A Patch of Sun, edited by Philip Porter, Luke Fischer and Kit Kelen, was launched by Peter Boyle on August 7 at Rubino’s Café, Willoughby NSW.
My thanks to Philip for inviting me to launch such a beautiful, magnificently produced book as A Patch of Sun. Anyone holding this book, flipping through its pages, can see the care and the thoughtful crafting that lies behind it. What’s inside is likewise a treat, an astute mix of the new and the familiar, of truth telling and comedy, of delightfully inventive word magic and of direct honesty about life’s tough things, of delight in the beauty of our world and bafflement before human stupidity. Before I say a little about the poetry itself I’d like to say something about what made it possible. First to congratulate those who worked at the book’s production – Philip Porter, Luke Fischer and Kit Kelen. And then to reflect on the broader background that made it possible – on poetry and community, on all that a community does for poetry and also, where a community embraces poetry, what poetry can do for a community.
It’s easy to think of poetry as something scribbled in an attic, a solitary activity, needing no one beyond the suffering poet. But that isn’t even a half-ways-realistic picture of nine tenths of what is poetry. In Homer’s Greece the aoidoi, the poet-reciters of the epics, needed their prince who supplied them with good food, good drink and an audience. A coterie of fifteen regulars at a small informal poetry gathering may be an audience, or the audience may be produced by journals, anthologies and poetry websites. But it’s also important that there be small enthusiastic communities, a community that writes and tests their poetry with each other, that provides a context for the solitary poet to go on writing, helping poets make the transition from diary jottings to fully crafted, fully alive poems. Seriously, it is hard to imagine most poets continuing for long if there truly was no audience, no community of at least half a dozen appreciative readers and listeners. A community is the life blood of poetry and poetry, in turn, adds to community. It offers the joy of creating, the ripple of excitement that a sudden apprehension of beauty can give us, or the jolt when we hear a truth we had never heard put that way before.
I especially want to celebrate and give thanks to, two communities we in Sydney have been blessed with. First the poetry nights at Willoughby organised by Philip Porter and currently held at Rubino’s Restaurant – what a treat, for poetry, good food and good drink to come together, exactly as in the banquet halls where the aoidos would sing the stories of Troy, of Achilles and Odysseus, with the odd bawdy ballad snuck in as well I’m sure. And I also want to give special thanks to Luke Fischer and Dalia Nassar whose poetry and music salon in Bondi has become a legend of generosity, of the elegance that makes for a truly civilised life, with all the valuing of beauty and creativity that is at the core of such a life. Philip here at Willoughby and Luke and Dalia at Bondi show that a respectful, generous flourishing of the arts doesn’t have to be relegated to Paris or New York or Berlin, but is alive and real here if we choose to make it so.
But enough generalities. I’d also like to respond briefly to the delectable smorgasbord of poetry Philip, Luke and Kit have prepared. What I thought I would do, by way of launching the book, is to read some extracts from poems, especially poets and poems I hadn’t encountered before reading the anthology or, at least, before hearing the poets at Luke and Dalia’s salon. I’ve organised these excerpts under a few headings: comedy, inventive word magic, direct honesty about life’s tough things, capturing the world’s beauty, and bafflement before human stupidity. (My apologies in advance for all the fine poems that could go under these headings that I don’t quote – there is far more than I could possibly fit into a few minutes.)
For comedy, there’s the dry laconic just-rightness of John Carey in a poem like ”The Aunt’s Story – a Pinewood classic” or these lines from ”on empty”:
On a hot day the North-west plain is so flat it isn’t.
The horizon curves and stirs like a wisp of moustache.
Animals burrow that aren’t meant to burrow.
Prey walks past their predator under a white flag.
The eyes of roadkill are left to boil in their sockets.
The can of beer is dry when you open it.
A cigarette is rolling another swagman.
Delight in the inventive magic of words, their sounds, echoes and shivers, runs through so many of the poems. One sample, the closing lines of Carol Jenkins’ “Pollen”:
metronome of hay-fever, wind-strategist,
register of decomposition, pack rat fossil,
paisley print meniscus pond patterner
lying as taxonomic code
in bog, fern, marsh and microscope
I love the float, the sink,
the grit of you.
Direct honesty about life’s tough things can look like an easy thing – until you try to do it. Here’s an ending to a poem that, in its simplicity and precision, says a lot. The poem “Marginal light” is by Pam Morris,:
We lost touch, and marked it as other losses,
eating into time, yours and ours until
my brother died, and there you were,
come to say goodbye. So we meet,
and sitting beside you yesterday led me
to that parcel of time, lost and returned,
worn like the books we used,
annotations and heartbeats in the margins.
Poetry can also look deeply into people who at first seem remote from us but whom we come to recognise as our brothers, as in Jakob Ziguras’ “Tramp”:
His body is a grey communal flat
(the smell of cabbage soup in the air)
where vodka fills the radiator coils,
and strangers keep replacing strangers
at the table, chewing their stale bread.
Jakob’s poem builds towards this extraordinarily powerful ending:
He wants to be a padlock, scribed with names,
and fastened to the world as to a bridge
affirming indiscriminate fidelity;
and slowly climbs the non-existent hill
a naïve Jesus, hacked from knotted wood,
who has not yet embraced the world’s
indifference. It all seems
so crystal-clear, that what resists him
Poetry as the utmost attention to the world’s beauty is present in so many of these poems. From haiku to Japanese-inspired brief observations, there are so many examples I could choose, but one particularly beautiful poem that captured me for its richness was Dimitra Harvey”s “Calyptorhynchus funereus (Yellow-tailed black cockatoo)”. I’ll read the opening lines:
Your plumes are as black as the dresses and jackets
we wear at the edges of burial plots. I’ve read stories\
of the storms you portend: how you are a cipher
to an inch of rain. For weeks, I’ve watched you plane
the sky’s bayberry vellum, seen falling light transpose your silhouettes
into a straight-cut script I’ve tried to sound out –
a susurrus of fricatives spattered
with quick cool vowels.
Finally, holding the mirror up to human folly and pretention has long been an important task of poetry and it’s hard to think of a poem that does this better, anywhere, than Mark O’Flynn’s “The allotropes of tin”. Again, for reasons of time, I’m quoting excerpts from the poem:
Napoleon’s men march towards the cold,
not knowing the compound elements
of French tin will crystalise at less than five degrees.
By the time they reach the Russian winter
the smart, tin buttons, yes, have crystalised,
corroded and crumbled from the uniforms
of Napoleon’s sublime advance.
His men fight to hold their trousers up,
clutch their uniforms together,
let alone aim a shivering musket
at an enemy laughing in the distance.
Their defeat creeps upon them like a mould.
Coal to diamond; love to hate; loyalty to despair;
flesh and the rot within the flesh.
The allotropes of tin slowly vanquish
an emperor, leaving their clues,
stripped of all ambition now,
naked arses fleeing,
cooling quickly under the warm snow.
These are no more than a small sample of the many fine poems and poets gathered in A Patch of Sun. My congratulations to all the poets included in the book and especially to Philip, Luke and Kit for their work in producing such a splendid anthology.
– Peter Boyle
Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published seven collections of poetry, most recently Ghost Speaking (2016) with Vagabond Press. Among other awards, he received the Queensland Premier’s Prize for poetry in 2010 for his book Apocrypha and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.
A Patch of Sun is available from Gleebooks http://www.gleebooks.com.au/CatalogueRetrieve.aspx?ProductID=10598434&A=SearchResult&SearchID=78468407&ObjectID=10598434&ObjectType=27 or by emailing Philip Porter firstname.lastname@example.org