Karen Whitelaw is a Newcastle-based writer and teacher of creative writing. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Cutwater Literary Anthology
, Newcastle Short Story Award 2012, Award Winning Australian Writing
2016. Her flash fiction has been performed at Newcastle and Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and made into a visual presentation. She has completed a Master of Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Caught in the Rip
The last day of summer. The westerly snorts a premonition of autumn, but by midday that will be forgotten. It’s just the type of day the bronze retirees live for; everyone else back at work – snigger, snigger – and the sea scattered with morning dazzle. At this time of year all I’ve got to do is sit in my watch tower with my feet up on the desk, keeping an eye on the odd swimmer and the board riders and resisting, and then surrendering at lunchtime to the fat salty lure of hot chips.
I glance down at the sand and there she is. I check up the beach, but no one’s with her. She puts her red beach bag under the black and white chequered flag which warns surfers away from the swimming area, and stands with her hands low on her hips, thumbs pointing forwards as if all the responsibility for this beach belongs to her, not me. She keeps glancing up at my tinted window, squinting. I lean back and stay very still.
She’s wearing one of those floaty see-through things over her bikini, and it makes me think of the time I overheard a guy say – unfortunately for him he didn’t know I was still her husband then –that even when she wears clothes she could be wearing nothing.
This is a new thing for her, coming to my beach.
After fifteen years I can read the ocean well. I know when to expect the whale migration and recognise individual dolphins who live along the shore. I can point out the submerged rocks, the treacherous rips, I know which wind will bring the blue bottles and I can smell the change of the tides.
But I can’t read Chloe.
What do you make of a woman who faces my tower square on, crosses her arms to grab the hem of her shift, and pulls it slowly up over her thighs, her hips, her belly, like a stripper?
I glue the binoculars to my eyes and aim them right over her head. There’s a board rider paddling hard for a wave. I lock onto him. Behind him the wave rises like something dark from the deep. It peaks, looms over him like the black osprey on the cliffs eyeing their prey, and pounces. But the rider is up and whooshing along the dark underbelly while the wave rolls and crashes behind him, spitting up angry mountains of spume strong enough to break a surfboard in half, or a man.
When I put down my binoculars Chloe’s cutting through the thigh-high foam near the edge, arms raised to her shoulders against the cold. Then she dives under the water and steps up on the sand bank with her face to the sun. She stands calf-deep, alone in the ocean, and slicks her streaming hair back with both hands, arching her body as if she’s in a shampoo commercial. It would be laughable if anyone else did it.
People think a sandbank collapses without warning. But it’s always gradual. A slow erosion caused by the force of water. Like the wearing away of limpet shells on the rocks, a dead seagull washed up on the shore, marriage. It can take months for the sandbank to erode under the normal tussle of the moon and tide. Or only hours under the churning force of a violent east-coast low. What usually happens is people on sandbanks get swept off their feet in a sudden surge of water coming from the deep unknown or backwashing from the shore. They’re snatched over the edge and into the channels where there’s nothing solid under their feet, just a swirling maelstrom in which they lose all control. Some of us struggle across the current and crawl back to the safety of the sand bank. I’m not sure if we could be called the lucky ones.
It’s low tide and Chloe runs across the sandbank with her legs shooting out to the sides and the spray leaps around her like an adoring dog. She dives through a breaking wave on the other side of the bank and swims out into darker water. Here the current has carved a deep trench running parallel to the shore and the only sign of danger is a slight ripple on the surface. It pulls left towards the rocks and does a dog leg out to sea. Chloe lies on her back and rides the swell. She of all people would know she’s in a rip.
Behind her the board riders wait near the first break. The waves angle across the flagged area and I’m usually lenient with the surfers if no swimmers are out the back, especially when it’s pumping. My finger hovers over the loudspeaker switch. Chloe is the only swimmer. Unless you count the two old ladies standing in the shallows with their sarongs hitched up into the legs of their one pieces.
The westerly sprays the top of the breaking waves backwards like lace veils. I watch Chloe’s head bob in the space between like a dark buoy. I check her through the binoculars. She’s smiling. A surfer slides into view and flips back off a wave. He’s only ten metres away from her. I drop the binoculars and they bounce across the desk.
I flick the switch and the loudspeaker crackles in the air.
“Board riders. . .” Something occurs to me and I switch it off.
I turn it on again.
“Swimmers. The swimmers past the inside break,” as if she’s not the only one, “come in now. There’s a strong rip out there.” I repeat the message. I flip off the switch and high-five myself.
I check Chloe through the binoculars. She’s looking right at me. And waving. And I’m having trouble understanding why she looks like she just got awarded the Bronze Medallion.
Her chest rises out of the water, and she waves with two arms like they’re windscreen washers. She sinks chin deep, and bobs up again, waving. All she has to do is catch one wave to the sandbank, for Christ’s sake.
The old ladies in the shallows start jumping up and down. Waving one arm at the tower, the other pointing at Chloe as if they’re landing aeroplanes. They sound like screeching seagulls. I stand up so they can see me more clearly through the tinted glass and make a show of lifting my binoculars. When I check on Chloe she is staring straight at me. I stare straight back.
The final collapse of our marriage came when the woman across the road stormed into our back yard. I was nailing the new weatherboards onto the extension I hoped would eventually become a nursery. She stood at the bottom of my ladder, eyes all red and soggy, her mouth stringy with saliva, yelling up at me to do something. If Chloe hadn’t been having it off with someone we knew I probably wouldn’t have found out.
I put my nail gun carefully on the fold-out shelf and climbed down, first one heavy boot, then the other. I noticed the red paint splattered on the risers from when I painted the bedroom. The blobs of putty from the leaking bathroom window. By the time I felt the ground firmly under my feet I knew I was through fixing things.
‘Hey. Someone’s … in trouble … out there.”
One of the women from the beach is bent over, clutching the door frame with one hand and the bunched ends of her sarong with the other.
‘I’m watching,’ I say, and wave my binoculars.
Out near the kiosk the seagulls squabble over chips, seduced by the smell of crisp fried potatoes and salt air.
‘Watching isn’t …going to save her.’
‘She’s not panicking. She could be waving at her friends. Or her husband.” I raise one eyebrow but the woman stays stony faced.
‘She’s waving at you.’
That knocks the breath out of me but I look right back at her. “She put herself there and she knows exactly how to get herself out. But I’m watching her.”
I turn away from the door and make the binoculars fit my eyes as tightly as a wetsuit. The woman actually growls, and I hear her sandy feet scrape back across the concrete.
Every summer people do idiotic things: swim outside the flag area, jump off the rocks into big seas, ignore the red flag. Some of them are tourists, but usually they’re just stupid. Last year we even had a guy with a body written in tatts swim right in front of the shark sign. In the shallows, would you believe? Offering them something to read while they eat. When stupid people get into trouble we usually leave them for a little while if we can. Fear is a good teacher.
But Chloe is neither a tourist nor stupid. I lean on the desk and watch her. She keeps her chin above the water and her head makes jerky movements that show she’s dog paddling like crazy. Every now and then she lifts one arm above her head but slaps it back down quickly. The current has swung her round near the rocks and she’s heading out. Even now if she swims a few strokes across the rip she can hitch a wave. She’s lived with a lifesaver for fourteen years and must know that.
Both women are on the beach going berko. Doing some arthritic version of star jumps and shouting to the board riders. Chloe’s got them fooled.
I lift the binoculars and watch close-up as a wave slaps her face and her head disappears in the whitewash. She doesn’t resurface. I sweep my binoculars in circles. Past the rock outcrop. Along the dark empty trench to the churning white water and out to sea. Automatically I start counting seconds. …4, 5, and on the way back in see her out past the rock ledge. Her head is thrown back, her eyes red and scrunched shut. Her lips are blue and gaping. And while I watch the next wave smoothly erases her.
I have nowhere left to hide. I scramble down the concrete stairs three at a time. Race across the sand. The old girls yell something I don’t catch. I slice through the first cold shock and make for the trench. The salt water stings my eyes but I don’t close them. Out past the sandbank the water resistance slackens and instead of holding me back the current snatch me up and we rush towards the open ocean – and Chloe – with a force that’s too powerful to resist.
Cassie Hamer is an emerging writer from Sydney who tends to make up stories in her head while walking around the beautiful Centennial Park. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently working on a full-length manuscript. She wrote ‘By Proxy’ after a recent visit to Hobart where she was inspired by an exhibition of photos and mementoes, telling the story of women who travelled in the turbulent post-war years to the other side of the world to make a new life for themselves. Cassie remains in awe of their bravery.
It is Rosa’s last night on the MV Toscana, and she would quite like to die. The boiling sea has muddled her insides. Stomach in mouth. Heart in knees. The cabin is stifling and the vessel is in delirium, pickled by sea salt and alcohol.
Above her, from the dining hall, the piano accordion wheezes and gasps a slurred tune. Heels and toes keep syncopated time on the wooden floorboards. Below her, the bunk vibrates as the ship’s engines power and shudder through the swell.
‘Rosa! Rosa! Vieni alla fiesta. Addesso!’ Rosa, Come to the party. Now! Through the key hole slides Maria’s voice, lubricated by alcohol and hoary with cigarettes.
But Rosa does not want to go to the party. She wants to die. She wants Mama to smooth the hair on her forehead and bring her stale ciabatta and aqua minerale. She does not want to be this message in a bottle, at the mercy of tides and currents.
‘No. Sto male.’ I’m sick. Rosa rolls with the ship and her stomach heaves in time with both. Tomorrow night, he will be in her bed. Mama has said it will hurt, but she is not to cry. The blood will please him.
Her stomach reels again.
‘Va bene, Rosa.’ Ok. From the unsteady beat of Maria’s footsteps, Rosa knows she is stumbling down the hallway, lurching from side to side.
For Rosa, sleep is a butterfly beyond reach. Instead, she practices her English. Like a baby tasting new fruit, she lolls her tongue around the foreign words, tasting and testing them and swallowing the sound in her throat.
My name is Rosa. How you do? What your name is?
The words are a lullaby, talking her to sleep. In her dreams, the white caps are the ghostly fingers of souls lost at sea, pulling at the resolute little boat and trying to pull it under to join in eternal rest.
It is the stillness that wakes her. Are they still sailing? Rosa shimmies out of the bunk, past Maria’s pale and snoring face. The girl is nocturnal. For her, as for all the passengers, the voyage has been dream-like for its strange configuration of people and behaviours. On this boat, they are not themselves. There is no cooking, no cleaning, no work. They are between lives. Adrift.
Sitting on her trunk, Rosa pulls on the silk stockings she has been saving. The rest of her trousseau is stowed safely in the hold. There is Mama’s porcelain dining set, the lace tablecloth that comes out at Christmas and napkins Mama used for her wedding day. All that is new is a chemise, for later, and the stockings. Word on the boat is that one of the English ladies has nylons, but she has a cabin on the upper deck and it is only a rumour.
In the bathroom Rosa pinches her cheeks for colour. Maria has promised to loan her some rouge but there is no thought of waking her now. She adjusts the wool duster coat, the same one she wore for the photo she sent him. The one of him is in her pocket. She doesn’t need to look, for his face appears whenever she closes her eyes, pushing through the greeny-redness. She touches the picture, though. Rubs it like a talisman. The surface is even smoother than the silk lining of the pocket. She repeats the words mama said. Good hair. White teeth. Not too skinny. A good man.
Hopefully, he has not changed. She remembers him a little from childhood. Hide and seek in the olive trees with all the other kids of the village. But that was before the war, before all the men went off to fight and his family moved south to be with his aunt and cousins.
Up on deck, the morning is blue velvet. The ship leaves a caterpillar trail of smoke. A deck hand clears the streamers from last night’s party but stops when he sees her. He leans on his broom and points to the water. ‘Derwent… Derwent.’
She repeats after him. ‘Derwent.’ But perhaps her pronunciation is no good, for the young man shakes his head at her and resumes sweeping.
As the sun arcs into the sky, the ship’s occupants emerge slowly onto the deck –blinking like pipis brought to the sand’s surface. The river is wide and blue but the land is flat and unimpressively empty and disappointment ripples through the crowd.
They were expecting paradise.
With a gentle bump against the pier, the ship delivers Rosa into her new life. The dock is curiously empty. No streamers. No band. Here, they are not known. There is no family. They are new and friendless.
He is easy to spot. Dark eyes flitting across the deck before they come to rest on her. Slimmer than in the photo.
Through a scudding heartbeat, she smiles and he gives a half-hearted wave in return, his hand dropping quickly as Maria, now standing beside Rosa and smelling of musty wine, starts blowing kisses.
‘Smettila!’ Stop it, Rosa hisses.
‘What? It’s my husband.’
It is then Rosa notices the other dark-haired man running down the pier and waving his cap. The husband Maria has not seen in two years.
‘Cara, mio. Cara, mio!’ My darling, my darling, he shouts.
Tears have streaked Maria’s rouge. Her smile is tight.
Does she cry for what has been, or what is to come?
Rosa is suddenly aware of an ache in her finger where the cool breeze has settled on the silver of her wedding band. It is slightly too small but he has promised a new one for the ceremony tomorrow, before they leave Hobart for the hydro. There will be a priest and one family member, a cousin who works with him.
You do this for the children, says Mama. They will want the photo.
Her wedding dress is in the trunk, wrapped around the dinner setting. Her veil just fit inside the tureen. There is a small red wine stain on the hem where Papa was too excited. It is not every day your daughter marries, even if the groom is half a world away! But she thinks her husband will not notice the mark.
The gangplank is lowering.
‘Rosa, in bocca a lupo.’ Rosa, good luck! Into the mouth of the wolf. Maria will be staying in Hobart to live, and the hydro is two hours away. Rosa does not expect to see her again.
The pair embrace. ‘Crepi il lupo.’ And to you, Maria. May the wolf, croak.
With her bouncing stride, Maria makes the plank wobble to the point where Rosa must cling to the handrail. Her palms are greasy. Clicking heels will be the last she sees of the older girl.
For the first time in weeks, Rosa steps onto dry land and sways from the firmness. The solidity. She is not used to such steadiness and he rushes to take her hand.
‘I’ve got you,’ are the first words she hears from her husband’s mouth as she stumbles before straightening.
She drops his hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
The apology is shrugged away. ‘Is this all?’ He gestures to the small trunk in her hand.
‘No, there is another coming. The trousseau.’
The crew is starting to unload the hold and Rosa and her husband stand together in silence until her case is placed alongside all the others.
Their hotel is not far and he decides they will walk.
‘Battery Point.’ He nods over the pier to a small piece of land jutting into the river. ‘The Government.’ A brown-stone building. ‘Mount Wellington.’ He lifts his eyes skyward.
‘A mountain?’ It is nothing like the ones at home that are sharp edged and snow capped and graze the clouds. This one is squat and fat, with houses dotted into its protective foothills. An Italian nonna, with grandchildren coddled into the folds of her dress.
As they walk, she is aware of his breathing, laboured by the effort of carrying two trunks. She has never listened so closely to a person’s breath. The way it’s catching in his throat as it constricts with effort. She supposes this is what it is to really notice someone, to be married.
Their room is up a narrow set of stairs above some kind of public bar. As he fumbles with the key, she is sure he must hear her heart beating. Will he want it now, or will they at least wait until the sun has set? When the door opens and he stands aside to let her through, she can barely walk and her teeth chatter out of control.
There are two beds. Narrow, but definitely separate. The one foot gap between them may as well be an ocean and Rosa reaches for the wall to hold her up. He has not spoken since pointing out the bathroom on the landing.
‘I have a letter from your mother,’ says Rosa, and starts busying herself with the trunks that he has placed in the corner. The bed creaks as he sits frowning.
‘She is well, and your father too. Your little brother has a cough but it is nothing to worry about.’ She is babbling but cannot seem to stop. ‘The summer has been terrible. All the village is suffering. There is no water for anything. Since the war, you know. You are so lucky—‘
At that he sighs and Rosa falls silent. She concentrates on the clips and curses herself. No one is lucky. But here they are, alive.
Finally, the lid of the trunk is free and she opens it to find great creamy swathes of fabric – the wedding dress she swaddled so carefully about the plates and the tureen. She digs in her hands with archaeological purpose but instead of finding smooth porcelain, her fingers are met with hard, grainy edges that threaten to cut the skin. A vision of her trunk, being tilled about by the ocean brings a wave of seasickness that Rosa tries to swallow away.
The first plate is broken in three. The second is in four pieces. The third is shattered as well. They all are. The trunk is littered with shards. She bows her head and coughs, shamed by her tears. But silently, he kneels beside her and together they begin to arrange the pieces on the floor. They could be children doing a jigsaw puzzle but to Rosa, they are grave robbers, picking through the white bones of a skeleton.
In the trunk, there is one piece left. The tureen. To Rosa’s surprise, it is intact and she splays her hands around the cool base of the round basin and cradles it with the care of a new mother.
‘The letter is in here,’ says Rosa. ‘And my veil.’
He nods and she indicates for him to take it, which he does.
But the brush of fingertips is so unexpected, so warm, that Rosa lets go of the tureen and it falls to the ground with a great smash.
For a second, there is silence. Then, there is a howl of despair and Rosa is shocked to discover that it is hers. But what does it matter? There is nothing left now for her to lose.
At some point, she becomes aware of a hand on her shoulder. She looks at the man she does not know but is expected to love. His face is anguished. Pained. Gently, he pulls her head towards his chest and smooths her hair as she sobs into him.
‘Shhh,’ he croons. ‘We will make it right.’
And as she feels his heart, beating loud and strong, and sending blood to all corners of his body, she is inclined to believe him.
Dave Drayton was an amateur banjo player, Vice President of the Australian Sweat Bathing Association, a founding member of the Atterton Academy, and the author of Haiturograms (Stale Objects dePress) and Poetic Pentagons (Spacecraft Press).
bleachers on beaches
events transcribed in keyboard hiss
the therapist’s arena confiscates organisms
at the corner store now is all for none
a price on fun rises the thirteenth chore is unforgettable
alongside the cost
of a Callipo
beneath the stands what resembles soreness
bleachers on beaches resembles shock
details time that doesn’t fall
from glass bell
to glass bell
is built and thrown and urine soaked and flicked in
you are in no state to learn
to differentiate between
panic or heart attacks
while experiencing either
this turns out was the former
found in deep sweat
an auntie’s Christmas kitchen
while your vegan partner senses
something wrong so tries
to guide you through the carving
of flesh and of breast
a turkey that can only
be foreign in this heat
to a person who won’t eat
whatever’s got the
ability to smile produces
bite me, it seems you can
merry Christmas, you filthy animal
Getting By Not Fitting In
by Les Wicks
Reviewed by CAROL JENKINS
Getting By Not Fitting In is Les Wick’s thirteenth book. As someone who has arrived at poetry latish, thirteen seems a lot of books. What would one have left to say? Plenty it seems. I came to Getting By Not Fitting In, after reading Sea of Heartbreak (Unexpected Resilience)(Puncher & Wattmann, —a good place for readers new to Wick’s work start. Getting By Not Fitting In (GBNFI) possesses the same Wickensian kaleidoscopic concision, wit and dexterity as Sea of Heartbreak. There is something Ginsberg-esque about Wick’s range and anti-hero stance, his keen eye for the cultural milieu, we have the Golden Age of Sydney Pub Music instead of The Beats, but without Ginsberg’s grandiosity and neurotica.
The collection is set out in seven thematic sections; the first two look at men and woman in general, and the next two others take up the themes of their namesakes’ Narrative and Location, the following two parts build portraits of the characters Matt Kovacs and Tess Manning, and the last section, ‘What Ends’ forms a coda.
There is a gritty piquancy in Getting By Not Fitting In. Wicks has a keen eye for how society bends people into and out of shape. The title suggests a study of those living on the margins, but in Getting By the marginalised become the mass market—a phenomena we have seen play out in the USA with Trump’s triumph in selling snake oil to the disenfranchised. We find the mass market, and the masses, messy as they are, concern Wicks, in general and in particular. His poem a ‘Brief History of the Mass Market’, is pulled into focus by the mass media — movies, TV sitcoms and Facebook, as the poem skips from Annie Oakley, through Glen Miller and comes around to the FBI it is constantly nearly making an argument. On one level it is seems lucid but on another just beyond coherence, and so works to deliver a symptom as well as a synopsis, he seems to be saying, take this dose of not-quite confusion, not-quite denouement, our cultural chaos.
Amongst the tea candle economics in the first section ‘The Company of Women’ there is an unsettling sense of living in housing commission high rise on benefits, even when the poem is located in suburban garden, as in ‘Suburban Fabric’ where the characters are scrapping by, even the social-worker downwardly mobile. All this makes for a disturbingly real atmosphere. For those in government that argue we are a classless society Getting By Not Fitting In would a salutary read, showing us as all the greasy perplexities of a society that accepts or ignores those whose lives teeter into poverty.
Something similarly disarming happens when Wicks re-jigs the common slang. He has a penchant for reversals, ‘dodo as dead hill of the king’ in ‘A Staunch Life in Common Sense’ The reframing leaves the reader acutely adrift in the every day language of ‘Common Sense’ where the protagonist’s easy shortcuts act as a kind of social anesthetic— a Novocain for the relationships that a certain type of men have with society. The witty reversals of sets, ‘chicken gum and chewing wire’ gives a visceral churn, a nearly queasy undoing of language that supplies an air of surrealism to what might be a study for a character in an Australian version of BBC TV series ‘Shameless’.
Location brings us Sydney in spades, the kind you might dig a grave for your dog with. Wick is an aficionado of the multi-use homophonic sequence, ‘Oatley Pleasure Ground’ we progress through, leaden, leading, led a little further on to the laconic turn of ‘a new toilet block—/strident stainless steel like Soviet dentistry’.
‘Oatley’, is too clear-eyed to be nostalgic. While the title gives you its temporal setting, so we settle acutely into the park alongside the St Georges river. While Oatley was not one of my youthful haunts, it could easily be Woy Woy or Ettalong, with its sunburnt lawns and inadequate trees, and of course that telling toilet block. I came back to the Soviet dentistry simile a number of times when I read and reread this poem — like a wobbly tooth you can’t stop wriggling— there is a jab of painful accuracy to it, a stab of recognition, which strangely gives an odd sense of ownership to this piece of Oatley though I’ve never been there, and the poem is an invitation not to, but I might as well have been there, so closely does it evoke its period and hanging out at the beach or waterfront. As with many of these poems, we are connected, and, as he counsels on the final page of Getting By Not Fitting In, that interlocking might just be the point.
In ‘The Sydney Problem’ Wicks tweaks the old Tinsel Town tag to Trinket Town, while skewering our collective lack of determination to preserve ‘historic clutter’ — the deprecation of history to clutter, suggesting both an authorial complicity and culpability in this problem, and so deftly avoiding what is one of the most annoying postures in contemporary poetry, ‘eco-piety’, to steal Peter Kirkpatrick’s elegantly coined term, though here it the subgenre ‘preservo-piety’ would be more accurate.
In the fifth and sixth sections we find first Matt Kovacs and then Tess Manning, two people in overlapping stages of drug fueled downward spirals, each new opportunity a new chance to demonstrate their penchant for destruction. These two parts and final coda might be a crazy storyboard for a TV series, Wicks’ writing here is filmic, an evocation of place and mood. These sections work something like a mini-verse novel and there is drive to the storyline that is more top-less grunge than bodice ripper. When we get to the seventh part , ‘The Sixth Intersection’, where Matt and Tess, our characters, briefly intersect, both asking the other ‘Are you happy?’ and go their ways, leaving us to ours, and giving us something substantial to ponder.
CAROL JENKINS is an Australian writer and publisher. She lives with her family in Sydney, near Balmoral Beach. Coming to poetry from a career in chemical regulation, her first poem was published in 2004. She has two collections of poetry Fishing in the Devonian (2008) and Xn, 2013 both from Puncher & Wattman. Her most recent book and silliest book is Select Episodes from the Mr Farmhand Series. In 2007 Carol launched River Road Press, which has recorded and published 21 audio CDs of Australian poets. She has a blog Show Me The Treasure (www.showmethetreasure.blogspot.com.au
Have Been And Are
by Brook Emery
ISBN: 978 0 994 5275 3 0
Thinking Poetry: Brook Emery’s have been and are (Gloria SMH, 2016)
[From the launch speech given at the Friend in Hand Hotel in Glebe on Saturday 10 September, 2016.]
Welcome everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Luke Fischer. I’m a poet and philosopher, and this afternoon I have the great pleasure and honour of launching Brook Emery’s splendid new book of poems, his fifth collection have been and are, published by the new Melbourne press Gloria SMH. Jacinta Le Plastrier, whom many of you would also know as the current director of Australian Poetry and who formerly worked at John Leonard Press, is the publisher and co-founder of Gloria SMH. At the outset I’d like to congratulate Jacinta and her colleagues on the beautiful production and design of this book.
While I am quite used to swapping between my philosopher’s hat and my poet’s hat, in certain cases this is neither appropriate nor adequate. Sometimes it is necessary to wear both hats at once, one balanced on top of the other, or the two stitched together. This is eminently the case with respect to Brook Emery’s poetry.
At times, when art and poetry aim for a philosophical significance they end up reproducing in an inferior manner a theoretical content that would be better articulated in a philosophical treatise or essay. This is evident in what for the present purposes I will call ‘second-rate conceptual art’. However, this is not true of the best conceptual art nor is it true of Brook Emery’s poetry. The philosophising that takes place in Brook’s poetry, both at the level of form and content, is worked out poetically, is native to the poetry, and in significant respects gets at aspects of experience and the world in a manner that surpasses conventional modes of philosophical articulation. For instance, the question and nature of embodiment and perception are key concerns of philosophers, but there are few, if any, philosophers who are able to describe embodied experience as richly and concretely as Brook’s poetry. In addition, whereas philosophers usually present their readers with their polished arguments and conclusions, Brook’s poetry invites the reader into a philosophy in process, the mind at work in questioning and deliberating. There are, of course, important strands of twentieth and twenty-first century European thought in which philosophical writing has become more literary and poetic than it has traditionally been. In this respect Brook’s poetry can be viewed as a significant contribution within a larger cultural movement in which philosophy approaches poetry and poetry approaches philosophy.
The title of Brook’s new book, have been and are, is extracted from the last sentence of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and intimates a central theme of the book: the relation between past and present, and time in its various forms and scales, including the geological time of evolution, human history, autobiography, transience and human mortality. The full sentence from Darwin is also the title of the penultimate poem: ‘Endless forms most beautiful and wonderful / have been and are being evolved’. And Brook’s poems relatedly suggest how the continuity between past and present lies in change and transformation, and the present is evolving into the future.
have been and are is at once expansive in its explorations of diverse and significant themes and impressively cohesive, a livre composé. The titles of all the poems, except the final one, are quotations selected from a wide range of texts by poets, philosophers, scientists, novelists, historians, anthropologists, musicians, artists, and others… Each poem responds to, expands on, subtly critiques or digresses from the content suggested by its title-quotation. What is implied by much poetry, namely that each poem one writes is in conversation with other poems and poets, and with poetic traditions as one understands and evaluates them, is explicitly embedded in the book’s architectonic and inner workings. The individual poems are also filled with direct references as well as subtle allusions to other texts and thereby develop further intertextual connections.
The book’s cohesiveness is also evident in the way each poem picks up or develops a thread from the preceding poem. Every poem ends with an ellipsis, which serves to indicate its open-endedness and its anticipation of the subsequent poem as a complement and supplement to what has thus far been elaborated. The themes of the book organically emerge, develop and transform, and the poems enter into dialogue with one another as well as with the reader. As suggested by the epigraph from Virginia Woolf that opens the collection, we find ‘a voice answering a voice’, including the poet speaking and responding to himself. At both a macro and a micro scale the structure of the book reflects the title-quotation of one of the poems, which is taken from the American poet Robert Hass: ‘Echo, repetition, statement / and counterstatement, digression and return’.
While at the level of form and content Brook is interested in the possibility of cohesiveness, he is opposed to any kind of closure. Brook is just as interested, if not more interested, in the ways in which we misconstrue ourselves and the world as he is in experiences of belonging. In this poetry we find a poet-philosopher restlessly interrogating what in German Idealist philosophy was called the Absolute, a supposed ultimate unity of mind and world, spirit and nature, thought and being. For Brook any sense of ultimate unity can only be momentary or provisional and thus not ultimate: the feeling of beauty or harmony fades, what we assume to be true is subject to revision.
A significant philosophical insight underlies Brook’s emphasis on both the necessity of a relationship between self and world and a disjunction between them. The very problem of knowledge presupposes disunity as a starting point. An omniscient god would know and experience unity but would have no questions and could not make errors of judgment. There would be no problem of knowledge as everything would be ever-present and evident. As human adults we also do not have the option of retreating into a prelapsarian existence, of returning to childhood, or of enjoying the unknowing unity and bliss that Rilke ascribed to primitive animals, which possess sentience but are far from the human form of self-consciousness that divides us from any immediate sense of oneness with the world.
It is the gap between ourselves and the world, language and experience, thought and being that makes it possible for us to establish some connection between them. In one of the late poems in have been and are Brook develops this notion with the image of shadows: ‘Shadows are an intercession / between me and not me, a suspension // between “I feel” and “it must mean.” Words / shadow other words, shadow other worlds…’ There is a slight gap between what we aim to say and what we manage to say. The very first poem includes the following lines near its beginning: ‘There’s a dappled light falling / across my forearms… Mmm…there’s that word ‘dappled’, that won’t do. It’s not a bad word…’ and the poem proceeds to reflect on the spaces and connections between linguistic predication and being. It is worthwhile to mention that Brook’s interrogation of how we speak about the natural environment makes a valuable and thought-provoking contribution to crucial concerns of contemporary ecocritical theory and ecopoetics, and the specific need to find a way of bridging a postmodern awareness of the constructive role of language with a realism about the natural world that is being destroyed.
One of the many remarkable features of Brook’s poetry is the protean way in which it moves between walking, swimming or body-surfing and speculation, evocative description and philosophical reflection, and also seamlessly unites them. Take this description involving seaweed: ‘I float on my belly as still as can be /in the softly lulling swell. Sea-grasses / and rasp-edged kelp float back and forth in unison / or a quarter tone off key, caught and tweaked / by competing currents.’ We have here at one and the same time a vivid image of floating seaweed and the encapsulation of a broad philosophical idea that there is a cohesion to the world but not a perfect harmony; the musical metaphor of a choir singing in unison is qualified by the subsequent judgement that the voices are a ‘quarter tone off key’.
Brook is often a brilliant imagist and offers the reader moments in which he/she experiences a sense of participation in a re-enchanted nature. However, he does not want us to remain captivated. That would be a naïve and self-deceiving return to childhood. Here is an example from the short poem that is titled with a quotation from Piet Mondrian: ‘I, too, find the flower beautiful / in its outward appearance: but a deeper beauty / lies concealed within’:
I’m trying to remember a train trip south,
the particulars or even the generality. The glass-grey,
reflective flatness of the river, the immobility
of the tethered boats (their patched and peeling hulls),
a passage through split rock (weather-dulled, oxide blotched).
And trees, eucalypts stretching back and up the hillside,
textured, darting light shifting slantwise into shadow,
picking out this or that, catching at the eye.
I am inventing this, the verbal surface of things…
The poem opens by drawing us into its descriptions of scenery from a remembered train trip, but then as though telling the reader not to get too absorbed, not to fall asleep, we encounter the self-reflexive line: ‘I am inventing this, the verbal surface of things…’ Children, when they watch a puppet show, almost take the puppets for animate creatures and are oblivious of the human hands, rods, and strings operating behind the scenes. In Brook’s poem it’s as though the show were interrupted mid-scene and the instruments exposed to view, but in this case the instrument is language.
It is arguable that the advent of free verse as a dominant approach to writing poetry in the early twentieth century reflects a larger cultural process of fragmentation and individuation, of dissonance between the individual and the collective. Brook himself places this development within a broad historical context when he writes: ‘The old verities – Christianity, Communism, rhyme and metre – are dimmed…’ Nevertheless, even though free verse cannot adopt a pregiven form, this does not mean that it is formless or arbitrary, that it lacks aesthetic cohesion. T. S. Eliot famously criticised, as did Denise Levertov later in the twentieth century, the adjective ‘free’ in ‘free verse’ because of its implication of arbitrariness. While I don’t share this objection because there are other relevant ways of construing the word ‘free’, the significant point is that any successful poem must convince us that there is an integrity or even necessity in the way it is constructed.
Brook’s poems are assiduously and masterfully crafted free verse compositions, which reflect and embody the dynamism of his poetic philosophy. They at once accentuate the temporality of the unfolding poem and the temporality of thought in progress. Like the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, as well as Hegel and Heidegger, Brook has a deep interest in contradiction and apparent contradictions. He also loves paradoxes, oxymorons, chiasmi, and aporias. Like a poetic equivalent of Hegel’s progression of thought through the generation of contradictions in The Phenomenology of Spirit, there is a dialectical momentum to Brook’s poems. The very first poem in the collection begins with: ‘It’s not about me…and of course / it is.’ Not much later we find the statement: ‘This book is all about / how lucky I am to be walking under these trees…’ The reader can surmise that, of course, it is not really all about this, but only partly about this. The poems propel themselves forward through judgments that are shown to be provisional, through negations, qualifications, contrasting propositions, and revisions. The poem with a title drawn from Wallace Stevens, ‘The poem must / resist the intelligence almost successfully…’ begins as follows: ‘I’m dawdling. Killing time. Or time / is killing me…’. These lines employ a device that in classical rhetoric was distinguished as an antimetabole. The terms of the proposition ‘I’m…killing time’ are reversed in the statement ‘time is killing me’ to epigrammatic effect. Characteristically Brook has also placed an ‘or’ before ‘time is killing me’, highlighting the provisionality of this second judgment.
If Brook were a painter, in an analogous manner to Cézanne’s late watercolours he would leave many white spaces in his paintings, so as to allow the viewer to imaginatively decide on how they might be filled in. Or he would paint his canvas in layers while ensuring that the later layers allow the earlier layers of paint to peer through. He certainly would not aim for the realism of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis whose painted grapes were supposedly so realistic that birds flew down and pecked at them. Rather, he would leave clear evidence of the brushstrokes on the canvas.
Brook himself refers to a number of painters in the collection (Mondrian, Hokusai and others) and one of the passages, which comes as close as Brook gets to encapsulating his philosophy, involves a description of a painter. Those of you who are familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology will recognise the deep affinity to his philosophy in the following lines, which present the invisible as the other side of the visible rather than as other-worldly or as merely subjective:
From this angle or that perspective, day after day,
in painting after painting, an artist friend tries to capture light,
not capture, not even render, tries to apprehend light’s temptations
on cloud and sea. It’s a search for the invisible in what is visible,
something that depends on sense but is beyond the senses,
what cannot be expressed without distortion: the reflective
and absorbent qualities of water, the way it is sometimes grey,
sometimes blue or green, sometimes so reflective it is invisible
and simultaneously opaque: the texture of this world in time and place.
It strikes me this is ground on which to stand…
In spite of the emphasis on provisionality in Brook’s poetry there are moments when the perceiver and the perceived, mind and world seem to cohere, moments of beauty and harmony, even if the ‘concord’ is ‘teetering on the edge of discord’. While some of my characterisations of Brook’s poetry might make him seem like a predominantly rational poet, this is not my intention. The book contains many deeply felt passages and poems, and the poem titled with a quotation from C. K. Williams, ‘Everything waste / everything would be or was’, is among the most moving and poignant poems I can remember reading anywhere. After evocative and brilliant descriptions of a seashore and basin at dusk, it also includes this line on almost-completeness: ‘What if we could hold all this like the sail almost holds the breeze…?’
Brook’s poetry explores and aims to do justice to the complexities of existence. It neither advocates a simple lyricism nor does it oppose feeling and thought as, unfortunately, occasional reviews of Australian poetry still sometimes do. Subtle irony, self-scrutiny, humour and wit are also sprinkled through the collection. I delight in the humour of these lines from earlier in the aforementioned poem: ‘At the water’s edge livid green strands tangle / and flop like snakes writhing in a B-grade / horror movie.’
While it has only been possible for me to touch on a few of the salient features and main themes of this wonderful and expansive book, I would like to at least mention one other poem. In a sequence of historico-political poems there is a long poem with a title-quotation from Joseph Conrad, ‘The brown current / ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness’. This complex and formally innovative poem intertwines an unfolding description of the natural environment of the eastern beaches of Sydney and its brutal history of colonisation with factual synopses and examples of the worst atrocities in human history from ancient times to the present day. Its masterful handling of this difficult material reminds the reader that Brook was a history teacher for twenty years.
I wholeheartedly encourage you to buy, read, re-read, and think about Brook Emery’s new collection have been and are. I am delighted to declare the book launched.
Luke Fischer is a Sydney-based poet and scholar. His books include the poetry collection Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the forthcoming poetry collection A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017). For more information see: www.lukefischerauthor.com