The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 2 May 2013)

A British scholar finds Vita Sackville-West’s poem to her mistress, Violet Trefusis, when it falls out of a book, while a Canadian poet constructs a found poem from reviews of books by women in major publications (but switches the pronouns to male). Par exemple: “Much of his novel seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste”. In Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Professor Daisy Fried proclaims “The Poetess has long felt that women’s equality should be founded in the notion that a woman is no worse than a man” and proceeds to declare Charles Bukowski “our greatest living poetess“.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428A British scholar finds Vita Sackville-West’s poem to her mistress, Violet Trefusis, when it falls out of a book, while a Canadian poet constructs a found poem from reviews of books by women in major publications (but switches the pronouns to male). Par exemple: “Much of his novel seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste”. In Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Professor Daisy Fried proclaims “The Poetess has long felt that women’s equality should be founded in the notion that a woman is no worse than a man” and proceeds to declare Charles Bukowski “our greatest living poetess”. Appalachian Elegy, legendary-feminist bell hooks’ new book of poems, honours the first-people in her native state of Kentucky, while the first known Native American literary writer, Bamewawagezhikaquay (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), is remembered on the last day of National Poetry Month. On Poetica Spike Milligan’s poem “Manic Depression at St Luke’s Wing, Woodside Hospital Psychiatric Wing, 1953” opens: “The pain is too much, a thousand grim winters grow in my head, in my ears the sound of the coming dead”, while the working papers to “Sheep in Fog” reveal how Sylvia Plath arrived at the poem’s grim end: “They threaten 
/ To let me through to a heaven /
 Starless and fatherless, a dark water”. A Washington Post critic fears Charles Simic’s whip-smart metaphors are wielding less of a bite, but a professor of economics explains conceptual poets peak early, and experimental poets peak late. Meanwhile a book of cat-themed poetry – I Could Pee On This – swishes its tail on the NPR best-seller lists, amid self-help books and memoirs, while a bemused editor curates a gallery of insouciant feline poems.

Past Wraps:

w/e 25 Apr 2013

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: The Best Australian Poetry 2003

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s.

Guest Editor: Martin DuwellForeword: Bronwyn Lea
Guest editor: Martin Duwell
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Poetry in Australia is thriving. According to my somewhat shaky mathematics, in 2002 there were exactly 100 volumes of poetry published (that’s one poetry book for every five novels) and 27 themed anthologies containing at least some poetry. Australian newspapers published almost 400 new poems (as well as reprinting some classics) and Australian literary journals published close to 1,800 poems. As the general editors for The Best Australian Poetry series, Martin Duwell and I hope that this anthology will direct readers to the poetry collections of the poets they enjoyed in this and future issues, as well as point to the literary journals that continue to publish high-quality poems.

We regret that we have not included poetry from Australian internet journals in this anthology. The decision to limit sources to the print media was based, for this year at least, on logistics, but it is possible that this might change in the future. In the meantime, I’d like to point to some websites worth looking at, including Cordite, Divan, Stylus, and John Tranter’s hugely popular Jacket, which brings into conversation poets and critics from around the world. Taking a different tack, Coral Hull’s Thylazine continues to make a case for poetry and activism, as well as provide an Australian poet directory — to which I am indebted in the course of tracking down some of the poets included in this anthology. And then there’s Jayne Fenton Keane’s Slamming the Sonnet website, which makes the most of web technology by using audio and video files to flesh out poetry and breath a little life into the critically-declared “dead” author. Last time I logged on, Queensland poet Sam Wagan Watson held his own in a cyberslam against Yeats, Plath, and Bukowski.

2002, like any year, was a time of things living and things dying. Most significantly it saw the passing of three major poets, Dorothy Hewett, Ron Simpson, and Gary Catalano. The former was always a flamboyant, larger than life figure in Australian poetry but one who showed that poetry could still embrace the large questions of public and private lives. Simpson and Catalano were quieter writers and it might be said they belong to the tradition that imported some of the values of the visual arts — especially a concentration on line — into our poetry. At the institutional level, Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press shut its doors after 17 years of publishing some of Australia’s finest poets. Shortly after, Ivor Indyk announced a new arm to his publishing house: the publication of literary works by individual authors under the Giramondo book imprint. Another birth worth noting is Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry. In Pretty’s editorial for the inaugural issue, he backs up contributing essayist Michael Sharkey’s assessment of the impoverished state of poetry criticism in Australia and puts out a call for “thoughtful pieces written about contemporary Australian poets and their work”. Which seems a good idea.

Given this discussion, then, it is no accident that we have decided to kick off the inaugural issue of The Best Australian Poetry with a guest editor who is not a poet, but a poetry critic. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s. Presented with the task of selecting only 40 poems from over 2,000 possible poems, Duwell has created (without much fuss) a terrific collection of high-quality poems that is sure to impress dedicated readers of Australian poetry and newcomers alike. Duwell possesses that rare ability Sharkey calls for in his essay “Reviewing Now”: “the ability of read widely, without prejudice”, which struck me immediately when I read his compilation and noted the diversity of form, voice, style, and subject matter. Duwell has a critic’s eye for quality, but also an anthologist’s sensitivity as to how individual poems converse — how they confront, contradict, affirm, and question one another.

Which brings me to another matter. I began writing this Foreword — then stopped for a long while — in October 2002. It was the time of the bombings in Bali. Which is to say, I wrote this within history, which is to date it. Many poems were born of this time, and like the thousands of 911 poems before them, Bali-bombing poems whizzed around the internet and clogged open-mic readings across the country. How many of these poems will survive remains to be seen — not many occasional poems do — but their existence illustrates Denise Levertov’s assertion (quoting Heidegger interpreting Hölderlin) that to be human is to “be a conversation”. Many it seems turn to the poem when their human need for dialogue, “in concretions that are audible to others”, overwhelms them.