Beheld by Niobe Syme, Chooks by Adrian Wiggins, Don Juan Variations by S.K. Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade by Kit Kelen, Imitation Era by James Stuart, Under Rats by Nicolette Stasko. Vagabond Press, Rare Object Series 2012.
This is a slightly edited version of Pam Brown’s launch speech for the six chapbooks at Gleebooks, Glebe, Sydney on 29 July 2012.
Six poetry books to launch together! John Ashbery called a review of a number of poets at once the ‘club sandwich review’ but that’s so New York New York. In Sydney we’d probably find, at the breakfast-all-day cafe, various versions of a triple-tier vege burger. Let’s order one and check out the fillings -
Between the ancient-grain bun, this one is, of course, spelt. Starting at the bottom, resting on radicchio and romaine lettuce there’s an orange yolked egg that reminds us of Adrian Wiggins’ Chooks – this isn’t a vegan-burger – it’s a vege burger. James Stuart is occupying the organic gherkin and caper layer. Above that we behold Niobe Syme sharing a Spanish vegetarian ground sausage – a soy protein soyrizo – with Nicolette Stasko. Next we come to the Kelen Brothers – Kit Kelen mixing in some Asian greens and beetroot and S K Kelen, a.k.a Zen Kelen, lathers the lot with sweet chilli sauce.
Because it’s not that great, it’s corny even, I don’t want to labour this allusion so I’ll stop – but I do want to say that the beautiful design of Vagabond chapbooks transform each title into what looks like a delicious light crispbread with a nougat paper fly leaf.
Small presses have been in my published-poetry life since it began. (That’s quite a while ago now). ‘Independent or small poet-run press initiatives have had an enduring influence on the social histories of poetry communities: in part reflecting the relationships, ideals and shared spaces and chance meetings that underpin poetic activity’(1). In the last few decades of the 20th century, many poets were using roneo, gestetner or mimeograph to produce magazines, pamphlets, broadsheets and small books of poetry – and silk screen, potato stamps, rubber stamps, lino cuts and so on to make the cover art. Gradually, with the progression of technology, roneo, gestetner and mimeo have become antique, if not obsolete. And offset printing or lithography has become a luxury, a costly (for most poets) quality printing method, and luscious silk screen printing is now more of a fine art process. Xerox-digital innovation has become the means of extending this rich tradition. And Vagabond in that context is exemplary. Praise is due to Liz Allen, Kay Orchison, Chris Edwards and Mike Brennan, the main players who keep this lively publishing venture going.
Some of the poets whose work we’re celebrating today have done and still do participate in independent publishing. Steve Kelen had Glandular Press and a one-off magazine Final Taxi Review, Adrian Wiggins hosted Final Friday readings until recently and produced limited editions of poems by each guest reader. Kit Kelen currently edits Flying Island books and Association of Stories in Macau and used to have Cerberus Press, James Stuart had ‘non-generic productions’ – an electronic publishing outfit – and he edited an inventive collection of conceptual writing – ‘The Material Poem’ – which, because it was in portable document format, or pdf, can still be downloaded. Even though poetry in print usually has a lengthy shelf life the internet has given us an even longer one.
Now to the booklets – and I’ll have to be brief because you’ll want to hear the poets and then get on with drinking and further palaver. I’d like to note that Vagabond Rare Objects are refreshingly bio-note-and-blurb-free, and although I did see the precis of each booklet in the gleebooks publicity, I wrote this little panegyric before that – so what I’m going to say shouldn’t echo any stale recommendations.
Adrian Wiggins has been writing poems for some years now. He co-founded, with Peter Minter, Cordite Poetry Review and published his first collection The Beggar’s Codex back in 1994. He also founded the online network ‘Sydney Poetry. Adrian’s poetry has a deft, complicated and original touch.
In this booklet, called Chooks, Adrian writes a number of sonnets, a deceptively difficult form to write and he does it superbly. These sonnets are filled with dilemma, often relationship dilemma. There is a reminder of Ted Berrigan in ‘Sonnet No 1′ -
Dear Siobhan, hello. Is it 5:15am where you are?
at the end of the fourth sonnet, the mood is positively redemptive :
up on stage with yr bluegrass tunes & tight banjo-rich
hick panegyrics (oh the yips, licks & lyrics)
are so cool in an acceptably indecent & benign
Gen Y way – I heart yr 80s pants suit & yr Bali Writers
Retreat keepsake flashcards: See. Feel. Touch. Write.
There are also some noir poems here. One is ‘Cordeaux Dam’ – a dam that’s part of the Sydney catchment area, where over a decade ago now two teenagers murdered a friend, kicking him and bludgeoning him with a log, and then went to a party. A few years later his body was found when one of the murderers confessed to the police.
The murderer in Adrian’s poem has not confessed and still wears the victim’s chain. It’s a powerful poem written concisely and directly. There’s really no other literary method of managing this kind of topic.
and then there’s ‘The Astronaut’s Lovesong’ -
…honestly, love, I want you totally
like a heatshield, an antidote, a splashdown.
From my home in Magnolia I’ve driven
in my transit nappies, in my husband’s wagon
with duct tape, cord and gear sacks
a steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing
in the back.
Yes, it’s about the wildly jealous astronaut Lisa Nowack who tried to kidnap a female airforce captain who was involved with an astronaut on whom Lisa had a big crush.
But, not to dwell mainly on the darker side of Adrian’s beguilingly titled booklet s, the poems are diverse, often clever, sometimes contemplative and lyrical. Contemplating ‘fate’ as in ‘destiny’ and playing on the word – the poem’s title is the French ‘fête‘ which translates as celebration – he sets an impossible task - to weigh a mountain,
any mountain, Eyjatjallajokull say,
(go on say it)
There are also plenty of ‘up’ moments, poems that embrace a kind of Australian-ness, alongside some jokes and fun lampooning old poetry codgers (my generation) - current dress fashions – sock-free men and fruit-print frocks. And, for me, Adrian’s tone is occasionally reminiscent of work by S.K. Kelen -
Steve Kelen has been writing preeminent poems for several decades, publishing early poems in Poetry Australia when he was only17. He is one of OzPo’s luminaries. Here, he takes on the legend of Don Juan, the fictional 17th century wealthy libertine who devoted his life to seducing women and who’s been portrayed through the centuries in various iterations – famously in opera by Mozart, in poetry by Lord Byron and even by Guillaume Apollinaire, and in myriad plays, songs and films.
In Steve’s version, in the two epic poems here, we begin in the traffic daze of Parramatta Road that is depicted so powerfully that it’s rendered a grotesque enargia – ‘roadside even/ A dead dog can be sexy’ . Through a choking throng of machinery, noise and fumes Don Juan gets his chariot to the shopping mall – where
Flamenco muzak is ecstasy, escalators
Are heaven’s path. You ride a dragon’s spine
Upward upward rise through the shiniest place of all time
Shining the way paradise should shine
This is a veritable arcadia of pleasures -
Juan was home, felt the mall satisfying.
A witty commentary on the poem’s artifice ensues and does my work for me in introducing the poems to you – so I’ll quote -
Of course they still ennoble the soul but today’s
Best loved poems are the ones that can be enjoyed
During the ads on TV, while playing air guitar
Downloading a game or sitting in an RSL drinking.
Thus this poem will leave much to the imagination -
What is given are some illuminations and bursts of story
Something extra for resonance maybe some startling imagery
Maybe not; as far as plot and meaning go
Like Byron’s Don Juan, this baby is an open field
A map with a lot of terra incognito.
A quick-epic or verse miniseries that approaches
the lyric in brevity and leaves time for other play activity.
And it goes on to critique Byron’s poem as old-fashioned in the face of the soft-core porn of today’s glossy celebrity magazines and tv soapies. And there’s much much more – we are even given the traditional epic’s shipwreck, a resume of multiculturalism too, as we follow Don Juan’s numerous encountersin his efforts to work out where he’s landed – in 21st century Aussie culture.
These poems are a narrative-driven tour de force. Here is a worldliness grown weary of consumerism, yet still able to see the comical. It’s an absurd knowledge that the material world is, finally, preposterous. In the second poem Don Juan joins a queue of unhappy souls, in various states of anomie, waiting toenter The Underworld. After further disconcerting disintegration there are some marsupials at the end of the road who seem to have figured things out -
Possums laugh, their bushy tails point to the sky.
‘Lost Paradise?’ they ask. ‘Regrets?’
James Stuart’s Imitation Era begins with poems displaying a genial relational cognizance.
In a beautiful poem to his infant daughter the lyricism is consummate. ‘Postcard for Marilla’ encompasses the classic occasion when a father considers his projections into the future -
could balance upon your first tooth but this life
we have prepared for you will close more quickly
than it opens, no matter how much we love each other.
One day when you are ready I’ll tell you
about great migrations we have destroyed & marsupials
you’ll never meet, even as they ghost
across scrubland on the television screen.
James’ poems are diffused with exacting and mostly scarce description and nimble philosophical reflection as they shift through diverse locations. The Sydney Harbour Bridge looks like the handle of an old suitcase found in a second-hand shop in Enmore, there’s a business banquet in Hong Kong, a Venison Weekend at the Austrian Club near Bulli Pass, a decaying Doric Europe, bamboo forests, tropical storms and a quick and greedy street puppy. A few years ago James spent time in Chengdu in China on an Asialink residency. In ‘Images, the outside world’ – he encounters and animates a dragon -
A mangy dragon
pokes his head out from between Heaven’s West Gate
& sneezes, scratching lazily at lice between his scales.
Elsewhere, in the east near a well-worn ancient gingko tree, the poet experiences the ephemerality of his vocation -
The most unbelievable ideas spout up here
& are swept like plastic bags towards the ocean.
And in a cogent poem, ‘The White Horse’, he learns what every self-conscious foreign-devil-poet learns at some point in any country, when his wise teacher’s advice and ancient romantic Eastern imagery fails him -
But the white stallion with its cloud-draped hooves
& silk-thread mane never turned up for collection.
Nor did my Vietnamese mother who had forsaken me on this,
the eve of the lunar new year. Only thus did I learn
that I am from Australia, that I am an Australian
The next poem, ‘Sudden Rain, Tilba Tilba’, incorporates the lesson naturally. The landscape of spotted gums and blackbutts and tin shed-and-flyscreen bric-a-brac are fleetingly imagined as a Chinese painting -
the grass as negative space upon which float
the black-ink strokes of eucalypts?
and the final poem ends in a photo of a mist, not the misty mountains mist, but, (I’ve imagined at any rate), the mists of the escarpment just north of Wollongong -
…even the swans,
who barely register our shapes from so high above, as we move
into & out of focus, signposting this inexplicable mist.
For me, the title of Niobe Syme’s booklet, Beheld, sounds kind of biblical. You know, as if we’ve suddenly looked and beheld some heralding angels or the king of kings or one of his friends or relatives!
Niobe is a photographer who has shown her work publicly in various competitions and group exhibitions. This practice gives her poems a visual aesthetic and an occasional obliquity. She says on her web site that she has ‘a fascination with perception surrounding sense, meaning and time’ and that contextualises aspects of the poems in Beheld.
The opening lines in a poem set in a place called ‘Raglan Road’, ‘Late light bleeds/into the sitting room’ establish a photographic perception right from the beginning. And later these minimalist couplets continue with ‘Now with cloudy eyes/she stands mute/in a haze of olive tones. Dust advances like an army/leaching highlights’ This poem engages with pastness, past time.
There is a poem in an urban hotel or bar that is busy with images of a signature Happy Hour, and a couple of travel poems – at the Mississipi River where the American dream is subsumed to the mortgage crisis, and, then there’s a totally different place - ‘Leaving Jodhpur’, a famously dusty Indian city -
Dust clouds around a ball
pursued by long-limbed children.
Rajasthan, Sofala or Mars?
Every moment and form is rusting
substance yielding to air
and carried away to settle
as desert-varnish, elsewhere.
Most of Niobe’s poems connect somehow with a photographer’s way of seeing – and there are traces throughout of tungsten, filament, colour definition, ‘sun and matter/hum out of shadow’ in a dark room, framed reproductions of painting masters, and photographs in a family house, a window has a ‘ferrous tint’, the sky (in Jodhpur again) is ‘in mineralised brooding’, there are ‘faded psycho-snapshots’, ‘the mind must have its frame’, ‘she gently roamed/from highlight to shadow’.
The poem ‘The Art of Peeling Skin’ is oblique, private, coded and ends with a line that gives the clue to the booklet’s title ‘as though in peril you might find it, a luminous core/or at least the suggestion that you were beheld.’
Nicolette Stasko, originally from Pennsylvania in the U.S., started publishing her writing in the 1990′s. She has edited, in the late ’80s, for a magazine called Phoenix, written four poetry books, a novel and a book about a bivalve mollusc, the oyster. She has also taught creative writing.
Every poem in Nicolette’s Under Rats includes an animal, a bird or an insect so this chapbook is a series of natural world or fauna poems and, mostly, the context is the everyday. Her neighbours, in the first poem and wasps flying around a line of washing, a pouncing marmalade cat, mouse spiders, (not that mouse spiders are very ‘everyday’) and sea shells. Hummingbirds, similar to Australian honey eaters, are found in north America and bring a sense of nostalgia for the poet. Even in a poem depicting three different moons there’s an animal reference – a reflection of one of the moons smiles like a Cheshire cat. Another poem, in a scene that’s familiar in Sydney, the poet is waiting for the bats to make their early evening crossing and, oddly, they fail to appear.
The title poem, ‘under rats’, is at a tangent to the others here It’s a complex, sometimes startling, sometimes darkly humorous kind of European poem. To me it suggests an historical figure, a writer, a playwright, a communist, a Jew, a Russian, or perhaps these are scenes from Nicolette’s Polish/Hungarian background? I don’t know – it’s quite oneiric, coded and distanced and perhaps I’ve got it wrong ..? The structure is twelve stanzas that in pairs are of fourteen lines – like sonnets and the narrative shaping is engaging and very effective -
we began to be afraid of our shoes
they seemed to become more
aggressive taking us places
we didn’t want to go
someone said to leave
them for a while
that always fixed things
but they only became
we had heard of a case like this
somewhere in chechnya
finally they had no choice
but to line them up and shoot
blindfolds were unnecessary
I’ll leave it there. Under Rats is an intriguing collection of poems.
Kit Kelen is currently on sabbatical from his job in Macau, where he teaches and publishes translations and original work at a prolific rate – both his own work and others. And on this sabbatical he has written Green Thought – Green Shade - a suite of pastoral poems about re-entering or re-engaging with the Australian countryside. Where, as he says in the first poem, he will ‘go bush’. He reflects on the return and the changes that have occurred during his absence from Bulahdelah in the poem ‘coming home’
where a tent was first pitched
the garden went
the oak from the acorn
come in the post
the reach of the branches
adventures in bark
heights of trees
now I am taller
Although Kit Kelen’s use of language in the poems is direct, and is in fact pretty much plain speech, he idealises the place where he has a great sense of belonging. The property is called ‘Iona’, an island in the Scottish Hebrides, but also , in the sububan tradition of using homynyms for house names like Dunromin – ‘done roaming’, ‘Iona’ is also ‘I owner’.
Here, he writes -
I sink in like fenceposts
this is the spot
where I’ll rot
In the poem ‘the morning’s headlines’ this particular idyllic arcadia is where the anxieties of daily news reports are soothed and parodied by the contrast of the Australian landscape -
local economy in overnight flatline
neighbour’s cows emerge unscathed
vine in gumboot tangle
hooves press on
haze fails to dampen sun
hoe flies off handle
kookaburras sit out last laugh scandal
These poems are written from an affection for a landscape and its details in a particular part of the country in which Kit Kelen has made his own sense of belonging. Readers can guage, from what he calls a ‘sabbatical set’ of poems, that he misses this place when he is away in Asia.
Kit Kelen’s reflective philosophy turns up in the final poem ‘art of passing’ -
and under distraction
victim of our own whim
I’m becoming past master
of the imperfect
and making this
So – that’s a brief tour of these collections. My apologies for the length of time I’ve taken here and for the brevity of attention to each title but I’m sure the poets will amplify my notes by reading for you. I take great pleasure in announcing these six chapbooks launched and ready to read!
1. A line I read somewhere, perhaps in Keri Glastonbury’s 2010 JASAL article – The New ‘Coterie’, or perhaps elsewhere. I copied it into my book of extensive notes on independent publishing but didn’t add the source.
- Pam Brown
Pam Brown recently edited Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia for ‘Jacket2′ where she is an associate editor. She has published many books including Dear Deliria (Salt, 2002), True Thoughts (Salt, 2008), Authentic Local (SOI3 Modern Poets, 2010) and, more recently, a pocket book of ten poems, Anyworld (Flying Island, 2012) and a booklet, More than a feuilleton (Little Esther Books, 2012). A longer collection of poems, Home by Dark, will be published by Shearsman Books in the U.K. in 2013. Pam lives in Alexandria, Sydney and blogs intermittently at http://thedeletions.blogspot.com/
For information on how to buy any Vagabond Press Book email them at firstname.lastname@example.org