Sculpting a Landscape by Colleen Z Burke, Feakle Press 2019, was launched by Alison Lyssa at the Gaelic Club, Surry Hills, Sydney on Sunday 31 March 2019.
There were times last weekend, watching the NSW election results coming in when I felt how easy it is to see yourself moulded in a landscape so dismal you’ll go out and buy yourself a tee-shirt like the one I saw a young woman wearing, with the text leaping out at you: I DON’T CARE.
Colleen’s poems with their insight turn that dismal mood around and sculpt a landscape of possibility, positive action and Feakle Presscommunity.
Earlier this month with the state election still looming, I’m in a Café in Newtown – a favourite meeting place for Colleen and me. I’m a bit early and I hear this subterranean rumbling. Is it Gladys Bulldozer Berejiklian in her WestConnex tunnel rumbling closer and closer to Newtown? Or is it George Pell in his dungeon grumbling in prayer to his God, John Howard and the Pope to release him on appeal? Or is it the Prime Minister’s coal-fired ulcer burning in his belly when he hears the rousing voices and marching feet of the tens of thousands of school students who went on strike to save the planet because Scott Morrison won’t.
And I’m thinking, I can’t handle this anymore, and I look up and there’s Colleen and we look at one another – and smile. And Colleen’s poetry’s there on the table: Sculpting a Landscape. And the jacaranda on the cover is smiling too.
I open the book at a random page ‘A Scapegoat’ (p 19), and it restores possibility. Last week I read ‘A Scapegoat’ to my Creative Writing Class – they are senior citizens, the oldest well into her 80s, and we meet at the City of Sydney’s Cliff Noble Community Centre in Alexandria.
“I like it,” says one of the students, “but I wouldn’t call it a poem. At school poems had a rhythm, a beat that kept going, they had lines the same length, and they rhymed.” And then the student asks me the difficult questions: “What makes this a poem? What is a poem?”
And I’m thinking, I’d better start praying like George Pell, because I’ve no idea how to answer that. And I look back at the cover – at the purple of the jacaranda flowers against the inner-city rust of the corrugated iron roof – and it’s still smiling at me. And I turn back to the poem and read again the words that leap out Feakle Pressat me, like flowers outshining despair:
[…] all the depravity, wrongdoing
and guilt of the community
was released into the wilderness
buckling under its burden of human vices
In those finely crafted words, new possibilities sculpt themselves. It turns out to be an opportunity for the round-table class to look at the skill of Colleen’s craft. Yes, her poem breaks with traditions of regular line-length and pre-ordained patterns of rhythm and rhyme. It’s a revolutionary power – the sounds and patterns of the words create connections and mark collisions. We’re invited to look and listen in an original way. We’re invited to experience, to remember, and to feel. In this poem, Colleen skilfully takes the long tradition of the scapegoat story and gives us a way to remember it now – the scapegoat a life changing metaphor for the journey from helplessness to community and the sculpting of a future.
There is always music in Colleen’s poems. I like to think that it was from birdsong that we humans first learned how to make sounds into music. In the beginning was the song – the poem, a life-changing metaphor.
Colleen takes the essence of a poem – its mighty power of imagery and imagination. And she gives it to us, distilled, with the rich flavour, the warm afterglow, the drunken spirited delight of a glass of liqueur.
There was worrying news recently of the collapse of insect populations, including the Bogong Moths. Does anyone remember Colleen’s marvellous poems celebrating the thousands of migrating Bogongs? Let’s pay tribute.
A full house
Bogong moths heading south
to the granite tors
of the Snowy Mountains
are sometimes deflected
by storms and bad weather.
In NSW millions of them
have been found strewn
along coastal beaches.
In the late1860s
in a Sydney church
the Reverend Mobbs
had to cancel services
because the moths took over.
The sudden invasion
left no room for the congregation.
He counted 80,000 moths
on the windows alone
relaxing in a summer torpor
It was only a small church
but still he was assiduous
in his moth count.
Obviously he’d never
experienced such a large
attendance before –
…it was a full house.
‘A full house’, a Bogong Moth poem from Pirouetting on a Precipice: Poems from the Blue and White Mountains, 2001.
I want to take you back to that scene at the café. After Colleen and I had finished planning what we would do today, I asked her what she was working on next. Colleen took out of her bag two new poems. We looked at one another and smiled.
Colleen’s Sculpting a Landscape is her 12th book of poetry. the edge of it was shortlisted for 1993 NSW Literary Awards. If I remember rightly Les Murray won that year. It’s pretty good to be runner up to Les Murray. Colleen has also written a biography, Doherty’s Corner: the life and work of poet and socialist Marie E.J. Pitt and is co-editor with Vincent Woods of the anthology The Turning Wave: Poems and Songs of Irish Australia, 2001. She has recently published two volumes of memoir: The Waves Turn, 2016, and The Human Heart is a Bold Traveller, 2017.
– Alison Lyssa
Alison Lyssa is a playwright, workshop leader, dramaturg, script editor, community theatre worker and teacher of writing for performance. Her plays include The Boiling Frog, Dead Men’s Trousers, The Hospital Half Hour, Pinball, Who’d’ve Thought? and The Year of the Migrant.
For details on how to buy a copy of Sculpting a Landscape go to http://colleenzburke.blogspot.com/
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