‘April is the cruellest month…’, the opening line of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is one of the most famous phrases in Twentieth Century poetry. It’s famous enough that it often escapes poetry’s sequestered colonnades and turns up in the popular culture. But for those of us in the southern hemisphere, the phenomenon Eliot was referring to is something we experience in October (‘if at all’) as a sort of seasonal affectivity, a dark irony rooted in the burgeoning Spring. (There’s a similar seasonal reversal required for Ted Hughes’ ‘October Dawn’, another poem I’ve had a long attachment to (it’s mastery of half-rhyme), though it’s hard to find a correlative for Hughes’ ‘premonition of ice’ in the Australian autumn or winter.) Michael Austin reflects on Eliot’s phrase, particularly in a time of pandemic, in a blog post from April this year, entitled: ‘Why is April ‘the Cruelest Month’? TS Eliot’s Masterpiece of Pandemic Poetry.’ Austin writes: ‘Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and his wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery.’ He goes on: ‘In the Waste Land, nothing can be crueler than hope, since it can only lead to disappointment […] The more I have read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more I have realized just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe. To hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and disbelief.’ It’s a timely thought for those of us in our own ‘cruellest month’, as the beginning of the southern Spring this year coincides with the lifting of Australia’s most stringent lockdown. The attached video footage captures some essence of an October evening in Adelaide, a welcome relief after a particularly subdued winter. Look at all that glorious cruelty.
As a writer whose ‘day job’ is far removed from whatever writing I’m doing, I take some consolation from the examples of TS Eliot, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, who worked as a bank clerk, insurance executive, and physician, respectively. It’s more consoling than the thought of the countless writers whose aspirations were (and are) swallowed up by the necessary and quotidian. It’s difficult to cordon off a little energy, mental space, and time each day or across a week. I was a relative latecomer to Spotify, but podcasts on poetry, literature, writing, and creativity are a feature of my commute nowadays. This morning’s podcast, Unpublished’s ‘Consistency: the Antidote to Hustle’ (season 3, episode 12) was timely, part-practicality, part pep-talk: ‘… Working hard and devotion to your creativity, and the road to success, is consistency. And I almost would argue that it’s the smallest viable amount of work to do each day … That consistency is about showing up and doing the bare minimum, but doing the bare minimum every day.’ [at 4:47]
As an extra addendum to my previous blog posts, it was so enjoyable to ‘attend’ the launch of Alice Allan’s book of poems The Empty Show via YouTube this afternoon (Adelaide time). The book was introduced by Jessica Wilkinson and launched by Louise Carter, with Alice then reading from the book and a lively Q&A. Like many, I suspect, my first introduction to Alice’s work was through her excellent Poetry Says podcasts: a series of engaging conversations with contemporary Australian poets. I hope Alice and The Empty Show get the ‘live/in person’ launch they so much deserve, at some future time. As I’ve written previously, a writer sending a book into the world (particularly a first book) deserves all the love and fuss that can be mustered. Congratulations to Alice: The Empty Show is an excellent book, and available from Rabbit Poets Series.
Good news… Vagabond Press has launched its new website. Vagabond’s books of poetry from Australia, the Americas, the Asia Pacific, and Europe are available directly from the website, which now includes a sample of each book. It’s been a great 12 months for Vagabond, with Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics winning the 2020 John Bray Poetry Award, and Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness winning the 2020 Kenneth Slessor Award for Poetry, among others. My book of poems, Carte Blanche, is available from the website as a paperback, and a limited edition hardback.
As an addendum to my last blog post, it was very enjoyable to attend the launch of Adrian Flavell’s second book of poems, Shadows Drag Untidy, in Adelaide this evening. The book was launched by Professor Nick Jose, and follows Adrian’s 2014 book, On Drowning a Rat (Picaro Press). I first encountered Adrian’s poems as far back as 1998 or 1999. In my teenage years, The Weekend Australian’s Review served as my piecemeal introduction to contemporary Australian poetry. Nowadays, we take it for granted that the internet is a reliable source of contemporary poetry, with the proliferation of websites, online journals, and blogs over the past two decades. But in the late 1990s it was only the newspapers that came into the household regularly that met my growing appetite for new Australian poetry. It was in The Weekend Australian, and later The Age, that I first read the work of poets such as Robert Adamson, Peter Boyle, Aidan Coleman, Luke Davies, Diane Fahey, Michael Farrell, Anthony Lawrence, Jan Owen, Peter Rose, Thomas Shapcott, John Tranter – and Adrian Flavell. Times have changed: The Weekend Australian still publishes and reviews poetry, but now any teenager with an internet connection can access as much poetry as they could possibly want. Congratulations to Adrian on the launch of the book. Shadows Drag Untidy is available from Ginninderra Press.
It’s been a difficult year for launching books. And it was an enormous relief, especially in hindsight, that Aidan Coleman and I managed to jointly-launch our books of poems a few short weeks before the COVID-19 restrictions clamped down in South Australia. It was very welcome, then, to be able to attend the launch of Juan Garrido-Salgado’s Hope Blossoming in Their Ink in Adelaide last week, the first launch I’ve attended in person in many months. It was the sort of lively event we’ve felt the lack of amid our ‘Covid-winter’, even in a city and state that’s weathered the pandemic better than most. Touch wood. It’s also been very welcome, and a small compensation of the pandemic, to be able to attend events and launches interstate, albeit as an online ‘attendance’. It’s a regrettable compromise for the poets and publishers concerned – a writer sending a book into the world (particularly a first book) deserves all the love and fuss that can be mustered – but, for those of us further afield, it’s been nice to ‘attend’ in some small way, even foregoing the customary signings, and conversations. To the point, it was so enjoyable to attend the launch of Ella Jeffery’s book of poems Dead Bolt, launched by Lisa Gorton this evening, even if the setting, from my end at least, was my lounge room in Adelaide. Congratulations to Juan and Ella, and all best wishes for the success of your books, particularly in this challenging time. Hope Blossoming in Their Ink and Dead Bolt are both excellent, and available from Puncher & Wattmann.
My mixtape for July-September 2020: 01. Aaron Espe: Everyday (Buddy Holly cover). 02. Amythyst Kiah & Her Chest of Glass: Trouble So Hard. 03. Benjamin Francis Leftwich: Pure Morning (Placebo cover). 04 Beta Radio: Tongue Tied (acoustic version). 05. Bonny Light Horseman: The Roving. 06. Coach Kit: The Lord God Bird (Sufjan Stevens cover). 07. Donovan Woods: Portland, Maine. 08. Eddie Berman: The Canyon. 09. Field Guide: You Were. 10. Fontaines DC: Televised Mind. 11. Joshua Burnside: And You Evade Him/Born in the Blood. 12. Lydia Luce: True Love Waits (Radiohead cover). 13. LYR, feat. Simon Armitage, Florence Pugh & Melt Yourself Down: Lockdown – In Aid of Refuge. 14. Noah Gundersen: Fire. 15. Old Sea Brigade & Luke Sital-Singh: Los Feliz. 16. The Paper Kites: St Clarity. 17. Peter Bradley Adams: My Arms Were Always Around You. 18. Phoebe Bridgers: Chinese Satellite. 19. PJ Harvey: The Wind. 20. Richard Walters: I Won’t. 21. Run River North: Mr Brightside (The Killers cover). 22. Sufjan Stevens: America. 23. Taylor Swift, feat. Bon Iver: Exile. 24. Thelma Plum: These Days (Powderfinger cover). 25. Tyson Motsenbocker: Rust.
I’ve had a long affinity with these words of the Russian-American poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky: ‘Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.’ In my early 20s, I developed a particular regard for a number of contemporary Australian poets whose work was synonymous with specific regions, among them were Robert Adamson (The Hawkesbury), Robert Gray (Mid-North Coast, NSW), John Kinsella (Western Australia’s Wheatbelt), and Les Murray (Mid-North Coast, NSW). Through Kinsella’s work, in particular, I found permission – at a time I needed it – to write about the farming area in the Mount Lofty Ranges in which I’d grown up, and was then living. I made a compact that Kinsella would be a poet I read – more or less – cover to cover, in the way that Brodsky suggested. It’s a compact I’ve kept, though – as Kinsella is a notoriously prolific poet, novelist, and essayist – I’m often a book or two behind his latest publication. In this way, it’s Kinsella’s work, and perhaps also that of the late American poet AR Ammons, that I’ve returned to most consistently over the past 20 years. It was very welcome, therefore, to have the chance to review two of Kinsella’s recent books for Australian journal Plumwood Mountain. Previously, Plumwood Mountain has published my reviews of Kinsella’s Graphology Poems: 1995-2015 (Five Islands Press, 2016), and Renga: 100 Poems (GloriaSMH, 2017), his collaboration with Paul Kane. Of the two recent reviews, Hollow Earth (Transit Lounge, 2019) is Kinsella’s first foray into the other world of the science fiction novel; and Open Door (UWAP, 2018) is the final book of poems in the Jam Tree Gully trilogy, an essential exploration of a central theme of his work. Special thanks to Anne Elvey, Managing Editor of Plumwood Mountain, for the opportunity to review the books. Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Hollow Earth. Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Open Door.
The cusp of Spring. Pear trees blossom (white) along the arterial. Callistemons (red) flower across the suburb. Soursobs (yellow) come up through the lawn. Earlier today, two Noisy Miners chased off an Australian Raven (black), till all three were out of sight over the rooftops. Out of sight. Out of earshot. Out of mind.
In a culture so disposed to rational thought, we’re often confounded by poetry, which haunts the domain of the non-rational, as opposed to the rational or the irrational.
There’s a well-inked association between poets and black birds – think crows and ravens, blackbirds and jackdaws. Think Edgar Allan Poe and George Trackl, Ted Hughes and Margaret Atwood, Gianni Siccardi and Max Porter, or Justin Vernon and Paul McCartney.
From Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’: ‘I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.’
Crowbar, crowberry, crowcall, crowcry, croweater, crowflower, crowfoot, crowkeeper, crowstep, etcetera.
The murder of crows. There is the archetypal poem about the poet-as-adult elegising a bird he (invariably, it’s a ‘he’) shot during his childhood. Over the years, I’ve read enough versions of this archetypal poem that it could be a discrete genre in itself (I wish I’d kept a list): there’d be enough for a small anthology. They’re inevitably poems about innocence, lost innocence, masculinity, initiation, memory, guilt, violence, and/or mortality.
From Franz Wright’s poem ‘Solitary Play: Minnesota, 1961’: ‘… it was suggested / that I fire / on that muttering family of crows. / I complied / and watched as those big ruffled shadows / rose from the ground, scattered and vanished / in the direction of barren / border trees, commencing / to speak all at once / in hysterical tongues. / All except for one, / deceased.’
Crowbar, barbell, bellboy, boyfriend, friendship, shipyard, yardbird, birdbrain, brainstorm, stormwater, etcetera.
From JM Coetzee’s essay Roads to Translation: ‘… in the Italian version of Dusklands, a man opens a wooden crate with the help of a bird (what I wrote was that he used a crow, that is, a crowbar.’ (Coetzee, JM. Roads to Translation [online]. Meanjin, Vol. 64, No. 4, 2005: 141.)
The murder-mind. Chapel Street, Strathalbyn, early 2000s. I remember waiting in a car, on a warm afternoon, with the windows wound down. A nearby house had its doors and windows open onto its verandah. From inside the house, there was the sound of a baby crying. At the front of the house, two ravens were calling back and forth to one another, and to a third raven visible at the rear of the house. As I watched, it became apparent that the ravens were trying to triangulate the source of the crying, which must have sounded to them like an animal in distress.
From Raymond Carver’s poem ‘My Crow’: ‘A crow flew into the tree outside my window. / It was not Ted Hughes’s crow, or Galway’s crow. / Or Frost’s, Pasternak’s, or Lorca’s crow. / Or one of Homer’s crows, stuffed with gore, / after the battle. This was just a crow. / That never fit in anywhere in its life, / or did anything worth mentioning.’
In the 22 August 2020 edition of The Canberra Times, Geoff Page reviews my book of poems Carte Blanche. He writes: ‘It’s satisfying to observe that the sophistication and idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thom Sullivan’s Carte Blanche have recently been recognised by the judges of the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award for the best first book of poetry in Australia last year.’ A very big thank you to Geoff for his kind words about the book. Carte Blanche is available from Vagabond Press as a paperback, and a limited edition hardcover. Click here for the FULL REVIEW.