Sunday Morning, Here by Jill McKeowen, Flying Island Books 2022, was launched by Jean Kent at the Watt Space Gallery, Newcastle. 11th December 2022.
It is a sad, but very special honour to be launching this beautiful Flying Islands book: Jill McKeowen’s posthumously published first collection of poetry, Sunday Morning, Here.
On December 11th, 2021 – coincidentally, exactly one year before this launch day – Jill handed me the manuscript which became this collection. She had asked if I would look at the poems and I had been only too happy to agree. Everything Jill wrote was polished and perfected before she allowed it to reach a public readership, so I expected good things.
The next afternoon, I began to read. In one sitting, I was swept away to the end. I loved the clarity and directness, the generous celebrations of people and places … and so much more. Jill’s poems are meticulously crafted, but they still feel effortlessly welcoming.
From the very first poem, “Transience”, Jill’s attention to just the right words and imagery is apparent. “Transience” is a homage to the Central Coast of Jill’s teenage years. It begins like this, on “The Esplanade”:
round by the beach
……….it’s morning blue
………………..sunshine in your hand
like coloured pencils
………………..across a paper sky
Beside the ‘lapis lazuli sea’ at Ocean Beach, she captures the innocence of ‘girls in jeans / waiting on winter sand, waiting / for real talk to be lit / when the boys came out of the water.’ Her lovely imagery of lighting continues through the poem, progressing through time from the vision of the seventeen-year-old to the view of the home place today – no longer just a ‘world of summer / borrowed from the (Hawaiian) islands’, but a beach where ‘girls in hijabs stroll’.
Inevitably, all through this book, change occurs. With a generous, tolerant eye, Jill records that. Through the gaps in the marina wharf, we share her own awareness that life might take her elsewhere, as the “Transience” sequence ends with these lines:
…. water looping light around
rocking hulls and dreaming fish,
like phosphorescent ocean stars
and your voyage out
leaping soundless from a surface
of dark deep water.
Jill’s original title for her book was Transience. She touches deeply on that at a personal level in the many affecting poems about family life and loss. But there is also a wide-reaching recognition of the importance of place in our lives. Looking at a boy on a surfboard negotiating waves, she writes ‘my sense of place slides / about / like the boy on the board’. That uneasiness perhaps prompted her to look more closely at different places and to make them real on the page. There are so many vividly recorded places (and people connected with those places) in this book: from the coastal beaches of Umina to Dixon Beach and the suburbs of Newcastle; from Dubbo at night – its ‘trembling /spread of lights, an inland sea that welcomes / you …’ – to the Centre of Australia, where flying overhead creates the feeling of being silenced by the awe of history, unreadable in the land so far below.
Always, though, at the heart of Jill’s poems, she returns to people. There are beautifully tender portraits of parents and siblings. Childhood playtimes remembered. An apology to a mother for accusing her of being a victim of ‘the patriarchy’ – a scene still vivid with the banal domestic ‘oppression’ of cooking potatoes for dinner, as well as a gracious acknowledgement in hindsight of how her mother had, in fact, also fed them in a deeper way.
Jill’s eye for the telling details of ordinary life is keen and true, but she also keeps a look-out for the moments of ‘rare transcendence’. Her poems before and after the death of her father are exceptionally poignant and heart-breaking. They are gifts of love and extraordinary tributes to the daily stuff of life that we might all wish someone would record for us.
All through this book there is a wonderful acknowledgement of the importance of things. Pipi shells on a beach remind her of her father, digging for them at low tide. Her mother’s Swan teapot, which has been passed on to her, brings back memories of all the houses where the family lived, even though the pot has a ‘tannin-stained interior / so dark you need a lamp to see / the decades encrusted there’.
Jill’s gift for narrative makes these poems so easy to read that we could miss the care with which they’ve been crafted. Often, they feel like small films, with their visually delightful imagery and subtle emotional shifts. Just reading the poem titles – and the order of them – is like being taken into the story of a life.
One of the hardest tasks to finalise with a book is sometimes its title. Even though Jill’s book is studded with gems in the list of the individual poems, it took some time to decide the final choice for the book itself. Any of the original section titles – Transience; The Time it Takes; Tap Roots; Who I Am; Sunday Morning, Here – would have given a nice summary of the overall concerns of the poems, and could have been fine. Kit Kelen and I tossed up many memorable phrases and images from the poems, and I think Jill enlisted quite a lot of other people to help as well, because she did want it to ‘pass the pub test’, not just get a literary medal!
In the end, she settled on Sunday Morning, Here, a title which coincidentally brings us to the final place where Jill lived: her house and garden in Newcastle, where she greeted the morning sun with ‘birds calling up the day …’. It was a place where she felt grateful for the fact that she could follow her belief that nothing was real until it was written. She could be glad each day to ‘arrive at a page’ and ‘linger an hour in (her) daily practice’ of writing, whilst also noting wryly the necessity of ‘the garbage truck roaring by.’
Here, she was able to perfect what she called her ‘autobiographical’ poems and gather them together into this book. Here, her vision of the world in her poems also stretched beyond the white circus of the cockatoos on the vacant lot, and examinations of herself.
In one of the most recent poems in this collection, “Away from War”, she juxtaposes scenes from her own life, picking ‘the exquisite berry faces of strawberries’ to make jam, with pictures on the TV News of the ‘desolate faces’ of Syrian refugees. It is characteristic of Jill that she ends the poem on a note of hope, admiring both the jam and the possibility of new lives for the Syrians: she recognises ‘the completion / of small good things’ and feeling herself ‘blessed’, hopes
for all a garden, music, lives to live.
When I started to write this launch speech, I re-read the collection. In its beautifully produced packaging from Flying Island Books, Sunday Morning, Here now has that badge of belonging to the literary world which validates the faith I had in it a year ago.
Normally, at a launch, the poet would now read for us. Alas, Jill is no longer here to do that, so I am grateful to the local poets who will soon treat you to a selection of the poems.
In the original draft of her Acknowledgements for the book, Jill wrote: “I am fortunate to live in a regional city with a poetry community which is rich, sustaining and inspiring.” Jill, we were fortunate to have you amongst us. As each poet who agreed to stand in for you today said to me, reading your poems will be ‘an honour’.
I’d like to end this speech with a vision of Jill, which keeps returning to me. It is from a time before I knew her as a poet. Jill had contributed an essay to an anthology called Global Delights: a compilation of recipes and creative writing about different cultures and their food. To celebrate the book, the contributors (including me) were invited to a feast at the Greek Community Centre. After all the tarama and souvlaki and probably a lot of wine or retsina, someone – possibly Voula, the woman Jill had written about – began to dance on the table. It was a rather riotous scene, and Jill was enraptured. She clapped and laughed and loved this.
Like her poetry, Jill’s essay in Global Delights was keenly intelligent and empathetic, but so much of what makes her writing remarkable is encapsulated for me in this moment: a love of life for what it is, chaos and all; and a desire to record it, clear-eyed, in words that would keep it real, and unforgotten.
With Jill no longer here, this launch of her long overdue book is a bitter-sweet event. Through her words, though, Jill remains very much with us.
Sunday Morning, Here is a deeply moving, sometimes heartbreaking collection, but it is also a book studded with ‘small good things’, and intensely rich with a life that will not be forgotten. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you, and I am delighted to declare it launched.
– Jean Kent
Jean Kent grew up in rural Queensland and now lives at Lake Macquarie, NSW. Nine books of her poetry have been published. Her awards include the Anne Elder Prize, Dame Mary Gilmore Award, Wesley Michel Wright Prize and runner-up for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. Her new collection, The Shadow Box (Pitt Street Poetry, 2023) is a book-length sequence of poems based on the experiences of her grandparents during and shortly after the First Word War. The Shadow Box will be launched by John Foulcher at the Newcastle Writers Festival in April 2023.
Sunday Morning, Here is available at https://flyingislandspocketpoets.com.au/product/3189/