Notes: September 2017

The Best American Poetry 2017 – John Ashbery’s indispensable poems – Notes on Shastra Deo’s The Agonist & Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards – Poetry reading at Halifax Café2017-10-07 03.10.38

I began September reading the newly released The Best American Poetry 2017, edited by Natasha Trethewey. The annual anthology – like our own The Best Australian Poems – is an efficient way to stay abreast of certain currents in American poetry. The 2017 anthology is more overtly political than other recent books in the series, though its preoccupations predate the current Presidency, underscoring the deep-seatedness of the United States’ cultural rifts. The anthology includes John Ashbery’s poem ‘Commotion of the Birds’ – originally published in Harper’s, along with three other poems by Ashbery and a commentary from poet Ben Lerner. Ashbery was, of course, the guest editor of the series’ inaugural anthology in 1988. It was sad news, then, to hear of his death on 3 September.

I’ve found Ashbery’s work at times impervious and unsatisfying, yet I’ve remained a consistent reader of it right up to his most recent books. For anyone new to Ashbery’s poetry, Al Filries’ list of 64 ‘indispensable’ Ashbery poems (published in Jacket2 in 2013, therefore omitting poems from 2015’s Breezeway and 2016’s Commotion of the Birds) is a good starting point – many of the poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation website. While uncharacteristic of Ashbery’s work, ‘The Painter’ is one of the few sestinas that bears repeat readings. And there’s something worthwhile about listening to the canonical ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ in the poet’s own voice.

In terms of my September reading, I enjoyed reading Shastra Deo’s debut collection of poems The Agonist (UQP, 2017). One notable characteristic of the collection is the repetition of simple, elemental words across multiple poems – e.g. ‘body’, ‘blood’, ‘skin’, ‘mouth’, ‘tongue’, ‘teeth’, ‘throat’, ‘thirst’, ‘hunger’, ‘wound’, ‘scar’, ‘flesh’, ‘blood’, ‘bone’, ‘sweat’, ‘dust’. The use and repetition of these words is unlikely to be incidental as it’s not a book of imprecisions, as is evident elsewhere in the collection: for example, fish are referred to precisely – e.g. ‘black drum’, ‘mackerel’, ‘mullet’, ‘flounder’, ‘white trout’, ‘minnow’, ‘brook trout’, ‘cod’, ‘Alaska blackfish’, ‘silver shiners’, ‘rock greenling’, and ‘bream’. The collection is also characterised by its use of ‘simple’ terms for human anatomy: ‘hands’, ‘feet’, ‘fingers’, ‘toes’, ‘fist’, ‘kneecap’, ‘ribcage’, ‘chest’, ‘lungs’, ‘ankles’, ‘belly’, ‘elbows’, ‘knees’, ‘wrist’, ‘collarbone’, ‘spine’, ‘gut’, ‘pelvis’, ‘kidneys’, ‘liver’, ‘skull’, ‘waist’, ‘thumb’, ‘cheek’, ‘jaw’, ‘shoulder’, ‘eyelids’, ‘knuckles’, and so on – in contrast to the prevalence of precise anatomical terms – e.g. ‘melanin’, ‘synapse’, ‘gyrus’, ‘fibroblast cells’, ‘serum’, ‘metastasis’, ‘arrhythmia’, ‘dorsal and ventral cavities, ‘epithelia’, ‘ganglia’, ‘medulla oblongata’, ‘trachea’, ‘vena cava’, ‘deltoid’, ‘iliac crest’, ‘transversalis’, ‘humerus’, ‘glenoid cavity’. So, there’s an interesting tension between general terms and precise or formal terms throughout, and it presents an engaging way of reading into the book’s key themes.

In keeping with its use of anatomical terms, the book also includes drawings from Gray’s Anatomy. The body is conceivable as the stage or threshold (or, perhaps, altar stone) of the poems, either relationally or biologically – ‘agonist’ meaning ‘protagonist’ (the ‘I’ of the poems, perhaps), and being an anatomical term for a muscle that directly acts on part of the body. There’s something almost self-referential to the lines: ‘You may be forgiven / for thinking that love / is a butcher’s ritual’ (‘Chine’, the poem’s title, refers either to a joint of meat or an act of cutting). The repetition of the simple, elemental terms, and the use of the anatomical terms, binds the poems even at the level of the individual words, giving the collection a strong sense of coherence. The collection also coheres around its use of religious terminology – e.g. ‘desecrate’, ‘baptism’, ‘absolution’, ‘litany’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘benediction’, ‘penitence’ and ‘tenebrae’ (a number of which occur in the sestina ‘Bad Ritual’) – and its references to forms of divination. The collection includes several sequences of poems, including ‘Scout Tests and How to Pass Them’ and ‘Tarotology’, and a number of found poems/centos drawn from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. It’s a visceral and (at times) ominous read, and a memorable and accomplished debut. Australian Book Review has published a more thorough review of The Agonist, and I expect it will go on to garner further high praise.

The effect created by the use and repetition of particular words in The Agonist is reminiscent of the references to colour throughout Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards (UQP, 2015). Of the 55 poems in The Hazards, all but three (‘Medusa’, ‘In the Mauerpark’ and ‘Ensign’) specifically refer to a colour – for example, the opening lines of ‘Of Germany’: ‘Of a green bicycle with a brown basket / and a slim pack of menthol Vogues / in a Munich café in June, of a black motorcycle, / or riding a black motorcycle in the countryside / to a palace with mirrored rooms …’ And the point is not just the number of references to colours, but that the colours are referred to in the simplest terms: ‘yellow’, ‘red’, ‘pink’, ‘green’, ‘orange’, ‘black’, ‘blue’, ‘white’, ‘grey’, ‘silver’, ‘gold’, ‘indigo’, ‘purple’, ‘brown’, and ‘olive’ (which is used just once) – resisting the impulse to broaden the poems’ vocabulary by substituting, say, ‘red’ with the more decorative ‘crimson’, ‘ruby’ or ‘scarlet’. The Hazards has been widely (and very favourably) reviewed, so I’m sure one reviewer or other has noted the extensive references to colour – though not to my knowledge. The strategy used by both Sarah and Shastra underscores (is underscored by?) a fundamental compact between the poet and reader that the ‘simple’ or ‘ordinary’ word is enough, and there’s something bold and inviting about this – particularly in contrast to a prevailing cultural and theoretical distrust of language.

The September poetry reading at the Halifax Café, Adelaide, was an excellent event, featuring Ken Bolton, Cath Kenneally and Banjo James. It was interesting to note a change of tone in some of Ken’s most recent work. In terms of poetry events in October, I’ll be emceeing Other Worlds: Pedro Mairal and Friends at The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, on Tuesday, 17 October (further details). Pedro is an acclaimed Argentinian novelist, poet, travel writer and screen writer. It’s a free event that will also feature readings by special guests Jennifer Liston, Liz Allan and Jaydeep Sarangi. Also, Garron Publishing is set to launch its fifth series of chapbooks with a poetry reading at the Halifax Café on Sunday, 22 October (further details). The poets featured in the new series are Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones, Heather Taylor Johnson, David Mortimer and Cary Hamlyn.

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