The Art of Regional Living: Christopher Pollnitz launches ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’ by Jean Kent

The Hour of Silvered Mullet by Jean Kent, Pitt Street Poetry, 2015, was launched by Christopher Pollnitz at at Cardiff Library on 11 April 2015.

Kent silverJean and I go back some way, to when the Newcastle Poetry Prize was the Mattara Poetry Prize, and I was coordinating it for the first time. Over the decades we’ve never had a cross word, though on her part there have been kind, perceptive, discriminating words.  They’ve been the words of a friend and a very fine poet, whose latest collection of poems—the seventh, counting selections—it’s my pleasure to launch today.  Once I might have plumed myself with having ‘discovered’ Jean, but it’s not true.  I can claim to having been the first to publish the poems of the South Australian poet novelist, Peter Goldsworthy, but I wasn’t the first to publish one of Jean’s.  And there is a larger truth to tell.  Editors and reviewers don’t ‘discover’ poets.  Good poets discover themselves.  Good poets who have long, productive careers—poets like Jean—go on discovering new and larger selves from the multitude of their influences and experiences and memories, and from the stories they hear of others.

I could list you Jean’s awards and prizes and residencies to prove how many editors and judges share my high estimate of her work.  But what’s come to me reading The Hour of Silvered Mullet is that Jean’s reputation is now being established on how she puts together, not just shyly brilliant poems or poem sequences, but whole volumes.  In The Hour any one poem is played off against others in the collection, and each section of the book is in dialogue with the other sections.  I should like to discuss how her new volume, which puts together poems written over twenty years, returns to the themes of childhood and rural Queensland announced in Verandahs (1990), but makes these themes new; to discuss how The Hour doesn’t deal so much in the international perspectives of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks (2013), but still builds on them; and to discuss how The Hour is taking up and moving forward from both these volumes.  I should like to point out what gifts The Hour, and Jean and Kit Kelen’s regional anthology A Slow Combusting Hymn (2014), are to primary and secondary teachers in the Hunter Valley, who can now show local student readers and writers, look, this is how you write about the places that you know.  I should like to discuss The Hour as a book about education in the formal and informal sense—the “university of life” an earlier generation graduated from—about how fashions in and attitudes to education can change without damaging students forever, but how they can damage and inhibit too, and finally how some unlucky children are so abused and damaged as to be beyond education.  (For me ‘Chook-shed Child’ is the most powerful poem in the book.)  But instead I’ll do as I’ve been asked.  I’ll focus on how Jean has constructed this collection of twenty years, this book of The Hour that we’re launching this afternoon.

The volume’s first poem, ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’, is a characteristic Jean Kent poem.  It’s about a living thing, a rain-forest tree or garden tree that happens to evoke a significant memory.  As the speaker walks through her garden, at evening after a day’s writing, a flower scent leads her in memory down the path of her mother’s garden, past her breathless father, to ‘a place where she [the mother] promised we’d be / “nearer God’s heart / than anywhere else on earth”’.  The place from the past might be Toowoomba or a smaller town further inland in Queensland.  The call of currawongs—in the last poem in the book that call is given words, ‘Come home now! Come home now!’—summons Venus or the Evening Star into the sky.  With the star comes the sense of a ‘shy . . . blessing’ that the scent and the memory have brought home.  And to me the pretty flowers of native frangipani seem to glow with new light.  The poem is one in which Jean is working out of her epiphanic method, using something familiar, common-or-garden, to fuel a trip into deeps of memory and feeling.

Jean’s epiphanic poems are too shy to trumpet what their matter is; but their matter is life and death, not just hints and intimations.  In a companion poem, ‘Under the Native Frangipani’, we learn that what has left the father breathless isn’t an allergic reaction to native frangipani; on the contrary, the tree was his favourite ‘bivouac’ in the Queensland garden, even when the bees whirred through it ‘like warplanes’.  What robbed the father of his athletic youth was war service in New Guinea, and the tuberculosis that came after it.  The father’s story is one his daughter has had to learn through old family letters.  The father’s stoicism wouldn’t allow him to speak of his suffering in life, but being nearer ‘God’s heart’ and being posted further from hospitals hasn’t necessarily been a blessing to him.  The second-last poem in the volume, ‘Native Jasmine for Jennifer’, is an elegy for a friend, but the title looks back to ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’.  The Jenni whose elegy this is had a sassy taste for the fashions of the day, the 70s, and for whatever seemed chic, English or European then—Mary Quant, black mascara and pearl-pink nails to dip into the gold Benson & Hedges packet.  Sniffing native jasmine Jenni would always want to smell the exotic – lily of the valley.  It was Jenni’s wreaths of cigarette smoke rather than her penchant for oh-so-French lily of the valley that turned native jasmine, that ‘tough native creeper’, into Jenni’s ‘lilies of the valé’.  Jean’s epiphanies don’t cast haloes over everybody or over everything; but they show us possibilities of finding home where we actually live, and die, as against where we fancy living.  Jean’s home, Lake Macquarie, is her muse for much of The Hour of Silvered Mullet.

Lake Macquarie is not simply there as a setting in Jean’s poetry; the Lake figures for how it matters to those who live around it, for how fully they respond to and re-imagine it.  My favourite poem in the book is an all-but-dream monologue in the voice of a Lake-dweller, a teenager who identifies with my favourite bird.  ‘Morag and the Tawny Frogmouths’ would be a poem to take into a creative writing class, be it a primary, secondary or university class.  Morag, ‘Before she goes to sleep at night . . . likes to fly’; perhaps she does some flying as she goes to sleep.  Whichever, her flight is a frogmouth-eyed night reconnaissance of the Lake Macquarie region, from Wollombi to the Swansea Channel:

A full moon is rising, yellow as a frogmouth’s eye,
over Swansea Channel.  In the widening sky
Morag is wisped by memory vapours—
an Airbus to Europe, the whine and shatter of a Hawk jet
from Williamtown, the big-bellied grumble of a Catalina,

taking off from Rathmines.  The lake laps,
smooth as oil over its past, and all those morse-code flashes
turn into the hurricane lamps of campers,
down at the point at Wangi Wangi,
place of many owls . . .

Morag’s parents honeymooned here, eons ago.
And her grandparents are still just an owl-swoop
over the gold-shingled water tonight.  (22-3)

Much more than a cartographic survey, or a reference to Les Murray’s ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song-Cycle’, is going on here.  Morag’s night flight is a self-delighting discovery of herself in the local and family history of the Lake region.  As she flies, she gathers into herself knowledge of her place, its people’s livelihoods and aims, their dreams and fears.  If Morag’s people do not speak to her in their dreams, still the model being adapted is Dylan Thomas’s great radio play, Under Milk Wood (1954).  In Jean’s poem there is no Welsh eccentric like Mr. Waldo, the barber and herbalist who can cure everything on two legs or on four in Llareggub; instead, there are two Vietnamese dentists, living on one of the Lake’s bays in a flimsy weatherboard that doubles as their surgery.  When their drills start up, the walls of the surgery quake, much as the cabin of the refugee boat did when they were fleeing Vietnam.  Jean’s rendering Thomas’s play into Australian circumstances, Australian social history and Australian vernacular completely transforms it.

Jean Kent

Jean Kent

In Thomas’s classic poems, like ‘Fern Hill’, everything from the farm of childhood is enhaloed in epiphanic light; in Under Milk Wood everybody from the seaport of Llareggub is soused with maritime bawdy and slap-happy domestic farce.  By contrast, in a Jean Kent poem, even when it aspires to a revelation of ordinary grace—‘Smudged Grace’ as Jean calls it in one of her defining poems—the focus of the poem doesn’t release us from ‘the nightmare of history’.  Jean’s epiphanies are more grounded than Dylan Thomas’s.  Morag, as she comes in for landing, hears ‘the tangled ghost whispers of Lithuanian and Polish / floating up from the abandoned migrant camp— / from a garage near the aluminium smelter—her friends / trying to be the next “silverchair”’ (25).  There’s no disputing the Baltic and Slavic states’ contribution to the nightmare of history during and after World War II.  Migrants couldn’t shake the nightmare off, a psychological bruise that runs deep in many families.  If it sounds snobby or precious of me to list Silverchair among these very real nightmares, let me declare with regional pride: my daughters played in the same band as Silverchair, that’s to say The Junction Public School band.  To my way of thinking, even a cover or copycat band, striking out along the same line to find their own sound, is a marker worth including in a poem that maps regional values and nuances.

Jean’s poems about life in small towns or satellite regions mostly look to the positives or compensations of such a life-choice, but she doesn’t underestimate the disadvantage of living outside a state capital.  She makes a telling aphorism, in “Old Haunts,” out of the economic risk of life on the provincial margins:

All the little towns of childhood are off the highway now.
Like pockets we have turned out of ourselves
they lie, forgotten . . .  (18)

In the narrative sequence ‘A Broken Engagement’ she makes satire of the oppressive small-mindedness that can smother young hope in a small Hunter Valley town, ‘wombat town’ Gayleen calls it.  When Gavin and Gayleen call their engagement off—at age 22 Gayleen is left on the shelf in Wombat Town—the gossip is so often aired it’s stale in a day: ‘it sounded like just another title / at Video Ezy; just another lost statistic at Centrelink’ (42).  Out of her hairdresser’s apprenticeship now, Gayleen is looking for talismans on which she can hang an identity, touchstones which will assure her she has an inner life.  But none of it surfaced during her week with Gavin in Surfers, and in Wombat Town inner life is not required: so ‘I go to the Travel Bureau in my lunch breaks / I collect London, Paris, America, Antarctica . . .’  There is something loveable about Gayleen’s self-deprecating image of herself at the close of the sequence—the ‘one wombat [in town] with wings’.  We wish her well in her escape; but Gayleen has, we fear, collected too few positives, too many negatives and no epiphanies from her small town.  She might be just as disillusioned by the world’s great metropolises.

The last poem in the volume is the title poem, ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’.  It offers a conspectus of a Lake town that is neither too rosy nor too starkly satirical.  Will the boy on the clacking skateboard, hurtling down the bitumen towards the evening-silvered Lake, grow into a Volvo driver defined by what he can accumulate in his garage, ‘car, mower, chain saw . . . raft of tools’ and the ‘skeletally wonderful / unfinished yacht’?  Or will the Lake catch him with its ‘light-hook flashing’ waters?  Along a quieter evening path there is another child, a visionary child, ‘rocking in the aqua boats of her mother’s shoes’.  Her dinghy-like gait promises a different passage through time, one that will strike balances with rocking lake-water.  A malign figure cruises these streets, a real estate agent for whom all values are property values and a catch is a good rental purchase: will he be the Fisher King to rule over the Lake town’s desolate future?  Perhaps not.  The narrator of this little film of Lake life prefers to point her photo-sensitive camera at the girls coming out of the local hall where they’ve been dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  It hasn’t been a formal ballet lesson but a Free Expression dance lesson—hmm—but the girls have enjoyed it so much their joy seems to communicate itself to the corellas and the angophoras rising above them.

As a concluding poem ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’ draws together many of the threads of the volume.  The balancing act Jean manages so well that she makes it seem easy is admitting, yes, on the one hand there are dead ends which many of us have driven into, and continue to live in, in our suburbs and satellite towns; but yes, on the other hand there is grace abounding or grace enough, and beauty too, if you know how to sniff it out, how to listen and look.  Jean’s ear and eye and her work are free of what I’ll call the Leo Schofield syndrome, the demand that others—the young in particular—have to appreciate what I appreciate because I am the arbiter of high-brow taste and artistic values—and if you dare to disagree, you are a mediocrity and a Bogan.  I commend The Hour of Silvered Mullet to you, not only because I’ve learnt a lot from it, but because there’s a lot of tolerant fun in its dance of ideas and images, sounds and scents.

– Christopher Pollnitz

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Christopher Pollnitz is a conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle who has edited D. H. Lawrence’s Poems for the Cambridge University Press series of Lawrence’s Works, and is currently working on Volume III of the Poems, Lawrence’s early versions and uncollected poems. He has written articles and reviews of Australian poets including Les Murray and Peter Porter, John Scott, John Tranter and Alan Wearne; Hunter Valley poets he has written on include Norman Talbot, Kim Cheng Boey, Judy Johnson and Jean Kent.

The Hour of Silvered Mullet is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/jean-kent/

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Flowing Lines and Hypnotic Melodies: Jean Kent launches ‘Bluewren Cantos’ by Mark Tredinnick

Jean Kent launched Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos at the Newcastle Writers Festival on April 6th, 2014

blue wren cantosWhen Mark asked me to launch this new book, Bluewren Cantos, I took a very deep breath before I said ‘yes’. I had already been reading the book, so I knew it was an exceptional collection of poetry. I believe it is a book that will be written about with great excitement by critics and readers for a very long time, so whatever I say today to launch it will be just a brief wren-like twittering, compared with the chorus of praise with which it will undoubtedly be received as it goes out into the world.

Bluewren Cantos is not just ‘a book of poetry’ – although it is a very beautiful book, not only because of its contents, but also because it has been so elegantly produced by Pitt Street Poetry, with John and Linsay’s trademark care and thoughtfulness – no, what’s struck me again and again as I’ve been reading is that this is a ‘life of poetry’.

The stuff of poetry – words, visions, phrases, observations that stick in the mind or startle other thoughts, memories, associations, quotes from other poets … all these small starters for poems are what every living moment here feels suffused with.

In ‘The Wombat Vedas’, Mark writes

…………………………………….…….These lines are the roads I take into the world –
out and back into the Self – a shuffle
………………..performed with a pencil and a voice and their truth is how
They go, not where they start.

In fact, there is a feeling for me that the lines could start anywhere – in any moment, with any chance observation – so that longing and love, and meditations on the endless riffs on these within a multi-layered life, must lead, inevitably, to poetry.

Like the singing of birds, it all feels artlessly beautiful, but only because of the exceptional art, which keeps the music of what’s being said mesmerizing. Behind the flowing lines and hypnotic melodies, there is as much control of the rhythm and counterpoint and harmony as there is in any of the compositions by Bach or Mozart or Debussy, composers who compete with all the real birds in Mark’s Wingecarribie landscape.

Even before he began publishing poetry, Mark was renowned as a nature writer. His sensitivity to place and his ability to celebrate the Australian landscape are special joys in all his poems. The places are often so wonderfully recognizable – the Sculpture Garden at the NGA in Canberra, Margaret River in WA, the Southern Highlands: I know these places, and I love the way they lift off the pages of Mark’s book in as if they deserve to be treasured

There is also a deep spiritual possibility in this, as the poem ‘On Hammock Hill’ shows:

This is my devotion, then, to walk sometimes
…………………….with the dog through the schlerophyll

Cathedral of morning.

Often, Mark’s poems begin with nature – but invariably the solitary presence of the poet reaches out to another person – often a loved person – or, in an intimate connection, to the reader.

This is poetry like tightrope walking – a nonchalant, though thoughtful, ambling out into the world, which almost leads us into a transcendental state – only to be caught in a web of emotion and thought and connections to the daily reality of living.

I think this is beautifully illustrated by ‘Fight or Flight’, a poem about a butterfly flying into a spider’s web.

….Webs like soft targets stretch across
Every flight path and passage – traps
….So exquisitely laid you almost wish
You were small enough to spring them,
….For the terminal pleasure of being

So elegantly caught.

This could just as easily be a description of reading a Mark Tredinnick poem. So many ‘exquisitely laid’ webs, so much pleasure in being ‘elegantly caught’.

If all this sounds very serious, it is. But Mark’s poems are also full of contrarily playful paradoxes and wry humour. His tone may be debonair, well-dressed and conscious of manners and historical allegiances, but for all the hypnotic oratory, his voice is both questing and self-deprecating, and the earth he walks over is emphatically today’s.

This is a world of therapy and co-dependency and anxieties about what is happening to our planet – just to mention a very few current or topical concerns.

It is also a world of travel and work – and very notably and memorably – of family, of parents (as remembered from childhood, or ageing now) and children (those blessed ‘thieves of our time / love’s worst scoundrels’, taking the best and worst of us.

There are so many arresting images and lines in Mark’s poems, it is tempting to quote and quote … although where would I stop in any one poem? There is such a flow of words; one memorable moment just leads on to another.

Here is one, a description of ‘Sandhill Cranes’:

………………………………………………………..They carry their legs
Behind them like music stands they never learned
To fold, and they slash a loose graffiti
…………………………………………on the cloudbank as they come.

The book is called Bluewren Cantos, and there are so many beautiful poems about birds. For that alone, it would be a treasure.

When I first started reading Mark’s book, in a very hot January when cicadas were the most deafening choirs all around our house, the dollar birds who visit us each summer were also in residence.

I saw one at twilight on the same day I read Mark’s dollar bird poem, and it was one of those electric shock moments that can come when poetry connects absolutely with life.

This is the poem:
The Currency of Turquoise (P 87)

“What is the worth of the world?”
……………..Tim Lilburn ‘The Return to the Garden’

“I caught this morning morning’s minion …”
……………..Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’

What is the world worth these days, do you suppose?
A dollarbird at a distance looks like nothing much at all:
A myna at Vipassana on the gatepost. But in flight later
He’s a peregrine falcon. The way of poetry never looked
So sleek: loneliness never travelled so fast. Wings raked
Back, her heart stenciled cheaply on both her sleeves,
Her colours running from scarlet tip to lapis tail, she free-
Falls in turquoise to the treeline, then pulls back hard
On the joystick, her bill slick with insect, and glides away,
As if the whole world were nothing more than a reject
Shop on a Saturday afternoon. But the world, in truth,
Is ten thousand expensive things heaven forgot to say.
And the dollarbird, at her semi-precious plunge, spruiks
Two of them for the price of one, and flies away for free.

Congratulations Mark! Apart from the excellence of the writing, what we have here is a BIG book, in a multitude of meanings of that word. It is an awe-inspiringly generous collection of poetry, abundant with language and vision and experience. I’m honoured to be launching it, and I wish it great success and the very many appreciative readers it deserves. May they be as enriched by reading it as I have been.

– Jean Kent

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Bluewren Cantos is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/mark-tredinnick/

Jean Kent has published four collections of poetry. Her most recent is Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks (Pitt Street Poetry, 2012).
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Gossamer and Robust: Paul Summers reviews ‘Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks’ by Jean Kent

Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks by Jean Kent. Pitt Street Poetry 2012

The cover of the paper-back edition.

We learn to shy away from certain adjectives in the columns and rows of our review copy. Beautiful is one such, and it is only right that we demonstrate care in its overuse or in diminishing it to a passé superlative. However, I’m sat here with the limited-edition, hard-back version of Jean Kent’s new book, Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks and I’m finding it difficult not to employ it.

The book is, in every way, a sensory delight; from the incredibly high production values imbued in the embossed, sanguine, Indian-cloth cover, and for which Pitt Street Poetry should be congratulated, to Oliver Watts’ sparse yet captivating pencil drawings and that’s before we even hit upon the words.

Jean Kent’s poetry is both gentle and powerful. It is tender and brutal, gossamer and robust, like ‘an argument with air’. The palette of her reference shifts effortlessly between continents, between epochs and psychologies, from Rilke to The Animals. She is a poet ‘swinging on the ropes of curiosity and hunger, gifting us distilled studies on belonging and separateness, on trauma & repair. They are studies which are painterly in their detail, filmic in their exactness but always affording us with the luxury of space in which to think and share, to absorb the weight of meanings, ‘like the still spaces we enter when music moves us’.

It is a book borne in the historicism of Soviet-era Eastern European displacement & persecution, a time of gulags & mass graves, but it belongs very much to the present. It represents an act of understanding, of reflection and translation, of love and empathy, of our vicarious ownership of the trauma of others. There are also the beginnings of a sense of healing or reparation, of acquiring a fortitude and momentum to keep us moving forwards rather than being anchored into stasis by the dead-weight of our mutual ghosts.

                          …..There is a waft

of cooking kugelis from the kitchen –
a comfort of sour cream and potatoes so thick
it is a snowdrift over all the blood and damage,
the graves under the birches, the faces swept off,
snarled away to Siberia or foreign
safety…  There is a waft

of rotting apples and the woman’s incinerator,
disposing of everything no longer wanted.”

‘The Old Family House’

Wringing out innovative imagery from the mundane and familiar, Jean Kent is a genuine lexicon-whisperer taming language, creating for us a feast which is incredibly rich but never sickly.

This is a book of love and of loss, of empathy & compassion, of celebration and remembrance, of trauma and attempted reparation, of bewilderment & understanding. It is a struggle to learn the intricacies of a language not quite your own. Within its pages, Kent humbly summons the ghosts of bitter history and explores the rawness of their legacy on others without ever been moribund or hopeless, without ever falling into the traps of the saccharin or the sentimental. There is palpable sense of her ownership of these stories, however vicarious, and like the most compassionate of nurses she tends to the wounds of the narratives which have made us, and in this case, our lovers, who we are.

The streets of Paris and Lithuania are carefully animated into life, although her Australian home is never far away. She addresses, full-on, the tangle of past and present, of meme and gene, of the forgotten or denied, the familiar and the alien, and in doing so she has created a volume of intricate and moving correspondences from a place few of us are equipped to travel, let alone make sense of.

It does not attempt give us answers but is flawless in pursuing the inquiry.

So much gets lost
Between the words on one page with their scythes
And floating hats, the letters alive like the air in the forest
With gnats and bird swoops and antler hooks

And the words on the other, those cubes of ice
With small bodies trapped inside…
So much

Gets lost

‘My Father-in-law Translates a Lithuanian Poem’

Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is a rare thing. It is a poetry book in which there are no low-points, no pauses for breath. It is a beautiful thing and I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy.

– Paul Summers

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Note: Paul was reviewing the limited edition hard cover version of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks. This edition consists of 276 signed and numbered copies, with drawings by Sydney artist Oliver Watts. It is a sewn cloth bound volume with a red/ silk bookmark ribbon.102pp. 230 x 145 mm. There is also a paper back version available. Both versions are available from Pitt Street Poetry http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

Paul Summers is a northumbrian poet who lives in Central Queensland. his poems have appeared widely in print for over two decades and has performed his work all over the world. A founding co-editor of the ‘leftfield’ UK magazines billy liar and liar republic, he has also written for tv, film, radio, theatre and collaborated many times with artists and musicians on mixed-media projects and public art.