Pushing Boundaries: Mark Roberts reviews amphora by joanne burns

amphora by joanne burns. Giramondo 2011.

burns-cover-final-215x300Burns has been writing and publishing for almost four decades, her first collection Snatch being published in 1972. Over the years she has established a reputation for pushing poetic boundaries and for blurring the distinction between poetry and prose with her published work consisting of a combination of poetry,  prose poems and prose sequences.

Much of burns’ earliest work from the 1970’s was, in fact, poetry – though it was very much the experimental poetry that the ‘new poets’ were working with at the time. ‘carve her name with pride’, from her second collection Ratz, is perhaps sounding a warning to those of us who attempt to categorise and label her work:

the critics are coming
they’re here, they’re here

perception ‘n logic, linguistic deception
the cutlery’s laid, the dishes prepared

metaphors marinate, mashed metaphysics
roasted rhetoric phonetically fried
coffee dichotomy, Jane Austen cheese

…..sing a song of critics
…..bellies growing high
…..first class honours theses
…..hang the bones to dry

There is a playfulness in this poem, though very much tongue in check. It is interesting to consider that these days, particular after the publication of amphora, the critics have indeed been coming – in most cases to praise!

Burns very quickly, however, moved towards the short prose, or prose poem sequence and, in collections such as Correspondences (with Pam Brown, Red Press 1979) and Ventriloquy (Sea Crusie Books 1981), we find her at ease with the short prose genre – what might be called today ‘micro fiction’, but which was then very much prose poetry. In some ways the prose poem, and particularly the way burns approached them in the late 70’s and 80’s, could be seen as a political statement, something Moya Costello alludes to when she refers to the rise of the prose poem/micro fiction among Australian feminist writers during this period:  “I was trained in the art of short fiction in the early 1980s by being a member of the Sydney Women Writers Workshop who, to put it crudely, favoured experimental short prose over the novel, which was seen as colonised by patriarchy”.(http://reviews.media-culture.org.au/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1785#FNT6).

In part It is this background that makes burns such a fascinating writer. Boundaries have indeed been pushed (and in some cases broken completely), but her work has continued to developed and to suprise. Her latest collection, amphora, is further evidence of this development. It is a major work, complex and at times dense, but burns has remained true to her roots – amphora is also surprising and unexpected and difficult to tie down, just like much of her work stretching back to the 1970’s.

For example, while there are some very fine prose poems in amphora, I was also pleasantly surprised by the strength of the work that falls, for the most part, under the more traditional ‘poetry’ tag, especially those in the first section of the collection ‘ichoria’.

Even here, however, burns can’t help slipping back into the prose poem from time to time. In the opening poem, for example, we see her moving easily from a conversational poetic form:

i know an angel poem can be a cliché
but every poet’s got an angel somewhere
cruising through their work even if they don’t
admit it; ruffle the leaves of any old anthology
and you’ll hear angels speaking through the dust

to a lines that start leaning towards a more prose like structure:

my kind of angel comes like a flash of light a silver
wink  in the  dark a stroke  of  thought  behind the
brow down the  nape of the neck so slow it’s really
fast.it could remind you that you’re about to die if
you don’t move your arse


In some respects this change from the ragged line breaks of the first section to the prose like justification of the second is almost like a gear change. It forces the reader to read in a slightly different way, by breaking up both the rhythm of the poem and the way the lines form across the page. In this poem, however, it also allows burns to insert a personal experience into a more general discussion. In the prose/poem section we read of how the poet narrowly avoided death when a speeding car heads straight towards her:

……………………………………..i felt too vague. in that
slow step to the right the prod of an instant angel
surely reached across to save my life

In reality the entire poem revolves around this central prose section. The personal experience in the centre lends weight to the more poetic discussion around dusty angels speaking from old anthologies or the fallen angel “who descended from a star then lost its light.” that take place at the beginning and end of the poem.

Burns uses the same combination of poetry and prose in ‘rung’ which is one of the most impressive pieces in this collection. The first section of this piece uses poetry, the second section starts using poetry and then slowly changes into prose. The rest of this piece then moves between poetry and prose. This actually works very well and creates a structure which allows burns to explore some complex notions of memory.

The ‘rung’ of the poem refers to the rungs of a ladder and it is the dusty of rung of her father’s ladder which opens the poem. This simple domestic object:

covered in dust, draped in
an ancient sarong, its rungs
to hang disoriented clothes,

Becomes a symbol  of the martyrdom of St Perpetua, an early Christian female saint who, in a vision while in prison, saw a narrow golden ladder reaching up to heaven.

But if the opening section of the collection is full to overflowing with catholic icons, burns’ angels aren’t the angels of spiritual belief, rather they are the angels of childhood memories – the result of a traditional Catholic upbringing.  In ‘Rung’ burns highlights the conflicting symbolic uses of the ladder. While for St Perpetua the ladder is the golden ladder stretching to heaven which the faithful must climb, for burns:

this ladder has no fine points sticking up towards
heaven.  i feel no drowse. No golden dream….

Rather burns questions the need to go up ladders, rejecting the

…………..…medieval images of sinners falling down
the ladder to hell and the lascivious instruments of
satan’s torturers…

for burns the ladder represents a chance to “…climb down the ladder / of memory”. The strength of this poem lies in the conflict between the images (relics) of a Catholic childhood, the stories of the martyrdom of the saints, their ‘visions’ of the climb into heaven and burns’ desire to move beyond these images to the recollections and memories which has driven much of her work over years:

……………………..…………………….not the tongue stretching
Up for the dry sticky host of a first communion gravitas
But arms reaching out for that first swim in deep water

While there is plethora of angels and saints in the first few sections of amphora, it is the consistency of the work through the entire collection which is its major strength. At 135 pages it is almost as long as some Selected or Collected poems going around and, indeed I have read selected works with a greater variation of ‘quality’ – the poems in amphora retain their intensity throughout the collection. After the ‘surprise’ of the intense catholic iconography in the early section of her book, it was the more conventional   work in the middle and later sections of amphora suggest that this will one of burn’s major collections. All in all amphora deserves to become one the ‘must read’ collections of Australian poetry. In it joanne burns has drawn on her work over the last 30 years or so to create a work that threatens to become a classic.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

amphora is available from Giramondo http://www.giramondopublishing.com/category/author/joanne-burns-author


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