Teasing Threads – on Perth poetry

Chris Palazzolo challenges WA poets to deal fairly with their city.

Image result for washing lines imagesDuring a brush with fame a couple of years ago when my first book was published, I was asked in an interview whether poetry is possible in Perth. I thought this was an interesting question, especially – given that my book was a small volume of verse – as it contained the not so subtle dismissive, ‘how can you call your poetry real poetry if it’s written and published in a place where the question, is poetry possible here, can seriously be asked of a poet?’ Would such a question be asked of a Sydney poet for instance, or a Melbourne poet? I can’t deny that it infuriated me. I was even more infuriated by my glib reply – poetry is possible wherever people live and love, work and die. I came up with that lame answer because I couldn’t think of an answer, and in a panic seemed to confirm a dreadful truth implicit in the question. That no, Perth is such a soul-suckingly barren place, the lives lived here so inauthentic and rootless, that all the poetry written here never was, and could never have been, real poetry.

West Australian poets only have themselves to blame if their city has been typecast this way.  As a strolling editor of no fixed abode I’ve read a lot of West Australian poetry and it seems almost a reflex for our poets to describe Perth as a citadel of false idols in comparison with the sacred innocence of the country (the Great Southern, Goldfields, Wheatbelt, Kimberley etc) or their own private epiphanies of childhood or garden. A lot of excellent verse has been penned in support of this myth. Probably the most audacious is John Kinsella who in his Wheatbelt cycle The Divine Comedy compared the descent of the Great Eastern Highway from the Darling Ranges into Perth with the descent of the Fifth Circle of Dante’s Inferno. I’ve driven down this road many times, and I can’t say I’ve ever been overwhelmed by the stench of shit and rot that Dante’s pilgrim smelt from the gates of Dis. I would describe the smell as a melange of sweet eucalyptus, diesel and petrol exhaust. DH Lawrence observed Perth from the same vantage point a century earlier in the first pages of Kangaroo. He smelt the eucalyptus too. Most WA poets rarely get as intense as Kinsella. But then in a way that’s part of the problem. The prevailing impression I come away with is that Perth is nice at best, bland at worst, a place of easy consumption ruled by the developer’s dollar. At least Dis is a poetic image!

All poetic cultures have an origin myth. My friend of many years Chris Dickinson once gave me a lovely neat origin myth for Perth. If, as Geoffrey Blainey argues, the Australian national character emerged out of a consciousness of its distance from Europe, then Perth is the quintessential Australian city because it is distant from the rest of Australia – it is distant from distance. There’s a whole new angle on Australian history in this logic. While most of the other Australian capitals grew proximate to each other in the eastern half of the continent, trading, exchanging, learning from and defining themselves against each other, Perth, through much of its colonial, and a considerable chunk of its state history, toiled alone. This is how the city-of-no-qualities arose from the myth; too long solitude; other cities too far away to reflect itself off, a lonesome ego, smoothly unreflexive, sublimely unrecognised. WA poets consign Perth to the terrible fate of its colonial bondage, invisibility, so often, it’s almost like a neurotic impulse.

In the meantime people live and love, work and die here. They party, they have kids, they hang washing on washing lines (in-joke). And many of them write poetry, some of it (paradoxically because of this anxiety of unreflexiveness – Perth’s ‘mirror-stage’) the best in the country, and among the best in the world. I would like to invite WA poets to stop excoriating Perth with ‘faint praise’ and start thinking about their city as a res publica. Examine its civic rhythms and the aesthetics of its built landscape with an unprejudiced (or unideological) eye. Awake from private consolations and look out onto its footpaths and streets, how they change in seasons, how people use them. Cease the nihilistic dismissal of its commerce and politics. Take note of its well-oiled electoral democracy which turned the political map of the metropolitan area from blue to red at the last state election. Celebrate its progressive victories over the century (women’s suffrage, reproduction rights, Native Title). I guess what I’m calling for is our poets to show some civic pride. When WA poets verse admiringly of Melbourne, its muscular urbanity, they fail to see that Melbourne poets (and painters, musicians, filmmakers, etc) have taught us to look at Melbourne that way. They are proud of their city, and over the last century the commercial and political spheres of that city have responded to produce the urbane beauty we admire today. It’s time for WA poets to do the same for Perth.

– Chris Palazzolo


Readers interested in exploring some contemporary WA poetry can start by checking out the latest issue of Creatrix. https://wapoets.wordpress.com/creatrix-2/issue-37-poetry/

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419


Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten co-launch Belgrove Press’s first title for 2017: Willem Tibben’s ‘suburban veneer’, address by Maureen Ten

Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017

!Maureen Ten launching suburban veneer

Maureen Ten. photograph by Helen Lu

We are prompted to ask what lies beneath the veneer. In the first segment ‘the smell of cows’ it is habitations, movements, the states of being of myriad life-forms. Willem is engaged in attentive observation of each creature enacting its drama, its cabaret, its well-made play. He gives us unmistakable images of the situation, the gesture, the unfolding sequence of activity. His theme is the predicament; his task, reporting back accurately.

The galahs alighting from their blue-sky-cab, well-dressed for an evening’s entertainment, overtaken by another turn of events. The leech with its slow-urgent head, drinking slowly, deeply, drinking to excess, and then lolling off. The lobster bartered for beer money, sidling along the foot rail of the bar, lost and clueless, desperate to relocate, finding its way back to water (not the ocean but the cooking pot). The ibis of ancient sacred lineage, now regarded as dirty and noisy, confined to fossick in suburban parks. The platypus catching its breath. The microbats tiny flying mammal/ on fast forward/ chasing down their light

suburban veneer coverUnderneath Willem’s ‘suburban veneer’ is the boy who lived on a farm for many years and soon he ferries us out of the suburbs to the farmyards and pastures, into the world of cows. The cow loose in the pasture gorging on clover glowing fertilizer green, ballooning into a clover-gas blimp, saved from explosion by Willem’s dad driving a knife into her stomach to deflate her; the cow restless, in heat; the cow with a miscalculated due date; the drowned cow; the cow with an iron burned into her hide. In ‘she strolls to the stall’, he leans his ear against a cow’s side and hears her gurgling clonking milk-making depths as she chews under a yellowing fly-speckled bulb.

We journey further afield in the second segment ‘erode.’ Here there is curiosity and stamina to engage with national parks, land forms, Uluru, the geology and sociological gestalt of place, the accidents and incidents of history which form a town (such as Broome). With a poise of comment and irony relayed by the tension of juxtaposition, he points to the inadequacy of systems, and the failure of care beneath the veneer of society. The missing support and lack of social cohesion lead inevitably to the unravelling of vulnerable individuals.

In our recent city train travel back from rehearsal (for Auburn poetry group’s presentation of ‘Grandma’s Bed’ at Sydney Writers’ Festival), conversation with Willem covered how many cloves of garlic you need for a dish of silverside, two jazz saxophonists (octogenarian Wayne Shorter and Jan Garbarek) and Bashō. I mention this because perhaps it is not too far-fetched (or trivial) to suggest that spices, improvisation and haiku are helpful in a discussion of Willem’s modus operandi.

Apart from the prose poems, everything is in lower case. Type-spaces replace punctuation with the number of spaces (one, two or three) serving as a notation indicating the intended length of pauses. The spacing is not random but calculated. What appears improvised has a precise intention.

Willem’s love of haiku is evident in the use of an image which even when seemingly throwaway, lightly balances the experience like a spice activating (or settling) a series of flavours in the whole. In ‘yulara sunrise’ a groundman hoses and a sprinkler twinkles in a patch of tame desert. In ‘sick country’ a geiger counter chatters to itself. In ‘tawny frogmouths’ the poet is viewing the bird and the bird is in turn, he tells us, huge in my binoculars staring me down. In a knockout poem on artist Albert Namatjira:

.           there is a sign on the wall of the museum   warning
.           do not make pictures
.           of any kind

In the third segment ‘no direction home’ Willem writes about musicians (Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Fats Waller), men’s shed, his own stroke, a dream of his parents, his brothers, fibro and silvertails. In the poem ‘a hard day’s night’ he conveys the newness of intimacy and the excitement of a first date.

He captures a certain elusive quality about a person, a place or situation. How does he do this? Take, say, the second of two poems on Bob Dylan. He lists a number of things: what we see on the cover of the double DVD – feet, the car prop, a poster. This works as a sort of casual shorthand and you don’t notice that you’ve been shepherded in a certain direction. Then this is not the crossroads   nor yet bedevilment. He’s slipped in, among the apparently routine objects observed, a statement, an abstraction, perhaps even a judgement, and by the time he mentions the cast marks in the concrete apron and Dylan’s floating away, he’s nailed a sense of the enigma, of something astir within the publicity-contrived persona.

In the opening poem ‘lake cockrone’, he is remembering what happened twenty-eight years earlier at the beginning of a relationship with Pam to whom the poem is dedicated. It is going to be the most enduring relationship leading to a marriage of 33 years and counting. They are easy new and free   careful/ awake. It is past midnight and they are canoeing.

.           the boundary hills moved with us
.           black shapes on starry surfaces

The midnight memory is encapsulated in the stillness before sunrise of a day many years later. It is a quite remarkable synthesis of two stages (both harbouring a happiness or a measure of content while differing in maturity) of a relationship. If I may put it a tad grandly (using references from the poem): remembrance is anchored in the breathing of oceanic time present.

!CROPPED Willem Tibben reading at the launch of suburban veneer, NSW Writers' Centre, 22 April 2017 photograph by Helen Lu

Willem Tibben. photograph by Helen Lu

The fourth and last segment includes the poem which gives the book its title but it is the closing lines of ‘uluru’ in the second segment which indicate the nature of the engagement we find in suburban veneer.

.           begin again  each naming
story  animal  plant  stone
every-thing   in-place
and underneath our feet
a thousand ulurus

Not just at Uluru, but here too in our everyday, in the suburbs, a thousand reverberate.

-Maureen Ten


Maureen Ten (Ten Ch’in Ü) directed plays and documentaries, and penned a newspaper column (‘Gandiiva’) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before migrating to Australia in 1989. Maureen has convened poetry evenings, edited and independently published the anthology Mood Lightning and read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. She has been published in SMH, Westerly, Imago and anthologies including Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. Maureen has a Master’s degree in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK.

Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten co-launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017:
Danny Gardner’s audience address

Poems from suburban veneer

Willem Tibben: Biographical note

suburban veneer is available from Belgrove Press. contact: saleswt@belgrovepress.com


Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten co-launch Belgrove Press’s first title for 2017: Willem Tibben’s ‘suburban veneer’, address by Danny Gardner

Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017

!Danny Gardner launching Will Tibben's suburban veneer

Danny Gardner launching suburban veneer, NSW Writers’ Centre, Sydney, 22 April 2017. photograph by Helen Lu

I first became aware of Bill Tibben as a man who seemed to have an inside track on Willy Shakespeare’s private life. This was after I read his poem ‘did Bill Shakespeare have to wash the dishes?’ in the first Live Poets’ Society anthology: ‘Litmus Suite’ in 1991. It’s rumoured that Bill and Will were born on the same day, that is, date- April 21st.

Then one night I found myself going with my former partner Sue Hicks to a poetry reading in Parramatta of all places – that Bill and his friend Daryl Wayne Hall ran, called PIE – Poetry, Imagery and Expression. Reading at that meeting necessitated sending a poem for inclusion in the current PIE poetry book.

Meantime Bill had stopped being a regular at Live Poets Society in Neutral Bay but I had a feeling he would be back. He contributed some poems to the 2001 Tenth Anniversary anthology of LPS called ‘Becoming a Nomad’. Then he came to do a guest reading in 2005.

Much later in 2009, Bill, Maureen and myself decided we would perform as a poetry trio and called ourselves ‘Running Order’. Meantime I’d got to hear much more of Bill’s poetry and ended up performing one with Bill called ‘Showering on the Nullarbor’. It would take too long here to put the proper context on that intimate association.

I was by now particularly struck with the book ‘Showering’ came out of: Bill’s the fascination of what’s simple. I actually composed a poem trying to explain the Australian way of doing things that that book reflected on. Here are a few lines from that poem called ‘bill’s poems’.

The smells, the damp flesh / the sun-bleached art, the bones / the sheer expanse of our country / leaves us speechless; / mouthing gibberish and old rhymes as consolation. / There are only bits and pieces to see / until you pull away / like in the best abstracts – / and then there’s a quiet music playing, / just enough to make a pattern / we squirrel away / to form, roughen out, a code we can pass / on, avenue to our fellows.

By this stage too, Bill, Maureen and I had joined Auburn Poets & Writers Group and Bill started to call himself Willem because Bill sounded too Anglo and he wanted to reflect on his Dutch heritage. Bill and I shared many other things we discovered. Like a love of Charlie Parker and Tom Waits and a nice ale, and outback road trips – and having fathers who tried to make a go of farming. A poem about that last point is in this book and I’d like to read it. It’s called ‘Big Hill’ (p 29, suburban veneer).

Willem had become an indispensable help running ‘Live Poets @ Don Bank’ (yes, the Society had ‘morphed’) and we got up to some rare skits together as you do. Like a re-enactment of the Apollo Moon landing and being in a play about the Lapin Agile café in Montmartre, Paris in the early 1900s – where Willem played 2 famous cats: Guillaume Apollinaire and Aristide Bruant. We decided to make a video on Live Poets’ 20th Anniversary. We also did a rendition of Melbourne rock/ blues group Chain’s epic song: ‘Black and Blue’.

This last trait seems to have migrated across to APWG too – just a couple of weeks ago at rehearsal for our 2017 Sydney Writers Festival show – Will playing bass and me playing saxophone in dumbshow as part of a band behind Maureen’s performance piece: ‘Grandaddy Jazz’.

I’d just like to add finally, in relation particularly to proofing Mr Tibben’s work: ‘he’s a guy who makes a space for poetry in his life.’

!ENHANCED Launch Will Tibben signing copies of suburn veneer at the launch 22 April 2017 NSW Writers' Centre

Willem Tibben signing a copy of suburban veneer with Neil Sheridan, and June Zhao at the launch, NSW Writers’ Centre, Sydney, 22 April 2017. photograph by Helen Lu

-Danny Gardner


Danny Gardner is a poet, novelist and freelance journalist. He has published several books of poetry. His most recent, Before I Press the Trigger, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2009. He has also published a book of non-fiction, Brains in My Feet – Encounters While Travelling, which was launched in 2014. He has been convening Live Poets @ Don Bank (North Sydney) since 2003. He first appeared with Auburn Poets & Writers Group at the Sydney Writers Festival 2008. He has been the group’s coordinator since 2014.

Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten co-launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017:
Maureen Ten’s audience address

Poems from suburban veneer

Willem Tibben: Biographical note

suburban veneer is available from Belgrove Press. contact: saleswt@belgrovepress.com


Featured Writer Willem Tibben: Biographical Note

! ENCHANCED Willem Tibben reading at launch

Willem Tibben reading at the launch of suburban veneer, NSW Writers’ Centre, Sydney, 22 April 2017. photograph by Helen Lu

Willem (Bill) Tibben
came from Holland to Camden in 1954 where he grew up on dairy farms. He worked in the NSW Public Service for 43 years and retired in 2007. His first published poems were in Neucleus (University of New England’s student newspaper – 1977) and since then he has published four books: near myths (1986), the conscious moment (1996), the fascination of what’s simple (2005), and suburban veneer (2017). Willem is President of Youngstreet Poets; member of Auburn Poets and Writers’ Group; and a regular attender at Live Poets at Don Bank.

Poems from suburban veneer

Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten co-launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017:

Danny Gardner’s audience address
Maureen Ten’s audience address

suburban veneer is available from Belgrove Press. contact: saleswt@belgrovepress.com


Featured Writer Willem Tibben: poems from ‘suburban veneer’

lake cockrone

(for pam)

in the stillness before sunrise
kookaburras reclaim their selection
black swans show off   arching
moorhens   their tail-feather vulnerability
i am in this new day   beginning
remembering our first time   after midnight
two of us in the holiday house canoe
me doing the paddling you being pilot
talking coleridge  wordsworth  their lakes
the boundary hills moved with us
black shapes on starry surfaces
the waters only waist deep we knew
(but anyone can drown in an inch of it)
we were easy new and free   careful
awake   it’s twenty-eight years later
i’m listening to ocean   clear as shells
your breathing   slipping from our bed
and walking to the lake in that first light



quickened by the guide’s
demonstration of ‘cave-light’
(switching off everything)

as she clicks them back on
reinventing the cave’s tapestry
two microbats flit through

then almost before
their fly-past has registered
and the guide explibbeains

the marvel of their presence
they reprise the instant
flicker/gone again

our second chance
but we’re still too slow
to properly apprehend them

so   where were they
during those thirty seconds
of our experiment with

absolute darkness
as it permeated
how could we know

restive in contemplation
they were amongst us

tiny flying mammals
on fast fast forward
chasing down their light


namatjira’s ute door

pride of place by the museum entrance
the first photo is dated  1947
a utility   glossy black   a dodge
albert in the driver’s seat   faintest of smiles
window down   shirt open   pale sports coat
his arm on the sill above meticulous detailing
.                              albert namatjira
.                              artist
.                              alice springs
.                              tare  2.12.02
and on the side near the tray
.                             this vehicle
.                             presented
.                             by ampol
the photographer knelt to shoot up at albert
and because the ute is parked before a church
this has inadvertently placed the cross from its roof
onto the back of the ute’s cabin like some holy aerial
channelling albert’s trinity   arrernte world
white god   the colour of water

in the next room of the museum a second photo
shows a utility that’s light grey  or beige perhaps
certainly not the first one faded or compromised
the lettering on this driver’s door is identical
except it says hermannsburg   not alice springs
is this an older ute from before ampol’s magnanimity
or has there been some accident   some trading
albert’s face gives away nothing   only knowing
baptism   initiation   the finke in flood   seven lean
a dead child   unsayable   art deeper than irony

in a third room another photo shows this same utility
but now it is a wreck in a dry creek bed   no wheels
bonnet up   stripped-trashed   the door hanging open
says haast bluff    but that’s not where he’s been
albert’s been staying at the pleasure of her majesty
after being recently received by her   this photo’s
.                        taken at gilbert’s crossing
.                        the day that namatjira died
.                        8 august 1959

finally   among the exhibits at the exit
stands the door itself   donated to this place   1974
sill rusted where the duco wore under albert’s arm
frame bent   hinges unhinged   detailing
because it is riddled with bullet holes   67 of them
there is a sign on the wall of the museum   warning
.                        do not make pictures
.                        of any kind


a hard day’s night [1]

screaming began pouring from the screen
a controlled chaos flooded the theatre
girls broke down sobbing as did usherettes
but we were not swept from our first-date seats

we sat immersed in that marvellous hysteria
and did not make a sound  (i remember that for sure)
as the plot raced ahead on goonish innocence
paul’s clean uncle   lonely ringo puddles

just as suddenly it was over   the lights came up
we filed out silently   and the earth had moved
biffo drove us home   in the backseat of his FJ
your body-heat surprising   our fingers curling

unhooking   your front door ajar (mum coughed)
1/9d each   i saved those ticket stubs for years


[1] Campbelltown Picture Show – August, 1964


the rumsfeld variations

there are those who are well
and know they are well

there are those who are well
and do not know they are well

there are those who are not well
who know they are not well

there are those who are not well
who do not know they are not well

there are those who are
neither well nor unwell

who know they are neither
well nor unwell

there are those who are neither
well nor unwell  who do not know

whether or not they are well or unwell
and then there’s us


-Willem Tibben

All poems were originally published in ‘suburban veneer’ (Belgrove Press, 2017) and have been republished with the author’s permission



! ENCHANCED Willem Tibben reading at launch

Willem Tibben. photograph by Helen Lu

Willem (Bill) Tibben came from Holland to Camden in 1954 where he grew up on dairy farms. He worked in the NSW Public Service for 43 years and retired in 2007. His first published poems were in Neucleus (University of New England’s student newspaper – 1977) and since then he has published four books: near myths (1986), the conscious moment (1996), the fascination of what’s simple (2005), and suburban veneer (2017). Willem is President of Youngstreet Poets; member of Auburn Poets and Writers’ Group; and a regular attender at Live Poets at Don Bank.



Willem Tibben: Biographical note

Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten co-launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017:

Danny Gardner’s audience address
Maureen Ten’s audience address

suburban veneer is available from Belgrove Press. contact: saleswt@belgrovepress.com


“veracity, agility, ferocity, and novelty”: Les Wicks launches Open & Unfold by Cecilia Morris

Les Wicks launched Open & Unfold (Belgrove Press) by Cecilia Morris on Sunday, 21 May at the Brighton Library, 14 Wilson St, Brighton, Victoria.

cecilia morris book coverI’ve been a part of this community of poets for too many years. We are continually moaning the difficulties of access that we suffer, always sure that it can’t get any worse but somehow it still does. There’s a number of reasons why, certainly including some that is our own fault and a failure over time by government to support us in our efforts to get our work out there.

I say this because us being here to launch Cecilia Morris’ Open and Unfold speaks to the way we can turn this around.

With commercial publishers having long vacated the field of poetry, Belgrove Press is a shining indication of the way forward. Motivated, intelligent writers coming together – utilising each other’s strengths to create an imprint with a clear vision. I’m certainly keen to support this new player in any way I can and I urge you to do likewise.

Launch CM

Cecilia Morris reading from Open & Unfold. photograph Lexi Johnston

Secondly, there is Cecilia herself. Over the past ten years she has turned her considerable, sometimes awe inspiring, energy to the development of her own craft, that of others through Coastlines, U3A, etc., and finally working to enhance the placement of poetry in the broader community both Bayside and elsewhere. I love this woman’s ferocious capacities. I’m sure many of you feel the same way.

For my sins, I regularly find myself in the role of competition judge or editor. I’ve kind of distilled what I look for in a poem or book into four ‘ities’ – veracity, agility, ferocity, and novelty. Cecilia’s book has all these in spades.

Veracity – the mining for fundamental truths and the transmission of same. Open and Unfold comes from a multifaceted life lived and examined fearlessly. From the deeply upsetting Don’t Go Home to the explored vulnerability of Left, we are privileged to be allowed into Morris’s garden of experience.

Agility – the best writers need to have both a love of language, commitment to perpetual exploration alongside a capacity to be somewhat ruthless in editing. There are so many marvellous expressions in this book. I’ll read you just a few:

‘I’d rip off your body if I could.
You have a fishtail’, floating fabric says

Dali Exhibition Melbourne Two Voices

unpacking mackerel sky

The Cloud Spotter’s Guide

there was a green border of longing


There is an age when you are most yourself,
you feel as large as Russia


When I use the phrase ferocity I’m not talking about axe murderers (though there are some pretty tough moments in this book). It could just as easily be a ferocity of empathy, of love, of grief. The energy of real emotion is evident throughout this book whether it be her first kiss on page 77, great lines like “skies fell fears” (Visitor’s Rights) and the lovely poem to her mother Ruth.

Novelty can really make a collection memorable. We all write about relationships, death, ageing, et cetera and there are many fine poems around those themes in this collection. But what makes it particularly memorable are the pieces where new subjects are explored, the reader finds themselves embedded in the poetic experience completely unfamiliar to them – you must read This Chartered Accountant, Dining in the Wolf’s Lair and Branau Am Inn. In many ways, the whole section titled These Biographies is a wonderful kaleidoscope of character exploration. Creating fresh imagery after centuries of literary tradition is not easy, but Cecilia can describe a swing going to and fro as buttering sky. The moon has been subject to so many descriptions, how can you go past to describing it as opal? How about an aphorism I wish like hell I had written “the forgotten tap still runs”?

The first section titled Don’t Let Them Sit embodies that restless energy we’ve come to know and love in Cecilia. One of her great passions is for colour and the second section flows across the spectrum in an entirely unforced way. Customers Arrive Naked starts with that confronting proposition and explores it masterfully. Breaking Bread covers quite a lot of temporal ground and gives us a glimpse of what makes a 21st century Jewish woman. The Timetable section explores travel, Wait is replete with moments of lucid quiet whilst the last section Surrender concerns letting go and departures.

Lovely, lovely poems throughout this collection – humour, pain, judgement, and celebration. A clarity of language makes each poem a genuine moment that the reader will feel honoured in which to be emplaced. I declare this book duly launched.

cecilia morris launch photo

Audience members at the launch of Open & Unfold, Brighton Library, Victoria. photograph by Lexi Johnston (2017).

-Les Wicks


Les Wicks has toured widely and been published in 28 countries and 13 languages. His 13th book of poetry is Getting By Not Fitting In (Island, 2016). His 12th, El Asombrado, is a selection of poems from the previous fifteen years in Spanish and English translated by G. Leogena and published by Rochford Street Press in 2015. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Open & Unfold is available from Belgrove Press. Contact: salescm@belgrovepress.com

“narratives of pain, illness, resilience and fortitude”: Jennifer Harrison launches Shaping the Fractured Self edited by Heather Taylor Johnson

Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (UWAP 2017) edited by Heather Taylor Johnson was launched by Jennifer Harrison at the Dax Centre, University of Melbourne on 11 May 2017.

10203-ShapingTheFS-Cover-v5In a marvellous SBS documentary about New York women who live octo-nonagenarian lives full of vitality and insouciant style, one of the women noted, “As you get older, if you have two of something one of them is always in pain.”

Pain, then, is something that confronts us all with age. This week my mother, who is in her late 80s and lives interstate, has spinal pain. After we had talked about it for a while on the phone she said suddenly, “That’s enough about me. I hate talking about me this way. Tell me about you.”

Illness and pain are also very private and personal matters that often alienate us from the general discourse of daily health and vigour. Sometimes people feel too vulnerable to talk about pain, as if ashamed of their experiences. Shaping the Fractured Self addresses the psychological ethics and lived experience of pain and chronic illness. The book asks: what is normality? what is reality? who defines pain?

I’m so glad that the editor and publishers invited the Dax Centre to launch the book in Melbourne. The anthology’s themes reach into everything the Dax Centre holds dear to its historic art collection, and to its more recent child: The Dax Poetry Collection. The Dax Centre has always believed that it is the lived experience of mental illness and psychological trauma that most powerfully helps us to understand mental illness. To empathise is to counteract stigma. Shaping the Fractured Self is very much a book about lived experience. The insights into chronic pain are deeply powerful. The poetry is vibrant, exciting and emotionally engaging. This is poetry with something to say.

SFS Melbourne launch photo

Melbourne book launch of Shaping the Fractured Self with editor Heather Talyor Johnson (pictured far left). Dax Centre, University of Melbourne, 11 May 2017. photograph by Bel Schenk

When I think about the themes of the anthology my own identifications are threefold: I’m a doctor, I work as a child psychiatrist with young people with disability and their families, and I struggled with relapsing cancer for ten years in my 30s. I have always felt that by having cancer at a young age I did the psychological work of becoming 90 at 30. In other words, I ‘did’ the work of death early in my life, earlier than most. And I notice that this book is not only about the illnesses of elderly experience but also about the effects of chronic illness on early adult trajectories (work, relationships, financial striving). It is a testament to those who adapt, ‘live with’ their pain and refuse to submit to it.

All of us have a body. All of us are vulnerable to illness, every day. We have colds, appendicitis, tooth aches. These are episodic reminders of our vulnerability. In these pages are poems about all kinds of conditions: migraines, Ménière’s disease, Marfan syndrome – just to name some of the “Ms”. Not only did the poems reawaken my own (slightly dormant) illness narrative, but I could dip in and out of the images – relating, identifying, or not identifying. This is one of the book’s strengths: it is a moving prism of possible identifications, mirrors.

But these are also specific stories and it is an inspired decision by the editor Heather Taylor Johnson to include the framing narratives at the beginning of each contributor’s poems. I fell deeply into these narratives of pain, illness, resilience and fortitude. I then fell differently into the poems. It’s as though the two forms, prose and poetry, encourage each other, sometimes mysteriously, sometimes angrily, but always reminding us that a person is more than the sum of his or her suffering. As Peter Boyle says, “Illness, suffering, disease are not the whole of the story.” And, again, in his poem on the experience of having polio as a child (‘Paralysis’) he writes, “What does it matter / that I am only eyes / if I am to be carried / so lightly / under the trees of the world?”

The natural world and its resonances, both as solace and as a reminder of the vulnerability of life, is a frequent theme in the collection. In Beth Spencer’s ‘The Shipwreck Coast’ with its wonderful evocation of isolation and struggle in nature along the Great Ocean Road, she asks, ‘Rising and sinking. / Is that a form of swimming?” And elsewhere in the poem, the flow of the seasons also shapes the fractured self:

The grey beige relentlessness of my haven,
and the constant howling ripping of the wind
ate into my brain.

And then just as I was about to crack
one morning the sun came out.

And the wind relented just a little.

And I fell instantly in love.

Still later in this long poem, nature brings death closer in perspective, “. . . a dead penguin on the beach, / its feathers slicked with oil. / Everything after all, just a step away.”

Poetry is the distilled art of language. Nothing is briefer, more somatic, more sensory. It is language under pressure, experimental in its purest form. And what art form can better express what the body senses in a paralinguistic sense?  The poems and prose texts reach towards the unsayable, often towards the interspaces between a smiling doctor and a devastated patient. The power inequality in these poems is addressed and recalibrated continually. Andy Jackson indicates that he came to poetry for two reasons – “to try to feel at home outside the church, and to try and feel at home inside my own body.” He says, “When language is placed in the hands of people who have been marginalised, and then spoken in a public space, small transformations can be triggered.” This is indeed a profound truth, a neurolinguistic philosophy, of a kind: that writing effects cultural change as powerfully as culture affects writing.

There are three poems from each of the contributors. Voices of carers and doctors are here too but do not drown out the lived experiences. A terrific introduction by Rachel Robertson references the controlling technologies of medicine, how the self is changed by illness experience, how narrative fragmentation is often the most appropriate form to illuminate the body’s actual experience of pain – but she also discusses how the lyric poem gives us entry into hope and a positive sense that the ‘darkness can be navigated’.

Many poets talk about how hard it is to write and share these poems. As Heather Taylor Johnson says, “I hated the poems I wrote on illness.” Yet her metaphors on Ménière’s disease (like so much imagery in the book) are fresh and engaging: “Still, you want to write about the sound in your left ear. You want to say it is time’s drone, molecules swimming past your head or the dam that will tug you under . . . None of this is natural.” (‘Trying to Write about Ménière’s Disease’).

As I said, I have had a very personal response to the book – as a doctor and child psychiatrist. I’ve just returned form the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry’s annual congress in Adelaide, where so many interesting discussions and papers were presented, and I know that the only way forward in medicine is through co-dialogue with patients – where all services at every level of development are made and shaped in conversation with patients, and their families. It is quite strange to me that this is a new idea. Doctors might have training in medical expertise but it is a service not a power. In Andy Jackson’s poem ‘Nothing Personal’ he says (referring to the doctor), “He is not talking to me, but to my mother”. In her poem ‘The Waiting Room’, Jessica Cohen notes, “Another waiting room, . . . as bland as the beige of the walls / as monotonous as the grey ceiling tiles.” Drab hospital environments, uncaring treatment and cruel numbers (statistics often standing in opposition to the uniqueness of suffering, individuality). In her poem ‘The Numbers’, Fiona Wright emphasises the distancing effect of statistics when she glimpses the contents of the locum’s bag, “one sandwich in blue plastic, one nectarine, / three crackers, pink wallet, keys” and also later in the poem when she is given ‘three standard questionnaires, at twenty-eight-day intervals.”

Doctors smiling as they tell bad news can be particularly painful, a defence. But sometimes there are also helpful care narratives, as in Rachel Mead’s ‘At the Psychologist’ when she says, ‘But you catch it all, deftly, the tissues / placed just so. . .”

Often, the chronic conditions cannot be completely understood or defined by traditional medical diagnoses. Pain falls between categories. Many poems speak to the shortcomings of medical insight. In the poem, ‘The Body Electric’, Steve Evans notes, “But still I cannot sing it right. / Even if I go quite slow there are / glitches in transmission” and later in the poem, “I see the poor machine I am.”  Patients can easily feel themselves blamed when they don’t fit a diagnosis. Sometimes the treatment makes things worse. In ‘ENDONE.  Oxycodone hydrochloride 5mg*’ Stuart Barnes advises, “. . . do not show your new / -born child to a doctor or a pharmacist.”

Many poets speak of what chronic debility has cost them in terms of work, career advancement, educational opportunities and wellbeing. In her prose narrative, ‘From Clinic to Consulting Room’, Fiona Wright talks about the solace she has gained from writing but also notes, “I’m still not sure if this can ever be a consolation commensurate enough for what I’ve lost.” Nevertheless, Wright also sees that writing has a restorative, reclaiming power, “My glass hands lift . . .” (‘Her Arms and Legs are Thin’).

I want to emphasise the strange and often fragile beauty I found in many of the poems. Rarely have I read work that stilled and shocked me with such forceful immediacy. There are many wonderful images in the anthology. For example, Anne Carson in ‘Axiology’, “If I was ceramic I’d be kindsukuroi, / pottery which has been knocked, // dropped, broken into shards then /mended with gold or silver lacquer . . .” and here, Rachael Guy’s taut subjectivity in her poem ‘Discontinuation’: “I watch as skin crawls up my wrists, another person’s arms colonising my sleeves.” Fragility, however, is tempered with toughness and determination. In ‘Blade of Grass’, Sid Larwell reminds us to be careful of pathos, “But don’t compare me to a blade of grass. / I want to be something bigger, something stronger.”

Some authors contextualise their writing to a specific illness; others are more interested in the body in space and time, the disempowering or empowering experience, the way poetry sings both to and against death, towards medicine and against constriction. The work of Quinn Eades, for example, challenges our basic ideas of illness when he discusses the concept of the body as ‘outlaw’. Eades explores what becomes possible when “I write the body” and looks at how the “body falls right where we need it, falls here, in the writing, in the fragment, in poetry.”  This is an argument for deconstruction of prejudice and stigma.

Alongside Eades’s keenly academic appraisal of the place of fragmentation and power in art we find a kindred psychology in the work of a poet like Kristen Lang. Her writing, which explores themes of anorexia, also investigates ideas of empowerment/ disempowerment, through lyric, and is especially insightful about the effect of chronic illness on youth. Here is Lang’s entire poem ‘Hole’:

The dark breaks on the sea of its own rising,
a moonless tide swelling into shadow. At its centre,
a woman stands on a float of leaves, on their reds
and browns, their veins decaying and the not-

night waiting below. The black leans into her blood, full
and heavy with emptiness. Balancing on the leaves’
frail bones, she barely moves. In her heart, a stuttered
cry . . . this . . . this way . . . this way now. But the dark

swirls and the sound is swallowed. Her eyes
dig for the fall She is held by wire, the thin
clamour of her pulse.

I wanted to mention every author in the book, quoting a small insight from each of his or her works, but soon realised that this would not be possible in a short talk like this. And so, with apology to all the poets I have not yet mentioned, I return to a medical perspective, to Leah Kaminsky, a doctor and a poet, who asks in the final poem of the book (‘In Memoriam’), “What is a body, if not grace?”

In conclusion, Shaping the Fractured Self is a dialogue between the body and self by poets who assert their right to shape their own experiences of illness and pain. As Kaminsky wryly notes in her prose narrative, ‘Death and the Doctor’, “Poetry has a surgical eye”. This small epigrammatic insight encouraged me to reflect on the nature of poetry itself: how the poems in this collection carve deeply into what chronic illness feels like, how it is experienced, and what it means.

Congratulations to the publishers, to Heather Taylor Johnson for bringing such a terrific swag of writers together, and to all the contributors. This conversation with the book is my own. Yours will begin as soon as you open a page.

-Jennifer Harrison


Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain is available from UWA Publishing: https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/shaping-the-fractured-self-poetry-of-chronic-illness-and-pain

Read a book extract from Shaping the Fractured Self

Featured Writer Owen Bullock: Seven Poems and Three Untitled Prose Poems

Three untitled prose poems

Yeah. Yeah, that it’s bro. He had a skinful. Yeah. I couldn’t tell, just had this feeling, you know. Back of me head. No, I never been there before. But I knew that’s where the horse would go.

People say, I’ve looked a hundred times – usually in the same places. So I look where they don’t think it could possibly be, and there it is.


He hid inside a ball, the juggler found it. Mill’s Mess made him dizzy; the Shower lashed boredom. He made a new game: keeping arms and feet splayed wide, sprung off the wall rap rap rapidly. He was starshaped. Hands and feet wore down, limbs shivered and cracked, spun about, shaved to stunted. Shrunk to a ball. He fit. In.


The fool’s cap was full of sheets of paper. When I reached my hand in, something bit me, skin torn from bone. The fool laughed, offered a salve. The hand healed quickly. I followed him, took money as he performed on the streets, watched as he milked the wealthy for attention, courted favour for position in the senate. I offered a man my own hat full of sheets of paper. When it bit him he slapped me.


Coaching tips

The first thing we did with the new coach was learn how to juggle. Fucking stupid. But keeping three balls in the air gives you a lot of confidence when you drop back to one. We all had to kick with both feet. The forwards as well as the backs did half-back drills. He made us agree there was no point carrying flab; we got rid of it. We gave up beer. Stopped talking about luck. Finally, we beat the All Blacks.



in the sheet
.                   Martin’s absence
Martin’s travelling

light in the room
.                           contains days
he walked beside the canal
.                                           looking for birds

shadows on windows

.      not an exercise

you walk away
.                        find yourself
at the edge of a lake
which precedes
.                         white paper



.          to Barthes

I don’t know
what a red-letter day is

understanding male and female

like theorists
coming to an empty room

perfectly appointed
on the side of a mountain

inside, a table set for dinner
and no food

you can sit
as long as you like


Meditations on Švankmajer

stone drop
this me
in another life

.                                  rage
.                                  at the man
.                                  let the guinea pig go free

with the beast

.                                  without him
.                                  we have a picnic
.                                  & don’t even know
.                                  what we are

beating faster
the story crumbles

.                                  objects
.                                  torment him

voyeur –
feathers win
for a while




her lips
without opening
in a twist of defiance
the struggle to find
wood for the fire
worry the roof might


her lips
in tight lines
the mannered nature
of words, careful
to say the
precise things


his lips
with a little
bleak humour
falling off his bike


free-ass (paroles)

Saussure, sausage
bake in a
rin-tin-tin, Bakhtin
with the exciting adventures of
Kristeva Christabel

birds answer stars
a blush of light
between clouds

a blurb of light
a typo, the Bibel
a rustic joke
(or primitive instrument)

kind wakefulness

what’s the password.                          [clues
.                                                           which can be
is being dyslexic.                                taken out]
any kind of advantage?


Mother referenced multitudes:
to be Pacific, dear


the stool wobbles

for what’s hard to say

.           I didn’t have the muscle tone
.           to cut it off

early morning
a knotted handkerchief
at the end of a stick

he steps onto the drive
the journey ends


thoughts cross easily

a bridge
between sign
and wilderness


met him
a simple metonym

homonym Watt

shuffling bags
towards the exit

left out a personal pronoun
took the bus instead

he was also

a thrush he remembered
on the fence post




after the first sip
settle to reading Bakhtin
.           the charm in knowing
.           the cup is ready

something catches your attention
an idea odours the room
wash it down
with sips

Bakhtin’s second page
the word ‘neutral’
in the quote by Zirminsky
the phrase ‘linguistic descriptions’
applied to novels

someone is talking
raise the cup
I’ve learnt the word ‘variform’

a wash
the cup empty
‘the higher unity of the work as a whole’

-Owen Bullock



Owen Bullock

Owen Bullock’s publications include River’s Edge (Recent Work Press, 2016), A Cornish Story (Palores, 2010), and sometimes the sky isn’t big enough (Steele Roberts, 2010). He has two new collections forthcoming in 2017: semi (Puncher & Wattmann) and Work & Play (Recent Work Press). He won the Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Poetry for his performance of urban haiku for Poetry at the Gods in September 2015. Owen has edited several journals and anthologies, including Poetry New Zealand. He recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. He tweets @OwenTrail

Biographical Note

River’s Edge, 5678, and Urban Haiku are available from Recent Work Press


Featured Writer Owen Bullock: Biographical Note


Owen Bullock

Owen Bullock’s publications include River’s Edge (Recent Work Press, 2016), A Cornish Story (Palores, 2010), and sometimes the sky isn’t big enough (Steele Roberts, 2010). He has two new collections forthcoming in 2017: semi (Puncher & Wattmann) and Work & Play (Recent Work Press). He won the Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Poetry for his performance of urban haiku for Poetry at the Gods in September 2015. Owen has edited several journals and anthologies, including Poetry New Zealand. He recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. He tweets @OwenTrail

Seven Poems and Three Untitled Prose Poems

River’s Edge, 5678, and Urban Haiku are available from Recent Work Press



Vale Fay Zwicky

Fay Zwicky (Photograph Juno Gemes (copyright Juno Gemes)

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

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

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