“ ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ will form part of my next collection, which will be a kind of bestiary or garden composed of poems about a variety of animals, insects, plants and other things.”- Stuart Cooke
Zalehah Turner: Tell me about the themes in ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’: the power of storms; the life of trees; the life cycle in Tasmania and other forests; ‘aged into agelessness, less than age’, ‘too slowly for change’ and the vast expanse of time stretching back to Gondwana?
Stuart Cooke: The poem passes through different levels of observation/ perception, starting with a broad consideration of time and space, including Gondwanan or evolutionary space-time, before moving to the more human level of the trunk itself, before ending with the microscopic – the epiphytes and termites, etc. The poem isn’t about ‘penetrating’ or getting to the ‘essence’ of the myrtle trunk; rather, as we move closer, its complexity increases.
Z.T.: There is also an absence of human presence in ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’. Is this intentional and if so, can you elaborate?
S.C.: I’m not sure that I’d agree with the assertion here. The poem is entirely about the perception of the trunk – that is, it is thoroughly bound up with human forms of understanding, relation and expression. The language isn’t the result of my solitary imagination, but rather it draws from botany and biology, not to mention the work of other poets – in other words, discourses developed over long periods of human-myrtle relation. Of course, it’s true that there aren’t any explicit human characters in the poem; this is because my objective was to make the trunk a character itself, to reveal drama and history in a living, non-human thing. Humans are part of this, but I didn’t want them to be in the centre of the frame.
Z.T.: What drew you to ‘Mountain Myrtle’? You grew up in Sydney and Hobart. Did you feel a personal connection to Marie E. J. Pitt’s poem expressing the power of the Tasmanian flora and landscape?
S.C.: Not really. Part of my composition process was to find poems by other poets about myrtles. Pitt’s poem demanded inclusion because it was closest both in terms of subject and location, and also because it did things that I was interested in – it imagined the mythopoetic power of the myrtle, and how it was bound up in the wild, “moaning” weather of Western Tasmania. Very few Anglo-Western poems grant so much power and agency to non-human things, and particularly plants.
Z.T.: Do you see the ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ in a Tasmania forest?
S.C.: Yes. Another crucial part of the composition process was to find a fallen myrtle trunk, observe it closely and patiently, and take detailed field notes. This particular trunk was on the edge of Lake Burbury in Western Tasmania.
Z.T.: There are many references to music and sound, both in the echoes from ‘Mountain Myrtle’, ‘songs to/ of lonely places’, and in connecting lines such as, ‘cavern hymns’. Your latest book is entitled, Opera, as is, a poem you wrote in 2012. Tell me about the links to fugues and cavern hymns in cool, temperate forests and your poetry?
S.C.: The world becomes a world through wave-form. Waves are characterised by the accumulation of constancy – the repetition of troughs and peaks – and the repetition of contrasts – the shifts between troughs and peaks. Both music and poetry operate through the association of these harmonic clusters and melodic contrasts, and of course poetry plays at the intersection that language straddles between sound and signification. But in the production of images poetry differs from music, and veers closer towards painting. From painting poetry also departs when it seeks to produce or defer meanings in tandem with sounds and images. Somewhere in the triangulation of music, painting and prose there is poetry. Taken as a whole, that triangulation is the drive towards sonorous, vivid expression, which is channelled and/ or produced by the body. As the body is the locus for art in human terms, I see myriad bodies, of all different kinds, expressing, composing, articulating. This is why it’s important not to overshadow the expression of the Myrtle with human subject positions: if my language was going to get anywhere near the tree’s, then I needed to leave it out there, to see what happened to the tree itself, instead of turning to a human character or locus for an easy translation or way out of the scene.
Z.T.: Tell me about the echoes that run through this poem from ‘Mountain Myrtle’ and ‘Out of Sorts and Looking at Elms’, the way they interconnect in ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ and the connection between all three poems?
S.C.: Pitt’s ‘Mountain Myrtle’ is a very sonorous poem: it’s about the Myrtle’s slowly ageing “songs” within the wild, cacophonous orchestra of the Western Tasmanian forests. One of the things that’s so striking is how, despite the onrushing of everything, the “creeping” moss, the “leaping” storm – everything is in the gerund – the Myrtle remains steadfast, almost supernatural, and certainly magical. This tension between the immanence of death and decay – of chaos – and the apparent tranquillity and stasis of the present, of a thing in the present – of order, if you like – was interesting to me as well.
‘Out of Sorts and Looking at Elms’ is a very different poem, and of course not about myrtles. But I was reading Simon’s book at the time and I thought it appropriate to include. It’s a much quieter poem, and a much more botanical one, more much about close observation, although West’s imagination is no less interesting:
A mouthing eddy where a bough once broke off.
One branch, there, could be pleading help
where it reaches out. Others arch hardened spines
as if they were locked in struggle with gravity.
Even though the tone of the poem is quite naturalistic, I love the interplay between what is apparent – what is visible – and what is possible – what these things that we can see might suggest about what is happening. The speculative spirit of this poem is very close to that of my own.
Z.T.: I haven’t read ‘Out of Sorts and Looking at Elms’. Could you tell me a little more about it?
S.C.: The poem is from Simon’s 2011 collection, The Yellow Gum’s Conversion. It’s a great book, extremely sophisticated and very accomplished. I don’t want to wax lyrical about how wonderfully clear and simple the language is – too often that implies a claim that the best poetry is somehow the clearest – because, while there are indeed moments of tremendous, even shocking, clarity, what’s really going on in these poems is a very attentive mapping of human cognition, where things emerge in consciousness only to be submerged moments later, where the ceaseless interplay of mind and landscape can be resolved briefly enough for startling, though not always revelatory, insights.
Z.T.: Your poem evokes the power of thunderstorms, and the expanse of time beyond that of the human race but it is mournful. Bright colours appear, the life of creatures who live in fallen trees and rotting wood. Yet, ‘one branch, there, pleads help’. Why a fallen trunk?
S.C.: I like to think that there’s a kind of joy in the revelation that the poem proposes, but while writing it I was also keenly aware of the various threats that Tasmanian Myrtles face (and here again human presence looms large). In recent years, Myrtle wilt, a parasitic fungus, has become a serious problem due to poor logging practices (in the poem: the “wilt lulled by such knots”). And the increasing frequency and temperature of bush fires is perhaps the most serious problem of all: Myrtle forests cannot survive strong fire, and must re-establish from neighbouring areas. But these neighbouring areas are becoming increasingly scarce. Generally, Myrtle forests only form once a wet sclerophyll forest reaches maturity, taking several hundred years to do so. Of course, Aboriginal people knew that Myrtles can survive light fires, but these burning practices rarely occur in the contemporary Western Tasmanian ‘wilderness’.
Z.T.: Why youm, youm’re and yourm? Why did you use the second person but alter the word? Has it any connection to ‘yourn’? Is the ‘m’ for myrtle? Why did ‘you’ not seem sufficient?
S.C.: Simply, ‘youm’ is a pluralised second-person address. In Australia we have ‘youse’, but formally English doesn’t have this pronoun. I wanted to write with one here because the question of cognition and its individuation, while complex enough for humans, is even more complex for other species, particularly plants. The ‘m’ is there because it vibrates bodily; when we speak the word it moves through us and escapes us, just as a communal mind or agency might escape any one body or actor.
Z.T.: In ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’, two to three stanzas are grouped together to form four, falling shapes. What are your feelings on concrete poetry and why the slow, fluid fall for ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’?
S.C.: I’m actually writing this in Brazil, where poets like Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari were globally influential pioneers of concrete poetry. But as much as I love concrete poetics, I also want to keep a certain distance between them and my poem. In my designing of ‘Myrtle Trunk’ I didn’t want the typographical features to do anything other than enhance the line – i.e. the line for me has to remain paramount: the line is where we as readers are going, and thus it must satisfy us. Often I think the failure of some concrete poems is to do with an emptiness produced by their typography, which invites us to consider language, but then the language itself gives us nothing. Conversely, I want my poem to have two levels: the first is the visual or framed reception of the work as a whole, where I draw on concrete poetics in shaping the text to suggest something of its subject (the form is slowly shrinking across the pages, like the biodegrading trunk); but the second level is to do with the slower experience of reading each line in succession. The painterly reading – where we ‘stand back’ and look at the whole work – is extended by closer reading.
Z.T.: Tell me about the form and themes of the poems in your latest book, Opera?
S.C.: Opera is the accumulation of close to a decade of thinking about the relationship between voice, land and line in Australian and Latin American poetics. The book imagines a kind of trans-Pacific synthesis of geographies and histories, and of animal, human and inorganic potency. It’s also a book about love, and the all-consuming, though often ephemeral, nature of it. I felt frustrated by the state of Australian poetry when I started writing Opera, and I wanted something new. So I turned first to a lot of Aboriginal and Mapuche poetry, both song poetry and written, and second to a range of Latin Americans, particularly baroque and neo-baroque poets like Pablo de Rokha, Coral Bracho, Vicente Huidobro and Raúl Zurita, and Pablo Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra (one of my favourite books). I felt in their work an irrepressible power and an emotional expressivity that I hadn’t ever seen in English-language poets; the liquid grammar and long, pulsing lines came with a deep, quasi-subterranean commitment to the importance of enunciation. I was also travelling quite a lot, particularly in Chile, but also in the West Kimberley, and these landscapes became the basis of the poems. The result, I like to think, is a very densely layered and many-sided language, which is also very emotional, very ‘heart-felt’ (in terms of a driving, rhythmic power that motivated the composition). I’m so happy with the way it turned out – Five Islands Press did such a great job – and it was incredibly generous of John Wolseley to allow me to use a detail from one of his Patagonia-Tasmania works on the cover, which fits perfectly with the scope and intention of the poetry.
‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ will form part of my next collection, which will be a kind of bestiary or garden composed of poems about a variety of animals, insects, plants and other things.
Z.T.: How did you feel about winning the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016?
S.C.: I was delighted with the news, and feel extremely humbled and happy that the judges thought so kindly of my poem. Any project that encourages creative contemplation of, or engagement with, the non-human world is certainly a worthy one, so it’s extra-special to be recognised in this way as a part of the New Shoots project.
Rochford Street Review wishes to thank everyone who participated in the New Shoots Poetry Prizes and most especially, to the winners, highly commended, and special commendation poets for such wonderful, plant-inspired poetry! Their poems can be found in issue 20 of Rochford Street Review and on The Red Room Company’s website. The New Shoots e-book is forthcoming (2017).
‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke: winner of the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016
New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winning and highly commended poets
The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company’s website.
Stuart Cooke lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. He has published collections of poetry, criticism and translation. His latest book, Opera was published by Five Islands Press in 2016. Stuart Cooke is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.
Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer, poet and Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. She is commencing Honours (BA Communication) at the University of Technology, Sydney in 2017.: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor