A remarkable feat of poetic ability: Rachael Mead and Alison Flett launch Rhymes With Hyenas by Heather Taylor Johnson

Rhymes With Hyenas by Heather Taylor Johnson, Recent Work Press 2021 was launched by Rachael Mead on 22/09/2021 at The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Adelaide (and Alison Flett in absentia)

Hello and thank you all so much for coming tonight. It’s Alison Flett and my great honour to be launching Rhymes With Hyenas – the latest poetry collection by our incredible friend and sister-poet Heather Taylor Johnson.

But first, I’d like to acknowledge that we are all meeting here tonight on Kaurna Country. Land that was never ceded. And we pay our respects to the Kaurna community, the elders of the past, elders who are caring for their land and people now, and those who are yet to come.

And it’s fitting to think deeply about this country we’re standing on when we’re welcoming a book into the world that is steeped in the landscapes and weather of Adelaide.

Rhymes with Hyenas fills me with joy. For so many reasons. I can guarantee it will be unlike anything you have read before. It’s more than a poetry collection. More than an epistolary novel. More than a feminist reclamation of literary history. More than an ode to sisterhood. Yes, it is all these things. But it is so much more.

 How to describe it? Six female characters from great works in the Western literary canon written by men – well, I did say the Western canon so male authorship practically goes without saying – find themselves living in Adelaide in contemporary times (pre-covid).

These women are now living free from the past lives that were written for them and are forging their own destinies. And in a delightful twist, all six come together in a poetry group in Adelaide that they name Rhymes With Hyenas.

 Who are these female characters? The mover and shaker behind bringing them all together is Ursula Brangwen, one of the sisters in D.H Lawrence’s Women in Love, who is now living on the Yorke Peninsula and caring full-time for her husband Rupert. Then we have Caddy Compson from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. She’s been exiled from their Mississippi homeland and is now living in Adelaide, dealing with homesickness and the demands of domestic life with two young children and a constantly travelling husband. Dolores Haze. Ring a bell? Well, that’s the real name of pedophile Humbert Humbert’s ‘Lolita’ who has reinvented herself as a spoken word artist and mother to a teenaged daughter. Mel Isaacs moved to Adelaide from South Africa and is now better known as a playwright, actor and dancer than the character in J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace. Lilith, first wife of Adam in Judaic mythology (and still a little bit intimidating) is an academic and established poet who is living with chronic illness and still grieving the death of her life-partner Eve. Yes, that Eve. And finally there is Katherina Minola (who we know as Kate from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) who works with female refugees by day and by night deals with an abusive partner at home.

 Afterlife
……………-Ursula

 Dear, dear winter,
who is to say heaven is not in the sea?
I walked, my feet wet in a maddening headwind,
there was a dog trying to round me up,
the seaweed piled in islands before me,
intermittent sprays of sun and the noise of the wind
and riotous waves, and the wet-suited kite surfer
splashing the sky. God knows to die means only
to move on with the invisible. Imagine diving –
though stronger than diving – a perfect
acceptance of water, a perfect
forgiveness of earth’s falling away.
Among fish, I could be eternal.

 June 23rd
…………….-Katherina 

My face is longer than I remember /

………………………………………..maybe it’s the mirror or the cut of my hair or the ………………………………………..clothes I’ve been wearing the past couple days

 and then my eyes / my eyes
have faint bruises under
neath so they look longer too /

……………………………………………………………………….I see forty and seventy looking into a ………………………………………………………………………mirror at fifty and seventy-two

 I see lips full sans stretch so my chin
looks longer / my breasts are longer

………………………..than they were last year / maybe I should try
……………………….a new bra or maybe it’s the clothes I’ve been
……………………….
wearing for days and days or maybe it’s the
……………………….
mirror /

……………………….……………………….…………….maybe the wine has gone to my head or ……………………….……………………….…………….the tipping moon or the cut of my hair / but

 the day is shorter than I remember.            

As a reader, I’m delighted that giving voice to female characters who have been silenced and marginalized in literary history is having a bit of a moment. However, Alison and I can attest that Heather started this book almost a decade ago – long before Madeleine Miller, Natalie Haynes and Pat Barker hit the bestseller lists, giving voice and agency to women from classical mythology. In fact, for a while, every time I read a poem that reimagined a literary work from the perspective of a female character I got all hot under the collar on Heather’s behalf – that was her idea.

Until a short while ago, I picked up Ovid’s The Heroides (The Heroines), which is a collection of fifteen letters in poetry written from the perspective of aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology. Ovid penned letters in these women’s voices to their heroic lovers who had mistreated, neglected, or abandoned them. This was back in the first century BCE.

So, the idea has a classical history – but Heather has done something extraordinary with it. In Rhymes With Hyenas, men are now the minor players without voice. All the agency is in the hands of these six women who are done with the relationships that defined them to the world. They’ve moved away. They’ve moved on. They’ve started new lives on their own terms. And they’ve all come to the realization that what they need more than anything at this point is other women. And poetry.

 All six have found their way to writing poems – but their poetic styles, voices and reasons for putting pen to paper are as varied as their lives. These women are dealing with homesickness, babies, grief, institutionalised racism, domestic abuse, identity, addiction, their own illnesses and the illnesses of loved ones. And as they get to know each other over the course of a year, they open up to each other, make themselves vulnerable and allow themselves to be truly seen – through the poems they share and the friendships we see play out in the email correspondence that links them.

What makes this book remarkable is not just the brilliant idea that underpins it. It’s not just the caliber of the poetry or the beautiful rendering of friendship through the medium of email. This book is testament to Heather’s amazing abilities as both a poet and a novelist. She steps so convincingly into the personas of these six characters with six totally distinct poetic styles and voices that we see their poetry developing, blossoming alongside their friendships as the women bond, inspire and support each other. It is a remarkable feat of poetic ability, literary research and human empathy.

I am not a Hole
………….-Dolores

Dr Rosen tells me I’m better.
It’s the simple things you admire
…………(my dog’s tongue, for instance
…………how it hangs when he runs so fast
…………
he loses his senses)
that help to make you whole.
I tell him I am not a hole.

He wants to send me to the stars;
I get acupuncture instead –
eight needles stimulate my feet & face
& calves & head & then I’m dead
asleep on the table, dreaming of insomnia.

My teenage daughter is having sex I say
…………(her boyfriend’s tongue, for instance
…………
how it hangs when he comes so fast
…………
he loses his senses).
Don’t be a hole I think to her, pushing
on some pressure points while
Dr Rosen tells me I’m better.

.

Instructions for my Husband
………….-Caddy

I feel it here, above my stomach
between the butterfly wings of my ribcage and central
like the universe, a longing for what’s born of womb,
for broken children and sleeping children and children
who grow and don’t. It’s as if there is no containment
in this monthly bleed, no rules for patience, no rationale.
Hormones, you think, and stay clear of my sex while I
say to you: stop telling me a glass half empty is a glass
half full – just know that I am thirsty.

 Alison, Heather and I were in a poetry group for many years. We called ourselves ‘Edit When Sober’ and Heather brought many of the poems in this book to EWS for feedback and discussion. Despite the differences, many aspects of Rhymes With Hyenas resonate with me. The settling on a name, the format, how to approach feedback, the decisions about limiting membership to keep the dynamic working. And the emails. All the emails.

 What is Left
………….-Lilith

Last night it rained, the grass reclaiming the yard
with pompous green overspill while leaves lay patches
of yellow blankets and die. There is toast, coffee, a tragedy:
The Taming of the Shrew, somehow tagged a comedy.

You held the book for months in your hands, Shakespeare’s sonnets
perched on your lips that moved quick and small, the fragile skin
of a newfound love blustering in a newer wind.

The morning after the stone-faced scowl of the Berlin Wall
was smashed to pieces the dust settled on our new world.
Everyone celebrated, tongues devouring tongues in a fetish of youth
and democracy on any street, in any café, and you were reading
this red book, you dog-eared these thin pages, and I can feel your fingerprints.

Other days it is the taste of tarragon, the green knit scarf
we used to share, mindlessly walking to the passenger side of our car.

 

Over It….
………….-Mel

Look how you think
this is about you.

Watch how I walk
shoulders back.

 

The Street between Two Streets…..
………….Mel

It was leaving the pub
and one of us singing;
how the rest of us joined in.

It was the moon,
the moon and a gumtree.

So after all this explanation about what this book achieves and why it’s such a triumph of imagination and literary skill – what I really want to (selfishly) explain is why this book fills me with so much joy. And that is because – at heart – this is a book about female solidarity. It’s about sisterhood and how friendship and creativity (especially poetry) can help us pick each other up, link arms and march forward as ourselves – not performing the roles others expect or create for us. This book – the characters, the poetry, the beautiful and empathetic rendering of friendship speaks to me on a deeply personal level about what is truly important. And, if I’m honest, what I need to keep working on. Friendship. Poetry. And to keep in mind that life is a ‘work in progress’ that will always benefit from a little feedback and editing (preferably when sober) from the significant women in my life.

 Congratulations, Heather on this truly remarkable book. Alison and I are both thrilled that it is finally out in the world, and we’re delighted to, together, declare Rhymes With Hyenas officially launched.

 – Rachael Mead and Alison Flett

 ——————————————————-

Rachael Mead is a South Australian poet, writer and arts reviewer. Her most recent poetry collection is The Flaw in the Pattern (UWA Publishing 2018) and her debut novel The Application of Pressure was published by Affirm Press in 2020. In 2019, she was awarded the AP/NAHR Eco-Poetry Fellowship offered by Australian Poetry and Nature, Art & Habitat for a month-long residency in the Taleggio Valley in Northern Italy.

Alison Flett is originally from Scotland where she published three collections of poetry and won, or was shortlisted for, many awards including the prestigious Saltire First Book of the Year Award. Since moving to Adelaide in 2010, her poems and short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Cordite, Island, Southerly and Westerly. She is an arts reviewer for InDaily, commissioning editor for the international journal Transnational Literature and publisher, with Jill Jones, at Little Windows Press. Her latest poetry collection, Where We Are, will be published by Cordite in 2022.

Rhymes With Hyenas is available from https://recentworkpress.com/product/rhymes-with-hyenas/

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