Unfolding Complexity: Mark Roberts considers Anna Couani’s ‘thinking process’

This is a slightly edited version of Mark Roberts’ introduction to thinking process by Anna Couani, Owl Publications, 2017

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Anna has been a friend and a mentor for more years than I care to remember. As a young poet in the late 1970s I had discovered New Poetry magazine and the Poets Union readings at the Royal Standard Hotel in Sydney. I began to meet poets and I read as widely as could among the small literary magazines and presses of the time. Then, I think it was in 1979, I came across Italy by Anna Couani (Rigmarole of the Hours 1977).

There are a number of things that I can remember from the first time that I read that book, the wonderful cover, which consisted of a simple line drawing of a kitchen with a pot on a hot plate and a bottle of salt off to the left and the opening lines of ‘Untitled’, the first prose piece in the book:

As I write down the sentences, mentally compose them and then read them off, they begin to break off like huge chunks of glacial ice, the row of type – the glacier’s cliff face at the water.”

There was  also, later in Italy, a drawing of a doorway, with most of a cane chair, a mirror leaning up against the wall reflecting another chair and a window and a piece of paper pinned to the wall with the word ‘Poetry’ written on it. This picture, for me, encapsulates Anna’s work, both literary and visual. It is, on first glance, a simple line drawing of a room. But as it draws you in the complexity begins to unfold. There is the hidden window reflected in the mirror, is it a glimpse through the doorway? There is the intricate detail of the cane chair and the piece of paper/poetry hanging on the wall.

It is interesting to realise that the connection between the visual and the literary has always been at the centre of Anna’s work. Early in her latest collection, thinking process, Anna asks:

is it ekphrasis
if the poet also made the picture?

She doesn’t directly answer this question but we know after reading the poems in this collection that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For Anna the “thinking process’ revolves around making art, whether it it is the writing of the poems, the making of the visual art that the poems describe , or the process of making space for the world of art and imagination. In the opening poem, ‘the idea of worlds’ she refers to her “world of work” as a school teacher:

the poignancy that
no one can understand
how it feels

the sense of restriction

but there is the other world “the virtual world already there / in the peripheral vision”. This other world is already an art work

a shimmering white border
enclosing a blue and green world

Anna’s background as a teacher runs through many of these poems. In a sequence of poems about making a print of an iris flower Anna refers to being a student learning a new printmaking technique. There is also a playfulness to many of these poems. The playfulness of an image that ends up being something completely different to what was intended, or the playfulness of words in a poem such as ‘2C’ which discusses how we are taught to ‘see’ an image. The ‘2C’ of the title is echoed in the poem when Anna writes that:

so that could mean
‘seeing’
a scene in 2D

thinking process is an important book full of finely crafted poems by a writer and artist who has played a critical, if under appreciated, role in the Sydney and wider Australian cultural scene for many decades. There is a final image from poem ‘200’ which, for me, encapsulates the success of this collection:

but texture and colour can sing
like the traditional finger painted end papers
of old books
something beautiful to see and touch.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is one of the founding editors of Rochford Street Review. His latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016.

thinking process is available from http://www.owlpublishing.com.au/chapbook-series.html