I met Stephen for a beer the day before he took his life, and for the next couple of weeks replayed our conversation. He seemed calm and cheery. We talked then, as always, mostly about poetry. As he left, he gave me some new unpublished work, most of which I include here, with the permission of his family.
Known to South Australian readers as a columnist for The Adelaide Review, Stephen was building a reputation nationally as a poet and critic. His sharp reviews appeared frequently in Overland, Cordite, Wet Ink, Australian Book Review and Rochford Street Review, among others, and he had recently received news of his inclusion in The Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2014).
Stephen published three volumes of poetry with Wakefield Press: Her Mother’s Arms (1997) – a sequence of poems in the voice of a female medical student – Beasts Labial (1998), and How Not To Kill Government Leaders (2002). He edited the Adelaide-based journal Wet Ink and a number of anthologies, and judged the John Bray Poetry Award for a decade. In 2010 he completed a PhD in Creative Writing. His research, A Poetic of Disunity: Selves and Silence, was accompanied by what proved his final collection, A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem – a title that might sum up his metaphysics.
Stephen’s poetry is dense with allusions to politics, classical and renaissance literature – his Master’s thesis explored ornithological imagery in Shakespeare – and, above all, science. He was watchful for any debasement of the language, and harvested the worst excesses of advertising and government cliché with more gusto than horror. His poems vary widely in length from monochords to monologues, and teasingly elliptical narrative poems, that stretch over many pages.
The bureaucratic and corporate monologues that end How Not To Kill Government Leaders, are a genre Stephen made his own. Set against the backdrop of the rise of digital media in the late-nineties and early noughties, they anticipate the spin and weasel words epitomised by The Thick of It and Utopia:
No-one’s going to be performance-managed out of their job. No.
Boy, some days I wish someone’d ask me to retire!
But no such luck.
Sure, systematising your knowledge will mean outplacements.
But that’s good!
You’ll be leaner, meaner and stronger for tomorrow –
Outplacement? No, it’s not sacking.
It’s not forced redundancy.
It’s re-tooling the organisation.
No, it’s not minimising staff numbers. It’s optimising.
No, it’s not Downsizing.
It’s Rightsizing. It’s Redimensionalising.
It’s overcoming your entrenched paternalism, gentlemen.
It’s overthrowing constrictive in-house paradigms.
– How Not To Kill Government Leaders, (119-120)
Such poems parade a cast of recognisable characters and many of the jokes and sleights are cumulative. Stephen worked in a number of government roles, including communications and speechwriting, and the book’s final monologue, in which the speaker – or “Knowledge Manager” – identifies as Stephen, might hint at some complicity. “THE TOWN HALL MEETING”, included here, is an answer to such monologues, from the other side of the desk.
Stephen also specialised in short forms, particularly haiku and gnomes. The majority of these poems inhabit long sequences: “Hazardous Accumulations” in How Not To Kill Government Leaders stretches to 66 haiku, “Is This Poetry?”, in the same book, to 117. As with the monologues, these shorter forms show Stephen to be a poet of rhetoric more than image.
Emotions stop you
from seeing that they are all
that is important.
– How Not To Kill Government Leaders (44)
I respect the church
and grieve, for the human thought
that’s gone into it.
– How Not To Kill Government Leaders (50)
These, and most others, obey the strict five-seven-five prescription. Every syllable is counted as much as it counts, and poetry is often the butt of the joke:
This line of haiku –
Squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched,
is the longest plod.
– How Not To Kill Government Leaders (43)
A similar playfulness informs “HAIKU” below. As with the monologues there is a sort of circular movement reminiscent of last century’s absurdist dramas. The metaphorically precise “Fallujah”, is a perfect tanka:
I fire a bullet
at my horse’s head, because
a fly lands on it.
My horse drops dead, and the fly
buzzes off to the next horse.
– A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem (89)
Much of Stephen’s work could be described as found poetry: some gnomes – as the John Howard poems do here – use politician’s words (or something very like them); some earlier poems, if not lifted from Hansard, have perfectly mastered its cadences, but such material – where not invented – is trimmed, recast or amped up.
Not wanting to play Bridges to Stephen’s Hopkins, I have preserved inconsistences in capitalisation, and only been bold with the most obvious of typos. I know of no “Gnome 223” but have gone with Stephen’s numbering. Biographical readings should be undertaken with caution – if at all – remembering that Stephen’s is a poetry of multiple voices, and any number of selves.
– Aidan Coleman
Stephen Lawrence: Rochford Street Review
- All Dressed Up – Stephen Lawrence reviews Mascara Issue 10 and Jacket 2, ‘51 Contemporary poets from Australia’
- A Tribute – Stephen Lawrence reviews the new black by Evie Shockley
- Vale Stephen Lawrence
Late Poems by Stephen Lawrence
THE TOWN HALL MEETING
Never mind that it was not in the Town Hall.
I found a front row seat. My mind remained open.
My job’s safe. I do not worry.
When the CEO flapped his sportsman’s hands
cufflinks semaphored from his sleeves’ stiff flags
caught the spotlight.
The CEO shook his sportsman’s head.
He gave us opportunity. We were not on the block.
We were not to worry. We did not worry. We listened.
Carl Jung, he sparkled, proudly.
Jung showed the way to accept change.
We were going forward. And Jung gave it meaning.
There were animal pictures used in the focus groups.
They were important to select the path,
the way forward.
Don’t think about it, he told us. I do not think.
The CEO will let me keep my job. I do not worry.
When I say it’s your fault
I don’t mean it’s your fault
I mean [that] it’s your fault
When you say it’s my fault
Emily Dickinson made
her room the universe.
GNOME 222. — Creation
Creation, flawless, evolved
to meet its own end.
THE WRITERS’ WEEK FLOWER
This is a sedentary festival. One-way.
Nodding in the same chair for days
papery bonnets and programs
crunch into crepe fist-tissues.
I spoke to a tree far up the slope
behind blurred rows of sun hats.
Electrified, I held their consideration
talking to a pen-thin microphone
of poetry. “Voice makes verse alive:
it is not enough to stroll in gardens
recline in your comfortable trance
on benches, cast out a line, catch
observations; then, fish-slippery
jot them into your notebook,
lay silver words out in rows
like arranging sticks in sand.
Cathartic, not amounting to poetry,
at best half a thought, without
something to animate these words.
What to do” – a wheelchair sneezed –
“is rouse the poem with your voice,
the voice will find a story, have ideas.”
Does the audience have thoughts?
I gave my last minutes to smiling at trees,
fielding questions about earlier books,
the new book, my travels, anything.
An intelligent sun-hat posed this:
flowers are life and conduct us to death.
Flowers from next to her backyard seat.
I answered another question. No return.
when they can be heard
we note their bass registers
their percussive life
why you no pay me
why you no pay me pay me
why you no pay me
IT IS WHERE I LIVE
“Why did she phone here?” asks my wife.
I’ve forgotten. In love with her fair skin,
I try to answer, but now can’t think why.
Tight black curls of innocence engorge me.
No, I have not forgotten, but cannot imagine.
I did think I knew, but have nothing to retrieve.
I am erect with honour and care. Reason aches.
The peace of purity downs me with a punch.
It reveals the culpability of this friendship
with a woman who has telephoned me.
My feeble eagerness breaks forward
into a further moment of innocence.
Moister than parting lips, as clean of conscience
as one who knows he breathes deception.
I am a good man, guileless, without outrage
and so very stupid, without plan or graph.
My wife’s pale downy face entrances me.
The only way she can answer my pleading,
“Let’s kiss,” is to slap me. And she is right.
When the phone rings, I try to kiss her again.
The Harrowing of Hell
a wristwatch brings light into the tank
my reflected spot travels solar minutes
to strike off glass and become a tiny boil
blisters, plays against their sides, gilding
the fish who have nothing else to live for
but find eye-brain company in this smudge
tagged by the twitching luminous coin-probe
they convulse and lift against their glass wall
this play is to enliven the unnatural sphere
a glum box ribboned with trailing skin-rags,
but I brought Hell to Hell: lucent glimpses
torture hopeless souls in their dwelling
swinging sun-mirrors drill the caged spirits
spray them with flames of unbearable time
the fish gape horribly in drenched air
mop water-clouds with their mouths
the Damned remain mute, strain silent,
my whim of sun twitches away a last time
after the light drops from sight, souls
hitherto unregarded by light and time
have had eternity added to their sentence
HOWARD ON GILLARD
A total failure.
In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.
In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.
HOWARD ON ABBOTT
Mr Abbott is
an authentic believer,
a family team.
an authentic believer
A family team.
My Last Thoughts
To bring time into the universe.
Four dimensions. Four last thoughts.
I lay, on the slab of city square paving.
Snow eddies. Self goes first.
I lay, dying, cold, on a Budapest square
face receiving the crystal snow.
What is the last last thought? My love?
I’ll leave that until last. Last last last. Ha ha ha.
Snow lava drops enter me, through skin.
Hot is a bad sign.
Each livid burst gouges me from me.
Why is there not room in the universe and (for) me?
Asking is why. Consciousness resist life.
Bits of me are going.
All limbs have been sacrificed to zero.
Are my arms and legs now visible elsewhere?
As my ears and nose and penis burn away
I bring a toe or finger back.
As my brain sleeps against forever
I squeeze my heart awake.
All of me has gone, but each part has returned.
The universe has seen me whole
but over four dimensions.
Saved, by time and logic. Ha, ha.
No, I am not.
Existence needs me all, simultaneously.
I am without function if not at once.
My cock does not imply my brain.
My thumb does not imply my lungs.
Cold zero-one me one-zero.
Or perhaps I have got it all wrong.
Outside looking in, the world has won.
Absolute implies the universe.
I have brought the world to meaning.
At last. Oh, my love.
SHE REFUSED LOOKS
fades, passes from sight
blurs, becomes unseen
vision shapes light
eyes slip from her body
not noting scrutiny
she eludes being viewed
not quite a shimmer
a human thought in time
might have snapped
her back into sight
but she was invisible
for not thinking of us
the atmosphere allows
tiny breaths to gleam
her radius shifts
a question unasked
leaving her presencePhotograph –
I feel myself inhale
curled under brush
sale for forty years until now
in full view by the roadside
relying on landscape
to deter human will
from entering this vista
our car mocks solidity
the windows we breathe against
curse their diaphony
a road train bursts by my head
resets the country flow
sound changes forever
a gate now open
white-green scrub muddied
time smeared across space
bushes’ tongues bivouac
shades flattened by perspective
daub and stain pasturePhotograph –
can no longer be held as knowledge
parsed or thought
into homely understanding
thirsty salt-erect tussocks
take colour from rubbed plinths
erupted out of this instant
behind falling and catching fence-wire
fields of parallax blue
melt apart in two directions
bent in winds lasting all their lives
stands of trees accompany us
for relative time
hills barricade clouds
sky-shapes whittled by geology
carve apart elements
slowly progress away
to dialogue with root and sky
about borders, about time