Our house used to be frequented by poets. They were part of the rough fabric of the Sydney arts scene in the 1970s, along with the painters, musos, actors and other assorted souls who were regular patrons of my mother’s impromptu salons. Mainly they seemed to be young(ish) men who consumed flagons of wine and, when empty, threw them at each other. Sometimes when they were pretty plastered, they’d have pissing competitions in the kitchen sink. Often their banter was punctuated by equal measures of misogyny and romance. Women, it was clear, had a thing for poets, and they knew it. They were lads – with pens.
Really the poets were lucky to make it inside our Jersey Road house. Beyond the sedate front door there was simply a hole. Unknowing visitors stepped over the threshold and straight into a muddy pit. The hole where a hearth should have been was part of one of my father’s endless renovation plans. No one was in a hurry to install floorboards. Observing the hapless literary victims of Dad’s talent for demolition was all part of my adolescent enjoyment. We were different, and the only way to survive that knowledge was to watch as the chaos and the Ben Ean moselle flowed; to smile wryly as another unwary aspirant to this heady scene fell through the ever widening gaps.
Once inside, there was plenty to keep poets occupied. For a start, there was my mother and my sister and me. And there was an ostentatious gold velvet sofa, adding a strong dose of bordello to the interior decorating scheme, along with the brocaded and tasselled lampshades. My mother would recline on this sofa and ‘tell stories’. This is actually an occupation in my family. I’m told that in some households parents go to work. But my Mum and Dad were better than that – they entertained. Often they seemed to be competing over who could be the most outrageous. Mum would start talking about her lovers, and schmoozing up to some potential candidates, tossing her head back and laughing drolly while ostentatiously smoking in a style befitting a 1940s movie queen. Dad adopted a different tactic. Like a New Guinea highlander engaged in a culinary prestation of charred pork that would outwit the most conniving masculine rival, Dad would cook. Huge slabs of meat would emerge from the kitchen – a side of corned beef, a few dozen chickens, some legs of lamb for good measure. Occasionally nice women, who appeared like unwilling extras, would incline their heads and cluck ‘You are so lucky to have a husband who cooks, Dorothy’. If Merv still felt he hadn’t adequately conveyed his message, he would stand out in the Woollahra street and crack his stockwhip, a wild smarting sound rending the suburban night sky. I recall one hapless poet attempting to imitate my father. He stumbled, inebriated, out on to Jersey Rd and heaved the whip, flaccidly, on to the bitumen. A petulant silence ensued. He never tried it again.
When the poets really got going, you were in for a good time. Leonard Cohen would be played on the turntable, and the lyrics floridly repeated, as though nothing more could ever be said, or sung. Occasionally Bob Dylan would muscle Leonard out of the way and we would all be transported, feverish, to Black Diamond Bay. When the night really got underway, we might go and listen to our local version of Dylan. Driscoll had a regular gig in a city pub. At 15 my favourite drink was cherry advocaat with a dash of lemonade. ‘Blue blue angel’ he would intone huskily into the mike, laconically strumming his guitar, a mop of curly hair lending a disreputable air. His lyrics seemed, at a minimum, exquisite.
Later we’d pile in a car, ready to party on. One night remains vivid. I was in the front seat squished on the lap of a painter, who I may have slept with once or twice. A poet was driving. He had a fast car. In case we didn’t know this, he was driving the car very fast down Sussex St. He screamed to a stop at a milk bar, demanding that they add his flask of bourbon to the milkshake. It was not like Grease. He would race through red lights, and then suddenly brake, just for the hell of it. My mother always referred to the seat I was sort of sitting in as the death seat, at least in conversation with my father. (With poets she had a more devil-may-care personality.) As the fast car screamed to a halt and then lurched forward, like a rocking horse on steroids, I began to cry. The painter told the poet to cut it out. Although the poet was clearly in the grip of mania, he still maintained a hazy awareness that the painter was at least twice his size. His driving became more benign, and in my grateful teenage mind the painter became an artist who had rescued me from the jaws of poet-inflicted death. I started to think of him as my boyfriend.
We arrived at someone’s house, possibly Driscoll’s. It was a narrow terrace furnished haphazardly with throw-outs from back alleys. Everyone was slugging down those flagons. Romances and fights began to break out. My parents were nowhere to be seen. This is really living, I thought. The poet got me up against a wall. He kept telling me that if I would just go away with him – for a weekend – he would change my life. I looked around for my saviour. But he was busy beating up his younger brother, a weedy man who had almost been a pop star in the sixties and never had another moment in the sun since. Even the poet was impressed with the Oedipal battle being enacted only a few feet away. When the painter had demolished the passé recording artist, and a little blood decorated the skirting boards, we all broke up, retiring to eat platefuls of lukewarm rice-a-riso. This was not something I ever consumed in my father’s kitchen.
My relationship with the painter never worked out. At fifteen, he was twice my age. His compellingly crazed portrait of my mother won the Archibald Prize in 1990. I can find no hint of myself in those thick trails of glossy oil playfully demarcating enormous unbound breasts and unfettered zestful imperium. My mother ended up writing a slender book of deeply romantic verse about the poet. Apparently he did change her life. Indeed, he was her chosen tragedy. Although the volume was slender, the havoc it caused in my family was immense. Driscoll eventually died, as people do, his health ruined by heroin. At 93 my father still attempts to slay women into submission through rhyming verse. ‘You are my biscuit girl’, he might address a missive to one of the women who now shower and feed him daily, hungrily hoping for some action. Usually I am the only person who reads these intended appetisers.
Poetry, I think it would be fair to say, has partly written my life. When poets want to seduce someone, they write them a poem. In the 70s, they actually used to post them. Occasionally when I am overcome with longing, I still reach for my pen or, less poetically, my keyboard. But email just doesn’t have the same cachet. Last year I recited some of my mother’s poetry at Sydney Writers Festival. She had passed away a decade earlier, and my sister, Kate, had organised a tribute. There’s a special tent you register in if you are performing. They have free beer and wine. Inside you feel a little superior to the crowds queuing along the wharf, waiting for their artful encounters. When I approached the desk and named the session I was involved in the attendant looked me up and down, taking in my pink-checked skirt suit. ‘You are a publicist’, she announced. Evidently my efforts to appear an intimate part of this febrile world had been instantly exposed as fraudulent. I remain, at best, an observer.
Looking back, it’s hard to find the right words to describe that period of time when, if you got up in the morning, and went downstairs to cobble together some breakfast, you’d stumble across a composer passed out on the velvet lounge or a guy who had recently completed his first feature film script petulantly drinking tepid coffee or an actress, still leery from the night before, draped across the chipped mahogany sideboard. Some mornings it was hard not to trip over them. I’d quickly wash my socks and undies in the outdoor laundry, putting them on still damp, and raid my mother’s bone leather handbag, which smelled of 4711 eau de cologne and sadness, so that I could buy some lunch at the school tuckshop. There was no one I knew to say goodbye to. It was so simultaneously exciting and awful.
I suspect children of the talented and famous often feel like pastel reflections of a more colourful presence. It is easy to resent the neglect that accompanied my mother’s relentless imaginary. The harder task is to make sense of it. In my 20s, a de facto relationship ended. Anthony had been my first stable relationship with a man my age; he was gentle and reliable. Restless, I pursued someone else. Despairing at my own fecklessness, I visited Mum, hoping for solace. She was lying in bed, a notebook propped on her lap, writing. This was her usual position. As I told her the story of my infidelity, she glanced up, tears of genuine compassion rimming her eyes. ‘Oh Rosie’, she exclaimed. Then she looked back at her spirax companion, her lips moving in the slight mutter that always accompanied her creations. And that was it.
I know now how hard it can be to find the right words for daughters. I know, too, that the Sydney arts scene in the 70s was a difficult place to grow up. For Dorothy, it was a dream interior where she could make her oft-repeated longing to be centre-stage come true. Her daughters were her props. When I was a teenager, she tried to incorporate me into her world. She, literally, wrote my parts. I would stand before a microphone, given a leading role in her radio play. Or I would be captured on film, playing some dishevelled girl desperately desired by others, acting out her romances.
My Aunt Dessie tells this story. When she and Mum were girls, growing up on their isolated wheat farm, they used to roam the paddocks together. Dorothy would invent long and convoluted narratives and command her little sister to write down all of her words as soon as they returned home. Forged in the midst of all that brazen self-reflection, I’m still struggling to dig myself out. My own still-life has a more muted palette. It’s a comparatively quiet place of calm and order and, in good times, constancy. But if you look carefully, there in the recesses of the deep shadows, you can just glimpse a poetic undertone of striking scarlet.
Edited by Kent MacCarter and Alison Lemer
Affirm Press, 2013
Reviewed by SOPHIA BARNES
Joyful Strains is introduced to us by Arnold Zable as a testament to the spirit of the PEN International project, bringing together a vibrant and engaging, by turns moving and hilarious, collection of stories. These are all accounts of immigration in its various shapes and forms, whether motivated by death, war, hope, ambition, desperation, love or curiosity. Migrants see their hopes realised or dashed, confront loss and new life, faith abandoned or refreshed, languages forgotten, learned and relearned, personal and cultural histories reinvigorated or challenged. Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Night of the Living Wog’ is the perfect opener to the collection, reminding us as it does, with its wry humour and sparkling imagination, the power of art to enable the articulation and thereby the comprehension of our experience. As a young Turkish boy told he is now Greek and finding himself in Australia, Kakmi discovers his very own TARDIS in the television: a small, shiny black box which contains more than its size could ever seemingly allow. The reader can’t help but reflect that what Australian television does for Kakmi is what literature does also: a slim collection of pages with its black type crawling across an off-white page contains a world of diversity, stretching from the second decade of the new millennium back into the formative years of the twentieth-century, across nations, oceans and continents.
What is the immigrant experience of Australia? A trick question, really; for there is no more an immigrant experience than there is an immigrant. The story of migration is an entirely personal as much as it is a shared one—and it is only through the personal that we can begin to understand just how ambivalent the sensation of emigration, immigration, exile or assimilation can be. In a beguiling formulation Chi Vu speaks of her birth language as a set of ‘limbs’ that remain “under my jacket, weak and pale, yet ageing with the rest of me”, as the ‘alien’ limbs of English grow “strong through daily use”. Ali Alizadeh struggles to find the words and to tame the grammar that will convey his love for a young Australian girl named Sally whose individual acceptance of him, if given, might transcend the rejection of a cruel schoolyard and its uncaring wardens. Kakmi’s televisual mentors teach him the ways of the world; like him, they are strangers in a strange land, whose bewildered discoveries mirror his own. The strongest stories in this collection are the ones that illuminate the experience of belonging (or not – and to what?) through the lens of the intimate, the particular and even the peculiar.
The distance between the old home and the new is not always, or not only, geographical. For Amy Espeseth it is a distance made deeper and more insurmountable by the barrier of lost faith. For her the past must be remade as an imaginary country, the friend of her childhood a spectre of what might have been rather than what is. This notion of the imaginary country, the land of memory and of inspiration, recurs throughout Joyful Strains, for it is in the imagination that the lands which migrants have left continue to flourish, to grow—even beyond the hazy boundaries of their own reality. The “rain-soaked earth and bruised grass”, the vibrant flame trees, the “lazy rivers and the sound of wood doves in the trees” become the memory world on which Malla Nunn will continue to draw and which she will eventually weave into her fiction.
What Joyful Strains brought home to me—if you will excuse the expression—is the sheer diversity of Australian immigrant experience. It may seem a truism but if so it is one which seems regularly to get lost in each new wave of discrimination and recrimination as partisan game-players use the easy target of desperate refugees to score empty political points. As an umpteenth-generation Australian, whose family tree (depending on who’s telling the story) yields a genuine bona fide first-fleet convict, I can claim nothing approximating an experience of exile, of racial discrimination, or of the uncanny sensation felt by Chi Vu as she catches herself thinking in her adopted language for the first time. Given the politically-charged nature of any current debate about migration, where poisonous and often outright-misleading language abounds, there tends to be little reflection on the way that each successive wave of migration has garnered a similar reaction. The prophecies of disaster have never come true, yet the language of ‘floodgates’, the image of a tide of immigrants who will drown our shores, persists. Never mind that those who warn us are themselves more often than not as much the children of Australia’s migrant history as those whose names might be slightly harder to pronounce, whose accents might be that little bit thicker. One can only hope that this important collection will do its part to remind us how tired these warnings of disaster are, and how rich and enviable is our cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity.
The breadth and variety of individual stories of the journey to Australia from any number of birthplaces, the cacophony of different languages and dialects spoken in any number of Australian schools, homes, pubs, cafes, parks and community centres, is what Joyful Strains attempts to capture—and to my mind, it succeeds.
SOPHIA BARNES is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, where her Ph.D is currently under examination. She has published academic work internationally, and has had creative writing published in WetInk Magazine. In 2013 she was shortlisted for the WetInk / CAL Short Story Prize for the second year running.
by Marion May Campbell
University of Western Australia Publishing
Reviewed by CATHERINE COLE
Campbell’s novella, konkretion, follows an elderly ex-communist, Monique Piquet, through Paris, as she meets up with a former student who has published a book about German political activists, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, who were former and founding members of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The book offers a segueing and poetic re-examination of Meinhof, who died in suspicious circumstances in prison in 1976, and her fellow conspirators.
These were heady and dangerous times, politically and artistically, and Campbell weaves the political and the artistic threads dexterously as she asserts these connections. The book is full of references to Baader and Bacon, Celan and Barthes as well as Ensslin and Meinhof, their political convictions working within and in opposition to the key philosophies of the times. What makes Campbell’s book so interesting is the way in which she leads Monique Piquet – and the reader with her – through a mix of memory and reflection, on past times, past trips, the seduction of extreme politics, especially for the young, and the older woman’s reacquaintance with that seduction.
konkretion is not an easy book – nor should it be – but its style makes for a difficult read at times. There’s no strong narrative flow to allow an easy dipping in or out, or a linear narrative offering a long and languorous read. Rather, konkretion challenges the reader to move back and forth, to pause and remember, or to look people up if necessary for an understanding of the text. Campbell doesn’t want lazy or ill-informed readers, I suspect, and to enter the novel requires a commitment to one’s own reflections and, where necessary, education.
The book’s greatest strength for this reader, at least, rests in its disquieting and challenging poetics. Take for example: ‘ In the theatre, the gloom is thick and slow as suet, glutinous on eyeballs, eyeballs out on sticks already, in fact.’ Her words challenge the reader to declaim, loudly, as the long quote below also suggests. There’s a poetics too which is graphic in its intensity: ‘a dark-haired woman, her face pillow-propped, looks straight at the viewer, while the lover’s head rises over the horizon of her shoulders.’ The voice is strong, if at times perplexing, and perhaps that’s why the book is such an interesting read. One is always challenged by Monique’s point of view and her relationship with history. Campbell poses questions about terrorism, about aging and place, answering them through an exploration of ideas and the ways in which they’ve formed and reformed in her character’s mind over the years.
They wanted to sample and spin and mix all their scripts in the disassembly of nation. They asked us to put our stethoscopes to these pleasure texts and to mark the harmonics, the syncopations, the intoxicating buzz, the polyrhythmic pulsing there. Oh and we did, we loosened up to the friction of textual bodies and pulverized subjectivities. We were rehearsing a way beyond war, beyond capital, beyond strutting sovereign subjects. Remember Babel, our opponents sneered, as if all that babble wasn’t war to start with. Well, we said yes, maybe, but only in the sense that fascistic thought wants to impose the One over the many. We pointed to our friend Luce (lips-all-over) Irigaray composing her ludic mimicry on male philosophers. (pp19-20)
There is much to discover along the way. For example, we meet the Romanian/French poet, Paul Celan, and enjoy his work briefly. Other poets add to this narrative and konkretion should be read with a mind open to meeting old favourites and new ones – to reassessing one’s youthful passions with the slower pleasures of increasing age.
That Campbell’s poetics walk hand in hand with politics provides a binary between the familiar and the new, the cruel and the creative, politics and art – and the differences and similarities between them which challenge and destabilize the reader, while kindling understanding and offering them much to think about.
It is easy for a contemporary reader to believe that terrorism began on September 11. Our news seems to encourage this view, so Campbell’s younger readers might be surprised to know just how potent – and romantic – the narrative of protest was in the 1960s and 1970s. Protest about the Vietnam war or the bourgeois establishment which spawned the Paris revolution of 1968 and the student protest movements in the USA, Europe and Australia, had a darker side in the terrorist activities of groups such as the Red Army Faction. It’s hard to imagine the sheer determination and commitment of groups such as the IRA, the Red Brigade, and the RAF who were responsible for bombings and assassinations in a range of cities. At that time visiting a shop or bar in any English or European city could be fraught with danger. Campbell takes the reader back to those anxious times by locating the reflective Piquet in a place where a great deal happened in art, politics, philosophy. But Piquet is now an older woman as she walks around Paris, but despite this her present is immediate, poetic, clever and perplexing – and the reader walks with her, dipping in and out of a troubled past.
Konkretion is a complex examination of these ideas – it’s very much of its times but also very much of now.
CATHERINE COLE is a novelist, poet and critic and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong.
by Michael Brennan
Reviewed by TAMRYN BENNETT
‘The world was already the world and we were looking for ourselves’
~ Michael Brennan
It is possible to comb Michael Brennan’s most recent collection for clues connecting it to the triptych the author alluded to in notes on Unanimous Night. Or to search the pages for traces of introspective revelations of self, other and culture suggested by the title Autoethnographic. However, it seems that in his third collection, Brennan uses the mirror as a means to observe the self-refracted in the murky Petri dish of modernity.
Regardless of the ‘selves’ we read through, Autoethnographic holds a lens to human fault lines, inviting us to view fissures and failings in fluorescent detail. Entwining peripheral narratives and a scientific precision not encountered in Brennan’s previous collections, Autoethnographic presents emptiness, longing and memory loss under a microscope. From Alibi Wednesday’s arrival to ‘The Great Forgetting’, these poems examine the difficulties of authenticity in the ‘ready-made’ age of ruin and capital.
Brennan’s opening quote, borrowed from Edward Sapir, elucidates the importance of language in shaping social interactions; ‘Human beings do not live in the objective world alone […] but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society’. Through language we are labelled, recorded, lied to, studied and lost. Simultaneously escapist and sensitive, Brennan’s language exquisitely renders the flux, cracks and decaying states of language in an inflated world of indexed happiness, HTML, and coded collapse. Re-contextualised and dismantled, the words that linger on the ‘Chinese fortune-teller’s wet lips’ in Brennan’s ‘After the circus’ are the same as those that fall like crumbs from the sweet old fool’s mouth in ‘Symbiosis’. Beneath the thin shell of social constructs, Brennan exposes the bones upon which our narratives are built. The same bones we veil with syntax and fragmentary sketches of drifters, desperados and circus tents.
Enter Autoethnograpic’s cast of transient characters: the fugitive Alibi Wednesday, Georgia on the run, ‘Noah in love’, and the hapless Jumbo hammering his way into the sky. These figures are connected by a continual search and inarticulate sense of loss. They represent the spectrum of existent possibilities, albeit a localised and somewhat suburban gamut, with each of their episodes offering a window into life after the ‘Great Forgetting’. Introduced in the poem ‘Team spirit’, the ‘Great Forgetting’ is a recurring metaphor for unfathomable acts of war, corruption and injustice that have been bled from consciousness by a kind of collective amnesia.
Before the Great Forgetting set in,
I’m sure I was happy and all of this was different,
but soon the money-lenders will be at the door
again, and we don’t even have a biscuit to bribe
their baboons. Oh Lord, Lord, I’m so afraid.’
This poem, like many within the collection is part confession, part social portrait. Comparing the scene to the ashen piles of Pompeii, it recalls a time before the propaganda confetti settled and the reality of ‘the grand scale’ turned grey. Beneath the self-reflexive front, ‘Team spirit’ exposes mass concerns of confusion. After the hope and hysteria, the past and present are hyperlinked in a continual loop of uncertainty. Again in ‘Unwilling’, the black-market aftermath of the ‘Great Forgetting’ unfolds in a subtle commentary on uncritical compliance.
After the Great Forgetting, the city fell. All the
political prisoners were released as no one knew
who they were, let alone whose. The trade in
organs and body parts abounded, not all of it
The same historical haze and deep sleep that fuels the ‘Great Forgetting’ in ‘Unwilling’ also pervades ‘Sidereal days’, ‘Wilful blindness’, ‘A philosophy of freedom’ and the title poem ‘Autoethnographic’. In each of these, and indeed throughout the collection, the sounds of sirens, static and six-car pile-ups provoke a sense of hallucinatory, lucid dreaming. It is a dream shared by Brennan’s characters as they salvage memories, speak with the dead, and piece together past lives and future selves. An unending dream or series of episodes that glimpse what’s to come and what can never be again. These observational ‘meta-sodes’ reveal that even before the Great Forgetting, the collective conscious was divided and distracted by hedonistic headlines.
To date, reviews of Autoethnographic have often focused on Brennan’s dystopian requiems and the contemporary resignation to cultural collapse (Kenneally, 2012). Yet it is precisely this climate of dysfunction that enables his crew of deviant escapists and the surreal scenes of ‘After the circus’, ‘The Milonguero’, ‘Last exit to human’ or ‘Jumbo and the happy abyss’ that are arguably the strength of this collection.
Jumbo and the happy abyss
He’s ripped-up the roof tiles and lays them
out, each one a step, a little red chipped tongue,
he tiptoes up. He’s pulling himself up by his
bootstraps. Impossible dancer. I wonder when
the council will get here and tell him to pull it down,
with their ordinance and physics and if he’ll get
finished before then, and clamber into the sky like
Jumbo’s improbable staircase is the eternal symbol of hope. As unstable as the Kenneally twins’ dreams ‘built out of horse glue, some piping and slippers’, the staircase is an escape, an attempt to defy the rules of reality and of gravity. In this way, Brennan’s poems open portals into possibility, scaffolding delusions of the grandest scale in the wake of loss. Towards the end of the collection, in ‘World already’, escape is finally realised with the line ‘an uncle ascending into cirrus’. This ontological description of dispersion hints at the essential transformation we all undertake in returning to matter.
If pressed to find fault with Autoethnographic, it is that the poignancy Brennan’s observations are, at times, undercut by predicable lineation and prosaic page composition. Still, his observations are acutely detailed, engaging and sanguine. From solar flares to snowflake details, desert expanses or the renaming of everything in ‘Countless times’, Autoethnographic showcases the voice and vision of a poet who has surely hit his stride, a poet examining existence as a means of understanding our place within it.
References: Peter Kenneally, 2012, ‘Michael Brennan: Autoethnographic’, Australian Book Review.
DR TAMRYN BENNETT is a writer and visual artist. Since 2004 she has exhibited artists books, illustrations and comics poetry in Sydney, Melbourne, Switzerland and Mexico. Her poetry, illustrations and essays have appeared in Five Bells, Nth Degree, Mascara Literary Review, THEthe Poetry, and English in Australia. She currently works as Education Manager for The Red Room Company. tamrynbennett.com
Straws, Sticks, Bricks
by Cyril Wong
Math Paper Press
Reviewed by AMOS TOH
I first discovered Cyril Wong’s poetry at the same time I was introduced to his music, during the launch of his fifth collection of poems, Like A Seed With Its Singular Purpose, in 2006. Perched on a table in the middle of a crowded bar, Wong sang ‘Practical Aim’:
“Does solitude offer strength over time, or
is denial of it the only practical aim?
After deep loss, what does the heart
learn that it has not already understood
about regret? When all light finally
forsakes a room, do we take the time
to interrogate the dark, and to what end?”
Wong’s robust countertenor typically commands attention, capable of reducing the room to a stunned silence. This time, however, his voice conveyed the tentative, questioning wonder of a poet recently set free from conventional assumptions about solitude, loss and regret. Both in song and in writing, the questions of ‘Practical Aim’ are articulated with haunting irony, daring us – himself – to embark on a journey of unflinching self-discovery.
This coupling of music and poetry continues throughout his most recent work. Oneiros, for example, is a paean to the lush sounds of nature, providing solace from the alluring static of a city crammed with messages about how we should behave and who we should become. His latest collection, Straws, Sticks, Bricks, answers the lyrical call of ‘Practical Aim’ more abstractly, taking time to “interrogate the dark” when humanity is finally stripped of its pretenses. His findings are presented as a series of prose poems arranged like piano scales, words sliding up and down the slopes of memory, lust and desire.
Wong’s poems impart the appearance of strict form, recalling the painstaking discipline of fingering. Each poem consists of a single sentence, broken up only by the brief, incomplete pause of a dash, comma or semi-colon. This semblance of structure belies the tumult of Wong’s observations and stories. Take, for example, his word portrait of a bowl of apples, which buzz with thoughts of envy, resentment and disdain:
“the apples sometimes wish they were more than themselves; they have heard of apples larger than themselves; apples deny any relationship to pears; the apples wonder if it is true, that green apples exist; the apples riot in the dark, but cannot win; still, they try …”
The unbroken phrasing conveys the cramped space the apples inhabit, as well as the fog of discontentment that descends upon the “bowl’s bright rim”. If one replaced the sullen, silent masses that file into Raffles Place (the central business district of Singapore) every morning with Wong’s apples, it would be hard to tell the difference.
More direct references to life’s dissatisfactions also thrive on this tension between form and substance. In ‘Notes From A Religious Mind’, the one-sentence structure buckles under the strain of an internal battle to reconcile righteousness with self-righteousness, eventually giving way to unbridled arrogance:
“Holier; infinitely more blessed and moral; more beautiful, by default (notice my inner glow); enlightened; modest; assured … countless followers, so many more, and with even more to come; more influential and so powerful; and more right, unsurprisingly, than you.”
Such dissonance is again evident in Wong’s treatment of pop culture, which he views as just another religion of relentless self-justification. The feel-good truisms of pop’s biggest hits become portholes into an alternate universe where life’s tragedies and imperfections are laid bare for all to see. ‘Teenage Dream’, Katy Perry’s anodyne hit single about star-crossed lovers, provides Wong an opening to explore the cracks that begin to form after the infatuation fades. All seems fine at first, but “an arm … lifted too suddenly” or “a deliberately stern word at the wrong time” hints at a relationship that has begun “pouring sideways”.
Teenage lovers yield the stage to a pair of strangers uncoiling from their lust in ‘Born This Way’. While Lady Gaga’s anthem of self-affirmation papers over the complications of gay identity, Wong’s rendition brings them to the fore in vivid, almost grotesque detail. The aftermath of a one night stand takes a weirdly compelling turn after one stranger asks the other to “take a picture of him against the pale orange glow creeping in from the living room”. The impromptu photo shoot that follows captures the desolation of both the photographer and the photographed. The photographer does not want his subject to “look mad and ugly and alone”, but the latter still comes across as a “steroid-junkie corpse-bride” anyway. The garishness of it all “almost makes me want to hug him”, but the “stink of poppers mixed with a whiff of fresh blood dancing down his legs stops me from reaching forward and making no difference in the end.” Every frame of their loveless dalliance is vaguely comedic but also heart wrenching, balanced on the knife’s edge between farce and tragedy.
Wong’s poems are steeped in despair, but they also find redemption in the most unexpected places. The last poem of the collection, ‘Zero Hour’, revels in a universe of one, where the “tremendous weight” of loneliness and time is no longer a pressing reality but a fading memory. “You”, the reader, are dropped into an empty house deep in a rainforest, in the middle of nowhere and everywhere. At first, the solitude is “unbearable”, but you slowly learn to “sit for hours on the porch”, eventually “letting words go” as “what they fai[l] to capture beg[ins], at last, to take over”. Some would call this enlightenment, but Wong resists the glib certainties of language, implying what is achieved by examining the inability to describe it.
The uncertainty of our existence is the lifeblood of Straws, Sticks, Bricks; a void Wong discovers to be “an invitation to everything, the door to unending creation.” (‘Matins’) His poems are not an indictment of our deepest fears (be it death, loneliness or fear itself), but the lengths we would go to escape them. In trying to find The Way, we have lost our way. Why not take time instead to “interrogate the dark”, for no particular purpose and with no expectation of answers? As we rediscover our sense of wonder, fear might no longer become us. Perhaps that in itself is a ‘practical aim’.
AMOS TOH is a part time New Yorker and a full time Singaporean.
Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published five collections of poetry, most recently Apocrypha (2009). He received the Queensland Premier’s Award for poetry in 2010 and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His latest collection Towns in the Great Desert is being published in 2013.
His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.
I saw her there, sitting on the narrow ledge outside the window of the upstairs bedroom, my other sister, so pale and thin, the bones almost puncturing her skin. I could tell she was getting ready to fly, that slight rocking of her body, her closed eyes feeling their way towards the air she wanted to float in like someone terrified of water reciting a mantra before slipping off the side of the pool into that blue wide expanse. My other unnamed sister, my lost double, in the thirteenth year of her death.
* * *
For many months one year we lived in the capital. I remember the sculptured layers of a park that by gradual degrees raised itself above a boulevard, stretching away from a harbourside marina. The pavements were like Paris or New York with many tall buildings from the 1920’s and 1900’s but it was as if someone had taken a huge mallet to every pavement and building and pounded cracks into them. It looked like a New York or Paris systematically dinted so everyone would know it had only ever been a replica, of no real value in itself. People dressed in warm rich clothes and paraded en famille along these shattered sidewalks, somehow not taking in that everything was dust and weeds and gaping holes. Everywhere was plastered in billboards of ski resorts, exotic waterfalls, extravagant furs and jewelry, and in the fountain at the centre of the park was a small flotilla of coffins. Around a monument were men dressed like soldiers from the revolutionary war of the 1780’s and on the hillside children attached to kites would take off into the skies. I remember there was a small hotel where we stayed one night – when I fell asleep it was on one side of the boulevard and, when I woke the next morning, it was on the other side. There was a yacht owned by the British royal family tied to a tumbledown wharf and if you walked across the gangplank you entered another country.
* * *
We were living in a place where the past was so strong the present could never really take hold. There was a bookshop that had no books, that had shelves and bookcases lined with names written on small cards indicating where books had once been. There was a museum of the famous leaders and writers and poets and artists of the country but it consisted only of plaques where their manuscripts or paintings or sculptures had once been. In the district of painted buildings there was an immense spiral staircase made of ornately carved ironwork that went down through all the layers of a building that was no longer there. On one street corner a woman who could read fortunes was collecting money so that one day she could buy a Tarot pack. All these things were true of this city, along with the absolute conviction among its inhabitants that nowhere else on earth could match its brilliance or in any way equal its accomplishments. When the last of his business ventures failed, my father hurried us back to our place in the remote provinces.
* * *
When I look into the face of the clear ones I look into the face of the sky. Tonight an indistinct lightning is there, like the barely perceptible quivering of a wounded eye. Slowly it circles the platform where I am sleeping driven out of the house by midsummer heat. This is the season of exposure and withdrawal. Simultaneously what is given is concealed. A wave breaks and travels far into the future, into eons when humans are no longer here. The ear picks up a faint crumbling at the edge of perception. You leave the balcony, turn left, up the stairs, waiting for someone to arrive, above the door an oval mirror, then at once you are a blaze of space.
* * *
Curled up on the floor a brown leaf that is really a moth – a moth returning to its state as wood that one day would return to its state as stone. Soon the table would rise off the balcony and the small room of light would be inscribed in the darkness a little way above the forest. Something had gone wrong, that was all I knew. Faces detached themselves from other faces. My fearful double chin was dripping blood: first small droplets, then a steady river flowing down to soak a tribe of ants on the floor. The twin shadows I knew by the names of guilt and regret were sitting in opposite corners of the room, their closed eyes seeing everything.
* * *
What the field before me held were various bells sounding at different pitches. They hung from the edges of leaves. A leaf would convulse then stop and somewhere some distance from the first leaf a second leaf would convulse. This happened for several minutes across the overgrown orchard with its tangled hedge. The leaves were infected by some kind of nervous tic, a spasming they could no longer control, but it was not general, not all the leaves. They preserved a randomness that made it clear they were just like us, feeling themselves to be individuals yet dominated by inexplicable compulsions.
* * *
On a day missing from the calendar there is an hour when breathing stops, when the breath is no longer needed but every person will continue across this hour, unaware of its passage. Ants, butterflies, moths and various insects observe people and tamed animals in this hour moving doggedly on with no breath inhaled. It is a moment ordained for every other life form to experience the free creativity of uninterpreted speech. Ants vibrate, worms and caterpillars intone subtle melodies, cockroaches lay bare their dark philosophy. On this day that slips away from human calendars the mosquito and the wasp frame their own elaborate histories. Later humans will breathe in again, unaware of the hiatus, will again insist on their uniqueness, their interminable chant of naming and possessing. In the corner where no light penetrates, the book of beginnings has gained another page.
* * *
One day my father and mother took us to a wedding in a distant city. For two days we traveled by train to reach there, having to change between different lines several times. The wedding took place in the main cathedral and later the reception was held in an old colonial house in a steep and jagged part of the city nestled high in the cordillera known as “the Cinnamon Zone”. The house was built round a central patio, an ornate garden with a pond and fountain. The library contained not only the works of the great poets and novelists of many languages but also a sound archive of recordings of every poet who had passed through our country and whose fame or agreed-on merit was considered worth preserving. Surreptitiously I slipped away from my family to rest inside this library. After a while a small woman emerged from under a writing table and identified herself as “the witch” – she could tell fortunes and read off the secret poems inscribed in the palm of the hands or on the surfaces of all old and time-creased objects. These powers, or “toxic gifts” as she called them, had come to her, she told me, in the months after her son had disappeared – her husband was related to a powerful crime lord and someone had stolen her son as revenge for the murder of their family. “This wedding is doomed”, she said. “She will beg the Pope to excommunicate her husband and annul the marriage but the President of the Republic is a master of black art and will blind the church to the truth.” I asked her if she knew my fate. “It is not good to know”, she replied, “it is never good to know. The time when it will be time is always not that far.”
* * *
A season that would last many years was preparing itself. There were people under the floorboards who were growing wolves’ teeth and learning to fly in the dark caverns that stretch beneath our country. Those with the precise eyesight for dividing the human body into gristle and sellable commodities. Adept connoisseurs in the pillaging of corpses. Their righteousness would take many years to reach its zenith. It was to be a time with no moon or sun when dismemberment would go on openly, boastingly, for more than a decade. Already under the floorboards they were assembling the racks.
Surely father could hear this and was taking steps. Surely mother could hear it and had alerted someone. Frozen I listened. Frozen I held it tight inside myself. It was the shadow of a smile in the rust-green pond I was walking down into. It was a distant ringing in the small curve of my belly, a miniature alarm clock I had no words for, the whispering of a nightmare even before sleep has enfolded you.
* * *
They were racing to fortify the borders though no one knew what to put in, what to leave out. Should this tree be in or out? This river, this tangled passionfruit vine? Just as unclear was where to place the barriers of time – only what belonged to last year or twenty years back or a hundred? Should parents be included or only older brothers and sisters? Outside the borders would be everything we would have to abandon and agree to call “enemy” – clipped fingernails, toys from Christmases that couldn’t be imitated any more, doubles of ourselves we had chatted to so many times in vivid, impossibly complicated, waking dreams, a friendly shoulder bouncing a ball in a park that had towered over the most difficult year of childhood, a presence that with every casual flick of the expert wrist said, “One day you can be me”. And now frantically we were hunting for cardboard boxes, balls of string, spiked wire, the hoarded stash of dumdum shells, swirling laser images of crucified men and women that could stand guard over the frontier, could set the barrier, for once and all, between what we would be from now on and what would be pushed aside into the never more to be mentioned non-land of loss.
* * *
At the conference in the provincial capital each speaker was invited to give their opinions on snow. Voices shifted in a room while enormous clusters of ice crashed against the pavement outside. The white city of smashed windows began to spill an almost invisible red thread. The daze in the eyes of a man going blind snowed over and the quiet world waited. It was for him in one breath the centre of a new unexpectedly luminous world.
White lines flicker like wasps buzzing all around the threaded knots of a grape vine. Petals of whiteness float down around him. Let him die outdoors. And another butterfly settles on his eyelids – from one ear faintly now he hears the purr and slash of an earthmover tearing up the soil, uprooting the trees that held life together. In the other ear a garden fountain goes on letting water trickle down a slope of rocks – water landing in droplets on water. The sudden brightness of snow falling inside him. Before him the wasp doing acrobatics, tumbling from leaf to leaf on the vine. Even with the explosions from the neighbouring yard, the thud of subterranean shelves collapsing, he felt the snow guiding him, the reversal of white and black bringing him to the entrance, this narrow, infinitely open present.
* * *
And Solomon in his whirlwind said
You were a flowering tree.
You were broken donkey and stricken wolf.
You were the one awaited and the one lost.
You were Adam and the one torn to shreds by beasts.
You were the brick and the entire gleaming wall rinsed in daybreak.
You were atoms of air and a dream held between bones.
You were the ship.
You were the child who says ‘the ship’.
You were the selfish one and the sustainer.
You were the page, the empty whiteness, the dizziness of swarming words.
You were the eyes of a frog repeating itself all through the long wet night.
You were the lover, the blind man and the grave where flowers will grow.
You were raven and owl, the white carcass of a mouse under the scrabble of branches.
You were the plum tree and the fly.
You were the stone in the road, the space where the breath leaves.
You were Angela and Adam and the voice in the trees where the rain falls all night.
You were giver and given, poison and gift.
You were signs in the sky of the ending and someone’s hope.
* * *
Who comes through the forest?
The bear whose eyes guide him,
who moves in the echoing dark.
The shadow that moves behind him,
the lightning flash that steals the soul.
* * *
In the season of invasions it is not only the mice and spiders and wasps settling into the hallway. Dark pain moves into the chest, the skid of twenty years regret slips in through the soles of the feet. Soldiers of unknown countries take up positions on the street corners and you can’t always be invisible. This is the cold season when mist comes in off the sea and damp creeps under your fingernails. You can see children pressing bread to their faces to stay warm. Worst of all are the anger plants sending up twisted creepers through the soil, through the foundations of houses and countless pinpoints on the body’s skin to produce that dizzy nausea of destructiveness, wild barbs flung at children and partners. Of this season they say “Everyone carries a torturer within them.”
* * *
The rain steadily went on falling into itself: gathering like the round husks of lemons and, when light settled on the tiles, so much fullness brimmed over my eyes hurt with the shimmer. Pink and red and violet flowers snarled or whimpered or dozed with brief twitches under the assault of rain. It happened in the two weeks before what should have been the pepper harvest, this season they call “death through abundance”.
* * *
The whiteness of trees just before sunset with late birds scattering in noisy batches, parrots, Indian mynahs, a raven, some magpies and, come far too early, imposingly out of place as it perches on a low branch in a neighbour’s yard, a powerful owl, the Duke of owls, holding the world in its gaze with no flicker of movement, no sound. And darkness grows around it, the bougainvillea gather a deeper red, night seems to emanate from the leaves and flowers and the black earth, keeping the stars at bay.
The Duke of owls with two misshapen eyes, a card player who owns all the decks gazing into the emptiness of chance.
* * *
All at once
I come into the wood of the tree,
under flaking bark
the white core of hardness
where everything soars into a flash of eyes
lifted up by light,
ripped to where leaves are hanging in blue greyness
and wind and sky
set everything trembling.
Beyond all terror
I am scattered among fieldmice,
exploded like dewdrops
on leaf mulch, stone and sawn-off tree stump.
And around me
the voices that half whisper,
half chant, “little sister,
daughter of the daughters of our murderers,
our million ghosts,
your million ghosts,
are all here, right here,
breath of the wind inside you.
No one altogether dies.”
* * *
In moonlight tainted by clouds something exquisite shimmers – a broken tin fence, a haze of whiteness?
Midnight on all the drowned clocks. From inside its cold halo an owl beckons: home.
by Brook Emery
John Leonard Press
Reviewed by SUSAN FEALY
Collusion by Brook Emery explores Daniel Delfoe’s question ‘is it better to be here or there?’ while imparting the experience of being consequent to living inside the question. We enter a deeply reflective, largely solitary world where uncertainty and complexity are paradoxically shaped by quiet balance, precision and dailiness.
The meditative flow of the collection is enhanced by the bold decision to present all poems as untitled, thus removing titles from prior published poems and poems which short-listed in the Blake Poetry Prize 2009 and 2010.
Regular stanza structure within poems, many long-lined poems and most poems being at least page-length further enhance its meditative, modulated quality. The first lines of the ten-line poems begin with an ellipsis, are indented towards the right margin and lines are often enjambed; all emphasise flow. Their compressed energy adds tonal range rather than rupture. The collection is book-ended with a poem of long-lined couplets followed by two short single-stanza poems creating a symmetry that accentuates this collection’s balance and precision.
Emery often combines metaphysical enquiry with images of urban coastline and its weather. The poems addressed to ‘K’ suggest a clear intent to communicate to another and this avoids the risk of solipsism. Yet, this is the poetry of thought and the sense of a solitary self prevails: the mysterious K does not speak back. He or she seems a real or imagined correspondent remote in time and space but may also represent an attempt to reach beyond the everyday self into the poetic self that gives utterance because K is described as ‘my interlocutor, my conscience, my will’.
The internal rhymes are subtle and nuance the pairing of here and there. At times we find sound play in poems such as ‘The half-awake world’ where ‘gloved sounds’ ‘tap the ear – bird-call, leaf-slide, door-creak, door-slam’, but, overall, word music is so effortlessly yoked to meaning, visual and kinaesthetic sensations imprint the mind of the reader more forcefully than the sonic. Sound, when evoked, is rarely the worded voice of another: it is that of machines, white noise, bird call or unworded human sounds.
Silence is the medium of thought so it is no surprise that silence itself is assayed:
Waking at night, silence has the colour
that is all colours, or none at all. …
nothing mattered except the need to sleep,
to inhabit silence. Now silence is an alien state
and I am on its rim, sensing rather than seeing
something for which I can’t conceive a name.
(‘Waking at night, silence has the colour’)
Sound as a strange undertow to silence is evoked in a poem about overseeing a schoolgirls’ exam in ‘Perhaps the first thing I notice’:
Something about the silence is amiss. Yes, every cough or
crack or scraping of a chair is startling, but beneath it all I
hear a low collective hum as though, unorchestrated, every
throat is growling.
Movement is a key motif: we find uncertainty and its flux, indecisiveness and its back and forward movement, expansive flow of thought, the reach of desire, movement of body, breath, water, light, transport, weather and time. A strength of the collection is the way that these elements intersect with each other to create momentary collusions which dissolve and reconfigure. This leads to inventive metaphors where natural phenomena are perceived as thought: ‘dusk as uncertain premise, premonition which cannot last/much longer’, (‘After the lassitudes of blue’).
In the surreal poem ‘You’ve been waiting for something like’, the strange paradox of the dream-world that allows travel which is everywhere and yet nowhere is evoked:
you’re stalled at the border surrendering a passport that’s
borrowed, a face which is mugging,
‘I’m not. . .’ but you are, there’s a sea in your mouth and sea
in your head, the words rushing out won’t listen to will or
and you’re nowhere specific, just pandering with monkeys
in parakeet clothes, angels in uniforms with heat on their
The beauty of the natural world colludes with the poet’s ease and the time when ‘light cuts loose the day’ to provoke the imagined unrooting of a jacaranda in the thirteen- line poem ‘In the hour or so before night’s certain fall’. Reprieve from the persecution of the spectator and rational self is found in the liminal (between here and there) and it is often when evoking the liminal that Emery’s poems are the most lyrically beautiful:
… The jacaranda
against the church’s mortared, crumbling mass,
mauve and stunning and substantial as it is –
all indirect flowering of twists and turns –
seems uncontained as though at any moment
it might escape the rooted, understandable restraints
of space and time and float away as weightless
as a dandelion on the emerging evening breeze.
Escaping the limitations of self is explored in ‘You know the way’. Body experience and the fecundity of words are accorded equal weight and measure as means of escape, and in the flow of thought, they seem implicated with each other. Whether intended or not, it seems that long-line couplets sometimes reach beyond the limits of the page and spill into tercets:
… I think of a dancer’s grace as she glides into the
air, or the diver’s equal grace gliding towards the sea: the
body in defiance of its limitations.
going through, beyond. Graceful, gracious, gracile, words that
multiply and spread like flowering vine. Grace notes of
unbelief that still restore the faith.
In ‘Gloom off to the west’, Emery’s meticulous account of the interplay of mind and body experience while cycling into an approaching storm, reaches an unusual crescendo of exhalation not unlike Plath’s ‘Ariel’ as body propulsion collides with an intense encounter with the elements and the landscape. It takes him beyond the spectating self who follows fast behind. Unlike Plath, the urgency of here is created with reference to there:
it’s possible to see rain stiffen into spears and, more fancifully,
coalesce into a solid-seeming wall.
I race towards it expecting in some unlikely way to escape the
unrelenting clutch of earth. I’m mad, you say?
How so? Light splits the clouds in silver streaks, trees leap to cheer
me on, clap their soft green hands in wild excitement,
and the future is an endlessness of blue. On the road behind me, a
ghost bike takes up the chase. It’s closing fast.
This poem is balanced by others where body experience conveys states of psychic unease such as the pain of being out of tune with oneself that is found in ‘It comes from over there’:
Speak. Get it off your chest. The three blankets too warm
throughout the night, the dry bed of your mouth when you
got up to pee. This is not what you wanted to say. What
was the something else?
A movement towards and away from intimacy seems propelled by a legacy of pain in ‘Contested ground, this strange persistent beauty’:
co-incidental thing, skin my border, coming into contact
with other skin which touches and retreats,
touches and retreats, flinches at the little slights,
the acts of spite and meanness, the ancient sin of pride,
guilt which eats way. Imagine my love,
an outbreak of silence, and how the respite of ‘now’
would be hounded by ‘once’, ‘soon’, ‘again’.
When lovers do consummate desire in the surreal, filmic poem
‘In the background there is the music’ it is stalked by the menace
of its consequences:
…We turn and run to where we’ve been
but dark-suited men step round a corner and advance towards us.
We stop again. Look for a passageway to the left, the damaged door
we can shoulder open. This time it won’t budge. This time…
Poems which celebrate the movement of mind are often the most confident, playful, the most saturated in light or colour, the most inhabited by the natural world and least likely to reach into the overly discursive. However, in typical Emery fashion these poems are not only celebration of mind; they concisely articulate the metaphysical.
For example, in ‘Dear K, it’s light that makes the river flow’, the enquiry into how we know what we know has a propulsion and ease because uncertainty and flux are embraced as process with tantalising potential. The welcome possibility that mind and that which it observes could commune with each other in pre-thought seems to kindle energy and optimism: ‘I like the / dancing light, / the scattered cloud, the river that lies potentially between its banks, / the speeding train. I reach for them. They reach for me’.
Yet, the rational mind’s subverting of potential and spontaneity is seen as a kind of curse in ‘The half-awake world in the half-light’:
A curse on dithering, weighing up and second-guessing,
ordering the accounts, the sad debilitating song, what if,
In the poem, ‘It’s when the plane takes off’, the intellectual investigation into memory, especially memory of the poet’s past inexplicable actions, seems weakened by too many discursive lines. The potential of this poem seems to lie in the power and feeling of the personal narratives. The poem carries the seed of several myths about fathers and their children. For example, as a consequence of a decision to take his young twins into the surf, a father confronts how to keep them safe when they are separate from each other and in danger. The act of holding on and letting go, is deftly reprised in the holding and letting go of breath and waves:
When my son popped up from beneath tight-fisted foam
his first words were, ‘I’m alive, I’m alive.’ His twin sister
whom I’d pushed into the face of an earlier wave before I turned
and failed to grab my son – I couldn’t hold him – was paddling now
with a group of surfers three times her size and trying not to cry.
In the moving penultimate poem, ‘…we’re not so unalike’, the possibility of exchange is reached for and envisioned as a connection across a wide distance:
We may slip, misstep, or, not as likely, soar
but let’s maintain this firm, divergent grip:
I can be the tide; you must be the moon.
In the final poem, ‘Rain as it is only brighter’, water’s flow seems more shadowed than the lighter, faster currents of the first poem. The darkness of suffering, the unknown, mortality and the multiple ways the mind can look at what it sees, offers no certainty except process itself. Most of all, rain seems a blessing in its particularity because the poet is alive in the moment to receive it. And so profound simplicity colludes with complexity in a way that is distinctively Emery.
SUSAN FEALY is a Melbourne poet whose work has appeared in Antipodes, Meanjin and Best Australian Poems 2009 and 2010.
Susan Fealy is a Melbourne-based poet and clinical psychologist who began writing poetry regularly in 2007. She is the winner of the 2010 Henry Kendall Poetry Award and her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies including Best Australian Poems 2009 and Best Australian Poems 2010. She is developing her first full-length collection.
Made in Delft
After The Milkmaid
by Johannes Vermeer
White walls melken the daylight.
In this plain room,
The map of the world
Has been painted over:
Only a woman, blond
Light from the window,
Her wide-mouthed jug,
And bread on the table.
Vision slows at her wrist,
Travels along her forearm.
Her apron cascades
One can almost touch her thick
Waist, her generous shoulders,
Her crisp linen cap.
One can almost taste the milk
Escaping her jug.
The Striped Moth
(In the Melbourne Museum)
At 5pm your wings will hang with shadow.
Now, they feed on light. Do you remember
tapping at the window, frantic as a tiny bell?
Or is your soul composed—a forest of shadows?
A tiger is latched in you: those eyes crouch
like stars and your pelt is soft as a tinderbox.
A tree expands in the veins of your wings––
counts one night and half a dawn––signs off.
Thick and Thin Lines
by Phyllis Perlstone
Puncher and Wattmann Poetry, 2012
Reviewed by STEPHEN EDGAR
Some years ago I remember watching a television documentary about the English artist Ben Nicholson. At one point, speaking about a particular series of paintings in which Nicholson had arranged some carpentry tools in various geometric patterns, one of the commentators made what is, I suppose, an obvious but also an illuminating observation: the primary challenge for a painter is working out how to divide up the two-dimensional plane of the canvas—or, like the painter in Anthony Hecht’s poem, “Devotions of a Painter”, one could say “getting as much truth as can be managed/ Onto a small flat canvas”. I was reminded of this while reading Phyllis Perlstone’s new collection, Thick and Thin Lines. Perlstone, as some readers may know, began as a painter and everywhere in her poems you can see the painter’s eye looking, analysing the fall of light, the disposition and changing patterns of objects, persons and events on the plane of the observed world.
You can see this process at its simplest in a poem such as the brief “Water’s work”:
A red wall under blue sky
gives way to a tree top
when the great boughs that shake their leaves
soft pedal their tinkle
while water dashing across
mingling with their breeze-blown suspended
weights of green
Or again in these lines from “The trees and their patterns”:
in front of the door the palm trees
leaves fanning out and turning in –
the sun catches the palms in the afternoon
in the morning it’s the banana-fronds
sunned-on dangling their copies
on the wooden wall”
“Dangling their copies”—a wonderfully evocative phrase. It is as though she is not simply looking at and describing what is before her eyes, but analysing it into its component pieces and putting it back together again—composing it. “Looking is such a marvellous thing,” Rilke said, “of which we know little; as we look, we are directed wholly outside ourselves.” The descriptive is never merely descriptive; it can lead to discoveries. Or as Matisse put it, “To see is itself a creative operation, requiring effort.” In Perlstone’s poems we are constantly aware of that creative effort of the observing mind, almost as though the continued existence of the world depends on it. A passage from Russell Hoban’s novel Fremder comes to mind: “Holding on to the world is mostly an act of faith: you see a little bit of it in front of you and you believe in the rest of it both in time and space.” This somewhat provisional nature of the world’s reality seems to be present in some of Perlstone’s poems too.
A bird sails by
It’s not knowing about
gravity or the science of Einstein’s
that keeps things “real”. Pulled into
an illusion the flat world reopens
Note that “real” in inverted commas.
But, despite the truth of Rilke’s remark, the mind looks in as well as out and it quickly becomes apparent that much of what is going on in this book is the mind’s probing of its own practices, its doubts and uncertainties, and that the finely described scenes of the outside world, always moving and changing, are in conversation with the emotional and intellectual dramas of the poet’s inner life. She speaks of “the airiness/ that is either happiness or weather”.
“…In late afternoon’s
winter-heavy, mercury of sea and river
thicknesses, surfaces are mirrors of the sky
its canned greys are the mind’s
Observation is a permeable membrane. The world flows through into the mind, and the mind flows out into the world. If I may be permitted to quote from my blurb for Perlstone’s last book, The Edge of Everything, “Where does the self end and the world begin? Perlstone is both enraptured and disturbed by the endless process of existence, engaged and estranged by what the light pins down for our contemplation.” These remarks are equally relevant to the new book. So in “Red lights” the return of light and colour in the morning also reveals “the photo of the mother as a child” that “makes her own child sad” and “imparts a memory this child can’t ever have”. The light of day seems to shine not only into the interior of the house but into the perspectives of memory.
These thresholds and portals do not lead exclusively to the realm of the personal. At times poems open out, suddenly and startlingly, onto subjects of historical scope. In “The Yarra and Arendt’s Centenary” the opening view of the calm river and scullers skimming across its surface forms an opposing counterpart to the poet’s “reflected/ stream of consciousness”, which is obsessed with the horrors of the age, from Eichmann through to the more recent follies of Rumsfeld and Cheney. In “Power unconfined”, the sight of an ocean liner in the harbour, and its queue of passengers taking their turn “with the orders of the day”, leads to contemplation of the power that draws the ship’s vast bulk “to where it will be out of sight”, and confronts us finally with images of the ship St Louis and its Jewish refugees, of the Tampa and the SIEV X.
Even so, there is a network of personal relations, personal emotions connecting all these pictures as well—the pictures of the world and the pictures in the mind—connecting them through time, another recurrent theme in the book, as well as through space. I find this poem particularly moving:
Music can fill all possible space
the way a landscape’s long curve
in a bay
reaches to catch the missed image
intimate as glistening drops
of pastness forming—
in a join of then with now
it is grief’s great deal between us
for a past retrieved
can we understand
there was a distance once
too far to see
or to talk of love’s existence
I like the rather dry wit of the book’s title, Thick and Thin Lines. At first glance this seems a rather bald and uninformative phrase, but the motif proves to be surprisingly productive. We find lines of light and shadow, lines of bodies and buildings (“a line of bricks confining space by design”), lines of music (“thinner than a thin flute’s/sound”), lines, of course, of thought (“the stem-line of your thinking”, as one poem has it), lines of action and unfolding experience, lines of division and connection. “I’m talking”, she says at the end of the opening poem, “to slow my reading down/into where I hold/nearness/in a line of work”. A later poem concludes, “In late sun he’s a measure of lines only/The louvres’ pleating patterns/contain him”. The lines in fact end up containing a great deal.
It is, I hope, apparent from what I have quoted so far, that Perlstone’s language is notable for its freshness, clarity and vividness. It avoids ostentatious flourishes but is rich and precise, and full of memorable images: those dangling copies of leaves I mentioned earlier; a plane that is “a flaw in a clear glass of sky”; that ocean liner “ice-cliff white”; “the snail-slicks of a ship/in its morning passage”; “watching the sun/rub off the rain”. I mentioned above the way Perlstone’s acts of looking seem to analyse the view into its component parts. One quite striking feature of her expression is the way certain compound adjectives mirror this process. For example:
It’s so quiet I can’t think past early morning’s
Now she might have said “inadequate light” or “insufficient light”, but the not-enough light is curiously effective. The same poem provides “the out-to-sea waves”. Elsewhere we find “lost-on-the-horizon birds-wings” and “my down-on-earth life”.
Thick and Thin Lines is by turns beautiful, thought-provoking, unsettling, moving—and quite original. Now it is possible to make a fetish of originality. Sometimes it turns out to be nothing more than transient novelty. True originality, though, like happiness, is not really something you can pursue and capture directly; it is in fact a by-product of excellence, of the search for the vivid and memorable expression of a unique vision. And that, I think, is what Phyllis Perlstone achieves in Thick and Thin Lines.
STEPHEN EDGAR is a Sydney poet. He received the Grace Leven Prize, the Philip Hodgins Medal; his latest collections are Eldershaw and The Red Sea.
by Nathan Curnow and Kevin Brophy
Walleah Press, 2012
Reviewed by DAN DISNEY
This shared book between two poets from different generations is a fascinating collection of segues, ellipses, and strange unities. The binaries are obvious: two poets (at different stages of their careers) populate separate halves of the book with their own styles and, more pertinently, diverging forms. Curnow’s free verse texts are lyric expressions of sense-making in response to weird contexts; Brophy’s wilder propositions are prose poems which chime with their own logic. These two separate formal, rhetorical gestures work toward a unity hinted at by Curnow on the back cover of Radar: ‘My poems are (seemingly) conscious, direct confessions and yours are unconscious waking dreams’. The palindromic title exemplifies this book’s unusual coherence: both halves begin in centralized locations (of self) and then move outward across psychic and/or external terrains. I am reminded of Rimbaud’s cri de cœur, ‘Je suis l’autre’: in their own ways, both poets call into versions of the unknown … while Curnow’s wakeful, sentient texts crystalize meaning, Brophy’s incursions into unconscious realms are less interested in thoughtfulness and valorize instead pure affect.
This book, then, contains two modes of response: the thinking of intelligence, and the feeling of wisdom. Turning attention to the first half of Radar, Curnow’s thoughtful explorations reveal a childhood spent enduring ‘the magic burn/ of anticipation bound in faith, belief and trust’ (‘The Curtain’); inside weird arenas where angels visit and stones miraculously turn to diamonds (‘Boy Got a Bullet’), Curnow seems to forgive one parent – walking across sand, the poet tells his father ‘it is easier if I fill your prints’ – while another cannot stop blaming herself ‘for all she can’ (‘The Piano Lesson’). This is a family romance seemingly populated by the usual tensions, humiliations, and resentments: but Curnow’s texts are at their most human when scanning the vistas of memory through the lens of his own fatherhood. Remembering how –
The last piano lesson I ever had
ended in a drug raid on my teacher’s house
Curnow reconciles his own off-key upbringing with teaching his children ‘all the right wrong notes’ (‘The Piano Lesson’). The implication hidden in the imperative is that there is such a thing as wrong wrong notes, but Curnow never descends into recrimination; despite a ‘foundation/ riddled with flaws’ (‘The Hallway’), here is a poet generously open-hearted, and unproblematised by the presence of memory.
One gets the sense that a lesser man may have more anger to offer than ‘So we grew up in your shitty houses’ – a sentiment directed not at his parents but toward ‘the High Church Men’. Indeed, rather than an ideological imposition, Curnow views his parents’ religiosity as not much more than an inconvenience – in church meetings, ‘My sister and I would lie across the chairs, tiring of our best behavior’ (‘Boy Got a Bullet’) – or an exercise in illogicality: why, Curnow wants to know, do some get bullets while others receive miracles? And why, amid the monsters, giants and talking animals, is there no mention of aliens in the Bible? (‘Made from the Matter of Stars’) Indeed, Curnow persists with framing whimsically logical questions throughout his half of the book: he asks ’what happens to birth/ if death is undone/ where will hope reside’ (Neruda, anyone?) and the absence of a question mark here contains a trace of the investigative mode made by any religion. But Curnow is never closed off from possibility, and his half of Radar scans unrelentingly for truthfulness. In ‘Blessing’, he starts with his early experience of magical thinking –
It came rushing toward me across the paddocks
all I had to do was stand – the moment roaring
silent and ancient, collapsing into bloom
and ends in a personal engagement with mystery: ‘perfect questions, rhyming without a word’, and Sunny the horse who, unlike some creatures in the Bible, offer no answers (despite being tempted with an apple).
Curnow’s meditations on his origins paint, then, a picture of childhood as a place for mild incredulity … a good site for a poetic imagination to evolve, and then escape from. As he shifts his gaze, other themes are developed: the final poem from his section, ‘Made from the Matter of Stars’, acts as a coda which tells the story of the young poet taking flight – ‘my bike was chewing gravel for Melbourne’ – in order to flee for an urban landscape. ‘Made from the Matter of Stars’ frames those poems that shift focus toward his own young family, other poets, and the new contexts of adulthood. The sense is that here is a lyric poet scanning for how human connection creates meaning: amid the epiphanies, though, there is occasionally drear honesty too. Of his own parenthood, Curnow writes –
The tight circle of parenting is terminal,
much like my need for escape – the guilt of
imagining a new life beyond the stress
of this disheartening chorus
while his relationship with the mother of his children is cause for both celebration – seen in the surreal ‘Love Song #5’: ‘I will ask if you’ve fed the monkeys/ hand you poetry as a necklace, this lyrical wish/ of elephants in feathers’ – though is not all joie de vivre, captured especially in the pallor of ‘empty sex and non-argument’ (’24 Hour Landscape’). Curnow, who grew up amid religious truths, is not afraid to venture his own versions of well-shaped thoughtfulness, and what I am struck by is his acuity paired to an esprit: these poems about escaping a rough country existence with poorly-fitting ideas – unimpeachable fiats, really – are suffused with sensuality and sense-making but also, most importantly, generosity … surrounded by his family and friendships with poets equally up to the task of observing as a mode of self-clarification, these poems are contoured by kindness and shadowed by the larger circumference of thankfulness. Ultimately, in taking flight (both literally and psychically), Curnow has escaped to himself.
While the themes are somewhat similar, once we arrive at page 59 of this book, form and style shift to signify we are now in for a very different kind of exploration. Championing the prose poem at its emergence 150 years ago, Baudelaire called this paradoxical hybrid a mystérieux et brilliant modèle; rhetorically, prose poems subvert the lyric impulse to unconceal authentically-realized truths from a centralized authorial writing position, and instead act as model platforms for magical investigations, in which prose-like structures (narrative, plot, conflict, dénouement) work to convey an internal, weird logic. Under this definition Brophy’s prose poems are exemplary, and play a very different style of language game to Curnow’s texts.
While Curnow sets out to explain and resolve the weirdness of his lived experiences, Brophy’s texts formally and thematically elaborate oddness. These surrealistic experiments are self-contained universes of possibility, framed from the outset with a quote from Nietzsche: ‘Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, simpler’ … over the page, and the poet dedicates his poems ‘To Andrea, who teaches me how to feel.’ This, then, is a half-book of mindful responses to affectivity; it is not thinking but feeling, a mode of originary not-thinking, that is taken by Brophy to be the most real mode of apprehension. And the prose poem is a form that grants him permission to make incursions into the non-thought of affect through playful innovation; differently to Curnow’s vowing gestures toward unconcealing truthfulness, Brophy acts as both trickster and visionary (often humorously), and his texts refuse to participate in an explicit sense-making program.
Indeed, and rather than explicatory, these texts are instead allegorical, shifting inexorably within unstable, non-logical dream worlds – places in which we can hear ‘scratching noises coming from behind the bookcase: characters trying to escape their novels’, (‘Siege’) or can catch glimpses of a shadow ‘flickering as it left like a movement from a horse at the far end of a paddock caught in the corner of your eye’ (‘Flicker’). Viz. the epigraph from Nietzsche: the shadow (as representation) of thinking versus the horse (as actual artifact) of emotion? Brophy is inviting us to ride with him through scenes of extra-ordinary domesticity, profoundly baffling (Brophy’s words) as the man who decides, in ‘A Less Personal Life’, to turn into an ant (Kafka, anyone?). These texts are weighted far more toward delight than instruction, but Brophy’s intentions are precise: rather than saddling us with random strangeness, Brophy directs attention in one of the ‘Thirty-Six Aphorisms and Essays’ to how ‘All we see and know is dreamed’. This section of Radar blurs, then, with illogicality, magic, and weirdness: the very modes Curnow seeks to wrestle into order, Brophy willfully celebrates.
In this, these discrete but unified sections of Radar build toward a gestalt that embodies and explores terrains T.S. Eliot concretises with his notion of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (in which, put simply, thought and affect are harmfully separated). Does Brophy consciously homage the only prose poem Eliot wrote, ‘Hysteria’, with his own text, ‘Anxiety’ – which riffs literally on falling asleep: ‘falling asleep he fell into a river, which closed over him. He woke and fell asleep again, falling from a bicycle …’; on the next page, in ‘Against Falling’ we are in the realm of objectified, materialised language: ‘I must claw my fingers into the fissures of this sentence but keep moving, my knees and ankles tight against its flight upwards’ … speculatively, these poems are not about the horse of emotion but the Pegasus, that mythic symbol for wisdom, ascending: rather than the intelligence of thinking, these flights of the phantasmal seem to suggest our only hope of not persistently sleepwalking through our lives, or of falling into confusion and the hopelessness of repetition compulsions, is through consciously (here, literally) grasping the wild ride of affect, and next learning how to harness affect to language. For Brophy, we must learn the foreign realms of emotion; like Curnow’s prevailing gesture, this is an emancipatory quest after all.
There are several instances of neuroses hard at work in this half of the book – in ‘Fear’, a conversation begins with ‘What are you afraid of?’ and goes nowhere; in ‘Library’, perhaps the most sharply satirical poem in Radar, Brophy writes –
The book he sought was not on the shelf in its place, but there were so many other books on this and other shelves on this and other levels of the library that he almost vomited up every word he had ever read.
While this short poem may seem hilarious (and agonizingly accurate to those who, like Brophy, spend time researching inside libraries for a living), the angst nonetheless remains unresolved, and this pattern of affectivity ripples through Brophy’s section of Radar. One of the most striking departures between these two exploratory poets is that while one seems intent on weaving clarity into the disparity of flawed foundations through unified and resolved lyric texts, the other is inventing crazy-seeming vignettes from disquietude that is left unresolved. This latter section, then, is an exercise and introduction to the grammars of affectivity; Brophy wishes for us to learn the language well.
When I first read Radar I reached for Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, thinking of the six speculative models that the theorist maps in order to speculate an Oedipal swerve between generations of poets. But no such swerve exists in Radar: this is a book which can be read as either (the lesser object of) two discrete voices, or as a gestalt of weird and compelling questions asked in styles, forms, and modes which are mutually complementary and which extend each other. Buy this book for its novel, innovative connections; re-read it for two different explorations into humanizing, expressivist, learned terrains.
DAN DISNEY is a poet and essayist. He teaches twentieth century poetry and poetics at Sogang University, and divides his time between Seoul, Turin, and Melbourne.