Every Time You Close Your Eyes by Bel Schenk, Wakefield Press 2014, was launched at The Thornbury Local (Melbourne) on 24 January 2015 by Geoff Lemon.
I first encountered Bel when she joined Voiceworks magazine and Express Media back in the dim recesses of last decade. Being one of only two proper staff meant that Bel had to play mother hen to a bunch of young literary idiots who each knew in their hearts that they were destined to be part of a coming generation of great writers.
She smiled and stepped around these egos with kindness, knowing that their puncturing was almost inevitable and best self-administered. She was expert at staying in the background, preparing the scaffolding on which we thought we would show the world our glory, and removing the obstacles that we hadn’t seen so we didn’t kill ourselves falling over them.
Though I spent a lot of time in that office telling anyone who would listen about what I thought poetry was supposed to be, it was a long time before I knew that Bel was a writer and a poet. She never mentioned it, and in my solipsistic world view I must have assumed that her first loves were spreadsheets and pre-Berlin Wall Mac computers.
After many months I stumbled across her ‘Notes for Somebody in Berlin’, and was smitten: the economy of storytelling, the honesty, again that lack of ego. In 2008 Ambulances and Dreamers was published. I graduated from Voiceworks into the wider world. Bel kept writing. Today we mark her third collection.
There’s a intense richness to the image of a New York summer. For me it starts with Spike Lee and Do The Right Thing, my younger self joyfully scandalised by the ice cube scene as well as by its use of voiceover and montage:
Thank God for lips.
Thank God for the neck.
Thank God for kneecaps.
Thank God for elbows.
Thank God for thighs.
Thank God for the right nipple.
Thank God for the left nipple.
More recently that summer intensity has been evoked by a sweltering episode of Girls, or by the Mountain Goats song ‘Lovecraft in Brooklyn’:
It’s gonna be too hot to breathe today
Everybody out there on the streets
Somebody’s opened up a fire hydrant
Cold water rushing out in sheets
Woke up afraid of my own shadow
Like, genuinely afraid
Headed for the pawnshop
To buy myself a switchblade
Bel adds another chapter to that story of the city and the summer, the way the heat twists things to craziness, pushes people to the edge of their tolerance, forces change through the rips that it opens up. There is a feeling after some of those nights, where you sit up until dawn through sheer lack of alternatives, that something must have changed, that a certain drama has been made manifest, and with the sun starting to signal its return to the streets you yourself can’t possibly be the same.
If I can treat Bel again to what I think poetry is supposed to be, it’s the distillation of stories to their most essential. It’s finding moments or ideas that matter, however small or isolated, and creating a setting where they can be appreciated.
Bel inherently understands this idea that you don’t always need the whole story. Nothing in this book tells me more than Rose fading back into the shadows of a darkened grocery shop, wanting glamour and care and some distant idea of romance, knowing that she’ll take a warm beer if that’s all life has on offer.
Last weekend I went to the Lego convention in the Royal Exhibition Building. After the initial excitement of a life-size Tigger or a 20-metre Golden Gate Bridge, what really caught people’s attention were the townscapes, streets and ports filled with busy Lego lives. People crowded around to squint though little windows and open doors, to scrutinise the transactions of tiny plastic people, to assess the relationships and learn the stories. These glimpses are what we find most compelling. This is Bel’s tour through two versions of New York City, lifting the roofs from the houses and showing us inside.
But the emotional side of those stories is sincere: she cared for the hotheads at a youth magazine as much as she cares for these characters: for Rose and for Alex, Martha and Christopher Reeve, the bruised shopkeeper and the confused serial killer idly eating a packet of frozen peas.
I’m glad to have been one of the many to enjoy this care in both its forms, as a reader and as a colleague, because Bel’s contribution to Australian writing crosses from producing her own work to helping so many others with theirs. For that reason it gives me tremendous pleasure to declare launched Every Time You Close Your Eyes, by Bel Schenk. Congratulations.
– Geoff Lemon
Geoff Lemon is a writer, radio broadcaster, and the editor of Going Down Swinging http://goingdownswinging.org.au/.
Every Time You CLose Your Eyes is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1195