Sonorous and Wistful: Siobhan Hodge reviews “Forgiving Night for Day” by Jacobus Capone

“Forgiving Night for Day” is showing at PICA, Northbridge from 18 February to 16 April.

img_4607Australian artist Jacobus Capone’s latest installation at PICA has its roots in Lisbon, responding to both a Portuguese musical tradition and the Portuguese term, “saudade”, which reflects deep nostalgia and a longing for people. This sombre tone is well captured in the darkened setting of the PICA gallery.

Projectors show restricted viewpoints, set at different levels around the gallery. These are occupied by lone figures, looking out over different parts of the city of Lisbon at day, on different days. Men and women look away from one another, and one at a time sing the Portuguese translation of Capone’s English-language poem. These acts of translation, casting, shooting and then display all compound a sense of remoteness and unavoidable distance. The source material and even the singers are all pointedly removed from one another. At dawn for seven days, a different Fado singer performs the poem. The overall impact, for a viewer sitting in the darkened room, is one that oscillates between deeply melancholic and determinedly hopeful.

Taigo Torres da Silva has translated Capone’s piece from English, the full text of which is printed on the wall at the entry to the exhibit. The piece is a meditation on the connections between place, self, and time.

Forgiving Night for Day

 

I die each day at dawn

only to be reborn at dusk

The four cornered night sky my enabler

cradles my being

and within its darkness I become I.

 

Guided by uncertain co-ordinates

I roam the city’s streets

a foreigner to humankind

feeling with my thoughts

and thinking with my feelings.

 

The city sleeps, the streets fall silent

As my shadow carries my spirit

out to the edge of the night

only to return me back where I begun.

 

Time rests in pause

whilst the universe awakens from slumber

and the world half opens to reveal

a moment without weight or duration.

 

Whoever I was yesterday ceases

as its apparition journeys into morning light

welcoming all chance encounters

with silent reverence

and farewells each former self shed.

 

There is a cyclic nature to this journey to self-awareness, ultimately progressing beyond the melancholy roots of saludade, to a more optimistic feeling of growth, making on-going meanings out of all fleeting encounters. Alienation and uncertainty are ultimately undercut by the speaker’s burgeoning comprehension of universal facts, their position within these complex systems, and subtly supportive images embedded within the poem.

This is the atmosphere that permeates the gallery; though the speakers do not face one another, they do not appear disparately lonely. The longing of their voices is cast out over the city, yet ultimately appears inward, self-reflective. Forgiving Night for Day takes a potentially grim focal point and turns it into a more uplifting meditation, creating a similarly meditative space for viewers within the space.

 

Forgiving Night for Day is being held from 18th February to 16th April 2017 at PICA, Northbridge. For more information, please see the event page here.

 

Siobhan Hodge

——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Westerly, Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

Save

Glittering Games: Siobhan Hodge reviews “When Happiness Ruled” by Pip & Pop

“When Happiness Ruled” is showing at PICA, Northbridge from 12 November to 24 December.

img_4296Where to look first? Bright colours, whimsical shapes and an apparent tribute to all things glitter, “When Happiness Ruled” is completely enthralling. In styles reminiscent of decora Harajuku fashion and all thing sweet and pastel, Australian Tanya Schultz, the artist behind Pip & Pop, has created five large installations at PICA gallery in Northbridge. Visitors can patrol the “islands” on the ground level, which works best for identifying the smaller scenes and intricate details, but PICA’s overhanging balcony also offers a view to mirror the smaller paint splatters that decorate the floor. From above, the installation resembles a cluster of brightly coloured petri dishes, teeming with life.

Schultz draws on folklore and mythology to inspire these intricate constructions. 400 kilograms of coloured sugar, glitter, sequins and recycled items have gone into “When Happiness Ruled”. Forests of tiny beaded trees, plastic flowers and fluffy mushrooms grow along the islands. Delicately piped coloured sugar lines trace patterns across the ground. Crouching at eye-level to the scenes, it is easy to become fixated on small microenvironments. The installation requires multiple views to come to grips with everything that is going on within each piece.

Amongst the whimsy and vitality of the installation are moving and brightly lit individual items. This is a landscape that moves to its own rhythms, but there is perhaps also a slightly sombre edimg_4299ge. Fantastical “monsters”, made of pastel-daubed tinsel and foam, move in slow circles. Some of the squat foam mountains have plastic eyes, but others appear to have been gouged out, layered under cloudy pastels.There is a sense that a fairytale more in the style of Grimm is being played out in some of the tiny scenes.

The inherent fragility of the sugar-craft installations adds to this undercurrent of concern. Even the past tense of the title indicates that there is more going on beneath the surface. Recycled ceramic and plastic animals, fruit and vegetables are sudden, stark presences, hidden within the glittery sugar landscapes. These therefore become “found” items in two senses of the word, offering additional narratives of what is considered beautiful or valued.

Playful and highly visually attractive, “When Happiness Ruled” has proven to be a hit with adults and children alike. By looking closely at each layer, it is possible to see more wistful elements to Tanya Schultz’s creations, encoding quiet celebrations for recovered items in futuristic, unfamiliar, but welcoming environments.

For more information on“When Happiness Ruled” by Pip & Pop, please go to http://pica.org.au/show/when-happiness-ruled

 

Siobhan Hodge

——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Westerly, Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

Save

Save

Surreal Shapes: Siobhan Hodge reviews The Curtain Breathed Deeply by Justene Williams

The Curtain Breathed Deeply is showing at PICA, Northbridge from 17 September to 30 October.

img_4046PICA gallery is currently featuring an installation by Justene Williams, rich with textures and colours. The Curtain Breathed Deeply comprises of a series of constructions, initially concealed by a large blue and gold patterned curtain. The massive drape is thickly decorated, yet sections have been removed, offering snatches of insight to what will follow. For Williams, curtains are selective concealment. They invite and distort, but ultimately are flexible and full of life.

Sound plays a key role in the installation. Rhythmic tones with occasional bursts of discord are played at various stages of the exhibit, imparting a disruptive sense of ritual. Couches have been set up in front of some of the televised sections, yet the structure of the exhibit demands that you keep moving. Indeed, movement dominates the installation. Curtains keep moving, television screens flashing, and a particularly key-catching series of dancers and wide-eyed owl puppets flit across the projector screens. The exhibits “breathe”: they move, but there is a rhythmic certainty to it, undercut by the unsettling music. Garbage bags layered with handmade felt mushrooms and mould are suspended from the ceiling. There is life here, but it is always followed with some grimmer reminder.

img_4041Williams’ use of colour and texture is bright, obtrusive, and catches the eye from all angles. However, the majority of her materials appear recycled; these are familiar domestic objects given new life. A paddling pool, scattered with coins, takes the centre of the room, screened off by long tresses of wool, plastic flowers, wigs, and cut-out lightning bolts. The pool’s warnings of death by drowning remain plainly in sight; this is a familiar object, childlike and surrounded by fantastic constructions, but connected with reminders of mortality. There is an underlying sombreness to the installations in general, linking with ideas of Dadaism and surrealism. At the same time, there is a sense of ritual; of familiar items made more whimsical via artistic means that invoke strong senses of the handmade, direct, and personal.

The exhibit has been dedicated to the life and works of Williams’ father, and the curtain forms a rich motif of both invitation and soft denial – reminiscent of a hospital curtain, but also creating a gentle delineation of spaces in which life in all its complexity and confusion can proliferate. This is a surrealism that is rooted in notions of life and the familiar.

 – Siobhan Hodge

——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Westerly, Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

Save

Save

Save

Sharp and Sombre: Siobhan Hodge reviews Gordon Bennett’s “Be Polite”

“Be Polite” is being exhibited from 17 September to 30 October at PICA, Northbridge. More details are available here

img_4025PICA is now exhibiting a collection of small sketches and typographical pieces, produced by Indigenous artist Gordon Bennett (1955-2014). The tongue-in-cheek title, “Be Polite”, for the exhibition, is reflective of the ironies and frustrations of needing to criticise racist practices, but being self-consciously held back. The opening pieces displayed in the gallery, pictured above, are emblematic of the this restraint, but once you enter the room, Bennett’s work becomes far more frank.

Bennett’s repeated “ABCD” of anti-Indigenous slurs, droplets of blood, and sharp depictions of sexual violence as well as murder committed against Indigenous Australians are confronting in every sense of the word. The importance of language as a means of perpetuating abuse is a recurring theme. In the distributed flyer about the exhibition, the curators observe that the collection has a “conversational” tone to it, as if the artist is speaking to his own work. In addition, the flyer notes that the works on display were never originally intended for show. However, there is much to be shared within them.

img_4036Bennett’s choice of media in this exhibition is varied. Stark sketches and selective uses of colour are used to stage a sharply critical dialogue with historical events. The history of colonialism in Australia is presented in a series of storyboard-esque images, bitterly contrasting the personification and aggrandisation of violent colonial oppressors with the brutalised Indigenous figures. Issues of voice and silence are repeatedly revisited. This is a collection that speaks with numerous voices, but at the same time, is revisited by the overarching, wry reflection: “be polite”. How can you be polite in such weighted conversations?

Bennett’s answer appears to be that you cannot. Platitudes are spelt out in advertising-style drawings, and denounced as part of the refrain of racist terminologies. This is a collection geared to unsettle, challenge, and at the same time, to demand discussion. Confronting and compelling, I would highly recommend visiting.

 – Siobhan Hodge

“Be Polite” is being exhibited from 17 September to 30 October at PICA, Northbridge. More details are available here

——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Westerly, Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

Save

Save

Save

Caught between Blue and Grey: Siobhan Hodge reviews ‘Grounded’, performed by Alison van Reeken

Grounded is playing at the Blue Room Theatre, Northbridge WA from 13 September to 1 October

grounded-no-plane-website-760x485Grounded tackles the grimly disconnected reality of drone warfare, pairing this with the increasingly isolated state of the speaker, a former fighter pilot who has been relegated to drone piloting after going on maternity leave. Performed by Alison van Reeken and directed by Emily McLean, the powerful performance interspersed with grey drone footage and silent on-screen explosions, contrasted sharply with blasts of AC/DC and Guns ‘n Roses when the main character is in her element, this is a performance of contrasts and sharp realisations.

When The Pilot, a female fighter pilot in the US air force, becomes pregnant and has to leave “the blue” of the sky – emblematic of her senses of freedom, identity, and solidarity – her problems only escalate. Returning to the force after three years of maternity leave, the speaker learns that she has now been relegated to “the chair-force”. Reluctantly, she accepts the role as a drone pilot, and slowly derails into a more and more paranoid state of being. Moving from an active war-zone to the 12-hour shifts before returning “home” to suburban Las Vegas, The Pilot is beset with bitterness and burgeoning paranoia. The character’s preferred AC/DC is overlapped with Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” and her daughter’s beloved pony cartoon theme.

The Pilot is brusque, assertive and confident, but demonstrates clear signs of internalised misogyny. However, the main conflicts of this performance do not stem from a motherhood/self-hood divide. Motifs of surveillance and control, paired with the depersonalised nature of drone warfare in contrast to the active and absorbing reality of being a fighter pilot, drain the speaker down to a nervously reactive husk of herself. People become “guilty”, judged by the Gorgon’s Eye of the drone, and the increasingly disassociated Pilot herself.

Darkly humorous, sharp and starkly confronting, Grounded has real moments of poetic expression and delicacy. The speaker grimly compares herself to a vengeful god in the sky when she pilots the drones, but becomes terrified of her daughter being smote as one of the “guilty” by another surveying presence. Grounded is a call for immediacy and accountability, confronting the potential for horrors both internal and external in this new form of warfare, as well as painting a compelling portrait of the need for individuality.

 – Siobhan Hodge

Grounded is playing at the Blue Room Theatre, Northbridge WA from 13 September to 1 October, 7pm. AUSLAN is available on 20 September. Tickets are available here.


——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Westerly, Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

Save

Save

Save

Save

A resonance that lingers: Judith Beveridge launches ‘Everyday Epic’ by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson

Everyday Epic by Anna Kerdijk Nicholso, Puncher and Wattmann 2015, was launched by Judith Beveridge at the Rosie Scott Women Writers’ Festival on 18th September 2015.

everyday_epic_310_437_sI’m delighted to be launching Anna Kerdijk­Nicholson’s Everyday Epic and I’d like to congratulate her on this fine new volume as well as the publisher, Puncher and Wattmann, for another terrific addition to contemporary Australian poetry.

As the title suggests, this book has a wide­-ranging, grand scope to it – the poems cover a rich variety of subjects: from personal poems, poems about landscape and urban settings, poems about art and art­works, both historical and contemporary, poems with current social and political content, as well as the final and climatic, historical series on Burke and Wills.

This book values and celebrates both the large and the ordinary, travelling outwards into politics, history and culture, yet coming back to the everyday personal worlds of love, suffering, injustice. Though the book is wide in scope, it is not a baggy book. The poems feel necessary and are beautifully honed, they have a sharpness of mind, a penetrating focus of image and diction, a resonance that lingers. And this is important because so many poems, while they can be arresting and alluring during the reading of them, seem to dissolve or evaporate in the mind once your eyes leaves the page – Anna’s don’t do this, they have an astringency that hangs around, an allure that stays with you, and this is an effect of the craft: the way Anna has been able to weigh her words with intense thought and chose them with subtle and powerful discrimination.

One poem I’ll read to illustrate this is the poem “Desert” – (p. 63). This poem has terrific economy while saying a lot, which is what all the best poems do. I love the way the word “murders” at the end of the first line can be read as belonging to “wildflower” as in “allows wildflower murders”, yet as you read the next line you realize “murders” belongs to “murders the momentary”. This playful slippage, of keeping the language moving and dynamic, of constantly surprising the reader is another hallmark of the book. I love the way Anna bends her language and sometimes her syntax to achieve many windfalls. The last stanza in “Desert” is beautifully constructed as Anna takes advantage of the double meaning of “magazine” as in glossy publication, but also as in its meaning as a receptacle that holds the cartridges to be fed into a gun. This sense is picked up and amplified in the last line by “triggers Intervention” – there are so many little nuances of meaning in the poem and they delight you as they invite you to tease them out.

Anna’s poems kept me delightfully engaged with the way the imagery and tone negotiate the very subtle changes of mood or modes of feeling. These poems have that admirable ability to grow in intensity out of their own emotional necessity; these poems seem to rise to discoveries of ­ and are themselves – epiphanies. Take for example the poem “Bangarra” (p. 79) – I love the way this poem so wonderfully combines a sense of stillness and movement in describing the dance, that seamless bringing together of opposites creates a lasting impression, all done through the crystalline images.

What there is in spades in this book is a compassionate sense and sympathy for the effects of injustice and wrong-­treatment metered out to the less powerful. Anna writes movingly and convincingly about the plight of refugees, of the suffering of indigenous people, exemplified in her three­-poem sequence which looks at two photos and one painting of Truganini. But perhaps the most powerful of all in the book is the last section called “The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills” – a sequence of eight poems of emotional and graphic intensity which depicts the disintegration through starvation of members of the Burke and Wills expedition. In just eight poems Anna gives the reader what it might take a prose account several chapters to do – the selection of detail, the narrative pacing, the characterisation are all magnificently drawn. Anna really makes us feel the tension and the uneasiness, the tragedy at the heart of this story.

But the poem I’d to finally read is called “Foucault’s Pendulum” (p. 89) – the way the poem handles time I think is terrific, the present and past come into beautiful conjunction through the watching of a flitter­bat – which brings into the speaker’s mind memories of a museum in Holland which house a Foucault’s Pendulum and a colony of pipistrelles. I love the backward lean of the poem into memory, and then the forward stepping into the kinesethetic and visual movements of the flitter­bat. The images and details are orchestrated so well, the long, slowly­ moving, fluent lines feel like time swinging back and forth. This is a finely textured, superbly wrought piece which I urge you to re­read in order to fully appreciate the way the connections are braided seamlessly together, how Anna has brought the disparate and multiple qualities into a unified whole.

In this poem, as in others, there is a real subtlety of thinking. Jane Hirshfield in her wonderful book on poetry, Ten Windows, says “It is by and in its subtleties that a good poem is able both to answer uncertainty and to contain it” (p.131). She says “Subtle thinking liberates its subject from the expected and the assumed, from arrogance and the ordinary versions of what is thought true” (p. 130).

I think it’s true to say that poetry always returns to the inner, private life, to the hidden feeling, the buried motive, to the details that embody emotion. Each poet for us defines a world and it is important for us as readers to be exposed to as many of these differing worlds as we can. The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky has said, “Languages are many but poetry is one”. Anna, in this latest volume Everyday Epic, has found a convincing and rich poetry that makes us feel welcome and makes us value the work that poetry does, which is to say things with a “passionate syntax” on the margins of the sayable and allow readers to become participants in their own relationship to the world.

 – Judith Beveridge

——————————————————————————————————–

Judith Beveridge is the author of The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace, Wolf Notes and Storm and Honey all of which have won major prizes. Her latest collection, Devadatta’s Poems, was published by Giramondo Publishing in 2014 and Hook and Eye, a selected of her poems, was published by Brazilier Publishers in the USA. She is the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.

Everyday Epic is available on the Puncher and Wattmann website: https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/everyday-epic

“Is there such a thing as inner crookedness?” Susan Hawthorne reviews Nothing Sacred by Linda Weste

Nothing Sacred by Linda Weste. Australian Scholarly Publishing 2015.

Article Lead - narrow1001670720gn047cimage.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.gkda2o.png1456193987445.jpg-300x0

I was primed to read this book because I had recently finished reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. I also spent six months in Rome in 2013 on my own poetic journey.

The structure of this book is shaped by the history of the Roman Claudian family during the late Republican period. It follows the story of the siblings Clodius Pulcher and his sister Clodia Metelli.

Beginning with the funeral procession of their mother along the Via Appia, these two wild siblings begin their downhill journey; Clodia is forever pushing boundaries set for women of her class. She goes out alone. This allows the author to conjure up the atmosphere of Rome and how it would have felt walking as a woman alone.

Rome is a violent place, not only in the street but in the political fora too. Cicero is a major player in the politics of Rome. The first such political rumbling was the Catiline Conspiracy. There are wonderful poems here in which the reader gets a clear idea of how Cicero sounded.

You will learn why the traitor
Cat-i-line . . .
should go into voluntary ex-ile:

For conspi-ring to revolt.’

The use to which these hyphens are put helps the reader negotiate this multivocal book and immediately recognise Cicero’s speech patterns. But the book is more than that. It includes letters and dialogue, oratory, fantasies and an extraordinary depiction of the times.

It is also a universal story in some ways and the political rivalry not too far from what we see on our televisions, except that in Rome you were more likely to be killed or at best exiled by your opponents.

Cicero is not a happy man, indeed he feels cursed and unlucky and asks:
‘Is there such a thing as inner crookedness?’

He is left-handed and that is regarded as a bad omen.

Cicero is not the only one to be sharply drawn. At a party, Catullus muses when greeted by Lucius Valerius Flaccus:

‘Ah Catullus!’ altogether too familiar,
A fleck of pastry on his puffy bottom lip
Flutters with each burst of breath.

Clodia soon puts Catullus in his place, wondering if he can live up to expectations. The narrative arc of this verse novel is towards more and more danger for its protagonists. Watching, through poetry, the social order fall apart is a fascinating process.

Cicero goes into exile, Crassus is violently murdered, Clodius is killed and then given a state funeral, buildings are burnt to the ground, Milo is put on trial, and only Clodia lives through it all.

She is a survivor and says of herself:

I’ve no disguises.
A woman in my position cannot remain unknown
Strangers hold no title:

But because you set eyes on me
And called me names
You’re compelled to think of me:

Rich, beautiful and imperishable.
I rise before you.

Nothing Sacred is a powerful work of poetry. It helps to have some knowledge or interest in Rome, but the book includes notes and a list of characters for those of us who need reminders. Linda Weste has written a work that draws the reader into the maelstrom that was Rome. It is a less dignified place than we usually encounter in histories and the characters are real, almost contemporary in their impulses and inclinations.

 – Susan Hawthorne

 

——————————————————————————————————–

Susan Hawthorne is the author of Lupa and Lamb (2014) written while on a Literature Residency in Rome in 2013. Her other poetry books include Cow (2011), Earth’s Breath (2009) and a verse novel, Limen (2013). She has been published widely in literary magazines around the world and several of her non-fiction books have been translated into Spanish, German, French and Arabic.

 

Nothing Sacred is available from the Australian Scholarly Publishing website here: http://www.scholarly.info/book/443/

“Ahead of Us”: Siobhan Hodge Interviews Dennis Haskell

Ahead of Us by Dennis Haskell. Fremantle Press 2016.

9781925163285_WEBLARGE

Launched in early March, Ahead of Us is Dennis Haskell’s latest collection of poems, dedicated to his wife Rhonda. Broken into three sections, the poems shift from collected older poems, reflecting on metaphysical concerns and recurring motifs of travel, to a far more sombre and confronting series that details Haskell’s experiences of Rhonda’s battle with ovarian cancer.

The poems are unabashedly brave. There’s a steely focus on the minutiae of everyday struggles, wavering at the edges not into sentimentality, but genuine overflow of grief. Each poem is a moment of struggle, captured with documentary-like detail and dignity. To read the second section of Ahead of Us is to be confronted with direct, utterly compelling frankness about each stage of Rhonda’s diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy, symptoms of both illness and treatments, and passing. In addition, Haskell’s own “journey” continues, shifting purposefully away from the near-cliché of “our journey with cancer” to a more personal pilgrimage to places significant and joyous in his and Rhonda’s lives, as well as celebrating the lives of their sons and new grandson.

In an interview with Dennis Haskell, we conversed about his love for Rhonda, the importance of writing this book, as well as the mechanics of its production. The spectre of the cancer diagnosis and its pervasive presence in so many lives were at the forefront of our thoughts.

Haskell reflected: “When we were told about the cancer it was like a shot between the eyes.” A battery of scans had ensued – appointments with GPs, specialists, other specialists – not actually being told of the diagnosis, let alone its identity, until one eventual appointment with a specialist. “We were all still totally naïve, we had no idea – he just started talking about this terrible disease, and Rhonda asked him what he meant, and he said “well you’ve got ovarian cancer” and we were completely… we had absolutely no idea – his phone rang just as he told us, which gave us a chance to talk – it was like being shot between the eyes. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. I was just completely dumbfounded. He [the doctor] died of cancer himself not long after.”

Despite the dignity and precision of the poetry collection, Haskell is frank about the nature of entire, wrenching experience:

“You learn some things about yourself in this experience. Rhonda needed surgery and we were immediately keen to do that – again we were totally naïve. I’m reminded of a quote by Mary Gilmore: “But this loaf in my hand, this is my son’s bread” [“Nationality”]. I would have kicked someone off the boat for Rhonda’s survival, maybe not my own.”

On the subject of writing about cancer, and about life and death in general, Haskell is upfront:

“I don’t think grief has any numbers, there’s no mathematics for grief. George Bernard Shaw said something like that. Whatever might be said about the poems by way of literary criticism doesn’t matter one jot to me.”

Rather, the focus is Ahead of Us is on the importance of producing these poems, their dedication, and their future readers.

SH: The cover has turned out well. The photo is of Rhonda?

DH: “Yes. That’s the actual size of the original photo. I thought it wasn’t big enough to use! But Fremantle Press said no, it was fine. Originally there were these typewriter heads here as well, but they eventually removed them. They just drew the attention away too much. The place itself has been redesigned now. The same street sign. It’s more swish now, you couldn’t afford to rent there.”

 

SH: In reading the early poems, there are tussles with theory and reality. It’s not a rejection of abstraction, more like a criticism of the inadequacy of it, as if it has to be pushed to the side in favour of more direct engagements with each moment?

DH: “I guess I’m trying to do a lot of things if I think about it, I don’t when I’m writing of course. The metaphysics and the emotions and the ideas, the thinking how they belong together. I’ve said elsewhere that the best thing about poetry, which Ezra Pound pinched from the ancient Chinese: “only emotions endure” and in the end I think that’s what matters. Things like “my love is like a red, red rose” endures, because in the end it’s the emotional power that powers it. Poetry is a great unifying force – sensory, senses, emotions, rhythm and imagery- you couldn’t separate them, so that the rhythm and the imagery and the statement are all one. That’s what I hope is happening in the poems.”

“The “god” poems are all early poems. I wrote a number of them in my first book. I’m still interested in the idea of God, the concept of God, and I’m devoutly agnostic but my wife Rhonda was an atheist and was absolutely definite about that. One thing that I admired is that she never wavered on that, even on her deathbed. It’s a kind of strength. I don’t think anyone knows, really. I believe in metaphysics, but the idea that there’s a road map… I don’t think so… That comes into the poems in different ways.”

 

SH: I had heard at the launch that the narrative structure of the collection came later? It’s surprising because many of the poems really do read as though they were written with a narrative all along.

DH: “I said at the launch, it was never my idea! We had a lot of meetings and really thought about the order. We had this list that I drew up and they drew up of poems that might go in and those that might go out. That was much easier actually. I was worried at first when I mentioned this idea that the book would be all gloomy, because I always prided myself on having variety in a book, and even some funny poems. Hardly anyone writes those! But they did have a much more sensitive idea about it. Some of the travel poems don’t mention Rhonda at all in there. And some more light-hearted ones are in there.”

“There are little bits of jokes. I like the idea of poems having a range of emotions and in them and a range of tones. They shift and move, because life is like that. It’s complicated like that. You do get periods of intensity, of course, even a minute of absolute despair or delight or ecstasy or whatever. So sometimes that works in poems. Even in the short ones. Some of them are more philosophical and less personal, but I guess I try to match the personal intensity with the philosophical thought, you know with the contemplation, such as in “Plato’s Error” and the shadows on the cave. This is kind of like rejecting god, rejecting Plato – this is the real life!”

 

SH: Do the light-hearted poems work as a kind of emotional “buffer zone” to fortify readers before the much more intensive, emotionally-challenging poems to follow?

DH: “Yeah, you’re not quite sunk into doom and gloom. Then the structure – of course, I did this on instinct until someone pointed this out to me in a conference where I gave a reading in Austria – one of the speakers said how it “came up into light at the end”. I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but I knew how I wanted it to come. The three sections were always there. The last two sections never changed. The last section was always going to be just one poem about my grandson: new life and hope. I’m not a pessimist by nature really, so I didn’t want to end so, even if I was gloomy.”

 

SH: There are hints of this optimism even in the more confronting second section, such as in the poem “Birthday Present”.

DH: “Well yes, there is a kind of thing there with him having grown, you know, and he’s his own person now. And it’s all true. I never knew Rhonda had it [son Cameron’s newborn wrist tag from the hospital, featured in the poem] in her purse all along! The purse was something that I found in a drawer and I never knew she had this from the time he was born.”

“I do have guilt, but it’s just survivor’s guilt. It all seems so arbitrary, so that’s why the poem “Chance” was there. When Hayley from the Cancer Council spoke at the launch, she mentioned all those symptoms and Rhonda had none of those! The survival rate is just so low. They now think it’s for different diseases, but it grows there and if you’re not having babies you don’t notice it.”

“I wanted to write honestly about it all. That seemed to be absolutely crucial, more so than writing a good poem, but that would be ideal! I have enough pride in myself as a poet to want to write good poems.”

 

SH: The second section is difficult to read, but you can appreciate this intensity. The moments that were being described are almost itemised – it’s an unabashed looking at these realities, not turning away. Was this intentional?

DH: “It wasn’t planned like that and they’re not written in the exact order that they’re presented. The first two I wrote I had in my head for five months before I wrote them down, and that was because I had no time to write. I was so busy. I stopped teaching. My colleagues were great; Rhonda’s colleagues were great as well. There were only two poems for quite a while, and then they all came through I guess. I realised then that there were more of them written after she died than before.”

“A number of them were in one sense very easy to write, they just erupted out of me. Life wasn’t chaotic because you were doing the same things regularly. I was endlessly going to doctors and chemists. Rhonda had to look after herself. You don’t realise how much is involved until you go through it! You spend a lot of time on the road, and a hell of a lot of time on the phone, communicating with family and friends, as well as communicating with doctors. I was at the chemist three or four times a week. All this kind of stuff.”

“One of the poems features railway tracks. I went to the shops on a Saturday morning and before I went into the supermarket I just sat outside and wrote it. It hasn’t changed from the first draft. A few of them were like that. The little one about the driver’s licence took more time.”

“Some of the poems feel too straightforward, almost not dramatic enough. Some of them just erupted out of me. Some were written on the moment, one was written the night before one of Rhonda’s operations, on her lungs. I did change a few little things eventually, but I never showed them to her. Most of the poems she never saw.”

 

SH: Was there always an intention to get involved with Cancer Council in launching Ahead of Us?

DH: “I wasn’t immediately intending to do so, but then decided later. We had been to the Cancer Council for things, so I thought to approach them because they have support services and a lot of reach. I think the amount of money that I’ll be giving is not likely to be huge, but one thing they told me, and which surprised me, is that it’s very unusual for a man to get involved. They said partly it’s because of lack of time or opportunity, but partly it’s because cancer is so prevalent because we have an aging population and men tend to die before women. So the link with poetry was entirely new for them, and so too was the fact that it was from a man!”

 

SH: The directness of the poems is very appealing to a broad audience. When I passed the book along to my non-poetry-inclined sisters to read, they were able to resonate very strongly with the second section (one was moved to tears just reading the first poem). It’s able to speak to many readers. Is this what you intended for the collection?

DH: “My biggest hope is that it speaks to and for people that have been touched by the cancer experience, or any kind of trauma really. People who might not be able to verbalise it themselves. That’s my big hope for it, that’s what I’d really like.”

 

SH: Throughout the book there is a noticeable “journey” motif. What are your thoughts on this?

DH: “The Cancer Council has it as a motif: “your partner in your journey against cancer”. It’s become this cliché. This one is a journey in a way, I suppose. The railway tracks poem is a pretty despairing one, but there is a kind of journey motif there at times. I wasn’t conscious of it. I can show you the actual railway tracks, they’re out at Guildford and I drive over them all the time. I used to go walking and I stopped there once and watched them. They do run off into infinity. The title poem is about the freight trains running at night.”

“The “Ahead of Us” poem has stayed as the title and I always knew it would be the last in that section, but it does have a relevance to cancer that is not specified. We lived in Maylands in this townhouse and eventually had to move while Rhonda was having her second bout of chemo – she couldn’t make it up and down the stairs – so we moved and built this house out in Guildford. We went out there before we bought the block to listen to the planes and find out how noisy they were, but when we moved in, we woke up at night hearing the freight trains! But we both loved the sound. I don’t hear them any more, but I wish I did. That’s where the imagery comes from in the poem. It’s there ominously.”

 

SH: The intensity of the writing experience is definitely echoed in the tones of the second section.

DH: “I couldn’t write a lot of the poems now. The poems I’ve written since are much more subdued, melancholy, resigned. Not exactly accepting. I lost my anger about it first of all. One of the earliest stages of grief. I was angry before Rhonda was angry. Interestingly for her she got angry towards the end. I had it before and for longer, but once it was gone that was it. It is a different experience for me than for her. I was driving around while she was in hospital for a month, about a few weeks in. I turned a corner in Maylands and it hit me suddenly out of the blue: hang on, I don’t have cancer!”

“There are so many elements of the experience but despite having almost that complete empathy with her, it seems almost stupid that I had this revelation that I didn’t have cancer, but it’s true. The poems aren’t about my wife’s experience with cancer. I wish it were. I wish they were poems about my wife’s experience with cancer, but I can’t write them. They’re about my experiences of my wife’s experiences with cancer, and I wish I could write them, but I couldn’t and be honest. I’m just not good enough and I would love to. My experience of it is different. There’s a mention of this in one of the poems, “It’s worse for you than it is for me”, but I don’t believe that.”

“Another odd thing is when it was over, after the funeral is done and everyone leaves, and I realised that I didn’t have to do this running around any more. I had all this time. And I should have felt free, but I felt adrift. I didn’t feel free at all, I felt lost. I drove away from the hospital after leaving her body and thought “where do I go?” – but I felt like that on a larger scale.”

“I went, just on instinct, to Sydney to see family and then I went overseas to see people and places that had been important to Rhonda. I went to London to see her friend, and to Narvik which is where we always wanted to go back. We caught the train from Stockholm to Narvik with Eurail passes and we both thought it was on that train trip that I talked her into getting married. We thought it was the furthest you could get on a Eurail pass (I later found out that wasn’t true!) but it was on that trip there that we rang our parents. We always wanted to go back but never made it, so I went on these pilgrimages. I wrote a lot of the poems there.”

 

SH: Definitely an evolution beyond the journey motif! How was the experience of writing the poems away?

DH: “It was six weeks and very lonely. I had cheap rooms. The one in Stockholm had no windows, so they’d done it up like a ship’s cabin and it was in this room that stuff started pouring out of me. It was a tough trip, but it was very good to do. A number of the poems came out of that. And then when I put them in order, and they are in order more or less of how things happened. I usually had the idea of mixing poems up so you could get a bit of variety. The second section mostly dictated its own structure.”

“Seamus Heaney’s “Republic of Conscience” was probably in the back of my mind for the passport poem. The “Who or Why or How or What” poem was after the first bout of chemo and the nurse said all clear, and we just sat there weeping. That’s written earlier than some of the others, but seemed to belong there in that place. It’s very much the agnostic’s poem. I think it’s an agnostic poem. I did show Rhonda that one – it’s not an atheist poem. So there were bits of the book I was sure about and others I wasn’t. The long one about that night… I can’t go back and read it…Freud said somewhere that all art is therapy, and you hope it’s more than therapy, but I’m sure he was right.”

 

To read Ahead of Us is to be caught in a completely relatable and achingly personal experience of love and loss. The collection is poetically sophisticated and bluntly confrontational, easy accessible and an admirable poetic legacy for a very much loved individual.

 

Proceeds raised from Ahead of Us will be donated to the Cancer Council. Purchase details can be found here: https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/ahead-of-us

 

 – Siobhan Hodge

——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

Savouring Small Things: Siobhan Hodge reviews Miniature Minutiae by Katherine Clayton

 Miniature Minutiae by Katherine Clayton, exhibited at Paper Mountain Gallery.

coldwind1

Brisbane artist Katherine Clayton visits Perth with a small collection of artwork, currently housed at Paper Mountain gallery in Northbridge. The first response when walking into the gallery was initially one of surprise; when Clayton says “miniature”, she means it.

 

The open space of the Paper Mountain gallery has largely been left bare. Visitors could easily miss the exhibits themselves if they were walking by with a less-than-careful glance. When I entered the room, it was this open gallery’s white space that set the first strong tone – the pieces themselves are almost hidden by the space. However, as you adjust to the setting, each miniature artwork rises into prominence. There are no set directions for the exhibition, but a story seems to unfold as you walk. Clayton wants her viewers purposeful and inquisitive, looking more closely rather than stepping backwards to take in the overall effect.  Rather than anticipating a large number of small pieces, viewers have to tread carefully and lean in to appreciate her work.

The main features in this exhibit are inherently fragile. In one piece, arrangements of coloured stones and water droplets are set in the middle of the floor, so patrons have to mind their step. Another piece uses a small stool, with a careful little pattern of coloured stones set upon it. The other ground-based piece features on one a promotional poster and is pictured below – a piece of roughly cut stone with a small, papery flower “growing” from it. Set upon a pink plate, it creates a series of contrasts and questions as the natural and the human-made come together in strangely harmonious ways. Clayton encourages the viewer to appreciate these engagements on a smaller physical scale, but sizeable symbolic level.

IMG_3300Clayton’s artistic direction is towards the natural, but with a small human influence, teasing out a new angle from the materials. Her touch is purposeful. Nothing is wasted, and much is left to hang on simplicity and implication. The viewer is given even another purpose: to construct a narrative out of the fragments on offer.

This is particularly compounded in Clayton’s featured collection of eight pencil drawings. Upon first glance and from a distance, the paper almost looks to be bare. Upon closer inspection, neat pencil drawings of plants emerge. Brief captions accompany each one. Sometimes these are only a single word to denote what kind of plant is being featured, but as you walk down the line of drawings, more of a story begins to emerge. These are drawings of plants that grow in the artist’s garden, her neighbour’s garden, or chosen because they are a beautiful,  favoured colour. These tiny attentions to detail build an intimate portrait of the artist, but there is still a secretive atmosphere.

Similarly, Clayton’s wall-based pieces are delicate and personal. A pair of coppery leaves is set at eye-level in one bare wall, pictured above. A crumpled picture of a flower is neatly pinned to another. In both instances the viewer could easily miss their appearance, and must circle back for a closer look. Miniature Minutiae is all about interrupting the hasty flow of vision and directing the viewer to slow down and savour the details. The sense of peace and privacy in the gallery boosts this even more so. The natural and the personal are entwined in a fragmentary way, encouraging viewers to assess how the images are constructed individually to build a picture – which, if not larger is still certainly condensed – of respectful co-habitation and gentle impositions of identity on the outside world.

Paper Mountain is open daily from 9.30am-5pm. Miniature Minutiae will be open from 26 February until 13 March 2016. More about the exhibit can be found here: http://papermountain.org.au/program_items/miniature-minutiae-2/

 – Siobhan Hodge

——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

All Things Strange and Wonderful: Siobhan Hodge reviews Welcome to Night Vale, Perth Live Show 2016

Welcome to Night Vale, Perth Live Show 2016.

 

-1The weather is always music, time is unknowable, the Sheriff’s Secret Police control the city from a suspiciously low-hanging cloud with a ladder coming from it, and mountains are banned. Night Vale is many things, but predictable is not one of them. Set in a fictional middle-American town that is governed by a bizarre Secret Police and inhabited by Lovecraftian monsters as well as an oddly amiable body of people, Night Vale is also oddly welcoming, confusing, and intriguing all at the same time. So too was its live show in Perth on 11 February 2016.

For those not familiar, Welcome to Night Vale is a phenomenally popular podcast series, available for pay-as-you-feel or free download from iTunes. In the last few years, the series has begun doing world tours, offering an unaired stand-alone episode of the series to live audiences and then releasing the same show for general access once the tour is complete. Accessibility has always been a major focus for Night Vale and its producers. Despite the horror themes touched upon in the show, the series itself is suitable for young audiences (give or take some swearing). The mysterious and occasionally confronting atmosphere of the fictional town and its inhabitants is consistently offset by a jovial tone.

All things in this fictional setting are designed to challenge what we consider familiar and to celebrate the strange. It’s also oddly motivational. If you haven’t heard one of the podcasts before, the closest comparison I could make would be to imagine if The X Files had been written by Terry Pratchett. In fact however, the episodes are written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, narrated by Cecil Baldwin, and the music performed and written by Disparition. On the live tour Fink, Cranor, Baldwin, and Disparition are joined by rapper Dessa and Aby Wolf to fill in the “weather” segment, as well as recurring voice actors Dylan Marron and Meg Bashwiner.

Each 25-minute episode is framed as a radio segment, delivered by Cecil Baldwin as the voice of Night Vale, as he delivers community news, traffic updates, advertisements, and plenty of cameos from other Night Vale citizens. The overall tone of the show is surprisingly friendly, despite the often horrific, terrifying and consistently inexplicable day-to-day events being described. The series is famed for its dry humour, deadpan delivery, as well as its progressive stances on gender and sexuality, and wry criticism of excessive governmental control.

To assess the live show is to tread a difficult line: how does a podcast translate into a live act? The answer is surprisingly well. The Octagon Theatre at the University of Western Australia was packed and audience reception extremely positive. Even the in-house rules were delivered in Night Vale’s typical deadpan humour by Meg Bashwiner. The live music by Dessa and Aby Wolf was not only vocally and lyrically impressive but also very engaging, as Dessa encouraged audience members to use their mobile phones as torches for one of her songs, performing while standing upon the chairs in the middle of the front row seats.

Cecil Baldwin’s talent as a voice actor is clearly not the product of careful editing. He performed tirelessly for over an hour, demonstrating skill as an actor previously unknown to me, familiar only with his disembodied voice. To finally be able to put gestures, including some hilarious comedic moves and facial expression, to the voice, was a very special touch.

A surprising feature of the live show is the fact that you did not need to be well-versed in Night Vale’s story or lore to understand what was going on. Cameos by characters were made all the richer for knowing them, but the atmosphere was still accessible for people who may not have listened to the podcast before.

Since requests were made not to disclose the plot of the live show until the entire tour is over and the official recording released online, I will not mention specifics here. However, some of the highlights definitely included the cameos from characters and audience participation. Comedy and mystery are brought together, and a balance between philosophy and nonsense is carefully struck in every episode of the series, and the live show was no exception to this rule. To listen as part of a broader audience brought to life even more of the podcast’s original aims – a sense of community for the pretend community-radio station is actually created. Audience members are encouraged to feel personally involved and addressed, but the fact is that the voice of Night Vale speaks to everyone equally, and this is expertly achieved in the crowd-addressing moves used in the show.

In brief, Perth’s first ever Night Vale performance was certainly a memorable one. I would whole-heartedly recommend attending the live shows to those familiar or unfamiliar with the text.

More information about Welcome to Night Vale, as well as its podcasts, novel, Youtube Channel and an ever-eerie social media channel can be found here: http://www.welcometonightvale.com/

 – Siobhan Hodge

——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.