A World of Inner and Outer Captivity: Suzanne Bellamy launches ‘Dark Matters’ by Susan Hawthorne

Dark Matters by Susan Hawthorne was launched by Suzanne Bellamy at Muse in Canberra on 24 October 2017

My friendship with Susan Hawthorne, writer and publisher at Spinifex Press – the author being celebrated here tonight at Muse – stretches back over decades now. I can assure you that we have done a great deal of hilarious laughing over those years, and I am emphasizing that humour at the outset because the subject matter of Susan’s novel isn’t funny, it’s confronting, which is a little tough on the person doing the launch. Susan’s novel is deeply involved in the dark matters of torture, but I remind you at the start that this is creative writing, this is the creation of a textual art space, this is the business of the artist, to take the reader to hard places and bring them out again. This is not torture, this is art practice, a novel of exploration of dark matter.

FORM. The form of the novel is striking. The first visual impact of the novel on the reader, its physicality, is of scattered fragments on the page, scraps and movement, not a continuous unfolding narrative. This is a puzzle, a mystery building over time and place, locked inside several brains and memories. The reader is a participant from the start, sorting out the puzzle. You cannot sit outside and observe, you enter and try to sort out the fragments. Time sequences shift, you don’t know what’s happening, the gaps in the paper on the page create the presence of the book’s most important presence, SILENCE. There is a lot of Silence, of unknowns. And yet the text is unified, there is a story, there is a kind of shifting reality, it emerges fitfully, it is visible. There is sound, vibrations, Voices, broken bits of lives and possibilities. Three narrators act as a broken chorus and lead us through a horror story of sorts, across complicated time, geographies, memories, inventions. Deeply individualised and yet linked to broad political events, there are threads of a common story among women somehow reunited in the crazy maze of patriarchal overlay, from one girl’s curiosity through family explorations to the terrible history of whole countries.

LANGUAGE.  In all of Susan Hawthorne’s writings across several genres, language itself is her central engagement. She has a core fascination, creatively and as a scholar, with all kinds of language; text, signs, symbols, sounds, body language, sound language, animal language vegetal consciousness in general. She is also a scholar of Ancient Languages, the archaeology of language, visual verbal, and held in Silence. This stretches also to made-up language, Origin Myths about words. Underlying all that word focus flows the great river of women writers and artists, the long line of women, known and unknown, the women writers and artists that are her/our heritage. In all the previous books of poetry and a verse novel including Cow (2011), Limen (2013), Lupa and Lamb (2014), Earth’s Breath (2009), The Butterfly Effect (2005) these rich voices of the past echo and reinvent themselves in the pages, an intertext of women’s creative heritage, and the core of Susan’s feminism and lesbianism. In this new novel too, they are layered into the text in subtle and obvious ways. Here are language fragments from the deep past, women’s cultural threads sometimes open sometimes hidden away for survival, here is CODE, hieroglyphics, pictographs, scratches of meaning and messages.

Susan has indeed chosen to write in many forms over the last few decades – essays, poems, novels, theory, a quiz book, translation. What unites all these structures and ways of speaking is her core vision, and she has found multiple ways to show us what she sees, what she knows, what she wants, what she doesn’t understand, and what pains her. I know she has been carrying around a version of this novel a long time, and so now it is here, Dark Matters.

I wonder, why now it emerges? Why the novel form now? This is in fact her first return to the form of the novel since The Falling Woman back in 1992. My own speculation on this question is because this form allows a lot of freedom to incorporate all her ways of seeing. It seems to have a looseness that can fold many things into it, unlike a poem, freer than a long essay, released from the disciplines of factual reality.  As a novel, it is deeply poetic, almost in parts a kind of prose poem. Susan has created a tool that can invoke multiplicity and looseness. There is here Voice, story, memory, myth building, myth recovery, invention and certainly deep POLITICS. This is her territory and always has been in our long association as friends, political allies, creative sisters, and for me as a reader of the work. A World is Remembered, Created new, Reimagined, And We are in it, Susan’s line. The intertext presences in this novel are layered, dense and subtle in parts and sometimes right in your face. Sappho of course, the great ancestor, plus Stein, Woolf, Monique Wittig, Mary Daly, Leonora Carrington (the hearing trumpet appears), the women of the Surrealist movement.  The beloved literature and art of our generation of lesbian artists and writers and scholars is all here, woven into the textual underlay.

On TORTURE.  There were matters that I needed to think deeply about and address here tonight, on the ethical depiction of horror and torture. We are surrounded by this material in popular culture but for the artist they are serious themes to consider. How to represent this creatively? How to be transformative, and not just dump trauma on the reader? How to convey horror and yet also be effective? How does this function for a woman writing about women and torture, how to write about it? The torture of lesbians and women has been part of the Great Silence, but how to convey it with power and responsibility, not as desensitized or voyeuristic or pornographic? This is not a new question and women writers have considered it in many ways. In a recent book about Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and others, (Tough Enough by Deborah Nelson, 2017) the author says “Causing Pain to the Reader is sometimes acceptable.”  The 20th C, a century of trauma was also one of traumatic representation.  “The problem is not that we do not know what is happening but that we cannot bear to be changed by that knowledge when we do know.” Now in the 21st C, an escalation and normalization of torture presents this to artists in a whole new way. How do you write about it? What form do you choose?

Writer and Sculptor Kate Millett, who died only recently, also puzzled over how to convey torture and cruelty, in her books The Basement (1979), about the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965, and also in The Politics of Cruelty (1994). But it was in her Sculpture, in the non-verbal space that she explored the Uses of Torture most powerfully, creating a world of inner and outer captivity, programmatic torture. Susan Sontag, in Regarding The Pain of Others, addressed this question of torture in photographs, considering how Virginia Woolf in her book Three Guineas chose which photos of dead children in the Spanish Civil War not to use. The point is that artists and writers make choices, ask what the purpose and limits are in recreating the dark matter of torture.

How has Susan thought and written about this? I know she has considered it for many years. We have talked about it, as she has sought out and researched torture particularly about lesbians. In this novel she has made choices, great ones. It is graphic and powerful but somehow it also cleans and transcends and empowers the reader. Certainly it did me. The body sensates the realities of torture in complex responses, fear, pain anticipation, creative dissociation, and the brain is very present. We are of course outsiders but we are made to be there and think through the matter, the dark matter, and stay grounded and still think about what is happening. Always we know deeply this is art space not a torture room.

The Story of Lesbians on Planet Earth preoccupies some of us very much, it being a fugitive tale with uncertain outcomes and endings. Attacks on the very word and language of Lesbian in the 21st C are a new challenge. Lesbia Sapiens Magnificata as a Form finds itself under threat again, the very word. Susan in this novel invokes “an Imaginary Encyclopedia about Lesbians. A Universe in which lesbian symbols lie at the centre.” This I think actually describes all her work. The novel echoes all her previous work and takes a courageous step into territory made invisible by old fears no longer able to be contained. The times of Silence are over.

As to Susan’s larger project. Spinifex Press is a remarkable experiment in feminist publishing, a triumph of survival. It continues to produce clear voices in real books in hard times. It is its own kind of marvellous reality, and I celebrate the books and the women.

 – Suzanne Bellamy


 Suzanne Bellamy is an artist and a scholar. She has produced works in porcelain for many years. Her prints often reference artists such as Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. In 1996 she created the art performance/ archive installation The Lost Culture of Women’s Liberation 1969-74, the Pre-Dynastic Phase, an archaeological, activist women’s history project, which has now been presented many times both in Australia and in the USA in museum or slide/performance format. Suzanne Bellamy’s artwork appears on the cover of Dark Matters (Road Map 2004. Etched embossed monoprint on Fabriano paper). The image interprets a photograph of Mitochondria, the Motherline DNA, from an old Scientific American photograph. She is currently completing a PhD in Australian Studies at the University of Sydney.

Dark Matters is available from  http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=297/

Featured Artist Anna Couani: Biographical Note

Anna Couani

Anna Couani is a writer and visual artist who worked as a Visual Art and ESL teacher in Intensive English Centres and secondary schools for more than 30 years. She now runs an art gallery called The Shop Gallery in Glebe with her husband, sculptor Hilik Mirankar. She started out as a painter in the 70’s but more recently has focused on printmaking. She has exhibited her artwork in group shows and has published several books of experimental prose and poetry. Her most recent book is Thinking Process, 2017 Owl Press, consisting of poems about making art. These poems were first published in Project 366, a group poetry publishing project http://project365plus.blogspot.com.au

Anna Counai, ‘the back door’, reduction block print

The Celebration of a Life Richly Lived: Ron Pretty Reviews ‘Many, and One’ by Lyn Hatherly

Many, and One by Lyn Hatherly Five Island Press 2017

Some readers may not be aware that this is a posthumous collection: sadly, Lyn Hatherly passed away in 2016. At the back of Many, and One, there is a biography of Lyn, so I don’t need to go through her life story in any great detail. But there are a number of things from that biography that I would like to take a few moments to highlight.

I got to know Lyn when I came to Melbourne to run Five Islands Press, the Australian Poetry Foundation and Blue Dog (which later became Australian Poetry Inc and Australian Poetry Journal) and it is true to say that none of those projects would have survived for very long without her — an observation that was confirmed after I retired to Wollongong and Kevin Brophy took over Five Islands Press. For both of us, Lyn was administrator, secretary and editor by turns; always there, always reliable, always cheerful.

She was a very careful editor and proof reader; she helped with the selection process for Blue Dog and was always a good sounding board when selections were being made for FIP.

The next thing that impressed me about Lyn was her knowledge of the myths, the ancient writers and philosophers; and particularly, her knowledge of, and authority on, the work of Sappho, that ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos on whom she had done her PhD. Some of the poems in the collection display the power of one of her translations; she translated Sappho for her degree. Lyn came to academic study late, as her biography explains, but she was an autodidact with a life-long love of literature and thirst for knowledge, both scientific and literary.

I know that Lyn had other arrows in her Sapphic quiver, chief among them her ability as a lecturer, workshop leader and mentor for writers. Others are better qualified to speak of this aspect of her life, but the number of people at Eltham with grateful memories of her attests to that, as does the workshop in Eltham she founded. The fact that it continues uninterrupted demonstrates her continuing creative influence.

That perhaps is a somewhat lengthy introduction, but it is important to remember that, as fine a poet as Lyn was, she composed her poetry while she was doing a myriad of other things, which makes the quality of her poetry even more remarkable.

Turning now to Many, and One. The first thing I would want to claim for it is that it is accessible and challenging. This is poetry to be enjoyed and appreciated by all who have a skerrick of interest in poetry.

Coincidentally, as I was preparing this review, I happened to see a documentary film about the great Hungarian composer and teacher Zoltán Kodály. He firmly believed that all of us have music in us, and the correct approach will bring it out. He also felt that Conservatoria around the world do music a great disservice by concentrating on a few gifted musicians at the expense of all others, who are left feeling second rate, demoralised.  I can attest to the truth of that, for I know a gifted pianist who, having won a scholarship to London, was there told that she would never make a concert pianist. The disappointment in a very real sense destroyed her life. Kodály believed in encouraging the love of music for people at any age, and the success of the annual  Brisbane Music School attests to the efficacy of his approach.

That story has a direct relevance to Lyn Hatherly, for, as Kodály in music, so Lyn believed that poetry is for all of us, not just the gifted few, as the success of her workshops attests. As does her own poetry, which demonstrates the power of a clear and accessible surface, vibrant images, precision and passion to convey rich and complex ideas. As we can see in this collection, there is a richness we can all enjoy.

The book is in 6 evocative sections, entitled, in turn, Many; Imagine; Love and Desire; Borrowed Breath; And One; and, finally a baker’s dozen of uncollected and selected poems. As the note on the text at the beginning indicates, some of these poems were in earlier collections, so it’s a new and selected edition. As well, Chris and Kevin have indicated in their note that “we have done our best to present the poems left unfinished in as complete a state as possible, in the arrangement that Lyn had worked out.” I think Lyn would have been very pleased with the result, for those poems fit seamlessly into the collection. Unstated there, of course, is the sense of loss those unfinished poem represent.

The next thing to notice is the title: Many, and One. We know that Lyn was a very careful editor, so why the comma? For me, its effect is to isolate and emphasise each term in the title, even as it insists on the link between them. There are a great many of us, and we live in a world of many wonderful things, and in a world that faces grave issues, as many of the poems suggest even as they stress the beauty and the power of the natural world. At the same time the title insists that we are one, that we live in one world and (despite the dreams of the astronauts) if we destroy it, there will be no other. Her poem, ‘The many’, explores this. Notice the way she segues from talking about the one, to bacteria, and finally to talking about all of us. (page 49). See also ‘We are many, but we are one’ on page 64.

The title thus connects seamlessly with the dominant theme of the collection. For many of the poems in this collection explore aspects of science and the natural world; her sense of delight in it; her sense of wonder. All her life this was an abiding interest of hers, and it came as no surprise when she told me some years ago that she and her partner Chris Peters were intent on building an ecologically sustainable home, which they did in Eltham. That’s the thing with Lyn: she didn’t just espouse her beliefs, she lived them.

So many of the poems in this collection reference this passion of hers. For instance, this one from page 12: ‘Hear Them’. Note the real sense of celebration throughout this poem, and especially in the last line of each stanza. The final stanza will give you a good sense of the poem:

How wise we were of sap and form
to found this green and wet-pocked earth
where plants take air and make it breathe
where streams and seas and clear lakes flood
where rocks have thawed to make good soil
the sun gives light and heat and fire
and all life forms shake with desire
together they shall sing a hallelujah.

That awareness of the natural world, the wonder of it, permeates the whole collection: the earth and everything in it, and everything on it is her text, how all of it’s connected, all of it is to be celebrated, insect, bird and animal, humans and our place in it, the love of partner, child and parent, the awareness of our origins, mythical and scientific; and where it is all headed. One, and Many indeed. So many poems could be chosen to illustrate this; but read, for instance, ‘At Dusk’, on page 45, where Hatherly seamlessly moves from suburban communters returning home to Shearwaters seeking their nest. The poem celebrates what they have in common.

There are a number of passionate and very sensual poems in the collection, such poems as ‘I see us’, ‘I breathe you’, ‘Labours of Love’, and others. Look how much she packs into ‘Flesh and light’ on page 41. It is both very sensual and scientific, invoking Newton and fields of energy, moving seamlessly from science to the passion and back again.

The energy of love can be moulded
into shapes in an unseen world.
I lean back into the tide of your love.
Its energy is clear as the layers of ocean
closest to the sky, where sunlight is held.

Such poems, of course, emphasise another kind of unity: that between lovers, and also, in a number of poems, between mother and child, or between her and her father. Those poems are almost painful in their beauty: as we read them, we can’t but reflect on Lyn’s delight in the world of the senses. So alive these poems!
Her awareness of what she is leaving gives a real poignancy to many of these poems. One that has a huge impact on me when I read it is ‘You believe’ on page 27. The poem is also a good example of Lyn’s ability to find the significant, evocative detail.

You believe you’ll always remember this,
the spring-blue sky, shallower than summer,
fruit flowers above new green leaves,
wattles still showing a dull gold,
huge box trees creaming and scented
. . . . . . . . . . .
How could plant life keep flowering, fruiting, gifting us
without them (bees), bright as canaries in a mine?
I will remember this.

One of her great skills is in reminding us of the ongoing connectedness between history, myths and the present. These poems remind me of A D Hope’s comment that, “It is the meaning of the poet’s trade to recreate the myths and revive in men the energy by which they live.” (I like the ambivalence of the final “they” in that sentence.)  In the poem ‘Ulysses’ on page 37, just the title is enough. And I think Ovid would have been proud of her poem Daphne (P 17). We’ll all have our own favourites, of course, but for me, the best illustration of this feature of Lyn’s poetry is ‘The star people’ on page 73.

Such connectedness with the present also applies to the ancient philosophers. Look, for instance, at the way she brings Epicurus into the present in a poem like ‘Properties of air’ on page 39. He ‘formed the view,’ she tells us, ‘that matter is illusory’, and ‘We inhale Epicurus’s words.’ And he is very much with them as ‘We dream, you and I, on a lap of long grass.’

At first glance, Lyn’s poetry might appear artless, unstructured, but that’s because her effects come so naturally, so subtly, that it’s easy to overlook them. The poems are rich in the well chosen detail, the evocative phrase, the subtle patterns of sound, the carefully chosen line breaks. Let me give you just a few examples.
See for example, how much is encompassed in these short phrases from Daphne (17), how effective the sound patterning is, how competent the line breaks:

She stands staring at him
sinking her small feet in deep loose soil
until they take root, until her arms spread
in branches, and the white flesh of breasts
know a corselet of bark.

And consider this brief stanza from Cities (22). See how much she builds into these brief lines: the compression, the evocation, with so many of her ecological concerns packed into one brief stanza:

As consummate pack animals we rule
taming, excluding other life forms
even trees and lyrical birds
marching out each day, dragging in
bread from the global commons.

Look too, in the poem Ulysses, (P37) at the way this stanza, in one sentence, builds so beautifully to its butterfly conclusion:

Into this green-tinged underworld,
where vines wrap screens around tree-poles
and lianas that tracked the sun
end in coiled spirals on a floor
crawling with baby-flesh ferns,

two travellers flitted

Notice, too, how effectively she uses the stanza break there to foreground that final phrase.

I could go on multiplying examples of her skill, but I’ll leave to readers the pleasure of finding them for themselves. Those few though are sufficient to make clear the skill with which she weaves her magic: the sound patterning, the compression, the repetitions, the careful structures, the foregrounding, the phrase that make you look and look again.

I would like to finish by referring to the first and last poems, which so ably frame the collection as a whole. The first of them, ‘For a Good Life’, on page 11, is a poem that encompasses her philosophy in a few simple stanzas. Then, on page 81, is ‘Each Breath’, the last poem in the collection. So much is going on in this poem; it carries within it a suggestion of the history of evolution, and an awareness of the richness the world has to offer, and finally and most powerfully, her awareness of the direction in which she is headed. There are many powerful and evocative poems dealing with these questions in this collection, so this is a very appropriate poem on which to end:

I hold my breath, feel the faintness
my body’s panic, the increase in blood-born
carbon, the way some acts are not wilful.
Air and life have always interacted
the present crop of green and living things
nest in our hollow, sipping a mix of oxygen
nitrogen and argon from the fine layer
succouring our Earth: our global commons.
Every breath links us with our past
reminds us that we are all joined.

So I walk on, face forward to my future
while behind me foorprints like arrowheads
point to all I have left behind.

It’s a fine summing up, a statement of her personal philosophy and a revelation of her courage. So buy, read and re-read this book, even as we remember, and miss, the fine mind and generous spirit of the woman who produced it.

 – Ron Pretty

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Ron Pretty has been publishing his poetry for 40 years. His eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. He has taught writing throughout Australia and in US, England and Austria. From 1983 to 1999 he was Head of Writing at the University of Wollongong. He was the director of Five Islands Press, for which he published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987 – 2007. He taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, 2004 – 2007. In 2012 the Australia Council for the Arts awarded him a residency in Rome.

Many, and One is available at http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/many-and-one-lyn-hatherly

Lyn Hatherley’s obituary on Rochford Street Review https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/03/29/vale-lyn-hatherley/

The Absence of Painting: Lisa Sharp reviews ‘Joe Wilson Painting etc’ at STACKS PROJECTS

Joe Wilson Painting etc. catalogue essay. An exhibition at STACKS Projects artist run gallery and project space, 191 Victoria Rd, Potts Point, NSW runs from 21 September to 8 October, 2017.

So, what has happened when you go to an exhibition of paintings only to find that Painting has turned its back and left the room? This is a room you may find yourself in at one of Joe Wilson’s exhibitions and it is a provocative quandary when encountering his work. Left inside the room are a collection of objects, that point to the absence of Painting, much as a recent departure from the stage of a Big Personality. There is a sense of having just missed the main act, tempered by a little uncertainty about the objects left scattered on stage. The end-of concert announcement ‘Elvis has left the building’ comes to mind.

In this room, the works tell of painting through its absence. They do this by adopting its familiar form, referencing formalism, and by utilising a pseudo-materiality that is filled with insight and humour. Carefully assembled is a collection of objects that are associated with and which indubitably point to painting. They point to the imprimatur of painting and not, as one might expect, the well-mined arenas of painting activity as inspired spiritual process, its medium as skill-based, its output as an aesthetically valued product for lengthy gazing upon. The material elements of painting are not present but are recognisable in their absence, through references, substitution and word play. For Joe Wilson lays bare, as if on a stage the entire set of conventions that surround an exhibition of paintings. A Wilson exhibition is a work site and the works are exhibited as moveable and transitory artefacts of the exhibition apparatus – the making, staging, crating, transport and installation of painting.

Joe Wilson, ‘Half Arsed’, 2017. Acrylic and timber, 42 x 42 x 7 cm
(Image courtesy the artist)

As a mere viewer you will be caught up in this staging, as your role in the gallery is assessed. Within the exhibition space of Painting etc, you may find that your entry is facilitated but your spectating can be confounded by the transitory narrative conveyed by the works. The shop-like window of the gallery displays a blue painting bespoke-packed in an orange suitcase. On entry, The Hand, 2017 a hand-rail painted in safety yellow seems to escort, support and guide you in your viewing journey. Then you see paintings in various stages of installation – wrapped for travel, leaning on a wall, hung. Usually white monochromes, they resist being seen again whenever, they remain resolutely crated and unpacked. Occasionally mounted plinth-like on white pallets these works take on a monumental, if slightly absurdist quality. The packing pallet, with its irresistible homophonic reference to a painter’s palette is a recurring Wilson motif, and a gently satirical dig at the paraphernalia, the etcetera of painting, that is the subject of the exhibition.

Clearly at home in the gallery, and fluent in the non-objective vernacular, the works are clean-lined, restrained, well-crafted objects presented in an elegant and reductive vocabulary. You see timber frames, flat colours, monochromatic surfaces, geometric compositions, ready-mades and rectilinearity. It is familiar, and almost too well -done. There is a tension in the room, and it’s a tension created from flawless execution undercut by absence. In a strange inversion of their objecthood, the works resemble – maybe even mimic – images, functioning as reflections, understudies and surrogates of painting. In doing so, the works take on the appearance, semblance, expectation, the simulacra of art, as if what we know and have come to expect of painting has been held up to a mirror, and reproduced.

Situating himself as a painter, Joe Wilson, who also works as an art installer and art school studio technician, is broadly concerned with “elements, situational and compositional, beyond the confines of the painter’s canvas”. Indeed his recent research for his Masters of Fine Art posited painting as Dislocated Object and examined Mobility and Transfer in the Presentation of Painting. And when painting is transient, on the move, or just passing through, then its absence becomes very much a concept explored within each exhibition. Absence is instigated, and then perpetuated by the works’ consideration of the marginalia of roles and agencies that take place behind and beyond the surface of painting. In talking to Joe, he elaborates on a theory he has about the object-image dichotomy, (a central tenet dating from the birth of non-objective painting), seeing it rather as an object-image collusion. This is a co-dependant relationship specific to our contemporary age of ubiquitous media, where the image can not only extend the reach of the object, but also become a work in its own right.

Joe Wilson, ‘Digital collage 3 (thinker)’, 2017. Image courtesy the artist

Another, instance of painting turning its back on a room was Wilson’s earlier exhibition Verso (February 2017, Rayner Hoff Space, National Art School). A verso is a technical term for the reverse side of a painting and in considering painting’s verso we are looking at its back. In that show, the physical site had been renovated to preserve multiple layers of the building’s prosaically utilitarian use, and this facilitated the presentation of painting’s absence in utilitarian disguise. A dolly, a ramp, crates, ladders and flights of steps were interwoven with the presentation of paintings on the walls, suggesting movement, transition and production. In several works, with disarming conceptual perspicacity, Wilson uses chroma-key paint as well as textiles as canvas. A chroma- key is not only a ready-made colour monochrome but is blue / green colour keyed to ‘disappear’ digitally,

The use of a disappearing colour for an exhibition of absent paintings recalls a tale from early painting mythology. The ancient Greek myth of Zeuxis and Parrhasios had two renowned painters in a contest. While Zeuxis produced a painting superior in illusion (birds flew down to taste the painted grapes) it was Parrrhasios who won, for his painting of a curtain which had deceived everyone. The point of the story was not that the curtain was particularly well painted, but that the viewers didn’t see it as painting because they didn’t expect to see it. Instead, the viewers placed all their hope and anticipation in painting that was not there, but was absent.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Painting has left the building. Thank you and goodnight.

 – Lisa Sharp

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Lisa Sharp is a Malaysian-born Australian artist, writer and curator currently living and working in Sydney. Following an earlier career in the law, she recently attained a Bachelor of Fine Arts (with Honours in Painting) at the National Art School. Lisa likes to write and muse about art, art making and artists and blogs at www.lisa-sharp.tumblr.com 

Details of the exhibition can be found at http://www.stacksprojects.com/

‘An intellectual and emotional complex’: Luke Fischer launches ‘The Sepia Carousel’ by Jakob Ziguras

Luke Fischer launched The Sepia Carousel by Jakob Ziguras, Pitt Street Poetry 2017, at Gleebooks on 2 August 2017

Jakob Ziguras

It is an honour and special pleasure to be given the role of launching (a little belatedly) Jakob Ziguras’s new and second book of poems The Sepia Carousel. Jakob and I will shortly converse about the book, and Jakob will then read a number of poems. However, to begin with I will say a few words as a way of introducing The Sepia Carousel.

Jakob currently lives in Wrocław, Poland, and over the past twelve years he has spent much time in Europe, especially in Poland. This time in Europe has involved a deepening of Jakob’s connection to Poland. In recent years he has been translating a number of Polish poets and been extensively reading modern and contemporary Polish poetry.

Jakob was born in Wrocław and lived in Europe until the age of seven, when with his mother he immigrated to Australia as a refugee from communist Poland. After studying visual art for a time, he moved on to study philosophy and completed a PhD at the University of Sydney. Through both his family background and his education Jakob is deeply connected to and versed in European philosophy, literature, art, and theology. If Jakob is correctly identified as a European-Australian poet, the emphasis should nevertheless be placed on ‘European’ rather than ‘Australian’. Jakob writes from within European traditions of poetry and philosophy rather than as a tourist or foreigner in Europe.

Among Australian poets, Jakob’s poetry is comparable to the work of Stephen Edgar in its formal virtuosity and versatility and to Kevin Hart in its philosophical and theological concerns. However, even though Hart’s poems make significant allusions to mysticism, theology and philosophy, Jakob’s poetry generally embodies a greater concern with intellectual complexity (rather than lyrical immediacy), such that a number of poems will remain opaque to a reader with little knowledge of the history of philosophy.

The German word for poetry ‘Dichtung’ contains the word ‘dicht’, which means ‘dense’. Ezra Pound on discovering that the German verb for composing poetry ‘dichten’ can be translated into the Italian ‘condensare’ (to condense) remarked that an essential aspect of poetry was the condensation of meaning. Pound viewed poetry as ‘the most concentrated form of verbal expression’. Jakob clearly shares this view with Pound as his poems concentrate meaning to the utmost.

Like Jakob’s first book Chains of Snow, The Sepia Carousel engages deeply with European history, philosophy, poetry and art and contains a mix of free verse and formal poems, with a predominance of the latter. Nevertheless, there are some notable developments. Firstly, there are more long sequences in The Sepia Carousel––the opening cycle ‘Roman Sonnets’ that consists of eleven sonnets being only one of many examples. Secondly, while Chains of Snow could be said to be an embodiment of poetry as condensation, The Sepia Carousel pushes this tendency further. Through multiple layers of allusion, symbolic compression, formal constraint, word-play and irony, the poems achieve immense concentration.

Jakob’s poetry tends to be difficult. It is far from the mundane realism and demotic diction of the American poetry that sparsely populates magazines such as The New Yorker. But Jakob’s poetry does not renounce or disrupt meaning and coherence in a post-modern fashion. Jakob is more of a high modernist than a post-modernist. His poetry is intellectually complex and allusive. It rewards contemplation and re-reading. It recognizes the complexities of existence and history, and the complicity of the individual in systems of violence and evil. His poetry does not seek refuge in simplistic answers, aestheticism, or sentimentalism.

The sensibility of Jakob’s poetry is notably European and historical. Like many Central and Eastern European poets, Jakob’s poems are deeply aware of the problem, most famously articulated by the philosopher Adorno, of how it is possible to write poetry after Auschwitz, after the atrocities of the twentieth century that have continued into the twenty-first.

Rilke was one of a long line of European poets who strongly identified poetry with the task of articulating the praise-worthy, of affirming life in spite of the transience and imperfection of the world. But after the brutality and systematic violence of more recent history, the task of genuine praising––free of sentimentality and escapism––has become more difficult and problematic. Nevertheless, as the contemporary Polish poet, and friend of Jakob’s, Adam Zagajewski has memorably put it, we must ‘try to praise the mutilated world’.

Jakob’s poems look for fragments of hope and possibilities of transformation amidst the ruins of history, try to affirm at least something beyond the nihilistic emptiness of contemporary capitalism and consumer culture. A characteristic moment of such affirmation is found in lines from the second poem of the sequence ‘Isola di San Michele’: ‘Song comes and goes among the bitter laurels. / I pluck a leaf, and crush it to release / the cool clean scent; then walk away, / the ash and bracing resin on my hands.’ The laurel leaves, the emblem of poetry, are noticeably ‘bitter’ and their trace on the poet’s hand contains ‘ash and bracing resin’. Poetic affirmation is intermingled with ash and decay, life cannot be separated from death. In the moving autobiographical poem, ‘Windows in the Dust’ Jakob recalls a childhood game in a courtyard in Wrocław in which he and other children made patterns in the dirt out of bits of rubbish and broken glass. This is a beautiful embodiment of the aesthetics and poetics of Jakob’s new book. Among visual artists Jakob’s poetics might be likened to the aesthetic of Anselm Kiefer, in the way it looks for beauty and affirmation in unlikely places of ruin and dissolution. Nevertheless, there are also quite bleak poems in this collection, in which despair seems almost inevitable.

Jakob’s poetry is not only notable for its intellectual complexity and range but also for the symbolic compression of his images, which extend imagist and symbolist practices. Pound famously defined the poetic image as ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’ Jakob’s lines frequently exemplify and instantiate images in precisely this sense. To offer one example, consider these two lines from one of the unrhyming sonnets in the sequence ‘Jet Lag Song Nets’: ‘A cold wind lashes at the merchandise. / You wear your scarf pulled tight into a noose.’ In just a few words, these lines capture the speaker’s feeling of the futility of life, which borders on a suicidal desire, in relation to the spiritual emptiness of the market place.

Jakob’s poems also deftly draw on and subvert traditional symbolisms in order to articulate a philosophy of history and a critique of our current moment. When snow appears in the collection, rather than its traditional association with purity and innocence, it tends to imply the cold rationality and amorality of the modern technological world. As a polar and equally destructive tendency, the season of spring, in the title sequence of the third and last section of the book ‘The Rite of Spring’, rather than symbolising positive forces of renewal, transformation, and resurrection, signifies violent irrationality, unbridled passion, and despotism.

While there is a remarkable density and wide use of allusion in Jakob’s first collection, there is a noticeable increase of allusive and narrative compression in the new book. Rather than elaborating a narrative or allusion within the body of a poem, these are tersely intimated as an assumed background of meaning. For instance, the poem ‘Introspection’ (in the sequence ‘Snow like Wool, Frost like Ashes’ dedicated to the late Polish poet Stanisłav Barańczak) we find the following lines: ‘The introspective paradox / is that introspection / is not––unlike Johnsonian rocks––/ subject to inspection.’ These lines assume that the reader has some familiarity with the philosophical problem of infinite regress with regard to self-consciousness, namely that the true subject or self can never be its own object as the observed self never coincides with the observing self. In addition, the expression ‘Johnsonian rocks’ tersely encapsulates the philosophical anecdote of Samuel Johnson kicking a stone as a supposed refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy according to which the world only exists through being perceived.

In the new collection there is also an increase in word play and punning across various languages. One of my favourite lines of this kind (from the sequence ‘The Rite of Spring’), ‘If children ask for bread, then give them Stein,’ alludes both to Marie Antoinette and to the biblical account of the devil tempting Christ to turn stones into bread, and puns on ‘Stein’ as a reference to Gertrude Stein and the German word for ‘stone’.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section titled ‘The Appian Way’ is primarily situated in Italy, especially Rome, and engages with and critiques Western history. The second section ‘First Snow’ is primarily situated in Poland. The third section ‘The Rite of Spring’ ranges widely across European history and literature and includes poems set in Australia. The collection contains a number of brilliant free verse poems but long sequences of formal poems predominate, including terza rima, sonnets, pentameter quatrains, and a variety of other forms. The masterful handling of forms is not only aesthetically significant but also part of the semantic complexity of the poetry. For instance, the sequence ‘Snow like Wool, Frost like Ashes’ is written in ballad meter but these are highly philosophical poems with nothing that resembles traditional balladic narrative; thus there is something like an ironic tension between the meter and rhymes of the ballad form and the ostensible content of the poems.

In our current age of hype, platitudes, doublespeak, and attention spans limited to the length of a tweet, Jakob’s poems ask us to read more carefully, think more deeply, and to widen our understanding and appreciation of history, philosophy, theology and art.

 – Luke Fischer

 ————————————————————————————————

Luke Fischer is a poet, philosopher, and scholar. His books include the poetry collections A Personal History of Vision (UWAP Poetry, 2017) and Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015). His editorial work includes a co-edited special section of the Goethe Yearbook (2015) on ‘Goethe and Environmentalism’ and a forthcoming volume of essays on the philosophical dimensions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Oxford University Press). He frequently curates poetry and music events. He has received various honours and awards, and is an honorary associate of the philosophy department at the University of Sydney. For more information see: www.lukefischerauthor.com

The Sepia Carousel is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/jakob-ziguras/

 

Vale John Ashbery

John Ashbery, widely regarded as one of the greats of English language poetry over the last half century, died on Sunday 3 September aged 90.

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927 and grew up on an apple farm in the nearby village of Sodus. He wrote his first poem at age 8. His first book, Some Trees, was published in 1956, with a by W.H. Auden and was praised by Frank O’Hara, who likened Ashbery to Wallace Stevens. His 1962 collection, The Tennis Court Oath, was so abstract that many critics had trouble coming to terms with the collection, but his 1966 collection, Rivers and Mountains, was a National Book Award finalist and confirmed his position as a major US poet. This was confirmed when his 1975 collection,  Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize.

From an Australian perspective Ashbery was one of the major American poets, along with Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and others, who provided a major influence to a generation of Australian poets from the mid 1960s. John Forbes was referring to this when he wrote in ‘To the Bobbydazzlers’:

…………….Sitting
on the beach I
look towards you
but the curve
of the Pacific
gets in the way
& I see stars
instead knocked
out by your poems
American poets,

Perth Poetry Festival – Keynote Address by Amanda Joy

As patron of the 2017 Perth Poetry Festival Amanda Joy delivered the 2017 Festival Keynote address on 17 August at the Northbridge Piazza Community Room.

Amanda Joy

Within days of being asked to make this address, the week before I left for Broome, I went to dinner with a group of poets, in a corner a candle had been lit for Fay Zwicky. We were told she would not make it through the following day.

When I think of memorable keynote addresses, without fail, the first to come to mind is Fay Zwicky’s opening speech from the Apropos Festival hosted by Writing WA a few years back. I still don’t entirely trust my recollection of what she said, there was some kind of hypnotic reverie involved, which existed outside the words and cast a spell over that entire week. It began with music, Fay Zwicky playing piano. Her talk was mostly autobiographical, quite practical, surprising, gracious and radiated great generosity in its advice to poets. I’m sure everyone there took away many things. Residual for me, the seed which took root, was her advocacy of fearlessness, not just in poetry but in our relating to others, a courage in reaching out, particularly poet to poet.  I very loosely paraphrase here, “if you admire someone’s writing, write to them, no matter how far away and loftily admired they might be” Her reach was as international as the points of reference evidenced in her writing. She illuminated those interconnections which sustain us and it seems right to invoke her presence here now, through her own words and those of a handful of Western Australian Women Poets.

There is a particular sentence in her essay Seeing and Recording a Local Ambience which has stayed with me as caution, friction and fascination since I first encountered it;

The Obscurity of Our Diction.

“The obscurity of our diction has been closer to vagueness of perception than to the obscurity of the complex consciousness. It embodies an uncertain grasp of the relationship between language and feeling, and of feeling and the natural world. Our poetic speech has lacked that edge of hardness and truth, which enables us to forgive an obvious clinging to convention, which we do in Hardy and Frost. What has been missing is the personal tone, the adjustment of the individual to the physicality of things.”

What an awareness this asks for! and she offers little consolation, rather opening a field of questions. Yes, as instructed, you can slow the moment of sensation, break it gently down, line by line to regulate the pace, as with all her writing the words seem to have absorbed more, codified more, than others can in entire books.

She writes of the lack of musicality, even the inert “thud” of the words of William Carlos Williams, of his visual rather than auditory imagination, not tuned to the mind’s ear, then discusses at length the heightened scrupulousness in his matching of language to physicality, of the appeal this concept of poetry might have to, in her words, “shallow democracy” shared by Australian and Americans.

And what a potent pairing of words that is “Shallow democracy” It speaks to a great deal more than a distrust of elevated or academic literary language and how specialized language can isolate.

In preparing for this talk, I was excited to find on the Giramondo website, her speech from the launch of Lucy Dougan’s book The Guardians. It contains so many gems but I loved this euphoric quote (which I have kept near my desk) “Whenever a poet manages to find language and structures that mimic and project her feelings, she’s actually chalking up a victory over oblivion. “

What our diction resists and what its resistance can say. A well crafted poem asks the reader/listener to move toward it to gain understanding.

In the poem The Stone Dolphin, from Three Songs of Love and Hate, she writes:

The language of tyranny had to be
learnt if anything were to be said

and later in the same poem:

True grief is tongueless when the dumb
define love’s death
In a fiercely fathered and unmothered world
words are wrung from the rack

These are origins, not conclusions. As in so many of her poems she destabilizes language by critiquing the same tool she is working with, she renders it precarious through a restructuring, each orphaned word crammed to bursting point with the weight of greater meaning, yet retaining its most seductive qualities.

I was reminded of the final stanza’s of Morgan Yasbincek’s poem Pilgrim, from White Camel

for two days she sits broody in the camper chair, her cup held still
on ten fingertips, then she moves like that woma python woman
from Uluru, the child a light under the sand of her
tasting the air, she enters a gathering in the centre of Alice, finds
the Arrente woman who gives her some words to see with, permission
to enter her land

These complex networks. Words which have come from another physicality, which have not only been seeded by the shape of things in that particular locale but also allow the alignment of the individual to that same physicality. This is not abstract theory, become bilingual and your tongue will develop a new muscularity, your hypothalamus will vibrate differently, your pituitary gland will secrete a new dose of hormones.

When in Swamp, Nandi Chinna asks “How many footsteps will it take/ to walk a place into the body?” the body keeps walking, the rhythm of movement through terrain becomes the body and the words-as-poem, a new form.

When poetry strives for this alignment, evidences this adjustment, it sings. Not merely as vocality, onomatopoeia, in cadence, meter, or a layering of meaning. Something happens spatially. We are drawn into another place, another encounter, it situates us in a “constellation” complete with its own rhythm.

There is a great poem by Caitlin Maling, I came across originally in Going Down Swinging from her book Conversations I’ve Never Had, called Holiday, it begins with an aerial view of Perth.  (our freshly arrived interstate and international guests may appreciate this view from an airplane)

Perth from above is a cockroach.
It sits there, brown and laconic, and
the microwave of summer can’t shift it”

Discomforting for many reasons, not least because it likens Perth to a cockroach, but also everything suburban becomes cockroach, not diffused by the word like it actually is a cockroach. The language in it is hard, the line breaks as dissociated and dislocated as the idea of a city which clings to country like an insect “twitching intermittently”

The precision of our diction, the map which is our diction, leads to and from the reader/listener’s body through the sentence and from and to share the poet’s body and its yearnings, where they are located, not simply geographically and physically but psychically, spiritually and ineluctably, politically.

Set this beside Yamatji poet, Charmaine Papertalk-Green’s Don’t Want me To Talk, published in Cordite and also The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry.

You don’t want me to talk about
Mining or its impact on country
You don’t want me to talk about
The concept and construct of ‘whiteness’
And how dominant and real it is
You don’t want me to talk about
The art vultures here and everywhere
Modern day art missionaries
Guiding us on the great white canvas
You don’t want me to talk about
Treaties or invasion of this land
It’s a shared true history- lets heal
You don’t want me to talk about
How reconciliation could be the wrong word
You don’t want me to talk about
Native titles way of moving across
The Midwest and Murchison landscape
You don’t want me to talk at all
Most of the time
You want me to nod, smile and listen
You don’t want me to talk about
How I have got a voice
And you don’t listen

There are voices not represented in this room. While we gather under the banner of ‘celebrating diversity’, lets also have a heightened awareness of where it isn’t and why its important to do so.

In the rarefied context of several days of poets reading their poems we have the benefit of entering not only the poet’s diction but an immersion in the intonation, to observe the facial expressions and physical presence. To commune through a shared embodiment of words, the texture of those words over tongues and into ears, as spirit, as wind or other movement over terrain. This week as we make those maps. Maps of this precious time we have together, this transient field of relations we co create and its capacity to change us, as poets and people.

I’ll now read Fay Zwicky’s ‘The Poet Asks Forgiveness’ from Kaddish.

Dead to the world I have failed you
Forgive me, traveller.

Thirsty, I was no fountain
Hungry, I was not bread
Tired, I was no pillow

Forgive my unwritten poems:
the many I have frozen with irony
the many I have trampled with anger
the many I have rejected in self-defence
the many I have ignored in fear

unaware, blind or fearful
I ignored them.
They clamoured everywhere
those unwritten poems.
They sought me out day and night
and I turned them away.

Forgive me the colours
they might have worn
Forgive me their eclipsed faces
They dared not venture from
the unwritten lines.

Under each inert hour of my silence
died a poem, unheeded

 

 – Amanda Joy

  —————————————————————————————————–

Amanda Joy was born and raised in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. Her first full-length book, Snake Like Charms, is part of the UWAP Poetry series. Her poem ‘Tailings’ won the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not Enough to Fold and Orchid Poems.

The 2017 Perth Poetry Festival ran from 11th to the 20th of August https://wapoets.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/2017-perth-poetry-festival/

Answers Just Beyond Our Grasp: Colleen Keating launches ‘Black Mountain’ by Carol Chandler

Black Mountain by Carol Chandler, Ginninderra Press 2017, was launched by Colleen Keating at Better Read Than Dead Bookshop, Newtown, on 6 August

Carol Chandler, (left) and Colleen Keating at the launch of Black Mountain

Firstly I invite a pause for us to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, on which we gather and   to pay respect for Elders past and present.

What a gathering in this wonderful environment of books and music and art, and what a great honour for Carol that you have taken the time to be with her to celebrate.

Most of you would be aware writing is a lonely trek, a long haul,  a footslog, an odyssey. Sometimes lost in the bush,  sometimes all at sea, sometimes desert-dry, sometimes energising but mostly a solitary and gruelling task. As a writing community we appreciate that, and we are here to honour the loneliness of the long distance writer and to celebrate Carol’s successful outcome. And what an outcome.

Black Mountain is a psychological thriller –  and what a thriller. What a journey!  We are taken by the narrator, Sarah, into the back waters of a country area, a place up in the hills not far from the coast in a lonely desolate ‘neck of the woods’.  Sarah, a teacher  has escaped from this town and this life, but on, page one, she is drawn back into its eerie world  trying to make sense of the past and find out what really happened to her brother Liam who died in a house fire.  By page eight we are woven into the mystery and, for us, there is no return .

You and I know how easy it is to get caught back into the dark web of our past,  –   into the tangle of relatives, families , friends. . . where there are all the hurts and intrigues, suicide, murders, lovers, drugs  and especially secrets, lies and cover ups.

People are watching …..the threat of dogs always in the background..… the sharpness of the knife edge that glints in the moon light…….   that scary feeling you are being followed and  that strand of foreshadowing…. and  of course the world of gossip.

Even when we escape to the coast, the ocean doesn’t give us reprieve, not even a breather. We are kept in the dark web of intrigue.

Carol has given us a thriller. Everyone loves a good mystery……  but here there is the added complexity of human psychology,   what’s beneath the surface in human action and reaction .

The pivotal characters Freya and Tyler and the mystery of Lola a young girl who has disappeared, gives us a sense of place and how that connects with identity.

And with  the pains of the past that hold their secrets and hold us in their mystery, we become caught in the struggle and search for meaning.

What is it all about? ……. We are immersed in a thriller . . . a metaphor for life, where the questions materialise at every turn, but the answers are just beyond our grasp.

The many characters, that fill this small world of intrigue, even Aden and Radic and the dogs Nero and Jet and the mountain all are colourful and well formed. One could possibility recognise archetypes from Carl Jung’s  collective unconscious but this is held lightly,  This is not a philosophy book, it is a short psychological thriller to take to bed,  or curl up one rainy afternoon and enjoy an escape for a few hours.

Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter says: “Words are in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic” and Black Mountain has the magic of a good read.

I  congratulate Carol and proudly declare Black Mountain launched.


Black Mountain is available from https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php?product/page/1373/%2A+Carol+Chandler+%2F+Black+Mountain

Colleen Keating. belongs to the Women Writers Network that meets every Wednesday at the NSW Writers Centre in Roselle .  Her collection of poetry, A Call to Listen is available from Grinninderra Press and her second collection, Fire on Water, is forthcoming from the same publisher. Colleen can be found at http://colleenkeatingpoet.com.au/

Vale Fay Zwicky

Fay Zwicky (Photograph Juno Gemes (copyright Juno Gemes)

Poet Fay Zwicky died on 2 July 2017, the day after her Collected Poems was published by UWAP. Her publisher, Terri-ann White said of her “She actively worked on her Collected Poems with the editors, her friends Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, and was delighted to hold the book in her hands last week. …… the 4th July would have been her birthday. Great sympathy at this loss to her family and friends”.

A detailed biography, together with a good collection of her published work, can be found at the Australian Poetry Library https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/zwicky-fay. Rochford Street Review is looking forward to reading her Collected Poems which will now serve as a tribute to the life and work of this major Australian poet.

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky is available from UWAP https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-collected-poems-of-fay-zwicky

 

Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: Mark Roberts

Three Poems              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is a founding editor of Rochford Street Review and is the curator of the current feature on Contemporary Irish Poetry which has run through issue 22 of the Review.

Most of Mark’s family on his mother side left Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, driven out by the famine and a dislike for English oppression. Over generations in Australia they maintained their sense of ‘Irishness’ and, at times, that Irishness has found its way into Mark’s work.

Mark founded Rochford Street Press in the early 1980s to publish a literary magazine called P76. Rochford Street Press has also published a number of books, pamphlets and chapbooks over the years and is recognised as one one of the smallest literary presses in the  world.

Mark’s own work has been widely published in magazines and journals in Australia and overseas. Concrete Flamingos, a collection of his recent work was published by Island Press in 2016 and he currently has a few new projects in flight.

Books

P76 Magazine

Website