A longing for place: Brendan Ryan launches ‘Save As’ by A Frances Johnson

Save As by A Frances Johnson, Puncher & Wattmann 2022, was launched by Brendan Ryan at The Crystal Palace Bar, Nth Fitzroy on Saturday August 6, 2022.

I am honoured to be asked to launch Amanda Johnson’s fourth book of poetry, Save As. I have known Amanda for some years, and like the person herself, I found this collection of poetry to be playful, funny, critical, smart and a pleasure to be immersed in.

No poet appears out of context, in fact, most poets write in response to or against the many poets who have come before them, as well as the poets that they may share a connection with in contemporary poetry. Johnson’s poetry is no different, in the sense that her eco-poetics and position as a writer keenly aware of the power and fragility of the natural world is borne out of her close reading of other poets and writers. In Australian poetry, such a position might be traced back to the writing of Judith Wright, Jennifer Rankin, Louise Crisp, perhaps John Kinsella, as well as poets such as Jill Jones, Peter Minter and Anne Elvey. Like such poets, Johnson’s poems operate on many conceptual levels, they are personal, ironic, critical, self-aware, full of puns and loaded with metaphysics. In fact, read the title poem ‘Save As’ where Johnson riffs off John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, and in doing so, presents the reader with a 21st century sun, heating the planet and not John Donne’s bed. It should be noted also that the Australian poetry critic, Martin Duwell has suggested that John Donne may be Johnson’s totemic poet.

The stunning symbolic image of the moon on the cover of Save As creates a haunting and ethereal presence for the collection. The cover image is of a plaster cast of the moon- one half of it – created by the German astronomer Julius Schmidt in 1898. It took him four years to construct the cast. This image of one half of the moon is offset by the impassive stance of a security guard, seemingly untroubled by the oversized moon sculpture beside him. What is an over-sized plaster cast of a moon doing in a gallery? Such a question connects us as readers to relevant considerations within the collection – of nature devalued and of images of nature that have become commodified, aesthetically praised, as in a gallery, and yet ultimately despoiled by our presence on earth.

Naturally, there are many links within the collection to the cover image, and one perhaps I will mention is the poem, ‘Moon’ which Johnson dedicates to the US somatic poet CA Conrad. Conrad has written extensively about the moon through their somatic poetry rituals and their background in astrology informs much of their understanding of the presence of the moon in our lives. Johnson’s poem begins with the moon’s feminine presence having “no long view“. A link is made to Selene, Greek goddess of the moon and quickly any romantic associations with the moon are dispelled by the mention of ‘space junk’ and our ‘galactic landfill’. Further reference to Conrad is made with the fact that ‘poems (about the moon) fall slow’ in contrast to the men who sought to colonise the moon with ‘quick fortunes’. The recent event of Star Trekker, William Shatner flying into orbit to appreciate the view back to earth is an example of the criticism in Johnson’s poem where the ‘long view home (to earth) was perfect/delicate, like nothing ever seen.” I love the placement of delicate at the beginning of the last line, where it seems to be both apt and mournful and needed for that long moon view that is largely not appreciated.

I should mention that my computer skills are not always great. When I’m saving word docs, emails, web links I often have to think hard about which folder they should go into. Sometimes I discover that I am replicating folders. I have double the trouble as I try to effectively save as, which you might think is an obvious link to Johnson’s collection. And while the collection is not concerned with efficiently saving computer files it is very much concerned with how we might even begin to save the places on earth that we are spoiling and often through our mere presence. On the other hand, the collection is notable for its exploration of personal histories, family, grieving as well as our collective historical involvement in the degradation of the earth.

Throughout the book there are a number of quotations to other writers which are important contextual fragments within their own right, and which also hint at some of Johnson’s concerns. Each of the quotes includes resonant phrases such as, from Rimbaud’s ‘A Season in Hell’ – “our jargon’s drowning out the drums”, to Evelyn Reilly’s poem ‘Broken Water’ where “the cycle of violence is a manner of speaking” a line in reference to the violence we inflict upon the earth. But the quote I want to pause on is by Val Plumwood, the Australian eco-feminist and philosopher, who wrote a lot about nature and the dualism or opposition that people can hold towards nature. Plumwood’s quote, “Attachment to the One True Place is no guarantee of honour to other places, and certain modes of attachment may even require the degradation of other places” comes from the paper, Shadow Places and the politics of dwelling, which examines the many shadow places on earth that appear to be by-products of people like the English royal family privileging places such as the family’s Balmoral residence over the flyovers, desolate parks, and shopping malls that we inevitably create. Within the creation of shadow places is a power imbalance between those who create the beautiful places, the places we prize and the shadow places we seek to ignore. The creation of the city of Dubai from the surrounding desert comes to mind of a city realised by power imbalances.

In the final poem of the collection, ‘I want/don’t want a place’, the dualism of place is explored through Johnson’s repetition of ‘I want’, surely a catch cry for our times. Such a demand is ironised through the idea of ‘no zoos, no brittle arcadias, rewilded bridges spanning eight-lane highways’ and ultimately the poem asks the reader to embrace the shadow places, not as an individual but collectively where like ‘the moony cattle who stare and low, we can do more than ask ‘why’.

While the collection is divided into two, again the dualism, between ‘Save Us’ and ‘Save As’, the two sections are closely connected to this idea of place; how we have both constructed it and spoiled it, and of how like memory, we are imbued with our longing for place. ‘Daughter of Lead’, the first poem in the book introduces context by linking Johnson’s family to lead petrol. Her father, Tom, was a salesman for Caltex. Much more than a confessional poem, the use of anaphora at the beginning of each stanza with ‘I was a daughter of lead’ creates a refrain that introduces tension between herself and that of the father-figure who introduced her to lead petrol, and its concomitant effects. In many ways it is a poem that brings the smell of petrol to the reader just by the repeated reference to the word. Johnson’s humour and puns, always enjoyable, also ignite the poem like flames in an oil field – ‘OPEC-Crude, poetry dating not carbon’. In the final stanza of the poem, her use of repetition highlights our dependence on the car and that we are all ’guzzling at the teat’ regardless of our climate catastrophes. The final two lines where Johnson puns on bushfire advice, ‘I do not leave the vehicle. I do not leave it’ boldly suggests that perhaps we are all locked into the vehicle, even when death might approach.

I just want to conclude with mention of a few more poems that extend some of the concerns and ideas I have raised. The poem ‘My Father’s Thesauraus’ was rightly awarded the 2020 International Peter Porter Poetry Prize and it is a powerful and moving elegy for Johnson’s father, Tom, and of the demise and fragility of language brought upon by ageing. The context of taking a driver’s license from a father is never a pleasant affair, and it is an event that many doctors seem to avoid, and of course which many people, but in particular men struggle with, as it symbolises a loss of control over their own lives. Coupled with this event, is Johnson’s father’s struggles with language, ironically described by Johnson when she quotes her father as saying, “the banks were past the mustard” and “every good boy/deserved flight, all cows ate gravel.” Perhaps the most striking images of the poem occur when her father’s battles with language and driving come to a head after he fails two driving tests, and there are tears in the “Colac Coles car park, lost trolleys whirring and clacking, and the image of the father ‘rocketing across a petunia’d town/ roundabout, a bollard bent beneath/the wheel”. Not only is there alliteration between words such as clacking and rocketing, there is the contrast in movement within this stanza, as well as memorable imagery that I will forever associate with the Colac Coles car park. The poem concludes with a poignant image of the father holding the daughter’s hand, “turning it round and round”, and like the spirit of the trolleys whirring in the car park, now it is the father’s presence, “whirring, again, into the cold, free universe.”

Just as Johnson’s father appeared to be gazumped by language in the last years of his life, language for Johnson is a different type of place where it is celebrated often by the sounds of words- succursus, meaning ‘to run and give help to,’ or ‘Funk and Wagnalls’, ‘Pay Pal pastorale’ or ‘the ventricular rictus of a death/certificate’. This comes as no surprise to many of us, as apart from being a poet for whom the aural density of words is a passion, Johnson is also an outstanding exhibiting painter, and as a retiring academic, has written extensively on colonialism and nature. And so, just as Johnson can expose us to the truths behind our commodification of nature and place, her examination of the past uncovers other revealing truths such as the lost teenage romanticism of burning books and of not belonging to the Boys Club of ‘Hughes, Heaney, Whitman, Frost’. Loss and the aesthetic valuing of art also becomes a subtext for poems such as Her Modern where a female artist’s life is compared with the ‘stable boys’ of art, and where her ‘refusal/to capitulate to expectation was sexy.’ Such criticisms of the art world are pursued further in the fine poem, ‘Ultramarine’, which examines art made by refugees in Rome, and where the refugee artists are not even let into the exhibition ‘by the uniformed man with the gun.’ The refugee artist has ‘no identity card, no paper or brush’ yet the art therapist who worked with him is inside the gallery with a crowd. Who said art could be inclusive to all?

There are other fine evocative poems in the collection set in Rome such as ‘Drought Faith’ and ‘Death in Venice’ as well as a hilarious ode to Gladwrap titled ‘Glad’. But the poem I want to conclude with is from the second section of the collection, ‘Pink Lake 1, Westgate Bridge’. This short lyrical poem is a response to Keats’ grand ballad ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Unlike Keat’s poem which features a mythical knight proclaiming and celebrating his love with an unnamed admirer (Fanny Browne) and bemoaning the withering of sedge from a lake, Johnson’s poem updates the pastoral elegy with an image of an urban (made) lake beneath the Westgate Bridge that has been ‘candied’ by algae. That algae can transform a lake ‘into a sunset cocktail’ is described as an algorhythmic process, and yet the image of the pink lake becomes hyper-real reminding me of Umberto Eco’s great book Travels in Hyper-reality. Here, Johnson’s ironic humour is both black, or pink, and razor sharp where instead of ‘faeries’ or waifs “that made sweet moan’’, it is underwear models that are the subject of a photographic shoot by the toxic lake under the Westgate. That the despoiled lake has become a ripe backdrop for photo shoots, and apparently this pink lake is just one of a number of pink lakes in Australia which attracts Chinese tourists to snap their Insta sunsets, and yet a pink lake in an industrial setting also seems to suggest our comfort with making use of the nature fuck-ups around us.

Ultimately the models are ushered away in a pink palm-treed van that has the word SEXYLAND emblazoned on its side. Johnson has the last laugh when she puns on the word SEXYLAND with Sedge Lake from afar and then admits, like Keats, “this is why I sojourn here.” While Keats may have been waiting for his love to return by the lake, Johnson is drawn to the convergence of the hyper real and the despoiled in nature, which in our age, we are sometimes fortunate to witness.

Like Amanda Johnson’s previous three collections, Save As is an intelligent, playful and urgent book for our times. Perhaps it is a book that Prime Minister Albanese needs to have on his bedside table, for deeper reading. You don’t need to know the many poems that Johnson refers to in Save As in order to appreciate their complexity. It is a book anybody can be moved by, it is a book you will be in rapture to. Personally, I read poems to be woken by language, to laugh and learn from strange connections between imagery, rhythm and ideas. This is why I was more than happy to sojourn here.

 – Brendan Ryan


Brendan Ryan lives in Australia. His poetry, reviews and essays have been published in literary journals and newspapers, including The Best Australian Poems series (Black Inc), Contemporary Australian Poetry (Puncher and Wattman) and The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry. His poem, ‘Blister Country’, was included in A Single Tree by Don Watson. Critical essays on his poetry have appeared in The Age and Fishing for Lightning (UQP) by Sarah Holland-Batt. The author of six collections of poetry, the latest being, The Lowlands of Moyne, Walleah Press 2019. His memoir, Walk Like a Cow, was published in 2020 by Walleah Press. A new collection of poetry, Feldspar, will be published by Recent Work Press in 2023.

Save As by A Frances Johnson is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/save-as/