Suvi Mahonen holds a Master’s degree in Writing and Literature from Deakin University. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary magazines and online in Australia (Griffith Review, Island, Verandah), the UK (East of the Web), the United States (most recently in Grasslimb), Canada (All Rights Reserved) and Chile (Southern Pacific Review). One of her short stories, ‘Bobby’, was featured in The Best Australian Stories 2010 and was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. Currently pregnant with her first child, she and her husband Luke are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the newest member of their family. Suvi’s work can be found here (http://www.redbubble.com/people/suvimahonen)
The weirdness finally wears off when there’s only five minutes remaining. It takes the dregs of my limited self control to stop myself from jumping off the nutter couch and pointing triumphantly at Laura and shouting ‘Ha!’
I don’t move. But my face must have. Because she pauses in the middle of her sentence.
‘You wanted to say something?’ she asks, arching her eyebrow in the way that she does so that it disappears behind the thick black upper rim of her funky Gucci glasses.
I think quickly. ‘I was just wondering what happened to your old pot plant?’
She glances over her shoulder at the empty space on her desk between the computer and the inbox tray where a small, spiky, phallic-like cactus used to sit. She turns back.
I can tell she doesn’t believe me. I don’t care. It serves her right for suggesting Olanzipine ‘Just in case’.
I knew I shouldn’t have told her.
As soon as I did I realised I’d made a mistake. It was the look she shot me. Something about it said here we go again.
The wheels on her chair squeaked as she leaned slightly forward, small gaps appearing between the buttons of her red silk blouse. Her pencilled eyebrows drew closer.
‘What did you say you saw?’
I laughed to show it was nothing. ‘It was nothing.’ I laughed again. ‘I knew as soon as I saw it that it wasn’t really there.’
I looked out along the jagged line of building tops that crossed the breadth of her office window. I looked back. She was scribbling on her pad.
‘What?’ I said. ‘You’ve never seen something out of the corner of your eyes that just turned out to be a shadow.’
She stopped and looked at me. Her nostrils twitched. I felt like grabbing that Mont Blanc pen of hers and ramming it up one of those nostrils.
Then she smiled. ‘Of course I have.’ Then she capped the pen and put the pen on the coffee table and covered the pen with the pad. Face down. Then she told me a pithy anecdote about snakes in her garden turning into twigs. Then she brought up the Olanzipine.
I knew I shouldn’t have told her.
‘Are you going to get another cactus?’ I say, wishing I’d thought of something better to try and distract her with.
Her rubesque lips pucker a fraction. ‘No.’ She crosses her grey wool-skirted, black-stockinged, high-heeled, still-quite-well-shaped-for-fiftyish legs and frowns. ‘I’m trying to understand why you’re still refusing to sign our contract.’
Laura and her contracts. A year’s gone by and she’s still stuck on them. I know the easiest thing to do would be to give in and sign it. But I always thought they were ludicrous. I mean really, just because you make a promise with your shrink not to harm yourself, or not to steal, or not to purge, or not to be a compulsive sex addict, etc., doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll keep it.
Anyway, I have another reason now.
I lean back into the couch. I run my hands over the swollen front of my dress. Feel a reassuring kick from my baby beneath my fingers.
‘Because you can trust me.’
Laura sweeps back a strand of her coal-black hair that’s strayed onto her face. ‘I do trust you,’ she says. ‘But I’d still like you to sign this contract.’ She holds out her pen to me.
I keep my hands folded.
‘If you trust me, why do you want me to restart the Olanzipine then?’
‘Because …’ she lowers her arm and starts tapping her Mont Blanc against the tip of the heel of her shoe. ‘As I explained to you before, pregnancy and the post-partum period, especially the post-partum period, are a high risk time for recurrences of prior psychological problems.’ She pulls her glasses down her nose a fraction, making her eyes grow larger.
I’d avoided those magnified eyes of hers when she’d called me into her office forty-five minutes ago. I’d felt so defeated. I was hoping she’d forgotten what I’d yelled as I’d stormed out a year ago, slamming the door so hard behind me that the handle hurt my hand. And, as I walked the short distance from her office door towards the centre of the room – where the nutter couch and the square squat coffee table and the purple rug with the wavy trim sat waiting for me – I kept expecting her to say something. Something like ‘I knew you’d be back eventually’.
Instead, as the nutter couch enveloped me in its big, soft, brown, leathery-smelling hug, she just stood next to her desk, holding her elbows, gold bracelets and loop gold earrings jiggling.
‘So,’ a kind of smile creased her cheeks. ‘Can I touch it?’
All was forgiven.
Until she mentioned the Olanzipine.
I knew I shouldn’t have told her.
Professor Catherine Cole is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. She has published novels and two non-fiction books. She is the editor of the anthology, The Perfume River: Writing from Vietnam and co-editor with McNeil and Karaminas of Fashion in Fiction: Text and Clothing in Literature, Film and Television, (Berg UK and USA, May 2009). She also has published poetry, short stories, essays and reviews.
Looking for Serge Gainsbourg
on one of the graves
(fading above bare branches).
Lover don’t catch a cold.
Don’t scandalise the tourists.
Don’t upset the cemetry attendants,
the grieving relatives.
is no laughing matter
at the moon
at your lips
at the cemetry’s cats
making a wide
a crazy man
in a bright red scarf
a woman in stitches.
‘Allez trouvez l’homme.’
So I go
with my map
my gloved hands
dusted with snow
‘Serge?’ I ask an old man
‘Où et Serge?’
He is close
(a little stream of water, a bare shrub, surely not lilac)
‘Y’a pas de soleil sous la terre,’ the man sings
Everyone’s a fan.
And on Serge’s grave I find:
a love letter,
four metro tickets
and scrawled on the back of a café tab,
moi je ne tiens a rien
plus que toi.
manque de toi
je suis la moitié fou
small smooth grey pebble
to take back to you.
A late dark comes down
crows call from London planes.
By now you will be chopping at the sink
cat at your ankle,
bushfires and floods.
Our friends live in separate cities too
we talk distance
of soldiers sent to war,
Stapleton in the Antartic, five years between letters.
Too tired by the time we call
to describe the crows’ black flash against red walls,
or how the drought has turned
all the grass
When next you come here
I will walk you past these trees
past the crows gnawing at plane tree pods
past the promise of Florence in the south.
I will sing sailor’s songs
Compose letters from the trenches of my heart
and hide them in your luggage
to read when you get home.
And while I wait
I walk past Victoria Street
past walls red radiant with heat.
I look a starling in its cruel eye,
step over the bleached bones of dead flowers.
And on Exhibition Building’s dome
my heart in its beak.
The Sunlit Zone
5 Islands Press, Melbourne, AUS 2012
Reviewed by LINDA WESTE
In each verse novel, the unique relationship of poetic and narrative elements leads to a dynamic duality of design. Lisa Jacobson’s verse novel, The Sunlit Zone, illustrates how productive this interplay of narrative and poetic elements can be, with its compelling narrative, and its meticulous, yet deceptively natural poetic rhythm, honed painstakingly by Jacobson, over several years.
The initial idea for the verse novel came courtesy of a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship to Israel, where Jacobson, scuba diving in the Red Sea, was struck by the ethereality of being underwater. Jacobson produced a two-page poem after the experience; the poem extended into a series of reflective monologues; and in time the project became bigger than either poem or short story and developed into a speculative verse novel.
The Sunlit Zone is set in a future Melbourne, circa 2050. The main character, North, is a genetic scientist working with mutated creatures, the products of environmental problems. In this speculative world of dream-genes, skinfones, cyberdrugs, thought-coding, and genetically modified species, North must come to terms with loss, and reconcile past and present in her relationships with friends, lovers and family.
The focus on loss and grief is carried by the verse novel’s metaphor of the ocean’s layers, which in layman’s terms are known as the sunlit zone, the twilight zone and the midnight zone. The latter, the depths, are associated with North’s past; through resolving loss she returns to the sunlit zone.
The Sunlit Zone is replete with ocean and sea imagery; marine conservation is central in its themes; yet the impact of the ocean on the work arguably extends to its free verse form and fluid storytelling — the sense of the ocean’s rhythm in the ebb and flow of the narrative — and its influence on character, most obviously that of Finn, North’s twin sister with gills who is obsessed with water.
The Sunlit Zone illustrates the capacity of the verse novel form to be as diverse and innovative as the prose novel. Nevertheless, the verse novel, by virtue of its constitutive and inherent doubleness, is a narrative poem; a category it shares with epic; narrative autobiography in verse; Medieval and Renaissance verse romances; mock epic poems; and ballads and their literary imitations. The Sunlit Zone changed Jacobson’s view of the verse novel as a ‘hybrid’ form: “It’s not a hybrid, it has its own form, and its own history over hundreds of years,” she maintains.
Jacobson read quite a lot of verse novels during the writing of The Sunlit Zone including Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and young adult verse novels by Catherine Bateson and Steven Herrick. Some of the verse novels in metered form that Jacobson read felt relentless; “prison-house-ish”: in contrast, Jacobson “wanted to open form up: the ocean was flowing” (Interview). The search for poetic models that could enable such fluidity led Jacobson to the sound word echoes in W H Auden’s poem about Icarus falling, “Musée des Beaux Arts”, which has rhyme, “but spaced out within the poem unpredictably, for instance, in lines two and seven. Such poetry is actually carefully wrought although it looks completely free; it’s not metrical but it has a rigorous application of sound” (Interview).
To ensure that form followed theme in The Sunlit Zone, Jacobson devised a free verse form comprising 313 poetry ‘passages’ — one is inclined to refer to passages rather than stanzas when they vary in line length and their number of lines — and of these, only a few passages have as many as twenty-three lines, while most have between eight and fifteen. In each passage, the syntax preserves the natural stresses found in speech. There is no template by which all stresses are replicated and gain uniformity or regularity in an imposed pattern, nevertheless a close analysis of the passages reveals their coherence and rhythmic integrity.
Each passage is meticulously patterned with rhyme. At the line level, most obvious to readers are the infrequent end-stopped rhymes. Most commonly deployed, however, are the rhymes that fall mid-line, the predominant assonant vowel rhymes and occasional final consonant rhymes, as well as rhymes of root-words with endings. The “sea” theme not only offers up a bountiful lexicon; it also gives the verse novel buoyancy at a phonemic level, at the smallest unit of sound. Its digraph “ea” recurs plentifully in passage after passage, for instance, in “meat” and “cease”, enabling a plethora of rhyme as diverse as: “secretes”, “Waverley”, “ropey”, “everything”, “empties”, “recedes”. Jacobson employs light rhyme, rhyming words with syllables stressed in speech, for instance, “chill”, “smell”, “tell”, “expelling”, “all”, “still”, “pulled” with words with secondary or unstressed syllable, such as “sorrowful” and “exhalations”. The syllable rhyme in “exhalations” produces a further ‘chime’ when brought together with one or two syllable long “a” rhymes (“whale”, “bait”, “grey”, “fray”, “lake”, “waves”, “opaqueness”) in the following passage of The Sunlit Zone:
The whale’s vast flank feels smooth
and chill as long-life meat. The skin
secretes a fishy smell that’s just a bit
too strong, like bait in buckets
stewing on the pier. It’s just a clone,
I tell myself again. Waverley strokes
its big grey head, the spout expelling
ropey exhalations that diminish,
fray and thin. Then, nothing.
The whale’s eye, dark as a lake
and sorrowful. Everything stops.
Even the waves cease muttering
and all is still. The eye empties
as if a plug’s been pulled.
We watch as it recedes
into opaqueness. (14)
To foreground fluidity in The Sunlit Zone, Jacobson preserves the natural stresses found in speech with the combined aid of typography — which introduces directly quoted dialogue with ‘em dashes’, as is common in prose fiction — and by breaking lines of dialogue midway through the syntactic unit, be it phrase, clause or sentence. Protracted dialogue is commonly longer than a line, and enjambs from one line to the next, or over several. Jacobson controls the pace or speed with which sentences enjamb, modifying syntax to accelerate or decelerate the narrative.
The interplay of poetic and narrative elements is instrumental in managing this tension, or “tugging” (Kinzie 470). While Jacobson renders less emphasis on artificial techniques such as alliteration, these do not recede completely; rather they are modified. When alliteration is given a caesural pause, for instance, its impact on diction is muted: “Volunteers stream/in like diaspora, dissipate” (11); “Bonsais stand in pots; poised, balletic” (33). Jacobson varies the frequency and complexity of trope — simile and metaphor —from passage to passage, to intensify, or conversely, to delimit meaning. Personification imbues the abstract or inanimate with psychological motivation or embodied gesture, and enlivens or dramatises the material world of the narrative. Jacobson’s considered attention to syntax, word choice, and placement creates rhetorical effects, such as when line breaks end with modifiers that help passages convey aporia by expressing doubt or uncertainty.
Jacobson also has a facility for varying speech to nuance each character’s idiolect, and to convey the English syntactical approximations of Raoul, whose mother tongue is French: “Excuse us please/but Cello insists she be in her own skin” (77); “Thank you. Now go, he says, /and find some sleep. You lovely/lady. You’re good, you know, /to stay. She’s difficult, no?” (103).
Perhaps the only disjuncture to form following theme in The Sunlit Zone is the uniformity in its collective arrangement of passages: free verse it may be, but the poetry remains conscious of its placement on the page. The passages are aligned down the middle, surrounded by ample white space. The passage breaks are generous and exacting, and each passage is consecutively numbered, its lineation compact.
The Sunlit Zone was Jacobson’s first foray into writing a novel-length project, and she was mindful that it needed to have the qualities of strong fiction. Initially Jacobson considered publishing The Sunlit Zone as a young adult verse novel, “but some parts of the story weren’t suitable for younger adolescents” (Interview). Instead she decided it had more potential as a crossover novel; that is, a novel for adults that older teenagers could also read. Jacobson stands by her choice to write The Sunlit Zone as a verse novel. One of the joys of the verse novel for Jacobson is the white space, signifying “things unspoken, yet part of the poem itself” (Interview).
Jacobson remembers wrestling over phrases, over lines: “the fiction wants to gallop on and the poetry reins it back” (Interview). Yet Jacobson doesn’t view the relationship between poetic and narrative strategies as ‘competing urges’; rather, she considers there’s a playful natural interaction between the two forms: “One only becomes subsidiary to the other if you neglect to do both things at once; that is, to be a poet and a novelist” (Interview). But given the relationship of poetic and narrative strategies in each verse novel is unique, she acknowledges, notions of how verse novels achieve stylistic tension could be less circumscribed.
Well regarded as a poet, Jacobson has been awarded the 2011 Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize and the HQ/Harper Collins Short Story Prize. The Sunlit Zone was shortlisted for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Since publication, The Sunlit Zone has been selected for the set reading list for Victoria University’s Studying Poetry and Poetics course and Bendigo TAFE’s Professional Writing and Editing course. It has also been short-listed for the prestigious Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry 2012 and has just been listed as one out of twelve contenders for the Stella Prize 2013, a new major literary award for Australian Women’s Writing.
Jacobson has gathered some ideas for another verse novel in the future. In the meantime she has just completed a new collection of poetry, South in the World, as the recipient of a 2012 Australia Council Grant.
Jacobson likes the idea of verse novels making poetry more accessible. The Sunlit Zone, with its compelling narrative and meticulous poetic rhythm, offers a timely reassurance to publishers of the concentrated power of the verse novel form.
Jacobson, Lisa. Interview by Linda Weste, 2 February 2011.
—. The Sunlit Zone. Melbourne: Five Islands Press, 2012.
Kinzie, Mary. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 199
LINDA WESTE is a poet, editor and teacher of Creative Writing. Her PhD, completed at The University of Melbourne, researched late-20th and early-21st-century verse novels. Her first verse novel fictionalised the late Roman Republic; the experiences of German Australians in 1940s Melbourne are the subject of the second, in progress.
by Dael Allison
Walleah Press, 2012
Reviewed by GILLIAN TELFORD
On the cover of Fairweather’s Raft a toy-like sailing vessel is adrift on a glassy ocean, its sail reflected as a shadow beneath the surface – and beneath the surface is where the reader is led by Dael Allison in this fine collection. Based on extensive research and a strongly empathic response to her subject Allison guides with skilful passion through a key period in the obsessive, turbulent and estranged life of Ian Fairweather (1891-1974) ‘one of Australia’s most iconic and enigmatic artists.’ (i)
Allison’s poems centre around the trope of a perilous journey, specifically the perilous journey made by a sixty year old Fairweather between Darwin and Timor in 1952 on a flimsy, self-made raft. Given up for dead by searchers, he made landfall after sixteen days on Roti, Timor’s most western island. He was then deported to England but made his way back to Australia – Bribie Island, Queensland – where he finally abandoned his peripatetic existence and spent his last two decades, ‘the most stable and productive period of his life.’ (p. 80)
Allison provides a summary of Fairweather’s biography and development as an artist at the end of the collection. This essay warrants inclusion and is likely to be of interest to both informed readers and others not familiar with Fairweather’s life or work. We learn of his abandonment by family during the first ten years of his life, his troubled years in UK, his time as a prisoner of war, and his determination to pursue his art despite family opposition. We are introduced to his years of wandering through Asia, the strong influences of his time in China and of his arrival in Melbourne in the 1930s. After this time he spent increasing periods in Australia ‘but he remained a loner, living rough between Melbourne and far north Queensland. Escape became a primary motif whenever dissatisfaction manifested:’ (p.78) Allison also outlines information about her research which, in addition to the written sources and personal contacts listed, took her to Bribie Island, to Darwin, and to Kettle’s Yard at Cambridge University, UK in her ‘quest to understand his work and his life’ (p.82)
The first half of Allison’s book portrays Fairweather’s life in Darwin – the two years preceding his raft journey, while the second half relates to the voyage itself. Fairweather’s Raft opens with a poem in three parts, ‘Three paintings found discarded in the mud’ This is a powerful introduction to place, to the artist and his driven, isolated existence. The imagery is vivid, always congruent, and leads to the artwork, to colour and subjects:
2. ‘(No title)’ ….
the painter’s rough marks/ draw black ink into muscle/ trapped faces/ opaque eyes/ storm-edge of a shoulder/ conch of a thigh’
Part 3 is again entitled ‘(No title)’ This untitled convention was a common feature of Fairweather’s paintings. The poems’s line ‘one body two heads/ hauling away from each other’ also rehearses a favourite subject of Fairweather’s – the body with two heads. Here the reader is alerted to the enduring Fairweather trope of the conflicted inner life of the artist
The immersion in the physical world continues as Allison portrays fruitful images of where and how the artist lived ‘Each step into the light’- ‘Frances Bay’s stink of mangroves,// the build-up air viscid as green mud./ Above him nimbus thugs shoulder-butt the sun’ His home, the half-demolished supply boat ‘The Kuru’ is starkly outlined, ‘Stars thrash through the fraying nets/that drape its severed deck.// In the chart room the painter fumbles for a match, lights and pumps the Tilley. Gas flares, darkness scuttles to the vault. …’
We learn of Fairweather’s struggle for artist’s materials in ‘Fugitive colours’ ‘and i need red./ what does this place want of me,/ my blood?’ We learn of how he felt increasingly marginalised by local society in ‘The Rear Admiral’. ‘In the parlance of 1952, wit is trickier/ than bum-man, queer or pansy./Darwin locals snicker,/ “Not in front of the ladies … eh Nancy!”’
Poverty, discomfort, overwhelming memories, tumultuous weather – the pressures build up. ‘In his mind he sails an ocean’ creates ironically indelible pictures of the artist in the wet season, struggling to save his paintings from destruction ‘He stacks them on the table// and climbs up, roosting/ like a broody hen to save them// from the flow. i have to go,/ before this damn town drowns me.// Horizons tremble/ in tin cans and bamboo cups.’ Allison’s research is used with strong effect throughout. Specific details of Fairweather’s early life and alienation from family are woven into reflections and memories that not only add to the biological narrative but take us into dark and brooding mindscapes. Of these, four powerful poems are included in the prelude to the raft journey, ‘Remembering the grey house’, ‘Family’, ‘Schoolboys’, ‘Demobbed’.
Similarly, lighter memories of previous travels and some highly imaginative pieces by Allison are used effectively for mood and pace changes and further increase the drama of the narrative. One that particularly appealed to this writer is the prose poem ‘Dreaming poets dreaming’ which presents a fabulous scenario, written with enormous energy and skill: ‘what if a raft were to loom from the dark with an old/ man at the bow, his hand firm on the helm? what if they/ stepped on, the two poets from another world?’
Preparations for the journey continue until the poem ‘Cast away’ is reached: ‘silver cracks my eyes apart, empty days—/ the painter and his raft have gone.’
Also interspersed through the book are ekphrastic poems where specific paintings, works and quotations by Fairweather are named and dated beneath poem titles. These dates range from 1936 to 1965, but Fairweather was an artist who painted from memory, revisiting incidents or earlier paintings many years later. With little recorded in writing, it is mainly through his later paintings that the personal experience of the raft journey can be envisaged. It takes artistic knowledge as well as courage to explore these works and Allison has achieved an outstanding success in her role as an explorative poet. One such painting is ‘Lights, Darwin Harbour 1957’ considered by Allison in a finely nuanced prose poem ‘Nightburst’. Here she assumes the defiant, triumphant and somewhat apprehensive voice of the artist as he leaves Darwin Harbour in the raft, at night. Like the painting’s bold, tight strokes, Allison’s words evoke the colour and drama of this night, the lights and shadows, the brimming marine life, the mounting tension ‘released from land’s tether into rising weather.’ Similarly, the poem ‘Monsoon on four panels’ relates to Fairweather’s major work Monsoon 1961-2. Written as a prose poem in four parts, which mimic the size ratio of the four panels of the painting, it is a compelling meditation. Another poem ‘Lacuna’ from the work Roti, 1957 celebrates the exhausted arrival of Fairweather as he is rescued from the beach on the island bearing the same name. He has survived. And we feel we have accompanied him, survived with him through the images Allison has created of the mountainous seas, the physical ordeals, the hallucinations, the accompanying seabirds, the always present sharks.
The raft journey was an epiphany in Fairweather’s life – it ‘made Fairweather famous’ and it ‘also transformed Fairweather as an artist….after 1952 his paintings became more reflective and profound’ (p.80). Some subjects were revisited over many years and the poem ‘Roi Soleil’ after the painting ‘Roi Soleil 1956-7’ reflects the artists’s blissful memories of Bali – a theme often explored.
In this collection, for the most part, the sequencing of poems works well, particularly once the function of memory processes is grasped. The one poem that draws undue attention to itself is ‘Crocodylus’. Whilst clever and enjoyable to read, it didn’t seem to belong to this collection in time or mood.
Allison has crafted her poems, she knows and revels in the language of the wild places she takes us to and the poems are full of musicality, adept sound play and good doses of humour. Free verse is the most common form used but she has added some diverting variations, such as snatches of familiar song or verse, interspersed with dialogue or quoted texts – an effective ploy in presenting the wandering, hallucinating mind of the artist. There is also the final poem in the Coda ‘Raftbedraft’ Lit Bateau 1957 which is one of two written as adapted pantoums and takes the work to a powerful conclusion ‘Sleep collaborates with motion/ and the moon’s a lemon mockery,/ your bed drifts on the swelling lung of water—/ this ocean is not the last ocean.’
In Fairweather’s Raft Allison has created a complex, multi-layered work that reveals new depths on every reading. and will have you returning, as I did, to stand before a Fairweather painting and be fascinated by how much more I could see beneath the surface.
(i) Handout Ian Fairweather, Dael Allison – Panel Discussion, salt on the tongue, Goolwa Poetry Festival, April 2010
GILLIAN TELFORD is a Central Coast, NSW poet.
Jen Webb is the author of a poetry collection, Proverbs from Sierra Leone (Five Islands, 2004), a short story collection Ways of Getting By (Ginninderra, 2006), and a dozen scholarly books. She edits the scholarly journal Axon: Creative Explorations, and the new literary journal Meniscus. Jen has lived in Canberra for twelve years, and is an inaugural member of the International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra.
1. On Brighton beach
Three a.m. The sea is black against the black sky,
but light hints along the tacked horizon line.
Yesterday the air was full of sound – the outrage
shrieked by gulls as they sailed
on spinnaker wings – the irritable sea
flinging itself on me. Now only small waves
shift on the stones; the only sounds now
are the cries of sleepless gulls.
Yesterday the carousel’s hurdy gurdy played
while dogs barked in syncopated time and
the painted horses galloped up and down.
They are still now, shut down,
the beach is asleep, the party done.
I am wasting my life. I am wasting your time.
2. In Christchurch
Stand under the doorframe, brace yourself
the way that we were taught
the floor rolls under your feet
the skin of the world is water
its bones twist and crack.
Don’t think those worst fears:
the earth has been closing over you
for days. Earth? or its fault lines,
they’re viscous, honey or jam lines—
oh and here come the ants.
Take heart, sweetheart, something
sweet is in the air, it’s the scent
of honeysuckle, it’s the idea
of tomorrow, it’s the promise of calm.
All we need do is wait.
3. On George Street
The red lotus
at the edge of the road
softens the traffic
at the heart of Haymarket
between the gutter and the sky
the bus driver coughs,
turns right into Bourke,
takes the airport road
I will leave where I should not be
I’ll fly home, meditating on
wrong love, on that red lotus
in the wrong place that
says it’s time to repent.
4. Collins Street, autumn
The rain is staining the pavement
rendering it black on grey
You have left your umbrella at home, again;
that meeting will have started
and you late, again. It can’t go on
The sudden crowd surge takes you
unaware: three pregnant girls bump by
and then the mob is on you,
the lights turn green. You step
between the pavement and the road
Do you turn left here, or right? Is that
your phone ringing? North has blurred
with south, all the buildings look the same
you’re late again
and you can’t recall the way
Between the traffic and the crowd
you have lost your way
And how do you cope? You run;
between the people and the trams,
you run; you hope you will not fall
by Jo Langdon
Whitmore Press Poetry, 2012
ISBN 978 0 9757762 9 2
Reviewed by CHARLES MANIS
Snowline, the debut chapbook by Jo Langdon, is both elegant and powerful. The lyric poems in this volume operate primarily in couplets and tercets, and out of the white space come teeth and airplanes and fragments of narrative with the strategic force of well-timed jabs.
The sparseness of the page allows Langdon to bring home images that appeal to our senses in often surprising ways. In particular, Langdon has a knack for taking the common experience and presenting it in such fresh ways that it becomes visceral. Take, for example, the poem “Nausea,” in which the speaker recalls to the addressee:
Once, through the paper wall,
we heard your housemate’s skull collide
with toilet porcelain.
The wet barking of her sickness,
and then nothing.
In “Falling back to sleep,” the description of an experience so often rendered in terms of vision—light and darkness, clarity and haze—becomes voluminous:
This dream fills your mouth
like a sentence.
Between these moments of sensory arrival, Snowline glides. Few poems firmly establish narrative context, so even when Langdon treads into the familiar territory of the family poem, the approach is distinctly lyrical. The poem “After” never provides a family history, nor even any particular developed set of symbols that might stand in for a longer, firmer narrative. For that reason, the artifacts within the poem stand out much more: “an emptied coffee mug forgotten / on the verandah; a ring of sticky // whiskey on the bench”, and the box of matches, burned out and closed up, that concludes the poem (15). In “Dusk Street,” the speaker guides us like a sort of psychopomp from urban topography into a child’s dreams of “velveteen / ears” with an effortless transition that minds neither wall nor mode of experience (20). Similarly, a young girl in the final few lines of “Stratosphere” intercedes between the speaker and the addressee, shifting from a mid-air lightning strike to the ease of childish affections. Between poems, too, the transitions are fluid. “Shape” ends with light through a window transformed by bodily processes, and “Stratosphere” opens on the next page in a new location with, potentially, a new set of characters, but also with hands acting out their heat upon glass.
This lightness of movement is especially important in a collection of poems spoken almost exclusively from the first-person point of view. Almost every poem takes an extended experience (or set of experiences) and crystallizes it into a few concise lines. Even in a chapbook, a continuous series of first-person lyrics can become wearisome if not dealt with delicately. But Snowline manages the first-person lyric all the better through its disavowal of boundaries. Walls disappear, one consciousness enters another, and language makes space for its own shapes and value, as in “The Shape”:
Hands and wrists can be too intimate,
& I’m reminded of other words,
for their vowel sounds
(love, moon, breath, pulse).
Tonight we’ll sleep on our sides
to watch the sky occupy
the bedroom window,
dimming away its stars to turn
a blue that belongs to ceiling shadows
or skyscrapers or gas-stove flames.
At its best, Snowline finds room for both the punchy, visceral image and for the ethereal play of light and shadow. And between these poles, the first-person speaker can move sometimes as what resembles a sort of spirit and sometimes as a fully embodied being. The collection is often preoccupied with images of flight that might fail at any time—planes threaten to crash, and birds fall dead. Yet, the poems often pull off their airiness with remarkable grace.
Many of these poems are spoken about or from within Vienna, and the whole of the collection has a somewhat European flavor. In “Stadtpark,” the speaker meets with her addressee surrounded by images of a Viennese spring, and the poem effectively conveys a sense of suspension, with its frozen scenery possible preceding a thaw. The speaker of these poems finds herself in an intermediary position, somewhere between tourism and familiarity. In the poem “In Wien,” the speaker notes:
These mountains don’t belong to my
Frequently, these moments of discomfort open the speaker and the reader to the unexpected. In “Little creatures,” a classroom lesson in French involving a dead sparrow gives way to another meditation on death and flight:
Il est mort? The boy asks, tilting his head
towards his mother’s.
The story is supposed to demonstrate
but instead we focus on this small thing
the sky can no longer hold.
“Little creatures,” though not necessarily set in a foreign country, brings with it multiple instances of that which is slightly alien and yet at the same time home-like, in the sense of the uncanny.
As a collection, Snowline reads like a constellation; its lyrics are held together by only the most delicate threads of light. At any time the poems seem they could drift apart. Yet, Langdon manages the elliptical, fragmentary, and sparse with incredible sensitivity. Even “Nausea,” perhaps my favorite poem in the chapbook, despite an image of skull striking porcelain demonstrates a lightness of touch that provides the reader enough space within familiar subject matter to see something new. Snowline, though littered with mouths, teeth, airplanes, machines, and metal, turns out a sort of ballet. Jo Langdon’s poetic balance and poise are striking in this debut volume.
Snowline was awarded the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize.
CHARLES MANIS is a Philadelphia-based poet and he is currently pursuing a PhD in English Literature at Temple University. His work has recently appeared in RATTLE, Fifth Wednesday, and Spillway Magazine.
A poet, fiction writer and translator, Srilata is Associate Professor of English at the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Srilata was a Charles Wallace Writer-in-residence at the University of Stirling, Scotland in 2010. She was also a Sangam house writer-in-residence. Her debut novel Table for Four, long listed in 2009 for the Man Asian literary prize, was published by Penguin in July 2011. Srilata won the first prize in the All India Poetry competition 1998 organised by the British Council and the Poetry Society, India for her poem “In Santa Cruz, Diagnosed Homesick”, the Gouri Majumdar poetry prize instituted by The Brown Critique in the year 2000 and the Unisun British Council poetry award 2007. Her work has been featured in The BloodAxe Anthology of Indian Poets, Penguin India’s First Proofs, Fulcrum, The Little Magazine, Kavya Bharati and The Hindu. Writers Workshop, Kolkata recently published her collection of poems titled Arriving Shortly. Her books include The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History (Zubaan/Kali for Women, 2003), Short Fiction from South India (co-edited with Subashree Krishnaswamy and published by OUP in 2007), Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry (co-edited with Lakshmi Holmstrom and Subashree Krishnaswamy and published in 2009 by Penguin/Viking India) and an anthology of poetry titled Seablue Child (Brown Critique, Kolkata, 2000).
I was drowning
in a river of clichés
when it ran dry,
into the swirling, breathless eddies of a
that ought to have arrived words ago.
The same evening, an old fisherman
counted forty dead words
from the preceding stanza and
one reeeely eely long river snake
which, he remarked later,
was the spitting image of those
that peered at him
from the pages
of his grandson’s English text book.
A Pair of Very Flat Feet
I meet them
in a shop selling orthotics,
my future arches,
paid companions to my very flat feet.
in my pretend feet,
to the days when I had proper ones,
feet with which
to run on grass,
feeling the sharp tang of each blade,
of metrical feet
and all the stuff
my poetry teacher threw at me.
and the family is watching,
Olympics 2012 live on TV
as beautiful red-lipsticked Russian gymnasts
with perfect arches
twist and fly arcs in the air
with the annoying lightness of robins.
I swear softly
and go to bed,
pursued by pair upon pair of perfect feet,
I slip into yet another of my pointless dreams.
In this one,
I am a pirouetting ballet dancer
in Pointe shoes.
Stuart Barnes’ poems have been shortlisted for major Australian prizes & published at online & in print journals & newspapers including The Nervous Breakdown, The Warwick Review & The Weekend Australian Review; others are forthcoming at Otoliths, in fourW twenty-three & Blasphemy. ‘Mother and Son’, creative nonfiction about his coming out, can be read at Verity La (http://verityla.com/mother-and-son-stuart-barnes/). He edits PASH capsule (http://www.facebook.com/pashcapsule), a magazine of love poetry, & is working on the manuscript for his first book of poetry. Currently he lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Words witnessed, in traction, on Swanston St.
You fucking Asians
Stuffing your yellow
your Chinky noses
Yeah, that’s right,
get your fingers
right up there
Go back to China
I hope you die
today, bitch: I hope
a tram hits
you Thanks, Driver,
have a great
(title an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Words heard, by accident, over the phone’)
Jacqueline Buswell is a writer and translator, and has worked as a journalist and teacher of English as a second language. She recently completed a Masters of Creative Writing at Sydney University. Speaks Spanish, and is currently studying Italian. Her poems have been published in the Wollongong and Bundanon Poetry Workshop Anthologies, in the journal Five Bells and in other anthologies.
you are at ease in this landscape
of brown grey lines and twisting bark
gnarled deformities on old trees
all dry and crackling in the heat
fallen branches force you into detours
you get lost in the abstraction
you find a sunken billabong
hear the screech and laughter of the birds
on a full moon night you watch the heavens
and shadows move around the shining bark
small creatures move in the rustling silence
you hear the plaint of the mopoke voice
a house was lost in a bushfire, you re-created
that destruction on a murky canvas
dawn light opens on a granite rock and you see
the saltbush plain stretching west below
you realise you have never seen these distances
and a kangaroo is watching you
the valley turns with swathes of orange settles to dun
the bird song ceases and you cast about for shade
you realise you’ll have to build it
you’ve seen the humpies, as a child you used to draw them
you pull together branches, bark and leaves
brushing away termites and spiders
you lean logs against a tree
you never were a builder but by midday
you are snoozing under your rustic canopy
when you wake, you begin to paint –
that gold surround of pale blue
the iron red mountain
that mopoke night
After an exhibition by Elizabeth Cummings
SH Ervin Gallery 2012
Luke Fischer is a poet and scholar. He won the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize (2012). He is the author of three forthcoming books: a debut collection of poems titled Paths of Flight (Black Pepper), a monograph on Rilke and phenomenology, and a book of children’s stories. His poems and translations have appeared in Australian and international journals, including: Meanjin, Overland, Cordite, Snorkel, Agenda (UK), Antipodes (US), and ISLE (US). He was awarded a PhD in philosophy from the University of Sydney in 2008 and has held academic positions in the US and Germany. Recently he returned to Sydney.
Les Grandes Baigneuses
The serious blue of dusk
pervades the forest and figures.
On the further shore a dense cypress
spires. To the left of the group
arranged as a chance constellation,
a woman with a trunk-like frame
trails a river of towel, the source in her hand,
while her head is submerged in blackened foliage.
Two women, kneeling on the bank like deer with
folded legs, watch a naked girl as she slowly leaves the water,
unembarrassed and contained. Her iconic profile,
ringed by a cumulonimbus steeped in twilight.
To the right a tomato cheeked farmer with ample breasts
relaxes in cushioning arms and a sturdy physique
inclines with a tree. A seated woman between them
is feeling the texture of the earth while a russet head,
still bathing alone, rinses a shoulder, looking on.
Their skins shimmer––a moonlit lake
composed of refracted sky, woods, shore.
Beside the dark cat on a table of grass:
a cane basket of fruits and a watermelon half.
After days of rain
After days of rain
I go out for a walk
The air is hazy and bright like the mind of a saint
coming to her senses after a vision
threaded with polished jade and crystal beads
grace the breasts of trees
anklets glint in the grass
Three lorikeets pass in a rush––
chirpy green-winged rainbows
Entering the reserve
only now I realise the path
is a scar on the landscape
Now that the water
has made it a creek bed
and flows like a healing lotion
Downstream a fairy wren
twitches its blue-capped head
flicks droplets off its wings departs
In my fine leather shoes from Berlin
I slink along the bank, the soles pressing
native grasses and purple stars
Is there no way we can enter a forest
other than by severing it––like drawing
a rusty scalpel across a patient’s skin?
And what about the footpaths and roads,
the byways and freeways, motorways and runways––
all the cauterised wounds scarring her back?