Hot quadrangle lined with
sunrise papayas, king coconuts;
the din of cleavers,
rubble of intestines and
Station Road, Kandy.
‘Halō! Āyubōvan! A salaam aleykum!’
Clamour and pang of
new markets, stall-faces of
cardamom eyes, Aryuvedic oil nostrils,
tea leaf lips: white, cinnamon,
vanilla shoots, taking root after
Tea for Katherine, tea for Mum,
ethnic, clean, gift-shopper’s dream.
News clipping on the tea-shelf
slips, grainy image of a Tamil man.
Naked in handcuffs, blindfold-tie trailing
as he tips into a marsh,
Kalashnikov singing his lullaby.
Hurriedly shuffled away, back to
talk of tea and Kandy.
Rose Hunter is the author of three books of poetry: You As Poetry (Texture Press, Oklahoma), [four paths] (Texture Press), and the river (Artistically Declined Press, Oregon). A chapbook of her poems is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press (Chicago), and she will appear in the anthology Bend River Mountain (Regime Books, Perth). She has been or will soon be published in such journals as Cordite, Australian Poetry Journal, Regime, Geist, New World Writing, DIAGRAM, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, Verity La, and The Los Angeles Review. She is from Brisbane, spent many years in North America, and is now in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She also works as a freelance editor. More information about her is available at Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have To Take Me Home (http://rosehunterblog.wordpress.com).
to strike or dash (esp.) sharp collision
to have an effect; to make an impression to have an effect
or impact (esp.) a negative one, to take a bit of negative out
of that, big shouldered, paredón; to advance, encroach
on an area belonging to (esp.
but you went over into the death world
with those others, so many from the white room, what is it
i asked, something like punishment; impinge also
in the sense of shoulder, never
the bolder the lime green the rarer the bougainvillea
the whiter the surface the dearer the to whomever it may concern
descanso: alonso lopes guardado; same day different year
his birth date and your death date. how
do they do it don’t they know you died here, nearby
bikini sweating on the rocks helicopter mistletoe
skeleton house, lazy dog and palomino
magic wand bridge one eyed fence canyon plunge, buggy
tiny flimsy that killed you
James Byrne is a poet and editor, born near London in 1977. His most recent poetry collections are White Coins (Arc Publications, 2015) and Everything Broken Up Dances, Tupelo Press 2015. Other collections include Blood/Sugar (Arc 2009) and Soapboxes, a pamphlet of political satires (KFS, 2014).
Byrne is a translator and editor. He co-edited the first anthology of Burmese poetry to be published in the West (Arc, 2012, Northern Illinois University Press 2013) and Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, an anthology of poets under 35, published by Bloodaxe in 2009. Since 2002 he has edited The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine.
His poems have been translated into various languages, including Arabic, Burmese and Chinese. In 2009 he won the Treci Trg poetry prize in Serbia and, as a result, his Selected Poems: The Vanishing House was published in Belgrade. He was the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge and a Stein Fellow of New York University where he completed an MFA in poetry.
Currently living in Liverpool, England, he teaches poetry at Edge Hill University.
They said I came out with a thorn in my foot—
hillcloud child who spoke with a large name,
blossy among broken hedges and molten fields.
When the house hellbelled I retouched an image
of hyaline mists gridlocked to corn. The memory
of sky over Pankridge Farm held like a salve.
I listened to the beginning patience in a voice
until it was clamant, exasperated to pure nerve—
‘Home’ it repeated. ‘Home. Come home’.
from ‘Economies of the Living’
Yeats in his psychopomp. Blavatsky
a lion among quadrapets. Similitudes.
As if accolades were lofty as cliffs.
Maud Gonne pursued, but as worthy
conquest? I would rather be a falcon
or rook, with mischief to provoke her.
Brother, remember how we cast ourselves
as children carried off by Scottish eagles.
Found affrighted but reclaimed by parents.
Hazelnut. Feathered black, brownish and
green. Traitor to the flower press, luxuriant
but uselessly sportive, uselessly fluttering.
Female’s the architect. Male: a panicked
fetcher of cottoned twigs, vegetable fibres.
Skivvy for cloudhouses suspended in air.
A family of silken music caged by Labat
for rats. We are purposed for pleasure.
Touch the wings to kill its instrument.
Europe’s incommode: it is not free
to roam continents like the horse did.
Tack, yield, never knowing winter.
Turnstiled like prisoners of the sedan.
Tractable and familiar. The Bedouin
shares his tent with foals, surrenders
his courser mare to the French consul.
The things a horse has traded for gold.
Closely farried, shockpools for eyes.
Brute like us. Brute of the woods.
Sternly countenanced then maligned
like cracked hutches of the counselled.
Epitaphic, ritualized buriers and so
larger than most men. Upwards of you
unfolding a napkin and as Buffon said:
fond of comfits but, unlike the baboon,
clever to show a man where the door is.
Trained servants, able to work as we do.
from ‘Rimbaud Villanelles’
14 Rue Nicolet
What is wrong with the ex-pats and the French?
Only two of us show up for The Rimbaud Walk
despite the ballyhoo: A 5 Mile Drift on Absinthe.
Sure, there’s a grin in the wind, but what prudence
nowadays; no surprise the UMP still shun a plaque
for 14 Rue Nicolet. What is wrong with the French?
Rimbaud, at sixteen, arrived here from the Ardennes
for havoc in the house of Verlaine’s new stepparents,
and for Verlaine himself, who was gone on absinthe.
At night, they stumbled home under the low-lit lamps
surveyed by Verlaine’s jilted chanson, Mathilde Mauté,
who despised the bad manners of these mountain French.
It is a house too prim for bohemians or boy peasants
agreed the in-laws. Lice-ridden, Rimbaud slept on the lawn
naked in the sun, peeled to his ribs, popeyed on absinthe.
Mathilde saw her life slide away whilst pregnant.
Verlaine threw little Georges at the wall and walked.
This house is a shamed house, censored by the French.
Before Rimbaud, Verlaine was hooked on absinthe.
Selected from White Coins, Arc, 2015
Variations on Darkness
‘How slowly dark comes down on what we do.’
Theodore Roethke, from “In Evening Air”
If you drink from the shuck of the storm
you will always be tainted by its darkness.
The lacquered surface of the canal at night
is darker than the darkest shroud of Jesus.
One thing darker than the roses’ shadow
—the cold fire of the roses after thunder.
Far murkier than possession—the shiphold
shackled to the hells of human darkness.
When the rusted machete cut back the cane
it sharpened darkly in the emperor’s silence.
Amnesially waiting in the cinema’s darkness
—it cannot be separated out from loneliness.
The panmongolist was so afraid of the dark
he asked to be buried in a candlelit coffin.
A death-pecked cry darkens the entire city
and is hoisted through the shrieking world.
Fragments for Ali
lend me a syllable
from Assyrian ash
from the ashes of Ishtar
unruffle my birdsnest ignorance
you who brothered me there
like a son and bronzed silver
into figures of amity
in the desert path above Tartous
through salt tides
and toothsucking sand
the bell of your name
hardbreathing of pebblestones
lost to the iron-shore sea
the upturned hulls
of fishing boats
wet with life
as if hope struck
and was bundled out by the sun
winter ices the weathervane
in the Alawite district
where your ailing mother lives—
reproach of the tank’s eye
tingling the museum gates
and somewhere beyond the pocked wall
and somewhere beyond the General’s spyglass
among shelled-out newbuilds
and frail city stanchions
your son walks
the herded miles
blood in the jasmine
sweat of death
how do new buds grow
from beheaded flowers?
families hide out for months
in their homes
betrayed by the dark
and the painted
irreality of television
in windows purloined
of the old familiar faces
where in these Mallajah hills
is the lamb of your niece?
sorrow of the olive grove
bones that conspire in the Queiq river
where the villagers
cannot be sure
of the informers
from the mob
stare out from
pillars of rock
to the distant
mesh of Europe
to speak is a game of chess
terror in the telephone
where no one appears to
dread of breath
silence that roars
The National Park
Imperious eyes of the trained killer
draped in a white flag, who would
maculate us with the venom of his clan.
Here, where death is the stone inside
a rotting fruit; what would they ask
if not turning away at the final demand,
which is speech? They enter the gable
of the national park and do not tell us
and are with themselves and are gone.
Selection from Everything Broken Up Dances (forthcoming from Tupelo Press, USA)
by James Byrne
ISBN 978 1908376 47 3
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
White Coins by UK poet, James Byrne, is a collection that operates zealously across the rich surfaces of semantic interconnectedness and imagistic playfulness. Not unlike more conventional lyric and confessional voices, perhaps, the poet here begins at “a ransacked house” or a home from the past, serving as a familiar starting point for segues across time and dimensions of meaning. The first poem, “Historia,” as the etymology of the title also suggests, is a concerted attempt to gain new knowledge or renewed insight through poetic investigation. There is a vulnerable acknowledgement of once being “six and made of violins” or having experienced how “love blunts.” But there is also a rejuvenation of perspective, such as when a singular leaf becomes a “scapel-like finger”, simultaneously revealing the speaker’s humility at not taking credit for a space of lofty detachment (the leaf “not pointing towards a balance-act”) but yet achieving (“balancing”) that serendipitous equipoise, nonetheless, between an intense emotionality the past evokes and a present opportunity for imaginative reinvention.
The following poem, “Economies of the Living,” a series of dictionary-like entries of aspects of our world refracted through a surrealist lens, furthers the strategy of sustaining a balance between startling description and emotional expressionism. From lyrically sweeping comments on violent mothers, word-portraits of animals to imperative statements about eternity, Byrnes reveals himself to be aligned with the Romantics in their connection to nature and in that yearning to rejoin the spiritual sublime. In the section addressed to “Immortality,” for example, the speaker promises: “I will watch the raked light of sunset over Shardeloes and find you via memory.”
But first and foremost is the poet’s faithfulness to an unceasing concatenation of expansive associations and symbolisms. Take these lines from “River Nocturnes,” for instance:
labyrinth trails in a sonical stormlash
pronged overexposure of lightning
a skybull stamping out spherical thunder
Byrnes’ priority or clear sense of artistic glee is clearly in the description of the thing. Personae introduced through the poems are more ideas than characters, even if they include family members, as the sustained strategy across the poems is to paint an enriching textual layer that generates ever-revealing semantic outcomes. A deliberate emphasis on descriptive playfulness does not, of course, mean that deeper and ethical urgencies are absent. As the poems progress, the experience of which is analogous to moving through a museum of surrealist art, laser-like criticisms regarding political and social ills can unexpectedly arise. In this section (“To Measure Another’s Foot By Your Own Last”) from the long poem, “Phrase and Fable,” the writing becomes denser with meaning or more compact with moral urgency, without at the same time losing the rhythm of the poet’s imaginative segues already generated elsewhere:
Like politicians first-footing on humanitarian issues,
foreign policy is a butcher, reflective as its blade.
Hide history’s measuring tape, the battlefield chemists
and dioxin hotspots, the attics of clumsy gas masks…
Foreign policy dictates to always find one’s own feet
before putting the boot down upon the neck…
Later in “Soapbox” during the part of the book now marching towards including more implicit to explicit social commentary, Byrne breezily sums up, mockingly decries or satirically categorises metonymic objects or ideas that point to fundamental human fallacies, pairing each object or idea to a specific country in both provocative and evocative ways. This is executed with verve and vim bordering on delirium and the comic. But the poet still manages to seduce the reader into pondering meaningfully over every liberating rapid-fire connection:
Egyptian chevrons / Saudi princeships / Kazakh autocracies /
Greek dawns / Russian hooliganism / Burmese chalkboard /
Singaporean spyglass / American liberties / Israeli intifadas /
Nigerian Shellsuits / Japanese waterworks / Chinese whispers
Imagist, social commentator or symbolist, the poet acknowledges and pays stylistic tribute to literary influences from symbolist poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, to Ashbery in the poem, “Rimbaud Villanelles,” by revealing next-to-nothing about his literary heroes (only that Rimbaud “popeyed on absinthe” or that Ashbery’s Illuminations go delicately on Scarborough”) and focusing instead on banalities, sense-impressions, the passing gossip and white noise of urbanity these poets must have confronted to fuel their work, etc. Surrealist painters and symbolist poets repeatedly subvert expectations to demonstrate that truth-making is never certain (thus permitting endless possibilities for meaning across the canvas or page) or that there is always room for an unusual interpretation. But one must be reminded that play, in such artistic contexts, is never just play. Byrne demonstrates, for instance, that the grumblings of one’s political conscience can–or should–be woven (consciously or otherwise) into any bewildering tapestry of symbolist presentations challenging the knowable through aesthetic subversion and reinvention.
Quoting ironically from Jeremy Paxman at the start of “On the Ordinary” about how poetry has “connived at its own irrelevance,” Byrne proceeds to show how his own brand of poetry, even in its seeming “irrelevance”–interpreted here as literary jouissance at the level of aesthetic effects and imaginative flourishes–can quickly turn “serious” or “relevant” when hard-hitting questions float to the surface of the poetically meandering mind: “How do an entire people lose themselves?” A more implicit answer might be (in my own mind): “By allowing oneself to be easily categorised.” And as Byrne writes in his poem, half-quoting, half-asserting: “Art is not the ‘fixed or regulated sequence…customary; usual’. We are mysterious to ourselves.” It becomes a matter of conforming to social class and elitism, from which poetry should break away in order to wrap itself authentically around our deepest mysteries, the unknowability at the core of existence. The poem ends with this: “All people are either ordinary or extraordinary maniacs.” It is clear which the poet prefers to be. To be a “maniac” in this case is to forge one’s original poetic voice while still remaining reflective (even as the primary stylistic urge is to deflect, subtly destruct, delight in disorder) of humdrum to harsher realities.
At the same time, however, I keep returning to an earlier sense that after the enjoyment (for both writer and reader, I’m sure) of unpacking or merely delighting in startling word-play and the sometimes mysterious connections between ideas, I am still moved centrally by that Romantic imagination operating (I’m convinced) behind this scintillating surface of ever-shifting language. That quiet acknowledgement of the Romantic sublime as presented through nature is evident throughout the book, waiting just beyond the unceasing layers-upon-layers of meaning; as if given a chance, nature provides not just a boundless source of metaphors, but also respite and a curiously embracive calm beyond human-made uncertainties or semantic fragmentation; as when the book closes with a line like this to remind the reader of that which is all-encompassing already abiding in us all:
all these lives of sea
filling out in our ears
CYRIL WONG is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light, The Dictator’s Eyebrow and After You. He has also published Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories and a novel, The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza. Cyril has served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project, as well as a judge for the Golden Point Awards in Singapore. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012. His poems have been anthologised in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman’s Library 2007).
by Robert Adamson
Reviewed by FIONA SCOTNEY
In many ways the collection Net Needle is a logical continuation of Adamson’s recurring themes of love, loss, birds and the Hawkesbury region. It is very Adamson. It has the traits readers have perhaps come to expect and admire from his last few collections. It is dedicated to his partner Juno, his ‘heart’s needle, soul’s compass’, it opens with a poem about birds and the title comes from a poem about fishermen. What could be more Adamson? Yet there is nothing staid about this collection. He returns to familiar subjects and makes us look again and in doing so we gain a new understanding and a new level of appreciation. This is Adamson doing what Adamson does best.
This poetic craft is most evident when reading ‘Net Makers’, a poem which balances the delicacy of memory and weaving with the immediacy of tobacco stained fingers and fish guts. The poem contrasts the hardness of the men with the softness of their bent bodies and practiced movements. There is a sense of boyhood wonderment and admiration in their craft of mending and at the same time their ability to ‘cut the heart clean/ from a fish with a swipe of a fillet knife.’ The weaving of the nets in the poem is mundane, pragmatic and performative,
They stitched their lives into my days,
Blue Point fishermen, with a smoke
stuck to their bottom lips, bodies bent
forward, inspecting a haul-net’s wing
draped from a clothes line. Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone
net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell. Their fingers,
browned by clusters of freckles
and tobacco tar, slippery with speed –
We are invited into an intimate space of memory, reflection and repetition as ‘they wove everything they knew/ into the mesh, along with the love they had,// or had lost, or maybe not needed.’ This is men’s work located in a domestic sphere; the backyard by the clothes line of Adamson’s childhood home. In the poem there are the subtle tones of the tortoise shell needles, freckles and tobacco tar set against the action of stitching, inspecting, draping, darting and mending.
As in The Goldfinches of Baghdad and other collections, Adamson has drawn on Mallarme’s idea of a book as a ‘living composition’, where each page becomes a stanza in the poem of the whole book. In this collection there is a four part structure which brings cohesion. The poems are grouped by observation, recollection, homage and finally death and transformation. Part one is characterised by observation, by poems that turn our attention to the otherwise unseen miracles in the mundane, as in ‘Net Makers’ and ‘Via Negativa, The Divine Dark’:
On the table a cicada, flecked with flour,
opening its dry cellophane wings.
The cat flies across polished space illuminated by the
Kitchen’s energy-saving light bulb,
A Philips “Genie.”
Here the divine dark is lit by stars and an eco-light blub. The via negativa, a way of describing God by negation, takes form in the tree-ferns, mist and banana trees, as well as breezes, watermarks and stars. It is not Wordsworth’s pantheism, but rather Spinoza’s recognition that all things are God.
Morning turns its back on the sun;
gradually, night arrives. In the skylight,
stars appear through the smokescreen from burn-off,
Stars are clustered tress, hung in the night sky.
Here and in other poems in part one of this collection, observation mingles with metaphor and personification to create interesting juxtapositions. In ‘Garden Poem’ for Juno where Adamson writes, ‘At midday/ the weather, with bushfire breath, walks about// talking to itself’ and ‘a breeze clatters in the green bamboo and shakes// its lank hair.’ These simple yet beautiful lines when considered become profound and masterful. In the first example he combines the observation of midday with the metaphor of ‘bushfire breath’, with personification the weather which ‘walks about// talking to itself’. Such lines show the complexity of Adamson’s craft.
Part two of Net Needle is comprised of redrafted poems from Shark-net Seahorses of Balmoral: A Harbor Memoir (2012), a collaboration with artist Peter Kingston which produced a hand printed limited edition artist book,. These poems are based on recollection and tell stories about Sydney, the harbor and the rivers. They are not simply nostalgic reminiscing, but rather poetry as memoir, as Adamson looks back over moments of his life that span his childhood to his time spent in Long Bay prison. In this section a focus on narrative tends to replace the more image-driven poetry of the first part of the collection. I wonder if this is in response to the collaborative process of creating the artist book, which responds to Adamson and Kingston’s shared memories of Sydney, albeit at opposite sides of the harbor, Kingston at Vaucluse in the east and Adamson at Neutral Bay in the north. Both were born in 1943 and the art book chronicles some of the history of the area, as well as Adamson’s personal history.
Sometimes there is an emotional distance in these poems, as in ‘The Long Bay Debating Society’ which begins with the dispassionate line, ‘I spent my twenty-first in Long Bay Penitentiary.’ The poem recalls the pacing in the prison yard through the day and his reading of novels and poetry at night. It records Adamson’s early ambition to be a poet,
Sometimes an education officer
Would turn up and ask
What are you going to do with your future?
I’d tell him I wanted to be a poet
He would shake his head
And comment that I was being insolent
After weeks I convinced him
We wanted to start a debating team
The poem takes an unexpected turn from Adamson reading and wanting to be a poet, to convincing the officer about his desire to start a debating team. As it moves from the general to the specific, the poem shifts to the subject of the poem, the debating society. ‘It took a month to convince the Governor/ Finally the authorities agreed/ We could form a debating society’. This new freedom is still bound by the control of the authorities, as the ‘crims’ read and research in the prison library and organise an outside team to debate with, they are undermined by the Governor’s choice of topic, ‘(it was the summer of 1964) our topic/ “Is the Sydney Opera House Really Necessary?”’
Other memories are captured with a mix of facts and observations, as in ‘The Green Flash’ where Adamson recalls walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with his mother, and going to the ‘Pylon Lookout’, ‘There was the café, where mum bought/ my first Devonshire tea.’ The South West Pylon lookout was open to the public at weekends from 1932 -1981. ‘This was the spot my father took/ my mother on their first date; he always/ knew how to impress people.’ The strength of these poems is in their ability to record personal and public history and memory with location.
Part three acts as homage to other writers, the poems reference or are dedicated to other poets and writers including early influences on his writing including Francis Webb, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his friend Michael Dransfield. These poems provide a reminder of the sociability of poetry. The act of naming other poets creates textual relationships, the names become tropes, poetic devices that can represent a mode, or style of working, or gesture to interpersonal connections or relationships. These poems also speak of the longevity of Adamson’s vocation as a poet. Since the publication of his first collection in 1970, Adamson has published over 20 books of poetry. He has devoted much of his life to poetry, not only as a poet, but also an editor, mentor and teacher.
Adamson is one of a number of Sydney and Melbourne poets who emerged in the late 1960s and have been seen as part of a loose school or generation of poets characterised by their explicit break with existing poetic practice, their adaptation of American models, and their shared opposition to the Vietnam War. John Tranter’s anthology, The New Australian Poetry (Makar, 1979), announced this new generation, the ‘generation of ‘68’, and presented the twenty-four poets included as representing a ‘commitment to the overhauling of poetic method and function’ and a ‘serious attempt to revitalise a moribund poetic culture.’ Adamson, like Dransfield, was included in the anthology and they are often referred to as key figures of the “generation of 68.”
Part four of the collection can be characterised by themes of death and transformation. ‘Death of a Goshawk’ is a haiku with an untraditional syllable count which reaches its dénouement in the last line facilitated by its title,
Hovering on sunlight and air –
A boy’s trigger finger.
Other poems about death include ‘A Proper Burial’ about the death of a pair of tawny frogmouths beside a highway, ‘The Whiting’ where the poet is visited by the shadow of a fish he has killed and ‘The Great Auk’ for Charles Buckmaster, a poem which references another ‘generation of ‘68’ poet and friend of Adamson’s who died aged 21 in 1972. Not quite elegy, this poem recalls fondly Buckmaster’s poetry magazine The Great Auk and his contribution to the Sydney and Melbourne poetry scenes.
Charles spoke of auk bones
discovered in Massachusetts, fragments put
together by the archaeologist of morning, kingfisher
of poets. Charles wrote for the lost forest
and opened new pages as he
walked the streets of Melbourne,
writing back the great auks, speaking branches
to sing from; as the growth rings
thickened our lives, he stretched himself imagining
pilchards in massive schools
turning oceans silver with auk food –
auks returning in poems, swimming from the heads
of poets, into the tides of our words.
The final poem in the collection is ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul’ for Juno. It is a redemptive poem, where the ‘you’ in the poem, presumably Juno, brings new knowledge and discoveries to the first person speaker, ‘Your breath blew a thicket of smoke from my eyes’, ‘You taught me how to weigh the harvest of light’, and ‘You brought along new light to live in’. The poem ends with a final transformation, ‘I preferred the cover of night, yet here, I stepped/ into the day by following your gaze.’
Net Needle sees Adamson return to recognisable themes and influences in a way that is at once familiar and rewarding. For this reason, it is also a wonderful introduction to his work for new readers.
FIONA SCOTNEY recently completed her PhD at the University of Queensland titled ‘The New Australian Poets: Networks and the Generation of 68’. She has previously been published in Cordite, The Australian Poetry Journal and Southerly.