- Structure, Technique and Passion – Mark Roberts reviews The Abbotsford Mysteries by Patricia Sykes. Spinifex Press. 2011
- Signifying the Feminine: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews This Woman by Adrienne Eberhard Black Pepper, 2011
- Poetry Conferences each side of the Tasman: Short Takes on Long Poems and The Political Imagination.
- Poetry of the Great Australian Nightmare: Rae Desmond Jones reviews The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence. Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2011.
- Writing Elevated to the Label of Literature: Lyndon Walker reviews Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster. Brandl & Schlesinger. Poetry 2012.
- New Queensland Government Axes Writing Awards by Mark Roberts.
- The more things change…..small presses and magazines then and now by Mark Roberts.
- Prose Poem or travel writing? Mark Roberts reviews Vanuatu Moon (Parts 1 & 2) by Paul Cliff. PressPress 2011.
- “Lots of energy here, not much control”: Your Friendly Fascist – 1970 – 1984. Rae Desmond Jones remembers…..
- Adam Aitken on The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference.
- Vale Bruce Bennett.
- Michael Dransfield Special
- Michael Dransfield: Table of Contents
- Why Dransfield…Why now?
- “Who was Michael Dransfield?” Robert Adamson revisits ‘Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography’ by Patricia Dobrez.
- Revisiting Dobrez on Dransfield: Adam Aitken on Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez.
- Michael Dransfield – 39 Years Dead by Mark Roberts.
- A non-exhaustive list of resources (articles and reviews) on and about Dransfield.
- Vale Stephen Lawrence
- A writer of rare talent: Kate Pardey reviews ‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears. Allen and Unwin, 2011.
- Little Gems of Poems: Mark Roberts reviews Knuckled by Fiona Wright. Giramondo Poets 2011.
- Beautiful strands of emotion: Dianne Dean reviews The Child of Hope by Gary Stowe. Dragonfall Press. 2011.
The Child of Hope by Gary Stowe. Dragonfall Press. 2011
Stand in front of one of the Masters’ paintings, perhaps even ‘Nightwatch’ by Rembrandt, and you will soon appreciate the detail in the work. Each brushstroke has created the story for you to see – not only of the central characters but the world that moves and breathes on the canvas around them.
Gary Stowe has brought this same skill to his debut novel, painting with his words the characters and world of The Child of Hope, the first of ‘The Masteries’. Each sentence deftly brings to life the experiences of Alain, an unwanted son, as he searches for his kidnapped sister, Annelisse, the one believed to be at the centre of the Child of Hope prophesy. Alain feels a responsibility to find his sister. After all, he is the twin that isn’t wanted whilst the hopes of his kingdom lay with the missing Annelisse. Above all, this book is about this young man’s search, even if what he finds is not what he expects.
But there is more than that.
Stowe tells his story through his people and their experiences and emotions, with each moment polished into clarity in fine detail. The voice of the book switches seamlessly between the participants giving depth to the narrative. Nor do the main actors always hold the centre stage. Supporting roles regularly cross the boards, briefly bringing us a view from a new perspective.
The language he uses is modern and uncluttered, making the translation of a different world into our own a simple process. Lacking the chunks of laborious paragraphs sometimes dedicated in other books to the creation of a new world, Stowe has allowed the reader to weave their own impressions of this world into the plot. I found this allowed the story-telling to shine more strongly as I wasn’t subjected to long-winded explanations about the physicality of a place. I think ‘somewhere North of here’ gets about as complicated as directions ever get. (Yes, before you argue with me, this sort of detail works in some novels but so often it can become like reading the directions produced by Google Maps).
This book has a delightfully bad man in the form of Malkarian, a Master of Earth and Air. I enjoyed disliking him and you will too. He has no qualms about achieving his ambitions, no matter who or what is in his way.
And if we mention Makkarian, we should also introduce Ranhald and Merredith, King and Queen, parents of the twins. They have each had the burden of losing a child and each have dealt with it differently. One turns inward and the other outward. One you want to shake and the other you want to cheer on.
Holding with the overall simplicity of story-telling in this book, Stowe has limited the palette of characters to a manageable number. No long list of names and descriptions are required to help you keep them all under control. As a result you get to know Stowe’s people more closely, their personalities and motivations, and a stronger connection is built.
Stowe has woven in beautiful strands of emotion, shining and dark, that tie characters together. No one is perfect and each has a personal struggle to endure. Relationships are natural and coloured with the complexities of real life, sometimes a difficult achievement when the world is built on fantasy.
There are twists in the plot and unexpected events – and when these happen they are often quite satisfying. If there is any criticism it is that the treatment of the prophecy is a little cute in its implementation. Yet, without it, the premise of the book does not hang together and sometimes these contrivances are required to bring a story to life. And, honestly, how often are the decisions in our lives based on misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
It is nice knowing that this is just the first book in the series. It is even better to find a unique voice amongst the shelves of modern fantasy. There are hints to what direction Gary Stowe may take the next book but, based on The Child of Hope don’t expect it to arrive where you think it will.
Just remember, just because everyone thinks something is correct, it does not mean that it will turn out that way.
Just ask the Librarian.
- Dianne Dean
Dianne Dean is based in North East Victoria. Her first children’s book is currently with a publisher and will be released in early 2013.
Dragonfall Press can be found at http://www.dragonfallpress.com/
Knuckled by Fiona Wright. Giramondo Poets 2011.
First collections are always interesting. On one hand we have the scenario of the new poet bursting out of nowhere with a collection that takes everyone by surprise. On the other we have the poet who has already published extensively, whose poetic style is well known and who is offering up a collection of poems for our consideration. Fiona Wright’s first collection, Knuckled, falls very firmly into the second scenario.
Wright has been widely published in literary magazines and journals, both in Australia and overseas. She has been supported by the Australia Council in the form of an Emerging Writers’ Grant and has been mentored by a number of leading poets and supported by the Writing and Social Research Group at the University of Western Sydney.
As a result there was a sense of anticipation surrounding this first collection. Would an entire collection live up to the promise suggested by those individuals poems scattered through various journals? Would the grants represent money well spent? Fortunately, in this instance, the answer is yes.
There is a confidence to Knuckled which is rare in first collections. We quickly sense a poet at ease with words, confident enough with them to pare them down to their core, throwing away those words which don’t pull their weight, until we are left with little gems of poems where each word has an earned importance and where we sense that each line break has been carefully considered. In fact many of the poems in Knuckled, suggests an approach to poetry almost boarding on the traditional.
Wright’s collection is divided up into a number of distinct sections – each one defined by its subject matter. In the first section, ’West’, the urban and social landscape of western Sydney provides Wright with a rich tapestry. In ‘We drove to Auburn’ she adopts the voice of a middle class woman from Sydney’s North Shore who has been, no doubt, inspired by TV cooking shows:
“…googled Moroccan grocers, there wasn’t anything,
so I figured that Turkish would do… “
There is genuine surprise in the poem at the ‘difference’ between the two areas of Sydney: “I didn’t know it’s so economically challenged”, but that doesn’t prevent a comment on how much petrol had to be used to access the source of ethnic delicacies for her dinner party. This sense of ‘otherness’, of difference, between the world of the North Shore and that of Auburn is highlighted in the final lines:
I think my off-the-shoulder embarrassed them. It’s a long way
from Kirribilli. There was a Torture Rehabilitation Clinic
right next to the delicatessen.
The twelve poems which make up the third section, ‘Inheriting Colombo’ are, for me, a highlight of the collection. These poems combine the poet’s experience of Sri Lanka with those of her grandfather during World War II when the troopship he was on was diverted from Singapore to Colombo. Wright’s experience is shaped by the stories her grandfather has told her:
My grandfather’s tongue
……………long before his body
I have only these stories of his war.
There are images in these poems which connect the two experiences. While war was central to her grandfather’s experience, Wright also senses the proximity of war in the modern Colombo:
I can smell war in this city, sour.
……….The khaki jeeps creep through the bus queues.
A thin-fingered soldier
………..invites me to hold his riffle,
and calls me beautiful.
But there are also experiences here which are her own. In ‘Night’, for example, Wright’s use of language and her skillful use of line breaks and spacing lines across the page create some wonderful images:
The crevasses of language
……..I step outside and slip between,
snagged on their sharp edges
This is a raw and honest poem, highlighting the poet’s response to a landscape and culture very different to that of the urban Australian landscape in the first section.
This response to landscape is again highlighted in the poems about the flooded towns of the Snowy Mountains. In ‘Old Jindabyne: Flood’, the rising waters provide a ending to an old life, marking off a childhood that now lies buried below the water. There is a sense, however, that like memory, the buried past still lingers:
They say the soggy shadows of ourselves
………….still walk on the old roads,
………….stand in queues in banks,
………….buy groceries in plastic bags,…
Years later, as the waters retreat in drought, these memories emerge:
We see our old town excavate itself –
…………..and our younger wanders,
………….their corrosions and pockmarks
………….with the hard chemistry of time
‘Old Adaminaby: Drought’’
Knuckled is an impressive first collection from a confident poet who has shown she can combine a rich poetic sensibility with a mature understanding of form and structure. Her best poems sit confidently on the page, lines break not only driving the structure of the poem, but also using the white space almost like a minor work of art. I look forward to her next collection.
- Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.
Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears. Allen and Unwin, 2011
Providing you are not an HSC marker one of the best things about the Royal Easter show is a visit to the animal pavilions. Here it’s possible to feel, taste and smell something of the country, and never more so, if you actually catch a glimpse of a place where someone, maybe Roley Nancarrow himself, bunks down for the night. There would be a few personal items, lined up along a narrow wooden shelf, toothbrush, razor, a shaving mug and below it a bunk bed with some tartan blankets spread across it, blankets that look as if they’d spent more time on a horse’s back than on someone’s bed. To sleep here would seem the greatest fun, Famous Five sort of fun that young gels from the city rarely had.
Gillian Mears Foal’s Bread sadly reveals that this kind of life is not all a city slicker might crack it up to be. The Nancarrows are tough, especially the women, and they need to be, dogged as they are by what seems relentless bad luck. The Nancarrows scrape a living off a small farm, ‘One Tree’, the kind of land the first squatters across the Blue Mountains wouldn’t have taken a second look at. They have more than their fair share of misfortune, early deaths, handicapped children, child abuse and one poor sod’s so bloody unlucky he’s struck by lightening – three times. One gets the impression that Mears may be aware the amount of misfortune she doles out is perhaps a little too much and there’s a Laugh Out Loud moment, in what could have been the worst moment of a book that has many, when Noah Nancarrow rides in and saves the day, crying out ‘For once we landed on the side of luck.
Praise the Lord you feel like shouting but that would be inappropriate because God, if He exists at all at One Tree is, as Noah Nancarrow believes, a mean ol’ God and as soon as times get tough he’s jettisoned in favour of the dubious virtues of self-belief, alcohol or 24/7 baking.
The hero of the book is Roley Nancarrow. Providing they’re not pedophiles Mears is kinder to male characters than female characters, and Roley and to a lesser extent his father, Septimus, are by far the nicest characters in the story. It is Roley whose efforts to overcome hardship evoke the most admiration and finally the most pity, and it is Roley who is the moral centre of the family.
Roley judiciously cautions his family they ‘gotta take the good times with the bad’ and surprisingly there are some good times at One Tree. Roley and Noah Nancarrow are at their happiest when they feel their dream of becoming a record-breaking jumping team is achievable. Although few at One Tree recognise the good times until after they’ve been had and a sense that nothing good will last for long permeates the book. There’s no denying this downbeat take on life can be a little depressing but Mears also deftly weaves into her story glimmers of hope, small moments of reprieve, of pure joy and feelings of warmth and tenderness, usually, tellingly, internalized rather than voiced, that keep life on One Tree from tipping into total misery.
Gillian Mears mentions in her acknowledgements she researched this book for years and given how familiar she is with the vernacular of the time one can well believe it. How deeply she is able to take her readers into the world of the Nancarrows; on some pages, especially when hardly daring to breathe for fear of what was coming next, I skimmed over whole sentences whose meanings I simply didn’t have the time to compute. Praise indeed, but a little frustrating as well. Mears is able to create the scrappy feel of the dried out bush, the dilapidated houses, and a people worn out through years of hard work and harsh climate; it’s as if she’s written the book using the sticks and stones and hard dirt of the bush.
The real extent of Mears achievement is, as with all good books, only fully understood after the last page is read. She draws her story to a close by writing a fitting finale for her heroine Noah Nancarrow. “An only life can take so long to climb/Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never,” says Philip Larkin and we finally understand that Noah Nancarrow has never managed to ‘climb clear of her wrong beginnings’. Mears is a writer of rare talent, the kind of writer who can sail over the writing equivalent of a seven foot three jump and come down to earth with arms outstretched.
Kate Pardey is a Sydney based fiction critic
It was with sadness that Rochford Street Review learnt of the recent death of Stephen Lawrence. I had only gotten to know Stephen over the last few months. He was the first person to ‘volunteer’ to write reviews for Rochford Street Review and I gave him the difficult task of reviewing two online publications – Mascara Issue 10 and the first installment of Pam Brown’s ’51 Contemporary poets from Australia’ on Jacket 2. He accepted this challenge and produced an insightful review which is still attracting traffic to Rochford Street Review – http://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/01/19/all-dressed-up-stephen-lawrence-reviews-mascara-issue-10-and-jacket-2-51-contemporary-poets-from-australia/.
Over the past few months Stephen and I had exchanged a number of emails and he was looking forward to doing some more reviews for us. We discussed poetry and poets and he was always happy to offer comments and advice on the reviews and articles on Rochford Street Review. He had requested to review Chris Mansell’s collection Spine Lingo together with David McCooey’s Outside and was working on this review at the time of his death.
As a small tribute I am sharing a copy of Stephen’s last email to Rochford Street Review:
I hope it’s going well with you. I enjoyed your recent piece – ah, the gestetner revolution!
I’m getting a piece together concerning the McCooey and Mansell collection you kindly sent over. Sorry, I didn’t ask whether I might combine them, or review the books separately – and word count, roughly (a number to aim for)?
In the meantime, you may be interested in my review last month for New York’s Poetry Project Newsletter, of Evie Shockley’s 2011 poetry collection, The New Black. (Evie is a black American academic poet, and may be of interest to local readers.) If it suits RSR, you are welcome to use this piece (my copyright) for the site.
.Please sing out if it might be useful to you, and I can send it over.
.All the best,
Our condolences go out to Stephen’s family and many friends.
- Mark Roberts
Rochford Street Review
The following tributes to Stephen were posted onto Facebook. I trust that there are no objections to them being reprinted here:
I am shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Stephen Lawrence, poet, friend. It is hard to believe we will never speak again, about poetry, about ideas, about music, and more. Apart from all that, I supervised Stephen’s PhD and had got to know a lot more about his ideas about poetry, as well as the work itself. Am finding it hard to say much more at the moment. Farewell Stephen. Thinking of Celine, Georgia and Joseph.
“I am saddened to hear of Stephen Lawrence’s passing. It is difficult to believe, when I only saw him last month and sat chatting to him at Writers’ Week. Stephen and I were co-editors of the Friendly Street anthology ‘Beating Time in a Gothic Space’, no. 23, the last Friendly Street anthology of the 20th century. So we spent a lot of time working together during 1999 and I have fond memories of how well we worked together on the collection, meeting in each others’ homes, taking photographs for the back cover in the Botanical Gardens, and surprisingly agreeing on most of the editorial choices. I was unable to attend the launch of the anthology due to a family illness and came under a fair bit of criticism for not being there; I want to thank Stephen for defending me against those criticisms and for hosting the launch without me.
Stephen was also an inaugural member of the poetry group I started in 1995 – A Passion of Poets (a group which still meets today, although the membership has shifted over time).
I hope no-one will mind me posting Stephen’s poem ‘Circuitboard’. It is the poem I selected for the 1999 anthology and I think it captures the nature of Stephen’s work very well, and shows something of Stephen himself. His collection ‘Beasts Labial’ is also a must read. My sincere condolences to Celine, Georgia and Joseph.
Passes through structured ether, receiving
In return for the intensity of the outlay.
The mind’s electricity,
Traces varying pathways across the board.
Of each reader,
Determines the quality of induction.
Catch and swirl
Consciousness in their eddies and flux.
What it touches,
Illuminating one route each time through
Of the grid,
And passes out,
Changed from when it entered.
From Friendly Street Reader No. 23
The following articles form part of Rochford Street Reviews’ Dransfield overview published on the 39th anniversary of his death.
Why Dransfield…Why now? – Mark Roberts http://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/04/20/why-dransfield-why-now/
“Who was Michael Dransfield?” Robert Adamson revisits ‘Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography’ by Patricia Dobrez – Robert Adamson. http://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/04/20/who-was-michael-dransfield-robert-adamson-revisists-michael-dransfields-lives-a-sixties-biography-by-patricia-dobrez/
Revisiting Dobrez on Dransfield: Adam Aitken on Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez – Adam Aitken. http://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/04/20/revisiting-dobrez-on-dransfield-adam-aitiken-on-michael-dransfields-lives-by-patricia-dobrez/
Michael Dransfield – 39 Years Dead – Mark Roberts. http://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/04/20/michael-dransfield-39-years-dead/
A non-exhaustive list of resources (articles and reviews) on and about Dransfield: http://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/04/20/a-non-exhaustive-list-of-resources-articles-and-reviews-on-and-about-dransfield/
One of the things I want to do with Rochford Street Review is to make sure writers receive the recognition I feel they deserve. I can think of a number of writers straight away which I think should be front and centre….creative writers who we should all know about, writers who should be cast in bronze, like footballers and cricketers around the gardens of the SCG or MCG…..Poets such as Vicki Viidikas, Kerry Leaves, Jennifer Rankin, Charles Buckmaster and many others.
In choosing to highlight Dransfield in this first feature I am accurately aware of the comment Laurie Duggan made in foam:e Issue 8 when he commented on Louise Waller’s review of Vicki Viidikas’ New and Rediscovered:
“I’ve read Louise’s review of Vicki Viidikas. It’s right on the money. A whole book could be written about why a male poet like Michael Dransfield (who died of drug use) could be continuously lauded and republished while a woman like VV was largely forgotten If you don’t want a whole book, then one word might do: Romanticism.”
But despite Duggan’s comment I don’t believe Dransfield’s reputation is as secure as he suggests. My understanding is that only the Kinsella edited Selected Poems is still in print and much has been made of Dransfield’s exclusion from the Lehmann/Gray anthology.
For me Dransfield remains an illusive figure. He wrote some wonderfully lyric poems, some other poems (particular some that were published after his death) were not so good. All the time, however, there is the image of the ‘poet’. the romanticism (real or created) which has threatened to swamp his poems.
And I want to get to those other poets, Viidikas, Leaves, Buckmaster and, in particular Rankin who, I believe is one of the most under-rated Australian poets of the last 40 years.
When I started thinking about pulling this piece on Dransfield together I asked various people for their views on Dransfield. There were some interesting replies, many of which were pasted on various pages on Facebook.
Chris Mansell remembered: “First reading I ever went to was: David Campbell, Martin Johnston, and Michael Dransfield. What a reading. I still remember it v vividly. Bought his book later but was too shy to ask for him to sign it”.
Richard James Allen wrote: “I wish I had met him. His iconoclastic spirit seemed to haunt the corridors of his old school, Sydney Grammar, which I also attended, in liberating way – a nice antidote to the more traditional Banjo Paterson, also an alumni. I always recall, “a moving target is harder to hit”: http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/dransfield-michael/ground-zero-0712045“
Richard Tipping recalls: “Michael and I were the youngsters in an anthology Twelve Poets in 1971, when I was 21 and living in Adelaide. Michael was a year older. We never met, though I lived in Sydney for two years (1969 and 1973) and we had friends in common. One of my favourite Dransfield poems is which I sometimes recite by heart – begins: “in the forest / in unexplored valleys of the sky / are chapels of pure vision” and includes ”i dream of the lucidity of the vacuum / orders of saints consisting of parts of a rainbow / identities of wild things / of what the stars are saying to each other up there / above idols and wars and caring … ” Apologies for ragged quoting. Just to say that Michael words remain an important part of the experience of Australian poetry.
Juno Gemes recalls “My Aunt was Chief Librarian at Sydney Grammar for 40 years…apparently the library has strong holdings in Michael Dransfield’s papers…”
Christopher Barnett writes “michael was a great lyric poet with a connection to the lyricism of js neilson, christopher brennan, james tulip & a parallel connection with robert (adamson). it does not surprise me that minor poets have tried to aggrandize their own reputations by excluding him & the little we have from charles buckmaster. what defined them was their generosity & a very real connection to people poetry had ignored”.
Rosemary Nissen-Wade “I’ve been introducing Australian poets to an international online audience unfamiliar with them. All have been well received; Dransfield was the one whose poetry most overwhelmed them. They thought his writing beautiful, brilliant, and extraordinary. So do I.”
Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography by Patricia Dobrez reviewed by Robert Adamson.
Robert Adamson originally reviewed Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography in The Australian Book Review in 2000. While this article is based on the originally review, it has been completely revised and rewritten so that very little remains of the original article.
Michael Dransfield was a prodigy whose life was cut short. When he died at 24 he had already published three books of poetry, since then another five volumes have eventually been published. By the time UQP released his Collected Poems in 1987, Dransfield’s reputation had grown, his poetry had been discovered by a broad readership, and his Collected Poems became the best seller in the entire series. Although his first book Streets of the Long Voyage appeared in 1970, when Michael was 22, he had been writing poetry from an early age.
Michael’s life became mythic and his reputation obscured his poetry. This 600 page biography Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez might be the place to look for what we can know of the reality of Dransfield’s life and work. Dobrez asked “Who was Michael Dransfield? ‘Did he himself know the answer to this question?” How does his poetry stand up after 39 years? His work is popular among young poets and has been highly regarded by three generations of poets who are now well established. His books have sold consistently over the years, and in 2002 a new selected poems was released, Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective, introduced and edited by John Kinsella.
There is a vast body of research behind this biography. Dobrez had access to Dransfield’s correspondence and papers, and she interviewed his family, friends and fellow poets over a long period of time. Here are lists and dates, the letters and plans for a future sketched on scraps of paper and envelopes; an archaeology through layers of time, facts and memory. There’s the infamous incident when Michael was invited to the Adelaide Writers Week by Geoffrey Dutton, but then when he was told that A.D. Hope would be appearing on the same program, Michael refused to go. This book is in honor of Michael Dransfield and his ‘lives’ but he is still not turning up for the literary festival. I thought knew Michael quite well for several years and yet after reading this book found myself wondering just how well I knew him after all.
Dobrez’s generous quotes from Dransfield’s work give the biography much of its energy, written in a jump-cut style which carries the narrative along swiftly, when it’s not cluttered with theory or quotes from other writers. At times Dobrez employs language that fogs up the clarity of both her own prose and the lucidity of Dransfield’s poetry. In the chapter ‘Age of Aquarius’ Dobrez quotes from the poem ‘Island’
there is no real thing.
none of these things is real.
he takes another book from the shelf,
glances, puts it aside, jabs a
needle in his
arm, listens to the wireless, kills it
with a touch.
there is no real thing.
he rises, and the face of the mirror empties.’
The sparse language, and short lines are insisting: ‘these lines’ are not real either, this is not confession, it’s poetry’. Dobrez, however, comes up with this interpretation: ‘It is as if enveloping post modern technocratic society were conspiring to rob its members of the real, so that relief might come through artificial channels, the mass media, or books, or drugs,’ what Dobrez misses is that poetry itself could be for Dransfield yet another ‘artificial channel’. He didn’t write in the ‘confessional mode’ that was so popular at the time. (In 1967 Sidney Noland’s portrait of Robert Lowell adorned the cover of TIME magazine along with a story about ‘confessional poetry’.) It’s always misleading to look too closely at the poetry for clues about the life. Dransfield can be flexible and witty, he can swing from symbolist to dada in one line, or from lyric to parody in a poem. He can easily mix the whimsical realism of Jacques Prevert with the sarcastic rhetoric of Gregory Corso.
Based on a reading of the poetry this biography gives the impression that Dransfield was a heroin addict, and it’s true he used drugs, he certainly smoked dope and tried acid and pills but there’s no proof he was addicted to heroin. Dransfield was never charged with using or possession and yet when he died the newspapers reported his death was from an overdose of heroin, this was not correct, no substance which may have caused his death was identified in the autopsy. Dobrez reports that the coroner’s ultimate finding on the cause of death was ‘acute bronchopneumonia and brain damage.’ In a later entry in ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ Dobrez adds an even more curious note: ‘The coroner found that his death followed a self-administered injection of an unknown substance.’ This makes sense when one considers the fact that Dransfield couldn’t have afforded a serious heroin habit. He hardly worked other than on his poetry during the last two years. In Dransfield’s company of friends there was much experimentation with prescription drugs like Mandrax and tranquilizers, where the tablets were crushed and cooked in a spoon, filtered with cotton wool and then injected intravenously. The ‘mystique’ of the hypodermic and the vein was practiced in circles where there was no money available.
I believe there is as much fiction in Dransfield’s ‘drug poetry’ as there is in the ‘Courland Penders’ work, where Michael explored his imagined ‘aristocratic’ family and their inherited mansion, although I find the drug poems much more convincing. Dransfield loved pretense and outright fantasy and used both in his life and poetry. He invented a world for himself that he could retreat to when he wanted to live an imaginary life. Dobrez calls this particular ability of Michael’s ‘Imagineering’, and it’s woven through his existence. Imagineering, even though it sounds a bit clunky, is a good word, portraying the sense of Dransfield as he attempts to steer his future onward as a poet. His talent for self-promotion was as strong as his talent for writing, don’t be fooled by the hippy vagueness, underneath the theatrics there was a steely deliberation. Dransfield embroidered everything with his imagination, his correspondence, conversations and even his relationships. His existence wove in and out of reality, and many who weren’t poets found it difficult to tell what was real or imagined (in fact, there were many poets who also found Michael’s ‘imagineering’ hard to take.
When Michael turned up at 50 Church Street, Balmain, the house where we edited Poetry Magazine, he knocked on the door and introduced himself. He told me he had just finished a manuscript and knew I was looking for poems to publish. He said he could write several poems in a night and I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t long before I learned that he could indeed write several poems in a day, some would turn out to be keepers, however this ability to create spontaneous lyrics wasn’t as much a gift as a handicap. He needed tough and critical friends around him but I don’t think he was ready for them. He returned the next day with a manuscript and submitted it to the magazine. I read through it and thought there were a quite a few poems that were more than good enough to publish. My co-editors, Martin Johnston, Carl Harrison-Ford and Terry Sturm weren’t so easily impressed, but they eventually agreed to publish some of Michael’s tighter, less romantic poems. The first was:
memorise what you see
it may be gone tomorrow
everything changes. Someday
there will be nothing but what is remembered
there may be no-one to remember it.
wherever you stand is ground zero
a moving target is harder to hit
Looking through back issues of Poetry Magazine and New Poetry, I must say the editors’ decisions made a lot of sense, after 40 years Michael’s poems continue to read well. There are major poems like ‘Geography’ and ‘After Vietnam’ along with fine lyrics like ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Environmental Art’..
I read this biography by Pat Dobrez alongside Dransfield’s Collected Poems—I must say this book was more compelling to read now than it was when first published in 1999, especially in terms of reassessing Michael’s work—as one reads you are compelled to re-read the poetry. Dobrez conjures a simulacrum of Dransfield by determination and a dogged scholarship that opens out the poetry to be reassessed in its historic context. In Streets of The Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides the poems seem more accomplished and innovative than I remember. There’s a lightness of touch, he made strokes with words like a painter, I kept thinking the most attractive feature of Dransfield’s work was its open lyricism. There’s an ease of movement that only comes with much consideration of form and practice. Dobrez quotes Felicity Plunkett who writes that Dransfield’s poetry makes a determined ‘appeal for the right to a fluid subjectivity’ and this quality adds to the apparent ease of his work. Along with the English Romantics and the European poets he loved, Michael had absorbed lessons from Don Allen’s New American Poetry. By 1971 much of his best poetry was written in an open field style he adopted from the Black Mountain school. He was interested in crossing the styles of the French Symbolists with the New American poetry. ‘Byron at Newstead’ is another of his poems we published in Poetry Magazine, in the final stanza he evokes lines from Mallarme’s letter to Henri Cazalis, May 14, 1867 : where Mallarme says that he had almost forgotten what the self was, that he needed to see himself in a mirror in order to think. Here’s the final three lines of Dransfield’s poem:
to be a poet
what it means
to lose the self to lose the self
Dobrez points out that Dransfield was ahead of his time in his decision to be a professional poet. What poet in this country before him tried to make a living from poetry alone? In his early years Les Murray, around the time of Dransfield’s first book, was employed at the National Library with translation work. Something Les said recently would have appealed a lot to Dransfield: ‘Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.’ Before Les Murray, Henry Kendall comes to mind, though in his case being a professional poet wasn’t a choice, Kendall found it difficult to hold down a job. The question is multi-layered. The acting out of the role of ‘poet’ is a complex business, it can be seen as a rebellious act, or as John Forbes once said, it can lead to a poet into a position of becoming a ‘socially integrated bard’. In the 1950s and 60s established poets hardly mentioned their employment, on the backs of their books they pared away the personal details, you’d be lucky to come across their hobby or sport.
These lines from Dransfield’s poem ‘Like this for years’ are often quoted by young poets as evidence of Michael’s courage, as a challenge and an example, especially the final couplet:
In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment
This poem goes beyond the idea of poetry as a profession, it speaks of attitudes many Australians have towards a person who might call themselves a ‘poet’. It reminds me of similar concerns in these lines written by Hart Crane in his home town of Arkron in 1921:
‘The stars are drowned in a slow rain,
And a hash of noises is slung up from the street.
You ought, really, to try to sleep,
Even though, in this town, poetry’s a
Hart Crane’s lines are the reverse side of Michael’s bravado. It’s true that to call yourself a poet in Australia can sometimes be the ‘ultimate commitment’, firstly there’s no money in it and secondly, to call yourself a poet in some quarters would be to engender ridicule. When Hart Crane wrote these lines about his home town he was 22 years old, the same age as Dransfield when he wrote ‘Like this for years’.
Dransfield’s first volume was published in 1970, the second in 1972. I feel he should have waited another year before publishing a third book. He might have caught up with himself and not tripped into his next phase as the ‘drug-poet’. However, a few months after The Inspector of Tides in 1972, Sun Books, released a volume of Dransfield poems entitled Drug Poems. I remember thinking the title was a big mistake in terms of the feedback it would create for Michael. The publisher was determined to cash in on the times, as a book it was packaged to slant towards the sensational. There was a head-shot of Dransfield that bled to the edges of a poorly designed cover with lime green pop lettering. The overall production was cheap, as opposed to the economical design of the UQP paperbacks. Drug Poems, even with Geoffrey Dutton hyping it to the skies, was poorly reviewed or ignored at the time and only sold a few hundred copies. Don Anderson was the only critic who had something positive to say about it, ‘ They are hard, clear, disciplined, fully realized poetry, which add to his already considerable reputation.’ Dobrez comments on Don’s language ‘To have one’s poetry acclaimed as ‘fully realized’ was, of course, to receive the Leavisite imprimatur for mortal adequacy.’
Up until Drug Poems Dransfield had a charmed run with his editors and publisher. Tom Shapcott guided him through the process of publishing and editing the first book, reading several manuscripts, cutting poems then editing a shape for ‘Streets’. Rodney Hall, as literary editor of the Australian, published many of Dransfield’s finest lyrics on a regular basis and this helped gather Michael a following. Then came Shapcott’s important anthology, Australian Poetry Now, a book that contained a large selection of Michael’s poetry, where Shapcott referred to Dransfield in the Introduction as being’ terrifyingly close to genius’; creating a backlash of course, but nevertheless good publicity.
Michael offered both manuscripts, Drug Poems and Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, to my publishing venture, Prism Books. I advised him to cut poems from both books and create one volume. I also suggested the poems could do with some tightening up and re-drafting. This didn’t please him at all, in fact he threw a tantrum and stopping talking to me for a month. Dobrez notes the disagreement between us at the time but doesn’t include the details. She does however quote Max Harris, he was not at all impressed with Dutton’s promotion of Dransfield as a ‘drug-poet’. Harris thought the
book’s presentation was corny and wrote in his newspaper column, ‘If Michael Dransfield achieves major statue from among the pack of younger poets, the stimulus to his writing and the recognition of his developing talent will have come from the restlessly enthusiastic squawking in the market place by the incurable Dutton’.
When Drug Poems was launched at the Adelaide Writer’s Week in 1970—the year Ginsberg was invited—junkies thought it was a joke and anyway didn’t have money to spend on a book. Ginsberg was friends with William S Burroughs who knew drugs and how to write about them. Readers of Burroughs could see through Dransfield’s work. Younger readers were more easily persuaded. Dransfield included the rigmarole of recreational shooting-up, along with details picked up on the street and described the rituals of heroin addiction. There were several powerful poems in the book and this is what upset the local literary set who didn’t know about heroin and its sleazy world.
I believe Michael Dransfield went astray when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet. Dobrez writes in her first chapter ‘So it is that, in the chapters which follow, we witness the ‘Imagineer’, with one eye turned towards waiting journalists and critics, surreptitiously manufacturing his own myths: the ‘poet who dared to be different’; the poet who was a traditionalist and a rebel, member of a fantastic patriciate and man of the people; the poet of the ‘drug world’ who lived ‘in the underground’; the passionate social critic; a sublimely deluded younger Francis Webb; someone ‘terrifyingly close to genius’.
Who’s to know what he really took and what effect it may, or may not have had, on his poetry? His poems can as easily be read as warnings against heroin as Alan Wearne has noted elsewhere. Dransfield became addicted to the role he played; it was different at the time, even before Brett Whiteley came out as an addict, it was linked in Michael’s mind to pop culture along with the images of the French Symbolist poets and painters. A dangerous game he thought he was merely flirting with. He was a born poet and was still gathering his energies and skills, his roles and the ‘imagineering’ were youthful impulses that went out of kilter. In the end it was his lyrical gift came through for him, profound and timeless, as in his poem Geography:
In the forest, in the unexplored
valleys of the sky, are chapels of pure
vision. there even the desolation of space cannot
sorrow you or imprison. i dream of the lucidity of the vacuum,
orders of saints consisting of parts of a rainbow,
identities of wild things / of
what the stars are saying to each other, up there
above the concrete and the minimal existences, above
idols and wars and caring. tomorrow
we shall go there, you and your music and the
wind and i, leaving from very strange
stations of the cross, leaving from
high windows and from release,
in the forest, the uncharted
uplands of the spirit
Robert Adamson is one of Australia’s leading poets. He is currently The CAL Chair in Poetry in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney.
This is a revised version of an article first published in Australia Humanities Review in 2000. Note. The references to the Robert Adamson review of Michael Dransfield’s Lives refer to the original review published in ABR in 2000. The version appearing in Rochford Street Review has been completely rewritten.
Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez (Melbourne University Press, 1999).
A prodigy whose life was cut short – sex, drugs, rock’n'roll, fame, transgression, a great talent for both brilliant poetry and self promotion, set in the 60s. Dransfield has been all things to all people who read poetry. This six hundred page book will stir it up again. Who is Michael Dransfield? How does his poetry stand up after almost half a century?
I think it is not Dobrez’s ambition to answer the first question with any finality and quite clearly she hasn’t set out to be an authority on the question of Dransfield’s poetic abilities. The intended audience for this book seeks readers interested in an interesting life. This is not the kind of biography which defends the poetry in any formal terms, but the poetry is used to illustrate the life as a many mansioned room of intertextuality. The danger Adamson sees is that Dobrez puts too much store on the poetry as an illumination of the life. He writes: Dransfield didn’t write confessional poetry and it is misleading to look too closely into the poetry for clues that might reveal something about his life. He thought Lowell’s work in that mode was prehistoric. On the other hand, Dobrez claims among Dransfield’s great influences Sylvia Plath and the critic A. Alvarez, a strong proponent of confessional poetry. Either way, Dransfield wrote much poetry that does illustrate his life, though good poetry it may not always be. Dobrez finds that Dransfield pirated his own diaries for poems, and there is ample reference to real people and events.
Adamson reads Dransfield again and finds that his memories of the poet are not real: ‘The poet I knew in the late 60s and early 70s doesn’t seem as real.’ Felicity Holland’s review focuses on the biography as a detective thriller with no final revelation (HEAT 14, March 2000). She adds that ‘[p]lural biography is a rarity – biographies which ease contradictions and create an illusion of subjectivity are not.’ Similarly, Adamson re-inscribes Dransfield as a plural subject and an unreal memory – Dransfield was all things to people who read poetry, and his poetic practice was inseparable from his life:
Dransfield loved pretence and used it in his life and work. He was a true symbolist – he invented a life for himself along with his wonderful poetry. This imagined life (Dobrez calls it ‘imagineering’) was woven through his existence. He embroidered everything, including his correspondence and his conversation and relationships, with his imagination. His existence itself wove in and out of reality and other people who weren’t poets found it difficult to tell what was really happening in his life. (Adamson)
I would add Dobrez’s detailed and wide-ranging biography shows that Dransfield is and was all things to people who don’t read his poetry. The real value of this biography is in the way conservative Australian attitudes and standards of the late ‘sixties are revealed as one cause of Dransfield’s self-destruction; and the point is Dransfield didn’t commit suicide or intend to die from overdose. There’s no proof he wanted to commit suicide and in fact he died from septicemia contracted from a dirty needle he was using to inject morphine, which he was taking to alleviate severe pain caused by an accident. In short, to many he was a drug addict, a draft dodger, a university dropout and a hippy. No doubt, in Australia during the Moratorium years, to be any or all of these identities was an invitation to abuse and rejection, as in a sense they still are today. As a reaction and in a gesture of solidarity with the Left, Dransfield used poetry as a lyrical protest medium and he often wrote to protest. For support he therefore gravitated towards the Generation of ’68 community of small press publishers and writers.
But we must be wary of turning Dransfield into a poster boy of the Left, as he clearly sought approval from conservative poets like A.D Hope. Dobrez’s detailed research suggests that Dransfield was nourished by the loose and internally riven poetry scene despite its lack of funds for producing books for mass circulation – indeed a defining parameter was a cynicism about tying poetry to any form of capitalist profit-making or ‘professionalism’. But Dobrez shows that Dransfield was not a slave to counter-culture (which he mimicked when it suited); he wanted very much to be feted by the ‘establishment’ of the time, and if not adored by it, at least tolerated. Dransfield was delighted that one of his poems found its way into a school text. The slightly older generation born in the ‘thirties and earlier, whose leading lights were Tom Shapcott, Rodney Hall, R.F. Brissenden, Geoffrey Dutton and others, is crucial in generating the reputation that Dransfield needed to carry on being a professional poet.
Dobrez develops an Oedipal approach to explain Dransfield’s breakdown and lack of confidence in the face of older authority figures. Dransfield was too freaked out to launch his book at the Adelaide Festival, fearing that A.D. Hope would urbanely tear him to shreds in public. Dransfield was constantly unsure of how his Father and Grandfather – a Gallipoli veteran – would receive Drug Poems, and his craving for their acceptance may have added to the strain brought on by contradictory loyalties and generational differences. In fact Dransfield registered for the draft, though seemed to have only a vague idea why he did so. Dobrez ties in the psychology of such gestures with Dransfield’s fascination with his own family’s medieval roots, symbolised by a gruesome signet ring he wore consisting of a Turk’s head impaled on a sword.
Dransfield was acutely aware of what is called in ‘nineties parlance ‘marketing’. He had a strong sense of what was glamorous and saleable in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Through a description of parallel artistic activity in the music and visual arts scene, Dobrez shows that Dransfield wanted desperately to become the first Australian poet to become a pop idol. Perhaps his most destructive delusion was that he could control the mirror games of the market at that time. In order to sell his book Drug Poems at a time when all books had to be checked by the censorship board, he could project the image of the drug poet to a public he thought wanted to read about drugs and drug taking. The problem was that in 1972 his book didn’t sell, and in the end it was the Commonwealth Literature Fund that baled him out with a Young Writers grant. Then, as now, poetry by young Australian poets didn’t sell.
Dobrez brings in Fredric Jameson and Jacques Lacan’s ideas of the Gaze to reinforce her notion of Dransfield as a mass of contradictions: he was at various times and all at once the Imagineer, the purple Prince, the Troubadour, the Unrequited lover, the Edwardian squire, and the Keats of Hippiedom. All of these are well-known masculine roles in which the poet/Magus is in control of the Gaze and its object. But one of Dobrez’s most interesting chapters reveals Dransfield as a sympathiser in the house of a Female semiotic as practised by his lover Hilary Burns, a painter who specialised in childhood visions and the power of the Gaze. The period of life in a Paddington Loft and on various rural properties constitutes for Dransfield a growing female aestheticism, which was solipsistic and illusionistic but also a happy and creative period, during which Dransfield wrote his most enduring poems. Dransfield was also extremely close and relaxed with his mother and sister, in whose house he fell into a coma under mysterious circumstances.
In the end he became at least one of his projections: the Posthumous Poet. For me Dobrez’s text conjure the ultimate question: not how did he die, but what would he be doing now, if he had lived? Far from the notion of the drugged out hippie, Dobrez’s narrative shows Dransfield was developing life-preserving skills in a time of late-capitalism, and became adept at property speculation at a time suburban baby-boomers were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ‘normal’ lifestyle choices of baby-boomerism. Dransfield’s rural experiment was a precursor of the ABC comedy series Sea-Change, Dransfield consumed ’60s culture better than anyone, and, according to Dobrez, this consumption included the re-appropriation of a ’50s dream of home. Dransfield’s well-known ‘Courland-Penders’ poems are a fabrication of an ancestral home haunted by ghosts and nostalgia for an aristocratic ideal. According to a friend, Richard Hopkinson, Dransfield ‘had visions of magical properties just waiting to be bought for negligible sums! He wrote to every country council in NSW inquiring about their next auctions’ (D, 436). In Dransfield’s postmodern scale of values, there was little difference between the visionary pleasures of drugs and the pleasures of living in a restored colonial mansion in Cobargo. In fact, they went together. However, despite one successful sale, the reality of real estate brought Dransfield down: a) the properties suffered problems with sewerage, wiring etc.; and b) Dransfield could hardly afford the mortgage. As Adamson asserts, the 60s is a decade no different to any other era ‘when poverty hovers above the rented Loft.’
Was Dransfield an operator? According to Dobrez, ‘he was ready to write advertising copy if the occasion called for it, as he was to write poems; he might have fitted very easily into an emerging commercial culture in which value is determined by image’ (441).
The main strain I have with this biography is that a life could be so contradictory and provisional, yet Dobrez’s discussion of postmodern theory never quite gets off the ground. This is a biography that constantly reflects on itself and invokes theory as a defence against those who expect biography to be recuperative/and or morally certain. I’m not sure if there’s too much theory, or too little. On the question of life’s provisionality I feel disquiet. Dransfield’s lives were labyrinthine and for Dobrez they are a proto-postmodern phenomenon. Why then has lifestyle/marketing theory become so functionalist? One expects a lifestyle to be consistent, otherwise its unmarketable as a ‘lifestyle’ in the first place. Whether or not one can or cannot close the narrative, I get the impression that there are mutually exclusive Dransfields vying for control of the biography, but the theory is too certain of itself, as if Dobrez was trying to fulfill the academic need to push a persuasive argument, like a PhD thesis that needs a closed conclusion. For Dransfield: case dismissed.
Much of Dransfield’s life can never be proved either way. Was Dransfield beholden to drug dealers in Crown Street? Was he stabbed in Kings Cross? Did a policeman really try to run him down on a country road? There was the talented and charming man Adamson remembers, never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he had been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete. This suggests a man who knew himself and what he wanted (i.e. the operator).
The other strain is the symptom of the unflinching way Dobrez details the ugly mind/body of Dransfield, the rejected man and lover, the velvet urinal, the pin-prick, the victim of multiple accidents with cars and motorbikes, who buys drugs to relieve pain. Adamson criticises the book for giving the impression that Dransfield was addicted to heroin. But Dobrez never definitively commits herself to this conclusion. This is theoretically consistent, for there is no final authority to say whether Dransfield was an addict. Still, it is annoying that this is repeatedly suggested. Perhaps the gap between the reality and the text should remain mysterious and unresolved, but as Adamson reveals, readers will continue to make judgements, whether moral or amoral, no matter how theoretically committed and fastidiously detached the biographer.
Here, biography of a celebrity risks becoming voyeuristic, as if the biographer and her readers were attempting to penetrate an exotic body. As readers we inhabit a morgue of illusion, rumour and lies. As a post-baby-boomer reading this, I also confront my own resentments and fraught relationship with my antecedents. I’m not sure I would have liked Dransfield the operator. There is Dransfield the prima-donna who reacts to an adverse review by threatening the reviewer with ‘a lead pipe / across your throat.’
I agree with Holland’s judgement of Michael Dransfield’s Lives as a work that takes no singular moral vantage point. It is not biography of recuperation, nor is it hagiography. It is however clinical when it needs to be, for example, the description of Dransfield’s manner of dying. It is as fair as it could be to Dransfield’s peers, relatives and friends. As Adamson testifies, it is a biography that is ‘successful in that, as one reads it, you are compelled by its narrative to reread the poetry.’ One hopes that readers will go on to do just that.
Adam Aitken latest collection of poetry is the chapbook Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press). He has just returned from three seasons in France and now lives in Sydney.
Michael Dransfield is one of the enigmas of Australian poetry. When he died at the age of 24 on 20th April 1973 he had published three books of poetry (Streets of the Long Voyage, The Inspector of Tides and Drug Poems – though Drug Poems also contained a number of poems which first appeared in the first two collections). While he has conveniently linked to the so-called ‘Generation of 68’, looking back, like many other poets of that period, he does not fit easily into the commonly head notions of what the generation of 68 was all about.
I first came across Dransfield as a seventeen year old discovering for the first time that there was a poetry that was closer to the song lyrics I was listening to rather than the poetry we were being taught in High School. I discovered New Poetry magazine and the work of Laurie Duggan, Bob Adamson, J S Harry and many others. I also discovered Dransfield through the Robyn Archer LP Wild Girl in the Heart –an album were she put the poems of a number of contemporary Australian poets to music. ‘Outback’, in particular, spoke to the young left wing poet I then was. These were the days of yellow-cake shipments through White Bay in the middle of the night. Australia was no longer ridding on the sheep’s back, rather they were digging the ground away from under us – and Dransfield seemed to sum it all up in that single poem.
As a result I then hunted the two UQP paperback poet books he had released Street of the Long Voyage and Inspector of the Tides. In these books I discovered some of the most lyrical contemporary poems I had yet come across (I was, admittedly, coming off a low base). Poems like ‘Pas de deux for Lovers‘ and ‘Deuteronomy’ were a revelation and I spent far too long trying to replicate the style and mood of poems such as these. Then there were the slightly more difficult poems, including poems like Bums’ Rush which, even looking back over forty years, remains one of the best ‘drug poems’ every written in Australia.
Later I would track down the other books, Drug Poems I bought off a friend, Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal I found in a second hand shop in Canberra and the later Rodney Hall edited collections: Voyage into Solitude, The Second Month of Spring and the Collected Poems, I bought as they came out. I don’t have John Kinsella’s Selected Poems…some how I felt I had all I needed.
In retrospect what has stuck in my mind was the excitement that I felt when I first came across ‘Outback’ on Robyn Archer’s LP and Streets of the Long Voyage. This was the first time I felt real excitement on reading a book of poetry…fortunately it was not he last.