by David Brooks
ISBN 978 0 7022 5352 2
Reviewed by NADIA NIAZ
How can we
Be so arrogant, to think that our
souls are worth so much?
David Brooks poses a cogent question and one that has often been asked by writers. Surely the act of writing is one of arrogance, the act of preserving our own thoughts an act of egotism. Expanded to the way modern humans interact with their environment the question remains valid, even essential. But the question of our value is not just an interrogation of our arrogance as a race – it is also a vital component in creating and re-creating ourselves, in understanding not just who we are, but how.
There is a meditative quality to the poems in Open House that seeks to answer these questions, but gently. There is through much of the book a sense of a breath held for a moment of contemplation and then gently released. It is the kind of book one must read slowly so that each poem, each line, may sing itself into being and back, and us with it.
Some readers may find the length of Open House daunting – most books of poetry published today are fairly short and self-contained and may be read in an afternoon. And yes, this book does demand a lot of attention, but it is also the sort of volume that you can come back to in a quiet moment, the sort that you can dip into the way we do into our favourite music albums, and revisit the bliss of its music.
Open House constitutes a poetic, and sometimes actual, journey. Each of the five sections that comprise this volume has its own distinct character while also retaining a logical relationship with the others. The poet’s voice rings out clearly through each, carrying the reader from poems about place, history, and loss all the way to the last section, which conveys a quiet wonder and delight at life and existence.
This is not to suggest a linear progression so much as a development of interconnected interests. While the first book is more solidly grounded in history, the present exists in it as well, and while the last book feels more about the present – or perhaps just conveys more presence and immediacy – the past is given its due.
‘A Place on Earth’ interrogates the poet’s sense of belonging, truth, guilt, and the quest for peace and meaning. Themes as disparate as Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, looking back at one’s youth, night trains, and quotidian intimacy, sit comfortably side by side and often flow into each other. There is a historicity to these poems – a sense of things observed and absorbed, but not let go. Perhaps, as in the blood from ‘The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto’ and the dust coating all things in ‘Dust’, it is history itself that persists in holding on.
This changes considerably at the beginning of ‘September’. Suddenly there are images of abundance, ripeness, pulchritude, and a relaxing of sorts. This is however quickly juxtaposed with images of sexual abuse and a grittiness that shakes the reader out of the trance of plenty. The poem ‘Nona’ may be the best encapsulation of the nature of this section. In it, Brooks describes an old woman as carrying the history of the town (and perhaps, by extension, of the nation), “a kind of midwife to the day” (32) performing such tasks as are necessary to transform it into a place where travellers may find comfort. With her death, “another part/ of the village/will flap untended in the Boria, another/ house lose its hold.” (33). There is a great noticing, as Rilke might phrase it, of people, things, animals and birds – the smallest creatures are given attention. In contrast, the reduction of ‘pederast priests’, to two words seems an act of righteous contempt.
‘Open House’ brings the reader back to Australia. The title of the section (and the book itself) suggests an inspection, which in turn implies an invitation to come in and browse, assess, and judge what one sees. However, as with actual inspections and open houses, much of what we are shown is curated and translated and so it is here. As in the rest of the book, each poem is crafted with great thought, attention, intelligence and feeling. Brooks seems a poet entranced by life in its variety. The opening poem, ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ sets the tone:
In the Kingdom of shadows, world without end,
slugs traverse the prairies of the soul,
mice enter the pure land,
cockroaches conquer the valleys of death.
In the Kingdom of shadows, dominion
of cats and sugar gliders,
moths are mastering the constellations, spiders
whispering their histories to the stars.
In this section, the quotidian and ordinary are made as evocative as the lofty and philosophical because he has understood that both must exist for there to be life.
‘Report from Blue Mountains’ is another shift in mood. It is less contemplative and more direct. The rest of the book seems more the ‘report’ and this section its defense as the poet seems to be in communication with others for much of it. This does not diminish the poetry, but rather adds an element of the conversational to a book comprising mostly soliloquy thus far. It is not that there are no other people in the book – indeed there are many and they are well described characters or beautifully rendered spectres – but that the poet seems to talk to as well as about them here. Here the poet seems to be stepping out more fully into the present world rather than examining it from afar.
The final section, ‘Reading to the Sheep’ repeats the now familiar themes of nature, the observation of creatures, domesticity, but in it the poet seems even more present than in the previous section.
If I’ve regrets
whose life is without them?
If I have debts let the creditors come.
The rain this morning
was like the first rain,
the sun in your eyes the first sun.
(‘Birthday Poem’, 146)
Unsurprisingly, sheep appear rather often in the poems and although they may not seem the most poetic of animals, their solidity and solemnity, their presence in the immediate moment, is effective. This feels like a good way to close this meditation on life and place and belonging, this journey through not just looking at things but seeing them and experiencing them by being open to them. The observer necessarily changes the observed, but seldom is the observation so gently and yet thoroughly presented. This is no aggressive investigation but rather a letting be that echoes concepts of mindfulness and meditation. Muck like the best haiku, the poems feel both complete and resonant.
Brooks is not a strongly political writer, but his views on animal rights are evident. Politics and poetry – particularly in English – can be an uncomfortable fit, so it is further evidence of Brooks’ mastery of the form that these poems often have an odd sweetness to them despite the brutality they describe. Brooks knows to turn the lens onto himself and his own actions and let the message grow from that presentation where lesser poets focus instead on the message to the detriment of the poetry.
Brooks not only captures the minutiae of life and turns it into poetry that makes the reader catch her breath – finding poetry in the mundane is almost the mission of the modern-day poet and writer and many do it well – but also takes the frankly anti-poetical and weaves it into poems that remains accessible and open as well as multi-layered and tantalising.
The quiet, unassuming nature of his poetry that comes through even though each poem is brilliantly structured and considered is what places Brooks in the league of the greats. You don’t so much read these poems as hear them sing themselves into being in your mind, as if they were always there, waiting to be awoken.
NADIA NIAZ is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne where she teaches Creative Writing. Her work has previously appeared in TEXT, Strange 4 and The Alhamra Literary Review.
by Bonny Cassidy
Reviewed by CHLOE WILSON
Bonny Cassidy’s Final Theory takes as its title an alternate name for the ‘theory of everything’, the elusive, hypothetical theory that would explain and connect everything in the universe. That such a theory remains hypothetical seems key to understanding why Cassidy has named this collection after it; the book, presented as a single, long poem, is also elusive, gesturing towards connections and correspondences without seeking to explain or articulate them.
Final Theory is structured in four parts – there are sections, marked throughout with asterisks, but no titles – containing two interwoven narratives. The first of these follows the travels of a couple who move through a series of landscapes, by turns awesome and terrible, ruined and magical. The images in these sections are often striking; for example, a reader is presented with the ‘loose gauze of frozen sun’, ‘night, with its sliding walls’, ‘boulders / the colour of old fires’, and ‘a plain of sand where a swamp / gave itself up to sun’.
This rich yet desolate imagery seems deliberately cinematic, suggesting not only the real threat of catastrophe the earth now faces but the visual rhetoric of disaster narratives. The conjunction of the two is captured in the following standout passage from the first part of section I:
Once, during a Roy Andersson film I saw celluloid burn that way.
First, the sound departed and the room went still; then
shimmering rocked the screen like heated oil; before a dark pupil
burst the scene and grew.
Here, the cinema audience switches from watching fictional events to witnessing actual ruin; the self-destruction of the modern, industrialised world, and the representation of this destruction, coalesce in a single moment. Given its placement at the beginning of the sequence, this seems an indication of how to encounter the poems that follow; they too ‘shimmer’, as representations which seem both real and un-real, an effect amplified by the references to dreams that occur throughout. The poem seems to warn that its impressions should not be dismissed as mere verbal artefacts, as they also point to genuine, urgent threat.
Final Theory was researched and written in places which were once part of Gondwana: Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica. The narrative that runs through it, however, is only part-travelogue. It is also (for want of a better description) a love story; there are moments of tenderness for this couple as they move through vast, ancient landscapes, aware of their own smallness, their own mortality, the brevity of their existence when compared with the places they visit, which have amassed ‘layers staked on time’s dart like a Valentine’. Faced with such desolation and grandeur, they seek solace in one another. The speaker’s partner, a photographer, remarks ‘My camera might sink / but we’ll be safe inside it: / fat and rich and pink’, while the speaker too seems hopeful despite the uncertainty they face:
And in some future ocean our beloved proteins will
roll, perhaps finding one another, linked
by a theoretical wave
like voices sent through cans and string
This sentiment at first seems cool, almost detached – in death, a person is reduced to ‘proteins’, human connection to a ‘theoretical wave’ – alongside this, though, there seems to be a genuine hopefulness; a sense, perhaps, that when considering the enormity of death, there is a very human urge to find reassurance in the few certainties we believe we possess, even while recognising that those certainties are in themselves crude and unstable, ‘voices sent through cans and string’. It seems no coincidence that their narrative concludes with a deliberate dive into the unknown: ‘hold my hand // we rush in’.
These sections also contain frequent references to the creative work the couple undertakes – there is a poet as well as a photographer – as they document their travels, and the poet, while working, more than once encounters her double/reflection, whom she calls her ‘heartless twin’. Several other instances of this ‘twinning’ occur throughout; of the lived experience and the representation of it, of the photographer’s captured images which are re-captured, in a different form, in the poems, of the couple’s present and former selves (‘our twins and twins of twins’), and, of course, of the two interwoven narratives. The importance of this theme of twinning is suggested when the photographer creates a darkroom, and an unexpected double exposure emerges:
Your finger squinting the aperture
and the flint of your lens raised
have imposed a double: lichen and hub cap
printed across one another.
like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the
Two unrelated things, layered on top of one another, create a new whole, and the instinct to seek out pattern and connection brings meaning to the accident – the double-exposure becomes an image symbolising the period that began when human activity started to influence the earth’s ecosystems.
Twinning is also connected to Final Theory’s other storyline, which follows a young girl, plunged into the ocean, who makes her way through a series of remote, unpeopled, watery locales, witnessing the alteration and sometimes devastation humans have wrought on the earth, even – perhaps especially – in its wildest places. The sequence opens with the girl finding herself on a raft of ‘plastic gametes’, an image which suggests the plastic detritus floating in the ocean, which groups together and grows, like reproducing cells. Such an image also recalls the lichen and the hub cap, as it is another instance of the natural world and evidence of human intervention layered together, now inextricable. The link between the girl’s world and the world of the couple, which seems nearer our own time, is further suggested when the girl finds some of the couple’s possessions – a Toyota, for example, and the photographer’s ‘canisters’ – among the debris she explores.
That the poet working in sections I and III seems to re-emerge in sections II and IV, as an authorial voice describing the girl and the process of her creation, also ties these two narratives together:
I’m switching the poem off and on;
it’s not a pet, after all, but a function.
Scapekid. Widget. And she knows how
to thicken like a pause, glaze over.
This process of creation, then, is not without its difficulties. That the girl can ‘thicken like a pause, glaze over’ suggests her unwillingness to appear in the manner the poet has envisaged, and later, the poet seems even less convinced of her control over the girl, and the narrative:
Here, I thought, she
might speak – a language
of one – and so disappear
into meaning. No.
I wasn’t here.
Even the poet’s creation becomes a source of uncertainty; in this poem, any expectations about the future are revealed to be nothing more than speculation, unreliable and subject to change.
Final Theory is a dense work. It is a poem which requires a reader’s focus and concentration, and which rewards a second and third reading. The phrasing is often complex, the narratives fragmented, scenes impressionistic. When taken as a whole, it is enigmatic, visually striking, and unsettling, and I imagine it will appeal strongly to some readers while baffling others. Yet I would suggest that it is worthwhile working through any initial bafflement. The conflict which seems to lie at the heart of this poem – the idea that everything is connected, and how the acceptance of this idea must sit alongside an acknowledgement that the nature of these connections lies beyond our comprehension – is an urgent one given the state of crisis the world is in. Final Theory suggests that while a ‘theory of everything’ may be beyond our understanding, it is not beyond our capacity for wonder.
CHLOE WILSON’s first poetry collection, The Mermaid Problem, was commended in the Anne Elder Award and Highly Commended in the Mary Gilmore Award. She won the 2014 Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry and was Highly Commended in the 2014 Manchester Fiction Prize.
by Ivy Alvarez
Reviewed by ANGELA STRETCH
For every verse novel there has to be a starting point, a line in a letter, a speech or a phrase with symbolic meaning, or an image. In Disturbance, it is an inquest into the death of three family members.
Ivy Alvarez introduces us to a spare, judicious survey of a wide range of daily experiences,which begins when a number of half-apprehended intuitions fall into place, the shudder of realignments travel through the body like an electric current, raising goose bumps that herald the imaginative grasp of a sociological truth. Alvarez’s lyrics are strikingly modulated to specific human registers as if she had the killer’s demons tested, then submitted them to the rigors of nothing less than a whole human drama. What drives us? What drove Tony, a husband and father to a family murder suicide?
While I was reading Disturbance, a homicide took place in the Riverina (NSW), at the hand of a respected farmer. The perpetrator turned the gun on himself, after murdering his wife and three young children. The rural community continues to struggle with the fact that ordinary men, men who are seen as good men use violence. Alvarez’s depiction is a chilling parable to the brutal tragedy that unfolded, west of Wagga Wagga. In both cases the victims affected were from small-town middle class families, who’s nearest and dearests had received no forewarnings about the unfathomable acts that were to happen. In Disturbance the family are framed as being wealthy, with an up-for-sale home valued at fewer than two million. They are owners of a BMW and hold a life insurance policy worth three hundred thousand. Tony seems an average sort of country Dad, with a hankering for hunting, golf and a swinger for a mistress. The mother Jane is troubled with the banalities of her estranged relationship with Tony and the drudgery of her domestic life. In the poem Warning (49), we glean Tony’s possessive nature, his building reproach. There are diametric complexities between the two families but the grim reality of violence is evident.
Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, Alvarez settled in Cardiff, Wales where she wrote her first collection Mortal (2006), a reimagining of the betrayal of the Greek goddess, Demeter and her daughter Persephone to the underworld. The narrative sustains its power because it is the speech not of just one person, but the souls of a mother and daughter. The maternal origin points us to the source of the world, the point of intersection between nothing and something. In Disturbance, her second book, Alvarez responds to a real account of a double murder suicide that happened in the United Kingdom and like all effective incendiaries she confronts history and comes to terms with an array of cultural influences, a complex, divided inheritance; the daughter who didn’t choose to survive, the mother who didn’t choose to die.
These are strong poems which move fluently between the living and the dead, the reported past and the recorded present. There is a perverse malevolence that gnaws at you in the second poem from the circumstantial evidence listed, quantified by duration, frequency and moral accountability. The post-mortem begins in Nuclear family:
They met 27 years ago
One emergency number
dialed at 7.11 pm
(Nuclear family, 8)
Alvarez traces the tormented, catastrophic history of the family members, embuing them with only flashes of emotional colour. Witnesses are shadowed by questions of what might have passed, as are we, who try to read between the lines and fathom the family’s irreversible fate. The story pulsates with the biographical measures of a family’s destruction attested to by the local community, neighbours, the estate agent, journalists, the Detective, policemen, the mistress, and even the local priest.
The self-evident sometimes has to be restated, reinterpreted and questions recreated about characters to get behind the mask. A dialogue between the public and the private spheres is an important part of a good narrative and poets continue to set the standard in searching for a deeper reading of the humanity of the lived life, and a vivid sense of the life once lived. In this portrayal the extraordinary comes into view in the mainly private spheres of Dad, Mum, son, surviving daughter and the other more than twenty voices that are both directly and indirectly involved.
Alvarez seems compelled to share her understanding of dyfunctionality. We may not know it comprehensively, but the book offers us at least a dramatic core that performs or perhaps explains. She provides cumulative details, evidence and testimonials, chiseled on the page in various forms, playing with sequencing and time.
The words of the Operator who received the call for help hang in the air:
The phone rings: laughter and shrieks.
Another crank call, two cranks in ten minutes.
I just got here.
The minute hand swings over.
It’s 7.11 pm.
And much later we hear from a Witness:
We’re laughing − a rare thing.
After dinner and we’re at the sink.
We hear a car on the gravel drive. Our laughter dries.
And so it must have happened by increments across the community— that slow withdrawal of voices, the silence falling as the conversations between people querying the unexpected, suggests something intense and morbid had taken place.
off the record?
five thousand per dead body
but we don’t look at it
(The estate agents, 14)
There’s a shiver of black humour, or rather a notation of bodily memory that reaches home to acknowledge the curiosity of why things happen.
I don’t know what could have set him off
I cannot understand
how cows know
to chew in unison
(A neighbouring farmer, 15)
The poems succeed by inflection, as different circuits are rewired, allowing us to register subtleties not previously accessible. Alvarez provides us with a sense of comprehension through the views of a community numbed, a complex socio-economic layout of whom and where to place the blame, to seek justification for actions made and to perhaps identify the warning signs and be more vigilant in the recognition of these signs.
What is captured is a capacity for monstrous indifference, a means to register murder, sociopathy and violation. The tragic genre is the poet’s intent, an archetype of assemblages generated by one expectation leading to the expectations of the next. In The Journalist speaks III, this non-fiction verse narrative achieves a stage pitch.
all complexity flattened to a headline
‘Three shot dead in village’
Black cameras crowd in,
flashbulbs white as maggots.
She gives them a flat, dry stare,
The surviving daughter who releases her statement.
(The Journalist speaks III, 50)
Disturbance is a book of dark intensities and deeply felt connections, haunted and haunting, at once brooding, sensual and lucid. A smaller cast of characters would make logistics simpler, but the reasons for domestic violence are just as compounding. The apparently simpler observations by a cast of characters play out a vital role; to speak out from within community, take on a deeper responsibility that incorporates some element of recognition of this major societal issue.
Alvarez’s diverse upbringing may have provided her with the social and political purpose to write about domestic violence from varying points-of-view. In doing so she has developed an elliptical but determined way of approaching her subjects that pushes forward an array of directions by turning back and engaging in a past she has imagined.
ANGELA STRETCH is a Sydney based artist, curator, writer and organiser. Her work uses language and poetry through different mediums and has been exhibited and published nationally and internationally. She is the coordinator of the Sydney Poetry Program at the Brett Whiteley Studio, AGNSW.
the thin bridge
by Andy Jackson
ISBN 978 0 9873866 4 9
Reviewed by CAMERON LOWE
Andy Jackson’s chapbook The thin bridge (Whitmore Press, 2014) is preoccupied with the human body. If I counted accurately, the words ‘body’ or ‘bodies’ appear in twelve of the twenty-six poems in this slim collection, and of the fourteen other poems the body is present as subject, or part subject, in nearly all of them. If this seems like overkill, it also gives The thin bridge a powerfully unified set of thematic concerns which works effectively in the chapbook form.
If the body is central to this collection, it should also be said that in many of the poems it is a starting point for broader reflections. The book’s first poem, ‘What’s possible between us’ (and it seems important that the question mark is omitted here), introduces the reader, somewhat tangentially, to the preoccupation with the body:
I part the vertical ocean of clothes
and find you there. Spider,
it is almost terrifying to me – suspended
only by the work of your own body. (p. 1)
It is a startling and haunting image, and of course, it is not just the spider’s body that is being evoked here. Yet it is a question the poem poses prior to this—‘Who knows what we’re capable of?’—that resonates throughout The thin bridge. And who is the ‘we’ in question here? One’s initial expectation, given the poem’s title, is that this will be a poem addressing a lover, and that the ‘we’ relates to a couple. However, the poem elides this expectation, producing a destabilising effect for the reader. As with many of the poems that follow this first one, there is a curious tension between the personal and a sense that the poems are probing broader issues. It is a clever dynamic that makes you want to reread the poems, to tease out what might really be at stake.
There is a strong autobiographical element to these poems—as well as a persistent lyric ‘I’—and it is perhaps worth noting that Jackson has Marfan’s syndrome, a condition that affects the body’s connective tissue and can lead to a range of medical disorders including heart disease and spinal curvature. I raise this because on one level the poems appear to demand this sort of biographical reading; the focus on the body—its shape, its frailties, and our responses to physical form—is such an important theme of the book as a whole. Additionally, such biographical information adds a layer of poignancy to a poem such as ‘Desensitised’, where there is a cheeky metaphorical play on the spines of library books, which the poem’s speaker must ‘push…back to vertical’ (p. 10).
Jackson has a talent for striking, and at times confronting, imagery. ‘Mother’s Day’, for instance, brings to mind Barrett Reid’s agonised ‘The Absent Heart’:
They crack open the bone
gates of your chest
to rechannel the paths
your life runs. Five hours
busy around the opened
chasm – machines and
surgeons. (p. 20)
Or, in ‘A certain type of poem’—which might hint at a Charles Simic influence with its ‘immaculate walls of an abattoir’—we are presented with another haunting image:
A life support system, humming after the body is taken / away (p. 7)
‘A language I didn’t know I spoke’, the poem that provides the collection’s title—it’s not exactly a ‘title poem’—is, curiously, one of the few poems in the book that doesn’t display a preoccupation with the body. Rather, the poem appears more concerned with connections between the human and natural world, and makes reference to ‘something obscure we have in common’ (p. 24). It is an interesting poem, in which the poem’s speaker goes on a bush walk and has an unusual encounter with a bird. My initial reaction to the poem was, perhaps ungenerously, that it indulges a little too much in the mysticism of communing with nature. I say ungenerously because the poem eventually deflates any pretensions of special insight on behalf of the poem’s speaker by the remark ‘I…feel / absurdly human’ (pp. 24–25). The poem’s final image, of ‘crossing back / over the thin bridge’ (p. 25), which presumably is a literal bridge but also a metaphor for the passage between different states of being, or states of awareness, is handled with a subtlety that Jackson exhibits throughout the collection.
For all of its considerable strengths, The thin bridge is also a little uneven. The travel poems in the middle of the book, in particular, are something of a flat spot, and seem misplaced in this collection; it might have been wiser, from an editorial viewpoint, to omit them. Few poets are able to successfully write convincing poems about exploring foreign places; as a reader, or at least for this reader, it always feels like being made to look at an album of someone else’s holiday snaps. The poem ‘Reaching and leaning’, which involves a hike in the Muir Woods of California, again provokes an uncomfortable feeling of being invited to share in some kind of mystic experience for the poet:
Standing still and writing this, the voices carry,
all the voices in my head, reaching
and leaning into light, this desire
that shares something with the wood,
the sap, the fingertip seed.
I place my palm against a sapling,
leave a trace. (p. 19)
This is a minor hiccup however, and the book’s final poem, ‘The bike itself’ (p. 35), is a brilliant choice to conclude The thin bridge. There is a temptation to read the poem as an oblique summation of the collection’s preoccupation with physical form; an abandoned bike is slowly picked apart until the object no longer resembles itself, and a half-demolished house is ‘only an empty frame / surrounding a fireplace’ (p. 35). And yet, as with the book’s first poem, ‘The bike itself’ is elusive and ends the collection on a wonderful image:
…Memories not even
lavender-patterned wallpaper can hold onto
lift into the sky, like pollen or dust in reverse.
CAMERON LOWE lives in Geelong, Victoria. His two book-length poetry collections are Porch Music (Whitmore Press, 2010) and Circle Work (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).
Breaking New Sky
5 Islands Press
Reviewed by DIMITRA HARVEY
For a country that crows daily of its multiculturalism, and that is in good part comprised of a long-established and growing Chinese population, it’s perhaps telling that Australia has produced few collections of contemporary poetry from China. Some of those are Otherland Literary Journal, and Vagabond Press’ Asia Pacific Poetry Series. Prolific Australian writer and translator Ouyang Yu has often spoken of his “frustration with Australia’s parochialism and insulation as well as its cultural narrow–mindedness”, and of a desire “to bring something new into this often stifling and strangling…cultural and literary environment” (23-24). Most Australian readers have had little exposure to the rich terrain of contemporary Chinese poetry; nor would they be aware of its turbulent inception in breaking from, and defining itself against both the deeply embedded traditional strictures of Classical Chinese poetry, as well as the repressive political conditions of the post-war period that “in mainland China…pressed [poetry] into the service of the state” (Lupke 1).
Breaking New Sky, a new collection of poems selected and translated by Ouyang, presents work from forty-six established and emerging Chinese (including Taiwanese) poets, born predominantly between the late 50s and 80s (though some as early as 1913 and as late as 2002). The collection’s title – a play on the Western idiom “breaking new ground” – connotes innovation, originality, and also risk. It embodies contemporary Chinese poetry’s iconoclasm, as well as Ouyang’s desire to introduce “something new” into the Australian literary landscape.
The title itself “breaks new ground” by reinventing the hackneyed metaphor. This points to the possibilities of Ouyang’s primary translation technique – “direct translation”: a process where “words or expressions” are translated “as they are in the original, not as they are matched with something roughly equivalent in the target language”. In Bias: Offensively Chinese/Australian, Ouyang writes “it is in this process that new meanings grow on the carcasses of the old stereotypes” (139). Indeed, many of the poems in Breaking New Sky gently challenge, stretch, and vivify English. We see this in off–beat, often unexpectedly beautiful, apt, or playful phrases and images, such as: “The sky is so blue / it does not allow people to be too greedy” from “The Orchard” by Hu Xian; or “Your heart… / A street, laid with black stones, towards the evening” from “A Mistake” by Cheng Chou–yu; or “an ant / fell in love with you last year” from “Possibly” by Qi Guo, to name a few. Sometimes the poems also sit oddly on the page, on the tongue, in the imagination. They ask you to question how English holds and generates ideas.
The translations’ generally plain, understated English lends cohesion to the multiplicity of voices. Though a handful of the poems might be classified as conceptual or more political in nature, most pivot around personal and domestic issues and scenes. Tone is seamlessly rendered in many to generate ambiguous or manifold implications, notably in the collection’s deceptively simple opening poem “Lamps” by Ai Hao. In “Lamps” an almost whimsical sense of urban interconnectedness is engendered when lamps light up from the bottom to top floor of a building in answer to a door “shut with a thud”. But the image soon turns on its head: no one emerges or moves between the floors, and the poem concludes, “It is just a cluster of lamps sensitive / To the sound”. Despite the poem’s clear-cut imagery, the reversal is ambiguous: is the final sentence a statement of fact or a wry metaphor? Has technology assumed the place of people in a parody of human connection and responsiveness? Or are people as isolated as pieces of technology, lacking genuine contact and relationship? The poem’s ambiguity, however, extends deeper; the omission of certain details (what type of building it is, the time of day etc.) allow for myriad permutations: perhaps it’s an office block, after hours, and a draft has blown closed the stairwell door. If one considers China’s “ghost cities” – massive (and expensive) urban developments, sitting empty, unused – the resonances of the poem morph entirely.
In her essay “On English Translation of Modern Chinese Poetry” Michelle Yeh discusses this particular feature of modern Chinese poetry: through “syntactic ambiguity…a quick succession of images [is presented] that blur[s] the line between reality and imagination by intermingling what seem to be literal descriptions with metaphors.” Looking at the poem “Autumn Window” by Bian Zhilin, Yeh asks “Is the twilight on the gray wall like a tuberculosis patient or is it the other way around?” (281-282). Whilst we see this “intermingling” in “Lamps”, the poem presents in English as syntactically spare, clean; other poems in the collection, however, occasionally struggle to acclimate to English’s more rigid, inflected mode.
An especially intriguing aspect of this collection is the fusion of lyric and nature poetry. Often the boundaries between the human body/experience and the land become blurred. We see this in poems such as “On the Balcony” by Lu Ye, where the speaker watches the Yangtze from her balcony, which mirrors “another Yangtze that originates in [her] heart, running / through [her] body”. The repeated motif of “the sandbar in the heart of the river” reverberates in references to the speaker’s own heart, “my heart is happy, dizzy”, and implicates her experience of love in the landscape. We see the interchangeability of the land with her body when she observes: “My windows all open towards June and the viscera / of the summer exposed / The summer in my body happens to be lush with water grass”. By the end of the poem, land and body aren’t simply mirroring each other, their boundaries have become ambiguous, enmeshed: “…my heart is the origin of Mount Geladaindong / My veins meandering for 6,300 kilometres”.
The first line in “Mother the Hardest to Describe” by Bai Lianchum: “The earth is indescribable”, is echoed in the speaker’s later reflection that his “Mother” is the “hardest / to describe”. The speaker sketches the richness and cycling of natural systems:
…even a fallen leaf is thickly covered with
Seasons and roads. On a south–facing slope, there are so many
Rivers and diamonds growing, so many roses burning
Years are indescribable: dust flying. In the darkness, even grass roots
Are shining. The wind is blowing hither and thither. One moment
the sea is a city
The next a desert…
This is summed up in the following description of his mother who is “as old as young…as ugly / As beautiful and she is as poor as rich. Her / Hands and feet never stop moving”. As we realise the speaker’s mother is literally in the ground and implicated in its processes – “the only white flower she has bloomed into” – the poem acquires an elegiac poignancy. The mother’s interred body becomes the force behind the trajectory of the planet through the cosmos and the turning of the seasons: “…the earth / The years and the life always moving with her. I am also moving / with her”. The body in the ground doesn’t in fact “stop moving”, it becomes deeply integrated in vigorous, living cycles. Nonetheless, the poem recognises the complexity of grief: “To get closer to her, I bury my body. / For many times, in the face of the only white flower / She has bloomed into, I have finally learnt to hold my tears back / Although my fingers still cannot stop trembling.”
Poems in the collection also explore prescriptions of femininity and masculinity. Whilst Ouyang states in the introduction that “[t]he poetry of Chinese women poets that [he has] encountered is more lyrical than political and that is where their power lies”, adding that “in a woman poet’s hands…we detect a tenderness” – it would be reductive to dismiss the deeply political implications of Lu Ye’s poem “B–Mode Ultrasound Report, Gynecology Department”, and how it delicately unhinges stereotypical associations of “tenderness” with women and their bodies. Given the immense sociocultural pressures associated with, and the policies (worldwide) that seek to exert control over women’s bodies, any work exploring these issues is a political one.
Lu’s poem measures the weight of personal longing as well as external and internalised socio-cultural expectations to bear children, against a body that is unable to match them. In the poem, the speaker’s uterus is her singular defining feature, her “final file”, “the most vital part of a woman”. More than this, responsibility for its ability (or inability) to bear children is subtly transferred to the speaker, indicated by her gynaecology report which is like “the remarks on a student’s performance at school in the old days”, also pointing to the way women are talked down to about their own bodies. Lu destabilises the authority of the cool, “accurate and submissive” figures of the report by musing on how it would sound if it were written in “figurative language”, and goes on to describe her uterus’ shape as “closer to a torpedo / Than an opening magnolia denudata” – the image of the torpedo connoting power, as well as destructive force. Its force, ultimately, is turned in upon the speaker, as “this church of love” has become the “ruins of love”. The hyperbolic metaphor of her uterus as “this other heart” reiterates the value assigned to a woman’s reproductive capability: a person can’t live without a functioning heart, though a woman can happily continue living if she’s unable to have children. At the end, we see the way these pressures and expectations have divorced the speaker from her experience of her own body: “This other heart, an organ the most solitary and empty in the body / Ah, instead of being a house, an old garden, it often feels homeless”.
It is impossible to do justice to such a diverse collection in so short a space. To quote Afaa Michael Weaver, “Contemporary Chinese poets emerge from centuries of poetry, much of it attuned to the art of living, of observing human and natural circumstance with a singular concision in the language, of bringing eons of meaning to a single lift of a tea cup to the lips” (xii). Interpreting this richness and deftness through the technique of direct translation, Ouyang offers us a collection that at once speaks to and unsettles our familiarities, drawing us into a dialogue with contemporary Chinese voices.
Lupke, Christopher. “Introduction: Towards a Chinese Lyrical Modernity.” Ed. Christopher Lupke. New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry. New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2008. 1-8.
Ouyang Yu. Bias: Offensively Chinese/Australian – A Collection of Essays on China and Australia. Kingsbury: Otherland Publishing, 2007.
Weaver, Afaa Michael. “Forward: Muddy Rivers and Canada Geese.” Ed. Christopher Lupke. New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry. New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2008. ix-xv.
Yeh, Michelle. “On English Translation of Modern Chinese Poetry: A Critical Survey.” Ed. Eugene Eoyang and Lin Yao-fu. Translating Chinese Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 275-291.
Land Before Lines
By Nicholas Walton-Healey
Hunter Publishers, 2014
Reviewed by ADEN ROLFE
‘Is it even possible to photograph a poet?’ asks Justin Clemens in the introduction to Land Before Lines, presumably written some time after he had his photo taken for the selfsame publication. The image features Clemens casting a scowl and a defiant glare at the reader, embodying at once the character of his poem, ‘Wifebeater’, which is printed on the facing page, as well as with his distaste for this beer-swilling degenerate.
This is the basic formula of Land Before Lines: each spread juxtaposes a short poem by a Victorian poet with their image, the works entering into a dialogue sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental. The pictures, taken by Nicholas Walton-Healey over a two-year period, are tight portraits, close-ups of the poets’ faces. The images rarely extend below the torso and never as far as the feet. At this proximity, it’s impossible not to notice the eyes, whether they’re directed at the viewer (Jo Langdon, Alex Skovron), cast up or looking away (Komninos, Maxine Beneba Clarke) or closed (Josephine Rowe, Luke Beesley). Whether imploring or vulnerable, tired or enticing, there’s a self-consciousness in all of them, a kind of performance. There’s no way not to pose, it seems, whether you embrace the camera or avoid it, nowhere to hide. In Kent MacCarter’s words, ‘I’m so here and pose’ (‘The Green Jacket’); in Jennifer Harrison’s, ‘I placed myself inside the photograph’ (‘The Image’). Even those not placing themselves – like Jennifer Compton, whose photo Walton-Healey ‘snatched/after we had finished shooting’ (‘The Hand’) – still appear to be posing, so it amounts to much the same thing. It made me think of an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan, ‘Getting Down to What Is Really Real’, where he posits that reality television shows don’t contrive a version of the off-camera real world but simply capture people ‘in the act of being on a reality show’. In Land Before Lines, everyone is caught in the act of being in a photograph.
The focus on eyes in this volume is reminiscent of another photography-poetry collaboration: Unrecounted, wherein Jan Peter Tripp’s black-and- white photos of eyes are set alongside short poems by prose writer and poet W.G. Sebald. That collection achieves a greater stylistic consistency than this one, presumably by virtue of having only one writer to contend with, but also because Tripp’s photos, which only show eyes and are all printed in the same hues, produce a unity that’s not quite present in Land Before Lines. Walton-Healey pictures his subjects differently in different photos, places them in different spaces, with different light and colour palettes, photographed at different shutter speeds – sometimes stock still, sometimes with a smear of motion. The result is a series of images that seem linked more by content – the poets – than by form.
Clemens writes in his introduction that poetry can only ever be a gathering of singularities: different identities, ethnicities, histories, politics, styles. In light of this we can see that Walton-Healey has created a series of portraits that respond to the poets as photographic subjects, not objects, with the effect of setting up the illusion that this is a collection of poems, accompanied by photographs, not a book of photography that just happens to include poems. It’s both, of course, but it’s first and foremost the latter, something you forget because form cedes to subject.
Take, as an example, the respective portraits of Bella Li and Steve Smart. Li stands in a green dress against a black backdrop, a no-place, having just stepped out of her poem, ‘eyes glazed and fixed on what arrives petrified, moving’ (‘La Ténébreuse’). Or rather, eye. She holds her left hand over her other eye, a gold ring on her middle finger. The image is blurred, resonating with the paradoxical quiver of the poem – a combination of a still image (petrified) and fretful motion (moving). On the cover of the book, where Li is framed in close-up, she is all surface, but printed in full, a depth emerges between her figure and the viewer as she recedes into the background, shadow reaching around her shoulders. She is a painting from the chateau described in the poem. Walton-Healey’s image is a photo of a painting, ‘a copy softly of a copy softly stepping, backwards through the frame’.
Steve Smart, by comparison, is in a real, if out of focus, setting, that of a bright Victorian-era hallway, as of a university, cream walls offset by the black-and-white chequered floor. While the depth in Li’s portrait begins and ends with her, the perspective in Smart’s starts just in front of his face, the hallway receding to a vanishing point somewhere behind his head. His features are rendered in sharp focus, individual hairs stand out in high definition. The photo is cut off at the collar, and he’s lit with afternoon light that seems warmer than it is. In his poem he refers to a different light, to fluorescents, writing, ‘these lights alter: sight: thought: perception’ (‘Paris Under the Fluoros’).
Viewed side by side, the formal differences between these images don’t announce a single photographer, much less mark themselves part of the same series. It becomes interesting, then, to follow the clues in Nathan Curnow’s poem, ‘Violent Light’, toward what we might think of as Walton-Healey’s signature style. The poem recounts the event of Walton-Healey taking Curnow’s picture, the latter telling us the former ‘speaks of Caravaggio’, the Italian Renaissance artist who brought to prominence tenebrism, a style of realist painting that made dramatic use of light and shadow. The title of Li’s poem, ‘La Ténébreuse’, now takes on a greater significance.
Once you start looking for it, you can see a Caravagesque inflection throughout Land Before Lines. It’s in the spotlighting of the poets’ faces and bodies, in Walton-Healey’s interest in the way light enters a dark space and folds over the objects it finds there, in the contrast between bright foregrounds and ambiguous backgrounds, murky to the point of disappearance. The effect of these elements is further enhanced by Walton-Healey’s use of a very narrow depth of field. Many of the portraits appear crisp, the creases on foreheads and cheeks individually mapped. But take another look at Smart’s picture: you only need go as far as his ear before things are already starting to blur.
While not the most extreme use of chiaroscuro in the volume, the image of Ania Walwicz is one of the most complex. Here we have a primary light source issuing from beyond the right of the frame, concentrated on the poet’s face and hair. The ray illuminates her neckline and a patch of her jacket before being lost in its folds. The light is strong enough to give some sense of the setting – a window with articulated panes, what appears to be a flue or pipe to the right of it – without disclosing the particulars. The white light on the window seems to come from a different source above; we’re tempted to think the moon. Candles line the windowsill, their lantern houses providing no context for whether we’re indoors or out, themselves not a source of light so much as light-objects, part of the background.
As a composition of light and form, it’s a scene of which any tenebrist would be proud. Walwicz, however, takes a little convincing, at least at first:
‘…I don’t see me from out outside but I feel me now in dark in darkness a lesson now how to feel and how to be and I said to nick no no no not that photo now find someone else and something else and someone else and not this now and now I accept this just this now I accept this and any any any any any else I accept now I say yes to me yes yes yes this is me now…’ (‘Photo’)
In his role as photographer, Walton-Healey has become a closer collaborator with his contributors than the typical editor, not simply by taking their photographs, but through his presence in their poems. Walton-Healey is mentioned both obliquely and by name; the event of the photograph is often described in the poem; the echoes of photographic language inhere throughout the volume. The subjects pose by imagining how they look through the photographer’s eyes. They then compose after seeing how they actually look through this lens. An alternative title might be How Poets Feel About Being Photographed.
In his impressionistic exploration of American photography, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer asks: ‘Can we agree, in Whitman’s words, “that much unseen is also here”, that it’s not necessary to discuss – or even mention – every picture ever taken of a hat in order to learn something interesting about pictures of hats?’ Which is to say, any photographic survey opens itself up to criticisms of completeness. In the case of Land Before Lines, this will invariably about who’s represented and who’s not. What’s surprising about the book is just how many people are in it, every other page yielding a familiar face. The value here is at once contemporary, reflecting the present moment, and projected, something we can point to later and say, These were the poets who were in or from Victoria at that time. As Judith Rodriguez puts it, ‘This is the face that will survive my face’ (‘Photo Life’). So, how many portraits does it take to say something meaningful about pictures of contemporary Victorian poets? Walton-Healey’s answer: about 70.
ADEN ROLFE is a poet (works published in The Age, Best Australian Poems, Cordite, Overland) and performance writer (radio dramas commissioned by Radiotonic, Airplay). His new radio series, A Thoroughly Wet Mess, will be broadcast on ABC RN in 2015. www.adenrolfe.com
by Nathanael O’Reilly
Picaro Press (2014)
Distance, Nathanael O’Reilly’s first full-length poetry collection, is separated into three sections – ‘Australia’, ‘Europe’ and ‘America’ – the first and most substantial section (which deals with the experience of growing up in Australia) functioning as the emotional cornerstone of the collection. The title and section headings immediately alert us to the major themes of the book – distance, separation, identity, expatriation, connection and disconnection – but the distances and proximities explored here are not simply geographical or physical; they are also temporal, cultural and emotional.
The book’s first poem, ‘Crabbing’, evokes a strong sense of the speaker’s location in a small corner of an alluring, yet incomprehensible world. Boys crab as they watch boats that ‘have travelled – / from the top to the bottom / of the earth just to fish’, and wonder at ‘the vastness of space’. The boys’ ability to pull the crabs ‘out of their world’ foreshadows the journey Distance will take us on, moving us progressively (and often painfully) away from the familiar. The terrain of the familiar – the people and places of childhood – is explored joyously in this first section of the book: in the poem ‘Ballarat Scenes’, a series of fourteen sensual images moves us progressively through the speaker’s youth, culminating in a moment of reflection as he looks ‘for my surname on headstones / erected a century before my birth.’ The poems here are marked by light and landscape, and also by a strong sense of childhood security and lack of personal responsibility. They are nostalgic without being saccharine, looking back fondly on a time when the world – and time itself – seemed to spread out endlessly. In ‘Sinking’ the poet revels in a period of life when he could
… meander in and out
knowing I have nowhere
I have to go and nothing
I have to be after sunrise
These are the halcyon days, ones made all the sweeter by being viewed in retrospect, tinged with the knowledge of loss and time’s inevitable passing. In ‘Lost Suitcase’, the speaker recounts returning ‘Home after two and a half years’ and searching for a suitcase of ‘letters received over a decade’, only to discover ‘a continent emptied of friendships’. Similarly, in ‘Your Funeral’, (a standout poem and the last in the ‘Australia’ section), connection to place, people and – by extension – self, is further eroded when the speaker attends his grandmother’s funeral and realises ‘that now you are gone / I am running out of reasons to return / to the place where I felt most at home’.
The theme of displacement is further explored in the ‘Europe’ section, where the speaker feels ‘I understand little’ and ‘am like the wind’. Lack of Australia’s vast spaces, light and natural landscape is keenly felt here. As he did in the ‘Australia’ poems, (‘Frenchies, rubbers, dingers’(17)), and as is common in his poems generally, O’Reilly – in his laconic and vernacular fashion – now draws upon the names and colloquialisms of his new environment (staying in an ‘Ikea-furnished apartment /on Goethestrasse /overlooking an art gallery, / Trinkhalle and a strip club’(45)), to describe the clash he finds between the ancient and garishly new. Pinning for belonging, the speaker looks to his Irish roots, climbing ‘The Hill of Tara’, to tie a handkerchief on a ‘rag tree’, and in doing so
taking comfort in a ritual
foreign to me, but routine
for my people, seeking
to connect through a simple
gesture to our ancestors
In these Irish poems the mood elevates, the speaker finding (as he did long ago on the gravestones of Ballarat) that ‘On the main street of the village / my ancestors called home / half the shops had my surname written above the door’. Here there is an uneasy sense of belonging and yet not-quite-belonging, as the speaker relies upon a friend to
… guide us safely
across borders we could not see,
visible only to a local.
Nationality and identity seem inextricably bound for O’Reilly – in ‘St. John’s Wood’ every character is defined by it: the speaker shares ‘a room with a Canadian / and two racist South Africans / next to a roomful of farm-raised Kiwis’, buys ‘international phone cards / from surly Pakistani newsagents’, and sleeps with ‘an ex-ballerina / from Altona’. Displacement from country has clearly engendered a disrupted – and yet paradoxically heightened – sense of national identity in the poet. Like the stones in the poem ‘Skimming’ – which hit ‘the water again / and again and again, before / sinking to the bottom sighing’ – the speaker searches for his own resting place, ‘scanning the hillside / for the home of our dreams’ with his wife in the poem ‘Cote d’Azur’.
This restless search for a ‘home away from home’ leads the speaker, in the closing ‘America’ section of the book, to finally, and not without struggle, reconfigure his sense of self. No longer drifting, he now speaks of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, and is challenged, by the ties of marriage and fatherhood, to fit into his new American home and culture, a culture which has scanty knowledge of his own: ‘You ain’t from around here, / is ya? Where y’all from? /… You speak English real good’, drawls the hairdresser from ‘At the Hair Salon in Big Sandy, Texas’. However, such fundamental change requires a reassessment of the old concepts underpinning ‘self’:
The conflict went deeper,
all the way down to childhood,
religion, family politics, gender
norms, culture and nationality.
and a subsequent rebuilding:
We entered armed
with wine, a knife,
cheese, crackers, cigars,
a lighter, your photographs
and my poetry.
Ultimately, in ‘Texas Life’, the speaker learns that there is ‘enough between us’ to create ‘a private universe.’ Still, he is haunted, in ‘Reminders’, by
reminders of a life left behind,
connections to places no longer
part of everyday life, ancestors
decomposed in graveyards,
friendships suffering entropy,
halcyon days impossible to recover.
In the final poem of the collection, ‘Expat Christmas’, the speaker resigns himself to staying ‘with my American / family in my American house / going to my American job’, but still attempts to ‘destroy the distance’ (between America and Australia, past and present), by drinking ‘Jacob’s Creek’ and eating ‘salt and vinegar chips’.
Distance is a hugely nostalgic collection, traditionally, elegantly and simply (in the best sense of the word) written. Marked by a sense of both internal and external exploration, the poems take us on a journey through time and place, charting the terrain of identity, nationality, connection and belonging within the context of spatial, cultural and temporal displacement. These poems have the power to make one pine for one’s own childhood, reassess one’s own identity, and reconsider one’s own connection to ‘ancestors’ and ‘country’.
Suite for Percy Grainger
by Jessica L Wilkinson
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
It has always been hard to know what to make of the Australian composer and pianist, Percy Grainger. There have been at least six major biographies and “companions” and something of a revival of interest in his music since the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 2011. Melbourne poet, Jessica L. Wilkinson, who has been immersed in Grainger’s life and work for some years, has now produced a verse biography of the man.
As the poet says in her notes at the end, “ … sometimes I wonder if there was not one but many Percys: Percy the Pianist, Percy the Composer, Percy the Folk-Song Collector & Arranger, Percy the Experimenter, Percy the Nordic, Racist Percy, Sentimental Percy, Percy the Language-Reformer, Long-Distance-Walking Percy, Generous Percy, Mother’s Percy, Percy the Lover, Percy the Flagellant, and so on.” Clearly , all this must be a challenge for 118 pages of poetry.
Understandably, not all these Percys are given equal weight but Wilkinson leaves the reader in little doubt about their importance for one another, even while there are few, if any, one-to-one psychological explanations offered. Wilkinson’s list may also be incomplete. She doesn’t, for instance, mention the Antipodean Percy who, in the last stanza of “Colonial Song”, seems to have a considerable understanding of his own “weirdness” and its possible origins: “We are so far, here / so far to go. Sooner / or later it must tell / & we will get weird / brave shoots arising / from the virgin plains.”
As can be sensed from the above, Wilkinson is mainly interested in the man’s undeniable “strangeness”. Her oblique, fragmentary and generally experimental approach to the whole project seeks to reproduce this, and perhaps to dramatise it, but certainly not to “explain” it. That would be a serious challenge even for the most experienced psychoanalyst . It is also important to note that Wilkinson would hardly have been so interested in Grainger’s personality had he not had a substantial body of work in the first place.
On the other hand, there are a few occasions where Wilkinson draws a close parallel between Grainger’s sexual enthusiasms and his compositional practice. In “Cream, Jam & Dizziness”, based on letters from Grainger to K.H. (presumably Karen Holten), the poet talks of: “A stress against the canvas — a stroke for the excitable score / evolving across a taut, wet thigh / notes, struck into the text / and sustained.”
For those ill-versed in Grainger’s work — and his life more generally — it’s a good idea to read the reasonably informative Wikipedia entry before attempting Wilkinson’s book. A few tracks on You Tube might also help. Although much of Suite for Percy Grainger is composed from intriguing details, Wilkinson makes no attempt to be “comprehensive” in any encyclopaedic sense. Her approach throughout is suggestive rather than definitive.
The suite is divided into five sections (“Movements”?) which are roughly chronological: “To Begin & End Together”, “Compositions & Arrangements”, “Archive Fever”, “Loves and the Lash” and “Thots & Experiments”. The poems often use musical fragments on the stave as well as the resources of “concrete poetry ”. Some are lists; others are best described as “found poems”. Many of the poems, but not all, spin off from, and bear the same title as, Grainger’s compositions.
It’s hard to find a “typical” quotation to illustrate the tone of the collection as a whole. The last part of “Gardens”, dealing with the first reactions to what would become Grainger’s signature piece, his setting of the folk tune “Country Gardens”, is reasonably indicative:
if you like, as I play
a few tuneful snippets
to satisfy the first need:
to be loved (by the old folk).
Sharpe says ‘good work’
but it is a shallow success
as Balfour jumps up
at the fragment & says:
‘how awful‘ — with a lusty shout!
(into his handkerchief).
This quotation is also perhaps an example of the strength and limitations of “non-fiction poetry” as a genre. In the absence of footnotes (and extensive reading) we can’t be sure whether this is a lineated version of part of one of Grainger’s many letters or whether it’s a separate poem by Wilkinson based on those letters. To some extent, this shouldn’t matter but to more literal-minded readers it probably will. Some of these readers may wish to pursue the matter further in Felicity Plunkett’s Axon essay, “Hosts and Ghosts” on “non-fiction poetry” and related matters .
Balfour, it should be noted in passing, was not the politician but a friend and fellow musician. The phrase “a few tuneful snippets” is an early indication of the self-doubt that troubled Grainger in his final years. He knew that, earlier on, he had somewhat set aside his composing for his career as a concert pianist (even a society pianist) and his relatively small quantity of original work (as opposed to the setting of others’ work) seems to have troubled him — not unreasonably.
Some experts have argued that at least a few of these difficulties were the result of the undue influence of his mother, Rose. It seems she was both an enabler and a constrictor. It’s difficult to imagine Grainger’s early success without her. Rose’s suicide in 1922, when Grainger was forty, was both devastating and liberating. Wilkinson records it rather brutally: “Rose Grainger jumped off New York’s Aeolian building in 1922 maddened by syphilis and incessant rumours that she and Percy were intimately involved .” One feels impelled to add that Rose caught syphilis from her womanising husband some years beforehand and that the rumours were almost certainly untrue .
One relative omission from Wilkinson’s Suite is much information about Grainger’s wife, Ella, a Swedish artist, whom he married in 1928 and whose nineteen year old (“illegitimate”) daughter he also happily took into the family. It’s perhaps a forgivable prurience to want to know more about how Ella managed Grainger’s sexual proclivities. The poem, “To a Nordic Princess (Bridal Song)”, does provide a few clues. It runs, in part:
Percy is content; he has found her!
a very goddess of the breed
& sharp of tongue—she is his:
henchman! pavement artist!
skilled milkmaid! bells-companion!
free music craft-partner! experienced
lover, hands over eyes for the
parapara spurting on her belly! …
In this context, it may be relevant to consider Grainger’s statement (in “Free Music Gins”) that “Everything in my art is based on violently sentimental emotionalism & must be received on that basis to get anything out of it .” It’s hard to know how considered this statement was but it is certainly part of the puzzle.
Some readers may resist the significant amount of poetic experimentation that runs through Wilkinson’s Suite; it can make for frustration at times. It takes many forms, many of them difficult to reproduce here. They include overprinting and fading, arrows connecting one part of the text with another, distortions of the printed line etc. Most readers will soon see, however, that Wilkinson’s approach is also one that Grainger, with all his work on “free music” and the instruments with which to play it, would have approved.
Wilkinson may not have “solved” the enigma of Grainger’s life and work but she has vividly re-created its dimensions — and forced us to recognise the impossibility of any facile resolution to the “problems” he presented as both a man and an artist.
Plunkett, Felicity. Hosts and Ghosts Hospitality, Reading and Writing, Axon Issue 7 http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-7/hosts-and-ghosts
GEOFF PAGE is an Australian poet and critic, editor of Best Australian Poems 2014. His awards include the Grace Leven Prize and the Patrick White Literary Award.
by Jaya Savige
Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER BROWN
The title of Jaya Savige’s chapbook, Maze Bright, previews several of the book’s concerns regarding writing and writing as process. While the title suggests itself as a single adjective (hyphen omitted), it equally proposes itself as an anastrophic syntax, one signalling perhaps the glaring complexities of the linguistic terrain as well as the varied directions and likely wrong turns in language that lead, potentially, to illumination.
Questions of direction and orientation infuse the opening poem, “Etude”, which looks to the games arcade and Pac Man, and the maze-like layout of each, as sites analogous to writing. The opening lines of the book read: “I’ve lost the blueprint but from memory/the maze idea emerged first as a way/of mastering the art of being lost /by simulating it under controlled circumstances”. This seems clear enough but for, “the art of being lost”, which teasingly problematizes the question of direction for how does one “master” the purely negative condition of “being lost”? Read “being lost” as an ironic substitute for “finding one’s way”, that is, read it as a disruption of logic, are we’re invited into the spark and intelligence of the collection.
If the early stanzas preface a poetry of indirection, “Etude” soon shifts the focus, questioning the ephemerality of the artwork via the transience of its eighties context, and concluding with the lines: “Quick, before the window shuts/ and my blinking initials vanish forever from the end screen of the custom/French walnut tabletop video arcade/circa nineteen eighty-eight.” The unpunctuated line, “French walnut tabletop video arcade”, which in its temporal span echoes the first line of the poem, “Pac-Man is my minotaur”, merges classical and contemporary allusion exemplifying the proximity of antiquity and, thus, the agency with which new may be made old. Additionally, there’s the sense in this kind of appropriation that the mythologies themselves are re-contextualised and vitalized within their new poetic domicile.
The question of myth and the means of its integration becomes an engaging element of the work. When in the poem, “Wingsuit Journal” Savige refers to his persona as “some pissed off Apollo”, the question of allusion as a certain default position for analogy suggests itself, but then, in this poem, we are talking about human flight and so a godly comparison can only seem apt. “Magic Hour, LA”, invites similar consideration. Savige compares a “folding screen depicting notable scenes in feudal Kyoto,” with, “a buff pimp in denim cut-offs…outside a 1 hour photo”, it being more than the rhyme that fuses ancient and contemporary worlds, and very much the “folding screen” and instant photograph that together suggest some continuing human propensity towards mediated reality. Myth is part of continuum and LA merely a latter-day phenomenon of an enduring human fascination.
The epistrophe of the closing stanza of the same poem asks further into LA as an icon:
…when the locust sun descending on
a field of bending wheat is prologue
to a tale stripped of all denouement,
and silhouettes are all our dialogue
In this instance, the emphasis on a stage or cinematic terminology speaks to various aspects of the Californian character: LA as “Tinsel Town” of glam, and generator of myth par excellence, but as Hollywood, historical home of American film-making, whatever myth the latter and its product imply.
“On Not Getting My Spray Can Signed by Mr Brainwash” seems a distillation of concerns around the value of art and object in a consumer age. It’s a poem that concedes the appeal of a modern material world while dissolving boundaries between traditionally revered antiquity, emblem here for “culture”, and modern, disposable commodity. It’s rhyming stanzas again smooth the edges between a modern consumer world and world of art and culture: “I appreciate/a top shelf invader piece/ as much as any Eurydice.” The poem isn’t, however, without its misgivings in regard to consumerism and can be “pretty sure” of “the way our fetishisation of the toy assault rifle inflects his [a toy Elvis wielding an M16’s] canonization as The King”. Stanzas five and six exemplify the poem’s expository style:
|“The hubris is in thinking
of each meme-savvy mashup
as a protest, allied to a flash
mob trashing Topshop.
It’s not. This canvas is passive
as TV. No caulking with irony
can prevent its schtick’s hull
ripping on the reef of cliché.
The poem ends memorably with an appeal to Duchamp, appropriate figure here for the way we value art and object. Savige “prays” to Duchamp that he not be affrighted by contradiction, but rather accept the potential for complex, contradictory relations with the world. The final lines, “…unfazed that he’s conscripted/by the thing he criticizes,” suggest perhaps a conflict with the poetic object as much as a conflict with consumer fetish.
Probably more than any other poem featured here, “Act of God”, resonates with certain of those from Latecomers, and the way that collection describes a human presence in nature. It’s a short but strikingly sinuous and gritty poem describing a moment in nature, a meeting between birds, in the context of an indoor garden in a corporate building. I was intrigued as to what its act of god might refer? Is its reclamation miraculous? Does it refer to the corporate gods? Are we lured into some anthropocentric position in which we read humanity as god, but perhaps forget nature itself? The corporate building in question is the Suncorp building, somewhat divested of signification if read it as just another bank in Queeensland. And this is part of the appeal of the work; we have the reified Suncorp building and attendant myth on one hand, and a plausibly concrete locality on the other, and so an interesting tension. There’s lots to consider in this poem but what really struck me is the strength of every line, right up to the superb ending (not quoted here.) A sample reads: “Among the starlike flowers…she met a blue-faced honeyeater…To gain its trust she noshed on freshest sushi of the soil…an Hibiscus Harlequin beetle…whose bright shield shone…as she crunched it for protein.”
What surprise, what incongruity do we find in nature taking up home in the corporate void, of investing it with life (there’s the act of god). And what incongruity do we see in a rock icon lunching with an ageing monarch? I am not proposing any particular thrill of ironic delight at this, only that in the poem “Nick Cave at Buckingham Palace”, we again encounter a mythological mergence, one more about culture here than time or place. But here’s a delicious offering, a trenchant and energized parody of Australian celebrity culture, totally at home with the subtleties of Australian life and language – as the following passage indicates:
|Naturally I fall
in with the play
and an oddly
yob from Toowoomba
in several ocker dialects…
Like salacious columnists
we’re in bits just witnessing
“The Body” sluice
through a bank of tail-
ored suits, still hot as lime juice
on a torn
The rest of the poem reads with matching acuity. Describing a cast of Aussie guests to the palace, and Cave as, “high priest of duende…currawong among a froth of swans”, the poem does much more than create a giggle out of its apparent contextual incongruities. It deftly engages an Australian idiom, “…poor Clive is properly crook”, which addresses an older Anglo-centric Australia, parodying Rolf and Clive and the monarchy, perhaps, as archaisms; it presents a lively discourse on language as relative to context: “My patois is a heady mix of amnesia, empire and capital”, as if the palace were the perfect location in which to conveniently forget one’s language and one’s origins.
The book continues, losing none of its early urgency. “Citicity” re-engages ideas of abstractions of place, and the poem “Cinemetabolic” abstracts language through a process of homophonic extrapolation: “Shore, hive bean cauled ah word-shipper of falls codes…Whey cup, hits thyme two hacked…” Indeed, poetry is for reading aloud.
Of the ten poems that make up Maze Bright, each indicates a depth of resource and intelligence. Some were written in Paris, others first published in the UK, and while each poem embodies a wealth of cultural reference, and interplay of myth and allusion, they are also, in a lively and demotic way, Australian. I’m guessing this book comes as one of the last in the vagabond Rare Object series (which has given way to the more recent deciBels undertaking). It’s best not to look at books such as these as “necessary fore-runner to the subsequent full-length collection” but to view them for what they are, in this case, a joyous offering in Australian writing and publishing.
CHRIS BROWN lives in Newcastle. His poems have appeared in Southerly, The Age, Overland and Cordite and were recently anthologized in Kit Kelen and Jean Kent’s anthology of Hunter writing, A Slow Combusting Hymn. He is writing a book of poems: “hotel universo”.
Writer, Ali Cobby Eckermann was born in 1963 at Brighton, Adelaide, on Kaurna Country, however, she grew up on Ngadjuri Country. She has travelled extensively, living most of her life on Arrernte, Jawoyn and Larrakia country in the Northern Territory. When she was 34, Eckermann met her birth mother Audrey, and learnt that her birth mob were the Yankunytjatjara people from north-west South Australia. Her mother was born near Ooldea, south of Maralinga on Kokatha Country. Eckermann relates herself to the Kokatha mob too (Ali Cobby Eckermann 2013). Her first verse novel is His Father’s Eyes, and her second verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, won the Kuril Dhagun Indigenous Writing Fellowship, which is part of the black&write! Indigenous Editing and Writing Project sponsored by the State Library of Queensland. Ali has won several awards including: First Prize in ATSI Survival Poetry competition in 2006, First Prize Dymocks Red Earth Poetry Award NT in 2008, and was Highly Commended for the Marion Eldridge Award in 2009. Her poetry has been translated and published in Croatia, Indonesia, Greece and New Zealand. Ruby Moonlight was published in 2012 by Magabala Books, and won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and was awarded the “Book of the Year” at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2013. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a Nunga poet, is the second Aboriginal writer to win the top prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, in consecutive years. Ali Cobby Eckermann’s important works include:
little bit long time APC, 2009
little bit long time reprinted by Picaro Press, 2010
Kami Vagabond Press, 2011
His Fathers Eyes Oxford University Press, 2011.
A Handful of Sand: Words To The Frontline co-edited with Lionel Fogarty Southerly Journal 2011
Ruby Moonlight Magabala Books, 2012 Deadly Award Outstanding Achievement in Literature
Love Dreaming & Other Poems Vagabond Press, 2012
Too Afraid To Cry Ilura Press, 2013
JS: Could we start with you telling us a little about your childhood, schooling and tertiary education?
ACE: My childhood may sound unusual but it was a regular childhood for many Aboriginal children born in the 1960’s. I was adopted as a baby by the Eckermann family and grew up on a farm in the mid-north of South Australia. Mum and Dad couldn’t have their own children, so adopted the four of us kids. It was a good life: baby lambs and chickens, kittens, the cubby house, gardens and orchards, and the iconic tennis court!
Our family was German Lutheran so we grew a passionate respect for good food and the sharing of it. Collectively our family was self-sustaining, We had a dairy, milked cows every morning and every night. So as children we learnt the practise of hard work. At a young age we learnt to grow sweetcorn, watermelon and tomatoes. My parents were kind people, and I remember their generosity to others. But it was the social arena outside the family group that I found confronting. Even at a young age I remember racism; I did feel that I did not really belong here. Of course this became more evident in my teenage years, at high school, when I met other Aboriginal students, some adopted and some with their families. I had no concept then of the extent of the Stolen Generations in Australia.
JS: You have a strong need to educate and also give a voice to those, who for whatever reasons (lack of education, poverty, marginalisation), cannot get their stories told. Do you know of any specific reasons you care about this why you care so much about this?
ACE: Mostly I feel I have this obligation to myself. In hindsight I grieve the fact that when I was a teenager, and life became very difficult, I can’t remember anyone asking me if I was okay. As an angry young person I did not know how to voice my emotions, and as a result I succumbed to the adoption of my only son. This led to many years of addiction. And it was years later during rehabilitation, that I began to recognise the value of every story, and how to value my own. These skills were reinforced after finding my family, especially by the Aboriginal Elders. It is a true value of my culture, to care for others.
JS: What are the traditions of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Lionel Fogarty?
ACE: Actually, Lionel Fogarty is one of my best friends. He has been an incredible mentor to me, in my early years, as an up and coming writer. I find his writings powerful; much of what he wrote 35 years ago is relevant today. I was somewhat sad to find Oodgeroo Noonuccal at a mature age; I regret that I did not learn about her poetry whilst in school. Sally Morgan’s My Place was the only book of Aboriginal writing that I discovered and read in my young years.
JS: Who are Nunga?
ACE: Nunga is a collective term for Aboriginal people who live in South Australia. In Queensland the term is Murri, in other states the term is Koori. My traditional family in the desert are known as Anangu.
JS: How are they different from other Aboriginal communities in Australia?
ACE: I believe, in respect to Aboriginal literature, there is a collective spirit. As Aboriginal writers we need to truly support each other, and support each other to mentor the craft. Each writer will identify by their Language Group name, and may casually refer to the collective terms. Mostly I identify as a Yankunytjatjara writer, and most of my poetry is influenced by the natural landscape of my people.
JS: Who are some of the important contemporary Indigenous writers ?
ACE: Lionel Fogarty is one of Australia’s most important writers. He first published his poetry as a young man in his 20’s. The journey of his life has been shared through his poetry, and is a truly honest gift to the world. Kim Scott and Alexis Wright have both won the Miles Franklin Award, the most prestigious literature award in Australia.
A Facebook site BlackWordsAustLit is the best resource of Indigenous Literature in Australia. It is both an archive and an introduction to our newest writers. Check it out and follow the prompts.
JS: How many Indigenous authors write in English?
ACE: Most Aboriginal authors and poets write in English. I believe the publishing world requires this, for the selling of our books. It is also a legacy of the removal of so many of us from our family. And the cost of translation in Aboriginal language is very expensive. I feel sometimes the cost is the preventative, and of course we are not empowered to change this. On the other hand the resurgence of Aboriginal language, at a community level, is truly inspirational. Many families and young people are relearning these ancient languages; our mother tongue.
JS: Tell us about the Stolen Generation?
ACE: My mother was separated from her mother at the age of seven. This is very confusing for her, as the mission where they lived had a Children’s Home, to prevent the removal of children. It seems my mother was an amazing student, and it was deemed that continued association with her family would be detrimental to her education. She told me that she would watch from the window as her siblings went with Kami and other family members to hunt for lizards and other bush tuckers. She told me she felt sad. And this is one of the main legacy’s of Stolen Generation removal, the sadness that still exists inside us.
I was 33 when I found my mother. At the time she was the Co-Chair for National Sorry Day, an annual day of remembrance and celebration dedicated to the Stolen Generations. Her legacy in life is amazing.
JS: Many of your poems start with “ooooo’. What does this mean?
ACE: This was an error, a typo. The title of these poems is clear. I did get a shock when I saw the publication of this. Now it remains as a mystery for the readers.
JS: What are your important themes of writings?
ACE: I would hope all my writings achieve my basic goals; to promote healing and understanding between Aboriginal people and the rest of the world. As I travel internationally I often hear how media has portrayed us incorrectly, that our rights have been returned to us, how past issues have been resolved. This is not the truth!
I do enjoy meeting writers from other cultural backgrounds. Mostly our issues are similar, and often we share a similar expressionism. This has an empowering effect on me. I love reading global poetry.
JS: Could you please mention a few poems which represent you as a Nunga writer?
ACE: Circles & Squares, First Time, Love Dreaming, Ribbons, Wallaroo
JS: You have written verse novels. What stories do they tell?
ACE: My first novel His Fathers Eyes was commissioned to explain the Stolen Generations to upper primary and lower secondary students. It is published by Oxford University Press in the series Yarning Strong. My second verse novel Ruby Moonlight is a story of massacre, the often unmentioned history of colonial impact. It tells the story of Ruby, who survives the massacre of her entire family. I set this story in the 1890’s. I was moved beyond words in 2012 to receive the Deadly Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature (an Aboriginal Award) and again in 2013 when Ruby Moonlight won the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize and the NSW Premiers Book Of The Year. This book should be in every school library.
JS: You have already attended translation workshops in India. What is your experience? Do you think that translation works are close to text/original?
ACE: The experience of the Autumn School for Literature Translations is an amazing experience. The passion of the selected students is paramount to the success of this. I was immersed into wonderful conversations; I shared many photos of my family and traditional lands. We discussed every detail. And my heart told me during the final recitals that the students had achieved the best translations of my work.
The unforeseen publication of my poems by the Deptartment of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University is a testament to this. Some of my poems will sit with two or three translations. I am proud that the student’s names and their work will accompany my words. I believe this will become a unique handbook of international translation, due to this shared experience.
JS: What do you hope your work will achieve?
ACE: I write in the hope that my grandchildren will be safe in their true identity in Australia. I write that they will not have to assimilate or change any cultural aspect of themselves to achieve what they want. I write in the hope that Australia will become more mature, to embrace the values that only diversity can bring, to be kinder to the impoverished and the poor, and to stop pretending that these issues do not exist within the national identity.
JS: Are you familiar with Indian Dalit writers?
ACE: In 2012 the University of Western Sydney hosted a two-day festival for Australian and Indian writers. Alexis Wright and I were invited to open panel discussions with two Dalit writers who had travelled from India for this event. It will remain a highlight of my writing career. The panel was judged one of the highlights of the festival.
The opportunity to return to Kolkata, to travel to New Delhi and attend the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2015 will allow me to meet with Dalit Writers again.
JS: Can you describe an “average” working day for you?
ACE: I day dream a lot! Much thought goes into my writing, long before it reaches the page. And some time ago I quit my regular job and returned to visual arts; I love sculpture and painting. I find these two artforms compliment my artistic process. My visual arts actually funds my writing career. So my life is frugal and exciting. There is no ‘average’ day.
JS: If you were to prepare an anthology for school students would you include some of your own poems?
ACE: Of course. Our literature is necessary to inform that our culture still exists, beyond tourism. I would also include oral readings of Aboriginal poetry by Aboriginal poets. I believe our voices bring a beautiful timbre and rhythm of our words, which is both healing and powerful.
JS: Do you believe in Literary Movements? What are its weapons?
ACE: I guess my ‘literary movement’ is the establishment of my Aboriginal Writers Retreat. It is an environment for all writers, however it is Aboriginal themed. Every participant must ‘leave their ego on the highway’ and arrive to a place of equality. This is how we learn. I have enjoyed sharing my space, and watching the outcomes in people. Lionel Fogarty was my first Writer-In-Residence and we co-edited Words To The Frontline: an edition of Southerly, Australia’s premier literary magazine.
Originally I established the retreat in my home at Koolunga, in South Australia. However my personal career has grown beyond my wildest dreams. So I am now in process of mobilising the retreat, and am looking for sponsorship to purchase a caravan. The caravan will be customised to include a workspace and include an extensive library of Indigenous literature. Many grassroots Aboriginal writers have not been exposed to multi-cultural writings. Sometimes there is no literature of any kind in their home environments.
It is my wish now, to travel to communities and transport my workshops there. I believe the main benefit will be tri-generational story-telling and writing workshops.
JS: What are your current engagements?
ACE: Currently I am in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in America. It is a three month residency and is funded by the US Deptartment of State. The program has been running since 1967 and has allowed Iowa City to become the only UNESCO City Of Literature in America.
JS: Would you please share a recent poem with us?
my mother is a granite
boulder I can no longer climb
nor walk around
her weight is a constant
reminder of myself
I sit in her shadow
gulls nestle in her hair
their shadows her epitaph
a pebble of her in my pocket
* Ngingali is Ali’s mother’s traditional name
JS: Thank you! You are an amazing source of inspiration.
Jaydeep Sarangi, is a bilingual writer, academic, editor, translator, and the author of a number of significant publications on Postcolonial issues, Indian Writing in English and Australian Literature in reputed journals/magazines in India and abroad. He has recently collaborated as peer reviewer for CLR, Universitat Jaume I, Spain. He is one of the Editors, “Writers Editors Critics” and the Vice President of literary organization, GIEWEC (head office at Kerala). Widely travelled and anthologised both as a poet and a critic, Dr Sarangi has delivered keynote addresses in several national and international seminars, conferences and read poems/research papers in several continents. He is Associate Professor in the Department. of English, Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri College (Calcutta University), 30, Prince Anwar Shah Road, Kolkata-700033, WB, India. E mail: firstname.lastname@example.org