Mogwie-Idan Stories of the Land
by Lionel Fogarty
Reviewed by TIM WRIGHT
Arguments for the importance and power of Fogarty’s poetry have been made by a number of writers since the 1980s. Some prominent examples are: the forewords to Fogarty’s first two collections, written by Cheryl Buchanan and Gary Foley respectively, Mudrooroo’s early critical attention and championing of his work, Philip Mead’s comparative reading of Fogarty (alongside ΠO) in his study of Australian poetry, Networked Language (2008), John Kinsella’s statement in the 2009 Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (and quoted by Ali Alizadeh in the introduction to this volume) that Fogarty is ‘the most vital poet writing in Australia today’, and Stuart Cooke’s reading of Fogarty’s work in his recent comparative study of Australian and Chilean poetry, Speaking the Earth’s Languages (2013). At almost 160 pages Mogwie-Idan announces itself as a major collection. It is also a generous one, containing the poems of the earlier published chapbook Connection Requital along with the 50 poems of Mogwie-Idan, and a susbtantial selection of Fogarty’s drawings.
The range of subjects Fogarty’s poetry deals with is informed by his many years involvement (since the mid-1970s) in Aboriginal activism, and direct references to this history appear in poems such as ‘Tent Embassy 1971-2021’. About the subject matter of his poetry Fogarty is unambiguous; in an interview with Michael Brennan he says, ‘Deaths in Custody is the most important subject in my poetry, as well as Land Rights and general struggles of national affairs.’ Political matters such as these are entirely personal for Fogarty, as they are for many, perhaps all, Aboriginal people. One need only read Fogarty’s author biographies to learn that state repression has been a part of his life. The most extreme manifestations of this would be the charges made of conspiracy against the state, as part of the ‘Brisbane Three’ in 1974-75 (the three were acquitted), and the death of his brother, the dancer Daniel Yock, at the hands of police, in 1993. As has been described by himself and others, the protest of Fogarty’s poetry is taken into the fabric of English; it can be seen as an attempt, as he has said, to conquer, or crush, English.
The poems draw from Munultjali dialect (for which a glossary is provided), however the poetry’s most radical linguistic element is its frequent a-grammaticality, its torquing of conventional English syntax such that, for example, nouns are rendered as verbs and vice versa, or ‘wrong’ verb forms are used. Sabina Paula Hopfer writes that in reading Fogarty’s work she is ‘made to understand what language genocide feels like rather than what it means in abstract terms.’ She writes that Fogarty’s words, referring to two of his early collections, ‘pound down on the non-Indigenous reader like hail stones, so that the reading experience is one of complete exhaustion and despair.’ I have remembered this description of Fogarty’s work since I first read it nine years ago. While I believe the metaphor of hail is an accurate one to carry the force of Fogarty’s poetry, I now to think that Hopfer’s reading of it risks overemphasising the response of despair. What about the exhilaration of reading the poems/getting hit on the head with hail? I would want also to emphasise the potential dialogic space that is created by the linguistic complexity of Fogarty’s poetry, one that a reader is required to work towards. Michael Brennan argues that Fogarty’s manipulation of English obliges reciprocity of the reader, and so, the possibility of dialogue, writing that his poetry ‘can be seen not simply as a counter discourse but as an integrated, less dialectically defined, reconception of English – literature and usage – wherein a reciprocal biculturalisation is demanded of the colonisers.’
‘Connection Requital’, the opening sequence, is a blast of nine poems written entirely in capitals. Fogarty’s formal decision to use capitals only in this sequence appears to mark a new degree of urgency in his work – significant given the sense of urgency his poetry has always contained. In ‘Mutual Fever’ the tone is almost biblical – or bushfire scene – in its intensity and imagery:
A WATERLESS SEA OF ASHES
FIREFLIES ROARED LIGHTS AROUND A SMALL BUSH
BLAZING CARCASSES MOANED TO BE DREAMT
PRE-DAWN STAGGERED WITH ONE MAN
WHO DRANK GLOBULES FLOODED WATERS PURE AHAHAH
The longest poem in the book, ‘Wisdom of the Poet’, is for the Chilean-Australian poet Juan Garrido-Salgado. It demonstrates the strategic function inherent in Fogarty’s songman and spokesman roles. In this case, the poem is a message of solidarity across different cultures. But it is more than this – ‘Wisdom of the Poet’ moves breezily between the ancestral, and aspects of the current political and economic situation of Aboriginal people. We read reflections on the Mabo judgement, questions of law and culture (‘White women playing our digeridoo instrument / Can’t do nothing, they’re protected by the government’), of Australian Aboriginal history (‘Only 40 years ago / My race of people were suffragettes’), of Aboriginal leadership and media overload (‘TV’s black leaders selling out / zonked out with a sore head / ‘cause watching TV left my brain dead’), and advice to younger generations (‘black people need to be educated white man’s way / so we can know what they write and what they say’). There is much else in this poem that is not as easy to categorise; the second half moves into a different realm entirely, of the personal and spiritual. The final lines return to economics and specifically to the question (still hardly dealt with in Australia) of financial compensation:
We had civilisation before they came
so us know the way to a future
Chile Mapuche we are with you to liberation
The day will come
when all rich classes must pay for crimes
of past and present
You may think this is silly
but we really want compensation
The poem ‘Conducted at Native Religion’ begins with an epigraph from the former Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, during the 2011 Brisbane floods: ‘We are Queenslanders, from north of the border. They keep knocking us down, but we keep getting up. . .’. The mawkish ‘battler’-ism of Bligh’s speechwriter’s statement is highlighted when pulled into the context of Fogarty’s poem – as is the irony of Bligh taking on the Aboriginal discourse of survival for a comparatively minor threat to existence (that is, compared to colonialism): ‘Even a full supreme court illegals our public ears / Let injustice be in the hand of those political ‘nit wits’’. An older poem, dated May 1990, ‘Overseas Telephone’, details beautiful collisions of sense, ‘Few always joined with your / intermittent distance / like seasons are intense with / the sun’s radio’. The first half of the poem is in tones that are humorous, chatty, flirty, loving; the images in the second half are violent and extreme:
I’ve been given a violent
But I never panic when you
I am the peaceful liberty love
of political prisoners
Your raped sounds burst
explosions of speeches
Everything endured by me
will inflict my sadness to
love melancholy dart eyes
My silence is not an absence
Your power vultures more despair
I see your horrified voice
You are patriotic to filth
and drink urine mixed with cement
A later line in the poem, ‘I am murdered ten million yesterdays’, might resolve in different ways: ‘I murdered ten million yesterday’ or the very different ‘I murdered ten million yesterdays’ or as two discrete statements ‘I am murdered’ ‘ten million yesterdays’. Ten million yesterdays works out to around 27,000 years. Speaking of time on these kinds of scales is frequent in Fogarty’s work; he is not the modernist poet obsessed with the illuminated ‘moment’. Rather, Fogarty’s diction is often world-historical in scope. Western calendar years flash up throughout the collection, in a parody of chronology: ‘Living here in 2020 sometimes / gives me the 1920’s even 1770’ (‘2020’). The consciousness of history is clear in the title of another poem in the collection, ‘Past Lies Are Present’, which perhaps says enough, though its specificity to Australian politics is clear in the first lines, ‘Past lies are present / A fake sorry is given’.
The poem ‘Decipherer’ is one of the more abstract in the collection:
Uncharted activated waters
reveal unflushed originators.
My true darling breath of exhilarating
vision is acute in testifying customs.
I am I, charted in deliverance by black myriads
codified relations comes of purification.
Global psychic energies only will mark
awareness by Aborigines’ new ages wildfire.
Uncharted harmony and I get accent
ingredients to equivalent windswept.
Reveal flourished in our astrological eyes.
Herd warriors worry no more
History unbalanced kept me ‘dead’ indecipherable.
Future ballad themes honour me
chilly little crystal humour ‘Ha, Ha, Ha’.
To decipher is ‘to turn into ordinary writing’. ‘Decipherer’ may be in part addressed to the reader or critic who would handle Fogarty’s poetry as a kind of cipher or code for which there existed a key that would unlock ordinary writing (whatever that might be). This would be opposed to those understandings of it described earlier by Brennan, as constituting a ‘reconception of English’, and thus requiring the reader to move outwards, further towards the language, rather than trying to draw it closer to her or him. One approach may be to read Fogarty’s poetry guided by a term he has used in interviews, the mosaic: ‘I am mosaic in reading, I nitpick readings. I often read back to front, similar to Chinese’; ‘Most of the time I use words in mosaic of catalysing . . .’. Thus the repeated phrases of ‘Decipherer’ – ‘My true darling’, ‘History unbalanced’, ‘uncharted’/‘charted’, ‘wildfire’ – might be analogous to differently coloured fragments, generating a pattern of concepts or ideas that the poem explores. The mosaic is suggestive too of the way sense is sometimes, as in ‘Decipherer’, ‘scattered’ through Fogarty’s poems, such that they resist line by line interpretations, yet at the same time are held together by their sonic patterning:
Between sound and colour ‘I am a bit’
Between music strangely I’m beyond white time
Affirmation give techniques limitless in my
Plain chant transfiguration musics
Fogarty’s torquing of syntax is also at work in this poem. In the earlier line ‘Reveal flourished in our astrological eyes’, ‘reveal’ can be read as objectified, a quality which ‘flourished’; or, we may read ‘flourished’ as an adjective – ‘with flourishes’ – the object of the verb ‘reveal’. Considered this way, the function of both ‘reveal’ and ‘flourish’ are turned outwards, enstranged. ‘My true darling breath’ is in a Romantic diction that may be parodic. It is immediately torqued, in that, where a reader may expect a noun, following ‘of’, there is an adjective – ‘exhilarating’ – which can be read as enjambed, flowing onto the next line, ‘of exhilarating / vision is acute in testifying customs’, or as a discrete line. Where a rest or the consolidation of an image might be expected, we find the ground hasn’t appeared yet and we have to keep moving. Stuart Cooke, writing of Fogarty’s poem ‘Heart of a european . . .’, describes evocatively this mode of reading that Fogarty’s poetry calls for:
There are portions of grammatically correct English here, but no sooner do they appear than they have dissolved into a kind of word-music. Consequently, those intelligible phrases have the effect of punctuating the swirl of rhythm and rhyme with moments of clarity, which the reader “clings” to, as if stopping at the occasional water hole to rest before moving onto the scrub.
Reproductions of Fogarty’s drawings are throughout the book, and arrive like gifts. While I am aware that these drawings contain meanings for Fogarty and his community not known to me, I attempt here a necessarily limited description. The drawings contain recurring ideas and motifs: mandala-like circles, or wheels; shields, boomerangs or boomerang-like shapes, tendrils or vines and straight ruler-drawn connecting lines between bodies. In many, there is a sense of suspension, of subtle yet firmly and intricately maintained connection between otherwise independent bodies. There is a sense of both organic and mechanical motion; each drawing appears to be a complete system of articulated, or in some way engaged, parts. In the drawing ‘Gauwal (Far away)’ a cord emerges from an orifice within a blob that could be muscle-tissue; half-way down the picture surface this splits into two strings, and from inside the cord another line emerges, resembling rosary beads or a chain. At the base of the picture a solid log is suspended by the cord which divides the picture surface vertically, and on which or within which are various insignia: egg-like shapes connected as if within an intestine, circles, a diamond striated. The drawing is one of the more minimal of Fogarty’s works, most of the picture surface being blank background. The bodies are ‘far away’, as the English part of the title says, yet undeniably connected. Including the image used for the cover, there are twenty drawings in the book, which are each printed to the edge of the page, unframed. The effect is that the drawings come to be placed in a more equal relationship with the poetry, interleaved not supplementary or illustrative.
A Southerly issue of 2002 contains facsimiles of Fogarty’s poems in manuscript, his drawings intertwined with the words of the poems. In Mogwie-Idan the poems and drawings are on separate pages, but there is a broader sense of written word flowing into the drawing and back out again. This relation between word and image is set up in the opening of Mogwie-Idan, which literally invites readers in – ‘Jingi Whallo / Hello how are you all?’ – and goes on to acknowledge the traditional people, ending on an ellipsis which ‘leads’ the eye directly to the drawing on the facing page, ‘Burrima (Fire Man)’. Throughout the book the reader is able to consider analogies between the fully articulated, holistic systems of these drawings and those same qualities present in the poems.
The book ends with the extraordinary poem, ‘Power Live in the Spears’, a kind of chant, which in its insistence recalls one of Fogarty’s influences, Oodgeroo Noonuccal; the cumulative effect of the lines becomes an incantation:
Power live in the spears
Power live in the worries
Power air in the didgeridoo
Power run on the people heart
Bear off the power come from the land
1. Johnson, Colin, ‘Guerilla Poetry: Lionel Fogarty’s Response to Language Genocide’, Westerly, No. 3, September 1986, pp. 47-55
2. Brennan, Michael, ‘Interview with Lionel Fogarty’, Poetry International, http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net, July 10, 2011
3. Hopfer, Sabina Paul, ‘Re-Reading Lionel Fogarty: An Attempt to Feel Into Texts Speaking of Decolonisation, Southerly, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2002, p. 60
4. ibid, p. 47
5. Brennan, Michael, ‘Interview with Lionel Fogarty’, Poetry International, http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net, July 10, 2011
7. Ball, Timmah, ‘An Interview with Poet Lionel Fogarty’, Etchings Indigenous Treaty, Ilura Press, Melbourne, 2011, pp. 129-135
8. Cooke, Stuart, ‘Tracing a Trajectory from Songpoetry to Contemporary Aboriginal Poetry’, A Companion to Australian Aboriginal Literature, edited by Belinda Wheeler, Camden House, Rochester, NY, 2013, p. 104
TIM WRIGHT has poems included in the anthology ‘Outcrop’ (Black Rider Press, 2013). He recently constructed a chapbook, titled Weekend’s End.
Sharyn Belcher lives in Melbourne with her husband and three sons. She teaches piano part-time and is currently studying literature at Monash University. Her great loves are her family, nineteenth-century Realism, writing, and playing the grand piano she bought instead of replacing her worn-out car.
It was built of wire and paper and board, but we called it the mud house. It certainly burnt with an unholy rush like it wasn’t made of mud. We all stood up the paddock a bit while Dad and Uncle Ken poured kerosene inside the doorway and then whoosh, the old place—crammed with its ancient mattresses and broken bed-heads—went up in great fumy flames, and hundreds of rats and mice and a couple of snakes scrambled for their lives.
Grandad stood a little way from us all. Tall and bent, he seemed to be looking at the ground rather than the burning old house. My older sister Alison was hopping all around in the grass and ferns, fidgety like she always was, and Mum was telling her to look out for rats or snakes. I was amazed, looking from my vantage point of three, maybe four years old, that the grown-ups would do something as daring as burn down the old house. Even Nana laughed and took quick steps. Everyone was excited. Everyone except Grandad.
I was sad, too, to see the mud house go. It was old, old as the hills, and though they said it was derelict, with rotten floor boards and stuffed with rubbish, on tippy-toes I could peer through the dusty windows and see mystery and opportunities for exploring. The stripy and stained old mattresses leaning sideways, ancient chairs with legs missing and seats chewed out, and newspaper-stacked cupboards with their doors hanging open and crooked. The old place sat, brown and small, on Nana and Grandad’s land over the paddock from their own house. They all said it was a dangerous eyesore and a haven for snakes. If I was lucky I got to pick my way over the rotten verandah boards and poke my nose in the front doorway; if Mum and I were taking a walk in the paddocks, I would always lead her over to it. I was fascinated. It smelt like dust and ash. A chain with a hook hung down from inside the chimney of the fireplace. Mum told me it was to hang pots over the flames, to cook back in the days when they didn’t have stoves. I would ask, ‘Who lived here? Was it Nana and Grandad?’ but Mum would shake her head and say the house was from before Grandad bought the land, and then talk about something else.
Grandad was always as old as Methuselah, peering out under his bushy white eyebrows. He was sick. Most of the time he was in bed in his stripy blue pyjamas, an oxygen bottle nearby on loan from the hospital, and if he was up and about he was bent and slow. And stern. We kids would get shushed if we got too excited in our play, and I was always dying to plonk away on Nana’s piano, but I wouldn’t get too many notes in before I would be told, ‘Quiet! Grandad doesn’t want to hear that.’
Nana always had an apple pie ready when we came to visit on the weekends. Our Falcon 500 would scrabble up the washed-out driveway, and just as we nosed round to the back of the house Nana would rush out through the plastic door streamers onto the back verandah. ‘I thought you might turn up today,’ she’d say.
She must have baked a lot of pies. We always expected that Nana would be delighted when we arrived, and of course she never let us down. ‘Old Cinna! Old Cinna!’ she’d cry at our terrier Cindy, who would bend herself into ecstatic shapes and moan with doggy joy. We’d leap from the car, sniffing the eucalyptus and ferns, and then the peculiar old musty smell of inside Nana and Grandad’s house.
Their house was small. Just one main room, the kitchen, with four smaller rooms, two to the right and two to the left. One of the rooms didn’t even have floorboards. They had a pair of old wooden-armed easy chairs in front of their wood stove, and a green Laminex kitchen table with six chairs, those chairs from the 1950s that got so fashionable again. We’d all sit at the table and Nana would shake hot tea out of her enormous teapot into our waiting cups. If we stayed the night us kids would sleep on lumpy mattresses on the floor. During the night so many Christmas beetles would buzz their way in that in the morning Nana would brush around our beds with a broom, sweeping their curled up little bodies, with their legs waving faintly, out the door, off the verandah and onto the grass.
Nana had a slops basin. I was both fascinated and repulsed by the word ‘slops’, and by the basin itself. It sat by the sink, and all waste liquids, including the tea leaves from the teapot, were eventually slopped into the basin. When it was almost full, one of us kids could carefully balance it against our chest with our tummy bent underneath, fearing the increasing ripples bouncing from end to end of the basin, as we took careful steps out through the screen door and down from the verandah. Just before the increasing slops waves broke their bounds, we triumphantly dumped them in a crazy avalanche over Nana’s little plants.
One Christmas, some years after the old mud house was burnt down, Mum and Dad brought us kids and a caravan up to Nana and Grandad’s so we could stay for the whole summer holidays and Mum and Dad could work on finally finishing Nana and Grandad’s house. They pulled out the ancient wood stove in the kitchen and replaced it with a new gas stove, a sink with proper plumbing, built-in cupboards, and tiles on the wall.
Grandad was too sick to sit up for Christmas dinner, and on Boxing Day Mum called an ambulance to take him to hospital. I last saw him waving to us all as he was wheeled on a stretcher over the grass and into the back of the ambulance. I was sad because he didn’t get to unwrap the box of hankies we’d bought him for Christmas. The next few days the grown-ups were in and out of the hospital, and then Nana got a phone call to say she should come in straight away as Grandad was dying. But before she had a chance to even find her handbag they rang again to say he had just died. Nana cried and cried, and said there was no point us working on the house now. But Mum and Dad said she was the reason they were doing the house, not for Grandad.
The room with no floorboards was finished and carpeted, and became a lounge-room for Nana, a proper place for her piano which until then was in one of the bedrooms. Nana got to choose a lounge suite for herself, and one of the other rooms was turned into a bathroom-laundry. Nana actually had a toilet and a shower and a washing machine right there in her house. The old toilet had been a smelly tin box over in the disused dairy.
As I grew into an adult myself, Mum told me more about Nana’s life in the house on the hill, and about Mum’s childhood, too. I learnt how when Mum was nine, Grandad suddenly sold up their lovely suburban house just over the fence from the swimming pool in Pascoe Vale, and bought 100 hectares of bush in East Gippsland, looking over the lakes. How an old woman named Mrs Moss and her middle-aged daughter, Nell, were living in the mud house when Grandad bought the land, and stayed living there, renting it from Grandad. My uncle Ken slept in a small caravan, while Nana and Grandad and Mum and her sister were in the house Grandad was building but never finished. In those early days Nana cooked their meals on a little primus stove in the room that later became the front bedroom.
Later, when I was in my thirties, married with my own family, Mum told me about Grandad’s affair with Nell in the mud house. About Nana’s cry of grief when she found out, and how she ran out from the house, into the paddock and down the hill to sob alone. How Grandad actually made Nana and Mum and her sister and Ken eat their dinner each night in the little mud house, with his lover and her mother. Like he had two wives and one big family. And how one night, after their dinner in the mud house, Nana and the kids left Grandad there, as they did every other night, but instead of going back to their own half-built house, they packed the car, and Ken, who was just old enough to drive, rolled them silently down the drive and out onto the road before he started the engine, put on the headlights, and drove them to Nana’s father’s house in Melbourne. How, after some months making a new life in Melbourne, Grandad convinced Nana to come back, so they went back—except Ken, he didn’t go back—and there were still problems for years afterwards with Grandad and Nana and the women next door, who, at last, moved out and the mud house became derelict.
Children are surprisingly blind to the adult world. And just as well. I can still hear the pops and explosions as the mud house and its mattresses went up in flames, the grown-ups’ voices slightly raised in excitement and concern that we kids would get too close; and I can still see Grandad standing off a little on his own, his bent body pointing at the ground.
Jen Crawford is a New Zealand poet who coordinates the Creative Writing Programme at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her poetry collections include Bad Appendix, Pop Riveter and Napoleon Swings. New work can be found in Axon 5, Brief 49 and Shearsman 95 & 96.
when dalliance returns, the one after the other, dallying
while dallying who’ll
for the token a night gathers pools
pool a woman carrying children into
citronella gathers to its pools a whistle, sailing
night arrow across the track’s prepared
burnishment absorbing the election’s
sweat through to the presidential election’s absorbing
the porous rubber collects,
radio interns a racetrack, pinned
inhaling a sterile water,
in ballooning and extinguishing colonies evenly
making a sugar-burn esophagus crackle
like chlorine; like forest fire like chlorine.
breath pools. chlorine cohabits
in a form of indonesia through the opening vessel.
fires for the palm through the opening
to the cordial, flicking cards
at snapping light. the horses rear
crackling mosquitoes. and should they
go round mosquito death too.
or around the light oneoneone two.
a tempo (implicit memory)
these two silk birds are frayed and then it touches them. these two
frayed silk birds. into the river diving and emerging. one such silk
is a cracked river stone and this is the surface of its silk, the green
surface of its time in that silk time, its water. you could cut your foot
on that accurate division. if you weren’t aware. you could lay
your hand on it and feel the sharpness aware in your hand.
these silk birds come down from the leaves of the grey way up
on the edge of the cliff, they come down to the water to drink. they
fly past the roots that break the cliff and through the stone cuts water.
absolutely slowly and too fast to see. so holds acceleration in array.
where when the riverbed bares its posture and then softens, there
go into the memory of water, into the likely inclination of future
water. and these forms will get undone. by their full registration
of pressure, heat and sound. into holding together, into dry and
adrift. the dive is whole into each particle, held or adrift.
Philip Salom (born 8 August 1950) is a poet and novelist whose books have attracted worldwide acclaim. He has published fourteen books – twelve collections of poetry and two novels – notable for their originality and expansiveness and for surprising differences from title to title.His novels are Playback. (Fremantle Arts Centre, 1991; 2003) and Toccata & Rain: A novel. (Fremantle Arts Centre, 2004) His awards and honours include Commonwealth Poetry Prize for a First Book (The Silent Piano), Western Australian Literary Award for Poetry (The Projectionist),South Australian Biennial Literary Award for Poetry – official Second Prize (The Projectionist),Writers Fellowship, Australia Council,Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Overall Best Book (Sky Poems) and Australia-New Zealand Literary Award, NZ Arts Council.
J.S : Who inspired you to write The Silent Piano(1980)?
P.S : In the late 70s I had become a friend of the older Australian poet William Hart-Smith, who was living in Western Australia at the time and at some chosen distance from the poetry world. We would meet and talk about poetry and mysticism and humour and, well, his life. The latter might sound odd, but Bill was good at anecdotes and had lived a maverick life as a young man and poet. He was my example of the poet as a genuine artist, more concerned about his work than the fame game.
J.S : Who are the poets you read in your childhood?
P.S : None. I lived on a farm and though my parents read a lot they didn’t have any poetry books and read genre fiction, mainly, what Grahame Greene happily called ‘entertainments’. I knew about narrative poetry from teachers reading it aloud but I never read adult poetry until my mid 20s. In that sense I was something of a late starter.
J.S : Why did you choose the title Feeding the Ghost(Penguin, 1993)?
P.S : There’s a small poem in that collection which goes like this:
Looking for a title
then seeing what the hunger is
and what all art is:
feeding the ghost.
I hope that answers the question! It would be a shame to expand upon it.
J.S : What according to you is a ‘good’ poem?
P.S: I have just seen the following question so can pre-empt some of it by saying that I expect good poetry to have an essential inner element I call the imagination, which works on us and changes us. Imagination, for me, also includes the inventive. This, in turn, must work through linguistic freshness and precision and strike me with the poem’s insights, its knowing. All these in a strong relation between feeling and form.
J.S : Can there be a poem without emotion and imagination?
P.S : Not really, though I tend to use the term feeling (as above) because it is more subtle than emotion. There are many times that a poem, a work of art, can move us without it being clear what is happening and what ’emotion’ we are actually experiencing. And then there is compassion as a quality… So for me ‘feeling’ is the surer term, a wider reference… and imagination is the transport, that which moves us as readers into the space of the poem’s power.
J.S : Can writing poetry be taught?
P.S : It can certainly be shown to advantage! An insightful teacher should reveal some of the secrets of how poems work and how a student might write similar things. There is a limit though and for many the penny never drops – they just can’t get there. I had this eperience myself, trying for about 18 months without being satisfied with the results, fairly sure they weren’t poems at all, more little poetry-looking artifacts. Then I simply broke through, wrote several and amazed myself. The penny had dropped. Once through, it’s a given. Thereafter the poems were poems, widely different in manner and success … but poems, nevertheless. You may not be able to teach that break-through.
J.S : Did you ever attend a course on creative writing?
P.S : Yes. That is where I met Bill Hart-Smith. He was doing some casual tutoring at the University. I also met other poets in Perth and saw what they were up to, listened to them, got to know their work. And I read a great deal of poetry and thought about it, I did that crucial thinking about thinking, with poetry as the form.
J.S : Performance poetry is gaining momentum in many parts of the world. How do you view this very special trend in poetry?
P.S : It is a phenomenon, just as comedy and TV talent shows are. And social media as self-performance is. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. Performance of poetry as entertainment and stand-up comedy and noisy show-off may attract some people to more demanding poetries, but is more likely to encourage audiences to try it themselves as the model of poetry, naively then, and even put down what they then see as literary or ‘academic’ poetry. The shallowness is the problem.
J.S : Who are the important reviewers of your books and poems in the early part of your career as a poet?
P.S : I received most support from Tom Shapcott, as poet and reviewer but also through his role as reader for my first publisher, Fremantle Press. He gave me advice on my writing and made significant editorial suggestions, and he also dropped my name in more active poetry circles. This was important because I was, by living in Perth, in Western Australia, not really part of the poetry scene, which is centred on Sydney and Melbourne.
J.S : Do you have any dilemma in expressing beauty and truth?
P.S : I do my best, and have a complex view of what beauty might be, or beauty of perception, of poetry itself as a mode, as an art form. Each form creates its own kind of beauty and knows beauty differently. Truth is as subtle as beauty, more varied perhaps, more rhyzomic. It takes many forms and many of these are not obvious, whereas beauty often creates consensus, and shallow beauty to me is not much in the way of truth. As in sentimentality, say, in poetry.
J.S : For P.B. Shelley, ‘poets…are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society…’…Do you that think this quote still holds truth in this age of cyber mania?
P.S : Not really, if it ever did. I consider Shelley’s was a bold claim, more rhetorical than true.
J.S : You have performed as a guest poet and lecturer in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Yugoslavia, Singapore and New Zealand. Could you share your experiences?
P.S : The performance poets conveniently forget that the rest of us often like reading/performing and I have been called a moving reader. I do like it. I enjoy placing the poem in and on the voice and giving it resonance, tone, mood, an aliveness of meaning. Each city and occasion and venue calls up some common elements and some different ones: which poems to read, will any humour carry, how long a poem, what tone to use? It can be depressing giving it your best and knowing it didn’t work. In another country this is especially galling because you may never return! My strangest and in retrospect most exciting reading moment only lasted one poem. I read at night in Skopjie, in a public square, along with about 30 international poets, to a crowd of about 2000 people. My poem had a dramatic build-up to a Polish song which concluded the poem, and with the benefit of my earlier interest in operatic styles of singing, I sang this full voice, in a high baritone. It was thrilling to risk doing this – the vodka probably helped – but the crowd gave me a huge ovation. They loved it. So did I.
J.S : Can the age of Facebook produce a poet like John Keats?
P.S : Sure. If there’s enough time. We forget how astoundingly prolific Keats was and the time spent on writing and reading may seem impossible to find for keen social media people. The new ‘Keats’ may simply be found among those who don’t indulge. But who knows?
J.S : Why do you write poems?
P.S : Once I realised I could write genuine poems, as against the imposters I mentioned earlier, I felt a bit special – it was always a thrill to know how and to experience (among the pains) the deep pleasures and honour even (sound soppy, but still…) of bringing off a strong poem. But I write for more than that, for the knowings I receive as I write, for the inventions and achievements, which I believe all good poetry must possess. It’s hard not to. And because I haven’t finished yet.
J.S : What are your seminal volumes?
P.S : This is a tough call. I have two essential areas of style. My central works, like Sky Poems, The Well Mouth and my forthcoming book Alterworld, are each a single book as an imagined world, and together they make up a cosmology. A trilogy, far from Dante, but as Heaven, Limbo and Hope. These are sweeping but also ironic claims!
The other style of poem I write is more personal, to do with family, people, more directly about common experiences and wonderings and feelings and what I call hauntings.
J.S :What are your seminal issues in poetry?
P.S : To see and understand the world as much as possible and do so within the mode and frames of poetry and poems. This is ontological. The nature of being, existence, the old thing. To relate the hauntings, apprehensions, the energy of being, of consciousness. Which has to acknowledge the unconscious, the intuitive, the imagined, of course.
J.S : Are you familiar with contemporary Indian poets in English?
P.S : Not many, I must say. But then, nor am I familiar with contemporary poets from Canada or Germany. I have met Jayanta, of course, some years ago, also Keki Daruwalla and Nissam Ezekiel and I have read poets piece-meal, sometimes not recalling names. I met a group of Indian writers and poets just before I left Perth to live in Melbourne, in 1997, but generally there is not much traffic in either live or printed form. I also read with interest the poets (Keki included) in the Southerly special issue
J.S : In a poem for Jayanta Mahapatra’s 80th birthday(published in Southerly, Vol 70,Nov., 2010) you wrote “Your poems have called up Wordsworth in the readers(.)”Could you please share your views on his poems?
P.S : Some poetry hits you immediately with its authority and its power of perception and tone. Jayanta’s is like that. There is a worldliness that lives in the local, a strength that acknowledges weakness, a seriousness that is full of compassion. He is true. And he is fully himsef, not some echo of Wordsworth, which is part of what my poem considers, and yet he has the power and sadness perhaps of Wordsworth. I think my phrase was ‘sad and secular’. His lyric is able to be informed by the personal for its knowing but also speak out to readers as something more wide-reaching and impersonal, and by that I mean, his lyric poetry is never turned inward for any gratification or self-mythologising. This last is characteristic of too many poets, sometimes quite brilliant poets, but it’s very off-putting for me. Jayanta is often solemn but he is never boring as old Wordsworth could be! He has a strong social conscience too.
J.S : During 2009-10 you worked in collaboration with Maggie Hegarty, a Melbourne photographer, to create a lucid and freshly imagined art book of poems and images. How is this book received?
P.S : We created the ‘book’ before we realised we couldn’t afford to produce it! Too idealistic. I think the images and poems are strong. However – the costs for such an ‘art book’ were too high unless we could guarantee some sales for what becomes itself a very expensive item. Collectors and archivists and libraries used to purchase such books and display them. They no longer have the budgets to allow thus activity. Sadly.
J.S :What is the future of poetry in the world?
P.S : Same as always – there will be people who must write it, and people who must read it. Some poets will attract big readerships, and listeners, and careers, the others will just get down to the endless business of writing it. Some will excel. It is a deep activity and such activities, unlike library budgets! always survive.
J.S :Where do you live now? Do you have any other serious engagement other than writing poetry and novel?
P.S :I live in North Melbourne with my wife and we keep three cats. Our two children are adults and have lives extremely unlike ours and do nothing that is in any way close to poetry! I resigned from my lecturing work at the University of Melbourne to write full time. My wife is now the bread-earner and luckily we both enjoy this arrangement.
J.S :Did you write social/personal satires? Could you please mention…..
P.S :In 2012 I published a book called Keepers which is a kind of hybrid verse novel, based around an academic art institution. My approach is generally satirical, a lot of mockery and exposure of the foibles and indulgences of staff and wannabe students, as well as some more serious issues being explored, questioned… After that I created another two books written through heteronym: one lyric and rather melancholic poet who is also sardonic and who grew from the satirical voice of Keepers, so this book The Keeper of Fish is his collection (as a closet poet) of poems. Then I wrote another poet with a style and personality utterly unlike my own. His name is M A Carter and Carter truly is a satirist, an outrageous misanthrope and eccentric who writes much funnier poems than mine but whose words are much more biting and critical in manner and attack. He’s a worry! His book is called Keeping Carter. I am all the same very proud of him. My next novel Waiting is about people who have very little in life and if this makes them figures of satire they are also mouthpieces for a larger critique of society, which means they get all the best lines.
My poem is over the page, and an echo of India…
A Night-long Performance of Peter Brook’s Mahabarata
Ceaseless going over and going over swayed
her voice back into millenia, the millenia in her throat
swayed inside us, its sad and ceaseless zaftig of tone
rose and fell under the violins chugging, in unison.
Yes, chugging, not romantic. The Pandava brothers.
Lament here, the drum-spats, the harmonium’s square
book of the Vedas opening and closing.
Earth. Death. When you wake from it millenia
have come and left. Timelessness is greater time.
At dawn in the local quarry we usually ignored
the cliffs were cut open by Vedic wars:
gelignite has nothing on this. Opened I was/we were.
Peter Brook was a thousand years old in this new
Sanskrit English International Cast
His Arjuna seized us, he was handsome and epic
and everyone fought beside him, side against side,
but no victory a victory: we were dying to know
of epic knowing and to mourn for what is real
in what is not. Nine hours and centuries
is a lot of dying and of the not really real.
But at six am the sun stood up amongst us
and threw the rug from its shoulders.
Mahabarata. Just the sound of it is glorious.
We had done right and been wrong, been honourable
and weak, loyal and venal, heard the tragedy of the wise
and the foolish, and felt big quarry tears, the terrible,
compassionate arrows of a real Mahabarata
plunge through us.
So filled and fooled, now we were filing home
into the next world.
Earl Livings has published poetry around Australia and also in Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing and coordinates the Professional Writing & Editing course at Box Hill Institute, Victoria. He is also the editor of Divan(www.bhtafe.edu.au/divan), Australia’s first all-Australian online poetry journal. Earl lives in Melbourne with his wife and is currently working on a novel and his next poetry collection.
Sligo, Ireland, August 2009
Not knowing its name, my being
On a far-flung island, its creatures
Known only by reputation,
I have no choice but to listen:
High-pitched chioo, chioo, chioo, or
Queeka, queeka, queeka, almost the sound
Of worn brakes jabbed to slow down,
Or a thin bronze staff tapped against oak
To call ancestors to dark clearings.
Not knowing what it looks like—
Midnight, the bird bounding
From one branch to the next,
Behind a maze of branches, calling
To mate, to mark territory, to state
Its own being-bliss—I imagine it
Brindled, slim-bodied, tawny-flecked neck,
Oil-gloss eyes that scan always,
Its red beak open, with each note
Chiming leaves and balmy air, all ears,
Etymologies of breath behind its eyes.
It knows nothing of thresholds.
Not knowing what to do next, I stop
Wondering, stop straining to charm the bird
And its rustling, moon-riddled tree,
Open gaze and hearing to whatever waits
Beyond the imprints and echoes of words,
The swing of breath and song, the poise.
My Funeral Gondola
by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Mãnoa Books / El Léon Literary Arts, 2013
Reviewed by TIFFANY TSAO
Where does life reside? Where does the spirit live? Where is the substance of the self? In Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s second poetry collection, My Funeral Gondola, ponderous wonderings become lighter than air, flying and perching like inquisitive birds, melancholy, merry, gentle, and sly. Inviting us to step through a prefatory poem that signals our passage into a world ‘No more black and white’, the poet guides us through the realms of liminality, and with her we experience the afterlives of herself and others, the reverberations of past dreams and memories, and the scattering of consciousness through time and space.
In the first suite of poems, we witness the death of the author, and it would seem that demise is the beginning of new life: an all too vivid one in ‘Notes from My Funeral’ where the poet’s passing occasions an eclectic gathering of culinary, religious, and musical incongruities: dragon fruit next to salmon maki and baked apricots; African odes, Tibetan chants, and a Catholic priest. The funeral is not a last rite, but a rite of passage, and to the accompaniment of Liszt mixed with Dylan, the poet undertakes not final rest, but resettlement: ‘From one state of gratitude/ to another province’. The eponymous poem ‘My Funeral Gondola’ too bears its quarry with no fixed destination in sight. Rather
it positions itself
midway in a strait—so that shadows
by the woods
by the sun
travel over it….
Humans have souls, but so do words, we find out in ‘When the Title Took Its Life’. And they too yearn for escape from bodily confines:
My saddest lines
wish to know how they left
and why I imprison them
along margins. Abbreviated
but exhausted from labour.
‘Erase me’, they insist. ‘Here is not life.’ Suicide by one name is liberation by another, and a playful rumination on words taking (their own) life becomes both a meditation on the nature of human existence (Is bodily incarnation life or is it an incarceration, a negation of life?) and a reflection on the failure inherent in the poet’s desire to capture life when life can only blossom beyond the artifice of the written word.
Scattering like ashes, the dispersal of life, of self, of soul continues through the second section, ‘Odd Spirits’. A puppet-master of ‘Javanese Wayang’ ‘steals/ away from his body’ and transmigrates into shadow: ‘Watch the shadows, not/ the puppets.’ The spirits of ‘François Dead’ and ‘Cremating Maestro’ reverse this journey: the material traces the departed leave behind become more than merely physical: they have a weight and heft that anchors the soul in the world of the living. François’s lodgings are packed away and cleaned, but ‘A musty hardcover/ of ancient elegies/ loosely translated from the Japanese’ brings him back into the room they have cleared out: ‘François said he stole it.’ An origami boat brings closer intimacy with the classical Chinese poet Li Po than ever achieved by contemplating his poetry and its subject matter: ‘Sixteen, I folded a paper boat for you,/ imagining it once carried Li Po, imagining/ it was his body….’ In the intertwining of the flesh and spirit, material and immaterial, substantial and insubstantial, all distinctions melt away.
In the final section, the poet’s life is broken across countries, addresses, experiences, and encounters: ‘Not Thinking About the Past’ (also the section’s title) takes us from 117 West 75th Street in New York to St. Albert’s Trail in Canada, to Block 33, Jalan Bahagia in Singapore, to 16 rue Séguier in Paris. Through the other poems, we visit a first night in Shanghai, a music lesson with Martha at the age of nine, 1980 in London, a pretentious academic symposium in Germany. Masterful is the closing ‘Return to Self’—a desultory series of beautiful, funny, and puzzling observations, recountings, statements—that somehow hangs together by imperceptible threads to give rise to a portrait of individual being.
The bigger your mole looks in the mirror, the more your body parts with ofty ideas. This is why Granny claims moles are temples. When I practice calligraphy, each splotch reminds me of a deformed atom.
With a diploma in healing orchids, I invent the way of healing her.
To quote a French humorist, God is absent, but the concierge will return.
We like the dirty goats approaching our bus-stop. Our bus is late, so are they.
Across time and space, death and life, solidity and abstraction, we are. Inexplicably so. At the coaxing of a lesser craftswoman, the finished piece could not hold. In the hands of Sze-Lorrain, breaking apart and holding together become one and the same, suspended, but not motionless.
TIFFANY TSAO is a lecturer in English at the University of Newcastle
The Book of Ethel
by Jordie Albiston
Puncher and Wattmann
Reviewed by DAN DISNEY
Jordie Albiston’s new book is the formal equivalent of an exclamation mark. These first-person narrative poems call from the ether of memory/invention, and in The Book of Ethel Albiston ventriloquizes her maternal great-grandmother’s voice to recount Ethel’s quest to locate (an always-capitalized) Home. Each stanza in this meticulously compressed collection has seven lines, and each line seven syllables; Albiston’s stylized shorthand is partly a codifying device, and partly a matter of form enabling a voice to be heard, clear and strange amid the fractured syntax. These songs, or fragments/fractions of song, are a kind of paean or colonial ancestor worship which tell a particular Newly Australian migrant’s tale: The Book of Ethel explores how intimacy and family happen in an Unheimlich dwelling, to explore (the so often migratory) patterns of identity and belonging.
In previous collections, Albiston has focused on history (in her accounts of the often-brutal colony: Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee) and genealogy (in her award-winning the sonnet according to m, written for her grandmother). In The Book of Ethel, Albiston once more voices a matrilineal tongue, moving backward through time to prise open origins. Ethel’s voice is both fabular and everyday, epic and romantic as she moves across a version of the world where supper-bells ring (9), measles are a mortal danger (16), and – imagine it! – women get to vote (23). Leaving Cornwall and boarding a ‘good ship out-bound for Melbourne’ (18), Ethel muses –
em-i-grate I am told it
means ‘to go’ but will there be
kerrek & croft karn & quoit
where we ‘go’? will New Home have
field & valley? zawn? wall?
will friends be waiting for me?
em-i-grate emigrate so
Ethel traverses zones temporal, psychic, and linguistic, her voice burred with an outsider’s lexicon; the unrecognizable Cornish terms (helpfully explained in a glossary at the back of the book) heighten the sense that this narrator is abandoning an imaginative order. Thrice repeating the term (emigration-as-incantation?), Albiston wants her readers fully aware that –
a name may some-how make mark
which is, perhaps, epiphenomenal: like all of us, Albiston’s past is particularly inscribed (for another exploration of this, Les Murray’s interview in The Paris Review is illuminating). By including words that have neither currency nor cachet among contemporary readers, Albiston foregrounds Ethel’s life as one spent marking out new semantic boundary lines, and hyphenating ‘emigrate’ emphasises the job ahead: close readers will roll the word slowly in their minds too, to better understand how Ethel must (literally) come to terms with the great, grating reality of emigration.
Albiston borrows from tropes biblical and demotic, parochial and rushing at us (largely) unpunctuated; the book’s title suggests an Old Testament-style testimony in which Ethel journeys to a promised land (‘Australia finally!’ 21) to then marry her ordained Mister/Minister (‘Husband-Husband wedded Twice’ 25) and raise a family. But rather than some colloquial rites-of-passage, this book is a formally innovative tour-de-force; studded with verbal puns, Albiston’s language-as-material is split, spliced, broken, rendered and, persistently, urgently repurposed. The quirky style is announced from the outset –
so Life! we meet once more you
& I in concert concord
happy agreement to do
until done my act your stage
make lie in it this! my bit-
part play World with me aboard
a Speck! & then gigantic
These lines-as-snapped-ligatures writhe with implication (I am reminded of Bob Perelman’s ‘Chronic Meanings’), and the poem’s stage is traipsed breathlessly by half-thoughts left as near-resemblances (‘do until done’ suggests do you take this person to be your lawful and etc) and absent echoes (‘make’ your bed and ‘lie in it’). These snapshots of an exiled life replicate a mind scanning, fitfully and non-editorially: we are inside Ethel’s mind, watching while new Homes propagate with children –
5 still safe inside coming
soon awaited waifs imbue
such Love Wave! then say Adieu
and, as the family swells, these songs come to speak gradually of Homeliness as intimate and relational: an abstract accommodation.
These, then, are ballads to love: that affect in which even exiles can find solace. Of course there is yearning (which love isn’t sharpened by craving) and Ethel is often inside the poems alone –
I simply wait & sit wait-
ing he Mister gone off to
camp in the hills
and her solitariness is reflected in the Mallarméan <<blancs>>, which act as internal line breaks: sometimes scanning as comma-like caesurae, sometimes as semantic fractures, the spacing creates a glitching and staccato rhythm which tonally agrees with Albiston’s objective: Ethel’s homing is never hubristic, and never wholly comfortable. At many lines’ end, the enjambments take on particular significatory force –
daughter daughter daughter daught-
er son & one inside Home
A wry wit is at work here: in breaking at the seventh syllable, ‘daught-’, the new line conveys a fourth daughter and then, err (surprise), a son. The many intentionally widowed half-words (butcher-/y, vi-/olence, fun-/nels, any-/how, love-/ly) make Albiston’s lines strangely interlinear, contingent as the eye roves and returns, never quite sure what complexities lie just ahead, or indeed what might have been too-quickly parsed – much, I imagine, like Ethel, careful but not completely surefooted in her relocated life.
The ballad is familiar territory for Albiston, but these texts are as much pseudo-triolets (minus one line, and minus one syllable per line) as they are attempts at balladeering. What rhetorical gestures are at work in these ‘half-fourteener’ lines of seven syllables apiece? According to the Princetons –
When a pair of fourteeners are broken by hemistichs to form a quatrain of lines stressed 4-3-4-3 and rhyming abab, they become the familiar ‘eight-and-six’ form of ballad meter called common meter or common measure. (The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: 504)
In his launch speech, Alex Skovron speculates delightfully on the possible significance the number seven has for this text; performing revelrous calculations to compute numerological sense into style, Skovron notices –
both Jordie’s name and the book’s title contain 14 letters each – that is, 2 x 7. But that’s just for starters. Now listen. As I’ve explained, there are 7 syllables to each 7-line stanza; 7 x 7 = 49. Ethel died in 1949, and she was 77 years old! Interesting? She was born in 1872, and Jordie was born in 1961; adding 72 to 61 gives you 133; add those three digits together (1 + 3 + 3) and you get – 7!
My own sense is that there is no explicit explanation for the form, nor none required (I suspect Skovron may agree): Albiston fulfills her rhetorical structure sixty times over, and there is a synthetic weight to the bulk of her exactly-repeated shapes. The poet has afforded enough self-devised space for a gamut of affect (fear, yearning, loneliness, courage, humility, tolerance, joy) to occupy these texts. As Ethel states, arriving in the first of her many Homes –
muster Home the rest over
time the new me century
aligned 1900 stand-
ing sentinel-straight straight white
and these songs of survival and perseverance (straight and white) are also ultimately songs of homage: Albiston’s excavation of an origin speaks of Ethel’s hard-won belonging, a lifelong pursuit undertaken in tandem with the co-progenitorial Mister.
On the blurb of Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, Michael Braun describes the Danish poet as ‘no apologist for blind, rapturous singing, but probably the most form-conscious and reflective writer of poetry in Europe today.’ Jordie Albiston’s dance with form is a sophisticated yet radical gambol: these poems move decisively, sensuous and surefooted. In an interview with The Paris Review, August Kleinzahler speaks of the difficulty for contemporary poets to locate ‘a coherent, interesting structure’ and goes on to suggest that many ‘simply avoid the problem or take refuge in some rote “avant-garde” gesture like fridge-magnet indeterminism i.e. spilling the language all over the floor and stomping on it like a three-year-old child.’ Not so Jordie Albiston: The Book of Ethel is, as with Albiston’s other recent books, an astonishing confluence of formal constraint and authentic music. This is not the first Ethel to arrive on the Australian literary landscape, but Albiston’s character seems destined to be more than peripheral; The Book of Ethel comes from a poet at the top of their game, and Albiston is more than an Antipodean Christensen. She is making weird, intelligent arias, which we need listen to, again and then again to understand, at least partly, the fragments of our recent past: our provenance and inheritance. With this book, which more than confirms her talent, one senses Albiston starting to take up her place in a future version of how we will come to recognize Australian poetry.
Kleinzahler, A. interviewed by William Corbett for the ‘The Art of Poetry’ interview series (#93, The Paris Review), www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5789/the-art-of-poetry-no-93-august-kleinzahler site accessed 31.08.2013
Greene, R. et al 2012 The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (4th edition) Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.
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. He co-edited New Directions in Australian Poetry with Matthew Hall and was awarded the 2022 Kenneth Slessor Prize.
By Lisa Gorton
Giramondo, May 2013, 50pp
In her second collection of poems, Hotel Hyperion, Lisa Gorton shows us how memory is “a place less like place than like memory itself” (“Dreams and Artefacts”): a surface, which we may see through but not penetrate. These poems are concerned with the melancholy experience of spatial and temporal distances, and how these reflect the distance between one life—one self—and another.
It’s a concern that Gorton established in her first collection, Press Release, and that she has critically explored in her work on John Donne. In her award-winning essay, “John Donne’s Use of Space”, Gorton describes the metaphysical poet’s selection of “a master-image upon which he maps many, various, and sometimes contradictory ideas.” It’s useful to consider to what extent this is also a description of Gorton’s poetics, particularly the way they are plotted and polished in Hotel Hyperion.
The “master-image” of Hotel Hyperion takes multiple shapes—telescope, diorama, Snow Dome, spacesuit, crystal, house—which the poet treats as one type, “things closed in glass” (“Room and Bell”). Upon these, Gorton maps her
essay on memory. Her imagery tingles with the chill of synthetic and airtight spaces, their bloodless particles and unearthly quiet:
Patiently, ticket by ticket, a soft-stepped crowd
advances into the mimic ships hull half-
sailed out of the foyer wall, as if advancing into
somebody else’s dream —
the interior, windowless, where perspex cases bear,
each to its single light, small relics —
(“Dreams and Artefacts”)
We imagine the speaker’s voice ringing in sparse rooms, between echoing footsteps; and always through this book, the muffled white noise of rain outside:
long rain breaking itself onto the footpath,
breaking easily into the surface of itself
like a dream without emblems, an in-drawn shine.
Overhead, clouds build and ruin imaginary cities,
slo-mo historical epics with the sound down,
playing to no one.
(“Dreams and Artefacts”)
A host of speakers—visitors, mothers, children, guardians—inhabits these spaces in Hotel Hyperion. The book’s few domestic scenarios are a red herring, as even homely settings become uncanny. For example, In the sequence “Room and Bell” (which might be the book’s finest section), Gorton gradually makes the comforting imagery of a childhood bedroom transparent: revealed as the deep memory of an adult speaker who, as a child, was already haunted in this very space by a spectre of her grown self. This revelation is amplified to disturbing proportions in the poem “Screen, Memory”, in which the speaker, who has come to accept the sealed interior of a space ship as home, miscalls a memory of bushwalking. In fact, she has received the “memory” from images screened onboard the ship.
In examining memory, Gorton is not simply concerned with the act of remembrance; she is interested in how memory reveals the very quality of being. In “Room and Bell”, experience is haunted or doubled by the shadow of our own consciousness. In “Screen, Memory”, as in all of the poems in Hotel Hyperion, the speaker is a witness and collector of reality—that is to say, the speaker is memory itself—for whom experience is refracted through the glass of other lives, other beings.
Beneath her book’s master-images, Gorton extends metaphors of intricacy and reversion. These become self-generating through the poet’s structural techniques of repetition, reiteration and variation. Perhaps the book’s most striking instance of such technique is its reprise of “Press Release”, the titular poem of Gorton’s previous collection: here reprinted as the seed of a new titular sequence, “The Hotel Hyperion”. As well as the rain already mentioned, lesser examples of returning meta-images include: moving clouds; a miniaturised ship (through a telescope, in a bottle, in a Snow Dome); displayed relics; and Mantegna’s The Triumph of Caesar. Their return mimics mild amnesia, once again reflecting memory’s fallibility; and, at the same time their presence reminds us that coincidence is the poet’s deliberate and provocative art.
At the level of line and sequence, Hotel Hyperion itself becomes the prismatic object it describes. In this book Gorton has claimed the long line with a determination and consistency unprecedented in her work. It allows her to extend whole corridors of thought without pause:
In a Storm Glass crystals
with the exactness peculiar to foreboding make neural
flare shapes: ultrasound-
coloured threads cross-stitched with blank, as of sensation
excised and, here, preserved in light.
(“A Description of the Storm Glass and Brief Guide to its Use in Forecasting Weather”)
This new affect of breathlessness contrasts Gorton’s essayistic register and typically rhetorical tone. This disconcerting tension adds urgency and pitch to these poems, signaling their linkages whilst pulling the reader by the arm, down the cold and glassy passages of their imagery. Amplifying the long lines, multiplying those corridors into networks of association, Gorton makes extravagant use of parataxis. This effect is most notably built through her liberal use of the dash, which creates the appearance of delayed conclusion:
A solution of camphor sealed in glass, they mass,
weather by weather, crystalline forms that vary
with electric change in air, and make a trophy of their
so the clear spirit, which held all yesterday grey-
this morning raises its more precise hallucination —
treasury of scruples, or that more formal vaulting of
(“A Description of the Storm Glass and Brief Guide to its Use in Forecasting Weather”)
The shape of these lines flirts with prose, but Gorton’s style is steeped in lyricism; even the prose paragraphs of “Room and Bell” are sprung with musical punctuation, pace and sound effect. In the above lines, Gorton interrupts the long breath with abrupt enjambment. Frequently, line breaks hang on words that might conventionally be considered weak hinges: “of their” and “vaulting of”, for instance. However, Gorton’s reasoning of these breaks is formally precise, bringing attention not so much to the end-word as to the one hung beneath. Those words take the weight of a whole line. They are like a tolling bell or a heart sinking: ruin, remorse.
These micro-structures are more broadly reproduced by the arrangement of the book’s contents. Read as a lyric essay, each of its five parts contains a sequence or suite. Each sequence or suite forms images realised in the next. In “The Hotel Hyperion”, this structure reflects the sequence’s narrative of human generations, its poems ordered episodically to represent the reliance of one life and civilization upon another. The book’s final section, an ekphrastic sequence about Mantegna’s painting, The Triumph of Caesar, culminates this structure: framed by a contemporary viewer, looking into to Mantegna’s Renaissance viewpoint, which looks into to the Roman—and so we have Western tradition seen down the barrel of art’s telescope.
It’s a structural conceit that echoes Gorton’s own reading of Donne, specifically her focus on how his:
… one image of a circle and its centre, and the arrangement of relations that it represents in spatial terms… takes its shape and meaning from the shape and meaning of space in the ‘closed cosmos,’ where space is arranged in concentric circles. Donne describes the cosmic arrangement as ‘natures nest of boxes: the heavens contain the earth; the earth, cities; cities, men. And all these are concentric…’ and contained by ‘all the vaults and circles of the severall spheres of heaven’ [sic].
Whereas Donne views the experience of “men” as being ultimately situated within the circle of God, Gorton’s focus turns in the opposite direction. In her poems, we see—briefly, behind us—cities; but her focus is on the human sphere; and, within its circle, the mind; and within that, art. In “The Triumph of Caesar” Gorton seems to be telling us that art’s quality is the same as memory. But, like Donne’s idea of space, her idea of art is not totally Platonic. She suggests that art’s mediated quality does not mean that it fails truth; rather, art makes a true extension of human being. Like the way the mind captures and stores experience, art represents intricately nested perspectives with blurry, scrubbed-out peripheries:
The picture is mostly of legs —
it shows the Triumph from a child’s viewpoint.
Soldiers and horses — so many, they crowd
perspective out. Only a few figures stand entire
at the boundary of the picture as if they would step
the next instant into that vast which is not there —
(“The Triumph of Caesar”)
This “mapping” of one horizon upon another is more complex than the single-point perspective claimed by Renaissance art. Indeed, according to Gorton’s viewer, the single-point perspective is already fallacious in Mantegna’s painting:
The pattern their legs make repeats
the pattern of lances, angles drawn against the clouds
like a working out of every possibility. Captured arms,
bulls crowned for sacrifice, prisoners, victories and
loads of coin, spears and catapults, colossal statues, elephants —
sights that replace each other, new and again
new, the way I remember highways from the back seat
of my parents’ car — fields stacked with light
which did not pass but poured through me —
(“The Triumph of Caesar”)
In another instance of return, this childhood anecdote is also the subject of a nearby poem, “Freeways”. As well as return or reversion, this gesture reveals a palimpsestic quality in Gorton’s writing, which draws our attention back to the act of making (poesis). In this way, she points to her own art of language and asks that we consider how we have inhabited the space of this book; how we have entered into its fictions and “perspective by perspective, into that vanishing point” (“The Triumph of Caesar”).
As an ekphrasis poem, “The Triumph of Caesar” isn’t particularly challenging—it largely follows the tradition of descriptive viewing (but for that lively intervention by the persona, above). Its reason for being is larger than itself, informed by and containing the conceit of the entire book. The poem performs this role capably enough—but then, as part of that conceit, it must.
Its absolute answerability to the intricate structure of the book might cause some readers to itch for escape. If Hotel Hyperion not only represents but resembles a “thing closed in glass”, does it cast light outwards, beyond its own bounds; or does it infinitely recede, “so self-consistent / its corridors turned into themselves” (“Screen, Memory”)? Do we, as in “A Description of the Storm Glass”, find ourselves posed by Gorton as “a reader, like the picture of a reader”?
The brevity (50pp) and self-contained unity of Hotel Hyperion resemble a chapbook. Unlike a longer and more various collection of poems, it may be read in one sitting, allowing intense engagement with its plotted images and structural dimensions. If Gorton’s poetic design locks out something, it might be the aberrant image; the unanswered question. Yearning for a flaw in its gorgeous glass layers, I feel the reader’s experience may be constrained by the poet’s fixed fidelity to one idea, so fully explored.
Gorton has observed of Donne that his “image of concentric circles” hosts not only complimentary ideas but also contradictions. Gorton comprehends her work so deeply and thoughtfully as a poet of ideas and as an editor, one wonders whether her mapping and re-mapping of this book’s idea has erased the possibility of contradiction; if there is any corner of this “house of images / where nothing is lost” (“Dreams and Artefacts”) that she has not fully remembered.
BONNY CASSIDY is a poet and critic living in Melbourne. Her first collection, Certain Fathoms (Puncher & Wattmann, 2012), was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. A new book is forthcoming from Giramondo in early 2014.
by Kim Cheng Boey
Puncher & Wattmann, 2012
ISBN 978 1 92145 094 5
Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER POLLNITZ
It was Coleridge who prescribed for Wordsworth what seems a superhuman task, that the poet who wishes to be considered original must “create the taste by which he is to be enjoyed” — or rather, as Coleridge’s dictum is first recorded, “the taste by which he is to be relished.” Since emigrating to Sydney from Singapore in 1997, Kim Cheng Boey appears to have taken on a similar project, for rather than ingratiate himself to the Australian readers, by adopting Australian themes refigured with some performative ethnicity, Boey has continued to write as a Chinese poet whose chosen language is English, but whose sensibility is Asian. To put it more accurately, Boey is a Singaporean and international poet. The tone or address of his work makes few concessions to Australian expectations; rather, he wants the Australian reader to enter international space, to make the passage at least part way to his perspective. Four of his works over the past decade – the New section of After the Fire: New and Selected Poems (2006); a memoir of his literary formation and world travels which is also an essayistic yet beautiful prose poem, Between Stations (2009); the four-poem selection from his work he included in the dazzling new anthology, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (2012), which he has helped to edit; and Clear Brightness itself, the first collection of his poems to come out since After the Fire – all help mark out the course he has taken as an émigré Chinese poet writing in Australia for a wider-than-Australian readership.
It is an individual path, neither stridently postcolonial nor postmodern. In one of the four prefaces to the Asian Australian anthology, Adam Aitken writes of poets who have chosen a “theory-oriented” path, eschewing identity narrative and politics; Boey eschews all three of these paths. In his own preface, Boey describes a writer’s cultural migration as a process with no endpoint, “of negotiation, shuttling back and forth between places, between past and present, and between lives and narratives.” To see such a perspective in practice in a poem, one can turn to “Stamp Collecting” from After the Fire, a poem which Boey also chooses to represent his work in the anthology. The gift to a daughter of the father’s now fragmentary stamp album elicits a stream of intelligent, difficult questions: “Is Australia our home? / What is this country? Why doesn’t it exist / anymore? Why is the Queen’s face / on the stamps of so many nations?” From first to last, none of the questions is fully answerable, but the daughter completes her own re-ordering of the album, picking “the last of a Singapore series / when it was still part of Malaya, / fingers the face of a youthful Elizabeth / pendant over a Chinese junk, / and slips it home.” The poem avoids identity narrative, or what Boey’s beloved Keats described as the Wordsworthian “egotistical sublime”, by deflecting attention to another family member’s negotiation with an ethnic past and present national identity.
In one poem from Clear Brightness, “The Causeway”, Boey does explicitly lament Singapore’s 1965 break from the Malayan mainland. In “Stamp Collecting”, by contrast, the specific political implications of the Chinese and Commonwealth emblems on the stamp which the young collector “slips . . . home” are left suspended, and the invitation is to read them rather as symbols of personal and historical change. The Queen and her former empire, like the Chinese sailing vessel, are no longer young. The “junk” and the stamp itself are somewhat dated means of international communication and passage, back and forth. Rather than a localised realism focussed on a spot of time, the poem opens out into an interrogatory, migratory exploration of a many-layered past and present. If a poem like “Stamp Collecting” marks the point Boey’s Singaporean-internationalist poetry had arrived at in 2006, what new directions has he taken in Clear Brightness?
The volume’s title poem represents a pastoral or suburban-pastoral scenario of Australian life. A December bushfire, licking the edges of a northern Sydney suburb, drives a father to make a midnight dash for safety through the “papery / ash . . . my son / bewildered in my arms, his sister bright-eyed, /exclaiming, It’s snowing, Christmas just weeks away.” The father’s memory flicks, not to the northern hemisphere and the brilliant whiteness of a European Christmas, but to Singapore and the Chinese Qing Ming. This spring festival of the dead translates as “clear brightness” but, transplanted to Singapore’s equatorial climate, is remembered as a feast of heat and ashes. Qing Ming’s ashes were thrown up by the burning of paper money, “valid only in afterlife.” The purpose of the offering, Boey drily observes, was “to replenish the ancestors’ underworld credit.” This quaint piety has now itself been disposed of – “the cemeteries dug up, razed” and the “bodies unhoused, ashed” – to make way for development. “Grandma and Dad” avoided this ignominy by turning Catholic and going “straight into the fire” of a crematorium. When the father returns to the “new life” he is making Australia, he finds it adrift with “ash, flakes falling like memory.” Memory has its pangs, but the succession of erasures that Qing Ming has undergone has buried the particularity of the festival and its ceremony of mourning under a placeless “snowdrift of forgetting.”
Mortality and commemoration of the dead are not new themes for Boey, but they have new prominence in Clear Brightness. The grandmother is again commemorated in “Soup” as the matriarch who, having lost family and friends to the atrocities of the Japanese Occupation, crafted the staple dish that served to hold together, if not the restless generation which followed hers, the generation of her grandchildren. The preparation of the soup is music and dance and painting, and its savours, which come from the grandmother’s griefs and loves, joy and patience, make up “the whole/ that we chewed, sucked and slurped / To make us whole.” The hymn to the hearth is itself a potage of dictions, of sensuous imagery and ekphrastic symbolism, of historical testimony and personal statement, and of witty instances – “the harmony of five flavours a corrective / to the imbalance around and in us.” Set as the grandmother’s daily heroism is against the nightmare of history, her soup-making might also recall the phrase Yeats applied to Keats’s championing of physical pleasure, “deliberate happiness.” This is what her ritual chooses, despite knowledge of what else has befallen and what awaits.
Elsewhere, in a series of poems about time and tempi – “Lost Time”, “Marking Time” and “Take Five on the F3” – the dailiness of experience and the making of art are further opposed and synthesised with unexpected results. A rueful wit that diversifies and lightens the “grave news” gives these poems their prevailing tone. Hearing Brubeck’s jazz number on the radio during the long shuttle to and from work, the commuter’s mind shuttles back to troop movements in World War II and forward to the articulated lorries sweeping past on the freeway, “from the darkened gums and paddocks dissolving to / rolling miles of oil palms and rubber trees.” The jokey, jerky rhymes and rhythms here flatten into eternal recurrence, there take up an optimistic upbeat, but whatever the destination and whatever the moment’s mood “you just have to keep the pedal down.” The paradoxes of experience, transformed into the contraries of art, make themselves felt in every poem and across the collection as a whole.
Clear Brightness is replete with series and sequences, the most impressive of which is a sonnet cycle, “To Markets.” The Sydney market which comes first in this sequence might be the one just across the road from Gleebooks, and from there the cycle roams on nomadically, through “a queue of bazaars, Xian, Cairo, Marrakesh . . . ” For me, Xian’s is the most tempting of the markets. Formerly called Chang’an, the city was the gateway to the Silk Road and the barbarian West during the Tang Dynasty, and the birthplace of printing. In stalls that peddle everything from “Mao watches” to “fake imperial coins”, you can still find “name seals in rose quartz”, and in “the street of calligraphers” see “a goateed old man trail his bamboo brush / across stretched rice-paper”, recreating “Wang Wei’s ‘Seeing Off Yuan / the Second on a Mission to Anxi’.” This last is the one really coveted item from all the markets for which Boey prepares his fourteen-line catalogues. It is the one memento he would he would like to keep with him, for “west of Yang Pass”, as the Tang Dynasty poet put it in the eighth century, “there will be no friends.” And west of Xian, the market-goer of another millennium sees “the long caravan train / of memory and desire fading into the endless sands.”
“To Markets” is not only a cycle, but a corona, crown or wreath of sonnets, an Italian form best known in English as John Donne realised it, in the seven-sonnet prologue to his Holy Sonnets. The precise formal requirements of the corona, met by Donne, are loosened, adapted and extended in ways that interrogate as well as underscore the conceptual content of Boey’s cycle. The overlapping of the last line of each sonnet with the first of the next is calculated, less to show what local markets in a global conspectus have in common, than to probe what common urge impels us to join acquisitive queues, whether these lead into period-rich and culturally diverse bazaars, or into monstrous Western shopping centres, or into those fetes and fairs that sell secondhand wares, craft items and farm produce, and have sprung up in opposition to chain supermarkets. The cyclical form allows Boey to ponder why it is we desire “to be desiring”, what spiritual lack or “want” it is that stirs “the want to want.” “To Markets” poses Buddhist questions: do we want to be bound forever on the wheel of desiring more and more possessions? Do we want to break out, eternally, if to cease from appetitive desires is to cease being fully human and alive, to “end here at this stall”?
“Memory and desire” – one of several conscious quotations or fully assimilated borrowings from T. S. Eliot in Clear Brightness – might be used to show how effortlessly Boey moves between a modernist line descending from Donne to Eliot, or from Keats to Yeats and Lawrence. But to read the poems Boey has written in Australia solely by the light of these English traditions is to read him through the limited preoccupations of this reviewer. Boey does indeed write with a “historical sense” of “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer”, and within that the whole of English literature, “in his bones”, but to that should be added his interest in later twentieth-century American poets who have made passages to India differing from Eliot’s idealist, Harvard-filtered approach to the Sanskrit scriptures. No doubt Eliot’s concern for a poetry that registered the tempo of the modernist period and its cities, but remained stateless and timeless, has been a durable influence on Boey’s poetic. Yet, coming from a Chinese perspective to Buddhist and other Eastern contemplative traditions, Boey refreshes what Eliot’s puritanical instincts made of desire and memory. Eliot’s idealist purging of the love and fear of the beginning and the end has different outcomes to Boey’s musings, in “La Mian in Melbourne”, on the beginnings and endings of his plate of noodles. If one turns back the clock a little over a millennium, to the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s “In Abbot Zan’s Room at Dayun Temple” – “Sanskrit sometimes flows out of the temple, / The lingering bells still echo round my bed. / Tomorrow morning in the fertile paddock, / Bitterly I’ll behold the yellow dirt” – it’s here one finds affective paradoxes and complexities in key with those of Clear Brightness. Boey’s is a less detached, less idealist Buddhism than Eliot’s – so it seems to this Australian reviewer – but to slurp a Boey poem as an emotional whole, we must allow him to create in us a relish for his kinds of wholeness.
CHRISTOPHER POLLNITZ has written criticism of Judith Wright, Les Murray, Alan Wearne and John Scott, as well as D. H. Lawrence, and has been a reviewer for Notes and Queries and Scripsi, as well as The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald. His edition of The Poems for the Cambridge University Press series of Lawrence’s Works appeared in 2013.
Rachael Mead has been published in literary journals in Australia, Taiwan and Ireland and was shortlisted in this year’s Newcastle Poetry Prize. She was awarded Varuna’s 2011 Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship for Poetry and her poetry collection, The Sixth Creek, has just been published by Picaro Press.
Driving through the mallee
We burrow beneath the heat blanket
attuned to the air conditioner’s unsteady wheeze
like the final breaths of an terminal friend.
Cupped in the shallow bowl of mallee
we speed past scraggled trees,
lean and desperate as pioneers.
Cockatoos, Caltex and St. Vinnies
prove the pretension of borders.
We drive the hours, each town
huddled around its silo.
The hay farmers’ vast stubble fields
lay bare the hard years
distilled to monosyllables:
Cut. Rake. Bale.
The river grooves its slow meander
between cliff and forest,
cool and sweet as silty molasses.
Droplets fly in sunlit chandeliers.
We stroke. This is the day;
a meditation of movement,
traced with every muscle.
The twin blades outline endless double loops
like fingering a string of prayer beads.
I am eye and arm,
falling into rhythms
dictated by the muscles’ song.
It’s a mix of languorous reaches
sculled slowly with a tail wind
or snags dodged with swift arms
aching skin to bone.
And just when you want
to inhale the pain and drown,
Limbs click into automatic, pain drifts
disinterested as a pelican.
With each blade-splash
the sound of a soft kiss,
deeper into stillness
we stroke, we stroke.