Rochford Street Press announces the publication of ‘Truth in the Cage’ by Mohammad Ali Maleki

Rochdford Street Press and Verity La are proud to announce the publication of Mohammad Ali Maleki’s long awaited chapbook, Truth in the Cage. Written from within Manus Island detention centre, where Mohammad has been incarcerated for the last five years, Truth in the Cage is a powerful work of personal and political poetry.

Mohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener who has been living in detention on Manus Island for five years. His poetry, written in Farsi, is translated into English by fellow detainee Mansour Shoushtari. Mohammad uses his mobile phone to send his poems to friends in Australia who help to edit, share and publish them. Mohammad’s poem ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was the impetus for, and first work published on, Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. Since then, his writing has been published by online literary journal Bluepepper and by the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. He has been a featured poet on Rochford Street Review and his poems and letters have been included in the Dear Prime Minister Project and at the Denmark Festival of Voice. His poem ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted for the Red Room Company’s 2016 New Shoots Poetry Prize and received Special Commendation for extraordinary work in extreme circumstances. His poem ‘Silence Land’ was performed at the 2017 Queensland Poetry Festival as part of the Writing Through Fences performance, Through the Moon. An essay about his writing is forthcoming in the Extreme Texts Issue of Jacket2 magazine. Despite living in extreme conditions, Mohammad continues to create poetry saying, ‘You can find my whole life in my poems, like a letter to God.’

“Mohammad Ali Maleki, along with translator Mansour Shoshtari, present an intimate and lyrical window into their world of exile as political prisoners of Australia. The work is woven with an embodied sense of their poetic and literary heritages, resulting in deeply engaging, contemplative and passionate poems.  Maleki’s direct use of language often opens out into a magical horror – no less real – implicating the reader as much as the poet in a deconstruction and reconstruction of identity. ‘What if the woollen jacket I am wearing unravels / and begins to fall apart?’. Truth in the Cage delivers truths, uncomfortable and often torturous, through a painterly language, providing much-needed clarity in these times of obfuscation and systematic silencing”

 – Janet Galbraith, Writing Through Fences

There will be a launch for Truth in the Cage on July 17 at The Sydney Poetry Lounge. The book will be available for purchase on the night. All profits go directly to Mohammad.

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Within Australia $10 plus $1 postage
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Outside Australia
$16 including postage

 

Still Life, Other Life: Michael Sharkey Examines the Poetry of Barbara Fisher

Barbara Fisher

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Rescued from Time, Barbara Fisher’s 2016 collection of poems, takes its title from a comment by American novelist James Salter’s comment, in his 1997 collection of essays and memoirs, Burning the Days: Recollections: ‘Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time’. It’s easy to see why Salter’s sensibility resonates with Fisher. Salter’s extensive experience, as fighter pilot, novelist, film writer, expatriate in Europe and extoller and lover of women, is revisited in evocations of favourite locations and people. In his novels, women and men characters are hearteningly presented as complex and engaging individuals, and he has a special regard for the strength and abilities of women who, like his male characters, succeed or fail in enterprises including love affairs that demand commitment and honesty. Salter’s memoirs record his delight in works of great writers he admires: Flannery O’Connor, Marguerite Duras, Pauline Réage, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Dylan Thomas, and others whose lives also fascinate him. Among other textual pleasures, Salter’s Burning the Days is a guide to European (chiefly French) and American literary sites that provoke his intellectual wanderlust.

Barbara Fisher shares Salter’s literary, cultural and geographical curiosity, and her experience of travel in fact and in books and the arts makes her all the more appreciative of Salter’s characteristic empathy for characters who lead lives unlike his own. But there’s nothing imitative about her style. Her experiences, as well as her subtle affair with the English language, are demonstrated in the poems gathered in Rescued from Time and three earlier collections published over twenty years.

Fisher’s work is appreciated by several poets and reviewers (myself included), and she has a following particularly among writers in several Sydney circles as well as poets and others from further afield who first encountered her in national workshops run by Ron Pretty at Wollongong in the 1990s. Her poems have won prizes and appeared in most anthologies and journals worth the name since her self-avowed late re-commencement in publishing poetry in the 1990s. So it’s a mystery to me why her poetry is not more critically acclaimed.

Many people have known of Fisher’s interests through patronage of her antiquarian bookshop in Cammeray. She specialised in architecture, culinary and domestic arts, sharing a passion for good design with her late husband, the renowned heritage architect John Fisher (1924-2012), to whom she dedicated her three major collections. A glance at any of these reveals her sophisticated engagement with language, travel, and the history of culinary, textile, performative and other cultural markers.

My first encounter with her poetry occurred at one of those Wollongong workshops around twenty years past, and ensuing contact has been sparse, punctuated by long hiatus. A couple of years ago, I published a poem by Fisher in the Australian Poetry Journal. I hadn’t read her second book, Still Life, Other Life (Ginninderra, 2007), nor her 2012 Picaro Press chapbook, Rain and Hirohito and other poems, but the depth and variety of Rescued from Time provoked me to read all her books and check anthologies like The Best Australian Poems (2004 and 2006), The Best Australian Poetry (2007), the Young Street anthologies When the Sky Caught Fire (2008) and This Strange World (2013), and The Quadrant Book of Poetry (2012), to see the company she kept. Almost incomprehensively, she appears neither in the 2014 Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry nor the 2016 Puncher & Wattman Anthology of Australian Poetry.

I can understand that these latter, and some other more recent gatherings have failed to find space for Fisher and many others on grounds of space alone. But I trust they have not excluded her out of ignorance of her work. Editorial preference for work by more overtly experimental and—or—younger poets, or work selected because it fits non-poetical topical criteria such as ethnicity, race, gender, class, and other themed considerations I can comprehend, because that’s the way the rules of the poetry game shift, sometimes glacially, and sometimes in an eyeblink, like alterations in trouser lengths, beards, haircuts, language, accents, and other badges of self-identity.

I do wonder, though, at the exclusion of her work in the more prominent national anthologies. I’m puzzled why the AustLit research website lists no reviews of Fisher’s first book. Accordingly, my reconnaissance of her collections starts with the first, Archival Footwork. I own a special interest. The cover blurb by three writers asked to comment on the manuscript of that book gave every sign that the work was accessible and engaging, and was headed for at least a succès d’estime if not some major award. Elizabeth Webby, Kevin Brophy and I, when asked to comment on the manuscript of Archival Footwork, commented on Fisher’s mix of domestic and universal topics, her ‘sensuous precision’ (Webby), control of tone that brought ‘wildness to the mildest subject matter’ (Brophy), her ‘intelligence and craft’, ‘taste for taking risks with classic forms’, and her memorable light verse and demotic speech (Sharkey). I wouldn’t withdraw a word of my commendation.

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For a first collection, Archival Footwork was unusually mature in the language, knowledge she brings to subjects diverse as art, ravel, history and politics. Like subsequent collections, Archival Footwork is arranged in sub-sections, which, though unnamed, group poems thematically and to some extent topically. Immediately evident concerns of poems in the opening section are art and travel, and Fisher draws on first-hand experience and connoisseurship of the literature relating to both.

By way of a pleasing derangement of the senses, the first poem (‘Displacements’) reconstitutes the shock of seeing George Stubbs’s extraordinary 1763 painting of Queen Charlotte’s zebra. Fisher considers that apparition’s effect on viewers of the period and later, and compares the response to the 1794 exhibition of a live kangaroo in a London theatre. The poem goes beyond ekphrasis (a mode in which she is adept) to image the dreamlike nature of encountering such phenomena; she further speculates on the animals’ supposed response to their alien circumstances. The poem’s a tour de force that discovers the scene in slyly understated opening lines: ‘I suppose we had got used to monkeys / at the edge of baroque painting, / furnishing a festival like blackamoors / in yellow turbans’. Fisher heightens surprise by this salutary reminder that much that we consider conventional is very strange. The detail of her final image of the kangaroo scratching his fleas and chewing ‘the strangely sweet grass’ in his urban English enclosure brings the phenomenon right up to date. Fisher knows Australian fauna and flora from first-hand observation, as well as she knows that of other places she has visited and lived in. I can’t think how many readers will wish they had written such an understatedly thought-provoking poem on disorientation.

Following poems (‘Debussy in Rome’ and ‘Postcard from Edirne’) also upset preconceptions of place and history. Debussy’s loathing of Rome, which led him to curtail a three-year prize-residence after two years experience of the city’s ‘daily awfulness’, may strike a chord with anyone who has failed to be charmed by the city’s grandeur as a result of the dementingly mundane distractions of climate, noise and company. Preferences for the coolness of churches, ices and evenings bring no lasting relief to the composer who longs for the bracing North.

Another poem of peregrination, ‘Postcard from Edirne’, also responds acerbically to touristic expectation, by recreating the unsettling conjunction of moods provoked by a hospital where music was formerly played to lull the lunatics, including violent inmates chained to the walls. Fisher concludes, ‘there’s no record as to how / the treatment was received’—a remark that is less an abandonment of the poem than an opening for readers to reflect on the vagaries of anticipation.

Ensuing poems consider the grim hospitality of a country house hotel in Yorkshire, the suffocating blandness of Ibsen’s house, the banal fabric pattern in a Hangchow silk factory, and the alienation of Dr Elsner, a refugee in a migrant camp in Australia—‘Another Country’, with its detestable ‘mutton chops’, mysterious ‘Devon’ sausage, and ‘formless drift of an outer Sydney suburb’. Such images, familiar to the native-born, lead to Elsner’s distracting meditation on the cousins he played with as a child: they too disappeared, into other ‘unknown camps’ in Europe, and he asks ‘Paul and Maria, can you forgive /my living?’

In such a way, as in poems elsewhere in the collection, history and autobiography are unshakeable elements of the present. In a poem on her own travels, ‘Returning to Vienna’, Fisher wonders why, ‘in this stylish town / I feel as if I’d rung a bell / and nobody’s home’. The stylish town has its own answers in accounts of former times when citizens peered from curtains as their neighbours were arrested: those watchers behind the curtains wondered ‘what will happen to all that good furniture?’ Human misery in its mass-produced manifestations cohabits with marvellous music, so in Vienna ‘even mass is a concert’, and galleries are ‘thick with Brueghels’, and shops are full of ball gowns.

Throughout Fisher’s poetry, contrasting ideas of tolerant and revisionist mores are played against each other in poems involving ostensible reportage of world events, or which, when she turns to Australia’s centuries of migrant history, recreate experiences of actual or fictitious characters such as Dr Elsner, living in challenging or hostile circumstances. (A late example, in the final section of Fisher’s 2016 volume Rescued From Time, constructs an analogous history of an imagined deraciné migrant, Joseph Bergin.)

This probing of ideas of what constitutes normality and expectation extends to all the poetry of Archival Footwork. In the first section of the book, ‘Breakfast Creek’ playfully notes the profusion of creeks bearing the name, and offers a solution in a supposed explorer’s diary entry: ‘It having no distinguishing features, / I have named it Breakfast Creek’. The mood of this resolution could as well fit the exiled Dr Elsner’s view of his new country’s society and culture, but the absurdity of some Colonial-era traveller’s attitudes is sanctioned by our post-Colonial familiarity with the sceptical views of even nineteenth-century realists (such as Joseph Furphy, whose bullock-driving philosophes in his novel Such is Life remark on John O’Hara Burke as ‘a real burke’—with all the innuendo that the epithet contains). Fisher is well acquainted with the record of opposing visions of Australia in Colonial times, and of their persistence even into more recent times. A later poem in Rescued from Time, ‘Considering Fred Williams’s Landscapes’, notes

Odd that we never really noticed
how our trees look
straggling up a hillside,
ragged against the sky.
Until he showed us.

And Fisher adds ‘Perhaps we’d always known’—a judgment articulated long after such poems as ‘Another Country’ in the Dr Elsner sequence in Archival Footwork, with its bleaker, Patrick Whitean vistas of Australian landscape and suburbs.

Generally, Fisher works in free-verse forms, where her sense of the surprise effects a precisely broken line can spring on a careful reader provides successive pleasurable encounters and recognitions of the extraordinary in the banal. A balladic poem, ‘Demolished Residential’, creates surprise another way: it’s a droll listing of the experiences of the inmates of the house. It’s worth quoting a few stanzas:

Fat Mrs Cruse and her shivering dog
Found refuge in a tram,
Marooned in somebody’s paddock
With a present of melon jam.

Mr Roscorla was put in a Home,
Where he sat in a sea-grass chair,
Looking all day at the ocean
And wondering why he was there.

Mr Dinwiddy of butterfly collar
Found board in Neutral Bay.
Dinners were not undertaken;
Cornflakes came in on a tray.

But Miss Annie Agnew, pamphleteer,
Was far too busy to care;
She could write letters to papers,
Be angry, anywhere.

The lightness the verse resides in the detail as much as in the whimsy of the rhymes that nevertheless testify to Fisher’s endorsement of each resident’s individuality. Does ‘light verse’ fit the bill? I wonder. Fisher’s easy turns of phrase pick up both the Australian demotic and more formal expressions while revealing the capacity of both registers to contain a broad vein of benign fellow-feeling.

If there’s a predominant theme to the second section of Archival Footwork, it’s related to coastal and oceanic scenes, with which Fisher has a clear affinity. The sense of gratitude for proximity to such elemental phenomena as waves (whose contrapuntal nature she observes in ‘Pacific Philharmonia’), and with sky and wind is foreshadowed in poems like ‘Saying Grace’ and ‘At Palm Beach’. The former records thankfulness for the company of her husband but asks ‘Yet how did I mislay the feel of my children’s skin, / remember only the birthdays and prizes?’ A sort of holiday poem-cycle, ‘Bluey’s Beach’ contains some of Fisher’s most memorable inventions: ‘Two weeks on the coast / and the mind is bleached’; and, of a hang-glider, ‘suddenly a Leonardo man / hovers overhead, improbable, serene’. Later, the tone-poem ‘Werri Lagoon’ focuses on evening sounds, and ‘In Fading Light’ she writes ‘I think of all the things / I have not done / and the sea / advancing and retreating / is a series of sighs’. ‘Low Tide’ strikingly notes gulls that ‘stand in groups on the sand, / Like Quakers at a meeting’.

These evocative poems amplify the mood of others that celebrate remote forebears and their ‘Empire days’ activities. Reference to ‘imperial’ days occurs more than once in Fisher’s poetry, and for some readers this might complicate the dates of events she recalls. Where do we date the end of Australia’s membership of the British Empire? By some accounts, dates range from 1942 until 1986. Some Australian pre-decimal coins in circulation until February 1966 still carried the image of an English monarch and the inscription ‘by the Grace of God King of all the British Territories, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India’.

Brand names of household products mentioned by Fisher in passing also bookmark bygone times. She recalls a sky ‘of brightest Reckitt’s blue’ (‘Gerringong’), while another poem memorialises a lame aunt who published stories in the Sydney Mail and drowned at the age of twenty-one (‘A Death in the Family’). The Sydney Mail, a Fairfax weekly magazine published between 1912 and 1938, was notable for its journalism, illustration, and fiction. Fisher’s practice in so registering eras and dates is far from idiosyncratic—Gwen Harwood spoke of an obelisk of Reckitt’s blue’, in a poem on childhood memories (‘The Blue Pagoda’)—but Fisher’s ‘Gerringong’ takes its start from the visual conjunction of black-and-white cows standing in Escher puzzle-like poses among lilies on a road to a cemetery, ‘the ultimate place to retire / in marbled luxury, / confined, it’s true, by circumstance, / as the dead tend to be’—an incomparable formulation.

Fisher’s poem ‘Aunt Ida’ pays tribute to another relative, whose stage ambitions were thwarted by parents who directed her to music instead, and whose brothers and sweetheart were killed in World War One, following which ‘She didn’t play the piano much, her repertoire restricted, / since Germans had produced /such quantities of music’. Another poem, ‘Remembering My Grandmother’ reprises those wartime losses, including the death of a son killed in action, the loss of a child aged four, and the termination of her grandfather’s job in a German firm. Fisher’s ostensibly light touch in poems that skirt such tragedies testifies to a sensibility characterised by terse expression and tact.

At times the mood of such poetry is deceptively equable. This strikes me as quite deliberate. Fisher’s poems in Archival Footwork never fall into nostalgia, and melancholy is kept at bay through general brevity of lines, occasional crafty rhyming (‘solitary’, cemetery’, ‘luxury’, in the poem ‘Gerringong’), and sensuous images in such list-poems as ‘Cakes’, which celebrates participation in the ritual of cake-making, handed on by her mother and others.

The food-imagery and aspects of women’s craftwork underline some of the poems in the third and final section of Archival Footwork. Following the introductory poem ‘Vision’, with its comic surmises on everyday life in eras before ‘everyone’ wore glasses, Fisher moves to the luscious metaphorical imagery that suffuses the sequence ‘Salad’. The verbal play inevitably recalls Neruda’s ‘Odas Elementales’, but the surprises owe nothing to mimicry: of a tomato (‘slices of summer’), she declares, ‘I think I’m falling in love with a fruit’; while celery becomes ‘Gothic stalks’ and ‘a forest drowned / in a tall pond’. By contrast, a cucumber is defined almost negatively: ‘such a far cry from / Reading Gaol’. This last, with its contrast between grim surrounds and the milieu of Wildean privilege and wit, also finds echoes in poems about class and privilege closer at hand: ‘Dress Circle’ ponders the paradoxical absence of owners and people, and the presence of so many cars in a rich suburb. She speculates that this due to the influx of cleaners and housekeepers. Conversely, ‘Saturday Arvo’ conveys the mood of a paper-strewn suburb characterised by greyhound-walkers, garden gnomes, the sound of women phoning talkback shows, and the wholly unexpected appearance at evening of ‘incandescent’ frangipanis.

Paradox and contradiction are grist to Fisher’s compositional processes. Oblique references to personal pastimes like reading and solving crosswords give the clue to a mind that revels in the contrariness of mundane activities. Fisher dramatises the female dove that remains in the Ark when the male bird fails to return. The female bird remarks, ‘He never did have any go’ and remarks that she is now a sole parent. This comic invention deserves a place in any future anthology of ‘Ark’ poems, alongside Fay Zwicky’s classic ‘Ark Voices’. The poem ‘Road Toll’ observes that crosses by a roadside mark ‘corridors that lead / to nameless ones / waiting to be named’, and in the poem ‘At Gallipoli’, Fisher muses ‘She’ll be right, they must have said, / busy at their task. / As if it ever was’.

That sense of the mot juste extends to impatience with imprecision. The poem ‘Names’ observes ‘We move in a cloud of mateyness / as false as that old mantra / How are you today?’ She remarks instead that she wants to know names of things, places and people, ‘so I can nail them with their names’. Aware of ambiguities inherent in language, her poetry seeks out the marginally recorded, the fact behind the legend, the un-famous who appear beside the celebrated and famous in photographs. This is a quintessentially democratic aspect of her style. A poem like ‘The Girl’ pays attention to the servant ‘Madge’, who sees beyond her employers’ vision. ‘The Dressmaker’ similarly records the quotidian cares of Mrs Muldoon and her invalid husband; and ‘Evening Class’ juxtaposes the earnest, mistake-prone ‘victims’ in Mademoiselle’s French lessons and the self-satisfied Mademoiselle herself. A final poem, ‘Looking at Sky’ more equivocally notes the leisure that illness confers on the poet, who can do no more than surrender her body to ‘the paradise of sleep’.

At the end of every reading of this first collection of Fisher’s, I still wonder why such a collection remains in critical limbo. Whatever the reasons, it’s less a puzzle than an indictment.

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In Fisher’s second major collection, Still Life, Other Life (2007), her ability to apprehend and enter into the emotional lives of others is evident in a succession of meditations on the poem-making business and the paradoxes inherent in art’s ability to tease us out of our self-absorption. The first section speaks of delight in the tangible, visual and edible world, including the associations of names we bestow on objects—such as pears in the poem of the same name: ‘Mrs Packham, La Belle Anglaise, / who described herself leniently, / as an actress’—and what we associate with them: a metaphorical way of thinking whereby ‘haunches’ of pears resemble ‘Colette’s courtesans’.

Several poems take paintings as triggers for other conclusions than those intended by the artists. Joseph, in the poem ‘Flight into Egypt’, appears to be engaged in reading for pleasure, ‘unaware / of great events unfolding, / so lost is he in story’. A poem titled ‘Still Life, Other Life’ reflects on the material involved in still-life paintings and makes an unexpected imaginative leap:

Out there canvas cities flap
in a dry wind,
water queues wait in the dust.

Does the poet have to say more? Fisher’s poems don’t explain what they’re about, and I find this agreeable: her poems on art, especially, offer the artefacts as autonomous things or events requiring no elucidation, as, I think, most artists would agree concerning their work. While poems can and do express ideas and feelings by virtue of their existence as language phenomena, Fisher’s walk a line between presentation and communication of ideas as things in themselves. When she broaches political subjects in similar manner: they exist within a unique set of circumstances at the same time as having features in common with other events with the appearance of coherence suggesting narrative coherence. Fisher’s approach bestows an aesthetic quality on political matters that is rare. Jennifer Maiden’s ‘political’ poetry, like that of New Zealander Sonja Yelich (for example, in the latter’s 2009 collection Get Some), can appear to have designs on its readers through mythologising events or otherwise making them symbolic. Fisher seems to me to be less obviously persuading her readers to accept some ideological ‘take’ on event; rather, she appears to put recognition if not love of people before any ‘cause’.

In a series of poems on the wives of famous artists, Fisher highlights neglected features of the actual production and interpretation of great works. A fleeting contrast might be made here between Fisher’s approach and Carol Ann Duffy’s (in the 1999 volume, The World’s Wife), but Fisher is not so obviously concerned with point scoring and deconstructing mythological as well as historical figures. I think the difference lies in a sort of rescue operation, reclamation of reputations of women who had actual existence. Claes Oldenburg’s wife is brought to the fore as the seamstress of the soft sculptures that made his name (‘The Sculptor’s Wife’); John Milton’s daughters, whom he employs as readers of languages of which they are supposedly ignorant, laugh at the poet when he approves their embroidery (‘The Poet’s Daughters: Deborah Milton Speaks’); the Countess Tolstoy painstakingly proofreads her husband’s near-indecipherable writing and prepares his books for the press while he plays peasant (‘The Novelist’s Wife: Countess Tolstoy’s War and Peace’). Dorothy Wordsworth is presented as the greater writer—‘You wrote it down so freshly, / while he composed / a little fib’ (‘The Poet’s Sister’); and Elizabeth Gould receives is given credit for her exquisite paintings that made her husband’s name (‘A Sigh for Elizabeth Gould’). As Fisher’s titles indicate, a history of repression operates in the lives and work of these women.

Not all such history involving art hinges on suppression of recognition. The poem ‘Rain and Hirohito’ portrays the Emperor, dying in Tokyo: ‘Deity long discarded, he was / always more interested in fish’. In like mode, Fisher refers to her own activities in a trio of poems on poetry. ‘Searching the Poem’ playfully portrays the process as an Edward Lear-like pursuit of a butterfly; ‘Finding the Poem’ appears to make light of the writing until

One morning I wake
and there’s a bubbling spring
inside me. Come, small poem,
out of the drawer.
I am ready
to put flesh on your
bones, sift through
those laborious drafts
and write you free.

Of ‘dead poems’ she writes ‘Yet […] there is nobility too—poems / which gave their organs / that others might live’ (‘Burying the Poem’). Fisher’s sentiment might accord with many poets’ experience.

In poems that bring familiar circumstances and localities to the fore, Fisher sketches the bare locative data and makes the scenes memorable through images and turns of phrase that highlight absurdities we take for granted. Her ‘Lament for a Town’ could refer to any bypassed country town; what makes such live, so to speak, is a result of particularising images, such as that of streets formerly ‘herringboned with utes and Holdens and Fords / parked in pepper-tree shade’. The poem ‘Sydney Weddings’ focuses on parks with their weekend ‘snowfall of brides’, concerning whom, Fisher adds ‘some will jettison their photos / along with a partner / found lacking’. ‘The Red Coat’, a later poem that comes closest to autobiography, records an encounter in infancy in a Melbourne street, where Fisher and her mother suddenly see Fisher’s father escorted by a woman dressed in red. Fisher comments in retrospect, ‘How wretched you made us, old charmer, / and how good to have you around / when we felt you belonged to us’. Whatever suffering the family endured is kept private in controlled spare speech that highlights the unsettling irruption of the strange in everyday life. One could search far in contemporary poetry of domestic relationships to find as admirable restraint.

Pain of another sort, resulting from her mother’s illness and death, is as efficiently managed in concise vignettes: ‘Kurrajong’ records, in interesting shifts of tense, the former routine of Easters in the hills, drives, afternoon teas and lunch on the grass, ‘you dying and we still in denial’. ‘Legacy’ also resorts to gerunds: ‘The last intrusive act: sorting your clothes’ while ‘the camellia you loved’ has ‘put out its immaculate flowers. / They are so pale in the cold garden’. Fisher’s shifts in tense are worth revisiting: they’re models of verbal tact.

Two poem-sequences, of the three that expand Fisher’s subject matter and approach, comprise catalogue or list poems. One, ‘Concerning Clothes’, ranges over precise associations: childhood horrors such as shrunken bathers, school uniforms, and the occasional party dress; op shop sorters’ methodology; Judith, ‘Dressed to Kill’ on her way to meet Holofernes; ‘Discards’—clothes washed up on beaches (‘We think the worst / of clothes without their owners’); the task of ironing a nightgown for her mother’s funeral; a woman, dressed in her ‘best sari’, subject of a tour guide’s demonstration of how the poor live. ‘Without Clothes’, the concluding poem in the sequence, unsettlingly juxtaposes Adam and Eve with leaves, Auschwitz, and a ‘calm reclining Venus’ who ‘wears her nudity like a dress’. Such a conjunction recalls those poems (in Archival Footwork) that compel readers (and observers of the visually familiar) to take stock of the ways in which conventional interpretation masks the alluring strangeness, and sometimes absurdity or horror in the familiar.

A second catalogue type of poem-sequence, ‘Considering Sand’, that comes as the culmination of a number of poems on oceanic and atmospheric effects, similarly invites readers to contemplate associations of the word ‘sand’. The introductory poem speaks of holiday homes and how ‘walking on sand can be like /crushing biscuits’. Further along, ‘The Bible is full of sand and beards / and hot weather. Years later I’m amazed / to learn it’s snowing in Jerusalem’. Other defamiliarising images include those of the sandbags associated with disasters; of the pre-industrial writer whose ‘film of sand / veils that sonnet to his mistress’; of the shallow beach grave of a murdered girl; of the peculiar suggestiveness of ‘sandwiches’; of the ‘subversive’ sandshoes of the eccentric Sydney character Bea Miles. Fisher adds the sand masking the deaths of one bull after another; Schumann’s ‘sandman / scattering his most melodious dust’ on sleeping infants; and her own mining ‘the dunes of language’ and thinking of Blake, who’ saw / time fall silently in the glass’.

The poem is a series of transformations of the familiar, and I again reflect on the apparent absence of critical response to her work. Could it be that her publication by such presses as Indigo and Ginninderra obviates serious consideration? If so, I don’t hold with such prejudice, in a period when to be published anywhere at all is such a difficult and even discouraging undertaking. Her publishers merit thanks for bringing her work to light in such attractive editions.

A final poem-sequence in Still Life, Other Life is titled ‘Russian Album’, where Fisher continues to ring changes on touristic preconceptions in eight poems that humanise the people encountered during her visit. The Intourist guide lacks the nerve to opine on the Soviet years, much less contemporary times, but is happier with ‘icons / and the domes of Holy Russia, / fairytale forests […] and the scarlet berries / of roman trees / that make delicious jam’ (‘Galina’s Bread’). A member of the Convent of the Precious Blood has even less time for Leninist ‘nonsense’, but is not pleased to have her photo taken while she manually labours in a manner that might suggest visual imitation of ‘the Soviet way’ (‘The Postulant’). An account, as if reportage of an event in progress, of children walking in streams with bunches of flowers to their first day of school, ‘All over Russia’, is abruptly halted with the irruption of news, while Fisher and her husband are lunching in a stylish St Petersburg restaurant, of the murderous siege of a school in Beslan, Ossetia. Fisher’s poem concludes with the restaurant staff wiping away tears ‘as they set down our plates’. Common humanity emerging in times of crisis is reprised in two final poems: ‘Carpentry’ relates an unskilled woman’s experience of making a coffin, from household materials, for a small child during the siege of Leningrad: ‘She was not cut out for this task / but knew it must be done’). The concluding poem, ‘The Fountain House’, brings the entire collection back to the relationship of art and life and women’s experience. The house in question was the poet Akhmatova’s residence for many years, and Fisher relates that, though denied a ration card, Akhmatova survived through the charity of friends who brought chocolate and oranges, ‘“As though”, you wrote, “I was an invalid / —not simply hungry.”’

I concur with Elizabeth Webby’s comment on Fisher’s ‘mastery of the compressed narrative […], evoking the world in a grain of sand’.

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By way of an intermezzo, Fisher gathered sixteen poems in a chapbook titled Rain and Hirohito, published by Picaro Press in May 2012. With the exception of three, these had been published in the preceding larger collections (respectively, 87 and 85 pages). The three exceptions were ‘The Proper Spirit’, ‘Deck Chairs’ and ‘Casuarinas’, which all appear in her most recent and compendious (108 pages) collection, Rescued from Time, with which the remainder of this survey is concerned.

5

Rescued From Time follows the earlier major gatherings in grouping poems around unnamed though more or less topical congruencies. The first section is much concerned with the properties and productions of artists: photographs, botanical models, poetry, historic houses, and the clothes and performances of actors. ‘Deckchairs’, the opening poem, ponders what the ‘confident gaze’ of famous people, photographed at their leisure, conveys. Fisher proposes ‘the witticism just uttered, the laughter / dissolving in the mild, tobacco-scented air’. There is no getting at the gazers’ mystery, though, and I think ‘mystery’ is the unstated element that draws Fisher in all her poetry relating to art. Clues to some of the mystery in ‘Deckchairs’ may lie in the detail of ‘tobacco-scented air’ and references to ‘the famous faces’ (Vanessa and Clive and the Woolves, Morgan, / Lytton and Carrington’, ‘panamas, / early sunglasses or thatch of remarkable hair’, but observers of the photograph can only guess at the gulf between themselves and the lives of those subjects who seem to look straight back at them.

The paradox of ‘life brought to a standstill’ is expressed in other figurative works referenced in this introductory part of the collection. One such is ‘The Breakfast’, a Jacob Jansz painting from the turn of the sixteenth century that, to Fisher’s mind, displays ‘the Holy Family sitting down / to a very German breakfast’. Reading that stark phrase, with line-break and all, I’m struck by the cleverness of it. Ekphastic poems can be lifeless things after all, but Fisher makes hers live by reference to the things that make life good, and her connoisseurship in the matter of food ‘nails’ the meal with exactitude. In the poem ‘On Looking at Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man and his Grandson’, a similar sense of life stems from the details as Fisher shifts focus from the old man’s nose, so often subject of medical and art-commentary, to his ‘hooded eyes’ and faint tender smile toward the ‘radiant’ child who looks up to him, and the uniting warm red colours of their clothes uniting them—‘as if to reflect the blood that binds them’. Verbal language and the language of painting are things apart, so simile has to state what may be self-evident in the actual painting. Fisher adds an editorial comment that pulls the entire experience together: ‘we know something marvellous / is alive in the work’. In this way, the ‘marvellous’ embraces the painting, the painter, its subjects—and the onlooker.

The extent to which Fisher thinks metaphorically and associatively may strike many readers of this collection. She is alert art’s mimetic potential, highlighting the mode (in its pre-Socratic sense of stage-actors’ imitation of actions) in poems like ‘The Proper Spirit’, concerning actor’s assumptions of roles when they put on their stage clothes. Women, Fisher remarks, know ‘the constraints of costume’, and she takes her observation of the phenomenon further when she refers to Mrs and Mrs William Blake, naked while reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, out of their belief that it ‘would encourage the proper spirit / in which to read that great work’. It’s a startling but characteristic move of Fisher’s to include this instance of people getting into the spirit of occasion. In ‘Conversations I do not have’, she recognises the outer shores of performative occasions, in her acknowledgment of a propensity and a wish to break out of frame at times, at risk of social gaffes or greater absurdities. She ponders the effect of speaking truth instead of the conventional lies heard at funeral orations, or when remaining cravenly obliging to hosts at dreadful dinners or when being presented with unwanted gifts.

Variations on the theme of dissimulation and the mimetic impulse take some interesting turns in other poems. ‘Kristallnacht’ considers the German ‘flair for poetry’ that applies such an appealing word to an outrage; to a point of such duplicity, Fisher adds the further contradiction whereby the Bayreuth synagogue was spared destruction similar to the German Parliament, on account of the synagogue’s proximity to the Wagnerian Festspielhaus. In ‘Glass Flowers’, Fisher dwells on the uncanniness (or ‘magic’ as she calls it) of the Blaschke father and son’s work in creating glass flowers for the Harvard botanical museum: ‘so delicate a contradiction’ goes direct to the mystery of art’s preservation of some simulacrum of life (in this case, ‘solidity, / marble hard yet fragile in its cool perfection’). This is akin to Keats’s remark on ‘Cold Pastoral’ of the Grecian urn that teases a viewer out of thought.

Some of Fisher’s poems on art and life are more self-reflexive; the fifth poem in her sequence ‘Hospital Vistas’ includes the following:

I am in a painting by Jeffrey Smart.
[…]
And can that tiny distant figure
be David Malouf, or is it Clive James?
Be that as it may, they are both welcome.

The preoccupation with art and the incidental indications of foreign travels, Fisher moves toward the more ‘domestic’ Australian and even suburban setting of the second section of the book, with ‘Coming Home’: ‘We drink our tea on the veranda / and Europe slides off us’. Two poems directly reference architecture. In ‘Historic Home Visit’, the fictive Professor Fletcher, wearied with ‘motel rooms and carpet-smelling air’, and bored with the ritual of trailing his spouse and their guide and through a grand house, has a sudden flash of fantasy in the master bedroom, imagining ‘his Ariadne seized, flung on the bed, / with all her loveliness arrayed / as if for his own banquet spread’. The image is comic in tone of authorial amusement at masculine overreaching or self-delusion—such as characterises A.D. Hope’s ‘Imperial Adam’ or Gwen Harwood’s ‘Prize Giving’, all three cases employing amusing possibilities of rhyme.

Fisher’s gaze falls on distinctively Australian vistas and subjects in the second section of the book, notable for several catalogue or list-poems. She writes of self-sown bush lemons, with their ‘leprous, aching boughs’ (‘Bush Lemons’); melaleucas (‘Paperbarks’: ‘they make me think of ancient relatives / in dressing gowns, shuffling / to bed with hot water-bottles’); ‘Palms’ (‘a bit like poor relations at a smart party’), and ‘Casuarinas’—a poem that fancifully proposes a saint whose name has been ascribed to the tree (‘like Saint Barbara—of pious legend, dropped from the Vatican calendar but still / revered in certain parts’). Light and sound references suffuse these poems and others that pointedly address garden and littoral scenes frequented by birds: ‘By the Lake’ speaks of fishermen’s boats ‘crammed (appliquéd) / with pelicans’; ‘Light—Late Afternoon’, a poem in tercet form, remarks ‘How they loved late afternoons, / Those painters we love too’.

As the excerpts indicate, Fisher is alert to correspondent images that give point to her observations, and this is also true of poems whose drift is predominantly narrative, such as ‘A Colonial Story’, the twelve-pages long account of a colonial-era suicide, related to Eleanor Phillimore, Writer in Residence a National Trust house, by the nonagenarian retainer ‘old Jim’, who ‘lurks’ nearby. Fisher has some fun with the contrast between Miss Phillimore’s businesslike researches into the story of the original owner’s career and mental breakdown, and the proprietorial fussiness of the National Trust guide who offers her ‘a book’—the Women’s Weekly. The distinction between the two characters’ idea of literary seriousness also embraces Eleanor’s friends, whose talk of her ‘obsession’ she meets with ‘scalding’ remarks. A further character in the tale, Mrs Dunphy, a former servant-woman from Britain is amazed at the lofty rooms of the mansion, thinking ‘oh, the dusting!’ while her husband Bob speaks of ‘all this privilege and old money […] not to mention / Colonial Georgian claptrap’ before stomping back to the tour bus in a huff. Fisher’s reliance on such dialogue to carry the class implications of the story is of a sort with Patrick White’s novelistic (and dramatic) positioning of seekers and sophisticates against the complacent, smug (and sometimes murderously) envious. Fisher’s narrative maintains a similar blend of tragic, comic and satiric elements without interpolative authorial comment.

The fourth and fifth sections of Rescued from Time engage with domestic matters in another way, dwelling on reminiscence, ageing and decline. Some of the poems may reflect particular personal losses, though it would be risky assume all as fact. A poem like ‘Skiing in the Main Range’ might be no more than recollection of the pleasure of the activity and the company whose trails ‘tuned the slopes / into a great expansive drawing’—an image that lends weight to the idea that Fisher employs the world as a canvas or magazine of materials for the creation of art. In a poem relating to a wedding photo from London in 1905, the most arresting feature for Fisher is a brick wall spiked with shards of broken glass, that encloses the focal group (‘In the Picture’). If the figures in the photo are, in effect, ancestors, that detail would hardly lend little more significance to the idea of a marriage hedged with danger.

We may be on safer ground in assuming autobiographical reference with the poem ‘Lost Uncles’, which reprises the theme of the Archival Footwork poem, ‘Aunt Ida’, in recording the deaths of Thomas and William, though it adds the detail of William’s enlistment, at the age of seventeen after being handed a white feather by a woman on a train, and his death in action several months later. The poem concludes with a terse quotation from official notice to families relating to burial of their dead: ‘Particulars not to hand’. Australian poems written in the past century relating to World War One and personal losses are notably prone to lapse into faux-sincere effusions of patriotic gush posing as art, but I think Fisher’s poems on lost uncles easily evade such lapses of taste.

Elsewhere in the poems I’ve classed as touching on familial memories, Fisher distances t melancholy by wishing away certain recollections, such as the sight of an old man living in a Bombay drainpipe, and the poor woman dressed in her best the Bombay poor referred to earlier. Fisher is provoked to reflect on her own experience, and acknowledges that there is no forgetting ‘past insensitivities, / the shaming gaffe, / the hurt received or given’ (‘Forgetting’). Wishing cannot dispel such emotions. A further reminiscence, ‘Viewpoints’ recounts Fisher’s experience of climbing, at age seven, a tall tree in an English garden and looking out the distant hills and fields of watercress by a river, and the ‘mean terraces’ closer at hand. The most accomplished poems bearing on intimate relations maintain a brittle restraint. ‘To an Adopted Child’ concludes ‘when you reach understanding, / deal with me leniently’, and plastic flowers in a poem of the same name the poem refer to her mother’s ball dress: the flowers ‘still will bloom / while we decline, will meet / our last breath / with a bright stare’.

Fisher takes another tack in her penultimate grouping of poems in Rescued from Time. Four poems comprise lists of associations of colours, and several poems consider wayside shrines to victims of road-carnage, a friend’s gift for choosing appropriate postcards for intended recipients, Fred Williams’s landscapes, and Grace Cossington Smith’s penchant for painting interiors with mirrors on open wardrobe wardrobes, and other doors that open to the artist’s veranda and garden: for Fisher, these are correspondent ‘open doors and open mind’ (Grace Cossington Smith’s Interiors’). If Cossington Smith’s paintings are ‘awash with her signature brushstrokes / of multi-hues pigment / and the dazzle of light’, Fisher’s poems are also replete with ‘signature’ turns of phrase and images that highlight the variety and hues of her subjects.

Poems like ‘A Survivor’ and ‘Toast’ serve well to illustrate the sort of detail that emphasise the insistence and intensity of memory. Both poems celebrate bygone or enduring vernacular Australian food. The former poem imagines a museum of Australian staples including carpet-bag steak, tinned-spaghetti sandwiches, and neenish tarts. Depending on readers’ ages and tastes, the list will beggar credulity or bring tears to the eyes of those who lament the days when they were young. Fisher’s poems on colours also couple sensory experience and further illustrate her precision with language (words that ‘bear such a load of meaning’ as she says in the poem ‘White’). Thus, among the images conjured by ‘Yellow’, Fisher bundles Van Gogh (‘Vincent did not have / a jaundiced view of yellow’), Chinese silk, the Yellow Book, the Yellow House in Potts Point, wattles in bloom, yellow box honey butter and eggs and other phenomena. ‘Red’ speaks of wounds, rage, the ‘red-letter day’ when reds are not found under the bed but ‘when the rednecks / all got their comeuppance’. These collisions of images release energy in what incurious readers might otherwise consider flat ‘lists’.

Perhaps the most interesting extended sequence of poems in the book is that which brings it to a close. The ten poems that comprise ‘Fragments of a Life’ purport to stem from ‘the unposted letters of Joseph Bergin’ whom the unnamed editor and narrator of the letters identifies at the outset as ‘my father’ (‘A Daughter’s Note’). The letters are supposedly discovered in a tin, and are all addressed to an anonymous woman whom he loved before migrating to Australia. A footnote provides background to his sophisticated Polish Jewish background, his Viennese and Parisian education and training as an engineer before he fetched up in Australia, worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, founded a construction company, married an Australian woman, established a family and ended up ‘immensely rich’

The narrator guesses that the letters address the woman whom he loved in Paris, though the extracts provide little clue: it’s clear that the woman was married, and his earliest impressions of Cooma (‘like some sort of frontier, all fractured English’) contain the remark ‘You would not like it here’. The letters reveal his friendship with fellow Boggabilla camp inmate Eric, a charmer who has opened a café in Double Bay and calls himself a count. The poem ‘Householder’ informs Bergin’s absent lover ‘How you would smile to see me now, / living in a suburb, mowing a lawn’. The cultural gulf widens with revelations of his current wife, who is ‘young and beautiful / but does not know it’, and whom he loves, but ‘Not as I loved you and was consumed’. In the letter-poem ‘Lost Ones’, Bergin writes that he tries not to think of his Aunt Etta ‘with her ample figure exposed / waiting, naked in a line’.

Fisher moves the Bergin narrative along through a collage of her fictional character’s self-depictions. In ‘Housewarming’, he writes of a party in Australia even while he presents memories of his lover and his aunt. In ‘The Vacant Bed’, he obliquely alludes to his wife’s death by remarking on wardrobes full of her clothes. The second last poem, ‘The Painting’ recounts his purchase of a small picture at a gallery, where ‘they were very polite’, but ‘they’d hoped I buy the Brack’. Fisher implies a degree of sensitivity in Bergin’s emphasis on the picture’s origin: it was painted ‘by no one anyone’s heard of. / Young, I suppose, just starting’—but he values it because it recalls to him the smell of ‘dry grass and burnt trees’ when he first came to Australia.

It occurs to me at this point that I should return to Fisher’s poetry to note the olfactory sense-references, but I’ll leave those for others to discover; her poems have slyly included every other sensation and taste. The Bergin sequence ends with ‘Leaving’, in which he writes of himself in a nursing home where he looks from a terrace ‘at the boats and ferries / until it’s time for tea’. His ‘bosomy, not to say bossy nurse’ gives him a friendly pat, and he remarks ‘I control my irritation; / she means well. They all mean well’.

Subtlety is the keynote of ‘Fragments of a Life’, as it is of so much of Fisher’s poetry. At the same time, there is toughness of thought behind the Bergin letters and many other poems that do not flinch at sadness close at hand or misery in the world at large. There’s little point in trying to ‘locate’ Fisher among her peers, whether male or female. Her achievement is distinctive. I’ve though of other poets whose range might parallel or coincide hers: Hewett (whose autobiography is wrapped in mythology: no comparison; Fisher is not so driven); Wright (not quite: the ecological, philosophical, scientific and social justice themes are more insistent than Fisher’s allusiveness); Dobson (art, yes, and suffering, but so tightly wrapped in received forms); Harwood (close, in tone, wit, sense of poetry as an art that can easily embody philosophy, friendship as well as love and another beloved art form); (Zwicky: now there’s a thought: openness and clarity, yes, though consider the weight of family and European and Chinese history—and put Zwicky’s ‘Deckchair on the Titanic’ beside Fisher’s ‘Deckchair’?); and so on. No, Fisher is an original. And it’s a pleasure to encounter such an active and open mind.

Works referred to

Archival Footwork. ISBN 1 74027 096 7. Charnwood ACT: Indigo/Ginninderra, 1997.

Still Life, Other Life. ISBN 978 1 74027 442 5. Charnwood ACT: Ginninderra, 2007.

Rain and Hirohito and other poems. ISSN 1444 8424. Cardiff NSW: Picaro, May 2012.

Rescued from Time. ISBN 9781760412333. Ginninderra Press, 2016. RRP $20.  http://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/rapidcartpro/index.php?product/page/1165/*+Barbara+Fisher+%2F+Rescued+From+Time

 –  Michael Sharkey

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Michael Sharkey: Photo by Winifred Belmont, Bologna, October 2017

Michael Sharkey lives in central Victoria.  He edited the Australian Poetry Journal from 2014 to 2016. His latest books are The Poetic Eye: Occasional Writings 1982-2012 (Leiden & Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2016) and In the Real World and Other Poems (Hobart, Burringbar, 2017).

Watching to See What’s Next: Michele Seminara launches ‘fourW’ Issue 28

fourW Issue 28 was launched by Michele Seminara at Gleebooks in Sydney on 25 November 2017 at Gleebooks

Michele Seminara launching fourW Issue 28

Before we begin the proceedings, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to the Elders, past and present.

Today I am delighted to be launching this year’s fourW anthology, and thank Editor David Gilbey, as well as those from Booranga Writers Centre and Charles Sturt University, for asking me to launch this important literary journal as it celebrates its 28th year of continuous publication.

This is a watershed year for fourW. As is the case for many literary journals, the economic viability of the anthology has been brought into question as funding to cover the printing of the magazine has this year been withdrawn, and the Booranga Writers Centre Committee explore new ways forward. This hasn’t stopped fourW twenty-eight coming into being however, albeit in a slightly modified form, and the committee are determined that it won’t stop the anthology continuing into the future. As they explore alternatives such as downsizing the print run, printing on demand, or publishing online, one thing is certain – the creativity and open mindedness that shape the anthology will see it continue to adapt and reflect our contemporary transnational landscape, in form as well as in content.

From Russia to Hong Kong to Sri Lanka, from rural to urban and outback Australia, fourW twenty-eight sees its subjects seeking – internally and externally – for meaning; questing, in all the various ways we do, for happiness; and living in states of connection and disconnection that are by turns helped and hindered by modern technology. In Erwin Cabucos’ story ‘Lights of Different Colours’, we see relationships fractured and reconfigured by economic necessity as Christy lives apart from her own family in the Philippines while working as a housekeeper for the Chen family in Hong Kong. Emotions become entangled as Christy grows daily more familiar with her employers and their child, rather than with her own, who she communicates with via iPhone.

She hears the tell-tale moans of pleasure from Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s room at the far end of the apartment and thinks about her husband, and how she wishes she could be with him right now. She wraps herself once more with the flannelette sheet before spreading the quilt on top of her, and ducks her head under the covers before checking the photograph of her family one last time on her iPhone. It’s 1.50 am; in four hours she has to get up again to make her employers’ breakfast before they go to work. Unexpectedly her phone vibrates softly and a text comes up. It is her husband, Lando: “I miss you, Chris. I love you, palangga.” She presses the auto response button that returns her usual message to him – her love. She hugs the phone to her chest and closes her eyes. (19)

High up in another city, in a hospital building in Sri Lanka, George Saranapala surveys the changing landscape of his country – and his life – as he awaits heart surgery. In the story ‘To Keep Pace’ by Rajith Savanadasa, technology facilitates an intimacy that is not always welcome. As George discovers after reluctantly being “hooked-up” to Facebook and subsequently stumbling upon his son Andrew’s account, there is such a thing as too much information:

George started seeing curious things on Andrew’s Facebook. There were rainbow coloured pictures saying ‘All We Need is Love,’ or ‘Colouring Outside the Lines.’ Pink triangles proclaimed, ‘Fix Marriage Not Gays.’ There was a photo of Andrew in a sleeveless top and sunglasses, his arm draped around a topless young man’s shoulders. George clicked and pushed at keys furiously but the windows that revealed these revolting images refused to close. He poked at the power button but his shaking finger missed repeatedly and finally, in his desperation, George pulled out the cord from the wall-socket. He never plugged it in again. If Facebook was telling a truth, it was not a truth George could agree with, not a truth he wanted to know. It was much later that he realised the things he called Truth and Lies were extinct. The new world was full of uncertainties, indeterminacies and cats in boxes suspended between life and death. Where was the clearly defined future he was promised? (143)

As John Carey warns us in his poem ‘Post Truth’, the dizzying array of information we are now bombarded with –

…may be a fake news item bombing
us from Montenegro or Fox News or it
just might be a double-bluff. Trust no-one. (p23)

But we do want to trust, and we do want to connect – the question explored by the pieces in fourW twenty-eight is who should we trust? And how far can we afford to go? In ‘Joel and Jess on the Verge’ by Julie Maclean, the about-to-be-married Joel and Jess contemplate the wisdom of taking the plunge and the meaning behind the oft habitual words “I love you”, when Joel experiences “the urge to vomit” at the thought of pledging himself “to the exclusion of all others” (121), and Jess finds herself turning her back on the partner lying beside her in bed to find solace and connection inside the ever present iPhone. In Louise D’Arcy’s small-town Australian story ‘Alex and Max go for a Walk’, Alec finds a different solution to the same problem as he contemplates whether to break up or shack up with girlfriend Cindy. Like many of us, Alec decides that their dog, Max, is the safest bet when it comes to trusting:

When he got home he’d ring Cindy. Say thanks. Say thanks but no thanks. He’d say you can put back your dried flowers and scented candles round the bath, and I’ll keep Max. He had no illusions about the fallout but you had to break things into manageable portions and then you just had to start somewhere. (p39)

Yes, we have to start somewhere, and Australians love to travel the long roads, or blue skies, or expansive seas, or more seldom the circuitous pathways of their own minds in search of that elusive connection to self, others, and sometimes even a higher power. It is these connections which make life meaningful and – dare we say it – passable, if not always pleasurable. And so poets Rory Harris and Nathanael O’Reilly hit the road in their poems ‘road’ and ‘(Un)belonging’, with Harris telling us how the road’s “old familiar rhythm” helps “to repair & replace the broken bodies of our lives” (59), while a recently returned home O’Reilly wonders “…if I could ever belong / again after so much time and distance”(132). Mran-Maree Laing turns inwards in her poem ‘The raw faces’, asking us to “please tell me the raw faces, including our own” (94), while in Daniel King’s story ‘The Astrological Coasters’ the protagonist is lost in a trance-like search for meaning and identity, wondering “Who could bear, after all, a life that consists in staying where one’s purpose and role are unclear, and where the only kind of guidance seems to come from the stars?” (85) Ali Jane Smith turns to yoga in her poem ‘Christmastime!’ to help her deal with the stress of the festive season, only to find:

… it’s best
to just be yourself
a philosophy I’ve long held
though I’m still learning
the practical applications

and lately I’ve learned too
that self you’re better-off being
is now and then an imaginary reindeer ( 159)

Some choose to go deeper still, like Frank in Biff Ward’s ‘To the West’, who spends forty days alone at sea hoping “he might feel pure again. He thought of it as wanting to die – he was going to sail to oblivion. Yet still he was beseeching God – he was no longer sure what for. All he knew was that he had to go.” (168)

One thing is for sure: whatever path you might be travelling, it’s a good bet the far-reaching writing in fourW twenty-eight has got you covered. Because ultimately, like the surfer who refuses “to come in from the water” in Damen O’Brien’s poem ‘Catching the Last Wave’, preferring instead to stay on her board watching “Each annus horribilis and all the perfect years/ …lining up over the horizon” (129), we’re all just riding the wave of change as best we can. And, just as the creators of fourW are doing, we’re all watching to see what’s next.

 – Michele Seminara

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Michele Seminara is a poet and editor from Sydney. Her first poetry collection, Engraft, was published by Island Press (2016), and a collaborative chapbook, Scar to Scar, (written with Robbie Coburn) was published by PressPress (2016). Her latest publication is HUSH (Blank Rune Press, 2017). Michele is Managing Editor of online creative arts journal Verity La.

For information on how to purchase fourW go to http://arts-ed.csu.edu.au/booranga/fourW

Improvisational Openness: Jen Crawford launches ‘Semi’ by Owen Bullock

Semi by Owen Bullock was launched by Jen Crawford at the Poetry on the Move festival at the University of Canberra, 20 September 2017.

It’s funny how much a book of poetry can carry what one feels to be the essence of a person in text form – at least, I’m often struck by that. And I guess the lovely thing about that is that sometimes you can have the book where you might not have the person. This book is a great example. I feel like this is a kind of portable Owen – it has all his gentleness, the good humour and the vaudevillean variety, the honesty that has both a lightness of touch and a resonant depth.

This is not to say that Semi is in any way predictable. Indeed there’s a range and agility here that reminds me that Owen’s a guy who knows how to juggle. Swift movements of attention carry the grace of someone who’s been practicing their craft for a long  time, and with great dedication. Those movements don’t give the sense of a fractured or fragmented sensibility, but rather of the hand moving faster than the eye across a very broad skill base, with an improvisational openness to play with whatever might arise.

I’ve followed Owen’s movements for years – from New Zealand to Australia – and I’ve often been quite boggled by the volume of material that he produces and the quality he maintains across that body of work. Each book is worth reading, but this one strikes me as particularly special. Its poems form the creative component of his recently completed doctoral submission, and this means that it represents a kind of surfacing of a body of thought. Much like Hemingway’s iceberg there’s a certain amount here articulated directly in the words above the waterline, but you can also feel and discern the heft of the engagement that’s below.

The sheer variety of ways that the page and the line are explored here are a great indicator of this. The work with form shows a really full engagement with concepts, with literature, with possibilities. And again it’s worth saying that these explorations are not piecemeal, but purposeful, sustained, oriented partly  in the particular needs of the voice at a particular moment – narrating into the prose block, working the turn of the left-justified line, scattering away from the margin into space and erasure, distilling into grids, slipping in haibun-fashion from image into reflection, into narration.

The verbal range is delightful too, catching that sense of capacious openness and reflective depth. Listen to the way this moves:

I’m language
made into and out of
to be
…….in what the other has written. live
disappointments at what’s read
…………………..preceding delight, often in
the same
…………………..text
………………………..that’s changed
nothing, time moonched
perspective munted
                                         – ‘I’ll put a rainbow in your hand’

I think the other thing that comes through really strongly here is the sense of collaboration – collaboration as play, collaboration as dedication to the other (the other artist in a project, the other writer, the other loved one). There’s a moment in here where I expected one poem – ‘a good start’ to resolve with the noun phrase ‘hard work’ –

and laugh now I’m here

with the sunshine

and my tiredness

………………………– from ‘hard work’

but instead we have the adjectival ‘hardworking’ – it’s a quirk of voice that somehow catches the spirit of something I see in that collaborative presence, too – the sense of acceptance, ongoingness, pleasure in dedication.

There’s much more to say about this volume, about the generosity of self here alongside the openness to the world, for example – but we have just a little time to hear from Owen, so I want to make space for that. And for you to go acquire this lovely companionate book, which I am quite sure you will keep with you for a long time, as I will.

 – Jen Crawford

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Jen Crawford is an Assistant Professor of Writing within the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra.  She is the author of eight poetry books and chapbooks, including Koel (Cordite Books, 2016), and recently co-edited Poet-to-Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan with Rina Kikuchi.

Semi is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/semi/

 

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

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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,