Reading in an Undiscovered Library: Pulse – Prose Poems as Collaboration

Posted on June 23, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Lucy Alexander
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

The woman has borrowed arms and legs.
She walks on a tightrope in front of the
watching crowd. They stand back as in-
structed, and do not attempt to become a
bigger part of what is happening…

It is difficult to find an adequate definition of prose poetry. If we say that prose poems are ‘literary works which exhibit poetic quality using emotional effects and heightened imagery but are written in prose instead of verse…’[1] we come close to what is happening in this volume. But, the line breaks do seem consequential. In the above quotation, the very specific slicing of in-/structed, calls into question the idea of prose gently working its way across the line of sight and breaking only at the margins, while the poetic line is broken in a considered way. Was it editorial choice? Or is the wider margin here suggesting that the text forms the column structure that is expected from a poem?

Pulse – Prose Poems breaks many conventions. Immediately upon handling, the volume requires the reader to become resourceful in their reading. There are no author acknowledgements for each of the individual pieces. No page numbers. The narrow columns of words crouch low on the page as if ready to spring from the corners. The volume itself defies expectation, much as the writing in it does.

The cover image of textured curtains in the sunlight is by Colin Knowles. The title is the only text that appears on it. Not until the title page are we introduced to the editors (Shane Strange and Monica Carroll), or the concept of the ‘Prose Poetry Project’:

The Prose Poetry Project was created by the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) in November 2014, with the aim of collaboratively exploring the form and composition of prose poetry. The ongoing project aims to produce both creative and research outcomes stemming from the resurgence of interest in the prose poem.[2]

Pulse is the second anthology collected through the collaborative work of the Prose Poetry Project, a collection of some twenty poets – academics and PhD candidates and writers – brought together from the UK and Australia (with a taste of NZ and the US via the Netherlands and Tanzania). Pulse interrogates the way prose poetry is created, consumed and categorised. The text also questions the way we readers we imbibe our prose and poetry. The volume invites the reader to sample fragments of work – somewhat like a wine tasting. Rather than guzzling a glass we are challenged contemplate the depth and character of each page (the pieces are rarely longer than this, often shorter) and to focus and concentrate on the flavour and mystery.

Each of the poetic fragments is stripped of its context and its authorship. It insists on being read from its own translucent vial. In their introduction, the editors explain that they:

wanted to show that the collaborative vigour of the (Prose Poetry) Project didn’t arise from any individual or select group of voices, but from the broad mixture of contributions … to emphasise that these works might be read less as poetry and more as a series of fragments (from) some undiscovered library.

As the second volume from the Prose Poetry Project (and maybe the selection process is explained in their first volume) this assertion from the editors raises questions of inclusion and segregation; surely the Prose Poetry Project is a select group of voices, as any anthology must be by its very nature? Here, rather than a call for contributions, the published volume collects pieces from the ongoing collaborative project. The contributors are all working in the field of cultural and creative research and perhaps, while highly qualified to play with convention, do not necessarily represent a broadest mixture of contributors?

Contributors are, however, geographically varied. Fourteen of them are working in Australia and six in the UK. The subject matter of their work extends from discussion of the form itself, (the patient concluded that, like many addictions, poetry was a way of learning to die.) through the blues (thelonius monk brings his finger down/ and hooks a skin stretch moment out to the/ boundaries…) to butterflies (The difference between butterfly and spud/ is that butterfly is to cut almost entirely in/ half and spread the halves apart…); from duck’s conversations (‘Because’, Says Mother/Duck ‘I equate significant milestones in/ your life with the inevitable narrowing of/ opportunities in mine…’) to genocide, war, (During the Gombe War, chimpanzee killed chimpanzee: is that massacre?) and to the natural world’s events, small and large (Bright drops of blood on the pale green underside of the leaves he saw were ladybirds…). The poems take their lead from one another and build new, startling images from what went before. The Pulse of the title is the continuum of the gentle play between the contributors who riff and almost seem to improvise over one another’s analogies, themes and phrasing.

In the first of the two sequences in the volume the themes of music, water and farming play through the works. The pig is a recurring theme, as are famous men: Seamus Heaney, John Wayne and Bob Marley swim to the surface and dive out of sight again; the pig appears and reappears throughout this section, to trot along with his brothers, be farmed and consumed as bacon. While the individual pieces don’t call and answer one another, they do overlap and pick up words, concepts and phrases that are echoed and reverberated. In the second sequence the pieces often start with a bright colour — focusing the beginning of each work in a visual field. Occasionally there are blank pages in the book as if to suggest that a new ream of riffing, a new runnel of thought, is to be explored.

If the collection is there to represent the ‘vigour’ of the interactions of the authors within what must be a continuing series of artistic relationships, more information on the editorial choices, or on the way in which the pieces were informed in relation to one another, would create an interesting context for the curious reader. The editors say: ‘We wanted to concentrate on the way these pieces wove threads through each other into longer fabrics: resonating images, themes, narratives, motifs, ideas and connections’. Perhaps — when the works are stripped of their context — this is a lot to ask of a reader who is just glimpsing a page from the ‘undiscovered library’. However, it could also stimulate new ways of reading, allowing the reader to explore how the individual pieces are mixed together, and how they relate to one another in terms of their creation.

But it is also possible that in our conventional reading we are too interested in context, in wanting to know who the poet is and why they are writing what they are writing. When seen through this lens Pulse – Prose Poems is successful in that it creates space, both metaphoric and literal, for the prose poems to just be what they are — and to make no apology for that. As the introduction states: ‘these works might be read less as poetry and more as a series of fragments’.

Once the reader becomes comfortable with the Prose Poem form and the spare and often gritty nature of these works, the writing does leap off the page to ‘surprise and delight’, as the cover blurb describes. The pieces themselves are highly quotable and beautifully crafted. Lines that gleam out through the windows of the library asking to be remembered:

We found old starlight lying at an angle on the cellar’s clay floor…

I am content that every star should find its own declension…

He told me to wallow in the present like a hot bath…

Some pieces work as small parcels of definitions, asking the reader to pause and revel in the language (‘A miller’s thumb’). Others are memories, imaginings, what could almost be called micro-fictions — a complete story told in some tens of words.

There is this though: Pulse – Prose Poems offers a substantial problem for the reviewer. How to discuss individual works with no titles, no author and in the absence of page numbers? At the back of the book there is an index of first words that link the works with their author. So, while bucking certain rules, this text also offers something for those of us who want to know who wrote what – but requires us to do the work. It’s also hard for a reviewer to guide you to particular pieces or memorable lines without number and title conventions.

While it’s interesting for a collaborative project to be so collaborative that the individual is lost within the project itself, is this what the published volume of finalised work should reflect? At the end of the volume, just before the biographies of the contributors, there is a note that two of the poems included here have been published elsewhere – presumably with the author’s name firmly attached. This raises interesting questions about the nature of publication and how contributors might be paid and acknowledged for their work. As Paul Munden seems to bitingly remark in the closing poem of the collection: ‘The author would/ like to recall one of his recent prose/ poems. Sadly, he cannot identify which’.

It is clear that through their decisions to omit conventional markers from book form the editors did not want Pulse – Prose Poems to be read in the same way you would a poetry collection or a book of short stories. It is also clear that the authors are masters of their art — the journey with them through the library of their collective thoughts is certainly one worth taking.

 

[1] Literary Devices. Accessed 10th May 2017

[2] Axon Journal, ‘The Prose Poetry Project’. Accessed 10th May 2017

Pulse – Prose Poems
The Prose Poetry Project

Edited by Shane Strange and Monica Carroll
Recent Work Press, 2012
50pp (approx.)

____________________________________________________________

Lucy Alexander is a Canberra based poet and writer of fiction. She specialises in making piles of words and then sorting them out based on what they mean. Recently she’s been fashioning poems with the 365+1 project, marking up her fictions with edits and formulating a secret project that revolves around dogs. She’s often inspired to write about her family who are all expert time-thieves. She does much of her writing when everyone’s asleep.

Maintaining the Strange Fire: David Stavanger’s The Special and Rob Walker’s tropeland

Posted on November 20, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

The specialReview by Lucy Alexander

David Stavanger is also Ghostboy… or Ghostboy is also David Stavanger — whichever way you like to approach it, they are both responsible for the poems in The Special. This cleft in the authorship provides a way to approach poems that writhe with memory, stop to caress madness, celebrate knotted ambiguity and the unconventional. In the Acknowledgements Stavanger thanks Ghostboy for ‘maintaining the strange fire when all I want to do is sleep’. Perhaps it is from this dreaming state that Stavanger rises, bringing with him words that are both confronting and comforting.

rob-walker-cover-170x240In his collection tropeland, rob walker (does the lack of capitals suggest another alter ego — a thief-wanderer perhaps?) tends to want to pull the thread and unravel ideas and assumptions with both a wry insight (the thief?) and playful verve (the wanderer?).

Both poets come from the living breathing poetry scene (Stavanger in Brisbane and walker in Adelaide) so these alter egos exist where it is more usual to have a performance name: a tag to be remembered by. Maybe too, there is a sense in which the translation from spoken to written, from transient voice to permanent print can be more easily done with a fracture in the speaker of the poem. (‘I wake up living’ Stavanger says with some surprise, as the last line in his collection.)

Imagine the two of them sloping into an empty pub, putting their elbows on the bar and talking in the tongue of their respective collections, as the robber and the ghost. rob talks about tropeland, telling David it’s a place he recently visited, which is sometimes in Japan and sometimes ‘leaves itself deliberately empty/ for the distant sound of a lone/ dog’; a place where ‘sweat from armpits impersonates/ cinnamon bark and vanilla pods.’

David nods with interest and says: ‘Two things/ you don’t want to die of/ a mouth full of salt/ the right girl.’

rob passes him a drink, leans in close and adds: ‘sodium chloride: turning mouths inside out/ too little our nerves close down’.

Both poets have an interest in salt, its chemical breakdown — that sodium and chloride, toxic on their own, can be brought together and melded to make something so seemingly benign as to be essential to human life. The partnership of sodium and chloride can be extended as a metaphor for the poet’s interaction with the world, where toxicity mixed with insight and language becomes essential to life, if not quite benign. The duality of the chemical breakdown of common table salt fascinates both walker and Stavanger equally and reveals something at the heart of each collection: that each poet’s creative impulse is to bring the unlikely together and observe the fallout. As walker observes, ‘at one with water in the sea yet either may be/ estranged, desalinated’. For Stavanger it is more closely aligned with balance: ‘two things/ you must not remember/ that song on the radio/ what happened to your shadow’.

In Stavanger’s poems the clear sight gets muddied, the images, startling and raw, occasionally brush up against the mutterings of someone out of their mind, then loop back as if to remind the reader not to judge too quickly. For Stavanger the subject dictates the form: sometimes the poems come in couplets, sometimes in lists or paragraphs, even a survey in the poem ‘Survey’. He plays with the complex irony that the irrational is often better able to articulate and expose the state of things, to take us by surprise by revealing truths that sound like old aphorisms:

      Two things
      you left behind

      a mouthful of fingerprints
      bullets without a hole.

Or, here in the two-line poem ‘Light’:

      in the dark                there’s enough space to forget
      in the dark               forgetting is never enough

These lines read like something your (poetic) grandmother might have repeated to you — and yet, they are also remarkably fresh.

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

walker seems to swim in language, and he is dolphin-quick with his word play and banter: ‘vegans flesh out proposals/ meat is doing it tough’. But there is more range of tone here, more flicking in and out of focus. The poems in tropeland seem to have four main categories: intellectual poems (‘tropeland’, for instance, or ‘Return to Sorrento’); poems that give nature a voice (‘Bird Dreaming’); poems that play with language (‘String Theory Unstrung (a Particle of Faith)’ and ‘Speaking in Tongues’); and finally poems that make social comment, either on a personal level (like the two father poems ‘Against the Grain’ and ‘Transcendence’) or as part of a wider critical cynicism, evident in ‘Clearing the Caravan Park’.

The chief difference in the tone of these two collections is that rob is toying with his readers. Many poems are tongue in cheek — like ‘Ethel Malley’s Sonnet’ (Ethel Malley being the sister of the more famous Ern), as if walker can’t quite bear to take it all seriously. Stavanger seems entirely serious, until you meet poems such as ‘in-laws’: ‘…your arm fell to the floor/ I knew the signal well ready to be eaten’. walker is playful until he’s in full voice; Stavanger is serious until he’s lulled his reader into believing his tone is that of the author — then he delights in demolishing the very assumptions he’s encouraged.

Meanwhile, back in the pub, the poets sit with their elbows on the bar. David explains how the meaning of The Special spins on an axis; how his book divides into six parts, each one picking up and refracting stories that crystalise like salt; how he embraces optimism (‘sheer terror’) and pessimism (‘you don’t need a heart’) and how poems can be prayers to offer up what’s left when life’s done with you (‘if you own something long enough/ you will part with yourself’).

‘Secrets!’ rob cries, turning the conversation his way, with a tilt of his trilby (see author photo) while David adjusts his scarf (see author photo). tropeland is based around secrets, a secret life of secretion…

‘I am a lapsed psychologist…’ David tells rob earnestly.

‘I play the shakuhachi…’ rob counters.

‘I collect names/ Florence Annie Bird, Heaton Himes, Walter Weakes…’

‘I interviewed Ethel Malley…’ rob’s eyes sparkle.

Both collections explore the father/son relationship, particularly the role of the father. walker’s book is dedicated to Jack Walker, and Stavanger is ruthless in his observations of Dad in ‘the inheritance triptych’. There are poems in each book that explore the erasure of memory and the loss of the beloved father before the physical body is finished living. To walker, his father ‘achieved a kind of benign transcendence/ only those around you/ feel the eternal depths of sorrow…’ — that last line suggesting a limit has been reached in articulating the burden of those left behind. Stavanger, on the other hand, tells the story from the underside, in shorthand, fast: ‘I am a dark one, if I let it run I only see bridges and water. Dad goes the other path trying to convince himself through others. Mirrors don’t catch his fall.’

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David Stavanger

Stavanger puts his hand on rob’s arm and says in a whisper which echoes on the bar’s empty floor: ‘I put my wine down and study what remains./ In this room of empty chairs, I am the ghost and he is the/ father’. (Reader, wonder with me: is he having us on?)

‘I’ve never shaved another person, let alone my father…’ rob replies.

David puts down his wine. rob looks at him quizzically, wanting more rascal word play. But David has become morose: ‘thinking. using a microwave. drinking. voices from the pillow. not talking to yourself. talking to yourself. talking to taxi drivers. parenting…’ David’s voice reaches a low monotone.

rob wants to look away, but cannot. The performance is mesmerising…

David continues: ‘calling friends and telling them the truth. eating cheese as a way out. antidepressants for dessert. drinking coffee to relax. not going down swinging. clapping at weddings. praying. often. believing’. He drinks the dregs of his wine.

‘it’s all entropy/ and things bleeding/ into something else/ I’m tired of hearing about your lover/ and shards of things…’ rob says, perhaps a little insensitively. ‘A quote from the section ‘Bile’, you see,’ he adds, seeing David’s smile harden.

David looks into his empty glass: ‘my lover cries sometimes/ she dreams I have cancer…’

rob turns to David and says sharply, but not unsympathetically: ‘…my balding father/ hair stolen not by time but radiation/ you sit on the bed in your tracksuit pants… and your future is inoperable…’

David replies: ‘I ask the Doctor What’s gone wrong?/ she says There’s no way to inoculate against the future…’

‘I swallow the lump in my throat…’

‘That’s a bloody awful line, rob.’ (David has broken out of the game-of-quotes.)

‘I lump the swallow in my throat?’ (rob is quick on his toes.)

‘Better…’ David signals the bartender for another glass of the house wine and winks at rob: ‘you can tell him he’s a failure/ it won’t make you a success/ antidepressants don’t measure dedication/ they’re just another face to face this mess’.

Rob sips his own glass and then: ‘hold the abalone shell/ to your ear/ and they may/ find a family/ resemblance’.

‘touch him when he curls up like a tumour. if he asks you to leave, stay. if he reaches for your throat call the police. If he asks for his wife, take the phone off the hook.’ David takes a draught of his wine, looking at rob just as mischievously as he could have wished for.

Both tropeland and The Special have a playful side — walker’s overt and Stavanger’s more subtle. Like the exact balance of sodium and chloride ions in salt, perhaps it is the two-sided nature of the poets themselves that expose their delight in language and expression without shying away from darker subject matter. For instance Stavanger wrote ‘on time’, ‘bear’ and ‘survey’ — poems which explore the experiences of cancer patients — in his collaboration with Mummy’s Wish (a foundation working with mothers with cancer who have young children). Stavanger’s focus is more minute, allowing in some ways for a tighter collection. walker’s poems cover a larger range of subject matter and seem to have been written over a longer period of time, collecting their atrocities in passing (‘Yamamoto Sensei Snaps’ and ‘Clearing the Caravan Park’ for example). In both collections, the poems share a common thread of gleeful amusement in the sinister; their strongest poems are the ones that refuse to look away just because the subject is uncomfortable.

 

The Special 
David Stavanger
UQP Poetry Series 2014
RRP $ 24.95 (83pp)
(Winner of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, 2014) 

tropeland
rob walker

5 Islands Press 2015
RRP $25.00 (97pp)

____________________________________________________________

Lucy Alexander is a Canberra poet who has published two books of poems (Fathoms in 1997 and Feathered Tongues in 2004). She is a sessional academic at the University of Canberra and also a mother to four kids. She writes a regular poem on poemation@wordpress.com and also reviews for Verity La. Recently she was runner up in PoetryInAction and a finalist in HardCopy 2014 for her manuscript of fiction, Quarantine.

David Stavanger is an award-winning poet, writer, and cultural producer. In 2013 he won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the release of The Special (UQP), his first full-length collection of poetry which was also awarded the 2015 Wesley Michel Wright Prize. At the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards he received a Queensland Writing Fellowship to develop his next two collections. David is also the Co-Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival. He is sometimes known as pioneering Green Room-nominated ‘spoken weird’ artist Ghostboy, performing solo, with multi-instrumentalist Richard Grantham, and previously with the band Golden Virtues at festivals across Australia.

rob walker writes poetry, music, essays, short stories, reviews, occasional Christmas cards and shopping lists. Some of these have been published all over the world. This year he has published Tropeland (a collection with Five Islands Press) and Policies & Procedures (a chapbook with Garron Publishing) with a new forthcoming collection with Ginninderra Press in 2016. www.robwalkerpoet.com

Panache and Bravado and Extraordinary Luminosity: Omar Musa’s Parang and Judy Johnson’s Stone, Scar, Air, Water

Posted on July 18, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

Panache and Bravado and Extraordinary Luminosity: Omar Musa’s Parang and Judy Johnson’s Stone, Scar, Air, Water
Judy Johnson

Judy Johnson

Review by Lucy Alexander

It’s striking that the works of hip-hop artist and Australian Poetry Slam champion Omar Musa and prize-winning contemporary poet and novelist Judy Johnson reflect so well against one another. Where Musa’s work cuts an edge with a sharp slick blade – the parang’s many uses rolled about in Musa’s clear and definite style – Johnson’s poems trace the edges, the places where the cut and tear have left their mark, in their various stages of healing and decay.

Each of these poets starts in an intimate space – where the voice is set and the location defined – and transports the reader to ‘elsewhere’. In Musa’s case this is often to the jungle of his real and imagined Malaysian homeland. In Johnson’s she travels back in time to reveal remarkable tracts of Australian heritage and history. In this, these two books sit so well side by surprising side. They are strung together with similar themes of location and belonging, of how the personal explodes outwards to reveal the universal.

Musa has a video to promote Parang (which is Malay for a large knife that can be used as a tool or a weapon) and in it he recites the opening poem ‘A trance’ while he walks through the mist created in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Australia, and speaks briefly about what drives him to write poetry. With this piece he demonstrates that he is not only cross-cultural but also cross-media. He knows his audience, he is speaking to them directly – his poetry is there to be consumed, as it should be. But what strikes home about this promotion is that this poetry-writing thing is not what he’s known for: the video is acting as a bridge (as indeed his poetry and his persona does) between the tough-guy rapper image and the more contemplative side to his work.

Johnson has no promo video, but if you’re seeking to be impressed the poems in this collection have accumulated a long list of prizes and accolades. The longer poems are winners of the Banjo Patterson Award, the Patricia Hackett Award, and highly commended in the Newcastle Poetry Prize.

At the centre of these two books is this notion of place, or more specifically, of where the speaker is located, extending even the displacement of this voice. The titles are also worth comparing – Musa’s knife blade – which can ‘with a swish calligraphic/take a head/clean/off’ to Johnson’s Stone Scar Air Water: ‘to tell you how it once stood apart/stone, scar, air, water./And fail the moment pen touches paper/the two becoming one’. Each element of the collection, in some way a marker on the map of the body, a movement in the landscape.

Parang by Omar MusaWith his subtle knife, Musa does have the capacity to leave the scar that Johnson traces through her poems. But, it seems, he also bears this scar himself. As he reveals in ‘In Amsterdam’: ‘the cold air stripped me of edges/and left me dancing/pure’. In Musa’s poetic the scar redeems, the very moment of being sliced open by the cold of the air, separating him from what he loves and longs for, allows ‘…joy & strength/& the perverse freedom of the lost’. The very title of the poem locates him in the measurable world, but what he explores is the arcane and unmapped spaces of the emotion, the heart’s remains.

Parang is full of panache and bravado. It delivers a heady tropical jungle of wrenching delicacy, balances the blunt instrument of telling and explaining with finely wrought writing as shown in ‘The Parang and the Keris’, which is central to this collection. Demonstrating his understanding of form, Musa uses the line of the poem as the edge that is sliced. The repeated ‘I’ resembles the blade itself, the handmade parang, which, unlike its magical cousin the keris ‘… is not heaven forged/blade five-waved,/smelted from metoric iron,/divine’. The clue to this poem happens at its centre, where Musa’s almost song-like lyric impulse tells us:

I
found the iron ore
in a river bed,
heated it bright, hammered the red hot
until sweat ran in my eyes
beat it into italic font

I
sharpened the blade
and carved my history in its handle.

The poetic device and the knife blade are at once the language and form of the self, a self-reflexive simile that can cut and be cut at the same time. The italic ‘I’ represents more that the persona of the poet, but the knife he wields in the dialect of the poem. A lot is achieved through this poem that would be lost in the spoken word or song that Musa often works in, and shows a multidimensional understanding of the capacity of the written poem to focus and play with language and form. This is why this is a book of poems, and not an album. As Jeet Thayil endorses on the back of Parang:

Never mind page versus stage. This is poetry: listen.

But perhaps it is the very use of this ‘I’ (extended to ‘my’ throughout Parang) that begins to gnaw at the reader. And the very confidence of the primary voice of the collection – that takes Dransfeildian pleasure in the woven word – begins to lecture, sweeps the knife a little too close to the reader’s nose and starts to insist instead of sing. In tracing the journey of the poet’s own revelations, perhaps the book as whole begins to bleed at the slice marks, and instead of writing from the personal to the universal it stays located too close in?

Stone Scar Air Water by Judy JohnsonThere is a chance that this criticism of Parang would go unmentioned if not for the comparison with Stone Scar Air Water, where Johnson takes on the voices of many characters, letting them speak for themselves. She thus breaks out of the confines of the poet’s self and the personal story. That is not to say that embedded within these characters there is not some element of the poet or no poems in the collection that explore the poet’s own experience. But Johnson goes on challenging the reader to find within the poems fictional selves based on real characters, and here she reveals the scars and slice marks of history.

In the longer sequences Johnson asks the reader to listen to the character’s more intimate thoughts, a technique that Musa employs, but only in terms of his poetic character’s self. Here, Johnson erases that self to become Mary Watson (a white woman trapped on Lizard Island in 1881) or Rose de Freycinet (who in 1817 stowed away on her husband’s ship) both of whom perish in pursuit of their freedom. Their stories are the scars on which we have built our modern life. They are feminist stories, and yet they are told with clarity of language that immerses the reader so completely in their experience that it is not until we step aside to take a breath that we see the pattern of the knife blade on the map. As Rose de Freycinet says towards the end of her sequence:

What else would be left
having searched and plundered every corner

 of the earth’s vast pocket
but to turn it inside out
and expose the black lining?

Or in ‘Michelangelo’s Daughter’ where deteriorating from the scars caused by abuse the character models a figure from plasticine in the asylum commenting on: ‘A soul’s apparent muscular squirm/under its fallen circus tent’. Here Johnson seems to be drawing attention to not only on the act of creation (the poem, the sculpted object, the child) but also Johnson’s own place as author of the poem, somewhat theatrical, somewhat illusory in her ‘fallen circus tent’ façade.

Though it is interesting to note, throughout Johnson’s collection the I voice is reserved for fictional poetic characters, in the title poem ‘Stone, Scar, Air, Water – after Wang Wie’ the I is in abundant use. It is a personal sort of poem that shows off Johnson’s ability to take the ordinary and explode it into image after image of extraordinary luminosity.

Husked between seasons in this cinnamon air
I watch the sails of skiffs

on the birdbath lake
dip beaks to the tinseled water and realise

my heart’s adrift.

She writes of a personal longing, with finesse and clarity : ‘Leaving only words to recapture/detachment…’ and this seems to be what Johnson’s collection is circling around. The possibility to express the mood exactly and be true to both form and function of the poems while remaining at a distance, as far as language will stretch and the imagination follow.

Parang
Omar Musa
Blast!Publishing, 2013
69pp $25.00

Stone Scar Air Water
Judy Johnson
Walleah Press, 2013
131pp $20.00

Taut and Quivering Narrative Traction: Susan Hawthorne’s Limen

Posted on October 19, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Taut and Quivering Narrative Traction: Susan Hawthorne’s Limen

Limen Cover 300Review by Lucy Alexander

Limen is the notion of barely perceptible difference, where the senses can barely detect that there is sound, for example, or that the river has edged that much closer to camp.  In this sequence of poems Susan Hawthorne explores these ideas, circling around perception and its filters in relation to the natural world.  But Limen is also a narrative cycle added to and altered by the art of Jeanné Browne, whose delicate visual footnotes – bird shapes, tyre tracks, feathers and leaves – invite the natural world to come and sit within the book, giving hints and reminders to the reader of its beauty and power.

It is striking that three voices carry the narrative of the series and that these three viewpoints offer perceptions of the events that vary and warp.  The two women and one dog; nine days and the rain the sun and the wilderness make for a story that is tense and compelling.  If at the outset the river rising is barely perceptible, that the three characters sit on the limen of danger, as the narrative unfolds the outline of this danger becomes clearer, it is physical.  As the car slides in the mud, and the river breaks its banks and the dog’s own ‘ever-filling food bowl’ goes missing.

There is something gut-wrenching in the way the portrait is painted – the sense of something about to give, of things beyond the control of the characters slipping and falling away – just as the societal constructs slide out of view – one woman approaches the farm workers in the 4WD topless:

I’m up and running
no T-shirt
no shame

they see me
I go back
pull on a raincoat
walk to the car
raincoat gaping

The language is so spare, the line breaks so tight (on the back cover Robin Morgan compares the writing to haiku) that it makes the reader hold their breath.  Reading this concentration of language is a little like river swimming, the glints of absolute certainty among the rocks and sand.  Even without punctuation Hawthorne limits the breath, like that moment of stepping into deep water when the diaphragm flutters and adjusts.

a morning dip
sandbanks like oblongate ears
skirt the river
with overhanging eucalypts

However, there is also a sense in which this sharpness of observation and brevity of line loses characterization.  Woman 1 and Woman 2 swim into one another – and while one is the more experienced bushwoman and has more insight into the dangers they face is more aware of the liminal shift of the river in relation to the camp – the scarcity of descriptors makes it hard to differentiate which she is.  This rides on the back of the success of the writing; the impending impression that some dark event is about to take place, which makes this quick to read but no less evocative.

this year
no water where previously we had swum
in easy nakedness

thunderclouds gather
on the horizon

But after all this taut and quivering narrative traction (spoiler alert) – the rise of the river, the failure of the car on the mud in the night (‘the car stops/an awful lean/mud curls/around the stilled wheel’) the fleeing to a safer camp, the two boys on foot, and the return triumphant through the swollen creek crossings with the help of an earth-mother figure (who delightfully whips off her crimplene pants to push the cars through the mud) – there is: one milkshake/two chips/three hamburgers/no onion on one.  Could we be further from nature? Could this be more ordinary? Is this an anticlimax?

This is exactly what we would all want after several nights cut off in the wilderness, the comfort of warm food with hearty calories, quick and cheap and reassuring us that in fact we are – to a measure – divorced from this roaring, shifting, natural landscape?

But, in my book of poetry, do I want more than this? As a reader do I want to demand of Hawthorne that she give me more than this junk-food ending?  I have breathed the breath of the characters, I have danced the syntax dance and balanced with them of the limen bridge between the flooding bushland and the sodden cows that die and stink in the shallows.  I have wanted to shout to them to stop throwing sticks for the dog into the swirling flood, to not swim among the logs, to keep to the shallows.  There is a part of me that wants to demand that the ill-at-ease thread, those metaphorical ‘thunderclouds’, do more than rain fried potato.

I can see Patrick White frowning over there…

Limen
Susan Hawthorne
Spinifex Press, 2013
RRP $24.95 eBook $14.95

An Incredible Sense of Trust: Nathan Curnow and
Kevin Brophy's Radar

Posted on February 19, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

An Incredible Sense of Trust: Nathan Curnow and <br />Kevin Brophy's Radar

Radar coverReview by Lucy Alexander

Imagine you’re browsing the bookshop and you pick up the slim volume of Radar, with its cover the colour of vellum and the concentric circle pattern around the title the first clue that there is more in your hand than one book of poems.  There is one title, but two authors – ‘Poetry by Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow’  – and just there, for a moment, you might imagine two heads bent over the one column of words.  Poets working together?  Would that make the poems better – two minds bent to the same task of meaning making? Or would it be more like poetry by committee, flattening out the oblique angles of expression?

In reality Radar is – as the back cover makes clear, once you turn the volume over – two complimentary collections of poetry sewn together into one book.  Perhaps the reason for this is financial, for Walleah Press to spend less on the print-run and pack more poems into the $25 volume.  Perhaps it also has something to do with the way these two voices balance one another:  Nathan Curnow’s ‘conscious confessions’ as he calls them, attaching lifelines to Kevin Brophy’s already rescued ‘unconscious waking dreams’.

In this back-cover paradox lies something at the centre of these two collections: the poets have worked together, but also apart, as their subject matter and technique show.  The poems of Radar call and answer one another.  The poets know and like one another and are excited, happy even, to have their poems displayed together – as it were.  Like visual artists in a gallery.  Yet somehow the book is a more permanent arrangement. The two collections in Radar will be bound up together well into the future.  Will the names Brophy and Curnow come to be associated, even when the poets are tired of the comparisons?

The title Radar also suggests the other; radar is an object detection system, technology that seeks out the unknown, or tracks the otherwise inscrutable.  So somehow, before we’ve even opened the book or tasted one poem, we see that the poems are blips on the horizons of one another.  That Brophy’s ‘radar’ picks up Curnow’s, and vice versa.  The two poets’ works sit finely balanced on some fulcrum just before page 60.

Curnow’s collection appears first.  The impulse here is over-archingly autobiographical, often tongue in cheek, venturing from family poems to flights of fancy that spark and crack with incisive originality.  Brophy’s is more academic in flavor; the poems often have at their core some research, some moment in time that illuminated Brophy’s imagination and set his mind slithering though the laneways of possibility.  While Curnow seems to sing, perhaps Brophy whispers – when someone whispers you are more likely to believe what they say.

Curnow’s Radar also displays a wit and cheek.  ‘The Telepathy Poem’ – should I spoil it? No, look for yourself on page 35. ‘Norman Lindsay upon Visiting the Ballarat Art Gallery’ and ‘The Midwife’.  But he also displays a more thoughtful and almost prayer-like mood in ‘Blessing’, ‘The Curtain’, and ‘Gently Against the Grain’These latter poems are complex, musical, textured and require the reader’s considered attention.   And yet, they are also highly accessible, their secrets and wonders wrapped up in the imagery that Curnow does so well.  Like here, in ‘Blessing’, which opens:

It came rushing towards me across the paddocks
all I had to do was stand – the moment roaring
silent and ancient, collapsing into bloom.

And for that image the silence can roar and the mysterious ‘it’ can remain just as it is, because all at once it is the poem, the gift to the poet, it is the realisation, it is that ‘blessing of existence’, the thing that we will not name ‘God’ or ‘Death’.  And here, it seems, Curnow really stretches his poetic wings.

Curnow’s work together reads somewhat like a musician’s album; there’s even a ‘Bonus Track’ (a prose poem ‘Made from the Matter of the Stars’ that charts the unfortunate quest of a young man to know why there aren’t more aliens in the Bible, family violence, isolation and broken promises).  Curnow’s collection has that shape, and its reference points, when they are not personal (many of the poems are dedicated to friends and family, for instance: for my bee keeper father, Rev. E. A. Curnow  for ‘Hives’, even: for Kevin Brophy, ‘I Shoot You At The Pond’,) they are musical: After Earth Dance flute and piano by Ross Edwards  for ‘Toward the Harbour and Out’ and the dedication is a quote from ‘Elvis Presley Blues’. So Curnow’s collection is framed by these music-related parenthesis; they invite not simply reading but also listening.

Brophy’s Radar is longer – his collection is 68 pages to Curnow’s 46 – and each poem is knotted and complex.  Here, the poems are longer, the words more often stretching to the margins and settling to the edges of the pages.  But they are a delight to read, as they untangle from what might at first seem intractable knots and open to reveal intricacies of learning and humour and shapes leaning against one another in perfect balance.  As you read your own knotted brow of concentration is rewarded by a smile of realisation.

Where Curnow references music, Brophy’s are multiple, academic, wide-ranging reading and travel and phenomenology, aphorisms and other people’s stories – not so much his own. In ‘Report on the Phenomenology of Post-Death Experiences’, Brophy’s tone is convincingly academic – the dry report of the overseers of the ‘transition to eternity’ ending with: ‘We suggest wider questionnaires across a greater sample at a larger number of gates.’  But then, he shows how adept he is at writing the memorable line: In ‘Flicker’: ‘Those fallen branches are the images of sound.’ Or, in ‘Thirty Six Aphorisms and Essays’ (perhaps in reference to Baal Shem Tov?): ‘The shadow, it is avoiding the terrible light.  The light, it fears only the shadow, which is its secret home’. And ‘The Secret of a harmonious life: explain everything to your dog and nothing to your cat.’ These are just a few examples from a collection that has many of these twined and twisted into it.

What Brophy achieves in Radar is an incredible sense of trust between the reader and the poet.  His strength in the many aspects of life and writing he explores is that he never lets the reader down.  Each poem upholds the poet’s intention, and as you read you are held in thrall of this whispering voice that is as convincing as it is poetic, as deft with the words as it is with the concepts it is handling.  At the end of the collection, when poems are called such things as ‘Hamlet at Burham, Boiling Skull and Winding Staithe’ you find yourself reading on entranced, even for ‘Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi’, because you trust Brophy now, he is in full charge of your mind.

So, perhaps now you’ve had a good look at the volume, flicked through the pages and examined the weight and texture of the poems, you should take it home to spend more time with.  Or buy it for the type of friend that you’d like to be collected in a poetry book with, because ‘Each thing can only be explained by referring to something else.  We know that, it doesn’t take a lifetime to know that’ (Brophy, ‘Carrying Things Across the Room’ p103).

Radar
Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow
Walleah Press, 2012
130 pages, $25.

Deftly Anchored in Experience:
Susan Austin's Undertow

Posted on November 20, 2012 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Lucy Alexander

Walleah Press is mining the rich seam of poetry that runs through Tasmania and out onto the mainland.  In 2012 they will have produced 10 volumes of poetry, charting many voices that make up Australian poetry today.  From established poets – for example Kevin Brophy and Jill Jones (who were dug up some time ago)– to emerging poets like Susan Austin.  This many books in twelve months speaks of the poetry community’s hard work, but also demonstrates that Walleah Press provides an important and timely mineshaft allowing access to what we could imagine as galleries and drifts of poems that might otherwise not see daylight.

Although poems are a renewable resource and hardly ever pollute the atmosphere, they rarely come fully formed (like opals do, or iron ore), and perhaps this is where the metaphor becomes unhelpful.  Imagining Ralph Wessman and the team who are currently editing the final edition (44) of Famous Reporter with the hardhats and spotlights of miners, dusty and tired from their hard work, is perhaps just distracting.

However, emerging from the Tasmanian poetry scene and publishing Undertow as her first book of poems, Susan Austin’s poetry is not out of place next to that of her Walleah stable mates.  Her poems take the reader on what can be read as an autobiographical journey as they speak of traveling the globe, looking closely at family and relationships of all types and examining in detail the movement of the mind.  These poems collected together speak of a narrative of the self, opening and closing the windows for glimpses of what was or could have been.  But perhaps Austin’s most overarching theme, one that appears in all the poems collected in this volume, is that of reaching the other – making meaningful contact with lover, mother, sister, or reader.

Isn’t it interesting that it is too easy to write of Austin’s poems as if they were all about herself?  Is there not room for her – or any poet – to extrapolate on the experiences of others? To fictionalise? To break with the heritage left by the likes of Anne Sexton and simply make things up? Perhaps it says something of the authenticity of the voice Austin uses that convinces us – I was there, I saw and felt this.

In launching Undertow in early October 2012, Gina Mercer made the observation that reviewers ‘comment at length (and sometimes exclusively) on questions of content. Only rarely do women poets have their technique, their craft, discussed…’[1] She went on to discuss the crafting of Austin’s poem ‘When Dreams Run Ahead’, which delightfully wry poem about the pressures and hopes placed on the premise of ‘…one date and three text messages…’  Austin, here, uses a refreshing humour and self-awareness that gives other poems in this collection room to breathe – particularly the intense and serious ‘Tinned pears and Dove soap’ and ‘The home run’.  And not forgetting technique – the poem is set out somewhat like a text-message, calling to mind the quick sharp phrasing of these communications that cut to the chase – just as Austin does in this poem.  The imagery and repetition of phrases emphasise the emotional charge – as the poem concludes: ‘It took a while to get over/that whole relationship.’ Bringing poems to a suitable and satisfying ending is one of the things at which Austin excels.  She ties them up, looping the end into the beginning so that each one works something like a joke – here you are she seems to say – this is what I wanted you to see.  And when she does this, the reader is in her hands – we can see the dexterity Austin is capable of.

But, to return to the comment of Mercer’s:  discussion of content in a review is unavoidable – as she would agree. And in this case, as Austin uses herself and her life primarily as the subject, examining content gets a little personal.  Perhaps the use of the autobiographical distracts the reviewer – in trying to piece together the narrative of the life? (She was where, when?  Her sister did what?) And thus this discussion takes up more than its fair share of the review.

In the opening poem of Undertow,’Granada’, Austin writes ‘I discover flamenco in a smokey cave-bar…Women assert their sex with/flicking wrists and stamping feet’. Austin invites us to watch the scene just as she is.  To become co-spectators to a moment we can join in on, but can’t become part of.  As the final line demonstrates: ‘A stranger’s caress triggers an unexpected blaze.’ In this line the poet realises she is the stranger, and even as she is moved by these people with their songs and their dancing they cannot touch her without breaking the line between the observer and the observed, creating the uncomfortable somewhat unwelcome, ‘blaze’.

This poem is so deftly anchored in experience, as are many others in the volume, that the reader can become convinced that the first-person voice is the poet’s own.  And perhaps it is.  Either way, it is a fine opening to a volume that longs to touch. That reaches out to caress.  The ‘unexpected blaze’ that happens within this poem seems to also be the touch of the poet upon the reader.  And each of the poems that follow does the same, in various ways.

‘Dealing with Distance’ is written in a similar first-person voice.  The repetition of ‘I’ invites the discussion of the self as subject, the narrative of self-revelation.  ‘I miss you most on Sundays’ opens the three-part poem, that elegantly dissects the emotional angst of running a relationship with someone from the Antarctic Division.  ‘An ecology of absence/surrounds me on this couch.’ Neatly observes the self as an end-point of a journey of discovery as well as hinting about the nature of the other’s discovery.  The self is marooned on the island of the couch.  The other is the absence available only through being absent.

‘I want to compress my love into a subject line…’ changes the tone of the poem into a more serious form of longing.  And it speaks the language of many long-distance relationships: the compression of love and time and the work the words have to do to make this available at the other end of the line – of both poem and email.  This poem is one of the finest wrought – the emotions in tune with the technicalities of the writing, the imagery building carefully to the poem’s climax – and here the term is used advisedly.  The open longing that tints many of the other poems in the collection in this poem is fulfilled; the longing has a place and a subject.

Again, the narrator is the poet direct in ‘Tinned pears and Dove Soap’ but this is a very different mood.  No capitals are used – except for the words ‘Parkinson’s’, ‘Mother’s Day’, ‘Dove Soap’, ‘Dad’ and ‘I’.  It is a poem of grief, the death of a mother the ‘earthquake underneath my life’.  As an image of grief ‘…facing the tinned pears on the shelves I freeze/while shoppers shove their trolleys around me…’ works seamlessly – appealing to senses and the sudden intensity of emotion they can awaken.  With memory and grief Austin creates a poem with a powerful impact.   This poem in particular shows the depth to which she is willing to perform courageous self-revelations as part of her poetry.

In talking at the launch of Undertow Austin said of her poems’ … a lot of them are based on other people’s stories …’ and while we know this to be true most of them are based on her own.  Their authenticity is undeniable.  Their subject too close to what we could imagine as a young woman’s life to be anything other.  But this is the strength of this collection, the thread that holds it together and makes it a book worth reading.  Austin’s first volume has a voice that holds its own – in humour, lust, grief – it stays true.   And if we still want to ask her: ‘Are you going to say if it’s fiction or non-fiction?’ of course she will say: ‘I’ll leave that to your imagination.’ [2]

Undertow
Susan Austin
Walleah Press, 2012
54 pages, $20.


[1] Mercer, Gina, Launch speech of Undertowby Susan Austin, Hobart Book Shop,October 11th, 2012.  Cited http://walleahpress.com.au/ October 26th 2012.

[2] Austin, Susan – fielding questions at the launch of Undertow, Hobart Book Shop,October 11th, 2012.  Cited http://walleahpress.com.au/ October 26th 2012.