“Dark Convicts is an enterprising and exemplary work”: Tony Voss reviews ‘Dark Convicts’ by Judy Johnson

Dark Convicts: Ex-slaves on the First Fleet by Judy Johnson (UWA Publishing, 2017).

Dark_convicts_coverThe subtitle of Dark Convicts identifies these men (as it happens they are all male) as ex-slaves on the First Fleet: eleven black prisoner-pioneers who are among ‘the founders of Australia’, as the continental commonwealth would become known. The site of their enslavement had been what would in its turn become known as the United States of America.

They had gained their freedom by enlisting in the British Imperial and Loyalist forces during the War of Independence. Some of their fellows had been resettled in Canada and other British colonies, but many of the over 8,000 fugitive slaves who defected were shipped over to a new life in London. They had left the caste of slavery, but they could not escape the class of poverty. In the metropolis, they had no access to charity, no respect from their emancipators and little chance of gainful and dignified employment. In desperation, no doubt, many turned to crime.

Ironically, it was that decision that admitted them to the relentless record-keeping of the British Imperial and mercantile machine of state and so preserved at least the skeleton of their stories for this poet to revisit and recapture in this engaging and moving book. The substantial sequence of nearly fifty poems is interspersed with a prose commentary which identifies speakers and protagonists, sustains the narrative and contextualises the action.

Judy Johnson is directly engaged in this story since she is descended from two of the Dark Convicts, John Martin and John Randall. Martin married the daughter of his best friend Randall and their descendants now probably number 25,000. If any of them read poetry, they will be proud of the achievement of their congener. The sequence of poems concentrates on ‘the flavour of the life and times’ of the two ancestors. The poems evoke much of the detail and general condition of the early years of the New South Wales settlement.

Martin, sentenced at the Old Bailey to seven years transportation. He spent three years in Newgate and two years aboard the hulk Ceres (remember Great Expectations), where Randall was also held. It was there the two probably became friends. By the time Martin reached Sydney Cove, he had only eighteen months of his sentence to serve but had to wait until 1792 to be restored to liberty and granted 50 acres of the Northern Boundary Farm, Parramatta. His conduct had been exemplary, and he had among other duties been a member of the night watch. On the same day, Randall who had served as one of the governor’s three ‘game shooters’, and thus enjoyed some freedom of movement and encounter with the indigenous people, received a grant of 60 adjacent acres.

However, not all the Dark Convicts settled as happily as Martin and Randall. All suffered drought and famine: most succumbed to scurvy, dysentery or venereal disease. Many, Martin among them, were mercilessly flogged for minor infringements of whatever the code was. Within the first few years, several men and women were executed. In June of the first year, two young men, both in their early twenties, were hanged. Samuel Peyton for the theft of ‘shirts, stockings and combs’, and Edward Corbet for attempting to escape into the bush.

Judy Johnson neatly captures the coordinates of imperial rule. Her poem on the first church service is called ‘Church Tree’, the poem on the first hangings is called ‘Death Tree’. Equally telling is John Martin’s ironic recall of Governor Philip’s own words in ‘John Martin’s Twenty-Five Lashes’: ‘there will be no slavery in New South Wales. The sequence maintains a balance between details of experience, observation and sensation on the one hand and the overall purpose and shape and moral ambiguity of the enterprise on the other.

The story told in Dark Convicts is preserved in many sources, and the poet is scrupulous in her acknowledgements, italicising quotations from the journals and books she has used. The power of the work, however, emanates from the poet’s disposition of the information and of the words of many of the original First Fleeters. The story covers nearly forty years, from just before the war of 1776, to 1812, when John Martin, 57, marries Mary, 19, daughter of John Randall and Mary Butler.

The poet’s basic decision on the poem’s form was to give it a kind of unity, or homogeneity, by settling ‘on a thirteen spoken-syllable line’. It sounds like a rough-and-ready metre, but the brave decision does seem, albeit unevenly, to pay off. All the poems are subjected to this measure, yet the poet achieves variety and liveliness in several prosodic ways. Many of the poems are given to the different voices of the participants (the two central characters, other convicts, the parson, the governor, soldiers, and officials). Stanzaic form varies from poem to poem, and the poet makes telling use of internal and, occasionally, end rhyme. There are also some skilful uses of quite strict prosodic forms.

The first poem, for example, is ‘George Washington’s Lost Slave Villanelle’, in which the General urges resistance against the British, or else the Americans will ‘be subjugated much like the slaves we own’. The thirteen-syllable line seems to struggle with the rhyme scheme and refrain of the verse form. However, the awkwardness of the resulting rhythm is right for what is a compromised defence of slavery recalling Johnson’s question: ‘How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’

In ‘Eleven Black Scoundrels Bound for the First Fleet’ which is ‘to be sung to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas’, the strict line-length doesn’t appear to harmonise with the form of the song. However, in ‘Farewell and Adieu Old England’, the strict line length is matched to a form of rhymed and half-rhymed quatrains which gives us an engaging sea-shanty. ‘Black Caesar’s Pantoum or The Bear is Hungry’, a poem spoken by David Collins, the Judge Advocate, about the incorrigible giant who became Australia’s first bushranger (eventually shot dead by a bounty-hunting fellow convict), is a triumph. A pantoum (also ‘pantun’) is a Malay verse form composed of quatrains, using assonance and a complex pattern of line repetition. Judy Johnson handles the form deftly and suits it to the speaker’s thoughts, combining direct quotation from Collins with her own imagined words.

Apart from the formal and prosodic pleasures of poetry, Dark Convicts testifies to the poet’s feel for and delight in words themselves. George Worgan, surgeon on the Sirius, writing home ‘On the Pleasures of Exploration’, speaks of ‘a bottle or two of O be joyful thrust into our knapsacks’. The ‘Game Shooters for the Governor’ talk of the ‘frizzen’ and the ‘flash pan’ of their weapon, the flintlock. Although Black Caesar’s assassin is ‘No pudding-sleeve/ parson’, he does intend ‘to conduct a service with/ his musket’.

Dark Convicts is an enterprising and exemplary work. It should engage many Australian general readers and will certainly interest both the readers and the writers of poetry.

-Tony Voss

 


Tony Voss retired from a University teaching career in South Africa in 1995 and emigrated to Sydney the following year. He continues to publish academic research papers and poetry, mostly in South African journals.

Read an extract from Dark Convicts: Ex-slaves on the First Fleet

Dark Convicts: Ex-slaves on the First Fleet by Judy Johnson is available from UWA Publishing

 

“Suture Lines reflects Scully’s passion as a poet and scholar”: Malcolm St Hill reviews ‘Suture Lines’ by Paul Scully

suture-linesThere is not a simple label that could be applied to Paul Scully’s second collection, Suture Lines (Guillotine Press, 2016). The title suggests the melding of adjacent and related parts. This is the context of the beginning of the poem in which the term appears, ‘StoryBird 1: Gondwanaland’, dealing with the formation of the ancient supercontinent. While the five sections of the work are more disparate than the title implies, their ‘amassing’ is manifested through Scully’s erudition and recurrent motifs which are embroidered throughout.

‘StoryBird 1’ is an early poem in ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’, a signature section in this collection. It is inspired and informed by the Persian classic The Conference of the Birds by Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar. In a two page introduction, a precis of his 2016 Southerly essay, ‘ReConferencing the Birds’, Scully explains that the group of birds in Conference are on a quest to find Simorgh, their king. The leader of the birds, a hoopoe (an iconic Eurasian bird and the national bird of Israel) takes them on a journey through seven valleys, each a symbol of progress towards their goal.

Scully’s hoopoe figures, the two birds in his rendition, are Australian natives: the marbled frogmouth and the bristlebird. The particular birds were selected, perhaps, because of their rarity and reverential place in Australian ornithology. The former is a relative of the tawny frogmouth, a bird that many would recognise, while the latter is elusive and officially endangered. The reader is introduced to the frogmouth in ‘The Accidental Priest’, and to the bristlebird, a ‘patient, shy, protective bird’ in the poem which follows, ‘Sage-Brush Sentinels’. In both poems, Scully describes the birds’ habitat and simultaneously alludes to their spiritual significance. The frogmouth is ‘an abbess—// of her tawny cousin’ in ‘The Accidental Priest’. ‘Sage-Brush Sentinels’ is referred to as a ‘psalm’, with the bristlebird as its centrepiece.

Scully’s hoopoe surrogates needle their way through the poems, eventually landing their charges where they started. In ‘The Observatory Pool’, the ‘pilgrim flock’, led by the twosome, come to a pool, a metaphor for Attar’s king and court. Expecting to see a deity, they see their own reflection and in turn, realise that the one they are seeking is a manifestation of the self.

The fifteen poems of this avian journey vary in the intensity of their allegorical significance. The ostensibly literal poems provide an introduction to bird life and lore. The sexual habits of the superb fairy-wren are described in ‘StoryBird 2: Superb, Purposeful Sluts’ (a somewhat jarring title) and in ‘[Songs of the Reviled]’ pest and nuisance species are variously treated with respect and disdain. Scully grants the crows ‘clemency’, deferring to their unique place in the Australian consciousness and ear. The sacred ibis is afforded respect, cast as a victim, ‘profaned by an urban smudge’. However, the Indian myna is not spared, as Scully takes aim at its ‘lice and the displacement of locals, especially its native cousin.’ ‘StoryBird 3: The Origin of Song’, draws on the work of Australian biologist Tim Low, who challenged orthodoxy and posited that birdsong originated in Australia and New Guinea and not the Northern Hemisphere.

The other signature section of Suture Lines, ‘The Librarians of Alexandria’, also begins with an introduction, contextualising the poems which follow; explaining Scully’s creative approach and assisting the reader to navigate them. The generosity of these introductions shows respect for the reader and Scully strikes a careful balance between revealing too much and not enough.

The section traces the machinations of the first, third and sixth librarians of the Great Library of Alexandria. ‘There is conjecture,’ says Scully, ‘as to the identities of the head librarians’. This gives him licence to nominate particular individuals as his protagonists and to enliven the narrative with selected ‘facts’ from the library’s history. It reads like a poetical version of historical fiction. The section starts with Demetrius, the first librarian, with his ‘caterpillar eyebrows/ and pedagogic feet’. In ‘Peripatos’, Demetrius lays out his vision for the library before the Pharaoh but stumbles when questioned about the design. “There is more space than building,” the Pharaoh says. Demetrius wants to reply that ‘an enquiring mind is a plain, not a paddock,’ but chokes and responds politely, limping out ‘a few braided syllables’.

The third librarian, Callimachus develops, seemingly the brainchild of his courtesan, the first system of library cataloguing. ‘The Pinakes: A Catalogue’ and ‘(F)Re(e)-versed’ trace the genesis and roll out of the system, a response to his frustration at watching scholars walking the halls seeking items from ‘the bins that held the scrolls’.

No text was binned
without Callimachus’ eyes filing it for later enquiry, his memory sure, finely bladed.

In the seasoned arms of his long-frequented courtesan, he mused as to why
his wards’ daily ferrying did not make a track of similar remembering for them.

The courtesan suggests that he ‘commit the sequence of his mind to stylus and pinax tablet as a label/ above each bin’.

There is a single poem dealing with Aristophanes, the sixth librarian. ‘Marks of Distinction (The Invention of Punctuation)’ explains his legacy; ‘komma, kolon, periodos’, solving the dilemma of ‘UPPERCASEDENSITYOFUNBROKENLETTERS// encamped to the margin/ of the papyrus’, providing the fulcrum to lever and align meaning with intention. The poem is emblematic of Scully’s approach to re-imagining history, a fitting and satisfying conclusion to a group of poems which are both playful and informative.

The remaining three sections of the work are more loosely bound. Exceptions are a short sequence about an unusual medical condition, face blindness, in the sequence ‘Face Value’, and a number of religiously themed poems in the ‘Pseudepigrapha’ sequence in the same section. Beyond this sequence, religious terms and allusions are a feature of the work and combined with a plethora of avian references, watermark the collection.

Many specific birds are named in Suture Lines, including the albatross in ‘The Longbow of the Albatross’, contained in the opening section, ‘Heart and Hearth’. Here Scully weighs elements of this enigmatic bird, against literary and religious imagery. The literary allusions come primarily from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Scully writes that ‘Samuel Taylor well knew, though, the pious bird/ as an unpencilled architect of myth, a cumulus/ of fortune and hope’. Scully also references Australian playwriting doyen, Ray Lawler and his little-known play, The Man Who Shot the Albatross.

Lawler knew it too
when he noosed Bligh’s neck with the albatross

in the title of the play that charted an inner life
for the captain and governor…

The nod to Lawler is characteristic of poems in the first section of Suture Lines where Scully registers the influence of other poets as either a response or dedication to a poem or poet or as ‘unacknowledged references to…’ their poems. Judith Beveridge, Pam Brown and Michelle Leber are included in this framework.

The final section of the collection, ‘Beyond the Dingo Fence’, includes poems which describe polar ice and frozen seas, and others depicting coastal landscapes. In the last poem, also called ‘Beyond the Dingo Fence’, Scully presents a hardened outback loner whose ‘hair was boot-heel pressed spinifex’ and who ‘preferred goanna oil to affection’. The image of the outcast recalls similar poems in the first section of the work, ‘Laneway Tom’ and ‘Singular Voices in The Strand II’. These poems similarly examine those on the margins; a man on the poverty line who resides in a laneway shed, and a homeless person with a ‘second voice hidden/ in his ear’.

Suture Lines reflects Scully’s passion as a poet and scholar. He draws on knowledge across many fields; ornithology, ancient history and literature, to name a few. He is inventive in his treatment of these spheres of interest. His eye for landscape and the human condition is acute. The result is as ‘sure (and) finely bladed’ as Callimachus’ memory, a collection that will inform in surprising ways and have the reader wanting to dig deeper.

-Malcolm St Hill


 

M St Hill pic

Malcolm St Hill. photograph by Kim Jordan (2017)

Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016 and has poems forthcoming in Brew: 30 Years of Poetry at the Pub, which will be launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival in April 2018.

Suture Lines is available from booktopia

Paul Scully talks about Suture Lines to Zalehah Turner

“Summers’ knack for nailing an image and capturing its emotional charge is sublime”: Malcolm St Hill reviews ‘straya’ by Paul Summers

straya by Paul Summers (Smokestack Books, 2017).

straya 2straya’, a bastardised version of ‘Australia’, is the title and the first and largest section of Paul Summers’ latest collection. While the term evokes Afferbeck Lauder’s ‘strine’, a droll representation of Australian language, there is little humour in Summers’ straya. The first poem in the collection, ‘obligato’, suggests an obligation on the reader to take notice. As this musical term indicates, that which follows should not be omitted.

While ‘obligato’ could be characterised as oblique, the second poem, ‘building eden / pathology’, leaves the reader in no doubt as to where Summers is heading with an acerbic, sweeping diatribe about the sunburnt country, touching on history and modernity. In his sights are, amongst other ills, racism, denial of past wrongs, hollow apologies, and the strine untouchables of ‘mateship’ and the ‘fair go’. ‘eden’ is something of a laundry list, as is ‘dear john’, which bookends this section, yielding another phalanx of issues and observations.

Some poems focus on a single explicit subject, including ‘revision’, a disturbing take on the aussie icon, ‘the man from snowy river’, and ‘8 count’, a graphic depiction of domestic violence.

.The victim,
.…hits the floor;
.drum-hollow but dense,

.like sides of meat slapped
.down on butchers’ blocks.

On balance though, Summers ‘tells it slant’. March flies and crows are metaphors for colonisation. Brahman cattle are the dispossessed and betrayed in ‘one hundred head of cattle walking to their slaughter’. In more literal poems, Summers evokes nature’s venom with cyclones and drought. There’s no escaping the undertow, ‘the soil’s dark music’, haunting this collection.

straya is published by UK publisher, Smokestack. Their manifesto is to champion ‘poets who are unfashionable, radical, left field…’ Summers fits his publisher’s bill. Originally from North East England, he has spent the last four and a half years in tropical Queensland. This residency forms the basis for his wanderings through the Australian psyche. Some may characterise him as, to use the vernacular, a ‘blow-in’, and question his right to comment. Yet often it takes an outsider to hold the mirror, or in Summers’ case, a magnifying glass, burning a hole in the accepted narrative with an incendiary eye.

‘fan ho’s vehement lens epitomises Summers’ keen vision. The title of the poem refers to Fan Ho, a renowned Chinese photographer of street scenes in Hong Kong. The poem is set in a country town, where ‘the dogs are all black’ and highlights many issues from the ‘obesity of privilege’, to the plight of the underclass and the marginalised, ‘the pensioners, / the jettisoned, / the wounded, / & the grinning mad.’ Summers’ position, while left of the mainstream, comes not from blind revisionism. It is, as the sentiments in ‘Fan Ho’ suggest, out of his humanity and concern for suffering.

In ‘epistle to a great-nephew’ Summers reveals the values underlying straya. The poet’s advice in his letter includes the noble: ‘defend the truth’, ‘declaim injustice’, as well as the small and personal things: to treasure the singing of birds and ‘the perfume of summer rain’.

The middle section of straya is titled ‘guerra’, Italian and Spanish for war. It deals with the death caused by organised conflict, including the frontier wars. In ‘bait’, death is meted out through laced flour and spiked water, conjuring the vivid images of the poisoning of Aboriginal people depicted in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. There are also poems dealing with the sacrifice of young men during the Great War. Accounts of the death of children in Gaza provide contemporary examples of humanity’s dark side. The final poem, ‘ptsd’, is a personal one, about a fishing mate, a war veteran, who committed suicide.

‘cadenza’, might have been a stand-alone volume, such is the contrast between this and the previous sections. While ‘straya’ and ‘guerra’ are lamentations on the legacy of history, ‘cadenza’ reflects a private grief, a ‘rapacious loss’, the death of the poet’s mother. These are tender poems, traversing dying, death itself and the vacuum of the aftermath. They contemplate the physical and emotional manifestations in vignettes of the hospital, cremation and the spreading of ashes. In ‘the ferryman’, which describes the moment of his mother’s death, Summers provides an intimate and generous window into this very private experience.

Many of the poems in ‘cadenza’ are tributes to his father, reflecting a widower’s unique form of loss, as seen through a son’s compassionate eyes. In ‘& slow, the dusk’, the first part in the sequence, ‘the aftermath’:

.the men who grieve
.sit down to tea,

.dwarfed by the scale
.of lonesome rooms.

.mechanically they prod
.at half charged plates

Summers’ knack for nailing an image and capturing its emotional charge is sublime. In ‘fall’: ‘& dad is reduced; / shrunk to the size / of a songbird’s heart’.

There are reminiscences of childhood here too. ‘crucible’ sees the poet nagging his ‘mam’ to buy him a ‘red-army hat’ at an advent market. The child watches his parents feeding each other at the ‘mermaid café’, leaning into ‘…the warmth/ of the others’ space, still giddy/ on the promise of their lips’. Grief brings these memories into focus. It is the pain of happy memories as W.G. Sebald has described it.

Despite the contrasts between the first and the last sections of straya, they are unified by Summers’ skill, innate compassion and full investment in his subject. They are also stylistically unified; the dominance of the couplet, the employment of sporadic and deft rhyme and repetition of words and phrases. All techniques which sharpen focus and command the reader’s attention. He calls up hidden, unspeakable things and champions the downtrodden. He challenges our view of ourselves and our collective memory, particularly of the colonial frontier. Whether it is a portal into the public or the private, there is no escape from the ‘knowing glance / of stuttering time.’

-Malcolm St Hill


 

MSH Bio Pic (2)

Malcolm St Hill

Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. His recent poems have appeared in the 2016 and 2015 ‘Grieve’ anthologies. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016.

 

 

straya by Paul Summers is available from Smokestack Books

 

Hecq “gives grief its voice, resurrecting it from silence”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Dominique Hecq’s ‘Hush: A Fugue’

Dominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue (UWA Publishing, 2017).

Hush_coverDominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue examines the death of a child from a mother’s perspective and the harrowing aftermath of such an inexplicable event. In this autobiographical work, Hecq finds language for a profound loss, one that almost defies articulation.

The bulk of Hush traverses a year, from the winter of the child’s death and funeral, through the literal and metaphorical seasons of grief. The work contains discrete sections each, except for the first, opening with a short epigraphical poem. ‘Morning hail/ gusts of wind/ moaning’ leads the section in which the mother discovers her baby’s ‘lightless body’. The white of his pallid skin becomes a recurrent motif. However, white is a contradiction. White has brilliance and luminescence, but ‘the price white pays for this sheer purity is that it absorbs no light into its own body – and for lead white, this means its own heart is black.’

Hush: A Fugue is a hybrid of prose and poetry, expertly entwined by Hecq. These forms are evident in Hecq’s oeuvre, including five previous collections of poetry. At times, Hush reads like a short story. In the section set some months after the funeral, the mother, haunted by ghosts, gets out of bed in the middle of the night. She takes to the highway, driving through pouring rain, heading for the country. She gets booked for speeding, such is the urgency of her quest. The reader is propelled, eager to know where this road trip will end. Across the forms, Hecq mixes the quotidian and the meditative, the latter particularly evident towards the end of the work.

The notion of the fugue goes to the heart of Hush and is both a musical and psychiatric term. In music, it is a compositional technique characterised by the introduction of successive voices playing the same theme with variations in pitch, calling out and echoing each other. This is manifested in Hecq through the repetition of passages, images and changing points of view.

Alicia Ostriker explains the meaning of a fugue state in psychiatry in a recent essay on Paul Celan’s Holocaust poem, ‘Todesfuge’, translated in English as, ‘Death Fugue’. ‘The term is not merely musical… a “fugue state” is a psychiatric condition in which identity and memory have fled the self.’ In Hush, the mother loses her ‘place in the world’, and involuntarily abandons her former self. ‘Time would not flow. Time was rock hard. Amber.’ She is ‘cold and empty’. Emotions freeze and in the fallout she is estranged from her surviving toddler son. ‘His brother’s life; his brother’s death, has made us strangers to each other.’ Thankfully there is a re-engagement, as the mother empathises with her son’s inability ‘to return to his place in his own life.’

There are other glimmers of hope, starting with the mother, father and son visiting the Grampians in Victoria. On a clifftop, in the ‘darkness before dawn’, she spreads her arms and ‘uttered a primal cry’. The appearance of the ‘glorious sunlight’ signals a shift. ‘The turning happened. I surrendered to an invisible force… I began to speak again.’

Hush highlights the power of writing to sift and sort through emotions, and potentially heal in the process. ‘Perhaps writing, especially poetry is the art of loss’, the protagonist writes. Shortly after the funeral, she says, ‘I tried writing. Words came in bursts and spurts. Made no sense. I had lost my alphabet in the night sky’, yet she ‘needed to write for the sheer satisfaction of keeping fear at bay, of experiencing the vanity of meaning, even if words did not make sense.’ Towards the end of this section writing opens her up. ‘As I wrote, compelled back to the black sea, I felt my heart expanding towards the sky and tears came to my eyes for the first time since death had been.’

‘A sentence rises up, hovers in the air, drifts…’. Writing is imperfect. Words, for all their power, can never express exactly what it is that calls and haunts. Fugue-like, the protagonist writes and re-writes passages. This is never monotonous or self-indulgent. It reflects a desire to get the words and form right, to express the changing thoughts and emotions in the most appropriate way. In a sequence set in a ‘listless garden’, the mother describes herself as ‘dizzy and slightly nauseous’ with the ‘brash sunlight’ making her ‘irritable’. She longs for ‘cooler days’. Later in a garden, now described as ‘crowded’, she feels ‘scatty and slightly nauseous’. The ‘grey light’ makes her ‘irritable’ and she longs for ‘warmer days’. The meandering continues and at the end of this section, Hecq offers the reader a poem, a succinct version of the passages which preceded it.

Hush is a courageous work in which Hecq illuminates, with clarity and grace, an intimate and difficult subject. She gives grief its voice, resurrecting it from silence; speaking its truth. The ‘hush’ of title points to the quiet after the storm. There is, in the concluding sections, evidence of a new life. The change is tangible, yet remission is not guaranteed. ‘I have put death to death, returned the night to the night. For now.’

-Malcolm St Hill


Dominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue is available from UWA Publishing
An Extract from Hush: A Fugue

 

MSH Bio Pic (2)

Malcolm St Hill

Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. His recent poems have appeared in the 2016 and 2015 ‘Grieve’ anthologies. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016.

 

 

“unearthed, precious and intimate”- Emma Cooper reviews ‘Thea Astley: Selected Poems’

Thea Astley: Selected Poems edited by Cheryl Taylor (UQP 2017).

Thea Astley UQPThis collection illustrates Thea Astley’s rarely acknowledged passion for poetry. The way verse contributed to her development as an Australian literary icon is often overlooked, let alone documented so insightfully. Editor, Cheryl Taylor, has compiled Selected Poems in so that Astley’s writing seems unearthed, precious and intimate. The poems are arranged in chronological order, along with careful biographical notes, documenting Astley’s growth from schoolgirl to celebrated and cerebral author. By tracing her making through her poems, the collection shows the formative writing processes that led to her renowned style. The book is an unfurling of Astley’s progress, in both writing and living.

Thea Astley is best known for her fiction. She published seventeen novels, received the Miles Franklin Award four times, more times than any other author in her lifetime, and wrote until her death in 2004. In 1989, she won the Patrick White Award for her contributions to Australian literature and her novels have received numerous accolades. Works such as The Well-Dressed Explorer (1962), The Slow Natives (1965), It’s Always Raining in Mango (1987), The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996), and Drylands (1999) are testament to Astley’s artistry. Unsurprisingly, her propensity for lush imagery and the precision of her syntax is well suited to poetry. Across the two modes, there is a persistence of themes and style: an affinity for water and the Queensland landscapes of her youth; a dexterity and opulence in her language; and a humour and ferocity in her social commentary.

Selected Poems were collated from Thea Astley’s archive in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland, which contains over two hundred poems, mostly from two lined schoolbooks. About twenty-five pieces were published during her lifetime. Most, however, were produced very early in her writing career. As expected in a chronological collection, the best work appears later in Selected Poems and most of these have never been published. The section Adulthood includes pieces from Exercise Book B in the archive. It appears Astley originally gathered these poems for a collection, but abandoned the project. These pieces, and Astley’s use of first-person narration within them, are the most revealing and eloquent in Selected Poems.

The first half of the collection contains the poems Astley produced in her childhood, adolescence, and student years at All Hallows Convent in Brisbane and her time at University of Queensland, until the age of 20. The initial poems, mostly from Exercise Book A, seem as if penned between the margins of textbooks: they are youthful, sentimental and full of zeal. It’s easy to imagine a teenage Astley, in wartime Brisbane, in the pages: her fondness for landscape and dreaming; her spirited accounts of first love. Phrases such as ‘shadows hurled/ With windy cloaks like swelling waves’ and ‘chained to a tottering world’ in ‘Poem [1]’ foreshadow the themes, style and sound patterning which feature in her later fiction. When Astley, interviewed in 1990, referred to writing ‘poetry in adolescence’ as though it were an affliction, she was likely recalling these poems. She referred to them as ‘a form of acne – I think I’m having a poem’. Although this hardly applies to Astley’s work – which, even so early in her writing career, is ripe with careful sensory detail and demonstrates her growing fascination with language and lyrical conventions – it is interesting to keep her dismissal of her early poetry in mind. There is a strong self-awareness in her adolescent poems. In ‘Creation’, she wrote of ‘loneliness’ and her impatience to experience the world, stating it ‘must be part of my making’. Her cry, ‘But O God! The pain in the making’ is satirical and self-deprecating; yet, as the ambition in her poems reveals, she was inspired and energised in her creative development. During her university years, this determination grew and she experimented with traditional forms and meter. Her work, which involves allusions to classic poetry and translations of French lyric poets, shows her honing her skills through emulation.

The poems in the second half of Selected Poems are sharper, wittier and, in their preoccupation with nature, stronger and more specific. From Exercise Book B, these poems were created between 1945 and 1957: a time of significant transition in Astley’s life. Her courtship and the early years of her marriage to husband, Jack Gregson; the resulting estrangement from her parents; moving to various parts of Australia; and her work as a high-school teacher: inklings of these biographical traits leak into her poetry. Astley’s poems move through remembered spaces and map the landscapes and seascapes of her youth. She wrote sonnets to Queensland islands in ‘Magnetic’ and ‘Whitsundays’; described ‘rhyming beaches’ and ‘the blue sea… sucking the shore’s white rind’ in her poem ‘Dunes’. However, when the scenery leaves her cold, such as that in ‘Hunters Hill [1]’, she is just as poetic:

When you see this flattened landscape
Creeping like a tired crustacean
Over a sea-bed; when you see
Tired claws of suburbs scrabbling
At the greenness; pray for us now.

As in her fiction, Astley’s poetry often describes the drudgery of suburbia and small towns. In ‘Hunters Hill [1]’, she writes of returning to a mythical Queensland, stating ‘my feet, time-tortured, crave / Familiar floors.’ The ambivalent feelings she conveys towards her surrounds – changes of residence, travel, nostalgia, her relationship with her husband – recur like the ‘rain’s incessant drumming’ in her poem ‘A Warning’. Rain and movement in bodies of water are enduring themes throughout the Adulthood section of Selected Poems; their descriptions are among the most memorable and moving of Taylor’s selection.

The majority of Thea Astley’s poetic output is included in this collection, offering a rare and very personal view into her life and creative process – more personal, perhaps, for the moments of imperfection in some poems. Watching Astley refine the skills and imagery she accomplished in her fiction is where the real pleasure in reading Selected Poems lies. While the collection may be unremarkable for readers indifferent or unfamiliar with her fiction, Astley’s innovative contributions to Australian literature and the full scope of her creative work deserve to be acknowledged and Cheryl Taylor does this elegantly.

-Emma Cooper

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Emma Cooper is a writer living in Sydney. She is working on a novel called The Horizontal Woman and studying a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney. Emma is originally from Cairns, Australia.

Thea Astley: Selected Poems (2017) is available from UQP

 

“the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Magdalena Ball’s ‘Unmaking Atoms’

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball (Ginninderra Press 2017).

unmaking_atomsMagdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms, her second full-length collection, is a prodigious and often heart-wrenching array of poems, speaking to themes of loss and grief. In the ninety-two, generally short pieces, Ball projects an astounding breadth of knowledge, particularly in science, and mines this in unique and skillful ways.

The death of a parent is the predominant subject of this collection. Ball examines this primarily from the perspective of a bereaved daughter. In ‘Irrational Heart’, one of the longer poems in the collection, the daughter negotiates the ‘untempered rawness’ of loss, the silence and permanence of her suffering:

 

when the wash is done, lights off
kids in bed
leather gloves come out
silently punch the wall, which never yields.

She walks her ‘dreams alone’, hoping to find the parent in the liminality of sleep. She sorts her mother’s belongings, a mundane but necessary act of bereavement, and contemplates staying up all night, baking cookies to ‘negotiate the hurt.’

Symbols of loss haunt these poems. In ‘Inside Your Darkest Everything’, which references Frida Kahlo, the deceased is ‘the dull scent of memory/ that lingers on the drapes’, and ‘a neat row of shoes/ that won’t be worn again’. ‘Yellow Jacquard’, apologizes to the parent for disliking the inherited jacquard sofa, a striking object, which mocks the child, with its ‘stupidly/ happy flowers’ sign-posting loss.

There is a sense, at times, of the parental eye watching over the child. In ‘Cold Mirror’, ‘…you’re everywhere/ a peek-a-boo phantom dropping by/ to check my progress’. In other poems, the mother is the persona and we witness death from the deceased’s point of view. In ‘Ashes for the Earth’, the mother tells the reader that,

I still taste the salt on my tongue
still hear the soft call
of my children
their fingers looking for me
in black and white lacunae

‘In Situ’, describes friends and family gathering around the bereaved and portrays grief as so intensely personal that others cannot possibly understand the suffering. Those around the daughter comment that her mother looked peaceful, while she thinks otherwise, that ‘a grimace is not a smile’. According to them, death ‘was the natural order of things’, and when they left, they smiled, ‘empty containers in hand’. This poem encapsulates the feelings of emptiness and isolation in the face of well-intentioned others, with their awkwardness and insensitivity. It is a poem of contradictions. There was ‘much to do, but nothing more to be done’. There was ‘hunger and too much food’. There was barrenness and comfort. These are the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved, the disconnect emphasising the estrangement of the daughter from those around her.

Ball likens the isolation of grief to that of Planet Nine (in the poem of the same name), the predicted but unobserved outer planet of the solar system. This is one of many references to astronomy in the collection. There is some consolation, however, in an earlier planetary poem, ‘Maven on Mars’, about a spacecraft exploring the atmosphere of the Red Planet. Maven, in the vastness of space is ‘…never alone/ no matter how dark/ or cold’.

Life in the fog of loss is not without hope and Ball suggests that, in time, some healing will occur. ‘Relief comes in bursts of sunlight’, says the persona in ‘Dark Matter Wants to be Alone’ and in the final stanza of ‘Hieroglyphics’, ‘finding a tincture of who you were/ each detail of your absence, bringing back/ the line and curve that makes us whole.’ In the end though, the sting of loss lingers as in ‘Qualia’, where ‘years haven’t covered/ everything in rosy patina’, and that grief is ‘…still ugly/ fresh enough to be raw’.

Ball leans heavily on physics as well as astronomy and other sciences for metaphoric effect. At times, this demands work from the reader. While it’s necessary to ascertain the meanings of some of the scientific terms, the reward is to witness the acuity of their use. The moment of death is a slide into the ‘atomic mess’. It is an arresting, almost visceral image, from the poem ‘Atomic Mess’, but it also represents the point of release from suffering. Apart from its conspicuous inclusion in the collection’s title, this is the first of many references to atoms. The persona describes herself in ‘Most of Everything is Nothing’, as ‘a conduit of buzzing atoms/ moving by kinetic heat’. There is a striking paradox between the self as a sentient being and as a collection of atoms, molecules, cells or other fundamental building blocks of life. We are both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

Ball assays grief with sensitivity and skill in this deep exploration of the emotional impact of death. The poems are poignant but never sentimental and the prevalent references to science provide a unique counterpoint, keeping the collection fresh and alive. Technical knowledge is married beautifully with the healing power of poetry and Ball carries ‘…all this/ responsibility/ all this breath’, with equanimity and poise.

-Malcolm St Hill

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MSH Bio Pic (1)

Malcolm St Hill

Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. His recent poems have appeared in the 2016 and 2015 ‘Grieve’ anthologies. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016.

 

 

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball is available from Ginninderra Press

Five poems from Unmaking Atoms

“The core of Unmaking Atoms”: Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball

“A glowing, truthful collection to read and re-read”: Barbara Boyd-Anderson shares her thoughts on ‘Open & Unfold’ by Cecilia Morris

cecilia morris book coverWhat a pleasure to travel with Cecilia in this newly released collection, Open & Unfold. Here we share her gift of language, the singing depths of complex thoughts explored, sculpted and shaped into clear-voiced, accessible poems, all documents of a singular, personal, Australian life.

The poems show courage as they reveal some harrowing early testings – a young woman vulnerable, at risk as in ‘Don’t go Home’, but equally they travel across rich observations of a full life to a time of deeply felt, sturdy understanding in maturity and age, with lines and codas that imprint, like these in ‘Travel’:

The wisdom of knowing where
something begins how it will end

Face to face with what I leave behind,
face to face with what is taken with me.

However, there is also the pure joy of certain poems like ‘Colette’…those fabulous last lines building towards her death, the last moments of final transcendence: ‘look, look’.

A glowing, truthful collection to read and re-read, to share among your women friends and with all the people you love.

-Barbara Boyd-Anderson

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Barbara Boyd-Anderson is a poet with a long and varied career whose poems have been published both online and overseas. She was the winner of the Best Poem in the Brighton Bayside Poetry Award in 2011. A former teacher of literature, Barbara pioneered Media Education within the secondary curriculum of Victoria, which was also utilised at university levels. In addition, she wrote film reviews for the then prestigious Cinema Papers. Subsequently, she turned to writing and directing documentary films. Barbara also co-wrote and directed the Australian feature film, The Still Point (1985). Now retired, she continues a passionate interest in poetry and a more recent hobby of photographing the beautiful beaches of the southern Gold Coast in Queensland.

Les Wicks launches Open & Unfold by Cecilia Morris.

A selection of poetry from Open & Unfold by Cecilia Morris

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

Succinct and poignant with “a clear eye on the future”: Anna Forsyth reviews ‘We the Mapless’ by Ian McBryde

We the Mapless: new and selected poems by Ian McBryde (Bareknuckle Books, 2017)

We-the-Mapless-Ian-Mcbryde-1-657x1024In the long-awaited collection from Melbourne poet, Ian McBryde, We the Mapless we are treated to a retrospective of his work, spanning over twenty years. Organised into sections showcasing poems from six of his collections, unlike the people of the title, we have a map to trace the poet’s trajectory chronologically from 1994 to the present, with the addition of an entire section of new work.

Something that may have gone un-noticed to readers of his other collections is the recurring motif of titles, particularly, ‘Reports from the Palace’ that also acts as the end piece for the book. It is as if McBryde has released them episodically over all these years and only now are we treated to the full narrative they create. The palace is a hospital or institution, where the narrator must hide photos of his loved ones in his clothing. The well-guarded drugs are echoed in the poem, ‘Coming off Morphine’ in the final section. The mapless ones of the title are referenced in the final episode.

McBryde has a forensic eye and because of the timespan covered here, his fascinations and fixations are brought to light. Particularly notable are the vignettes of broken men enacting violent fantasies. There is a hyper-masculinity to the work. McBryde is not one to indulge in sentimentality or flowery, romantic language. In his poem, ‘Moon’, he is at his most poetically transgressive, calling this often-praised heavenly body, ‘predatory…venomous…a brittle light…’ with ‘no vestige of salvation’.

As we delve deeper into the work, we find love poems peppered amongst the rubble of war, murder and general mayhem. The tenderness of these poems is almost palpable and at times, as raw as a nerve. His odes to Melbourne hum with an obvious adoration for the city. In ‘Melbourne 4 a.m.’, he compares the city to a woman in repose, ‘…draped around the bay’. It describes a town comfortable in its allure and comforting in its shape and form. McBryde shows his skill here, weaving through vignettes of Melbourne’s inhabitants in each suburb going about their sleepy business.

In ‘Satellite’, we have a portrayal of desire and unrequited love, bordering on predation, where the suitor is aware of the unspoken feelings of the love object:

Below, on your surface,
nothing alters,
but with each pass

you stir in your core,
aware of me out there,
orbiting, orbiting.

His poems are always succinct with signature short lines and stanzas leaving us wanting more. We are treated to a poignancy; the works are potent. His is simultaneously a poet, journalist, documentarian, and novelist. His love of the narrative form shines through clearly, despite occasional attempts at obfuscation. The poems from slivers are of course, a collection of one-line poems.

The two concrete poems seem slightly out of place. It is common for poets to include concrete poems to add interest, many of which don’t reveal more than the words could tell us. However, the poem ‘Dresden’ works in this format. Through its shape, the reader experiences the claustrophobia of a war trench, a bombed out hollow, or a bunker.

It is obvious after reading the collection that McBryde has always been a muscular and exacting poet. If there is any faltering, it is in the typos and hum drum cover that don’t quite do the work justice. Often with a retrospective, the reader can observe the growth and development of a poet. Here, it is as if McBryde never had to stumble before he could walk. He is strident, with a clear eye on the future; map or no map.

– Anna Forsyth

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Anna Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor, originally from New Zealand, now living in Melbourne. Her poems have appeared in FourW, Landfall and other journals. She is the convener of the monthly female driven poetry event and refugee fundraiser, Girls on Key.

We the Mapless: new and selected poems is available from Bareknuckle Books

Amanda Anastasi launches We the Mapless by Ian McBryde

 

“sparse versification and delicately restrained language”: Stephanie Dunk reviews ‘Painting Red Orchids’ by Eileen Chong

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong, (Pitt Street Poetry, 2016).

painting red orchidsEileen Chong’s third collection of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, contains fifty poems. The sparse versification and delicately restrained language rewards readers with at least as many jewels of insight. As the title suggests, this collection continues the poet’s concern with her heritage and family relations, but this experience is now filtered through a meditation on the act of creating.

The ancestors throughout the collection function as spiritual guides. In ‘Spirit’, moths are ‘left alone lest they were/ manifestations’ of the grandfather’s soul. Family is a cosmos, with ‘brother and sister, circling like moons’ in ‘Child’. A number of the poems consider dislocation from ancestors. One of the more enigmatic in the collection, ‘Weight’, is addressed to the persona’s ancestors and describes the burden of history, and the efforts of successive generations to lay the burden down, in whatever new place they find themselves. For the fathers and mothers, this involves body-twisting labour, ‘bent your back. You curved your hands’; the persona need only twist her fingers. The success of this labour is ambiguous, despite the initial declaration that the burden has been laid down, by the end, the ‘knot of knowing’ escapes like a ‘phoenix’s/ tail’. In the early poems, through the rebirth of family with each new generation, historical burdens seem inescapable.

The spiritual role of ancestors persists even in the failing of the flesh. ‘Revisit’ tenderly presents an afternoon with a grandmother. The first line, ‘My grandmother has not yet forgotten me’ sets a scene of quiet ageing. The poem observes the grandmother’s inability to make tea, and her unequal contribution to the conversation (‘she seems to agree’) with compassion, but more, it paints her as a seer, ‘She sees who I am, and who I am yet to be’. A mystic understanding is imputed to her, and the persona continues to interact with her wisdom. In a generous engagement with decline, the individuality of the first stanza is transformed into a collective identity, ‘She sees who we are, and who we are yet to be’. Even amidst the weakening, and the inevitable forgetting, grandmother and granddaughter are joined.

Ancestry, considered more broadly as culture, also finds its place. The titular poem of the collection, which was longlisted for the University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor’s Prize 2014, is a detailed study of Qing Dynasty painter Huang Shen at work. The first three stanzas catalogue the materials needed for the painting: brushes and inkstone, and the slow process of preparation. The fourth and final stanzas deftly portray the climactic moment of creation: ‘One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.’. This is the only poem in the collection where the poet assumes an obviously male persona, and one of the few that is set entirely in an imagined past. The artist in this poem is an idealised figure who is uncomplicatedly in the right place and time. Their family life and home is subservient to his craft. His wife has made ‘this paper with mulberry from our gardens’. He does not feel the burden of history. There is a menace over the poem in the form of a suicide, but even this is mined in service of the creative process. ‘The inkstone was my father’s: slate/ quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather/ drowned himself one spring night’ and contributes to the masterwork which is to come. The work of the artist in this poem is inevitable, external and traditional.

This artistic detachment is not mirrored in the more autobiographical poems. In ‘The Photograph in Australia’, (longlisted for the same prize in 2015) the mere viewing of art leads to a visceral experience; the persona must sit down and ‘try to breathe’. The plight of ancestors is also never treated so lightly, as in ‘Snow’, where in the middle of a seemingly innocuous recounting of a childhood experience of hot weather and cooling ice, a sudden break in time and place sees the persona giving a warning to her grandfather that can never be heeded: ‘You must never fall asleep/ in the snow. Your matches have run out,/ grandfather’. This tragedy is less well-defined than the suicide of the earlier poem and yet it interrupts and destroys, and the little girl of the poem cannot continue skipping in the heat, but instead falls, ‘I’ve bitten my tongue’.

Similarly, the artistic solitude of Huang Shen and his dedicated workplace are absent from the modern poems of the collection. In ‘Bee Music’, the persona is ‘reading poetry and drinking’, and in ‘Resonance’, she is ‘on the telephone/ with my lover – I have written a new poem and want/ to test its resonance’. The poems do not arise purely from internal artistic impulse but show Chong’s affective responses to sensory inputs, and the habits of her daily life. The epigraphs also demonstrate her engagement with a rich reading life. She situates herself epigraphically in a diverse array of artists including Singapore-born Australian poet Boey Kim Cheng, Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, Irish poet Eavan Boland, and American poet Edna St Vincent Millay. She even takes a dream ‘Walk with Phil Levine’. That these poems are responsive to this wide cannon belies the simplicity of their structure and conceits, demonstrating an ability to catch the emotional truth in daily experiences and literature, and to relate the two.

Weaving throughout the collection are poems of loss, charting the end of relationships. On the surface, ‘Bloom’ purports to describe what can be seen on the street and in nearby houses from a favourite vantage point. By the final stanza, however, the persona has revealed that she knows too much about what is happening in the houses ‘just out of sight’ for it really to be about other people. It becomes, therefore, a daydream the length of a cigarette about the happiness of ‘last week’ in a relationship. In ‘Taboo’, the persona’s heart is withdrawn, in ‘Split Moon’ she ‘said the words and broke us’. The trajectory continues beyond the relationship. The list poem ‘Cooking for One’ contains a germ of acceptance, and ‘Fern’ presents a positive allegory of female companionship and slow unfurling growth.

With this growth comes a new love. Early dates are chronicled, and the new wonder of love (‘How did we find each other?’ in ‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta’) takes place amidst cultural and culinary exchange. They take each other to Chinese restaurants, and the persona teaches her lover to eat Little Dragon Dumplings. The growth of intimacy is deftly evoked in ‘Sunday Morning’ which wavers between the general and the specific and moves back and forth through a day to suggest a moment of inflection in the relationship, of moving towards greater commitment.

This love story, while a persistent theme, is sublimated to the tension between family and art. Towards the end of the collection, the spirits of the ancestors no longer hover explicitly, the first love has failed, the second love is young, and the persona has no offspring (looking at her arms in ‘Afternoons’ she thinks: ‘barren’). In the place of the ancestors and children, there arises a creative family. She takes a walk with a fellow poet, Lachlan Brown, and visits his family in ‘Murrumbidgee’ and ‘Family’. Lachlan presents a more carefree model of cultural engagement, he ‘has misspelled the name of a Chinese river/ in a poem’. He is also a foil for family life as the persona is welcomed into his bustling home for one evening – intimacy through commensality – but by the end she realises ‘it’s time to leave’.

This arc culminates in the final poem of the collection, ‘Last Night’, during which the persona, perhaps Chong herself, experiences a quietly hysterical epiphany at a poetry reading. Seated in the audience, she realises that ‘I might never see you again – / you or I might die before another meeting/ took place’. Universalising this theme, the persona then considers the future death of her poetry teacher and her poetry teacher’s husband, ‘And I wept’. It is telling that her morbid meditation takes her to this creative, rather than biological, mother and father. She clings to the hand of her lover and issues a benediction: ‘Bless all the ones we love, / the ones we once loved and will come to love, / even as we learn what it means to die and live again.’ This expansive blessing extends to the natural family, but is only possible while sitting in the ritualised trappings of the new self, situated within a creative family. Far from the contemplative, slow and individual art of Huang Shen, this is an artist situated in a modern creative community. Far from the interweaving of history and memory in the accounts of ancestry, this is an idealised, almost uncomplicated, love. The final poem reconciles the dissonance that has been ringing from the very first poem – the artist has found a place of belonging in her creative family.

– Stephanie Dunk

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Stephanie Dunk has studied literature and business strategy. She is a PhD candidate researching the discursive construction of ethical food.

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong is available from Pitt Street Poetry

Painting Red Orchids launched by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson at Gleebooks, Saturday, 16 April 2016

“Echoes, hauntings and play”: Lucy Wilks reviews ‘Bull Days’ by Tina Giannoukos

Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos. Arcadia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.

bull-daysIn her second collection of poetry, Bull Days, Tina Giannoukos elaborates on the dyad of the lover and the beloved, a relationship she guides through a cycle of fifty-eight sonnets, each more than equal to the exigencies of the form. Giannoukos nuances both the mutability and the steadfastness of love, its vows and caprices buoyed on thematic waves that break afresh in contrapuntal procession. This is a work of great finesse and accomplishment, daring in its navigation of the inconceivable, and plaintive at times with the spectre of a love welcomed into the life of the word at the very moment of the lover’s bereavement. The poems move with grace and proportion, euphoniously lamenting and celebrating this capacious and sometimes wraith-like affection, its lineaments ranging from the querulous and wearisome to the tender and marvellous. The poet salutes, resonates within, and invigorates a lyric tradition whose history informs her transfigurations, all the while staying open to a more contemporary idiom, the fusion handled with poise and a supple, writerly discipline.

The poems play with what Carole Birkan Berz (2014) calls the ‘iconicity’ of the sonnet, asking profound ontological questions at the very limits of what language makes possible. Describing an arc across time and space (mediated by a number of bird poems), they proceed through what Annie Finch (2009) terms ‘energy and containment, development and resting’ to a dialectical and speculative synthesis. In ‘LV’, a poem of equivocation and conjecture, the speaker asks, ‘what if / […] it’s the impossibility / of our being which troubles me more than our love.’ The play of iconicity and iconoclasm, of presence and absence, results in ‘another try at the impossible’, the success of which is attributable to the efficacy of the book’s underlying conceit.

As a sequence, the cycle manifests a ‘gestalt’ (Birkan Berz 2014) whereby the whole, greater than the sum of its parts, is rendered haunting and inexhaustible. Yet individual poems stand their ground, each evidence of this same dynamic writ small, and each teeming with its own expansiveness. Proliferating with variable connotation, the poems inhabit one another, evincing a spectral narrative beneath their elegant modulation. This narrative is one of both mutual reference, with words repeating across sonnets, and a going beyond such reference, by virtue of the subtle differences in the echoic inflection of the shared image that the words evoke. For example, the ‘gorgeous’ in ‘the gorgeous girls line up’ (‘XXXIX’) both informs and is quite other than that in ‘as if gorgeous beings, imitating / my dance, intend my imitation of them’ (‘LVIII’). Music, extremes of temperature, the conjunction of heavenly bodies, nature, and the power of the withheld name each constitute a substrate whose continuity is expressed fugally, each element taking on new tonal colours as new verbal environments and instruments adopt it.

From the opening poem the reader is witness to a love of vast amplitude and intensity, figured by the image of a cornucopian boundlessness, and made all the more striking by the measured tone and deft restraint in use of phrase and archetype. Here the beloved is a centaur who will appear to the speaker as she sails ‘across the empty doom’ (‘I’). Chronicling vicissitude and vagary with a light and playful touch, the cycle moves from an explosive detonation of love, as momentous and mysterious as the creation of the universe, through to disillusionment, imprecation and alienation. Love may be squalid, the lover a saboteur, or the dyad grievously denied, as in ‘XXX’, where ‘I saw the grief in your eyes when they took away / our silks and red cloth.’ The cycle ends with an invocation to ‘sleep in sea’s crooked arm, a starfish’ (‘LVIII’), and recapitulates the motifs of voyaging and subjection to the gods found earlier.

Giannoukos honours and disrupts an enduring and accommodating tradition whose lineage spans from Giacomo da Lentini (1210 – 1260), the Italian poet credited with the invention of the sonnet, to Ted Berrigan (1934 – 1983), a prominent member of the second generation of the New York School of Poets, and beyond. She titles the poems with Roman numerals, and in so doing, plays with linearity and its subversion, while also alluding obliquely to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Both as tribute and in their refusal to reproduce ‘the voice ventriloquised for [women] by men’ (Padel 2002, p.42), the poems enact a departure from the mainstream sonnet. They manifest what Jeff Hilson (Birkan Berz 2014) calls a ‘radical defamiliarisation’ of its scope and capabilities. ‘XVIII’, a call and response poem in multiple voices, ends with a witty, self-reflexive volta that deflates and undermines the propositional bombardment of the preceding thirteen lines, all the while intensifying their irony:

Give them subscriptions to porn. Get ‘em goin’!
The private is the domain of the public. That’s right!
Tell ‘em sex is good. Don’t panic. It’s a ruse!
Is this the Sapphic line? O Sweet! O Love!

The strength of this collection stems from each poem ‘bend[ing] the form to its own will, instead of obligingly succumbing to the form’s demands’, as Rachel Richardson (2013) writes of the contemporary sonnet. Giannoukos invents her own constraints, her novel use of punctuation (or its absence), of enjambment and internal assonance furthering what the sonnet can achieve. ‘[N]ew things’, writes Ruth Padel (2002, p.17), ‘come from breaking old ones. That is how a poetic tradition moves forward: it risks itself to maintain itself.’ In Giannoukos’s hands, the form becomes malleable and ghost-like, a submerged backbone for her linguistically innovative play. Interestingly, she uses both the word ‘risks’ (‘XV’) and ‘ghosts’ (‘XXXIII’), and accommodates both old and new in her vocabulary, the ‘bounty’ in ‘LVIII’, ‘glee’ in ‘III’ and ‘Behold’ in ‘XXXVI’ resting well with the ‘über-humans’ in ‘XXXVII’ and the ‘zilch’ in ‘V’. In ‘LVI’, registers as variable as the musical (‘My music’s no match for your melos’), the scientific (‘We count nerve cells. Measure the minutes’), the imploring (‘Give me what’s mine or a reprieve, life’), and the metatextual (‘These shifts in mood are impossible to endure’) coexist harmoniously.

Giannoukos uses variable line lengths and metres, giving the poems a music which plays rubato, in rhythms of flexible and spacious emphasis. Even where end rhyme is used, the rhyme may be visual, as in ‘XXIX’, where ‘[…] all despondent, the die / cast, men ramble about daughters and a son / intent on crushing all remaining dreams. / You propose instead one more drink, all bon- / homie. Pinot Gris, your pick’, or on the unstressed syllable, ‘Macho’ with ‘virago’ in ‘XXI’. Furthermore, where the poet does employ iambic pentameter, it may be ironic, as in ‘XLVIII’, where ‘I lose the rhythm, bop a pantomime’, or quite transcending any metronomic stringency, as in the beautifully modulated ‘The tongue of love tastes tough in these bull days’ (‘II’). Elegiac, ecstatic and witty, the poems move in and out of each other. Their polyvocal echoes, hauntings, playfulness, and risks are emblems inscribed in the fabric of the text, as well as descriptors of the poetics at work. In this sense they ‘interrogate’, ‘what [the] poem is doing, from inside it’ (Padel 2002, p.44).

The beloved is not portrayed as the idealised paragon encountered in some quarters of the tradition, but rather is the pivot for a response to, and questioning of, the sonnet tradition as much as the lyrical, enacted from within. ‘XXIII’, paralleling Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘CXXX’, where he begins ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, addresses a beloved with ‘degenerate’ eyes, the speaker’s quest for him arising from her desire for a Corybantic communion (the Corybants were the wild attendants of the goddess Cybele, who performed elaborate dances in her honour). Exquisitely and voluptuously the diction stretches into a hyperlyrical meditation, kept just within the bounds of equilibrium by a finely wrought and chiselled virtuosity, fusing the simple with the exotic in images of singular beauty. In luscious and sensuous language the speaker disavows the ‘luscious youth’ with the ‘sensuous fringe’ in favour of the greying and ‘weathered’ older man.

The metrical fluidity of ‘I searched for your image in the disc before my eyes’ (two amphibrachs, one anapest and two iambs) recalls Alexander Pope’s dictum: ‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,/ as those move easiest who have learn’d to dance’ (Barnstone, 2016). The iambic pentameter of the final line, ‘It is / in contemplation that I know us best’, both seals the poem and restores, at least in spirit, the absent beloved to the lover. Interestingly, Giannoukos echoes Shakespeare, using the word ‘rare’ in relation to the beloved, ‘The dark curls, like a rare fringe’ referencing and playing with Shakespeare’s ‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.’

Different echoes are encountered in the poems which inhabit the interstices between eros and thanatos, where love is haunted by echoes of death, and death by echoes of love. The speaker in following love’s course says in ‘II’, ‘I begin the long march in death’s dominion’, and in ‘LIII’, ‘I feel / the pulse of your breath as quick on my skin / as the fevered pulsations of a dying man.’ Elsewhere there is a more brutal echo of death, particularly in the poems that refract the dyad through the metaphor of the bull fight, in which the beloved as matador by necessity betrays the lover as bull. A gender ambiguity permeates these poems, as do ambiguities of voice and time. In ‘XX’, the bull as speaker asks:

What trophy to keep? My ears, my tail, my hooves?
No, throw my body parts to your sweetheart.
I hope she hurls flowers at you for it.
The crowd will wave handkerchiefs.

The bull anticipates the blade through its heart, its evisceration for the glory of the beloved. Through the use of the caesura and the imperative, the poet creates a staccato, emphatic sense of high tension as the contest plays out its potentially ineluctable end.

The ironic play of death and resurrection is hauntingly captured in ‘XLVI’. Here the Venusian volta, preceded by the taunts and bellowing of the rabble, is tempered by a picture of earthly ruin. The poem leads us to ask where is love’s congregation now, now that the face of light is hidden and the places of worship razed by time, neglect or nature:

I am a skygazer. I am witness to your
eclipse. The blue glow of your beauty
beatifies heaven. I gather myself
around me in horror. In the old temple
love-astrologers hand out business cards.
They spy you parachuting into Mongolia.
How you blacken the sun! It burns with a fiery rim.
This is the time of fear. It grows cold.

The moon bites the sun. Oh the crowd jeers!
It masks the sun. Oh the mob roars! Oh how
people rear their heads like the huge cobra!
In the glow of the dark Venus shone again
on the fallen stones and collapsed columns
of the ancient temples and on the eroded rocks.

Other figures of play also feature prominently in these poems. The ‘game of hearts’ in ‘III’, to which the speaker may or may not be equal, plays with a music that in ‘XXVII’ makes her ‘bountiful’, inheres in a ‘masquerade of teasing love-note, / where two quake on a crater’s perimeter’ (‘XXIX’), or makes us ‘conjure the sour acrimony / of two wearied by the thing dividing them’ (‘XXIV’). By the end, in ‘LVIII’, the speaker says, ‘I’m still gambling on signs, as if the gods / might yet sprinkle blessings and bounty over me’. Play may thus denote the innocent sport of affectionate largesse, a dissembling and perilous banter, the bitter fruit of schism, a wager on true or false portents, or a sexual dalliance, as in ‘V’, where the speaker says, ‘To know you played / me twice holds the truth I won’t / name: it was for zilch. I’m out.’

This refusal to name, which occurs elsewhere in the book, points to the unsayable, and to a speaker engaged in a recurrent working at the limits of utterance, crossing the threshold beyond which nothing can be said, and bearing in her train an array of ironic utterances. In ‘LIII’ she says, ‘Without / words to describe the colour of my love– / deep as the emerald I covet in the jeweller’s window– / I am helpless to offer reparation.’ Giannoukos alerts the reader both to the semantic insufficiency of the utterance, the divestment of language of any claim to adequacy in matters of love, and to the paradoxical challenge afforded by the apt simile. Similarly, in ‘XXVII’, a poem of love’s expansion and contraction, the anadiplosis or concatenation of ‘this’, and its use both as a pronoun and as an adjective, serve to render it able to be spoken in proliferating ways, thus showing the power of the rhetorical device:

The temperature of your love is changing.
It breaks my heart: there are no words for this.

How do I know? Because you have done this before.
Your love has always been a desert of climatic extremes.
My love for you cannot flourish in this chasm:
ecstatic in its reach it turns scornful in sorrow.

My love becomes extinct. Nothing compares with this.
This rubble of stone is all that remains of its immensity.

If ‘form should have an organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase into which content is poured’, as Tony Barnstone (2016) says, then Giannoukos styles her sonnets organically. Indeed, the words of the speaker in ‘XLII’ may be taken as her aesthetic credo: ‘Fill up / this jug with the amethyst liquid / of wild vines civilised in vineyards.’ With consummate craft Giannoukos adapts the sonnet’s form into a series of shapely, diversely contoured, amphora-like vessels, into which is distilled a nectar ‘civilised’ in the poetic tradition or ‘vineyard’. Han Yu (Barnstone 2016) stated that, the poet in the ‘chains’ of the sonnet may be said to ‘dance’. In a multiplicity of voices, moods, textures and transitions, she asks the reader to query the identity of the lover (woman, man or heavenly envoy) and the beloved (man, woman, centaur or God), whether they are singular or plural, and whether their very being is possible at all. In its entirety, Bull Days is a living opus of interdependent parts, communing through sonic reflexion, the vision of the spectral, a ludic and rhapsodic poetics of rapture and fellow-feeling, and elegiac tilts at the problem of the impossible in language, surmounted rhetorically by an overarching and richly polyphonic conceit.

-Lucy Wilks

Purchase Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos

Reference list

Barnstone, T. 2016, A manifesto on the contemporary sonnet: a personal aesthetics, The Cortland Review, 9 December, viewed 26 November 2016, <http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/06/december/barnstone_e.html>.

Birkan Berz, C. 2014, ‘Mapping the contemporary sonnet in mainstream and linguistically innovative late 20th– and early 21st– century British poetry’, Études Britanniques Contemporaines-Revues.org, No. 46, viewed 26 November 2016, <https://ebc.revues.org/1202>.

Finch, A. 2009, ‘Chaos in fourteen lines: reformations and deformations of the sonnet’, Contemporary Poetry Review, viewed 26 November 2016, <http://www.cprw.com/Misc/finch2.htm>.

Padel, R. 2002, 52 ways of looking at a poem or how reading modern poetry can change your life, Chatto & Windus, London.

Richardson, R, 2013, Learning the sonnet: A history and how-to guide to the famous form, Poetry Foundation, Chicago, 29 August, viewed 26 November 2016, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/articles/detail/70051>.

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Lucy Wilks
is a Melbourne-based poet whose work has appeared in Verse, Meanjin, Southerly, Rabbit, Otoliths, Plumwood Mountain and Cordite.