Australian Book Review has followed its 2020 podcasts Poetry for Troubled Times and More Poetry for Troubled Times with the more optimistically titled Poetry in Times of Recovery. The podcast includes Sarah Holland-Batt reading Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’, Felicity Plunkett reading Tracy K Smith’s ‘An Old Story’, Peter Goldsworthy reading Eugenio Montale’s ‘Forse un mattino’, Judith Bishop reading Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Face to Face’, and John Kinsella reading Emily Brontë’s ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’. Recently, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite poems by Zagajewski, having come late to the news of his death on 21 March. Likewise, I was late to hear of the death of American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in February. And, finally, this week brought news of the death of American poet Stephen Dunn (24 June), whose poems ‘Sweetness’ (itself a consolation in times of bereavement) and ‘Poem for People Who Are Understandably Too Busy to Read Poetry’ I return to often.
Vagabond Press has had an extraordinary 2020, with Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics winning the 2020 John Bray Poetry Award, Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness winning the 2020 Kenneth Slessor Award, and my book Carte Blanche winning the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award. Not to mention the acclaim garnered by the recent books by Melinda Bufton, a.j. carruthers, Toby Fitch, LK Holt, and Jessica L. Wilkinson. For 20 years Vagabond has published established and emerging poets from Australia, the Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Like many small literary presses, it faces an uncertain future, and has launched a gofundme page to aid its survival. In particular, the campaign will support the publication of three new titles, presenting work by LK Holt, Tanikawa Shuntaro, and Shinkawa Kazue. You can support Vagabond via its gofundme page, or by purchasing from its extensive backlist of poetry, fiction, essays, memoir, and criticism.
It was so enjoyable to ‘attend’ the launch of Benjamin Dodds’ second book of poems Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, via Zoom this evening. The book was launched by Stuart Barnes, with readings by Ben, and Judith Beveridge. It’s become a small concession of the Covid year to be able to attend these launches from faraway Adelaide. And, in this case, it meant I had the chance to hear some of the poems in Ben’s own voice, to hear Stuart’s launch speech, and to get a sense of the rapport between Ben and Stuart, whose bodies of work I’ve been reading for some time. I really enjoyed Ben’s first book Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014). I’m glad he hasn’t kept us waiting too long for this second book, but also that Airplane Baby Banana Blanket draws us into new and worthwhile territory. I hope the book finds the wide readership and acclaim it deserves. For those wanting a foretaste of the book, there’s a recent ABC Radio National interview with Ben – Lucy’s Story: the chimp, the poet, and the interspecies experiment that went weird – describing the bizarre-yet-true story of Lucy, a chimpanzee raised by psychotherapist Dr Maurice Temerlin, which is at the heart of the book. Congratulations to Ben: Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is available from Recent Work Press.
‘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 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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
With the outbreak of Covid-19, and the consequent cancellation of events, many poets have been left without the opportunity to showcase their new work at launches, live readings and festivals. Red Room Poetry has stepped into the breach by publishing In Your Hands: A poetry collection for isolated times – a free digital anthology of 80 poems by Australian poets whose recent or forthcoming books have been affected by the pandemic. My poem ‘Brag or Bait’ is included in the anthology. Also included are poems by several of my stablemates at Vagabond Press – Melinda Bufton, Toby Fitch, Natalie Harkin, Lucy Holt, and Jessica L. Wilkinson – and poems by a number of fellow South Australian poets, including Juan Garrido Salgado, Jill Jones, and Em Konig. All told, In Your Hands is an excellent snapshot of, and showcase for, Australian poetry now. You can download In Your Hands for free from the Red Room Poetry website. You can also replay the anthology’s live-streamed launch on Red Room’s Facebook page. The launch includes readings by 12 of the featured poets.