Eccentric & Sustaining: Bernard Cohen launches ‘The Party of Life’ by Beth Spencer

The Party of Life by Beth Spencer is a bilingual (English and Chinese) collection of poems published by Flying Islands Books which was launched by Bernard Cohen at The Friend in Hand, Sydney, on 14th November 2015.

sm-edged-front cover-Party of life

The Party of Life is a big book disguised as a little book. It is the Tardis of books. The inside of Beth Spencer’s book is much, much bigger than the outside—and I speak as someone with access to just over half the words in this book, about which more soon.

As befits its title, The Party of Life is also much bigger on the outside, existing in a warm social media space, which I think many of us have made our way through to get here. Typically, that space is bill-boarded by the generous tributes Beth pays to all who have helped with this book or may help even slightly at this later stage (thank you).

And from social media we are, in turn, linked to points in electronic media, including Beth’s radio/podcast performance of her moving and lovely poem ‘Forgetting’. Additionally, there’s the space mapped out by the Viscount Kit Kelen [ASM/Flying Islands Pocket Book Bilingual Series Editor] and Flying Island Books—to whom and which let us all raise a glass.

When Beth asked me to launch the book, she did this with her customary modesty and diplomacy, the request surrounded by disclaimers, but she also attached the text. I was actually hypnotised into it by halfway down page twelve. (I should note, though, that the text starts on page ten and that page eleven, other than three commas and a colon, is, to me, completely unreadable.)

In the very first poem of this big-little book, Beth manages to evoke an entire era with two words: ‘without helmets’. She gives us the totality of a way of existing with three words: ‘for eighty cents’.

inside pp Untethered

from The Party of Life by Beth Spencer. Photo curtesy of the author.

I have a vague recollection of the instead-of-a-suicide party. I don’t think I was there, but reading the poem, the milieu seems so familiar—the particular mix of music, song after epochal song, us all in black, that ghoulish bride—that I begin to recall the whole thing. Who I may have spoken with? No, no. The details of the conversations, hesitating about going to see Beth lying in a state?—did I know her well enough in those days to see her like that? Not knowing what to do with my hands other than to hold drinks, which in this possibly new memory I was gulping at much too frequently.

But not too much further into the book, Beth talks to me about this, she says:

This is a backwards poem,
an unreliable/selective memory poem.

The imagery is getting to me, too:

The shark coloured water
creaks against the bank
‘Hmmm… hmm…’
like a $90 shrink.

Here we are, rejected, confiding in the endlessly understanding bay. Beth’s easy control over the rhythms of Australian English:

I let myself get tipsy
on two middies in the pub

and

Michael says, ‘You’re a feminist,
but your sense of humour saves you.’
(Sigh.)

I could simply refer to half of this book, the left-hand pages, but there’s something lovely about bilingual texts, those that can be made out or at least sounded out and those, like this, which to me are visually beautiful; full of promise and of questions of what is possible to carry over from one vernacular to another.

For instance, a group of schoolgirls in shortened dresses

setting
the store detectives off like alarm bells
as we passed.

inside bit tunnels

detail from The Party of Life by Beth Spencer. Photo curtesy of the author.

Something Claudia Taranto did not mention when introducing me was that I am the author of Mistranslations from a Chinese Vase’. Despite failing to read, completely, the right-hand pages [in Chinese]—these pages which join the book to a converging path through spacetime—I would like to read to you those parts [of the Chinese translations] which were accessible to me (knowing from the left-hand pages just what those missing words carried).

So I’m going to read to you [in English], from the Chinese, all the parts that I can understand:

, , , :
? , , ?
, , , : , , , ?
Glebe Point
Blackwattle
90
Glebe Point
Weeties ? ?
!
1900
? 1 2 100 3 4 5 6
7 8 & 9,
1972
A : , 500 : : B ? C !
… ? ! ? ! !
Wimera
2009 2 7
X Steeles Creek ? ? ?
? ? ? ? ?
Steeles Creek
?
?
1 : Snap
!
?
Creswick
Bobby Brady 5 25 ? ?
Cuisenaire

And again, given the pleasures of translation, with its gains and decay of implication and universal possibility within this text’s generous playfulness and availability, I’m pleased to provide this alternative: ‘Multilingual Machine Mistranslation’ (so, one more misreading of Beth’s work):

Sound –
Red socks and Jane’s wit.

Once,
Miss George McIntyre
Sewing atheist work
Hanging clothes our dirty shoes.
a Blue – white T-shirt from T-shirt College.
(all Brown Female
According to the table), the following steps.
Wear $ 500
concluded Toorak Customers
as Researchers worry about shopping.

(Perhaps my translation needs more work?)

Finally, everywhere in this big little book there is love. The love in Beth’s poems is always eccentric and sustaining. ‘I loved the way / they leaned in towards each other / for stability’, she writes, of a mother and her suckling calf. ‘The rejected in love / come down to sigh in the park / at Glebe Point’ and, in ‘Love Poem’, which begins with fear, vomit, weeping, Bobby Brady’s donut and hairy armpits, really does resolve into love.

I commend The Party of Life to you. Everyone here should walk out with several copies, which are ideal gifts for upcoming festivities, for loved ones and for your employers, employees and amanuenses: highly portable, richly evocative, impeccably observed and moving.

And it is with great pleasure that I declare Beth Spencer’s The Party of Life launched.

– Bernard Cohen

————————————————————————————————————

Bernard Cohen’s most recent book, The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies, won the 2015 Russell Prize for Humour Writing. He is also founder and director of The Writing Workshop.

Beth Spencer’s previous books are Vagabondage, How to Conceive of a Girl, and Things in a Glass Box. The Party of Life is published by ASM/Flying Islands books and is available at events, at Booktopia, or direct from Beth at www.bethspencer.com for $12 including postage.

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2 thoughts on “Eccentric & Sustaining: Bernard Cohen launches ‘The Party of Life’ by Beth Spencer

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