Australian Poetry Now

Once asked what poets can do for Australia, A.D. Hope replied: “They can justify its existence.” Such has been the charge of Australian poets, from Hope himself to Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright to Les Murray, Anthony Lawrence to Judith Beveridge: to articulate the Australian experience so that it might live in the imagination of its people. While the presence and potency of the Australian landscape remains an abiding interest, a great deal of Australian poetry has been innovative and experimental, with poets such as Robert Adamson, Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas, John Forbes, Gig Ryan,   J.S. Harry, and Jennifer Maiden leading the way. The richness, strength, and vitality of Australian poetry is marked by a prodigious diversity that makes it as exhilarating to survey as it is challenging to encapsulate.

While the most convincing justification for the existence of Australia might come from its indigenous poets, Aboriginal poetry in Australia has been particularly overlooked, both its historical traditions and the innovative work being written today. >>Read more at Poetry Foundation

Foreword: australian poetry journal 3.1 #animal

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 8.32.21 AMHumans may prefer to distinguish themselves from all other multiccellular, eukaryotic organisms but ‘humans’ live only in the philosopher’s imagination. In the minds of biologists we are Homo sapiens of Kingdom Animalia. Questions of nomenclature notwithstanding, the human relationship to animals is under the microscope in the #animal issue of Australian Poetry Journal.

In addition to the myriad roles animals perform in human societies – as companions and workers, as food and objects of sacrifice – animals serve in the human imagination as harbingers of traits we aspire to achieve: football teams, as John Kinsella points out in his poem ‘Zoo’, are called ‘The Falcons, The Eagles, The Seagulls, The Tigers, The Lions, The Kangaroos’. In Judith Beveridge’s poem, ‘Back in the Monastery’, a speaker prays to the dark goddesses, Elephant-Face and Lion-Face, who sit at the threshold of time; and in Ron Pretty’s poem on Marco Polo’s first encounter with a unicorn – ‘or so / he called’ the rhinoceros – ‘myth segues into armour-plated gut’.

Horses run through many poems: sometimes as machinery – ‘a workhorse in a dark field’ in Todd Turner’s ‘Bonsai Wattle’ – or as instruments of war. Waterborne horses are ‘backed against bad weather’ in Angela Gardner’s ‘Ilium’ and horseborne Carbineers ride through Geoff Page’s ‘Marginalia’. But who’d have guessed that goats would dominate a selection of contemporary poems? Among various appearances, mountain goats climb cemented rocks to look down ‘on over-excited human children with disdain’ – again, Kinsella’s poem – and in Kristin Hannaford’s ‘Elegy for Lost Goats’ a nineteenth-century Inspector of Nuisances slits the throats of 400 feral goats to use as fertiliser in the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens.

Less noble perhaps yet no less common, invertebrates abound: the ‘orange domes’ of jellyfish sail through Robert Adamson’s ‘Sugarloaf Bay’, and a bluebottle trawls its tentacles through ‘streets of coral’ in Pretty’s ‘Kiss’. Stephen Edgar’s rhyming couplets materialise ‘the silver scripture of the snail’, and David Brooks’s ode to garden slugs – ‘young, just-antlered elk / crossing fresh-fallen snow / leaving their silver trails’ – raises the ethics of the human-animal relations. Prior to a conversion that would see the speaker coax slugs onto lettuce leaves and deliver them into the long grass, he would have sprinkled them with salt.

Strong identification with an animal, particularly if you intend to eat it, does not lead to an easy conscience. Dark humour is David McCooey’s way out: ‘what will cure him’, he wonders in ‘Sandwich Meat’, of his taste for ‘thinly sliced animals’. But the animal bites back: a dark fin cuts a pathway to civilisation; a black snake brings complexity to the woodstack. In her poem ‘Inheritance’ Maria Takolander ratchets up the primal fear of being eaten when an old man tells the speaker that her father has been eaten by pigs. ‘Only some bones and rags were left.’

Few poets, Adamson included, can avert their eyes from the spectacle of birds: macaws ‘flaring with reds / and blues’ take centre stage as the white haze lifts. ‘The slow peel of apple skin under a prized chef ’s steady hand’ is how B.R. Dionysius describes six wedge-tailed eagles riding a thermal to an immovable feast. ‘Syrinx’ by American poet Devin Johnston is an ode to the vocal organs of birds, while in ‘Ameraucana’ all praise goes to the hen who lays ‘a perfect form of incompletion: [the] first egg of the year’.

Zooming from microcosms to cosmologies, Melissa Ashley reviews John Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully and M.T.C. Cronin’s The World Last Night. McCooey frames the human animal in Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen and finds Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity populated by saints, among them Rumwold of Buckingham – a Medieval baby who lived for three days and spoke like an adult. In his review of The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, edited by Jennifer Ashton, Martin Duwell stares down ‘the strange beast’ of postwar American poetry, while Anthony Lawrence shines a ‘Spotlight’ on Australia’s much-loved Philip Hodgins, whose poetic imagination was formed under the intense emotional pressure of being diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 24. Meanwhile, high in the Andes, in a small town called Uspallata, Stuart Cooke considers the fates of felines, big and small, in his ecopoetic essay, ‘A Poetics of Strays’. Elsewhere in this mad menagerie a cat named Caesar philosophises in Burmese and dreams you into the afterlife.

Poetry publishing in australia

Making BooksThe 1990s heralded a new ethos in Australian book publishing: poetry was no longer presumed to be a prestigious staple on the list of a serious publishing house. With mergers and takeovers happening left and right in the commercial publishing sector, poetry for all its ‘cultural worth’ was told to pay its way in dollars or be gone. But with characteristically small print runs and booksellers hesitant to stock specialty books this was a big ask. By the decade’s end, Angus & Robertson, Heinemann, Penguin and Picador had abandoned poetry almost entirely, leaving a slew of canonical Australian poets – including Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Les Murray and many others – without a publisher.[1] Of course it was part of a larger trend: in 1999 Oxford University Press also terminated its poetry list and dropped expatriate-Australian poet Peter Porter, along with his British colleagues. For a brief moment, verse novels caused a flurry of excitement but this soon settled into fad. Dorothy Porter’s Monkey’s Mask (Hyland House, 1994) and Murray’s Fredy Neptune (Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998) seemed hopeful crossovers into relatively larger fiction markets.[2] A few years later Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers, Book One (Penguin, 2001) won the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry (as well as Book of the Year) and the Arts Queensland Judith Wright Calanthe Award, but this didn’t stop Penguin from pulping their unsold stock and declining publication of the completed second volume. During this time only the University of Queensland (UQP), as David McCooey points out, remained a significant publisher of poetry.[3]

Since its first poetry title in 1968, UQP has published at one stage or another just about all of Australia’s important contemporary poets, including David Malouf, John Tranter, Judith Beveridge and Anthony Lawrence. Its impressive backlist, relatively large infrastructure, and its access to national distribution meant that competition was tight for its annual two or three poetry titles (which was intermittently topped up with books, such as Sam Wagan Watson’s award-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers from the Black Australian Writing list, or Jennifer Strauss’s The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore 18871929 from the Academy Editions of Australian Literature and published by UQP in association with the Australian Academy of the Humanities). [4] In 2002, pre-figuring a review of operations, the Press decided to outsource its poetry editorship in order to trim overheads on poetry titles, which with few exceptions – Peter Skrzynecki’s wildly successful Immigrant Chronicle among them – required financial buoying from income-generating fiction titles. To the resounding relief of poets around the country, following a 2005 restructure the Press formally announced a renewed commitment to poetry and increased its list to five or six poetry titles per year. The new list included the annual Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for a manuscript from an emerging Queensland poet – which despite its regional catchment enjoyed national success with award-winning titles by Lidija Cvetkovic and Jaya Savige; a selected or collected volume of poems by a senior Australian poet; and The Best Australian Poetry series established in 2003.

As publishing opportunities for poets grew increasingly rare Five Islands Press (FIP), founded by Ron Pretty in 1987, increased in prominence. As part of its Mainstream Program, FIP published about ten poetry titles per year, while its annual New Poets Program published 32-page chapbooks by six emerging poets. From time to time, the series was criticised for being too large to maintain a consistently high quality, nevertheless it launched the careers of a number of 1990s poets who went on to enjoy critical success – Peter Minter and MTC Cronin among them – in much the same way as Martin Duwell’s Gargoyle Poets series did for Australian poets in the 1970s. In 2002 FIP moved from the University of Wollongong to the University of Melbourne and was made integral to the newly established Poetry Australia Foundation.[5] In 2006, the Foundation scored a major coup when the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) promised an initial sum of $140,800 to assist in establishing the Australian Poetry Centre in East St Kilda. Shortly thereafter, however, FIP announced on its website that Ron Pretty would pass the leadership of the imprint to Kevin Brophy and others in mid 2007, and that FIP would not only reduce its annual titles but also cease the New Poets Series for the foreseeable future.

During this time there were also some newcomers. In 1999 John Kinsella, Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery formed a partnership to develop Salt Publishing. Salt, which then moved to the UK in 2002 and set up offices at Cambridge, put print-on-demand technology to good use to produce a significant list of attractive (if often difficult to find) books by Australian poets such as Pam Brown, Jill Jones, Kate Lilley, Peter Rose and many others. In the same year Ivor Indyk opened a new arm to his publishing house and began publishing poetry titles under the Giramondo book imprint, which got off to a fine start with prize-winning books by Emma Lew, Judith Beveridge and Jennifer Maiden. Other small but noteworthy presses include Brandl & Schlesinger and Black Pepper, as well as Vagabond, Picaro Press and PressPress which all specialise in chapbooks.[6] David Musgrave started Puncher & Wattmann in 2005 and Paul Hardacre’s papertiger media launched its Soi 3 Modern Poets imprint in 2006. Unfortunately there also were some departures from the ranks of independent publishing. Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press closed in 2002 after seventeen years of publishing some of Australia’s best poets; and Duffy & Snellgrove closed shop in 2004, leaving Murray once again without a publisher (fortunately Black Inc. was to inaugurate a poetry list with Murray’s Biplane Houses as its first title). Pandanus Books, based at the Australian National University, ended its poetry publishing days in 2006 with Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry, an anthology comprising poems that offer perspectives on Asia by eighty-six Australian poets.

As might be expected during these lean years, poetry anthologies increased in importance. In 1998, Thomas Shapcott edited his sixth poetry anthology, The Moment Made Marvellous, which was made up of poems by 70 UQP poets. Paperbark Press’s Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets anthology, edited by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter, came out in 2000 with a selection of poems by poets who first came to prominence in the 1990s. A year later Five Islands Press also came out with a ‘new poets’ anthology: New Music: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry edited by John Leonard. 2003 saw an embarrassment of poetry anthologies with UQP releasing the inaugural issue of its Best Australian Poetry series in September and Black Inc. releasing its inaugural Best Australian Poems a month later. Despite their similarity of titles, the anthologies came with different briefs. UQP’s anthology changes its guest editor annually, selects exactly forty poems that have been previously published in print journals and includes biographical information and author notes, whereas the Black Inc. anthology changes editors arbitrarily, includes more poems and poems from a variety of sources but does not include information about its contributors. Both publishers have reported healthy (by poetry standards) sales.

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Many would expect that poetry book numbers would decline during this period of contraction and indeed they did. In the years between 1993 and 1999, over 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year; by 2006 this figure had been reduced by about 100 titles. Although comparable to figures from the 1970s – the decade lauded by many for fashioning a resurgence of poetry – a thirty-five per cent increase in the Australian population during the same interval summons sobriety. What’s more, the total number of poetry books published during this period makes the sector appear healthier than it might in fact be, in large part due to FIP’s New Poets Series which offered abundant publishing opportunities for emerging poets while the situation at large for developing and established poets remained impoverished. It is also important to note that the majority of poetry books are presently being published by small presses (including self-publishers) that often do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Under these conditions the thus-far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.

Despite continued problems associated with distribution, marketing and sales, many poets and critics have observed that interest in poetry, oddly enough, is booming.[7] Poetry festivals have sprung up around the country – there’s even a National Poetry Week – poetry readings are held in cafés, pubs and libraries, and poetry ezines, blogs and discussion boards are burgeoning on the Internet. Writers’ centres and university creative writing programs around the country have been quick to respond to the increased demand for poetry  workshops and classes. Poetry’s increased profile in high school curricula, particularly in New South Wales, has led not only to new generations of young readers interested in reading and writing poetry, but also to soaring sales for the poets lucky enough to be set on the compulsory reading lists. Poets in this enviable position – including Peter Skrzynecki, Bruce Dawe and John Tranter – can often compete on sales figures with fiction authors.[8] As an overall trend, poetry’s rising popularity is perhaps more noticeable in the US where a Billy Collins title can approach a print run of 100 000 copies; nevertheless poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Les Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries.[9] Whereas a typical US poetry title (Billy Collins aside) runs to about 1 500 copies, a poetry title by a reasonably well-known poet in Australia (at about one-fifteenth of the US population) runs to about half the US number. While these are only break-even figures – a ‘slim volume’ of poems costs about $5 000–7 000 in editorial, design and production costs – it is interesting to speculate as to what the figures might look like if Australian poetry titles were afforded the same publishing and marketing opportunities that other genres often enjoy. The extraordinary renewal of interest in Auden, for instance, after his poem appeared on screen in Four Weddings and a Funeral would seem to indicate that advertising works, even for poetry. But film options aside, the Australian market remains wide open to publishers who seek to make the most of the current poetry revival.

In the meantime, there are a number of things publishers can do raise the profile of their poetry titles. In addition to keeping a tight list of well-known and respected names that help carry titles by new poets, publishers can also avail themselves of state and federal publishing subsidies. While funding varies from state to state, the Literature Board of the Australia Council offers assistance to publishers with subsidies to support up to four poetry titles (including selected and collected editions) a year. The subsidy on offer for poetry is set at about half the rate for prose titles due to the assumption that it is less expensive to produce a book of poems than a book of prose (perhaps it is but it remains difficult to prove as poetry publishers have long survived by cutting corners). While the subsidy is helpful to poetry presses, it offers little incentive for publishers of mixed genres to put forth poetry titles over prose. Further complicating matters is the proviso that the titles must have a minimum print run and prove national distribution in order to qualify for funding – requirements that with the growth of print-on-demand technology have become increasingly difficult for small poetry publishers to fulfill as well as for the Board to monitor. Even so, the Council’s logo on the imprint pages of almost every Australian poetry title one encounters would seem to indicate that the initiative is keeping a good number of independent poetry publishers in business.

Many publishers like to see that individual poems have been published in literary journals prior to appearing in book format. This serves not only as a means of developing a readership for a poet’s work, but it also verifies that the poems have been vetted by independent editors. As a general observation, however, Australian presses have not insisted upon this practice with the same rigor as have their overseas counterparts, who frequently require that all (or nearly all) poems from a collection have first appeared in journals. It might well be in the interest of all to step up this practice. The so-called ‘big-eight’ of Australian literary journals – those that receive regular funding from the Literature Board – continue to publish a smattering of poetry and (usually bundled) reviews of poetry titles: Southerly, Meanjin, Overland, Quadrant, Island, Westerly, Hecate and Heat. Other journals of note include Westerly, Going Down Swinging, Tirra Lirra and Famous Reporter. Blast Magazine, Space: New Writing, Griffith Review and Wet Ink all began in the early part of the new century, while Salt-lick: New Writing disappeared soon after launching and Imago closed shop in 2001. Another birth worth noting was Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry, in 2003. Taking off in the late nineties, online poetry journals offer a new world of opportunity for editors not wanting (or unable) to finance expensive print journals. John Tranter’s Jacket, launched in 1997, was one of the earliest and has become the most eminent, bringing into conversation poets and critics from around the world. At reportedly over half-a-million hits since its inception, it is difficult to imagine a poetry journal in print format attracting a comparable amount of traffic. A short list of online poetry magazines that have steadily grown in profile might include Cordite, Stylus Poetry Journal, Divan, Retort, hutt and foame:e. There are also a number of online poetry resources, including the Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library project which presents poems and biographical information for Australian poets. In coming years the project plans to employ Digital Object Identifier (DOI) technology to allow poets the possibility of charging a reading fee to access copyrighted material. Eventually, the project will publish print-on-demand poetry books, particularly for titles that have gone out of print.[10]

These days a growing number of poets are not only using online technology to distribute and promote their work, they are also exploring digital media as an central part of the poetic experience. A small number of publications – including Les Murray’s Collected Poems (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002) and literary journals Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and others – have experimented with audio CD attachments to books. Discarding the book entirely, the CD ROM journal papertiger: new world poetry published annually by Paul Hardacre, Brett Dionysius and Marissa Newell is one of Australia’s chief forums for digital poems. Not only does it publish poems that employ conventional textual layouts, it also incorporates to great effect audio, flash and video poems. Especially popular with younger audiences, the trend is likely to continue to develop new territories that reach new audiences. But it is not by any means unidirectional: the Newcastle Poetry Prize issued its 2003 anthology on CD ROM but reverted to print the following year; and papertiger media expanded its operations in 2006 to add print to its CD ROM and Internet formats, suggesting that the poetry book, while somewhat harder to find, has not entirely disappeared from fashion.

Notes


[1] See Pam Brown, ‘Nobody Wants Our Poems…’. The Sydney Morning Herald 26 February 2000 Spectrum: 10.

[2] See Christopher Pollnitz’s ‘Australian Verse Novels’, Heat 7 NS, 2004: 229-52.

[3] David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22.

[4] The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore: Volume 2 edited by Jennifer Strauss is scheduled for release by UQP in July 2007.

[5] PAF also publishes the annual PAF Poetry Catalogue. The 2006 issue lists the 94 poetry titles by 20 Australian presses.

[6] Regional publishers of poetry include Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Western Australia; Spinifex Press in Victoria; Interactive Press in Queensland; Walleah Press in Tasmania; Ginninderra’s Indigo imprint in Canberra. Little Esther Books: Feral, Boffin + Distingué in South Australia focuses on avant garde poetry.

[7] See David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22-36.

[8] Sales figures for poetry books are notoriously difficult to verfiy. BookTrack keeps a record of sales but as most bookshops do not stock poetry books (most poetry books are sold at poetry readings and festivals and through online outlets) the figures are effectively meaningless. The 2001 AC Nielsen National Survey of Reading, Buying and Borrowing Books for Pleasure avoids poetry altogether.

[9] See Les Murray’s ‘On Being Subject Matter’ in A Working Forest: Selected Prose, Potts Point: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1997 (30-44).

[10] A similar project, Classic Australian Works (another CAL initiative), already provides print-on-demand re-releases of classic Australian books, with Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets as its first poetry title. For a detailed discussion of poetry and POD technology, see David Prater’s ‘Poetry Publishing Today’ in New Markets for Printed Books: Emerging Markets for Books, from Creator to Consumer. Ed. Bill Cope and Dean Mason. Altona, Vic: Common Ground Publishing, 2002.

This chapter was first published as ‘Poetry Publishing’ in Making Books: Studies in Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP, 2007: 247–54.

It was the focus of Rosemary Neill’s ‘Pulping Our Poetry’. The Weekend Australian 7–8 July 2007, Review: 4–5.

Foreword: australian poetry journal 2.2 #art

Not surprisingly – poets being aural creatures – the #art issue of Australian Poetry Journal thrums with music. In Philip Hammial’s ‘Walk that Walk’ Afro-Cuban jazz-king Machito (Crowded Fingers) Smith thinks, along with Zelda Fitzgerald, that ‘Al Jolson is greater than Jesus’. In Philip Salom’s ‘Counterpoint with Red’ Glenn Gould guns through Bach in a triptych of waltzes showcasing the pianist’s architectural tics and copious pharmaceutical predilections. ‘The purpose of art’, Gould wrote in 1962, ‘is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity’. Always more concerned with the effects of art than the product itself, Gould argued that art’s ‘justification’ (should it need one) is ‘the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men’.

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issue 2 volume 2 2012

Not surprisingly – poets being aural creatures – the #art issue of Australian Poetry Journal thrums with music. In Philip Hammial’s ‘Walk that Walk’ Afro-Cuban jazz-king Machito (Crowded Fingers) Smith thinks, along with Zelda Fitzgerald, that ‘Al Jolson is greater than Jesus’. In Philip Salom’s ‘Counterpoint with Red’ Glenn Gould guns through Bach in a triptych of waltzes showcasing the pianist’s architectural tics and copious pharmaceutical predilections. ‘The purpose of art’, Gould wrote in 1962, ‘is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity’. Always more concerned with the effects of art than the product itself, Gould argued that art’s ‘justification’ (should it need one) is ‘the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men’ – a fire that Peter Lach-Newinsky’s poem, ‘Ode to Joy’, extends to the hearts of women who hummed, in solidarity, Beethoven’s ‘bright other half of humanity’s dream’ in Tiananmen Square and outside the gates of Pinochet’s prisons.

‘Phrases hungering for another’s art’ – as Kevin Gillam calls the ekphrastic impulse in ‘Figue’ – stand at the heart of many poems gathered here. In ‘Gallery’ Mike Ladd wants to step into a painting by Camille Pissaro, circa 1901, to walk through a foggy morning, pink and blue, along the Seine. He’d warn women in black shawls that ‘the Wars were coming’ but ‘no one would listen’. Dispensing proprieties Brenda Saunders plonks herself inside Edward Hopper’s Room in New York and ‘tinkles a few notes’ on the piano, while Mark Tredinnick settles behind Matisse’s eyes to study ‘the lazy phrase’ of his model displayed across the sofa: ‘Every piece of the carnal world’, he observes, ‘takes the shape of a question’. Meanwhile in ‘Schmerz: An Exhibition’ Susanne Gannon interrogates the artsy idea that ‘pain builds community’ as she walks through a Berlin gallery housing, among other horrors, Marina Abramović’s ‘cutting edge’ performance in which she carves a star into her belly. Interleafed among European greats, the shock of the local arrives in Caitlin Maling’s ‘At the Ballarat Art Gallery’ – yet even Nolan’s Leda, it must be said,has its origins in the elsewhere.

As for the state of our art form – poetry – it appears to be marked, at least by these poems, by a sense of absenteeism: Davina Allison laments the absence of poets in her distressed address to the abused boys of St Joseph’s Industrial School in Ireland’s Letterfrack; Rosanna Licari finds Umberto Saba locked in silence on a footpath he once walked in Trieste; and Andy Jackson’s ‘Edith’ shrinks poets to something we talk about when ‘the dreadful silence’ presses in. With ‘The Perfect Malware’ Christian Bök returns to the pages of APJ with a tour de force that splits the nucleus: ‘What can poetry imagine’, he asks, ‘when poetry itself has gone extinct?’ But Bök’s black view gleams in the dark – ‘Let the death of verse be dated by the half-life of uranium-238’ – advancing a calculation that grants the poem another 4.47 billion years.

In ‘Francis Webb at Balls Head’ Robert Adamson constructs an arresting portrait of one of Australia’s greatest poets, whom Sir Herbert Read also deemed ‘one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the [last] century’ – an unhappy charge Adamson is bent on remedying in his ‘Spotlight on Francis Webb’ here and his criticism beyond these pages. In ‘Framing the Scene’ Kate Lilley looks at new books by Julie Chevalier and David McCooey; while in Stuart Cooke’s ‘Bright Nodes of Colour’, Lilley – through an unavoidable reshuffling – finds herself under review alongside Peter Rose. APJ’s resident critic, Martin Duwell, returns with a study of the ‘towering’ if ‘uncomfortable’ presence of John Shaw Neilson and finds Australian poetry’s most famous orange tree as luminous as ever.

In the previous issue of APJ David McCooey surveyed the digital world of poetry apps: in this issue Kerry Kilner and Angela Gardner look at the more tangible and fragrant world of artist’s books – from William Blake to Chris Wallace-Crabbe – as embodying the twin concepts of the book as text and the book as object. Fiona Scotney’s interview rounds out the issue with Laurie Duggan’s frank recollection of his poetry-writing days in Ken Bolton’s dilapidated cottage in Coalcliffe, New South Wales – which links serendipitously to Iman Mersal’s gorgeous poem, ‘The Idea of Houses’: ‘Let a house be a place whose bad lighting you do not notice’, she writes making a case for poetic vision, ‘a wall whose cracks widen until one day you begin to think of them as a substitute for doors’.

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The blood became sick: luke davies’ interferon psalms

Review of Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies

In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

AVT_Luke-Davies_4298In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

From the Front he sent Lou a torrent of love poems and letters – unrelenting, savage, sexully explicit – before a shrapnel wound to the temple forced his discharge. Apollinaire never fully recovered from his injuries and died in the Spanish flu pandemic two days before the end of the First World War. He was 38.

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – “I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks” – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies, who earlier this week was awarded the inaugural $80,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry.

Just as Apollinaire’s poems and letters to Lou yoke the theatre of love to the theatre of war, Davies’ new collection of poems, Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, is a double drama played on two stages: the drama of heartbreak and the drama of physical affliction.

The collection opens with the poet living in California in vivid sway between presence and bewilderment. The beloved has absented herself, and he is “sick with shallow corpuscle”. An earlier heroin addiction – “a black-bottomed spoon” was his “boon companion” – has made a wasteland of his liver and from the ravages of interferon treatment, a type of chemotherapy, he is “learning all about suffering”.

Weekly injections of interferon deliver his body – and mind – to the peripheries of death. Red and white blood cells are razed and the body declines into anaemia. His “skin turns to scale” and bandages stick to his skin. “I began to drift down to my death like a ship heading ocean floorwards,” he writes of the blankness borne of an oxygen-starved brain.

If only I had a sister, to hold her hand, then I would protect her, and forget about my fear, and we would walk under water, where the light shines.

The blood became needy. Everything that could sting, would sting. He went to bed sick. The injections had put him in shock but he was eager to love: “Eros come melt in my mouth”, he pleads, “Eros sit heavy on my shoulders”. Emerging from the “glaciation” of his distress he tries to “climb into” the beloved but “she gave no traction”. The relationship’s end – “A warning sign of any sort? God no” – leaves him in “earthquake-addled desolation”:

                                        … I’d picture coming home,
Across the welcome mat and through the open door.
I’d crawl into your open arms, for sure.
That’s just not
Going to happen, I told myself. Pockets of realisation
Floating stateless and neutral like tiny planets. The bricks
All structureless and recently aflutter. Shock waves
Past their use-by date. The utter exhaustion
Of trying to maintain one’s dignity amid one’s pain.

There were no stop signs, he writes, no planets, nothing smaller than galaxies: “just an endless plummeting away from her.” At night he cried in dreams – “those private myths of plaintive distress” – yet of necessity he sought to “bless the utter desolation” that fell upon him.

It was never going to be a long love affair,” he concedes, “but in my yielding I became a mystic.

Davies doesn’t so much write his psalms as pray them. He leans on biblical vocabulary and awe-inspired apostrophe – “O Witness, O Word, O Diadem of Beauty” – to support his body reduced to basics and drag his mind into a longer perspective. His is not the time of clocks – “Winter rolled in for ten thousand years” – but psychological time:

Chronology was never my finest hour
But only because I came to know time
Both inside and out so that
Reverence became a given;
And all, when all was good, was now.

With this eye anything can be filled with grace: “How to elevate to first position”, he muses, “Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops”. Davies, like his old master Apollinaire, finds resonance in linking the old to the new and roping modern imagery to traditional tropes. Likewise, the juxtaposition of imagination and reality – the sacred and the secular – helps collapse divides and widen the world. As this particularly gorgeous passage illustrates:

The world received us into its citizenship. I trod the road to Jericho. We lay down. We wept. The buildings all fell down. And even my blood, O Thou my Redeemer, was yearning for water, as usual.

Parched. The desert parched. The parched lips on the flower buds. The cactus yielded syrup on the mind.

I imagined lying between her legs.

Certain thoughts were sustaining. It had always been like that.

Her fine, hard, bared crotch.

Plus, on your death bed you would not remember any particular tax return over another.

Of the many lessons the poet acquires on his great odyssey back to health – for as long as it could, his blood would be fine – one is to dwell in “the gap between oblivion and memory”. Another is to “find kindnesses, even in goodbyes, for everyone was weary and surely she not least”.

In one view of contemporary poetry – which might prefer drier conclusions, or perhaps none at all – Davies is behind the fashion. In my view, Interferon Psalms – an abundantly uttered memory of great goodness – has catapulted him ahead of the crowd.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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

Foreword: australian poetry journal 2.1 #technology

There are two types of people, I once wrote in a poem that riffed on the classic binary: those who are turned on by cutting-edge technology; and those who warm to it only after it is obsolete. The latter, the poem continues, ‘often exhibit great affection for manual typewriters and vinyl records’. Of course, the human relationship to technology is infinitely more varied than this construction would allow, yet it is not unreasonable to speculate that Luddism, as a viable response to our machine-mad world, is in dramatic decline.
Technology (from the Greek tekhnē, meaning ‘art, skill, or craft’) refers to both the tools by which we live – computers, televisions, cars, pianos, pens, heart monitors, fertilizers, machine guns – and the thinking behind them.

volume 1 issue 1

2012

There are two types of people, I once wrote in a poem that riffed on the classic binary: those who are turned on by cutting-edge technology; and those who warm to it only after it is obsolete. The latter, the poem continues, ‘often exhibit great affection for manual typewriters and vinyl records’. Of course, the human relationship to technology is infinitely more varied than this construction would allow, yet it is not unreasonable to speculate that Luddism, as a viable response to our machine-mad world, is in dramatic decline.

Technology (from the Greek tekhnē, meaning ‘art, skill, or craft’) refers to both the tools by which we live – computers, televisions, cars, pianos, pens, heart monitors, fertilizers, machine guns – and the thinking behind them: information technology, music technology, biotechnology, medical technology, and so on. Technology influences not only how poets generate and compose poems –  NASA’s ballpoint pen or an Apple computer – but also the modes and processes by which we distribute and consume them. Paradoxical by nature, poetry is at once our most low- and high-tech of literary arts. For millennia poetry has lived with little more than the human body as its instrument (and warehouse), yet while other literary artforms – the novel, say, or the play – struggled to imagine a home in an online world, poetry logged on, making easy concessions and tweaking software to its design and purposes.

Ideally, an initial reading of the poems in this (or any) issue of Australian Poetry Journal would be unencumbered by a thematic frame so that the poems may be appreciated for their full spread of ideas and refracting nuances. Later readings, with the theme held in mind, might then open the poems to additional interpretations. Some poems in this selection are pointedly concerned with technology (or its lack): John Carey’s ‘Money’, for instance, laments currency’s sonic shift from the concrete jingle of coins and rustle of notes to the abstract and super-silent highways of electronic transfers; Amy Brown’s ‘Lungs Like Birds’, takes consumption – that merciless killer of nineteenth-century poets – as its subject and stages a ‘miracle cure’ (long before the advent of antibiotics: the greatest life-saving technology in the history of modern medicine); while John Kinsella’s ‘Grantchester Genetically Modified Plough Play’ – which will be staged in Cambridge around the time of this issue’s release – employs a plough-play in verse (traditionally performed in fields by farmhands) to skewer biotech giant, Monsanto, who has been busy making machines of our food.

Other poems only glimpse the theme: Dominique Hecq’s ‘Portrait in Conversation’, for example, is principally a rumination on angel wings, but its conversation is triggered by a print reproduction of da Vinci’s Annunciation. Likewise, technology in Cameron Fuller’s suburban pastoral, ‘Stress Fractures’, is present only as soundtrack – the groan of a lawn mower, distant sirens after a fight – to the poem’s main event of memory and self dissolution. Sometimes technology makes its way into a poem only to nestle as a curio inside the line: there’s an AK-47 in Geoff Page’s ‘Archetypes’; a rifle in Mal KcKimmie’s ‘Twins’; a Heckler & Koch in Ron Winkler’s ‘And Later On’; and magazine debris, shells, and shrapnel in Sudeep Sen’s stunning ‘Kargil’ poem, set ten-years on from the India-Pakistan conflict of 1999. Likewise, instruments of malice are showcased in Mike Ladd’s ‘Museum of Memory’, and elsewhere technology detritus shows up in Julie Maclean’s ‘Farina Farina’ with ‘the shell of a Holden’ nudging the ‘corrugated lean of a water tank’. For some readers, Ron Winkler’s ‘Berlin’ will be seen as a technology-free haven, but only to those unburdened by the responsibility of keeping a city lawn watered and green.

In the half year since APJ’s inaugural issue, we have received word of approximately 75 new poetry titles (unfortunately more than we could ever hope to review here). In ‘Forensics and Makeshift Rafts’, Michael Sharkey admires the technical achievements of three new collections: The Raft by Leopold Hass (editorial paranoia compels a nod to the pseudonym); Kingdom Animalia by New Zealand poet and botanist, Janis Freegard; and The Welfare of My Enemy, which Sharkey upholds as Anthony Lawrence’s most admirable collection to date. Jaya Savige sizes up the Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray treasury, Australian Poetry Since 1788, with an eye to learning ‘from whence we came’ – not from Queensland he concludes (among other things), having done the sums – and logs a request for greater accountancy in the ‘wild ride of the poetry stock-market’. In ‘McAuley’s “Lame Lyre Nets”’, Martin Duwell reviews a recent title in poetry criticism: The Sons of Clovis by David Brooks, whose detective work unearthed a French hoax – Les Déliquescences by ‘Adoré Floupette’ – as a likely precursor to the amaranthine Ern-Malley stunt. Finally, David McCooey’s feature article, ‘Poets, Apples and Androids’, surveys the latest offerings from the world of iOS poetry applications – in which poets and readers alike are described as ‘users’ – and speculates on the future of avant-garde poetics.

We live in an age captive to – and captivated by – technology. But not everybody is entranced. In ‘Success Kid Says What’, Liam Ferney writes: ‘if the future is twelve-lane / thoroughfares through downtown / & forty foot of engineered landscape / from pavement to doorway’ – as it appears to be in Beijing – ‘then I’ll check out yesterday’. With green technology still in its infancy, the question of our age is how to fuel our machines into the future. Cameron Fuller’s ‘Peak Oil Hour’ contemplates the ‘final tank of fuel’, while the small boys at the end of Ross Donlon’s ‘Midsummer Night’ look into a thousand years of shadows and cry, more diesel. More diesel.

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Will the real john tranter please stand up?

Review of Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter; and The Salt Companion to John Tranter

In his latest collection of essays, Milan Kundera describes the savage portraiture of Francis Bacon as interrogations into the limits of the self. ‘Up to what degree of distortion’, Kundera asks, ‘does an individual still remain himself?’ Or more crucially: ‘where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?’ These are fascinating, if troubling, questions. And in the world of poetry, this distorted borderland is Tranter territory. The personas in John Tranter’s poems, his own included, may not be as hellish as Bacon’s. In fact they’re often comical and sometimes rather stylish.

John Tranter (credit Anders Hallengren)In his latest collection of essays, Milan Kundera describes the savage portraiture of Francis Bacon as interrogations into the limits of the self. ‘Up to what degree of distortion’, Kundera asks, ‘does an individual still remain himself?’ Or more crucially: ‘where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?’ These are fascinating, if troubling, questions. And in the world of poetry, this distorted borderland is Tranter territory.

The personas in John Tranter’s poems, his own included, may not be as hellish as Bacon’s. In fact they’re often comical and sometimes rather stylish. But his project is the same: ‘the self’, the poems corroborate, is a whole lot more contingent than we would like to believe. When Tranter uses an ‘I’ in his poems it is merely a pronoun of convenience, a basket-case housing an individual’s constituents: a jumble of thought, borrowed behaviours, second-hand experience, and ripped-off speech.

Yeats once wrote that the poet is ‘never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete’. But for Tranter, near a century later, the poet has become precisely that: a bundle of accident. The poet may be an ‘idea’, but it is an incomplete one. And incoherent at that.

Unlike Yeats, Tranter doesn’t dream that the poet hosts any rarified communion with truth. He is not exactly enamoured with his chosen profession, as his poem ‘Rotten Luck’, selected by Amy Gerstler for The Best American Poetry 2010, attests. It opens:

To put up with a career as pointless as this,
it takes the courage of a gambler.
Okay, someone has to do it, but
like they say: vita brevis, ars longa.

‘They’ being Hippocrates. But the thought of life’s brevity transports Tranter’s speaker to a bramble-covered gravesite on a lonely hill in the bush. Is it it the speaker’s or someone else’s? What’s it matter: ‘Mix more drinks’, the gambler says, ‘and mix them stronger’.

The texture of a Tranter poem is fabricated through the clash of seemingly disparate vocabularies: technical language abuts tête-à-tête, doctrine against dirt, Latin fights baby talk. The frisson is in the friction. Tranter, though no intellectual slouch, delights in watching the theoretical crumble when he king hits it with the colloquial. He’s also a notorious imitator of other people’s speech: inanities and interjections, snatches of narrative, expletives, and overheard confessions are frequently built into his poems. (Perhaps a hangover from his brief foray into architecture at university, Tranter often employs verbs from the building trade to talk about poetry: a poem is not composed but ‘jerry-built’, it has ‘scaffolding’, and rather than analysing a poem’s structure he ‘reverse engineers’ it.)

But it’s not just poems that are constructed from words. We — outside the poem — might be also. Tranter’s poems make the case that not only our speech but our inner lives may be a collection of quotations. Once aware of it, it’s hard to return to the world of innocence, where our thoughts are our own. We are condemned to a state of deja pense — the sense that our words and thoughts are not our own, don’t quite fit us, or belong to someone else. We are as original, Tranter’s poems insist, as a blade of grass on a suburban lawn.

In this view our truest portrait would not be a photograph in fine focus but something more like a double exposure. Which might account, at least in part, for Tranter’s abiding interest in facsimiles, doppelgängers, and other reproductions. An early sonnet, ‘Your Lucky Double’, imagines another version of us out there somewhere. You may be down on your luck, the poem concedes, but ‘how lucky you are how lucky’ to have a double: ‘it is more than you deserve’. Similarly, the poem ‘Fever’ opens with a bifurcation of the second-person pronoun: ‘Yes, you care if you’re happy, don’t you? / You and your friend, your dear ‘self’. The poem ends with a hat-tipping to phoniness:

You know,
this ‘you’ you manufacture at night
just for me on the videophone, it’s a dream.
You will wake up feverish. It’s ‘love’.

On first reading, the doubled-you is easy to parse, but start asking questions and you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of doubt.

So who reads Tranter? It’s difficult to say, though he admits to writing for people like himself, if he can find them. People interested in poetry but also novels, block-busters, movies and soaps. They live in an urban landscape. The setting, he says, is a room with ‘a television in the corner, magazines on the kitchen table, a movie playing at the local cinema, cool jazz on the radio’. If you’re looking for a poet to tell you beautiful lies — that you are whole, complete, a beautiful soul — then you’d best stop reading now and pick up the latest Rumi translation. Tranter just won’t deliver. But if you can dance to the idea that all this — language, love, life — is a game, then Tranter will dazzle you, amuse, and if you’re lucky he’ll do your head in.

‘When I was seventeen’, John Tranter confesses, ‘I fell in love with a sodomite’. He is talking about one of France’s greatest poets, but he tarries on his countenance before getting to the poems: ‘His eyes were a dazzling blue and he had the face of an angel His hands were large and awkward: a peasant’s hands’. He’s right, of course, Rimbaud really was a pretty boy. His was a face for T-shirts and coffee cups.

Tranter was born in Cooma, New South Wales in 1943, but worse than too far away it was too late: ‘by the time I came under the spell of [Rimbaud’s] beautiful lies, his body — minus the amputated right leg — had been rotting in a lead-lined coffin in the damp earth of northern France for seventy years’. But Tranter remembers thinking at seventeen — and still agrees in middle age — that Rimaud was ‘one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen’.

Rimbaud believed the role of the poet was visionary: poets could see things ordinary mortals were blind to. His celebrated Lettre du voyant expounds his revolutionary theories about poetry and life: ‘The Poet makes himself a voyant by a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. All the forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences’.

When Tranter first read Rimbaud, this kind of talk appealed to him. He grew out of it, but back then he was ‘living in a country town and wanted to go to the city, take drugs and have a lot of fun, write some wonderful poetry’. The pair had a lot in common. But whereas the young Rimbaud hit the streets of Paris and embarked on a brief but violent affair with a famous poet (if the married Verlaine was looking for rough trade he certainly found it in Rimbaud) before chucking it all in for gun-running in Abyssinia, Tranter set up in Sydney, married, and built a career as one of Australia’s leading poets.

Tranter admits he fell in love with a ghost, and he’s been trying to shake him off ever since. Unsuccessfully. Rimbaud’s fingerprints can be dusted on Tranter’s early poems. His words frequent Tranter’s poems as epigraphs and citations. He even stars in a couple of Tranter’s eponymous poems: ‘Arthur! We needed you in 68!’, the speaker cries in ‘Rimbaud and the Modern Heresy’. Rimbaud’s famous dictum, ‘one must be absolutely modern’, remains Tranter’s guiding aesthetic – even if it was first said more than a century ago.

Rimbaud did his best work before the age of twenty, then ‘he gave in to a mixture of rage and pig-headed pride’ — Tranter’s characterisation — ‘and threw his marvellous talent onto a bonfire, along with his manuscripts’. His silence seems to have affected Tranter the most. One might speculate briefly on what treasures Rimbaud might have gifted had he lived and written longer. But the vigour of his work grew out of his occupation as an enfant terrible. Grown men can’t write like that. They must find something else to say, die, or stop writing. What is Tranter at 68 to do?

Starlight: 150 Poems is Tranter’s 22nd book of poems in his 40-year career. It was released in late 2010 alongside The Salt Companion to John Tranter (intelligently edited by Rod Mengham), a landmark collection of incisive essays by a range of international critics investigating Tranter’s major themes and periods — this review grazes on a few — up to his most recent book of poems. It’s important reading for anyone serious about Australian poetry.

What distinguishes Starlight from his other collections is that just about every poem can be traced to another time and poet: John Ashberry, TS Eliot, Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud (of course), Stéphen Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. This is not to say they are translations: they’re not. Variously, according to the author, they are ‘mistranslations’, ‘radical revisions’ and ‘multilingual dealings’. There’s also a section of ‘adaptations’ in which Baudelaire’s poems are migrated from their native nineteenth-century Paris to contemporary Sydney.

The first poem in Starlight is a particularly dense and demanding poem, ‘The Anaglyph’, which effectively disembowels every line in Ashbery’s 1967 poem ‘Clepsydra’. Tranter retains the first and last few words of Ashbery’s lines and inserts his own middles. So whereas ‘Clepsydra’ opens (opaquely, it must be said):

Hasn’t the sky? Returned from moving the other
Authority recently dropped, wrested as much of
That severe sunshine as you need now on the way
You go. The reason why it happened only since
You woke up is letting the steam disappear …

‘The Anaglyph’ is book-ended by Ashbery’s words but Tranter steers them in entirely different directions to skewer fashionistas and arty pretenders:

Hasn’t the charisma leaked away from the café crowd, and that other
Authority, the Salon des Refusés ? I have forgotten much of
That old sack of enthusiasms and snake-oil recipes, the way
You have forgotten your own childhood, since
You woke up just in time to watch the adults disappear …

If it’s a tribute, it’s a brutal one. Later in the poem the speaker comments on its own processes: ‘this project, I admit that / It is like gutting and refurbishing a friend’s apartment’.

‘The Anaglyph’ reveals more of Tranter than we’ve seen for a long time. ‘I adjust the mask’, the speaker says, that ‘fits more loosely every decade’. It appears to be an epistle to Ashbery — at least the ‘you’ appears to be anchored in the biographical data of Ashbery’s life — combing through his relationship with the older poet’s poetics and signing off with an invitation: ‘Just now somebody / Is phoning to arrange for drinks – will you join me? – later this evening.’

‘The Anaglyph’ opens up further when seen through the metaphor implied by its title. An anaglyph is a picture made up of a red and a blue identical images that are superimposed but slightly offset so that the picture becomes stereoscopic when viewed through 3D glasses. The obvious interpretation here is that the two superimposed images are, metaphorically speaking, Ashbery and Tranter’s respective poems. The stereo effect kicks in if the reader is able to ‘hear’ the older poem in the new one, thereby granting the illusion of depth through time. But shifting perspective yet again, ‘The Anaglyph’s is both an homage and an assassination. Tranter’s placement of Ashbery’s ‘well-wrought urn in the centre of the square’ — in a poem preoccupied with the passing of time — conjures deathly connotations. In one view the speaker licks the jowls of the older poet; in another his teeth are at Ashbery’s throat.

At times the poem suffers from noun-heavy plodding — ‘The map / Of the literary world is a pantomime, and its longueurs have become / Prolongations of our prevarications on bad weather days’ — but Tranter’s brilliant comedy cancels out his own occasional longueurs. The speaker describes himself as ‘a spiritual hunchback, drooling and gaping at the stars’ and captures the spirit of our age in a throw away line: ‘Emptiness will do fine. Just pop it in a doggy bag, thanks’.

Paradoxically the poems cordoned off in ‘Speaking French’ sound very American. But that’s not the weirdest thing about this assembly of homophonic mishearings. In English when words in a poem or song are misheard in a way that gives them a new meaning, they are known as ‘mondegreens’. Hearing, for example, the opening phrase to the American Pledge of Allegiance as ‘I pledge a lesion to the flag’; or its closing as ‘liver tea and just this for all’. The Japanese call it soramimi (‘sky ear’: the sky tells me words the person hasn’t said) and it typically involves interpreting lyrics in one language as similar-sounding lyrics in another language. The French in Paul McCartney’s song ‘Michelle’ is particularly susceptible: ‘Miss Shell, marble, Sunday monkey won’t play piano song, play piano song’.

Not surprisingly, many poets have been drawn to the derangement that comes when sense is detached from sound. Perhaps the most famous homophonic translations are Zukofsky’s 1969 translations of Catullus in which he attempted to replicate in English the sounds rather than the meanings of the original Latin. Tranter has been wading in homophonic territory for years, but Starlight documents his most extensive — and successful — exploration to date. Never afraid to reveal his processes as a poet, Tranter offers an online peek behind the scenes into the making of ‘Hôtel de Ville’.

The original poem, ‘Ville’, is Rimbaud’s most damning indictment on society’s degeneration during the industrial age. The setting is thought to be London where he lived with Verlaine on three occasions during the early 1870s. But it doesn’t so much matter where the poem’s set, it’s as much about the idea of a city — ‘citiness’ —  as it is about a particular one. The speaker is in his cottage, which is ‘his country, his whole heart’, looking out a window at ‘apparitions roaming through the thick and endless coal-smoke’. One wouldn’t expect a Frenchman’s view of London to be flattering and it’s not: ‘the metropolis’, he opines, ‘is believed to be modern because every known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exteriors of the houses as well as in the layout of the city. Here you cannot point out the trace of a single monument to the past’. True enough: London does have fewer monuments than Paris, but he’s just getting started. Here ‘millions of people who have no need to know each other’ live identical lives flattened out so that their lives pass quickly without struggle. Everything is like this, the speaker decides, ‘death without tears’, ‘desperate love’, and ‘pretty crime whimpering in the mud of the street’.

Ouch. But here’s what Tranter does to it. First he dictates it in French into Microsoft Word’s speech-to-text program. The only problem is that the software is monolingual and recognises only English. Ergo the computer is thoroughly confused. ‘The initial results’, Tranter says in an explanatory note on his website, bear only ‘a very oblique relation to the original texts’. In other words, what comes out is rubbish: ‘Press the monument assumes to see all the modern so we do we do need to solve the spicy on sun is in the longer junkie known to be some’ (to offer a fragment at random).

Tranter and his software has turned Rimbaud’s poem into a junkyard. Its meaning is thoroughly disassembled. And yet there’s something alluring in the derangement. Something perhaps to salvage. So Tranter rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on the ‘raw data’, reworking it, he says, ‘extensively’. Along the way he rigs it into a sonnet. And at some point he throws in a line from a John Ashbery poem. Why? He doesn’t say. Perhaps to amuse himself. Perhaps for the thrill of making it fit. Or maybe, like a bay leaf, a mild bitterness serves to enhance the surrounding flavours. By the time Tranter’s finished with it, Rimbaud’s poem has been relocated, via the title, to the continent. ‘Hôtel de Ville’ references, perhaps, the famous Parisian town hall or maybe the one in Brussels where Verlaine was briefly interred after shooting Rimbaud in the wrist.

With exact words phrases from the computer-generated text in bold, synonyms in italics, and Ashbery’s words underlined, here’s Tranter’s poem in full:

The kids should visit a history museum
in their senior year, to understand disgrace as
one form of Clinton’s victoryOn the other hand
the European Community foreign debt gives
everybody bad dreams. So we do need to solve
the problem of students reading difficult things
that will lead them astray: why did Rimbaud
turn from socialism to capitalism? As if

it matters. He is his own consolation prize.
We’d be delighted to have his uniform.
We want tosee all the modern art stuff, too.
Thank you. Press the button marked ‘monument
and see what happens: a recorded voice says
‘I have wasted my life’, and we pay to listen.

There’s a lot to like in Tranter’s sonnet-mondegreen. The shadow of the global financial crisis — Tranter keeping up-to-date — hangs over the poem. The surprise of ‘Clinton’s victory’ and serendipity of ‘we’d be delighted to have his uniform’. And line nine, always the heart of a sonnet, achieves cut through: ‘it matters. [Rimbaud] is his own consolation prize’.

Tranter has written 83 such mondegreens. It’s tempting to think of each one as a mini exorcism, but Tranter emerges from the pages of Starlight looking less the victim of a haunting than a stalker on a homicidal rage. Rimbaud (along with his comrades Verlaine, Mallarmé and Baudelaire) has been misconstrued, dismembered, put through a sieve, and re-appendaged according to Tranter’s tastes and idiosyncrasies. The poets have been distorted — to return to Kundera’s line of questioning regarding Bacon’s portraits — to the point of being barely recognisable as themselves. But Tranter always incorporates at least one or two signature fragments to ensure the crime doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s tempting to think that with this tour de force Tranter might finally have thrown Rimbaud from his back. But then again all horror stories these days — to draw on another Tranter genre — must end with a sequel.

Bronwyn Lea’s review of Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter and The Salt Companion to John Tranter edited by Rod Mengham was first published under the title ‘Masked Marauder’ in Australian Literary Review (March 2011): 18–19.

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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

Southerly review of poetry

Petra White reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.

by petra white


The Other Way Out
is Bronwyn Lea’s second book of poems; the first, Flight Animals, appeared in 2001 to much acclaim. Flight Animals established Lea’s particular quality of lightness and wit, which at times permits a grandeur (‘Even the bells of San Blas cannot wake him’). The titles and poems of both books speak of restlessness, a need to escape. But The Other Way Out may also be a Way In. It is a quote from TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: ‘There is another way out, if you have the courage’. Many of the poems establish a sense of reaching an impasse: there is a quality of absoluteness, in poems such as ‘Who is he’:

Who is he walking towards me
his spine straight as if the wind
means nothing. His eyes
what can I say. One look grants me…

The character, the ‘he’ in this poem, is not specific; we know nothing about him, he is just ‘love’, or every new lover, who ‘floats my will away’ (a lovely erotic phrase). It is unclear why loss is so sure. Is it simply that one has to be prepared for it? There is a sense of self-teaching in this poem, a stealing against the inevitable: ‘if you will risk, as I do, loving / what you will surely lose.’

This inclination towards the absolute is a strong feature of many of the poems in this book. ‘Ordinary Grace’ pivots on an abrupt dichotomy — ‘there is no language / of the holy I think’ — and turns from this to the ‘amorous prattle’ of galahs ‘flashing their pink undersides as I sink / into the green & watery / vernacular of the natural world’. The ‘holy’ has nothing to offer poetry: the poet belongs in the ‘vernacular of the natural world’. The holy enters this poem only as a counter to the vernacular: there is no sense of what the holy actually is, or what it is doing there. It is there to help the poem make a statement. And the surprise of the galahs and the loveliness of the ‘green and watery vernacular’ fortunately succeed in upstaging it.

Yet, perhaps these more severe poems are a key to the toughness and resoluteness that forms the spine of — and takes different forms in — many of Lea’s poems, the best of which combine a formal sense of the absolute with something fresh and original, rather than generalising. ‘Palinode’, with its intimate opening lines ‘I have written before how I loved him / but I have never written how I disliked him too’, is a witty and self-effacing confessional tale of a bad relationship. ‘Seferis’, like ‘Ordinary Grace’, has a lesson: ‘I hate knowing / my life will not be long enough’. But it comes in the context of other complex realisations:

There is a sense that if
the slightest crack opened up in this faultless
scene all things would spill out beyond
the four points of the horizon & leave me
naked, alone & begging for alms. I hate knowing
my life will not be long enough.

The rhythm of this is urgent and compelling, and balances contemplation of the immediate, the infinite and mortality. In a similar vein, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’ is a subtle study:

The hand calls us into the moment
in which the infinite crosses over into gladness
and we gaze at something singular and joined.
Accept the gift which is not transcendence
but your heart beating at its apprehension.
Here is your life: unlock your fist and begin.

Another grand statement, but also an arresting one. Still, I mostly prefer Lea’s lighter poems. I think of her as a poet whose topic is lightness — with wisdom. In her best poems a sense of absurdity and improbability works well to manhandle the still-present notion of resignation, or acknowledgement of ephemerality and soonish death. ‘A Place’ is a wonderful short poem:

There is a place I like to go
that is behind language.

I like to go there and wobble
like a melon on a table

or a spoon that doesn’t care
if it is chosen or not.

This ‘domestic poem’, using objects fit for a still life, incorporates a philosophical position. Which self is which? Perhaps this is about ways in and out of the self.

Petra White reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by  Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.