Sandy Jeffs launched The Dialectics of Rain by Karen Throssell, Ginninderra Press 2019, in Melbourne on 27th April 2019
I have known Karen for a long time and know that she has never shied away from her pinko, lefty, greenie politics and that she is never too shy to have it front and centre in her poetry. She wears her red heart on her sleeve.
Poets and poetry lovers know that the power of poetry is in its capacity to speak truths when nothing else can. In poetry we can utter the unutterable, say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and sense the insensible. Poetry is a gift given to the world by poets for whom words are their greatest joy and most powerful allies. For some poetry is a matter of life and death; indeed, poets have died because of their words. Canadian poet Garry Geddes once wrote that poetry has the power to ‘cut through all the crap we accumulate in life’. Poetry is a most profound creative endeavour. So, what motivates Karen in her fifth volume of poetry.
The Dialectics of Rain is a great title but a bit perplexing. I found myself going back to my days at La Trobe Uni circa 1974-5 when I studied Marxism and learnt about Hegel and the dialectical process. Dialectics can be seen as the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions, or as an inquiry into metaphysical contradictions and their solutions, or as the existence or action of opposing social forces and concepts. So, I thought about the book and what Karen had done in it. I could see that she had used poetry as creative way of having a dialogue between the personal and the political – after all Karen is someone who is keenly attuned to the feminist dictum that the personal is political. This is the theme I came to understand when reading these poems. Karen did say I was being too intellectual about it, but let’s run with it.
So, the Dialectics of Rain takes us into the world of Karen Throssell seen through her poetical eye but with a political edge. There are many conversations and interplays of various themes in these poems.
She muses on the contradictions of nature in the title poem. She writes:
Midsummer and we love a wet fire season
Grateful for the surprise of lush and green
But it’s still raining, the river turns nasty
Flowing meaner, faster…
…The tense sky broods…
‘Official Memories, Official Lies’ is Karen’s homage to her grandfather Hugo Vivian Throssell the World War 1 VC recipient who returns from war with a profound hatred of it, he is now a socialist who is suspicious of “comfy old men sending young men to die”. Because of his politics Hugo, “couldn’t get work”, was constantly shunned by the people he fought for but as Karen cynically says “they had given him a medal”. Ultimately, “they wanted him gone”, this trouble maker who in the end takes his own life. There is an anger in this poem at the hypocrisy of society and politicians who send young men to war and forget them when they return home broken men, disregarded and forgotten. Here the personal is very political.
Karen looks at infidelity in the in ‘The Lying Game’, or lists the necessary preparations for an early exit in ‘The Last List’ ending with the imperative that after checking the Doloxene supply we “watch the last sunset with sister, daughters, friends and champagne”.
In her poem ‘Mona Poma (Fuck Art)’ Karen looks at the problematic art museum Mona – the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart – a gallery built on money from gambling. She identifies its founder David Walsh as a: “Strange man with pretend money” who:
rips money off casinos (nerd-boy gee-whiz cleverness) builds the
people’s palace/temple to ‘non-art/everything is art.’
With the exhibition’s themes of sex and death, Karen is challenged. Musing on the shock factor of the art at MONA Karen asks:
What would we poets do, to provoke such impassioned and divergent thinking?
Fuck Art — let’s write Poems!
In ‘Being the Spider’ Karen uses the metaphor of the spider endlessly rebuilding her web to muse on our will to live and keep getting up off the floor. We are like the spider abseiling on silk – a great image. We are either stoic like the spider and Job, but:
… if we’re not Job
and it’s just no use —
we have our black pit
in which nothing lives, not even despair.
Life’s filled with absence — there’s only what’s gone.
Our insignificance in the face of astrological events like the transit of Venus is explored in ‘There Used to Be Oceans.’ There are things to do, menial yet fundamental to our existence, without doing them we wouldn’t be here. While looking after a sick cat, Karen feels a “niggle that huge things were happening up there“. And while watching the transit on TV there is the realisation that:
Of course we are the transients
the ones passing through
In 105 years she’ll be back
And we’ll be long gone
Without a trace.
In ‘Mother who Gave Me Life’ nature is addressed through the elements of Fire, Earth, Water, Air. We are at nature’s mercy, “terrible and blessed“ are the powers of these primal elements.
Karen’s politics resurface in ‘Honk if you love Australia‘, where she burns with shame at the hideously jingoistic Oi Oi Oi we hear at sporting events and racist rallies. What is the authentic Australia? Is it those who won the 8 hour day and votes for women or these young kids who love their flags and Oi Oi Oi. Who are the lucky ones in the Lucky Country? Is it “the plumber who drives a merc“, the “privileged Ozzie kid?” The answer: “ask the Blackfellas”.
Karen shares with us the magical day she fell in love with fuchsias in the poem ‘A Truffula Tree’. Then there is the poem’ Bad Luck’ in which a set of life choices end in tragedy. In the ‘Emancipation of the Empty Nest’ Karen aches with the loss of “my wandering girl”, her daughter, whom she knows “will soar” into life. There is the poem ‘Twenty-one Monochords for Bry’ her other daughter who has taken her own path in life, who has had to process her father’s suicide, perhaps even that she could have stopped him. Karen laments if Bry’s 21st birthday was such a milestone she would be with her, but she isn’t because her daughter “is over the sea“.
In ‘Easter Toll’ it is the corruption of ritual by consumerism, “Cant and greed“ that raises the ire of the poet.
We die of too much eating
Kill ourselves with too much rage
Easter takes too great a toll
Give us back benign Ostara –
Yet another ritual is plundered.
She is humbled by ‘The Majesty of Trees’ to which we can kneel instead of to religion which has been responsible for so much destruction. And Karen is perplexed by time passing and time running out in “’Le Tempos Perdu’ (apologies to Proust)”
We are back to politics with ‘The Tour Guide (Cuba 2010)’a meditation on modern, changing Cuba now entering the capitalist world, and its and our relationship with its most famous revolutionary son Che Guevara. Danny, the struggling tour guide, is a case study in this transforming world; he is a capitalist trying to make enough money to make his mother’s house into “a casa with a bathroom and spare room and ubiquitous rooftop garden“. When she is financially secure, “he intends to escape Cuba, the Cuba Che fought for”. Danny wants enough money so “he can become the tourist”. All the while the legacy of Che Guevara haunts modern Cuba. Yet Che, whose image has become a marketing bonanza, is now everywhere – “on posters and billboards, on T-shirts and beach towels“. He is a capitalist’s dream. And yet we in the western world romantically hold on to the ideas he promulgated, the politics he espoused, to his “martyred hands” (after his execution in Bolivia, his hands were cut off) “the that point the way, still”. Again, we see Karen’s personal thoughts expanding into the wider political realm and the bigger picture.
All the way through the book we are having conversations, being asked questions, challenged and confronted by personal existential musings that begin with the personal and end by entering the political terrain. Many facets of Karen’s life are in these poems. Her concerns for family, the environment, politics, nature, family violence, women and sexual politics, religious hypocrisy, the damage gambling can wreak, the effects of war. All are investigated with intelligence and deep sincerity and a keen eye for the personal as political. The Dialectics of Rain is a conversation between all these elements seeking to find a new way, an enlightened way towards a better world where poetry is at the forefront, driving the conversation.
The Dialectics of Rain is Karen’s gift to the world, and to us, as lovers of poetry and seekers of truth. It is with great pleasure that I launch The Dialectics of Rain.
Sandy Jeffs has published 7 volumes of poetry and a memoir Flying with Paper Wings: Reflections on Living with Madness, published in 2009. Much of her writing has been about her struggle with schizophrenia. Sandy is currently writing an oral history of Larundel based on interviews of past inmates and staff.
The Dialectics of Rain is available from https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/ store.php?product/page/28/Karen+Throssell+%2F+The+Dialectics+of+Rain
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