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

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2007

The editor of the fifth volume in our series does, literally, need no introduction, at least for most readers of Australian poetry. Since the mid-sixties John Tranter has been a continuous, modernising force in our poetry, and, more recently, risen to the point where he is acknowledged as one of a select few of Australia’s really great poets.

Guest Editor: John TranterGuest editor: John Tranter
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The editor of this, the fifth volume in our series does, literally, need no introduction, at least for most readers of Australian poetry. Since the mid-sixties John Tranter has been a continuous, modernising force in our poetry and, more recently, risen to the point where he is acknowledged as one of a select few of Australia’s really great poets. His poetry, as shown in his most recent New and Selected poems, Urban Myths (UQP, 2006), is a complex mix of abstraction and concreteness (he writes as well about the ambience of Sydney, his home town, as any poet), experiment and nostalgia (it is remarkable how often the rural world of his adolescence emerges in the poems). He is also a formal master, reinvigorating old forms and inventing new ones. It is worth noting that Tranter has also been an editor of and for magazines. At the moment he is the editor of an online journal, Jacket, which many people have thought – and said – is the best of its kind in the world.

Perhaps less well-known is the fact that Tranter is an anthologist of real importance. Most will know of his anthology of the group of poets to which, in terms of literary history, he belongs, The New Australian Poetry (Makar, 1979) and of his editing, with Philip Mead, The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (Penguin, 1991). The second of these surprised many readers, who perhaps feared a stony-hearted, experimental rigorousness, by its generous inclusiveness. Less well-known are Tranter’s Preface to the Seventies – a prescient selection of new poets published by Poetry Australia – and The Tin Wash Dish (ABC, 1989) – a selection of poems made from entries in a bi-centennial competition run jointly by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Bicentennial Authority. Again, what stood out, was its editor’s love of poetry and of the surprises it can bring. As he says:

I saw a chance to compile a genuinely democratic collection of poems by all sorts of Australians, all living and writing in the late 1980s, about every theme imaginable, in every style and form under the Australian sun. Perhaps it’s only now, at the beginning of the third century of white colonisation, when we have learnt to face the often unpleasant facts of our history and the difficult compromises of our social and cultural mix, that an authentic Australian voice can begin to be heard. If so it’s a voice rich with diversity.

‘Rich with diversity’ sounds very like the keynote of The Best Australian Poetry 2007.

All poems are built along an axis with Life at one end and Art at the other. Some – Tranter’s own work is an example, as is Robert Adamson’s, though in a very different way – negotiate this binary with more complexity than others. Some seem to speak simply about, to represent, the world but are in acknowledged or unacknowledged ways verbal creations true to laws which are the laws or art not the world. Others may take the  inside of the mind as their subject – meditations – but are never entirely divorced from the world – which is, after all, if nothing else, the home of their metaphors. Others attempt to be entirely referential, to live inside the world of art or its equally complicated friend, language, but even the most abstract or self-referential of works is an object in the world. Many readers of this anthology will expect from someone with Tranter’s reputation as a high postmodernist an anthology of poems leaning towards the ‘art’ end of the spectrum. They will be surprised. There are many powerful poems here deeply concerned with life as it is lived. In the case of a poem like Pam Brown’s ‘Darkenings’ this involves a rapid sketching of an immediately apprehended reality. Michael Sharkey’s brilliant ‘The Land of Eternal Verities’ is a comic meditation on generational relationships in a distorted but recognizable Australia and Reg Mombassa’s ‘A Commemorative Tone Poem of Surprising Delicacy’ is also in a high comic/hyperbolic mode. But poems like joanne burns’ ‘fork’, John Millett’s ‘Elderly Woman at the Financial Planners’, Megan Petrie’s ‘Peter Doyle’, Brendan Ryan’s ‘What It Feels Like’, Mary Jenkins’ ‘In Tidy Town’ or Cath Keneally’s ‘Crying Girl’ or, indeed, a number of others, derive from a kind of quiet but insistent social-justice tradition in Australian poetry in that they record events and scenes with social implications. Underneath this surprisingly large representation you can feel, I think, Tranter’s abiding interest in the voices of poetry as social and cultural phenomena, intriguingly diverse and, at their best, never drab, predictable or pontifical.

The book opens with an elegant meditation about art in Robert Adamson’s ‘Double-Eyed Fig Parrot’ where that fantastic bird seems an icon of poetry itself looking simultaneously at life and at art. The fact that our anthologies are organised so that the authors appear in alphabetical order produces the accident that the Adamson poem is followed by Judith Bishop’s ‘Still Life with Cockles and Shells’ a work that seems almost to be a counterpart. Here the life is in the art, not the reality of the dead subjects. The poem speculates about the implications of life arising from the dead and finishes with two visions of the end of the world when we are all, paradoxically, dead but still alive. Barbara Fisher’s ‘The Poet’s Sister’ concerns itself with Dorothy Wordsworth’s interaction with her brother and though it may be, at one level, an attempt to recover the reputation of an important and unjustly silenced figure, the level that intrigues us is where Wordsworth’s ‘The Daffodils’, in pretending to be a solitary’s experience, is built upon a lie.

There are a number of meditative poems too in this collection ranging from Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s ‘A Vocation’ which is a kind of audit of his current physical and psychical status (‘The myth I keep on peddling through a life, / That work may be identical to play, / Will do me after all’) to Jennifer Harrison’s ‘Baldanders’ – a difficult but impressive meditation on mirrors and their capacity to, at any moment, be ‘something else’, “Baldanders”. Finally there is Clive James’ ‘A Gyre from Brother Jack’ which, despite being an unlikely candidate, seems quite central to this collection. It compares the two brothers Yeats – one as poet the other a painter – opting for the artist rather than his far more celebrated brother. What James finds in a single painting of by Jack Yeats, ‘A Morning Long Ago’, is a registration of life, not in mundane details but in the realized drama of just how meagre our time on earth is:

William had theories, Jack had just the thrill.
We see a little but we miss the rest,
And what we keep to ponder, time will kill.

            …

The only realistic general scheme
Of the divine is in this rich display –
Proof that the incandescent present tense
Is made eternal by our transience.

It is a fine meditation on art and its complex interactions with the process of living.

Last year’s anthology, The Best Australian Poetry 2006, had already gone to print when that year’s guest editor, Judith Beveridge, wrote to tell us that her good friend, poet Vera Newsom, had died on 10 July 2006. It was therefore not possible at the time for Beveridge to acknowledge the loss in these pages. And so we do it now. Newsom began publishing poetry in Australian literary magazines in the early 1980s and her first collection, Midnight Snow, was published in 1988 at the age of 76. Newsom published three further collections of poetry, including the award-winning Emily Bronte Recollects. At a celebration for Newsom’s 90th birthday in 2002, Beveridge delivered an address in which she described Newsom’s poetry as ‘characterised by a meticulous attention to craft, to clarity, to directness, to rhythm, to a sparse lyrical elegance, and by a deft tonal and formal control’. In 2003 Newsome was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to literature as a poet and through her support for the emerging talent of other writers. At the time of her death, Newsom was working with Beveridge and other friends to produce a volume of new and selected poems to be published by Five Islands Press. 2006 was also the year in which Lisa Bellear, a Goernpil woman of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), died. As well as being a poet, Bellear – author of Dreaming in Urban Areas (UQP, 1996) – was a visual artist, academic and social commentator actively engaged in Indigenous affairs throughout Australia.

From poets to poetry presses: two of Australia’s smaller publishing houses announced a change focus for 2007: 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; and feminist publisher, Spinifex Press, stopped publishing new books altogether. Five Islands Press – with the retirement of founder Ron Pretty – also announced a change of focus, dropping its New Poets Program (which published 32-page chapbooks by six emerging poets each year) and streamlining its mainstream program. From time to time, the New Poets Program had been 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 the Gargoyle Poets series did for Australian poets in the 1970s. It is sad to see it go.

Fortunately, a few small presses have risen to fill the gaps: David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann, which started modestly with one title in 2005, kicked into full swing in 2006 with the publication of three new poetry titles; Paul Hardacre’s papertiger media launched its attractive Soi 3 Modern Poets imprint in 2006; and the eponymous John Leonard Press, producing books noted for top quality production, unveiled a promising list with four poetry books in 2006 and six in 2007. Which goes some way toward ensuring that the poetry book, while doing it tough in the current publishing climate, will not entirely disappear from bookshelves.

We made mention earlier of our guest editor’s role as the editor of an online journal. Taking off in the late nineties, online poetry journals have offered a new world of opportunity for editors not wanting (or unable) to finance expensive print journals. 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 other Australian-based, online poetry magazines that have steadily grown in profile might include Cordite, Divan, Retort, Stylus Poetry Journal, hutt and foame:e. Since we monitor each year the ground rules for our anthology, we have updated our initial decision to avoid taking poems from electronic journals. In coming anthologies, we intend to add the best of these sites to our list of literary magazines from which we source the year’s best poems.