Ambiguous agnes: hannah kent’s burial rites

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

A novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentA novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Kent’s novel has immediate appeal. Beyond the ghoulish fascination of beheadings, it taps into the prevailing hunger for historical fiction. Based on a true story, its cast of characters would seem implausible, were they not based on real people: Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1795–1830), a housekeeper who struggles, like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, against harsh and indifferent fates; Natan Ketilsson (1792–1828), a Rasputin-like herbalist and farmer who is Agnes’s employer and sometime lover; and Rósa Gudmundsdóttir (1795–1855), another of Natan’s lovers, who also happens to be one of Iceland’s most famous poets of the early nineteenth century.

Behind Agnes’s execution lies a double murder and a complex love triangle. This much is known: on a spring night in 1828, Agnes woke a neighbouring household to tell them that the Illugastaðir farmhouse was on fire. Natan and his friend Pétur Jónsson, she said, were trapped inside. Unfortunately for Agnes, the fire was quickly doused and it became clear that the two men had been stabbed before the blaze. Agnes was arrested, along with an avaricious farmhand named Fridrik and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Siggi, who was later sent to a Copenhagen textile prison. Agnes and Fridrik were beheaded by Natan’s brother on a small hillock in Húnavatnssýsla on 12 January 1830.

Kent has built her narrative around a small trove of historical documents associated with the murders: a public notice announcing an auction of Natan’s valuables (variously a cow, a few horses, sheep, a saddle, a bridle, some plates), a list of Agnes’s assets (among odds and ends, ‘an old blue skirt with a blue bodice of plain-woven wool, with a red collar and eight silver buttons’), extracts from the Supreme Court trials of 1829, and various contemporaneous eyewitness and character testimonies.

There is also an Icelandic Burial Hymn and an extract from the Laxdæla Saga, whose protagonist, Guðrún, laments: ‘I was worst to the one I loved best.’ Especially powerful is the exchange between Agnes and Skáld-Rósa. Although married and living with another man at the time, Rósa loved Natan passionately and reportedly bore him two children. In June 1828, following the murders, Rósa aired her heartbreak in a vindictive poem addressed to Agnes:

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming
he who gave my life meaning
and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

Agnes, who was herself educated and literate, responded in verse:

This is my only wish to you,
bound in anger and grief:
Do not scratch my bleeding wounds,
I’m full of disbelief.

Agnes’s shock is palpable, yet the precise source of her disbelief is unclear: is it triggered by her grief at the death of the man she too loved, by an accusation of a crime she didn’t commit, or by fear at her impending death? It is the task of the novelist to decide.

Agnes and Fridrik were not permitted Christian burial rites: their heads were exhibited on sticks as warnings, and their bodies buried on site without markers. Nearly two hundred years later, Agnes now shares a modest grave with Fridrik in the churchyard at Tjörn. During the relocation of their remains, fragments from Agnes’s dress – she had dressed in her finest for her final moments – were found among her bones. They are exhibited in Iceland’s national museum, along with the axe that was sent to Iceland especially for the executions. It was used only twice.

Kent’s instinct for story is on bright display in Burial Rites. Over the years the murder case has been the source of much discussion in Iceland. Several books have appeared on the subject, and in 1995 a film entitled Agnes appeared by director Egill Eðvarðsson. Not that this would preclude yet another Holly-wood remake of a Scandinavian film.

Kent’s skill in driving the twin narratives of the murders and the executions to their ghastly inevitabilities demonstrates that she is a writer of great promise. Burial Rites is not a particularly challenging read, and it leans heavily on devices associated with genre fiction. But it does challenge the idea that Agnes is, as one source described her, ‘an inhuman witch, stirring up murder’. In the author’s note, Kent states that she wrote her novel ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’. But Burial Rites is more than thisit is a love song to a woman who lived and loved with the odds stacked against her.

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Originally published in Australian Book Review (May 2013).

Simon armitage: walking home backwards

Review of Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’

Simon-Armitage-297x300Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’

In 1994 Armitage swapped social work for poetry and quickly became the most recognisable face in Britain’s so-called New Generation poets. Since then he has written fifteen collections of poetry, eleven radio documentaries and verse dramas, two novels, and several non-fiction titles. He has also edited five poetry anthologies – including a new selection of Ted Hughes’s poems – and published new translations of The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur. But by 2011 the stodginess of routine had set in; the sediment was building up. So Armitage decided to take a walk.

The Pennine Way, measuring 256 miles (410 kilometres, or roughly the distance from Coff’s Harbour to Brisbane) of adversarial terrain, is generally considered the most demanding long-distance walk in Britain. The route begins in the peat moorlands of Kinder Scout, Bleaklow, and Black Hill, stretches along England’s unbroken spine of bleak hill country, across Hadrian’s Wall and traversing half the Cheviot ridge before terminating in the Scottish border village of Kirk Yetholm.

At least that is the way it is supposed to go. But Armitage – sporting a bad back and the ‘small lungs’ he inherited from his mother – sets out from Scotland to walk the Pennine Way south toward his hometown of Marsden in West Yorkshire. Instead of the weather at his back, Armitage walks headlong into a wind so powerful he has to lift his knees high and cycle into it. Crossing Haughton Common, the wind is so adamant in its opposition that ‘any progress is progress upstream, against the flood, into the rapids, with boulders and logs of hard air’ piling into him and knocking him sideways. It is the medicine he has been looking for:

And I think: this is why I came, to stumble into the unexpected, to feel the world in its raw state. I open my mouth to shout MORE, but the force of air just rams the word back into my mouth and down my throat.

Walking the Pennine Way backwards not only allows Armitage to air his poetic bent for perversity, but also launches the titular metaphor that makes this narrative a homecoming. Armitage was born in 1963 in the West Yorkshire village of Marsden, nestled not far from the trailhead. It is the pull of home – the promise of returning to his wife and daughter – that keeps him walking when his loneliness bites and his sense of humour fails.

Armitage trudges through England’s most literary landscapes – passing by Wordsworth’s Aira Force (‘what a sight it is to look on such a cataract’) and sleeping in Hughes’s childhood home in Mytholmroyd – but Walking Home is not a literary pilgrimage. Homage, if any is to be paid, is to Odysseus and his legendary yearning for home.

In the course of ten years, Odysseus outwits the Cyclops, is spellbound by the Sirens, sees his crew turned into pigs, is kept as a love-slave, and slays his wife’s suitors before reuniting with Penelope in the marital bed. Armitage’s conquests are not quite so formidable, nor as eldritch. He keeps careful inventory of his wounds: five horsefly bites, a bloody thumb, soreness in big toe of right foot when bent backwards, windburn, chapped lips, and wounded pride. Happily, he is spared blisters.
For reasons best described as masochistic, Armitage elected to finance his journey by giving nightly poetry readings at pubs and in private homes along the way. His Sisyphean efforts netted him nearly £2000 for his trouble and provided endless opportunities for poetry gags: ‘In the presence of the spoken word,’ he observes, ‘the scrape of knife against plate or the opening of a packet of salted peanuts are nuclear explosions.’

It is not giving anything away to say that the journey is not entirely successful. Neither is the book. It is – to use an Armitage word – a little bit ‘boring’, partly because each leg of the journey follows the same formula: a walk, a quirky fan, a beer, an awkward poetry reading, the scrutiny of his takings (not always cash); and partly because the narrator is often damp, chilly, shaken up, and in a bit of a sulk.

‘In many ways,’ Armitage says, ‘the Pennine Way is a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route and for no particular reason.’ Asked if he would walk the Pennine Way again, his routine answer is no. ‘But if I did,’ he relents, ‘I’d rely more on my feet and less on my tongue.’

He would also take someone brave and intrepid with him: ‘Someone not daunted by mist or intimidated by dark clouds, to guide me across the Cheviots, to hold my hand over Cross Fell, and to part the black curtain which hangs over Kinder Scout and lead me through.’

This article was originally published under the title ‘A Pack of Salted Peanuts’ in Australian Book Review 348 (Feb 2013): 56-57.

You might also like

The blood became sick: Luke Davies’ Interferon Psalms
Rhyll McMaster’s Mere Self
Mateship with Birds: you have to push in
Ted Hughes: she sent him a blade of grass

May 31: elizabeth jolley short story prize

The Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize is for a short story in English of between 2000 and 5000 words. The prize will be judged by Tony Birch, Maria Takolander and Terri-ann White and first prize is AUD$5,000. Entries close 31 May.

The Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize is for a short story in English of between 2000 and 5000 words. The prize will be judged by Tony Birch, Maria Takolander and Terri-ann White and first prize is AUD$5,000. Entries close 31 May.

RETURN

Rhyll mcmaster’s ‘mere self’

Review of Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster

Broadly speaking, there are two types of epitaphs: those formulated by loved ones to describe the living qualities of the interred; and those that would presume to speak from the grave. Writers, ever reluctant to pass up a blank page – even if it is a tombstone – are disproportionate constituents of the latter. H.G. Wells, father of science fiction, penned his epitaph: ‘Goddamn you all: I told you so.’ Dorothy Parker quipped ‘Excuse My Dust’, while Charles Bukowski, abandoning humour for something bleaker, counselled: ‘Don’t try.’ Rhyll McMaster, who happily still dwells among the living, claims her epitaph will one day read: ‘No-one knows.’

753891-120707-rev-rhyllBroadly speaking, there are two types of epitaphs: those formulated by loved ones to describe the living qualities of the interred; and those that would presume to speak from the grave. Writers, ever reluctant to pass up a blank page – even if it is a tombstone – are disproportionate constituents of the latter. HG Wells, father of science fiction, penned his epitaph: “Goddamn you all: I told you so.” Dorothy Parker quipped “Excuse My Dust”, while Charles Bukowski, abandoning humour for something bleaker, counselled: “Don’t try.” Rhyll McMaster, who happily still dwells among the living, claims her epitaph will one day read: “No-one knows.”

McMaster’s sixth collection of poems, Late Night Shopping, pursues a philosophical line of questioning present since her earliest work: “What is death?” and, trickier still, “What does it mean to be alive?” The collection opens with a brilliant, if confronting, poem, “The Shell”, that describes a woman’s death in unflinching detail: “After that rasping second when the woman died / she was bleached pale on the surface like a sponge.” When a nurse-aide touches the woman’s skin it is “leached fibrous”, her blood is “drained from the periphery / to pool centrally” like “a rusting lake’’ The woman’s “mere self” is gone, “no longer atomically spinning”: she is “a hardening shell, a celluloid doll”. When the nurses try to slip her dentures in, they don’t fit. The poem concludes:

On edge, we laughed.
There was no disrespect – she wasn’t there.
The formality of death is due to emptiness.
When molecules cease their high humming
dark space appears.
It radiates in waves and disperses in continuous air.

McMaster’s struggle to wrap her mind around the idea of death not only informs her subject matter, but also delivers the fuel needed to get the poems running. In an elegy for her father, “His Ordered World”, the speaker looks around his empty workshop and puzzles that his hands were once alive on the now inert slide-rule. Death, she concludes, “senses fear of immensity” and “invades the space / of serious human error where terror lives”.

McMaster has a habit of looking at the human body – dead or otherwise – and finding it unceasingly strange. In ‘Within Creation’, a poem from an earlier collection, the speaker studies her hands with esoteric detachment: “What are moons / on fingernails,” she asks; “what is your purpose in my life?” Engaging the uncanny, she imagines a reply: “We make you wonder,” the moons scream softly, “at our clean and / meaningless design”. In McMaster’s godless world, philosophy is no consolation: it is merely a game that stops us thinking of the roaring void of the universe, she argues elsewhere, and “of the image of the box / the inrush of gas / to the crematorium flame”.

McMaster’s poems are frequently informed by the latest findings in science – biology, genetics, physics, quantum mechanics – and metaphors of science are McMaster’s preferred methodology for creating awe. In “Re-Arrangement in the Emporium” – a strange poem dedicated to Francis Crick, co-discover of DNA – McMaster contemplates the infinite convolutions of double-helix pairings (and flags her impressive skills as an imagist): “There will never be another / piece of furniture like me”, the speaker asserts. The world is “a hall of settings”, she continues, “rotating in limbic space”:

Head tucked over knees
we wheel and pulsate,
endless atoms
streaming from our heels.

Time and again, McMaster shows that just as truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, science can be weirder than religion. In an ode to the human gene – “luminescent tors on the night road” – McMaster returns her gaze to her hands. Hands, as anatomical structures, are replicated generation after generation, but they themselves “do not prevail”. Immortality through replication is the sole domain of the gene: “We have been here,” the genes expound, “sinuous furrows on water / perhaps for ever”. Humans – our mind and body included – are servants to the longer processes life. “You are our spoken word,” the gene continues, “Through you, we are made manifest.”

It would be unfair to give the impression that Late Night Shopping is in its entirety a dark meditation on death. There are also daylight poems of love, art, and rural life, yet these poems function more like interludes than pinnacles. At her best, there is an attractive hard-headedness about McMaster. Her poems are a showcase for the mind at work – not just a person having thoughts, but someone really thinking. In a climate in which so many poets seem intent on dissembling meaning, it is a relief to find one intelligently engaged in its pursuit. McMaster knows too well there is no “reality” – we are condemned to the mere wisps of data the senses can deliver to the brain – but her uncanny ability to describe such a state of unknowing puts her among the more interesting poets writing today. Late Night Shopping is, as they say in the poetry business, “a slim volume”: I only wish that, like life, it were a little longer.

Originally published under the title “The Mere Self” in Australian Book Review 340 (MAY 2012): 64

Mateship with birds: you have to push in

Review of Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland. Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love.

066558-carrie-tiffanyEveryman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland.

Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love. He has his eye on Betty Reynolds, the unmarried mother of Michael and Little Hazel, who rents a small house next door. Betty is forty-five; for eight years Harry has watched her body age: ‘When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – the lipstick on her front teeth.’ The air around them is thick with reticence. If there is sexual tension between them, it is buried deep. There doesn’t seem to be much need for talk, the narrator observes, but sometimes they talk about bunions.

Given its title – borrowed from A.H. Chisholm’s 1922 book of bird notes – a reader could be forgiven for thinking Tiffany’s novel is about ornithology. To a small degree it is. Harry observes a family of kookaburras that roost on his farm, and records his notes in poetry. Harry’s first poem, ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, is written for Betty’s fourteen-year-old son, Michael. It begins:

The day starts in their throats.
Dad first, then Mum,
Tiny and Club-Toe.
The form of them in the red gum
by the dairy.
As regular as clockwork
they make their request for air.

Clichés aside (‘regular as clockwork’), at times the poems deliver a pleasing turn of phrase. Harry doesn’t pretend to be a poet, so there is not much use in applying a critical eye to his work. But given that his six poems span almost forty pages (approximately twenty per cent of the novel), Tiffany might have been wiser to submit Harry’s ramblings to a severe pruning. By any standard, the poems are too long, reliant on generalities, and painfully repetitive. How many times, for instance, can a reader encounter the likes of this without being tempted to skip ahead: ‘They come at dusk, / one by one. / Mum, Dad, / Club-Toe / and Bub.’

But poetry is not all that Harry is inspired to write. One day, after a morning spent artificially inseminating heifers, Harry stumbles upon Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, which – along with the courtship rituals of spiders – presents a series of case studies detailing the sexual histories of ordinary men and women.

In the evenings, armed with a cup of Milo, a sharpened pencil, and several sheets of Basildon Bond, Harry sits down to write his own intimate disclosures. He begins with his earliest memories of sexual arousal at age four or five, moves through various teen gratifications, and concludes with the pleasures and problems of his former conjugal bed. Harry addresses his letters to Michael in an effort to save the boy from the sexual ignorance Harry himself had experienced.

But Harry is not content to restrict his tutelage to theory. In one of the most bizarre scenes in the novel – and it must be said, there are many – Harry takes Michael behind the dairy to where the phalaris grass has gone to seed. Michael looks on as Harry clips the seed heads and prunes the clump. Harry clears his throat:

Strong and wiry, Michael, the female pubic bush. Coarse. Nothing like the soft hair of the head. I’ve always thought of it more as fur than hair. Similar colouring can be expected. Dark hair, dark bush; mousy hair, mousy bush and so on, and it’ll all go to grey in the end with senile decay. Not that you have to worry about that for a while, eh?

Harry takes Michael’s hand and places it on top of the phalaris. ‘Don’t be tempted to stay on the surface,’ he instructs, ‘you have to push in.’ Still holding Michael’s hand, Harry concludes: ‘The pubic bush. A bloody miracle. And it has no sense of gravity. Despite being stuck halfway up in the air most of the time, from what I can see it doesn’t droop.’

It is not clear what Michael – or the reader for that matter – is to make of these ‘lessons’, but needless to say when Betty learns of the sexual tutelage Harry has given her son, she is not happy. Worryingly, the novel’s easy resolution invites the reader to disregard Harry’s actions rather than see them as, at minimum, outrageously misguided and – it must be said – a little icky.

Conceivably an exploration of 1950s sexuality might have made a fascinating study, but ultimately Tiffany’s new novel offers little insight into the most fundamental of human desires. Her characters, uniformly doleful, remain opaque throughout, and the narrative fails to achieve lift off. Perhaps Tiffany would have done better to cast her material as a short story and save her second novel for one more fitting of the talent promised by her impressive first.

This article was originally published under the title ‘Dubious Lessons’ in Australian Book Review 338 (Feb 2012): 27.

Kate llewellyn’s curious fruit

Review of Poets and Perspectives: Kate Llewellyn from University of Wollongong Press

In the 1950s Pablo Neruda turned his back on the high style of his earlier work and began the first of his three volumes of odas elementales. Exploiting the panegyric style of the ode to exalt the simple things of our daily existence – lemons, onions, salt, wine, laziness, and love (among other things and feelings) – he eschewed affectation and all pretences of the intellect. His odes, with their simple language and short irregular lines, are poetry at its most pure and elemental. Similarly Kate Llewellyn’s poems, with their own straightforward celebration of ordinariness, are charming in their directness.

kate_narrowweb__300x379,0In the 1950s Pablo Neruda turned his back on the high style of his earlier work and began the first of his three volumes of odas elementales. Exploiting the panegyric style of the ode to exalt the simple things of our daily existence – lemons, onions, salt, wine, laziness, and love (among other things and feelings) – he eschewed affectation and all pretences of the intellect. His odes, with their simple language and short irregular lines, are poetry at its most pure and elemental.

Similarly Kate Llewellyn’s poems, with their own straightforward celebration of ordinariness, are charming in their directness. They are simple without being simplistic. Direct without being artless. Plain, and yet sophisticated. Offering her own praise to the everyday, Llewellyn exalts, variously, the orange, the egg, potatoes, and even the Chilean oyster (a poem which ends with an admission of failure on the speaker’s behalf to channel the speech of the oyster – “only Neruda” could do that). But it is her “odes” to the objects and feelings that inhabit a woman’s world, including her own body, that really sing. In her most celebrated poem, “Breasts”, the speaker turns her attention to her breasts and finds they have agency and vision: to the men who stare at them, she writes, “the breast stares straight back”. They are the “body’s curious fruit / wanting to know everything”. Humour keeps the poem alive, but Llewellyn wrenches it from the category of light verse with its ominous last lines: “like life they are not glamourous / merely dangerous”.

Likewise humour and danger make good bedfellows in “The Bed” which, the speaker says with a wink, has “seen a lot of action”. But the double entendre quickly made is very quickly unmade, or at least complicated, in the next line. The personified bed, more than a lover, is a soldier or nurse, and the “action” it witnesses is not simply of the sexual kind but rather the trouble, toil, and sorrow to be found on a battlefield. If the speaker is unable to sustain her love for the men (and women) who at various times shared her bed, she will love the thing itself. It is the repository of her memories, literally and figuratively holding her life: she “got in young but came out old”.

In addition to a frankness about sexuality, Llewellyn writes with an invigorating braggadocio reminiscent of Anne Sexton, using the poem as a weapon to break up a polite society that would have a woman know, tidily, her place. Parallels to Sexton can also be drawn in Llewellyn’s commitment to retelling tales. In a similar way that Sexton, in Transformations, recast the Grimm fairytales, a good number of Llewellyn’s poems proffer alternative narratives – or “plans for another reality” as the speaker says in “Ghettos” – for female mythological characters: Ariadne and Dido, among others, but most successfully Eve, whom Llewellyn describes as “the bright one / bored witless by Adam”. Eve, in Llewellyn’s telling, was in no way tempted by the snake, neither was she “kicked out” of Eden. Hungering not for food but for knowledge, Eve had the simple gumption to walk out.

Llewellyn makes good use of the intimacy that is created with the use of first-person point of view. While some poems are addressed to particular people, her best are the ones in which she makes a pact of complicity with the reader, and writes, like Neruda, a poetry for the people. As her work matures, the idea of connections emerges as a major theme. Explicitly in “Curriculum Vitae”, the speaker recounts:

my interests are
the connectedness of things
and what lies behind –

But instead of exploring the intangible, Llewellyn continues with a characteristically earthly metaphor: “always picking up a cushion / peering and replacing it”. The poem ends with a reconciliation that serves as a statement of Llewellyn’s poetics: “Everything is interesting / I have glimpsed paradise / and work daily”.

The latest issue in University of Wollongong Press’s Poets and Perspectives series (the first issue being a study of John Fulcher’s poetry) is an eponymous selection of Kate Llewellyn’s poems (spanning seven books published over a period of almost thirty years), book-ended by three critical essays. David Gilby, in his essay “‘Love’s Plunder’: Desire, Performance, and Craft in Kate Llewellyn’s Poetry”, describes her poems as “raw, fresh and angry”; while Susan Sheridan teases out Llewellyn’s feminist politics in an essay that historicises Llewellyn as a poet writing against a male tradition and making art from the domestic scene. In “Playing with Water: Elements of the Sublime in the Domestic Domain”, Anne Collett focuses on Llewellyn’s prose (and poetry) memoir Playing with Water, considering Llewellyn within the Romantic tradition and drawing interesting parallels between Llewellyn and Dorothy Wordsworth (unfortunately, the essay opens with a poem not included in the collection).           

Together the essays portray Llewellyn, convincingly, as a poet of enduring merit. It is a shame, however, that a final and overarching edit didn’t remove some of the over-lapping observations about Llewellyn’s lack of formal training as a poet and the small amount of critical attention her work has received. Repetition makes the case too strongly and gives an otherwise celebratory book a somewhat apologetic tone – which is not only unnecessary, given the impressive body of work on offer here, but it is also at odds, as far as the poems reveal, with the poet’s lone-wolf world view.

Originally published under the title ‘Curious Fruit’. Rev of Kate Llewellyn edited by Paul Sharrad. Australian Book Review 324 (Sept 2010): 70

Silence that rings

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

by Lyn McCredden

These are witty, sometimes boisterous and meditative poems. There is a consistency of craft but an intriguing variety, and perhaps even contradictoriness, to their desires. Each poem is a little box of longing: for courage, for calmness, for love, for transcendence. Equally, the poems are often pleas for the self to abandon desire in its grasping forms, ‘to be whittled down to a twig & grow again into a tree’.

‘Two Ways Out’, the eponymous poem, lays out the map of the book: the human, desiring machine who must choose between opposing impulses: the ascetic and the rococo, two distinct paths by which to escape ‘the insufferable / medium of a par-boiled heart’. The poem, as with the volume, leaves you understanding something of both poetic journeys. Sometimes the two collide or are enmeshed in each other, in the figure of the poet who craves transcendence but who is impatient, who hasn’t ‘time to wait for grace’.

First, we are presented with attentiveness and an openness to the world; these qualities inform some of the quieter poems. ‘These Gifts’ records the way ‘the day has charmed you / with ephemera before you can object’. The fear of ‘Women of a Certain Age’ is stilled, but only momentarily, by an imagined world, ‘a new hospitable household’. In ‘Crows’, the desire is the search for ‘How to be / faithful to  the  crow-stepped  branch,  how to write / crow-scent in a human score’.

In such poems, we read the rich lyrical traces of Romantic attentiveness to the natural world, experienced as balm and nurse; but often it is with a very contemporary twist, a shaft of anti-Romantic and often humorous realism. ‘Crows’, for example, is a wonderful revelry on the dawn chorus of birds which ends with ‘the aural world giving / feedback,  shrieking like a microphone / too close to a speaker / & exploding into applause’. Ecstasy and discord enmeshed; the Romantic and the modern.

The second section of the volume, pop-culturally entitled ‘Where Is the Love?’, reflects modernity, but often through subtle contrasts. Individual poems may be set  historically, such as ‘The Nightgown’ with its distilled picture of ‘the Japanese woman in her desire’ who ‘commits to a life of dreaming / whether the lover appears or he doesn’t’. But the next poem, ‘Born Again’, is a tough and deliberate contrast, a revelation of modern desire: the divorced couple, the hatred still simmering, the bloody battle of the genders. Yet, in this raw evocation of modern love, there is the surprise of realisation in the observing wife, touched by grace and a vision of intimacy she imagines but has never experienced.

Love, or rather lost or broken love, permeates this section. The poems are never simply nostalgic or sentimental. ‘Routine Love Poem’, for example, could hardly be described thus. It is hard-nosed but with a deep draught of terror running through it. It is a confrontational poem, but also one which measures what is lacking, what might have been, in some better world beyond the repetitive, mechanical ‘they make & remake the coffee / they make and remake the bed’.

This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making.

The volume’s final section, ‘The Way into Stone’, brings the reader to another way of negotiating desire, with its Buddhist-inflected meditations. Here we are led to think back on that earlier choice between ascetic and rococo paths. The bell and the stone deliver their quiet, post-human calm, ‘alert to the silence that rings’. But we find here, too, a number of exhortations to courage, the decision to take ‘A breath, a step, a word’ and to make a beginning. The human starting point is seen constantly to be ‘insufficient knowledge’. But from such a place humans begin with hope, perhaps enabled by ignorance of the pain that awaits  them. So we read of ‘The  Isurumuniya Lovers’ from Anuradhapura, fifth century CE, who experience ‘the sweet flood between us’, enjoying each other absolutely ‘in staggered silence till the future came / to blind us with its mirror’, another version of the fall.

The final poem of the collection, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’, is a fine meditation on peace, but also on action and courage infused with that peace. Gazing on the ancient sculpture, the poet observer depicts ‘this figure peaceful as a stick of green bamboo’, and tells us: ‘The hand calls us into the moment / in which the infinite crosses over into gladness / & we gaze at something singular & joined.’ This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making. In fact, both inclinations, shared by many poets, are bound together in a dialogue: silence and words, peace and desiring, transcendence from this  world and being steeped in the world. So the final wisdom, earned by the accumulative power of the poetry and convincing, is in doubleness of ‘Accept the gift which is not transcendence // but your heart beating at its apprehension. / Here  is  your  life: unlock your fist & begin’. In this exhortation, we are taken back to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, cited on the opening page of the volume, especially perhaps to Eliot’s Four Quartets, with its own poetic movement between meditation and action.

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2005

One matter worth celebrating is the fact that the editor of this third anthology is one of the most distinguished poets writing in English. Peter Porter was born in Toowoomba, settled early in England, and over the last thirty years or so has renewed poetic contact with Australia to the point where he edited an important anthology of Australian poetry, The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, in 1996.

Guest Editor: Peter PorterGuest editor: Peter Porter
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

One of the tasks of these series editors’ Forewords is to map (or, at least, to sketch) what has happened in Australian poetry in the year under review in the anthology. In previous anthologies this seems to have involved us in lamenting the deaths of major poets and so there is a certain relief in discovering that this year has been one of few births and deaths. True, we have to mourn the closing of the journal Salt-lick: New Poetry – entirely devoted to poetry and thus responsible for publishing large numbers of poems, and good poems at that. And we note also the closing of Duffy&Snellgrove, which since 1996 has published books of poems by a number of Australia’s finest poets, including three poets found in this year’s anthology: Les Murray, Peter Goldsworthy and Stephen Edgar. Both these closures are indeed unfortunate, but we remain hopeful that new ventures will arise in their place. Sometimes it is good not to live in ‘interesting times.’

One matter worth celebrating is the fact that the editor of this third anthology is one of the most distinguished poets writing in English. Peter Porter was born in Toowoomba, settled early in England, and over the last thirty years or so has renewed poetic contact with Australia to the point where he edited an important anthology of Australian poetry, The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, in 1996. And he has been a regular revisitor ever since. He has also had a lot to do with the writing careers of a number of younger poets. He has proved to be a sympathetic mentor to these poets and has been a generous supporter of many others while at the same time keeping an eye on what is happening in poetry in Australia. So the perspective he provides in this anthology is animated not only by his own stature as a poet but by a genuine interest in the literary life of the country of his birth.

His most recent book, Afterburner, published by Picador in 2004 is the sixteenth in a book publishing career which began in 1961 with Once Bitten, Twice Bitten. As a poet, Porter has a reputation for metaphysical daring, an immersion in European culture, and an almost morbid fascination with death and dissolution. This reputation is not entirely undeserved but it is worth noting that he is also one of the wittiest poets ever to have written in English. Some of these interests are inevitably carried over into the selection he has made for this anthology. Many of the poems here derive from contemporary Australian poetry’s renewed engagement with intellectual speculation.

Another feature of this selection, perhaps not out of keeping with this, is the number of long poems. The works of J.S. Harry, John Jenkins, John Kinsella and Fay Zwicky are all different kinds of long poem and exploit its different potentials. One is a surreal journey into a kind of Lewis Carroll-like environment in which philosophical positions can be looked at from an actualised perspective. The second is an imaginary meeting between a gangster and a great poet in a setting so associated with the poet that it seems like an externalisation of his mind (Stevens was, of course, obsessed by the relationship between the mind and reality and also with the nature of fictions). And the other two are more personal narratives distinguished by the fact that the former moves outward towards social documentation and the latter moves inward to register the effect of the alien on the young traveller. Then there are poems such as those by Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Geoffrey Lehmann which are extended works made up of individual units often providing different perspectives.

So it is good to see the long poem make a comeback of sorts. Generally Australia’s poetic tradition has avoided both minimalism and really extended poems although the verse narrative did re-emerge in the 1980s in the work of John Scott, Alan Wearne, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter. Rereading John Tranter’s important anthology of 1979, The New Australian Poetry, it is always a surprise to see how many long poems it contains: the twenty-two pages devoted to the work of Martin Johnston, for example, comprises two poems: ‘The Blood Aquarium’ and ‘Microclimatology’ and the whole of Robert Adamson’s ‘The Rumour’ is included. Not only are there a high percentage of extended works but now, in retrospect, they seem to form the backbone of the collection.

Introducing the collection in this way, with an emphasis on its editor’s preference for speculation over lyric celebration might be something of a misrepresentation. Many of the poems in this selection demonstrate a profound interest in the human sphere and it reminds us that Porter, in a recent lecture (republished in the Australian Book Review, 266), has emphasised this contribution from the ‘huge Commissariat of Poetry’:

We tend to think of poetry as descriptive, pastoral, lyrical or rhetorical – above all as lapidary, concerned with its own means, with language at unconsciousness’s most intrinsic borders. But it would get nowhere without its human subjects, the material of social life, material closer to home than trees, cataracts or sublimities of Nature.