a pocket Kit – Christopher Kelen (Flying Island Books, 2011) & Seem – Alan Jefferies (Flying Island Books, 2011) with Chinese translations by Iris Fan.
‘This poetry is a graph of a mind moving …’ Philip Whalen. He was a great US poet with a vibrant living interest in the East, so vibrant in fact that he became a Zen monk, albeit in San Francisco. Who cares where when the spirit is involved? Christopher ‘Kit’ Kelen and Alan Jefferies have had their spirits revitalised by living and working many years in Asia – Hong Kong and Macau specifically. I also have lived in Asia, China specifically, but I had the shutters up and didn’t benefit from the ancient culture and contemporary wisdom which surrounded me. They have had a more positive experience. I see it in their writings, two gentle men with lyrical minds and wise tongues.
I will look at Kelen’s a pocket kit first:
this world a poem
ink never set
and as we know it
breeze makes its mantra
sea is forever at words with itself
‘we hermits are many/but mountains are slow’ (Kit Kelen)
With this philosophy, it is no wonder Kit Kelen has published more than twenty poetry collections. The content is never a problem; the communication of it comes smoothly and lyrically from his mind and body.
He has sharpened his pencil over the years, and sharpened his perception with a lifestyle finely attuned to the world around him.
the old Tibetan man washing his new corn
from the revered tap
tourists washing hands over his corn
the girl with a camera who catches it all
monk unconcerned brushing by
the foreign devil with the pen
who gets it down
mind before that
all second guessing
‘which thou least holy?’ (Kit Kelen)
The FOG Index would mark him low (the index estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading), but the Parnassus gods would value this highly. Why the disparity? Kit Kelen holds two doctorates, he is a professor at the University of Macau, he is – in a nutshell – highly educated and smart. Yet he writes in the simplest of English, in everyday diction with a thoughtful cadence. Occasionally the syntax is quirky and spun at just that little angle to give the thought portrayed energy, but it is never so quirky as to be murky.
pack-up but where you come from’s
……………as gone as what was here
so we among all animals are party to the bush
take down each sky
…………..make out in ribs
a cross hangs bright above
This is a short verse from a meditative poem in ten short sections about the bush and titled as such. This poem was placed second in the Gwen Harwood Prize for 1999 and is, undoubtedly, about the Aussie bush – but filtered through an Eastern-influenced sensibility. Kelen now lives in Macau and a small town in New South Wales – the best of both worlds, perhaps.
I own a number of Kelen’s collections, going back to his first The Naming of the Harbour and the Trees, published in 1992. This little pocketful of poems presents 39 ‘essential poetical works’ (as the book says) from his voluminous output. How he chose them only Kit knows, but I miss a couple of my favourites, and I have found some gems I hadn’t read before, so this collection has certainly focussed my interest again on Kit Kelen’s work. And that’s precisely what it is for, in marketing terms.
Among the poems are some lively monochromatic sketches done in Kelen’s inimitable free-line style. His style always reminds of Paul Klee’s ‘taking the line for a walk’. One of Klee’s other statements is true of Kelen’s poetry, too: Making a drawing is first about communicating with yourself. But, hell, with that as a thesis, I could go on for pages!
One last point: there is a ‘fortieth poem’ in this book – it is the collection itself. A poet’s work isn’t finished when the ink dries on the pages. Structuring a collection is a creative act in itself. Here Kelen’s experience in publishing and editing other collections – academic, thematic, geographical or personal – and often bilingual – comes to the fore and he presents a collection readers can read with pleasure from front to back and enjoy a cohesive bonus subtext.
Here is Kelen’s Last word – last poem in a pocket kit, page 102:
as the sun
claws its way up
hoping for one more horizon
so I too
call it a day
These two titles are truly pocket size books. I won’t get out the measuring tape, but take it from me I have carried each in the pocket of my jeans as I have caught the train or gone shopping. Compact they are, as small as pocket size notebooks. Alan Jefferies’s Seem packs 47 poems into 147 pages in two languages.
These two poets have much in common – many years living in Hong and Machau, a predilection for Eastern literature, lifestyles and ethos influenced by their multi-cultural experiences and much ado about language. When you live where your language is the second tongue, a mirror is held up to your expression. Think Lacan: your tongue being individualised from the Mother; your tongue being brought home to you, often syllable by syllable.
I have been slow to write this because I foolishly had both poets cast in the same mould. For all their similarities they are poetically markedly different. Where Kit Kelen invites you in and takes you with him, Alan Jefferies is more objective in expression, more consciously artful in his presentation of the quotidian:
for one day the truth will come out
and it will be frightening
Here, in the last lines of the book, the fear is private and prophecy is public. The subjective / objective stance varies and remains volatile through narratives, quirky wordplay and astounding images. In theory terms, the subject is de-centred. From the poem ‘Today’:
to remove the giant hands
from the clockface over Central Railway
to take it
like an eyelash
from the eye of the sleeping populace.
Jefferies’ diction is easy, colloquial – but then I didn’t translate it into Chinese as Iris Fan did. No doubt our two worlds collide in lines like these in ‘The Middle Man’:
standing like sheep in the midday sun
waiting for the medium-paced bowler
to turn and begin his long run.
Or here where the reverse is true – the ‘ordinary’ noticed as ‘out of the ordinary’ and, therefore, worth comment.
I invite you to enjoythese pocket packets of playful and pensive poems, one a selected poems, the other a bilingual collection, both by flying island books (Macau) in conjunction with Cerberus Press (Australia).
– Andrew Burke
Andrew Burke is a leading Australian poet.His two latest nooks are Undercover of Lightness: New & Selected Poems (Walleah Press, Hobart) and Shikibu Shuffle in collaboration with Phil Hall,(above/ground press, Ontario). He blogs at hi spirits.