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.
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.
There’s a special obligation on poets, I think, to know the names of things, and with specificity. Just as there’s a value in any or all of us knowing the names of those birds and plants that we find in our home environment, for example, our garden or our street. It’s part of a greater work of attention: we start to notice the comings and goings of birds at different times of the day, or across the seasons, and we begin to mark the progress of time by a plant coming into blossom, or a tree that begins to shed its bark. It’s a particularly worthwhile idea now, when many of us are spending more time at home.
With a recent move, I’ve had to acclimate to a new home, and to a working/writing space that looks out onto a garden. I readily identified the birds that were coming and going, and the magnolias, but there is a shrub that’s been cultivated into a hedge that was unknown to me. I took a photo of it with the PlantSnap app: it’s a cherry laurel or type of viburnum, the app suggested. I researched a little further. It is a cherry laurel.
Poetry has some role in mediating the world – for poets themselves, and sometimes for others – through words. In the Western Judeo-Christian account, the task of naming – of relating words to the things of the world – is so ancient and integral that it precedes the creation of woman: ‘And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.’ (Genesis 2:19) Earlier still, there’s the account of God speaking the world into existence (‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.’ Genesis 1:3), as if the world itself is the magna poema.
At the front of the house, a New Holland Honeyeater flits from the eaves to the crossarm of the Stobie pole at the streetside. (Of course, ‘Stobie pole’ is part of a distinctly South Australian dialect and design vernacular.) In the garden, two Common Blackbirds fossick in the leaflitter beneath the cherry laurels and magnolias: the male blackbird, which is glossy black with a bright orange beak, and the female blackbird, which is in fact dull brown.
As the southern winter persists, many of us find ourselves working from home still. And there’s a natural progression to the final hour or so of daylight that wasn’t evident while I worked in a city office. After 5:00 p.m. the light falls quickly, and the garden darkens. The blackbirds become indistinct beneath the shrubbery and, for a time, cars come and go more frequently in the lane. I usually work on for a while longer, till there’s a natural pause in whatever I’m working on, then I push back my chair, and close the laptop over. By that time, the room itself is dark, and the street lights have come on, casting a soft glow into the garden.
Recommended: Matthew Hooton’s story ‘Welcome to Fordlandia’ (Sweet Tree Review); Aidan Coleman’s article on the 25th anniversary of the death of Australian poet Philip Hodgins (The Conversation); Philip Hodgins’ poems ‘Making Hay’ and ‘Shooting the Dogs’; Rae Armantrout’s Partly: New and Selected Poems 2001-2015 (Wesleyan UP); and (song-wise) Donovan Woods’ ‘Portland, Maine’ and Field Guide’s ‘You Were’.
One of my poems is among 20 that have been tagged on the footpaths of Adelaide’s CBD. The poems have been stencilled with invisible paint, and will only appear when it rains… a little something to brighten our downcast/overcast winter days. A map of the poems’ locations is forthcoming, but I particularly like the idea that many people will come across the poems incidentally. A big thank you to Jill Jones (who selected the poems), the Raining Poetry in Adelaide team, and the City of Adelaide.
My poem ‘Buonanotte’ has been published in Australian Poetry Anthology, the annual anthology produced by Australian Poetry, our peak body for poets. The 2020 anthology (volume 8) was edited by Melinda Smith and Sara Saleh. It includes poems by Stuart Barnes, Anne Casey, Tricia Dearborn, Shastra Deo, Toby Fitch, Jane Gibian, Dominique Hecq, Paul Hetherington, Geoff Page, and fellow South Australian poets Jill Jones, Bronwyn Lovell, Rachael Mead, David Mortimer, Heather Taylor-Johnson, and Manal Younus.
A few photos from the launch of my debut book of poems ‘Carte Blanche’ (Vagabond Press, 2019) and Aidan Coleman’s third book of poems ‘Mount Sumptuous’ (Wakefield Press, 2020) on 12 February 2020, at The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton. The launch was hosted by NO WAVE Monthly Poetry Reading Series, in conjunction with Wakefield Press and Vagabond Press. Many thanks to Olivia de Zilva of NO WAVE for the photos.
At long last, the Adelaide (‘home town’) launch of my debut book of poems, ‘Carte Blanche’, is imminent. The launch will be a joint-launch, shared with friend and long-time collaborator Aidan Coleman, whose third book of poems, ‘Mount Sumptuous’, has been published by Wakefield Press.
The full details of the invitation are as follows: You’re invited to celebrate the joint-launch of two new books of poems, Aidan Coleman’s ‘Mount Sumptuous’ and Thom Sullivan’s ‘Carte Blanche’. Join us at 7pm for 7.30pm on Wednesday, 12 February 2020, at The Wheatsheaf Hotel, 39 George Street, Thebarton. ‘Mount Sumptuous’ will be launched by Ken Bolton; ‘Carte Blanche’ will be launched by Peter Goldsworthy. Hosted by NO WAVE Monthly Poetry Reading Series, in conjunction with Wakefield Press and Vagabond Press. John Kinsella on Aidan Coleman’s ‘Mount Sumptuous’: ‘Smart, learned, and ironic, the work leads us through the artifice of art and aesthetics, confronting our cultural certainties and pre-judgements. Satire with compassion, wit with deep insight. His is a unique voice.’ Jan Owen on Thom Sullivan’s ‘Carte Blanche’: ‘‘Carte Blanche’, by its very title, welcomes the reader honestly yet artfully in; in to lucidly thought-through poems which balance virtuosity and spontaneity, sense and intellect. These are poems of a swift and convincing trajectory with a feeling for nature as well as human nature and a sense of their interactions and interconnections.’ Full details on Facebook.
I’m delighted to have three short poems appear together in the Poet’s Corner section of Adelaide’s InDaily. Back in 2007, my first published poems appeared in Poet’s Corner, when InDaily was still the weekly print newspaper The Independent Weekly. Thankfully, more than a decade on, InDaily continues to publish a weekly selection of poems under the curatorial hand of John Miles.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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’.