A throwback. This week the literary folk have reclaimed the sunny, grassy environs of Adelaide’s Pioneer Women’s Garden for this year’s Writers’ Week. Five years ago more or less to the day (29 February 2016), Peter Goldsworthy presented a feature session on South Australian poetry, with readings by Aidan Coleman, Jelena Dinic, Jill Jones, Kate Llewellyn, and me. The podcast is still available on Soundcloud: Peter’s introduction (0:17), Aidan (2:40), Jelena (17:06), Jill (28:48), Kate (40:50), and me (53:12). Click here for the PODCAST.
A bit random, or a bit of serendipity? This is an outtake from a long webcam video that dates to the afternoon of Saturday, 21 July 2012, which I filmed inadvertently while doing some reading and writing. I discovered the footage a few days ago on a long discarded laptop. (Spoiler: the footage is a minute or so of nothing happening.)
It’s a strange piece of footage to watch, though it’s a sort of video portrait of the poet or writer at work. Other videos in the sequence are of me reading poems I was working on at the time, presumably so I could play the audio back to listen to their rhythms. One of the books I was reading, Franz Wright’s 2009 Wheeling Motel, is identifiable by its cover which appears earlier in the footage.
All in all, it’s not quite Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, or the full range of the poet’s work as described by Luke Wright (‘drinking in the daytime, crying at night / going to parties and saying oh I write / to you a ‘war of letters’ to me it’s a fight’, from his poem ‘A Poet’s Work is Never Done’). Instead, it’s a long moment of lying around on a pleasant winter afternoon (t-shirt weather), reading from a few books, and typing away to an airy ambience of suburban street noise, wattlebirds, and passing cars.
A diary note for that day says I spent the afternoon at home writing and listening to music. There’s no music playing in the footage, so it must have come later. And while the diary note doesn’t mention the band or artist, the note for the next day mentions Wilco – which means either Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as I didn’t catch up with their albums again till 2015’s Star Wars.
My ‘Notebook 2012’ (a Word document) has two pieces I edited and two short new poems (or parts of) I worked on that day – drafted, as usual, in blocked paragraphs with colons separating the units or phrases. All four pieces are unpublished. I’ve included them below. The two edited pieces are labelled ‘For ‘Vox’’, which is a poem that will appear in my forthcoming book as a poem in seven parts. The two parts below were either culled entirely years ago, or were simply never worked into the larger poem. There are clear echoes of Franz Wright’s poem ‘Intake Interview’ (via YouTube) in ‘IV’.
The two new poems (or pieces of) were also left on the cutting room floor, and maybe haven’t had a moment’s attention since they were set down on the page. ‘Notebook 2012’ is about 65,000 words worth of drafts and re-drafts and re-re-drafts and off-cuts and writing exercises and notes and diary entries.
Anyway, the footage is a curio. A sort of portrait of the poet at work, and of the work in progress, and of the word and the (moving) image coupled together. An interesting co-incidence, or an artefact, or a bit of serendipity.
we are here now : at the edge of a world that promises no future : asking for words : what happens now : tell me about the soft music i cannot hear : what if i could give you this moment : what’s to be made of it : what should i do if i find you breathless : troubled for words : if you fall asleep now who will watch over you : what are you prepared to sacrifice : why are we here :
what love means : look at us : the words i return to cannot touch it : things grasped : like a hand no longer offered : here we are : strange company to each other : something less than a life : something sudden like laughter that is gone : the waters you searched for dispersed in an instant : a world that never had a need for us : that never asked a thing of us : not love : what it means to see the world in all its terror : a note never struck : a phrase never uttered : there has to be something more :
THIS IS ALL (21.07.12)
this is all we have : fast forward : i choose : right now : thorns : of sunlight : necessity : this is all : dissolving : & she is : home : again : shining :
BONSAI POEM (21.07.12)
to find in beauty : an uprightness : something like : a bonsai’s bent loveliness :
A few of the books I enjoyed reading, or rereading, in January 2019:
- Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World: a selection of Cavalli’s poems from 1974’s My Poems Won’t Change the World through to 2006’s Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, edited by Gini Alhadeff, with translations from the Italian by Alhadeff, Jorie Graham, Kenneth Koch, Susan Stewart, and Mark Strand (poetry: Penguin, 2007).
- Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán): translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh (poetry: New Directions, 1972).
- Autumn Royal’s She Woke and Rose (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
- Clare Nashar’s Lake (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
- John G. Trapani Jr’s Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain (philosophy: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
- Albert Camus’ Selected Essays and Notebooks (essays: Penguin Books, 1970).
- Franz Wright’s Earlier Poems: a selection of Wright’s poems from 1982’s The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes through to 1995’s Rorschach Test (poetry: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
A few practical ideas for getting (a little more) poetry into day-to-day life:
- Keep a book of poems on your bedside table. Reading a poem or two at bedtime is a vastly better prospect than falling asleep halfway through the next chapter of that novel you’re reading. A poem or two is a perfect nightcap for those who sleep alone; for those who don’t sleep alone, there’s Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán), a collection of the 20th century’s most ecstatic and passionate love poems.
- Keep a book of poems on your coffee table, or wherever it is you sit down to drink your cup of daily grind. Poetry is a perfect companion for good coffee, good food, good wine and good company, even if ‘company’ means a few quiet moments by yourself.
- Print out a favourite poem and put it on your fridge.
- Carry a small book of poems with you. You’ve got a spare minute or two? Your lunch date is running late? Why pull out your phone, when you can flip open a book of poems instead?
- Use poems as part of your mindfulness practice. Read a poem. Be attentive to the words: their meanings, their sounds, their feel in your mouth, the rhythm of your breath, the resonances or reminiscences, the textures of the book or page… Choose a word or phrase that speaks to you. Carry that word or phrase with you during your day.
- Write a few lines from your favourite poem or song on a bookmark.
- Read a poem to your kids at bedtime. Anyone for Dr Seuss? All those nursery rhymes you remember from your childhood? They’re all poems.
- Sign up for Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day. We’re all busy people: why not have poems sent straight to your device of choice? The Poetry Foundation site has a wealth of resources, including poems for children and teens, audio poems, information about poets and schools of poetry, collections of poems by theme, and guides for poetry newcomers.
- If you’re keen on Australian poetry, try the Australian Poetry Library. The poems can be browsed for free. The site also enables you to save poems to a personal selection, which you can download or email for a small copyright fee. The poems are searchable by title, author, theme and form. Looking for somewhere to start? Try the poems of David Malouf, Judith Beveridge or Thomas W. Shapcott.
[From an address to high-school students and their families, September 2018.]
Poetry is a very old technology. In all likelihood, it has been part of the human experience almost as long as fire and stone, and just as long as many activities that scientists look to to set us apart as a species: cave painting, making bone tools, using pigments and jewellery, building hearths, and burying the dead.
Poetry has always touched lightly on the world. As a spoken artform to begin with, it has left us no definite traces of its earliest origins, though in all probability it is older than pottery, and older than the wheel. It has a place with fire, stone, ochre, song, music, story, ritual and mythology as an element of what it means to be human, as an essential part of who we are.
Poetry is an ancient technology, but it is also a relentlessly new one. And so we find it flourishing still in an age of popular songs, poetry slams, podcasts, e-books, YouTube clips, Twitter feeds, and Instagram posts – all of which have exponentially increased its ability to reach into our lives, and the capacity of young writers to find an audience for their work.
I began 2018 with the intention of blogging at least monthly, a plan that went awry when I was seconded to another role at work in mid-March. So, this is a return to my schedule of monthly blog posts. The last few months have been busy with poetry and writing activities, nonetheless. In early July, I submitted the final edit of my forthcoming book of poems, Carte Blanche, to Vagabond Press. I was enormously grateful to friends and fellow poets who helped out in the weeks before the final edit was due.
Since March, I’ve had a couple of poems published: ‘Threshold’ in The Canberra Times, ‘‘Diesel & Dust’ homestead [a landscape]’ in Otoliths; ‘Drysdale: Vaucluse, 1945’ (a terminal, responding to Ern Malley’s ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’) in Marrickville Pause; and ‘Hit Single’ in Australian Poetry Anthology, alongside the work of a number of other South Australian poets – Aidan Coleman, Jelena Dinic, Alison Flett, Ian Gibbins, Jennifer Liston, Bronwyn Lovell, Rachael Mead, Louise Nicholas, and Dominic Symes. Also, my review of John Kinsella and Paul Kane’s Renga: 100 Poems was recently published in Plumwood Mountain.
On 4 April, I was a guest poet at the opening night of Adelaide’s new No Wave poetry reading series, with Alison Flett, Heather Taylor Johnson and Banjo Weatherald. In June, I had the privilege of judging and announcing three selected manuscripts (by Bruce Greenhalgh, Maria Vouis, and Geoff Aitken) and two highly commended manuscripts (by Emelia Haskey and Inez Marrasso) for Friendly Street’s New Poets 19, a new addition to – and resurrection of – Friendly Street’s important New Poets series. On 22 June, I was a guest writer at the South Australian English Teachers’ Association’s Meet the Writers Festival. And on 28 July, I was a guest poet at DARK FOLK, featuring music by Jen Lush, Go Fish and Daniel J. Towsend, and poetry by Steve Brock, Juan Garrido-Salgado and me. The songs on Jen’s album The Night’s Insomnia draw on the work of 12 contemporary Australian poets, e.g. ‘The Louder Silence’, based on a poem by Jill Jones.
In recent weeks (since my secondment ended), I’ve had the chance to resume monthly poetry workshops, and editing work. And I have new poems forthcoming in Overland and Westerly.
In terms of my reading, I’ve enjoyed and can recommend Ken Bolton’s Starting at Basheer’s, Jill Jones’ Viva the Real, Anthony Lawrence’s Headwaters, Bella Li’s Argosy and Lost Lake, Philip Mead’s Zanzibar Light, Nathaniel O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure, and two of Vagabond Press’s books of poetry in translation – one from its Americas Poetry Series, featuring Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez and Alí Calderón (contemporary Mexican poetry), and another from its Asia Pacific Poetry Series, featuring Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook and Kim Min Jeong (poetry from Korea’s ‘Future Wave’).
Adelaide Writers’ Week 2018 – Notes on Tracy Ryan’s The Water Bearer
I’m writing this on March 4, which means Adelaide’s ‘Mad March’ is well and truly under way. I can take and/or leave many of its attractions, which include the ‘Adelaide 500’ car racing event, with its air-force flyovers and traffic diversions; the various delights of the Adelaide Festival; the ubiquitous Fringe Festival; WOMADelaide; the Adelaide Cup, a public holiday, at least; and – this year – a particularly inscrutable state election campaign. To borrow a note or two from Keats, early autumn in Adelaide is drows’d with exhaust fumes, and the wailful choiring of supercar engines.
While I can take and/or leave much of that, I take time off work (when I can) to spend a few days at Adelaide Writers’ Week, which started on March 3 (‘yesterday’, at the time of writing). There’s lots to look forward to in the days ahead – including some gifts of serendipity, no doubt – though I’m particularly looking forward to sessions featuring Australian poets Pam Brown and Sarah Holland-Batt, and Adelaide Hills writers Rebekah Clarkson and Eva Hornung, and the traditional Writers’ Week poetry reading. I attended yesterday’s session for the announcement of the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. It was great to see the successes of well-known Adelaide poet Jude Aquilina (the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship), and Pam Brown – who was awarded the John Bray Poetry Award for Missing Up (Vagabond Press, 2015). It was also great to see Eva Hornung win the Fiction Award for The Last Garden (Text Publishing, 2017), as well as the ‘overall’ Premier’s Award – evidently, she’s the first South Australian to win the Premier’s Award in its 32 year history (The Advertiser article). Though I’ve never met Eva, she’s my next-door-neighbour when I’m ‘home’ in Bugle Ranges, which is less often than I’d like at the moment.
* * *
Of the hundreds of poems I read in February (Lowell, Boyle, Kinsella, Salamun…), the one that’s stayed with me most strongly is an apparently unassuming poem entitled ‘School Walk in German Winter’, from Tracy Ryan’s new book of poems, The Water Bearer (Fremantle Press, 2018). I won’t say so much (I hope) that I spoil the poem or its workings (or the workings it seems to offer the reader) for anyone who’s keen to read it for themselves. What’s noteworthy about the poem is the chance Ryan’s taken in publishing a finely worked poem when a superficial reader – and maybe many other readers besides – will miss its apparent secondary reading – one that notionally contains both the walk to and from school – after all they’re the same journey, but in reverse.
As a reader, there’s a particular pleasure in discovering some element or effect that’s been subtly worked into a poem. By not disclosing the effect in an explanatory note, the poet preserves the poem’s potential energy. Ryan’s poem had me thinking – more broadly – about the gamble writers take on their readers’ attentiveness. Does the writer disclose some element or effect they want a reader to discover in their work – for the reader’s edification, or as evidence of their own cleverness? – at the risk of being heavy-handed and untrusting? Or do they leave it undisclosed, keeping the poem’s full range of delight open to the reader? Some of the pleasure of discovering an undisclosed element or effect, then, is knowing you’ve rewarded the poet for their trust.
In addition to this one poem, it’s an excellent book – though I’ll leave it to others to say more in the reviews that will, no doubt, follow. It’s Ryan’s first book of poems since 2013’s Unearthed (Fremantle Press) and 2014’s Hoard (Whitmore Press). Unearthed is also an excellent book, and one which resonated with me at the time I read it – particularly the ‘Karlsruhe’ poems. Unearthed can be read profitably alongside Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, 2012), winner of the 2012 TS Eliot Prize and 2013 Pulitzer Prize, which shares something of its circumstance and themes.
Adelaide, a Mediterranean city – Little Windows Press’ chapbook series – Poetry reading at Café Latino – The future of Adelaide Writers’ Week – Adelaide Writers’ Week 2018
Adelaide, like some of the world’s most romanticised cities, has a Mediterranean climate with dry summers and mild winters: think Algiers, Athens, Barcelona, Casablanca, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Madrid, Marseille, Seville, and Rome, and – away from the Mediterranean – Perth, Cape Town, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It’s a climate that’s well adapted to human flourishing, associated with the ‘Mediterranean trinity’ of wheat, vines and olives. Here, in South Australia, the local wine and tourism industries enthusiastically remind us there are over 200 cellar-doors within an hour or so’s drive of the CBD – some in Thiele-country, others in Heysen-country, others to the south of the city. Even when the spring and summer days are harsh to us with their heat and dryness, they pay a dividend of long, warm evenings. (It was Camus who wrote in his essay ‘Summer in Algiers’: ‘The loves we share with a city are often secret loves.’) It’s a climate that’s favourable to Adelaide at its cosmopolitan – and romanticised – best: the vision of a hospitable and orderly city, of long summer evenings, alfresco dining, local wines and produce, and sunsets over the gulf. And the arts, and poetry, are an essential part of it, too.
Fittingly, then, Little Windows Press – the enterprise of publishers Jill Jones and Alison Flett – launched its second annual series of chapbooks on a warm Adelaide evening at The Howling Owl, in a lively corner of Adelaide’s East End – between the fashionably unfashionable crowd at The Exeter Hotel, and the unfashionably unfashionable mock-Tudor of The Elephant British Pub. The 2017 series features Adam Aitken’s Notes on the River, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s The Aura of Loss, Jen Hadfield’s Mortis and Tenon and Kathryn Hummel’s The Body That Holds. It was a great launch. For notes on the event and each of the chapbooks, I recommend this blogpost by Adelaide poet JV Birch. The chapbooks are available from the Little Windows website.
More recently, Café Latino at Woodville hosted an excellent and enlivening evening of food, poetry and music on Sunday, 26 November. The event neatly foregrounded the poetry, and offered a selection of favourites – courtesy Shakespeare, Hopkins, Shelley, and the like – along with lesser known poems, poems by local poets, and popular song lyrics read as poetry.
This month, old news was good news: I enjoyed posting a few words on Facebook, reflecting on the ‘Light & Glorie’ project Aidan Coleman and I ran in November 2012. Meanwhile, the new news was more complicated. It was sad to read that Tincture Journal will be publishing its final edition on 1 December 2017, having achieved a great deal since it began in 2013. A big congratulations and best wishes to editor Daniel Young, and the editorial team, including poetry editor Stuart Barnes. It was disappointing to read that Laura Kroetsch, Director of Adelaide Writers’ Week since 2012, will direct her final Writers’ Week in March 2018. One distinctive and welcome hallmark of Laura’s directorship has been her efforts to introduce many of New Zealand’s most celebrated poets to Adelaide audiences.
It was disappointing, too, to read that the Adelaide Festival Board is reconsidering Writers’ Week’s status as the country’s only free writers’ festival – an essential characteristic since it began in 1960. Being free to the public is a concession that gives all South Australians access to great writers, writing and ideas – particularly those people whom ticketed events would most readily exclude. I think back to my own tentative introduction to Writers’ Week, which was an initiation into a culture of ideas and writing, beyond the hallways and bookstacks of the university. 2006, my first serious Writers’ Week, acquainted me with the work of Nick Jose, Gail Jones, Simon Armitage, Judith Beveridge, Peter Skrzynecki, Vincent O’Sullivan, and others I don’t recall. And early March days at Writers’ Week are a paradigm of Adelaide at its cosmopolitan (and ‘Dunstanian’) best. It’s a vision of the city (indeed, the Province) that is (or should be) in keeping with the idealistic and dissenting ambitions of its founders, including those honoured by the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden in which Writers’ Week is set.
Of course, the city’s singular idealism is haunted by its notorious vulnerability to the sinister. It was Salman Rushdie who said at Writers’ Week in 1984 that ‘Adelaide is an ideal setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film … sleepy, conservative towns are where those things happen. Exorcisms, omens, shinings, poltergeists. Adelaide is Amityville, or Salem, and things here go bump in the night.’ Kerryn Goldsworthy quotes Rushdie more fully in her book Adelaide (NewSouth Publishing, 2011), and reminds us that his reckoning predates the events associated with Snowtown by two decades. She goes on, though, to counterbalance this view with that of Adelaide novelist Barbara Hanrahan (1939-1991): ‘[she] sees the strangeness of Adelaide crime as not unique to the city but rather as highlighted and thrown into stark relief by the contrast with its carefully maintained outer image, which is both of beauty and of virtue’ (p. 169). In any case, it’s a rumination that places Writers’ Week at the centre of Adelaide’s identity and cultural life. There’re plenty of reasons to be careful and protective of its legacy, and its accessibility to all quarters of the South Australian community.
To return to the good news, it was great to read poems by South Australian poets Ken Bolton, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Natalie Harkin, Jill Jones, Mike Ladd, and Heather Taylor Johnson among Sarah Holland-Batt’s selections for The Best Australian Poems 2017 (Black Inc, 2017). Sarah will be a featured writer at Writers’ Week 2018, along with New Zealand poet Ashleigh Young and US poet Patricia Lockwood. However, there’s plenty of summer to enjoy or endure before then. In the immediate short-term, the Mediterranean climate is offering a humid 34 degrees, partly cloudy, with the chance of thunderstorms.
Ted Hughes, Jackson Pollock & The New Poetry – Poetry reading & workshop in Gawler – Other Worlds with Pedro Mairal & friends – Garron Publishing’s chapbook series – Little Windows Press’ chapbook series – Poems for October
Well, October always reminds me of the opening lines of Ted Hughes’ poem: “October is marigold, and yet / A glass half full of wine left out // To the dark heaven all night, by dawn / Has dreamed a premonition // Of ice across its eye …” (“October Dawn”). It’s a poem set in the northern autumn, of course, but it was published in A. Alvarez’s 1962 anthology, The New Poetry, which was my adolescent introduction to the work of Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn and others – including Ian Hamilton, who was an improbable favourite at the time, given his modest output. As Hamilton himself wrote: “Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think.” The New Poetry was probably also my introduction to Jackson Pollock, as the cover features his painting Convergence. In Adelaide (and elsewhere, I imagine), October is associated with the flowering of native frangipanis; November, needless to say, is the month of jacarandas. All of this is an aside.
Mid-October was busy poetry-wise. It was great to be involved in a poetry workshop and reading at the Prince Albert Hotel, Gawler, on 15 October. Aidan Coleman and I ran a small workshop on editing poetry in the morning, followed by readings by Aidan, Jelena Dinic, Rachael Mead and I, and an open mic session. The event was supported by Country Health SA, Centacare and the State’s Mental Health Coalition, as part of Mental Health Week. Happily, it was an outdoor event that coincided with the finest spring day we’d had till then. A chapbook was compiled for the reading, featuring the work of local visual artist Henry Stentiford.
On 17 October I emceed Other Worlds: Pedro Mairal and Friends at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, featuring Liz Allan (SA), Jaydeep Sarangi (India) and Jennifer Liston (SA), with acclaimed Argentinian author Pedro Mairal. It was the second event I’ve been involved with at the Wheatsheaf this year, and the result of some very unassuming planning by Matt Hooton and Nick Jose from Adelaide University. It was the evening of another fine spring day. Liz, Jaydeep and Jennifer gave excellent readings (short stories or poetry), and Pedro finished the evening with a prose piece, poem and song written during – and about – his time in Adelaide.
On 22 October, Garron Publishing launched its Spring 2017 series of chapbooks (its fifth series), featuring Jill Jones’ The Quality of Light, Peter Goldsworthy’s Anatomy of a Metaphor, Heather Taylor Johnson’s Thump, David Mortimer’s Act Three, and Cary Hamlyn’s Ultrasound in B-Flat. I’ve been carrying at least one or two of the chapbooks with me since then, as an accompaniment for any impromptu coffee. Once again, it’s an excellent selection of poets and poems and, for those here and interstate, the chapbooks are available from Sharon and Gary via the Garron Publishing website.
On 25 October, Alison Flett and Jill Jones gave an excellent poetry reading at Halifax Café. It was a perfect pairing: Alison and Jill, as Little Windows Press, will launch their second annual series of chapbooks at The Howling Owl, Adelaide, on 14 November (further details). In keeping with Little Windows’ intention that “[e]ach series has at least one South Australian poet, one interstate poet and one poet from a country other than Australia”, the 2017 series will feature chapbooks by Adam Aitken (NSW), Ali Cobby Eckermann (SA), Jen Hadfield (UK) and Kathryn Hummel (SA).
In terms of my reading, October included some of JM Coetzee’s early work, novellas by Denis Johnson, Jack Underwood’s debut book of poems Happiness (Faber & Faber, 2015) and Bonny Cassidy’s recent book of poems Chatelaine (Giramondo, 2017), among other things. There was also the inaugural Rogue State event on 31 October, but more on that at a future time.
Some recommended ‘October’ reading:
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 Café
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.