What the Afternoon Knows by Ron Pretty. Pitt Street Poetry 2013. The Sydney launch of What the Afternoon Knows took place on 15 August at Gleebooks. Les’ speech launched the collection on its way.
In the poem ‘Grace Notes’ Pretty pictures a budgerigar spilling seed. As a kid I had a budgerigar that had adopted me, flew in my bedroom window one day starving. He lived happily in a cage for some years then started spraying seed from his bowl out of the cage around the veranda which had been his home. Sparrows flocked there to enjoy the bounty…..?
This budgerigar seemed to stop eating himself, got thinner and thinner as the sparrows chirped busily about him daily. Eventually he was thin enough to simply step between the largest gap in the bars, he joined that sparrow flock and for years in Parramatta you saw the mass of brown at sundown heading for their nocturnal roost with that tiny slash of blue embedded in the middle. I’ll take Ron’s imagery and turn it back on him because I think he in many ways resembles my blue budgerigar’s trajectory.
When I first got to know Ron he was ensconced in the University of Wollongong. I have met so many people who have flowered under his patient and tireless guidance there. But that wasn’t all, Ron was generous in his millet distribution. For years he put out Scarp which was to my mind a high point in poetry/visual art collaboration. It is impossible to imagine Australian poetry without his long-term imprint Five Islands Press. For quite some time it was the biggest publisher of poetry in the country – many well fed famous sparrows were published there, alongside a solid number of scrawny hopefuls having their first shot at flight. Part of fip was also the new poets program which gave a unique mixture of intensive feedback, touring and marketing. So many have been propelled into a satisfying poetic life after being a part of this program. We won’t stop there, there was the establishment of the South Coast Writers’ Centre, the poetry cottage at first in Wollongong, then in Melbourne as he moved to the University down there, blue dog (another high water mark in Australian publishing), he regularly contributed to the poets union etc etc.
I’ve always loved Ron’s work – there is a deep humanity in his observations and as you would expect, the deft hand of a master craftsman. If there was to be a criticism, then it would be that we never saw enough. He was doing so much to help other poets and poetry in general his own output suffered. But now, he is out of the cage and flying free across sunsets with the rest of the huge flock he so lovingly sustained. He is that stunning shard of blue with his “post institutional” books, the latest being what the afternoon knows, that we are privileged to be sharing today.
I had a bit of a chuckle at the first line in this collection “I am in the third level of irritation”, wondered what journey I had to share with the poet in the pages ahead. It was a great poem but it wasn’t by any means a guide to the work ahead. For me, the lines that summed up the whole collection were to be found towards the end in the poem on “the Last Half-Hour” – “
meeting me under this leaking awning, the rain
tumbling down. 30 minutes here & every
minute we’ve been given seems a lifetime.
Every minute of this book seems to introduce us to a new life, a new angle. Ron had a poem in an earlier collection, I think it was in Halfway to Eden that played around the work of Philip Glass. I will admit today that I hadn’t heard Glass when I had read Ron’s poem but immersing myself in that composer’s work in subsequent years has always been coloured by the moment created in that poem. You will see this throughout What the Afternoon Knows. Whether that be in a recreated Juliet far more real than Shakespeare managed, or maybe in ‘Respect with Steve’ “black sheep of the everyday” or the beggars and buskers of Italy. Pretty works off a deep well of personal experience alongside immersion in the arts that lift him. Throughout this is not an irritation but a deep engagement and empathy with the breadth of society.
Much of the work concerns the quotidian, but it’s an everyday that is always at the edge of fracture. In the poem ‘Montaigne’, a child undams the evening & death floods each consciousness.
Ron has also had a long history of writing about landscape and people in landscape. This is also a marvelous vein in this new book, some experienced, some imagined. Wonder at his poem ‘Four Hands’ wherein the delicacy of a piano glides alongside snow on eye lashes, join with him driving through a squall of desert grasshoppers in ‘Desert Storm’, I sweated with the heat of an Australian back Veranda in ‘Change’. He totally gets Hobart’s Battery Point writers cottage. I was back there again with him. In ‘Barista: a Love Story’ we see rural Australia made magical with no more ingredients than coffee beans & lantana. This mythic resonance can also be enjoyed in ‘Eyewitness Report’ as a crocodile is sighted on the Shoalhaven and in ‘Fool’s Gold’ with its lost daughters.
The style throughout is largely accessible but there is much language there to enrich and inveigle – particularly for me the poems ‘Burnt & Kiss’. Where the poem dictates such he can veer off into a wildly divergent voice such as in the poem ‘Unfinished’.
Imagery, when utilised, simply shines… His “barking night” in ‘Nocturne’, In ‘River out of Africa’ we see early humans spreading like candle wax. Self as cicada is explored in ‘Envoi’ and in ‘Burnt’ we’re told “ours was the mourning that burnt”
Many poets, particularly ones so heavily focused on creating and celebrating external characters as Ron does, veer purposefully away from the personal. You never feel this in Ron’s work. He is always a figure there in the action, usually the concerned, engaged onlooker. But we’re invited deep into Pretty’s life in the poems starting with ‘Folders’. Here we see an extended, riveting exploration of his parenting experience. So honest, so textured, so real.
This book is a wonder. It is a privilege for us to share this wise, generous, laughing man’s treasure of work. What the Afternoon Knows is duly launched, all of you here are about to share a delight that I’ve been lucky enough to revel in over the past weeks.
Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 16 countries in 9 languages. His latest book of poetry, Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience), has just been published by Puncher & Wattmann. http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm.
What the Afternoon Knows is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/ron-pretty/