New and Selected by Andrew Burke was launched by Peter Holland at Moana Hall Perth on Sunday 20th September 2020
Andrew Burke has described himself as being a child of the “confessional” poets of the fifties and sixties, poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, and certainly in this book he has given us the story of his life. In a sense, I suppose, it is an autobiography, but that’s only a fringe benefit, an incidental dividend. It’s far more than that, far more interesting than that, far more significant than that.
It’s a fucking HUGE collection of what Jon Kinsella described as “sociable poetry, of day to day, but hard-backed by nature”.
It’s a major achievement, and a courageous one.
While I was reading these poems, a line by Anaïs Nin came to mind:
We love shadows of our hidden selves in others.
—because I was catching shadows of my ‘hidden selves’ flitting across these
Andrew’s selves, of course, are not hidden at all; his selves are all here: sweet, innocent selves; loving ones; sad, lost ones; brave ones (the best sort of bravery: behaviour that doesn’t know that it’s brave, but just does what it has to do).
Here are luscious images of Andrew’s youth, the young man discovering and falling in love with his country: the Pilbara, the Kalgoorlie pipeline, the Southern Ocean; smoke rising above Dwellingup; seeds coming alive in the earth; eggs cracking.
We see the poet, the lover, the watcher, rising from his country. And, as I read it, my shadows whispered to me as they slid past, glowered at me sometimes, even reared up and frightened me.
Because Andrew and I have things in common: we’re the same age, we met when we were about 14, or maybe 15 – I don’t know. We’d both fallen in love with Jazz and played drums.
What we didn’t know then was that we were sharing shit long before we met, growing up in this ‘state’ – and I mean ‘state’ not so much as the physical ‘territory’ of Western Australia, although that is certainly true, but also in the sense of growing up in the same ‘condition’, the same ‘predicament’.
And now, here we are, a pair of old coffin-dodgers for whom the dark shadows of alcoholic fathers have long since retreated; forgiven, of course, but never quite forgotten.
In Andrew’s case that experience engendered a subset of fine poetry about his family, including the wrenching Mother Waits for Father Late that I looked for as soon as I opened this collection. I went back to it because it means a lot to me. It’s important for me. I see it as clearly as if the events described had happened to me.
I can’t read it to you. But I can read the poem that follows it, in which Andrew writes ‘home’ on his fiftieth birthday:
How sick I get of your ghost
Stirring the blood between us,
how sick of the ties
that hold me.
Father, a shrink on the highway
told me to write. To who?
I have made you up. You are
the air in my birthday balloon
the clown at our barbecue
proud patron of the bottle-o
you shape my finger and toes
you cast my shadow
my every look over the shoulder
you carve my tombstone in the womb bone.
How sick I get of my ties to you.
Let this letter be a letter
to the dead letter office.
(I’m sick of your jokes.)
Father, I untie you—
air rushes out
and I whoop…
it’s time to let go.
Andrew, I said to you a couple of months ago, that “viewed from the perspective of this collection, your achievement is quite extraordinary and important.”
But why is it important?
It’s important because of the truth embedded in its pages: a poet walks amongst us, quietly and humbly observing; talking about what has happened to him, what is happening to him. The late Rae Desmond Jones described “subjects scrutinised through an impeccable bullshit detector. The tone mostly gentle, but the eye is ruthless.” Many poets – Robert Frost is an example – find it convenient to create a persona, a character to present to the world. Andrew simply reveals himself. For Andrew, writing is an act of faith.
There’s also the masterful way in which language is deployed, engineered. He catches you up in an apparently simple story, even a moving, or a funny one, then whacks you sideways with a line that makes you go back and read the whole thing again, and then again, just to make sure you didn’t miss a filament of meaning. It’s a musician’s mastery of their instrument: deployed, not for display, but for subtlety.
He offers us an antidote to that world inhabited by those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing; those who seek power in our society. It is the voice of the artist, the singular soul who speaks to the singular soul in each of us, to those private selves whose shadows find expression in his works.
Jackson Pollock said “a good artist paints what he is”, and that’s what Andrew does: he paints what he is.
Poetry is our companion. It helps us cope, with images, connections, moments of recognition. It relies on truthfulness. It’s the history of the human heart. Osip Mandelshtam said something to the effect that,
Poetry keeps us awake for ever,
And bathes us in the bright-haired wave of its breathing.
So that’s why I think this book is important.
I suspect Andrew didn’t so much choose to be a poet as that the muse chose him, Erato was lodged within him at birth. Spend some time with him and you might conclude that he’s not really in charge. A fuse burns through the heart of him, dedicated, quite unpretentiously – humbly – to the language, the English language that he loves and knows so well, and to the noble tradition of poetry: language made special. He’s spent his life reading and writing, and it’s so important that we have people who do that.
I counted a hundred and forty-four poems here, and that sounds quite exhausting, but, in fact, it’s the opposite: it’s invigorating, and leaves you wanting more. I’d like to read them all to you.
I’ll read two. They’re scenes from everyday life. Andrew chose them for me to read, and quoted Tom Waites when explaining why. He said “they came out as simple as
a potato from the earth.” (Watch for the Matryoshka moment in the second.)
The Best Teacher
The cat fidgets on the parapet
facing the roof next door
testing her nerve against
the chasm between.
Floodlit by morning sun
she stands, and sits, and whips
her tail, and partly sits but
stands again, and – just as
I write her fright – she leaps.
Plonk. All four on roof tiles.
It wasn’t so far. Now
she digs along the gutter,
looking for dead lizards
and such easy prey. A brave hearton an autumn day. I’ve been
fidgeting for days, getting up
and down, brewing tea, forgetting
tea, opening files, reading
old poems and emails. Now
that I’m here, it wasn’t so far.
The Pianoless Quartet
5.45pm I drive to pick up
my daughter from Woolworths.
Hot evening, I park undercover,
browse at Music Galore. My
music’s in the cheap bins now,
new CDs reviving Bird’s bebop,
Billie’s plaintive cry. I pick up
Mulligan’s pianoless quartet.
In the Fifties father sang schmaltz
While his friend, a Crosby fan
in cravat and velvet fog voice,
played White Christmas on
a three-note keyring harmonica.
We hid outside. Now Nat and Bing
are in the cheap bins with Duke,
Miles and Monk. I flick through,
standing in the mall like
a Russian doll, Father inside,
his father inside him. 6pm
her till rings off. We drive
through half deserted streets—
To break the silence I share
the ‘pianoless quartet’ story. She
shows me her new shoes.
And at the end of this volume, of course, we arrive back at the beginning, with a sweet little poem about a sweet little boy at boarding school, standing in the shade of a big tree, being given a slice of fresh-baked bread with strawberry jam. But I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself.
Instead of reading that to you, I hope Andrew will forgive me if I turn to another poet, the great TS Eliot, to summarise …
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
In conclusion, I can do no better than to quote that doyen of Australia’s literati, Thomas Shapcott, who said of Andrew “Here is a poet to hail and to treasure.”
– Peter Holland
Peter Holland’ is a retired Perth broadcaster and actor.
New and Selected by Andrew Burke is available by contacting the publisher, Walleah Press, at https://walleahpress.com.au/contact.html
The End of the Line
by Rae Desmond Jones
The End of the Line is Rae Desmond Jones’ final collection of poetry. Rae worked on this manuscript during the last year of his life and it’s publication is a fitting tribute to a great poet.
“Rae Jones was one of the great characters of the Inner West. His commitment to safeguarding the built environment led him from being an activist to becoming Mayor of Ashfield Council. Rae’s poetry reflects the eclectic and progressive nature of the community where he lived, as well as his passion for politics. It canvasses a range of topics including family, friendships, history and the state of the world”. – Anthony Albanese
“The End of the Line is an animated collection, bristling with the varied perspectives, moods, and colours of Jones’ consciousness and ‘voice’. Jones was an impressive raconteur and his distinctive physical voice echoes through the pages. The poems shift easily from the social/political agora to the deeply personal, to contemplative, spiritual/cosmic dimensions. He investigates individual and terrestrial mortalities, and concepts of being. He can be playful, cheeky, bawdy, satiric, savage and biting – as well as reflective, passionate, lyrical and grave. Shadowy images inhabit the book’s atmosphere at times, but in the final poems there is a sense of achievement – of abundance and joy: ‘Harvest the glow’. This is a vivid book. In ‘To prepare a course of poetry’ Rae advises – ‘ Porridge should be avoided’.” – Joanne Burns
“Like most poets of worth there is an identifiable template to a Rae Jones production, but within its quite necessary bounds, what a variety! And in this book, with much of it concerned with his and our mortality, this variety continues. Heart-on-sleeve when required, sardonic when required, often in the same work, these poems are distilled Jones, from a man with a life and career more multifarious than most of us. Though the physical Rae is gone, in Sydney’s Inner West and in Australian poetry, his legend still grows. – Alan Wearne
Many of Jones’s poems finish with the natural world as aloof, seemingly unaffected by the odd juxtapositions in human life – …… But mostly nature serves as pool of comparison, as site of possible transcendence, with what Jones wishes to see, gracefully, as the insignificance of big-noting humanity: this is the descant strand hovering over his fervent engagement in this gritty world – viewed partly in ministerial solidarity, partly in a parody of disdain, and partly in raging shit-stirring protest. – Gig Ryan,