’t—
the third bridge
for my mother
It was a clean, sharp day
cut through with winds
from the Southern Ocean, so we wrapped
her in rugs and pushed the wheelchair
along the boardwalk, through rushes
and reedbeds, the grieving swans
the calling, circling terns.
At the third bridge, we stopped.
Beneath us, a tidal high,
the wind-dragged, surging estuary,
its sun-flecked surface.
And there we took turns to toss
him over— handful by handful,
back to the river, back to the ocean.
But caught at first
on gusts of wind, his ashes
lifted against the light
then circled and swirled in exultant loops
before the final fall—
the quiet passage beneath the bridge.
Coda For Shirley
by Geoff Page
Reviewed by LYN HATHERLY
What a shame that light verse is currently not the most popular genre. For Geoff Page’s new book Coda for Shirley is playful, intriguing and beautifully constructed. This verse novel makes you wish that other poets might ‘Bring Back Scansion! Bring Back Rhyme’ as it does its best to persuade readers and other poets to share Geoff Page’s love of formed verse and the music that accompanies it. Geoff himself it seems has much in common with the gentle and ironic tutor who taught Shirley:
to master my tetrameters,
avoiding, with more stringent pen,
the doggerel of amateurs. (p.8)
Since these verses never lapse into doggerel, or waste words, they are both stringent and nicely astringent. Perhaps Geoff Page, like Whitman has found:
that free verse wafted off a little;
rhyme stayed closer to the ground. (p.5)
This verse novel follows on from Geoff Page’s 2006 verse novel, Lawrie & Shirley: The Final Cadenza, and like that book it’s amusing to listen to as well as to read. It must have taken Geoff some time to get the metre and rhymes right, and I’m sure there were times he was tempted to give up the struggle. Finally, I think the effort is well worth it since these satirical tetrameters managed to fix themselves in my mind as mnemonics and stay there echoing through my dreams and days, entertaining me long after I’d put the book down. Geoff Page might be modest but this book is an immodest celebration, of love and poetry and joy, as well as a further addition to the definition of Aussie culture. As an example, his view of life in a nursing home is as darkly irreverent as it is comic:
Each day comes and each day goes,
the next exactly like the last
with all the shipwrecked sprawled in chairs,
thinking only of the past,
a small Titanic, if you will,
with one great iceberg up ahead,
our buoyancy half-gone already,
the lookout, in a deck-chair, dead. (p.29)
His older readers may not be reassured but they are amused. This latest verse novel also confirms the fact that this award winning writer is ever prolific, since he has now published eighteen collections of poetry as well as two novels, four verse novels and several other works including anthologies, translations and a biography of the jazz musician, Bernie McGann.
Except for Lawrie Wellcome who appears in Coda for Shirley only in memory, the characters from that previous verse novel carry on in this new narrative, one that is again unique in theme and narrative style. Each member of the cast is memorable and sharply drawn and the situations and antics in which Geoff Page involves his characters are fun to read or hear (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmsniQUuDKw ). His stars may not be young, but I appreciate the way they remind us that uproarious life and love and sex do go on after 60 or 70 or even 80. The memory of Shirley’s affair with Lawrie and his caresses wafts musically throughout this book:
that sweet cadenza to his life
a duet only love can sing – (p.4)
Geoff treats his characters tenderly and with affection so they charm or intrigue their readers. No euphemism here; the characters are all too honest, human and multi-dimensional. Shirley, ten years on from the first verse novel, is still witty, passionate and insightful in regard to herself and those people she loves. The action in Coda for Shirley revolves around her final will or coda and the way, in life and after death, she is determined to enforce her wishes on her daughters, Sarah and Jane. It was these errant progeny who tried to undermine her relationship with Lawrie, her great love, while Sarah’s children, Shirley’s grandsons, supported that relationship. There’s irony in the way she settles her possessions and those who inherit them. The book begins with Shirley’s voice, idiosyncratic and always amusing. She sets the scene, reminds us of past events, and introduces the other characters. While she may concur with Geoff Page about matters such as rhyme and metre, she’s very much her own woman.
Coda for Shirley has three sections and three sets of voices and each tells one version of the story and gives a response to Shirley’s coda. The book begins affectionately and directly and with some mystery:
Dearest daughters, Jane and Sarah,
You’ll read this only when I’m dead.
I’ll leave it with my cheerful lawyer
who, with her very well-trained head,
has seen how things might be arranged
when I am truly ‘done and dusted’,
about what goes to whom and who
might, at the end, be truly trusted.
The language seems clear and unambiguous but there are layers and certainly a hint of what’s gone on before. ‘Trusted’ gives a firm ending to the stanza but it’s also quite suggestive. And I like the collusion of ‘cheerful’ with ‘when I’m dead’. It does set a tone for the book and its author’s attitudes to life and death. The poetic lines of the first section reverberate through the second as Shirley’s dearest but unsympathetic daughters, Jane and Sarah, come to grips with their loss and their mother’s wishes:
The funeral was bad enough;
their mother’s poetry is worse,
reciting all their ‘failures’ via
the rigours of accented verse.
There’s some resolution in the moment when they finally accept that perhaps Shirley’s affair with Lawrie Wellcome may have been more positive that they previously wanted to believe. I like the way Geoff Page takes time for transformations and affirmations in this verse novel:
They stop a moment; both are smiling,
There’s not a smidgeon of chagrin,
They strike their glasses once together.
‘Here’s to Shirley’s “year of sin!”’
The characters from the third section who take the novel into the future are Shirley’s grandsons Giles and Jack. In the previous verse novel, Lawrie & Shirley, they were sent by Sarah as shock troops to remind Shirley of her grandmotherly duties. Even as teenagers they were smart enough to see that love is not only more important, it had made Shirley happy and more beautiful. Now, having retreated from their parents expectations of ‘law and med’ they are working, each in their own ways, to improve the world. They seem to be as clear-sighted as Shirley and to have been blessed by the terms of the coda that so annoyed their aunt and mother:
‘Correct,’ says Giles, ‘but in proportion
it’s mainly down to Grandma Shirley.
She left her money straight to us,
not worrying about how surly
such a move would leave her daughters.
She knew how it would leave them numb,
those two up-market girls of hers –
one of whom is still our mum. (p.74)
So the book begins with mystery then sings and plays through three generations before it ends with joy and hope for the future. There is whimsy and rhyme and rhythm but also irony. There is death here but it not tragic and comedy overcomes any negative moments. Geoff Page’s character studies are, as Peter Goldsworthy remarks, ‘scalpel-sharp’ and his characters are always entertaining. They made me want to go back and read the first and connecting verse novel: Lawrie & Shirley. Geoff’s second verse novel is satirical and can, at times, show us life’s shadows. But it is such fun to read. Coda for Shirley is a celebration of life, love and a distinctly Australian way of speaking and thinking.