Issue 10: December 2013 – February 2014

Image by Julie Clarke (2013). Faber Castell Aquarelle color pencils on A3 Aquarelle 320 gsm cotton rag. More in the series can be found at http://juliejoyclarke.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/night-sports_13.html

Image by Julie Clarke (2013). Faber Castell Aquarelle color pencils on A3 Aquarelle 320 gsm cotton rag. More in the series can be found at http://juliejoyclarke.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/night-sports_13.html

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Vale Matthew John Davies

matthew
Photo from Facebook

It was with a sense of shock that I heard of the tragic death of Brisbane poet Matthew John Davies last Thursday night. Like many who are expressing their shock and sorry today I never meet Matthew in person but we had corresponded extensively online discussing poetry, film (The Thin Man was a mutual favourite) and music. I had asked him for material for P76 and Social Alternatives and was looking forward to publishing him.

Matthew had been published in Page Seventeen, Skive Magazine, Rabbit, Regime and a number of other online and print magazines and journals.

A slection of his work can be found on his blog The Mystery I Cannot Change Right Now. There is also recordings of Matthew reading a number of his poems (along with recordings of Francis Webb who was one his favourite poets) on his Sound Cloud page: https://soundcloud.com/matthew-john-davies

Rochford Street Review expresses our sincere condolences to Matthew’s family and friends.

– Mark Roberts

“Is dance who you are or what you do?” -Dr Beatriz Copello Reviews ‘…the dancer from the dance’

…the dancer from the dance. A Physical TV Company Production Presented as part of The Directors’ Cuts program in Performance Space’s YOU’RE HISTORY!, its thirtieth anniversary season, on November 30, 2013. (See below for future screenings).

Vicki-Van-Hout,_[colour-graded]-Photo-2-Ehran-Edwards-(c)2013-The-Physical-TV-Company

Dancer Vicki Van Hout (Photograph – Ehran Edwards)

“…the dancer from the dance” is an innovative documentary directed by Karen Pearlman and produced by Richard James Allen which explores issues such as identity and culture and how these relate to dance.

The documentary starts with Pearlman dancing, with a voice-over talking about what it meant to her to be a dancer and what it meant to stop being a dancer and returning to her art after being ten years away from it. Pearlman raises questions such as: is being a dancer an identity, a culture, a waste of time? Is it a shared tradition in which a body of knowledge is passed from dancer to dancer?

According to many theorists a person’s artistic production is not the result of the artist but rather the result of the culture that comes through the artist. This post-structuralist view of culture asserts that self-identity is a construction and it develops from the interaction between the way we represent ourselves, power relations and our actual presentations. (Bertens, 2001)

This view of identity is somehow asserted in this documentary by the answers from the dancers who were interviewed and asked questions such as: “Is dance who you are or what you do? Can you tell the dancer from the dance?”

Dancers such as Imogen Crana, Kate Champion, Martin del Amo and many others reflect on what being a dancer means to them. Through their answers it becomes apparent that their identity is strongly attached to dancing. For some of them dance defines them. For others dance contributes to the sum of characteristics and roles that make their identity.

The profound reflections of these dancers are fascinating and intense, they reveal that behind this art, which involves body movements, there is a force that travels not only through them but through time, a force that goes from dancer to dancer and it is modified, embellished, transformed, and inherited sometimes through blood, other times through training and other times again as the result of the creative spirit in all artists.

This beautiful documentary tells us that although the movements that each dancer makes cannot be captured second by second, this art is transmitted from body to body and the dance movements are accumulated, captured, preserved and passed onto others who also would create new movements, new techniques and new emotions.

Richard-James-Allen_[colour-graded-cropped]-Photo-Ehran-Edwards-(c)2013-The-Physical-TV-Company

Dancer Richard James Allen (Photographer – Ehran Edwards)

It is lovely to see young dancers expressing themselves with words and body but it is also marvelous to see older dancers, not only moving gracefully but also to see the spirit of this art emanating from their whole persona. We can see through these older dancers that the dance owns a living and subtle history.

Two children: Samuel and Jadzea Allen with their intelligent and insightful comments reinforce the idea that dance can be part of our being. Jadzea says: “Dancing makes me think clearly.”

We know that identity is never given, part of it, if not in its totality, is born from what we do, what we want to be and how we define ourselves. After seeing this artistically beautiful documentary I believe that we cannot separate the … dancer from the dance.

– Dr Beatriz Copello

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Dr Beatriz Copello’s is a Psychologist, poet and fiction writer, her poetry book Women Souls and Shadows, Bemac Publishing, 1992 received excellent reviews and was highly commended in the Wild and Wooley, 1993 Awards. Her novel Forbidden Steps Under the Wisteria (1999) was published by Abbott Bentley in Sydney, and A Call to the Stars (1999) by Crown Publisher. Her book of poetry Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, (2001) was published by Interactive Publications -Glasshouse Books and Under the Gums’ Long Shade, Bemac Publication, (2009).

…the dancer from the dance will be screening next at the World of Women (WOW) Festival in Sydney on:

  • Wed 12/3/14 1.30pm DanceFocus WOW @ The Powerhouse Museum. Tickets
  • Thurs13/3/14 7pm Pop Up Cinema: Dance-Metro Screen.  Tickets

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Rochford Street Review relies on the support of its readers to continue. If you like what we are doing please consider making a donation.

Horrors & Hay: Les Wicks reviews ‘Rain Season’ by Robbie Coburn

Rain Season by Robbie Coburn, Picaro, 2013. Reviewed by Les Wicks.

robbieAs a general rule I only write positive reviews of Australian poetry. Sure, the argument exists that this presents to the revered reader a one-dimensional aspect of this oh so wise critic’s poetic worldview. There are certainly alternative approaches out there, I note particularly a few who wrap up superficially cogent demolition jobs around malicious misreadings of a handful of pieces within a book to generate a few titters amongst their readership. I suspect there is a childhood history of torturing kittens. But what is the point? There are already more than enough reasons not to buy Australian poetry floating about. Sure, there are any number of books that I won’t review because I can’t be enthusiastic about them. I’d rather tell you about the ones that have enriched, surprised or challenged me.

I’m inclined to be generous when I open the covers of a first book. But all predispositions were unnecessary as I immersed myself in Robbie Coburn’s Rain Season. By any measure, this is an accomplished collection by a writer clearly confident in the voice of his work.

Coburn lives in Woodstock, semi-rural Victoria. The landscape lends itself to his sparse, sometimes ruthless lyric style through much of the book:

home suspended on brass hinges,
I ignore all motion. alive.
my hands have disappeared in front of me –

there is beauty in that.

– “There Are No Strangers”

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it was weeks before Dad returned home from hospital
and even then he suffered death a second time
spluttering beneath his gutted body, his chest’s bloody centre
sewn shut.

– “The Heart Resetting”

To my mind he’s the best portraitist of Australian rural life since Brendan Ryan. This is no shallow pastoral – fire, death, abuse and depression roam alongside a rich connection to the landscape, evolution of an adult life, relationships et cetera. Throughout there is an endearing, sometimes heartbreaking, autobiographical journey…

I open the vein, twice
the deeply pressed blade embedded
in flesh like an extension of my limb

– “Poem”

Section II is the title poem of the book and examines the 2009 bushfire that burnt through his region. The challenges of drafting a consistently engaging long poem alongside the imperative to detail factual material has shipwrecked many practitioners. This poem, for me, is perhaps the weakest part of the book but there aren’t many who could do it better.

“Sophie” is a delightfully clean and simple love poem. Throughout, there are some great lines like daylight bends like a flame (“Chemical Winter”) and death was fashionable when we were kids (“Follow”).

I’ve often said it’s kinda hard to shake the foundations with yet another poem about middle-class greybeards sitting around drinking good coffee and whingeing about their backs. The newly examined has a great capacity to draw the reader in, to fix them in the poetic experience. A number of pieces in this book are centred around greyhound breeding/racing, an area of human activity completely alien to me and no doubt most readers. These poems manage to range across both empathy and detachment, a pre-requisite perhaps for those involved in working with animals.

There is much in this book that is confronting, but I laughed out loud when I read Coburn’s hilarious discussion around the point at which the poet settles on his sexuality – “Three Lessons Remembered” – there’s a punchline I’m not going to spoil by repeating, a great image.

This is an enriching read.

– Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has seen publication across 18 countries in 10 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). This year he will performing in LA – Beyond Baroque, Austin International poetry Festival & RhiZomic.. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Rain Season is available from Picaro. www.picaropress.com/

The Picturesque, The Haze and Other Thoughts: Rebecca Kylie Law reviews ‘The Collected Blue Hills’ by Laurie Duggan

Laurie Duggan’s The Collected Blue Hills Puncher & Wattmann 2012. Reviewed by Rebecca Kylie Law

the_collected_blue_hills_310_438_sWhen I first read Laurie Duggan’s The Collected Blue Hills, I thought what a marvellous marketing campaign, every poem a blue hill, sequentially numbered. It’s the panoramic view sales agents in Real Estate exploit in attracting interest, the painting that sells at a higher price for its scale, the maquette and the blown up sculpture. And indeed, this is the pattern Duggan followed in initiating the collection, the individual poems published singularly in various anthologies and in small clusters as separate books. What a joy it is, I thought, to view the whole mountain range at once, as you might in your travels, drive or walk that little further to see more, to live and breathe the view. Someone might just as well have handed me a small pocket book of Rembrandt’s paintings in the original for the luck at owning a view of the hills I could return to any time I liked. And the Renaissance was on my mind in my reading of the collection as it might be to each blue hill if a poem could possess such a capacity. I started reading Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Johnson, Donne because the ‘blue’ of hills is actually a haze of oil from the leaves of trees meeting the atmosphere, the hotter the day the more pronounced the blue. Which is quite the opposite to oil paintings of the Renaissance but in hue and depth heads in this direction as knowledge of a past as a dark background to the present.

Duggan had a stroke as a child and subsequently his memory was impaired. So the past in all respects, for practical purposes, is a dark background to the blue hills individual presences which is irrefutable. Occupying each poem as the principal observer and narrator of all the poet sees and thinks by way of thought association, Duggan authenticates the reality of the experience. Reading Blue Hills 1 to 75 it is easy to lose a sense of time and place for the action and visuals of each ‘captured’ moment. Nature, culture, art appreciation and human interaction all vie for the singular attention no one wins out. Except the dwindling of the collection into vagaries of rain, hot skies, the scent of wet leaves and morning light suggest Duggan’s reverence for his subject matter. Even earlier, leaning back to see a ‘bright orange nasturtium flower in a milk bottle’ in Blue Hills 11, we see Duggan is serious in his rescue efforts with respect the ongoing difficulties between nature and culture.

In his introduction, Duggan presents the poems as poems which don’t ‘make promises’ and they don’t in the way a traditional narrative poem might in the expectations inherent in its sequential patterning. The poems are assemblages of the found objects experienced by the mind and body and are random in this respect, Duggan moving about in the poems at his whim both in the bulk of his form and in his thoughts, his gaze settling on something that reminds him of something else (again, memory and never great clarity here, the ‘..grey haired art historian type/ who looks like a suave version of Bertrand Russell/ – maybe it’s Bernard Smith?’). He tells us the material for the poems is entirely Australian apart from commentaries on art and music viewed or listened to elsewhere. So that, as a collection, the poems have some sense of a ‘locale’; and they do, for example in Blue Hills 35, dairy farms, canals and McDonald’s all occupy the one space of the poem finishing in the ‘home paddock’.

In “Blue Hills 18”, the ‘shape of a mountain becomes a mountain’ and things are true to their form. Language is not complicated or convoluted but Duggan’s artistic tool used for the purposes of communicating a visual observation, thought or moment in time appealing for its correlation or conversation with other notations. Reading a single poem in The Collected Blue Hills is an intimate experience as Duggan single-handedly paints his world in his part of the universe in one particular moment in time so exactly you are in the space with him, in the room looking out a window or walking beside him in the street. And at the same time, it is the exact opposite of this as Duggan can amuse himself so well your presence as a reader is unimportant, though I sense, welcome , in the sometimes underspoken tones of his speech.

There are moments in reading this collection when I can’t help wondering how Duggan gets around, the distance he can travel in one poem and the slowness of this travel to facilitate such accurate observations seeming to suggest he is in a vehicle of some sorts…a car, driving slowly? In Blue Hills 19 I don’t know if he is ‘the man in a hire car’ the ‘hippy couple’ are “reluctant to wave/ to..” or the motorcyclist on the bike that groans ‘across the dip behind tin huts’. I know in Blue Hills 17 he is on a train and at other times he is walking, that there are roads, streets, ‘lanes I will never trace/ of sheoak and flowering gum’, ‘paths…crackling with twigs’ and the notion of vehicles in poetry is interesting in terms of writing about contemporary culture. In a car, on a train or motorbike, Duggan hasn’t lost poetry, he simply found he can see more and put more seemingly incongruent information into a single poem.

The poems I like most, however, are the quieter, meditative hills: Blue Hills 59 and 60 for instance, where Duggan absents himself and we see a picture of a city, a room or even a world subservient to nature. Then in Blue Hills 53 the two together in one harmonious picture, technology and nature almost the beautiful and picturesque.

In The Collected Blue Hills a poem is a view, a sound, a feeling, a perspective, a commentary or a meditation. Or all these things at once. The seven previous productions that lead to this compilation of hills lend the work a vigour that any sustained piece of writing in the one panoramic space would find a challenge. The mountain range rises and falls, meets the mist, thunder and lightning with the strength you would expect nature to possess. And coupled with the world of art, culture, music and poetry of Laurie Duggan, the blue hills are pronounced vast and definitive.

– Rebecca Kylie Law

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Rebecca Kylie Law is a Sydney based poet, essayist and reviewer. Published by Picaro Press, her poetry collections include Offset, Lilies and Stars and The Arrow & The Lyre.She was short-listed for the Judith Wright Prize in 2012 and holds a Masters Degree in Poetry from Melbourne University.

The Collected Blue Hills is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/the-collected-blue-hills/

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The Ultimate Commitment: The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris by Robert Adamson

The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris – a lecture delivered by Robert Adamson, CAL Chair of Poetry at the University of Technology Sydney on Thursday 27 June 2013.

I. Michael Dransfield

I’m the ghost haunting an old house, my poems are posthumous.’ Michael Dransfield

Dransfield's first collection of poetry: 'Streets of the Long Voyage'.

Dransfield’s first collection of poetry: ‘Streets of the Long Voyage’.

Before talking in detail about his poetry I want to give you some idea of what Michael Dransfield was like in person. Here’s a description of Dransfield in the 1970s by Rodney Hall: ‘Michael was tall and thin with a long neck and small face. He appeared to have been equipped with feet a few sizes too large. And yet there was a grace about him, not just the charm of his personality, his generosity and talent for friendship, but a touch of physical radiance also. He had that essentially youthful quality of being at the same time gangling and personable. Perhaps the two most lasting impressions were of his fine hands and his sweet smile under a downy dark moustache. When he grew excited and shed the mock-­ American incoherence of hippydom, he spoke beautifully.’

I was close friends with Michael and spent many hours with him and his partner Hilary Burns. Visiting them when they lived in the ‘cardboard cottage’ Balmain and ‘The Loft’ in Paddington. When Michael turned up at 50 Church Street, Balmain, the house where we edited Poetry Magazine, he knocked on the door and introduced himself. He told me he had just finished a manuscript and wondered if I might publish it. He said he could write twenty poems in a night, but at the time, I didn’t believe this. It was around midnight when he asked, ‘Oh man, can I sleep on your floor tonight? ’. David Rankin who was sharing the house said, ‘Why not use the couch’.

It wasn’t long before I learned that he could indeed write many poems in a day. Some would turn out to be keepers, however this ability to create spontaneous lyrics wasn’t as much a gift as a handicap, the way facility can be for some artists. He needed tough and critical friends around him but I don’t think he was ready for the critical part. He returned the next day with a manuscript and submitted 20 or so poems to the magazine. I read them and thought there were a quite a few poems that were good enough to publish. My co-­editors, Martin Johnston, Carl Harrison-­Ford and Terry Sturm weren’t so easily impressed, but they eventually agreed to publish some of Michael’s tighter, less romantic poems. The first one we published was:

Ground Zero

wake up
look around
memorise what you see
it may be gone tomorrow
everything changes. Someday
there will be nothing but what is remembered
there may be no-­one to remember it.
Keep moving
wherever you stand is ground zero
a moving target is harder to hit

Looking through back issues of Poetry Magazine and New Poetry, I must say the editors’ decisions made a lot of sense, Michael’s poems continue to read well after 40 years . There are major poems like ‘Geography’ and ‘After Vietnam’ along with fine lyrics like ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Environmental Art’.

Rodney Hall, his editor, claimed Dransfield was one of the few contemporary Australian poets to have “a genuine popular following among people who do not otherwise read poetry”. Hall was poetry editor of The Australian (1967 to 1978) and published many Dransfield poems in the literary pages. Bronwyn Lea, poetry editor at the University of Queensland Press, Dransfield’s publisher, said his books sold more than the other titles in their poetry series. It’s forty years since Dransfield’s death at the age of 24. His books are still widely read and discussed. He wrote almost a thousand poems during his short life. There were five books published posthumously, including the Collected Poems and a ‘Selected Poems in 2002 by John Kinsella. Also the excellent extensive biography by Patricia Dobrez, Michael Dransfield’s Lives remains relevant.

We look for influences when trying to understand where poets come from. Michael Dransfield absorbed the usual ones for his time, Tennyson, Swinburne, Coleridge, contemporary Americans like Alan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, the French symbolist poets, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Another poet who had an influence on Dransfield , often overlooked, is Salvatore Quasimodo. A Nobel Prize winning poet who died on the 14th June 1968 in Naples. Michael made a note of this in his diary at the time. A poem was eventually published in The Australian : ‘Death of Salvatore Quasimodo’, Dransfield was 16 years old when he wrote this poem.

Death of Salvatore Quasimodo

Scattered symbols in the garden;
leaf-­statues murmur like conspirators,
a grasp of grass-­stalks
reaches over the ground;

shattered visions of summer harden
and the turbulent
shiver of wind
will pound at any door.

Homage is a presumptuous gentility
to offer—how may it
replace the loveliness of being,
of being in a resolved species.

The Sicilian,
who gives veins to link agreeing
areas of sundown, has a new poem
but not a tongue to say it.

These lines make clear how self-­aware Dransfield was, : ‘Homage is a presumptuous gentility to offer—how may it replace the loveliness of being’.

He uses Quasimodo’s tight compacted forms as a way to help cut back on rhetoric. Another early poem, ‘still life with hypodermic’ adopts the Italian’s skeletal forms. This poem seems in its pared back way, to describe terminal addiction— but it’s for shock value, demonstrating a fine balance between skill and imagination.

still life with hypodermic

It’s alright for a while.
Then
bliss becomes need
and enough is insufficient.
You make the run,
it’s cool for a while.
But
insufficient eats you out
you start to
fall over
until eventually
you can’t get up.
That’s what they call
terminal addiction.

Referencing the hypodermic in a still life sets up the interior of the poem as a shooting gallery. However the next two sections of Streets of The Long Voyage contain some of Dransfield’s best poems. The poem that mentions Schubert is tellingly sub-­titled ‘an invention’. However, it’s one thing to compose an invention including conceptual references and Schubert’s name and another to write a poem that imagines its author as a terminal addict. Some of the best early poems, imaginative landscapes, seem more powerful than the early drug poems because they ground themselves in some experience from the world around the poet in suburban Sydney:

ascension

weightlessness
a study in time
begin horizontally
on planes of light
waking among empties
in a gutter somewhere
climb past street level
using your eyes as scaling-ladders
to capture every rooftop.
Then lasso a wild bird, something free,
even a gull. Higher than Everest
you spill out among rainy hours into chasms of breathless sky
unattainably far from the moderns who, accustomed to miracles
of science, no longer look upward.
When you come to a world
tell who ask that your business is living in artspace;
teach them that to fly means
rising slowly from the depths, with a vision of
some eyelid saint, like Lucifer, and as beautiful,
but still with this aura of distance and perception
to isolate him from the predators.

Dransfield often writes in this, seemingly easy manner, some of his poems have such a light touch it’s easy to dismiss them as being lightweight. His lines are carefully wrought, each line gets progressively longer like broken iambic pentameters,

weightlessness
a study in time
begin horizontally
on planes of light
waking among empties
in a gutter somewhere
climb past street level
using your eyes as scaling-ladders
to capture every rooftop.
Then lasso a wild bird, something free,

until we hit line eight, then there’s the halting rhythm of ‘using your eyes as scaling-ladders/ to capture every rooftop. Dransfield’s slightly surreal, deliberately askew image introduces the poem’s message, in this case to ‘to isolate him from the predators .

‘lines for a friend, 1948-1965’ was written for Michael’s closest school friend, Robert Falkenmire, who died at the age of 16 from leukemia. An event that was a trauma for Dransfield. Three years later in a diary entry of September 1967, the day following his own 19th birthday, Dransfield wrote ‘Robert Falkenmire would have been 19 today’. According to Patricia Dobrez, later in the same month, Dransfield was troubled by suicidal thoughts. He wrote to Shapcott and appears to blame himself: he saw good and evil separated into two camps, the dead and the living. Michael was alive, while his friend was dead: Dransfield felt that he was the unhallowed and unworthy one.

lines for a friend, 1948-1965
‘Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath.’
Tennyson

Over before you knew it,
misdiagnosed and done for,
you became some ashes a little plaque a case history;
paintings you did are lost, also your poems,
nothing but ashes in a wall of dead is left.
You will not see again the way
the morning sun floods down O’Connell Street . . .
perhaps you are the sun now;
perhaps not.

Childhood was the salt edge of the Pacific,
was the school under the old trees;
soon they disposed of you.
I went to the funeral you and I were the only two
there really the only two who knew the gods had gone;
death and morning the only two,
damned because poets.

Over before we know it,
we pack our lives in souls and go
out with the tide the long procession
the ant the elephant the worker the child
even those doctors who stood around will die sometime,
their money cannot buy them out of it.
We know what is to come a silence teeming
with the unfinished spirits good and bad,
and how we’ve lived determines what we’ll be
next time around, if time’s not buried with us.

Dransfield’s family enrolled Michael at Sydney Grammar School. Within a year or so, he started collecting prizes for his poetry . He did a lot of reading outside the school’s requirements, one book that made a big impression was Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’, He writes about it in his diary: ‘ it was then my mind came into its own, and the analytical thought processes, though limited at the time and concerned with injustice, rather than greater concepts, began to grow and flower. It was then that my poetry began to improve and to become more than a mere pastime. It was my true voice, and I taught myself to speak, and to sing.’

Dransfield enrolled as an Arts Student at the University of NSW. He started to attend folk music venues around the Sydney and became friends with Pip Proud who had a hit single and an album at the time. Maybe this is where Michael got the idea of making a living from poetry, if it could be done with pop songs, why not poetry? Dransfield was ahead of his time in his decision to be a professional poet. What poet in this country before him tried to make a living from poetry alone? In his early years Les Murray, around the time of Dransfield’s first book, was employed at the National Library with translation work. Something Les said recently would have appealed a lot to Dransfield: ‘Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.’ Before Les Murray, Henry Kendall comes to mind, though in his case being a professional poet wasn’t a choice, Kendall found it difficult to hold down a job but through his poetry he found supporters. The question is multi-layered. The acting out of the role of ‘poet’ is a complex business, it can be seen as a rebellious act, or as John Forbes once said, it can lead a poet into a position of becoming a ‘socially integrated bard’. In the 1950s and 60s established poets hardly mentioned their employment, even on the backs of their books they pared away personal details, you’d be lucky to come across their hobby or sport.

His poem ‘Like this for years’ deals more realistically with the idea of poetry as a profession, it speaks of attitudes many Australians have towards people who themselves a poet. There are similar concerns in a poem written by Hart Crane, from his home town Akron, Ohio in 1921, Crane wrote:

The stars are drowned in a slow rain,
And a hash of noises is slung up from the street.
You ought, really, to try to sleep,
Even though, in this town, poetry’s a
Bedroom occupation.’

Hart Crane’s lines are the reverse of Michael’s bravado. Being a poet in Australia could easily be seen as the ‘ultimate commitment’—firstly there’s no money in it, secondly to call yourself a poet in some quarters would be to engender ridicule. When Hart Crane wrote these lines about his home town he was 22 years old, the same age as Dransfield when he wrote ‘Like this for years’:

In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment.

When y’ve been thrown out of the last car
for speaking truthfully or mumbling poems
and the emptiness is not these stranded
endless plains but knowing that you are completely
alone in a desert full of strangers

and when the waves cast you up who sought
to dive so deep and come up with
more than water in yr hands
and the water itself is sand is air is something
unholdable

you realize that what you taste now in the mornings
is not so much blood as the failure of language
and no good comes of singing or of silence
the trees wont hold you you reject rejection
and the ultimate commitment
is survival

Dransfield’s first volume was published in 1970, the second in 1972. I can’t help thinking in hindsight, he should have waited another year before publishing a third book. He might have caught up with himself, and not tripped into his next phase as a ‘drug-poet’. However, a few months after The Inspector of Tides was published in 1972, Sun Books, released another volume of Dransfield’s work entitled Drug Poems. I remember thinking this was a mistake in terms of the feedback it would create for Michael. The publisher was determined to cash in on the alternative culture of the times . The overall production of the book was cheap, as opposed to the economical yet sleek design of the UQP paperbacks. Don Anderson was the only critic who had something positive to say about it:  “They are hard, clear, disciplined, fully realized poems, which add to his already considerable reputation”.

I believe Michael Dransfield took a wrong turn when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet. Dobrez writes in her first chapter : ‘ we witness the ‘Imagineer’, with one eye turned towards the waiting journalists and critics, surreptitiously manufacturing his own myths: the ‘poet who dared to be different’; the poet who was a traditionalist and a rebel, member of a fantastic patriciate and a man of the people; the poet of the ‘drug world’ who lived ‘in the underground’; the passionate social critic; a sublimely deluded younger Francis Webb; someone ‘terrifyingly close to genius’.’

Tom Shapcott used the phrase ‘terrifyingly close to genius’ to describe Dransfield in his influential 1960s anthology Australian Poetry Now. This was immediately ridiculed by Michael’s peers and followed him for the rest of his life.

Michael Dransfield became addicted to the role he played as much as he did to any substance. I think he was a born poet but his gift wasn’t up to the role he asked of it.

I wrote these lines in an elegy to Michael in 1974:

I see the hours we once walked through
those lived-in hours, spread across the tide,
we asked for a rotten deal and that’s what we got.
Beautiful, ineffectual rebels of an imagined sky,
We searched among the long dead for the living:
Shelley, Blake: they were the harder stuff.
That idea of ourselves as poets was an addiction
more terminal than any opiate the chemists could refine.

Dransfield wrote his thousand poems in less than ten years. Many written in his teenage years. There are other fine poems that I haven’t mentioned, I wanted to concentrate on different aspects of his work— his technically facility, his imaginative reach and the almost magical lightness of touch that allows a translucence to shine through his lines, light that penetrates the often dark subject matter. His most successful poems are lyrical sequences such as ‘Geography’, here’s a section of it, part III —which is a good poem to end on:

In the forest, in the unexplored
valleys of the sky, are chapels of pure
vision. there even the desolation of space cannot
sorrow you or imprison. i dream of the lucidity of the vacuum,
orders of saints consisting of parts of a rainbow,
identities of wild things / of
what the stars are saying to each other, up there
above the concrete and the minimal existences, above
idols and wars and caring. tomorrow
we shall go there, you and your music and the
wind and i, leaving from very strange
stations of the cross, leaving from
high windows and from release,
from clearings
in the forest, the uncharted
uplands of the spirit

The envelope containing the last letter that Michael Dransfiled sent to Robert Adamson. The letter is now held by the National Library

The envelope containing the last letter that Michael Dransfield sent to Robert Adamson. The letter is now held by the National Library (image supplied by Robert Adamson)

Dransfield

2. Vicki Viidikas

condition red

Condition Red – Viidikas’ first collection. UQP Paperback Poets No 18. 1973

Vicki Viidikas was born in Sydney 1948. (The same year as Michael Dransfield.) Her parents split up when she was a child and her mother moved to Queensland where Vicki went to school until she was 15. She came to Sydney and studied art for a year, took a series of casual jobs as a waitress, then employment at Abbey’s bookshop near Sydney Town Hall. She started writing at sixteen and never stopped. Writing became her passion and her life. She was a pioneer as a young female poet in the pre-baby boomer generation of predominantly male poets in Sydney, the first of us to be published in an established journal. She was 19 when her first poem was published in Poetry Australia. Vicki was one of only three women to be published in the University of Queensland Press’ initial paperback poets series of 20 books.

Robyn Ravlich produced an hour-long documentary on Vicki Viidikas for the ABC program The Open Air in 2005 : Feathers/Songs/Scars along with a program on Vicki’s writing for Poetica. In her introduction, talking about the Balmain writers of the sixties and seventies, Robyn says, ‘Vicki Viidikas was one of our best writers whose light burned bright and early, whose incisive wordplay illuminated the condition of women defining themselves in and out of relationships. She remains a vivid presence in absence, Vicki was a free spirit then and her poetry reflected it.’

Vicki Viidikas published four books, Condition Red (1973), Wrappings (1974), Knabel (1978) and India Ink (1984). During her writing career she traveled widely through Europe and India. Vicki lived in India for more than a decade, where she wrote poetry and a novel and studied the cultures and religions. She continued to write prolifically through the eighties and nineties, right up until her untimely death on the 27th November 1998. She was 50 years old.

Her writing records her search for freedom and her quest for belief. Also her preoccupation with hard drugs and other dangerous experiences she encountered along the way. Freedom was central to Vicki Viidikas in her life and writing. She strived for freedom on her on own terms and saw it as a right that had to be imagined and fought for, something to be renewed each day as it was lived:

This is from ‘Letter to an Unknown Prisoner’ a late piece written in 1990.

So even as her Israeli friend took to sea on a battleship, she wrestled with asps and profanities, she bargained with the anarchy of her soul, she tried every distraction and sensation to quieten her troubled dreams; no stopping of armies, no pardons for prisoners who’d be loaded up by the cops, no mercy for the murders of boat refugees, no saving of forests or the nurturing of different languages— Nothing but tolerance would change the course of her winds … Freedom, to unlock denial; freedom, that incorrigible weapon.

It’s included in the recently published book ‘Vicki Viidikas ‘New and Rediscovered Martin Edmond has written a very fine review of it in the latest Mascara Literary Review (http://mascarareview.com/martin-edmond-reviews-vicki-viidikas-new-and-rediscovered-2/). He notes Vicki’s use of the phrase ‘incorrigible weapon’ and says it’s ‘a weapon that she seems to have used, both in writing and in life, in every possible manner she could devise’. Edmond picks up on some important aspects of Vicki’s writing and describes it perceptively: ‘the lack of self pity, even of regard, is both bracing and disconcerting’ and that ‘this brave, reckless, honest, insouciant, hyper-aware voyager, discloses herself primarily as wound or, less surely, scar.’ Edmond goes on to say he was not surprised to find her in the later stages of the book, ‘describing the country of addiction from the point of view of an insider, a long-term resident, and ultimately someone who will find it impossible to leave. There are many kinds of addict and many reasons why people become addicted; one, certainly, is that heroin is a great salve of mental pain’. Thinking of Edmond’s final point here, it’s interesting to look at the poetry Vicki wrote before heroin. Here’s a stanza from ‘Cracked Windows’ one of the poems in her first book, written in a relatively stable period of her life,

…………Back there somewhere
the treacherous head has stored its history,
that innocence of not knowing
has changed beyond repair, mirrors
refract a thousand meanings
…………The head distorts what it can’t bear

Those lines were written before she wrote ‘Punishments and Cures’ a poem she thought of as a breakthrough, it draws from the experience and the trauma of a woman being raped. When I think back over my long friendship with Vicki, it seems to me this was a wound that didn’t really heal. Being raped at a young age became more than a wound, or even a wound that healed as a scar, it became a source of hidden rage that lasted a lifetime. Here’s the poem :

Punishments and cures

1.

Did you want me to bungle,
should I have trumpeted about landscapes
buckling overnight . . .

Knotted your head into ribbons
laced with my memories?

Should I have raved and gone dramatic
should I have asked you for pity?

I would have hated you then —
I would have told what you already feel

2

Don’t ever give me
a raincoat for Xmas,
because rain is external
and Xmas doesn’t matter

Antiseptic would do the streets good,
but don’t talk about prisons — we know
they are no use . . .

Some things are born funnels
without any minds — what do we do about those?

Do we issue T.V.s and dark cells,
what do we do when the rain hurts?

3

You see he twisted
a broken bottle at my throat,
his head an empty funnel
the inside rusted — something
too human to be recognized.
Next morning his V.D.
still throbbed beneath his sex . . .

We can’t punish what isn’t there

I cant thank him or hate him,
get him put back in jail
for doing what he did before

4

There was running through bushes
that had faces and trapdoor hands,
feeling my breath waft off,
as if it would never come back

What can we do about funnels?

Rust is impossible to scratch off
and did he cure his V.D.
that priceless souvenir
he needed so much to give me?

Perhaps it’s true what he said,
that all women are ugly . . .

One feels that
when you become a four letter word,
and afterwards, there’s some private festering
not always cured by a doctor . . .

Maybe I shouldn’t have cried the first time,
and maybe I shouldn’t have pleaded the second

Vicki thought a lot about what she was doing formally, she read widely and absorbed the writers she found interesting, she learned from the French Symbolists, English Romantics, the modernists, various New American Poets and even the Surrealists, however she was always careful to retain her own style. Vicki wouldn’t let her work be reduced by these aesthetics or any combination of them. She often said she made use of her subconscious imagination as much as raw experience. Some of her prose was creative reportage, she wasn’t convinced by the purely imaginative. One of the most passionate arguments I ever had with her came about when I quoted a line by Wallace Stevens: ‘The imagination, the one reality in this imagined world’. Vicki thought this was incredibly limiting whereas I thought of it as liberating. She had things to say about life as she had experienced it, and Vicki was determined to write about those things.

When she first started writing Vicki said she wasn’t aware that what she was doing was writing poetry. She thought she was writing down her problems so she could work them out. The only poet she knew well at that stage was Gerard Manly Hopkins. She left school so early she had to educate herself, gradually she set exercises in reading for herself—she collected new words as she encountered them, then wrote down the words and their dictionary definitions in notebooks . She shared poetry through her husband, the painter Robert Finlayson, who gave her books that they discussed together. Then through her work in the bookshop purchased more books of her own. She gradually moved from prose into free verse, her first poems were rather didactic and tightly written. She gradually incorporated irony, hyperbole, black humour and a kind of surreal whimsy. Here’s a poem that uses her formal skill, it’s laced with irony and catches her intelligence in full flight, it’s called ‘They Always Come’

When they have taken away
the childish laughter and dogeared books,
peeled off the last mush embrace,
given the girl
her lipsticks, hair rinses and pills

When they have poured back the drinks
as long as empty deserts,
returned the spurs to the one night stands,
taken off the overcoat
and riddled her bed with song

They’ll find
a mirror smothered in lips,
a vacant room with stale cigar ash,
an unpaid bill for a Turkish masseur,
a woman’s glove by a handsome typewriter

They’ll see
charleston dresses of the mind
with their fringes running like blood,
a list of men’s names
from childhood to eternity,
they’ll dig the very fluff from the floorboards,
examine the stains on the manuscripts

Which drug did she take?
Which pain did she prefer?
What does the lady offer
behind the words, behind the words?
Their criteria will be:
so long as she’s dead we may
sabotage and rape

Vicki published her first poems during the period Germaine Greer was publishing in Oz magazine. Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970 . Vicki Viidikas published Condition Red, her first volume of poetry with the University of Queensland Press, in 1973. Vicki was beyond radical politics by this stage and on her own journey. One of her first attempts at writing a longer sequence of poems, had the working title, ‘A Woman in Search of The Holy Grail’.

Preparing for this lecture I went back through all her books and re-read them. The recently published Vicki Viidikas New and Rediscovered contains much previously unpublished work, along with properly edited selections from her best prose. I have always had a high opinion of Vick’s poetry but it came as a shock to realize I had underestimated her prose. Her prose turns out to be her poetry. There are some truly exceptional pieces in this book; ‘The Chimera’ and ‘A Modern Snow White’ are unforgettable stories, it’s easy to agree with the particular comment made by Christina Stead on the book’s jacket, the phrase is: ‘Tremendous talent’.

Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).

Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).

3. Robert Harris

A portrait of Robert Harris by Spooner which appeared in The Age on the 16 April 19931993.

A portrait of Robert Harris by Spooner which appeared in The Age on the 16 April 1993.

Robert Harris was born in Melbourne in 1951. His mother died of heart failure when he was six years old, his childhood was made difficult and his schooling disrupted. At 18 he enlisted in the Australian Navy to further his education . Harris was discharged in the early seventies and published his first book Localities when he was twenty two. After attending poetry readings at La Mama he became involved with Overland magazine of which he eventually became the poetry editor. He married and came to Sydney in 1974 where he became involved in New Poetry, the magazine I was editing at the time. Morry Schwartz published his powerful book Translations from The Albatross during this period. It was Robert’s first attempt at writing a book of poetry as a living-composition, with its experimental poem sequences and the linking ballads. Translations from The Albatross was beautifully illustrated by Garry Shead.

The book that followed this was The Abandoned, a luminous volume of dark music, a book I cherish and think of along with Francis Webb’s The Ghost of The Cock. At the beginning of the section entitled ‘Complex of Abandonment’ Robert Harris placed a quote from St John Perse: ‘They called me the Dark One, and I dwelt in radiance’ in his poem ‘Going the See the Elephant’ he alludes to an abandoned child.

Going to See The Elephant

An elephant dances by itself
……………………………Toes to toe, the foot across
More than chains have completed the ring
………………though here, on an evening of the circus
……….the deaf performer under the skin

……….Toe to toe, the foot across
……by rhythm
………………tireless

………………………as a heart’s

as an elephant’s
………………dancing by itself

……….there’s no harm at all but the harm
no damage done but the damage

……….& children ride that Ella-funt chained in
circus,
the welders are clapping like madmen in their coffins
Deaf to a withheld cardiograph
An elephant dances by itself
………………Where two people are there are doubtless two
elephants dancing by themselves

………………the children who point Small elephants
dance inside them

The great leaves flap and do hear darkness instruct
……….them
……..and the great leaves flap enacting first
instruction,
the stanza’s initiator whose thought is thunder
……..striding
the Sandman’s seven-league-booted conspirator
……..striding

……………………………….toe to toe, the foot across

sway —

…………..deaf to fascistsi blowing fire

and that madman who spoke of ‘the cream’

none of them nor I was there in the Company carpark
An elephant dances by itself
& haunts me and is different from
the consciously bantering nurses or
obedient realism

There is only the man there who sees the showering
spectrum revolt
the Plant like a great florilegeum burst
apart before everything ebbs.
A dolorous thing on an evening of the circus
If an elephant stops dancing

Harris refers to a ‘withheld cardiograph’—to me this suggests a metaphoric mention of his mother’s heart failure: especially when followed by the lines ‘the Plant, like a great florilegeum burst/ apart before everything ebbs.’ The subject of this poem could be the representation of a six year old Harris with his mother watching an elephant at a circus. Especially with the word ironically spelt out as Ella-funt, and the final lines : ‘A dolorous thing on an evening of the circus/ if an elephant stops dancing.’

Robert Harris’ poetry takes a hard look at human suffering caused by social and economic disparity. He worked all his life at physical jobs, from undertaking (actually carrying corpses) to digging graves. At one stage Harris and John Forbes worked together as furniture removalists. An entry in Robert Harris’ journal records this period of his life:

‘I don’t mind working, yet I have to say that during the present recession, I’ve had three jobs which were not unionized and they have all been hateful. And you work, you work for people who are friendly and people who distrust you. And the people are your job.

A woman who refuses a driver a glass of water one hot day. People who feel guilty about the fact that you’re doing physical work for them, and people who misinterpret the load so that, at the end of an already long day, you’re confronted with a stove, all right. It was cast in Philadelphia in the last century and is well above every legal limit for any human being to carry. I’ve been working for 20 years and I’ve been sacked twice. I don’t mind work. The job drives out all inclinations to write. There’s nothing to do when you get home but try to get over it.‘

In the mid eighties Robert received a Literature Board Fellowship to write a book of poetry . He spent this precious time in a small town on South Coast of NSW where he did some of his finest work. It was during this period he became acquainted with the Yuin people who lived at Wallaga Lake, here’s one of the poems:

Wallaga Days

2.15pm Vic’s discharged from hospital
with eighty kilometres to hitch-hike home,
with a couple of smokes, nearing fifty.

The road climbs out of town around
Mumbulla mountain and onto the windy plateau.
If you stop for him you find him far along it,

walking towards the purple hills.
The cars that pass him float across the rises.
The day is open as a palm and glitters.

6.30pm Eileen and Joanne are in Tilba
playing pool with a couple of whites
and Teddy and Frank from Deniliquin,

they’re visiting for a couple of weeks
Eileen explains in the back bar
reserved for tentative friendships

like these. Everybody does his best,
there are a couple of good cues,
there is another bar you mustn’t go in.

11.00pm or some time thereafter
poking along the river’s floor
comes torchlight. Behind it wait

spears at bow and stern,
behind the spears are memory,
fire bedded on pebbles in bark canoes,

behind the fire torches, men.
In the rocking boat that hunts for a knife
is an eel around a spear, hissing.

The ending of this poem works in a similar way to the Francis Webb’s poem ‘The End of The Picnic ‘, where the poet sees Cook’s longboat as the ‘devil’s totem’ gliding silently across the bay, taking us back through time to be alongside the Aboriginal people on the shore at La Parouse as the English planted their flag. Harris takes us back even further to ‘the rocking boat that hunts for a knife’—before knives existed here. The final two stanzas turn the poem slightly and it tilts into a complex bend of thought.

During the same period on the South Coast he wrote the book A Cloud Passes Over containing several provocative religious poems, these were a breakthrough for Harris and opened up new territory—he cuts loose old affections and sees the world very differently from this poem on:

Isaiah By Kerosene Lantern

This voice an older friend has kept
to patronise the single name he swears by
saying aha, aha, to me.

The heresy hunter, sifting these lines
another shrieks through serapax and heroin
that we have a culture.

These are the very same who shall wait
for plainer faces after they’ve glutted on beauty,
a mild people back from the dead

shall speak the doors down
to the last hullo reaching the last crooked hutch
in forest or forest-like deeps of the town.

Those who teach with the fingers and answer
with laughter, with anger, shall be in derision
and the waiting long, and the blue and white days

like a grave in a senseless universe.
I believe this wick and this open book
in the light’s oval, and I disbelieve

everything this generation has told me.

A Cloud Passes Over was a breakthrough in terms of recognition. It was published by Angus and Robertson under the editorship of Les Murray. Judith Beveridge has written this book contains ‘some of the best religious poems written in the last 50 years.‘

In 1987 Robert Harris was confirmed as an Anglican and, in 1990, he was parish delegate to the Synod. After reading A Cloud Passes Over, Fay Zwicky, who has always been a tough critic, gave the book her blessing— ‘His acceptance of the Christian faith was obviously no easy jump from scepticism to certainty’, and as she read she discovered ‘you become aware of profound intelligence at ease with its quest and sure-footed in its isolation.’ Coming from Fay Zwicky, this meant a great deal to Robert and reassured him he was taking the right direction with his continuing work.

Robert made several trips to Europe and one to America, he sought out places and libraries where some of the writers he loved had lived. With his wife Jennifer he took a walking tour and they went by foot from Germany to the U.K. Later he returned to London to study the life of Lady Jane Grey. Harris spent many hours in the British National Library and the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford. He spent time checking out the Tower of London where Lady Jane Gray had been incarcerated before she was beheaded on the block. He published Jane, Interlinear & Other Poems with Paperbark Press in 1992; it received glowing reviews and Peter Craven wrote that he considered Jane, Interlinear a masterpiece, ‘Jane’ went on to be shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize and it won the Victorian Premier’s poetry award, the C. J. Dennis Prize. There was great range in this book and Robert’s prosody was at its height: his striking wit and depth of thought ran through a thirty poem sequence for Lady Jane, and the poetry in the rest of the book was alive with his intelligence. Robert’s engagement with language was also evident in this work, each word in every line mattered to him. His years of study informed his verse with discipline and music.

Harris had discovered compelling content that suited his flexible new line. The sequence is complex and it is difficult to represent in part but I have chosen this section here because it’s brief and can stand on its own.

XXIII: In Anne Boleyn’s Garden

Bullinger, .inter alia,….purslane…….flowers war. As pink’s
warned: you are likewhere taller..becoming an English word

it is magenta……….between the petalsinterplay of flowers
greets Jane’s eyes..and herself, that……with the mind

Apartments to………..marchpane to dread………..expelled from
prisoner’s quarters,..Excluded from discourse,time. Put out

to meditation on……not the weightless…..until, resigned,
the swinging steel,exchange we make,..we take the garden

that we leave behind……….hardly sad,………..makes us grow
Botany may be dry, it’s…..only differencesacute, as though

they were ouselves….and strangely to ..Returning, ..we can
still clung, freely……..us, and apart……..name .flowers:

pelletary-by-the-wallforget-me-not……….heart.
and maiden’s blush…….camellia,..bleeding

Less than year after Jane Interliner & Other Poems, won the Victorian Premier’s Poetry Award, one night our phone rang. I knew by my wife Juno’s response that it was not good news. I just wasn’t prepared to hear that Robert Harris had been found dead from heart failure in his apartment. Remember that mysterious line in the poem ‘Going to See The Elephant’? Where someone was “deaf to a withheld cardiograph” maybe it was a similar congenital defect to his mother’s heart condition. Robert Harris was just 43 when he died.

Two weeks before his death Robert had dinner with us at home on the Hawkesbury River. It had been a wonderful night and as he left he handed me a new poem. Here is ‘Don’t Feel Sorry About It’ I believe it was one of the last poems Robert Harris wrote, if not the last poem:

Don’t feel sorry about it, if you remember
blue Darlinghurst nights like particular quilts
a generation of painters saw
before we arrived there, or found ourselves

deciduous as apple trees. Don’t feel sorry
for our poverty, or I’ll report the mirror winks
like a man with bad teeth who has laughed
at all who dislike poetry. Be less than sad

on the day that you hear the news I fell,
they’ll nose you out, the generous, curious ones.
then rest assured that I will never tell
who left her pee in glasses overnight.

Don’t be sorry so much ambitious verse
groveled in the cities where we lived
only say for me I walked an older road
where poetry was rare and hard, and, frankly, good.

Robert Harris (right) and Robert Adamson at the launch of Jane Interlinear at Adelaide Writers Week 1992.'  (photo by Lynn Hard)

Robert Harris (right) and Robert Adamson at the
launch of Jane Interlinear at Adelaide Writers Week 1992.’ (photo by Lynn Hard)

– Robert Adamson

——————————————————————————————————–

Robert Adamson is one of Australia’s leading poets. He is currently The CAL Chair in Poetry in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney.

Michael Dransfield

Vicki Viidikas

Robert Harris

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Weaving an Eerie Tale: Victoria Nugent reviews ‘Juno & Hannah’ by Beryl Fletcher

Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher. Spinifex Press 2013

junoBooks that unsettle and unnerve the reader have a tendency to be more memorable than light, frothy stories that amuse and delight. Juno & Hannah falls firmly into the first category, weaving an eerie tale set, for the most part, in the New Zealand wilderness.

This dark and powerful book touches upon a number of serious issues in a high gothic style. Even in its simplest, more straight-forward scenes there is a sense of the eerie permeating the novella.

When Hannah decides it’s time to flee a Christian community for the sake of her mentally disabled sister Juno, it’s hard to predict where their journey will take them. The chain of events is set in motion after Hannah helps a stranger on the riverbank. Her actions to save his life are considered necromancy and she is punished through seclusion. In her absence, Juno’s quirks draw less tolerance and moves are made to take the 14-year-old girl from the community.

The two quickly make their escape through dense bushland and the wildness of nature becomes a metaphor for the chaotic forces at play in their own lives. The bush is almost a character in itself and is portrayed in a high gothic style. Its treatment is vaguely reminiscent of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, where nature becomes a dangerous element, lush and exotic but unpredictable. Nature cannot be restrained or made to conform to society’s wishes, mirroring Juno’s own struggles with the world.

The tale is set in 1920 but in a way it’s oddly timeless. With most of the action occurring in the deepest bush, the narrative could take place in a range of time streams. The use of the Christian fundamentalist society means Juno and Hannah’s lifestyle in anachronistic in its nature, regardless of the actual time period. While Fletcher does not delve too far into the Christian community, the hints at their lifestyle are enough to be chilling. This adds to the gothic feel of the novella, heightening tension.

Beryl Fletcher won a Commonwealth Writers Prize for her first book in 1992 and Juno & Hannah provides further proof of her skill as a writer. Despite its gothic style, the novella never slips so far into melodrama as to become farcical. Fletcher retains a careful balance throughout the tale in a way that evokes both the uncertainty of the bush and its unnerving stillness. Even in moments of inertness, there’s a feeling that things could spiral out of control at any moment. Characters are multi-faceted and the reader, much like Hannah herself, finds it hard to figure out who can be trusted as the story progresses.

The difficult issue of eugenics becomes a key part of the story in a stunning way. The novella paints an uncomfortable picture of attitudes towards people with mental disabilities which rings true even in today’s society. Characters in the story aren’t entirely sure how to treat Juno and her lack of comprehension of many things leads to infantilising treatment by the people in her community. It is only Hannah that takes a deeper interest in Juno. For most other characters, Juno is more seen as a problem than a person and steps are taken to come up with a solution. Importantly, Fletcher imbues Juno with a distinctive personality, preventing her from falling into a stereotype of otherness. While childlike in many ways, Juno is also capable of playing a role in plans regarding her own destiny and her emotions are written in a way that is raw and real.

The novella is told through the eyes of Hannah but yet she also remains fairly enigmatic. Although she is the real protagonist of the novel, the bulk of the action directly relates to Juno. Almost all of Hannah’s actions stem from her desire to help her sister.

It’s not a book that paints an easy picture of life as a woman and it’s hard to imagine what kinds of lives Hannah and Juno will go on to lead. Apart from Hannah’s decision to leave their community, the girls appear to have little say in their own destinies. In fact, in many ways the narrative is about Hannah’s struggle to take charge of their lives in the face of many parties who believe they know best, including their own father.

This is not a story that neatly ties up all the loose ends into one happy little bundle and for that I profoundly thank Fletcher. It would have been a disservice to the complexity of the tale to provide a bland and simple ending. As it was, the questions raised by the narrative linger long after the book has been put down.

– Victoria Nugent

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Victoria Nugent is a journalist and an avid reader. Her to read pile is continually growing and she has given up hope on finding a bookshelf that will fit her collection.

Juno & Hannah is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=245/

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Diverse and Confronting: Andy Kissane reviews ‘Forecast: Turbulence’ by Janette Turner Hospital

Forecast: Turbulence by Janette Turner Hospital. Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2011,

forecastI have never been really convinced by Frank O’Connor’s claim in The Lonely Voice that the short story typically deals with a ‘submerged population group’, with ‘outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society’. As a theory it seemed too neat—bound to apply to one story and not another. But reading Janette Turner Hospital’s superb collection of stories, Forecast: Turbulence, I was reminded again of O’Connor’s claim. All of Turner Hospital’s characters seem to be outsiders. There’s ten year old Lachlan from ‘Blind Date’ who although a ring-bearer at his sister’s wedding, can’t be trusted to walk in the procession because he’s blind—a blindness that Turner Hospital skillfully evokes without explicitly naming. There’s ‘weird Rufus’ who captains a whale-watching boat and talks to whales. There’s a lonely computer nerd in one story and abused teenage girls in another. A high school theatre director, Duncan, who is arrested for sexually harassing his students in ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman’ sentences his daughters to years of being outsiders as they try to escape his notoriety. In ‘Hurricane Season’ a grandmother and grandson are literally marooned by an approaching hurricane. The characters in this book are certainly individuals living on the fringes, apart from a well-functioning and caring community.

The short story cycle, like the short story, is undergoing something of a resurgence. Internationally, Elizabeth Strout’s magnificent Olive Kitteridge (2009) and Jennifer Egan’s cutting-edge, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011) both took out the Pulitzer Prize for fiction ahead of novels. Forecast: Turbulence was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s and The Age awards for fiction and won Queensland’s Steele Rudd Award. Unlike Strout and Egan’s books which derive their unity from one or two central, recurring characters, or Gillian Mears’ collection Fineflour, which uses the setting of the river flowing through a country town as a unifying element, this book is structured around the repeated metaphor of turbulent weather. It works. When the police knock on the door to arrest Duncan, a tornado, both literal and metaphorical is unleashed into the lives of his family. But the less literal examples are more impressive, such as the girl into self-harm who cuts ‘weather maps on my legs.’ (103) The central metaphor is an interesting feature of many fine contemporary stories and Turner Hospital takes it one step further by using it as a unifying motif for this collection.

Janette Turner Hospital grew up in Brisbane and has lived for many years in South Carolina. This experience of two places and cultures is surely an asset for a writer. Turner Hospital makes use of it by setting the first three stories in Australia and following them with six set in North America, ranging from Canada to the Carolinas. Usually the language and idiom fit the story’s locale. ‘Dumpsters’ for example, is a very American word that belongs in an American story. But occasionally Turner Hospital slips up. When Lachlan’s father, Jim, returns to Melbourne from the Burdekin in Queensland in time for his daughter’s wedding, he scoops up his son and ‘the ring cushion rises like a snowbird in flight and hovers over Pamela and falls.’(19) In what is a masterful ending, the simile jarred for me. The story is colloquially Australian—the daughter says, ‘I should tell you to bugger off, Dad’—yet a snowbird is North American. Although the additional connotation of someone who moves south to avoid winter and taxes seems to apply to Jim, the image of the snowbird can only be the author’s. It is wrong, to my ear, at least. It’s not that Turner Hospital is not careful with words, for her stories display a mastery of free indirect style, of the narrator’s voice taking on the idiom of her characters. The other instance that jarred for me was the young, self-cutting Tiyah, fishing at a secluded creek and saying, ‘It’s private weather down here.’(118) Turner Hospital has already established the special meaning of ‘private’ in this story, but it’s ‘weather’ that doesn’t fit, that I can’t really hear this character saying, that belongs to the author’s central motif rather than a character’s speech. These are clearly quibbles. It’s a testament to Turner Hospital’s art that they’re rare occurrences.

The protagonist of ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’, Nelson, is another lonely outsider, a software designer who is infatuated with a lady in a green nightgown he watches every night from behind a tree in a park. The woman reminds him of Daniel Gabriel Rossetti’s famous painting, Beata Beatrix. Like the Beatrice of Dante’s poem, this Beatrice is also idolised, with Nelson making her not only the woman of his dreams, but the hub of a labyrinthine on-line game that he creates and that becomes a popular craze. But after an incident at an office party, Nelson withdraws further and further into a world of dreams and illusion with horrifying consequences. It’s an affecting story of unrequited love, of a loner struggling to function in the real world. But as the story proceeds to Beatrice’s death, Turner Hospital provides a twist in the tale that I didn’t believe in. The ‘twist in the tale’ ending, which O. Henry made famous, is an ending that tends to foreground the cleverness of the author. When it works the shock of the twist feels organic to the story. When it doesn’t work the reader feels manipulated by an author pulling strings. Here, the ending felt like a leap too far to me, a turbulence that comes from nowhere. In contrast, the title story, ‘Forecast: Turbulence’ details the return of a father from the Afghanistan war after a five year absence with a twist that is completely shocking and completely right.

Overall, this is a dark collection. The final story, ‘Afterlife of a Stolen Child’ is a moving portrait of Melanie and Simon, whose two year-old son, Joshua, is stolen from outside a bakery. Turner Hospital employs two first person narrators, one who gradually seems to be Joshua’s murderer, one who years later identifies as the adult, stolen Joshua. It’s a complex and thoroughly modern story, where the reader is forced to question the reliability of the narration and to wonder whose version of events can be trusted. It’s also a harrowing portrait of the long term effects of guilt and grief and demonstrates how the short story, despite its length, can still accommodate a multiplicity of viewpoints. This is the story that should have ended the collection.

Instead, the book ends with a memoir, ‘Moon River’, that focuses on the author’s colonial ancestors and the death of her mother. Apart from a brief reference to an Aborigine who is shot, the tone is also colonial, as Oxley, we are told, ‘opened up the Liverpool Plains’. (227) It might well be the sort of the historical narration that Turner Hospital grew up with, but her memoir adopts rather uncritically the language and world-view of the colonisers. It’s beautifully written, but dramatically dull and is a rather anti-climatic ending to a strong book. ‘Moon River’ was previously published in a collection of Brisbane stories and that is where it should have stayed. It is not like Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, where the entire book plays with generic diversity, but a blip on an otherwise coherent weather map.

Forecast: Turbulence is a diverse and confronting book. It deserves the accolades it has already received. It is powerful and compelling, demonstrating the range of the contemporary short story. My favourite moment is in ‘Hurricane Season’, when the grandmother, Leah, produces a box of photographs to peruse by candlelight. Steven, her grandson, picks out a photograph of an old lover, who rather magically rings her at the height of the storm on a phone resembling a nautilus shell. The story rises into a kind of magical realism where the turbulence of the hurricane replays the chaos of passionate love. Turner Hospital understands love, whether it’s long gone but not forgotten, or the immediate everyday love of grandmother and grandson. It’s a story about choices, those made in the present and those made in the past, and how they linger in people’s lives. Just as good stories linger and stay with you, just as this book will.

– Andy Kissane

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Andy Kissane’s fiction includes the novel, Under the Same Sun, shortlisted for the Vision Australia Audio Book of the Year and a collection of short stories, The Swarm. He has published three books of poetry, Facing the Moon, Every Night They Dance and Out to Lunch, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry. He is the Coriole National Wine Poet and six of his poems are featured on the back of Coriole’s Cabernet Shiraz. A new collection of poetry, Radiance, will be published by Puncher & Wattmann in early 2014. http://andykissane.com

Forecast: Turbulence is available from http://www.harpercollins.com.au/books/Forecast-Turbulence-Janette-Turner-Hospital/?isbn=9780730498773
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The Simultaneous Coexistence of All Time: Stephen Edgar launches ‘Tempo’ by Sarah Day

Stephen Edgar launched Tempo by Sarah Day (Puncher & Wattmann) at the Friend in Hand Hotel on 14th October 2013.

Sarah Day signs a copy of Tempo at the launch at the Friend in Hand Hotel. (Photo Robert Adamson)

Sarah Day signs a copy of Tempo at the launch at the Friend in Hand Hotel. (Photo Robert Adamson)

“It is only our conception of time”, Kafka tells us in one of his bracing aphorisms, “that makes us call the Last Judgement by that name; in fact, it is a court in permanent session.”

This sense of the superimposition of past and future onto the present, of the simultaneous coexistence of all time, is an abiding theme in Sarah Day’s new collection, Tempo, as signalled by the epigraph from St Augustine:

“A present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things future… what then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

And the manifold ways in which this insight can be illustrated are richly explored in poem after poem. In “Fayoum”, subtitled “Funeral Portraits of Roman Egypt”, we have the material artefacts of a long past epoch present to our sight: “these portraits painted on the coffin wood/ like missives from another age”. But beyond that, beyond the coffin wood and the pigment, we see the abiding emotions of the human in their painted features, “Hauteur, assuredness, self-interest/ emerge through worn-out caustic and gold leaf”. These could be your fellow citizens any day of the week, the “strangers that you meet/ across a bus or train and fleetingly/ in the unguarded moment see close up”. “they gaze with eyes that live”, the poem concludes, collapsing that gulf of centuries.

Material records from the past are even more poignantly conjured in the poem “In Time, Pompeii”. Yes, there are the mosaics, the colonnades, the statuary, but more arrestingly, the figures of those who died in the volcanic ash. In an image reminiscent of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, and its immutable illustration,

The cast of the young woman
is forever that—a young woman,
supine, elbows bent, weeping
into her hands.

And, of course, she is more, or, should I say, less than that, because the cast is the plaster that filled the hole in the ash where her body decayed. It is the shape of her absence that makes her present to us.

And this does not exhaust the teasing temporal perspectives of this poem. After visiting the ruins, Day walks “through time to a ploughed field/ where a man with a hoe works,/ meditative, desultory”. “he is not from my century either”, she wryly or wistfully observes, before heading to the station for the train “with its noisy freight of twentieth century/ passengers bound for Naples”. So images from the past seem alive now, and figures now living can seem part of the past.

Reading many of the poems, I was put in mind of two favourite words of mine, both beginning with p: pentimento, the revealing of a painting or part of a painting that has been covered over by a later painting—under the wash of the present moment we see these images from the past floating into view; and palimpsest, a sort of literary equivalent of pentimento, a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next, though leaving traces behind.

A different take on this theme is used in “The Seed Vault of Longyearbyen”, which refers to that extraordinary repository of plant seeds built deep into a cliff on the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where “the endless shelves of dormant DNA/ beguile the flux of time” and constitute, she says, “this mausoleum to the Afterwards”. DNA, of course, could be called the seed within the seed, that more or less eternal prescription for the transient life forms which flower from it, including us. And in “Family Tree”, what she calls “the mantra of our DNA” is recited, while reading through a list of family members from 1765 onwards. Her elderly father (I think), with eyes closed, his eyesight too poor to read the small print himself, joins the litany as “the living dead appear/ in answer to their spoken names,/ step forward one by one as if in light”.

DNA, the eternal prescription. Eternity itself is best understood not as an infinite prolongation of chronological time but rather as the stilled or unending present moment. In “The Mower” “Eternity’s the green concentric lines… The blade against the grass is present time.” And then there is the eternal present in which nonhuman life forms live, like Keats’s nightingale. In “Optics”

A column of gnats opens up the moment:
a hologram against the sky’s clear void…

Plato’s moving image of eternity—

spinning its intricate motion,
its vast, timeless, unceasing loop.

“Tempo” is of course the Italian for “time”, but in its application to music it denotes the speed at which a passage is to be played; variations in the perceived speed of time, motion and stillness, change and constancy, the permanent and the evanescent: these motifs too are at play, or at work, throughout Tempo, as instanced above in the image of the gnats. Or again in “Gulls”, where a flock of gulls seems stationary on the waters of a bay swept by a gale:

how does a host of hundreds of birds
on the bay hold its own?

Does the hill with its forest crown
and farm-housed hem cradle them in its lee

on a ribbon of calm…

Or is their stillness an illusion

of the mess of white?

This is the merest impressionistic survey of some of the thematic strands in Tempo—the “what”, we might say. There is also the “how”. As A E Housman reminds us in his lecture “The Name and Nature of Poetry”, “to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer—is the peculiar function of poetry”. It is the transfusing of emotion that transforms these poems from observations, in both senses, to genuinely affecting and memorable art. As in, for instance, the image of that young woman in Pompeii. As in “Alzheimer Ward”, to choose another fairly straightforward example, with its evocation of the ravages of lost memory : “Their landmarks are behind them now,/ wartime weddings, youthful wives—/ trinkets of lost, forgotten lives.”

Yet even so, when a face floats, nameless
at the open door
like a hazy memory of love—
something painful like rapture moves the heart.

That slight ambiguity about whose heart is being moved is a fine touch. Or there is the deliciously spine-tingling edge to “The Mirror”, a curious incident from childhood when a group of them discovered a large mirror lying face upwards at the bottom of a brook which spooked them with its uncanny reflections “between illusion/ and substance in the vortices and currents”. Or even something as simple, as apparently trivial, as an evocation of hens pausing to drink from a bowl of water on a hot day becomes quietly moving:

For a moment nothing is so beautiful
or calm as this hiatus. Side by side
the russet and the smoky hen,
statue-still, devotional, thirst slaked;
a clear ellipse of water, egg-shell blue.

“Hens at the Water Bowl”

“A poet’s biography”, Joseph Brodsky wittily observed, “is in his vowels and sibilants, in his meters, rhymes and metaphors… With poets, the choice of words is invariably more telling than the story.” And Seamus Heaney has said: “In a poem, words, phrases, cadences and images are linked into systems of affect and signification which elude the précis maker. These under-ear activities… may well constitute the most important business which the poem is up to.”

All of which is to say that, in talking about the themes in Tempo I have no doubt failed to address directly those crucial aural and lexical and rhythmic and other elements which Brodsky and Heaney refer to, in which the true business and life of these poems reside, but I hope that from the various quotations from the text I have included you have been able to hear them at work, if only fragmentarily and fleetingly, and that they have planted in you the desire to hear more. Tempo is a wonderful book and I am delighted to declare it launched.

– Stephen Edgar

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Stephen Edgar’s latest collection, Eldershaw (2013), was published by Black Pepper Publishing. Further details can be found on his website http://stephenedgar.com.au/

Tempo is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/tempo

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“Let There Be War Between Us”: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Decline and Fall’ by Rae Desmond Jones

Decline and Fall by Rae Desmond Jones, Flying Island Books. 2011

Decline and fall098When I got a hold of Rae Desmond Jones’ pocket-sized collection Decline and Fall I knew from the moment I opened it and began reading I was in for an interesting and affecting ride. Yes, I’m a fan, and I was excited at the prospect of a small gathering of his previously published works (this was, of course, prior to his recent New and Selected Poems, It Comes from All Direction Grand Parade Poets, 2013).

To those who read Australian poetry, Jones is a fascinating presence, who has carved out his place in our literature as a unique, important and challenging voice, simultaneously relevant and visionary, often writing outside of the usual subjects or taking them from an obscure angle, and addressing those that are so often shied away from. Just look at Jones’ infamous poem “The Deadshits”, for example, which narrates a gang rape through the eyes of one of the perpetrators. Not Wordworth’s usual choice of subject, that’s for sure, but this is what distances Jones from the pack and makes him increasingly special, if that’s the right word. Although this poem is not included in Decline and Fall, there are plenty of others that address the unaddressable in a way that is intelligent, beautiful, humorous and more often than not, haunting.

Jones has a few bones to pick within these pages, and he wages these wars through his words very convincingly. “i hate them/the truth is out! & they hate me.” begins the title poem of Decline and Fall. The poet directs this piece at the youth of today and the decline and fall of our society. Jones, born in 1941, isn’t a young poet anymore, and his view is one shared by many older generations (and those with brains from the younger) observing the changed attitudes, self-destructive and anti-social behaviours of newer generations, while also being conscious of how these views are seen by those in question. The poem goes on to address the lack of interest in history and education, which contrasts with Jones’ own generation:

do you know why the roman empire fell? i ask.
who cares? A boy giggles.
that is the reason, i say

Jones’ lines are evocative and powerful, and his signature style is original and startling. The work showcased here is dark and doesn’t stray from controversial topics, which has always been Jones’ approach to poetry. I’ve learnt since reading this that Jones was at one stage a secondary school teacher, which could explain how he built these clear views.

Released by Flying Island Books, Decline and Fall is a beautifully presented pocketbook that gathers a collection of work written over a number of years, some of the pieces previously collected in Jones’ 2008 book Blow Out and his earlier collections Orpheus with a Tuba and The Palace of Art. Each poem is accompanied by a Chinese translation on the opposite page, and the message in the poem is universal, spoken directly to the youth who’s behaviour Jones despises:

go back to your bad videos & your hopeless dreams.
be unemployable.
daub graffiti on trains
& put as many needles in your arms as you want.
die if it seems romantic.

An important wakeup call from a voice well worth listening to, it’s tragic to realise this message will more than likely never reach the generation Rae Desmond Jones is calling out to, which just so happens to be my own. Our culture really does appear to be on the decline, and the fall depicted here is truly devastating.

Even with the recent publication of Jones’ New and Selected Poems at last in print, Decline and Fall is still a fine introduction to the work of one of our finest poets, consistent and filled with standouts.

Another of the strongest poems is “The Poets”, exploring the niche audience modern poetry attracts, mainly made up of other poets, and alluding to the fact that those who do not read poems are worse off for it. Jones believes that poetry understands us, a notion I can get behind wholeheartedly. The use of deceivingly simple language is raw and confronting, and as a reader of poetry, you begin to further appreciate the art form as Jones so obviously does:

they speak to a vast audience
consisting mainly of one another
all of whom nervously shuffle
manuscripts and wait their turn
meantime the masses who are
as usual blind deaf & stupid
just keep walking to the bus or
into the office reading newspapers
& quite obviously don’t give a fuck.

Despite the dark reflections that make up some of Decline and Fall’s contents, Jones also presents us with his unique take on natural imagery in poems such as “Ice & Fire”: ‘When the moon drops/Like a biscuit/It might be time/To dab your lips/With a napkin of cloud’.

But the bleak is never far away, such as in another of Jones’ best poems “We are in a Mess (O Lord)”. Although he’s always had a great sense of humour, Jones’ most important poems are the ones that reach into the darkness and pull out something that speaks for the masses, even if the majority of them sadly don’t read it.

Even the artwork of Decline and Fall is bleak, showing a skeleton in ancient armour waving to a man of a future civilisation on a beach. This pretty much sums up what the future looks like through Jones’ poetry.

So who is Jones declaring war on, really? Youth, a society gone wrong as a whole, or is he simply writing about that which we prefer to leave in the dark, because it is important for poetry to say something?

I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand what makes Rae Desmond Jones tick, but I do understand that he is one of the most important poets writing today, one of my favourites, and one that should be a permanent staple in the reading of Australian poetry.

– Robbie Coburn

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Robbie Coburn lives in the small farming district of Woodstock in country Victoria. His first full collection of poetry Rain Season was published by Picaro Press in 2013. Find him online at http://robbiecoburn.wordpress.com/

Decline and Fall is available from Flying Island Books: flyingislands.org/books/flyling…/rae-desmond-jones-decline-and-fall/

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