Four things: a reflection

Thom Sullivan  Poet Poetry NaPoWriMo 19

Personally, it was a week for celebrating the birthdays of friends and colleagues, an enjoyable poetry reading at Holy Rollers Studios, as part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival, and the ascendancy of spring in Adelaide. In the wider world, this week marked the 18th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, which is the starting point for 4 things that were on my mind this week: 3 poems, and 1 folk rock song.

1.
In a contributor’s note in The Best American Poetry 2005, American poet Kay Ryan (b. 1945) writes about the provenance of her poem ‘Home to Roost’. She explains that what she regarded as an essentially personal poem was written several months before September 11, and was under consideration by a poetry editor when the attacks occurred. It’s a short, simple poem full of foreboding: ‘The chickens / are circling and / blotting out the / day…’, she writes, ‘Yes, / the sky is dark / with chickens’. After the attacks, Ryan hastily withdrew the poem, which had taken on new, irresistible significance as a commentary on the United States’ involvement in global affairs: ‘Now they have / come home / to roost – all / the same kind / at the same speed.’ Ryan went on to publish the poem some years later, after the sting had gone out of it, but it’s impossible still to read it as a purely personal poem. As Ryan writes in the note, the poem was ‘warped’ by the events of that day. Ref. Muldoon, P. and Lehman, D. (2005). ‘The Best American Poetry, 2005.’ New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 185.

2.
At the time of the September 11 attacks I was 19, and in my second year of university. It was a troubling time to be a young male, newly of military age, with little sense of proportion about the events that may transpire in the following months and years. A sense of trepidation wasn’t entirely unwarranted. After all, my father, my grandfathers and my great-grandfathers either served in the military (my maternal grandfather served in World War II), or were at some risk of conscription while they were of military age. My mind turned to a series of poems written by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1941) about his experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam. The poems were published in 1988’s Dien Cai Dau. Komunyakaa’s poem ‘Thanks’ is a litany of thankfulness to an unknown and unnamed force that kept him alive in the jungles of Vietnam: ‘Thanks for the tree / between me & a sniper’s bullet. / I don’t know what made the grass / sway seconds before the Viet Cong / raised his soundless rifle. / Some voice always followed, / telling me which foot / to put down first.’ His poem, like Ryan’s, ends with a sense of the unknowable or unnamable, though in Komunyakaa’s poem it’s a benign power rather than a sense of foreboding: ‘I know that something / stood among those lost trees / & moved only when I moved.’

3.
Komunyakaa’s poem brings to mind ‘The One I Love’, a single from Life in Slow Motion, a 2005 album by English singer-songwriter David Gray (b. 1968). Supposedly, the song has been a popular choice as a wedding waltz, due to its buoyant vocal hook and ostensibly quixotic lyrics: ‘Gonna close my eyes, girl / And watch you go / Running through this life, darling / Like a field of snow’. Yet a closer listen reveals that it, too, is a song about war. Where Komunyakaa’s poem refers to the ‘sniper’s bullet’, the speaker of Gray’s song watches ‘As the tracer glides / In its graceful arc’. Where the speaker of Komunyakaa’s poem recalls being distracted by the thought of a woman in San Francisco (her ‘wild colors’), Gray’s speaker is a wounded soldier recalling the memory of his beloved as he bleeds out: ‘There’s things I might’ve said / Only wish I could / Now I’m leaking life faster / Than I’m leaking blood’. As to the date of the war Gray’s speaker describes, the soldier mentions dancing the ‘twist and shout’, which likely dates it to the Vietnam War era, with the release of The Top Notes’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in 1961, and The Beatles’ cover of 1963.

4.
At the time of the September 11 attacks, Australian poet Thomas Shapcott (b. 1935) was teaching creative writing in the English Department in which I was studying. The events of that day prompted him to write his poem ‘New Year’s Eve’, which was published in 2006’s The City of Empty Rooms. In his poem, he writes: ‘If Modernism died in the ovens of Auschwitz / Or at the Nuremberg Trials / Then Post Modernism met its death / On 11 September 2001 in New York.’ No doubt, it’s a contention that’s been hashed and rehashed in countless bar and barbecue conversations since then: the idea that September 11 ended Post Modernism and shocked us into a new age of ‘passionate intensity’, to borrow a phrase from ‘The Second Coming’ by WB Yeats (1865–1939), which was heavily quoted at the time. We find a similar sense of foreboding or unease in ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), possibly written while Arnold was on his honeymoon. Arnold’s poem might only have come down to us as an example of romantic melancholy, if at all, were it not so prophetic about the devastations of the century that would follow: ‘we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ What Shapcott reflects on in hindsight is perhaps anticipated in Yeats’ word ‘conviction’, and Arnold’s ‘certitude’.

Poetry reading: NO WAVE / Holy Rollers

No Wave Poetry ReadingOn Thursday, 12 September 2019, I’ll be appearing at the NO WAVE poetry reading at Holy Rollers Studios, 69 Prospect Road, Prospect, from 7.30pm. The reading accompanies Holy Rollers’ exhibition, The Scene is the Seen, which is part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival. The event will feature readings by Em Konig, Alison Flett, Edith Lyre, Jill Jones, Thomas McCammon, and me. Further details on Facebook.

Writers who define an age…

Thom Sullivan Poet Poetry NaPoWriMo 15

It’s sobering to think that some of the writers and artists who will define our age will be utterly unknown to us, if the past is anything to go by. Think of Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Franz Kafka, for example, whose works were unknown or virtually unknown during their lifetimes.

Local history: Jubilee Chapel

In 2009, I uploaded this photo of the Jubilee Chapel, Wistow, to a Flickr page I was using at the time. Many of the images I uploaded were of ruined buildings and farmhouses from Wistow, Bugle Ranges, Red Creek, Highland Valley, Hartley, Salem and Callington  parts of the southern Mount Lofty Ranges, also known as the Adelaide Hills, where I grew up. It’s an area I’ve often written about in my poetry.

Jubilee Chapel l Wistow

35°08’18.3″S 138°56’11.7″E

I uploaded the photo with this note:

‘This photo was taken through the rain on a grey autumn morning in 2009. The chapel is located on a back road in farming country 7 or 8 kilometres from the Hartley Methodist Church [the subject of the previous Flickr upload, which I’ve included below].

‘The chapel was built in 1865 by a Methodist community that settled in South Australia from Cornwall, UK. It was built following a diphtheria outbreak and was named the ‘Jubilee Chapel’ because it was built in the jubilee (fiftieth) year of Methodism in Australia. By 1886 services ceased due to poor attendances, with many members of the community moving on in search of better prospects. My understanding is that many moved on to marginal areas of the wheat country in the state’s Mid North and fell on difficult times there too (as later arrivals many re-settled north of Goyder’s Line, where rainfall is low).

‘The chapel subsequently fell into a state of ruin. It was rebuilt in the 1980s and was used at one time as a bed-and-breakfast.’

IMGP0845b (2)

35°11’01.3″S 139°00’11.6″E

A few years ago, an Adelaide historian tracked me down via Flickr to ask if the image could be published in a forthcoming local history book. Last year, the image – along with one of my poems – was published in Wistow and Bugle Ranges: A Community History, by Beryl Belford, Christeen Schoepf, Skye Krichauff, and the Wistow History Group. It’s a timely account of the area’s history.

Trove offers this précis of the book, which I was so pleased to have some small part in:

‘Changes in lifestyle due to the rapid loss of farming land through the government’s rezoning of land inspired members of the Wistow History Group to research the history of European settlement in their district. Drawing on oral histories and archival material including privately held photographs and documents, newspaper articles, maps and government records, this book provides a social and cultural history of the Wistow and Bugles Ranges districts of South Australia from 1830 to the present.

‘Topics covered include: Explorers’ records and early settlers’ reports of Aboriginal occupation; the early settlement process with the Davenport and Mt Barker Special Survey system and the allocation of land to new immigrants; short biographies of early settler families, the descendants of whom remain connected to the Wistow/​Bugle Ranges district; changes in land use and the shift away from subsistence farms due to developments in technology, market trends and climatic concerns; transport and postal services, beginning with the surveying of Chauncey’s Line in response to the gold rush; education and the formation of schools, childhood memories of growing up in the district; social events, fundraising and the building of the Wistow Community Hall; public houses and the social and political activities held in them; sport including ploughing matches, pigeon shooting, hunting, cricket and tennis; churches, in particular those established by the Primitive Methodists; burial grounds and cemeteries.’

Recommendation: ‘Poetry Says’ podcasts

Thom Sullivan Poet Poetry NaPoWriMo 01

By and large, our experience of poetry is an active affair. Reading a poem well generally demands diligence and attention, which partially explains poetry’s neglect when compared to other artforms that are often experienced somewhat passively – from film to the visual arts, to music, to audiobooks, and even the novel, which generally relies less on an actively constructed meaning.

Of course, recordings of poems abound, and a recording of a poem can be experienced just as passively as an audiobook or piece of music. But there’s something to be said for Philip Larkin’s argument that ‘[h]earing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much – the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end.’

As someone who prefers to experience poems from the page, it’s a delight to have access to Alice Allan’s regular Poetry Says podcasts, a series of lively and engaging conversations about poetry. The podcasts are perfect for those moments in which reading poems from a book is impractical.

Over 100 episodes of Poetry Says are available, including episodes on Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Jack Gilbert, Ted Berrigan, Judith Wright, Jorie Graham, and contemporary Australian poets, such as Michael Farrell and Jill Jones. The episode on Plath’s bee poems is highly recommended. Invariably, an episode sends me back to a poet and their work with fresh insight and new regard.

Poetry Says website Poetry Says on Twitter : Poetry Says on Facebook

Sydney-Adelaide roadtrip

I flew to Sydney for the launch of CARTE BLANCHE on Saturday, 20 July. After the launch at Mothership Studios, Marrickville, I had the chance to drive back from Sydney to Adelaide: a two-day, 1,375 kilometre (855 mile) journey by car, through the Great Dividing Range, and across the plains of New South Wales’ Riverina region and the Mallee districts of Victoria and South Australia.

Thom Sullivan Sydney to Adelaide

Much of the journey I knew only from imprecise childhood memories (the Dog on the Tuckerbox, 5 or 9 miles from Gundagai – depending on whether you reference the poem ‘Bullocky Bill’, the later Jack Moses poem, or the Jack O’Hagan song), or through particular contemporary poems. I think of Geoff Page’s poem ‘Hay to Balranald’: ‘Heading west all afternoon the curvatures can still surprise you. / You might as well be out at sea; the skyline is a perfect circle. […] All afternoon forgetting physics / you drive into the sky.’

Or there’s Mike Ladd’s poem ‘Out of Balranald, just on dusk’: ‘Now the last light catches old fridges on their plain of resurrection – / a voice says ‘I AM’ from a burning roly-poly bush […] Kenworths and Macks in their prides / roaring down the gears through the drowse of distant towns.’ It’s an experience of a distinctively Australian Sublime – horizontal and understated, rather than vertical and imposing – as alluded to in On the Hay Plain, a radio episode about the ‘big sky country’ surrounding Hay, written and produced by Ladd.

I took photos regularly during the portions of the trip when I wasn’t driving. None has any artistic intent: they were captured only as aide-mémoires. They document something of the journey and the incremental changes in the landscape: green hills, grasslands, riverine plains, dry creeks, brown rivers, river red gums, woodlands of black box and grey box, dry lake beds, sheep, cattle, roadkill kangaroos, saltbush, grain crops, a crop fire, silos, siding towns, salt flats, mallee roadsides, and semi-trailers – and kilometre after kilometre of white-lined bitumen, varying in colour from dark grey to soft grey to ochre.

Of course, ‘experiencing’ a landscape while driving through it at 110 kilometres per hour is little better than watching it on TV. In both cases we sit in a comfortable chair, watching images flash past on a (wind)screen. Nonetheless.

PSX_20190728_032606

Mascot, Sydney, NSW.

PSX_20190728_034625

Hume Highway, Oakdale, NSW.

PSX_20190728_032810

Federal Highway, Lake George, NSW.

PSX_20190728_032927

The Nation’s Capital, ACT.

PSX_20190728_034508

Barton Highway, Jeir, NSW.

PSX_20190728_034407

Hume Highway, Coolac, NSW.

PSX_20190728_033102

Hume Highway, Tumblong, NSW.

PSX_20190728_041541

Hume Highway, Mount Adrah, NSW.

PSX_20190728_032308

Morning fog, Murrumbidgee River, Wagga Wagga, NSW.

PSX_20190728_032202

Sturt Highway, Sandigo, NSW.

PSX_20190728_034202

Sturt Highway, Sandigo, NSW.

PSX_20190728_032038

Crop fire, Sturt Highway, Maude, NSW.

PSX_20190728_034023

Sturt Highway, Keri Keri, NSW.

PSX_20190728_033929

Sturt Highway, Yanga, NSW.

PSX_20190728_031846

Sturt Highway, Yanga, NSW.

PSX_20190728_041021

Balranald Tooleybuc Road, Balranald, NSW.

PSX_20190728_033806

Bridge over the Murray River, Tooleybuc, NSW/VIC.

PSX_20190728_033442

Mallee Highway, Manangatang, VIC.

PSX_20190728_031539

Mallee Highway, Ouyen, VIC.

PSX_20190728_033329

Mallee Highway, Parrakie, SA.