Prose Poem or travel writing? Mark Roberts reviews Vanuatu Moon (Parts 1 & 2) by Paul Cliff

Vanuatu Moon (Part 1 and Part 2) by Paul Cliff. PressPress 2011

Paul Cliff’s two part prose poem, Vanuatu Moon, asks a number of important questions. Unfortunately, by the time I had finished Part Two, I did not feel most of these questions had been fully answered.

One of these questions related to the term ‘prose poem’. When I think of prose poems I think of Joanne Burns or maybe Ania Walwicz…or issue 10 of Mascara where there are some interesting, intriguing and, at times, amazing short prose/poems by Susan Schultz, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Adam Aitken and Jill Jones among others. So I went looking for a definition of ‘prose poem’ to try and place my understanding of the term in some sort of context. The standard Wikipedia defintion seems good enough to start with…..”Prose poetry is poetry written in prose instead of using verse but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery and emotional effects”. If we apply this to a section of one of Suneeta Peres da Costa’s pieces in Mascara we can see how such a simple definition works:

Was shy, retiring, but his problem was he shone and gave a bad impression despite his every effort to go unremarked. He would try to be still, so as not to upset the careful geometry of others’ existences, but if he was knocked by the smallest force—a gust of wind, say, or a loud noise—he shimmered and glowed and peopled shouted and raised their fists at him………

The Mirror Man

This is prose, but it almost seems that is constantly trying to be a poem, and it is this conflict which drives the work. Paul Cliff, in the prelude to his long prose poem Vanuatu Moon, starts well enough with a description of a plane sitting on the runway at Sydney airport:

The difference already begins here, on the Sydney
tarmac. In the Air Vanuatu Boeing: with the stern-faced
Melanesian hostess standing at the aisle’s head wearing
a frangipani at her ear, and us all packed into these
very cramped seats….

There is a hint of what might come later in the sequence, “the difference already begins..”, we anticipate what that difference might be, how it might grow. There is the contradiction between the stern face of the hostess and the frangipani behind her ear. This anticipation is maintained in the second section ‘Invocation’ where the sense of difference is intensified by a prayer to the sea and air for their safe arrival. This section recalls earlier invocations or prayers offered up by sailors to survive storms and for safe passage through treacherous seas.

Unfortunately this sense of difference is never completely realised. What I found in the rest of Vanuatu Moon was a fairly conventional narrative of a holiday – basically a piece of travel writing. The ‘difference’, for the most part, seems superficial. The writer is on holiday, the people are different, there are interesting things to see. After the promise of the first page and quarter the tone of the writing slips into a flatness, from which it only occasionally escapes. We learn, for example, that:

In the air-conditioned cool, the array of imports
astonishes you. French, Swiss, Danish, Dutch and Italian
cheeses. Truffles and mushrooms. Escargots. Processed
meats, pate and game birds. Exotic beers and wines.
No less than 12 brands of deodorant and 15 of
shampoo (I’ve counted, it’s true).

‘Bon Marche supermarket, Numbatu’

There is a sameness to the prose which starts to detract from the descriptions of Vanuatu which fill the two chapbooks. It is this sameness which, in the final instance, prevents the sequence from reaching it’s true potential.

There are a number of lost opportunities in the two books. For me the most obvious was the ‘Surplus Cargo’ section in book one. Here Cliff describes how the Americans deposed of all their surplus war equipment at the end of World War 2 by simply building a ramp and driving it into the sea:

                                                            being
uneconomical to ship back home, and the
Condominium baulking at the asking price, the Seabees
constructed a ramp on this site, loaded up all the
airstrip – and road making plant – steam rollers, forklifts,
bulldozers, graders, trucks and such like – with all
manner of more surplus stuff, fixed open the vehicles’
throttles and, in a dramatic, emphatic kind of merry
‘Fuck You’, just let all the cargo go (feral) – hurting its
way up then incline, to Evil Kneivel itself into the sea.

There is the potential for some interesting imagery here – of steam rollers being driven off a ramp and crashing into the sea, the roar of engines, lights, noise and so on.There is also the sense of injustice that this machinery, which could have been left for the locals to use, was simply destroyed. While this is briefly touched on, Cliff never deviates from his narrative and we have to do the work, to imagine what could have been written.

The other major question that remained unanswered for me was why Vanuatu Moon ran over two chapbooks. After reading the first book I approached the second book hoping for a change in the narrative, for some tension perhaps, or even a change to the structure of the prose. Part Two, however, continued where Part One left off and I was left thinking “why two books”. In retrospect perhaps the final outcome could have been improved if it had of been edited down to a singe book. As it was I was left thinking I had read a very well written small travel book about a holiday to Vanuatu. I had long since given up, however, on the notion of reading a long and complex prose poem.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

Signifying the Feminine: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews This Woman by Adrienne Eberhard

This Woman by Adrienne Eberhard. Black Pepper, 2011 Reviewed by: Marietta Elliott-KLeerkoper

The title of Adrienne Eberhard’s new collection of poetry states her intention boldly: This Woman. ‘This’ signifies the place: the here and now. ‘Woman’ signifies the feminine, the female domain, a domain also encompassed by the symbolism of Susan Hawthorne’s ‘Cow’. Margaret Bradstock, in her review of the collection in Mascara Literary Review (Issue 10 October 2011), states that it is ‘female poetry’ and that it is ‘confessional’. I find these epithets limiting. Maybe ‘personal’ and ‘lyrical’ are more apt. However, as we know, the personal is both universal and political. And these qualities are not necessarily ‘female’, as is demonstrated in new collections such as Luke Davies’ Interferon Psalms and Christopher Swan’s Daylight Dark and Shadow.

One of Eberhard’s most significant and enduring influences is Seamus Heany:

Seamus Heany … his ability to invoke childhood … his ability to use language and metaphor … his way of anchoring his poems in the natural world … Heany was (sic) a poet of place …

‘In dialogue with Poetry: The intimate self/the invisible mender.’ Adrienne Eberhard. Zest e-magazine, 2007.

And Eberhard is herself a poet of place. How could she not be, living by the beauty of the D’Entrecastaux Channel in Tasmania?

… Across the Channel,

Bruny stretches like a tawny lion, colour leaching

from tawny hills until grassy slopes are sandy

as the beaches rimming the island like an endless

string of pearls …

‘Littoral’

Within this landscape, under the ‘enamelled cobalt’ of the sky, are the children ‘claiming the world with their noise’. In this way, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic are united.

The notion of place includes its history (a previous volume was ‘Lady Jane Franklin’). While Margaret Bradstock may have a point, that Eberhard has romanticised that history in omitting its less palatable aspects (I am not qualified to judge), Eberhard does not shirk from confronting even the most painful experiences. Her poems on breast cancer are hard-hitting, almost savage:

Soon her own breast will radiate lurid colour, her son

will hold out his small arms and she will turn away,

her breasts dangerous. The surgeon will take his knife

and rectify. Her breast will follow the knife’s hollowing,

all pertness spent in the sharpness of steel,

falling into itself, as if trying to salvage something.

‘This woman’

and there is the pain of witnessing her son’s colour blindness, a condition ‘carried by daughters, inherited by sons’ (‘Vision’). For me, these poems are the most poignant, perhaps partly because I too have suffered breast cancer.

Another way Eberhard says Heany has influenced her is in his use of metaphor. She says of metaphor:

… in the beginning was metaphor. This is what enables us to see the potential of the world

Adrienne Eberhard. Zest e-magazine, 2007.

Kinzie has defined metaphor as follows:

Usually something physical and capable of being imagined by us visually … is transferred from the literal realm over to the spiritual

Mary Kinzie: A Poet’s Guide to Poetry.

University of Chicago Press, 1999

In Eberhard’s case, the ‘physical’ is commonly the landscape or the body – one expressed in terms of the other, for example, in poems such as ‘The Natural Order’, where the girl is described in terms of the wind, and ‘Trust’, where the child in his different stages of growth is described in terms of the animals he encountered. Out of this comparison, the message is that we are anchored in the natural world. The comparison can also enhance the description of both the landscape and the figures in the landscape. However, if this becomes too much of a pattern, the power of the comparison can be weakened.

Kinzie also points out that:

… the poet must find the right objects and the means of shifting the conception of them from one realm to another.

This can be difficult to achieve. There is a danger of bathos (so well illustrated in the works of Alexander Pope, who uses this device with intent): for example: the comparison of a flock of crows with a bikie gang; a bird’s nest ‘soft as suede shoes’ (reminded me of Elvis: ‘Don’t step on my blue suede shoes!’).

A further issue with comparison is its formulation. Simile (‘as’ or ‘like’) introduces a foreign element, to paraphrase Kinzie. In this way it is less direct. Moreover, there is an inherent ambiguity in the simile: the two arms of the comparison are as much unlike as like. It is less of a shifting from one realm to another. In Eberhard’s work there is a preponderance of simile, as opposed to a more direct form of metaphor. Take, for example, the similes used in ‘Littoral’ (see previous quotation).

In relation to diction, Kinzie states that:

… the more syllables in the word, the more conceptual, cerebral, conversational, and/or editorial it will tend to be.

Eberhard seems to have a fondness for the longer, latinate word, such as ‘luminous’, ‘translucent, ‘illuminated’, ‘excoriation’. Clearly, there is a place for both what Kinzie calls ‘objective, thing-or texture-filled’  language and abstract language. However, at times, this kind of consciously poetic language, especially if repeated from one poem to the next, or even in the same poem (see use of the word ‘golden’ in ‘Instructions for Learning the Saxophone’, p.80) the language seems over-written, especially in the case of phrases such as ‘luminous light’ and  ‘ancient past’, where the adjective is in fact largely redundant.

In this collection, the poet has drawn us into her world with intimacy and honesty.  It is a world rich in beauty, in history, in love of family. We are indeed ‘very lucky’:

And if we are very lucky … the poems we write will briefly repair the holes, the tears, the scatterings, the separations, so that for an instant, as the transaction between reader and poem takes place, the reader will inhabit a world made whole.

Adrienne Eberhard. Zest e-magazine, 2007.

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Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.

Issue 2: January – February 2012 Contents.

Rochford Street Press

All Dressed Up – Stephen Lawrence reviews Mascara Issue 10 and Jacket 2, ‘51 Contemporary poets from Australia’

Internet sites are replacing journals. Beyond this clear fact, there exists little consensus about whether it is a good or bad thing – let alone how one defines ‘journals’ and their impact on culture – according, for example, to the (online) discussion in Overland, September 2011, and this month’s review piece in The Australian.

Mascara, out of the University of Newcastle, began as, and remains, an e-journal since 2007. It started publishing poetry only; now they have a long review list, and it is growing lengthier with each new edition. Mascara’s tenth issue, ‘Prose Poetry,’ is the first themed edition.

The site’s pages employ a simple, effective interface, leading us in with a solitary striking image; for the tenth issue, it is Tamryn Bennett’s text cityscape, ‘Aneki.’ This visually primes the reader for Alistair Rolls’ featured essay, ‘Baudelaire’s Paris: A New, Urban (Prose) Poetics.’ Rolls’ piece argues that prose poetry is an urban form – indeed, embodies the modern metropolis. He does this by using Baudelaire’s artistic response to Modernist Paris’ urban renewal. (I am glad Woody Allen didn’t encounter Baudelaire in his insolent tour of Modernism, ‘Midnight in Paris.’)

The featured essay also alerts us to Mascara’s tone and editorial choices. The journal is “interested in the way poems locate individuals, and how they connect cultures and languages.” To say Mascara hopes to “challenge the way we position ourselves… renewing the way we imagine ourselves and the world,” reads as a nebulous mandate – although this allows the journal to evolve in any direction it pleases.

Intimations of literary theory wash through the essays. And French Modernist art is never far away; Toby Fitch translates two pieces from Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Theorising also infests some of the poetry – although it is often takes the form of playful nods within a palpable landscape, such as Tim Wright’s:

Boxes in the landscape. The assumptions of architecture. A different beach. The longer a trend takes to reach one. The grimy inner city becomes an idea. Patterns of light through the curtains. The Bolaño effect. Packets of mud.

(‘untitled’)

Mascara’s very general brief is made more specific by announcing its interest in Australia’s interaction with Asian regions. Half the advisory board is Asian; however, the journal is more ‘international’ than its advertised focus on Asian/American texts. There are only two Asian poets in the current issue, although other works address Asian culture, and a few of the translations are of Chinese prose poetry. Chen Li’s fine pieces, for example, translated by Chang Fen-Ling, are sharp micro-narratives built around cores of meditation:

…she borrowed money and bought him another car without my knowledge. That was a white car, white as the morning fog on winter days.

(‘Black Sheep’).

Prose poetry invites off-centre composition and grammar, showing itself qualitatively distinct from verse rhythms. Overall, the poems are varied, and generally fine examples of the genre. Some take the form too far, though. Michael Farrell’s shrilly gestural spacings around punctuation risk the reader seeing only empty hocus-pocus rather than interactive nuances. Most other poets get it, though: sparing use of devices imply mastery, such as Kate Waterhouse’s poised slashes, and Bella Li’s censorship of selected proper nouns. Or Jaimie Gusman’s mastery of cock-eyed, sometimes shocking syntax: “No one wants me as in desires me goes fang-thirsty to the hole in the ground” (‘Everything is For Seen’). These mechanisms are effective not just for the power of their sparse use, but also for their lucid intentionality, setting up clear exchanges with the reader.

The quality of reviewing is mixed in this issue. Heather Taylor Johnson’s piece on Pam Brown is insightful, and a model of how authors can conversationally appear in their own reviews and still come up with engaging criticism. However, Roberta Lowing’s critique of Jenny Lewis’ After Gilgamesh is clumsy and self-praising. It is laudable that so many poets are given the opportunity to review other poets in Mascara, but some employ ungainly prose. This may be either an inadvertent editorial irony – “this issue’s about prose” – or it could be intentionally opening up a complex dialogue on the artistic forms and grammatical elements of prose poetry. One can buy in or buy out of this.

A core review is Ed Wright’s, of The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems edited by Michael Byrne. He notes the drawback of so many Australian anthologies: defaulting to established practitioners instead of (a more difficult editorial task) venturing a stance on the future of such poetry by offering more new voices. Wright also usefully summarises weaker contributions as “cute but ultimately throwaway thought pieces”; this gives us a neat summary of prose poetry’s pitfalls, at the same time providing a measure of its uniqueness as a genre.

Jacket2 is the new incarnation of the original quarterly Jacket – another early example of an all-online poetry magazine. The original Jacket was founded by John Tranter in 1997 and while Jacket 2 moved is now maintained from the University of Pennsylvania, it has maintained its Australian connection by keeping Pam Brown as its associate editor.

In Jacket2, as with Mascara, the layout problems and bugs are minor. (In the latter, reviewers’ bios go missing, one is twice as long as the poet’s contribution, and another poet is given a blank page instead of a poem.) However, Louis Armand’s opening image is so large it takes a few seconds to download each time one navigates back to the page. And in both magazines, essays or core works do not announce themselves until one either scrolls down further page-lengths or searches a couple of layers in.

Pam Brown has recently put on this site a ‘collection’ – the editors hesitate to call it an ‘anthology’ – of fifty contemporary poets from Australia. This collection is buried partway down the ‘Features’ pages, at the bottom of a side-menu. Although it is a pity not to be visible closer to the surface, the purpose of Jacket2 is to be – at least in part – an ongoing report on the state of poetry. The site’s banner proclaims that it publishes articles, reviews, interviews, discussions and collaborative responses, archival documents, podcasts, and descriptions of poetry symposia and projects. Not unlike a daily news forum, we will publish content as it is ready.

Given this ambitious brief, articles and reports come and go, and the viewer is encouraged to browse randomly rather than more actively search through the site’s dendritic pathways.

The anthology’s introduction rightly suggests that to peruse literary journals can provide a better indication of a “country’s poetic,” and the collection only aspires to be “broadly representative.” However, although they do not discern any current ‘schools’ of Australian poetry, this doesn’t prevent Brown from noting “trends” – a “lyrical resurgence,” and poetic responses to technological and financial changes.

This is not an anthology that proscribes ‘Australian poetry,’ and Brown consider this a form of cultural cringe: defining this country’s poetic resembles a spurious postcolonial seeking after national identity. Besides, “nobody knows how to answer it.”

Though it is titled “51 Contemporary poets,” at present only about ten are evident in the contents. It is an evolving list, Brown tells us in her introduction, and forty more poets will join them in “four subsequent installments.” This first batch is in reverse alphabetical order (claimed as a “recently developed ‘downunder’ method”). Mark Young, a broad-ranging poet from New Zealand, is therefore up first. We are obliged to go to another page for poets’ biographies, and then are distracted by advertisements for the magazine on the right hand side. Marketing increasingly encroaches in our world – and poetry is not exempt from this influence, in its content as well as its backdrop.

The first ten poets also include Alan Wearne and his hilarious ‘Sarsaparilla: a Calypso’:

On through Menzies’ days and Holt’s,
Patrick logged up minor faults:
countless friendships never stick
(what a temperamental prick!).
Laboured syntax? Let it pass.
Can’t quite “get” the working class.
Down at the dump though, smoking pot …
Riders in the Chariot!

And there is Tranter’s own exceedingly long poem, ‘The Anaglyph.’ (Commissioned a stale five years ago, it is garden-fresh compared to featured poet Joanne Burns’ 2003 offerings in Mascara.) In terms of length, several of the poets are pleasingly allowed space enough to provide a sense of their methodology – although briefer entries often create a more intense and satisfying impact.

I was searching for weak links amongst the first offering, but found that all entries are of a high quality and representative of the editors’ themes. Brown takes no risks: every poet here is established or active in the literary community. Even though we only have ‘Y’ to ‘T’ surnames so far, this first sample presages a fine and comprehensive online anthology.

Given the inevitability of internet productions, these two journals – Mascara and Jacket2 – have taken the technological lead, and look like they, and others emerging even now, will continue to use the medium to produce effective and collaborative products.

– Stephen Lawrence